Monday, September 3, 2012

Kindle Reviews: The Weird Sisters, North and South, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
This New York Times bestseller deals with the lives of three sisters, Rose, Bianca, and Cordelia, whose father is a Shakespeare nut and professor of English literature at a small, private college in the Northeast. Having grown up in a college town, all three sisters have a love-hate relationship with it that forms one of the themes of the book. Whether they are trying to run from their past, find their way home, or spread their wings and leave the nest, each sister has to deal directly with her personal demons in the face of their mother's illness and their own changing lives. I have a sister, so it's always fascinating to me to read books about family dynamics and see what similarities and differences there are in the ways other people form the bonds of sisterhood and daughterhood. If I had any criticism of this book, it's that the stereotypes are too broadly drawn and simplistic. The "homebody" is a bossy goody two-shoes intent on perfectionism, the "gypsy" has no roots, no standards, and no future, while the "rebel" lies, cheats, sleeps around and feels empty inside. Yet each character achieves growth over the course of the novel, and the ending leaves them in a place that makes sense for who they are. A good read, well written, nothing earth-shattering.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I came to this book by way of the BBC miniseries starting Richard Armitage. I loved the social commentary, the feminist protagonist who manages to still be feminine, and of course, the romance at the heart of the story. When I realized it was based off a novel, I sought it out and found it for free on Amazon Kindle Classics. In fact, the complete works of Elizabeth Gaskell are available for $2. As is always the case, I read the book with the movie in mind, hoping that I wouldn't be disappointed or upset by the differences. Happily, the book is exactly as I hoped it would be. It expands greatly on the tough social issues of unions, a living wage, relations between master and worker, and the role of charity and ethics in business. The book's main conflict is between the workers in Millton and the mill owners, among them the self-made John Thornton. Margaret Hale, a pastor's daughter from the south, comes to live in Milton and is greatly affected by the tensions of the city. As an concerned outsider, she moves easily between classes and is able to have a positive effect on the opinions and sensibilities of both. If anything, the book made me more appreciative of the BBC adaptation. While the book is excellent, it lacks the sense of immediacy and passion that are so evident in the film, while the film, naturally, lacks the depth of the book. I can happily recommend both for their individual merits, without concern that one would detract from or destroy the joys of either experience. Highest recommendation. Supersedes even Austen.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks lay dying of advanced cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. At that same hospital, a scientist named George Gey had been trying, without success, to grow a line of human cells for use in medical research. When Gey attempts a sample of Lacks' tissues, they begin to grow and, against all expectations, they continue growing. Known as HeLa, the cell line is still dividing and reproducing to this day, and has made possible the entire field of cellular research. Scientists using HeLa have tested vaccines for polio, made advancements in their understanding of various forms of cancer and viruses, begun the mapping of the human genome, and developed treatments for many diseases that were considered impossible to cure. Yet this story is much more than science labs, test tubes, microscopes, and mitosis. It is the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family, who were completely unaware of their mother's contribution to science until twenty five years after her death, and who hold a mixed and complicated relationship with the cell line that is her legacy. By turns triumphant and tragic, the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells is fascinating, inspiring, and troubling. I hope it is the sort of book that becomes required reading in every high school ethics class, for it is a perfect case study of modern medical ethics and the advances made possible by technology.