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.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness…….

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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.)

A Discovery of Witches is a tale of “witch meets vampire” and then, “witch falls in love with vampire” – while almost everyone in the entire other-world (non-human world) tries to stop them from being together.

There are vampires and witches and daemons, oh my.

Diana (the witch) is a historian (specializing in alchemy) who is conducting research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She stumbles upon an ancient manuscript that is thought to hold many secrets about the beginnings and histories of all of the non-human characters in the book. She herself has avoided magic her entire life. So, while she knows that something mystical happens when she is able to unlock the book and read its pages, she is not fully aware of the significance of the text that sits open before her and simply returns the book to the library shelves when she is finished with it.

Matthew Clairmont (the vampire) has been drawn to the Oxford library because he has heard the fantastic tale of a witch who uses no magic in her daily life yet has the power to summon the lost book called Ashmole 782. Matthew has lived among and studied with the best – Darwin, Guggenheim, and the likes who have defined history. He has turned his focus to studying DNA, particularly in wolves, and in the lineage of all creatures. Matthew fears that vampires might be dying out and hopes to find answers in the crackling pages of Ashmole 782.

Together Matthew and Diana literally take on the world in search of missing pages and answers.

The book kept my attention for all of its nearly 600 pages. But it was clearly written as the first of a series, leaving many, many questions unanswered. I much prefer it when a book stands more on its own and additional tales supplement (rather than rely on) the initial story.

The story held some pieces that just did not make sense to me. The title for example – A Discovery of Witches – the story is not simply about the discovery of witches – but vampires and daemons as well. Hmpf. Additionally, these creatures exist among humans who are suspicious of them but aren’t really supposed to know they exist. Yet, there a few scenes in which humans are clearly aware that these vampires, witches, and daemons are not human. But that’s it. We just know that they know and move on to the next scene. Maybe those (and other) gaps will tighten later in the triology.

The writing was solid but it was riddled with cliches and repeated words/descriptions (especially of smells and clothing). That was distracting to me. I do think it would be hard to write about magic. As an author, you would have to create realistic, believable reasons why magic could not just instantly solve any problem. I thought that obstacles in this book were too easily overcome even without the aid of magic. At one point, Diana is captured and Matthew comes to her rescue. He is able to scoop her away without so much as a challenge.

Toward the end of the story, Diana and Matthew go to visit Diana’s aunts in their enchanted house. The house is a lot of fun and the creativity the author summoned to create and describe the house is really good. It is a clever house and would be so fun to live in.

Overall I liked A Discovery of Witches well enough but probably won’t continue on with the series.