Friday, November 4, 2011

November 2011 Book Club Meeting

Summary: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. 

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down,
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences. -- Broadway

For November, we read THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot. As you might already  know, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I found it fascinating. You can read my review here. Since I had already discussed THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS with my on-line book club, I was interested to see how the two discussions compare. And for the most part, we had pretty similar reactions. I think it's safe to say that everyone I know has found this book to be a worthwhile (and important) read.

We ended up talking about Henrietta's family for quite some time, and naturally, we were horrified by some of the "scientific" testing. However, we were also amazed by how many discoveries came about as a result of the HeLa cells. In addition, all of our hearts went out to Henrietta's family and we discussed how difficult it must have been for them.

I wasn't exactly expecting this, but our conversation eventually turned to politics. Go figure! I got a little nervous, but we were actually very civilized. And then our discussion became about us -- our lives, our pasts, our kids, etc. It's not unusual for us to stray off path during our meetings, but this month, I really discovered what a special (and supportive) group of women are in my club. I am lucky to have them as friends.

Next month, we are having our annual holiday meeting -- can you believe it's almost Christmas? This year, our hostess thought it might be fun to read a Christmas-themed book so she picked THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SANTA CLAUS as told to Jeff Guinn. It looks a cute book and an easy read, and that's exactly what we need during the very busy weeks leading up to the holidays.

At our December meeting, we will also do our traditional book exchange. Each member brings a new or used wrapped book, and we all go home with a "new-to-us" book. It's a lot of fun especially when I can steal from my friends. (Most of the women are too nice to steal a book, but not me!) To make up for it, I just might bring a a book for everyone!

Summary: It all started when Jeff Guinn was assigned to write a piece full of little-known facts about Christmas for his paper, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A few months later, he received a call from a gentleman who told him that he showed the story to an important friend who didn’t think much of it. And who might that be? asked Jeff. The next thing he knew, he was whisked off to the North Pole to meet with this “very important friend,” and the rest is, well, as they say, history.

An enchanting holiday treasure, The Autobiography of Santa Claus combines solid historical fact with legend to deliver the definitive story of Santa Claus. And who better to lead us through seventeen centuries of Christmas magic than good ol’ Saint Nick himself? Families will delight in each chapter of this new Christmas classic—one per each cold December night leading up to Christmas! -- Tarcher/Penguin


Serena said...

Sounds like you had a great book club discussion. The December book sounds interesting.

Beth F said...

HL definitely generates discussion. Your December meeting sounds like a ton of fun.

bermudaonion said...

I remember having a great discussion about this book. I recently read an article about it that said most of the family's problems were not caused by the medical community using the HeLa cells like the author implied they were.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

We stray a lot in our bookclub too. Sometimes those are the best discussions!

Alyce said...

This one provoked interesting discussions at my book club too. It's wonderful that you have such a supportive group!

Anonymous said...

I love when political discussions can be held in a civil way! And the Santa book looks like a fun one. :O)

Mrs. Melissa said...

Henrietta Lacks was the 10-11 UW-Madison Big Read selection and I just loved it!!

Stacie said...

Our book club is discussing it this month too. I haven't finished it yet, but am completely wrapped up in it and look forward to discussing it. My grandma died in 1956 from ovarian cancer at 34 leaving behind 5 girls. I think if her as I am reading this and wonder about how much things have changed in the medical world since then.