The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


The Emperor of All Maladies
It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America - a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety - one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

This might be the first scientific and technical book that I read for leisure. As a science student in school, I used to read books like these to help my grades along; so for the longest time, I resisted the idea of reading them for fun. After reading a lot of book reviews though (of this and other subject-focused books), I have begun to love the idea of reading technical books about a certain topic, though I haven't really gone out of my way to read them. But it took me two tries to finish this book - the first try was short-lived (just a couple of pages) and the second was always in danger of being abandoned. In the end though, I finished it, and felt rewarded for doing so.

The Emperor of All Maladies is basically what its subtitle says - a biography of cancer. It starts its story way back when, from how the Persian Queen Atossa's slave cut off her malignant breast to the present, when there are countless drugs to delay the inevitable. As boring as I worried this book would be, it turned out to be the opposite, with a few caveats though.

Cancer is clearly the one illness that no one wants to think or talk about. All of us probably know at least one person who has or had it but it's more likely that we know or knew more than one person with this illness. The prognosis is almost always grim, sometimes with an immediate outcome, other times with years before that outcome, but we all know how it will likely end. How then do you write a biography of such an illness? Isn't this what most of us are doomed to meet?

When I started eying this book, I was looking not just for history but also for options that will help prevent cancer. After all, as Mukherjee stresses heavily in this book, prevention is the best cure. I didn't exactly get that but I wasn't expecting to (because if that magic prevention strategy is out there, then nobody would be getting sick). But I got a lot more from this book. In fact, when I finished the book, my first thought was that I felt no longer scared of this disease because Siddhartha Mukherjee opened my eyes to a different way of looking at things.

Mukherjee starts and ends the book with the story of one of his patients who was battling cancer. While he narrates specific experiences from his life, he interleaves the stories of how cancer has showed up at specific times in history. How it was once suspected that black bile is the cause of this disease, how excising the tumor was the norm centuries ago. It is fascinating to see how scientists came to the many conclusions that we take for granted today.

Mukherjee also makes a brilliant attempt at showing progress in this "story" of a protagonist that kills people. Most of the advancements in oncology have helped "cure" cancer in many people and yet, the number of people with cancer has only gone up. He explains that this is because there are more cancer survivors now than there was in the past.

I will admit that as interesting as this book was, I did find it a tad too long. At 22.5 hours, it kept me company through countless 20-minute commutes to and from work, and after a while, I just wanted it to end. I don't know that reading this book would have been faster. Probably not, because I may have bailed out early enough. The audiobook medium is probably the best way to get me to "read" books like this one. If you don't mind the length and would like to know more about how cancer became the towering force it is today, then you should certainly consider this book. I learned a lot and although I have forgotten a good portion of the details, I would love to add a print copy to my library that I can refer to once in a while.

PS: If you were wondering what carcinogen Mukherjee is talking about in the quote above, it is cigarettes.


This audiobook is from my personal library.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

10% Happier
What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, "respond" rather than simply "react."


This year, I have been on a self help kick. Mostly on topics related to mindfulness, productivity, and being happy. I think feeling overwhelmed occasionally is the reason for it. And stress of course - who doesn't have that problem? When I came across Dan Harris' 10% Happier, all my neurons were intrigued. Besides,
  • It has a promising title.
  • It is a story of one person's attempt to be happier rather than a general 'How to be Happy' book.
  • Also, it sounded like a light read - something I was looking for to complement the other heavy reading I was doing at the time (Emperor of all Maladies).
Dan Harris starts off with the story of what triggered his interest in meditation. In 2004, he suffered a meltdown in front of millions of viewers of Good Morning America. He attributes the episode to stress, ambition, and his drug habit and realizes that he needs help. Shortly after, he is tasked with covering religion - a subject he hated and mocked openly. He would play the part of an intrigued audience during his interviews with evangelicals but once that was over, he would revert back to his usual cynical self. At this point, a friend introduces him to Eckhart Tolle - whose books he found to ooze with the nonsense mumbo gumbo that he has by now come to associate with religion but also occasionally be sprinkled with wise words, that he doesn't know what to make of it. He realizes surprisingly that he wants the same benefits that many people get from religion or spirituality but without having to follow a faith. He isn't sure there is an answer out there though because all the evangelicals or meditation gurus he meet don't appear convincing to him. It is months later when he was close to giving up that he comes across Mark Epstein, who introduces him to meditation AND makes him realize that, contrary to his beliefs, meditation doesn't involve talking or walking like a zombie.

