Tag: Siddhartha Mukherjee

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Pt. 3: The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, where his lab specializes in stem cells and blood cancers. His book The Emperor of All Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, is among my most memorable reads of the past decade. Along with Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was one of the first books to turn me on to health-themed reading.

So it was a disappointment to find that I could never really engage with his second full-length work, The Gene: An Intimate History. There’s no denying this book’s impressive scope: it’s a comprehensive survey of the past 150 years of genetics research, but it also stretches back to antiquity to see the different ways people have imagined that heredity works. It’s a no-holds-barred science and social history text, both chronological and thematic in approach, and it also surprises with its breadth of literary reference (as in the epigraphs from 1Q84 and The Importance of Being Earnest). However, my favorite snippets were those that constitute a mini family memoir of the schizophrenia that runs through the author’s India-based family.

Part of the problem was that a lot of the early material concerning Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin is very familiar to me. High school genetics material has stayed fresh in my mind even though so many other subjects have faded, and I’ve done a lot of reading on Darwin for my Victorian Literature MA and on my own time. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, then provides a segue into the dark side of genetics: eugenics. A lot of space is given to Nazism, but Mukherjee also hits closer to home with the case of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” woman whose enforced sterilization the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 1927.

Other important figures in the history of genetics include Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, Hermann Muller, Oswald Avery, Linus Pauling, and the famous English team that discovered the structure of DNA, Watson, Crick & Franklin. Parts Three and Four, which chronicle the advances in genetics that fell between the 1970s and early 2000s, struck me as particularly dull, whereas Part Five held my interest much more strongly in that it brings things up to date with the developments of the last 15 years, including epigenetics, genetic testing for breast cancer and schizophrenia, stem cell therapy and the search for a “gay gene.”

The book did leave me with a strong sense that our knowledge of genes – the least divisible unit of information about life – affects our understanding of the human identity and future:

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, we are learning to speak yet another language of cause and effect, and constructing a new epidemiology of self: we are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences—and, ultimately, fate and choice—in terms of genes and genomes. This is not to make the absurd claim that genes are the only lenses through which fundamental aspects of our nature and destiny can be viewed. But it is to propose and to give serious consideration to one of the most provocative ideas about our history and future: that the influence of genes on our lives and beings is richer, deeper, and more unnerving than we had imagined. This idea becomes even more provocative and destabilizing as we learn to interpret, alter, and manipulate the genome intentionally, thereby acquiring the ability to alter future fates and choices.

However, at nearly 500 very dense, small-print pages, this book will, I fear, struggle to find a broad readership. Is it for science majors and graduate students? They’re likely to have their own university-approved textbooks. Is it an introduction for the general layman? Without a keen interest in science and a determination to learn the last word about genetics, readers are unlikely to persist with such a tome. I have a greater than average interest in genetic diseases, yet couldn’t manage more than a desultory skim. Unlike The Emperor of All Maladies, I can’t see this becoming a modern classic of popular science writing. For me it’s this year’s Citizen Kane: an achievement I can objectively admire but not personally warm to.

My rating:


My gut feeling: This was also shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize. I think it was better suited to that prize’s aims than to the Wellcome Prize’s. Keeping in mind that “the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics [birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity],” I unfortunately can’t see Mukherjee having the necessary universal appeal.

More reviews:

Paul’s at Nudge; he’s also on the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour for this title on Wednesday.


Shortlist strategy: I’m reviewing Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes for the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour on Friday. The last hurdle is David France’s How to Survive a Plague, another doorstopper I’m having to skim to get through. I plan to review it here on Saturday and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.

Making Plans for April & a Return to Hay-on-Wye

In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.

As to other planned posts for the month…

  • I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
  • I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
  • I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
  • I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
  • If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.

Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.

This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.

So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.

Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.

Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic The Rebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of The Airbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.

But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:

I call this my Hay-stack. Geddit? In progress on the Kindle are a poetry book and two religion books.

Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.

The one not pictured will be a gift.

I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).


See also: My review of Hay local interest book Under the Tump by Oliver Balch, and my Bookkaholic article on Book Towns.

Enjoy my Sarah Moss review while I’m away, and I’ll see you back here on Friday!

Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Shadow Panel

Newsflash! I’ve started a shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six medical-themed titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and deliberate to choose our own winner before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. I hope to get the panel up to five – I’ve been in contact with a couple of science journalists via Twitter – but for now we are three, including:

Paul Cheney: blogs at Halfman, Halfbook and writes for Nudge’s Book Life section.

Amy Pirt: blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams and writes for Mookychick and g3 magazine.


The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation founded by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and dedicated to improving health. The current incarnation of the prize has been running since 2009 and the winner gets a whopping £30,000. Books are nominated by their publishers, and for the 2017 award cycle they must have been issued in the UK between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.

