Bright, upbeat, and empathetic, Gubar argues convincingly that words have the power to heal.




For cancer sufferers, words can lift the spirit.

Literary scholar and memoirist Gubar (Emeritus, English/Indiana Univ.; Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer, 2012, etc.) believes she has “been kept alive by a clinical trial and by the New York Times,” where she contributes the blog Living with Cancer. Reading about others’ experiences with the physical, emotional, and medical tolls of the disease, she writes, has made her feel less isolated. She recommends both, offering helpful advice for those who want to write and candid, insightful responses about the huge number of cancer memoirs—and fiction featuring cancer sufferers—that she has read. Two chapters focus on writing. In one, Gubar offers advice for getting started, with the well-worn strategy of free writing; the other focuses on the particular challenges of blogging. Daily writing, writes the author, “does more than provide an outlet for venting without self-censorship. Even when it tackles the miseries of treatment or the disease’s progression, it can also become an escape hatch” and distraction. The miseries of treatment are a frequent theme, as cancer sufferers recount “inadequate doctoring, medical mistakes, alienating hospital environments, economic burdens, and imponderable decision-making that baffles patients confined within ever-circumscribed lives.” Many writers rail against doctors’ lack of compassion and “inflated egos and insensitivity” even at prestigious cancer centers. When Gubar began her blog in 2012, she resolved not to present cancer as a gift that afforded her some special insight. “I begrudge its existence,” she writes, “and bristle at any suggestion that such a pernicious disease can be considered a rewarding opportunity.” Nevertheless, writing about cancer has been “creative and deeply satisfying.” Drawing on her experience, the author provides several pages of strategies for generating a blog entry: a solution to a cancer-related problem, for example, or explaining why a new word (“scanxiety” or “chemoflage”) is needed. 

Bright, upbeat, and empathetic, Gubar argues convincingly that words have the power to heal.

Pub Date: May 17, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-24698-8

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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