Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.
Voted the Best of 2010 in Science and Technology, I am so glad this book got the recognition it so richly deserved. The author is a science/medical writer. But, I think, a mistake was made in the category in which it was placed. Were it in the category of nonfiction, I think more folks would think about reading it. The science part of the book is wonderful and approachable by anyone. But this is not a science or technology book per se nor, do I think, is science the best part of the book. It is a book more about ethics and the law. It is a book, I believe, mostly about our humanity and in that regard, I cannot find a better book in this year or in many others before it. The book is a superbly written and exquisitely narrated.
Audible Member Since 2003
Rebecca Skloot spent ten years of her life researching and writing this book. At the time she had no way of knowing just what she was getting herself into.
The HeLa cell line is one of the most important and studied subjects in the world of medicine and biology, but practically nothing was known about the person from which these cells were named, Henrietta Lacks. In fact, for years even the name Henrietta Lacks was intentionally obscured by the fictitious names of Helen Lane or Helen Larson.
Skloot was a young student at the time she became interested in the mostly anonymous Henrietta Lacks, who died at the age of 31 from a terribly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her cells were extracted, without permission or informed consent, becoming for all purposes the first line of "immortal" human cells living outside of the host body. The author decided to attempt to put a human face on the donor of the cells which played a vital part in such scientific advances as in the cure for polio, aids research, genetic discoveries, cancer cures, drug developments, to name just a few. However, learning the true story of the Lacks family two generations after the death of Henrietta turned out to be quite the daunting venture as Skloot tenaciously uncovers layers of family suffering, mistrust, ignorance and exploitation.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real-life story of family and all that goes along with it, good and bad. It is in-part a tale of mystery that walks into real human drama, tackling many difficult issues of racism, bio-ethics, privacy and profiteering.
This book is perfectly narrated and is one of the best audio books I have encountered in quite some time. Do not miss this one!
I LOVE BOOKS! I have a service business (large salon). 'What are you reading' is heard all day everyday.
Exceptionally well wrought!! A history, biology and genealogical story cleverly wrapped in well narrated format. I truly enjoyed this listen and appreciated the author's painstaking patience with the Lacks family and the in-depth explanation of the HELA cell's science. It's hard to imagine a biology lesson being presented in any better arrangement. Thanks and BRAVO Rebecca!
This is a necessary book - aside from informing us about what seems today like the the dark ages of cancer research and the reported unfair treatment of minorities by the medical community in the era of Henrietta Lacks, it's time we all became more enlightened as to the fate of our body products once we part with them in a doctor's office, lab or hospital. This book raises important issues as to the space required for storage of all discarded tissue, which is unlike printed material that can be converted to digital format.
As an historical novel there are bound to be characters that are not "likable" nor relatable in the usual fictional sense. This family was troubled in many ways, in addition to the implied racial implications, the possible malpractice issues regarding the HeLa cells, and losing any financial stake in the success of the HeLa cell line. The family came to Baltimore to be part of the then growing steel industry. They were originally from a bare bones town in Virginia, having farmed their own tobacco crops after indirectly inheriting the property after being emancipated from slave status. There were some hard workers amongst the marginal characters, but basically this was a hard-strapping family who had to make do in order to survive. And several of them fell by the wayside to crime and mental dysfunction.
The book is well-written, even with the frequent disjunctions in time periods. It can be difficult to follow the genealogy and plethora of major and minor characters, and the myriad mentions of various studies. But all that is mere technicality.
The book accomplishes its goal of promoting proper documentation of, and credit for - financial or otherwise - biological tissues that are saved and used for research. It raise the question of ownership of our own tissues, and whether or not we have proprietary rights to our own bodies, in situ or in vitro.
A Heartbreaking story that details the illogical justification used by scientists and the market establishment they created to reason away that an individual's biological material is not their own or something they can uniquely own and patent or trademark but instead can only be patented and trademarked by a scientist or corporation (manufactured individual). This woman from America's racial and economic underclass's unique and special biological cells pioneered science and are now sold as the property of a corporation. She died in poverty and her progenitors and spouse struggled and suffered greatly as the medical and science establishment exploited their ignorance while making huge advancements and wealth with the immortal cells of this poor woman without even giving proper public credit or respect.
About a month ago, I donated blood at the American Red Cross. I'm there about every other month - or exactly at 56 days, depending on how persistent those cheerful calls, with their underlying tone of urgency, are. Last time I was there, there was an addition to the binder of forms I needed to review: a disclosure that my blood could be used for research, and if I didn't agree to that, I shouldn't donate.
I was puzzled: why the consent now, since Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" had been published in 2010? I hadn't read the book, but I had followed the debate about informed consent. I didn't really think about how the Lacks family felt about Henrietta's cells (called HeLa) living in labs twice as long as Henrietta herself did. I sure didn't think about HeLa economics.
On June 13, 2013, the US Supreme Court ruled that naturally occurring genes cannot be patented in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Docket 12-398. On August 7, 2013, the National Institutes of Health announced that they had reached an agreement with Henrietta's descendants to use HeLa cells with the informed consent of a board, including two of her family members.
I heard an interview with Skloot shortly after on NPR, and decided it was time to read/listen to "The Immortal Life." I was astounded by the sheer tenacity of HeLa cells (cancer cells from an especially aggressive form of cervical cancer caused by one of the HPV viruses, strengthened by untreated neuro-syphillis) and by the research and discoveries based on those cells. HeLa was instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine, tests to identify cancer, studies on chemical toxicity . . . and so much more. When I checked PubMed as I wrote this review, there were 76,057 peer reviewed articles with HeLa mentioned in the abstracts.
