Six Degrees of Separation – From Phosphorescence to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Book covers

This month we’re starting with Julia Baird’s gorgeously jacketed Phosphorescence which I haven’t read but I gather it’s about sustaining an inner happiness even in the face of the darkest of times, which seems entirely appropriate considering all we’ve been through over the past year.

Baird’s book comes out of her own struggles with illness. Lots of authors have written books on that topic but the most striking I‘ve read is Anna Lyndsey’s Girl in the Dark in which she describes her skin’s inability to tolerate light of any kind. Lyndsey writes beautifully about her condition and the strategies she adopts to cope with it. Grace under pressure, for sure.

Mention of darkness brings to mind Christiane Ritter’s memoir A Woman in the Polar Night. In 1934, Ritter set off to spend a year with her hunter-trapper husband in the Arctic where she proved herself to be wonderfully resourceful. Highly recommended for both adventure and beautifully described landscape.

Which leads me to The Voyage of Narwhal, Andrea Barrett’s novel of ill-fated, nineteenth-century polar exploration in which an inexperienced enthusiast, accompanied by his naturalist brother-in-law, turns into a despotic ship’s captain.

Barrett also wrote a novel set in a tuberculosis sanatorium as did Linda Grant whose The Dark Circle celebrates both the setting up of the National Health Service and the discovery of an effective treatment for TB.

Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing looks at another much-feared illness, cancer, through a young patient and her oncologist. Duffy’s novel does that thing that good fiction does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.

A small leap from there to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which follows the story of the Lacks’ cancerous cells, taken without her permission and replicated many times to form the basis of a multi-million dollar research industry.

This month’s Six Degrees has taken me from a book to help you find a way through hard times to a riveting account of medical research coupled with exploitation. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

36 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation – From Phosphorescence to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

  1. Such an interesting chain of books, most of which are new to me. As you say, part of the fun is seeing where others’ chains go – and mine took a very different route.

    1. Delighted to hear that! Such an enjoyable book. I was awestruck by the way Ritter not only coped in the Arctic but grew to love it so much she stayed beyond her alloted year.

  2. jenniferbeworr

    I’m really intrigued by the mention of Andrea Barrett’s having written a novel set in a sanatorium in WWI times. I looked it up and ordered it. How TB was handled at that time, divisions of wealth, questions of immigration, it sound like just what I’m after. Cheers!

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Jennifer. I remember being struck when reading both the Barrett and the Grant at the treatments prescribed for TB patients, fresh air being one of them no matter what the season. In The Dark Circle, two patients are wheeled out in their beds onto the veranda in the snow!

      1. jenniferbeworr

        Wheeled out onto verandas, in the snow! I’m curious to learn more about what how TB was handled at that time both in the US, where the Barrett book is set, and in the UK. Thank you again for the lead!

  3. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of This Living and Immortal Thing before. I have his Ten Days on request from the library. I’ve read three of your picks this time (Grant, Ritter and Skloot) — always a bonus!

  4. Another fascinating chain. By the way, I have a friend with that skin condition and not being able to be exposed to light. There are new treatments out there including ones that help you slowly “harden” your skin to being exposed to light. She suffers, but she keeps going! I can’t imagine being that brave!

  5. That’s a really interesting chain. I found it difficult to get started with mine this month, but got there in the end! I haven’t read any of your six books, but I would like to read The Dark Circle as I remember enjoying one of Linda Grant’s other books.

  6. An interesting chain, Susan. I’ve not read any of them but The Voyage of Narwhal has been on my wishlist forever. This is a nice reminder to perhaps see if my library has it in stock.

  7. I like the way you constructed the chain so we move from dark to light. My interest was captured by the description of Austin Duffy’s novel, not a book to enjoy given the subject but one to appreciate.

  8. Tsk, tsk, that Linda Grant cover image in your collage will just never do! 🙂 Kidding, of course. It is a lovely tableau without it. Or, another way of looking at it, is a spot of light in the blue of it all.

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