mini-reviews: emperor of all maladies and when breath becomes air

Cancer is the worst. It fucking sucks. I can’t think of one person or one family it hasn’t profoundly effected, including me and mine. It’s a tender subject to me for sure, but I’m interested in absorbing information about it regardless. This year I finally swallowed my hesitation and read two books on cancer that I’ve had my eye on since they came out.

I’ve been wanting to read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee for a long time, but I was nervous and intimidated to start this book, yes because it’s a chunkster, but also because I was afraid of the medical stuff going over my head and my heart breaking. But, despite some long-winded sections, I was riveted the whole way through. It’s a combination of history, science, politics, and actual patients’ stories, but very readable and engaging. The amount of research here is staggering, and Mukherjee leaves nothing out. I can’t say there are answers here, that’s not the book’s purpose. But I did gain a better understanding of this disease in general, its many iterations, and how it and our responses to it have evolved since its discovery. Cancer is frightening, but centuries-long war between humankind and cancer involves experimentation (some of it truly horrific in the early days), ingenuity, progress, failure, persistence, and hopefully, one day, a cure. [Read in June 2017.]

Paul Kalanithi was on track to being a successful neurosurgeon and married to the love of his life. When he was 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of transforming in an instant from doctor to terminal patient, from someone who has his whole life ahead of him to having virtually no future at all. He died while working on this book. My heart both broke and burst reading this. Kalanithi lays bare all his fears and frustrations about losing his career and facilities, his marriage and relationships with friends and family, and his impending mortality. It’s a deeply personal, raw, insightful, beautiful memoir. More than one passage moved me to tears, but this one especially will stay with me: “‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” [Read in March 2017.]

reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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chernobyl 01:23:40

Andrew Leatherbarrow’s Chernobyl 01:23:40 was in my library recommendations after I read The Radium Girls earlier this year. I’m fascinated by disasters, natural and man-made, so I thought this sounded like a good read. Edited from Goodreads:

At 01:23:40 on April 26, 1986, Alexander Akimov pressed the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl’s fourth nuclear reactor. It was an act that forced the permanent evacuation of a city, killed thousands and crippled the Soviet Union. The event spawned decades of conflicting, exaggerated, and inaccurate stories. This book presents an accessible but comprehensive account of what really happened. From the desperate fight to prevent a burning reactor core from irradiating eastern Europe, to the self-sacrifice of the heroic men who entered fields of radiation so strong that machines wouldn’t work, to the surprising truth about the legendary “Chernobyl divers,” all the way through to the USSR’s final show-trial. The historical narrative is interwoven with a story of the author’s own spontaneous journey to Ukraine’s still-abandoned city of Pripyat and the wider Chernobyl Zone.

Guys, how about we don’t have a nuclear holocaust, ok? Truly, I already knew (based on reading HiroshimaThe Radium Girls, etc.) that radium poisoning and nuclear bombs are bad. Devastating. Chernobyl 01:23:40 is another entry into the case for scrupulous handling radioactive material, taking all necessary precautions, and taking its inherent danger to living things and the world with the utmost seriousness. Now of course, this was a power plant and not weaponry, and this incident was mostly an accident-by-neglect (faulty construction of the plant, procedural failure, improper training, etc.). I agree that nuclear energy is a newer phenomenon and something we’re still learning about. I’m not convinced we should abandon nuclear power entirely. By today’s standards, would the Chernobyl plant even be operational with all the shortcuts taken on construction and procedure? Likely not, so the accident cannot necessarily be blamed on nuclear power itself but rather on human error. Still, its catastrophic consequences can’t be ignored. It’s incredible to me that even after all we’ve learned from the Curies, the Radium Girls, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and more, things like this seem to still be bound to happen. Look at Fukushima in 2011. Look at current threats between the person who won the electoral college and North Korea.

Leatherbarrow’s personal journey to the area was somewhat distracting from the horrific event and aftermath of the accident in April 1986, and I’m sorry to have missed photos in the paper book having listened on audio, but it was still a compelling, easily digestible, short read. I’m sure I can find his photos online, and I’ve seen some before anyway. The brief history of nuclear power in the first chapter was a great setup to the rest of the book. I think Chernobyl 01:23:40 is a good, accessible starting point if you want to learn more about this subject.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

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mini-reviews: the bell jar and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I’m not great at reading classics. There are some I remember from high school and just loathing (Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall Apart) that I would definitely like to give a second chance. But there are some classics that weren’t in my school curriculum that I’ve always wanted to read, but have had trouble starting. Thank you, audiobooks! This year I’ve listened to a few, and these two complemented each other nicely.

I just finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal) a couple days ago. I really wish I had read this in my late teens or early 20s—I think I would have been obsessed! It’s an eerie, affecting book especially knowing Plath’s life story and her suicide. The writing is beautiful but also unemotional, if that makes sense. I didn’t quite get “insane” from Esther, but her mental illness does come through from knowing hints in the beginning to growing paranoia and intense questioning of her own thoughts and actions by the end. The electroshock therapy scenes were horrifying. I was really moved by Plath’s use of being trapped in a bell jar to describe Esther’s mental state—the distorted view from the inside looking out. It’s obvious why this is a time-tested classic. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

Many years ago I “borrowed” my mom’s copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and surprise! never got around to reading it. The audiobook version, though, read by Tom Parker, was fantastic and engaging. I saw the movie years ago but didn’t realize the book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden. McMurphy is quite a character—he’s likable, obnoxious, and a troublemaker, but it’s a fight-the-power kind of trouble that I liked. Kesey’s no-nonsense writing makes you think more about societal roles, authority, mental health, and its healing and treatment practices in psychiatric institutions, at least during the 1950s and 60s. I’m still not sure if McMurphy really had a mental illness or not. This was a great, complex story that I’m glad I finally took the time to experience. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: i’m just a person and mo’ meta blues

Two of my favorite books read in 2016 were celebrity memoirs. I read them both after I left Kansas City, one while I was in Madison for the summer and one after moving to Singapore, but both still stand out to me a year later.

I admit I’m not a die-hard fan of stand-up comedy, but there are a select few comedians that have reached me through their work—Marc Maron, Trevor Noah—and Tig Notaro ranks highly. I watched her great Netflix special Tig in 2015, and have been following her since. While much of the material in i’m just a person is familiar to fans from Tig and her stand-up routines, this raw, personal memoir is still worth a quick read. She talks more about her childhood and 2012, her horrible year battling disease and dealing with a breakup as well as her mother’s death. I was really inspired by her tenacity through tragedy, and how she makes her painful stories and vulnerabilities relatable and entertaining. [Read in July 2016.]

I’ve loved The Roots for a long time and I had been meaning to read this one for a while, and with all my newfound free time in Singapore last year I finally got to it! I found Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues just a delight. Questlove is more charming, humble, and thoughtful a human being than I ever realized. He keeps this book light while still deep-diving on certain topics at the same time. His philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism are intelligent and spot on. I loved that he started each chapter with a question, and I think my favorite parts were his recollections of certain critical albums in his life. [Read in November 2016.]