The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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3/5 stars.
ebook, 353 pages.
Read from April 04 to 14, 2013.

I read The Diary of a Young Girl, for the first time as an adult. Here is my throwback review:

Anne Frank happened to live in a devastating era. For 2 years, Anne and her family were hidden in away in a Secret Annexe in order to keep from being sent off  to concentration camps. Her diary is a depiction of this time. In so many ways, Anne is like a an ordinary teenager (though I don’t think teenagers these days write as well as her): Boys, struggles with her family, her self-image and explorations of her own sexuality, it just all happened to take place during the Holocaust. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to come of age during this time. I only wish that Anne had survived to further tell her story.

I’m thankful that I read this book as an adult because it allowed me to truly grasp how horrible Anne’s situation really was. If I read this as a teenager I might have connected and likely focused on her struggles with her parents and her craziness about boys rather than seeing the big picture of the scenario she had found herself in, as Anne often tried to focus on things that were not directly related to the sorrows of her family too much. In some ways, if taken out of context, the diary could just be that of a normal teenager to some extent. You almost forget to atrocities going on outside of Anne’s thoughts until she reminds the reader of her situation. Anne grows up so much through out the writing of this novel, in an almost tragic sense, and she realizes that. She comments on her nativity and realizes that she will never again be that innocent child. She even at one point finally acknowledges the cruelty she has displayed to her parents. I’m also glad I read the definitive edition and that the publisher added an introduction with an explanation of with how her father handled her diary as well as the tragic ending of most of the people in the Secret Annexe.

Speaking of the Secret Annexe, I can only  imagine the boredom! I felt claustrophobic just reading this diary! Not being able to go outside for almost 2 years?! Really, sit back and think about that for a second… They couldn’t go outside. No exercise. No sunshine or wind on their faces. They didn’t have a TV or anything like that. Just books and paper. I admire that Anne and many of the members were still committed to learning. It gave them hope that there was future and that they would continue on living. I also adore how headstrong Anne is. She always spoke her mind, voiced  her opinion and believed that women should be equal to men. A bold opinion in that day and age, especially for a teenager! I can imagine her, if she had lived, being a role-model and advocate to women’s rights and the survivors of the holocaust. I suppose her memory and the contribution of her diary does do this in so many ways. It’s just unfortunate that so many people like Anne were taken away from this world in such a cruel, unnecessary and horrific manner.

Another tragedy of this, is the extent that Anne distanced from her own family during this hard time. It sounds like each person in the Secret Annexe felt very alone. I suppose that it’s normal for a girl her age to want to distance herself but I can’t imagine how hard it was on her parents. The scene in which her mother is crying and sitting by her bed and says something about how Anne doesn’t love her broke my heart. Living in the Secret Annexe would have been inexorably hard; living in fear inside a cramped space without basic necessities sometimes and ultimately feeling alone and without comfort… it just makes me cringe. I also can’t imagine the inner turmoil they all must have felt too, as Anne describes at one point as well, about feeling miserable about their situation but knowing that they are still one of the lucky ones, as their friends and neighbours are killed and shipped off to concentration camps.

The people who assisted everyone in the Secret Annexe are remarkable human beings. The amount of times and the extent of how often they fell ill showed the extent of the massive amounts of stress that they dealt with trying to keep Anne and her family safe. Even at the risk of their own health and life, they still continued to protect the families in the Secret Annexe.

Overall, I’m thankful I found time to read this classic. It’s an important piece of literature that should never be forgotten.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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3/5 stars.
ebook, 362 pages.
Read from May 31 to June 08, 2015.

For the last 60 years science has been using reproductions of the same cells for massive amounts of scientific research. They’re called the HeLa cells as they are named after the woman they were taken from, Ms. Henrietta Lacks. The cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge so for years, no one knew anything about the woman whose cells changed the face of scientific research and has helped save and heal millions of people as a result of this research. Almost on a sort of calling, author Rebecca Skloot felt strongly that she should find a way to tell Henrietta’s story and know more about the extraordinary person that made history by having her cells become the first ever to be replicated.

Henrietta Lacks came from very humble roots. She was born in Virginia in the summer of 1920, where her actual given name was Loretta Pleasant. To this day no one knows why or when she started going by Henrietta. The US was still segregated at this point so many black families were still not respected and were doing difficult work for very little pay. Henrietta and her family were tobacco farmers. Henrietta had her first child at 14 and married her first cousin. In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed, at the only hospital that would treat black people, with cervical cancer while likely being pregnant with her fifth child. After the birth, doctor’s removed a lump in her cervix in which her cells were then also taken. In this day and age, doctors were not required to be accountable for removing cells or anything of the sort. They were even allowed withhold information if they didn’t believe it was on the patient’s best interest. It sounds outrageous but it was a common practice in this time period and people didn’t question their doctors. Black people were often treated as guinea pigs as well for any sort of research or experimentation. After the lump removal, Henrietta then went through a few sets of tube radiation treatments. Sadly, her cancer was misdiagnosed, as the specifics and differences between the types of cervical cancer were just starting to emerge at this point. The treatment itself is horrifying to read. Science just didn’t have the capacities to deal with cancer all that well during this time period and her radiation treatments were so strong that it charred and burned her skin.

