Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I was given this book for my birthday by my fabulous sisters.  When I first read the back of the book, I thought the topic was very interesting, and I would definetly like to read an article about it.  At the same time, I kind of worried that an entire book might be a little too much.  BUT, I was pleasantly surprised.  I would have read this all in one sitting if I lived that sort of life!  I did read it as much as I could during the day, and way later into the night than I should have.  The book focuses more on the human story of HeLa, than the scientific importance.  The science is definitely there, but it is explained in a way everyone can understand and relate too.  I think maybe because I can relate to Rebecca Skloot (really just being the same age and race) more than the Lack family, I enjoyed that her efforts to get the information and write the book were also included in the story.  (I read a couple reviews that did not appreciate this aspect.)

Henrietta was a poor black woman who grew up working on a tobacco farm with her extended family.  Shortly after the birth of her fifth child, she found out she had cervical cancer.  This was in 1951, she was treated, but the cancer spread and she died.  Samples of both her healthy cells and cancer cells were taken by scientists at John Hopkins when she was treated, and the cancer cells were the first human cells to survive and keep reproducing outside the body.  This was revolutionary, and the cell line called HeLa changed the world in many different ways.  Everytime Rebecca Skloot lists off scientific advances that have used HeLa, it is impressive. 

 Even though they were responsible for taking the cells without asking or informing Henrietta and her family, I really enjoyed reading about George Gey and his wife Margaret.  I liked that Gey built his labs out of scrap metal and  invented amazing things for scientific research without patenting them.  He sent the HeLa cells to anyone who was using them for scientific research.  I feel like his motives were good, he wasn't looking for fame, he was just a really smart guy that was obsessed with science.  I enjoyed the simplified explanations of how cells were used, and how specifically HeLa's cells allowed scientists to study so many different things. 

Henrietta's family really suffered after she died.  Her children were mistreated and abused by the cousin who came into take care of them.  I actually skipped a couple of pages that went into detail about this.  Three of her kids were still really young when she died, and an other one had been institutionalized for epilepsy and other illnesses.  Luckily, the oldest brother married a woman, Bobette, that figured out what was going on and rescued the kids.  Sadly, the damage had already been done.  Add to that poverty, un-diagnosed hearing problems and struggles with the law, and her children had really hard lives.  When they were asked for blood samples years later, bits and pieces of the history of their mother's cells were explained to them.  But not explained well.  They each struggled with it in different ways.  I think their reactions are well-justified, and as they slowly confide in the author and explain their experiences, you can really understand why they each reacted they way they did.  Some of the descendants wanted financial retribution, which is also understandable since they are all struggling with different illnesses, and many don't have health insurance.  Ultimately, they just want people to know who their mother was, and better understand themselves.

Much of the story comes from Deborah, who was only 2 or 3 when her mom died.  She has a lot of spunk, and definetly grows on you as she searches for information about her mom.  I think the biggest tragedy in the book is not that the cells were taken, but that those 5 kids lost their mom when they were so young.  I'm sure they would have still had struggles, but if they had had Henrietta to love them and teach them, I think things would have worked out better.

Rebecca Skloot explains different advances in patient privacy and disclosure.  She outlines different agencies' attempts to prevent what happened to the Lacks family from happening again.  But doctors can still store and use your cells without you knowing.  As I read the different issues and concerns, I wondered how I would feel if I found out 20 years later that my cells had been used.  Honestly, if anyone asked me, I would happily donate blood or tissues for scientific research.  I know when different kids of mine were born, we were asked to participate in different studies.  I find that kind of stuff fascinating.  One of them is in a data base for hearing loss, when my last baby was born we were finally able to donate cord blood.  I'm sure if it isn't used for a transfusion, they'll use it for research, and I'm really OK with all that.  One study even says that my appendix that was removed a while back could still be around in a lab somewhere.  But I'm OK with that.

I recommend this book.  It will be different than anything else you've read.  It is very interesting, educational and thought-provoking.  It seems to be very popular, so I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Wish You Well by David Baldacci

I really liked this novel and recommend it.  I realized about 30 pages in that I had read this book before.  I went a little crazy trying to remember when, and who had recommended it to me.  I still haven't figured it out.  I enjoyed reading it again, and found I already had all the imagery of the setting in my head.

Lou is 12 and her brother is 7 when they are in a tragic car crash that leaves their mom in a catatonic state, and they move to live with their Great-grandma high in the mountains of Virginia.  Of course Lou is spunky, smart and endearing.  You love her from the start, faults and all.  Oz is a sweet little boy who teaches Lou through his limitless faith and ability to love.

The story is predictable (even if you haven't read it before), but it's still nice.  The main characters learn what you hope they will learn, and their relationships grow as they have to rely on each other.  Life is hard, there's a very real "enemy," and the poor kids have to deal with loss after loss.  BUT overall you leave with a good feeling.  It reminds me most of To Kill a Mockingbird.  And it has a nice storybook ending.

