Do You Have a Favorite Book?

Another magical book club meeting.  Two months ago, I joined up with a coworker of mine and attended her book club.  At the end of that meeting, hoping to insight me to return, they asked me what my favorite book was, and I said The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

First, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.

Now why on earth would a book about cells and science and medical advancements appeal to a girl who only walked through the science building on campus during winter when it was the shortest route to the English building?  It’s because the author, Rebecca Skloot, spent a decade researching the subject and uncovering the family that belonged to Henrietta Lacks.

Sadly, we don’t know a lot about Henrietta’s life when she was alive.  She died in her early 30’s and only one photo exists.

What makes Henrietta’s life so incredible is that she’s been living for the last 50+ years and will continue to live on!  She lives on through her cells.  Now known to have a rare enzyme that causes her cells to rebuild themselves, her cells are the ONLY cells to have survived and replenished themselves in history.  Think of a medical advancement in the last 50 years.  Polio vaccine?  Cells in space?  Chemotherapy?  They all came as a result of tests done on Henrietta Lack’s cells.  HeLa cells, as they are called after her, were taken involuntarily from a tumor in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s.

Now, 50+ years later, HeLa cells are sold in vials for $500 to $10,000!  And up until Rebecca Skloot’s book came around, no one even knew who Henrietta Lacks was.

My book club is made up of women who are all 30 years my senior, and I am in complete awe of their intelligence and eloquence every time I meet them.  To read this book with a group that is made up of teachers, professors, psychiatrists, and nurses was about as rich a discussion as you can get on this book!

The story is about more than science, though ultimately that is what started the story in the first place.  A doctor taking samples and testing them.  Fifty years ago, there wasn’t even a term like “informed consent.”  And as you read the book, it becomes difficult to find fault with one party.  Who is the real exploiter, is it the doctor who took the sample, the doctor who gave the sample away freely to other research studies and labs, or the journalist who first printed her name?

And what about the family?  Their mother’s cells have saved thousands, millions?, of lives, and are being sold on the internet, yet the family can’t afford medical insurance.

As I said before, this book is not ONLY about science.  It is a story about a family.  A family deeply ignorant of education.  A family that was abused in multiple ways, and received little closure or compensation.  And the author spent a lot of time earning the trust of this family, teaching them, sharing first experiences with them, and helping them to heal.  She didn’t fix things.  In many ways, it’s a complicated issue that can’t be solved with a check or even with this book publication.  No, she didn’t fix things.  But she did tell their story, the story of their mother, Henrietta Lacks, how she changed the world and saved lives, and how through knowing their mother, their own lives could begin to grow again.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, shares her memory of taking Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and her son, Zakariyya, to a lab to see HeLa cells for the first time.

This is my favorite book.  What’s yours?

23 responses

  1. One of my favourite books ever was “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. I have lots of other favourites, of course.

    This book sounds really good…I think I’ll suggest it for our next Book Club.


    1. It’s amazing, and the discussion at our book club was very rich. We talked about medical advancements, how insurance plays a role in some of the research being done, education, impoverished culture, family.

      It is a heavy book, I would warn them first because I lent mine to someone who’s mother had died from a similar cause, and it was too close to home. Just ask if everyone is comfortable reading about the case.

  2. I’m going to add to my list. I actually love books about science (in the irony that is my life, I was a stronger math and science student than English student; now, I teach the latter). Have you read any Oliver Sacks? I love his stories. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “Anthropologist from Mars” are two of my faves.

    In terms of fiction, I love “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Love, love, love.

    1. We talked about doing the The Book Thief for our book club. I’ll keep it on our list.

      Haven’t heard of Oliver Sacks, but now I’m going to Goodreads him! Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Jess, this book looks fantastic. Question for you – do you read via Kindle or Nook? Or, do you still do it the old fashioned way? There are so many books out there – where to start? How to keep up? Henrietta Lacks, definitely worth the read. ~ Lenore

    1. I still read “the old fashioned way.” LOL. I like having the book in my hand, and I use the library a lot, so that helps with expense and growing my collection. I see advantages with the kindle or nook, but it’s not an expense I can do right now. Down the line, I’ll probably get one. For now, just books!

