Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Have a Book Club

Not that there's only one way to have a book club! But here's how my book club does it up.

We - a handful of friends and I - formed our little book club seven years ago (it's hard to believe it's been that long!). Originally, we formed it as an extension of the MOMS Club we were members of, but it wasn't long before we realized that having to adhere to the rules of that organization was holding us back from making our book club what we wanted it to be. Initially we met during the day to discuss the books we read, with our tykes scampering about at our feet. Sounds cute and sweet, doesn't it? It wasn't. I strongly advise anyone wanting to start a book club to hold the discussions sans kids. This is your opportunity to be an adult, among other adults, and to partake of adult conversation, and hopefully adult beverages.

We started out as a group of about a half-dozen stay-home moms, and we've grown to a group of women who include stay-home moms, teachers, a lawyer, a college professor, an actuary, and a number of other careers and identities. The group is ever-changing; there are a handful of us who have been members since the group's inception, and over the years lots of other women have joined and un-joined. There are officially roughly twenty members right now, and a little more than half of that number comprises the core group of members who are diligently active.

I am the unofficial coordinator of the group, which really means nothing more than maintaining a roster and sending out announcements and reminders via email of upcoming reading selections and dates and times of discussions. A couple years ago we started using, which is a really cool way of communicating with any sort of cohesive group you may be involved in.

So here's what we do: we take turns choosing books for the group to read. We read and discuss one book per month, skipping December and instead having a holiday dinner/gift-book exchange that month. Whomever chooses the book hosts the discussion for that book. There is no set order - we don't draw names or assign months, nor do we vote on books. Fortunately, we are an active enough group that members reserve a spot to host way ahead of time, so we usually have books and hosts signed up months in advance.

The discussions are hosted in the evening at the host's home. There is generally lots of food, talk and laughter. We try to use a published discussion guide (which can often be found in the back of the book, on the publisher's website, or on the author's website) to facilitate the discussion of each book, but once in a while we read a book that has no published discussion guide, as in the case of the recently read and discussed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. My friend Robin writes really excellent discussion questions though.

Sometimes the host might try to keep the theme or setting of the book in mind when preparing the evenings snacks. For instance, the very first book we read as a group was Memoirs of a Geisha, and at the discussion my friend Judy provided these little Japanese ice cream things, which I remember were really yummy. I hosted our discussion of Henrietta Lacks earlier this week, and here is my amusingly weak attempt at creating snacks and desserts that resemble cells, in keeping with the book's theme (go ahead and laugh!):

As I said, we usually use a discussion guide to . . . uh, guide the discussion. But the discussions inevitably digress and meander down different paths and we often talk about our own life experiences and views about different topics. This is what I love so much about my book club - it's very casual and intimate and has provided a means of getting to know and connect with other women. I have made some very dear friends through my book club.

We read all kinds of genres: classics, contemporary fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, mysteries - you name it. In fact, here's a list of all the books we've read thus far, starting seven years ago!

Memoirs of a Geisha*

Good in Bed**

The Christmas Box*

The Five People You Meet in Heaven*

The DaVinci Code

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West**

Cry, the Beloved Country*

The Secret Life of Bees*

The Red Tent*

The Awakening*

A Prayer for Owen Meany*

I Don’t Know How She Does It*

The Kite Runner*

The Stone Diaries**

Life of Pi*

Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim*


Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons**

The Egg and I*

Summer Breeze


Brideshead Revisited

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan*

East of Eden*

On Hitler’s Mountain**

A Walk in the Woods

The Time Traveler's Wife*


Pride and Prejudice

The Journeys of Socrates

One Hundred Years of Solitude

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn*

Running With Scissors*

To Kill a Mockingbird*

She’s Come Undone**

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter*

The Namesake*

Midnight’s Children

The Thirteenth Tale*


Gone With the Wind*

A Thousand Splendid Suns*

Three Cups of Tea

The Glass Castle*

Eat, Pray, Love

The Birth House**

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Shadow of the Wind

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*

A Long Way Gone*

Road Map to Holland**

…And Ladies of the Club

The Gargoyle*

My Name is Asher Lev

Murder on the Orient Express

Saving Fish From Drowning*

The Help*




One Child*


Little Dorrit

The 19th Wife*

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet*

Franny and Zooey

Mommie Dearest*

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo*

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks**

Whooo-eeeee, that's a lotta books! Up next are Olive Kitteridge, followed by When Everything Changed.

In our group, there really isn't any pressure to read every single book chosen. My own personal feeling is: there are too many good books out there to waste your time struggling through a book you really don't enjoy. I usually give a book 50 pages to grab me; if it doesn't, I'm done with it.

Also, the point of a book club, in my opinion anyway, shouldn't be to choose books that everyone will love, but rather to choose books that will be the basis for good discussions. Even a book someone passionately hates can spur a provocative discussion.

