Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A book about cancer cells? I wasn't so sure I'd be interested in this particular non-fiction work. But Rebecca Skloot had me hooked in the first couple pages as she she so craftily described her early fascination with cell division. Suddenly I (a banker, writer, musician - definitely not a scientist), found myself intrigued with a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had died in in 1951 of cervical cancer.  Her cancer cells are still living and dividing to this very day. Oh and by the way, she didn't know her cell tissue was going to be used for research. Neither did her family (for many years). And another thing - she was black.

Never mind the fact this had been the first time in history that cells had been able to grow outside of the body. HeLa cells (named after Henrietta Lacks) opened a whole big world for scientific research, paving the way for important discoveries like the polio vaccine. Ms. Skloot not only defines HeLa for us in a scientific sense - she writes the story of Henrietta Lacks. She is a person, with a family who ironically has a myriad of health problems and can barely afford health insurance.  But at least a few companies got rich from it.

This novel is definitely discussion-worthy. While racism is an obvious theme, I believe the most controversial issue is "informed consent" in the medical field. This has been taking place on all races and all genders for quite some time - before HIPPA. Have you ever had a procedure and wondered what happened to the "waste" (for lack of a better word)? Honestly, I have not - until I read this book. I don't care what they do with it. I don't even care if they use it for research - more power to them. Most would agree (including the Lacks family) that research for the progress of science is good. But I'd sure like to know if I had contributed to mankind in some way. And of course, I'd sure be curious if there's something about my "waste" that could make a research outfit billions of dollars.

Anyway, this book is much more than a scholarly translation about cancer cells - it's a story about Henrietta Lacks and how she changed the world. And it's a story about a person's right to know how he or she can change the world.  It's a great read - I hope you read the story.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reading about Writing

I once heard someone tell me that they preferred to write, not to read. Needless to say, the statement baffled me. Now, I love to write. LOVE IT. But writing without reading? What the hay? As a matter of fact, reading (to me) is simply a guilty pleasure. But to an aspiring author, it's also an important tool.

In addition to those classic penmen - John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald (sorry Ma - I like him), Willa Cather, Mark Twain - and the contemporary greats like Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Amy Tan, every writer should arm themselves with some technical writing books beyond Strunk and White's Element of Style.  I've just finished reading a couple of books that are surprisingly compelling! Then I went to my bookshelf to see what else I've read (on writing). As it turns out, I have a few others to recommend...

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark - touts itself as "A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English." Don't let the subtitle fool you. Mr. Clark is as clever as the the fellas on late-night TV. And he doesn't even have the benefit of celebrities like Snooky for material - he's merely using his wit and the ole subject matter of grammar. Anyway, beyond the coy, there's invaluable advice for writers.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark - notice a theme yet? Well, after reading his second book, I went back to the bookstore to pick up his first book. While this book is also clever, it's more scholarly (really), giving the writer fifty specific writing tools. So break it down - do the math, you're bound to get your money's worth. Honestly, as I read it, I made a pact to myself to re-read this "manual" every year.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande - I have no idea when I picked this book up, or if my mother gave it to me, or if I picked it up at a conference, but I am THRILLED that I have it! Why, you ask? Because Roy Peter Clark references this book in Writing Tools - I made a side note to check it out at the library. Needless to say...I already owned it. Serendipity at its best. Will read soon.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose - This book was a Christmas gift from my mother a few years ago. "The trick to writing is reading - carefully, deliberately, and slowly." This particular book was transformative for me. I have never read a book in the same way - and while I'm an English major from the University of Iowa (and am only slightly pretentious when it comes to literature), Ms. Prose helped me to distinguish a ho-hum sentence from a fly-to-the-moon sentence.

I'm sure there are many more books to explore. There always are. But that's my short and inexperienced list. As I find more, I'll be sure to spread the news. Anyway, since this is the web, if you have any to share, please feel free to comment!