Local releases

February 07, 2010|By Diane Scharper | Special to The Baltimore Sun

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,' Rebecca Skloot, Crown, 320 pages, $26.
Although Henrietta Lacks died of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, her cells are alive 60 years later. Unlike most cells, hers (renamed HeLa, from her first and last names) are considered immortal. Why? Rebecca Skloot offers several answers - from the scientific to the mystical - in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," her multifaceted debut book. Skloot begins her account by explaining the importance of HeLa cells. Shipped all over the world (and even to outer space), HeLa cells helped researchers find a vaccine for polio and were used to create drugs for Parkinson's and leukemia. Skloot is also interested in the relatively unknown black woman from whose body the cells were removed and spends much of this book researching and profiling members of the Lacks' family, who came from Clover, Va.; most now live in East Baltimore. Although Skloot never explains the mystery of HeLa (scientists don't completely understand why the cells are immortal), she offers clear explanations of many facets of medical research. Nor does Skloot provide a complete picture of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot's primary contacts were too young to remember their mother. Skloot does, however, weave an unwieldy mix of memoir, biography, social and scientific history into an engaging whole. Using concrete details and quoting the African-American dialect of her subjects, she brings the Lacks' family alive, especially Deborah, the youngest daughter. All of which gives Henrietta Lacks another kind of immortality - this one through the discipline of good writing.

'Becoming A Doctor,' Lee Gutkind, editor, Norton, 228 pages, $26.95.
A doctor's job is as big as life. That point informs "Becoming a Doctor," a collection of memoirs edited by Lee Gutkind, who directed the creative nonfiction conference at Goucher College and is editor of the "Best Creative Nonfiction" series. Only a few of these essays can be considered "best." Some are written poetically and seem like prose poems; others have a strong narrative drive; still others feel like rambling recollections whose theme has become clouded. The 19 contributors include well-known memoirists like medical doctors Perri Klass, Dr. Robert Coles and Danielle Ofri, as well as Kay Redfield Jamieson, professor of psychology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They include topics such as taking up medicine and a doctor's privileged relationship with patients. Some, like Jamieson's essay, provide reasons for not becoming a doctor; some for deciding to leave the profession, as Peggy Sarjeant did after she lost a patient and best friend to cancer. A few offer hints to healers and to those needing to be healed. As physician Charles Bardes observes, children usually recover quickly from injury, but adults' injuries might "stay forever." This situation requires patience on both sides of the stethoscope. Doctors must listen carefully to patients' stories, according to Klass. They need to learn to ask purposeful questions, understand "at least some of the answer" and provide direction amid the anxiety, uncertainty and complexity of life. This, if nothing else, suggests the immensity of their calling and the power behind the best of these essays. Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.

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