Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ranks as one of the most fascinating books of nonfiction that I have ever read. It was one of those books that once started, you did not want to put down. Oh, would life not get in the way of reading. 

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA. When her mother died shortly after the birth of her 10th child, Henrietta was sent to Clover, VA to live with her grandfather. She grew up as a tobacco farmer's child and continued that way of life into her adulthood. She married David Lacks, her cousin in 1941. The couple relocated to Sparrows Point, MD where David worked in the Bethlehem Steel plant. In 1951, Henrietta felt a lump inside her and felt that something was just not right. She asked a cousin who assumed, correctly actually, that Henrietta was pregnant. However, after that birth, her fifth child, she went to the doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital. It was the only hospital in the area that would treat a black woman. Upon examination, it was discovered that she had cervical cancer.  Henrietta lost her battle with cancer that year after some aggressive radiation treatment. In the course of the treatment part of the tumor was removed along with healthy cells of the cervix. It is from the harvesting of these cells, that Henrietta's story becomes an incredible saga.

The cells were given to Dr. George Gey from a scientist from the University of Pittsburgh who was working at the tissue lab at JH. Until Scientists had been trying to grow cancerous cells for research, but they always died outside the body. Until - Henrietta Lacks. Her cells had the ability to reproduce in petrie dishes at an astonishing rate. And they have been reproducing for the last 60 years. Known as HeLa cells, they have been crucial to scientific research ever since. In the early days of research, they were crucial to the discovery and production of the Salk polio vaccine. 

Skloot covers the scientific background of the cell research, generally on a layman's level. I did feel lost, tho, at some points during the book, but I am not a scientifically minded person. She covers the ethical and legal aspects of harvesting and selling a person's tissue and cells. But the strength of the book is in Rebecca Skloot's methodology and her perseverance in getting to the bottom of the story and making it understandable to Lacks' children and grandchildren. She became a very good friend and confidant of Deborah Lacks, the fourth child. This aspect of the book created a very poignant and humanitarian narrative. The children struggle with what has happened to their mother and have powerful and strong reactions to those who want to tell Henrietta's story. I am glad that Rebecca Skloot was able to gain that trust and put it to paper for generations to come.   This is a captivating and important read.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Published posthumously, A Confederacy of Dunces is the Pulitzer winning prize novel by John Kennedy Toole that recounts a few weeks in the life of Ignatius Reilly. Reilly is described in the novel
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly's supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store....."
He has been commemorated in New Orleans by a statue that stands in the city. And it's no wonder since he is one of the most memorable characters in American contemporary literature. The book is both comedic and tragic at the same time because of the escapades of Reilly.

by Natalie Maynor on Flickr
Ignatius is a bafoonlike person who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is educated, but cannot keep a job, a major bone of contention with his mother. He is plagued with flatulence and general malaise. To his credit, he does try to get a job and lands one first as a file clerk in the Levy Pants factory, and then as a hot dog vendor for Paradise hot dogs. Each one ends as a result of an episode of lunacy on Reilly's part as well as the supporting cast of characters.  We look in on these episodes through a window of Ignatius Reilly's mind. He gives us insight into his actions through prolific journals that he keeps. 

Surrounding Ignatius are a plethora of characters  that beg to be caricatured. His mother, drunk much of the time still drives and gets into an accident that results in her having to pay major damages. The urgency for Ignatius to get a job is acerbated because of this incident. The Night of Joy is the watering hole of choice run by Lana Lee who is also head of a pornography ring. Then there is Patrolman Mancuso, who believes Ignatius is a pervert and attempts to arrest him. Mancuso himself is the object of his sergeant's wrath and spends days locked up in a bathroom. Mancuso's aunt, Santa Battaglia, becomes close friends and is a bowling partner for Mrs. Reilly. She eventually plays matchmaker in setting up Ignatius' mother with Claude Robichaux. Robichaux believes Ignatius is crazy and advocates admitting him to Charity Hospital. Dorian Green is a flamboyant homosexual who throws extravagant parties. Ignatius wants him and his friends to join the armed forces to replace war with orgies. The Levys own Levy Pants and are the perfect of unconnected noveau rich who have come upon hard times. Finally, there is Myrna Minkoff. In contrast to Mrs. Reilly, she believes that sex is the answer to life's problems. She maintains a correspondence with Ignatius throughout encouraging him and in the end becomes a salvation for him.

 This novel did not engage me at first. However, as I got to know Ignatius and the other members of the novel's cast, I became totally caught up in the escapades. The pictures that race through your mind are clearly painted by the command of words and skillful articulation of description by Toole. At times I thought I was watching episodes of Seinfeld - a series of events that may or may not be connected. Funny, but sad, too. I felt sorry for Ignatius at the same time I was laughing at him. A Confederacy of Dunces  deserves a second read - if only I had the time.