#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
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I did not know beforehand what this book would be about so when I started reading about cells and tissue matter and cancer I thought to myself. O no, This is not a book for me! The next morning I woke up and felt a pain and immediately thought "do I have cancer?" Yes I am a bit of a hypochondriac, I admit it. lol.
Anyways, I did find it very interesting cause I had the worst biology teacher ever (or maybe it was me come to think of it, worst pupil?) and do not know much about that subject.
After reading half I did have a bit of a How shall I call it, not really wanting to read more cause I did not really like the way the family of Henriette acted in the book but I am glad I read on. I've learned a lot and even though it appears these people seemingly always shout, I see the good in them and understand now better how hard it was for them to find out.
The questions at the end of the book are intriguing and I am planning to google more about tissue donation, the law about that , Hela cells and the likes. So after all I am not regretting having bought this book.more
When this type of narrative non-fiction is done well it's something to celebrate and this book is done REALLY well. Every time I thought it couldn't get more interesting I would turn the page and be flabbergasted anew.
A quick bit of background: Every medical research lab in the country has a culture of what are known as the HeLa cells... They were the first and best cells to be reproduced in a laboratory setting and have been a part of almost every important medical discovery since the late 1950s.
Rebecca Skloot gives us not only a fascinating history of these cells and the good they've done, but -more importantly- introduces us to the family of the woman who they originally came from: HEnrietta LAcks, an impoverished African American woman from Maryland who was treated at John Hopkins for advanced cervical cancer.
This book does everything right. Whether it's clear and lucid science writing, nuanced and empathetic biographical portraiture, dogged journalism, or on-the-road memoir the reader is consistently rewarded with knowledge, entertainment, suspense, and emotion (I nearly cried when two of Henrietta's grown children get to see their mother's cells through a microscope for the first time).
It brilliantly handles tricky issues like medical ethics, race, class, and privacy with an impressive respect for her subjects.
This is the real deal.
The story of Lacks is a sad one, and the story of the HeLa cells is fascinating. The intersection of those stories is very odd. The book is very involving and frankly a little draining to read. I felt sorry for the family for all sorts of different reasons, not the least of which was their portrayal in this book. The reportage on the Lacks family members was a little disconcerting although I believe Skloot was being very accurate in her descriptions.
Well worth reading, but overwhelming and strange.more
I hate that Henrietta and and her family suffered so much because of how her cells were used. And Skloot emphasizes the irony that while Henrietta's cells made so much medical progress possible, her children and grandchildren can't even keep health insurance.
This book was also significant because it's the 1st book I've read on an e-reader. Although I think I will enjoy having my Nook when I travel, I prefer paper books -- especially when you want to be able to flip back and forth among pages or take notes.more
My only complaint about the book (which I read on my Kindle): I wish I had known from the start that there were notes at the end, and that the notes were broken down by chapter. Had I known that from the start, I certainly would have referred to the notes as I read each chapter. As it was, I got to the end and, frankly, didn't read them. A link to the notes at the end of each chapter would have been a nice addition.more
Its actually two stories, the story of the HeLa cells and the story of the Lacks family told by a journalist who writes the first story objectively and the second, in which she is involved, subjectively. The contrast between the poor Lacks family who cannot afford their medical bills and the research establishment who have made millions, maybe billions from these cells is ironic and tragic. It has been established by other law cases that if the family had gone for restitution they would not have got it, but that's a moot point as they couldn't afford a lawyer in any case.
I have seen some bad reviews about this book. People who think that the story of the Lacks - poor rural African-Americans who never made it 'up' from slavery and whose lifestyle of decent working class folk that also involves incest, adultery, disease and crime, they just dismiss with 'heard it all before' and 'my family despite all obstacles succeeded so what is wrong with the Lacks?' I wonder if these people who not only totally can't see the wonderful writing that brings these people to life and who so lack in compassion themselves are the sort of people who oppose health care for the masses? As an extremely wealthy American tourist once put it to me, he had earned good health care by his hard work and success in life, it was one of the perks, why waste good money on, say, a a triple-bypass on someone who hasn't even succeeded enough to afford health insurance? That they were a drain on society, non-contributors and not the way America needed to go to move forward.
I don't think you can rate people by what they have achieved materially. Success depends a great deal on opportunity and many don't have that. Henrietta Lacks didn't have it and her children didn't have it, not even her grandchildren made much of a way for themselves, but the next generation, the great grandchildren - ah now they are going in for Masters degrees and maybe their children will be major contributors. The author intends to recompense the family by setting up a scholarship for at least one of them. All of us came originally from poverty and to put down those that are still mired in the quicksand of never having enough spare cash to finance an education is cruel, uncompassionate and hardly looking to the future.
