BOOK REVIEW: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A poor, black Southern tobacco farmer shows up at a hospital with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in the 1950s. A biopsy of cells is taken from her cervix. Today, well over half a century later, those cells are still alive and replicating, and have becomes one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. Replicas of those cells have been used to study polio, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping and more, and have contributed to some of the most ground-breaking biological studies ever done. The woman those cells came from died, and for many decades her life passed into obscurity, almost forgotten by all those but her immediate family. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she may have been entirely forgotten had it not been for the dedication of her daughter and a very determined journalist.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is – and I say this with little knowledge on the subject – one of the greatest science books of all time. You may be wondering how I, a self-described science ignoramus, could possibly be qualified to classify any book as “one of the greatest science books of all time.” But it’s may status as a non-sciency person that makes my opinion so important, because it shows that this book was able to reach across a void of knowledge, education and understanding and pull me into the complex and ever-changing world of scientific discovery. In a time when vaccines and climate change are being widely questioned by the general public, it is even more important that journalists find ways to bridge the gap between people with deep, scientific knowledge of health and the natural world and those of us who don’t share that same knowledge.

Many journalists dream of coming across a story like the one Rebecca Skloot tells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s got all of the components of an incredible piece of journalism: compelling characters, timeliness, data. Most importantly, no one had ever told the whole story before. But what becomes clear over the course of the almost 300-age non-fiction book is that the story of Henrietta Lacks hadn’t been completely unknown until Skloot came along. In fact, many people had known who Henrietta was, and instead of shining a light on her life and contribution to science, they swept her identity and history under the rug.

Henrietta Lacks, as a poor black woman, was largely erased from history. The scientists and doctors and researchers who benefitted so greatly from her cells almost never acknowledged where they came from. Many people profited financially from Henrietta’s cells, and yet her family, who have dealt with an array of multi-generational problems like poverty, racism and health problems, never saw any of those benefits themselves. Henrietta’s story raises ethical and philosophical and moral questions that linger today. Rebecca Skloot does a magnificent job of laying out not only the dilemmas Henrietta’s story so starkly exposes, but also the humanity at the core of the problems.

The relationship Skloot forms with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, grounds the story, drawing the reader in and keeping them focused even throughout lengthy explanations of cell replication and other biological phenomena (which are incredibly interesting, detailed and pertinent to the story). The pair are working towards a common goal, but often finds themselves at odds because of their vastly different backgrounds and motivations.

The real triumph of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is that it serves as reminder that behind every scientific or medical discovery is a person - or a number of people - who had to endure hardship and suffering. Skloot has finally given Henrietta Lacks and her family the credit and recognition, and most importantly the understanding of their loved ones’ experience they so deserve.

BOOK REVIEW: They Call Me Wyatt by Natasha Tynes



Disclaimer: An advanced digital copy of this book was given to me by Rare Bird Books in exchange for my honest review. They Call Me Wyatt will be published on June 11th.

Natasha Tynes asks a lot of her readers in her debut novel They Call Me Wyatt. The speculative fiction book is filled with changing timelines, jumping perspectives, switching narratives and futuristic storylines, and requires readers to pay careful attention. While the idea behind the novel is strong and touches on many timely and important topics, the point of They Call Me Wyatt often gets lost in translation.

When 25-year old Jordanian student Siwar is murdered while studying in Maryland, police write the case off as suicide. Three years later Siwar’s conscious awakes in the body of a three-year-old white American boy named Wyatt. Unable to communicate through her new hosts body, Siwar cannot investigate her death or reach out to her friends and family. Years pass and eventually Siwar’s presence begins to fade from Wyatt’s mind. He grows up to become a kind, charming young man with a deep interest in the Middle East. When Wyatt begins dating Siwar’s niece he learns about her death, and begins to investigate the crime to bring her justice and peace she her mind re-awakens within his own.

They Call Me Wyatt flips between several timelines: one in the 1990s as Siwar is growing up in Amman, one in the early 2000s as Siwar awakens within three-year-old Wyatt, and one set several decades into the future when Wyatt begins investigating Siwar’s death. The first two timelines, which made up most of the first half of the book, are fairly easy to follow, and do a good job of setting up the rest of the story. Siwar's early life is the most interesting part of the book, depicting what it's like to be a young girl, then student, then woman in Jordan.

