Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review : The Emperor Of All Maladies ( Siddhartha Mukherjee )

A fascination with fatality ? Or just a blatant desire to stare into the eyes of death ? Well, it was a mix of both that drew me to this book which has aptly been subtitled as "A biography of Cancer".

Not meant for the weak hearted, this one is about the journey of the discovery of cancer and the ongoing fight for an absolute cure. The opening chapter about Carla, a woman in her thirties and suffering from leukemia, set the note for the rest of the book. And it is one of urgency and terror mixed in equal proportions.

The author gives up a heads up on the early cancer theories like 'suppuration of blood' and 'weisses blut' which finally gave way to the understanding of leukemia, one of the earliest forms of cancer to be discovered. As studies revealed more details, the first inroads into the discovery of a cure was made. The chapters on chemotherapy as well explained and in a way underline both the moral dilemma and the need for clinical trials. Min Chiu Li's strategy which resulted in the first chemotherapeutic cure is one such example when researchers have been accused of "experimenting on people".

With the discovery of Cancer, the need to study and work towards the cure gathered momentum. There was a need for tremendous amounts of fund raising and bringing Cancer to limelight. The role of Mary Lasker and Farber in goading the nation to step up its spending on Cancer research is well documented.

One of the most moving chapters in this book is that on breast cancer and masectomy. Gory in parts and cruel in others, one actually wonders if such kind of cure is in any way better than death.

There is a mention of AIDS too which was also referred to as GRID ( gay-related immune deficiency ) during the early days as it was associated with gay men. Acceptance of Tobacco as one of the leading carcinogens and the legal battled spawned by it are also described in detail. There is more interesting trivia interspersed throughout the volume but its kind of too much information to be squeezed into one review.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has done thorough justice to the book. Given that this is one voluminous and arresting read with about 472 pages of information steeped in medical terminology, choose this book with caution and read with loads of patience. Greatly recommended for those related to the medical field.

[ Note - I thoroughly enjoyed this read given that I am a big fan of medical mysteries like Robin Cook's works. Looking forward to picking up the "Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" next. ]

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

A moving book that in a way reminded me of 'The Fault In Our stars'. Life need not be perfect in order to be beautiful. And that is what I felt when I was initiated into the life of Charlie, a shy teenager. Written in the form of letters to an unknown friend, it chronicles his journey through high school. Love, sex, drugs and relationships, the book touches upon every aspect of his life.

Branded weird or even a 'wallflower', Charlie is prone to mental disturbances due to something bad that happened to a close relative (Aunt Helen) during his childhood days. As one goes through the book, one can realize the deep scars that abuse can leave on the mind of a youngster. That leaves him kind of incapable of establishing proper relationships. 

But the turning point in his life comes when he meets Sam and Patrick. Suddenly he finds that he is part of this very happening circle but he just continues hanging around without really being a part of it. "I really haven't said much. I just kind of listen and nod because Patrick needs to talk.". The line just about sums up his involvement with anybody including Patrick and even the girl he is dating, Mary Elizabeth. And that is something which Sam to him explains towards the very end of the book. Personally, this is the best part of the book and I read it over and over because I loved it so much. 

"It's sweet and everything, but it's like you're not even there sometimes. It's great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn't need a shoulder. What if they need the arms or something like that ? You can't just sit there and put everybody's lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can't . You have to do things. " Beautiful lines indeed. Just the perfect description of a wallflower, isn't it ?

In the intervening chapters, the author explores the hidden world of gay relationships. Patrick ,who is gay and is unpretentious about it loves Brad who is secretive about his sexual orientation. But when they are discovered by Brad's father, Brad gets beaten up pretty bad. Which is sad as people still think of homosexuality as a kind of disorder. 

Then there is the thing about the relatives. People who do not really like each other but still get together on important occasions to measure up each other's kids. Though it is just a filler in a great story-line, the topic has been dealt with in sufficient detail. Finally, we have the relationship between Charlie and his advanced english teacher Bill. Other than Sam, he is one of those people who recognize Charlie as gifted and very much special. The books that he gives Charlie are all classics and a must have for people who really dig that kinda stuff. But more importantly, Bill tries in his own way to get Charlie to live for himself first and then participate in the lives of other people.

Overall, a great book. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review : Ajaya - Roll Of The Dice (Anand Neelakantan)

After the enormously likable 'Asura', I could not resist myself from picking up more of Anand Neelakantan's literary works. And as I had guessed it, I loved the 'Ajaya' series which is the author's take on Mahabharata's characters. This is the first book in the series and predictably, it is written from the viewpoint of the vanquished 'Kauravas'.

It begins with the childhood days of the cousins. Suyodhan ( that is how Anand refers to Duryodhan, the eldest Kaurava ) and his siblings are depicted as carefree souls who are needlessly badgered by the Pandavas. Yudhisthira is the obsequious child who is out to please all while Bhima is shown to be a bully. In fact the only Pandav who shows some heart is Arjuna. A scheming Kunti, an indifferent Gandhari, a helpless Dhritarashtra, a vengeful Shakuni and an authoritative Bhisma are some of the prominent characters who influence their childhood.

The grooming of the young royals under the tutelage of Dronacharya is given sufficient coverage. This is the section of the book where we get to have a sneak peek of the personalities of the young Pandavas and Kauravas. The infamous Ekalavya incident is also played out in gory detail in this section. While most of us would have already heard of it but reading it in Neelakantan's language almost moves one to tears.

The introduction of Karna and his desire to break free of caste shackles is another high point of this book. His travel to South India and his grooming under Parshuram wonderfully depicted. The author also spends sufficient effort in developing the bond friendship that develops between Karna, Suyodhana and Aswathama (Drona's son) as it is quite pivotal to the climax of the epic.

The subplots are wonderfully developed and integrated in a way that is almost seamless. Despite there being too many characters in the story, one never feels a break in the narrative. There is an excess of gore in sections (which I avoided by skipping a few paragraphs and pages) of the book. The building of Indraprastha and the exploitation of Mayasura and his Naga folks is one section that almost had me choking on tears.

Apart from the central characters, the minor characters like Ekalavya, Jara and Mayasura are extremely well developed. Based on rigid caste lines, this is one take on the Mahabharata that will have the purists screaming for blood. Shunning the so called 'divine origin' of the Pandavas, the author has referred to them as 'bastards'. Kunti is shown as the power hungry widow who is out to ensure that her son 'Yudhisthira' ascends on the throne of Hastinapur at any cost. She is manipulative and merciless as she does not hesitate even for a moment before trapping the poor Nishada family in the palace of lac. The way she treats her own daughter in law is also deplorable for she uses the young woman as a pawn for furthering her own ambitions. Shunning popular folklore where she is said to have unwittingly wed Draupadi to the five Pandavas, Neelakantan paints the picture of a woman who uses cold logic to ensure that a pretty woman does not become the reason for discord among her sons. As Draupadi puts it, it is "the darkness within" her soul that speaks for her.

The climax of this book ends at the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lose everything including themselves and their common wife Draupadi .

[ Watch out this space for the next book of the series 'The Rise of Kali'. To be reviewed shortly ...]