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Reviews Written by
STEPHEN PLETKO "Uncle Stevie" (London, Ontario, Canada)

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One in a Billion: The Story of Nic Volker and the Dawn of Genomic Medicine
One in a Billion: The Story of Nic Volker and the Dawn of Genomic Medicine
by Mark Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 26.19
34 used & new from CDN$ 18.17

4.0 out of 5 stars The story of a small boy who is "the face of a new kind of medicine", Aug. 20 2016

“In [a] small Madison [Wisconsin] suburb…a medical mystery is playing out inside the gut of a small boy.

It begins innocently enough one fall morning in 2006, when a mother goes to dress her son in swim trunks at a water park and notices a patch of red, swollen skin on his bottom.”

The above is essentially the beginning of this medical mystery and is the basis of this riveting book that describes the story of the first human being (Nicholas “Nic” Volker, born Oct., 2004) whose life was saved by personalized genomic medicine. It is co-authored by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher, both of whom have won numerous awards for their reporting.

(A genome is all the DNA within a single cell of an organism. Genomics is a discipline that applies various DNA processes to analyze the function and structure of genomes. Genomic medicine is an emerging discipline that involves using genomic information about a person as part of their clinical care.)

This book covers the years from 1993 to 2015.

The authors have detailed every twist and turn in Nic’s medical odyssey. The science is well-explained and most technical words are defined in the main narrative. Biographies of the main characters involved in this story are also given.

How can you be sure everything in this book is accurate? Answer: to get the raw, immediate, and complete material for this book, the authors were allowed to access Nic’s mother’s online journal that chronicled Nic’s years in the hospital. As well, they had access to the doctors and nurses who cared for Nic and the scientists who “read” or sequenced his genetic script.

I counted the number of people interviewed for this book to be a staggering 82.

The number of chapters in this tome is 23. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain our essence, the DNA that makes us who we are. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose but I thought this was a nice touch.

Finally, two things could have improved this book: a glossary and illustrations (pictures, diagrams, etc.). Even though most technical words are defined in the main narrative, I think a glossary would have been most beneficial. There is only one black and white picture. I would have liked to see diagrams in this book to aid in explaining major DNA concepts. As well, pictures of the main people of interest in this important story would have added to it.

(Note that the winding staircase on this book’s front cover, shown above by Amazon, depicts the structure of DNA.)

In conclusion, this is a landmark medical narrative that tells the incredible tale of the lives that converged to launch a medical revolution! This book portrays science and medicine at its best!!

(First published 2016; 23 chapters; main narrative 200 pages; acknowledgements; notes; sources; index; about the authors)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Antarctic Edge: 70 South (Sous-titres français) [Import]
Antarctic Edge: 70 South (Sous-titres français) [Import]
Price: CDN$ 26.66
14 used & new from CDN$ 18.87

5.0 out of 5 stars Climate Change Science and Antarctic Science at its BEST, Aug. 13 2016

“Scientists and crew from around the world are arriving…for our annual research voyage [by icebreaker] to Antarctica. We have to quickly pack enough food and science equipment for [four] weeks at sea.

We are heading to the fastest warming place on Earth: the West Antarctic Peninsula, which has experienced a winter temperature increase of eleven degrees Fahrenheit over the last fifty years. That’s six times faster than the average global warming.”

The above comes from this extraordinary documentary which follows a team of scientists (oceanographers, seabird ecologists, marine biologists, etc.) as they explore the West Antarctic Peninsula. They want to understand climate change in this place: “the fastest warming place on Earth.”

Just before the voyage, we are told of the “calculated risks” these scientists and researchers are taking by undertaking this task (like encountering 60-foot waves and hulking icebergs). Then weeks 1, 2, 3, and 4 of their research voyage are shown in spectacular detail. We are introduced to the arsenal of cutting-edge technology that these scientists use (that will probably revolutionize how climate change is studied).

We are also informed of the “plight of the penguins.” Specifically, Adelie penguins are studied intensively during this voyage. (Adelie penguins’ conservation status: near threatened.)

The final destination of this voyage, as this documentary’s sub-title tells us, is at latitude 70 degrees south. Not mentioned is the final destination’s longitude of 75 degrees west. These coordinates reveal the location of Charcot Island, a rugged and inhospitable place that lies off the peninsula. Adelie penguins live there in a true sea-ice climate.

