Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), Rebecca Skloot

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I went to a fundraiser/lecture several weeks ago where Rebecca Skloot was the featured speaker. All I knew was that she wrote a book that didn't sound particularly interesting to me that Oprah was making into a movie with HBO. After the lecture, I was very interested in Ms. Skloot's book. I even bought it in hard-cover and had her autograph it. Pumy's Mommy got two books signed. Ms. Skloot began writing this book as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. YAY Pittsburgh!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the origin of the HeLa cell line. HeLa cells are the workhorse of medical research and were vital in the biggest medical breakthroughs of the past century including the development of the polio vaccine and countless treatments for everything from cancer to AIDS. HeLa cells are special because they are "immortal" meaning they will divide and exist forever. There are billions and billions of HeLa cells in research labs all over the world. They are also incredibly resistant and frequently destroy other cell lines that they come into contact with. Up until the discovery of the HeLa line, no human immortal cell line existed. The discovery of the HeLa cell line is literally priceless to the world.
So where did the HeLa cells originate from? Well no one knew or cared for a long time and that is premise of The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a black mother of five living in Baltimore. In 1951 she died of a viciously aggressive form of cervical cancer. A sliver of her cervical cancer tumor was taken for medical research without her knowledge (a common practice at the time). However, the cells found in this tumor were cultured by George Otto Gey (a Pittsburgh native) and turned into the first immortal human cell line. Dr. Gey gave away the cells to researchers all over the world for free for use in research. Eventually demand for HeLa cells was so high private companies created "HeLa factories" and made tons of money selling HeLa cells to labs all over the world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells two stories. One is the history of HeLa cells and their use in scientific research. This portion of the book was incredibly interesting. The other half of the book is the author's journey in writing the book and her relationship with Henrietta Lacks's children (mainly her daughter Deborah). It took Ms. Skloot 10 years to write the book and most of that time seemed to be spent gaining the trust and help of the Lacks family who were understandably guarded.

The book brings up really interesting points on our "rights" to our own tissues generally. Also, the book touches on race relations and exploitation. After all, Henrietta Lacks's cells have created massive amounts of wealth yet her family lives in poverty and has no health insurance to this day. Ms. Skloot tells the story as a journalist though. She reports both sides. Granted Henrietta Lacks had a piece of her cancer removed for research without her knowledge in a segregated hospital but such action was standard at the time (and still is today - taking discarded tissue for research, not segregation). She received the best treatment at the time, the same a white person would have received, and she didn't have to pay for the treatment. As such, the doctors felt perfectly justified doing research on her discarded tissue since they treated her for free. Apparently doctors still do this today even when you pay for treatment, if you ever had a mole removed it is probably in a lab somewhere.

The book was extremely interesting from a scientific point of view. I could not put it down. The human element was addictive too but for all the wrong reasons. It was like watching a Jerry Springer episode play out in front of a literal train wreck. To call the Lackses dysfunctional would be an understatement. Here is the problem with the book. A lot of the themes about exploitation are neutered because the Lackses are so incredibly unlikeable. My New Years resolution this year was to stop being so judgmental but reading about the Lacks family ruined my resolution.

Essentially the Lacks family has a problem with procreating at inappropriately young ages - with each other. As such, they are extremely inbred. Monogamy appears to be a problem as well. Hanrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer caused by HVP given to her by her husband/cousin. He also gave her syphilis and gonorrhea. All the inbreeding mixed with STDs have resulted in a generational cocktail of birth-defects and mental problems. All her children are at least partially deaf, one was retarded and they all have various mental and physical problems. There is also alot os sexual and physical abuse going on. These are not likable people so when they complain constantly bout how they want money for the HeLa cells it is hard to work up the requisite sympathy. But maybe I am just an unsympathetic jerk.

Anyway, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extremely informative and addictive. Highly recommended and I will definitely watch whatever Oprah comes up with based on the book.

Bossypants (2011), Tina Fey

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 3.5 Pierogies

Review: Every trip to Vegas includes at least one "hangover" night, where I am too sick from the previous night's age-inappropriate shenanigans to leave my hotel room. Last Saturday was my Vegas-Hangover-Night. When my travel companion (Pumy's Mommy) went downstairs for drinks with friends I stayed in bed and read the copy of Bossypants she bought at the airport bookstore. I read the whole book that evening and it only took a couple of hours.

I am a fan of 30 Rock. My little brother tells me I remind him of Liz Lemon (the character played by Tina Fey - who is based on Tina Fey) which annoys me because I don't really like Liz Lemon although I can see similarities. Isn't there a saying about hating in others what you most dislike about yourself???

Bossypants reads more like a random assortment of essays than a linear autobiography. Ms. Fey tells random stories about her life and childhood, her time on SNL, her thoughts on sexism in the comedy business and random observations on life, motherhood and aging. Despite being an autobiography, Ms. Fey doesn't reveal a lot about her personal life (for example she notes that her face was slashed as a child but gives no details). It's fine if you want to keep your personal life personal but a bit strange if you are writing an autobiography.

The humor is very much in line with 30 Rock and if you find Liz Lemon's character amusing you will like this book. Personally, I found a couple chapters absolutely hysterical and almost fell off the bed when I read the chapter about aging and how your body is determined to become disgusting. Plus, the chapters about the interworkings of SNL were very interesting to me.

So why the three pierogie (i.e. average) review? Well, the book was really disjointed. Not a huge problem but the book felt confused about what it wanted to be. An autobiography? Social commentary? Humorous essays ala David Sedaris? I guess it is a bit of all the above.

My other problem with the book is I found Ms. Fey to be kind of obnoxious at times. Granted she is 100 time more tolerable and well-behaved than most self-identified media elites but she still has her annoying moments. She has a whole section where she responds to negative comments made about her on the Internet. It was a stupid and self-indulgent section. Also, as an example of something that annoyed me, she writes in the introduction:

"Maybe you bought this book because you love Sarah Palin and you want to find reasons to hate me. We've got that! I use all kinds of elitist words like 'impervious' and 'torpor,' and I think gay people are just as good at watching their kids play hockey as straight people."

Self-identified elites love to embrace the elite label (as evident in the above quote) because they submit being educated and smart is a good thing and people who criticze them for being elite are too dumb to realize that. Well, duh. I hate to break it to you but even us rubes in flyover country will agree that intelligence and education are good things. The problem is not that you are smart enough to know what "torpor" means, it is that you are not smart enough to realize there are very few contexts where using such word will be appropriate without coming off as a pretentious a-hole. We call you "elites" because we are making fun of you for identifying yourself as such and thinking so highly of yourself not because we are too dumb to know that being elite is a good thing. Dumbasses. For the record, I went to fancy schools too and I have never used "torpor" in a conversation in my life. Mainly because I am not an a-hole. Moving on.

As I mentioned above, Ms. Fey is much less obnoxious and annoying than the majority of her contemporaries but I still found her off-putting at times. I really don't enjoy people who flex their intellectual and moral muscle by knocking down strawmen. To be fair there wasn't a lot of this in Bossypants and that which did exist was subtle but it was still enough to annoy me a little me.

All that said, Ms. Fey is very funny and it is clear she is a good person who loves her work and her family. I don't dislike her and I don't regret reading her book. There are a couple parts I will think about with a smile for a long time to come and there aren't many books I can say that about.