[Book Review] The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene: An Intimate History

One of the greatest joys of being a young reader is how many books I am still yet to discover, and how many great works are still yet to interact with my consciousness. That’s right, I’m immensely ignorant and it thrills me. It just thrills me.

I discovered Siddhartha for the first time at Text Book Centre during a window shopping exercise, because that’s a thing dorks do; just going to bookshops and looking at books and then going home to think some more about the beautiful covers and opening lines the great goddess Athena keeps showering upon us. Over the next few weeks I got obsessed with the book, and when a friend took me to Bookstop for yet another ‘sightseeing’ sojourn, it was time to acquire this beauty.

What is it that makes us so similar that we are able to identify each other as members of the same species, and yet so different as to have circa 7 Billion variants of us dithering around on planet earth [as far as we know]. This, essentially, is the question Siddhartha Mukherjee sets to answer in this tome. As the story weaves along, this question breeds interesting subsidies; what is the essence of our genetic makeup? What are genes? How do they work? What controls our whims and quirks? What determines sexual orientation? How are family traits perpetuated? Why are twins so similar to each other but not replicas of each other? Is Cancer heritable? Nature or Nurture? What are the Eugenics-esque moral and ethical questions of our day? And so on and so forth.

The book begins with one of the most heart-breaking/braking stories I have ever heard, of Mukherjee’s family struggle with mental illness post the Great Indian Partition of 1947 and ostensibly Siddhartha’s motivation to write the book. Schizophrenia, then polar disorder. I thought this prologue made Mukherjee instantly relatable, the vulnerability making the book that much less abstract, which I thought is essential for a topic so unlikely.

Upon finishing this prologue though, one realises that the book is a work of deliberately and extremely didactic nonfiction, but unlike a lot of books that aim to teach, it also works extremely hard at being a moving storybook. It is both a work of history and a work of art, literally and figuratively.

The first story is an introduction to the life and work of Gregor Mendel, a young Monk in Czech Republic (you may have heard of his peas in Biology classes), and we follow him through the 19th Century, before realising that his work that should have changed the world, ended up being buried in relative obscurity until way after his death in the early 20th century. We are then transported to England (where it would appear almost all major milestones in the field  of Genetics were made, so much so the word ‘Cambridge’ appears 108 times throughout the book), where we meet the familiar work of Charles Darwin and his immense struggle reconciling natural selection to evolution.

It is amazing to me how Siddhartha links these stories, because no sooner do we learn about Darwin’s work, than we are introduced to his cousin Galton, who became the father of Eugenics. If you are not familiar to the ‘Science’ of Eugenics, it is the theory that there are certain human traits worth promoting, and some worth suppressing. It is essentially artificial selection, with the belief that this process should eventually result in an improved race of humans. Both positive eugenics [promotion of superior traits] and negative eugenics [repression of inferior traits] are about cleansing of the ‘other’. Originally, the theory was pro-promoting traits such as intelligence and physical fitness. But because the cleansing of the entire human race wasn’t fast enough [coupled with the racism of the day], it spiralled into promotion of sterilisation of persons with ‘undesirable traits’, before culminating into the mass extermination of these ‘others’ in Nazi Germany in 1930s and 40s.  Mukherjee highlights the particular case of Carrie Buck, who was sterilized in 1927 while being committed to a Colony for the Epileptics and Feebleminded in Virginia, the same colony her mother had ended up a few years earlier.

The case of Carrie Buck was possibly the toughest bit of the book for me to read, but if it is any consolation, the book has plenty of other mind-blowing segments, but in the utmost wonderful way. For instance, we take it for granted the knowledge that the structure of the gene is a double helix, but this discovery took years to come to, and Mukherjee tells the story of Watson and Crick, and their discovery/construction of this model in the 1950s that completely changed how Science imagined the Gene and the arrangement of the ACGT bases alongside it. There are also segments about the patenting of the Recombinant DNA technology that subsequently and controversially gave us the mass production of insulin et al. The Human Genome Project, the struggles and prospects of Stem Cell research, the future of Gene Therapy, the Asilomar Conference of 1978 where Scientists proved to the world that they had the capacity and discipline for self-censorship to preserve a moral and ethical position. There is so much goodness in Science!