The cinematography is… breath-taking. Besides the landscapes, you’ll see animals such as whales, penguins, and seals. Also, I found the animation to be quite instructive.

You may be surprised to learn that the actual voyage does not start until about fifteen minutes into this film. That’s because climate change information is given and dramatic images are shown. I found this to be an effective prelude to the actual voyage.

Finally, the DVD (the one released in 2015) has five extras. All of them are brief and interesting. From these extras, I learned that this film was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and the Rutgers School of Environmental & Biological Sciences. (Rutgers is the State University of New Jersey.) As well, over 400 hours of raw footage was edited down to make this film.

In conclusion, this is a mind-boggling and important documentary providing us with conclusive evidence of how melting ice affects climate across the entire planet!!

(2014; 1 hr, 10 min excluding end credits; 10 chapters; subtitles; wide screen)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer
In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer
by Teva Harrison
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 19.71
3 used & new from CDN$ 19.71

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stranger asks this book's author, "So, what do you do?" The author's reply, "I have cancer. Mostly, I do that", Aug. 6 2016

“I occupy the limited spaces, slipping between unnoticed.

The hours of [breast] cancer are strange. MRIs at 3:00 a.m., pain at 2:00 a.m., capable one day, incapable the next. It’s like living in the shadows.

And so I take the spaces nobody claims and I occupy them in the best way I know how: living life with a sense of wonder and delight.

Because I don’t know how long I get to bask in the glory of this world [her condition is incurable or terminal] and the people I love.”

The above is the entire prologue of this insightful and brutally honest book by Teva Harrison. She is a writer and artist. Harrison has a graphic series on living with cancer which is locally published. She has also commented about her experience on CBC Radio and in Toronto’s “Globe and Mail” newspaper. Many health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer (the spread of cancer throughout the body) community.

This book is memoir of living with cancer. It is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the medical aspects of her disease (for example, treatment), the second part delves into the social ramifications of having this disease (such as marriage), while the third part is concerned with its emotional aspects (like dreams).

When I say that this book is a memoir, I mean that it is half graphic memoir and half written memoir. That is, each of the chapters, generally, are two pages, the left page having a black & white comic book illustration while the right page has a short personal essay. (The title of this review actually comes from the fourth panel of a comic book illustration.)

I found the combination of graphic illustration & personal essay to be quite effective and it really drove home (at least for me) what Harrison is going through.

Finally, I found this book to be beautiful, heartbreaking, honest, inspiring, insightful, contemplative, rational, humorous, and creative. And what major lesson did I learn? That joy and hope can exist in the same place as anxiety and fear.

In conclusion, this is truly one of the most stunning memoirs I have ever read. Considering that it was written by a terminally ill person makes it not only stunning but unique!!

(First published 2016; preface; prologue; 3 parts or 9 chapters; main narrative 155 pages; resources; acknowledgements; colophon; about the author)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Anne Frank's Holocaust [Import]
Anne Frank's Holocaust [Import]
Price: CDN$ 19.64
18 used & new from CDN$ 12.10

5.0 out of 5 stars "It's how we...respond to EVIL that's important. And for that reason, the...story of Anne Frank...must be told", July 30 2016

“I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me.

Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is.

With all that, why should I feel despair?”

The above is from a page (dated May 3, 1944) of Anne Frank’s diary and is found at the very end of this informative and absorbing documentary.

Most people know the story of Anne Frank (1929 to 1945) up until her and her family’s arrest at the Annex on Aug. 4, 1944. This film goes over this but then tells us what happened next as they are absorbed into their oppressor’s system of concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Through eyewitness testimony from camp survivors (including two of Anne Frank’s school friends) and stunning, blemish-free black & white film and still photos as well as brief comments from historians, researchers, professors, etc., the brutality and horror of exactly what happened to Anne Frank and her family is shockingly revealed.

Finally, some of the key questions answered in this film are as follows:

(1) What was the real first name of Anne Frank?
(2) Who arrested Anne Frank and her family at the Annex?
(3) A “miracle” occurred. What was that?
(4) What was the name of the photographer responsible for taking the frightening photos that people remember when they recall the atrocity of the Holocaust?
(5) Why did the oppressors continue with their extermination plans even when they were losing the war (specifically the Second World War, 1939 to 1945)?
(6) Why was the final concentration camp that Anne Frank sent too so bad?
(7) What was the month in 1945 that Anne Frank died and why is that important?
(8) Who was “The Beast of Belsen?”
(9) There were two survivors from the Annex. Who were they?
(10) What did the grandson of the photographer mentioned in (4) above do?

