The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot……

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art from www.amazon.com

This non-fiction story is about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s.

While Henrietta was undergoing treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. George Gey  (a researcher) obtained some of her cells – without her knowledge or consent. Those cells were the first human cells to remain “alive” outside of the human body. Sadly, Henrietta died – but miraculously, her cells live on even today.

And the study of those cells has led to amazing advancements in medicine, including the polio vaccine, various cancer treatments, and so much more.

Normally, I read a book with my eyes wide open – but this book I read with my mouth wide open. I simply could not believe the liberties that doctors were allowed (and by the by, still are allowed) to take with human tissues. No consent necessary. Even if they will profit from it.

And it’s not just taking samples – it’s testing. While doctors and researchers were dissecting and analyzing cells outside of Henrietta’s body, other doctors were conducting research – including injecting cancer cells into their patients – without asking permission or forgiveness.

Rebecca Skloot does a lovely job of introducing us to the Lacks family and sharing their journey with us.

It was by complete accident that the Lacks children even learned that Henrietta’s cells were taken from her and being used all over the world. The cells were named HeLa cells (the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names). And they have not profited in any way from their discovery or continued sale – even though they struggle to pay their own medical bills.

This book sounded a little intimidating to me because of the science/research tilt – but Rebecca explains everything so easily that even I (a mere English major) can understand it.

The Lacks family saga saddened me tremendously. In a land where these types of things just aren’t supposed to happen, they simply do happen.

The bottom line for me is – please use my discarded tissue for research if it will help other people, but you really should ask me first if it’s okay. And if you are going to make millions on my tissue, please share at least some of those profits. Yes, thank you.

This is an amazing story and I think you will be very glad you read it!

You can purchase it on Amazon here.

And NPR did a story here.

Defending Jacob by William Landay……..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read Defending Jacob by William Landay for my book club. If you want a book rich with discussion possibilities, this one is it.

Jacob is a high schooler who lives in a small town. In that town, one of his fellow students is murdered. Jacob’s dad is the Defense Attorney on the case – until Jacob is accused of the murder. It turns out that Ben (the murdered boy) was bullying Jacob, giving him quite a motive.

This book opens a lot of avenues of discussion….

  • Nature v. Nuture
  • The Impact of Working Parents
  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Bullying
  • Community Reaction to Crime
  • Murder and Suicide
  • What Defines Normal Behavior in Children
  • What Parents Are Willing/Unwilling to Believe About Their Children

You better serve wine. 8-)

The story was well-paced and I really liked the first half of the book. I felt like Jacob’s story could go either way and I struggled to decide whether Jacob was innocent or guilty. But then the book turns and a lot of surprising things happen. Which is generally good in a book. But this story just had too many twists. It felt contrived and too easy at the same time.

It really would make a good book for any discussion group and maybe even a good book for parents/teenagers to read together. I just wasn’t thrilled with plot development toward the end.

Hi My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist by Baye McNeil………..

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I met Baye through blogging. He was one of my first followers and one of the first people to really take my blog seriously. He read, he commented, and he complimented.

Thanks Loco!

Baye (aka Loco), of course, has his own blog about living and teaching in Japan. He took his life story and turned it into a memoir called Hi! My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist.

Baye McNeil's thought on life and racism

I loved Baye’s writing from the first post of his I ever read. Admittedly, initially, I thought he was a little angry. (Sometimes he was.) But he was never dismissive of someone else’s ideas – he was always willing to consider a different point of view. I quickly found the discussion sections of his blog to be the most insightful. And he was open to any question – even silly questions from a white chick like me. And he was open to changing his perspective.

This book of his is no different. He looks at himself in a mirror that most people aren’t willing to hold. Baye shares stories of how he was taught to hate (in defense of being hated) and how he continues to fight those internal demons. He shares how race has impacted many of the relationships in his life, personally and professionally.

Beyond being a open discussion about racial tensions and pressures in America and the world, Baye’s own story is compelling. He grew up in New York, did a stint  in the military and college, and ultimately ended up teaching English in Japan. Baye found the love of his life and lost her. She left him a legacy of encouragement to “write!” and be the real writer he was meant to be. He was in New York City the day the twin towers were brought down and (exactly 9 1/2 years later) he was in Japan the day it rocked with an earthquake that changed the Japanese landscape but not the Japanese people.

Baye’s constant companion throughout his time in Japan is an empty seat on a train. He does a beautiful job of weaving the importance of this unlikely character throughout his memoir. She buffers him and angers him and teaches him to dig for the truth.

Ultimately, what I enjoyed most about this book is the way that it showcases how overwhelming stereotypes can be and how insignificant they become in one-on-one relationships. And I love how Baye constantly looks for (and generally finds) the good in others and in himself.

I highly recommend this book as a fabulous tale and a needed lesson. You can purchase it here. I myself have a signed copy. (Don’t hate ;-)  )

Follow him on Twitter @Locohama.

Smooches Baye – great job!

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott……

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by Anne LamottAnne Lamott is a (pretty well-known) writer and she writes this book to encourage others to write. She doesn’t even demand that writers write better – at least not at first. She just wants us to write.

It’s wonderful.

It’s funny in unexpected ways. Many times I read a line and thought, a second later, “now that was funny”. Anne Lamott writes with a humor that is natural and seeps into her words. I love her conversational tone and her advice is fabulous.

In Bird by Bird, she gives us permission to write a “shitty” first draft – because we must. We must get something down on paper and then fine-tune it. She reassures us that she knows no-one who can write perfectly the first time. Well, she admits to knowing one person who can do it – but she doesn’t like her very much.

The gist of her message is that we should take our writing bit by bit. Anne shares the story of her brother writing a paper for a school project. He waited until the last minute, of course, and was overwhelmed by tackling the whole world of birds at once. Her father simply said to him, “take it bird by bird”. He encouraged his son to write in little bits. That’s great advice for life, too, by the way.  One thing at a time.

Readers also get insights into plot, character development, jealousy, and tons ‘o writing stuff. There is a lot to learn between the pages but it never feels like a text book. Anne shares her knowledge through stories and examples that really “show, instead of tell”.

Even if you hope to never pick up a pencil again, you can enjoy this book.

This is another book that I will give as a gift to friends. It’s all sorts of yummy!

Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams……

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Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty

I might be admitting my significant literary limitations here, but I just did not get this book.

Reading it was akin to what it must have been like for the characters watching the king’s parade in the Emperor’s New Clothes. I tried really hard to see what was not right in front of me. It’s likely I should have been making real connections but they simply did not appear for me. I didn’t understand the symbolism that is probably very profound.

Diane Williams book is a collection of contemporary short stories – some of them very short (barely even one paragraph). So it is a book you can read in small doses or quick spurts.

If you like digesting a book and figuring it out, this might just be the book for you. The descriptions are vivid and the cover of the book is fabulous!

There is an interview with the author here if you want to hear her take on it all.