Tag Archives: Rebecca Skloot

Book Club Discussion: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

4 Oct

I’d finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just in time for my book club meeting! It could not have turned out better and I was primed and ready to discuss with the women in my group.

I wasn’t the only one who’d never heard of HeLa before we read this book. Only one person in my book club had heard of HeLa cells or knew anything about Henrietta. I had seen the book countless times but never bothered to turn it over and read what it was about.

Skloot was a very active character in her own book. We were fascinated that she could remember something a community college professor said to her in high school and be so driven by it later in life. What an impactful educator! Skloot had a great relationship with the Lacks family, especially Deborah. I think I would have lost my patience more than the one time Skloot did! They really appreciated that she taught them what they didn’t understand and that she was patient when it came to answers. Her style of writing the book was great for a topic that could be so dense. She kept the ‘science-y’ parts moving and flowed well between times and places so that we didn’t get bored or lost as readers.

Race was obviously a big part of the story. What we wondered is if the modern part of the story would have been any different if Skloot was black. We think the family might have talked to her sooner. They said a few times that white people only came poking around when they wanted something and they were all very distrustful of Rebecca at first. We don’t know if she would have been as successful with the hospitals and getting information there. Being so starkly different from the family made her seem more like a researcher.

It was hard to hear about Henrietta’s upbringing and life. She lost her mother when she was so young, it mimicked Deborah’s distraught feelings about her mother. But it wasn’t just Henrietta, but her whole family that suffered so much. We wondered how Henrietta’s experience in the hospital would have been different if she was white. If she was the same socioeconomic status, we don’t think her experience would have been much different. She still wouldn’t have had the money to pay for a lot of treatments and would have been viewed as a charity case. If she’d been middle class, her treatment would have been the same (it was all they knew), but we think she would have been better educated about what was happening to her and her family would have been more involved in the treatment steps.

We all loved Deborah’s dedication to her mother. Unlike her father and brothers, she wasn’t worried about the money she could get from her mother’s legacy, she just wanted people to know what Henrietta had done. I was particularly moved by the explanation of why the family thought Henrietta was an angle. It was a really beautifully drawn comparison.

The scene where Zakariyya and Deborah seen their mother’s cells was really moving to all of us. To anyone, it would be a moving experience, but for these two, who didn’t understand well what cells were and only knew what they saw was a part of their mother, it effected them in a different way. It was so great that they were able to have a positive experience at Johns Hopkins.

Of course, we had to talk about the ethics of selling human samples. We agreed with one of the proposed solutions, which was a part of the profits going back to disease research. If there’s so much money to be had from selling these cellular samples and always a need for research money, why not shade the ethically grey area with using the money earned to fund the disease research? It seems like a win-win situation.

Our next book will be another disease-focused read with Still Alice by Lisa Genova. We need a happy read eventually!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (4/5)

29 Sep

I have a long history with this book. In college, I worked for a textbook rental click-and-mortar. We catered largely to the big state school on the other side of town. One of their freshman classes had to read this book. We had several hundred copies, more than we could rent. They filled the shelves and seemed to be part of every order at the beginning of the semester. But I never cracked it open. I knew the cover and author but nothing about what was inside the book. I was so excited when my book club selected the title. I was finally going to read ‘the orange book.’

Cover Image via Goodreads

Cover Image via Goodreads

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Summary from Goodreads:

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

This was one of those non-fiction books where you think it has to be made up. Henrietta’s story is so bizarre and Skloot tells it in a very conversational way. She made advanced science readable and used the story of the Lacks family to bring the debate on cell and DNA ownership to a point that’s hard to ignore. It wove through time well and told a good parallel story between the modern ramifications of Henrietta’s cancer both good and bad.

Skloot brought the Lacks family alive for me, especially Deborah and Zakariyya. It’s obvious Skloot and Deborah had a special relationship and I loved how respectful Rebecca was of the family and how she earned their trust. She became her own character in the story, a surprise to me. I liked that her journey to finding the history and truth was a part of the history.