In conclusion, this is an extraordinary documentary that tells us what exactly happened to Anne Frank and her family after their arrest. I leave you with “three commandments” that have emerged from the Holocaust as revealed in this film:

(1) Thou shalt not be a perpetrator
(2) Thou shalt not be a victim
(3) Thou shalt not be a BYSTANDER

(2015; 1 hr 32 min; wide screen; subtitles; 6 chapters; National Geographic)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations
Witness: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations
by Eli Rubenstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.81
2 used & new from CDN$ 19.81

5.0 out of 5 stars "We do know how to respomd [to the memory of the Holocaust]. The answers resound in the pages of this book", July 23 2016

“Dombrowa, July 22, 1943

My Dear Sister and Brother-in-Law,

I am writing this letter to you during the last days of my life. We are expecting [our demise] any time…

I don’t believe even a miracle can help us now. My little son…and I are the last sacrificial victims…The only thing that makes it easier on my heart is knowing that [my eight year old daughter] will be saved…It is not our fault. We are innocent, our future is lost and it cannot be changed…

It breaks my heart to have to write this letter to you, but you must know what happened to your family and how they disappeared. I am sorry to say that from the whole family, nobody is alive, we are the last. We are in danger and there is no possible way for us to live through this…

I cannot write any more…This is the last letter from me to you.”

The above are excerpts from an actual letter written by a Jewish female prisoner that appears in this unforgettable book compiled by Eli Rubenstein with “March of the Living.” Rubenstein has been involved with Holocaust education for almost three decades. “March of the Living” is an educational program that brings Holocaust survivors and young people (students) from around the world together to march from Auschwitz (concentration camp) to Birkenau (extermination camp) in memory of all Holocaust victims as well as to demonstrate solidarity against prejudice, intolerance, and hate.

The purpose of this book is to keep the memory of the Holocaust or Shoah (1941 to 1945) alive.

This book consists of photographs, archival photos, a map, survivor testimonies, poems, quotations, and text. It proceeds in a logical sequence and answers such questions as:

(1) What happened? And to whom?
(2) Where did the Holocaust take place? Who let it happen?
(3) Who resisted?
(4) Who survived?

Lastly, the students and survivors get together where the “torch of Holocaust memory” is passed on to a new generation. Survivors recount their Holocaust memories to students while students give survivors the emotional support they need to return to the sites where their family members perished.

The students thus become witnesses to what happened. It is this new generation of witnesses that make a commitment.

This book makes it clear that the Jews alone were not only persecuted. Other groups (such as Poles, Soviet POWs, and the disabled) met their fate during this morally fractured time.

Finally, this is an interactive book where you can view on your smartphone or other device survivor testimony from the archives of the Shoah Foundation and March of the Living.

In conclusion, this is an incredible book that, I’m sure, will help to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive!!!

(First published 2015; note to the reader; introduction; 6 chapters; main narrative 115 pages; 2 appendices [not labelled as such]; acknowledgements and credits)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Half-Earth: Our Planets Fight for Life
Half-Earth: Our Planets Fight for Life
by Edward O Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.13
38 used & new from CDN$ 18.57

5.0 out of 5 stars "The biosphere does NOT belong to us; WE BELONG TO IT", July 16 2016

“I’ve written [this book] as the last of a trilogy that describes how our species became the architects and rulers of the [new] ‘Antropocene’ epoch [the time of human alteration of the entire global environment], bringing consequences that will affect all of life, both ours and that of the natural world, far into the geological future.”

The above comes from this fascinating, well-written book by E. O. Wilson. He is a biologist (his specialty is the study of ants), researcher (especially in biodiversity or biological diversity), theorist (he proposed the biophilia hypothesis: an instinctive bond exists between humans and other living systems), naturalist (conservationist) and a best-selling author (of more than twenty books).

Wilson is now Professor Emeritus in Entomology (the study of insects) at Harvard University and a lecturer at Duke University. He has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize (twice).

Simply put, this book is about nature. Wilson is deeply concerned about it. He shares this concern with the reader by dividing his book into three logical parts: first he identifies “THE PROBLEM,” then he tells us about “THE REAL LIVING WORLD,” and finally he proposes “THE SOLUTION” to the problem that is affecting our living world.

