Mariatu Kamara was twelve years old when she was caught up in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Most of her village was killed in a raid. Boy soldiers cu...moreMariatu Kamara was twelve years old when she was caught up in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Most of her village was killed in a raid. Boy soldiers cut off both her hands but let her go. She shares the story of how she learned to cope in the new world she found herself in.
Holy cow. I just can't imagine living through the things this young woman has experienced. And she was so young when everything happened! I just shudder to think of it.
But she's a strong girl. She knows from the beginning that she must learn to live on her own. From the time she turns down the first helpful stranger's offer to feed her a bite of mango, she struggles to live her new life on her own terms.
Her story is inspiring and heart-breaking and important. I know I as an American sometimes forget that most of the world doesn't have it as good as I do. I get caught up in the day-to-day of "I can't believe I have to deal with this at work," or "Traffic is a nightmare, I hate this commute," and forget that in some places in the world, children are killing and maiming each other in wars they don't understand. I for one need a reality check like this from time to time.
Anyone who reads this should also read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Mariatu avoids demonizing the boy soldiers but it's still a good idea to get their perspective as well. They were also victims in this terrible conflict.
This is by no means an easy read but I highly recommend it. (less)
As the "gay marriage debate" was heating up back in oh, 2005, Dan Savage and his boyfriend (they dislike the word partner) were in the middle of their...moreAs the "gay marriage debate" was heating up back in oh, 2005, Dan Savage and his boyfriend (they dislike the word partner) were in the middle of their own debate. Should they or shouldn't they? They'd been together ten years, they'd adopted a son together, neither had any intention of leaving the relationship, they fully believed that gays and lesbians should have the right to get married, they just weren't sure that marriage was for them. They talk it over, going back and forth, receiving lots of input in favor of marriage from Dan's mom, and against marriage from their 5-year-old son.
Honestly, I read this for a book challenge I'm trying to complete before the end of the year. I think I saw Dan Savage once on Real Time with Bill Maher but other than that he's not on my radar. I keep my political opinions to myself. Has anyone ever changed the mind of someone else in a political argument? I think not. So let's just say that I'm a happily-married heterosexual female who thinks that gay people should be allowed to get married. And that's all I'll say about that.
Savage's memoir is, for the most part, hilarious, brutally honest, and straight to the point. He points out the fallacies in the tired old arguments trotted out against gay marriage, takes some potshots at its most vocal opponents, and chronicles his own personal debate within the debate. I laughed most of the way through it.
It did irritate me that Savage has no compunction about casting people around him in broad stereotypes, but at least he admits that he's a close-minded liberal (or something like that anyway). Apparently the entire population of South Dakota is fat, wants to kick his butt simply because he's gay, and doesn't have the mental capacity to read the New York Times. I shudder to think what he says about us Southerners.
If you have the ideology to enjoy this, go ahead and read it. It was entertaining but also a little sad to see that we haven't made much progress in the eight years since this was published.(less)
Author Meera Lee Sethi travels to Sweden one summer to volunteer at a bird observatory. Her time in the mists and mountains of Sweden led her to write...moreAuthor Meera Lee Sethi travels to Sweden one summer to volunteer at a bird observatory. Her time in the mists and mountains of Sweden led her to write a collection of contemplative essays that are collected here.
What beautiful language! I was in deep like from the beginning and in love by the closing sentences of the first chapter.
"We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls. What you are reading was supposed to be a book about birds but it is about this, too."
Aren't you just ready to sink into Sethi's writing and follow wherever she leads?
This slim book is imbued with layers of meaning. There are the surface stories about the birds and the landscape of Sweden and then there are the ways in which Sethi ties those things back into human experience. In the first chapter the migratory cuckoo becomes a metaphor for the wanderlust and yearning for other lives we all feel sometimes. In another the isolation we each occasionally feel is linked to the poor "vagrant" birds who get blown so far away from their native lands that they will never make it back. And so it goes throughout the whole book.
The fjälls of Sweden are so beautifully described that I'm ready to catch a plane and visit. Not being a fan of cold weather, Sweden isn't high on my list of places to visit, so this is really saying something.