George Gey was the most interesting person to me. He was a villain to the Lacks family but in his field, he was a pioneer. He never patented his discoveries in cell culture and he didn’t charge colleagues for samples of Henrietta’s cells at first. He went into debt to advance science. I thought it was a great anecdote that when he was undergoing surgery, he wanted his cells put into a culture so he could have a GeGe strain. That made him seem very much a crazy scientist.

The confusion Deborah and her family faced when it came to understanding her mother’s cells struck me. It reminded me of trying to understand biology growing up and I was so moved by Deborah’s thirst to learn as much as she could and make sure her children learned.

Rebecca Skloot Image via PBS

Rebecca Skloot
Image via PBS

I was moved when Deborah and Zakariyya went to see HeLa cells at Johns Hopkins. I thought it was so great of Lengauer to take the time and show her children what their mother’s cells had done for science and to show them what of her was still around. He had to be very patient but I’m sure for him, it was like meeting a celebrity. What an amazing experience.

Reading about Henrietta’s early life was hard for me. The sexual abuse, living conditions, and attitudes of her family as she grew up and started her family were rough. No part of me envied her. It was worse seeing some of those attitudes and behaviors perpetuated into the later generations, like when Deborah’s son was sent to jail. Knowing that the lives of people can be so difficult as an abstract idea is hard enough but reading about the details of it is so much worse.

 

The biggest lesson I got from this book was giving. Henrietta was always giving of her food and her home. Gey was giving of his knowledge. Deborah learned to be giving of herself and respect what her mother did for science. That was the hardest lesson for her family to learn and it took them a long time to come to terms with it. I think Deborah had to teach them that lesson because Henrietta wasn’t there to do it herself.

Writer’s Takeaway: I loved Skloot’s ability to weave history, modern narrative, and her own journey into one book. It was fun to read and I learned a lot. History is only boring if you write it in a boring way. Skloot did a wonderful job of bringing the past alive and weaving it with an adventure.

Enjoyable and educational. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot | Ephemereality

WWW Wednesday, 28-September-2016

28 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


aristotleCurrently reading: I made some minor progress on In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson during my lunch breaks. I just passed 60% so maybe another two months? Haha. It’s really good, don’t get me wrong!
On hold with World Without End by Ken Follett.
I needed a new audiobook and I decided to give Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz a try. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things about this book on others’ posts and I need some YA in my life. Great so far, I’m really loving it.
I finally started Slade House by David Mitchell. No opinion on if I like it yet. I’m hoping to speed through this one and make a little time for a book of my choice off my shelves. We’ll see if life will let that happen.

Henrietta LacksRecently finished: I finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot just in time for book club! I finished it Sunday night and we meet Mondays. Phew! I really enjoyed the story and I’ll have a review of it up tomorrow!
SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner was also a win for me. I loved the first one and this was equally enjoyable. My post went up yesterday so check that out and let me know if you had to suddenly go out and buy it.

stillaliceReading Next: I’m going to get a jump-start on my next book club book. We’re reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I’m a little iffy on this book because it seems like it might be really sad and I don’t want sad! Fingers crossed the ending doesn’t make me cry.


I have a class after work Wednesdays through November so please be patient with me due to delayed responses. I’m checking as often as I can.

Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 21-September-2016

21 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


superfreakonomicsCurrently reading: Again, nothing with In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this week. The fall is ridiculously stressful for me with school and my husband going back to work and coaching. I haven’t had the spare moments to pick this up and it’s really showing.
On hold with World Without End by Ken Follett.
I’m really loving The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot writes a great narrative and I’m not minding the jumps back and forth in time as much as I thought I would. I hope to finish this up this week but it’s a bit longer than I think I can manage. We’ll see what happens.
Not surprisingly, I’m in love with SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Just like the first book, I’m constantly going ‘WHAT?!’ in my car while listening. I got a coworker to listen with me while driving back from a job fair and I think I hooked him. Win.

Recently finished: Nothing this week! I’m plugging along after finishing two last week. I did post a review of Boy, Snow, Bird by  Helen Oyeyemi last Thursday. Go give that a look and I hope to have more up soon.

slade-houseReading Next:  Slade House by David Mitchell is on my bedside table so I’m eagerly awaiting it. One of you gave me a negative review of it last week so I’m nervous but I’m hoping that because it’s shorter I have a chance. Fingers crossed.


