Friday, October 8, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot (Audio)



What do you first think of when someone says "Non-Fiction"? Self-help? A boring history lesson of the French Revolution? Bad celebrity memoirs? I think sometimes the reputation of non-fiction precedes itself, for whatever reason, and is excluded from potential reading lists.

If someone told me I could only read non-fiction for the rest of my life, I'd be OK. Let's just take a look at some of non-fiction I've read lately: Columbine, A Hundred Feet Over Hell, The Glass Castle, The Girls from Ames, The Monster of Florence. Give me true stories, give me pictures, give me something I can use! Up there with the best of the best, though, is Henrietta. I was thrilled that our book club chose this as our September selection. Behold one of the most incredible stories you will hear this year.

Synopsis: Henrietta Lacks was a poor, unschooled African-American woman who, in 1951, was diagnosed with an aggressive cervical cancer at the age of 31. Eight months later she died, leaving behind five children (the youngest just a baby) and a husband. Before her death, the doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital took a biopsy from her cervix to study her cells. Where most cells died quickly after collection, Henrietta's cells were hearty and multiplied rapidly. This was a dream come true for researchers, and soon Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) were in the hands of scientists around the world, being used for testing to cure polio, cancer, aids, even acne. HeLa revolutionized modern medicine.

As a young science reporter, Rebecca Skloot was fascinated with the story of HeLa and began researching its history, and the history of Henrietta, in order to write a book. What she discovered was a family plagued with tragedy, poverty, abuse, drug addictions and murder. The family was hounded by fortune seekers looking to profit from Henrietta's legacy, and distrusted anyone and everyone. The family couldn't even afford health care, and Henrietta's grave was still unmarked - a shocking contract from the billions of dollars made from HeLa.

Skloot eventually forged a bond with Henrietta's youngest daughter Deborah, and the two of them launched on a journey to learn everything they could about Henrietta's immortal cells and the impact her contribution made on our world today.

My thoughts: It seems counter-intuitive that a topic such as this could be the least bit readable. However, Skloot does an excellent job of boiling down an enormous amount of scientific information in a simple, palatable story. I was never lost or confused...it all made perfect sense. I was impressed that she presented the facts in a professional, unbiased voice (and still my blood was boiling...hers had to be as well). She asks some extremely difficult, ethical questions as well, pertaining to rights of tissue donors. Ones I don't think I am capable of answering. Still I am left with this outrage! How could the family of a woman who gave the world HeLa not even have health insurance????

On a more human level, Skloot's research into HeLa becomes just as much a memoir of her journey with Deborah and the Lacks family. My official, non-spoiler statement to you is that it is beyond heart-breaking. Have your Kleenex ready. It will rip your heart out.

The audio production: As soon as the narrator's voice started speaking, I knew instantly who it was. Cassandra Campbell, the narrator of the much-loved "The School of Essential Ingredients". Her voice is smooth and silky, emotional and real. You will never be disappointed with one of her performances.

The book club (now named Books, Babes and Bordeaux) weighs in: Picture if you will seven women sitting at a round table, all chattering loudly and excitedly above the restaurant music, all at once. That is what the discussion was like all night long. We all had so much we had to expel from our hearts that we couldn't talk fast enough. It was obvious that our buttons had been pushed by Henrietta. It was universally loved and it universally broke our hearts. None of us could answer the ethical questions posed by Skloot, but at the end of the day, it was hard to swallow the Lacks' financial hardship while Henrietta's cells were generating millions of dollars. Overall, this was an excellent choice for animated book club discussion.


5 out of 5 stars


19 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I love Cassandra Campbell narrating "The School of Essential Ingredients" so am tempted by this. I haven't listened to a non fiction book before, but I think you've just persuaded me to give this a try. I think the chances of my library having a copy are almost zero so I'll probably have to buy it. It will be next on my audio book list :-)

JoAnn said...

Excellent review, Sandy! This one may be my favorite nonfiction this year. I'm looking forward to Columbine and The Monster of Florence now, too.

bermudaonion said...

I really liked this book a lot and it gave my book club a lot to talk about as well. We did wonder about Skloot's motives, though - at the beginning, she wouldn't leave the family alone until they gave into her.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This has gotten nothing but good reviews but you'd still have to twist my arm to get me to read it. Cells. Suffering. Kleenex. Both arms maybe.

Amy said...

I've heard so many great things about this book, I can't wait to read it at some point.

Zibilee said...

I also have heard amazing things about this book, and must make time for it. Even knowing as little as I do about this story, it makes me really angry that Henrietta's family was so disregarded after all she had done for medical science. I am off to see if I can grab a copy of this on on my Kindle. It sounds amazing! Fabulous review, Sandy! I am also glad it was such a boon for your book club!

Erin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I listened to the audio production as well. I'm not a big nonfiction reader, but The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was absolutely well done.

Alyce said...

The School of Essential Ingredients is on my MP3 player right now, and I've only had a chance to listen to one chapter so far, and she does have an voice that's easy to listen to.

I've heard great things about this book and it's been on my wish list for a while. Great review!

The Bumbles said...

I have heard of this woman's legacy before. I'm sure it would make for an interesting discussion/debate about cell donorship and rights, etc.

I love NF as you know. I am reading Life With Picasso now - in addition to learning that he was quite the horn dog I am learning that his art was more than just wacko images - the intent and meaning behind the results has been quite interesting to learn.

Julie P. said...

I thought this book was excellent and it's nice to know that the audio version was good too. We had a great book club discussion as well.

Stephanie said...

I loved this book. I had heard the audio version was fantastic.

Jenners said...

You're making a very strong case for this book. Part of me wants to resist it but you're making it very very hard to do so.

And I can so imagine your book group ... it sounds fantastic.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I recently read an article about this story and have been really intrigued and wanting to pick this up. I really like non-fiction, but it has to be told a certain way (i.e., you mentioned that you liked The Monster of Florence, which I also loved), so I'm thinking this will be a good one to read as well. This was a great review!!

Literary Feline said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one. It sounds like such a great story--heartbreaking and definitely deserving of attention. I am glad you enjoyed it, Sandy.

Amy said...

Love your review of this book, Sandy. I had no idea what it was about but am almost running out the door to get myself a copy today. You're right - there are a lot of amazing non-fiction books, available to read. I just added one to my TBR!

Thank you!

Anna said...

This books sounds fascinating, and I probably wouldn't have given it a second thought if I hadn't read your review. I'm really picky when it comes to non-fiction, but I'm thinking I should broaden my horizons.

S. Krishna said...

Great review! I really enjoyed this one as well, though one member of my book club pointed out that Skloot is a bit forceful on the family in her effort to dig up information. While true, it didn't ruin my enjoyment!

heidenkind said...

I like the name of your book club. Alliteration is always a win! ;)

Melissa M said...

I too could happily read non-fiction for the rest of my life. I've seen reviews on this one, but the cover really didn't work for me and I always skimmed over them. Now it's added to my list, and I just have to decide if I want to read the book, or listen to the audio!