The Perfect Nonfiction – The Killers of the Flower Moon Book Review

The perfect nonfiction is quite a claim – and I’m not sure that I’ve found it, but I (read: Book of the Month Club) sure found a good one. I wonder if there really is a perfect nonfiction out there..

I love a good nonfiction, but I always find that they are so hit or miss. Some of my favorites recently are Deadwake by Erik Larson, Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, The Profiteers by Sally Denton, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and now I’m adding Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.

As I think about what these books have in common, I’ve broken my preferences down to four main ingredients.

  • Wow factor. It has to feel like I’m really learning something new about the world – particularly the US
  • Good character development
  • A narrative story line
  • A concise ending

Killers of the Flower Moon had the first three, but in my opinion, struggled with the ending – more on that later.

But before we go any further, a synopsis from Goodreads:

“In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood.”

I read it quickly over the course of the last week, when I probably should’ve been studying, and finished it on the plane down to Florida. It was such an amazing story, and my only qualm with it was that the ending spent way too much timing tying up loose ends!

“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset. “

Grann’s writing reads like a well balanced mix of prose and investigative journalism. The story begins with Mollie Burkhart, an Osage Indian with a large family and a white husband. At the outset, Mollie’s sister, Anna, is missing and it is evident that she won’t be coming home alive.

As soon as you get comfortable with Mollie’s story, Grann shifts to another angle in the story – Tom White, the Bureau of Investigation (Later named the Federal Bureau of Investigation) agent put in place to figure out what was going on in Osage County.

This part was by and large my favorite. The story unraveled so smoothly that I felt like I was spotting things that didn’t seem right, right before the next revelation was unveiled.

It was a very satisfying way to work through the story and that’s largely in part to Grann’s writing style.

The final section mostly outlined Grann’s own investigative work, so maybe he wanted to make sure he included those results. Maybe (I’m 100% speculating) he wanted to tie up all loose ends, so as to be the authoritative book of the Osage Indian Reign of Terror. Either way, I felt that the story was over before the final section, and I kind of skimmed the end.

I don’t want to spoil any more so I’ll just tell you to pick up a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon! As my next move, I’m heading to theatres to see The Lost City of Z, based on another book written by David Grann. I’ll let you know what I think!

Hellooo, New York! – Startup Book Review

Is there anything better than coming in to yourself as a twenty-something grad living in New York City?

I really don’t think there is. And that’s what makes Startup such an engaging read.

I’ve been living in Manhattan for the past four years – I moved here straight out of graduate school ready to take on the world. My experience may not have been crazy enough to write a book about but I’ve definitely had several quintessential NY experiences.

I lived in a duplex apartment – 1/2 ground floor and half basement, where you could only get cell phone service upstairs or internet downstairs. Try having work calls where you’re supposed to listen and recieve an email at the same time.

I’ve had nights out at clubs dancing on tables and meeting new people. I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained friends. I’ve had amazing work experience, and I’ve had my fair share of let downs.

I’ve explored this city from Arthur Ave in the Bronx to the 104th floor of the World Trade Center tower to Coney Island in Brooklyn.

I’ve had the best of times and the worst of times – but I have certainly loved my time here. It was the best place to be from age 23 to 27.

Why am I getting in to this? I think remembering the experiences I’ve had – this wonderful trying time of finding yourself in New York city –  is the primary reason I LOVED Startup. I felt like I had been there. It reminded me of the book Sweetbitter that I read for my book club last summer. We all related to the feeling of getting to New York and being totally lost but also totally inspired.

To me, Startup is the Sweetbitter of the tech industry. If you liked Sweetbitter – check out Startup. If you kind of liked it but the restaurant industry/ all the drugs weren’t for you – check out Startup. Didn’t read Sweetbitter yet? READ EM BOTH!

“Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open” – Sweetbitter

Before I dive in to my thoughts on Startup here’s a quick synopsis from Goodreads:

“Mack McAllister has a $600 million dollar idea. His mindfulness app, TakeOff, is already the hottest thing in tech and he’s about to launch a new and improved version that promises to bring investors running and may turn his brainchild into a $1 billion dollar business–in startup parlance, an elusive unicorn.

Katya Pasternack is hungry for a scoop that will drive traffic. An ambitious young journalist at a gossipy tech blog, Katya knows that she needs more than another PR friendly puff piece to make her the go-to byline for industry news.

