Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

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Rating – 5*

Putting my feelings for this book in to coherent sentences is going to be hard. This is a book I’ve been aware of long before I started my degree, and I really wish I had read it prior to university because it would have given me a different aproach to my day to day lab work. I knew her name, which is more than many scientists did, but when dealing with cell cultures it’s sometimes difficult to remember that every cell came from somewhere, and in many cases came from someone. More importantly, the immortal cell line – HeLa – which came from her tumor has changed the lives of everyone alive today. Yet, she was unknown until 20 years after the biopsy was taken, and she doesn’t get thanks for that.

This book was so much more than a book about cells – I’ve read many of books about cells and this wasn’t comparable to any of them. This is the biography of a woman science – the world – needs to remember the name of. Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of 5 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and unknown to her or her family the doctor took two biopsies that day. One would diagnose her with cancer, the other would go on to be the most prolific cell line in history. HeLa cells have gone on to change the world – they were instrumental in the development of medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, they’ve been in to space, they’ve changed the face of science and medicine to what we now know it. But this is a book about the woman behind that immortal cell line; the mother, sister, wife, cousin, and friend. It’s a book full of compassion and it made me cry because I know just how instrumental this woman has been in my life.

The story in these pages is not an easy read. It covers race, religion, discrimination of many kinds, the American medical system (which to this day horrifies me), medical ethics, rights to our bodies and tissues – what it covers seems to be endless. There is also a brief touch on mental health in the book, due to one of Henrietta’s children – Elsie – suffering from epilepsy and being institutionalised at a very young age. While we never know the exact details of how the poor girl was treated while in the ‘care’ home, the general opinion on what was likely to have occurred sent a shiver down my spine. But for me, the thing which gave me most hope, was that education is power. Deborah, one of Henrietta’s children, armed with a dictionary and google, was determined to learn as much about her mother and what her cells have done for the world as possible.

Rebecca Skloot is a fantastic journalist who became fascinated by the story of the woman behind the cells when she was in college. She knew from a reasonably early point in her career that this was the book she wanted to write because the more she understood, the more she wanted to know about Henrietta. She handles this book with extreme grace and compassion, with very much overdue respect and gratitude to the family in every page of this book.

Honestly, this book is one that will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s not your typical, stodgy non-fiction as it’s more about the woman, not the science. It’s approachable and informative, and a very much deserved winner of the Wellcome Prize in 2010. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I leave you on this note:- HeLa cells, which were taken from the tumour on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix – were found to contain human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18). HPV-18 is one of the strains of HPV which can cause cervical cancer, and in 2006 the cell line from Henrietta was used to develop a vaccine which is now given to all female school children in the UK (and many countries worldwide) which has, on estimate, cut cervical cancer cases by two thirds in 10 years. It’s by no means a cure, but it reduces the risk. That, for me, is something I feel both Henrietta (and her family) should be very proud of.

Discussion: Wellcome Book Prize 2017

I had intended for this to be a post before the winner was announced – however, that plan got put on the backburner and here I am now, 45 minutes after the winner was announced, a little in shock. It’s the most wonderful kind of shock because I am so, so happy with which book has been named the winner.

To warn you, this is a 500 word ramble.

In case you haven’t seen who won – I’m about to spoil it for you. It was Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal. This has made Wellcome Prize history as it’s the first book to have been translated and won, which is incredible – and honestly a testament to the translation skill. In a prize shortlist which was so diverse, fiction and non fiction, men and women, the possibility of a posthumous award, the outcome of a translated book winning – honestly it’s boggling how wonderfully diverse the shortlist was and I really, really love that this book won.

Mend the Living didn’t shout like some books do, it was more quiet in what it was putting across. It’s one that the more I’ve thought about since I finished it 2 weeks ago, the more I’ve loved it – to the point that I actually changed my rating on goodreads and bumped this up to a 5* book. It was quiet in both the way it was written, and also the media surrounding it – a lot of focus was on When Breath Becomes Air and The Tidal Zone. The hard science in The Gene and I Contain Multitudes was overwhelming and impressive, and I enjoyed both those books.

For me, the two it came down to were How to Survive a Plague and Mend the Living – out of the two the better book won in my opinion. They were both a lot less publicised, somewhat pushed to the back of the tables in my local bookshops, they were definitely not talked about enough. I actually had a conversation with a few of the booksellers in my local Waterstones, and told them that out of the entire shortlist Mend the Living was the one I would say ‘read’ – and a couple of them did.

I’m quite sad I didn’t put a prediction post up – because I would so love to have been right before the event (it’s all very well and good saying I TOLD YOU SO, but when there’s no evidence to back it up it’s not nearly as impressive!)