There are two themes of the book that made the utmost impact on me. The first is our mass cultural delusion of what is normal and what is “other”. For instance, we live in societies that ‘other’ persons with disability, gay persons, persons with certain [genetic] illnesses and often make their lives difficult to live. Mukherjee emphasises severally that what is interpreted as normal is simply a statistical advantage. We then use this advantage to create structures that promote persons who are like us, and this only creates inequalities for members of our species who are just as naturally occurring as we are. (Consider this, there was no concept of dyslexia until we invented reading, and then all of a sudden people with dyslexia were suddenly disadvantaged). The word unnatural is a misnomer when used to describe things that occur in nature. No such thing. He reminds us that it is because we have so much variety that we evolve.

The second idea was the inextricability of politics and Science. As long as there are capitalistic/political motivations in the world, there will always be Pseudo-science to support said motivations. For instance, Eugenics in Nazi Germany rested on the work of a Josef Mengele, who was a PHD graduate, and a professor of Race Biology (which is not even a real thing). In the year 2000, Bill Clinton was going crazy when it became apparent that a private entity [and not the government] would likely be launching the results of the The Human Genome Project. In 2001, George W. Bush withdrew funding from embryonic stem cell research. As long as Science exists under political and capitalistic structures, there will be political influences on Science, and it’s upon us to be critical of what is sold as Science by the powers that be.

There is only so much I can write on this book, even after going way above our usual word limit (I apologise). I can’t possibly review it all. I learnt about the case of Jesse Gelsinger which made me cry like a baby (check it out), that until the 70s, insulin used to be produced from ground up dogs’ and cows’ liver, that dry vs wet ear wax is genetically determined and that there are so many women scientists in history, we have just not learnt enough. On and on.

This book is large, uber detailed and delights in occasionally being Super Science-y. However, it is incredibly enjoyable and readable [even for us who are not sufficiently nerdy]. It is impossible to state with accuracy how much I want to read it again.

Highly highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5 stars

 

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[Book Recommendations] Nerdy and Sad Books

I am at that point again where my reading rate has well overtaken my posting rate. I have four reviews in draft, and I foresee myself spiralling out of control faster than Jubilee’s nominations. So in my attempt to clean up shop [which I suspect will become a necessary ritual], I came up with a list of book recommendations, which cleverly incorporates the books I am yet to review.

I am a bit of an everything kind of girl, except self help books (although I have been considering reading Christian/Religious fiction because I think I’d have such a great time el oh elling at it all). I do find myself leaning heavily towards heavy metal nonfictions though, and especially recently. For fiction I am all over the place, but I like a book that can make me laugh or cry hard (there are not a lot of those). Today’s recommendations are batched up in two categories, “nerdy” books and sad books. Quotation marks around nerdy because I don’t think they are particularly deeply nerdy, I am just grammatically insolvent at the moment [which I suppose wouldn’t happen with a real nerd].

And without further ado, let’s get into it.

1. The Biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

There is a plethora of Steve Jobs Biographies out there, and since I haven’t read them all, I won’t go as far as to say this is the best one or the most accurate. It is, however, by far the most popular and on which the movie, released posthumously and starring the incredibly handsome and talented Michael Fassbender, was based. Biographies of titans have tendencies to sanitise and saint-ise their subjects, and it is remarkable how unbiased Isaacson tried to be on this account. While you read you meet the genius Steve that gave the world the mac and the iphone, but you also meet the inconsiderate, self-obsessed douchebag who drove his employees to the wall. None of these versions invalidate the other, they are just complete as they are. I read the book a couple of years back and watched the movie last year. I hope to read it again this year, and I highly recommend it.

