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Archive for the ‘non-fiction’ Category

In 1951 Henritta Lacks’ body died from cancer but some of her cells remain alive today.  Just before Henrietta’s death, a small sample of her tumor was cultured and not only did it remain alive, it began dividing.  It was the first time researchers ever got human cells to survive for long periods outside of a body.  The cells have been used in thousands of experiments.  They have been instrumental in finding a cure for polio, cancer research and many other advances in medicine.  A multimillion dollar industry evolved to sell the cells.

Yet Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave.  Her children lack health insurance and live in poverty.  The cells were taken without her consent or even her knowledge.  Henrietta Lacks was a poor, African American, with a limited education.

In her masterful book, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta and her family.  She also explains the science of the cells and chronicles their history.  Inevitably we see race tensions as a white reporter, Skloot, works to uncover details of the lives of Henrietta and her family.  We see poverty too and how lack of education can limit the ability to even give informed consent.  Ethics of medical research are also explored at length, as are tissue rights.  To contextualize Skloot describes such studies as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

The book does an excellent job at covering a great deal of ground yet being among the most engaging books I have read in years.  This is highly recommended.

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In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals, author Michael Pollen examines the history of four meals.  His first meal is purchased via a McDonald’s drive through.  His second meal is  purchased at Whole Foods.  For his third meal, Pollen works at sustainable farm.  Finally, for the last supper, Pollen hunts and gathers the food.

In an age when we’re growing ever more distant from sources and destinations of the commodities that enter and exit our lives this is an important book.

If this book is enjoyable, then I highly recommend reading the book Pollen wrote before this, The Botany of Desire: a plant’s eye view of the world, which is also reviewed in this blog.  The section on the potato is in many ways prelude to The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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Pollan’s premise in The Botany of Desire: a plant’s eye view of the world is that domesticated plants and humans have coevolved in ways that often benefitted plants as much as humans.  To explore this premise, Pollan looks at four plants: apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes.  With apples, Pollan looks at the history of sweetness and alcohol, in the form of cider.  The section on tulips examines beauty, markets and bubbles using the setting of 17th century Holland, where at one point a house was traded for a tulip bulb.  In the part about cannabis, Pollan explores the history of psychotropic drugs.  Finally, in the section about potatoes, Pollan describes our relationship with food, pesticides and how food production is changing.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan greatly expands on this theme.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Botany of Desire are Pollan’s historical explanations of plants history.  For example, Pollan’s vivid depiction of the potato famine in Ireland gave me an understanding of famines that I did not have before reading Pollan.

Overall this is an extraordinary and engaging meditation on plants and humans.

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