Not self-help by any stretch, but it will be of interest to anyone recently touched by death.

A TROUBLED GUEST

LIFE AND DEATH STORIES

A series of personal essays about death, by someone who has seen more than her share of it recently and who, due to her own advancing multiple sclerosis, has reason to contemplate her own.

As she’s done throughout her earlier work (Waist High in the World, 1997, etc.), Mairs draws on her own often harrowing experience to illuminate a subject Americans find difficult to confront: in this case, death. As she puts it at the start, “few seem capable of contemplating their own end . . . I thought I might try.” In clear, unaffected prose that quickly establishes—along with her candor—an intimacy with the reader, Mairs begins by explaining her feelings toward her own impending death. At this point, her MS has confined her to a wheelchair, rendering even the simplest things, such as using the toilet, major undertakings. As someone who views death as both a natural condition of life and who also believes that the essence of a person survives death in some form, Mairs appears to have attained an enviable equanimity respecting her own mortality. Yet even she concedes that the prospect awakes a nostalgia for those pleasures that make us human, like the “bob and snuffle of a newborn’s head against a shoulder.” As she puts it, “I find myself overcome with grief for a slew of ‘nevers’ and ‘never agains.’ ” Despite the obvious loss that death entails, Mairs urges us to confront it openly and without fear. Those mourning loved ones, for instance, suffer when their friends, out of a misguided sense of politeness or simple embarrassment, fail to acknowledge the death with anything more than a mumbled platitude. In a similar vein, Mairs warns that death with dignity is possible, but only if death is contemplated in advance so that the end, particularly with respect to medical intervention, can be controlled.

Not self-help by any stretch, but it will be of interest to anyone recently touched by death.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2001

ISBN: 0-8070-6248-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2001

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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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