Shelf Control #221: What If by Randall Munroe

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!


Title: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Author: Randall Munroe
Published: 2014
Length: 303 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD ‘a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language’ which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. ‘My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ‘ He liked these questions so much that he started up What If.

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?

How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?

If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?

What if everyone only had one soulmate?

When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire?

How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read.

How and when I got it:

I bought a copy as a gift for my husband a couple of years ago.

Why I want to read it:

My husband usually likes weird science facts, but for whatever reason, he just hasn’t felt like actually reading this book. Meanwhile, I think it looks amazing. I also love weird science, and just reading the questions listed in this book makes me laugh. I’ve heard the audiobook is amazing, and I’ve read some excerpts from this book online, so I know I’ll love it once I actually dig in.

What do you think? Would you read this book? 

Please share your thoughts!


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Shelf Control #199: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!


Title: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Author: Mary Roach
Published: 2013
Length: 348 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) takes us down the hatch on an unforgettable tour. The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts.

Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.

How and when I got it:

Found it on the book swap shelf at work last year, so I grabbed it!

Why I want to read it:

Mary Roach is a truly funny science writer, and even though her books are way grosser than I can generally stand, I’m never not amused by her writing. I haven’t been drawn to Gulp because the subject matter sounded like it might be too icky for me, but hey, who can resist a free book? I did really enjoy two of her previous books, Stiff and Packing for Mars, so I know I like her writing style. Now it’s just a question of whether I can stomach (sorry… groan) this topic!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Audiobook Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Immortal Life

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells–taken without her knowledge in 1951–became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book I’d been hearing about for years, but as I rarely pick up non-fiction, I’d never gotten around to actually reading it. Finally, I decided to give the audiobook a try.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with five children who was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer in the early 1950s, before finally dying of the disease in 1951. Doctors treating Henrietta removed samples of her tumor during her treatments, and these cells grew in culture at an unprecedented rate, becoming the first immortal cells ever created in medical history.

In the years since, HeLa cells have been used worldwide for medical research, and it is said that without the HeLa line, many of our current medical advances and treatments would not exist.

In The Immortal Life, author Rebecca Skloot explores both the scientific journey of Henrietta’s cells and their impact on modern medicine, and the lives of the family that Henrietta left behind. Amazingly, while HeLa was incredibly important and famous among the scientific community since the early 1950s, it was not until decades later that Henrietta’s family had any inkling that her cells had been preserved and were still being used for scientific advancement.

The author describes Henrietta’s early life and marriage, the birth of her children, and her suspicion around age 30 that something was wrong with her, leading to her treatment at Hopkins and ultimately, her death from a particularly virulent strain of cervical cancer. Henrietta is portrayed as an energetic, spirited woman and a devoted mother, who never fully understood her condition or her treatment.

Henrietta’s treatment at the time was probably not unusual, and there’s no indication that the medical care she received was not up to the standards of the 1950s. Henrietta was not asked for permission to take her cells for study, but again, that was not the practice at the time.

The book has many chapters describing the scientific impact of the HeLa cells, their use, their impact, and their study over the years. The book also covers topics concerning medical ethics, questions still under debate today, such as who “owns” the tissues removed from patients and who can and should profit from their commercialization. Some interesting examples are given, such as cases where millions of dollars in profit are made by the medical industry while the donor patient receives nothing.

Along those lines, we spend quite a bit of time with the Lacks family, most particularly with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. Deborah becomes Rebecca Skloot’s companion in her quest to understand Henrietta’s life and death, and her spirit and energy infuse much of the book. The author traces their travels together to the family’s rural home and through the bits and pieces of medical records which they manage to uncover. It’s clear that the family received little information about HeLa or what the cells actually were, so that Deborah often referred to them as being parts of her mother still alive, imagining her mother being experimented upon, and becoming agitated over the types of experiments conducted — describing at various times that parts of her mother were shot into space, used to test nuclear bombs, and infected with AIDS (all actually types of scientific work done using HeLa cells).

There’s a lot of fascinating information in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but overall, something about this book didn’t quite fit together for me. There are at least two distinct pieces here — the scientific elements related to the HeLa cell line, the use of tissue cultures, and the biomedical ethical issues; and the story of the Lacks family, their hardships, and the impact upon them of the fame of HeLa and the resultant loss of privacy for the family.

The author, in the book’s afterword, states that one of her purposes in writing this book was to bring to life the woman behind the cells, to make it clear to the world that HeLa is more than just nameless cells, but rather the living remnants that once were part of a real woman who had a name, a life and a family. I think the book absolutely succeeds in this regard.

Still, I couldn’t quite decide what the ultimate point was, or what we are to conclude about the scientific and ethical issues raised here. Was it wrong to use Henrietta’s cells for research? I really can’t believe that. Should patients have control over what happens to their tissues? Should patients have a monetary stake in research involving their tissues? What would that mean for ongoing research? These are big issues, but I felt that the nuances became a little muddy when mixed with the story of the Lacks family. It’s wonderful that Henrietta herself is finally getting recognition, but I’m not sure that this case proves anything when it comes to the confusing, often contradictory elements of the bioethical issues.