In the first part (nine chapters) he tells us that the wide variety of life-forms on our planet remains unknown to science. The species discovered so far that can be studied well-enough to assess (namely, animals and flowering plants) are declining in number at an increasing rate.

There were three chapters in this part that I found particularly interesting: “Why extinction is accelerating,” “The impact of climate change: land, sea, and air,” and “The most dangerous worldview.” (I found the last chapter mentioned here to be both disturbing and sad.)

The second part consists of seven chapters. A large part of biodiversity still exists in both species (a genetically distinct population of life-forms) and ecosystems (a locality with distinct physical traits and the distinctive species that live within it) of the living world but the time that remains to save this remaining biodiversity is quickly running out. In fact, it can be practically gone by the end of this century. Wilson tells us that “what follows [in this part] is an image of [biodiversity’s] immense surviving breadth.”

There were four chapters in this part that stood out for me: “The unknown web of life,” “The wholly different aqueous world,” “The invisible empire,” and “The best places in the biosphere.” (The “biosphere” is all the organisms alive in the world at any moment, which together form a thin spherical layer around the planet.)

In the last chapter mentioned here, Wilson tells us that “the selections [of best places] described…are subjective assessments by myself and those chosen at my request by eighteen senior conservation biologists based on extensive field experience.”

The last part consists of five chapters. The global conservation movement has reduced but not stopped the ongoing extinction of species. In fact, the rate of loss is actually increasing. If biodiversity is to be returned to the baseline level of extinction before the spread of humanity, and thus saved for future generations, the conservation effort must be raised to a new level. As well, there must be a fundamental shift in moral reasoning concerning our relationship to the living environment.

This part contains the key chapter that may be The SOLUTION to THE PROBLEM: “HALF-EARTH: HOW TO SAVE THE BIOSPHERE.” Note that this is a proposal to halt the accelerating extinction of biodiversity.

I thought this rather a ridiculous proposal but was convinced after I read the rest of this part and read appendix 1 whose first sentence states that “There exist organizations and recent trends in large-scale land and marine conservation that lend credibility to the Half-Earth solution.”

At the beginning of each chapter are impressive black & white line drawings from mainly the late 1800s that show elements from nature (birds, animals, etc.). These highlight the beauty of nature.

Finally, a problem that some people may have with this book is that Wilson occasionally meanders off-topic. Personally, this did not bother me because he gives his own distinctive insights which I appreciated. Some readers may not, however, like this and may even condemn the book for this.

Also, there is a one-page glossary that’s sandwiched in-between other back-material making access to it difficult. This is very important (at least it was to me). Thus, it should be located right after the main narrative ends and, in my opinion, expanded to include more key words. As well, the appendices (there are two, not one, as the table of contents asserts) should be titled and their presence made known in the main narrative. (In fact, I almost missed the important appendix that I mentioned above.)

In conclusion, this is E.O. Wilson’s most impassioned book to date that reminds us that “we remain a biological species in a biological world.”

(First published 2016; prologue; 3 parts or 21 chapters; main narrative 210 pages; sources; glossary; 2 appendices; acknowledgements; index; about the author)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
by Thomas Levenson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 30.23
40 used & new from CDN$ 10.16

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now I finally understand why Star Trek's Mr. Spock can't phone home, July 9 2016

Here are some facts about the planet Vulcan:

(1) Vulcan discoverer: Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier (by calculation)
(2) First observer of Vulcan: Edmond Lescarbault (an amateur astronomer) in 1859
(3) Size: about one-quarter the apparent diameter of the planet Mercury
(4) Transit duration (time to cross the face of the sun): 1 hour, 17 minutes, 9 seconds
(5) Distance from sun: less than that of Mercury (an intra-Mercurial planet)
(6) Orbit: nearly circular
(7) Period (time to make one revolution around sun): about 20 days
(8) Transits per year: 2 to 4
(9) Brightness: can be seen with the naked eye

The above “facts” are found in this interesting, well-written, and well-researched book by Thomas Levenson. He is professor and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Graduate Program in Science Writing. Levenson is also an author and has received many awards for his writing. As well, he has produced, written and/or directed more than a dozen science documentaries.

