By Siddhartha Mukherjee
592 pages; Scribner
For 4,000 years, cancer has stalked us. Even as cholera and tuberculosis—the scourges of the 19th century—wilted in the wake of medical advancements and vigorous public health campaigns, the cancer cell continued to bloom. Ubiquitous but taboo (The New York Times refused to print the very word in its pages during the early 1950s), cancer is the "morbid, hypnotic" villain of Siddhartha Mukherjee's stirring saga, The Emperor of All Maladies. From the simplest questions—how old is cancer? what does it look like?—Mukherjee, a physician and professor, plunges us into a sweeping history with a colorful cast of renegade scientists, their patrons, and patients. With a Dickensian command of character and an instinct for the drama of discovery, he makes science not merely intelligible but thrilling. And he leads us out of the lab to illustrate how profoundly political medicine can be, whether describing how feminists agitated against disfiguring mastectomies or how 1980s AIDS activists inspired cancer patients to fight for drug approvals. From the story of the Persian queen Atossa, who survived a crude lumpectomy in the fifth century B.C., to the prevaricating of American tobacco companies since the '50s, Mukherjee tells a compulsively readable, surprisingly uplifting and vivid tale.