The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it. I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke (2005)

Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.

Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai? You had me at hello.

This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.

So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. At this time in the world, giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating tale…

Harkness with two of the young giant pandas she traveled with. (Credit: Mary Labisco.)

Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.

Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)

This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.

It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.

And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.

Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. Once she was there, she felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).

It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.

Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and to walk some of the same paths.

There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.

This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.

Recommend it.

Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂

Reading Review: May 2019

The reads for May 2019 included:

So — to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in May 2019: 10. (Hooray for summer break.)
  • Total number of pages read 3,330 pages (av. 333). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 4+ books by women. (The + is because I read an anthology which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for June include continuing the POC author/topic focus and my focus on my own TBR.  And a trip to Vancouver… 🙂