This book is concerned with Vulcan, a small, hypothetical planet that was proposed to exist between Mercury and the Sun. Attempting to explain peculiarities on Mercury’s orbit, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier (1811 to 1877) hypothesized that they were the result of another planet, which he named “Vulcan” (after the Roman God of Fire). The goal of Le Verrier’s analysis with respect to Vulcan was to construct a model based on Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. (Note that Le Verrier’s recent success in discovering the planet Neptune in 1846 by calculation lent veracity of his claim for Vulcan.)

The rest of this story is found in this book’s long subtitle which, to me, seems be out of sequence. It should be:

“And How Albert Einstein
Discovered Relativity
Destroyed a Planet, and
Deciphered the Universe”

Here, “Relativity” refers to Einstein’s (1879 to 1955) General Theory of Relativity (1915). The word “destroyed” is too strong (but I must admit that it’s very effective and catches the reader’s attention). Einstein “deciphered the universe” by showing that there is more to it than Newton’s mechanistic universe.

I’ve got to say that I was impressed with Levenson’s slim book. He makes the “discovery” of Vulcan really interesting while sticking to the facts. I enjoyed how he progressed from “Newton to Neptune (1682-1846)” to “Neptune to Vulcan (1846-1878)” and lastly to “Vulcan to Einstein (1905-1915).”

The science is well-explained (translation: you’re never lost) and is enmeshed in a rich historical context. Along the way, you’ll learn how science works—when it succeeds and when it fails.

Finally, black & white diagrams and portraits are peppered throughout. As an added bonus, some of the actual writings of key people are included.

In conclusion, in revealing the forgotten story and drama of Vulcan, this book demonstrates science writing at its best!!

To all who read this review, “live long and prosper.”

(First published 2015; preface xi-xv; 3 parts or 10 chapters with 2 interludes and 1 postscript; main narrative 180 pages; acknowledgements; notes; bibliography; illustration credits; index; about the author)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


Reasons To Stay Alive
Reasons To Stay Alive
by Matt Haig
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 18.69
6 used & new from CDN$ 11.12

4.0 out of 5 stars "'To be or not to be' is a daily question for many depressives", July 3 2016
This review is from: Reasons To Stay Alive (Paperback)

"Hey sad-sack! Yes, you! What are you doing? Why are you trying to get out of bed? Why are you trying to apply for a job? Who do you think you are? Mark Zuckerberg? Stay in bed.

You are going to go mad. Like Van Gogh. You might cut off your ear.

Why are you crying? Because you need to put the washing [machine] on?

Hey. Remember your dog, Murdoch? He's dead. Like your grandparents. Everybody you have ever met will be dead this time next century. Yep. Everyone you know is just a collection of slowly deteriorating cells.

Look at the people walking outside. Look at them. There. Outside the window. Why can't you be like them?

There's a cushion. Let's just stay here and look at it and contemplate the infinite sadness of cushions.

P.S. I've just seen tomorrow. It's even worse."

The above is the entire chapter entitled 'Things depression says to you' and is found in this interesting book by Matt Haig. He is the author of five novels, all of which have been optioned for film. Haig has also written books for children and young adults. His work has been translated into thirty languages.

Despite its title, this book is more of what depression (along with anxiety and panic attacks) is and how Haig felt struggling with it. (Only two chapters are concerned with 'reasons to stay alive.') It would, in my opinion, be helpful to someone who's witnessing depression of a friend or family member, to help them understand the depressed person better and help them (since some suggestions of how to feel better are given).

I feel that this book is not for those struggling with depression. I know if I was depressed, this book might make me even more depressed. Former depressives who read this book, however, might identify with what's said.

This book does not flow. It seems to be a jumbled narrative of stories, lists, and facts.

With everything I've said thus far, it might seem that I did not like this book. Right? Well, no. I actually liked it. Why? Because this book is very creatively written. The above chapter extract is a good example of this.

As well, while the seriousness of his condition is never in doubt, a wry humour is evident on Haig's writing. For example, there is a chapter/list entitled 'Things you think during your first panic attack' and this is followed by 'Things you think during your 1000th panic attack.' Some other examples include 'Things people say to depressives that they don't say in other life-threatening situations' or 'Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression.' I also enjoyed his three 'Conversations across time' where there is an exchange between 'Now me' and 'Then me.' I can go on and on, but I think I've said enough.

