These numbers register in the brain, but the story of one valiant little boy and his remarkable foster mother goes right to...



A veteran TV newsman’s heartfelt account of the relationship between Nkosi, a Zulu boy with AIDS, and Gail Johnson, his white South African foster mother, a woman committed to giving her doomed, beloved child the best life possible.

A public figure in South Africa since 1997, when Gail successfully campaigned to have him admitted to the local public school, Nkosi was about to deliver a keynote address to the 13th International Conference on AIDS. In the audience, the author was immediately captivated by the frail, extraordinarily charming 11-year-old. Wooten, a senior correspondent for ABC News, was no stranger to Africa and its myriad of social, political, and economic troubles when he was assigned a story on Nkosi in 2000. He eventually put together the life of Nkosi’s birth mother and her family as well as that of Gail and her husband and children, all against the background of apartheid and its aftermath in South Africa and the rising tide of AIDS, which was sweeping across the continent. In 1991, after witnessing a friend’s brother dying of AIDS, Gail established a refuge for AIDS victims in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, where Nkosi’s AIDS-stricken birth mother Daphne brought her two-year-old son to live. A year later, when the refuge ran out of money and was forced to close, the desperate and soon-to-die Daphne agreed to let Gail take Nkosi home and keep him as part of her own family. He lived with the Johnsons until his death in 2001. Woven into this love story between a black child and his white foster mother is the bleak tale of South Africa’s failure to deal with the massive problem of AIDS. Former president Nelson Mandela essentially ignored the problem, and current president Thabo Mbeki insists that HIV doesn’t exist, despite Wooten’s claim that South Africa now has some four million AIDS victims, with each day bringing some 1,700 new infections.

These numbers register in the brain, but the story of one valiant little boy and his remarkable foster mother goes right to the heart.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 2004

ISBN: 1-59420-028-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2004

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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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