I loved that there is an index at the back listing some of the birds that Sethi mentions in the book. When I'm reading I really don't stop to look up things I want to know. I always think I'll do it later but, of course, when later comes I've forgotten the names of what I want to research. I'll be hitting Google in a few minutes to look at these birds for myself.
And that brings me to the one thing that could really make this book better. I think it is just begging to be illustrated with watercolors or charcoal sketches that match the author's evocative yet spare style. I would buy that edition in a heartbeat. There's nothing wrong with it as is but I want the deluxe illustrated edition.
Bird-watchers should enjoy this but those with a scientific leaning or even a tendency toward the philosophical will enjoy it as well.
Thanks to the author for sending me a copy for review.(less)
Mitch Moxley hits a personal low in his mid-twenties. His career is pretty much nonexistent and he's tired of the cold, gray Toronto winters. He start...moreMitch Moxley hits a personal low in his mid-twenties. His career is pretty much nonexistent and he's tired of the cold, gray Toronto winters. He starts looking for jobs overseas and stumbles on a job working for a state newspaper in China, the China Daily. He applies and lands himself a one year contract.
He heads on over, knowing that he isn't really prepared for life in Communist China but not really understanding what that means. He has issues with censorship at the paper almost from the beginning and quickly gives up trying to change anything or doing any actual reporting. He makes some friends, offends some people, drinks a lot, and starts heading down that tired old expat path.
Luckily, he does change directions. He finally goes into life in China with a bit of a Yes Man attitude and finds himself in some unbelievable situations. He watches all the buildup for the Olympics. He starts doing some serious reporting. Through it all, he slowly slides closer to the Chinese side on the Foreigner/Chinese scale.
I like reading books about people who are brave enough to pack up and move away from everything they know, not just to another city, but to a whole different country. I can't even begin to imagine the culture shock, especially going from Canada to China. I have been disappointed a couple of times in other books when the author chooses to write about his or her experiences partying and drinking. That is not even remotely what I'm looking for when I pick up this kind of memoir.
Mitch started down that path and I got worried but then he turned himself around and started writing about life in China, not life in bars. He started getting out and experiencing things that I can't even conceive of from my armchair in the States. "Rent a White Guy." Seriously? They do that? Human trafficking. Chinese dating shows. The Beijing Olympics. Chinese music videos. I found it all fascinating, occasionally scary, and sometimes hilarious. I learned a lot about a country that is very much a big unknown to me. This was what I was hoping to find when I requested a copy of the book for review.
If, like me, you love to experience other cultures from the safety of your home, go ahead and give this a try. (less)
I'm not an NPR listener but something about this title caught my eye. I downloaded it at the end of the year when I was trying to squeeze in one last...moreI'm not an NPR listener but something about this title caught my eye. I downloaded it at the end of the year when I was trying to squeeze in one last nonfiction book to complete a reading challenge. Only about two hours long, I knew I could listen to it in just a couple of days on my commute.
The first part was unimpressive. At this point I've forgotten what most of those stories were. I do remember one about a young lady aging out of foster care that made me feel sad for her and others like her. Otherwise, its a pretty big blank.
And then I got to the second part. Here were the stories that wouldn't let me go.
A young man getting off the farm and into college with not much more than his determination and "Ten dollars and a dream."
A small town basketball team making it to the state playoffs, taking the hometown pride with them.
An elderly woman telling a story about her misfortune with a...unique... bra when she was younger had me laughing out loud!
Following a couple after that big earthquake in China flattened their apartment building with their young son and a set of their parents inside.
My favorite was probably the one about the US Marshals who kept their charges safe during school integrations in the Civil Rights era.
Most of these had me near tears for different reasons. And I'm seriously not a crier.
I don't know if the stories really were that uneven or if it just took me half the book to settle into what NPR is about. But once I got into it, I loved it. I felt like I experienced a huge range of human emotion in a short time span. I was saddened, I was angry, I was proud, you name it, I probably felt it.
I do highly recommend this. It would be a good read on a day when you're just feeling down and ready to give up on humanity. This is more what we're about than anything you'll see on the news.(less)
Professor Gary Fuller sets out to fill in the gaps in your geography knowledge.
I would guess that I know a little more geography than the average Amer...moreProfessor Gary Fuller sets out to fill in the gaps in your geography knowledge.
