I heard Rebecca Skloot do a reading at Vroman's and it was fracking awesome! I can't wait to dig into the book. It's clear the story is not just aboutI heard Rebecca Skloot do a reading at Vroman's and it was fracking awesome! I can't wait to dig into the book. It's clear the story is not just about the never-ending amazing HeLa cells, but also about Skloot's personal relationship with Henrietta's daughter and family. Remarkable. Everytime I read something about HeLa, I'm always shaking my head thinking "what a wild story!"
It took me way too long to finally get to reading this, and I really regret not reading it sooner. It's that awesome. Skloot mentions in her acknowledgments that she consulted with a small independent bookstore about non-linear storytelling. How cool is that?
Skloot really expanded on the themes at the reading I went to in April, and gave a lot more background information and personal stories behind the scenes. I took a bunch of notes, so I thought those might make a good review.
The reading was awesome - a huge, very diverse crowd. Skloot (which is pronounced as 2 syllables!) is an engaging, thoughtful speaker.
A few interesting bits:
*She has started a foundation to help fund schooling for Henrietta Lack's descendants. She was/is hoping that some of the mega corporations that were founded on the HeLa cell line will donate, but haven't done so yet. Lots of scientists who use the HeLa cells have donated, however. All but one of the family's lawsuits have been denied - the last one is still ongoing.
*Her publisher doesn't "do" book tours, so she had to arrange the tour herself. She hasn't been home since January. Based on the publicity and turnout, her publishers are dunderheads.
*The amount of research that went into the book is staggering. No wonder it took her 10 years to finish the book.
*She first became interested in the HeLa story when she was 16. Her high-school biology teacher mentioned them in class. She asked "who was she, what do her kids think of all this" to which he didn't have an answer, but offered extra credit. Being a teenager, she never did the extra credit assignment. When she got the first copies of the book, she sent him a copy saying "Can I have my extra credit now?" Turns out he didn't even remember her. Haha!
Finally, one of the most curious aspects about the book is that it's not just a science-y story about the amazing HeLa cells, but also about the personal relationship Skloot develops with Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta's daughters. When she realized the family had been misinformed and mistreated by other scientists and journalists, she offered to take Deborah quite literally on the research with her. Their open friendship meant that the family let her see Henrietta's medical records and Deborah's journals. It's clear that Skloot transformed how the family saw their Mother's cell lines. Today, they are convinced that Henrietta is an angel, helping to cure cancer and advance science. Pretty amazing!
She said over and over the deal with both corporations and Johns Hopkins (who took the cells in the first place) not giving money to the family is that it sets a precedent. When this happened, it was well, well before informed consent laws, private medical record laws etc. Skloot thought that they might feel more legally able to give to a non-profit with a board of governors.
Skuh-loot also mentioned that when the book was first published Johns Hopkins issued a short official response. A few weeks later she was on campus giving a talk to undergrads, and afterwards, a long line of official medical center staff came to tell her that they were very unhappy with the official response and want to try to make things right. Some of those officials have helped the Lacks family apply for free medical care at the hospitals. Also, they now have a requirement that all incoming freshman are to read this book to open up a dialogue about the issues.
The other thing I forgot to mention was why Skloot was interested in HeLa cells in the first place. That story when she was 16, at the time her dad (who had been an author) was in a drug trial - he had had a virus that left him severely brain damaged. She was frequently responsible for taking him to the treatments. The idea of cell-experimentation led her to naturally ask the questions "what about the family."
Seriously, this was one of the best readings I've attended. :)...more
I'm wavering between 2 and 3 stars for this Crichton-esque brick of a sea-thriller.
On one hand you have whales, crabs, dolphins, sea worms, shoals, anI'm wavering between 2 and 3 stars for this Crichton-esque brick of a sea-thriller.
On one hand you have whales, crabs, dolphins, sea worms, shoals, and sharks galore. All awesome. Oh and the top fru-fru Parisian restaurant infested with gooey lobsters. Right on. Also, there's some interesting thoughts on life-forms, consciousness, collectives and intelligence. I'll be thinking about those ideas for a while, even if they aren't anything new. The thriller and horror part of the story was plenty interesting to keep me turning the pages quickly.
On the other, much angrier sullied hand, you have obscene amounts of political, environmental and philosophical/religious pontification, aimed both directly at the reader and through the super-genius-beautiful-yet-one-dimensional cast of characters. Gah. I was so looking forward to a scientific thriller in translation that presented a multi-national cast and world view. The Swarm has this in spades, but also is incredibly one-sided in its vehement anti-US stance. The rest of the world is beautiful, intelligent, and rational. The US, however, is the source of all the world's woes, including inventing conspiracy theories?! I have lived for over 4 years in other countries, and it's dead easy to vilify the US. But the thing is all countries and their citizens have both bad and good virtues. No one is perfect, just like no country as a whole is pure evil. To portray the US as the latter is lazy characterization, an cheap shot and frankly just immature.
Finally, last gripe: the science is beyond sketchy. Schätzing clearly has done a ton of research (he packed every last detail of it in the book - that's why it's over 800 pages!). Yet he gets so much of the science wrong. Methane does not smell like rotten eggs - it's odorless.
I really like Jay's review that said that: The Swarm:Science :: Da Vinci Code:Religion