Tag Archives: Henrietta Lacks

Books of 2010 Part Two…

So in my second list of books that I loved in 2010 I decided to go for books that were published in hardback or paperback for the first time in 2010. There are some exceptions though and I have not included any of The Green Carnation Prize long or shortlisted books as I don’t know if I could rate them in the same way I do the books I read randomly and pop on the blog, is that fair of me? I will have to think about that more going forward in 2011 maybe? Right anyway, as Miranda Hart would say, let’s get on with the show…

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (Pan Books)

“…there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was still going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but it’s all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding; it’s also incredibly readable and an important book too.”

Purge – Sofi Oksanen (Atlantic Books)

“Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.”

One Day – David Nicholls (Hodder)

“I am well aware that this book won’t be for everyone but anyone who is looking at it and thinking ‘chick-lit by a man with no literary merit’ (and I have heard that said) would be wrong. The prose is incredibly readable without being throw-away. I laughed and cried whilst reading this book in one sitting, it was rather like spending a day on an emotional rollercoaster I have to say and yet once I had put it down I really just wanted to start all over again and I don’t say that too often. It’s not a modern masterpiece but I hope it becomes a contemporary classic… A book that will leave you an emotional wreck, make you want to hug it and also start all over again all at once possibly.”

Beside The Sea – Veronique Olmi (Peirene Press)

“I know there are some people out there who think that if you don’t have children then you can’t relate to tales about mother’s (or father’s) feelings for their child or children. I think that’s a load of rubbish, I believe that a wonderful author can take you absolutely anywhere, into any mind or situation, that’s the wonder of books. Olmi is just such a writer who put me into the mind of a mother thinking of her and her children’s lives and left me rather an emotional wreck and not any books can leave me almost feeling physically winded.”

The Long Song – Andrea Levy (Headline Review)

Slavery is always going to be a tough subject and yet the way Levy writes it both hits home the horrors of what took place, sometimes in quite graphic detail, and yet through her wonderful narrators voice there is a humour there… If you haven’t read any Levy then this is a great book to start with. If you have already had the pleasure then this book continues to show that Levy is a wonderful author who can take you to faraway places with wonderful characters and make it all look effortless… This is a truly wonderful book that haunts you in both its humour and its horrors.”

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee (Corsair)

“It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel as to read it feels so accomplished. Unlike other books that could have made you feel almost too much is going on everything is measured and paced, themes are explored but not overly so. No puddings are overegged by Mr Mukherjee here where some authors might have gone into melodrama or overkill. The prose is both lush and stark in parts and has a wonderful flow to it. The only slight tiny niggle I had was that Maud Gilby’s tale is all in bold which played a bit with my eyes, as I said a small niggle though…  Not only, as I mentioned above, is it a book that leaves you feeling a little differently about life, not on a grand scale but in subtle ways and haunts you after you finish the last sentence.”

Room – Emma Donoghue (Picador)

“Emma Donoghue does something incredibly special with ‘Room’. By putting us in the mind of 5 year old Jack she makes us see things from both the innocence of the child narrating and the cynical knowledge the reader has as an adult and rather than play it for a schmaltzy tale of woe, or a calculated tear fest, though the book is emotional in parts. It’s also very funny in parts too and that’s all down to the child eye observance of Jack and his voice. Child narrators can sometimes really grate on me, let alone books that are written in a slightly childish dialect, yet I could have listened to Jack describing his life for pages and pages more.”

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)

“Not only do you have a mystery or two in the book to work out, you have this overall mystery of just how on earth everything interlinks and with ‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ she draws out the process by introducing each character and bringing their circumstances and personalities to the fore. No one dimensional characters here, not even if they are merely in the book for a page or two. All the main characters are marvelous, readable and real. In doing so she also gets to voice her thoughts on both issues from the past (in this case the serial killings in the seventies which gripped the nation and left many women in fear) and in the present (prostitution, child welfare, the recession, dementia) through their back stories which makes it even a fuller read.”

