Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an unbelievable story that happens to be true. In the 1950s, a black woman was dying of cervical cancer. She went to Johns Hopkins hospital for treatment in their segregated ward. While receiving treatment, part of her cancerous cervix was cut and kept by a doctor. The cells of this cutting were observed and found to be…wait for it…immortal. It is not a joke. Those cells are still alive today and are known as HeLa cells. They are alive and multiplying. And HeLa cells have been the basis for many of the cures that we know today such as polio and invitro-fertilization. But the family of the woman, whose cells were used and re-used for generations, did not know and did not consent. For that matter, the woman herself, one Henrietta Lacks, did not consent to have her cells researched. She may have said yes, had she ever even been asked.
This book traces the facts and the people surrounding the discovery and use of the famous HeLa cells, but most importantly, this book tells Henrietta’s story. The book begins by telling the reader that everything in it is true. That is a daunting statement, but it is verified throughout the book. Many times a true story lacks the flourish of a fiction, but that is not the case with this book. Not only will “cell culture” be revealed to the reader, but also a tender rendering of Henrietta and her family. Her family is fully-fleshed as characters with flaws and compassion and most of all, humanity. This book is a compelling read and should be something anyone who has benefited from HeLa cells should know about.
- Image by wynlok via Flickr
Fall On Your Knees is a whirlwind book. The plot has so many twists and unexpected events that it can give your brain whiplash. That said, maybe your brain needs a little whiplash. The book is certainly refreshingly unpredictable.
The book centers around one family living in Canada from the early to mid 1900s. The parents, James and Materia Piper, have a complicated relationship at the best of times. Their daughters are the true stars of the story. Beginning with the luminescent Kathleen with the voice of an angel and the glittering quality of a star and also a yearning for something more, MacDonald weaves a story that is equally character- and plot driven. Her characters are so moving and fully fleshed, that when you finish the book, you might mourn the loss of them. Yet MacDonald isn’t too attached to the characters that she doesn’t allow the story to flow in painful and shocking directions.
This book isn’t for the faint of heart as it has controversial and sometimes horrid events in it. It is still, despite that, a powerful and compassionate story of a family torn apart and in the end, somehow patched together again.
Sidney Poitier is an unparalleled talent on the Hollywood screen with amazing movies such as Lilies of the Field (for which he was the first African American to win an Oscar), To Sir, With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. His “spiritual autobiography” is essentially a journey through his life that emphasizes his thoughts even more than his actions. It begins with the idyllic Cat Island where Poitier was born and lived in childhood. The island has a magical quality and the chapters dedicated to it are also magical.
Cover via Amazon
Poitier’s family’s move to Nassau brought with it the promise of a job, but also the poison of racism. Poitier will then immigrate to Miami where racism plays a major role in his move north to New York City. He will find his biggest enemy to be the winter that his Caribbean blood is unprepared for.
Throughout the book, Poitier offers spots of wisdom based usually on his experiences. One such gem is:
“…I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me. I have to try to find a way to channel that anger to the positive, and the highest positive is forgiveness.”
The book does tend to become a stream-of-consciousness mental conversation towards the end that frankly, is rather tedious. Poitier’s charm as a writer comes through his stories and what he learns from them. Whenever he veers from that, the writing weakens. The memoir feels like a conversation with an interesting and intelligent man and is a conversation worth enjoying.
Nancy Mitford is probably best known for her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, but recently relatives of Mitford’s have permitted some of her lesser-known novels to be reprinted. One such novel is Wigs on the Green.
During Mitford’s lifetime, it was not reprinted because of a family falling-out regarding its characters who were obviously based on Mitford’s own family. The most controversial character is Eugenia Malmains, the wealthy, lovely and eccentric heiress whose current hobby horse is “social unionism” which essentially is Nazism wrapped in a Union Jack flag. When Mitford was writing Wigs on the Green in the mid 1930s, her sister Unity had essentially joined the Nazi party.
The novel Wigs on the Green offers a surprising glimpse at the attitude in England towards Germany pre-WW II and before Germany’s Nazi movement escalated to the horrors modern people associate with it. That said, Wigs on the Green is a humorous read. Nothing, not even Eugenia’s Union Jack movement, is taken seriously. Mitford again offers such spectacles of humanity like Mrs. Lace, the local beauty bent on greatness and filled with drama, or Jasper Aspect, the charming gentleman without funds who spends his days mooching off his friends and seeking out pleasure. One could easily see a Mrs. Lace or Jasper Aspect in modern-day life.
The action of the book takes place over the course of a few weeks when Noel Foster and Jasper Aspect decide to head to the sleepy town of Chalford to pursue an heiress, Eugenia. Eugenia, being consumed with the Union Jackshirt movement, quickly proves only amusing for her antics and not marriage-material. The action continues when two women come to Chalford one escaping an unwanted marriage with a duke and the other escaping a would-be adulterous husband. When Noel encounters the beautiful Mrs. Lace, they embark on one of the novel’s most ridiculous love affairs. The true entertainment of the novel culminates in a garden party gone awry, which is where the name Wigs on the Green comes from.
Mitford has created a charming, eccentric world that would be perfectly delightful to read, yet is somewhat jarring to a modern audience because of its references to “social unionism”. Still, Wigs on the Green is a character-driven, funny novel that shouldn’t be left on the shelf because of its lack of political correctness.
Ron Rash is a Carolinian author whose books generally have a deep sense of place, usually in the mountains of North or South Carolina. Rash often has an obvious yet well-intended and at times heroic theme of environmentalism. This environmental theme almost always has a David and Goliath overtone. Rash’s David is the lone person or group trying to save these mountains or stream and his Goliath is the big, bad, money-driven business bent on destroying them.
In previous novels (One Foot in Eden being the best), Rash writes from his David’s point of view, yet in Serena, he writes from the most formidable Goliath he’s penned yet. Serena is a woman unprecedented in Rash’s other novels. She is a woman of strength and intelligence and cold blood. She is a fascinating creature that despite yourself, you find yourself rooting for, even as she strips a forest clean of trees in her husband’s logging business and as she also clears out all obstacles (be they beast or human) in her way. Serena is seemingly matched by her husband Pemberton, yet as the novel comes to its surprising end, the reader can see that even Pemberton is no match for the sheer will power of Serena.
Rash tells in his interview about the book that he modeled Serena after Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, rather than a female villainess like Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth. In the novel Serena, Rash has outdone himself and has brought his favorite theme of nature preservation across to the audience in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. If you only read one Rash novel in your life, read this one. It will move you and enrage you and keep you turning the pages just to see what Serena will do next. And surprisingly, you will miss her when the book is done.