Healthy Journalism

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer love

As autumn approaches, I catch myself daydreaming about two summer loves.

They could not be more different. One burned hot and consumed my days and nights but was over in a week. The other flared up in hotel rooms and borrowed houses from Athens to Boston and took more than a month to unfold.

Baseball and cancer.

America’s pastime and America’s most feared disease. Each is mythic in proportion, freighted with symbolism, and inextricable from everyday life. Given that both books tell stories about joyous victories and crushing defeats, perhaps my love for The Art of Fielding and The Emperor of All Maladies makes sense after all.

As dozens of reviewers have noted since Chad Harbach’s first novel was released last fall, you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy The Art of Fielding. I like baseball and this book dramatically increased my appreciation for shortstops and catchers, but I was captivated by so much else. 

Harbach perfectly captures the incestuous atmosphere of a tiny college in the rural Midwest: love blooms and gossip spreads, slights are magnified, drama plays out in the town’s one decent restaurant, and sexual attraction breaches the boundary between faculty and students and love floods in. I spent two years at a clone of Westish College, and all this really happens.

And then there is the vigor of the story, which rips along like an early John Irving novel. Irving seasoned The Cider House Rules with references to Dickens; Harbach weaves Melville into The Art of Fielding. And like authors of old, neither Irving nor Harbach shies away from coincidence, sudden revelation, or melodrama. It’s all part of a big juicy package of joyful reading that also includes moments of defeat, a death, and a large shaggy dog near the end.

There are no large shaggy dogs in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s  epic history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. The hardback was released in 2010, was named to every annual “Top Ten” or “Best Book” list you can imagine, and won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.  The splash reminded me of Stephen Hawking’s 1988 blockbuster, A Brief History of Time. That book sold millions of copies and graced coffee tables everywhere, yet almost no one read it.

When I talked to people this summer about Emperor of All Maladies, the prevailing response was “I started that book. It was good.” I suspect readers put this book aside because it lacks the narrative arc of non-fiction classics such as Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It reads more like a fat collection of linked short stories than a novel. But what stories these are! Mukherjee reanimates the Persian Queen who (looking back on it) had ghastly breast cancer in 500 B.C., the struggles of legendary physicians like Galen and Hippocrates to understand malignancy long before anyone knew there were cells, and some appalling experiments on unwitting patients in the 20th Century.

Most readers don’t know about the vast gulf between practicing doctors and basic science researchers that persisted from the 1950s until the early years of this century.  While future Nobel laureates such as Peyton Rous, David Baltimore, and Harold Varmus and Michael Bishop nailed down cancer-causing viruses and human genes, patients were subjected to often arbitrary combinations of harsh, sometimes lethal,  chemotherapy agents.

The “human rumor viruses” that doctors once scoffed at are now a fact: consider liver cancer caused by hepatitis B or C, cervical cancer due to HPV, and the host of HIV-related malignancies. And now cutting edge treatment involves genetic profiling of cancer cells and a growing number of treatments designed to block specific genes.

 Some of Mukherjee’s best stories captures the personalities, quirks, and relentlessness of researchers who are closing the gap between what science knows and what doctors can do to help individual patients.

These vivid episodes are perfect for an overnight hotel stay or an afternoon in a porch swing overlooking the ocean. I’m not sorry that this is how my summer fling with The Emperor of All Maladies worked out. It was for the best.


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