Elegantly written and intermittently perceptive, though slightly self-indulgent in form and tone.

HALF IN SHADE

FAMILY, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND FATE

Essayist/novelist Kitchen (The House on Eccles Road, 2002, etc.) muses on memory, history and illness while rummaging through family photos.

The author writes that photos capture a physical moment, while memory re-creates the entire atmosphere: how we felt, what sounds we heard, all those things that hover out of the camera’s range. As she looks at the disk containing scanned copies of boxes of family snapshots, she is as interested in what they don’t show as what they do. Did 23-year-old Aunt Margaret, “Paris, 1938,” know that war was imminent? Why on earth would her mother be sitting at a desk with a lampshade over her head, and can she be sure it is her mother? Slowly, from these fragmented snatches of essays (ranging from a single paragraph to 30 pages), a picture of Kitchen’s family emerges: German-American immigrants on her father’s side, impoverished farmers on her mother’s. Her father, a physicist, was so repulsed by the anti-German hysteria he saw as a boy during World War I that he was a conscientious objector during WWII; her mother may have had a serious romance while visiting Europe in the summer of 1930. The section centered on photos from that trip is the book’s longest and least appealing; the author’s attitude seems punitive, as she criticizes the banality of her mother’s travel diary and faults the young woman for being insufficiently unconventional. It’s also aggravating, though clearly intended by Kitchen, that facts must be teased out from an extremely elliptical narrative: Where was the house that suffered floods in three different decades? Her father seems to have died young, but when exactly? Still, there are enough intriguing insights to maintain interest, and three meditative passages on the author’s battle with breast cancer will incline most readers to cut her some slack.

Elegantly written and intermittently perceptive, though slightly self-indulgent in form and tone.

Pub Date: April 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-56689-296-4

Page Count: 214

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

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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A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

INTO THE WILD

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor will it to readers of Krakauer's narrative. (4 maps) (First printing of 35,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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