One takeaway: humans don’t taste like chicken. A learned, accessible, and engaging approach to a meaty—beg pardon—and...

CANNIBALISM

A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY

Zoologist Schutt (Biology/LIU Post; Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, 2008) gets to the heart of the matter of a topic that makes people shudder.

Eating people is wrong. So goes the title of a grimly satirical novel by British writer Malcolm Bradbury. It’s wrong, yes, but practiced all the same in some places—and perhaps not always the places you might think. (Ohio, anyone?) Schutt, a researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, looks into cannibalism as it exists in orders other than the human, assuring us brightly that some species do practice cannibalism without blushing. If you’re of tender mind and spirit, you may never look at a snowy egret with admiration again, and as for spadefoot toads, well….The author examines evolutionary theories of inclusive fitness to discuss the genetic rewards of eating one’s own, ensuring not just one’s own survival, but also improving the chances that, if the dinner is properly selected, one’s own bloodline will flourish. As for humans, Schutt explores some of the better-known cases as well as the less studied ones, noting that while there is reason to believe that many human groups have practiced cannibalism at some point in the past, the ones who are most often accused of it—the peoples Columbus first encountered in the Caribbean, for instance—may not be the ones to worry about. The sensational nature of human cannibalism assures that it makes for good news copy but not always good science. The author singles out a misplayed news release concerning a recent reanalysis of bone materials from a Donner Party site and reports that climate change is driving polar bears to eat their young, both of which are stories far more complicated than the headlines would have one believe.

One takeaway: humans don’t taste like chicken. A learned, accessible, and engaging approach to a meaty—beg pardon—and always-controversial subject.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-61620-462-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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