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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Paperback – March 8, 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 5,053 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 381 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (March 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400052181
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5,053 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Wow. This book should be required reading for scientists and students of life. The true story of Henrietta Lacks and her family has finally been told, beautifully, in this book. The book encompasses science, ethics, and the story of a family who was terribly wronged in the pursuit of scientific research. I could gush about this book for pages but I'll try first to hit the main points of why this book is so remarkable in list form for the sake of brevity:

1. The author clearly developed a strong relationship with the Lacks family, which was absolutely critical to ensuring the story was told accurately and with the respect to Henrietta Lacks that was so deeply deserved.

2. The storytelling is amazingly moving despite the need to convey a lot of scientific information. It reads like fiction.

3. Ms. Skloot's research into the science is impeccable.

4. The book is FAIR. It presents the unvarnished truth, obtained DIRECTLY from as many prinicpal people involved in the story as is humanly possible. It would have been easier to simplify the story into heroes vs. villians, but Ms. Skloot deftly handles all sides of the story.

For some detail: I have worked with HeLa cells in the past, but did not know even the barest information about the story of Henrietta Lacks until a few years ago. It simply was not common knowledge, until a few less ethical folks released her name and medical records to the public. This obviously should not have been done without the express permission of the Lacks family, which Ms. Skloot obtained. In the past, others have not been as ethical. The book covers Ms. Lacks' early life, how her cells came to be harvested, and what happened to both the cells and her family afterward.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a big fan of science and medical non-fiction, so when I saw the rave reviews for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was excited to read it. It started off strong; I'd give the first half five stars. The oral history of the Lacks family was fascinating, and I loved reading about how the cells got their start in the lab. When the author introduced the adult family (Deborah, et al), I felt a strong sympathy for them and what they'd been through. I was already recommending it to friends, anticipating that the second half would be as good.

However, once I got to the second half, it went downhill considerably. The writing was fairly tight in the beginning, keeping all of the stories woven together in a comprehensible way, but seemed to unravel as the book went on. When I read the introduction, I didn't understand why Skloot was so defensive about inserting herself into the book (in my experience, medical non-fiction authors do it all the time), but I soon realized why - because by the second half, the book becomes less about HeLa, science, history, and ethics, and instead turns exclusively into a memoir about Skloot's dealings with the family. And at this point, the family became unsympathetic and insufferable. The writing became repetitive, somewhat informal, and ridden with unnecessary details. One reviewer called this book "deftly written" and I'd have to disagree. The second half gets one star.

The book ended on a strong note, with the Afterward. The Afterward took us back to questions of bioethics. As I was reading it, I wondered why the Afterward was a separate part - couldn't it have been woven into the second half of the book?

In short, I thought this book was merely ok, but as the reviews show, a lot of people loved it. If you think that you're one of the people who will love it, read it. If you're looking for a book that's just outstanding, look somewhere else.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The brilliance of this book is the effortlessness with which the author draws the reader into the world of Henrietta Lacks and keeps him there as a tourist or witness. It may be one of the best medical books I have read. Rebecca Skloot took more than ten years to research and write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book is mainly about a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Doctors took tissue samples from her cervix for research without her knowledge. They spawned the first viable, indeed miraculously productive, cell line—known as HeLa. After reading this book, I know more about the knowledge of science. Awesome book! Looking forward to reading more books written by Rebecca Skloot!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I am not a lover of nonfiction books but this one kept me coming back to see if the Lacks family would ever be told what was going on with Henrietta's cells.
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Format: Hardcover
The author has set herself a difficult task here, toggling back and forth between the history and the science of the harvesting of Henrietta Lacks's cells and their importance to research and discovery, and the human story of Henrietta Lacks's children, uneducated, poor, without health insurance, some criminal, and all without a cent to show for the billions that have been made from the marketing of their mother's cells. Does author Skloot succeed? Only about halfway. The science can be hard going for a general audience. Skloot does somewhat better presenting the legal and philosophical arguments for and against the use of human tissue in medical research without the consent of or compensation to the human donor. The book gets bogged down in what should be its most accessible part: the tale of Henrietta's family. Skloot was constantly threatened with being cut off from access to the Lacks family, and it shows. There's not a whisper of outrage here about a fourteen-year-old's impregnation by the nineteen-year-old cousin with whom she'd shared a bedroom since she was four; and while Skloot does say, quietly, that Henrietta's husband-that same cousin--brought "bad blood" (syphilis) home to her from other women, and much later acknowledges quietly that the cervical cancer that killed her was sexually transmitted, she never lays the blame for Henrietta's death at her husband's feet and apparently never makes it plain to Henrietta's profoundly ignorant children that it was their father who ultimately caused their mother's death. Narrative holes in the story aren't explained; Sonny Lacks's children appear to have sprung into existence without the medium of a mother; the only daughter of central figure Deborah Lacks all but vanishes from the story after her infancy.Read more ›
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