Two nonfiction reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Somehow, this book had passed me by in the years since it was published (2010) – strange, given that it is exactly what I like in nonfiction (narrative; genetics; families/ relationships). It is the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who, upon her death in 1951, had cervical cancer cells taken from her body and cultured. Her family, poor and grieving, did not understand what they were agreeing to when doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital requested ‘samples’ as part of her ‘autopsy’.

Henrietta’s cells grew in laboratory conditions (a first for the time) and became the ‘immortal’ HeLa cell line that transformed modern medicine – they were used in the development of the polio vaccine; in the research of cancer and viruses; and have been part of advances in IVF, cloning, and gene mapping. Henrietta’s family learnt of HeLa twenty years after her death, when scientists began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. By that stage, the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry in human biological materials. Needless to say, the Lacks family never saw any of the profits.

There are a number of threads to this story – Henrietta’s life and death; the scientific legacy of the HeLa cells; the ethical and historical context of the collection of cells, and the emergence of ‘bioethics’; the legal battle over ‘ownership’ of HeLa; and the author’s own involvement with the Lacks family.

Each thread is interesting. Each is necessary to understand the complete story. But there was something unwieldy about the structure of this book, as if the chronological order of story was controlling Skloot, rather than Skloot choosing how to tell it.

Skloot’s writing, whilst perfectly clear, is not particularly distinctive – she just happens to be writing about something extraordinary (in fairness, Say Nothing has set a narrative nonfiction precedent for me this year/ decade). Overall, I’m glad I read this book, but the book per se is not as memorable as the story of Henrietta Lacks.

3/5 Interesting.


The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

Described as a ‘travelogue of our near future’, journalist (not scientist) David Wallace-Wells explores the impact of global warming on food supply, energy, habitable land, frequency of natural disasters, and ecology. He dazzles with scenarios and choice stats, all described in terms to appeal to his audience. For example, there has been more carbon emitted in the atmosphere since the premiere of Seinfeld (1989) than in all the years previous.

Equally mind-boggling is the fact that China has poured more concrete in the last three years than the US did in the entire 20th century (cement production produces a lot of greenhouse gases; plus ‘consumption of concrete’ represents massive infrastructure developments which predominantly equates to loss of natural environment). With change moving at this rate, how can we possible ‘keep up’, let alone reverse damage?

Winning slowly is the same as losing.

The most frightening element of Wallace-Well’s book is that he is not talking ‘big’ numbers. Instead, he speculates about changes that would occur if the Earth was to warm by up to four degrees, but notes that in terms of degrees “…like world wars or occurrences in cancer, you don’t want one.”

I started this book in the days before the COVID-19 lockdown. Had I read it last year, I would have thought that the global cooperation required to address climate change would be impossible to orchestrate. Now I’m not so pessimistic – a global response to a crisis is achievable (minus Trump?!). Wallace-Wells claims that climate change has produced a new allegory – this pandemic has as well (and one that will overwrite everything else for the foreseeable future).

The last part of the book touches on solutions. While many sit back and wait for ‘science to save the day’, Wallace-Wells argues that we already have many imaginative solutions to climate change but what we lack is ‘…the political will, economic might and cultural flexibility to install and activate them.’ Again, considering this statement in the context of COVID-19 made for interesting reading.

At no point does The Uninhabitable Earth get bogged down by science, or stats or the regurgitation of dry information. Although the subject matter is depressing/ alarming, the book is engrossing and reads like a feature article… which is no surprise because that’s how it started. In the weeks between finishing reading the book and writing this review, Wallace-Wells published a COVID-19 piece in The New Yorker. I was excited, hoping that he would put smooth words around my rambling thoughts – that COVID-19 might produce a blueprint for ‘political will, economic might and cultural flexibility’. Alas, it’s a (nicely written) summary of the possible paths out of lockdown – read it here.

4/5 Thought-provoking.

7 responses

  1. Henrietta Lacks was one of the very first books to turn me on to health themes in my reading; it’s due for a reread — I’m hoping to get my book club interested.

    I could only bear to skim The Uninhabitable Earth when it first came out, but I remember thinking it was well written and argued. I’m glad it’s made you hopeful about international cooperation to tackle seemingly overwhelming problems. My husband has looked into the statistics and, unfortunately, even with so many flights grounded and so many people working from home, emissions are only down 5% this year. To achieve the greater cuts we need is going to take government-level action and coordinated efforts.

  2. Henrietta Lacks is languishing in my TBR but I do want to get to it. I’m not sure I could handle the Wallace-Wells right now but it’s such a vital issue and would be a great thing if the lockdown brings some new approaches.

  3. Excellent post. I devoured Henretta! Great storytelling and even better that it was nonfiction. If you enjoyed Henrietta Lacks, you’ll likely want to read Hidden Valley Road–sort of Henrietta Lacks or schizophrenea. I reviewed it today.

  4. Interestingly, thinking back now after we first discussed this, I thought Skloot’s writing was pretty interesting in the way she handled different narrative threads, and I found her style engaging rather than dry. She brought those people alive.

  5. A job I had a few years ago (maybe 10) was delivering cement to construct an iron ore mine (Cape Preston). They took 2-300 tonnes per day for 3 years (1 tonne of cement makes 8-10 tonne of concrete). Gold mines often use up to 100 tonne of cement per day just to process the ore and backfill the tunnels.

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