It’s in the third timeline – when Wyatt has grown up and Siwar’s conscious had mostly faded – that problems arise. Tynes uses futuristic technology and frequent cultural references to hammer home the fact that significant time has passed. Dialogue like, “Come on, babes. It’s 2026. Everyone is using Drive-Less. All the statistics showed that they’re safer than a real driver,” feel inauthentic and forced. Mind-reading technology, fictional diseases and artificial-intelligence systems take away from the real human story at the heart of They Call Me Wyatt, and their presence detracts from the story’s core themes.

They Call Me Wyatt touches one some very important topics – immigrant experiences in the United States, racism, classism, violence against women. Tynes has set out to tell a story that spans decades, crosses continents, and convey timely messages, and there are many moments where she successfully explains and explores the experiences her characters face in crossing language and cultural barriers. Siwars’ stories of growing up in Jordan and learning about her sexuality while also trying to cultivate her love and reading and writing are poignant. As a young woman, she is bound by harsh and frustrating rules which, if broken, could result in a lifetime of shame and judgment for her family. But as a teenage girl Siwar desperately wants to explore the world and experience the freedoms of love and intimacy. It’s part of the reason she leaves for the United States.

It’s hard to overlook some of the more confounding aspects of They Call Me Wyatt. The book relies heavily on the idea that a dead person’s mind can survive and be placed in another body. While this isn’t the most far-fetched idea to ever be used in literature, it’s difficult to mesh this science-fiction-esque narrative with the rest of the story. What’s even more troubling is the way Siwar’s mind brutalizes Wyatt’s body, emotions and relationships. Understandably desperate to solve her own murder, Siwar often convinces Wyatt to drink heavily – she is most present in his mind when he is drunk – and ignore the needs of those around him. She even convinced him to date her niece which, if you stop and think about it, has vaguely creep connotations.

They Call Me Wyatt’s ending is clear but unsatisfying. No obvious strings are left hanging, but it doesn’t feel like the right way to cut off Siwar and Wyatt’s stories, especially considering the strangeness of their relationships with one another and the strangeness of the situation in general. Overall it’s a bold debut novel with a strong central idea, but lacks the clarity of writing and compelling enough characters to really pull it off.

BOOK REVIEW: Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

When Henrietta Mazur and her husband Lloyd move into a new neighborhood outside of Boston, they’re expecting to deal with the typical troubles of new home ownership: renovating, decorating and navigating awkward interactions with neighbours. What they aren’t expecting is to become wrapped up in the crimes of a serial killer who lives next door.

Peter Swanson is well-versed in the world of crime and thriller fiction. His 2015 novel The Kind Worth Killing was nominated for – and won – numerous awards, and attracted the attention of filmmakers and producers alike. That novel, like his latest, explored the ripple effect of a chance encounter between two people and delved deep into the psyches of individuals who commit violent acts. Swanson seems perpetually interested by the thought processes of dangerous people, and it shows in his intricate and character-driven novels. Before She Knew Him is a standout story in a saturated genre. It’s well-written, fast-paced, and offers a unique enough plot so as not to feel repetitive in a time when so many people are trying to cash in on the thriller craze. But for all its positive attributes, the story suffers because of an over-used and problematic plot device: using mental illness to turn someone into an unreliable witness.

Henrietta Mazur, a talented and successful artist, is a compelling central character. She’s smart, empathetic, and witty, and, relatably enough, she feels compelled to involve herself in situations that really aren’t any of her business. It is Henrietta who fuels the narrative of the story, developing a bizarre cat-and-mouse relationship with her murderous neighbour and desperately trying to call attention to his actions. Her attempts to bring a serial killer to justice are hampered only by her history of mental illness, which, for some frustrating reason, makes her an unreliable judge of character in the eyes of everyone around her, including her husband.

