Nonfiction · Science

The Emperor of All Maladies

emperor
by: Siddhartha Mukherjee

I read this book when it first came out in 2010; I was taking a class on cancer biology at the time and my professor recommended it. I ended up rereading it in the first part of this year for a graduate class on science communication and I loved it just as much the second time around.

Mukherjee is an MD/PhD who treats and studies cancer.  At some point in his career, he realized his patients’ need to understand the diseases that were ravaging them and eventually that turned into this book. It’s a deep and beautiful exploration of cancer – its history, its treatments, the molecular basis for cancer, all well placed within the social and scientific movements pushing or hindering progress.

This is, more so than most books I review, not a book for everybody. Mukherjee is a beautiful, incredibly informative writer, but he tends towards the long and complex.  It’s not that he’s confusing, but it’s a lot of information delivered in a very ‘literature’ style. Lots of $2 words and long compound sentences.  I absolutely adore this style; it lets things develop slowly without becoming boring and definitely encourages the reader to pause and think at least once a paragraph.  It’s elegant and ideal for slow digestion of ideas. And it’s a long book – over 600 pages (with references).  Both times I read it, I could read no more than a chapter a day.

That being said, the style really works for the ‘story’ of cancer.  It’s a complex family of diseases with a long and often tragic history and Mukherjee approaches it with a mix of compassion, professional detachment, personal stories, and medical experience that is just the perfect approach for a non-fiction exploration of a serious disease. There’s a grave respect for the patients and a sorrow for those who have passed without ever letting the emotions become the story. It’s a gentle, respectful approach, empathetic yet focused. I would feel comfortable recommending this book to someone whose life has been touched by cancer.

Mukherjee does a superb job of explaining the science layer by layer, each chapter a complete story in and of itself, building on the preceding chapters.  He brings to life the scientists, patients, and activists who brought about breakthroughs in understanding and medicine, as well as telling stories from his own training and practice as a doctor.

Again – an extraordinarily slow read for me.  It takes time to process what he’s saying but it truly allows the reader to delve into and understand an incredibly complicated subject. Mukherjee, of course, knows his stuff, but what I’m always impressed by is his ability to convey nuance and ambiguity. Cancer biology is my field and nothing irritates me more than science communication, especially in the health fields, that has a complete lack of nuance.  Biology is complicated and not easily understood and I so appreciate the lengths Mukherjee has gone to to convey that.

I am also happy to say that not even ten years later, there have been a few major breakthroughs that would need to be included in an updated version. Emperor is not outdated; it’s just not up-to-date anymore. But this is really good news!

This is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction books and a lot of that is because both the style and the subject are exactly suited to my taste. I love deep dives into things – I’m much more of an overthinker than an underthinker, that’s for sure – and the molecular basis of cancer is right up my alley.  There’s nothing about this book I dislike, but I do think it is not to everybody’s taste – if you’re one fence, read a few pages on Google Books or at a bookstore.  Mukherjee’s style is very consistent.

If you love long, elegant, and intricate writing or if you’re looking for an excellent, compassionate nonfiction on either cancer or molecular and cellular biology, I highly, highly, highly recommend this book.  However, if a 600+ page tome* is not your jam, or if you like your nonfiction to be straightforward and no-frills, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.

*Mukherjee also writes articles for The New Yorker and a few other places, so if the length is the major deterrent, do look around for some of his other pieces!

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Nonfiction

Southbound: The Barefoot Sisters

 

southbound
by: Lucy ad Susan Letcher

 

After reading Wild, which I’ve yet to review (but it’s excellent, go read it) I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the hiker memoir subgenre.   I was shopping for microspikes and ran across this book and had to buy it – barefoot hiking the Appalachian Trail?  I don’t think I wore shoes in any sort of consistent manner until I was in college, so I was immediately hooked.

That being said, I have mixed feelings about this book.  It’s by two sisters, Lucy/Isis and Susan/jackrabbit, who, as I said, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot after graduating college.  Their biggest motivation, I think, was to take some time to figure out what to do with the rest of their life.  The book flows a little too seamlessly between the two sisters’ point of view – their writing styles are so similar that I often lost track of who was narrating, even though each section had a header stating the name of the narrating sister.

There’s very little introspection in the book – perhaps the sisters didn’t have that much to figure out or perhaps they just didn’t feel like sharing.  But either way, it’s not the close personal narrative that Wild was.

Neither is it a book that really connects you with nature.  They seem to spend as much time off the trail as on, and though I know they narrated some of what they saw on the trail, none of it particularly impacted me.  They do spend a lot of time on the various other hikers they met and interacted with, which I found very amusing and engrossing (with one major exception.)   They also don’t spend much time speaking towards their hiking technique, gear, ect… – they talk about their wood-burning snow and brush on the difficulties/advantages of hiking barefoot but not in any technical depth.