Seriously folks, read this book. It’s incredible and it really won’t disappoint. It’s a very, very worthy winner and I will be thrusting it in to several people’s hands in the near future. I hope that several more of her books are translated in to English because I would so, so love to see what else this woman can write.

If you can’t tell, I’m very happy.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

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Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

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Rating – 4*

There is no denying that this book is hard hitting, and one which has left a lasting imprint on me. It isn’t a book I would have picked up had it not been for the Wellcome Prize shortlisting of it. This book is a very personal insight in to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

It is by no means an easy read, both in content and style. The writing is quite dense, and it is long and incredibly detailed. I persevered with it, in spite of it being quite difficult to work through at times because I knew what I was reading was important. It was a voice I hadn’t heard before. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where AIDS and HIV is part of everyday understanding, we’re taught about it in school; sexual health is taught year in, year out and we get letters posted to us from our doctors surgery urging us to get tested for STIs (my school even had chlamydia tests in toilets, and numbers and addresses for the sexual health/family planning clinics in the area) I can’t even imagine the horrors and the fear that people felt in a world where there wasn’t an answer. Where there wasn’t that understanding, even on a small scale. This book barely scrapes the surface of that fear I can only imagine feeling.

However, as I said, this book is quite dense. There are so many individual stories in here, stories of so many people and every one of them is important, but the book felt cramped and crowded. Every voice is important, but for me there were just too many to be able to focus in on what this book is ultimately about – the discovery of the HIV virus. For me, this wasn’t a book about popular science, so going in to it I had a slightly warped perception of what lay before me. The science when it showed up was interesting, but the in depth analysis of clinical trials did have me skimming through after a while.

For me, as someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this is a very important book to read. Reading this made me realise just how damn lucky I am. Reading this brought me to tears, it devastated me in parts.

I wish there were an abridged version, or that the book was in two parts maybe – the scientific side, and the more personal side which tells the stories of the people in this book – I understand they overlapped significantly, but for me this was a bit disjointed in parts because of the juxtaposition of the two factors.

This is a very, very important book to read. There is no denying that. I’m glad to have read it, and I know a couple of people I will recommend this to. But it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the word, it’s intense in both the content and the sheer denseness of the writing and I can’t quite bring myself to give this 5* because I didn’t love it like I did some of the others in the shortlist.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

Review: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

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Rating – 3*

This is the 3rd book from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist that I have read, and if I’m honest it’s so far my least favourite.

Now, the content of this is really interesting and something I didn’t know much about (I am by no means a microbiologist, and what little I do know about microbes comes from New Scientist articles!) The microbiome is fascinating and this book makes it something that is very approachable and easy to understand. There are numerous good examples in this book, relating what is ultimately an enormous subject to things that anyone can understand. For me, it was also quite a fast paced book which is a rarity in non fiction.

Microbes are something which are all around us; inside of us, our homes, our environments. Everywhere. Science is now understanding the unique relationship that animals, plants, and the environment have with microbes. Studies in to the relationship between humans and our microbial tenants are hoping to understand how our overall health relates to the happiness of our microbiome. There is a lot of research in to illness and our microbiome, and how it can directly and indirectly affect our overall health. With society obsessed with sterilisation and cleanliness we are now at the point where we are doing more ham than good, and while there is no doubt that sterilisation has lead to significant improvements in healthcare there is strong evidence to suggest that things like air conditioning, and obsessively cleaning, causing more harm to society as a whole.

However, while I enjoyed this on the whole, there were a number of things which I found borderline irritating throughout. I found bits of it quite repetitive, while I appreciate that things do have to be repeated sometimes, I found there were a lot of instances of the same thing being said throughout the book quite needlessly. I know it’s probably a small thing, but for me it really affected my overall enjoyment.

I have absolutely no doubt that the future of Ed Yong’s writing is something I am looking forward to. I just feel that this book could have been so much more with a better organisation and maybe a bit of editing. I have no doubt that his articles and shorter work would be great, they’d be more fine tuned and less waffle-y! I also found that the barrage of Latin names for bacteria and microbes borderline annoying, it made it read more like a research paper than a book and with the otherwise relaxed tone of the book it made it feel a bit disjointed.

On the whole, I learnt quite a bit from this book, and it has changed the way I’ll be looking at things in the future and I did enjoy it. There were just minor things for me which didn’t make this as enjoyable as some other non-fiction books I’ve read lately (especially The Gene, another shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize which I absolutely adored and reviewed a few days ago!) and while I’m aware you shouldn’t compare, it’s hard not to when they’re shortlisted for the same prize.

If you’re interested in learning more about microbes and your microbiome, this is a pretty good read, and quite an easy one to follow too.

Review: The Gene – Siddhartha Mukherjee

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Rating – 5*

This book is one that had been on my radar for quite some time before I decided to pick it up. I’d been umming and ahhing over it for a while, but it being shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize meant I finally got that kick up the backside and picked it up. How I wish I had picked this up when it was first released!

