Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot has written a triumphant book about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells that have revolutionised cell biology. Skloot has turned the scientific story of an exceptional cell line into a deeply human story about family, loss, and understanding.

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In case you don’t know the story of these amazing HeLa cells, from the back of the book:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists knew her as HeLa. Born a poor, black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than 20 years after her death, with devastating consequences… Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary detective story in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

Henrietta died in 1951, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that her family became aware of the HeLa cell line. They then spent over 20 years without any real understanding of what it meant for their mothers cells to be essential for medical testing. They heard stories about them being cloned, sent to space, blown up in atom bombs, mixed with animal DNA, all sorts of things. None of them understood the science, and they imagined all sorts of horrific scenarios. The family were also aware that some people had made an awful lot of money by selling these cells from their mother.

“… If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s son.

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lunchtime reading!

Eventually, Skloot wins the trust of the Lacks family, particularly Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. This is in the early 2000s. It’s not an easy trust to win, but eventually Deborah begins to join Skloot on research visits, and they begin to uncover the truth about what happened to Henrietta Lacks. The chapters where Deborah, and her brother Zakariyya, go to meet a researcher and see their mother’s cells under the microscope for the first time is incredibly moving.

Deborah then goes with Skloot to the institution her sister lived and died in and finds they have her autopsy records and a photograph of her. This is part of the human story of the Lacks family, and is connected to the HeLa cell story because Deborah may have known more about her sister if her mother hadn’t died so young. It’s so real the pain and suffering Deborah has been through. It’s completely heartbreaking. She has had to grow up without a mother, as well as trying to understand what happened to her mother after her death, and then discovering information about her sister, is incredible.

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prosecco and campari to help with evening reading. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks manages to be a fantastic introduction to the very basics of cell biology and how research is carried out on cells. It’s a wonderful story of scientific discovery and advancement. It is equally a moving story of family and loss. Thirdly it deals with medical ethics – the ethics of cells being taken from patients without any consent, the fact that people have made millions from the cells while the family have stayed very, very poor, and the fact that this is a story of a white, male establishment taking advantage of a poor, black woman.

Lawrence fell back in his chair and stared into his lap, his smile collapsing. After a long quiet moment, he turned and looked into my eyes.

“Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?” he whispered. “I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.”

When I asked if he knew what a cell was, he stared at his feet as if I’d called on him in class and he hadn’t done his homework.

“Kinda,” he said. “Not really.”

I have barely any knowledge of biology (physics is my specialist science knowledge topic!) and I found this book fascinating. Just learning about the impact Henrietta’s cells have had on the world would be a brilliant story – it’s just made even better by all the other aspects. I would really highly recommend it. I can’t wait to try and track down the TV movie made of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this year – staring Oprah and Rose Byrne!

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Ten Books I’m Thankful For

I’ve seen a few bloggers take part in this – it is part of The Broke and The Bookish’s top ten tuesdays. The theme is due to it being thanksgiving in the states. There’s a lot more non-fiction in this list than I was expecting before I starting trying to write it.

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Matilda – Roald Dahl. I loved this book when I was a child (along with most other Roald Dahl books). Matilda taught me that reading books is ace and there can be power in thinking and using your brain. I was also a massive library fan so I loved Matilda’s use of the library!

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In Search Of Schrodingers Cat – John Gribbin. This one made me certain I wanted to pursue physics for my degree. Along with A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking, and many other popular physics books – I couldn’t read enough of them when I was a teenager.  I don’t read so many now, but still love them when I do (I can’t even remember the last one I read, but I have 5 or 6 on my shelves waiting to be picked up!)

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Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but this novel is the first time I read a book and just wept through the last few pages. It blew my mind to realise a book could emotionally move me like this. I was about 19 when I read it! I’d always been a big reader, but just hadn’t read the right stuff apparently.

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The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan. Here Sagan sets out why more people learning about the scientific method would be better for humanity. People would be better equipped to protect themselves from pseudoscience and fraudsters. I love it and would still recommend everyone buys a copy for a teenager they know, or just anyone who hasn’t read it!

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Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Richard Feynman. This collection of stories about Feynman’s life is full of fun and physics. Feynman is a curious man and his zest for life comes across in every story. It challenged the stereotype of the quiet geek physicist for me.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck. Another story that I will never forget – especially the incredible final scene. I was so moved by that, and equally shocked. This novel is a moving portrait of human suffering.

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The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins. I’ve always been an atheist as an adult, but The God Delusion really cemented a lot of my ideas. I don’t always agree with Dawkins – especially not in recent years with some of the bobbins he comes out with, especially on twitter. but I adored reading The God Delusion.