Anyway, if you've ever thought about starting a book club, it's not too hard. Just gather together some friends who love to read and who are willing to take turns hosting, and get reading!

* books I actually read
** books I chose and hosted

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Discussion Questions for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Back in March, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I was so impacted by the story that I decided to choose it as a reading selection for my book club. However, as much as I searched, I was unable to find a published discussion guide for the book to facilitate a discussion. So my friends Robin, Angela, and I collaborated and came up with a list of the following discussion questions, which I hope might help anyone else out there looking on the internet for a discussion guide for this book:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Discussion Questions

1. The passage in which the initial fated cells were removed from Henrietta Lacks’s body reads as follows (see page 33):

“With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr., sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix, and prepared to treat her tumor. But first – though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor – Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish.”

Bearing in mind that those two tissue samples removed from Henrietta were not removed in an attempt to treat her cancer, but rather purely for purposes of research, was it wrong for the doctor to remove the sample tissue in the first place? Was it wrong for Dr. Gey to collect those samples for the purpose of trying to grow them in controlled conditions? Does the end – i.e., the immeasurable benefit to humankind resulting from those tissue samples – justify the means – i.e., removing tissue from a person without their consent or knowledge?

2. Discuss the process of taking these cancerous cells and growing them in the “auger” or medium that allowed them to continue to multiply. Was it her human cell line?

(Note: As genetic knowledge has increased HeLa is: not really a human cell line at all because it involves a genetic fusion of a papilloma virus and Henrietta’s cervical cells. The hybrid has its own genome and attempts have been made to have the cell line recognized as a species in its own right. Of course this cell line also contaminated other cell lines in labs around the world. In a Feb. 2010 paper, HeLa was found as a contaminant of 106 out of 306 cell lines tested.

3. Did you get the impression that Henrietta was treated any differently than a rich, white woman would have been (assuming the hospital was also collecting cell samples)?

4. How do you feel about knowing that you still do not have total control over your body once you go to see a doctor? If you discovered that tissue routinely removed from your body at some point in the past went on to significantly benefit science and research, would you feel that you should somehow be compensated? What do you think is more important – a person’s personal rights over their own tissue, or contributing to science and research for the benefit of all humankind?

5. Was it a good thing for the members of the Lacks family that the author wrote this book? Was this attempt different from previous attempts to write about the Lacks family and Henrietta in particular?

6. How much impact on the Lacks family members’ long term lives did Henrietta’s early demise have? Do you think that her children’s lives would have turned out significantly different had Henrietta not died so young?

7. Was it hubris, lack of “patient experience,” or frankly, sheer stupidity on the part of the researchers who contacted the family later for blood/DNA samples, to think the family understood what they were doing and why were they doing it?

8. Why has the discovery of the existence of HeLa cells been so difficult for the Lacks family? Discuss the family’s ignorance and their lack of medical knowledge. Why did it take until 2001, 50 years after Henrietta’s death, for a researcher at John Hopkins to show Deborah the cells and tell her these weren’t Henrietta’s regular cells, just trillions of cancerously transformed cells, and that there was never going to be a clone of her mother?

9. Do you think the family is owed money for the sale of the HeLa cells? Do you agree with their feeling that they should be compensated?

10. Do you think that the attitude among some of the Lacks family members that they should be monetarily compensated for Henrietta’s contribution to science is born out of their poverty and/or oppression based on their race? Do you think if the family were financially comfortable, white, and not the subjects of regular discrimination that their feelings of being owed compensation might be different?

11. When the doctor of the patient, Mr. Moore, lied to him about the financial value of his cells, do you think the doctor behaved unethically, and the court should have ruled against him?

12. What did the author hope to accomplish by writing this book? Did she accomplish what she set out to do? To what do you attribute the family’s change of heart regarding the HeLa cells?

13. Was the presence of the author in the book disruptive or appropriate?

14. How realistic was the characterization, especially of Deborah and Zakariyya? Would you want to meet any of them? Did you like them?

15. What life lessons can be learned from this account?

16. Do you think the bad things that happened to the family were based on their race, particularly in regards to Elsie (Henrietta’s daughter who was institutionalized) and Henrietta’s hospital care? Was it forgivable based on the time period or should amends be made?

17. How does the setting figure into the book? Is the setting a character? Does it come to life? Did you feel you were experiencing the time and place in which the book was set? How did you feel at the end when Clover was gone? Do you think this was an allegory for Henrietta’s family’s travails?

18. How realistic is it for Courtney Speed, the grocery store owner in Turner Station, to start a museum?

19. Discuss the medical breakthroughs from HeLa cells. Have your attitudes or ideas towards medical research changed in any way due to reading this book?

20. Ownership of genetic material is still a vexed issue. Many human genes have been patented and a battle is currently being fought through the U.S. courts between doctors and a biotech company owning the patents for genes used in breast-cancer research screening. What are your thoughts about research and patents in this now “profit making” industry?