I have a class after work Wednesdays through November so please be patient with me due to delayed responses. I’m checking as often as I can.

Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 14-September-2016

14 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


Henrietta LacksCurrently reading: Total fail on reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this week. I haven’t had a lot of chances to read on my phone. No doctor’s appointments or a lot of waiting this week. I’m not worried, this book is good whenever I get back to it.
Still waiting for World Without End by Ken Follett. None too pleased but being patient.
I’ve just begin The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s too soon to say much but I’m hoping this lives up to the hype I’ve gotten around it.
I needed to grab another audiobook and I decided on SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I listened to the first one two or three years back and I’ve been excited ever since I heard that there’s a sequel out there. I’m pumped to get further on this one.

BoySnowRecently finished: Two done! The first is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I finished Saturday evening. I liked it enough, but I found the ending really disappointing. My book club met on Monday to talk about it so expect a book club reflection early next week. I gave the book Three out of Five stars.
I also finished The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo on Friday. This book feel really flat for me. I got a few good organizing tips from it and I’ve started throwing out a lot of things and putting some clothes in my ‘donate’ pile if I don’t wear them a lot or at all. So I guess I got something out of it and I gave it Two out of Five Stars. My review went up yesterday so check that out.

slade-houseReading Next: My next book club book will be Slade House by David Mitchell. I’m a little nervous about this one. This is the same author who wrote Cloud Atlas and those of you who have been around here for a while might remember my long battle with that book. I’m glad this one is much shorter and I’m told it’s a Halloween-ish feeling book so I’m looking forward to that.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 7-September-2016

7 Sep

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


TidyingCurrently reading: After all of your encouraging last week, I made a point of getting some reading done on In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. I don’t think it amounted to very much, but I made a small dent!
Unfortunately, I’m currently at a loss with World Without End by Ken Follett. I lost the audiobook hold from the library! I went to renew it a few days before it expired and saw that there are two people in front of me on the hold list! I’m really upset because I was enjoying this book a lot and now I’m having to put it on the back burner. Super sad face.
I’m making good progress with Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. My book club meeting is next week so I’m hoping to finish it over the weekend if at all possible. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
While I’m waiting for my audiobook problem to resolve, I picked up a short one. I heard a lot about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and I was intrigued enough to try it. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan. Kondo seems to have no respect for someone who collects anything (even if it brings the person joy) and her minute details about properly folding socks so ‘that they can rest’ isn’t making me want to resort my sock drawer. It’s short, so I’ll get through it but I’ll have to find something fun next.

Recently finished: Nothing new! I’m so saddened by this. I didn’t post any reviews either. I need to start reading shorter books.

Henrietta LacksReading Next: I still plan on reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot next. I wanted to add another book to this list, probably an audiobook, but I realized I don’t know what our book club’s October selection will be. I’ll try to get that figured out soon.


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 31-August-2016

31 Aug

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!

IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community.


BoySnowCurrently reading: I read very little of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. I’m hoping I can find a little time to read it this week, but it’s really not looking good for me. I knew this one would be a long, slow read, but I didn’t think it would take this long.
I’ve made decent progress in World Without End by Ken Follett. It’s a long book to be sure, but I’ve been going on some long runs and getting through good chunks of it on each one. It will be a while, but I’ll make it through.
I just started Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi so I can’t say too certainly what I think of it so far. I’m hoping to finish this one quickly but we’ll see what happens.

OnePersonRecently finished: I made it through In One Person by John Irving a day faster than I thought I would! I finished it Saturday afternoon and I was so excited. It was a good read with some small disappointments toward the end. It had all the classic John Irving elements to it that I love so I can’t say I’m too upset with it. My book club met to talk about it on Monday so I’ll have a reflection up soon. My book review went up on Monday.

Henrietta LacksReading Next: It will be another book club book I suspect. We’re picking up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for our next selection. This book caught my eye when I was working at a textbook store in college and had to rent it to the entire freshman class of the university across town. I thought it had been out forever because of that but it was probably the year after it was published, in 2011, that this happened. I’m excited to finally see what it’s about!


Leave a comment with your link and a comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!