2. The Biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is one of my favorite people in the world. He is the founder of SpaceX and Paypal, CEO of Tesla Motors and Chairman of SolarCity. He is, by most metrics a true genius. Most importantly [to me at least], he is the man with the vision to take mankind to Mars. For a long time I didn’t know he had a Biography because I live beneath an actual rock but once I did I devoured it in only a couple of days. By the end, I had a completely different understanding of the man. He *is a genius, he *is extremely focused and driven, but he is also a good ol’ arsehole. Just like Steve Jobs. From an African reader’s standpoint, it almost appears as if the Silicon Valley tech genius genetically predisposes one to the uncontrolled oozing of bullshit [Uber’s Travis Kalanick anyone?]. Although I remember a typo with pain, this Biography is splendidly written and an important piece of work. It provides good background of Elon and circumstances that may have contributed to what we now call his genius, good insights on the problems SpaceX had to deal with building their rockets from scratch, how SpaceX had to prove itself over and over as a worthy NASA competitor, politics at Tesla Motors and the OCD that makes Elon both great and a douche. This is one of the books I aim to re-read by the end of this year because it was just so good and insightful.

3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book has been on many recommendation lists over the last year, and not by accident. It is one of the most mindblowing nonfiction non-biographies I have ever read. And just as it sounds, it is a history of Sapiens through the couple hundred thousand years we have been in existence. From our foraging days, through discovery of fire, the cognitive revolution [which gave rise to writing and language], the agricultural revolution, imperialism, the Scientific Revolution, the rise of capitalism etc and how that has evolved and affected or been affected by gender, race, religion and other social strata. At the end of the book, Yuval propounds on the future of mankind, as largely driven by Science and Technology. How long till Sapiens can rid itself of mortality, how long till the widespread of cyborgs? It is clever groundwork for his sequel Homo Deus [which I cannot wait to read] and a poignant close to the book. I only finished this book a few weeks ago, and I just have so much respect for what it accomplished and what it was trying to. You may not be interested in reading Biographies of vastly douche-ic tech titans, which is okay, but you really should want to read this book. While its size might seem intimidating, it is accessible to every type of reader and even makes a few attempts at humor.

4. Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

If you have ever read any book by Malcolm Gladwell, this book is exactly like that. The objective of the book is to demonstrate how poorly human beings deal with failure and the prospects of failure, and how we can harness failure to become better at failing. Perhaps to its own detriment, this sounds very self-helpy. Even the title is self help-y, which made me a little nervous. Once I dug in though, there was no looking back. Matthew begins with an in depth analysis of the aviation industry, and the industry-wide culture that has made flying one of the safest modes of transport today. He then juxtaposes that against the healthcare industry, a high-stakes industry plagued with repeated errors as there is often no system devised to incorporate medical mistakes into practical lessons. The stigmatisation of failure in healthcare, and indeed in many industries stands in the way of people owning up to their mistakes. It puts their reputation and livelihoods at stake. It is scary to think that there are probably many people who have died of the same types of medical negligence and errors. According to this book, it is why fields like psychotherapy and astrology have grown so slowly, while experimental physics has been growing leaps and bounds. The feedback loop in the latter, which is starkly missing from the former, ensures there is always data to improve with and upon.

Syed then goes on into other areas, such as cognitive dissonance, creativity and high achievement. The book is full of useful anecdotes, spanning from Drew Houston and the founding of Dropbox, David Beckham as the most hated person in the world in 1998 after his red card during the FIFA world cup,  and even David Cameron and George Bush exhibiting shocking levels of cognitive dissonance in 2003 before and after alleging Saddam was harbouring weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I can’t get into the details of all these, and I’m hoping the tasters will make you pick up the book. I can confirm this is a worthy investment.

5. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This is the book I read most recently, and therefore one I remember very clearly. Don Tillman is a geneticist who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome. If he does have Asperger’s, he’s definitely unaware of it. What he is aware of is that his struggles with social situations are of epic proportions. He wants to find a wife, but as a socially awkward scientist will not suffer through a myriad of dates looking for the perfect woman; one who does not smoke, drink, preferably rides a bicycle to work, exercises, does not wear make up etc. With help from his friend Gene who has interesting use for the data anyway, they embark on the Wife Project, which aims to Scientifically sieve through all incompatible women and deliver Don his perfect companion. Until he meets Rosie, who is the precise opposite of what Don is looking for. She smokes, drinks, exhibits symptoms of acute tardiness and is emotionally unstable. She is a perfect coital companion alright, but is she really a viable candidate for the Wife Project? What happens next is why you need to read the book. This book is cute, a feel good and beyond hilarious [I did cry at some point though because Don was breaking my heart]. If you are looking for that book to get you into a reading mode and into a good mood, look no further.

The second category is the gut wrenching, heart pounding exhausting amount of sadness. I wanted to recommend 5 books for this, but my word count is already three times my typical posts. So I shall recommend just 1.

6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The reason I haven’t reviewed this book is because I do not know what to say. It is rare that I read a book and immediately I finish I want to restart. Not because I liked it that much, that happens often, but because I have a feeling I didn’t quite get everything.

The Bluest Eye is a classic African American literature. Told in three different voices, it’s the quintessential story about impoverished black families reeling from slavery in an overwhelming midst of whiteness. Claudia is a friend to Pecola, who is introduced to Claudia’s family as a result of her father’s violence towards his own family. They both go through untold misery, and especially Pecola who is sexually assaulted, resulting into a pregnancy unwanted by everyone [This is not a spoiler, it is introduced on page one of the book, then revisited later on in detail]. Above all, Pecola wants blue eyes. Blue eyes mean beauty, blue eyes mean acceptance and most importantly blue eyes mean whiteness. And whiteness is access-to love, to basic needs, to public resources, to acceptance.

This is the short of it. There are other back stories therein, of Pecola’s father and his upbringing, her mother’s and hers, life at school, other inhabitants of Claudia’s household and their paedophilia ways, prostitutes who live upstairs from Pecola and are just funny and delightful, and race, and race…and race. It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. But not in a I-am-clutching-at-my-pillow-laying-on-a-pool-of-tears sad. Definitely not The Fault in our Stars or Me Before You or When Breath Becomes Air sad (all amazing books by the way. Read them). Just structural injustices sad. Sad almost in a desensitizing way. The type of sadness you have to extract from shock and disgust and anger.

I am in awe of Toni, just like everyone else. I have only this book by her, but she really is that legend. Her writing is unbelievably poetic and poised, complex and well timed. However, and I feel like this is controversial, because Toni is so skilled I felt like she’s not easily accessible-which is a reason to read her slowly. The way she weaves a story, positioning it just right to ensure you feel disgust for injustice and not merely sympathy for the victim, the way she unloads symbolism, the way she can launch a journey of descriptiveness for an entire page. That way, to me, felt somewhat inaccessible, and at the end, it felt like a book to be read twice to be fully comprehended. First time for context, second time for contextualising. I read the book extremely fast to finish it in time for The Read Club’s discussion, and that didn’t help.

But then again, maybe this is just a book above my reading level. Lol.

I shall be reading it again before the end of the year, much slower second time around, and I do highly recommend it.

PS:

  1. Since the above is a reviews mashup, I did go above the word limit.
  2. I am currently reading How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, you can read it with me if you wish.
  3.  I am looking for The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, hard copy. I have not been able to find it in Nairobi, if you have a copy I’d be happy to purchase or borrow.

