The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Audiobook Review]

TitleThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell (with Bahni Turpin)
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Pages: 384
Audio: 12.4 hours
Year: 2010
Publisher: Random House Audio
Source: Library
Rating: 4/5


Henrietta Lacks’ contribution to medicine is immeasurable. Her cells (called HeLa) – which are uniquely immortal – have been in continuous use in medical research since the 1940s and have given us the polio vaccine, advancements in cancer and HIV treatments, and much more. But Henrietta never knew this, nor did she consent to the use of her cell line when she went into Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment all those years ago. Should her family receive a piece of the success that HeLa has become? Rebecca Skloot sets out to investigate this question by researching HeLa cells and the Lacks family.

My Thoughts:

This is my kind of nonfiction. Informative but not dry; telling the story of both the science and the people involved in the science. Rebecca Skloot did an excellent job researching a topic that had very little research (despite the excessive research on her cells, Henrietta has long remained a mystery).

The story jumps between Skloot’s attempts to contact Henrietta’s family and the story of Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Which suits the book well and keeps it from getting bogged down in either the medicine or the family drama.

A few issues though. It was a bit long (or it felt long). And because of this I got a bit bored. I started this before I left for my month-long trip to Europe (I know I’m ridiculously behind on reviews) and I didn’t finish it until I was on the train heading toward our last city. Also, I was really hoping to find out WHY Henrietta’s cells are “immortal.” Do we just not know? (Or did I miss it?).

Despite these issues, I think this is definitely a book worth reading. It raises interesting ethical questions and contains some fascinating science. Plus, Henrietta deserves to have her story heard.

Audiobook Thoughts:

Cassandra Campbell did a fantastic job as narrator of this one. Some science-y books can have flat narration but Campbell kept the science just as emotional as the personal story. If you’re going to read it, I highly recommend this one in audio.

Others’ Thoughts: Book Addiction; Helen’s Book Blog; Take Me Away Reading;

But It Now: Amazon; IndieBound

Record Collecting for Girls [Book Review]

Record Collecting for GirlsTitle: Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time
Author: Courtney E. Smith
Genre: Nonfiction; Music
ISBN: 0547502230
Pages: 240
Year: 2011
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: Netgalley
Rating: 4/5

Summary/My Thoughts:

Music lovers. I have a new book for you. Have you ever noticed that most books about music (and magazines about music) are written by men? Well Courtney E. Smith did. I hadn’t given it much thought but she is right. Women make up an even amount of music listeners, so shouldn’t we also write about music? Enter Record Collecting for Girls.

Record Collecting for Girls explores how women relate to music. There is a chapter about Top Fives (remember High Fidelity?), guilty pleasures (mine is the Glee soundtracks), “our” songs, and the classic Beatles vs. Stones debate. She explains why loving The Smiths too much is a dealbreaker for her in men and questions why there are so few girl bands. Each chapter ends with a playlist. Which will be helpful the next time you are in need of some making out or breaking up music. And there are entertaining Interludes along the way (one such Interlude has made be give another try).

Because this is a book about music, it’s understandably very personal to the author. Some people may not like this (because their musical tastes are very different or they may even suffer from the dealbreaking Smiths Syndrome), but I think it would be impossible to avoid. Smith is five years older than me (as determined by where she was in life when Romeo + Juliet was released). This could be decades in music years, so while I relate to many of the artists she discusses (we share a love for The Shins), some of them I’ve never really experienced. This doesn’t ruin the book at all for me. I can still relate to the feelings behind it (although she did almost lose me by saying she cannot stand Arcade Fire and I actually DO think The National are genius).

If you are a music fan, man or woman, I think you will enjoy this book. It’s lighthearted, funny, and makes you look into your music habits. Plus, I have about a hundred new tracks to go listen to now and there aren’t many things in life that make me happier than new music.

