To reduce an irreducible book, this is a set of linked essays around breast cancer: the author’s own, those of figures like Susan Sontag and Audre Lorde, and those of the pseudonymous Internet posters. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, but mostly you’ll think, not least about why some things might make you laugh and cry instead of others. And none are better at infusing that deep thought into their vocabulary and syntax than Anne Boyer. It’s the kind of book where certain passages hit so hard, you have to step back for a second to feel your basest-level reasoning alter, about the cancer-care marketplace and much beyond. For someone writing so eloquently about oncologically-induced exhaustion, Boyer’s is the most alert writing of the year.
Although the population of people over age 60 is the fastest growing group in the world, Gerrard observes that being old is still “something of a disgrace,” with the elderly often invisible to the rest of society. This dehumanization is even truer for those who suffer from dementia, and Gerrard’s compelling and beautifully written book is a plea to make society more accountable “to the suffering of others”—who, in fact, are not as “other” as we assume. Starting with her father’s diagnosis and decline, she engages in extended discussions with several patents, their relatives, and caregivers to find out what dementia feels like from the inside. Covering issues ranging from denial, shame, the challenges of home care, the option of suicide, and the crushing decision to send a loved one to a nursing home, these chapters illuminate the complexities of dealing with an incurable disease. But by letting the patients themselves speak, Gerrard also shows that it’s often society, not necessarily the disease, that makes these people helpless and miserable. Many are able to enjoy nature, art, and much else even in the later stages of the condition, and though they lose memories and language, they keep their core self and the need to communicate. Given “kindness and hope” rather than isolation, they can continue to enjoy life; when we just write them off, “we are all diminished.”
Davis came to immunology from physics and, like visions of outer space, his picture of the human immune system—the little we actually know of it—is dizzying, intriguing, and strange. It was only circa 1989 that we began to realize and explore the complexity of how the body fights disease, and this book is as much the story of the science at work as it is what the research has revealed. Davis takes us into the minds of the pioneering biologists as well as into their labs, highlighting what led to various discoveries, from the initial puzzle of how immune cells know what foreign particles to attack (germs, not food; but only harmful germs, not beneficial parts of the body’s microbiome), to whether, and then how, the immune system can fight cancer. But even before investigating the mysteries of auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress, sleep, and age on the immune system, how do scientists choose what questions to ask? When do they pursue “curiosity-based” rather than hypothesis-based projects? How do they design studies? How do they recognize true discoveries—and if they make one, how do they know what to do with it next? Emphasizing that “no scientist is an island,” Davis follows the strings of achievements and failures (always at least as valuable as the successes) that have led to radical reinterpretations of how the immune system works. His explanations are rich in technical detail, but always clear: as he recreates the revelatory moments in the labs, he puts the reader right there at the microscope, on the edge of discovery. I was surprised how quickly I became (temporarily) fluent in the language of dendritic cells, receptors, cytokines, and so on. Davis also clearly defines more familiar terms such as interferons and interleukins, explains cortisol’s effects and how it’s related to cortisone, and flags the truly revolutionary insights in this history of sometimes baffling eureka moments.