SarahMichigan (sarahmichigan) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
SarahMichigan
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Books #5 and #6

Book #5 is part of the reason I've only finished six books by early March: "The Brontes" by Juliet Barker is 830 pages, not counting the preface, copious end notes and the index. It's Barker's attempt to write a group biography of the three novelist sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, their poet/painter brother Branwell, and their father Patrick. It also seems that Barker's agenda is to set the record straight on the character of each of the Brontes, which are distorted by the Bronte mythology, in Barker's opinion.

It's obvious that Barker's book is meticulously researched. It also has a wonderful selection of illustrations, with a center plate of photos and portraits of the Brontes and their friends and family, as well as small sketches by Emily, Charlotte and Branwell heading each chapter.

I was surprised that some of the amazon reviewers found this book dry because I did not at all. I found myself crying when the various family members died, having felt Barker made you sympathetic to them in the way a great fiction writer does with his or her characters.

[Minor spoilers for those who don't already know the fate of the Bronte family (click to open)]It's inevitable that you learn the most about Charlotte because she lived longer than her siblings and had more books published, as well as being a prolific letter writer. I found myself surprisingly sympathetic to her father, Patrick, who is often portrayed as stern and tyrannical. Barker's portrait is more nuanced - he's a widower raising four young and talented children on a minister's salary, not surprisingly sobered by sorrow but doing the best by his children that he can, as tender and loving a father as most people could wish for.
I really liked this a lot, even though it took me three months to finish it, in part because it was long, with smallish print but also because it was dense with information and heavy in subject matter at times. I felt it was definitely worth reading and would recommend it to anyone else who has read at least a few of the Bronte books and is curious about this literary family.

Book #6 is "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot, as an audiobook. This is another non-fiction book with some heavy moments. It tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman who has her cervical cancer treated at John Hopkins hospital in the 1950s. The doctors culture some of her cancer cells, and these cells live on and on well after Henrietta herself died of this virulent cancer.

The cells went on to make millions of dollars for medical supply companies and lead to cures and treatments for a host of cancers and other illnesses, including playing a role in the eradication of polio. Yet, her family remained largely ignorant of how those cells became so important and didn't receive any money, nor did their mother receive much honor, in return from those cells, which were taken without her consent.

Woven through the story of Henrietta's immortal cells is the story of how Skloot was able to get the story of the Lacks family only after enduring much suspicion from Henrietta's descendants. Sometimes, I felt Skloot focused a little too much on that aspect of the story and I would have preferred that she stuck more closely to the science and the politics of human subjects experiments.

There are many parts of the story that outraged me, from the way the Lacks family was treated by the medical establishment to the way the Lacks children were treated after their mother's death. Thus, this was not an easy read from an emotional standpoint.

However, it was compelling and I learned a lot. I also thought that the translation to audiobook was well done. Highly recommended.



1. The Battle of the Labyrinth [fiction] - Rick Riordan (audiobook)
2. Ice Cold [fiction] - Tess Gerritsen
3. Snow Crash [fiction]- Neal Stephenson
4. The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge [fiction]
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