Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Emperor of All Maladies

Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Year: 2010
Genre: Non-fiction/Medicine
Rating: 1

When you believe that you know someone well, you can look into their eyes and understand what it is they're going to think, say, and do. You know what buttons to push to make them mad, and what stirs their passions and makes them angry. You understand them, and even if they confuse you, you know who and what they are.
 Siddhartha Mukherjee describes his Pulitzer Prize-winning work in the foreword as a biography rather than a documentary because of the way that cancer behaves: more like a malicious, unpredictable person than a disease. The more we get to know it, the more it becomes an enigma, a presence, a personality. The Emperor of All Maladies (quite possibly the most fascinating and useful title I've ever heard for a book) reads like a morose biography, chronicling the 4000 year life of something that kills.
Cancer itself is a dark word in our culture, and doctors are the Spanish Inquisition in white coats. We intrinsically fear them because being in the presence of one means illness. Mukherjee, an oncologist from Boston, is acutely aware of the patient side of the medical process-- before the first chapter, he gives the projected mortality rate for cancer in 2010. At regular intervals in the book, he reminds us how unpredictable, volatile, and fragile our health is; at the slightest provocation, we can erupt into broken chains that lead us to death.
Mukherjee reminds us over and over of his deep connection to his patients, beginning and ending the story with cases of those cancer patients who have changed his profession. Weaving them neatly into the long tale of the disease, he moves back and forth from the overall clinical diagnosis of the pathology of cancer and the human face of it. Despite the thick medical terminology and complicated concepts, we never stray far from the real cost of medicine, chemotherapy, cancer wards, and cures.
On the note of medical terminology, Mukherjee's writing talent shines. Even the most medically inept layperson soon becomes familiar with words like metastasize, benign, leukemia, and remission; acronyms like ALL, VAMP, MOPP, and NCA are all distinct, organized, and used at appropriate intervals. The author's care for his readers shows clearly; despite the fact that he is obviously outstandingly intelligent, he never leaves his audience in the dust of his very complicated, convoluted topic.
This book is not excessively linear, although it does follow a central plot-- the development of modern cancer therapy. The history that Mukerjee follows is fascinating and well-organized, the pieces placed together in both systemic studies and chronological, committing to both the logical and psychotic behavior of cancer. Each scientist that we meet spends his life and career desperately trying to understand the disease eating their patients alive, and each one dies with one piece of the puzzle, trying to save just one life. And sometimes, they succeed in great flashes of genius, and sometimes, they save a few patients.
Understanding the disease of our time is crucial. This book is an excellent documentation of the plague that is merely "a distorted version of our normal selves." Even with the scads of published information about the group of diseases we call cancer, the detailed information rarely leaves the medical field, and the general population only gets the trickling facts from cancer patients or those who are curious enough to read the dense language of the medical field. With an accessible work like this, the proverbial hand is open; oncologists should enter the ward to patients who understand what they are about to be told.
Cancer behaves like a human being. We've spent 4000 years trying to understand it, from the Greeks who called it onkos to the men who tried desperately to cut it from the body in the mid-19th century, but like a pariah, it refuses to be put into our box. Common and still hushed-up, cancer is a specter of death that we all hope will skip over us. Only by studying its habits, its life, its very breath, can we ever hope to escape its grip.
The Emperor of All Maladies is still fairly recent and relevant, but you can get the Kindle edition for $13.99 or the paperback for $12.50 from Amazon. Informative, engaging, horrifying and enlightening, this book is bound to be a seminal work on the disease from beginning to end-- only with the full picture can we understand its purpose and its design.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Help

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year: 2009
Genre: Historical fiction, social issues
Rating: 2

