Five outstanding recent works acknowledged with national and international journalism and literary awards. Before you buy, read the review, listen to an author interview, or scan an excerpt.
Mumbai (India) is the fourth most populous city in the world – some 20.5 million people live in the metro area. When Katherine Boo began writing her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, she selected Annawadi, just a half-acre area (approx. 23,000 sf) hidden by a cement wall that is home to 3,000 mumbaikars. Despite her own health issues, she spent four years there, with an open lake of sewage and petrochemicals nearby. While Mumbai is a top center of commerce and the birthplace of Indian cinema, her stories are not at the 30,0000-foot level; rather intimate and in many respects terribly painful in revealing the hopes, hates, aspirations, realities, and corruption of people who yearn for “a clean job” and possibilities. (Random House) 256 pp, $27. Book review . Enjoy an author interview
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (Crown) 369 pp $26. Now in paper. (2010 Wellcome Trust Book Prize; 2011 National Academies of Science Best Book Award). Ten years of research and passionate commitment by Rebecca Skloot have produced a magnum opus on African-American Baltimore resident Henrietta Lacks, and the cancer cells she unwittingly furnished in the 1950’s that sparked a revolution in medical research while she was being unsuccessfully treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. Miraculously, Henrietta’s cells, which came to be known as HeLa cells, were so successful they never stopped being capable of reproducing. “If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.” There is a deeper and darker human story here too – neither Henrietta Lacks or her family ever gave permission to use her cells or benefited in any way from the miracle, while a multi-million-dollar research industry flourished from decades of harvesting the cell lines. Washington Post review and radio interview on Fresh Air. Read an excerpt
The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner) 571 pp illus. $30. Now in paper (Pulitzer Prize 2011 nonfiction). The term omnis cellula e cellula e cellula coined by German researcher Rudolph Virchow describes the accidental mutation of a single cell that unleashes the irrepressible power to overreplicate. “If we seek immortality,” Mukherjee writes, “then so, too, in a rather perverse sense, does the cancer cell.” A “biography” of the disease by oncologist and first-time author, Mukherjee infuses his work from ancient Egypt (the first description of breast cancer tumor written on papyrus) to the war on cancer (Mary Lasker and Richard Nixon) to heroic scientists (Harold Varmus, Robert Weinberg) stoking the flames of hope with research and new drugs. New York Times review. Listen to radio interview on Fresh Air (40 mins)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt, 320 pp (WW Norton & Co) $ 26.95 (Pulitzer Prize 2012 nonfiction). In the “great vanishing,” as Harvard scholar Stephen Greenblatt describes it, copies of all sorts of great works from the ancient world disappeared, among others, the work of the Roman poet Lucretius. Enter 15th-century Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, who in 1417 finds the only surviving copy of Lucretius’s poem, “On the Nature of Things.” This is the premise around which Greenblatt says that this “mind-blowing” poem from around 50 B.C. is key to jumpstarting the Renaissance and eventually modernity. The book won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction. Excerpt. Listen to author interview.
Bring up the Bodies, Hillary Mantel. ( Henry Holt & Co.) 410 pp $28. (2012 Man Booker Prize/Great Britain; National Book Critics Award 2012 fiction). Queen of England Ann Boleyn (second wife of Tudor King Henry VIII) succumbs to the executioner’s sword at the conclusion of this historical novel, which is painstakingly researched by Mantel. “I make up as little as possible,” she says. Second wife Ann became a political and diplomatic liability to the King and was convicted of high treason. Death from the French executioner’s sword (as opposed to the axe) was thought to be the more benevolent way to die. The book is the second in the trilogy on Thomas Crowmwell, Henry’s chief minister and the head of the Church of England, and is told from his perspective. In Mantel’s third volume, now in progress, Cromwell will lose his own head. Guardian review and excerpt. Enjoy the radio interview on Fresh Air.