In his Author's Note, David Baldacci says: "Once we reach adulthood, most of us assume we know all there is to know about our parents and other family members.  However, if you take the time to ask questions and actually listen to the answers, you may find there is still much to learn about people so close to you."  I had this type of experience right before my dad died.  My sisters were filling out a little Grandpa book, and I learned some great stories about my dad's life as a child that somehow I hadn't ever heard before.  So I agree with his sentiment.

Here's a quote from one of the new friends they make on the mountain: "See, that why I ain't go to church.  Figger I got me a church wherever I be.  Want'a talk to God, well I say, 'Howdy-howdy, God,' and we jaw fer a bit."

Another one I liked:  "________ had had no material possessions to his name and yet had been the happiest creature Lou had ever met.  He and God would no doubt get along famously."

My favorite, that choked me up a bit:
"One day you're gonna get bigger than me, then I'm going to be running to you when I get scared."
"How do you know that?"
"Because that's the deal God makes between big sisters and their little brothers."

There's an afterward titled, Today, which kind of felt like those updates on the characters that sometimes roll at the end of movies.  It seemed a little unnecessary to me.  I did really like the Letter from the Author, which followed it, that included old photographs of his ancestors that lived in the mountains.

Have any of you read it?  Did you recommend it to me years ago?  Like 6 or 7?  I hate when I can't remember stuff!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I saw this book on my cousin Betsy's blog, then a few places after that, but I was way down the list on the library hold request.  Luckily, on Saturday I saw a copy in the teen section of the library!  Yay!  It is a Newberry winner, and the back says it is for 8-12 year old readers.  Because of that, you can read it quick.  Probably one sitting.  I liked it very much. 

I was a little put off in the beginning with all the references to the past, or future, or whatever.  But after getting over that, there wasn't anything else I didn't like in the book. 

Miranda is the main character.  She is 12, and lives with her mom in an apartment in New York.  She learns a lot about friendship and being nice through the course of the book.  She is smart, relatable and likable.  I liked Rebecca Stead's easy writing style.

Miranda's favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, and hopefully you've read it because she does reference it a lot.  If you love A Wrinkle in Time, there's even more of a chance that you will really like this book. She has a bit of an mystery to solve herself after notes that seem to predict the future start appearing.  She feels nervous about them.  In fact, she is scared about a few things, and I like that.  I feel like she seems very normal, and even though she has a good life, nothing is too perfect.  She starts the story talking about how her best (only) friend had decided to take a break from her.  Because of that, she starts making new friends.  I thought that those relationships were portrayed really well.  I also liked the clever backdrop of helping her mom prepare to go on The $20,000 pyramid.

Here are a few quotes I really liked.

"It's all still there, like a movie I can watch when I want to.  Which is never."

"Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It's like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten.  And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to."

"They were circling each other and laughing and racing around and I wanted to be part of it so much that my heart almost broke watching."

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Blue Castle by L.M.Montgomery

I really liked this book!  Having re-read Anne of Green Gables recently, I was excited to read something else by L.M.  While the story is different, it leaves you with a similiar happy feeling.

Valancy is 29, in the 1920's in Canada.  She is part of a stuffy, snobby and controlling family.  She lives in an ugly room, does the same boring things each day and takes the brunt of rude behavior from her mother and extended family. "As far as she could look back, life was drab and colourless, with not one single crimson or purple spot anywhere.  As far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same...."  The beginning felt kind of slow to me.  I didn't really want to try to keep all the relatives straight.  I did think it was funny when Valancy plays out in her head what each relative would say and do because her life and the people in it are so predictable.

Then, bom-bom-bom, she gets some news after a sneaky visit to a doctor, and Valancy decides to start living her life for herself.  She will say and do only what she wants.  Then her life really begins. 

And as in any good fairy-tale, there is a sweet romance.  (Although I don't love how it gets started.)   I love this description, "When he said good evening you felt that it was a good evening and that it was partly his doing that it was.  Also, you felt that some of the credit was yours." 

The Blue Castle is the imaginary home that Valancy used to escape to as a refuge from her boring, controlled life.  Her fantasies about it remind me of Anne.  But I also loved how when her life improves, she refers to her new home as The Blue Castle.  Not because it was what she had imagined, but because it made her dreams come true.  As she is reflecting on her happiness, she thinks, "It was amazing to be able to sit up half the night and look at the moon if you wanted to...Dawdle over meals as long as you wanted to....Sit on a sun-warm rock and paddle your bare feet in the hot sand if you wanted to.  Just sit and do nothing in the beautiful silence if you wanted to."  Sounds good to me.

I found this a charming little book.  I would recommend it for a quick fun read.  I think Disney could make it into a cute cartoon princess movie.  It's that kind of book.