Self-examining fiction is always an interesting endeavor: a song about writing a song, a film about making a film, a book about writing a book. Obviously, as the author is a professional book-writer, the idea of writing is something dear to their heart and familiar, which makes the description of the process very real and accurate. What The Help attempts, in contrast, is to show the power of reaching people with your voice without them seeing your face.
All the evidence of today, despite America's creed of acceptance and tolerance, leads one to believe that racism is not dead, but buried under a thin sheet. We are so acutely aware of one another's color in our attempts to ignore it that any violation of this throws us into a tizzy of denials of racism and passing anti-hate crime laws and all sorts of nonsense. Kathryn Stockett takes on the heart of the most oppressive environment for African-Americans-- Jackson, Mississippi in 1962-- to show the true subtlety of the separations in "one nation under God."
Told from three perspectives, The Help follows the lives of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, two black maids and best friends, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a white college graduate and aspiring journalist. Aibileen's job is to look after two-year-old Mae Mobley Leefolt, whose mother doesn't want to be near her child. Minny, who "has a mouth on her," is fired at the beginning of the book from working for Mrs. Walters, the mother of the malicious Hilly Holbrook. Both of them think darkly of their white mistresses, but stuff down their opinions in order to keep their jobs-- one misstep could cost them their livelihoods and safety.
Skeeter Phelan, on the other hand, is a wealthy white girl whose parents own a cotton farm on the edge of Jackson-- and has been best friends with Hilly Holbrook and Elizabeth Leefolt since college. She gets a job writing a cleaning column for the local paper and enlists Aibileen's help, as she has never cleaned a day in her life and her own maid, Constantine, disappeared without explanation from Skeeter's very controlling mother. After coming to know Aibileen a little better, Skeeter is compelled to write about a book about what it's really like to work for a white woman as a maid in Jackson.
Stockett's first novel, The Help is a creative, enveloping read about a topic that was not well-known outside of the South. She draws from her own experiences of a maid close to her family when she was young to create the characters of the maids around Jackson, and is keenly aware of the social climate of a city like Jackson. The struggles of housewives to raise their children in the 1960s pales in comparison to the struggles of the black families to raise their children on dirt-low wages and poor working conditions-- little better than slavery in practicality, despite being a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
And yet, for all the activist intentions, Stockett does not make the African-American people into a heroic race. There is doubt, cruelty, spite, bitterness, and pettiness juxtaposed with the courage, longsuffering, and beauty. Minny's husband is abusive and alcoholic, and Aibileen's husband left her for another black woman with no warning. With all their achievements and failures thrown together into the facts, Stockett does what many novels fighting racism fail to do: make their heroes human.
Skeeter and her mother are a classical dichotomy: a rebellious child of the 1960s, questioning the standing laws, with a mother who treats the African-Americans who work for them as little better than mentally handicapped animals. Her mother, Charlotte, is prim and proper and constantly hounding Skeeter about how to dress and do her hair and act in public, while Skeeter would let her frizzy hair go and her clothes be mismatched. By the end of the novel, their love-hate relationship is also extremely, pulsingly human, making one wonder whether Stockett has drawn from her relationship with her own mother.
Aibileen, too, is a wonderfully deep and conflicted character. She clearly loves the white children she raises as her own, while nursing a bitterness that her own son was killed three years before the story takes place because of the negligence of a white man. Every time she holds Mae Mobley, it is clear how much more she loves this little girl than her prim and proper white mother, but we realize with heartbreak that Mae Mobley will grow up to be exactly the same as the other white housewives. Aibileen's voice is carefully hardened to protect herself, but we see the pain that she knows daily as she watches this little girl grow up in a world that tells her that the woman who raised her is dirty, diseased, stupid.
Many interesting insights regarding racism come forward in this novel, but nothing that we haven't seen or thought of before. Although the actual physical topic of the book is rather novel, the underlying themes of racism have all been dealt with in books that are, frankly, better-- like To Kill a Mockingbird. Understanding racism in the 1960s is important for our culture, but perhaps what we need more is a novel to help us understand the racism so prevalent today-- the more dangerous idea of pretending that racism is dead.
Altogether, The Help is an educating, entertaining, and fascinating read. Stockett masters the voices and accents of Minny and Aibileen, but still slips in literary turns of phrase that captivate. The organization and pace of the novel leave something to be desired, but overall the story sticks and is memorable.
And Hilly is a hilarious, ridiculous, malignant character that seems overdramatic and fictional but is unfortunately all too real.
Available for $10.00 in both Kindle and paperback, this book is very accessible and affordable, and should be available in most libraries. The movie, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone, is an excellent reproduction, but the book holds more of the voice and power that the author intended. Somehow, reading always does.

The Hobbit

Title: The Hobbit
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Year: 1937
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1

