Tag Archive: Review 17

A woman’s cells, her family and a reporter…

Today’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I heard about this book through various media outlets last year and heard the author being interviewed on NPR. It seemed (at the time) like an interesting work so I added it to my list for my year of books. When I finally got around to reading it this last week, what I discovered was an astonishing story.

Skloot focuses on a woman named Henrietta Lacks– a poor African-American woman who died of an invasive form of cervical cancer– but whose cancerous cells were removed for scientific research before her death by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Without her consent to be used for research purposes– something that was not uncommon in the early 1950s.)  The cells were unusual in that they continued to live in laboratory conditions and kept making copies of themselves. Those cells would become the basis for biomedical testing for decades, and would contribute to research on polio, AIDS, HPV, and cancer (among other things.) Without these cells, many major scientific breakthroughs would have not happened. But nobody told Henrietta about this. No one told her family, and no one thought about the implications, or even the ethics of taking an African-American woman’s cells and making money off their use while her own descendants continued to struggle with severe medical and financial problems (and that is only one aspect of a multifaceted ethical dilemma.)

The book contains multiple storylines to tell the main story. There is the story of Henrietta, her illness and a death. Then there is the story of her cells and the medical miracles that they helped bring about. Then there is the story of the Lacks family and their suffering– and of how Skloot worked for years to win their trust and friendship so that she could tell the most complete story possible. Somehow Skloot manages to weave all these threads together and tell a compelling story that brings out the humanity of Henrietta and her family, while also explaining the difficult and dense scientific side of Henrietta’s story.

I couldn’t put this book down.  First of all, Skloot’s storytelling is phenomenal. She seamlessly interweaves so many different aspects of the story, and manages to remain evenhanded. Her work is careful, knowing that Lacks’s family distrusted all the “white people” who were trying to make a profit off their mother’s cells. And she is honest– this was not an easy book to write– she faced so many roadblocks, yet somehow she pulls everything together and manages to tell Henrietta’s story. By following the family’s wishes to not “pretty up” the book she tells a raw story about the family’s past and how in the present, they have come to grips with that past.

There is so much to say about this book, but I hardly know where to begin. All I have to say is this: read the book, and be a witness to what happened to Henrietta Lacks. That is what her family wanted in the publishing of this book. They wanted people to know her story, to know that she was a person, and for people to know how her cells changed science. They wanted people to think about the ethical dilemma that scientific research on tissues (that were once part of actual people– and usually taken from the poorest minorities without their consent) represents and for people to realize that such research can have long-lasting effects on the families of those who were researched.

Read it and realize that Henrietta’s story is not just a scientific story but a very human story.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Cracking the Narnia Code

Suppose someone claimed to have discovered a secret code in one of the most wildly popular children’s series in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Moreover, suppose that this person claimed the code would unlock the architectonic structure of a series that, while certainly a modern classic, has often been accused of being written in a bit of a slapdash manner, with no clear guiding principle.  Then suppose that our interpreter further claimed that the author of the series intentionally used this code, but kept it a secret, only to be “discovered” nearly half a century after the author’s death.  You would think this guy was crazy, no?  These are precisely the claims that Michael Ward makes in his recent study of the Chronicles of Narnia, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.  Want to hear the most outrageous part?  He actually pulls it off!

Words fail to express the genius of this work, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Ward’s claim at first appears audacious, bordering on absurd.  The argument can be summed up briefly: each of the seven books in the Narniad (the scholarly term for the series) reflects the characteristics of one of the seven heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn).  Not only does each book reflect one of these spheres, though; each one actually embodies the spirit of the planet, from beginning to end.  The characters, the plot, the imagery of each book – all of these combine to establish an overall Gestalt corresponding to the book’s planetary symbol.  To take just one example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, is imbued with the characteristics of Jupiter.  It is a Jovial book filled with kingly features, joyfulness, feasting, and the passing from winter into spring.  Aslan embodies many of these features, but so, in their own way, do the four Pevensie children, as do other characters and the very plot of the story.  This Jovial character explains appearances that have seemed anomalies to most interpreters.  Many critics, for example, argue that Father Christmas is out of place in Narnia and so was simply a blunder on Lewis’s part.  Narnia was a mishmash of various mythologies carelessly cobbled together (this was J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous criticism of the book).  Ward argues that the Jovial theme explains the appearance of Father Christmas: rather than an oddity or an incongruity, Father Christmas appears because he is the quintessential Jovial character in modern culture – both in the sense of jocularity, and in the sense of reflecting this and other characteristics of Jove, king of the gods.

The lion’s share of Ward’s book interprets each of the Chronicles along these lines.  Ward does not confine himself to the Chronicles, though.  In each chapter he also discusses the significance of one of the planetary spheres in Lewis’s scholarship, in his poetry, and in the space trilogy (the other work obviously influenced by Lewis’s fascination with medieval cosmology) before turning to the Chronicle that embodies the sphere.  With each successive chapter, the case becomes stronger and stronger, such that by the end the reader can’t help but agree with Ward that his discovery of the schema is definitive – not in the sense of closing off discussion, but in the sense of explaining the fundamental guiding principle behind the series.

Ward does more than offer a fascinating literary analysis, however.  He also opens a window onto Lewis’s genius, his broadmindedness, and his playfulness.  His thesis shows numerous connections between Lewis the scholar, Lewis the poet, and Lewis the storyteller.  Lewis lived and breathed medieval culture, and he synthesized it in a stunning way.  Moreover, Ward demonstrates the capaciousness of Lewis’s Christianity.  Like his medieval hero Dante (and the medieval spirit in general), Lewis did not disdain all things pagan, but rather intentionally drew upon the good, the true, and the beautiful in pagan mythology.  In short, he baptized the pagan gods and used them to represent different aspects of the Christian God he had come to worship.  Finally, the fact that Lewis could use such a schema and yet keep it a secret suggests an endearing puckishness on his part.  Ward suggests that one of the reasons Lewis may have kept the schema a secret was to see if anyone would get it.  The joke paid off, as it took nearly fifty years for someone to get it.

Planet Narnia is a breathtaking work.  It opens new vistas on this modern classic, and it deserves to become a classic itself.  I have long been a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien, but I always considered the latter’s Middle Earth the superior achievement.  While my loyalty still lies with Tolkien, Ward has convinced me that Lewis’s Narniad is no less spectacular.  For any serious fan of Lewis and of the Chronicles, Planet Narnia is an absolute must-read.

Seventeen down, (at least) thirty-five to go.


P.S. If you are a bit daunted at the prospect of tackling a work that began as a doctoral thesis, Ward has also published a more popular version of the work, The Narnia Code (also available on DVD).