One thing that’s unique about the Wellcome Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible. Here’s how the website describes the aim of the prize:

To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

So as we’re reading (or looking back at) the six shortlisted books, those are the criteria we’ll be keeping in mind.


Here’s the full 2017 shortlist:

  • How to Survive a Plague by David France: a history of the AIDS crisis.
  • When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanithi: a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon.
  • Mend the Living* by Maylis de Kerangal (trans. Jessica Moore): a novel about a donor heart [published in the USA as The Heart].
  • The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: a novel about a child who suddenly falls ill.
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee: a thorough history of genetics.
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong: a survey of the human body’s microbes.

 

* = the two I’ve already read and reviewed on Goodreads. I’ll get these reviews together for my first shortlist post on Thursday. Next up for me is The Tidal Zone, which I plan to start today. I have the three other nonfiction titles on request from the public library and hope they’ll come in soon – each one is well over 300 pages, so I’ll need plenty of time with them!

For more on this year’s nominees and the official judging panel, see this Guardian article.


What interests you from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Are there some titles you’ve already read? If you’ve reviewed any of these, let me know and I’d be happy to link to your reviews when I post mine.

Also, if you’d like to read any of the shortlisted books along with us over the next five weeks, I’d love to know that you’re taking part and will help share your reviews, so do get in touch!

(A huge thanks to Naomi of The Writes of Woman for advice on running a shadow panel.)

Three Cancer Patient Memoirs

There can’t be many of us whose lives haven’t been touched by cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, estimates that one in three of us will have cancer at some point in life, and that figure is steadily rising to one in two. Cancer hit home for me in late 2010 with my brother-in-law’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and his subsequent death in early 2015. Since then I have been reading cancer and bereavement memoirs almost compulsively, looking for clues to how we can deal with this near-universal phenomenon. Here are three personal stories of cancer that have stuck with me lately.

 

This Is Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, from the Waiting Room to the Bedroom 

By Laura Holmes Haddad

this-is-cancerA stage IV inflammatory breast cancer survivor, Laura Holmes Haddad wrote the “What to Expect” guide she wishes she could have found at the time of her diagnosis in 2012. Throughout this comprehensive, well-structured book, she uses her own experience to set out practical advice for dealing with the everyday medical and emotional realities of cancer. On the technical side, she gives an alphabetical glossary of “Cancerspeak” vocabulary, as well as explanations of different types of scans, chemo drugs, radiation treatments, methods of coping with pain, and options for reconstruction surgery. But she also goes deep into the less obvious aspects of the disease, like hidden financial costs, little-known side effects, and complications that could affect your sleep and travel. Her tips range from the dead simple—bring your own pen for filling out hundreds of pages of forms; schedule little pick-me-ups like a mini-makeover—to major issues like marriage and parenting with cancer.

“Don’t be surprised if this thing—this cancer road trip—leads to places you never could have imagined,” Holmes Haddad writes. “I’m trying to pay it forward to other patients, to help ease some angst, to comfort.” You might be surprised to learn that this is a very pleasant read. It fluidly mixes anecdote with facts and maintains an appropriate tone: forthright and reassuring yet wry, as in the ‘Devil’s Dictionary’ type translations (“DOCTOR: ‘You might feel some discomfort.’ MEANING: ‘This will hurt like hell.’”).

No cancer patient should be without this book. That statement needs no qualifying. Yes, it might be geared more towards women, specifically breast cancer patients, and there’s some U.S.-specific information about health insurance, but much of the guidance is universally applicable. Whether for yourself or to help a family member or friend, you’ll want a copy.

My thanks to publicist Eva Zimmerman for the free e-copy for review. This Is Cancer will be released by Seal Press on Tuesday.

My rating: 4-5-star-rating

 

Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)

By Kate Gross

late-fragmentsBy the end of this charming memoir, I felt I knew Kate Gross as a friend. A high-flying British civil servant who helped Tony Blair found an NGO in Africa, she was shocked to learn in her early thirties that her occasional ‘bottom trouble’ was end-stage colon cancer with liver metastases. “I’m a golden girl, a people-pleaser, something who is used to graft and a pleasant smile being rewarded,” she writes, yet here was a situation she could not control. She died at age 36 in 2014.

In this short, clear-eyed book, she balances a brief recounting of her life with observations about terminal illness and trying to ensure a good future for her five-year-old twin sons. Memoirs by people facing death can often skirt close to cliché, but I felt Gross had fresh things to tell me about many subjects:

Cultivating “bitter gratitude”: “How strange, how brilliant it is that this awareness of wonder, this sense of the sublime, has been so closely intertwined with my illness as it has progressed.”

The value of literature: “Reading is an experience by which we connect ourselves to what we are, to this magnificent, awful life, in which the same grooves are being scored over and over again in different times and tongues.”

