Monthly Archives: July 2012

Summer Reading Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

An engaging but information book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks delves into a story line of ethical murkiness, physical violation, and a family wrought with grief. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who was treated at Johns Hopkins in 1951 for cervical cancer. During her treatments the doctors took samples of her cancer cells and they become the first “immortal cells” that would live (possibly forever) in a lab. It is Henrietta’s cells (known as HeLa) that have made many of the medical advancements in the last 60 years possible including advances with cancer and the polio vaccine.

Skloot details Henriett’a life, her sickness, and how her cells became noticed and prolific in the medical and scientific community. She also, however, spends a great deal of the book on the family Henrietta left behind, humanizing the HeLa cells. The Lackses did not have the education and economic standing to know about the HeLa cells for almost 25 years after Henrietta died. When they learned about the cells they were not adequately informed about their purpose. The result was decades of anger, frustration, and fear.

This book was very well written. It alternates between the medical community and the Lacks family – demonstrating the two sides of the story in an even and thorough manner. The story does jump around chronologically but each chapter clearly indicates where in time it is set with a timeline at the top. The one criticism is that I would have appreciated a family tree because it was confusing to keep track of so many family members. There is a list at the back of the book, but a tree would have been more effective.

This book is a great background on current issues – from obtaining consent from human subjects to the issue of modifying cells and access to DNA records. I would recommend this book to anyone and I was pleasantly surprised that despite the grave issues contained in the story, that it was not a depressing read.


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Iowa City Book Festival

At the end of last July my friend and I ventured down to Iowa City for an evening of veggie burgers and good beer. To our surprise we found several “book sculptures” littering the sidewalks. In particular I remember a Stieg Larsson book and a book of fairy tales and children stories (including Pooh Bear). These large metal books were scattered along the city. (Many of these sculptures were auctioned off in the fall of 2011 in support of local libraries, however a few remain downtown to enjoy).

It turns out these giant books were part of the Iowa City Book Festival – which was in 2011 in its 3rd year. The festival is a result (perk!) of UNESCO naming Iowa City as one  of the Cities of Literature (others thus honored include Edinburgh, Scotland; Norwich, England; and Dublin, Ireland).

So when 2012 rolled around I decided to take part in this creative outpouring.

The 2012 Iowa City Book Festival was this past weekend (July 13-15). Saturday morning I drove down to Iowa City to peruse the book sellers and stop in on an author event or two before my volunteer shift began.

I happened in on Amy Stewart discussing 2 of her New York Times best sellers Wicked Bugs and Wicked Plants. She was an amusing and interesting speaker  – did you know that in World War II the Germans thought we were going to terrorize them with the Colorado Potato Beetle? – but duty called.

Most of my afternoon I played Children’s Librarian. This was a refreshing and interesting change from my daily role as an academic librarian. I worked with a puppet show, helped volunteers dress up as children’s book characters (including the title character from If you give a pig a pancake) and ran the story time movie hour. The children loved it all and I loved watching their spirited interaction and smiling faces (despite not being much of a kid person … yet).

But my highlight was helping with and attend the Zach Wahls event (the final author event of the day). Zach became somewhat of a celebrity in Iowa and across the country after delivering an impassioned reasoning for why gay marriages were and deserved equal treatment under American law (see it here on YouTube). His book My Two Moms came out this year and Wahls was back to read sections from it and answer questions. His readings and his responses to the questions posed were eloquent and heartfelt and it was amazing to be surrounded in a room that felt so moved by his words.

My day at the Iowa City Book Festival was challenging and fun, interesting and moving. It was all you can ask for from literature.

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Farmers Market

One of my favorite summer activities is shopping at the big downtown farmers market that takes place the first and third Saturday of each month.

My city shuts down several blocks on these days to allow for this market. Farmers and vendors from all over the area come – produce, meat, and crafts abound as well as local food vendors.

The produce I can buy at the farmers market is always of much higher quality than the vegetables at the grocery stores. It sometimes cost a little more, but not always. For example: the grocery we usually shop prices red bell peppers anywhere from $1.99 each to $0.99 – so $2 a pepper from a local farmer (and one that is of higher quality) is not a deal breaker.