Henrietta tragically did not improve and was in a significant amount of pain. She died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Autopsies revealed that the cancer had spread through her entire body.

What makes this story enthralling, and equally horrifying, is question of the ethics and the morals of medicine when it comes to our cells and our bodies. Henrietta’s cells, or rather her cancer cells,  were unique, because they were the first cells to stay alive and reproduce in a laboratory. However, they were taken without her permission and since then her cells were sold, and are still sold by the billions to companies in the pursuit of scientific research, yet Henrietta’s remaining family members can barely afford their health insurance. They have not seen a penny of the billions of dollars of revenue that the HeLa cells have created. So the question that is still an issue today is, do we own our own cells and tissue? What sort of consent is required in order for scientists to use our cells?  Are we entitled to earn a portion of the revenue if our cells or tissue are used and sold for scientific research? Scientists, or rather companies,  have fought and won that if people could choose what their cells were used for and received part of the profit for it that it would inhibit scientific research. The counter argument being that research companies are already monopolizing their research for monetary gain and are inhibiting research anyway.

Skloot also detailed the difficult process that she went through in trying to obtain all of this information from the living members of Henrietta’s family. The media had used and abused Henrietta’s family over the years and many of them were angry with what happened to Henrietta and the HeLa cells. They wanted some sort of retribution, and you can’t really blame, so they were hesitant to talk to anyone. Skloot was able to work her way in with Henrietta’s daughter, Debbie, who truly just wanted to know more about her mother and how the whole situation unfolded. While this portion was an interesting and necessary add to the story, I felt that it overtook a little bit near the end. I loved the history and science in this book the most. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health gave Henrietta’s family some control over access to the cells’ DNA code and now 2 members of her family sit on a committee that regulate that code.

Overall the book posed some serious ethical questions that are still in debate today. The book is an amazing and passionate tribute to Henrietta and it has helped to ensure that her short life and sacrifice are not to be forgotten. A portion of the proceeds from purchasing this book are donated The Henrietta Lacks Foundation , which help to provide financial assistance to individuals who have made important contributions to science without their consent.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 272 pages.
Read from April 04 to 08, 2015.

I’m so close to reading all the books in Canada-Reads 2015 now! One more to go. Intolerable is the only official memoir in this years collection and I don’t see how Intolerable could have been written any other way.  This book is about a family who is torn apart by history and guilt.

Kamal Al-Solayee, was born in Aden, Yemen in 1964. He was last of 11 eleven children in the arranged marriage of his parents. Despite what people believe of the Middle East now, it wasn’t always that way. Kamal’s father was a wealthy business man and his family enjoyed all the luxuries that came with it. From vacations, photos, clothes and restaurants Kamal’s family was well taken care of in the days of Aden. Kamal’s sisters enjoyed fashion and make-up as well as going to the beach in their bikinis, all activities that were completely normal for them to be partaking in at the time. This happy family life unfortunately did not last. When Yemen was decolonized, Kamal’s father lost everything. The family had to move away from Aden and live off the savings that Kamal’s father had accumulated in which they become middle class citizens.

During this time was when Kamal started to notice that was different in that he took more of an interest in what his sister’s were doing than the masculine activities his brothers took part in. He was always a self-proclaimed mama’s boy so he was able to get away with the behavior while he was still young. As time progressed Kamal began to figure out that he was gay while, unfortunately, his oldest brother started to adopt the strict Muslim ways that had started to spread through the Middle East. His brother began to put pressure on his sisters, who were successful career women, about their ‘demeaning’ dress and behavior and tried to get them to adopt Islamic ways. It wasn’t until the family moved to again to be with their father that things really changed. The country was changing drastically to adopting stricter Muslim laws. Slowing Kamal watched his mother and sister’s become oppressed and their spark fade. The quality of life in their homes also quickly deteriorated in the war-torn area that they were living in. As Kamal knew he was gay, he feared for his life as homosexuality is punishable by death. He knew he could no longer stay with his family so he made the heartbreaking decision to go to school in England.

From there, Kamal realized that he never wanted to return home. He then ended up in Canada and found his home in Toronto but the tension and guilt he felt over the crumbling conditions his family was living never stopped haunting him. He cannot explain to his family the new life that he is living. The wouldn’t understand his homosexuality or even his career choices.

The Middle East has a way of catching up with you no matter how far you run.”

This book shows the tragic reality of living in the Middle East and what it’s truly like for families that live there and for those who leave it. Kamal is what Canada is all about, as his friends often told him. Kamal came to Canada with nothing but guilt and a heritage he was hoping to leave behind him. While he found a home and success within Canada it wasn’t until he was able to confront his heritage and family that he was able to start feeling whole again. While he never fully reconciled with his family, he was at least able to come to an understanding. Kamal did what he had to do to save himself and live the life that he needed to pursue, but the guilt of leaving his family will likely never leave him.

A poignant read and a necessary one to grasp the real realities of the people living in the Middle East.

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