How to act around the dying: “we don’t expect great words of wisdom or solace. I just want this shit to be acknowledged”

Gross doesn’t believe in an afterlife beyond her children’s memory and this book—“nothingness-with-benefits.” I could sympathize with her picture of death, “me in the back of a black taxi, leaving an awesome party before the end, just when everyone else was starting to have real fun.” I wish she’d had longer at the party, but I’m glad she left these thoughts behind.

My rating: 4-star-rating

 

Haematemesis: How One Man Overcame a Fear of Things Medical and Learned to Navigate His Way Around Hospital

By Henry G. Sheppard

haemaThis is a mordantly funny account of one Australian man’s experience with recurrent cancer. In remission since 2007, Sheppard discovered in 2015 that he was once more riddled—that awful word—with leukemia. Having vowed never to go through chemo again, he learned that it had somewhat improved in the intervening years, with the drip treatments now partially replaced by tablets. This time around he ran into a lot of what he calls “Big Hospital Attitude”: scheduling issues with his bone marrow biopsy, nurses who didn’t think he could manage his own insulin treatments, and constant problems with finding veins for his many injections. Was this the much-touted “Patient-Centered Care”? Would he be better off with the “quick and relatively-painless death offered when one is mauled by a pack of wild dogs”?

“Haematemesis” means vomiting blood, and be warned: there is a lot of blood here; if you’re squeamish about needles you may struggle. There is also plenty of scatological humor. But in general I found the tone to be reminiscent of Bill Bryson in a hospital gown, especially when he’s describing squeezing his belly into a CT scanner or recounting his flatulence.

My main complaint is that at 80 pages this feels incomplete, like it’s telling just part of the story. What about his first bout with leukemia, or his earlier life (which, from a look at his Goodreads biography, seems very eventful indeed)? I understand that Sheppard wanted to get this book released while he was still able. I wish him well and hope for a sequel.

My thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review.

My rating: 3-star-rating

Review: The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig

The development of the birth control pill: this seems like an odd topic for my first book review on the new blog, but I’ll go with it. I have a special love for nonfiction that incorporates many different genres: history, biography, popular science, sociology, and so on. (See my next-to-last paragraph for some other examples of books that do this well.)

the birth of the pillThis is an epic adventure starring four unlikely heroes: two middle-aged doctors, Gregory Pincus, fired by Harvard, and John Rock, a Catholic; and two older ladies, Margaret Sanger, who left her first husband and family and grew increasingly addicted to alcohol and prescription pills, and Katharine McCormick, whose mentally ill husband died and left her with a huge fortune she dug into the birth control movement.

Dr. Gregory Pincus is on the left (date unknown).  Copyright Mrs. F. Hammond.
Dr. Gregory Pincus is on the left (date unknown). Copyright Mrs. F. Hammond.

From testing progesterone on rabbits to the desperate hunt for human test subjects in Puerto Rico and in a Massachusetts mental hospital, it is a tale full of surprises. When first presented to American doctors and the FDA, the contraceptive pill – then known as Enovid – was billed as an infertility drug: It regulated periods to make it more likely that women would then get pregnant after going off it. Pincus et al. conveniently failed to mention that it also prevented ovulation. I never would have expected a Trojan horse story.

Margaret Sanger was given a hero’s welcome on every trip to Japan, but she also had an unfortunate association with the eugenics movement – an inevitable offshoot of concerns about overpopulation? She once said that parents should have to apply for the right to have children just like immigrants have to apply for visas. The best random piece of trivia I came across here was that Prescott S. Bush, father of George and grandfather of Dubya, was the treasurer for Planned Parenthood’s first nationwide fundraising campaign in 1947. You can bet the Bush family has tried to cover that one up!

MargaretSanger-Underwood.LOC
Margaret Sanger in 1922.

“Religion is a very poor scientist,” John Rock was known to say. The fight to have the Catholic Church change its position on birth control is an important background narrative in this book. The sexual revolution and the personal decision to contravene Catholic doctrine regarding contraception is also a major component of Quite a Good Time to Be Born, David Lodge’s recent memoir. It’s always fun when similar ideas come up in multiple books at the same time.

Jonathan Eig was previously known for his sports biographies, and there’s plenty of action and narrative here. Like the best science writers (Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, David Quammen in Spillover, Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, or Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Emperor of All Maladies), he tells a story rich with three-dimensional characters.

We have a family legend about a Swiss ancestor who admitted herself to a mental asylum (then euphemistically called a sanatorium) in upstate New York in 1922 rather than have more children. She already had nine kids (one more died in infancy); she was tired and overworked. If this was what it took to keep her husband from making her pregnant again, so be it. She and thousands of housewives like her never could have guessed that one day (in 1960, to be precise) a simple pill could limit their family size. This is what this book is all about: the quest to give women control over their lives.

My rating: 4 star rating