I would guess that I know a little more geography than the average American but I'll be the first to admit that I'm still woefully lacking. I downloaded this book on a nook Free Friday (I believe), thinking that I might learn a thing or two.
I sure did! I wish more of it had stuck with me, but I now know that camels originated in North America, the first country you come to if you go directly south of Detroit is Canada (I'm ashamed that I didn't know that one) and if you go directly south of Chicago, you'll run into the Pacific ocean, not South America (again, I'm ashamed that I didn't know that). There were lots more facts packed into this little book, all presented in a fun, entertaining way. I actually had a hard time putting the book down!
The format of the book worked really well for me. The chapters were short and began with a series of questions. That's the one thing I didn't like. By the time I got to the answer, I'd forgotten what the question was and there often wasn't much of a contextual clue. I would have had an easier time with a physical copy, just marking the question page, but I wasn't willing to go clicking back through the pages on my nook.
Trivia lovers should really enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it!(less)
In this true story, Roy and Silo are two male chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo who don't quite fit in. They don't take any notice of the fem...moreIn this true story, Roy and Silo are two male chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo who don't quite fit in. They don't take any notice of the female penguins and instead form their own little family.
What an adorable little book! The illustrations by Henry Cole are charming. The story of Roy and Silo is sensitively written for the young ones. I was sad as they tried to nest and then uplifted when little Tango came along. All in the space of 30 or so pages. And I just love that the story is completely true.
Much as I wish this world were more accepting, this book is not going to be for all families. If your family can handle it, I do recommend the book. It's a good introduction for children to the concept of families that are a little different but that are still built on love.(less)
Editor Leah Wilson has collected a series of thirteen essays from various young adult authors, each addressing a different aspect of The Hunger Games...moreEditor Leah Wilson has collected a series of thirteen essays from various young adult authors, each addressing a different aspect of The Hunger Games trilogy.
How do I put this? I'm not really a huge analyzer of books. Sure, I write plenty of reviews, but in those I just write what I liked (or not) and why. That's really about as far as I go. Back in my English class days, I could produce solid essays but since graduating, I've gotten to be a lazy reader. I'll occasionally think about the more obvious themes in a book, but then I pick up the next one and move on. This collection impressed me because of the amount of thought that went into each and every essay. I had mused briefly about some of the topics, I think my sister and I even discussed a few of them, but these authors all went above and beyond in their analyses.
My favorite was "Team Katniss" by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. This was one essay that overlapped with a conversation my sister and I had. Why "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale"? Why not "Team Katniss"? Katniss is pretty freaking awesome on her own. Barnes presents her argument better than Rachel or I ever did. I just loved it.
I also really enjoyed "Community in the Face of Tyranny" by Bree Despain. I don't recall thinking much about the (lack of) community in the world of Panem. Despain argues that part of Katniss's magic comes from her ability to foster a sense of community wherever she goes. It's true, and I liked it.
At first, I thought entries by Cara Lockwood and Terri Clark were a little more light-hearted but even these surprised me with their depth. Lockwood writes about the "Not So Weird Science" of Panem and how these far-fetched "muttations" could become realities sooner than we think. She also addressed the need for science to look at the consequences of genetic engineering and not just "Can we do it?" Clark writes about a "Crime of Fashion" and the role that Katniss's looks, and Cinna's hand in them, played in the series. How far would Katniss have gotten without Cinna? Sure, we the readers love her, but she would probably have been largely overlooked if she'd first appeared in a humdrum coal mining outfit.
I feel the need to mention "The Politics of Mockingjay" by Sarah Darer Littman. It draws blatant parallels between the politics of the War on Terror and the politics of Panem. I enjoyed reading it, but I know it will completely turn off some readers with different political beliefs. I was surprised to read this in a book aimed at young adults, but we all need to be aware of what's going on in the world around us.
There's a sequence of essays that leads from reality vs unreality to reality tv to the power of the media and those all kind of blended together for me. I can't say that any were badly written, but I had, surprisingly enough, considered most of this while I was reading the trilogy. They started to overlap and get repetitive.
