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.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

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3/5 stars.
ebook, 426 pages.
Read from March 30 to April 24, 2013.

Throwback review!


I would like to start off by saying that I came to this novel fully expecting it to be nothing like Harry Potter and was prepared for what I was going to be reading. Having said that I didn’t really enjoy it but I did change my rating to slightly more positive. This book follows the very personal lives of the people who live in the town of Pagford. It reflects how all of their lives interconnect through scandal and personal mishaps. Right after after I finished reading it I was just so appalled with how tragic and awful the characters and story line were! However after giving it some time I can somewhat understand Rowling’s approach. I believe she wanted to depict the masks that we all wear as individuals, the personal struggles that everyone has but hides and what sort of freedom we can have by shedding these facades. I also think that the story is also a statement about selflessness and authentically connecting with others, which can’t be accomplished if you are not honest with yourself. I feel that Fats summarized the novel perfectly:

“The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.”

Having said that I don’t know if Fats fulfilled his philosophy as he suffered the most near the books end. The teenagers in the book were truly the largest victims as they had their parent’s baggage, politics and facades thrown upon them making it impossible for them to be authentic to themselves. Krystal being the largest victim.

What drove me mad about this novel was how much I disliked most of the characters. Their actions and thoughts were just so despicable and negative making it hard to want to pursue the story because ultimately I didn’t care about these shallow individuals whose lives were solely based on small town politics. There were very few characters with redeeming qualities that I cared about, exceptions being Krystal and Barry. Obviously what I know about Barry is all third-party but I believe that these two characters were the only ones that were able to step outside of their own ego and care about someone else. For Barry, he saw something in Krystal and wanted to do what he could to bring her out of the awful slum she was living in. For Krystal, she would do anything for her brother Robbie. However, they still both had their faults. ***SPOILER*** Barry neglected his family and his stressful lifestyle lead to his death. Krystal believed, after Barry’s death, that by having a baby she could escape the life she was living with her drug addict mother and by pursuing this sort of selfishness with Fats she lost the one thing she fought so hard to protect, her brother and in the end her life ***END SPOILER***.

What I did appreciate about the end is that everyone was shown for what and who they were. ***SPOILER*** I think I gained the most satisfaction when Kay finally ditched Gavin. I think I despised him the most out of all of the characters. He was down right selfish and cruel to Kay by staying with her. In the end I suppose he showed his humanity like the other characters but I felt little sympathy for him when both Mary and Kay rejected him ***END SPOILER***.

Overall, I wouldn’t deter people from reading the book by any means but I wouldn’t read it if you’re feeling down in the dumps or have a hate on against the world as it won’t do much to restore your mood or faith in humanity

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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4/5 stars.
Paperback, 181 pages.
Read from October 08 to 09, 2014.

Gaiman, we meet again! It has been just over two years since I read anything by this fantastic author so I was quite happy when TNBBC picked this one for their Halloween read this month. A what a suiting pick it was…

This book is dark and has the capabilities of making your skin crawl, it is however also whimsical. Just like childhood. There is only one other person that I can think of that writes about childhood this well and that’s Roald Dahl. Both Gaiman and Dahl seem to be able to recall so well what it’s like to be a child, including the dark side of it. Growing up is scary and it’s hard but it’s also wonderful. While Dahl is no longer with us, I’m thankful that there are authors like Gaiman around that can still make us feel like children.

After returning to his childhood home after attending a funeral, the unnamed protagonist recalls the time he use to spend with his neighbour and childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. He ventures over to his old neighbours and finds Lettie’s mother and recalls that Lettie has gone away to “Australia”.  The protagonist initially remembers very little of his childhood but recalls a pond which Lettie used to say was her ocean and decides to venture down there to recollect some childhood memories. Sitting by the “pond” the man begins to remembers , it started with him losing his room as a boy so that his parents could let it out for some additional income. The opal miner had stayed with them, but after losing all the money that his friends and family gave him to gambling, he stole the family car and committing suicide in it. This death causes something unnatural to be released in to the world. While out with his father to retrieve the car, is when he meets Lettie. He is taken back to her home and introduced to her mother and grandmother.

The unnatural spirit that was released when the opal miner died believes that money will make people happy but it’s leaving money for people in very horrible ways. When the narrator wakes up choking on a coin, he seeks help from Lettie. The boy quickly comes to realize that there is something very special about the Hempstock women and when he asks about their exact age they never give him a concise answer. The women decide that the spirit must be dealt with and brought back to its own world. Against her mother and grandmother’s discretion, Lettie convinces them to let her bring the young protagonist along with her to banish the spirit. Lettie tells the boy that he must not touch ANYTHING while he is in the spirit world and to hold her hand the entire time. The boy fails at this only once while in the surreal spirit world.

After the spirit has been banished, the boy returns home from his adventure believing that everything has returned to normal. He finds however, that he has a gaping black hole in the bottom of his foot in which he can feel something moving around. He pulls out a worm from the hole in his foot and puts it down a drain, though he didn’t get all of it. The boy deals with the incident the way a curious child would, but as a reader this scene is has some serious gross factors and leaves you reeling!

The morning after removing the worm, the boy’s parent’s introduce him to Ursula, their new nanny. Everyone seems to love Ursula, except for the boy. He knows something is not quite right with her. She won over his sister with treats and adoration and his father with too much adoration (complete with some scenes no young boy should ever have to witness his parent doing) all while his mother becomes less present in the home and this is when is nightmare starts to begin…

Sounds unnerving and awesome right?! It really is. Gaiman never lets you down. Gaiman, like in many of his other novels, likes to have mythological connections to his stories because in a way, it keeps them all connected. For example, Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother sound like the triple goddess of mythology: the maiden, the mother and the crone. Equally, Ursula seems to represent the whore. The whole novel seems to revolve around similar dichotomies, such as childhood and adulthood as well as what we perceive as real and what we imagine.

Another interesting item that’s worth noting, just off some quick research, apparently some of the incidents in the book are in relation to some experiences that Gaiman had as a child, for example Gaiman’s father’s car was actually stolen and the thief did commit suicide in it.

This novel is less than 200 pages so it makes for nice quick read and I think you’ll find yourself being properly creeped out and just in time for Halloween. You may even find yourself recollecting on your own wacky childhood adventures. A must-read for any adult that still has a child-like spirit.