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Riders – Jilly Cooper. This book is in here because I’ve found that knowledge of Rupert Campbell-Black and co. is a helpful female bonding experience. This saucy tale is also a great read. I’ve read the whole series. and would quite like to know other authors who write a good story with some rude bits. *rubs thighs* 😀

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Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine (review and review!). I picked this up because I wanted to understand more about how I could help the girls I teach have more confidence with their physics and maths ability. As well as helping me with this, it also told me so much about myself. Particularly the description of girls who like maths and science, and how often they reject traditional female stereotype characteristics. It’s much more complex than I can suggest in one sentence, but essentially I read loads of it mouth agape reading about myself. My daughter was also a toddler when I read Delusions of Gender, and there is a whole section on gender and children. Living with my pink princess walking stereotype it really helped me. I am not a pink princess type of person (huge understatement) and I really have struggled to have a daughter who is girly to the extreme. I loved every minute of reading Delusions.

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I could easily link reading Delusions of Gender with a sort of feminist reawakening I’ve had in the last few years. I could also have put How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran – accessible, funny feminism, or Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (review). All brilliant books that I wish I could remember word for word to recite to people.

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Hope In The Dark – Rebecca Solnit (review). I’ve chosen this Solnit book because I feel like this one has educated me about activism. It’s a beautiful book that sets out hope as being essential. It details how small acts of activism have inspired huge political, environmental, and social changes.

It was nice looking back at books that have really meant a lot to me over the years. Let’s hear yours!

 

Book Review: What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton hasn’t featured in my life significantly until the last few years. I got particularly interested in US politics (and in politics, in general) during the early 2000s, where a few years living in Chicago made me aware of Obama, and I followed his election particularly closely. I knew who she was, of course, I was a teenager during the 90s. Last year I watched the entire of Gilmore Girls in the Summer and had also been following (with increasing horror) the US election. I was stunned that Donald Trump became the US President. Stunned and also knowing if it really had just happened, then there must be a whole pile of people shouting ‘We knew this would happen! We saw it coming!’ along with a whole series of issues that had led to this seemingly otherworldly outcome. I mean Donald Trump. Donald fucking Trump.

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But being surprised means you aren’t paying enough attention (Hello Brexit!). I wanted to understand more about how this had happened and I wanted to hear Clinton’s opinion on it. Hooray for What Happened – Hillary Clinton’s book on the election.

As well as the story of the 2016 election, we also get quite a lot about Clinton’s life. Her history as being ‘the first woman to…’ is astounding. The chapters on feminism are brilliant and the missed opportunity to break that final, US-based, glass ceiling is a tragedy. She talks about being Secretary of State, her work with the Clinton Foundation, her childhood, her experience as First Lady, and many other aspects of her life.

What Happened begins with Hillary Clinton’s take on the inauguration and the Women’s March that followed it. She explores her decision to attend the inauguration and her feelings about it. She goes on to describe the loss of the election and the month after losing. I found the this part of What Happened so emotional. She describes the loss of the election as true grief. She describes how she coped with this loss, and weaves in how she has coped with loss in her life in general. I cried during parts of What Happened – the mix of how great I think she would have been as President, with the total horror of Trump winning, combined with the fact that I only lost my Dad a few months ago just all came together with a feeling of just how awful it all is. I listen to audiobooks while driving to work, so this wasn’t the best combination. Still, thankfully the overwhelming feeling of this book isn’t self-pitying, or bitter. I came out the other side of What Happened feeling hopeful, and empowered, and more educated about the whole situation.

I’ve read some reviews of What Happened that claim Clinton doesn’t take on any of the blame herself for losing the election. That’s just plain wrong. She goes into lots of detail about her mistakes and things she wishes she did differently. She shoulders the blame she feels she deserves. She also explains where other blame lies – particularly with Russian involvement and the emails scandal. The announcement made by James Comey just days before the election about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails being reopened is staggering when contrasted with his decision to NOT mention that Trump was also being investigated. This is widely thought to have thrown the election in Trump’s favour, though it doesn’t explain why it was going to be a close race in the first place. Clinton delves into this too and offers a comprehensive guide to why it was going to be a close election.

The last part of the book offers Clinton’s thoughts on where work should be focused going forward to try and make positive changes for future US elections. She hopes her experiences in politics will inspire the next leaders, and women and girls everywhere.

It’s tricky looking to UK politics for inspiration. The women who’ve reached the top spot exist but with such differing politics to myself it’s hard to hold them up. Thatcher and May. Please. God. No. This is one reason why Hillary holds such appeal to me. She reflects my politics much more closely. And this is why I felt her pain, and the pain of this lost opportunity to have a female President of the United States, along with so many other people. I wept for the missed opportunity during Hillary’s telling of this tale. But I left the book feeling hopeful, and strong and empowered and looking forward to the future where someone will succeed where Hillary failed at the final hurdle.