Note: Despite the talk about religion and spirituality in the first three chapters of the book, 10% Happier is not about religion at all. Rather, it is about a lot of misconceptions that Harris has regarding faith and meditation.
 
I will admit to not liking Dan Harris much. He was the kind of the person who hated religion so much that he derided other people's beliefs. He had no idea what Buddhism was about nor did he want to jump on the meditation 'fad', claiming it was religion as well. He also admits often that he had these annoying traits and I get why he kept talking about it - there are plenty of people like him, who believe that to meditate requires you to chant and talk in a sugary voice and not be ambitious. To make these people realize that those are misconceptions, it helps to admit one's own fallacious beliefs. That didn't make reading about him easy though. I guess I am biased here because I grew up in a land close to where Buddhism was born and I had lessons in my History class about the Buddha and Buddhism. I am, however, not a religious person but I respect another person's need for faith. It just bothers me when someone talks like an expert on subjects they know nothing about.

Dan Harris was also not hesitant to call someone's bluff. He had no issues criticizing or mocking someone. While I agreed with his thoughts to some extent, I cringed at the blunt way in which he expounded his beliefs.

But, as ironic as this may sound, those issues I had with the author are exactly the reasons why I enjoyed the book a lot. I appreciated the lengths to which he was willing to go to understand how meditation works. Despite being in a job where you can easily lose gigs or be overlooked for promotion. Will he eventually be that perfect person who had no issues with anything, who always thought through every idea, and who was very aware of every breath he made? And how would this affect his ambitious personality? Would he stop caring about his work? Would he slow down?

As someone who has been focusing this year on being more mindful, I loved reading about Dan Harris' discovery of self. His complete ignorance on the subject at the beginning makes this book perfect for any newbie to the meditation world. I liked how he explained that being mindful doesn't require you to sit under a tree for years to attain nirvana. There is plenty of misinformation out there regarding Buddhism, mainly because of how this faith is packaged by money-makers. I loved that he explained that Buddhism is less a religion and more a philosophy - something to aspire to live your life by.

Sprinkled throughout the book are several strategies that Harris learned about how to meditate. Years ago, when I wanted to meditate, I was most struggling with the idea of how to focus only on my breath and not on any of the 100 ideas that pass through my brain, especially when I want to shush it. Harris had the same worry. Several of his teachers corrected him - the point was not to clear your mind but to be aware of what you are thinking and not let them take over. I don't have this mastered at all. But I loved getting this different perspective into how to meditate. My brain loves to have conversations with itself but now, I am aware when it happens and able to stop it. (For the uninitiated, one of the habits that meditation tries to encourage is less time spent thinking and more time actually doing AND being present in whatever it is you are doing.)

By the time I turned the last page, I loved this book. It has made me more excited about being mindful and more aware of myself. I haven't exactly sat down and meditated but it's something I want to give a try. As soon as my baby complies with that wish.
 

This book is from my personal library.

Five picture books you should read now | Five on Friday

Friday, April 15, 2016

I decided to do a twist on the Five on Friday post by writing mini-reviews of five picture books I loved. I did read a lot more than these five picture books so far this year but these are the five that actually engaged my adult brain.