Sabrina Choe Blum just wants to stay afloat. The exhausted mother of two and failed creative writer is trying to escape from her credit card debt and an inattentive husband-who also happens to be Katya’s boss-as she rejoins a work force that has gotten younger, hipper, and much more computer literate since she’s been away.

Before the ink on Mack’s latest round of funding is dry, an errant text message hints that he may be working a bit too closely for comfort with a young social media manager in his office. When Mack’s bad behavior collides with Katya’s search for a salacious post, Sabrina gets caught in the middle as TakeOff goes viral for all the wrong reasons. As the fallout from Mack’s scandal engulfs the lower Manhattan office building where all three work, it’s up to Katya and Sabrina to write the story the men in their lives would prefer remain untold.”

The story is really centered around the three people described in the synopsis – Mack, Katya, and Sabrina. The other character of note for this review is Isabel.

Isabel was ‘hooking up’ with Mack, the CEO of her start up, and when things start to go haywire, her work situation is severely compromised. There are several other supporting characters who I would love to talk about as well, but these four tell the part of the story that I want to discuss:

As I read this book, I really hated Mack.

This is not a criticism of the book, but he just really irked me. One line from early on, where whoever is narrating at the time says something along the lines of ‘startup bros are worse than lawyers and bankers because at least the latter groups admit that they’re in it for the money.  Startup bros act like the money is a biproduct of disrupting the way things are for the better.’ (Not a real quote, just a summary!) Mack was the epitome of this.

Mack gets himself in some hot water in the book, and I’ve read a few people online saying ‘he sent some sexts, who cares?!’

To me what stood out – and why we care – was the lesson that Sabrina (age 36) passed on to Isabel (age 26) as the whole dick pic scandal was playing out. The lesson is this: It doesn’t matter if its not the “definition” of sexual harassment that you heard about in school- even if your boss isn’t smacking your butt and calling you ‘sweet cheeks’ or idk any other example like that. But if it looks like sexual harassment, and it smells like sexual harassment, it is sexual harassment. If someone with the power to promote or fire you,  makes you feel uncomfortable because of unwanted advances, it’s sexual harassment.

I could go on and on, but I think what this book brought to life is that in the startup world, the bosses aren’t always 60 year old, fat, balding, outwardly creepy old men who we would associate with sexual harassment. Not that this is the case outside of the startup world either necessarily, but it’s infinitely more common to have a young twenty-something, attractive, single, and charming CEO at a startup. So while Isabel felt like she was hooking up with an attractive coworker and not a “boss”, it was her boss, and it affected her career when it ended. On the other hand, while Mack felt like he was hooking up with an attractive coworker, he was influencing the culture of his company and his credibility to investors.

It’s a new game out there in the constantly evolving tech world, and it’s important that everyone is aware of what game they’re playing.

This message was resonated throughout the book, and I thought that in a book that is so fun to read, so easy to read, so quick to read, and so seemingly  lighthearted, it’s important to draw out the message here.

I hope this doesn’t make me a downer – I totally played along and loved the funny love triangles and sexual tensions going down in this book. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it, but also WARNING – maybe don’t buy this for your mother or your pre-teen sister because it gets pretty far in to the shady side of craigslist.

I hope you enjoy the book – let me know if you’ve read it! Since I only have six more weeks of soaking up my twenties in New York (I’m moving not turning 30), this was a great way to relish in my time here 🙂

Overall: 4 Stars.

April Rundown

I seriously can’t believe that it’s the end of April and I’m writing this from my parents porch in Naples, FL, looking out at a clear blue sky. (I should probably sign off and go to the beach, but that will have to wait until later.)

April was a crazy and much anticipated month for me – my boyfriends brother visited from New Zealand for a week, we celebrated my boyfriend’s birthday, I took my test that I’ve been anticipating for YEARS and studying for for months, and I got that long awaited vacation that I’ve been longing for. It’s been a long winter, full of studying and bad weather, and I feel like I’m finally on the other side.

So where did April stand in terms of books? Well, I got three books in Book of the Month box and that is ALL I read. So uncommon for me but as you can tell from the paragraph above I was low on time and full of anxiety! But interestingly, April was also a huge month for me with bookish adaptations!

I started the month with my book club book, Blitzed by Norman Ohler. I read the first fourty pages TWICE. It was so interesting and so jam packed with incredible facts. I read it through once, and the next morning I read it again, and put 10+ post-it notes in to mark things I didn’t want to forget. Then I got so stressed out about life that I couldn’t read such a serious nonfiction and put it on the bookshelf for another time. (Vent session here) My book club is next Thursday (May 4th), so I need to pick it back up soon.

In the meantime I got hooked on two bookish adaptations – Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why. I have to admit, I didn’t read either of them as books, but I thought about reading both of them! I heard about Big Little Lies a bunch over the years, and it was recently discussed on one of the BookRiot podcasts, so of course I added it to my TBR short list. However, before I got around to finding a copy, I heard it was coming out on HBO and I got lazy and decided to just watch the show. A similar thing happened with 13 Reasons Why, but I won’t bore you with the details. At any rate, both shows were SO good. If you haven’t seen them, I totally recommend both, although I’m having mixed emotions about the end of 13 Reasons Why. (Shudders). I’m not sure if either will get a Season 2 but I would totally binge watch both if they did!

As it got closer to my test, I started to tell myself that I had reached a good point and shouldn’t be so hard on myself. So I started in to my Book of the Month Club books. This month my selections were: Startup by Doree Shafrir, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, and one from last June, The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel.

I read Startup over Easter Weekend – I had a lot of good train time on my way to see my grandmother and back. I loved it! It was exactly what I needed in the moment. A lighthearted story with some comedy and some compassion, that was based right in the neighborhood of NYC where I live. Review here. I think this may be generous, but I gave it 5 Stars.

I read most of Killers of the Flower Moon in the days leading up to my test. I got to a point where I couldn’t study anymore but also needed a distraction so this was perfect. The story is 100% required reading if you’re an American, and totally interesting even if you’re not. David Grann has a knack for incredible, otherwise unheard of, stories. I loved all of it, except the ending so I’m giving it 4 stars but with a very high recommendation. You can read my review here.

I finished Killers of the Flower Moon on my way down to Florida, and of course, it then rained for the first two days of our vacation. Luckily my boyfriend and I were just happy to be out of the city/our usual routine, so we took it for what it was and decided to go to the movies. And what was playing, but a book-to-movie adaptation of another David Grann book – The Lost City of Z! Again, I have to admit, I’ve been hearing about this book for years, even bought a copy of it in college that still sits on my bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, but I have never read the actual book. The movie was so well done and for someone who hates going to the theater, I actually loved it. Go see it!

And now, here we are on my last day of vacation in Florida, and I’m making my way through The Veins of the Ocean. So far it’s a slow burn, but I’m definitely, slowly, getting in to it! Excited to read the rest. Review to come!

Looking Forward!

May is going to be an exciting month for me. It’s my LAST MONTH in New York City after calling the city home for nearly four years! My boyfriend will already be living in our future home on the other side of the country, and the weather will (hopefully) finally be warming up. With my test behind me and my boyfriend far away, I’m hoping to get a lot of reading done!

Let’s see what’s on the list:

  • Blitzed by Norman Ohler – need to finish by May 4th for book club. One of my book club friends send this link out about how to finish a book in a week.
  • Beartown by Friedrik Backman – HUGE A Man Called Ove fan over here!
  • Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker – I won this in an instagram giveaway after I had bought it for a friend for her birthday. Happy to have my own copy.
  • No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – this came in my April Muse Monthly box, which I’ll do a post about soon.
  • My Book of the Month Club pick because I inevitable renewed my subscription…. TBD on the selections
  • Into The Water by Paula Hawkins (because Book of the Month is letting you get a copy with you May box, and how can I not read this one).

Geez, Louise, I better get reading!!

– Erin

Dum Dee Dum

… Twiddling my thumbs.

I’m officially in a rut.

Why is this? Apparently I’m impatient and I just want things to happen NOW.

I’ve been studying for a test for three months which I’ll take NEXT FRIDAY. Next Saturday, I’m getting out of the city for six wholes day in sunny southern Florida. A day after I get home, my boyfriend is moving to the other side of the country (I’m following but not quite so soon). And four weeks after that I’ll leave my job of four years to pack up my apartment and embark on a three week road trip to San Diego, which will end at the apartment that we signed a lease on without seeing and that my boyfriend is moving in to in just 15 days.

I’m so ancy. I can’t sit still but I can’t do anything. I want to study but I’ve studied so much. I want to read a book but, again,  I can’t sit still. I want to start packing, but I’m still living here for six more weeks. I’m going crazy. I try to tell myself that this too shall pass but I feel like I’m going insane right now.

I have so many books to read this month, and I just thought I’d be so much more excited to read them.

