Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Read This, Not That

I am so thankful for Winter Break, as it affords me the opportunity to wrap myself up in a blanket, chug a mug of hot chocolate and just read.

If you didn't know, books are like magic to me. Every Sunday when I was a kid, I'd force a parent to drive me over to the library, so I could check out the maximum number of books allowed on my card (which I believe was 40) and wade through a pool of books in the car.

I just finished reading two books of completely different genres and I'm here to urge you to crack one open and to warn you to avoid muddling through the other.

First, the bad. My mother, bless her intentions, brought home several tomes of short stories to inspire me (since I had been developing my own writing with my friend Sha'Donna). One of these books was James Franco's Palo Alto, so named for his hometown. Readers, should some curiosity move you to pick this off the shelf, put it back. Up until now, I have followed his career with admiration. Loved him in Freaks and Geeks, loved him as Spiderman's sidekick and absolutely loved him in Milk. When I heard that he had enrolled in something like four different grad programs, including an MFA in creative writing, and that he had published his work, I was intrigued. I shouldn't have been. His stories are unreadable. The characters are undeveloped and his plots meander. Clearly, his writing ability was a secondary consideration in his book deal. I guess if I was a famous actor, it would be pretty easy for me to get a half-baked book published too.

On the other hand, I recommend all of you try to get your hands on Rebecca Skloot's the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a decade-long investigation into the background of Henrietta Lacks, the women whose cancer cells became the infamous HeLa cells, supposedly one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th Century. HeLa cells have been used in polio vaccines and cancer medications, and have spurred numerous inventions over the years. Tragically, this groundbreaking discovery was ill-gotten, as her doctors collected a sample without her knowledge or consent. It was 1950s Baltimore and doctors in the "colored" wing didn't feel think her family needed to know that her cells were being being shipped around the world, traveling through space and being used for genetic engineering. Today, bio-medical companies make millions of dollars of profit off of her DNA. And her family has not seen a cent of it. In a sad twist of irony, her children, who cannot afford medical insurance, do not have enough money to pay for medications developed from the DNA they share with their mother. Immortal Life opened my eyes to issues of race relations and medical ethics I could never have conceived of. This is not a light read, or a feel-good book, but it is a mind-blower. And yes, there was a part that made me cry. I encourage anyone with an interest in medicine to check it out.

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