When Rebecca Skloot was a high school student, she learned about HeLa cells, the first human cells to be successfully reproduced in a lab. They'd become the standard for medical research, classrooms, even in space -- and they came from somewhere. Rather, from someone: Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American mother of four, or more accurately from the cancer that took her life. The story stuck with Skloot -- who grew up to be a science journalist -- and now centers her February book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (Crown: 368 pp., $26), which explores the unknown story of Lacks, her cells and the family she left behind. Skloot's emotional connection to Lacks' adult children, some of whom can't afford the medicine their mother's cells helped develop, makes this a work of both heart and mind, driven by the author's passion for the story, which is as endlessly renewable as HeLa cells.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Elif Batuman's February debut, "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 294 pp. $15 paper), comes with a Roz Chast-designed cover, but don't let that fool you: The 32-year-old critic and Stanford University instructor is no miniaturist observer of social life. Rather, the seven essays here are expansive, wide-ranging, almost impossible to categorize, merging criticism and personal experience, scholarship and life. Although bounded by the author's devotion to Russian literature, "The Possessed" is really a kind of autobiography in reading, in which the characters are Tolstoy, Isaac Babel and Pushkin. "From Cervantes onward," Batuman writes, "the method of the novel has typically been imitation: the characters try to resemble the characters in the books they find meaningful. But what if you tried something different -- what if you tried study instead of imitation, and metonymy instead of metaphor? . . . That is the idea behind this book."
-- David L. Ulin
It's hard to maintain funny. Great "Saturday Night Live" sketches fade at the two-minute mark. Wickedly wry writers -- David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker -- stay sharp by keeping it short. Even the brilliant George Saunders doesn't venture past the novella mark. But Sam Lipsyte has consistently kept the humor rolling through several full-length books. At times this has led to misunderstandings: 24 publishers rejected his last novel, "Home Land," because they said nobody wanted funny after Sept. 11. But there are no such issues when it comes to Lipsyte's March novel "The Ask" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $24). It's got a marginally employed protagonist, inappropriate sexual musings, and twists that keep the pages turning. Lipsyte writes serious literature to be taken unseriously, 300 pages at a time.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
What a brilliant idea. In her March book "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time" (Random House: 288 pp., $26), culture critic Judith Shulevitz (Slate, the New York Times) addresses the philosophical idea of the Sabbath from both a personal and a collective point of view. Part history, part meditation, the book delves into the Sabbath in Judaism and Christianity while invoking a wealth of nonreligious sources, from William Wordsworth to Sigmund Freud. Ultimately, "The Sabbath World" suggests, the Sabbath offers a way to live outside of time, even for a day a week -- an act not just of renewal but of resistance in an obsessively over-scheduled and over-networked world.
-- David L. Ulin