Friday, December 27, 2013

My Top Ten for 2013

I forgot to do a Top Ten list last year, but there were so many good books this year I couldn't make the same mistake again.  As before I've limited it to books I read this year (a little known secret: some of my blog posts are for books I read years ago!), and nearly all were new releases this year.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, most are histories but there are a couple of YA novels (listed at the end).  They are not in any order (just narrowing it down is hard enough!) although The Boys in the Boat would probably be #1 if I ranked them.  But feel free to share your thoughts and favorites, especially if you've read any on my list.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hope, where there was none

Sometimes I ask myself why I read so much non–fiction.  How much am I really learning?  I'd certainly learn a lot more if I took notes, but I'm too lazy for that.  Instead, I try to write reviews so I can remember some of what I read.  Maybe the real reason is that I actually find histories to be interesting and – dare I say it – entertaining?  But sometimes I come across a book that challenges even that idea.  Was it interesting?  Yes.  Was it entertaining?  Hmm, yeah, I guess so.  Did I learn anything?  Umm (scratching my head)...

Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies used to focus on diseases where lots of people were affected. It's expensive to bring a new drug to market and not only did they want to recoup the costs and make a profit, but also help as many people as possible. So, those afflicted with an uncommon disease like Chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, were out of luck. And unfortunately, a CML diagnosis usually meant a person only had 4 to 6 years to live – at most. There were treatments, but the side-effects were often debilitating and dangerous, and they only extended life by a few months. But a tiny discovery in 1959 set in motion events that would change all that when a scientist named David Hungerford noticed a piece of missing DNA in those with the disease, a mutation that became known as the Philadelphia Chromosome.  Other discoveries followed – lots of them – sometimes marginally related and other times seemingly unrelated.  In the end, it all culminated with Dr. Brian Drucker putting the pieces together and determinedly pushing for the development of a drug and clinical trials.  The result was Gleevec, and not only were lives saved but laws were changed to encourage pharmaceutical companies to pursue treatments that don't just help those with widespread maladies, but those with rare diseases, too.

I'll be honest: I've struggled with how to write a review for The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level by Jessica Wapner (which I received from Amazon Vine) for nseveral months now.  I wasn't exactly pleased with my written review on Amazon, but I try to make my blog posts better than that.  On the one hand, it's one of the "good news" stories about curing a form of cancer, and was very interesting.  On the other hand, it's clearly not going to appeal to everyone and was often hard to understand.  The first 100 pages is rather technical, with discussions about how the genetic mutation happens and the seemingly disparate individual scientific contributions that were so essential.  A lot of people, events, findings, and discoveries are detailed and given due credit.  I tried to understand and follow the science behind it all – and there are some color diagrams that help to explain the genetics – but much of it went over my head.  After the technical stuff, however, the book becomes a fascinating story of Dr. Drucker's fight against the bureaucracy of a large profit-making drug company and getting Gleevec developed and tested.

It's not as readable as the development of insulin or as dramatic as the eradication of smallpox, but it was still a very inspiring story and a good book.  I just wish I'd understood more of it better.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Reason Behind Christmas

"Christmas is a glorious season of the year. It is also a busy time for most of us. It is my hope and prayer that we may not become so caught up in the pressures of the season that we place our emphasis on the wrong things and miss the simple joys of commemorating the birth of the Holy One of Bethlehem. Finding the real joy of Christmas comes not in the hurrying and the scurrying to get more done. We find the real joy of Christmas when we make the Savior the focus of the season." -- Thomas S. Monson

Friday, December 6, 2013

How do you weigh a person's pain?

I've read a number of books about the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan to end the Second World War and it still fascinates me.  The Lost Peace argues that – in retrospect – it was a mistake, while Retribution makes the case that because of the way Japan started and fought the war, they basically got what they deserved.  Hiroshima tells it from the perspective of the Japanese while Enola Gay gives the plane crew's experience.  Pandora's Keepers is interesting in that it gives the conflicting perspectives of those who envisioned and built the bomb.  Perhaps Shockwave tries the hardest to give both sides of the story, although none of them can be said to be truly impartial.  But I was a little surprised at the emotional punch packed in a little YA historical fiction novel.

Everything in twelve-year old Hazel's life is shaken up in Where the Ground Meets the Sky by Jacqueline Davies.  Not only is there a war going on in 1944 but she and her mom have moved from New Jersey to New Mexico where her dad is working on a secret project for the government.  He's one of the "fizzlers" (physicists) but there are lots of "stinkers" (chemists) as well, and secrecy seems to be the overriding rule everywhere – especially with all the army people.  They don't even have a real address; they just live behind barbed wire and chain-link fence in a remote place called "the Hill".  Nevertheless, Hazel doesn't know what "the gadget" is that her dad and the others are working on but she's very smart and has been taught by her parents to approach a problem rationally and weigh all the alternatives.  But she's also smart enough to know it could end the war and can recognize important people like Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.

I had a rare Saturday afternoon while the whole family was away and planned to get so much done... until I started this book and couldn't put it down!  Ms. Davies has written a fascinating novel of a kid's life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, and as far as I know it is historically accurate.  Hazel is much smarter than her peers, but she's also perfectly likable to the reader and otherwise acts like a normal twelve-year old.  Unfortunately, she's also dealing with a very abnormal situation as her hard-working father is consumed with his work and her pacifist mother sinks into depression.  But the book is also very beguiling because – although I know perfectly well how the war ended – it's so well-written that I felt like I didn't see it coming.  What was both a very charming and compelling read turned suddenly quite sobering at the end.  This really is an excellent book with likable characters and does a good job describing this period of history, but as a parent I might want to be there when my child finishes reading it just in case they have questions.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)