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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: Download Cover

Imagine you feel really, really sick, as if something is growing inside you but you don’t know what it is. Now imagine that there’s only one hospital in your city that will see you as a patient: it’s 1951 and you’re an African American woman with very little money. So you go to the clinic and the doctors tell you that the “hard spot” in your “lady parts” is, in fact, cervical cancer.  As a treatment for your cancer the doctors sew radium-filled tubes into the affected area, leave the tubes there for a few days (maybe a week), remove them, and then subject you to x-ray treatments that burn your entire torso.

And you die anyway.

Before they start the treatment, though, the doctors remove tissue samples from your cervix as part of their ongoing efforts to find human cells that will grow in lab cultures. The doctors don’t tell you they’re taking tissue samples and they don’t tell your family that your cells grow and grow and grow–are, in fact, immortal. The cells taken from your cancerous tumor are so vital that they are still used–scientists have grown something like twenty tons of your cells.

You are Henrietta Lacks and your cells, HeLa, have been the basis of some of the most profound scientific discoveries of the late 20th century, including the polio vaccine, cloning, and in vitro fertilization.  But until Rebecca Skloot, a science writer and journalist, started to piece together the story of the HeLa cells, no one knew the story of Henrietta Lacks or of her family, who still live in and around Baltimore and who, until relatively recently, couldn’t even afford health insurance, despite the fact that their mother/sister/grandmother had provided the essential component for so much of modern medicine.

When this book arrived in my library reserves shelf, I almost didn’t bother to check it out; the reviews had been good but it was science.  How could a science book be interesting?   Mostly these days, I don’t much like non-fiction.  As I creep increasingly closer to 50, my brain is such a sieve that really, any new information just leaks out and dribbles down the back of my neck, so why bother reading non-fiction, which is so generally crowded with, you know, facts.

But this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which you can get from Amazon just by clicking through on that nifty little widget just over there on the right side of the page), is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read this year (and that list includes both Wolf Hall and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, just to give you a sense of what I mean when I say “best” ).  A science book that is also a page turner; a page turner that is also an amazing chronicle of scientific research; a discussion of scientifici research that is also an examination of bio-medical ethics and social justice.

Think about it: the scientistis didn’t tell Henrietta they were taking her cell tissue. Should they have? And if they did tell her, then what? Does she own that tissue and then is her family owed something from the literally thousands of patents that have been developed using her cells for research?  What if, after a routine procedure to remove a little mole or something, a doctor discovers in that mole something that could be used to advance medical research? Does the removed tissue belong to you? To the doctor?  Does the doctor even have to tell you, given that you went to the doctor to have this excresence removed in the first place?

Rebecca Skloot spent years making contact with Henrietta’s family; she talked to relatives, friends, children, neighbors, and devoted I can’t even imagine how many hours sifting through medical reports, journals, and doctors’ files.  From all this material, Skloot tells the story of how the amazing developments in science and medicine over the last sixty years rest, quite literally, on the body of a woman so obscure that she’s buried in an unmarked grave, in a town that no longer exists. Henrietta’s story itself would make a compelling book, but Skloot also incorporates the story of Henrietta’s family, who remained completely in the dark about Henrietta’s importance in the scientific community until almost fifteen years after her death, and then wrestled not only with Henrietta’s legacy but also with the problems associated with being poor and uneducated in a small town in rural Maryland.

But enough of my blathering. Just go click on the Amazon link over there and buy the book. And the next time you go to the doctor’s office for a “routine procedure,” ask yourself how you’d feel if you found out, decades later, that your doctor became famous from some discovery she made based on examining your body parts.

Continue Reading · on May 21, 2010 in Books

On Tesseracts and Muffins

I’ve been teaching Wrinkle in Time this past week, along with its sequel, A Wind in the Door.  The story of Meg’s journeys–first out into the galaxies beyond our own, and then in, to the tiniest cells in the human body,  is so familiar to me that I can recite big chunks of it by heart. The first few times I read these books, I was Meg, with the notable exception that Meg’s talent is for math and mine emphatically is not.

Many of my students are reading these books for the first time and for college students who came of age with Harry P and his crew, Meg’s story seems “really dark,”  “very science-y,” and “kind of weird.”  I think they were waiting for jolly details like wizard trading cards and all-flavored jelly beans, and instead they got quantum physics. 

If you’ve not read Wrinkle, it’s the story of how Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin, help save the Murry’s father, a scientist who has been trapped on Camazotz, a planet governed by a huge brain known as IT. IT controls everything–no one needs to think or worry because IT takes care of it all. Everyone on the planet has “learned to relax, to give in, to submit.”  Rescuing Meg’s father will be a defeat not only for IT but also for the Darkness that threatens to consume Earth and other planets. Meg is helped on her quest by Mrs. Who, Mrs, Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, who appear on Earth as witch-like vagrants but later prove to be…well, something fairly extraordinary.

