Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (audio)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
author: Rebecca Skloot
read by: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
genre: nonfiction audiobook
publisher: Random House Audio, 2010
length: 12 hours 30 minutes
source: purchased from

In a nutshell:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating history of cell culture, the real woman behind HeLa cells, and the impact of HeLa research and development on her family.

My thoughts:
When I graduated from college in the 1980's and began a career in clinical pharmacy at a teaching hospital involved with investigational drug trials, I became aware of HeLa cells and their importance in medical research. Now, nearly 30 years later, I have come to realize that HeLa was, in fact, a living human being. Her name was Henrietta Lacks.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a young black woman who died from a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumor lead to an exciting scientific breakthrough when they were cultured and grown in a laboratory. Eventually, these cells were commercially mass-produced and marketed throughout the world, and a new era in medical research began. The cell line, still used today, played a critical role in many medical advances. However, Henrietta's husband and children knew nothing about it.

Rebecca Skloot was in close contact with Henrietta's family, especially her daughter Deborah, during the years of research preceding publication. This book is as much their story as Henrietta's or Rebecca's. Skloot was present to assist and chronicle their experience as an understanding of Henrietta's cells, their scientific impact, and long-hidden family history was gained.

Skloot's research and the Lacks' remarkable journey raise many questions of medical ethics, and put into perspective just how recently current standards of informed consent, privacy, etc. have come into practice. Healthcare inequities are also brought to the forefront. While large sums of money were being made on the HeLa cell line, Henrietta's descendants struggled to afford basic health insurance. Book clubs are sure to find a variety of topics for discussion here ranging from medical ethics, faith, and science, to class, racism, and journalism.

Cassandra Campbell has long been one of my favorite readers. Her voice in this production imparts an even more pronounced 'human quality' to the narrative. This is by no means a dry, scientific text.

Bottom line:
Even if you have little interest in cell culture, medical research, or ethics, there is still enough human drama to keep nearly anyone enthralled.
Very highly recommended.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

TSS: Reading at a Snail's Pace

Here we are again. Another Sunday, another week without finishing a book. Yes, life is getting the best of me this month but, to be fair, I'm reading some very long books.

First is a read-along of Bleak House by Charles Dickens hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf. This is a great book, but my Penguin Classics edition has 989 pages! Around page 400, I'm enjoying Dickens characters immensely and am eagerly waiting for their stories to be woven together. I'm tackling Bleak House as a combination read/listen and that's working well for me. The read-along officially wraps up at the end of October. My wrap-up will likely coincide with the end of the year.

Second is my book club selection - Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. The meeting was Friday but, since I still have 150 pages left, I decided not to attend. This could very well end up on my list of favorites for the year!

On the horizon:

Our new book club selection is The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. I don't know much about this one. Have any of you read it? My hold has been placed and, hopefully, it will arrive in plenty of time.

Frances is hosting a Madame Bovary read-along next month. A new translation by Lydia Davis was recently released and it's received some excellent reviews. I'm really looking forward to revisiting this classic. Will you be joining us? My copy arrived on Friday... one of the highlights of a very trying week. Thanks so much, Frances!

Now it's off to the couch with Cutting for Stone in my lap and football on TV in the background. Hope you're having a wonderful Sunday!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bleak House Readalong: Post 2

Our Bleak House Read-along, hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf, approaches the half-way mark this week, but I remain woefully behind. Even so, this is quite a story and I'm enjoying it immensely.

Last month, I mentioned that this was a combination read/listen. The CDs remain my constant companions in the car, but there has been very little reading at home. Bleak House has been mostly an audio experience this month. Robert Whitfield's narration is excellent, and I'm turning to my Penguin Classics edition primarily to look up quotes, reread passages, check footnotes, and look at the drawings. But things can, and often do, change... next month I may find myself reading again.

The characters, so far, have been a delight! Even the less likable can bring a smile to my face. I believe Dickens must have had fun with his characters. Take this description of Sir Leicester Dedlock, for example:
"Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage, and generally reviews his importance to society." (page 183)
And then there is this description of Lady Dedlock:
"Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine." (page 196)
The passage continues with a bit about Mr. Tulkinghorn, and a hint of suspense and intrigue to follow:
"Mr. Tulkinghorn is always the same speechless repository of noble confidences: so oddly out of place, and yet so perfectly at home. They [Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn] appear to take as little note of one another, as any two people enclosed within the same two walls, could. But, whether each evermore watches and suspects the other, evermore mistrustful of some great reservation; whether each is evermore prepared at all points for the other,and never to be taken unawares; what each would give to know how much the other knows - all this is hidden for the time, in their own hearts." (page 196)
I completely trust Dickens to weave the characters and their plot lines together... in his own time. For now, it's enough to meet them all, get to know the principles a bit better, and hear their stories. Esther and Mr. Jarndyce, her guardian, are my favorites at the moment. Stay tuned...