Another big reason I like the farmers market is I can ask direct questions to the growers – but as I learned this past Saturday the answers are not always satisfactory.

My friend and I visited the big downtown market this weekend and had made one full round – we had our bags full of green onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and radishes. We both thought some sweet corn would be a nice touch for dinner and had seen several different booths with a bounty despite current reports that the nation’s corn crop was faring badly due to the recent heat wave.

We approached one booth and waited for our turn to be helped. While waiting I told my friend that I wanted to ask some questions before we purchased the corn. I recently read that 80% of the corn, soybean, and cotton grown in the United States is genetically modified and did not want my farmers market corn to be the seed of some giant  conglomerate that could be responsible for devastating ecological backlashes.

When our turn came my friend and I stepped up and the man at the booth asked how many ears of corn we wanted. “I have a question first,” I responded. “Is your corn grown from genetically modified seeds?”

His reaction (answer seems too heavy of a word) was flustered and confusing – this farmers market vendor (farmer?)  appeared (played?) not to understand the term genetically modified. When pressed, he said his seeds – for all his produce (“See how nice it all looks”) – comes from Minnesota.

That was the total of his response.

He again asked how many ears of corn we wanted.  In response I looked him straight in the eye and clearly responded in the negative and we walked away.  Down the street we stopped at another stall and I asked the same question of young man around the age of 15.  He paused and turned to ask an older gentleman behind him, perhaps his grandfather, to answer my question. This man looked right at me and told me that he did not use genetically modified seeds.

Could this farmer/vendor have been lying? Yes – the truth is when we shop for our produce we don’t have much control over what is available or knowledge about the food we purchase. We have to rely on the farmers, the vendors, the signs, or the packaging. It is often misleading (for example the term “natural” has no legal standing and “organic” products are allowed to include a range of non-organic ingredients) but if I’m going to bet on someone it will be the farmer that grows the food and takes the time to bring it to my city.

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Have you checked your computer? The local newspaper ran a small piece back in May about how the FBI won’t allow computers infected with this DNS malware to access the Internet come July 9, 2012 (that’s Monday, folks!). We ran it in our school newsletter but I don’t think too many people have paid attention.

My understanding is that the malware allows crooks to control domain name system servers and they use this power to redirect unsuspecting Internet searchers to fraudulent sites.

I was surprised that no one on Facebook or Twitter is really paying attention to this considering how my timeline is completely taken over anytime Facebook tries to change an email address or force an interface change. It seems quiet on all media fronts.

Fortunately both of my home computers are not infected. OR, as the FBI states, my ISP is running interference and fixing it for me – not sure how to tell if that is the case. Guess we’ll all just keep our fingers crossed on Monday!

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Green Thumb?

Garden Treasures

We picked the first fruit of my labor this morning to go with our weekend egg sandwiches : my tomato.

I attended the Cedar Rapids Ecofest in April and was given a free tomato and several pepper plants. That day I came home, potted them with year old potting soil, and hoped. And hoped. And hoped.

About a month ago a small green tomato showed up on my plant – it was a very exciting day. I have never been a gardener beyond potting a few impatiens and the idea that I might not kill, and grow something we can eat was exhilarating.

Earlier this week I gleefully pointed out to my husband that the tomato was finally getting color and turning orange with signs of red. And this morning he picked it, cut it up, and ate it on his egg sandwich declaring it was the most flavorful tomato he’s had in a long time – beating out the farmers market breeds too!

Did I mention that I don’t like tomatoes? I like ketchup, tomato sauce, tomato soup, but don’t care too much for the tomato itself. In high school I went to France with a group of students. In St. Malo we were served a dinner of fish – with heads, tails, and scales still attached! (Not exactly palatable to American teenagers). Everyone looked longingly at my vegetarian dish except me – tomatoes. I ate the non-tomato part of my meal and gave the stewed fruit to my best friend – who will eat them raw, like an apple.

Still I was very happy this morning that my husband enjoyed my little fruit so much. And there are now several more flowers on my little plant so maybe we will get some more tomatoes and we can add them to a salad so I can try them too.

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