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Review: ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Review: ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee post image

Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: I bookmarked so many fantastic passages from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, it’s hard for me to pick just one to start this review with. But really, if there’s one quote that epitomizes the things I loved best about this book, I think it would be this one:

This image — of cancer as our desperate, malevolent, contemporary doppelganger — is so haunting because it is at least party true. A cancer cell is an astonishing perversion of the normal cell. Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism.

By giving cancer a human side, both through stories of his patients and through his characterization of cancer itself, Mukherjee has written a medical history that seems to have more heart than any other that I’ve read.

The Emperor of All Maladies is, as the subtitle, suggests, a biography of cancer. The book starts as a fairly traditional medical history, beginning with our first glimpses of cancer in ancient remains through our troubled and evolving medical treatments for this tricky disease. I was fascinated to learn how our treatment for this disease as evolved (or, in many cases, not evolved) since a first treatment was shown to be at least slightly effective.

But what really makes this book stand out from other medical history books is the way Mukherjee uses his experiences as an oncology fellow, working with patients battling all types of cancer, to humanize the story. The book is filled with these unexpectedly emotional and heartfelt moments where Mukherjee shows the impact cancer treatments have on patients and on the doctors administering them in what is otherwise a pretty typical narrative look at the history of medicine.

In fact, that humanizing aspect of the book extends all the way to the main character, cancer. By characterizing the book as a “biography” rather than a “history,” Mukherjee is able to extend and use his metaphor of cancer as our malevolent doppelganger through the story and show how the very practice of medicine is an ongoing and battle of wits against an enemy we’re only beginning to understand.

Add to that the fact that Mukherjee’s writing is just beautiful, and you end up with a book that manages to be educational, heartbreaking, frustrating, and interesting throughout it’s more than 500 pages. Once you get into the narrative, this book really flies along. Don’t let the length intimidate you — grab this one the next time you get a chance. I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Diane@BibliophileBytheSea January 16, 2012, 8:54 am

    This was really an eye-opener. Glad u loved it as much as me.

  • Andi January 16, 2012, 10:15 am

    You’ve certainly convinced me. I didn’t give this one a second look when it started swirling and getting good press, but I also didn’t realize how unique the storytelling was. I love the idea of the malevolent doppelganger, and while this seems like it would be an emotionally difficult book, it also sounds really well written and informative.

    Thanks, Kim!

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:29 pm

      There are definitely some difficult parts, especially if you know/knew someone fighting cancer. It’s scary to learn more about both the disease and the dangerous treatment.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) January 16, 2012, 11:07 am

    I saw the author at a book festival and really enjoyed his talk though I didn’t have time to read the book before then. I am hoping to read it this year and I like the excerpt that you chose and also how you emphasized the heart that this book has.

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:33 pm

      I do think that’s what made it stand out. I’ve read a few medical history books, but this one was the emotional for me.

  • Kailana January 16, 2012, 11:34 am

    I have been curious about this book for a while. I am glad it is a worthwhile read!

  • J January 16, 2012, 1:26 pm

    Interesting review, look forward to reading! Thank you.

  • Meghan January 16, 2012, 1:34 pm

    Seriously fantastic review, Kim – I too was pretty much swept away, astonished and moved by this book. It was really emotionally difficult, but well worth it for me.

  • Lorren January 16, 2012, 4:37 pm

    This book was an amazing and eye-opening experience for me, too. I think it is an important read for anyone, since almost everyone knows someone whose life is touched by this disease. Great review!

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:35 pm

      Yes, absolutely. It’s not an easy book to read — both length-wise and subject-wise — but it’s one I’ve been recommending to a lot of people.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) January 16, 2012, 4:49 pm

    This book does sound fascinating – I may have to read it soon. I’m at my in-laws now helping my mother-in-law bounce back from chemo and radiation that almost killed her.

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:37 pm

      I didn’t realize how toxic cancer treatment was until I read this book. I can’t imagine going through that.

  • MJ January 16, 2012, 5:56 pm

    I’ve had this one sitting on my nightstand for a while now, but haven’t gotten to it yet. That needs to change, soon!

  • softdrink January 16, 2012, 7:36 pm

    I really want to pull it off the shelf, but that 500 pages is still intimidating me! Which is ridiculous, since I’ve been reading quite a few chunksters lately.

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:38 pm

      There’s something about a nonfiction chunkster that seems more intimidating that a fiction chunkster, isn’t there?

  • Trisha January 16, 2012, 7:51 pm

    I’ve heard of this one, but I have to admit that the combo of cancer and length turned me off to it. Maybe I should give it a fair shake….

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:39 pm

      I think this one is worth the time, even if the subject can be hard to read about.

  • Jeane January 16, 2012, 7:53 pm

    It sounds like a fantastic read. You’ve just bumped this one a few notches higher on my Tbr list.

  • Trish January 17, 2012, 6:26 am

    Oh Kim! You make this sound so fantastic but I’m just not sure I could handle the subject matter. Maybe I’ll look for it on audio. Though I do agree that bringing the personal into the mix does wonder to a book–I loved Henrietta Lacks for this very reason.

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:39 pm

      Yay, audio! I hope it translate well to that format!

  • Jeanne January 18, 2012, 5:22 pm

    I’m not sure I’m ready to read this, having just watched my father die of cancer. But I’m glad to know it’s a good book. One day, perhaps.

    • Kim January 19, 2012, 8:39 pm

      Yeah, I think that would make this one almost impossibly hard to read. I hope you will be able to read it eventually though, it’s an excellent book.

  • Pam January 20, 2012, 9:56 am

    Glad you liked it! 🙂 I did too.

  • Hillary January 20, 2012, 6:08 pm

    Hi! I’m a new reader of your blog. I actually just bought this book today and your review has made me very excited for it. I can’t wait to get started!

    • Kim January 25, 2012, 8:45 pm

      That’s great, I really hope you enjoy it! Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  • Aths January 22, 2012, 1:27 am

    I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it was released. I love the way the author describes cancer – looks like it makes it easier to understand one of the most mysterious diseases.

    • Kim January 25, 2012, 8:46 pm

      I loved that too. I think his metaphors and whatnot really made cancer more understandable. I finished the book and felt like I could explain in, very simplified, myself, which is always nice.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey January 23, 2012, 8:04 pm

    This sounds like a great book! As someone who is interested in cancer researcher, an approachable book on the topic is something I would probably enjoy a lot. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Rebecca Reid January 30, 2012, 2:57 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book so much, as it’s caught my eye. I wasn’t sure the 500 would be for me, but definitely sounds like one I should try!

    • Kim February 4, 2012, 11:22 am

      It is a long book, but I felt like it really started to move quickly after the first few chapters. He does a good job jumping between facts and story too.