HeLa cells have given us our future. They are the most researched and tested human cells in existence. All of us have benefited from the medical advances made using them and the book is recognition of what a great contribution Henrietta Lacks and her family with all their donations of tissue and blood, mostly stolen from them under false pretences, have made. Indeed one of the researchers who looks like having told a lot of lies (and then lied about that) in order to get the family to donate blood to further her research is still trying to get them to donate more. She's a hard-nosed scientist, with an excellent job and income and to her the Lacks are no more than providers of raw material.
Sometimes you can't make hard and fast rulings. No I don't think we should have to give informed consent for experiments to be done on tissue or blood donated during a procedure or childbirth - that would slow medical research unbearably. I don't think cells should be identifiable with the donor either, it should be quite anonymous (as it now is). However, there is only ever one 'first' in any sphere and that one does deserve recognition and now with the book, some 50 years after her life ended, Henrietta Lacks has it. Good on yer, Rebecca Skloot, you've done a good thing here.more
Train Wreck! I expected to read about Henrietta Lacks and how she was exploited by the medical industry. Instead the book was mostly about Henrietta’s children and their beliefs of what happened to their mother. I assumed this would lead to a serious discussion on bioethics. The closest the author comes is the afterword. It appears sensationalism and melodrama was preferred over boring - important - details.
The chronology of the book is a mess. The book jumps around and the reader has to piece together ideas throughout the book. When the information is pieced together, one can see the flaws and contradictions. There is this tendency of inserting information but never explaining it. For example consent is a big theme in this book, but we are told (chapter thirty-four) that Henrietta did sign a consent form when the sample was taken. The author doesn't dwell on this one sentence and moves on. Why?
Another big topic in the book is racism which appears very early in the book. The author recalls several studies, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. She shows how these experiments targeted blacks, which is true, but the author tries to imply racism played a part in Henrietta's case. But the book claimed earlier "there's no way of knowing whether or how Henrietta’s treatment would have differed if she'd been white."
The author tries the racism card again, and states "several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients." Keep in mind, the book stated earlier in chapter five that Henrietta health started to deteriorate when she caught gonorrhea. Henrietta had gonorrhea and syphilis, superimposed on radiation treatments. In the end the author does not prove racism and disproves her own point. This headspining logic continued throughout the book.
It appeared to me the author was trying to gain sympathy for this family, but in my eyes, she did more damage than good. I have no sympathy for anyone who murders someone in cold blood, and the other two brothers seemed more interested in monetary gains. So the only family member I felt sympathy for was Deborah. She seemed like the only family member that cared about her mother’s legacy. The author should have focused on Deborah and summarized the rest of the family. Then there is the issue with the author making herself a character in the book. To me, this was in poor taste and somewhat indulgent.
Not Recommended - Lost Opportunity.
[NOTE: I don't play little games with people (especially sock puppet accounts) who get in a tissy fit because of a negative review. Your comments will be flagged and deleted, regardless how many times you post the same comment.]more
I didn't mind the author's insertion of herself into the story; the mistreatment of the family over the years has been so extensive that the only way to tell the story fairly was to gain their trust, and how Skloot went about this ends up being a key part of the narrative.more
Most of all I felt the heavy weight of Skloot's identity as a privileged and educated white person, trying to write a story that is not her story. Skloot has done such an admirable job of being fair, of reporting what she was able to verify, and of writing about people of all educations and ways of speaking without the smallest hint of condescension. In the end, though, this admirable quest for fairness becomes a straitjacket. No one is judged. So Henrietta's husband who gave his wife syphilis and abandoned his oldest daughter to the most horrifying institutional life imaginable comes across as a really nice old guy. The research scientists who drew the surviving Lacks's blood under what were clearly false pretenses come across as bumbling innocents. Henrietta's surviving daughter is led by Skloot on a quest that very literally becomes the death of her, and this, too, is reported with a curious flatness. The reportage is carefully constructed to feel factual, but in every instance Skloot's presence in the story limits in a very literal way the story she is able to tell. In many disciplines, from physics to anthropology, there is a great deal of weight given to the observer effect--how the observer changes the observed, merely by being present as an observer. I wish Skloot had written and reported with more awareness of how much she herself was changing the story, by making herself a participant in it. Quite frequently I felt that the Lacks family was not so much being themselves in the vignettes in which they appear, so much as they were being self-referential characters in their own reality show, very much aware of their audience of Rebecca Skloot.
A number of reviewers have mentioned, or at times complained, that Skloot is so -much- present in this book. That's true--we get her in many first-person narrated scenes. But she feels completely muted, a blank many times, refusing to past judgment or even to acknowledge having judgments of those she interviews. It becomes a book of many half-told stories.
So while I admired and enjoyed this book, I was also dissatisfied.more