I found What Happened to be a fascinating audiobook. It’s nice that Hillary Clinton read it out for me 😀 I would recommend it to anyone interested in Clinton or the election of 2016. I’ve found it has even helped me understand some aspects of the election that I already thought I understood, and now feel much clearer on. I only finished listed to What Happened today and I have so much more of it to go over and digest properly.

Do yourself a favour and listen to this audiobook, or read the paper one – it’s a great book.

 

Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

Sarah Dunbar is amongst the first black students to attend Jefferson High School, a previously all white high school, in segregated Virginia in 1959. Lies We Tell Ourselves takes us with these students on their hellish first few terms at Jefferson High. Sarah is a lesbian, and she falls badly for Linda Hairston, the white daughter of the most vocal opponent to school integration.

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In Lies We Tell Ourselves, these two girls on the opposite side of the civil rights battle, are drawn together by an attraction both of them wishes they didn’t feel.

This young adult book has a stunningly beautiful cover, the front has Sarah’s silhouette, the back has the silhouette of Linda on, and if you open up the book, they are looking at each other. As a book for young adults, it deals in a fairly light way with the awful nature of Sarah’s experience at Jefferson High. It is still upsetting, and she and the other black students are subjected to daily violence and abuse, but it stops short of the visceral type of description you get in adult books like The Underground Railroad.  This doesn’t stop it from being a really great, eye opening look at what these students must have been through and, in fact, the dedication, to the Norfolk 17, is a reminder that many real life children were on the front line in this hard fought battle.

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I liked the fact that Sarah and Linda are lesbians. I hardly read any books with LGBTQ+ characters, it’s lovely to find one where they are, and it’s not even the main part of the story. It’s important, and helps to change Linda’s mind about her stance on integration, and it’s clear that even though characters in the book disagree on integration, they all agree that being gay is WRONG. It’s important for Linda’s character to feel like she is different for some reason, and she questions just why feeling this way is wrong, and of course it isn’t and it’s just that she has been told it is wrong. This echoes what she has been told about integration, and of course she begins to question her life long held beliefs.

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Sarah, and her little sister Ruth, are amongst ten black students attending Jefferson High School. They are the brightest students from their old high school and have all volunteered to take on this task, though clearly wanting to please their parents takes a role in their decisions. They are put into remedial classes and they suffer terrible abuse every day. The whole school was closed for a term while the local authorities tried to stop the integration.

When you read about a topic, often you notice other references to the same topic cropping up in other areas of you life. While reading this book, I am also listening to the audio book of What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (not at the exact same time of course!). In What Happened, Hillary describes how she was sent undercover to schools, in 1964, to investigate their refusal to desegregate. She had to pose as the wife of a businessman moving to the area and quizzed school about their policies. Her evidence was used to then prosecute the schools. I can not wait to write my review of this book!

Lies We Tell Ourselves is a great young adult book. You get chapters from the viewpoints of both girls, and each chapter is titled by a lie the girl is telling herself in that chapter, for example: I hate her, or I’m not strong enough to do this. I loved that, and I really enjoyed this book!

Popsugar reading challenge 2018

The POPSUGAR reading challenge is a really popular list of prompts to follow as a yearly challenge with your reading. The 2018 list contains 40 prompts and then there is an advanced list with 10 additional prompts. I’ve been nudged into making this list by reading a planned list on the Dear Reader blog.

I’m notoriously bad at planning what I’m going to read, so I’ll be happy to deviate fully from this list! and I’ll just swap in books that fit each prompt as I read them. I’m going to use my huge backlog of books I own, but haven’t read to populate the list now. I should note I have the additional challenge that all my books are still packed away! So I can’t just browse my shelves to see what I already have. I predict I’ll change at least 75% of these plans!

Any one else going to try the challenge?

Here are my planned books:

A book made into a movie you’ve already seen: The Girl With All the Gifts – M. R. Carey

True crime: Gomorrah – Roberto Saviano

The next book in a series you started: The Looking Glass War – John le Carre

A book involving a heist: Artemis – Andy Weir

Nordic noir: Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg

A novel based on a real person: The Hours – Michael Cunningham

A book set in a country that fascinates you: Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

A book with a time of day in the title: The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

A book about a villain or antihero: Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov

A book about death or grief: Staring at the Sun – Irvin D. Yalom

A book with a female author who uses a male pseudonym: The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

A book with an LGBTQ+ protagonist: The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

A book that is also a stage play or musical: The Color Purple – Alice Walker

A book by an author of a different ethnicity than you: Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

A book about feminism: Feminist Fight Club – Jessica Bennett

A book about mental health: Still Alice – Lisa Genova

A book you borrowed or that was given to you as a gift: Holding Up the Universe – Jennifer Niven

A book by two authors: Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

A book about or involving a sport: Seabiscuit – Laura Hillenbrand

A book by a local author: Fell – Jenn Ashworth

A book with your favourite colour in the title: Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A book with alliteration in the title: Wonder Woman: Warbringer – Leigh Bardugo