Fans who just can't get enough of The Hunger Games trilogy should enjoy reading this. It's thought-provoking and informative, and will probably leave you ready to re-read the books. (less)
In this memoir, Lithgow writes of how his early years shaped him as an actor, from his childhood, to his time at Harvard, to his studies in the UK as...moreIn this memoir, Lithgow writes of how his early years shaped him as an actor, from his childhood, to his time at Harvard, to his studies in the UK as a Fulbright scholar, and on to his breakthrough on Broadway and film.
I truly enjoyed listening to Lithgow narrate his own personal history. I don't know how much of his work I've actually seen, but I do like his voice. He took my thoughts and feelings exactly where he wanted them to go. I was quiet and pensive as he spoke about the power of story in his father's last days, I was howling with laughter alone in my car as he wrote about his father telling off a decidedly unpassionate Romeo, and I was interested enough not to notice as I listened and worked my way through yet another week of the Couch to 5K training program.
You could probably accuse Lithgow of name-dropping, but when he's speaking of his work, it's impossible not to name-drop. I was very interested to learn that he was at Harvard with Tommy Lee Jones and that he saw some of Meryl Streep's earliest Broadway auditions.
He doesn't hold much, if anything, back. His first marriage was rocky and he acknowledges his role in that. He writes honestly about his great love and respect for his father, how confused he felt to sort of surpass his work, and how determined he became to disassociate himself from his father's influence.
If you like memoirs at all, I do recommend this as audio. It's wonderfully narrated by a fascinating man.
In The Prince of Frogtown, Rick Bragg sets out to discover the father that he never really knew. I have read these books all out of order, but apparen...moreIn The Prince of Frogtown, Rick Bragg sets out to discover the father that he never really knew. I have read these books all out of order, but apparently in All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg painted his father, Charlie, as a no-account mean drunk. After its publication, people who knew his father came to him and said, "I wish you'd talked to me before you wrote all that." So he talked to them and this is the result. His father is still a no-account mean drunk, but Rick and the reader come away with a better understanding of the man.
Having now read one of Bragg's books and listened to another, I am torn about the best medium. I'm left thinking that the best thing for everyone would be if his publishers just gave us one of those readalong books I remember from when I was little. "You'll know it's time to turn the page when you hear the chime ring like this: Dlililing!" Man, I loved those things. I could listen to Rick Bragg all day. His slow speech, his accent, his word choice--it's all the language of my family and the stories we tell. We might not be up on a stage telling stories, but we sure can take the smallest event from our days and spin it out into a good long tale. But as I was listening, I found myself just absolutely dying to mark quotes in a physical copy. Whether Bragg was cracking a joke about understanding a woman's thinking (A passage that included mapping the stars on a bubble gum wrapper with chalk and only got better from there), telling a hilarious story about his father scaring his grandmother half to death when he was little, or making a keen observation about fathers and sons or even mothers and sons, there were real jewels in here. And I couldn't mark them or flag them. Readalong books. Are you paying attention, publishers? That's the way to go.
Anyway, I loved this just as much as I loved Ava's Man. It's a darker book because his father had a lot of darkness inside him. But I enjoyed the stories of Charlie as a child and teenager, before he went to war and came back haunted. His life even then was not an easy one and I think we all are left wondering whether he would have turned out pretty much the same way even if he hadn't ever gone to Korea. He had good moments sometimes too, and even though I knew how things had to turn out, I was left hoping that this time he would change his life. He never did and I was left thankful for my own steadfast father.
The book goes back and forth between stories of Charlie and stories about Rick and his stepson. I really liked that setup. It felt like Rick gained a better understanding of his father as he realized how hard fatherhood is if you're trying to do it right. His long-suffering wife deserves an award, I swear. He makes mistakes along the way, but it sounds like he gets it right in the end. The love he feels for his stepson just comes through so clearly as he reads about him, even when he's talking about what a mama's boy the kid is.
I have discovered that I love Rick Bragg's writing, so I'll be searching out all his books. I highly recommend him.(less)
Rick Bragg never knew his maternal grandfather, Charlie, but the man is a legend among the family and friends he left behind. A good provider, a lovin...moreRick Bragg never knew his maternal grandfather, Charlie, but the man is a legend among the family and friends he left behind. A good provider, a loving father, a teasing husband, a loyal friend, he was also a bootlegger who loved his own product and had a temper. He never turned it on anyone who didn't deserve it, and apparently some of the best stories about him took place when he'd been drinking.
