Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reading...The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is my kind of non-fiction. Educating, but entirely engrossing. Skloot weaves a story instead of just laying down the facts. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman in Baltimore who died in the early 1950s of ovarian cancer when she was 31. As was a common practice in the 1950s, a doctor took a tissue sample from Henrietta -- one of healthy cells and one of her cancerous cells -- for research. A biologist at Johns Hopkins was attempting to grow cells in culture and asked the doctor for part of the sample for his research. Henrietta's cells -- dubbed HeLa -- did what none of the scientist's cells had done before. They survived, and they grew, and they thrived. They made it possible for scientists to experiment and conduct studies on live human cells, paving the way for amazing advances in medical and scientific research -- from the polio vaccine, to a multitude of medications. Her cells have been in space and have been blased with a nuclear bomb.

But what Skloot does is give you a context beyond just research and science -- she tells you the story of Henrietta and her family. She takes you to a small tobacco farm in Virginia, and to the streets of Baltimore. She shows how Henrietta's death affected her family, while her immortal cells were simultaneously affecting the whole world.

In some ways, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is controversial, because readers are presented with ethical issues of tissue rights and informed consent. Who should or should not profit from tissues taken from a person's body? Who should have say over what research is done with a person's tissue? In an age of genetic research, what are the implications to people's privacy? Race, poverty, education, healthcare, medical reasearch, ethics, and faith are all themes that run through this book. However, Skloot skillfully weaves all of this into a wonderful, fair, and very informative narrative. I learned something, I was outraged, I was inspired, I may have teared up a bit at one point, and I was most of all interested until the last page.

Bottom line: if you like biographies, history, or science and narrative non-fiction, pick up this book.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A few book things I'm excited about

Cole & Isabel get their own story

Only a month(ish) until the release of Across a Star-Swept Sea

Austin Teen Book Festival -- I may actually, finally get to have a book signed by Maggie Stiefvater. Plus...I will finally have my grubby little hands on a copy of Dream Thieves. I AM SO EXCITED!!! (and I wonder if my wallet can stand to get a copy of Spirit and Dust by Rosemary Clement-Moore. Because her books are just cool).

I'm currently trying to furiously read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for work (it's really good, by the way. I'll talk about it more when I'm finished) while also trying to finish the never-ending moving/unpacking to-do list. (tip: it takes much longer to unpack/get things settled and sorted when you immediately start work upon moving. I know, I know....amateur stuff. It's been a few years).

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reading...Siege & Storm and Crown of Embers

The upside of a city commute is the perfect opportunity to listen to audiobooks. The upside of a two day half-way-across the country drive (and the ability to read while riding in a moving vehicle), is the plentiful down-time in which to read. Which means...despite my slow pace through most books lately, I've finished two in the past few weeks, a couple of really enjoyable young adult fantasies (and, oddly enough, both are second books in planned trilogies).

Siege and Storm (The Grisha, #2)Siege and Storm, by Leigh Bardugo is the second in the author's Grisha trilogy. And I may like this book even more than the first (perhaps helped by the excellent narrator of my audiobook). The Russian-inspired setting still shines -- rich, detailed, and evocative. Bardugo has really ramped up the tension in this book, right from page one. I continue to think Alina is one of the most annoying yet sympathetic protagonists I've met in a while. Mal continues to be awesome, and the Darkling is the creepiest creepster around. There are some really fantastic character additions: Tamar, Tolia, Nikolai/Sturmhond. The pacing was spot on -- the story going deeper, deeper, deeper and with plenty of "What?!" moments.


The Crown of Embers, by Rae Carson is another solid sequel. Elisa is now the queen of Joya de Arena, trying to establish her rule, navigate court politics, and learn more about her power as a Bearer. One thing that really struck me while reading this book, is how this series is really a coming-of-age story. Sure, there's plenty of magic, intrigue, political maneuverings, assassination attempts, and adventure. But, at its heart, it's the continuing story of a girl learning that she isn't the fat, ugly, helpless girl she believed herself to be. It's about a girl realizing that instead of just reacting (sometimes ineptly) to what goes on around her, or relying to other people to make decisions for her, she truly has the power to make her own decisions, to take charge of her own destiny, to be a real leader, and to be a queen. I continued to enjoy the world Carson has created, and my only complaint is that it occasionally seemed a bit....much. A bit overly dramatic. Lots of gasping. But overall a really enjoyable and solid fantasy.