In THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (Crown, $26), Rebecca Skloot skillfully weaves the story of a poor black tobacco farmer treated for cervical cancer in the 1950s with the persistent controversy of tissue ownership and the sale of biomedical products. The effect of Henrietta’s “immortality” on her Baltimore family, especially her daughter Deborah, will resonate with readers. Skloot carefully balances Henrietta’s story with the history of biomedical research, connecting the unauthorized use of Henrietta’s cells to contemporary biomedical conundrums. Without her or her family’s knowledge, Henrietta’s cells, called HeLa, were disseminated widely in the scientific community and employed for countless experiments. This is at once a moving personal story, an astounding piece of journalism, and an absorbing yet lucid look into the world of scientific research.
When a writer as indefatigable as Ian Frazier tackles a subject as riveting and multifaceted as the northern third of Asia, then you get a remarkable study like TRAVELS IN SIBERIA (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30). Criss-crossing Siberia’s eight time zones—traveling mostly via automobile, lodging with locals or camping outside—Frazier explores the land, history, literature, and people of this vast, stunningly diverse region that technically doesn’t exist, politically or geographically. This meaty tome centers on a series of trips Frazier took to far-eastern Russia (“the greatest horrible country in the world”) between 1993 and 2009. His trademark mix of serious reportage and contagious curiosity makes Travels in Siberia an essential modern classic.
Following the lives of three individuals, African-Americans from the South who migrated north and west in the first half of the 20th century, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, $30) shows how this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. For many, their flight from oppression was marked not only by uncertainty but by outright danger and hostility, whether they were en route or had landed in northern or western cities. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson expertly captures the historical sweep of this great migration, but by focusing her study on just three out of the millions, she tells a story that’s dramatic and moving.