My uncle has been telling me for--oh, years now, that I just have to read Rick Bragg. I do take his recommendations seriously, but my to-read list is out of control and I'm just now getting to him. How I wish I had listened to my uncle earlier. I will not be waiting years to read more of Bragg's work, that is for sure.
This book was great. It just felt like home, and can there be any higher praise for a book? Granted, my daddy doesn't drink alcohol and my parents still live in the same house we grew up in, but Bragg's language and stories felt right in a way that is hard to explain. They settled on me like well-worn clothes or shoes, for all that I've never read his work before. Read this: "He spoke in the language--the very specific language--of the Appalachian foothills. It was an unusual mix of formal English and mountain dialect. The simple word 'him' was two distinct sounds--'he-yum.' And a phrase like "Well, I better go," was, in the language of our people, more likely to sound like 'Weeeelllll, Ah bet' go.' Some words are chopped off and some are stretched out till they moan, creating a language like the terrain itself. Think of that language as a series of mountains, cliffs, valleys, and sinkholes, where only these people, born and raised here, know the trails." Yes. That. I have never and don't think I will ever read a better description of our dialect. That is it, right there. Don't judge it; listen to it and relax into it, give us time to get to our point, and enjoy the ride.
It's easy to see why Charlie's family still mourns him. His breed is becoming more and more scarce in the "New South." Bragg writes about this in his epilogue. "The realities of this new, true South are not as romantic as in Charlie's time, as bleak and painful as that time was for people of his class. The new, true South is, for people like him, a South of mills that will never reopen, of fields that will never be planted again, of train tracks that are being turned into bicycle trails. In the new, true South, it is harder to be poor and proud, harder to work your way into an unapologetic, hard-eyed independence." It's true. But we still see remnants and throwbacks from that time, and we honor them. Men like Charlie might not have had much education, but they did what they had to do to feed their families and they never backed down. They wrung every bit of life that they could out of their allotted time.
All that sounds all serious, but my favorite parts were the funny stories, and there were plenty of those. I kept reading bits aloud to my husband, and even he (not a Southerner or a reader) would bust out laughing. He'll still say, "But God ain't that gravy good," and crack himself up. That was a great story. I think I read that one to anyone who would listen for a few days, and they all laughed out loud as well. There are a few run-ins with the law, some run-ins with honest-to-goodness criminals, tales of fishing on the river, friends and strays picked up and cared for along the way, children and grandchildren loved beyond all reason, and Charlie's own hilarious quirks and screw-ups.
There's no big theme or lesson or plot here, just stories about a good man doing his best in a changing world. Except that is a lesson in itself, isn't it? Bragg obviously misses the grandfather he never met, and he writes so beautifully about Charlie that I miss him as well. Pick this one up, laugh and cry by turns, and be thankful that you got to know him too. (less)
Stephen King sits down to share his thoughts on the writing process. No matter what you think of his books personally, you have to admit that he's a m...moreStephen King sits down to share his thoughts on the writing process. No matter what you think of his books personally, you have to admit that he's a master at drawing in legions of fans. He prefaces his work with an explanation of what prompted him to write it. He was talking with author Amy Tan when he asked her what one question she wishes somebody actually would ask her at an author Q-and-A. "Amy paused, thinking it over very carefully, and then said: 'No one ever asks about the language.'....But Amy was right: nobody ever asks about the language. They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don't ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper. What follows is an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it's done. It's about the day job; it's about the language."
Divided into three main sections, King actually covers a lot of ground in this short book. The first section is a mini-memoir of his life and the events that influenced his writing. The second part is the mechanics, and the third is about his life-changing accident (which happened in the middle of writing this book).
I enjoyed the section about his life. I would never claim to be King's "Number One Fan," but I do enjoy reading his work. I can't say that I know anything about his life. He was run over about 10 years ago, Joe Hill is his son, and Tabitha King is his wife. That's about it. Oh, and that he was pretty strung out on drugs when he wrote some of his earlier works. That really has to be it. I liked seeing how King was formed as a writer. From his first attempts to emulate his favorite comics, to his mom telling him that he can do better, to the earliest stories he published, to the publication of Carrie, he covers a lot of ground in this section. My favorite bit might have been the story of getting the news of his son's impending birth while at a drive-in movie.