  • I have a book club book that is SO interesting (Blitzed by Norman Ohler)  but it’s too serious for me to want to sit down and focus on right now.
  • I have three Book of the Month books – one that not serious enough, so I don’t want to waste time on (STARTUP by Doree Shafrir),  one that I’m saving to read on the beach in Florida (Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel),  and one that idk maybe I’ll read on the airplane but again, non-fiction, and feels to serious right now (Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann).
  • I tried a new subscription box this month, Muse Monthly, which is on its way here. But I know I won’t even read it when it gets here because of my current mood. Although, hell, maybe the tea will help me relax. (The book, by the way, is No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts)

In an effort to feel productive I look things up online to get excited about. What did this amount to? Well, I know what audiobooks I want to listen to on the roadtrip!

  • The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
  • Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
  • Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel if we like Sleeping Giants.

The only trouble is now I know I have to wait six weeks to listen to these too!

The other thing I looked up is creating a bullet journal for the road trip. This sounds like SO MUCH FUN, but I don’t have the discipline to start that before my test, so another goal for next week.

 

So, where does this leave us? Sorry for the rant, but it feels good to get it out. I probably won’t be posting much about books I’ve read for the next few weeks (because.. see above) but I hope to get back to it after!

Happy Easter Weekend!
Erin

What Happened When I Invested $145 On Books – My BOTM Story

When I got back from living abroad in the start of 2016, I had recently reignited my love of reading and was also really in to subscription boxes. These two came together in the form of a spontaneous decision to join Book of the Month Club with a 12-month subscription. The membership came with one book per month – to be selected on the 1st of the month each month. Each book was selected by a judge with a personal summary/ sales pitch. I always love to read their take, both when I’m making my decision and when I finish reading the book.

What did I get from it?

Not to be cheesy but…. Book of the Month Club totally transformed my reading life. Since many of the books were available through BOTM before they were publicly released, I always knew about hot new books coming out and I stayed up to date on the book scene to know about what was coming out. My TBR grew and grew and I was never found without a book in my purse.

In concrete terms, I received 15 brand new hard cover books – this breaks down to the 12 I paid for up front + 1 free book from BOTM  just because + 2 free books because I wasn’t happy with two of my selections. I also read 9 more BOTM selections that I received from the library or borrowed from a friend.

I never paid for an ‘extra book in my box’ and I only paid for shipping once (+$1) and it was a total accident!

The perks didn’t stop with the books I received- here’s a quick list of some of the other ways BOTM influenced my reading life.

  • I bought a kindle on Amazon Prime day. While I couldnt read BOTM books on my kindle, BOTM really helped to reignite my love of reading and I decided to invest in a Kindle Paperwhite.
  • I joined the library! I love it – it’s so easy and obviously totally free 😊
  • I started to read more than I watched TV. NYPL.com is more frequently visited than Netflix.com in my browser…
  • I started listening to the All The Books podcast by Book Riot to hear about new releases every Tuesday.
  • I started to talk all of my friends ears’ off about books.
  • I commented on my first discussion thread online (On BOTM’s discussion boards).
  • I started to visit local bookstores in New York City – my favorite, Three Lives and Co. in the West Village
  • And finally, I started this blog! I couldn’t keep all my bookish thoughts in my head anymore and had to get them out.

Bookshelf

A few months ago, Book of the Month started something called a ‘Bookshelf’ that let’s you distinguish you books on to Love, Like, and Dislike shelves. I’ll share mine here and include the books I got via other means, but were still BOTM selections. Bold indicates that it was my personal selection from BOTM!

LOVED

  • Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson – February 2017
  • The Grownup by Gillian Flynn (Short Story) – January 2017
  • The Trespasser by Tana French – November 2016
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – September 2016
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware – August 2016
  • All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood – August 2016
  • Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner – July 2016
  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend – June 2016
  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan – May 2016
  • The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built The World by Sally Denton – March 2016

LIKED

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – March 2017
  • The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon – December 2016
  • You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – December 2016
  • The Couple Next Door  by Shari Lapena – September 2016
  • Siracusa by Delia Ephron – August 2016
  • The Girls by Emma Cline – July 2016
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley – June 2016

DISLIKED

  • Lucky You by Ericka Carter – January 2017
  • Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins – December 2016
  • Every Man A Menace by Patrick Hoffman – November 2016
  • The Mothers by Brit Bennett – October 2016

 TO BE READ

  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann – April 2017
  • Startup by Doree Shafrir – April 2017
  • The Veins of the Ocean – June 2016

While I decided not to renew my Book of the Month subscription, I would wholeheartedly suggest to any readers out there, that they should join. It has been a great way to jumpstart my love of reading!

