Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #34: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Meh.

Since one-word reviews are frowned upon at the Cannonball Read, I’ll elaborate. Like Sophia, who read this book prior (and whose review I should have read first), I had some issues with the depth of this book. I got some useful tips from it, and it was a pretty quick read (I read it in about three days), but I didn’t enjoy it. It was like watching a rerun of one of the filler episodes of Friends – it was fine, and I laughed a bit, but I could have been doing something better with my time. (And also like the characters in friends, the people in this book are affluent, white, and seem fake.)

That’s probably part of my problem. I don’t particularly like what this author presents of herself. While that doesn’t really matter with other books, it’s kind of a big deal with this style of book. There was an ‘aww shucks’ quality that is not my particular cup of tea. Additionally, this woman started from pretty high up on the happiness scale. Not that any happiness discussion should be limited to those who have been deeply unhappy, and I recognize that there is value in helping people improve their lives regardless of where they started from, but COME ON. This woman is rich. This woman has two healthy, adorable daughters that she clearly loves. Both the kids grandparents were alive as of the writing of the book, and her in-laws (whom she also adores) live around the corner. She makes a living following her passion. And all of that was BEFORE she started the Happiness Project.

But as I said, that doesn’t necessarily mean what she’s going to say doesn’t have value; it just means a whole hell of a lot of people aren’t going to be able to find much in common with her and so may find it a little hard to think that singing in the morning is really going to change things for them. And Ms. Rubin is clear that this is *her* happiness project, and that everyone’s will be different. But I’d be more inclined to start on my own if the one I’d just read hadn’t been so … weirdly lacking in self-awareness. For example, she talks about wanting to eat better but seems to applaud herself because she’s NOT going on a diet. She’s just … cutting out food groups entirely to lose weight. O-kay. And while she has the healthy view that you can’t change others, you can only change yourself, some of the discussions around trying to give up needing to be praised kind of make her husband look like he’s taking total advantage of her. And since I know about 300 pages worth of her marriage (i.e. next to nothing), I’ve no right to actually judge that relationship. But it was impossible to remove my thoughts on the author from what the author was saying.

Here’s my take-away: if you respond well to checklists, you’ve got an interest in somewhat saccharin writing, and you are looking for a dozen or so useful nuggets, sure. Add this to your list. Otherwise … no need. Shoot, you can even email me and I’ll send you the items I thought were the most useful if you’d really rather not bother.

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Shucks Mahoney’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I’d heard plenty about Henrietta Lacks when this stormer of a book was released, and decided to read it  between reading this fascinating interview with the author about her writing process and having very minor surgery over Christmas. Perhaps my medical squick level had been tamped down enough for the grisly details not to deter me. I’d been fired up about the social costs of commercialising women’s health after seeing Pink Ribbons, Inc, last year, and this book ties in with some of those themes. But it’s more ambitious than just a diatribe, and ranges wider than a bit of popular science. Instead, it covers African-American history, sociology, cancer research, academic tiffs, family entanglements, and uncovers a truly astonishing story about one of the most influential people who has ever lived.

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Henrietta Lacks was the source of the HeLa cells, the first immortal human cells developed for research in a lab. Her legacy is mind-boggling – the malignant cells originally taken from her tumour have been reproduced billions of times, and they have been used across the board in medical research of all kinds, including space exploration and polio treatment, the Cold War, HIV and cancer research. HeLa underpins much of what medicine can do for us today. It’s the Coca-Cola of cell tissue, as ubiquitous in labs as white coats and caged rats.

But when Rebecca Skloot decided to uncover the story of the woman behind HeLa she found that the Lacks family had endured terrible hardships because of the cells. Henrietta’s family had been treated exceptionally shoddily by a medical establishment blown away by the importance of HeLa, and were suspicious to the point of violence by Skloot’s interest.

Fascinating, unsettling, and moving, it’s an excellent read, worthy without feeling weighty, as gripping as any thriller. The afterword about the legal and ethic morass of tissue donation was a bit dry, and I did side-eye the author’s nine solid pages of acknowledgements (including her barista – honey, slow your roll), but it’s still an example of great contemporary journalism.