The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

It is easy to forget how far we all have come in medical science to get where we are today, and some of the ugly decisions made in the 1950s. Truly ugly decisions, nearly mad-science level decisions, have all been forgotten and brushed under the rug.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” isn’t just about the HeLa cancer cell line, although the book is about that. Henrietta Lacks was infected with a line of cancer that simply would not and will not, to this day, die; the line simply grows and grows, ignoring the Hayflick Limit and carrying on. It’s not just about the horrible things done during the times of segregation when people of one color were still seen as “less human” as those of another, or the impact to the family, or that the HeLa cell line forced science to examine its own sets of rules and ethics. It’s more about history — the history of this remarkable find of this cancerous weed, what it meant for science, and what it meant for the Lacks family.

As a book, this one is a pretty brisk read. The chapters are short and to the point. The narrative never lingers or dwells. It would be trivial to take a few of the points in the book and spend hundreds of pages on them but the book never does. It does have several “squick” moments here and there — some of the things that happened to Henrietta herself and to her family are amazingly awful. But the book also demonstrates that without the HeLa line, many things done in medical science today, while doable, would be far more difficult. This feels like a six of one, half a dozen of another situation: the family was shafted but humanity profits. Do we come out ahead?

This is one of those books I can recommend. I know it is already being made into a movie. It’s on all these reading group lists. Everyone and their cousin is reading it. It’s a good read for a book about science if not a bit depressing from its narrative viewpoint.

The post is brought to you by lekhonee v0.7

[Book Review] Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard W. Wrangham

(This review talks about human evolution. If you’re into ID, I’m sure my next post will be full of something not about human evolution.)

Dr. Wrangham is a British Primatologist over at Harvard and his book, “Catching Fire,” is an interesting science book full of nothing but science. He starts with a basic supposition that something happened on the evolutionary boundary between the habilines, largely shown as Homo Habilis and our buddy Home Erectus. By examining the skull structure, chest cavity, molar structure, and the analysis of diet, nutrition and food science, his theory states that humanity made two major jumps:

1. Australopithecine -> Homo Habilis by the introduction of scavenged meat into the diet, well pounded with early tools to make it palatable and digestible.

2. Homo Habilis -> Homo Erectus by placing the vegetables and meat in the fire cook the food.

He marries primatology with food science to show how cooked meat and vegetables greatly reduces the time to chew and digest food while keeping the exact same caloric and nutritional content of food. Experiments show feeding cooked and easy to chew food to animals, especially primates, results in very fat primates who always prefer cooked food to raw. Raw food consumes an enormous time to chew and requires large molars, which Homo Sapiens no longer has, but cooked food needs a smaller digestive system and smaller molars. It also frees Homo Sapiens from the task of chewing all day to doing other things — a rate of spending 60% of the day chewing down to less than 10%. Energy also is conserved in physiology — all animals across all species and genus with access to easily digested food have reduced gut size and put all that energy into increased brain cavity.

Fire provides a whole host of other evolutionary advantages — more hours in the day available to be active, a source of protection at night, a source of warmth, a place for culture to grow and breed, and a clear division of labor between the sexes — hunting and cooking. Dr. Wrangham pulls dozens of examples from many different hunter-gatherer cultures worldwide, from Inuit to Australian aborigines to the !Kung of Africa to South Pacific Islanders, and finds commonalities that involve cooking, meat/vegetable balance, and division of labor and economic trade-offs. All revolves around fire and food.

As for keeping a fire going, experiments show that chimpanzees can keep a fire going indefinitely. If a fire, captured, was brought in to a cave or another protected place and was properly venerated as the God it is, certainly a fire could be kept going. Homo Habilis was a tool-maker and tool-user — if Homo Habilis realized using the gold (pyrite-filled) stones to smash instead of the grey or brown ones, fire would start, and it had enough presence to repeat the process, fire could be made and kept going. It’s reasonable to believe mankind made fire and kept fire far before measured time.

The arguments make sense and they are well sourced with tons of footnotes, a vast bibliography, and references pulled from other sources. The argument is also persuasive — we can find fire pits up to 800,000 years old and after that there is no trace but that means very little. If one little group became Homo Erectus and survived, we would never find evidence of that one small tribe who lived on. Too many evolutionary advantages match with the archeological evidence. Something happened at that boundary between Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus, something that allowed the gut to shrink and the brain to expand and Homo Erectus to spread all over the world. Keeping fire and cooking food makes sense and the arguments are reasonable.

It’s a fairly short, quick read as these sorts of books go at 320 pages. Highly recommended to anyone interested in human evolution and/or food science.

[Book Review] Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

Kim lent me a copy of the hardbound first collection of the graphic novel Castle Waiting by Linda Medley and produced by Fantagraphics Books. The story is a sort of feminist Chaucer set in the never never land of fairy tales. It opens with the story of Castle Waiting, a castle set over a land once lush and prosperous until it became the bramble-covered castle of the story of Sleeping Beauty. Once the Prince woke the Princess and everyone else from their century-long sleep the town was gone and the castle destroyed. With the castle abandoned by all but a few, it became Castle Waiting.

