2012 Book 130: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
Reason for Reading: This is the third Booker longlist book for 2012 that I’ve read.
When Harold Fry gets a letter from an old friend who’s dying of cancer, he decides in a leap of faith to take a pilgrimage across England to “save” her. Along the way, he meets many interesting characters and learns to listen to their troubles. He also has time to reminisce about his past…some happy memories, but mostly memories of things he should have done better. This is a bitter-sweet story with deep characters and a good message. The type of person who would love this book is sentimental, and loves reminiscent stories about past mistakes and new beginnings.
Personally, I’m not that sort of person. Bitter-sweet stories tend to make my eyes tear up, and then I get angry at myself for being so infernally hormonal. 🙂 Stories in which people reminisce about past mistakes also are a little depressing to me. I’ve always felt that we should learn from the past, but not waste energy with regrets. Everybody makes mistakes. If we regret them, do something about it. If we can’t do something about it, accept it as a part of our pasts that makes us who we are today. Try not to make the mistake again. But maybe I just feel that way because I don’t have anything worth regretting yet, I don’t know. *shrug*
This was a cute book, but I don’t see it winning the Booker.
In her article “Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer” , Linda Geddes describes the heart-breaking struggle of a non-smoking mother-of-two against the ravages of lung cancer. The purpose of the article was to point out the disparity between research funding and number of deaths for the various cancer types. Leukemia and breast cancer draw from huge sources of public and private funds, receiving much more than their deaths : research-dollars share. There are more deaths from lung cancer than from breast cancer or leukemia, but the funding for lung cancer research is pathetically small. Part of the reason for this is that many family physicians view lung cancer as untreatable–a diagnosis of death–so why fund research into an untreatable disease? But, after all, how are we to learn how to treat the disease without research? And how shall we perform research without funding?
The article suggests another alarming reason for this funding disparity as well: many people, consciously or unconsciously, believe that lung cancer is the fault of the victim. If they hadn’t smoked, after all, would they be in this situation? Shame on them! And they’re endangering us with their second-hand smoke as well! But what about non-smokers who get lung cancer? (After all, that second-hand smoke is going somewhere, isn’t it?) And what right do we have to blame the victim of a disease, anyway? Is a person’s death less tragic because he was a smoker? Trust me, I fall prey to those adverts of children with leukemia…I want to send them money, too. But does our culture of blame induce us to spend money on those we consider “deserving” but not on the “undeserving?” Are we ok with that?
I think a good example of our society (and the world) overcoming a prejudice against a culture-of-blame disease is our relative success with suppressing the dreaded AIDS epidemic. Many a politically-incorrect statement about AIDS victims was bandied about when I was younger…but now, I think, those negative connotations are mostly remembered only by older members of society. And although we haven’t successfully “cured” or fully protected against AIDS, we can now suppress it with anti-viral drugs–the result of well-spent research funding. Perhaps we can take a good lesson from our success with AIDS. Perhaps we can see lung cancer for what it is–a tragic disease that steals the lives of tens of thousands of people in the US every year*. Perhaps we can bring a halt to our culture of blame.
Geddes, Linda: Scandal of Underfunded and Undertreated Cancer. New Scientist issue 2871. 28Jun, 2012.
*This number was 35,000 deaths in the UK in 2010 according to Geddes’ article.
2012 Book 18: Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer (1/29/2012)
An alien lands in Toronto with hopes of studying the ROM’s fossil collection; meanwhile she provides “scientific evidence” for the existence of God. This book had a good idea with poor execution. Sawyer completely ignored the “show-don’t-tell” rule of novel-writing. The book is a clod of sci-religious dialog decorated with a thin veneer of plot. The scientific evidence consisted of debates about: 1)What are the odds? and 2) Where did altruistic behavior come from? Neither argument is fresh, but it’s interesting to have it all thrown into the mouth of an alien (who is also using facts that only the fictional aliens know to support her pro-God arguments). The second argument falls flat since cooperative behavior (i.e. “altruism” as Sawyer was defining it) has evolved in more than just humans. Also, Sawyer adds a short punt about abortion. Although I completely agree with his point of view, I don’t read novels to get a lecture on these views. SHOW-don’t-tell!!!! On the other hand, this book won the Audie award, which means it had a fantastic performance—which I enjoyed on a long car trip I just took. That made the book worth it for me. 3/5 stars
2012 Book 14: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (1/27/2012)
Wow, this was an awesome book! It discusses the life of Henrietta Lacks, the donor of the tumor that was used to develop the immortalized cell line HeLa. The narrative alternates between the story of Henrietta’s family and a scientific discussion of the HeLa’s huge contribution to modern medicine. This is by far the most human story of science/medicine I’ve ever read. Everyone should read it! Additionally, the audiobook won the Audie Award because of its excellent performance. 5/5 stars.
2012 Book 12: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (1/25/2012).
The Emperor of All Maladies is a sweeping “biography” of cancer covering archeological/ancient history to present-day. It is very well-informed, well written, and thorough. Definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of cancer or medicine. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 2011. I think it was written with the popular reader in mind (he DOES tell us what DNA is at the beginning of the book), but the book quickly delves into terminology and topics that I suspect would be very heavy to someone who doesn’t already know a little about biology/medicine. This is especially true in the second half of the book. Mukherjee also is SO thorough that the book becomes extremely long, which is difficult for those of us with a short attention span. Also, I got great amusement out of his formulaically inserted personal patient pieces. It was good that he had them (they broke up the difficult scientific passages) but I could tell that they were written by a scientist and not a journalist (i.e. they were comprised of literal rather than emotive descriptions). Being a scientist myself, this made me chuckle (alas! an emotion). However, I think the personal patient pieces were interesting and elicited enough emotion to engage the readers. They worked for me, anyway. 4/5 stars.
2012 Book 3: The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch (1/4/2012)
When Randy Pausch found out that he had terminal cancer and only a few months to live, he decided to give a “last lecture” providing insightful life advice about achieving goals and remaining optimistic. Everyone I have spoken to about this book absolutely loved it. Indeed, I found it very inspirational. He seems to have achieved all of his childhood dreams and managed to remain optimistic when he only had a few months left to live. However, it fell a bit short for me because his goals were so very different than my own. He was a self-proclaimed workaholic—ALL of his achieved goals were career driven. Apparently despite the wishes of his wife, he decided to spend a lot of time during his final months preparing this final high-impact lecture. The lecture was indeed a success. Good for him—clearly it was something he needed to do. But I hope I am never so focused on my career that I would spend the final months of my life working instead of spending time with my family and loved ones. Perhaps I am just pessimistic, but I seem to be the only one who found his story outwardly inspiring, but for the wrong reasons. I gave this book 3.5/5 stars.