We Made Our Bed and Now We Have to Sleep in It – The Unmade Bed Book Review

When I was growing up, I loved Mary Kate and Ashley movies. This comes as no surprise to those who knew me as a teenager but my favorite one was Holiday in the Sun (just cued up that soundtrack to help me write this post). In the movie, Mary Kate and Ashley use metaphors and then question what the hell it means.

Why am I telling you this? One of their metaphors was “We made our bed, and now we have to sleep in it.” One of them says it, the other one looks her at like what are you talking about? and they discuss the relevance to their current boy drama situation. When I started The Unmade Bed I thought that it would be about two working adults with children who pass like ships in the morning, and neither of them has time to make the bed. Once I got in to the book, I thought he was going to alude to the Mary Kate and Ashley quote – suggesting that our current culture should catch up to the feminism that is already present. Instead, making a bed isn’t actually mentioned until page 188 and it relates to neither of those ideas.

When a man and woman fall into bed together, they might have each other, when one of them makes the bed, they have a relationship.

Having considered all three options, I think Mary Kate and Ashley were the closest to guessing the meaning behind the title.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

With a refreshing and honest voice, Stephen Marche delivers his vision for what true equality between men and women really means and what it could look like. As he does, he discovers not only commonalities, but contradictions, and that for the first time ever, women and men are truly coming to know each other. Marche has found a compelling way to draw upon the latest research about gender relationships while providing his own commentary and synthesis in a successful combination of academic/scientific research and personal experience that is highlighted by his wife’s annotations.

unmade bed

Review:

To be honest, I picked up this book because I saw it on Instagram when I was traveling in early March. It was touted to be both well researched and deeply personal. I was intrigued. It also vaguely reminded me of the book The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis that I’m still mad I didn’t pick up over the Christmas holiday when it was huge (adding to TBR…). I thought I may learn a lot and have a new book to share with friends and family.

End Result: I won’t be recommending the book to friends and family but I did LEARN A TON! I would highly suggest going to see Stephen Marche if he is doing a book tour or a TED talk or anything like that. He has a lot of ideas that are so far from mainstream, and not because they’re wrong, but because most people haven’t even seen the side of feminism he’s focusing on. (An interview I found that may sum up a lot of this book)

I’ll give you a quick teaser of the ideas I want to incorporate in to my everyday philosophy and share with friends:

  1. Feminism is HERE

We live in a “post-feminist” world as he calls it. In today’s world, to keep women down, it costs countries huge amounts of money. More women are graduating from college than men and this trend will only continue. At first, when Marche makes the claim that “we don’t need more marches”, I felt offended, but I actually think he’s right. We live in a post-feminist world and now the men need to catch up and let us live it.

Modernity is irrevocably feminist. Insofar as a country prospers, it pospers by way of women. In 2006, an OECD study demonstrated what common sense tells us: The countries where women flourish are the most stable, the most technologially advanced, the most peaceful, the richest, the most powerful. They are the countries that people in the rest of the world want to move to. Patriarchy is damn expensive. That’s why its doomed.

2. We can give women all the benefits they deserve, but until we start giving them to men,  women can not benefit. 

I  think the following quote sums it up pretty well – but it makes sense. A woman may be less invested in at work because it is expected that she will leave soon to have babies. What if that wasn’t the case and men were going to leave too, or neither of them had to take the burden fully?

The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared fifty-fifty if the load is unbearable. It will not become bareable when women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace, like paid parental  leave and affordable, quality day care.

3. We need to treat boys like the men we want them to become

Men’s friendships suffer from the “bro” culture and boys in school aren’t succeeding because not much is expected from them. They are taught to be crude and this leads directly in to something called “the masculine overcompensation thesis” which has  been tested at UC Berkeley.  This says that when men were told they were showing feminine traits, they increased “their support for war, homophobia, male dominance, and ‘purchasing an SUV'”. I found this to be a really interesting side of things and it is something I keep thinking about since reading the book.

Donald Trump, as a political phenomenon, is the purest possible expression of masculine overcompensation in the history of the Republic.

Some Crazy Facts (because this book was FULL of them)

On the Importance of Fathers

Fatherlessness as a condition has been linked with virtually every social ill you can name: young men who grew up without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail. 63 percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes, as are 71 percent of high school dropouts, 85 percent of children diagnosed with behavioral disorders, and 70 percent of all juvenile detainees,

Honestly, it keeps going, but if you want to read more – grab a copy of the book!