Skloot's careful research, wonderfully descriptive writing, and absolute respect for the Lacks family was evident. Skloot described the family and some of its very memorable members, especially Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, who really wanted to know the HeLa story - but was also afraid to find out everything, for good reason. Skloot avoids a sociological analysis of the Lacks family, which is good - that would have made them a 'study', not real people. There was an overarching irony: despite the invaluable contribution Henrietta made to medicine, most of her surviving family did not have medical insurance.
Skloot was careful to use the actual dialect and pronunciations of the people she interviewed in the Audible book. I don't know how it looked in writing, but it made a good listen. The narrators, Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, worked well together.
I'll still donate blood, of course - but from now, my imagination of what my cells are doing won't be limited to surgeries involving people who have the same blood type.
This Audible book doesn't come with a downloadable reference guide, but there are pictures of the Lacks family and a lot of the scientists mentioned in the book available on Google Books.
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I found the premise of this non-fiction book fascinating. It teased the idea of immortality as a possibly attainable thing and teased that one woman's cells were responsible for some of the most important advances in medicine. But after reading the book it became clear that these teases were for dramatic effect and, while not untrue per se, take the facts out of context. Lacks' cells aren't immortal really. Rather, the amazingly aggressive cancer cells that killed Lacks are "immortal". And those cells aren't really immortal either, they still need to be maintained to be kept alive and multiplying. As a by-product, those cancer cells contain Lacks' DNA. And to be clear, the cancer cells haven't caused the advances in medicine. The scientists who developed the processes and treatments were the heroes. But it helped to have an aggressive, self-replicating virus to make experimentation easier.
Other problems I had with this book were the needless details about Lacks' relatives. I understand that due to the stubborness of the family, they wouldn't consent to the writing of the book without some of this information being brought out. They wanted Lacks' story to be told (but they also wanted to sue people for violating her privacy when they tried to put Lacks' name and family DNA information in medical journals - ???).
However, some of the information is simply filler (the fact that one of Lacks' children went to prison for murder is a complete waste of time). The only reason why I believe Skloot put these stories in is because, as she admitted, she had a sheltered life prior to her experience with the Lacks family and this was her first time actually interacting with members of another race and lower socio-economic means than what she was used to. She found it interesting.
Towards the end of the book Skloot even tries to defend her reasoning for putting this information in the book. It comes off as apologetic, which seems that someone (possibly her publisher or editor) tried to tell her it was a bad idea. She should have listened.
But the biggest issue I had with the book also happened towards the end of the book. Skloot shifts her telling of events to include herself as a participant. She begins to tell the reader about some of her research and interacting with Lacks' family. The entire tone of the book changes and it almost sounds like a fictional novel. Skloot writes more than just about going to certain facilities and speaking with people. She goes on about her feelings and, at one point, has a religious experience. It's unimportant, self aggrandizing and damages any impartiality that she had about any of her research. It also caused me to question how impartial she was in the conveying of any of the information in the book. In an age when fair and balanced journalism seems to be harder to find each day Skloot should be ashamed of this particular writing choice.
I picked up this book for the possible scientific information inside and about Lacks as a curious by-product. I presumed that a certain amount of information about Lacks' history was necessary to give the book a human aspect that would prevent it from becoming a scientific journal bore. However, I didn't buy this book to hear about the shenanigans Lacks' children got into after she passed away or about Skloot.
You'd be better off reading the free Wikipedia entry (if you still feel like spending, donate to the website). You'll save time and get a clearer understanding of the facts.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, like many compelling works of nonfiction, was written to tell one story, but, in its creation, uncovered several others. On the surface, Rebecca Skloot's book is about a line of cells, extracted from a single cancer patient in the 1950s, that went on to be the most widely studied human cell line in the world. On another level, it's about an evolving debate over the medical ethics of cell and DNA ownership. How much say should patients have in the use of their own genetic material? How does society balance the needs of medical research against concerns for privacy and individual autonomy?
On still another level, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about race relations in America, about uneven levels of white privilege and black privilege when it comes to access to information and advocacy. It's a story about casual exploitation by a scientific establishment that was trained to compartmentalize and not think of its work in personal terms. Finally, it's a story of a family struggling to find emotional and spiritual closure after the years following the death of their mother, who continues in a strange and somewhat mystifying afterlife.
If the book had simply been about science and ethical questions pertaining to the cells of Henrietta Lacks, I might not have found it more than mildly interesting, but the human element gives the story many more dimensions. I think Skloot did an excellent and honest job of conveying how one poor, black family from the rural South perceives science and medicine. Of course, they understand and care about the basic things that most Americans do, but their views are colored by a history and identity that, I, a well-educated, middle-class white northerner, simply haven't lived in. It was a fascinating and ultimately hopeful exploration beyond stereotypes and into how human beings really relate to questions that can never be entirely viewed in clinical, medical terms. You get to know Henrietta's extended family, and to view her life and unintended contribution to science as they do.
Overall, the book felt like an extended episode of This American Life, in that it didn’t explore (or resolve) any issue in great depth, but was engagingly put together and taught me a little about a lot of different subjects. Since it’s not a long read, I’d say it’s well-deserving of its awards and your time.
The beginning of this book was interesting and kept me listening. I learned some interesting information about cell research. But sadly by the time I began listening to Part 2, my interest was waning. The trials and tribulations of the Lacks children (mainly as adults) took over the story and became tedious. I think Skloot became too involved with the family, thus losing her objectivity and was unable to write an unbiased story. I finished the book but was disappointed with the final 1/4 of the book.
The narrators did a fine job and their delivery helped me make it to the end of the book.