In college, a young Henrietta suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition for which she has been consistently medicated ever since. During a medication switch years later she entered a manic period and began fixating on a violent crime that took place on her street - one that may or may not have been committed by her new neighbour. Throughout the course of the novel, Henrietta is on top of her medication and shows none of the signs of a manic episode. Despite this, her friends and family constantly behave as though her condition makes her untrustworthy, untruthful, and unreliable, when in reality it is the thing that made her knowledgeable enough about a murder case to catch the perpetrator.

Swanson isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last, to use mental illness as a plot device in this way. In 2018’s breakout thriller The Woman In The Window (problematic for many reasons more eloquently explained here), author AJ Finn’s main character was scrutinized for her agoraphobia. Because of her illness, police refused to acknowledge that she may have information pertinent to their investigation. Before She Knew Him is a good, entertaining read. It doesn’t fail because of it’s problematic plot devices. It’s still a solid worthwhile read and an incredibly well written book. Fans of the thriller genre will enjoy this new take on murder mystery, and will undoubtedly find many of the same themes in its as they did in The Kind Worth Killing.

BOOK REVIEW: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Grotesque, disturbing and vaguely creepy female characters are all the rage in popular fiction. From Gone Girl’s criminally conniving Amy Dunne to My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s horrendously apathetic unnamed narrator, audiences can’t get enough of inherently bad women. And while it’s refreshing to read about women who aren’t easily slotted into the normal categories for characters with two X chromosomes, it can still feel hard to relate to them and root for them. This may be in part because of the numerous ways we’ve been conditioned to judge and categorize women, and it may also be because, regardless of gender, these characters are just kind of crappy people.  

This is why Lucy, the central character in Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, is such an enigma. Despite her grossness, selfishness and bizarreness, she is undeniably enjoyable. I’m not going to go so far as to call her likeable, because she isn’t, but I feel fairly comfortable saying I rooted for her nonetheless. Throughout her wild adventures and dramatic ordeals I found myself on more than one occasion smiling to myself and thinking “you go, girl.” And if that isn’t the mark of a well-cultivated character than I’m not sure what is.

One of my Bookstagram followers described The Pisces to me as a “hot mess of a book.” It’s a pretty accurate classification. With a bizarre plot that demands suspension of disbelief and a cast of increasingly troubling characters, The Pisces is not an ordinary love story. Thirty-eight-year-old Lucy has been unsuccessfully writing her Ph.D. thesis on the Greek poet Sappho for the better part of thirteen years. When her long-term relationship with a paleontologist crumbles, she hits rock bottom and, for lack of a better explanation, starts to kind of lose it. After an incident involving the police, pajamas and Dunkin Donuts, Lucy finally accepts an offer to house-sit for her wealthy half-sister at a beautiful mansion on Venice Beach for the summer.

Suddenly the guardian of a diabetic dog and a frequent patron of love addiction group therapy sessions, Lucy begins to adapt to her new Californian life. But a chance encounter with a mysterious swimmer on the beach threatens to suck her back in to the self-destructing cycle of whirlwind romance she has been trying to escape. What makes the situation even more complicated is that the mysterious swimmer may not actually be completely human.

The Pisces strikes a perfect balance between absurd humour, disturbing darkness, and genuinely insightful character study. It explores the pressure put on women to conform to certain stereotypes in relationships and to constantly play the role of nurturing caregiver, and examines the pressure human beings put on themselves to not wind up alone. Lucy’s intelligence – and make no mistake, she is intelligent, regardless of her inability to complete her thesis – is juxtaposed against her constant need to be desired and wanted and loved. She’s so desperate for intimacy that she doesn’t even bat an eyelash at beginning a relationship with a merman. It’s an outlandish situation, but there’s something undeniably relatable about it.  

Broder leaves it up to the reader to decide if the aforementioned merman is a figment of Lucy’s imagination, fueled by stress, undiagnosed mental illness, and years of reading about Greek sirens and mythology. But if his existence is somewhat hazy, his actions are not. The Pisces is graphic and cringe-worthy and at moments vaguely painful to read. Broder doesn’t hold back on her depictions of both physical intimacy and human bodily functions, and her descriptions of the merman’s form are some of the more uncomfortable passages in the novel.

