Friday, February 24, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This month's selection for Between The Lines book group was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  This is a author and science writer Rebecca Skloot's debut book and took more than 10 years to research and write.  It has been named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010.  "...a triumph of science of the best nonfiction books I have ever read" says WIRED.COM. The book is being made into an HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

According to her website, Rebecca Skloot is an award winning science writer specializing in narrative science writing.  She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She financed her degrees by working in emergency rooms, neurology labs, veterinary morgues and martini bars. She has taught creative writing and science journalism and currently gives talks on subjects ranging from bioethics to book proposals at conferences and universities nationwide.

 The author's web site describes the book as follows:  Henrietta Lacks 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, in vitro fertilization, 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.

Several members did not read the book as it seemed a little formidable. Also, the premise that Henrietta's cells were used without her consent didn't seem compelling to some.  That was unfortunate because the discussion was livelier than most.  Even the non-readers participated. 

This is a great book for discussion as it brings up several issues especially medical ethics and the racial politics of medicine. One reader questioned whether the author was using the family for her own benefit as the scientists had used Henrietta.  Another responded that Skloot has donated to a foundation established for Henrietta's children and that this was a story that needed to be told.  A few of our members are retired nurses and they in particular offered insight into the evening's issues.

I hate to admit that I was one of the members who did not read this book.  I have since recommended it to my other book club and we have put it on this year's list.  This is a "multilayered story about faith, science, journalism, and grace . . . Skloot tells a rich, resonant tale of modern science, the wonders it can perform and how easily it can exploit society's most vulnerable people"Publishers Weekly, Starred Review.

Between The Lines book group highly recommends this book - check it out!

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