THE NATURES OF JOHN AND WILLIAM BARTRAM

A fine exploration of the history of natural history, focusing on the Bartrams of Pennsylvania, father and son. Historian Slaughter (Rutgers Univ.; Bloody Dawn, 1991) takes as his subjects two men whose contributions to the growth of American natural science are inestimable. They could not have been less alike, Slaughter notes. John (16991777), ``the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature,'' was the eminently practical and business-like scientist, given to taxonomic exactitude and rigorous description; it was he, Slaughter relates, who first identified the Venus flytrap, noting its characteristics with almost prurient attention. He courted public recognition, and regularly issued opinions on matters of the day, especially the ``Indian problem'' (``they skip from tree to tree like monkeys,'' John wrote) and the education of slaves (which he opposed). For all his faults, Slaughter notes, John Bartram was responsible for describing hundreds of species of plants and animals, fully ``one quarter of all the plants identified and sent to Europe during the colonial period.'' Perhaps in rebellion against his tight-laced father, William (17391823), a retiring man who repeatedly failed at business, tended toward a poetic, dramatic view of nature—-and Slaughter maintains that William's famous book, The Travels, is somewhat untrustworthy as a result. Yet William's homespun, slightly naive view of nature is the one that carried the day over his father's more rigorous approach. Slaughter persuasively argues that Henry David Thoreau, long thought to be sui generis, should instead be viewed as an heir of William Bartram's, and he notes the influence William had on the English Romantics, especially Coleridge. Slaughter suggests as well that to William can be traced the entire tradition of homegrown writing about natural history, as practiced today by the likes of Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams. An invigorating, accessible contribution to the study of early American science.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-43045-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1996

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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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