A wise history of a subject that is “deeply…implicated in the human condition.”



A celebration of menopause as a life stage vital to our species’ survival, but one that has now been trivialized as a disease to be treated.

Mattern (History/Univ. of Georgia; The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire, 2016, etc.) begins by noting that menopause—the end of the reproductive phase of female life and the beginning of an extended period of aging—is rare outside of humans. Most female animals die within a few years of their last birth, including our primate relatives. The author elaborates on the “grandmother hypothesis.” Older women are more experienced, and, freed from giving birth themselves, they can assist daughters in childbirth and child-rearing. In Paleolithic times, when roving bands survived by foraging, these elders knew where to find the good plants. They also added to the number of adults as resources as opposed to dependent children. Menopausal women continued to be important in agrarian times when families settled on farm plots and society became patriarchal, with fathers owning the land and ruling the family. There were booms and busts over that 10,000-year period, and Mattern discusses the forces that kept population levels relatively stable. Everything changed with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern medicine, ushering in the modern era of massive population growth and lowered mortality. While menopause has been recognized as a stage of life for thousands of years, it was only in the early 18th century that the term began to incorporate negative ideas of excess blood, hysteria, irritable nerves, and so on. By the time hormones were discovered, menopause was considered an estrogen deficiency disease. The last third of the book embodies Mattern’s well-argued case that menopause could be considered a “cultural syndrome”: a set of symptoms, largely unclear in origin, that reflect psychological, social, and physiological factors that can create real problems and suffering.

A wise history of a subject that is “deeply…implicated in the human condition.”

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-691-17163-0

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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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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