Tag Archives: cancer

My top 20 nonfiction picks

For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

The seminal role of a long-forgotten  ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.

Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built  Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.

The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward

An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake

A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.


Filed under Commentaries, FAQs & Commentaries

A brilliant look at the disease most of us fear above all

1A review of The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re wondering why the incidence of cancer seems to rise continuously despite all the advances in cancer research and treatment, look no further than the aging of the American population. Cancer, primarily a disease that comes with aging, becomes well nigh inevitable once we get really old.

Now, “really old” is, of course, a concept that has steadily crept up the age scale as the decades have rolled by. The disease was identified as long as 2,500 years ago by the brilliant Egyptian physician, Imhotep, a renaissance man who lived two millennia before the Renaissance, but in that era, when average life expectancy was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40, cancer was a rarity. By the mid-1930s, when Social Security was introduced and Medicare was only a glimmer in the eye of Roosevelt’s social reformers, the average age Americans could expect to see was about 65. Cancer had become more common, but was only the #2 cause of death from illness in our country. Now, as our life expectancy hovers in the neighborhood of 80, cancer has become our #1 killer. So, Dr. Mukherjee’s “history of cancer” is now doubly welcome — and a brilliant accomplishment it is!

Are you wondering why cancer occurs more frequently with age? Mukherjee’s lucid prose, and his masterful command of the field of oncology, make it a snap to understand. Cancer is a genetic disease, and every gene among the 25,000 or so in the human genome is vulnerable to mutation in the course of time. (Mutation is the bread and butter of evolution, enabling homo sapiens and every other species on our planet to adapt to changing conditions.) As the years go by, it’s no wonder that some genes involved in the processes of growth and renewal in the human organism experience mutations — some of which trigger a process leading to uncontrolled cellular growth. We call that condition “cancer.”

But perhaps you’re devoted to the proposition that environmental factors are the “cause” (or at least a cause) of cancer, especially some of those tens of thousands of chemicals that pollute our air, our streams and oceans, and our land. Maybe. We know far too little about the potential for harm in the products of the chemical and plastics industries. And certainly it’s self-evident that alien chemicals introduced into our bodies could possibly play roles in certain types of cancer. Many do in laboratory animals. And, after all, the hormones and proteins that govern the conduct of our biological lives are themselves chemicals. However, if I understand Dr. Mukherjee correctly, those exogenous chemicals could lead to cancer only by interfering in the patterns of growth and mutation that are the controlling factors in the cellular health of our bodies.

For generations now, the consensus has been that cancer is not a single disease but a broad description of a wide range of illnesses. On its face, pancreatic cancer has little to do with testicular cancer or breast cancer, for example — meaning, of course, that a “cure for cancer” is not in the cards. But Dr. Mukherjee leaves the reader with a broad hint that there may, in fact, be common elements that tomorrow’s cancer researchers can suss out — and find that mythical cure after all. To my mind, this is an extraordinarily hopeful perspective.

Dr. Mukherjee, a cancer researcher with clinical experience, surveys the “history” of cancer from Imhotep to the present day but, as he points out, this book more nearly resembles a biography than a history. He combines moving personal experiences, historical vignettes, biographical sketches of some of the fascinating individuals who have advanced our understanding of cancer, and wonderfully articulate explanations of complex scientific matters. The Emperor of All Maladies is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, and it deserves every bit of recognition it’s gotten.


Filed under Nonfiction, Science