Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

There was a period a few months ago where, if you listened to NPR podcasts like I listen to NPR podcasts, you couldn’t avoid mention of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks nor the voice of it’s author, Rebecca Skloot, answering questions about the remarkable story she uncovered (and took part in).

I finished this book on the road trip, meaning I returned it to the library something like 6 days late (and have the $1.50 fine to show for it). I’m more than happy to pay up–it was a book worth turning in late. Before I started reading, I was afraid I’d heard the whole story from all the radio interviews, but the book offers much much more.

Immortal Life is a definitively American tale, exposing a bizarre and unfortunate dichotomy in our society — scientific and technological innovation at its highest, world-changing levels, and poverty, racism, and neglect unconscionable anywhere else in the developed world.

The book intertwines two distinct threads — the discovery and development of HeLa cells, an immortal strain that has proven a remarkable boon to biotech; and the trial and tribulations of uncovering the life of Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman (or, in the parlance of the time of her death, “negress”), whose cervical cancer served as the fount of these cells.

Either story on it’s own is fascinating. The idea that there’s a strain of cells that, given just a bit of food and culture, will live forever, endlessly reproducing, seems like the stuff of science fiction (and has been the inspiration for such).

The biography of Henrietta Lacks and her descendants, poor African-Americans who somehow manage to get by, but face trouble (health, money, alcohol, drugs, jail) at every turn is heartbreaking. And always lurking around is the book’s fundamental irony, that Henrietta’s family cannot afford the health care that her cells have made available.

The patron saint of the book proves to be Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s mercurial daughter. After much effort, Skloot bonds with her, though Deborah occasionally slips into paranoid phases where she believes Skloot is out to get her, to be yet another white person profiting off of her mama’s cells. Deborah’s behavior gets to be quite trying, even for the reader, but it speaks to Skloot’s power as an author that, at the end of the book, when you hear that Deborah has died, you feel immensely sad. More than anything else, Deborah did what she could to preserve the memory, and good name, of the mother she never got to know, and deserves our respect.

Road Trip 2010, Part 3: Portland

After leaving Newport, we bee-lined for Portland, for the longest single stretch of the trip. We love Portland — it’s easy to love a city that’s walkable, loves books, beer, coffee, good food, and pinball.

(I mean, is there another city with a dedicated website and iPhone app for listing eery pinball machine?)

Non-standard Lodging

Instead of typical lodging, we stayed at a “modern loft in the Pearl” which we found through Airbnb. It was definitely the right choice — big enough that we could easily manage the four of us (including Milo), well-appointed (on-site parking, 24-hour gym with elliptical trainers, crazy-fast internet, washer/dryer), and located in a very walkable neighborhood. This was our family’s second use of “vacation rentals” while we travel (the first was in Austin), and it’s definitely a mode I like.

Eating (and drinking)

Thankfully, our Oregon coffee woes ended upon arrival in Portland. Famous for it’s local roaster Stumptown, this city is one where it’s very easy to get a good cup of joe.

Among Portland’s top food trends are street carts, and you can find them all over town. My favorite food cart meal was from a decidedly unhip place — Euro Dish, featuring Polish specialties. Their cabbage roll was probably the single best thing I had from a food cart, and their pierogis were tasty, too. We also enjoyed Ziba’s Pitas (I preferred the spinach to the meat pita), and Smokin’ Pig, with an excellent pulled pork sammich.

Cupcakes have hit PDX, and I preferred the options at Cupcake Jones (in the Pearl) to Saint Cupcake out on Belmont.

We conducted our ritual pilgrimage to Voodoo Doughnut, whose bacon maple bar is better than it needs to be, and where the apple fritter is larger than your head.

For proper restaurant eats, my favorite was Screen Door, offering Southern tasties to the hungry masses. On a Tuesday night it was packed by 6:30, and with good reason. I had a starter of shrimp and grits, which proved delectable, and a side of pork chops, which come serve battered and fried and flavorful and awesome. I also remember that we wolfed down our desserts, though I cannot remember what they were.