Favorite Passages:

“It’s rare that a female musician is able to develop her image in a way that doesn’t revolve around her physical appeal to the male population.” p. 48*

“Some people might think underground or indie rock artists letting their music be used on soundtracks to blockbusters like New Moon is a big sell-out move. I think it’s a helpful lift to the music taste of future generations. Like giving kids a little bit of fiber with their hefty dose of sugar.” p. 75

On guilty pleasures: “It’s music that causes you to roll up the windows in your car for fear a pedestrian or biker might here.” p. 80

“Indie-music fanatics, both male and female, are captivated by the idea of being first. We want to feel ownership over artists before anyone else even knows who they are.” p. 84

Buy It Now: Amazon; IndieBound

Extra: Follow Courtney E. Smith on Twitter. [P.S.: I love that we live in an age where I can finish a book and then chat with the author 10 minutes later].

*Page numbers reference the e-galley and may differ in the published book.

The Emperor of All Maladies [Book Review]

Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Narrator: Stephan Hoye
Genre: Non-fiction; Science; Medicine; History
ISBN: 9781439107959
Pages: 592
Audio: 20 hours 45 minutes
Year: 2010
Publisher: Tantor Media
Source: Library
Rating: 4.5/5

Summary/My Thoughts:

The Emperor of All Maladies is sub-titled “A Biography of Cancer.” It is really a history of our battle against cancer. Mukherjee, a physician, has the medical knowledge and writing ability to succeed in this narrative of cancer.

The book focuses on the changes in cancer diagnosis and the evolution of its treatment. Much of the book details Sidney Farber’s obsession to find a cure with Mary Laskar’s aid. It was easy to get caught up in Farber’s story and hope for more progress than I knew I could reasonably expect.

One thing that really struck me was the politics involved in cancer research and treatment. Surgeons and Chemotherapists refusing to work together because each was convinced their treatment was the best. Politicians refusing to pass the necessary legislation. Cigarette manufacturers lying to their consumers for years. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way, and it makes me angry to think that these people were selfish enough to delay progress.

Stephen Hoye’s narration was fine. Even though I spent a LONG time with him, I don’t have strong feelings either way. But the narrator was not as important to me as it is in other books. The story stood on its own.

The book is long, but that just makes it complete. Mukherjee weaves stories of individual patients in with the history and science. It’s a good reminder that the story of cancer is not objective. It  is affecting all of our lives all the time. Although the book is obviously full of loss, it ends with hope. We are making progress in the battle against cancer. And Mukherjee believes we will continue to make progress.

Others’ Thoughts: The Avid Reader’s Musings; Bibliophile by the Sea; Devourer of Books; Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books; S. Krishna’s Books; The Book Lady’s Blog

Buy It Now: Powell’s; IndieBound; Amazon; Book Depository

Three Cups of Tea [Book Review]

“In our culture it takes three cups of tea to do business. On the first cup you are a stranger. The second cup you become a friend, and the third cup you become family. “

Three Cups of Tea

Title: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
Author: Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Narrator: Patrick Lawlor
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
ISBN: 1400152518
Pages: 349
Audio: 13 hours 28 minutes
Year: 2006
Publisher: Tantor Media
Source: Library
Rating: 2.5/5

Summary/My Thoughts:

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American building schools in Pakistan. I had high hopes for Three Cups of Tea. But like some other books that have wonderful stories yet aren’t told in a manner that I enjoy, I found myself just trying to get through this one.

Greg Mortenson is an amazing person. Once he was just a mountain climber. But a wayward journey on K2 led him to a life building schools for Pakistani’s youth. And the story is interesting. From corrupt tradesmen to political kidnapping, Mortenson has had anything but a boring life.

But sometimes a book just doesn’t tell the story in the same manner I would have told it. And that results in me not liking it as much. I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what it was but I just didn’t love it.

Part of my issues with the book may have been a result of the audio format. It would jump from Pakistan to San Francisco, from one time period to another, and I found this jarring in audio. I imagine this is a problem fixed by a few page breaks or headers. I also think I may have liked it better with a different narrator.

