A book that couldn’t be more timely, providing an accessible introduction to epidemiology.



For those panicked or puzzled by the current pandemic, a handy look at the evolution of infectious diseases and their cures.

Coronaviruses have been with us for a very long time, but the one that first captured the world’s attention emerged only two decades ago, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread out of Hong Kong to 32 countries, eventually killing some 810 people over its five-month run. That seems a trifle against what global health journalis Senthilingam calls “a viral relative that would wreak greater havoc across the planet”: the current outbreak of COVID-19. Although the government of China has not been entirely transparent about the outbreak, it appears at this writing that SARS prepared health workers to quarantine and isolate whole cities to keep the disease from spreading, and the number of new cases there has begun to decline. Outside China, of course, COVID-19 has become a pandemic, “the word that invokes fear in almost everyone,” since pandemics are new diseases that require novel responses. It is no comfort to know that COVID-19 is but one of a roster of “emerging diseases” monitored lest they, too, become pandemics, including Ebola and Marburg viral diseases, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, and even a “Disease X”—“meaning a completely new, previously unseen infectious disease, such as COVID–19 at the time of its emergence.” Though some have likened COVID-19 to the flu, there are few commonalities other than the fact that some populations—e.g., the immune-suppressed or the elderly—are more susceptible to being killed by both than other populations, as was witnessed in 2017-2018 with a flu that killed 61,000 people in the U.S. alone, leading Senthilingam to note that “it’s fair to say the harm caused by influenza is far greater than people realize.”

A book that couldn’t be more timely, providing an accessible introduction to epidemiology.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-78578-563-4

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Icon Books

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2020

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.


Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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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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