Click over to Amanda's latest update to see how other read-along participants are faring. She has included links to everyone's blog.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Quote of the Week: Cutting for Stone

"Dr. Stone. Your patient," she said to the man who everyone believed to be my father, putting in his hands not only the life of a woman he chose to love, but our two lives - mine and my brother's - which he chose to hate." (page 49)

The above quote is a great teaser, but the following passage provides a better indication of the writing quality.

"The sight of that plain, weathered face pressed against the glass, the wet cheeks, the interlocking fingers... it was for Harris more powerful than anything she said. Here was a woman who could give up the restrictions of her order when it stood in the way. From her lips had come the kind of fundamental truth which, because of its simplicity, was unspoken in a church like Harris's where internecine squabbling seemed to be the purpose for the committee's existence, as well as a manifestation of faith. It was a small blessing that an ocean separated the doers like Matron from their patrons, because if they rubbed shoulders they'd make each other very uncomfortable" (page 188)

by Abraham Verghese

My book club meeting is Friday and I'm reading as fast as I can. This is an excellent book!

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should be Reading.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Short Story Monday: "A City of Churches" by Donald Barthelme

Prester is one strange town. It is made up entirely of churches. Donald Barthelme's story "A City of Churches" appeared in The New Yorker in 1973, but I came across it in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.
The story opens:
"Yes," Mr. Phillips said, "ours is a city of churches all right."
Cecelia nodded, following his pointing hand. Both sides of the street were solidly lined with churches, standing shoulder to shoulder in a variety of architectural styles. ... "Everyone here takes a great interest in church matters," Mr. Phillips said.
Cecelia, who has come to town with plans of opening a car rental company, immediately wonders if she will fit in - especially since she is not very religious. Mr. Phillips replies that she may not be very religious yet,
"But we have many fine young people here. You'll get integrated into the community soon enough. The immediate problem is where are you to live? Most people," he said, "live in the church of their choice. All of our churches have many extra rooms. I have a few belfry apartments that I can show you."

He also questions the viability of her business proposal:
"Renting a car implies that you want to go somewhere. Most people are pretty content right here. We have a lot of activities. I don't think I'd pick the car-rental business if I was just starting out in Prester. But you'll do fine."
Although the town seems wholesome at first glance, the reader is left with a distinctly uneasy feeling that borders on creepy. I was reminded of The Stepford Wives. This was my first experience with Barthelme, and I plan to seek out more of his stories. Is there one you can recommend?

An abstract of this four page story can be found on The New Yorker website (subscribers have access to the entire text), but I also found it reprinted here.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Club Meeting: A Homemade Life

Our summer book club meetings typically consist of a light, fun read, a glass or two of wine, and a pot luck dinner. This year, I suggested a new twist on the long-standing tradition. Wouldn't it be fun if we all tried a recipe from the same book? Perhaps a cookbook, or maybe a foodie memoir? A little research lead us to the perfect choice - A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg (author of Orangette blog).

A Homemade Life is filled with stories from Molly's life, each revolving around a specific food and ending with the recipe. The three to six page anecdotes can be read it short bites over several weeks, or devoured in a sitting or two. I loved the book by the second page:
"When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be." (page 2)
It was a warm August evening when eight of us gathered on my patio. As it turned out, everyone loved the book as much as I did. We especially liked Molly's open, honest style. The discussion focused mainly on retellings of our own "food memories" and experiences with our selected recipes. One quirky observation - it seemed that several of the recipes required more baking time than suggested.

Our meal included:
  • sliced spring salad with feta and avocado
  • Burg's potato salad
  • Doron's meatballs with pine nuts, cilantro, and golden raisins
  • garden fresh green beans with Molly's vinaigrette dressing
  • roasted eggplant ratatouille
  • bouchons au thon
  • banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger
  • chocolate cupcakes with bittersweet glaze
The recipes were sometimes chosen based on a quote from the preceding vignette:
" can tell a lot about someone by their potato salad. I like to think of it as the Rorschach test of foods." (page 11)

"Those nightly glasses of milk didn't create much in the way of happy memories, but they did do one thing. They taught me that anything, anything, can be made better with chocolate. It's a lesson that has served me well." (page 42)
Doron's meatballs with pine nuts, cilantro, and golden raisins was my contribution. I was intrigued by the combination of ingredients, but thought the family might not appreciate it. My book club friends were the perfect guinea pigs, and the turkey meatballs were a huge success! We made them again and Margaret posted the recipe (and a photo) at Lakeside Kitchen.

A new book club tradition has been born! We're already considering next summer's foodie selection. Any suggestions?

Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone with a food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button, head over to Beth Fish Reads, and link up anytime over the weekend.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


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