A book about time travel: The Time Machine – H. G. Wells

A book with a weather element in the title: Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

A book set at sea: Moby-Dick – Herman Melville

A book with an animal in the title: Bee Season – Myla Goldberg

A book set on a different planet: Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

A book with song lyrics in the title: Lonely Boy (Tales From a Sex Pistol) – Steve Jones

A book about or set on Halloween: The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

A book with characters who are twins: The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

A book mentioned in another book: Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Matilda)

A book from a celebrity book club: The Girls – Lisa Jewell (Richard and Judy book club)

A childhood classic you’ve never read: Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

A book that’s published in 2018: How Do You Like Me Now? – Holly Bourne

A past Goodreads Choice Awards winner: Wild – Cheryl Strayed

A book set in the decade you were born: The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem

A book you meant to read in 2017 but didn’t get to: Swing Time – Zadie Smith

A book with an ugly cover: The Mother of All Questions – Rebecca Solnit

A book that involves a bookstore or library: The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Your favourite prompt from the 2015, 2016, or 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenges:  4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster (an audiobook)

and the advanced list:

A best seller from the year you graduated high school: The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

A cyberpunk book: Neuromancer – William Gibson

A book that was being read by a stranger in a public place: I’m watching you members of the public! to be filled in as I spot something

A book tied to your ancestry: After t’Blackpool Lights – A poetry anthology written by my Grandma’s writing group.

A book with a fruit or vegetable in the title: In Watermelon Sugar – Richard Brautigan

An allegory: Lord of the Flies – William Golding

A book by an author with the same first or last name as you: My Story – Marilyn Monroe

A microhistory: Longitude – Dava Sobel

A book about a problem facing society today: The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

A book recommended by someone else taking the POPSUGAR Reading Challenge: The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

Book Review: Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire, a story about a British Muslim family and their involvement with radicalisation. Isma is the older sister, and has acted in a parental role to her younger siblings since their mother died when she was a teenager. The younger siblings are Aneeka and her twin brother, Parvaiz. He has gone abroad to join the media wing of ISIS. Parvaiz is persuaded this is the right thing to do after meeting some men who knew, and fought with, his father – he was a jihadist and died on his way to Guantanamo.

He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.

Isma is studying in America for her doctorate, and she meets the son of the British Home Secretary, Eamonn, while she is there and she has a brits abroad based friendship with him. He, intrigued by her family story (she talks about her father, but not her younger brother) meets up with Aneeka when he’s back in London. Beautiful, captivating Aneeka sees this as an opportunity to get her twin home without him being punished…

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I’ve read a bit about Home Fire since it got on the Man Booker Prize longlist this year. I also heard an interview with Kamila Shamsie about it on Open Book on Radio 4. Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. I, clearly enough to anyone who knows me or has read my blog before, have no idea about the story of Sophocles! So I have bought the Penguin Little Black Classic of it to read later on.

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My poorly kindle and my favourite bag.

I found this story of a British Muslim family captivating. Their father’s association with ISIS and the effect it has on them is interesting. Other aspects of being a British Muslim are also explored, as you’d expect from a story like this. Eamonn has his father’s success to deal with too. I’m sure I will have more to say about Home Fire after I have read Antigone!

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Beer and Home Fire.

P.S. I received a free copy of Home Fire from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley.

Family Film Time – September 2017

Every week we have enforced family film watching time. Its partly to try and have a couple of hours down time, partly to be able to share our love of film with our kids, partly to have a tradition we hopefully will continue in the future. We take turns to pick. The participants are currently 39, 38, 7 and 4.

A month late with writing this up and we are back on track with a film every week!

Lilo and Stitch

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Looked great, but honestly I fell asleep for most of this one. Sorry! I did enjoy the first 15 minutes.

Trolls

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A happy, happy, singalong, adventure with super cute trolls. Completely inoffensive. Loved by the smallest person in the house who now talks about Poppy the Troll A LOT.

Hotel Transylvania 2

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i think the Hotel Transylvania films are great. So does everyone else in my house! hooray! In this one there’s a new baby vampire and Dracula! the old school grandfather of Mavis.

We needed something safe after the scariness of Kubo and the Two Strings. Which brings us on to:

Kubo and the Two Strings

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I chose this one and it is fantastic. Really stylish and a good watch for the adults. It’s such a shame that it scared the shit out of my seven year old! Mostly it was the sisters – they do look very creepy, and it’s all stop motion animation which has a quite creepy quality when you are a kid used to smooth computer animated things. As well as the scary sisters, there’s the fact that Kubo’s eye has been stolen by his grandfather, nice, and his mother is ill too.

I loved this film, the five year old was fine with it, but the seven year old ended up facing away from the TV reading a book! So a big yes, but not is your child is quite sensitive.