 

 

[Book Review] A Child Called ‘It’ by Dave Pelzer

A twitter debate on Stockholm Syndrome first introduced me to this book. Stockholm syndrome is delicious fodder for twitteratis, and especially those who wish to deride people in toxic [romantic] relationships, or the [Kenyan] electorate herd that keeps voting the same unworthy politicians into public office. As far as popular usage goes, those two scenarios pretty much covers everything, you have to respect the scope of our collective imagination.

According to Wikipedia, Stockholm syndrome is a condition where strong emotional ties develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.

One of the responses I received on my position that Stockholm Syndrome is hokum cited A Child Called ‘It’ [as below], and you know me-I follow through. A few weeks later I bought the book.

A Child Called ‘It’ is as depressing as it sounds. It is a chronicling of a true story of the child abuse David received from his mother growing up. And to call it child abuse is massive understatement. For over 7 years, Dave’s mother singled him out from his 4 siblings, and beat him up, secluded him from family gatherings and meals, leaving him to eat out of the trashcan if he was so lucky. He would then have to clean after his siblings in an empty stomach, only to retire on a cold basement floor, again only if he was lucky. When he wasn’t so lucky, his mother would force him to immerse himself in a tub full of cold water for hours, until he was weak and crinkly.

Over time the ‘punishments’ escalated to chemical burns, stabbing, being thrown out in the cold during the winter season etc. Naturally, this taunting spilled over to his life at school, where kids made fun of him for his smelly clothes, beat him up and refused to play with him.

This routine went on from an age of 5 years old, to his rescue by Social Services at the age of 12.

Everything about this book is beyond belief, and so upon finishing it my first reaction was to nose around on the internet looking for the story.

Full disclosure: There are a lot of claims that Dave may have been very loose with the facts and blown the reality to the fantastic. There are also claims that he may have bought a truckload of copies of his own book to move it up the bestsellers list. As I write this, I am very aware he could be a massive piece of trash for these reasons, but I wish to stay open minded and give the homeboy benefit of doubt. Abusers are so powerful because people often and without sufficient evidence disbelieve victims. That being said, fact or fiction, this was hands down the most disturbing thing I have ever subjected my senses to. I kept pausing my reading because I felt nauseated, and I am black.

But I want to be very real in this review; This book for all the sadness and horror is extremely poorly written and poorly edited, and right off the bat one can tell Dave is not a writer. Some people may argue that was because it was a book narrated from a child’s perspective, but I have read books narrated by children-Allah is not Obliged, Born on a Tuesday etc, and it’s possible to have a child narrator narrate a book well, even with the limited writing styles and devices available to child characters. However, being a story based on a lived experience I was tolerant, and I really put effort into finishing it, something I otherwise wouldn’t have done.

Rating: 3/5 stars

PS: I also finished Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari some two weeks ago [even before Ebola]. It’s a complex book to review, and I’ll post the review as soon as I have been able to edit it.

[Book Review] Ebola: The Natural and Human History by David Quammen

At 110 pages long, this book has been one of the shortest but most educational books I have read this year. It is dark, scary, and if it was any longer it’d probably have depressed me, but it’s one important read.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

As is a lot of [infectious] diseases, Ebola is forcefully African. Its history goes as far back as 1976, deep in the forests of Congo. Almost simultaneously, another independent outbreak was recorded in South Western Sudan, now part of the republic of South Sudan. Sporadic infections have occurred and recurred in other parts of Africa in subsequent decades-in Uganda, Cote d’ivoire, Gabon and most recently in the epidemic that ravaged Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the years 2013 to 2016.

But in light of massive breakthroughs in medicine and research since 1976, why does the Ebola virus seem more potent than ever? That is primarily the question this book seeks to address, while making it abundantly clear that since 1976 nary anything has changed in our understanding of the virus, or our proximity to a vaccine.

Firstly, Ebola is extremely difficult to study. While widely speculated in the Scientific community to be some bat species, the reservoir animal that hosts the Ebola virus in between human outbreaks is still unknown. Science is yet to isolate a live Ebola virus from a bat [or any other animal], which is the gold standard in establishing that an organism is a reservoir for a pathogen. And this is not for a lack of trying. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are more than 1000 species of bats, accounting for about 25% of all animal species, making it a herculean endeavour for any research body.

