The Emperor of All Maladies

By Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner)

For 4,000 years, cancer has stalked us. Even as cholera and tuberculosis—the scourges of the 19th century—wilted in the wake of medical advancements and vigorous public health campaigns, the cancer cell continued to bloom. Ubiquitous but taboo (The New York Times refused to print the very word in its pages during the early 1950s), cancer is the “morbid, hypnotic” villain of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s stirring saga,The Emperor of All Maladies. From the simplest questions—how old is cancer? what does it look like?—Mukherjee, a physician and professor, plunges us into a sweeping history with a colorful cast of renegade scientists, their patrons, and patients. With a Dickensian command of character and an instinct for the drama of discovery, he makes science not merely intelligible but thrilling. And he leads us out of the lab to illustrate how profoundly political medicine can be, whether describing how feminists agitated against disfiguring mastectomies or how 1980s AIDS activists inspired cancer patients to fight for drug approvals. From the story of the Persian queen Atossa, who survived a crude lumpectomy in the fifth century B.C., to the prevaricating of American tobacco companies since the ’50s, Mukherjee tells a compulsively readable, surprisingly uplifting and vivid tale.

How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis (Holt)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Sept. 20, 2010

Everything you think you know about James Frey is wrong. You’re wrong about Eliot Spitzer, too, and Linda Tripp, and any number of those nutty and libidinous rogues in our public pillories. According to Laura Kipnis’s coruscating new study of scandal, what we talk about when we talk about transgression is in a terrible muddle. We can’t explain why one public figure’s infidelities outrage us while another’s are ignored; why some can rehabilitate their reputations while others are permanent pariahs. “We lack any real theory of scandal,” writes Kipnis, whose taxonomy of misbehavior leads us “like latter-day Darwins in the Galapagos of human peccadillo,” tramping through the tabloid muck in search of specimens.

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The Pregnant Widow

By Martin Amis (Knopf, $26.95)

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 763 : May 13–19, 2010

For all its ambition and verbal pyrotechnics, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow is basically a book about boys and girls—or rather, one boy and many girls. It’s Amis’s most nakedly autobiographical novel since The Rachel Papers, and when the narrator tells us, “Everything that follows is true,” it isn’t difficult to believe that Amis himself passed—as the book’s Keith Nearing does—a sexually transformative and traumatizing summer in a castle in Italy on the cusp of the 1970s. And it’s not just any castle—it’s where D.H. and Freida Lawrence once vacationed. The book is drenched in allusion, not least because twentysomething Keith is a sad young literary man reading his way through the canon of the English novel. When, that is, he’s not having dull sex with his dull girlfriend, Lily, and mooning over her pneumatic (and ponderously named) best friend, Scheherazade.

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Elif Batuman & The Possessed

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 754 : Mar 11–17, 2010

You’re extremely critical of modern fiction—and particularly of the American short story. Are there contemporary fiction writers you do enjoy?
Yes, absolutely! My favorite living writer is Haruki Murakami, which I can’t fully explain, but there it is—I even read and enjoyed the book about his running diary! I also really like Kazuo Ishiguro and Jonathan Franzen. In the past year I read and enjoyed Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives.

My issues with the American short story are really more about a certain institutional pedagogic aesthetic than about individual writers or works. Living Americans whose short stories I have read and enjoyed include Keith Gessen, Damion Searls, Aleksandar Hemon, Donald Antrim, James Salter and Joyce Carol Oates. Also some Canadians, like Alice Munro and David Bezmozgis.

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About a Mountain

By John D’Agata. Norton, $23.95

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 750 : Feb 8–17, 2010

John D’Agata’s About a Mountain is, among other things, a study of political myopia, nuclear threat and activism coalescing at Yucca Mountain, where, until very recently, the federal government planned to entomb high-level nuclear waste. If he had told the story with journalistic straightforwardness, the book could have been edifying and informative. But by choosing a labyrinthine structure, the author turns it into something transcendent. D’Agata sets out to understand the proposal to immure nuclear waste in a mountain not far from Las Vegas, but this soon becomes a project of epistemological concerns. The more he seeks to know about the mountain—encountering political bamboozling and scientific dissembling—the more the book becomes about knowing, about the difference between data and information, information and knowledge, knowledge and wisdom.

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Lacan at the Scene

By Henry Bond. MIT Press, $24.95

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 738 : Nov 19–25, 2009

It seems insufficient to judge photographer Henry Bond’s Lacan at the Scene as being merely good or bad, when what it is, really, is audacious. Bond presents 79 forensic photographs of British crime scenes from the 1950s. He examines visual clues in the images—a stiletto shoe, a handful of hairpins—and “diagnoses” the killer according to Jacques Lacan’s taxonomy of mental functioning as perverse, neurotic or psychotic. Embroidering his project are astonishing passages about Georges Bataille’s meditations on perversion and Walter Benjamin’s study of photography. Part of Slavoj Zizek’s “Short Circuits” series, the book is a bricolage of the sacred and profane.

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An Interview with Eduardo Galeano

Through the Looking Glass: Q & A with Eduardo Galeano

by Parul Sehgal, trans. from the Spanish by Mark Fried — Publishers Weekly, 4/27/2009

In Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Uruguayan writer Galeano presents miniature narratives of creation myths and current events from all over the world.

What inspired this particular project?

For years it was growing inside me. Little by little, I came to accept the challenge of recounting the history of the world in 600 short stories. An old Pedro Infante tune helped me out, the one that says the world can’t be that big if it fits into five letters. I am not motivated by pedagogical desires. I simply wanted to celebrate the glow of the terrestrial rainbow, which is much more colorful than the celestial one.

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