Then he moves on to the mechanics. His best bit of advice is one that's often quoted: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Being a reader, this is advice that I like! And then he moves on to basics like making the time to write, and how his process works. There's the shut-door period, where he's the only person who is reading his work, and then he opens the door to let his first readers have a crack at it. He writes about the tools of grammar, spelling, and avoiding adverbs at all costs (who knew that adverbs could be a pet peeve?). He writes about how to get yourself published and gives examples of a process that should work pretty well for most writers. I found his advice to be full of common sense, pretty encouraging, and easy to understand and follow through on.
At the end, he writes about his accident. When I first started this section, I admit to a bit of an eye-roll and a "here we go again" feeling. I'm one of those crappy people who got tired of all the stories he wrote after his accident about men who've had debilitating accidents. I know it's heartless on my part, I know it's cathartic for him, but there you go. Still, there was a point to including it here. It was very natural to include it as another memoir-like bit since it happened during the writing of this book, but there's more to it than that. He seems to be saying that, yeah, he went through a horrendous experience that most of us can't even wrap our minds around, but he kept writing. And if he can continue writing, we can continue to write or get started. It was healing for him and returned a sense of "normalcy" to his life.
Scattered throughout the book were references to his other books and different anecdotes about them. He writes that he's a writer who just lets the story take him where it will rather than outlining everything in advance, so he's often surprised by twists himself. I especially liked reading about how he originally thought Misery's plot would turn out. He writes a lot about Carrie as well and what influences came to bear on that story. I just really enjoyed sort of "seeing behind the scenes" of some of the books that I've read.
I recommend this, obviously for King's fans, but also for those in search of (I think) sound writing advice. There's no mumbo-jumbo, mystical, channeling stuff. There's nothing that sounds out of the realm of possibility. It's basically about just sitting down and getting started. Maybe it will give you the push you need to do just that.(less)
Author Kenneth C. Davis sets out to fill in the gaps of the average reader's knowledge of mythology. Don't expect a book of stories about Zeus and Her...moreAuthor Kenneth C. Davis sets out to fill in the gaps of the average reader's knowledge of mythology. Don't expect a book of stories about Zeus and Hera; they're here but so are gods from Egypt, Celtic lands, Africa, the Americas, Asia, India, and just about every culture you can think of.
This was not what I expected. I thought I was getting something along the lines of Edith Hamilton's Mythology--the actual myths in one big collection. I should have paid more attention to the subtitle, "Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned" (emphasis mine). Davis definitely took a historical approach to all these legends and myths. It was interesting and I learned a lot, but it wasn't necessarily what I was looking for.
Each part began with a timeline of important events for a specific culture or country and then there were a series of questions about the mythology. Most of the answers were framed in history. It makes sense, but it didn't make for very riveting reading for me. There were also little sections called "Mythic Voices" that did excerpt as directly as possible from the original sources. A list of the important gods/spirits/tricksters/etc. and a brief synopsis of each god's most significant stories was at the end of each part. These were my favorite bits but they felt like afterthoughts.
I was pleased when I realized that lesser-known cultures were included, but they were necessarily vague. I'm specifically thinking about the sections on Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. There are a lot of different peoples living across a big area and they didn't necessarily have the same beliefs. Davis did what he could to draw out their commonalities and focus on those. He was hampered by the fact that these groups have more of an oral tradition and not a lot is known about them. I applaud the effort at inclusion and truly enjoyed reading these parts.
I knew if I ever put this book aside, I would never get back to it and I didn't want that to happen. So at a rate of a couple of pages a night, if that, it took me four months to read this. That's right. Four months to read just over 400 pages. I'm so ashamed. I wouldn't recommend reading it straight through but rather a piece at a time as the mood strikes.