Male Suicide Rates are Crazy High

Economic pressures are the most compelling reason; for example, after the 2008 crash the number of suicides increased globally by 3.3 percent. More substantial, the more complicated and disturbing answer is cultural. Suicide is not connected to religious values or traditional family structure. It is directly related to loneliness, to social isolation. And not only are American men more likely do be lonely, but they are more likely to deny their loneliness.

 

I could definitely keep going with more fun facts and interesting (to me) discussion, but I don’t wnat to spoil the book!

As you can see,  I learned a lot and the book was thought provoking, but I found it repetitive and the tone a bit intense. Overall – 3 stars, would recommend a TED talk for consumption of idea 🙂

 

Did you read it? Let me know what you thought!

Book Club Recap – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My book club met twice in March! Such a treat for me. In our discussion of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came up and most of the people at book club were really intrigued by the sound of the book, so we decided on that for our next book.

I had heard of the book before, because in addition to attending the Johns Hopkins University, where the book take place,  my family is also from Baltimore. My mom was even neighbors with one of the characters in the book as she was growing up! I knew that she had read and loved the book, and also that a number of my friends had read and loved it. A bunch of my college friends actually read it for their DC based book club a couple years ago!

I’ll get to the synopsis shortly, but I thought I should state my bias ahead of time – I love Hopkins and don’t find most of the book too ethically objectionable. I thought most of the Hopkins representatives including Dr. Howard Jones, the PhD candidate, and former President Brody acted with respect for the Lacks family. Taking the cells without consent is not something that would happen there today, but they are a research institute and I’m sure that with consent, they are testing a lot of cells/organs that we don’t know about or may not be comfortable with if we did know.

So with that, here’s a quick synopsis and then we’ll get right in to the discussion:

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The journey starts in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s, her small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo. Today are stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, East Baltimore children and grandchildren live in obscurity, see no profits, and feel violated. The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Discussion:

Q: Let’s start with the elephant in the room – was this ethical?

To be honest, most of us were actually kind of OK with the book. Several of us have higher ed degrees in a scientific field, and understand how research facilities function. To us, it was similar to being an organ donor. So we started to talk about ‘What are some bigger ethics questions that have come up in science?’

Here are a few – Do doctors have to tell you if they find something wrong with your baby while you are pregnant? That question led us down the path of do you want to know if your baby may only live to be a toddler? And the question of how widely autism is being diagnosed in recent years. We eventually started talking about how one member of our group worked on early detection of autism through hearing tests! I learned that research is being done to be able to diagnose Autism by a hearing test that determines if there’s a lag in brainwaves between ears – down to the millisecond.

Q: One of our group members began this question with “this may be heartless, but” and finished with the question at hand: How much was the family really affected?

Were they more affected by the hype? Was the real issue not as much the taking of them, but the revealing of the name b/c then they started to be contacted? I think they were affected by the idea that so much knowledge about their mother was out there, but all they had were the medical records. I think it brought their grief back to the surface, and gave them the ability to track down some answers to grieve differently than they had before.

The real issue for me was the health care and the lack of health care that black people had access to. This wasn’t’ even that long ago, but it felt like this book was more about black people in Baltimore than the Lacks family in particular

Q: Thoughts on Henrietta marrying her cousin?

It was funny to see how all the group members reacted to this and we all thought the concept was funny. I also brought up the irony that Johns Hopkins married his cousin, but they never had children, and that’s how Hopkins University and Hospital came to be! When Johns Hopkins died, he had no heirs, so he donated $7 million to start a hospital and research university.

 

Q: More of a statement — The description of the cancer sounded horrible!

To be honest, we were all amazed at the description of Henrietta’s cancer and her treatment. I don’t want to go in to too much here, because a) it was pretty grewsome and b) this was some of the best writing in the book, so you should hear it from Skloot herself.

Q: (Another Statement) I kind of liked that Skloot wasn’t religious – not because I have anything against religion, but that her disagreeing with the family showed her objectivity.

Rebecca Skloot was SO different from the Lacks family and so we started to think about her as a journalist. We had two thoughts on that. 1) Her differences from the Lacks made the book so much better b/c it showed how hard she had to work to gain trust and 2) how cool would it be to just find a story and run with it. One of my friends, Lauren, said she would love to do it, and Megan, my friend with a recent doctorate degree, said she’d never do it again.

 

Overall we thought Rebecca Skloot did an amazing job with this one – it could’ve been really boring but she wrote it so well. Chime in in the comments if you have anything to add! And definitely add this one to your TBR list 🙂