Someone once said that he who does not read only lives once, but he who reads lives a thousand ways before he dies. Perhaps the fondness that we as humans have for stories inspires us to implant a little bit of our hearts into whatever story we read or, more markedly, write. Everyone has a tale that they smile upon remembering, from the story of Brer Rabbit to Harry Potter, and each one carves deep notches into the soft places of our souls. Some have more power than others, but all share the writer's earnestness. Can it not be that the stories we read and treasure change our lives forever?
One of the rites of passage of my family is to read the entire The Lord of the Rings series, usually before high school. As a young and voracious reader, I read The Hobbit when I was about ten years old. As I mentioned before, I had already read the sequels before I read this novel, so having the future of the Ring and Bilbo Baggins made a difference in the outcome of the tale, but this book is decidedly different in tone than the three which follow it.  J.R.R. Tolkien's usual writing style, so full of foreshadowing and serious, heavy language, morphs into a quick-paced, humorous story of thirteen dwarves and a hobbit and their long adventure together. The whole novel feels compressed, like he could have expanded it into at least two books, but altogether works well enough to keep the pace high and lively.
The Hobbit takes place some eighty years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, following the tale of Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. His mid-morning smoke is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of one Gandalf the Grey, who invites him on an adventure and invites himself (and thirteen dwarves) into Bag End the next day. Bilbo is quickly pushed out the door (without a handkerchief) and into an adventure which will change his fate, and the fate of Middle-Earth, forever. The dwarves are on a quest to recover the treasure of their people under the Lonely Mountain, which was stolen by a rather foul-tempered dragon called Smaug. Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, puts Bilbo to the test all along the way, barely trusting him but still entrusting difficult tasks to him.Bilbo has been inducted as "the burglar," a job for which he has no qualifications, but must quickly learn if he is to make it to the end of his adventure.
Everything about this novel is action-based and quick, making skimming not an option (if you do, you're likely to miss a character's disappearance or a name-drop). From beginning to end, there is hardly a chapter where the company does not outwit an enemy or move from place to place. Fortunately, in true Tolkien character, everything is meticulously planned out and thought-through, making the plot points as strong as rock, believable, and interesting.
In the adventure with the dwarves, we see a part of Middle-Earth that was largely ignored in the sequels-- the north and northeast. Although they venture through the Misty Mountains, it is a different portion than that which the Fellowship of the Ring narrowly escapes: Thorin and Company face the tunnels of the goblins and, most notably, the lair of Gollum.
On the note of Gollum, the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" is one of the slower portions but still highly interesting to any fan of Middle-Earth: this is the discovery and burglary of the Ring. Tolkien displays his full writing talent here in maintaining the tension despite the fact that readers already know that Bilbo will get away with the Ring. The ability to draw readers into the danger when they already know the overall outcome is a rare one, and Tolkien's vast amounts of it shine throughout The Hobbit.
The thirteen dwarves are endearing, hilarious, diverse, and enchanting. Despite the fact that we are bombarded with thirteen strange names at the beginning of the book and are immediately launched into a very active novel, we come to know each individual dwarf very well by the end of the book. Fili, Kili, and Thorin in particular are dear to us very quickly, and by the end, we can conjure exactly how they might react to each situation. Again, Tolkien flexes his writer's muscle-- only a master among authors can develop fifteen characters (the dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf) to heartwarming quality in three hundred and five pages interspersed with epic battles, dragons, captivity, dwarf-eating spiders, and goblins.
One interesting trick that the author uses to make the dwarves names easy to remember is rhyming. For example, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur come in a threesome, and the rest of the dwarves (other than Thorin) have at least one that they rhyme with in the company. When they are introduced, they come in sets of two or three, and are usually paired together for awhile, so the reader knows all of the names by the third or fourth chapter.
The overall feeling of the novel is much more lighthearted than its sequels. Tolkien often breaks the fourth wall and steps in to inform us almost casually of future events or things that might be important, and his word choice is overall much more humorous than in his masterwork. Not that the characters are any less dark and deep-- to the contrary, they seem almost more guarded and mysterious in the midst of the laughter and antics, drawing us in to speculate what their deeper conflicts and thoughts might be beneath the dwarven armor and personality flaws. Gandalf is the only character who remains the same between the two works, still his somewhat bipolar self, rife with convenient timing and capricious appearances and disappearances.
The novel ends abruptly, but not inappropriately so. After the Battle of Five Armies, the Bilbo's return journey happens in the space of a few paragraphs. The humor returns with the air of the Shire, which is refreshing after the gravity of the great Battle on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain, and we see that subtle thing that Tolkien evoked in such vividness at the end of The Return of the King: bittersweet parting. All journeys must end, but unfortunately for Shakespeare, these do not end with lovers meeting. We see Bilbo go back to pick up the threads of his old life, but know immediately that he will never be the same.
The Hobbit is available on the Kindle for $7.26, but you can get a good paperback for as low as $7.00 from Del Rey Publishers. I would advise buying a copy, as this is such a wonderful book for both children and adults. Plus, on the part of all of bibliovores, I must urge you to read this before the first part of the movie comes out in December. Peter Jackson did a spectacular job with The Lord of the Rings, and because he is taking so much time on this one, I expect it to be equally wonderful-- plus, you can't go wrong with Martin Freeman as Bilbo. But to get the full impact of the story and fall as much in love with it as generations of readers have, pick up a copy of The Hobbit first.
Gandalf looked at him. "My dear Bilbo!" he said. "Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were."