  4. This book has gotten a lot of very good press. I saw it in Powell’s last time I was there – it was one of their top sellers. Definitely a unique and interesting story.

    My favorite book? It’s impossible to narrow down to just one. A few I’d rank up there include The Lovely Bones, The Corrections, Drop City, The Sea Wolf, The Lord Of The Rings, Catcher In The Rye.

    1. If you like Catcher in the Rye, check out Rule of the Bone. It’s a modern day Catcher. One Christmas my brothers gave me both books. I like them both a lot.

      “Don’t ever tell anybody anything, if you do, you start missing everything.” -Catcher in the Rye

      1. Oh, and how could I forget Catch-22? Just a brilliant read!

  5. Wow, Jess. This is fascinating. I had never heard of HeLa, and reading this, I can’t help but think as an attorney and wonder if there’s a way her family can be getting royalties off of the sale of her cells. Seems it would only be right since her cells, even cancerous ones, were Henrietta’s property. Hope they look into the possibilities.

    My favorite book is Watership Down. I love stories of how ordinary personalities face circumstances that make them extraordinary. Thanks for your post.

    1. Ok, you have to read the book, because the author examines other cases where people tried to sue for the legal or monetary rights of their tissue. The thing is this is STILL ABSOLUTELY happening, and any time you sign that consent form where it talks about “discarding of tissue” they can keep your sample and send it to a research lab, that’s how research happens. So it becomes a question of do we change our consent forms? And if given the choice, would anyone volunteer? The hospital that originally took HeLa cells made no money from that sample, it was actually a cell bank that has now mass produced them and sells them in vials for testing. So, it’s really hard to say WHO owes the family money. The author started up a scholarship fund for descendants of Henrietta’s family to help them further their education. And I agree with the family (who stated in an interview) that it’d be a really honorary thing to do to name a wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital after Henrietta, but as of yet, no plans for that.

      1. Wow. I’ll be changing my consent forms in the future by drawing a line through their boilerplate. What are they going to do? Not operate? I doubt it. Thanks for following up on this. I’ll definitely have to read the book.

  6. What an incredible and powerful human story. Putting this on my “too read” list.

    I don’t think I would care about profit from something like this if it was being used to save lives or find cures that led to saving lives. However, I think I would want to control the price of the sales in order to maximize the benefit. Then again, it is not a perfect world, especially when money and profit become part of the equation.

    As for my favorite book, I have one for each genre, but I’ll stick to my first favorite which would be the Hobbit. It was this book that launched my desire to write, that taught my mind to seek adventure and take care while on the road. That even the most powerful dragon has a weakness and that even the smallest voice can change the world.

    1. Ooh, good pick. I read that one. Can’t wait for the film version to come out! Yay!

  7. […] doesn’t see a penny of that money. Does that seem right to you? Check out Jess’s blog, Do You Have a Favorite Book, and learn more about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa […]

  8. […] her death than any human that has ever lived. Want to know how? Check out this incredible post Do you have a Favorite Book? by the brilliant Jess […]

  9. This is a powerful story. It’s sad that the family didn’t even know about HeLa cells even if it’s their mother’s. Definitely agreed with Piper. We need to somehow compensate the family for doing this.

    My favorite book…It’s Twilight . Sure it’s not a perfect book but it captures how it was to fall in love the very first time. It’s how SM captures the emotions of Bella that made the book good. I’ve read a lot of books before but never had I been touched to the core as much as this one.

    1. You are a Tri-hard aren’t you? LOL. Yes, it’s a cute story. Teen love. I’ll be checking out the fourth film with my girlfriends this summer! hehe

  10. I can’t pick one book, but I did read this one and LOVED it on so many levels.

    1. Yay, I wondered if you’d read it yet, you told me it was on your desk! It is amazing!

  11. We read this for our book club last month. I really enjoyed it.

    1. LOVE this book!

  12. […] the post Do You Have a Favorite Book? originally posted May 18, […]

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