Tag Archives: women

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Published by Crown. Three-hundred and thirty-seven pages.

 

lacks_bookHenrietta Lacks was a poor, barely-educated African-American woman from the South. Her cells were taken by her physician while she was battling cancer. Those cells live on to this day and are said to be responsible for many medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine. This biography is her story and the story of her children’s lives after her death.

Lacks, who died in 1951, never gave consent for her cells to be taken and her family has never been compensated for their use. Skloot tells us millions if not billions of dollars have been made by the pharmaceutical industry making more of, selling and testing her cells. Typically, our cells die after a period of time outside our bodies. For some reason, Lacks’ cells never die.

The science is fascinating but her story is tragic. Skloot’s book raises more questions than it answers. Was Lacks’ medical treatment inferior to that of white people’s of the era? Was the reason no consent was attempted, and no attempt made to inform her family, because she was black?  Her offspring suffered greatly as children and continued to suffer as adults. They were shocked and confused to learn about their mother’s cells, known around the world by scientists as HeLa.

We learn, alarmingly, that Lacks may have been the first, but not the last person whose cells have been taken by doctors for research without patient consent. Various American courts have upheld the right of doctors and scientists to use people’s cells without compensation to the donor. The reason is invariably that doing so would stagnate medical research. Skloot does a good job of outlining various stakeholders’ arguments for and against that reasoning.

The author, a science writer, unearths a mountain of scientific practices that continue today and affect us one and all.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

Published by Random house. Three-hundred and fifty-five pages.

 

botmjuly1606-720x793More than not bad for a debut novel. This New York Times best seller, alluring and electrifying, will send you rushing to Google to check out the facts behind the real Manson Murders.

The novel is roughly based on the Manson murders in L.A. in the late 60s. Pregnant American actress Sharon Tate was among those murdered by the disciples of a strange sect led by Charles Manson. In The Girls, the female followers of counter-culture commune leader Russell, murder an actress and her young son along with two others, at their home. It’s an attempt to get back at a famous singer. Most of these facts are revealed in the opening pages.

The lead-up to the event consumes the rest of the book. It’s a slow simmering pot of ideals and desires gone wrong. Cline’s writing is not always clear and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs to understand her meaning.

The protagonist is 12-year old Evie Boyd who’s under-supervised by her self-absorbed parents during a long summer. Languishing in boredom in the oppressive California heat, Evie, at odds with her only friend Connie, meets cult-follower Suzanne at a park. Evie imagines Suzanne, older and attractive, to be the embodiment of carefree and spirited youth that Evie so desperately craves to be.

The attraction is immediate and with nothing else to do, Evie seeks out Suzanne and boards a bus that will forever change her life.

The Girls does a decent job of laying out the circumstances in which an intelligent but lonely girl can get wrapped up into exploitation, while willfully neglecting the writing on the wall. Evie has plenty of opportunities to get out but the lure of what she considers acceptance and the attention of a charismatic older man, lead Evie down the proverbial garden path. Only, Evie’s is sprinkled with thorns and pestilence.

Get your teenage daughters to read The Girls. The perils of joining a gang are laid before them and the attraction of unrestricted freedom and charming older men slowly crumble.

Book Review, The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Indian-American author Thrity Umrigar’s The World We Found does for middle-age women what The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants did for teenage girls – use powerful experiences to create ageless friendships. Umrigrar has taken chick lit and steeped it in a potent brew.

world-we-foundThe novel is about how the dying wish of one woman leads to secrets exposed, acknowledging present disappointments and ultimately betrayal.  Armaiti is the character whom the story is centered around. She’s a transplanted Indian who left her country for post-grad studies in the States, ends up marrying locally and builds a life stateside. Her sudden grim prognosis moves her to contact her old college girlfriends back in India, who she hasn’t seen in 30 years, and ask them to visit her. It’s an unlikely beginning but Umrigar’s capable story telling makes it believable.

However, my book club pretty much agreed that we were left not understanding some of the actions and motivations of the leading characters – Armaiti and her gal pals Laleh, Nishta and Kavita. One married rich, betraying the socialist cause they once fought for, another leads a secret life, while the third is lead into an ultra-conservative Muslim existence.

The book is about the journey of overcoming 20 years of separateness and reconciling with choices made in life, rather than a grand reunion. In this book, Umrigar’s story telling is greater than her character building. If strong character development is your preference, then Umrigar’s The Space Between Us is for you.