This may be a stretch, but this is up there at one of my favourite non-fiction books now, definitely top of the ‘popular science’ category! To put it in to perspective as to how much I loved this, I read it as the Kindle edition, also purchased the audiobook (also good, highly recommend) and on my lunch break Thursday – two days after I finished it – I bought the paperback. I just can’t get enough of this book. Seriously.

I love reading about genetics, the history and the future. While this book is a monster (I read the Kindle version which is over 700 pages) it was so engaging, I just whizzed through it. As I said, I love reading about genetics, and as a result I have read a huge number of popular science books on the subject (along with behemoth textbooks) – some are good, some are absolutely mindnumbingly boring. This though, this is possibly the most readable, most approachable, and most engaging one of the lot; not only that it is so in depth – I didn’t feel like anything was missed out from a scientific standpoint. So yes, this book is a non-fiction masterpiece in my eyes.

For a start, I loved the format of this. I don’t know how he did it, but it felt more ‘intimate’ than many other books which focus on the same subject. I think that this came primarily from the brief biographies that were given in the text of the scientist at the centre of particular discoveries; there were histories of Darwin, Mendel, and my personal favourite, Rosalind Franklin.

Going off on a tangent for a moment, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. Not only does it recognise the achievements and contribution (and subsequent overlooking) of female scientists in the history of genetics. It also looks in to the genetics behind sexuality and gender identity. I was on edge when the words “gay gene” were mentioned – but it was handled quite sensitively and I was pleasantly surprised at how open minded the handling of this topic was. Also included, and handled with immense sensitivity, was the subject of eugenics, forced sterilisation, Nazi studies in to genetics – some of that was hard reading!

Back to the book as a whole, I found that the chronology of this really layered up information piece-by-piece. It was so skillfully done, and I really think I would have benefited from reading this book when I was doing my A Levels, and my degree as a supplementary text to refresh the history of the subject, and because the science is there but the ‘popular science’ style of writing makes it more digestible and much less intimidating than a 1000 page textbook on the subject!

Ultimately, this is an incredible book (can you tell I think that?) and I absolutely loved it. I’m glad that the prize actually made me pick it up because I honestly think I’d have missed out on something important had I not read this. I’d urge anyone looking for a good non-fiction book to give this a whirl, yes it’s big, but it’s the best book on the subject I’ve read.

Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

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Rating – 3*

So, I actually read this book in October last year – it was one of the last books I read before I hit The Great Reading Slump of 2016. I thought it about time I reviewed it as I have decided to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist this year, and this is one that has made it. Naturally, this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write this review.

Most people who watch Booktube, or follow bookish blogs like myself, will have heard of this book. It’s been raved about – and for me that was a bit of a hindrance to it because it really set high expectations, which it didn’t quite live up to. However, reviewing this nearly 6 months after I read it has allowed me time to reflect back on it – and I realised that I can still remember it vividly, and that it has suck with me in that time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Tidal Zone centres around Adam – a stay at home dad to two girls. The whole family is shook when for no apparent reason Miriam, his 15 year old daughter, collapses at school. The book follows the family coming to terms with this, learning to live with the not knowing and the overwhelming fear that plagues them daily. It discusses everything; teenagers, gender, sex, academia, marriage, family, the NHS but it also follows mundane, daily chores that Adam undertakes too.

It really is a remarkable book, and I’m glad that it’s been recognised on at least one shortlist this year. I gave it 3 stars when I read it, and I think reflecting on it I would still very much agree with that rating. But, reading this has prompted me to pick up more of Sarah Moss’ work – and in researching I’ve found she’s been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize several times, which just makes me even more excited to read more from her!

Wellcome Prize 2017

Over the weekend I made what I would call a slightly bonkers decision – on flicking through the internet, trying to find what books to read next – I was looking at prize lists and finding no inspiration. Then I found a blog post somewhere which reminded me of the existence of the Wellcome Prize.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual prize. Eligible books are those which have central themes of medicine, health, illness, or biosciences. Because of this broad criteria the lists of books nominated are from a number of genres – both fiction and non-fiction, but can span across any sub-genres of those.

The Wellcome website says this:

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

Wellcome 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist 2017

The shortlist this year is a combination of books I have had on my radar, books I have already read, and books that having read the blurb I can’t wait to read. Needless to say I’m excited.

The winner will be announced on April 24th 2017 and I’m hoping to get through the 5 I haven’t read in that time. My review of The Tidal Zone – which I read last year but didn’t get around to reviewing – will be coming later this week.

If anyone has read any of the shortlist and wants to push me towards a particular book, I’m always open to suggestions, and I’m always happy to talk about books – and I really think these will all generate some discussion!