History writers document diseases of the body and of the soul
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The most impressive history book I've read this year is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist who is also a lyrical writer. Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, Mukherjee's work unites a 4,000-year history of cancer with stories of the patients he has treated. Mukherjee captures the curse behind cancer: How cruel it is for the very thing a human body does best, growing billions of new cells every day, to become the body's own murderer.
Researchers even into the modern era had hoped cancer originated from a virus-somewhere outside ourselves. But they discovered instead that "cancer genes came from within the human genome," Mukherjee writes: "We were destined to carry this fatal burden in our genes." The question that lingers at the close of the book: If the disease is within us all, can we be saved from ourselves?
The other new history I esteem is Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts (Crown, 2011), a fast-paced nonfiction account of American ambassador William Dodd and his family in Adolf Hitler's Berlin before the war. Larson says he sought to address one question through this American family's story: "Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?" Dodd, a former history professor, slowly realizes the danger, but his higher-ups at the State Department tell him to keep his criticisms to himself.
Meanwhile, Dodd's daughter Martha flings herself into an affair with almost every available member of the intellectual or political elite she finds in Berlin, even the original head of the Gestapo: She has such a grand time that when she sees atrocities she dismisses them as "isolated cases." One of her political connections even tries to convince her to be Hitler's mistress, because he believes that romance would have a calming effect on Hitler and "change the whole destiny of Europe."
If you read In the Garden of Beasts, read as well Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. The biography was WORLD's Book of the Year runner-up last year. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the ability to see the Hitler regime's evil while others were minimizing the problem.
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