April 7, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

You've undoubtedly heard of this book.  I heard about it quite some time ago when the science writer Carl Zimmer posted about it on his blog before it was even officially available.  Unfortunately, it's been a busy year for me so I didn't get to rush out, read and review it and happily introduce you to this amazing book.

But hey, now it's in paperback so if you are one of the twenty or so people left who haven't read it I'm here to tell you it's been worth the wait.  Even if you know that basic story and have heard the author interviewed, well, just about everywhere, it's still worth reading.

It's written in such a clear and compelling way.  She has to jump around in time quite a bit, but at the beginning of each chapter there is a timeline pointing out where in this story you are, from the beginnings, in the 50s, to the present day.

It is really three stories in one.  There is the amazing medical history book in which the HeLa cells transform medical science more than once and in many different ways.  There is the story of the impact of the ignorance and knowledge of these cells and what they mean to the family and the family's sad history.  Then there is the tale of the hunt for these stories, the uncovering of clues and how two very different women; the young, educated writer and the older, uneducated and fearful daughter work together on and off to bring this story and this book to light.

So beyond anything else, it's just a great story.  Then you learn so much not only about the science and the history but the way our culture has changed so dramatically over the last fifty or so years.  It really is as good as you've heard it is and is one of those unique books that is both well-reviewed and popular and deserves both.  I'm just glad Ms. Winfrey hasn't chosen it for her book club, so there's still a chance mine might be able to!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks