Books Nonfiction Recommendations Science

Quick review: Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

In my last post, I mentioned my recent trip to MLA, the big annual convention for languages & literature academics. It’s kind of an overwhelming experience: hundreds of panels, hundreds more nervous interview candidates, converging on a cold city during the worst possible travel week of the year (the week between Christmas and New Year’s). I’m reliably informed that this year’s MLA was pretty tame due to the poor economy — much smaller and quieter than conventions held even two years ago. There won’t actually be a 2010 MLA; the organizers have finally decided to move it to early January, so next year’s conference will skip right to 2011. (It will also be in LA, which will at least be warm.)

The most fun part of MLA is the exhibitors hall, where publishers set up giant displays, sometimes complete with wine and cheese. I didn’t buy anything — I try to travel light, and also, I’m a poor grad student — but I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’ve been aware of this book for a while, thanks to having read some of Skloot’s science journalism and then stumbling across her Twitter feed months ago. Then Skloot herself was on the cover of the issue of Publishers Weekly that reviewed Alcestis — wacky. Anyway, I really love good science writing and hardly ever have a chance to read it these days, so I grabbed the offered ARC from the nice Random House booth person and started reading as soon as I got back to Texas.

This is a stunning book. The story itself is inherently fascinating, but Skloot also does a brilliant job of weaving together her own history with HeLa — the years of research, the frustrating, contentious, and ultimately rewarding relationships she developed with Henrietta Lacks’s family — with the narrative of Henrietta’s death and subsequent “immortal life” in biomedical research after a cluster of her cancer cells were taken by doctors in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s. Lacks’s adult children, still suffering the effects of poverty, discrimination, and abuse, struggle to comprehend the facts of the strange life of their “mother cells.” They’re simultaneously desperate for Skloot to publish her story and fiercely afraid that she intends to take advantage of them.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough (and as you can see on Skloot’s page about the book, I’m not the only one). This is the kind of work nonfiction writing is meant to do.

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