  1. The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home: If there ever was a picture book out there so unique that you had to marvel at the author's ingenuity, then these two books are it. In both the Crayons books, a bunch of crayons have addressed letters to Duncan - in one, the crayons are so annoyed by something (not being used enough or being used too often or always being used for the same objects or playing second fiddle to another crayon) that they have decided to quit being his crayon. In The Day the Crayons Came Home, a large group of crayons have sent Duncan letters from places where they are lost (some behind the couch while others in entirely different countries) and they are all trying to find their way back to Duncan. What I loved best about these books is that they will make any reader want to pick a set of crayons and let their imagination run wild.

  2. The Story of Diva and Flea: I picked this book solely on account of that gorgeous cover! But the book was a delight too! A little dog named Diva loves staying within the comforts of her apartment building in Paris, happy not to venture out. Flea, on the other hand, is an adventurous cat who considers himself a flaneur and loves exploring new places. One day, the two meet outside Diva's building, each finding the other to be from some sort of a strange species. There is a lot to love in this book. Flea and Diva are character opposites but they get along greatly. More importantly, they learn a lot from each other and even strive to do something they are challenged by. And if you're like me, you may spend more time appreciating the illustrations than actually reading the book.

  3. The Princess and the Pony: Kate Beaton's illustrations are well worth every inch of paper they are drawn on. They look quirky and are also quirky. This cute story of a little warrior princess and the pony that she got instead of the horse she wished for is so heartwarming that I read it twice. I had trouble with Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant comics but this picture book was quite something different and wonderful.

  4. The Book with No Pictures: When I read that this is a kids book without illustrations, I was very curious about how the author (B. J. Novak!) would hold a kid's attention without pictures of any kind. But this book is a riot. Mainly because it expects the reader (i.e. The parent) to make all sorts of funny noises when they read to their kid. I will admit that the novelty wore off for me quick but I am pretty sure that kids will love to have their mom or dad read this book to them and laugh their heads off at the weird sounds.

  5. Mother Bruce: Bruce is one grumpy bear who loves to cook. He once took snatched a goose's eggs that he wanted to cook but before he could do that, the eggs hatched into little goslings. As if losing his appetite this way wasn't enough, these goslings started calling him mama. I laughed way too much at this little book. It was charming, funny, and filled with hilarious illustrations. I had to read this one twice because the pictures were just too funny. A story about a bear going on a shopping trip looking for "buy local" organic eggs that he then cooks after finding some recipes on the internet? Sign me up.

So tell me, have you read any of these?

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Eleanor
She asks, "Are you okay?" Eleanor nods slowly, and Agnes turns to the backseat to ask Esmeralda the same question, but the words catch in her throat, because she sees the U-Haul van, and there's not even time to say, "No," not even time for Esmeralda to turn and see it coming; there is only time for Agnes to want to do those things, and then it happens, and it cannot be undone.

Identical twins, Eleanor and Esmeralda Witt, don't really have the happiest upbringing thanks to their depressed mother but when Esmeralda dies in an accident, their family further unravels with no scope for recovery. Eight years later, Eleanor's parents are divorced, her mom drinks herself to oblivion every day and night, while Eleanor grows up overnight. One day, when Eleanor tries to leave the school cafeteria, she finds herself transported to a strange world - a cornfield where she comes across a younger version of herself playing with a friend. Thus begins a strange phase in her life where she starts spending increasing periods of her life in other worlds, leaving behind worried family and friends and also aging faster every time she leaves her world.

Eleanor is the story of three women - the surviving twin Eleanor who tries to care for her mother; Agnes, the mother who blames Eleanor for Esmeralda's death; and the grandmother, also called Eleanor, who abandons her husband and Agnes and thus sets the stage for a lifelong of bad choices and broken hearts left behind. When I read the description of this book, I was attracted to the concept of other worlds but I was not looking forward to reading about the tragedy. And it was certainly tough to read but the only thing that kept me going was the promise of a silver lining at the end. The book is highly optimistic despite its core tragedy. I actually didn't shed a tear even though I could feel the sadness that has enveloped its characters. This family has been destroyed so badly that it was horrifying to read some of the things that Agnes tells Eleanor.