For our last night we hired a babysitter, and had a proper date night. At the suggestion of friends, we headed to Pok Pok, a celebration of Thai street food. There was a 30 minute wait, but that was no worry, as they have a bar just down the street, the Whiskey Soda Lounge, where you can enjoy cocktails and appetizers that are identical to what you’d get at Pok Pok. The whole experience was very satisfying (judging by how full we were when we left), and quite distinct — it was a kind of cuisine I’d never had before, and I’ve eaten at dozens of Thai restaurants.

Activities

Like with much of our trip, the Rain Gods were with us in Portland, and that definitely curbed our activities. We had wanted to do more neighborhood wanders, but found ourselves indoors more than we had planned. Still, we did manage to have some fun.

Stacy and Jules appreciated Isobel’s Clubhouse, a drop-in family room with all manner of activities for children.

I made a couple trips to Ground Kontrol, an arcade specializing in 80s-era video games and pinball from throughout the ages. Their Addams Family Pinball was finely tuned, and nothing in coin-operated amusements provides the satisfying thrill of Raul Julia’s voice beaming, “SHOW-TIME!”

OMSI is an excellent science museum with a large “science playground” for children 6 and under. If we were residents, we’d most definitely have a membership. I only regret not having gone their earlier in the day — we felt rushed because we got there just a couple hours before closing!

And we spent an inordinate amount of time at Fort Vancouver National Park, just across the Columbia in Washington. A surprisingly engaging historical journey, with a good (and free) audio tour, and interpreters acting the roles of blacksmith and carpenter. What we though would last maybe 90 minutes ended up having us there for nearly 3 hours (some of that extra time due to a fussy 21-month-old who doesn’t yet have the savvy and sophistication to enjoy matters historical, and who much preferred the slide on the playground near the parking lot.)

One final thought

I truly appreciate Portland, but I was struck, even more this time than in previous travels, how homogenous the city is. And I don’t even mean just white… It’s over-educated white hipster with silly affectations (at Pok Pok, a table near us featured three people wearing Mao Caps). It’s such a narrow slice of society, and while in some ways I find it comforting (as it overlaps highly with my personal demographic), it’s also quite claustrophobic.

Road Trip Part 2010, Part 2: Oregon Coast

When I last wrote, we were leaving the California redwoods and heading north for what proved to be hailier climes.

We stopped in Brookings for lunch and to see the placard commemorating the Japanese attack on the Oregon Coast. Given that bit of history, we felt it only proper to eat sushi for lunch, at Cafe Kitanishi. The food was very tasty, so much so we had no room for their special desserts — a variety of cheesecakes (which struck me as very un-Japanese).

The drive to Newport was farther than we thought, and we didn’t get in until close to 5pm. We then spent the next few days here and around the Oregon Coast.

Activities

A big reason for our staying in Newport was the Oregon Coast Aquarium. See, Jules has a fascination with fish, something we’re more than happy to encourage. The Aquarium is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours. The sea lion feeding was perhaps the most entertaining aspect, and the surround-aquariums in the new “Passages of the Deep” exhibit reward as much time as you’re willing to spend in them.

Jules and the Leopard Shark

We happened to be in town during Rogue Ale’s huge Brewer’s Memorial Ale Fest, a celebration of beer and dogs. Sadly, it was not a celebration of babies, or anyone under 21, so Jules could not go… which meant that Stacy and I had to trade off. Which made the event far less fun, because you’re basically standing around, drinking beer (good beer, yes), holding on to a dog (Milo) who is shaking with fear at all the other dogs. So, this didn’t work out as we’d hoped.

The other big activity for us was hiking around Cape Perpetua Scenic Area. Cape Perpetua is an excellently-managed state park, with an informative visitor’s center, a number of trails ranging from super easy to fairly difficult, and plenty of signs and interpretations to provide context for your excursion.

With our time, we chose two hikes. The first was “St. Perpetua“, which takes you up 800 feet for the single best view of the Oregon Coast:

The view from St Perpetua Trail

We then opted for the easier hike towards Devils Churn, an craggy inlet where waves crash right in front of you. My photo doesn’t have much drama:
Devil's Churn

but this video someone else too demonstrates the activity:

I would heartily recommend Cape Perpetua to anyone looking for an outdoors escape on the Oregon Coast.

