Blue Nights


I’ve recently read two remarkable nonfiction books, Blue Nights, by Joan Didion and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

In Blue Nights, Didion reflects on the death of her daughter, Quintana, and the difficulty of coming to terms with it and understanding it as well as the increasing fear of frailty and loneliness as Didion herself turns 75. A New York Times review said, “It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time.”

A Culture review quotes Didion on the writing: “I’m not talking about it being easy because of the difficulty of the subject, or the sensitivity of the subject, I think it was a difficult book for me to write because it was an entirely different kind of book than I’ve ever written. It wasn’t a narrative, it was a reflection.”

The description of the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks explains it this way:

“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘colored’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia—a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo—to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.”

Both books are highly recommended.

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