I mentioned above that Haig does give suggestions of how to feel better. These suggestions are based on what worked for him. Medication is discussed briefly. Notably absent is a discussion of therapy, presumably something Haig never even tried.

And don't worry! There is no psychobabble found in this book.

At the end, there are appendices. These consist of advice and resources for people seeking help.

The book itself is divided into five parts: falling, landing, rising, living, and being. Each part consists of many chapters (really vignettes and lists). All pages are double-spaced.

Finally, this book contains no index or table of contents. While I can see why there is no index, I can't fathom the lack of a table of contents. A wealth of information is given but there is no easy access to it. I think a table of contents indicating each part with its chapter titles and page numbers would have been most helpful.

In conclusion, this is a brutally honest, intensely individual, creative response to a period of profound crisis, and an account of what pulled one man from the brink!! I leave you with five items found in a list in this book entitled "How to live:"

1. Be gentle with yourself. Work less. Sleep more.
2. There is absolutely nothing in the past that you can change. That's basic physics.
3. Hate is a pointless emotion to have inside you.
4. Beware the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through.
5. Listen to Hamlet, literature's most famous depressive: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

(First published 2015; preface [not labelled as such]; a note; 5 parts or 70 chapters; afterword; main narrative 250 pages; further reading; acknowledgements; permission credits; 2 appendices [not labelled as such])

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


A Cancer in the Family: Take Control of Your Genetic Inheritance
A Cancer in the Family: Take Control of Your Genetic Inheritance
by Theodora Ross MD PhD
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.54
45 used & new from CDN$ 7.14

5.0 out of 5 stars Do you have a genetic predisposition to cancer? This book tells you how to find out and, if you do, what action to take, June 25 2016

“Some of you may already know that Theo [the author] was diagnosed with melanoma [a type of skin cancer] in the fall. She had surgery, we [the author and her husband] caught it early, and all indications are that she is cured. However, as a result of this, and the very strong history of cancer in Theo’s family, we recently sought genetic counseling.

We have been advised that there is a high probability that Theo could develop certain additional cancers. As a result, we have been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks meeting with doctors and surgeons to discuss ways of prophylactically [medical-speak for “preventatively”] reducing Theo’s cancer risk.

Theo has not been diagnosed with any new cancers, her life is not in danger, and we expect to be able to resolve all these issues over the next several months. However, the medical issues are complex and distressing. As a result, Theo and I are quite preoccupied as we work to resolve them.”

The above is part of a message that the author & her husband told their colleagues and is found in this very personal, very informative, important book by Theodora “Theo” Ross, M.D., Ph.D. She is professor of internal medicine and the director of the Cancer Genetics Program in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Ross is a researcher on cancer susceptibility genes as well as an oncologist (“cancer doctor”) not only for breast cancer but for all types of patients who have a family history of cancer.

As you may have deduced, this book is about cancer. Not cancer in general but a certain type of cancer.

Cancer is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential of spreading to other parts of the body. At the molecular level, it is caused by a mutation (alteration) in DNA. Most of these mutations are acquired externally from the environment (carcinogens) and occur in cells of the body (excluding the reproductive cells). This is the type of cancer most people are familiar with.

However, some people inherit mutation(s) in the germline (refers to those reproductive cells that pass on genetic material to offspring). These mutations occur in certain genes (molecular units of heredity). This forms the basis of what is known as inherited or family cancer syndrome. This is the cancer this book is concerned with.

Putting it all together, inherited or family cancer syndrome is a genetic disorder in which inherited genetic mutations in one or more genes negatively affect people to the development of cancers (and may also cause the early onset of those cancers).

There is a more deeply personal reason of why this book was written: through genetic testing, Ross has discovered that she is a carrier of a cancer-causing mutation and, as well, has a strong family history of cancer. Thus, her predisposition of developing cancer is quite high. She has been living with this knowledge for over a decade and so has had to navigate a jungle of anxieties, losses, denial, judgement calls, and treatment options.

Ross passes the KNOWLEDGE she has gained to the reader. She blends together the science of DNA, personal stories, and perhaps, most importantly, practical suggestions. I found that because she inhabits the worlds of both doctor and patient simultaneously that this blending was quite effective. I also appreciated her rational, clear-thinking style that is evident throughout this book. And don’t worry! All scientific and medical terms are defined in the main narrative.