One of the joys of the Harry Potter books is how fully Rowling creates the wizarding world, right down to the sort of candies children would eat and the sports they’d play. But the wizard world stays more or less separate from the muggle world, at least until all hell breaks loose in the later books. What I loved–love–about Meg’s story is that even as she leaves our galaxy to go to Camazotz, her world is our own. It always seemed entirely possible that perhaps I could find a way to another world, or that I would become an unlikely combatant in the fight against evil.  Harry is an “ordinary boy” but, of course, he is in fact extraordinary–that whole Boy Who Lived thing.  Meg remains resolutely, sometimes humiliatingly, ordinary–and in her ordinariness is her gift.

You’d think that it would be hard to argue with a book in which the final weapon against totalitarian evil proves to be good old-fashioned love but in fact Wrinkle in Time is on the ALA list of frequently banned books – and if you need even further reason to read (or re-read) it, Sarah Palin tried to have it banned from the Wasila library (Harry Potter is on the list too). Perhaps it’s the fact that L’Engle equates Jesus with Bach, Beethoven, and Marie Curie as fighters against Darkness, (which an Alabama parent claimed, in 1990, diminished Christ’s importance). Or perhaps Palin simply disapproves of books that might spark a reader’s imagination.

In her Newberry Award acceptance speech, L’Engle said “there are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe, that we can help our children avoid by providing them with “explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.”

It’s no wonder that Palin et al would like this book put way high up on the top shelf where no one can reach it. L’Engle’s book stirs up fresh life; it is explosive in its belief that creativity and imagination are the only weapons we have against a seductive darkness that tells us how wonderful it is  to be free of responsibility, to relax, submit, let go.  Reading Meg’s story now, almost forty years after I read it for the first time, reminds me that now, perhaps more than ever, we need to fight against being “muffins.” Hope, Meg reminds us, takes imagination.

Continue Reading · on February 19, 2010 in Books

Writer as Funambulist

Last night I finished Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.

It’s a novel set in New York on the day when Phillipe Petit walked on the wire between the two World Trade Towers, August, 1974.  Characters flash back to other moments in their lives, but the central action happens on that day when something utterly miraculous and remarkable happened in lower Manhattan – and most of Manhattan didn’t know it. 

I’d just watched “Man on Wire” with the boys a few nights ago (they were amazed), and so Petit’s voice and the image from the movie, of his foot gliding out to take that first step on the wire, light years above the city, were alive in my head as I read.

The novel echoes with so many voices that I almost can’t believe that one person wrote them all: Tillie the hooker who turns tricks with her teen-age daughter, the brothers Corrigan from Ireland, the Upper East Side matron whose son died in Viet Nam–and her husband the Jewish judge whose final case of the day is that of some lunatic walking a tightrope between the Trade Towers. Plus a single mother from Missouri, a nurse from Latin America fleeing a miserable marriage, an artist who spends more time in nightclubs than in the studio, underground graffitti artists… and Petit himself.

It is a high-wire act in and of itself, this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer, we’d end up with some forced deus ex machina moment where all the characters end up watching Petit dance above the city, bonding in their amazement; or where the prostitutes have hearts of gold and find redemption in the arms of the Corrigan brothers. But that doesn’t happen.  What does happen? Well…New York happens: the city itself as it struggles through the seventies wondering if it’s going to survive. 

The characters, too, wonder if they’re going to survive, although not everyone’s struggles are visible to the outside world. Petit’s  death-defying walk literalizes the question of survival, but each character wrestles with how, on this day, she or he will find the courage to go forward. And just as Petit’s walk would not have been possible without the bravery of his comrades, who helped him plan his coup and rig his wire, so too the survival of these characters seems to depend on whether or not they are alone in the world.

When I finished the book I had to sit there for a while, letting the words settle down around me. One sentence in particular continues to ring in my head:  “We stumble on…bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.”

The novel’s final image is of a young African American woman sitting by the bedside of a dying white woman, and then these sentences, which ring a slight but important change on the previous: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

It is enough.

Continue Reading · on February 11, 2010 in Books

Read…(the movie?)

IMG_0778.JPGI’ve seen this sign on phone booths all over the city (okay, true, that’s not really that many places, given that phone booths are a vanishing species, soon to go the way of Checker cabs).

It’s a great sentiment, right? We should all be doing all we can to encourage kids to read…and yet:

The image on this poster is the image from the movie, not Sendak’s book.

Are we to conclude that reading will inspire us to become independent auteurs with a fondness for dress-up and Catherine Keener?

Or are we to draw a more cynical conclusion: read, sure, but first…stop at the multi-plex and buy a ticket for Jonzes’ movie.

