O’Sullivan is a skilled storyteller in the same league as Oliver Sacks. Furthermore, she includes asides on the history of...

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BRAINSTORM

DETECTIVE STORIES FROM THE WORLD OF NEUROLOGY

A collection of probing and empathetic stories of difficult neurological cases.

Epilepsy is one of the oldest of human diseases. Suddenly, the brain’s neurons fire at once, producing the massive electric discharge of a general seizure—or if only a subset of neurons fires, it’s a focal seizure. British epilepsy consultant O’Sullivan (Is It All in Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness, 2017), a winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, writes compassionately and sensitively about mostly those who suffer from focal seizures. There’s Mike, a high-powered lawyer who developed epilepsy following a presumed mugging that injured his frontal lobes; Eleanor, a young woman whose most basic movements could trigger seizures, causing a complete loss of muscle tone (she grew afraid to leave her bed); and Donal, a school janitor facing job loss who developed seizures in which he saw cartoon figures of the seven dwarfs moving across the room. Most of O’Sullivan’s patients spent days in a telemetry clinic with electrodes attached to their scalps and under surveillance in hopes of capturing when and where a seizure would occur. While these studies have been invaluable in aiding diagnosis, they also reveal how much of the brain and its interconnectedness remains unknown. “There are still gaping holes in our knowledge about the brain,” writes the author. “Even the basic questions remain unanswered.” O’Sullivan also writes about how much she has learned from her patients. Many are not much helped by drugs, and the locations of their seizures are often too risky for surgery. Yet they show resilience and a determination to get on with their lives in spite of epilepsy.

O’Sullivan is a skilled storyteller in the same league as Oliver Sacks. Furthermore, she includes asides on the history of neurology, which, perhaps more than other specialties, owes much to the patients who have endured injury, strokes, degenerative diseases, and epilepsy in order for researchers to better understand how the brain is organized.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-59051-866-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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