Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks -- Book Group Winner

When I moved back to the Philadelphia area, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a book group. In a freaky coincidence two of the members of the group were friends of mine from completely different parts of my life, but they were both willing to vouch for me. (Pam, I have known since I was 12. Alice and I worked together at a school in Maryland.) I don't mean to make our group sound like some stuck up sorority, but it there are a few qualifications - you need to be smart, willing to read and discuss the books, and able to not take yourself or the idea of a book group too seriously. I am sort of kidding about "qualifications" but I do feel lucky to be part of such a great group of women.

My favorite thing about our group is that in addition to great conversations about marriage, motherhood, movies, music, politics, we actually talk about the books. A lot. I love to read, but I don't often have the chance to really discuss and analyze the books that I spend so much time with. Over the years we have read some amazing books (Atonement, Zeitoun and The Known World stand out in my memory.) We have also read some stinkers. (Why is Sarah's Key a best seller?) On average, our choices tend to be pretty good.

This month we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  Skloot spent well over a decade researching the origin of HeLa cells - cancer cells that were gathered from Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins in 1951 and have been cultured, shared and researched ever since. It is an exploration not only of the history of cell research, but of Mrs. Lacks' life and the aftermath of her death. Skloot befriends the daughter of Mrs. Lacks and is given access to the family that no other journalist has had. With an amazing level of objectivity, Skloot describes the many ways medical research intersects with race and class. In addition, she addresses the ethical and moral questions in a manner that is personal without being preachy. There are aspects of the story that are simply horrifying, but in the end I was touched by the resilience of Mrs. Lacks' family in the face of a life-altering circumstances.

This is a great choice for a book group. It is a skillfully composed narrative of a truly compelling story. There is much to discuss -- from the family struggles to the moral implications of medical research. It is out in paperback this month, too. Give it a look.

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