Booked All Week

and next week, too

Archive for May 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

with 3 comments

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and shortly before her death, doctors from John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took a sample of her cells to preserve and grow in culture. To their great excitement and surprise, these cells, which would come to be known as HeLa cells, did not die like all others had once removed from a living body, but continued to grow and multiply at an astonishing rate. This “immortality” allowed scientists to study things like the effects of radiation on human cells and the spread of viruses and cancers, and have been instrumental in the development of now-common vaccines and in vitro fertilization technologies, cloning, and gene mapping. They are one of the cell lines most commonly used for research around the world and are worth a fortune.

But the HeLa cell line is not only a story of medical successes and scientific innovation. The story of HeLa cells, the woman from whom they were taken, and the family she left behind, is also a story of racial exploitation and injustice. Henrietta, who could only find treatment in the “colored” ward of John Hopkins Hospital, had her cells taken for research without the knowledge or consent of herself or her family. Her husband and children only found out about the medical revolution that the discovery of her cells had inspired, and the multi-million dollar industry that had been built around them, more than twenty years later, when scientists studying the HeLa cell line came to do more research on them–again without their informed consent. On emotional and spiritual levels, they were mortified. On practical and economic levels, they were incensed. They wanted to know: What had really happened to Henrietta? And if she was so famous and important in the medical field, why couldn’t they, her family, afford health care?

Rebecca Skloot is a wonderful reporter, entirely accessible and engrossing. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she invites us to join her as she investigates Henrietta Lacks’s upbringing on an old tobacco farm ridden with rotting slave quarters, through sterilized labs and abandoned institutions for “the Negro insane”, and into the lives of Henrietta’s family, particularly her daughter Deborah’s. As we get to know Deborah and come to better understand her difficulties in dealing with Henrietta’s legacy, we are also provided with adequate historical context concerning medical experimentation performed on African Americans and the ongoing, problematic relationships between race, medical science, and bioethics. The Lacks’s story is fascinating and clearly told. Even if the subject matter does not initially spark your interest, I’d rethink passing up a chance to read this book. It had me hooked, and has a wide array of information and thought munchies to offer.

Written by Emily Jane

May 10, 2010 at 10:38 pm

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson

with 2 comments

In elementary school, a friend and I would routinely sneak away during recess to read Tove Jansson’s Moomin tales in our school’s library. We were completely taken with the hippo-like Moomintrolls, their friends and neighbors, and their magical adventures. The True Deceiver is the first of Jansson’s novels for adults that I’ve read. It is written with the same simplicity and majesty as her Moomin stories, and inspired a similar sense of atmosphere and wonder as I read.

Katri Kling and her “simple” brother Mats are outcasts in their small, snow-pummelled Scandinavian village. Katri is uncommonly direct at the expense of politeness and is socially intimidating. She inserts herself into the life of Anna Aemelin, an elderly children’s book illustrator who is polite at the expense of honesty. As Katri works toward an unstated goal by establishing herself in Anna’s life and the ice and snow around them begins to melt, the lies and hypocracies embodied by both women are slowly exposed.

The story seems a simple tale of deception, but it also deals with the complex themes of creativity, artistic representation vs. reality, and our general attitudes toward dealing with others in such a way that lends a sort of validating weight to this small book. Though I was ultimately less enchanted than I had hoped to be (hey, I had high expectations) and craved a little more resolution in the end, it was nice nonetheless to immerse myself again in Tove Jansson’s storytelling.

I am curious about Tove Jansson’s other books for adults…has anyone read any of them?

Written by Emily Jane

May 7, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Stranger From Abroad, by Daniel Maier-Katkin

with 2 comments

I’ve been made to read both Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger for many a college course, but it’s only recently that I learned the two philosophers had been both lovers and long term friends. Since Arendt was a German Jew who went into exile in the ’30s and is best known for her work on The Origins of Totalitarianism and her report on the Eichmann trial, which inspired her now famous theory of the banality of evil, and Heidegger was an influential existential philosopher and intellectual who joined the Nazi party and lent a semblance of legitimacy to their endeavor, my mind was pretty much blown by this new information.

Though reading Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness did not quite satiate my desire to understand how such a relationship could work on a personal level*, Daniel Maier-Katkin did a great job of exploring the intellectual relationship between the two, and the manifold ways in which the work of each influenced that of the other. Well, actually, after reading Stranger From Abroad, it seems that Arendt was much more influenced by Heidegger than he was by her, though she was regularly involved in his philosophical projects.

Their relationship began when Hannah Arendt was a student in Martin Heidegger’s class, where she was inspired by his way of thinking about thinking. To Arendt, throughout the subsequent affairs, relationships, and marriages to others, and the fall-outs and reconciliations that would span the rest of their lives, Heidegger became emblematic of what had happened to the Germany and the Germans she had known, and of the frightening capabilities inside the most civil and ordinary of people that totalitarianism is capable of utilizing.

Though Daniel Maier-Katkin does a nice job of weaving the philosophies of Arendt and Heidegger into the general narrative of the book, he does not always dig deep enough into the ways in which these philosophies might have influenced their actions. It was always the places I craved specificity that were notably vague. Arendt was focused on the possibility of new beginnings and love: how might that have affected her early relationship with Heidegger? Heidegger saw death as the absolute point in time which implied the essence and value of human life: when Maier-Katkin writes that Heideggers’ method of existentialism “made contact” with Nazism, what is the exact point of contact, and what exactly does that contact imply? The only time I felt close to satisfied with his explanations of the overlap between Arendt’s and Heidegger’s philosophies and their actions is toward the end of the book, when he points to Arendt’s thinking that reconciliation “must be a possibility in a world in which action is capable of producing new beginnings” (p. 231), that forgiveness is the only unexpected action which breaks a chain of social immobility, and that lasting friendship is “the foundation of all humanity” (p. 348) in explaining the ways in which Arendt’s thinking might explain her ability and willingness to reconcile with Heidegger.

I was also annoyed, mostly in the first hundred pages or so, with needless repetition on Maier-Katkin’s part, as well as some clumsy sentence structure and more vagueness. He says a few times that Arendt was constantly thinking both with and against Heidegger, for example, without ever really explaining what that means in any practical manner. But as the subject matter turned from early romance to the emerging nature of 20th century totalitarian regimes and the introduction and controversial reception of some of that century’s most influential philosophical and political theory, I was more willing to forgive him and immerse myself in contemplating a fantastically confusing, intriguing, and productive relationship between two strong people with stronger minds.

*Honestly, I just don’t see what Hannah Arendt saw in Martin Heidegger. I can’t understand how the intellectual challenge he posed to her could make up for all the lying, arrogance, stubborness…and, uh, Nazi-ness. That all those things could make him subject to her theoretical and philosophical work, I can see, but that she would really want him as a close, personal friend through it all? Must take a lot of…something, on her part, that I don’t think I have. Is it a form of rare trandscendental power, or misguided sentimentality? In many circles, the debate continues.

Written by Emily Jane

May 2, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized