A vital book about the next big thing in science—and yet another top-notch biography from Isaacson.

THE CODE BREAKER

JENNIFER DOUDNA, GENE EDITING, AND THE FUTURE OF THE HUMAN RACE

A magisterial biography of the co-discoverer of what has been called the greatest advance in biology since the discovery of DNA.

For the first third of Isaacson’s latest winner, the author focuses on the life and career of Jennifer Doudna (b. 1964). Raised by academic parents who encouraged her fascination with science, she flourished in college and went on to earn a doctorate in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard. After fellowships and postdoc programs at the University of Colorado and Yale, she joined the faculty at the University of California in 2002. In 2006, she learned about CRISPR, a system of identical repeated DNA sequences in bacteria copied from certain viruses. Others had discovered that this was a defense mechanism—CRISPR DNA generates enzymes that chop up the DNA of the infecting virus. With collaborators, she discovered how CRISPR operates and invented a much simpler technique for cutting DNA and editing genes. Although known since the 1970s, “genetic engineering” was a complex, tedious process. CRISPR made it much simpler. Formally accepted by the editors of Science in 2012, the co-authored paper galvanized the scientific establishment and led to a torrent of awards, culminating in the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry. At this point, Isaacson steps back, keeping Doudna as the central character but describing the rush to apply gene editing to altering life and curing diseases, the intense debate over its morality, and the often shameful quarrels over credit and patents. A diligent historian and researcher, Isaacson lucidly explains CRISPR and refuses to pass it off as a far-fetched magic show. Some scientific concepts (nuclear fission, evolution) are easy to grasp but not CRISPR. Using charts, analogies, and repeated warnings for readers to pay attention, the author describes a massively complicated operation in which humans can program heredity. Those familiar with college-level biology will have a better time, but nobody will regret the reading experience.

A vital book about the next big thing in science—and yet another top-notch biography from Isaacson.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982115-85-2

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 6, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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