Monday, April 23, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

I didn’t manage to read a fluffier book. Instead, I chose the enjoyable The Sisters Brothers by Patrick De Witt. (The library let me know it was my turn. And I’m giving it a try on my ipad so I only have it for two weeks. I had to move it to the top of my TBR list.)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, this historical novel is a darkly comic (IMO more dark than comic) highly stylized, wonderfully written western. Set during the California Gold Rush, it tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired guns for a wealthy boss named The Commodore. The book is narrated by Eli, a simple man with a tender conscience and a quick temper, who longs for a more peaceful existence but knows nothing else but following after his older brother. They take care of each other. It seems that they love one another but don’t like each other very much. Charlie is a drunkard but is, presumably, the brains of the operation. Or maybe he’s just the more efficient killer. Eli needs to be goaded into doing the work.

Having completed one nasty bit of killing, the brothers are given their next assignment. They are to travel to San Francisco and murder a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, accused of stealing something from the Commodore. Whether the accusation is true or not is immaterial. The boys kill for a wage. They don’t ask questions.

They set off for San Francisco and have a series of adventures or misadventures along the way that mostly end badly for the people they encounter. The brothers are good at what they do even when they do it clumsily.

It is basically a story about nasty men doing horrible things and not feeling particularly remorseful about it. At first, despite the nice prose and being somewhat intrigued by the premise, I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest the time needed to venture along with these unlikeable men. As the story unfolds, they didn’t grow more likeable even as we see their odd vulnerabilities and their unwavering loyalty to one another that shows up in their actions if not their words. Backstory trickles in that explains, to some extent, but does not justify, their sociopathic behavior. I never did warm to any of the characters and that usually means I won’t like the book. But the plain fact of the matter is—before I was very far in to the book, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop reading it. It’s a curious adventure, peopled with unlikeable oddballs, but for some reason I was compelled to see how it ended. Kudos to Patrick De Witt.

This is my seventh historical novel for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. If historical fiction is your thing, or if you think you might like to explore the genre, head on over to Historical Tapestries to check out all the reviews! (Or click on my challenge link for a few recommendations to start.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Emperor of All Maladies. A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

I have to find a cheerier book to read next.

Over spring break I decided to tackle The Emperor of All Maladies. A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a brilliant book. If you’re looking for a better understanding of the big picture of cancer, this is where to go.

I heard about this book awhile ago – it was, after all, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction – but was not in a hurry to read it because, well, it is a fairly hefty-looking tome about cancer.

As a pathologist, I have a fair acquaintance with cancer – I know what it looks like. Pathologists look at resected organs and at specimens under the microscope, and one of the main questions we’re supposed to answer is: "Is it cancer?" So we have to know how to recognize it when we see it. I’m a pediatric pathologist, so we’re generally looking for a specific subset of tumors that occur in children. Over the years I’ve grown more accustomed to seeing the comparatively rare pediatric cancer variants rather than the much more common breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers that plague adults. However, as I’ve gotten older, those adult cancers have begun to swirl around me in a different way – they’ve begun to invade the circle of my friends.

So I decided I wanted to read this biography of the disease. I knew the book would be a history of cancer, but I was expecting something dry and more textbook-like. I wasn’t prepared for the scope of the book or for the clarity of the prose. Mukherjee is a physician/scientist but he is also a writer. He makes complex problems accessible without oversimplifying. He is able to take the reader backward and forward on a remarkable journey alongside the pioneers of cancer treatment, political advocacy, and research. He walks with patients, both survivors and those who succumb. Cancer treatment has not been a straightforward march from ignorance and poor outcomes to increasing knowledge and therapeutic success. There have been a lot of false starts and bumps in the road. Cancer is not one monolithic disease seeking one magic bullet, and the battle against it makes for a fascinating, heartbreaking tale.

In this extraordinarily readable book, Mukerherjee lays out the pathways that were explored, increasing incrementally the knowledge about specific malignancies. He explains how therapies added to understanding about cause and vice-versa. In the final chapters, we get to the unraveling of the genetic mechanisms of some cancers and the promise that molecular research holds for the eventual understanding of more and more types of cancer. Understanding the mechanism has led to some targeted therapies and will hopefully lead to more. The book is cautiously optimistic and I came away from it feeling like I had a better understanding of where cancer biology and treatment have been and where they are heading. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that there’s no escaping the suffering cancer has caused and will continue to cause.

If you’re curious about cancer, I highly recommend The Emperor of All Maladies - and the Pulitzer committee agrees.

Still, the next book I read has got to be fluffier.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Six Word Saturday

Happy Easter!  Let Spring Break begin!


It's time again for Six-Word-Saturday,  hosted by Show My Face.

Want to play along? All that's necessary to participate is to describe your life (or something) in a phrase using just six words. For more information, try clicking here. Feel free to explain or not explain. Add an image, a video, a song, nothing.