Eating

Newport turned out to have a number of delightful eateries. Our first, the Rogue “Brewers on the Bay” was fine (nothing special), but our lunch the next day, at South Beach Fish Market (world’s worst web site, by the way), was quite satisfying, with fish and chips (where you could actually taste the cod) and dungeness crab.

Our best meal so far on this entire trip came from the quirky ARR Place, a restaurant that seems to exist in a converted basement of a house off a side street. We read about it on a couple of sites, and were not at all disappointed. ARR are the initials of the family that runs it, and you definitely feel more like a guest in someone’s home than in a normal restaurant. I’m bummed I didn’t take more photos to help put across the flavor of the price. The cuisine is a kind of contemporary American — we had shredded beef in lettuce cups, goat cheese ravioli, a grilled opah with banana ketchup, and the piece de resistance were two remarkable desserts, a raspberry biscuit with buttermilk ice cream, and a turtle sundae with house-made roasted and candied pecans. Oh, and they even have a full (though small) bar, so I was able to get a martini. We left the place utterly stuffed.

Cafe Stephanie supplied us with a very tasty breakfast — I heartily recommend their quiches.

One night we had a jones for some Asian spices, so we ended up at Bangkok Thai and enjoyed a good meal, lead off by a surprisingly satisfying tom kha gai.

The Coffee House had a good basic breakfast — the wild mushroom and spinach omelette was filling and savory, and kept me good for the drive to Portland. It also probably featured the best coffee on this part of the trip, though, like everywhere else we went to on the Oregon coast, it was brewed way too weak.

Musing on Managed Experiences

On our last day in California, we stopped to pee at Trees of Mystery, a roadside attraction showcasing redwoods, a gondola called the Sky Trail, and, of course, a gift shop. I remember visiting this over 20 years ago with my parents, the most vivid memories being the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox out front.

Trees of Mystery is now the very definition of a tourist trap (its Wikipedia page makes that clear), though I suspect when it opened, which I believe was originally in the 40s, it actually served a purpose — this was not well-managed parkland at the time, and Trees of Mystery offered folks who weren’t super outdoorsy the ability to see and learn about redwoods.

It’s purpose these days is less clear. With the establishment of Redwood National Park (in 1968), and the various state parks that comprise it, you can now have a well-managed, lowkey, redwood forest experience for free. At Prairie Creek, you can walk along the Revelation Trail and have a walk very similar to what people continue to pay $15 a head for at Trees of Mystery. I would argue that the real mystery is, why are people willing to spend so much money for something they can get for free?

The most obvious answer is marketing — Trees of Mystery has two giant statues out front, and you’ll find their brochures 100 miles in any direction. Prairie Creek State Park is not unknown, but doesn’t really engage in “outreach”. The next answer that comes to mind is safety/security. I think many see National Parks as unruly, unclear, potentially wild places. Whereas, a roadside attraction charging $15 will clearly be a safe, clear, managed experience. I suspect many don’t trust themselves to get the most out of a National Park, and would fear spending a lot of time being lost or confused. For $15, you’re guaranteed a focused experience that you’ll get *something* out of.

Road Trip 2010, Part 1: Redwoods

On Tuesday, May 18, the family (Stacy, Jules, Milo, and myself) loaded up the Subaru Outback and headed north for a two-week road trip. Our itinerary includes the California Redwood Coast, Oregon Central Coast, Portland, and probably Crater Lake on the return (subject to change depending on weather).

This is our first big trip since Jules was born. For our last big trip, two weeks in Ireland and Scotland, Jules joined us in utero. Stacy and I have a history of road trips, though we knew it would be different with our son along for the ride. The most notable change is that we are staying for three nights in each place we visit, and doing little day adventures from those bases. Covering ground took a back seat to the hassles of loading and unloading. The other is that we have to factor in nap time into our timing planning, which means we can’t do a whole lot in the middle of the day.

Stacy had never seen giant California Redwoods, so we made our first port of call Trinidad, CA, an historic town north of Arcata and south of the bulk of Redwood National Park.