Other Reviews: Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books; Let’s eat, grandpa! Let’s eat grandpa! (Punctuation saves lives.)

Buy It Now: IndieBound; Powell’s; Book Depository; Amazon

A Short History of Nearly Everything [Audiobook Review]

Title: A Short History of Nearly Everything
Author: Bill Bryson
Narrator: Richard Matthews
Genre: Nonfiction – Science
ISBN: 0767908171
Pages: 320
Audio: 17 hours 48 minutes
Year: 2003
Publisher: Books on Tape
Source: Library
Rating: 5/5


A Short History of Nearly Everything is exactly what it sounds like. Bill Bryson takes us from the Big Bang to the evolution of humankind. In between we learn everything else: the universe, atoms, volcanoes, plate tectonics, radioactive decay, the rise of life, and more (yes, more).

This was actually my first Bill Bryson. Shocker, I know. But I’m hooked. I listened to the audio and I had so much fun learning that I found excuses to listen whenever I could. I am a bit of a science nerd in a completely layperson way. I always say that if I’d had better science teachers growing up, I’d probably be a kickass scientist right now. I especially love the science of space and the universe so that was my favorite part. But even things that I didn’t think I had that much interest in were fascinated when told by Bryson.

The narration was wonderful. Richard Matthews has an irresistible British accent that I could listen to for hours (and did). Be careful not to grab the abridged version (like I accidentally did at first). While narrated by Bryson himself, it is about a third the length of the unabridged version and you don’t want to miss any of it.

Buy It Now: IndieBound; Powell’s; Book Depository; Amazon

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet [Audiobook Review]

Title: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Author: Bill McKibbon
Narrator: Oliver Wyman
Genre: Nonfiction
ISBN: 1427209499
Pages: 272
: 9 hours
Year: 2010
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Source: Library
Rating: 4.5/5

My Thoughts:

Eaarth is equal parts terrifying and hopeful. McKibben describes a new Earth: Eaarth with two As. He argues that humankind has so significantly altered the planet and its future that we can no longer assume we are living on the same Earth that we have known.

Eaarth begins by describing the environmental impact we have had on our planet and the pretty catastrophic results. In an absolutely terrifying way. Reading this part made me pretty sure we were all going to die in a tsunami. Tomorrow. Luckily, the second half of the book discusses the things we can do. We have passed a point of no return. We cannot go back to our old Earth. We’ve done too much damage already. But by focusing less on the global and more on the local, we can survive on Eaarth with two As.

In an interesting intersection of our world’s current issues, Eaarth describes the way that the environment and the economy are intertwined. I don’t believe McKibben is the first to do this, but based on our current economic climate, it is highly relevant. McKibben believes that we cannot grow our economy much more than we already have. That at some point we have are going to have to return to more community-based economies. Farmer’s markets, CSAs, community-based energy, solar panels, and the like are our future on the new Eaarth.

You all know that I am pretty liberal in my views (and we have no doubt of McKibben’s liberal leanings after hearing his thoughts on the Bush administration versus the Obama administration) and I tend toward some hippie-ish ways already. I stopped eating meat largely because of the environmental impact of our farming system. I refuse to support bottled water companies because of the environmental impact. But I know I can do more and this book had prompted me to figure out how. I’ve missed my opportunity to join a CSA (our season begins in November here in Florida) but I plan on supporting my local farmer’s market. I can’t help driving my car, but I will find other ways to save energy. I will support my local businesses as much as I can. I hope others read this book and do the same. We all have to do our part if we want to survive on this new Eaarth.

I listened to the audio version of this book. Oliver Wyman was a good narrator for this book. He voice is pretty upbeat and it helped temper some of the doom and gloom in the first part of Eaarth. It was also very enjoyable to hear him imitate the politicians quoted in the book.  I definitely recommend that audio production.

Buy It Now: Amazon; IndieBound; Powell’s; Book Depository