This year, my kids' spring break coincides with Easter. And, even though they are in different schools (high school and middle school) they have the same week off. So, I took the week off from work. I'm looking forward to some time off with family!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

For my Back-to-the-Classics-Challenge Romance selection I chose Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. This is has been floating around in the background of my TBR list forever. For some reason, I thought I knew a little about it just from bits and pieces that I’ve heard, but apparently, having never read an actual review/summary of the book, those bits and pieces were not enough. I thought it was one of the great love stories of all time. Heathcliff, from my understanding of it, was a handsome, dark, brooding figure, desperately in love but fated to be denied. I had an image of Catherine wandering about on the moor yearning for him. I knew their love was doomed in some tragic way. So I settled in for a romantic read.

Wow. Was I wrong.

Wuthering Heights is many things and has much to recommend it as a novel. It’s written in a gorgeous old-fashioned literary style that is both challenging and rewarding. The plot is compelling. It evokes strong emotions (mostly negative, but still, those strong emotions kept me reading!) The characters are complex (nasty, spiteful, hateful things, but complex.) There is an underlying social commentary that puts some of what is going on in perspective, but by no means excuses the horrific behavior. It’s an extraordinary novel. But as a love story? Bleh.

It opens with a self-important, vain, young narrator (Mr. Lockwood) who believes himself to be somewhat of a romantic figure. A failed flirtation has sent him off to the country for the solitude he believes it is his nature to crave. Yet the first thing he does is look up his landlord, the owner of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff.

(Initially, I was so taken aback to find myself with this unexpected narrator I wondered if I was reading the right book. This is the Heathcliff/Catherine tragic love on the moor story? Told by this guy?)

I read on.

The encounter is an unpleasant one. Heathcliff is a grudging and inhospitable host. Lockwood is also introduced to Heathcliff’s pretty but embittered daughter-in-law, Catherine (the second), a half-crazed preacher-in-residence, Joseph, and a rustic, doltish young man who might be a servant of some sort named Hareton Earnshaw. They are the nastiest bunch of people—to each other and to their guest—that you could ever have the misfortune to come across. Lockwood also encounters (thanks to being trapped in the house overnight by a snowstorm) the ghost of Catherine (the first.) Terrified and intrigued, he wants to learn all he can about this odd bunch. (And so does the reader.)

Lockwood retreats to the house he is letting, Thrushcross Grange, where the garrulous housekeeper, Mrs. Dean, who used to be employed by the old family up at Wuthering Heights, is all too happy to fill him in.

From here on, the book is essentially narrated by Mrs. Dean or by Lockwood relating her words in his words. Lockwood puts in a few observations of his own when he interacts briefly with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights again at the end of the book. This second-hand or third hand telling of the tale is an interesting device. The love story is seen through at least one and sometimes two pairs of judgmental eyes, which necessarily colors the interpretation. The housekeeper is not impartial. At times, her actions influenced outcomes and not always for the better. But I couldn’t convince myself that Mrs. Dean’s bias was so strong it overwhelmed the truth of her observations. The story she told was awful; it was not a beautiful but tragic love story. Heathcliff is no romantic hero. He is a bitter, cruel, obsessive man who didn’t know how to love.

Granted, Heathcliff started out at a marked disadvantage. He was an orphan, taken into the Earnshaw home, raised alongside the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley. Although the father showed Heathcliff marked favoritism, technically he could not inherit and it was known that as soon as the father died, Heathcliff would be left with nothing. He could never be Catherine’s equal. He couldn’t marry her. So, as she reached the age when that became important, she looked to her neighbor, Edgar Linton. Linton was a dull, respectable, wealthy, kind man who loved her and was in the right social class. Catherine recognized that she was supposed to love Edgar. She also knew that she actually loved Heathcliff. Her plan was to marry Edgar and use his resources to raise up Heathcliff. Catherine wanted to eat her cake and have it too.

The housekeeper relating the story emphasizes Catherine’s selfishness. She portrays Catherine as a narcissist who can make herself pleasant as long as everyone does exactly what she wants. She was not entirely mentally stable and eventually died of unreasonableness. The predeath-farewell between Catherine and Heathcliff seemed to me to be primarily recriminations rather than love-talk. And Heathcliff, whose list of mental derangements starts at sociopath and goes on from there, decides to punish everyone in Catherine’s circle, including the next generation of Earnshaw, Linton and Heathcliff(s).

The majority of the book is taken up with the housekeeper relating how Heathcliff endeavored to make life a living hell for the three children born to the mismatched Lintons/Earnshaws and Heathcliff. His cruelty and depravity are related in painful detail.

Wuthering Heights is well worth reading for all its literary merit, for its little societal lessons, and its psychological studies. And I’m glad I read it so I can disabuse myself of the notion that it is a love story. Heathcliff and Catherine can go ahead and wander about on the moor, haunting each other for all eternity. Their world is well rid of them.

The Back-to-the-Classics Challenge is hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads too Much. Come join the fun!