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The Adventures of Cancer Bitch

Join me, please, in trotting out an old chestnut to roast over the open fire of winter passing. I'm talking about that oldie-but-goodie, "Can't judge a book by its cover" chestnut. Roast it. Crack it open and spread it on your melba toast. Because that chestnut lies to you sometimes, and certainly is lying to you if you're staring at the cover of S.L. Wisenberg's The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. I know. It's nearly spring. We don't want to think about cancer right now. We'd rather not be bitches. But join me for just a moment, please, and help me contemplate this cover. We've got the title, for one, emblazoned over an oddly appealing, oddly alarming photograph of a papier-mâché figure of Wisenberg (presumably) complete with flaunted hero-cape, peace-sign earrings, cancer-cropped hair, and defiant red circle with a bar through it smack over the place you'd expect her left breast.

Join me, please, in trotting out an old chestnut to roast over the open fire of winter passing. I'm talking about that oldie-but-goodie, "Can't judge a book by its cover" chestnut. Roast it. Crack it open and spread it on your melba toast. Because that chestnut lies to you sometimes, and certainly is lying to you if you're staring at the cover of S.L. Wisenberg's The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. I know. It's nearly spring. We don't want to think about cancer right now. We'd rather not be bitches. But join me for just a moment, please, and help me contemplate this cover. We've got the title, for one, emblazoned over an oddly appealing, oddly alarming photograph of a papier-mâché figure of Wisenberg (presumably) complete with flaunted hero-cape, peace-sign earrings, cancer-cropped hair, and defiant red circle with a bar through it smack over the place you'd expect her left breast.

Yes! Wisenberg's had a mastectomy, and she'd like you to know all about it.

Her papier-mâché cover photo figure, I'd argue, is symbolic of this slim memoir's text: appealing, esoteric, and, after all that, a bit off-putting. Wisenberg's tackled the sometimes-tacky turf of the cancer memoir, and ends up biting a bit of dust. There are much better books out there written about the social experience of being ill. There are better books written about Jewish ceremonies, the politics of disease, and famous figures who've died of cancer. But here you get all of this packaged together, going down fast like a sleek little pill.

Topically, Cancer Bitch jitters between blow-by-blow accounts of cancer treatment therapy, political musings, gender politics, the waste of plastic at hospital-sponsored breast cancer rallies, the evils of the Susan G. Komen model of breast-cancer awareness, the diseases of other people (like her husband), and numerous accounts of what her friends are saying and doing and what she is saying and doing, both related to and not related to breast cancer. It's a hodge-podge, stitched together by Wisenberg's chopped-off, deadpan sentences and her habit of cutely labeling everything (calling where she teaches Smart University, or where she's treated Fancy Hospital, for example.) The delivery can be witty, the labeling endearing. Both can seem more like tics than writing that reaches into the gut, however.

Let's get analytical.

Reasons Why You Might Want to Read Cancer Bitch:

1) The delight of passages like "Cancer cells are uninhibited. They put lampshades on their heads and run through public fountains. But these same frolicking, out-of-control cancer cells are trying to kill us. In defense, we try to induce suicide. Can you blame us?"
2) Exact descriptions of what cancer treatment means to your body, and how your body registers its complaints
3) Historic accounts of breasts (hacked off breasts photographed on dinnerware!), and of those, famous and not-so, who have given up the ghost to cancer
4) The quotidian smashed into the metaphysical, then pureed
5) A nice list of what Wisenberg's learned from cancer, towards the end of the memoir, and some even better end-notes

Reasons to Leave Cancer Bitch on the Shelf:

1) Wisenberg's dubious juxtapositions and cross-musings involving The Jewish Experience, (even The Holocaust Experience,) and The Breast Cancer Experience
2) Neurotic self-absorption portrayed as brave trendiness
3) Hair obsession. Merkins.
4) The hyper-importance of every detail. Death by cancer and a friend's dinner conversation seem to carry the same weight for Wisenberg (which is confusing if you prefer your information prioritized, or at least inflected).
5) Lack of resolution

The memoir doesn't really wrap up so much as trail off. To be fair, it's a collected version of her blog postings, so its informal, sometimes spacey tone is appropriate to some extent. But you finish the book a little at odds – does she ever get reconstructive surgery? What happens to the hair she's talked so much about? Does her cancer go into fairly stable remission?

A table of writers asked to workshop Cancer Bitch might raise that other favorite chestnut: "So what?" No one doubts Wisenberg's story – her veracity, her musings, her painfully detailed treatment notes that come across as sincere, breezily intent on convincing you that life continues right alongside cancer, and that sometimes people recover. Sometimes they don't. Things continue to be painfully wry the whole way through. But this book seems to remain more a record of a life saddled for a while with cancer exorcised by the removal of a breast than a deep probing of what it is to be human, with one's cells in absolute revolt, and one's relationships in doubt, and the mundanities of life turned somehow awful and somehow precious all at once.

This book loves its own tone. It's a good tone. It's a brave, questioning tone you'd appreciate in a good friend. The archness, the wryness, and the academic musings sometimes threaten to dampen the underlying narrative though, and muffle the depths that could be plumbed.

This is a sharp book. This book wants to be written by a super-hero. But for all that, it's a little Super-Hero-Bitch lite. You might want to reach for Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward for something meaty (if fiction is acceptable, if not, try someone like Joan Didion). Then again, you might not. You may like the cleverness and piquancy, the blend of chutzpah and matter-of-factness that make this a pleasurable, not-too-toxic read that may, like a good dose of radiation, leave you positively affected, with a few side-effects to puzzle through.

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