The fact is people need guidance in discovering their family histories, confronting those histories, and making the crucial decisions that will protect both them and their families. I can’t think of a better qualified (both professionally and personally) guide than Ross.

The first thing that I noticed about this book is that its table of contents is user-friendly with each chapter not only having its customary chapter title but the sections included in each chapter are included. This means you have everything inside this book before you. So, say you think that you may need help with the GENETICS. Then go to the chapter entitled “The Double Helix” and then to the section under this title entitled “A short (very short) tutorial in genetics.” Or perhaps you’re having problems with decision-making, then go to the chapter entitled “How to Manage your Cancer Risk when Information is Limited” and then go to the section “Tools for resolving decisional conflict.”

There are two informative pictures included. One is of a pedigree or “family tree” of Ross’ family that she created. Ross tells us that “If you have any questions at all about the cancer in your family, performing this exercise [of creating your pedigree] is a must.”

The two appendices are just excellent. They have a wealth of additional information on inherited cancer syndromes. There is also an extensive resource list of cancer websites.

Finally, I said above that certain terms are defined in the main narrative. This is fine but I think a glossary to supplement this would have been helpful. In this way, a reader that forgets the meaning of a key word does not have to hunt through the main narrative (which can be frustrating) to find its definition.

In conclusion, this book will empower you to face your genetic heritage with COURAGE and to make decisions that will keep you and your family healthy. This book also demonstrates why Dr. Theodora Ross is one of the best, if not the best, in her field!!

(First published 2016; foreword, xiii to xv; 8 chapters; main narrative 195 pages; acknowledgements; 2 appendices; resources; notes; index)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


National Geographic Mysteries Of The Uns [Blu-ray]
National Geographic Mysteries Of The Uns [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ n/a
Price: CDN$ 28.06
18 used & new from CDN$ 24.29

5.0 out of 5 stars So, you think you've seen everything. I bet you haven't seen the things in this movie, June 19 2016

“[A city is shown.] Looks like an average city. We know what we will see on these streets, inside these walls, or so we think.

[Zooms into people in the building.] The people living in this apartment building are surrounded by things they can’t see. All of us are. Everywhere. Things too slow for our eyes to detect or too fast to follow. But things that can be seen only through light waves invisible to us.

A day in their lives [that is, the lives of the people in the building] will look a lot different if they could see all the light waves around them. Or see other worlds around us that are too small—microscopic-- or smaller yet, down to the heart of matter itself.

Imagine if for one day we could see what they [the people in the building] can’t. All that’s too slow, too fast, too small, or simply invisible. It would forever change our understanding of the planet we live on.”

The above is spoken by the narrator (actor Forest Whitaker) at the very beginning of this fascinating documentary.

This film reveals phenomena that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

First, we are transported to the INVISIBLE world of light (ultraviolet, X-rays, etc.). The more invisible light we can see, the more secrets we can uncover about the world around us.

Next, thanks to time-lapse photography, we experience events that occur TOO SLOWLY for human perception. We are shown the ultimate time-lapse image: the anatomy of the Earth brought to life.

Thirdly, we get to “see,” due to high-speed cameras, the beauty and drama of events that occur in the flash of a microsecond. That is, we experience phenomena that is TOO FAST for our vision. Here, we are shown “the greatest flyer in nature.”

Finally, we enter the TOO SMALL or microscopic world. The microscope allows us to see creatures in common pond water that we never knew existed.

The electron microscope allows us to magnify things even more, up to a million times to reveal things both bizarre and beautiful.

Then we get to experience the nanoworld, an incomprehensibly small world where we are allowed to actually see individual atoms. Incredible!!

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that everything in this documentary is visually stunning and, for me, unforgettable. As well, the narration is just excellent.

The disc itself (released in 2015) has two interesting extras: a “making of” (15 min) and a photo gallery.

Finally, there is a second disc that is a 3D version of this film. To watch this, you need (1) full HD 3D TV (2) compatible 3D glasses (3) Blu-ray 3D video player and (4) high speed HDMI cable.

In conclusion, this is an unforgettable documentary that shows you things that you have probably never seen before. I leave you with what the narrator says near the end:

“We’re on the threshold of extraordinary [scientific] advances born of our drive to see what’s hidden in the world around us.”

(2013; 36 min excluding end credits; 8 chapters; wide screen; 2 discs; no sub-titles; National Geographic)

<<Stephen PLETKO, London, Ontario, Canada>>


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