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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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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league of denial

Last summer, I listened to the excellent audiobook version of League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. With football season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at this one. Edited from Goodreads:

“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”

So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America’s most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: a chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players—including some of the all-time greats—to madness.

League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage.

If you read my little slice of the internet here, you know I’m a rabid Green Bay Packers fan. My mother grew up in De Pere, in a house just a mile from Vince Lombardi’s house. Lombardi frequented my grandparents’ church. My grandparents went on dates to games. We have coveted, hard-to-get season tickets. As a fan, as someone who cares and is curious, I decided to read League of Denial. I already knew there are health consequences to playing contact sports, but I had no idea just how disturbingly deep the CTE controversy goes in the NFL.

League of Denial exposes the fraud of “safety” in football, from the physically violent way the game is played to attempting to solve the CTE issue with advances in helmet construction and technology, from medical teams to owners to the highest levels of administration. It was just like how Big Tobacco convinced everyone for the longest time that smoking cigarettes was safe. There’s no helmet that can keep the brain from experiencing trauma and damage inside the skull when a player is hit, whether it’s football, baseball, boxing, or anything else.

The amount of research and countless interviews that went into League of Denial is staggering. I know Brett Favre is concerned and vocal about his own future health regarding CTE, and the distressing experiences of football greats like Troy Aikman and Dan Marino in this book really bring home CTE’s seriousness, as well as the NFL’s denial and inaction. The most disquieting story, though, is the life and tragic downward spiral of four-time Super Bowl champion Mike Webster. He was from Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm, rooted for the Packers, and was a center for the Badgers in college at UW-Madison. It’s a very typical Wisconsin upbringing that hits close to home for me.

This is a compulsively readable book. The only downside of the audio is I’m sure I missed out on a photo section on paper. I haven’t been able to denounce and boycott the game, primarily because the Packers are such a huge part of my homestate’s culture and my family’s bond and history. But I’m paying closer attention for sure to this issue and how the NFL handles it going forward. As a sports fan, and particularly a football fan—one with a conscious—I’m glad I read this informative book. It serves as a warning for exactly how more and more rampant CTE will become each year, and makes the reader question why we as a society are so obsessed with a sport that mimics war and glorifies violence.

Listened to audiobook in July 2016.

reading recap: june 2017

I’m back in Singapore after the most wonderful, fun visit to see family and friends in Wisconsin last month. I’ll post about that soon, but in the meantime here’s my (late) monthly reading recap for June:

  • Going Clear (audio) … Lawrence Wright, read by Morton Sellers
  • How to Speak Midwestern (ebook) … Edward McClelland
  • The Emperor of All Maladies … Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein, read by Joy Osmanski

Not much because of my trip, which was expected. I hardly ever get much reading done while visiting family. But these four books were all really interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure I can even choose a favorite or stand-out; I would recommend them all. The Emperor of All Maladies was on my list for a very long time, though, followed by Going Clear. I’m really happy I finally read them; they were long but worth every minute. I knew as soon as I heard about it I had to read Janesville, about the economic fall of the formerly booming industrial town in my home state, and luckily I was able to get the audio from the library without a wait. How to Speak Midwestern is a fun, brief look at the subtle differences in Midwestern accents, and was a really nice way to get in the mood for my trip back home.

I finished reading Roxane Gay’s phenomenal memoir Hunger on the plane ride back a few days ago. Next on my list are It by Stephen King in anticipation of the new movie coming out in September, as well as Al Franken, Giant of the Senate and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I also hit 80% of my reading goal for the year already… maybe time to bump it up once more?? Possibly! No matter what I feel good that I’m going to have a record year for reading.
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reading recap: march 2017

I had another prolific month of reading! It’s really nice to be back in a groove after so many blah months. I’m trying to catch up on books I’ve had forever and not buy new ones, and I’m doing okay with that, better than in the past. My audiobook reading has skyrocketed, though. Without a regular 8-to-5 I have tons of time to listen at home and on bus/subway rides. These ten books makes my 2017 total 27 already—more than halfway to my Goodreads goal of 50 for the year, so I may raise that soon enough!

  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Stranger in the Woods (audio) … Michael Finkel, read by Mark Bramhall
  • When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi
  • The Last One (win) … Alexandra Oliva
  • Psycho (audio) … Robert Bloch, read by Paul Michael Garcia
  • Brown Girl Dreaming (audio) … Jacqueline Woodson, read by author
  • Get in Trouble: Stories … Kelly Link
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey, read by Tom Parker
  • Hidden Figures (ebook) … Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mom & Me & Mom (audio) … Maya Angelou, read by author

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestWhen Breath Becomes Air, and The Stranger in the Woods were my favorites read in March. I loved Americanah, but I finished right before Adichie’s controversial interview comments came out, so I’m still sort of reconciling my feelings about it in retrospect. There were some really great stories in Get in Trouble, too, and Psycho was fabulous. I really wanted Hidden Figures to live up to all the grand hype, but for me it fell flat. The parts about the women themselves and their lives were excellent, but you have to wade through lots of textbook-like technical chapters that bored me. I still want to see the movie, though.

Okay. I think if I’m going to be getting through this volume of books (or close to it) each month, I’m going to have to get back into individual posts. It’ll be good for me, another project to keep me occupied!

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