Homo sapiens has evolved some complex needs since the Stone Age, when all man needed was a cave over his head. By contrast, we of the latest model need separate rooms for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, relaxing, and—the list goes on. Bill Bryson believes that the whole history of civilization can be told by tracing the additions to, partitions of, and changes in material utilized for the original dwelling space. It’s impossible to read any Bryson book without hoping it will never end, and AT HOME (Doubleday, $28.95) is his best work yet. As author-host, he amicably leads us through all the new domestic spaces our species has devised on our journey from Stone-Age survival to more recent demands for comfort, health, privacy, entertainment, etc. As food required more preparation, cooking, and storage, the kitchen developed; with greater consciousness of hygiene, bathrooms came along; a sense of privacy required more doors. Never has a house seemed as alive as when Bryson starts deconstructing it.
During her life, Emily Dickinson rightly suspected that her unconventional poems would baffle—even shock—her contemporaries. Later readers have gotten used to her dashes, hymn meters, and slant rhymes, but her tight, riddling lyrics are still a challenge. However, the rewards of reading DICKINSON (Harvard Univ., $35) are many, and there’s no better companion in this endeavor than Helen Vendler, author of studies on Yeats, Stevens, Herbert, and many modern poets. She brings to this selection of 150 Dickinson poems a lifetime of close reading and an amazing ability to empathize with the poet’s position, articulating what Dickinson tried to do, the problems she faced, and how she resolved them. Each commentary addresses formal and thematic elements of a given poem and draws on the poet’s biography and reading, including citations from the 1844 Webster’s Dickinson consulted. Vendler offers a wealth of insight and information, suggesting readings but never closing off options. In each two-to-five-page essay she says more, and says it more clearly, than many critics do in entire books.
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.