The panic is palpable in Kolata’s moving depiction of a mysterious disease and its frightening consequences.




A family’s legacy is haunted by a torturous genetic disease.

New York Times science reporter Kolata (Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—the Myths and Realities of Dieting, 2007, etc.) adroitly profiles the plight of the close-knit, rural South Carolina–based Baxley family, hounded by the presence of a “rare, anomalous” neurodegenerative disease. “Abrupt in its onset and unswerving in its course,” the incurable, inherited, and ultimately fatal disease commingles characteristics from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Inherited via genetic mutations, the malady renders those afflicted with initial dizziness, followed by severe tremors, facial freezing, mute dementia, and death. Tim Baxley and his three brothers lost their father, Bill, to the disease in the late 1990s after a frustrating cycle of neurologist visits and futile personal fact-finding missions. Throughout the chronicle of the Baxleys and how they scoured their family tree searching for answers, Kolata deftly weaves in the history of kuru disease. She explores the funereal endocannibalistic rituals of Papua New Guinea’s Fore people as both the source of its origins and its outward transmission. American doctor Daniel Carleton Gajdusek performed dogged research on kuru, and he received the Nobel Prize for his work in 1976. Another distinguished researcher, Stanley Prusiner, also won the Nobel in 1997 for his work with associated “mad cow disease,” just as, several years later, Baxley family members began to succumb to kuru one by one. Kolata puts a human face on this incurable, agonizing disease with an affecting combination of neuroscience and anguished anecdotes centered on a loving family at the mercy of an intricate congenital infection. In the concluding section, the story becomes optimistic as the family’s next generation agonizes over the decision to test for the gene mutation but finds hope through a risky, radical profiling procedure that allows for a prenatal diagnosis of at-risk human embryos.

The panic is palpable in Kolata’s moving depiction of a mysterious disease and its frightening consequences.

Pub Date: March 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-06434-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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