While a romance with a mythical creature may not exactly be Kosher as per the rules laid out for her by her love therapist, Lucy’s trysts with the merman lead her on a path of self-discovery, and what unfolds is a story that’s surprisingly feel-good and completely unputdownable. It’s hilarious and unique and so well written that at times you’ll be re-reading entire pages just to revel in Broder’s mastery of the written word.

The Pisces is undeniably bizarre. During one scene in particular, in which Lucy watches from a window as her befinned lover drags himself from her beach-side mansion back into the ocean after an argument, I found myself wondering what in the actual f*ck I was reading. But a moment later I was capitvated once again by Broder’s beautiful turns of phrase, and suddenly the strangeness of the story didn’t matter. What mattered was the meaning behind it – that love and romance and drama sometimes aren’t really worth all the trouble.

BOOK REVIEW: Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Imagine waking up tied to a hospital bed with no recollection of how you got there, your head wrapped in gauze and a strange woman standing over you. Your only recent memories are hazy and terrifying, and you can’t quite establish what is real and what isn’t. You find you can no longer communicate clearly through speech or written word, and a horrible paranoia plagues your thoughts. For New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, this scene isn’t just the gripping opening chapter of a bestselling book, but also one of the most vivid and horrifying moments of her entire life. It is one of her few clear memories of a month of extreme illness that nearly killed her.

In her early twenties Cahalan appeared to have it all. She was in a committed relationship, working in a prestigious newsroom, and had the kind of natural good looks and outgoing personality that attracted people to her. Surrounded by friends and living in a New York City apartment, Cahalan was well on her way to establishing herself as one of the most promising young print reporters in the city. And yet she felt tired - weighed down by fatigue and other vague symptoms of an unnamed sickness progressively getting more intense . Her thoughts were becoming more and more convoluted and her work was beginning to falter. A variety of tests for things like mononucleosis came back negative, and even after experiencing severe seizures, Cahalan’s illness was still being brushed off by doctors as nothing more than alcohol withdrawal (despite her not being an alcoholic) and stress.

 
 

Eventually Cahalan’s condition deteriorated to a point where she was having frequent seizures, violent outbursts, and symptoms of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Unable to live alone or continue working, she first moved in with her mother and was then admitted into New York University hospital. At this stage her condition had become so severe she could no longer properly form memories and was unable to communicate effectively with her family and doctors. For a person whose entire life and career evolved around communication and memory, Cahalan felt like she was losing her mind.

Despite having a team of incredibly intelligent and proactive physicians working on her case, Cahalan’s condition continued to evade diagnosis. She slipped into a state of catatonia, and to this day remembers almost nothing of a full month of her life spent in the hospital. Just as doctors were preparing to admit her to a psychiatric ward, a brilliant physician named Souhel Najjar took on her case and diagnosed her with an incredibly rare and vastly misunderstood autoimmune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Essentially her own body was attacking her brain, causing massive inflammation and leading to symptoms like hallucinations, paranoia, violence, and physical pain.

With an intensive drug regimen, Cahalan slowly began to recover, and with time became curious to learn more about the history of her disease. Through extensive interviews and hours of watching footage of herself in the hospital, she was able to successfully piece together the lost month of her life. Brain On Fire is a compelling and harrowing story about sickness, recovery and all of the unknowns lurking around the corner in life, but also a brilliant analysis of how medical systems deal with people who are difficult to diagnose.

The most interesting pages of Brain On Fire unfold in the book’s third and final section, in which Cahalan analyzes her experiences in the American medical system and considers what would happen to a patient with anti-MNDA receptor encephalitis who didn’t have insurance or wasn’t able to advocate for themselves properly. Though the disease is still incredibly misunderstood, researchers are starting to form a theory that anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis could be responsible for the thousands of cases of so-called demonic possessions that have been reported for centuries - cases which led to young people, women in particular, enduring brutal interventions by quack doctors and religious “experts”. With symptoms that mimic severe mental illness, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is likely undiagnosed in many patients who have been sequestered to psychiatric institutions as well.

Brain On Fire is an incredibly well written book, and one that reflects the analytic ability of its author. Cahalan has used her journalism powers for good in this book, and has created a platform for physicians, patients and families to discuss a complex and under-researched disease. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in science, journalism, or the American medical system.