I’ve been reading. Not writing really, because the kids have finished school and we’ve been to Cambridge, and stayed on a barge on the Suffolk coast and, actually, I spent most of June trying to get ahead with work. So, no writing, but I have pledged to read a book a day on any of the free days we have this summer. The kids have reached an age where they occupy themselves for a while, and I think there are plus points of backing off and letting them get on with it.
Inspired by Maddy’s books from her bedside table, this is a little about the books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks. There is some sort of theme – health, medicine, science, told through people’s stories – though I picked the books very much at random. One was a gift, another was sent to me for review, the third I ordered after reading about it online, and the fourth was one I pinched from my daughter as I had run out of reading material when we were on the boat!
The first book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Kloot. I didn’t know anything about the subject, but I was interested because the book aims to draw out a personal story from science, the story of Henrietta Lacks whose cells were the first to be successfully grown in a lab. The cells which originated from a cancerous growth on Lacks’s cervix continued to grow successfully. They have been used on an ongoing basis for medical trials and tests ever since they were first cultured in the fifties.
Rebecca Kloot is a science writer and was a student when she first delved into Henrietta’s untold story. Medicine has a habit of anonymizing its subjects to protect them, but in this book Kloot tries to uncover a more about the woman behind the cells. It is clear from the book that being poor and black in the fifties meant that families like the Lacks family were wary of doctors, and well aware of stories of people being used in medical tests without their knowledge or against their will. And in some ways, that applies to Henrietta. She didn’t know that her cells were going to be taken and used in the way they were – and it seems that the doctor had no idea just how the cells would succeed and grow either.
Henrietta died soon after her cells were taken, and her family had no idea what had happened, although snippets emerged over the years as researchers contacted them, leaving them with a feeling of unease and fear. Rebecca Kloot made a commitment to uncover as much of the story as she could, and she developed a relationship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The book is a dense read which took me a couple of weeks. Kloot does a good job of covering as much of the history of the family, of Henrietta herself, and also puts this into the context of in vitro cell research as it developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. I think it is important that people’s stories are told, and though out the book you can really feel Deborah’s passion to find out about her mother. By the end of the book, though, Deborah has died. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951. Incredibly, her cells are still being used in research today. They live on, and so does Kloot’s story.
The second book is Baby X, by Rebecca Ann Smith. I’ll be writing more about this later in a review for the Contemporary Small Press Blog, but to sum up, this book looks at a near future where a baby is growing in an artificial womb. It personalises the science by telling the story through the voice of three women – Alex, the lead researcher, Karen, the ‘mother’ of Baby X, and Dolly, an assistant in the lab. (Dolly – wasn’t that the name of the first cloned sheep?) I write ‘mother’ in quotes, because Baby X has been created with a donor egg, and is growing in a lab. Issues of parenthood, of motherhood are raised by this book. I read it all through in a day, and I wondered if it was going to be a little slow, but I was gripped within the first few chapters. Smith unravels a complex story in a clear manner, and succeeds at taking us back and forth in the time line, from conception to present day to future investigation into the project. There is a mystery to unravel, and one action that appears to be the crime, while in fact another crime has taken place that is gradually exposed through the book. There is always a challenge in melding science and story: the science must underpin the story unobtrusively. I probably have a greater interest in the science and medical part of the story than most people, but I’d say that Smith has the balance right. She has created a gripping story, in a world that isn’t too far from our own.
I stumbled across Will & I, by Clay Byars in an article, How Clay Byars battled paralysis to finish his memoir. Despite the tabloid style title, the premise interested me – a first person story, Clay writes of his experiences since having a stroke aged twenty, one that should have killed him. The stroke occurred as a result of surgery to deal with a problem with one of Clay’s arm, which arose after a car accident. The book is written in a gentle style, mixing snippets of Clay’s current life with his past experiences. It has taken him around fifteen years to write, perhaps unsurprising considering the traumatic nature of what it addresses.
I’m always interested in people telling their own stories of how they have fought back: remarkably Clay lives with his dogs on a remote farm, despite still having issues with walking and limited use of both arms. The other aspect of this book which is indicated by the title, is that Clay has a twin, Will. I would have liked to know a little more about their relationship – Will is a fairly shadowy figure for much of the book, but maybe it’s right that Clay can only write his view. As indicated in the LitHub article, there are elements that resonate with Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, but of course there are differences: put harshly, Kalanithi died, Byars has survived. Both, though, give us a chance to see life through someone else’s eyes, in a way that makes us appreciate the value of what we have.
My final book is the one I borrowed from my daughter. I’m sure you’ve been there – on holiday, time to relax, but you’ve read all your books. I borrowed Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider. In the near future (as per Baby X), a new strain of TB emerges, one which is resistant to all known treatments. In a throwback to the last century, those with the condition are sent off to live in communities where they can’t infect others while they recover – or die. The book tells the story of teenager Lane who is sent to Latham House. He makes new friends, and in facing death decides to truly make the most of his life. As YA books go, this is fairly standard: boy meets girl, with the quirk of everyone having a potentially life threatening illness. We even get the stats: four out of five kids leave Latham cured. Which of Lane’s new friends – Nick, Sadie, Marina and Charlie – will get to go home, and will life ever be the same if they do? The plot was good enough to keep me reading, but I think again, as with Baby X and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks it’s the way that the science was dealt with that makes this book worth recommending. There is a great end section with an accurate history of the development of treatments for TB which I imagine 90% of teen readers will skip! It also details how Schneider, a bioethicist, came to write the book- she came up with the idea while sitting in a Cinema of Contagion class!
So, there are a number of threads that tie these books together. Science through personal experience, fact or fiction, is one strand that links them. Another, though, is that they are all books that I would like to have written, all books that speak to what I am writing. Clay Byars is brave enough to take his personal experience and write into it. Robyn Schneider and Rebecca Ann Smith both create fiction from fact, and while Rebecca Kloot remains on the side of non fiction, it is creative non fiction that tells someone’s story. Looking at the books as a whole inspires me to keep writing and researching in the hope that at some point someone will be gripped by the story I have written too.