Friday, April 29, 2011

Recently Read

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).  A detailed exploration of the motivations for why Civil War soldiers joined up and stayed in the fight.  McPherson examines letters and diaries of more than 1000 soldiers, North and South, white and black, to ascertain why they did what they did.  It is a powerful reminder that Americans on both sides were deeply committed to their causes in a way that I suspect few Americans are today.

Charles Nicholl, The Reckoning The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1994).  This is a fascinating exploration of the wheels within wheels of Elizabethan secret agentry and its part in the death of the noted poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe--who was both an agent of the English government, and perhaps was killed by its agents as part of the Machiavellian workings of the battle between various factions within Elizabeth's government.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).  Back in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks died of an astonishingly fast growing cervical cancer.  At the same time, scientists were trying to find a way to grow human cells in a culture for research purposes.  All attempts had failed--until these cancer cells taken from Lacks' body after death (and apparently without permission of her family) surprised everyone.  

Skloot's book is several different, closely intertwined and fascinating stories.  One is the story of how Lacks' cells made possible enormous scientific advances, creating much of what is modern medicine.  You will learn an enormous amount about the process by which Lacks' cells continue to reproduce about like you would expect cancer cells to reproduce--but far more effectively than anyone expected.  It is almost like a bad 1950s sci-fi movie.

It is also the story of the ethical problems of human research, with examples that will curl your hair of the use of prisoners in the 1960s.  If you know anything about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and then you find out about this, you can start to see why some of the really outrageous claims popular in black ghettos (such as "AIDS was invented by the federal government to kill off black people") get as much attention as they do: there's a long and pretty sordid history on medical research and blacks.

It is also the very tragic story of Henrietta Lacks growing up in a poor tobacco farming community in Virginia that is depressingly similar to Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  Henrietta Lacks ends up married to her first cousin--with whom she shared a bedroom from a very young age.  Her husband (who was still alive when the book was written) seems to have contributed to Lacks' fame and immortality by bringing her home a witches' brew of STDs, including an HPV strain that is still identifiable in her continuously reproducing cells in labs around the world.

While you can feel tremendous sorrow for the circumstances of Henrietta Lacks' life, and that of her children and relatives, Skloot does not sugarcoat the situation.  There is much here that reminds you that an awful lot of the evil that has destroyed so many black people in America isn't the result of racism; it is stuff done to them by their own families.  This is one of those books that makes you want to cry.

As you may have guessed from the above links, I have dropped my boycott of Amazon.  The book that originally provoked it is gone, and it appears from this that Amazon has learned that there is nothing courageous about offering such materials.


  1. I really enjoy using Library Thing ( to organize all the books I've read. You'd probably like it too because your can put a widget on the blog and highlight books you've read.

  2. Since one half of all Americans are wagon riders I suspect that the only patriotism they have is for the handouts they get. To offer ones life for the cause of freedom would be asking way to much I suspect. That leaves another half that I have grave doublts about as well. It is sad to say that our country is broke not only financially but morally as well.

  3. You left out a key part of the story: contamination of huge array of cell cultures by Lacks' cancer cells.

    There were many cases where scientists found DNA or other commonalities between distinct cell cultures, and reported this as a scientific finding. But actually the commonality was that both cultures were contaminated with Lacks cells.