Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Random House, 2010).

This true story of how Henrietta Lacks’ cells enriched science (but not her family) is reminiscent of the CBS News show 60 Minutes. Henrietta’s cancer cells, taken as she was dying of cervical cancer in 1951, were the first cells to be successfully grown in culture and kept “alive” for decades. The cell lines that resulted were instrumental in many of the great scientific and medical discoveries of the second half of the 20th century. Science journalist Rebecca Skloot spent at least a decade researching this topic and interviewing the Lacks family, and the interviews (recreated, not recorded) are read in appropriate voices by the audio book’s voice actors. The way that Henrietta’s cells were used raises many ethical questions, not least that it should have been impossible to identify the donor.  The whole experience had a very negative impact on her family, which is poor and uneducated and did not understand what happened, but still grasped that it was wrong. Skloot makes a powerful case for why all of us should care about this issue, no matter what our personal circumstances.

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Filed under Science, Social Science

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (Walker & Company, 2006).

It’s not easy to summarize the entire history of the world in a couple hundred pages, but Standage does, and makes it interesting. His premise is that you can divide world history into six stages, each of which is represented by a dominant beverage. They are: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Except for Coca-Cola, they are all basically ways of making water more palatable and safe, before water purification techniques are invented. It is fascinating to learn how much of an impact these six beverages have had on world history, particularly on trade and politics. Other than this unusual perspective, Standage’s world history is fairly standard textbook stuff, with few surprises. Still, it’s well-written and entertaining, and worth a few evenings of reading.

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Filed under Social Science

Dance with Dragons

The Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Books, 2011)

So, I finally finished this book. All 959 pages of it (not counting the Appendix). It’s not out in paperback yet. Lugging around this heavy book made me start to think about getting a Kindle, which I understand is MUCH lighter. Anyway, yeah, it was good, though the story still does not appear to be over. Tying up loose ends: not so much. I got really tired of reading about the violent deaths of various characters, only to find out later that they were alive after all; to the point where I didn’t trust anything I read. Worse, I understand that it will probably be years until the sequel is written. I think it’s time to move on with my life. Now I’m reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (on audio) – so far it’s fascinating.

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Filed under Fantasy

Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Bantam Dell, 1991)

This novel is the first in a long series, in which The Scottish Prisoner (that I reviewed several weeks ago) comes much later. It does explain the situation with Jamie’s wife Claire and her time traveling, although oddly she travels back from 1945, not the present. Despite the time travel, I would consider it primarily historical fiction. Writing from the point of view of a modern woman commenting on 18th century culture is an interesting slant, although technically the author would be doing that anyway. I’m certainly learning a lot about how the colonial-era British treated homosexuality and gender, as well as their primitive medical care. As an American I really only learned about the 18th century in colonial America, not in Scotland. Apparently they burned witches there too, and hearing “the Redcoats are coming” struck fear into Jacobites as much as American patriots.

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Filed under Historical fiction, Romance, Science fiction, United Kingdom