Regarding the audiobook itself, I question some of the production decisions made regarding the narration. Most of the narration is a straightforward read of the book, but quotes are read by a different narrator, with ethnic accents and dramatization. It’s not just the Lacks family that gets this treatment — a doctor of Chinese descent is read with a heavy Chinese accent, and there are a few others as well. This is a work of non-fiction, and adding this interpretive treatment of the text felt unnecessary to me, and ultimately, it was distracting.

The book itself is organized in a way that feels muddled and confusing. The chapters jump from present to past, from science to personal, and the transitions are quite abrupt. Particularly via audiobook, this jumping around makes the narrative hard to follow, and the logical sequence is occasionally lost.

I did find much of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quite interesting, and I was moved by the family’s story, particularly Deborah’s. Still, the combination of the two halves of the story didn’t quite gel for me, and the book as a whole wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be.


The details:

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell, Bahni Turpin
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: February 2, 2010
Audiobook length: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Printed book length: 370 pages
Genre: Non-fiction (science/biography)
Source: Library (Overdrive)

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Fabulous Non-Fiction Favorites

Top 10 Tuesday new

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week is a Freebie — we each pick our own topic. After much debate and a few false starts, I thought I’d write about my favorite non-fiction books. I really don’t read much non-fiction, but I’ve read enough over the years to be able to choose some real stand-outs.

My top 10 non-fiction favorites are:

Ice Bound

1) Ice Bound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen: The late Dr. Nielsen writes about her winter at the South Pole, her personal journey, and her battle with breast cancer with unflinching honesty and remarkable courage.

Poisoners Handbook

2) The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum: A fascinating look at the early days of forensics during Probition.

Don't Let's Go

3) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller: A startling and disturbing memoir of a childhood in Africa.


4) If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende: I go a bit overboard for anything connected to Alaska, and I really enjoyed this slice-of-life book about a woman raising a family in an Alaskan small town.


5) Life by Keith Richards: KEITH! What is there to say about this book? Amazing. My only complaint was that I’d wished it came with a soundtrack.

Packing for Mars

6) Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach: If you like your science packed with humor, then you really can’t go wrong with any of Mary Roach’s books. This is the one I’ve read most recently, but I also loved Stiff, which taught me that it’s possible to laugh hysterically while reading about cadavers.

Fear and Loathing Campaign

7) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson: Everyone should read Hunter S. Thompson at some point in his/her life, and this is the one I’d choose above all others. It just has to be experienced — no point in further explanation.

Blind Side

8) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis: This is the book that made me run around my house shouting, “Look, I’m reading a football book!” I am not a sports fan, and have never read another football book in my life… but this one was just so gripping, I couldn’t stop myself.

Devil's Teeh

9) The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey: A brilliant account of the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, the great white sharks that fill the waters there, and the scientists who study them.

Krakauer collage

10) It’s a toss-up between two very different books by Jon Krakauer: Into Thin Air, his classic tale of a disastrous Everest expedition, or Under the Banner of Heaven, a history of the Mormon church and exposé of Mormon Fundamentalist communities.

As I started working on this list, I kept jotting down more and more non-fiction books that I’ve read and loved. I was reminded that I went through a Vietnam War obsession phase and a weird neurology phase, and then there’s my need to read off-beat personal stories and adventures. In other words, although my reading definitely skews heavily toward all fiction, all the time, I’ve actually read more non-fiction than I’d realized.

Do you have a favorite non-fiction book that you recommend?

I’d love to know what everyone else picked for a top 10 freebie topic! Share your link, and I’ll come check out your list.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!


Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Wishlist Wednesday

And now, for this week’s Wishlist Wednesday…

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Please consider adding the blog hop button to your blog somewhere, so others can find it easily and join in too! Help spread the word! The code will be at the bottom of the post under the linky.
  • Pick a book from your wishlist that you are dying to get to put on your shelves.
  • Do a post telling your readers about the book and why it’s on your wishlist.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to pen to paper ( somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is actually a two-fer:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005)

by Mary Roach



From Amazon, about Stiff:

Stiff is an oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They’ve tested France’s first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way.

In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries—from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors’ conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

Also from Amazon, about Spook:

The best-selling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers now trains her considerable wit and curiosity on the human soul. “What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that—the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?” In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves’ heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of “ectoplasm” in a Cambridge University archive.

Why do I want to read these two books?

Plain and simple, Mary Roach cracks me up. I have never laughed so hard over a science book as I did reading Roach’s Packing for Mars. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’ve ever laughed while reading a science book, but my point remains.)

Mary Roach takes on a subject and then examines it from every possible angle, looking for all the scientific oddities that bring her subject to life. In Bonk, her subject was sex, and while some parts were particularly cringe-inducing (there are certain experiments that I just didn’t need to know about!), it was certainly never boring. Packing for Mars is a look at the science of human space travel, and it was hilarious. Plus, I learned a lot, such as the arduous process of inventing effective space toilets and what position to assume in order to increase the odds of surviving an elevator crash. (Answer: Lie flat on your back. There, maybe I’ve actually saved a life today!)

Stiff and Spook were Mary Roach’s first two books, and they’ve been on my shelf for years now. I don’t deviate from the fiction world very often, but I think these two books are a good reason to veer off a bit.

I leave you with a quote from Stiff: “Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”