The "other worlds" concept in this book wasn't far-fetched. I loved reading about the worlds that Eleanor was passing through and trying to figure out how they were connected to the reality. Despite all the sadness in the book, I found it hard to put the book down. This is a fast paced book with a beautiful writing and an engrossing plot. By about halfway through, I had already figured out everything, which made the last 75 pages a little boring to read. I was still looking forward to reading it but more to know whether I was right.

It is amazing how little the two mothers in this book think of their kids. And how much their lack of love damages the kids. Eleanor doesn't state it as a fact, instead it proceeds to show it in the characters' actions (or lack thereof). Agnes has never forgiven her mother for leaving her and in return does not care for her kids either, not because she doesn't want to but because she doesn't know how to.

The author did a great job of explaining most of the loose ends but there were still a few questions I didn't get answered. I had my guesses and they were probably right but it would have been nice to have them confirmed. In a way, this book was both literary fiction and a mystery packaged together. One thing I loved about this book was how not every minor character is assumed to be a male. Many of them are introduced as... the anesthesiologist or the stranger. In most books, when a character is introduced that way, they eventually turn out to be a man. In this one, the character was almost always a woman.


I received this book from the publisher for free for review.

Back to the Pen and Paper | The Sunday Salon

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Sunday Salon

After all the time I spent on my Day in the Life post, I should have realized that a long blogging break was on the horizon. Honestly, it was unplanned. I just didn't have any posts typed up and every free minute I had, I chose to spend it reading. Until the great virus outbreak of last week. Which, I'm excited to announce is now behind me. It took three whole days. That's all. Just three miserable days when all I wanted to do was bury my head in the sand and hope that the world moved on and chores got taken care of.

But enough griping for now. We are just done with lunch and settling in for a lazy afternoon. The husband is traveling to Cincinatti this week so I had just dropped him a few minutes ago at the airport. He will be sorely missed but I will gladly take these occasional and short travels over the regular weekly travels that he had to do in our first year of marriage. Besides, my dad is here so I will still have plenty of help with Shreya and food. Remember I mentioned how much my dad loves cooking? He has made some amazing dishes so far and it's hard to do any kind of portion control when food tastes that good.

Last week, I got an email from Doubleday books saying that I had won this month's Chatterbox. I don't ever win stuff much nowadays so it was a pleasant surprise. The box had a copy of The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake, a calligraphy pen (which was so wonderful to write with), a pair of chopsticks, and a wonderfully fragrant candle. The book itself is one that I hadn't heard of previously so I am looking forward to reading it.


Spending four days at home can make one antsy and I spent a good chunk of my time trying to be feel more organized. It started with a realization that I didn't know how many reviews I had pending to write. Depending on what kind of day I am having, this realization either won't bother me at all (usually these are the 'yeah, that's life' kind of days) or I will start hunting for yet another system that I will try to adapt and usually fail at. The past four days were the latter kind of day. I started looking for a Trello-like app where I can get notifications and have a calendar view on my phone. Trello has worked amazingly well for me... when I remembered to use the app. What I wanted was Trello + notifications + calendars without having to download extra integration apps that did it. (Also, I have been trying to KonMari my life lately so the less apps, the better.)

Zilch. Would you believe that there was nothing out there? For the briefest of moments, I considered writing my own app but ditched that option right away because I didn't have that kind of time. I eventually downloaded Remember the Milk and made it do what I was envisioning but it was still a frustrating system. That's when I thought of giving bullet journal a try. I had been wanting to go pen-and-paper for a long time but looking at all the beautiful planners out there made me somewhat hesitant. I don't have an artistic bone in my body but that's the beauty of bullet journaling - you don't have to be artistic. So that's where I am right now. I have a book and a pen - I just need to start writing. The husband has been beyond amused by this recent craze of mine. He and I are such opposites when it comes to a need to plan.

Anyways, while I set my journal up, I'd like to know if you bullet journal or keep planners!