The stories in Castle Waiting are charming and entertaining but lack emotional punch. It’s difficult not to be charmed by the book as the stories are light, funny and entertaining. A pregnant woman flees from her abusive husband and falls into peril before she manages to reach Castle Waiting and give birth to her strange green son. A horse-headed knight and the stork-shaped keeper of the castle go into town for supplies and meet up with bandits. A full second half of the book involves the story of the local nun and how a bearded girl joined a circus, left a circus, and found herself among a feminist order in the service of God. The story of the nun goes on too long — it spins into backstories about backstories that have backstories — but is otherwise fun to read. It’s sort of the fantasy lives of the women of various fantasy series while their men go off and fight wars and the great battles between Good and Evil.

It’s a fun read. It’s well and clearly written. The art is top-notch for being b&w. It’s very light. I’m not certain it’s a “read more than once” but it is handsomely bound and looks good sitting on a shelf among other books. It makes a nice introduction to comics for people who aren’t enormous comic-book people and aren’t interested in requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of this universe or that one going back 40 years. Although it has fairy tale references it is a self-contained volume.

I’ll happily read volume #2 when it comes out. This one comes recommended for those looking to get into comics and not knowing where to start, or those who enjoy comics from time to time but don’t want to invest in some huge story. It’s a great intro-story. It may not be a good recommendation for people who are hard core comics nerds who are looking for more meat out of their stories.

(Also, it needs to go back to its owner!)

[Review] David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace is an acquired taste, a bit like hot sauce or sushi. I started with the essay Consider the Lobster in the now sadly defunct Gourmet magazine. Actually, this isn’t true. I found some other essay online that I read and greatly enjoyed but now I cannot find it again so I will start with Consider the Lobster.

After Consider the Lobster, I worked through his collected essays to get to Infinite Jest, a 1000 page tome of a book with 200 pages of absolutely essential footnotes. The closest work to Infinite Jest, the Internet tells me, is Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and if you like Pynchon you will like DFW. This is undoubtedly true; both specialize in dense and complex works of weird non-linear fiction. The difference is DFW is on the Kindle and Pynchon is not to spite me and me personally so the one on the Kindle got read and the other one did not.

The best way to describe the book is a dense post-modern surrealist novel that is often not surrealist at all. It focuses on strong themes of depression, drug addiction and recovery, fall and redemption, tennis, Quebecqois separatism, terrorism, adolescence, suicide, LARPing, film theory, philosophy, and other fun topics all set to a tone that is best envisioned, bizarrely enough, fully animated. The world is science fiction the same way Vonnegut’s worlds are science fiction: it is a vague near future where even the years have a corporate sponsor, everyone is wired into their ‘entertainments’ and New England has been turned into an enormous toxic waste dump for electoral reasons. The future is full of American’s inalienable rights to consume and consume until they cannot consume any more, pleasure and fulfillment, and the Infinite Jest being the ultimate pleasure, a movie so pleasurable after watching it once, a victim will kill to watch it again and again and again.  Now if only someone could weaponize infinite pleasure in the form of a DVD…

The story follows two separate storylines — one at an Elite Tennis Academy high school and one at a drug and alcohol addiction recovery halfway house down the hill.  The cast of characters feels vast at first and impossible to track with their special ticks and personalities but this turns out to not be an insurmountable task. Both the Ennet Recovery House and the Enfield Tennis Academy are populated with dozens of characters, each with their own special personalities that manage to come through on the page. Some characters show up and hang around for a scene and wander out again. Some are given full and rich backgrounds until they, too, drift away. But through it the two main threads of story never quite touch except in one paragraph possibly in a flash-forward early in the book — although several characters from the two threads often cross.

Like Catch-22, Infinite Jest is not in chronological order. The story jumps around showing a future scene and then flashes back to show the full runup to that scene. (Arguably, the entire book is a run-up to the first, opening scene.)  Sometimes a chunk of essential narrative is told in a long footnote.  This is where the ‘challenge’ comes in — sometimes it is difficult to tell where in the cut-up machine of Infinite Jest a certain scene fits. The narrative jumps around point of view from character to character. One long stretch is told entirely in script-form with puppets. Another is the story of a particularly strange LARP played with tennis rackets and giant maps. The book is not difficult to read, not in the way a dense text from Victorian England can be difficult to physically read. The text itself is quite easy and quick to read. The book itself is structurally challenging.  This is not a band thing.

Infinite Jest is highly referential in places — Dostoevsky, Melville, Shakespeare, Joyce.  The Enfield Tennis Acadamy is full of Hamlet references in the last half of the book. Even the Ghost of the Father! The skull! Gravediggers! The Queen and Polonius! The final scene as Hamlet goes off and Horatio is left behind. Read or refresh Hamlet before picking up Infinite Jest.  Most of the play is embedded in the book.

My favorite part of the book was the last 150 or so pages of Don Gately, the main character of the Recovery House arc, laid in a hospital bed hallucinating his life and the Ghost and the truths to complete his Redemption cycle. It is probably DFW’s very best writing and it is deeply compelling writing.

I want to recommend this book. Obviously I enjoyed it. I read the whole book and the required footnotes. The formal requirement is you must like strange, unconventional, and weird literary books that do not conform to the basic novel form.  I would say — start with the essay above, and then the other essays, and then the short stories, and kind of eeeease into it. It’s a very cool book but it is extremely mind-bendy and challenging.