I guess my big question after reading this novel was – what kind of book is it?  It’s neither deeply personal, deeply connected to nature, or a hiker’s novel.   It brushes against all three but doesn’t really settle on anything, which left me wanting more depth in one area or another.   I loved all the narratives of the people they met on the trail – I think that was rather the best part – but given that many of these encounters took place in motels, hostels, and towns on the trail, it seems that the best part of the book isn’t actually about hiking.

That being said, the book itself was engrossing.  I wanted to see what happened next, and I loved hearing about the difficulties and ease of life on the trail. I sped through the book – it’s an easy read, though long – and certainly, I think, it’s worth the time spent reading it if the subject catches your fancy.  I would categorize this as a beach read book – light, fun, easy to get through and very enjoyable.  Sometimes lack of depth – though unexpected here – is exactly what you’re looking for in a book.

The biggest caveat about the book is the winter portion, which focuses on their interaction with a family known as The Family from the North.  This family has been evicted from their homestead in Maine due to tax evasion – the parents are fundamentalist Christians and don’t believe in the government – and are hiking the Appalachian Trail south for, I guess, lack of better options.  (Ironically, the father of this family – while HIKING THE AT – says that he doesn’t pay taxes because he takes nothing from the government.)

While the family is certainly sweet and kind, they – along with the sisters – end up hiking through the worst winter in 19 years, starting in south Virginia and continuing on through the Smokies.  I have spent some time winter hiking, and, while I love it, it’s not a sport I would include my two year old child in.  Or, heck, even my twelve year old child, if it were an extended trek.  Though the sisters highlight the many good characteristics of this family, it’s clear that all four of the children’s educations are being neglected for over a year.  More concerning, the entire family nearly dies in a blizzard, multiple people sustain long-term frostnip-induced injuries, and the children are repeatedly placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations where they survive mainly by luck.

I certainly think that adults should do as they please, and the sisters wanted to brave winter hiking with little training and even less preparation.  That’s fine.  And the parents of the family can do the same.  But risking the children’s lives, from hiking in dangerous weather to a lack of cash to purchase quality winter supplies to not having enough money to buy food (the parents were undernourished, especially the mother) is not something I can agree on, in the sense that there were other, much less dangerous options to deal with the problems presented by poverty.  And while the book doesn’t hide the facts, the sisters definitely choose to emphasize the nature of the family over the reality of their decisions to a very extreme degree.  Unlike Wild, which had frank acknowledgement that Cheryl Strayed did not do enough research and was not prepared and was incredibly lucky, I didn’t get the same sense from this book that the people involved regretted and acknowledged their lack of preparation.

So I can’t really recommend this book to non-hikers, because it’s a lot of escaping preventable situations only by luck and I’m not sure I would want anyone to model their behavior off this.  And I can’t really recommend it to hikers, because I imagine it will make most experienced hikers’ heads’ explode.  So what I will say is that it’s a decent story about the trials of hiking unprepared, and if you read it, you should do so realizing that one would actually need to be much more prepared to hike the AT (or the PCT or anywhere, really.)

Humor · Nonfiction

American Savage

american savage

by: Dan Savage

Dan Savage is the author of “Seattle’s Only Advice Column”, Savage Love, which focuses on questions about relationships love, sex, and more sex.  I have a secret addiction to advice columns, and his is one of my absolute favorites, from the wacky questions he tackles to his favorite piece of advice – DTMFA (dump the motherfucker already.) He’s not the type to wrap hard messages in a sweet and gentle delivery; he’s a “tell it like he see it” sort of person and I really enjoy that.  Not to mention, that’s a rarity on advice blogs! (Alison, from askamanager.org, which you absolutely should be reading if you’re not, also does a great job of not sugarcoating, though with much more finesse than Savage.)

Anyway, this is Savage’s 3rd-ish book*.  It’s more a collection of essays, with each chapter devoted to a separate topic, than any sort of comprehensive non-fiction.  Savage is very honest, so if you’ve been interested in a controversy he’s been involved it, the latest two are given an entire chapter and you can read all about his experience and thoughts.  It’s pretty interesting.

Other things covered are equal marriage rights, healthcare, monogamy, abstinence-only sex ed (spoiler alert: it doesn’t work), politics, being GGG, and a very heart-wrenching chapter on his mother’s death.

I loved this book.  It was a fast read, and it was funny enough to make me laugh, yet sincere enough to be more than a collection of comedic rants. It gave Savage an unexpectedly human dimension and, though the book is part of his public persona, sure, you walk away feeling as if you understand him as a person rather than a public figure.  My favorite chapter dealt with cheating and monogamy; I already knew that Savage and I had similar views but hearing his thoughts expanded and dealt with fully resonated with me.

I don’t think this book is going to change anyone’s mind on anything, except as it gives a sense of humanity to a public gay person, which can be important.  But if you already agree with many of Savage’s opinions and are looking for ways to organize and develop your arguments, or explain your feelings, than this book is probably a great read for you.  Even if you don’t agree, if you’re interested in seeing the reasons behind his stances, Savage is crystal clear throughout the book about why he feels the way he does. It just didn’t strike me as particularly persuasive – I don’t think the intent of the book was to get converts.  But maybe that was just me?

