A little less sophisticated than H.W. Brands’s The First American, but a solid contribution to Frankliniana all the same.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

AN AMERICAN LIFE

Nicely done life of “the most accomplished American of his age.”

Benjamin Franklin may have been among the leading revolutionary firebrands of his time, but, suggests Aspen Institute president Isaacson (Kissinger, 1992), he wouldn’t be at all out of place in an office park or perhaps Rotary Club meeting today. That doesn’t mean to say that Franklin was a proto-Republican, but instead a practical-minded businessman who found much virtue in striking compromises, building consensus, and networking—and who pinched pennies with the best of them, adopting vegetarianism only so that the money saved on meat could go into his savings and studies. Yet, all that said, Isaacson reminds us that Franklin essentially retired, wealthy and content, in his early 40s and devoted the rest of his days to doing acts of public good, pressing the cause of meritocracy in the service of “social mobility rather than an established elite” and furthering the cause of American independence at considerable risk to his property and person. Isaacson charts the trajectory of Franklin’s political thought on all kinds of matters; he notes, for instance, that although Franklin enthusiastically accepted advertisements for slave sales in the newspapers he published and owned “one or two household slaves off and on for much of his life,” he came to see the incompatibility of such commerce with the revolutionary ideals he espoused and ended his days as a committed abolitionist. Similarly, as the very exemplar of a self-made man, Franklin gave much thought to the inequalities wrought by inherited fortune, arguing “that the accumulation of excess wealth and the idle indulgence in frivolous luxuries should not be socially sanctioned.” Alas, Franklin’s arguments did not carry the day in most particulars, but he remains an ideal American type—and one well served by this sympathetic and admiring study.

A little less sophisticated than H.W. Brands’s The First American, but a solid contribution to Frankliniana all the same.

Pub Date: July 4, 2003

ISBN: 0-684-80761-0

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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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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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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