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell (Headline Review)

“I should say it will be hard to do this book justice full stop, it will also be hard to say too much without giving everything away and spoiling it for the reader… For me the star of the whole book was the writing. Every single sentence was a real joy to read and seemed to have been crafted with care as if every word counted and that is a rare find I think. In some ways it reminded me of the way Brooklyn was crafted though the stories are nothing a like at all. The fact that on top of this atmospheric and beautiful writing are two such interesting women, a whole cast of wonderful crafted characters and a plot makes this a wonderful book for the reader, you won’t want to rush it rather savour every line page by page.”

The Clay Dreaming – Ed Hillyer (Myriad Editions)

If I said to you that ‘The Clay Dreaming’ was a book about an aboriginal cricket team arriving in London in 1868 it might not sound like the type of book you would instantly rush down to your nearest book shop to grab… The prose is masterly, the characters are full drawn – apart from the mysterious ones of course and I could easily imagine this having been published in installments in the papers/magazines of the late 1800’s… It’s not a book to be read quickly, nor an easy read by any means (ideally it’s one to be read slowly with no great rush and allowed to unfold in front of the readers eyes – perfect for on your holidays) but it is one that I don’t think people should miss out on.”

You can find the rest of my top books of the year here. Which of the books above have you read and what did you think? Have any of these books been on your must read lists? What were your favourite reads of 2010?

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

I wasn’t sure how I would react to the very real non fiction of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot as firstly I have been very close to someone dying of cancer when I went and looked after my granddad (Granny Savidge Reads husband) during the last 7 weeks of his life three years ago and therefore I could have a rather emotional response which could be good or bad. Secondly I have never been a big fan of all things scientifical (is that a word), I was hopeless at science, not helped by the fact my Mum was dating and pregnant by my science teacher – who is now my stepdad – and taught at the school so science as a subject was a write off in my moody teenage  years and has been since on the whole. Despite all this I really, really, really wanted to read the story of Henrietta Lacks when I heard about it on the radio and though it was  full of science and made me cry it is an utterly incredible read.

I doubt any thoughts that I try and jot down on ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ will be able to do justice to the book itself but I will try my hardest. To talk about the book I am going to have to give some of true Henrietta Lacks story away but before embarking on the novel you are more than likely to know all this already. Henrietta Lacks was a woman living on the edge of constant poverty in Virginia when in 1951 she discovered she had a ‘knot’ in her body and didn’t feel right. It was soon discovered that she had cancer and though she didn’t know it, or tell anyone, initially at the time this was a devastatingly aggressive kind.

Whist undergoing her treatment some cells were taken from her cervix, she had no knowledge of this, which became the first cells which could live and thrive outside the body, and they were named the ‘immortal’ HeLa cells. What Rebecca Skloot does is not only discover just  what those cells have been used for (nuclear tests, the combating of all sorts of diseases like polio – which I only just had a jab for so made me think even further, I could go on and on but you need to read it to believe it) and how they have changed the world, she also finds out about who Henrietta Lacks was.

Skloot has clearly done hours and hours of research on the facts; looking through documents surrounding HeLa cells and passes this onto the reader without ever bombarding them with too much or showing off the level of work that has gone into this book. She also makes things like cell lines, tissue culture and genetic make up easy to digest and appeal to the layman (i.e. me) which having a BS in Biological Science I thought she might just assume we all knew what she did and she doesn’t. In fact its Skloot’s personal obsession with discovering who this woman was as well as her medical knowledge that adds a certain human something to this novel and that certain something is passion and it’s contagious.

Skloot has spent with those who knew Henrietta while she was alive and most importantly her descendants and in particular her daughter Deborah who didn’t know her mother as she was very small when she died but desperately wants to know all Skloot can find out about her. You are soon drawn into a vivid world of just what it was like for the tobacco farmers in Virginia in the early 1920’s onwards and the true, and quite unbelievable, story of one particular young woman and the family she left behind. What becomes even more shocking to the reader is not only that Henrietta had no idea what her cells would have done in the world after she had departed it but also that despite all these cells have done her family have made nothing from it, whilst companies have made millions, and can barely afford their own healthcare.  

You see there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was till going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but its all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding, its also incredibly readable and an important book too. Read it! 10/10

I don’t want to say anymore than that (though I could go on and on) so I won’t. Well, I will repeat that last sentence… Read it, you really need to.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Macmillan Publishers, Rebecca Skloot, Review