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.]

mini-reviews: hidden figures and packing for mars

Early this year I finally got around to a couple of books on the subject of the history and mechanics of space travel that I’d been excited about. Even though I’m artsy fartsy by nature and vocation I still love learning about some science, especially when it involves kick-ass women!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly features an excellent, important subject: the true-life story of the brilliant NASA mathematicians who did the calculations to send Americans to the moon in the 1960s were a team of black women. I loved the anecdotes about the women’s lives—who they were; their families; dealing with racial segregation in work, education, and neighborhoods, etc. But you have to slog through several chapters that have technical language and read like a textbook. I really struggled through these parts and ended up skimming a lot, which I should have resorted to in a 265–page book. I feel badly, because again I love the topic, but this is a case where the movie is actually better than the book. [Read ebook in March 2017.]

I’m had a lot of fun reading Packing for Mars,  recommended by my husband who is a big Mary Roach fan (and I turned him on to her books in the first place!). In this one, Roach delves deeply into the topic of the effect of space travel on the human body. What happens to your body when you don’t walk on the ground for a year? Can you have sex in space? How do you go to the bathroom? And other urgent inquiries along these lines, as well as the history of space travel in general, are investigated by Roach with her usual wit, charm, and down-to-earth (sorry) writing. She embarks on many on-ground simulations designed by NASA to test I wish I had read this back-to-back with The Martian; they’d make a great complementary pair. This made me want to go watch Apollo 13 and The Simpsons’ “Deep Space Homer” again soon! Some chapters dragged for me, but more were good, informative, and engaging. Mars wasn’t as good as Stiff (a new non-fiction classic, in my opinion), but it’s still a fun, interesting book. [Read in January 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: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

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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.

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.