History buffs looking for a more cultural take on things should enjoy this.(less)
HeLa cells (named after the woman they came from, Henrietta Lacks) have been used for about 60 years by scientists all over the world for all kinds of...moreHeLa cells (named after the woman they came from, Henrietta Lacks) have been used for about 60 years by scientists all over the world for all kinds of cellular research. Yet very few scientists could tell you the real name of the woman the cells came from, much less anything about her. Yet somehow, Rebecca Skloot stumbled onto the cells in a high school biology class. The teacher even got Henrietta's name right. The lesson spawned a years-long fascination with HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks herself, her family, and the ethical questions that arise from the story. This book is the product of that research.
I would honestly never have picked this book up on my own, but I've heard so many good things about the audio version that I decided to give it a try. One can't listen to fluff alone! All the praise is well-deserved.
There is so much to chew over here. Parts were pretty upsetting, for a lot of different reasons. Henrietta's children had a very hard life after she passed away, and as I told my husband just a bit about it, he cut me off and said, "Why do you always read books like that? Doesn't it depress you?" Yes, it does, but it also reminds me how good I have it in comparison. We all need a little attitude adjustment occasionally, and difficult books like this serve that purpose for me. But aside from the family's personal hardships, it was hard to hear about Henrietta's death. It was not by any means an easy one. And then, less personal but more relevant to most of us, there were the ethical questions raised by Henrietta's story. I know times have changed, but I was appalled by the complete disregard for the family. Privacy was barely a concern for anyone, much less informed consent. The family didn't know anything about Henrietta's cells in research until decades after her death. Decades. Fifty years later, no one had ever taken the time to explain what was going on with the cells and the family couldn't tell fact from fiction. A collection of all Henrietta's cells at that time would weigh tons? There are a lot of clones of Henrietta walking around in London? It all sounded equally crazy and therefore equally plausible.
This is only a side note to the story, but it rang so true with me that I have to mention it. A woman who was present at Henrietta's partial autopsy mentioned how much Henrietta's toenail polish bothered her. The woman had kept a clinical distance until then, but those toes made her realize that the body on the table had been a living, breathing person shortly before. I have mentioned in my review of Second Hand Heart that I used to very occasionally be the tiniest of tiny cogs in the organ donation process, doing electrocardiograms on organ donors before any harvesting began. I clearly remember a beautiful fifty-ish female organ donor and how much her perfect manicure bothered me. I never had full detachment when I had to fill that role, but she bothered me a lot. She had no idea what was in store for her when she got that manicure. So I know exactly where the observer was coming from.
The book focused a little more on the family than I expected. My heart broke for them. They seem to have had such hard lives. And the research done on their mother's cells has done so much good for so many people, but they themselves don't even have the health insurance to be able to afford any of the medications or other advances that she helped bring about. There's something just not right there.
The very last section was all about the ethics of cell research and where we stand today. I for one was surprised. I may not have the details exactly right, so don't hold me to any of this, but really, we don't have any rights to our own tissue. We mostly assume that if, say, our spleen is removed, it's going to be incinerated, right? There are no guarantees that's what's going to happen. There is apparently usually some small print buried in the consent form that lets the hospital or doctor or someone use it however they see fit. There are arguments that if we as individuals retain any rights to our tissue, we can throw up roadblocks to research. But what does happen? A company gets a patent on a gene (like a breast cancer gene) and charges ridiculous amounts of money for other researchers to use it. So much for cooperation for the common good, right? This really happened.
Maybe I was tuned out (I'm not a perfect audio book listener), but I wish there had been a bigger section about all the things HeLa cells have been used for. They're so common, it's probably hard to narrow down the list and then write meaningfully about it. Let's face it, something like "HeLa has been used to manufacture the polio vaccine, develop the atomic bomb, and has been sent into space" would get a little boring. But I wish I had a bigger idea about the research. Like I said, it might have been in there and I was too busy yelling at the drivers around me to notice.
I really liked Cassandra Campbell's narration. She was very clear and easy to listen to. Maybe I was projecting, but I thought she sounded a little upset when she was reading the worst parts about the abuse Henrietta's children endured. It made her seem more human instead of just an emotionless voice reading me this book.
You don't have to be a scientist to understand this book by any means. If you're interested in any of the topics--the research, the ethics, or the personal story--grab this one. I recommend the audio, but I'm sure this is a fascinating book in any format.(less)