Continue Reading · on November 2, 2009 in Books, street notes

Two Families…

sendak.jpgI didn’t want to go. I hated the very idea of the movie, was all doesn’t Hollywood ever know when to leave well enough alone?

But then today–Saturday–was very cold and very gray, Liam had played a morning soccer game and an afternoon soccer game, and Husband needed time to finish packing for a week-long (week!) business trip. I like to say he’s going to “Arabia,” but in fact he’s going to the much more prosaic (although still very far away) Abu Dhabi (which is not Dubai).  So when two mommy friends asked if we’d join them at the movies, I said yes (okay, in part I said yes because one promised to bring me candy corn from Economy Candy and I will do just about anything for candy corn).

Thus it was that I found myself, with a 5 year old and a 9 year old in tow, in a very crowded movie theater for the 4:30 showing of “Where the Wild Things Are.”  If nothing else, I thought, I could hide my iPhone under my bag and make lists for the upcoming week: having Husband out of town for a week takes our already complicated schedules into a defcon four status that hurts my head to think about.

But you know what? I didn’t even look at my phone once. The movie is…good. Actually, it’s quite beautiful. Actually, many of the parents in the audience were snuffly-eyed at the end of it (you can decide for yourself if that’s good or bad), and so were some of the kids.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not true to the letter of Sendak’s book, but it’s pretty close, I think, to the spirit of the book: the conflicting desires that we all have for anarchy and order, independence and dependence, adventure and safety.

The opening twenty minutes or so, which situate Max in “real life,” enthralled Liam and Caleb. I think they saw in his life elements of their own, particularly the ways in which Max’s world conspires to make him feel powerless.  And I saw myself in Max’s mom–the belated tag-on of “please” to the shouted command to “get your stuff off the table now….”  and her attempts to deal with her tantruming son while she has company–the initial attempt to discipline said child with whispered commands through gritted teeth and a fake smile, the plea for good behavior so that fights don’t have to take place while there are witnesses…oh yes, that’s familiar territory.

But then Max takes off, and we are on unfamiliar ground. True, his room doesn’t grow over with vines, but there is still a magical transformation, an epic journey “across a year and a day,” and a violent stormy landing on the island of the wild things.

Much has been made of these wild things–their fuzzy costumes, the animatronic faces, the fact that they have individual personalities and, clearly, back stories: Judith and Ira are lovers, KW and Carol have had some kind of fight, no one pays attention to Alexander, Douglas and Carol are best friends…And the wild things talk about these relationships, fret about their emotions, and hope that discovering a King will Make Everything Better.

I would have thought that the five year old would be fidgeting and squitching during all the talky bits about these relationships, but it was the nine year olds who wanted to get on with the scenes of fort-building, mudball fighting, and, of course, the Wild Rumpus. Caleb sat entranced and when we got home, I realized why: after he dropped his coat on the floor (isn’t that where it goes?”), he squatted down by his knight figures that he’d put down when we left for the movie and was immediately back to staging daring rescues and epic battles. The rest of us, as far as he was concerned, were completely invisible.  So Max’s world, with some variations, was Caleb’s world, while Liam and his friends have already left that world behind, for the (far inferior world) of computer games and sports.

Close to the end of the movie, as Max says good-bye to all his Wild Thing friends on the beach, Caleb turned to me and said, with whispered indignation “this a sad movie!” And then, when Carol comes lumbering onto the beach just in time to howl a bereft good-bye to his dear friend Max, Caleb whispered “Max has two families.The monster family and th’other family, wit’his mommy. I t’ink he loves both.”

I was going to say something here about the whole power of imagination thing, or about hanging on to our inner child, or some blahblah like that, but Caleb’s comment sent me in another direction. I went back to the logistics list that I didn’t make because I got so caught up in Max’s journey, and in the Wild Things’ amazingly beautiful buildings, some of which resemble the sculptures of Martin Puryear.

My list of How I Will Manage While Husband Is Away include one friend who will pick up Caleb after school on Tuesday, another who will bring Liam home from after-school on the day I work late, a third who will watch Caleb for a few hours on Wednesday, and the long-time babysitter who said she’d walk Liam to school every morning (okay, true, I’m paying her, but she’s a college student and I’m asking her to haul ass out of bed and be here by 7:45 every day, no small feat when you’re 19). In short, this group–my other family, you could say–is saving my bacon this week. 

Caleb hit it just on the head. Max sails the vast ocean alone in his wobbly little boat, but at each end of his journey, there is a family. So too with us, don’t you think? Two families: One we are assigned by the vagaries of blood and fate. The other we create for ourselves, but we love both.
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Continue Reading · on October 17, 2009 in Books, Children, family

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