Anyway, if you’re looking for a fun read full of rants and left-leaning political opinions that will make you laugh, you should definitely read this book.  If you’re looking for a serious political treatise, though, you might want to give it a pass.

 

 

*Depending on how you count; a/k/a I was lazy and Wikipedia did not provide an easy answer.  Savage heads up the It Gets Better Project, an outreach effort to LGBT kids who are being bullied or ostracized or who feel forced to hide their sexuality.  There’s an amazing book he edited – hence the -ish – and a whole bunch of YouTube videos and if you know anyone who you think could use support, definitely leave a link or a the book around for them to find.

History · Nonfiction

Mistress: A History of the Other Woman

mistress

by: Elizabeth Abbott

I was really excited when I found this book.  A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long.  There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered.  It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.

I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good.  Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth.  I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.

Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted.  There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.

One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman.  She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people.  The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.

I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful.  But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women.  I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.

I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom.  It was truly eye-opening.  It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.

Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s.  All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.

If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.

Classics · Nonfiction

James Herriot

I was telling my coworker the latest in my stomach adventures (I am a blessed child in that aspect) and she broke in with “Maybe you have parasitic bronchitis!’

I laughed. “You always assume the worst!”

She smiled.  “Well, have you been eating any dew-covered grass?”

A memory came to mind.  “Are you reading James Herriot?” I asked excitedly.  And it turns out she right in the middle of his second book, All Things Bright and Beautiful.  I love Herriot, though as a country girl who grew up on a ranch, I had a different perspective on the books than she, a city girl, did.  We had a fantastic time comparing our views.

It was a great moment; I love talking to people about books, especially lovely, thoughtful people like my coworker.  It was also completely unexpected.  Books are such a solitary endeavor that sometimes I forget how much of a connection you can forge over them.  What a nice reminder!

Have you had any unexpected connections with someone over a book?  Let me know in the comments!

Contemporary Literature · Humor · Nonfiction

Hilarity Ensues

he

by: Tucker Max

Tucker Max, partier, drinker, and asshole extraordinaire, has written his final book, Hilarity Ensues. If you’ve never heard of Tucker Max, he’s the author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First.  He’s basically made a living out of drinking, being an asshole, and drunken sexual exploits.  It’s rather impressive.

Max isn’t the best writer but he’s a damn good storyteller.  I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, while not as well-written as Hilarity Ensues, is probably his best book, if only because he put his best stories in there.   Now, Max’s stories are sexist, disgusting, vaguely racist at times (generally him riffing on someone else’s racism to make fun of them), full of drunken debauchery and sex, and crude.  Very, very crude.  They’re also, for most people, hilarious.   Like, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god, he-actually-did-that, crap-I’m-in-public funny.

And, to be fair, most of the times the butt of his jokes are other party-going drunk people. Which makes a lot of them more palatable.

Hilarity Ensues is a better-written book than his previous ones, like I said, and Max is actually on his way to being a good writer.  He’s also on his way to growing up, because this is the end of his fratire novels.  He is fast running out of stories and no longer making any new ones.

Much of Max’s behavior is so far beyond the pale, I feel glad I wasn’t there, but I’m still laughing at the story.  Outré! Really, very few books have made me laugh like his, though I would say his sense of humor is definitely not for everybody.  He really is offensive. It’s funny for some and unbearable for others.

On the downside, he consistently refers to (drunken) women as whores and annoying or mean women as cunts (words cannot express how much I hate that word), and I definitely was more than a little irked by that.  I finished the book, mind you, but it tested my patience.  I think there was more of that language than in IHTSBIH, but perhaps I’m just more bothered by it.   Max does realize that women are people and it shows in the way he talks about some of the women throughout the book; he just tends to look down upon groups of drunken women in an entirely sexist way.

To be fair, he often makes fun of himself and his male friends, in ways that show he entirely understands his and their shortcomings.  And throughout this book, more so in the other books, I saw that he understood exactly why he behavior was so outlandish, beyond just “people seem shocked.”  Every now and then it feels like he’s riffing on the ridiculousness of how society hides its sexism and other -isms in polite masks.  But not very often.

(Also, Tucker Max’s writing is full of fat-shaming, especially towards women.  So I wouldn’t read this if weight is something you’re sensitive about.)

In short, if you want stories about outrageous drunken exploits with laughs garnered at the expense of polite and politically correct conventions, at the expense of the author and in a very frat-boy mindset, you will find that here.  You will laugh and laugh and occasionally you’ll see a glimmer of something deeper.  If you’re not cool with sexism in any form, if you’re not a fan of crude and wildly inappropriate behavior or sexual antics (and I certainly don’t blame you if you aren’t), this is probably not the book for you.  If you’re not sure, check out Tucker Max’s website, and read a few stories.  If they’re funny, read his books – they’re mostly new material and you’ll laugh.  I promise.  If not, well, his books are just an expansion of his website and won’t be worth your time.