Lodging

We stayed in Emerald Forest, a pleasant collection of cabins and campgrounds, where we realized our first tactical error: motel rooms of a size that was fine when it was just the two of us (even with a dog) are barely tenable with the toddler (who sleeps in a Pack-and-Play). By the time this became apparent, we were SOL, as they had only two dog-friendly rooms, and the other was reserved. So, for our first three nights, we all slept together in the same room, which meant that Stacy and I pretty much had to go to bed when Jules did (at around 8pm). Since we couldn’t turn on any lights, we couldn’t read as we might normally… so we watched downloaded TV in the dark.

Eating

The Redwood Coast is a region not known for it’s culinary savoir-faire, but we managed quite well. The real find was The Beachcomber Cafe, a coffeehouse and bakery just in town. The coffee was excellent (and, writing this a few days after we left Trinidad, we still haven’t found any comparable), and the scones they put out every morning were to die for. These are not dry flavorless bricks. These are rich, buttery, and delightful.

Our first two dinners were in Arcata, the college town of Humboldt State. There was Japhy’s, a hippie-ish noodle joint that served tasty food quite cheap (though I preferred the Thai green curry over rice to the noodles). And the next night was 3 Foods, a somewhat pretentious, but remarkably tasty, mid-scale restaurant that catered more to the local professoriate. Each night we ate ice cream, first night at Arcata Scoop, second at Bon Boniere, and both were fine, but nothing special. (As were two other restaurants: Trinidad Bay Eatery for an underwhelming breakfast, and the Samoa Cookhouse for an underwhelming dinner.)

On this leg, we stopped in both Eureka and Arcata, two towns very close to one another. Eureka left me cold — very little charm, and we decided to skip it for meals and activities. Arcata was much more pleasant — charming little town with a cute town square, and the college gives it just enough sophistication to be interesting.

Patrick’s Point State Park and Redwood National Park

The real reason for this stop was the outdoors, and we got a great dose of that. It rained much of the time (as it seems to do in the Very Northern California and Oregon coasts), but we were graced with sunshine our first afternoon, and took in the sights at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad. It’s a very manageably-sized park, with a “rim trail” that offers gorgeous ocean views.

Our second full day was rain-free, and so we headed for the Redwoods. We bee-lined for the Klamath area, and headed west to the Coastal Trail for a drive along the coast. We made a brief detour at the World War II radar station disguised as a farm house (perhaps not the best disguise, as it’s not really farmable land), which was disappointing because there’s not much to see–everything is boarded up. We then stopped at the High Bluff Overlook, which afforded the most dramatic vista we’d see that day:

High Bluff Overlook

We then headed for Prairie Creek, where we briefly hiked the Prairie Creek Trail, an excursion cut short first by Jules’ fussiness, and then his falling asleep in the hiking backpack he rides:

Jules naps

After everyone napped, we opted to hike Trillium Falls, a beautiful path near Elk Meadow.

Trillium falls

We can say, in no uncertain terms, that we satisfied our redwoods jones. If you’ve never wandered among them, do so.

Traveling with Jules

In terms of traveling with Jules, there are some things to report. Having a separate room for him to sleep in is becoming mandatory (we’re staying in a “suite” in Oregon, and the difference has been remarkable). iPad is a family road trip’s best friend — we loaded it up with Pixar films, hung it from the backseat, and Jules goes hyp-mo-tized for hours watching it:

iPad makes travel easier. on Twitpic

Naptime has been pretty easy to plan around — thankfully he’ll sleep in the car, so it doesn’t have to stop our days. And on days when we’re near our motel room, it turns out that when he wants to sleep, so do I! (I’ve recorded more 90 minute naps this week than I have in the past year, if not longer.)

Probably the biggest change from prior trips is that we’re housebound from about 8pm-on.

Traveling with Milo

Not much to say here. He’s a small dog who is fine in the car. Finding places to stay can be a little more challenging, but not too bad — I think lodgers are having to face the fact that Americans love their dogs.

There haven’t been many off-leash areas we could take him. The best was Clam Beach in McKinleyville. When it’s not spitting rain (as it was our first time there), it’s an utterly delightful spot, as Milo can attest:

Run Milo!

Next up

Leaving redwoods country, we headed north up the coast to Newport, OR. Somehow, we hadn’t realized just what a long drive that was going to be. Anyway, our Oregon experience will be another post.