Secondly, the Ebola virus disappears for years at a time between outbreaks, often furiously reappearing in stints at unpredictable locations.This means that its geographical distribution and physical manifestation can only really be well studied during an actual outbreak, which is difficult and risks further spreading it. As well, the fatality rates within a short time necessitates sparing use of guinea pigs, limiting the pace and scope of any scientific study.

Thirdly, there are quite a few known strains of the Ebola virus, all native to different parts of the world, majorly in Africa (Uganda, Cote d’ivoire, Sudan, DRC and Phillipines). When these strains have spread, they have had completely different outcomes and fatality rates. Presently, it is unknown whether these differences arise from the genetic makeup of the strains themselves or from physical and economic conditions of habitat locations such as diet, weather, medical access etc. It is also not very clear how Ebola [strains] affects other animals it infects (it seems to affect Chimps a lot more voraciously, but then again chimps in the wild don’t have the best medical care).

In summary, Ebola seems to consistently emerge from forested areas, and its spread is highly proliferated by poverty and traditional practises like washing the dead and reliance on traditional healers in areas with poor medical coverage. Be as it may, however, we are all sitting ducks; limited understanding of Ebola’s MO means it can re-emerge anywhere at any time in any part of the world. As of now, no one has the right answers, but at least we seem to know what the questions are.

(I’d recommend this book to everyone. It’s candidly and simply written, well sourced, and just the right length to have understand the magnitude of the problem).

Rating: 4/5 stars

[Book Review] Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

My first encounter with this book happened to be on twitter in August 2016 after someone mentioned it in passing. For a moment I mused on what an odd title it has,but without thinking twice I moved along. After all, what is a millennial without digital haste?

The second time was at my usual book stand along Moi Avenue, where my book guy, Peter, gave me quite the marketing performance on the book.

At this point I bit, I bought it.

The book is a memoir of a grown up Lucy Grealy, who at only 9 years old was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a potentially terminal form of Cancer. As a result of this illness, a third of Lucy’s jaw was removed so as to manage the disease, and subsequently Lucy went through 2 and a half years of devastating (and told in painstaking detail) bouts of chemotherapy.

While the chemo is an enormous source of pain for Lucy though, the book is Lucy taking the reader on an aesthetic journey of her face. Throughout her life, Lucy went through upwards of 30 surgeries to “rectify” her face, but every time her body swallowed itself in, consuming all grafts and treatments to revert to its most disfigured form. Lucy goes through particularly demeaning mockery in school on account of this disfigurement, and even in adulthood, she narrates gruelling experiences of being utterly humiliated and called ugly, her internal struggles with prospects of finding love despite her physical appearance and her journey through finding solace in poetry and solitude. Often, Lucy had to imagine parallel realities where life could be much worse, so as to feel better, which for the reader is more than heartbreaking, it’s immobilising. With Lucy we travel from Ireland to New York to Berlin to London to Scotland, looking to belong, looking for a semblance of normalcy in its most vane and literal sense.

I have read books about Cancer, but this is not about Cancer. The Cancer is only the means to the lense through which Lucy comes face to face with the concepts of beauty, of belonging, of acceptance, of love and how all these wonderful, complex and profound things can be inexplicably linked to how we quantify our sense of worth, and how others assess our potential to be worthy of these things.

Autobiography of a Face is incredibly well written, and on the first pages I found myself giggling quite a lot despite the heaviness of the subject matter. It is told with a great sense of wit, and sentimentality when it calls for it. It’s raw and honest, and therefore beautiful. This aptly titled book is an exquisite mirror into the innocence of children, a source of important questions and at the end simply a hauntingly beautiful memoir.

 

Rating: 4/5