A memoir by a young woman (and mother of two) who died of breast cancer may not be the most appealing book to add to your summer reading list — but The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying is so accomplished, so funny (really), and so grounded in reality that you really should read it. Prepare a tissue or ten — her mother is also herself dying, of cancer, during that time — but the general tone is not depressing. What I liked most about the book, aside from her son’s lovely comments and questions, is the way she describes the juxtaposition of the mundane and the profound, the dying and the living, the traumatic and the casual insults of everyday life. It’s a perfect example of the power of showing rather than telling.
Tag Archives: disease
Wash your hands and avoid crowds. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond will make you squirm at the dangers of cholera, Ebola, flu, and other MRSA infections. The author, following on her earlier book, The Fever, which tackled malaria, shows how urbanization, environmental changes, war, and especially poverty and corruption all conspire to make epidemics more common and more explosive. There is not a lot of good news in the book, and perhaps the most important lesson is that, in a connected world, the rich countries cannot ignore the poor ones, for they, too, will suffer, albeit less, as well-known and new virus and bacteria spread faster and wider.
Grab your breathing mask — or leave your paranoia aside — Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic takes us around bats, ducks, pigs, mosquitoes, mice, monkeys, and primates to explore zoonotic diseases (or animal infections) including famous ones like Ebola or swine flu or rabies, and obscure ones that are named after a small town where they originated and seem to have stayed (or not — that’s the whole point of the book).
The topic could feel very threatening but the style is lively and the tone sober for a very readable book. It’s another one of those books that could be on everyone’s bookshelf to improve our understanding of how diseases spread and how they can be contained and fought — which often requires counter-intuitive strategies.
The only negative of the book for me was a long, made-up story of how AIDS may have spread along the Congo river, which I thought brought little to the overall narrative and seemed to go counter the scientific rigor the author is pushing. But overall a great book of adventure, science, and quirky personalities.
Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It unfolds a thoughtful story of how the AIDS epidemic in Africa benefited at critical times from societal features, from how it moved from chimps to humans under the cruel leadership of King Leopold, that forced destitute workers to eat more bushmeat, to its devastating spread under misguided programs that tried to use the methods of rich countries with barely organized health care systems. Contrary to the fiery subtitle, the book is not a blind attack on the West, although it does not coddle the ravages of colonialists and missionaries. Instead, it presents a rational, almost clinically scientific analysis of the spread of AIDS that is not afraid to proclaim the strides that Zimbabwe made in fighting AIDS (it’s heart-warming to see that a so-called failed country can do something right) contrasted with the woes of Botswana, a darling of the West that has not been able to make significant changes in a sexual culture that facilitates spreading the virus.
At times the book reminded me of Dead Aid in its condemnation of unenlightened foreign aid (and it quotes it at one point) and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind in how an understanding of local culture is so essential to progress. And it’s also a great demonstration of how good scientists can find it very challenging to properly analyze causation when faced with a problem with multiple variables.
Don’t think you can stomach (yikes!) the story of a man whose intestines are regularly and surgically shortened in an effort to alleviate the consequences of Cronh’s disease? Think again: The Man Who Couldn’t Eat is an engrossing story of what it’s like to live with chronic pain, how important the act of eating is to normal life, and how the medical system has holes as large as the ones in the author’s intestine. From his observations of physicians’ bedside manner (side of the bed: good, foot of the bed: bad — so true!) to his perfectionist organization of his kitchen, to his son’s terror that he may die, the author mixes the hilarious and the tragic and keeps the reader entertained — with the exception of (very occasional) rants against the health system. Show, don’t tell!
Ever wondered why awful genetic diseases haven’t been wiped out by evolution? Because they don’t impair reproduction, at least for individuals who carry the gene (or at least only one copy of the gene.) Survival of the Sickest gives many examples of this principle in an easy-to-read package. Nothing spectacular, but interesting.