Entertaining, wide-ranging, and—in light of Covid-19—particularly timely.

EXTRA LIFE

A SHORT HISTORY OF LIVING LONGER

A surprising look at why humans are living longer.

Author of a dozen lively, informative books on science and technology, brain and body, Johnson begins his latest with an intriguing fact: In just one century, the human species has doubled its life expectancy. Wondering why, he set out to investigate the forces that led to such a dramatic improvement. As in his previous books Where Good Ideas Come From and How We Got to Now, Johnson argues convincingly that critical changes occur not from the endeavors of lone geniuses but from a network of researchers, activists, reformers, publicists, producers, and marketers. The discovery of penicillin, for example, has generated a mythical tale about Alexander Fleming, who noticed, in an overlooked petri dish, that a layer of mold happened to have killed bacteria. The reality, Johnson reveals, was far more complex: “For penicillin to graduate from a brilliant accident to a true miracle drug, three things needed to happen: someone had to determine whether it actually worked as a medicine; someone had to figure out how to produce it at scale. And then a market had to develop to support that large-scale production.” In tracing particular life-threatening diseases, such as cholera, tuberculosis, and smallpox, Johnson examines breakthroughs that have had overarching significance in extending life expectancy: vaccines; advances in data collection; the invention of epidemiology, pasteurization, and chlorination; the advent of regulations and testing of drugs; antibiotics; improved safety technology and regulations; and the development of modern soil science. The author points to randomized, controlled double-blind trials, involving a network of investigators and participants, as crucial in proving the efficacy of any new drug; and to international, multidisciplinary collaboration involved in disseminating treatments. Global eradication of smallpox, he asserts, “was as dependent on the invention of an institution like [the World Health Organization] as it was on the invention of the vaccine itself.”

Entertaining, wide-ranging, and—in light of Covid-19—particularly timely.

Pub Date: May 11, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-53885-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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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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More thought-provoking work from an important creator.

THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH

The acclaimed graphic memoirist returns to themes of self-discovery, this time through the lens of her love of fitness and exercise.

Some readers may expect Bechdel to be satisfied with her career. She was the 2014 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and her bestselling memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? both earned universally rave reviews, with the former inspiring a Broadway musical that won five Tony awards. But there she was, in her mid-50s, suffering from “a distinct sense of dread” and asking herself, “where had my creative joy gone?” Ultimately, she found what she was seeking, or at least expanded her search. In what she calls “the fitness book,” the author recounts, from her birth to the present, the exercise fads that have swept the nation for decades, from the guru-worship of Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne through running, biking, hiking, “feminist martial arts,” yoga, and mountain climbing. “I have hared off after almost every new fitness fad to come down the pike for the last six decades,” she writes. Yet this book is about more than just exercise. Bechdel’s work always encompasses multiple interlocking themes, and here she delves into body image; her emerging gay consciousness; the connection between nature and inner meaning; how the transcendentalists were a version of the hippies a century earlier; and how her own pilgrimage is reminiscent of both Margaret Fuller and Jack Kerouac, whose stories become inextricably entwined in these pages with Bechdel’s. The author’s probing intelligence and self-deprecating humor continue to shimmer through her emotionally expressive drawings, but there is so much going on (familial, professional, romantic, cultural, spiritual) that it is easy to see how she became overwhelmed—and how she had to learn to accept the looming mortality that awaits us all. In the end, she decided to “stop struggling,” a decision that will relieve readers as well.

More thought-provoking work from an important creator.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-544-38765-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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