Beauty and the Breast, a Literary Memoir by Merrill Joan Gerber

beauty_breastBeauty and the Breast: A Tale of Breast Cancer, Love, and Friendship ($14.95, 192 pages, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-526-0) is a literary memoir by award-winning author Merrill Joan Gerber. With wit and wisdom, Gerber reflects on her breasts, her life,  and her Jewish heritage as she undergoes treatment for breast cancer.

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“I LOVE IT!!  I could not put it down. Merrill Joan Gerber tells the story without a drop of feeling sorry for herself. She never loses her sense of humor. I’ve read a lot of breast cancer books, but hers is so fresh, so endearing, there’s nothing else like it.”

—Judy Blume, author of Are you There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and In the Unlikely Event

“An intimate, touching, moving portrait of the self in peril and in pain, written with characteristic intelligence & lucidity by Merrill Joan Gerber.”

—Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award winner

“‘It’s not candy,’ a curt oncologist says to Gerber, a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer, when she is taken aback by what he is telling her about chemotherapy. She finds a new oncologist. Grit is on full display in Gerber’s account of her bout with breast cancer, as are fear, humor, frailty, valor, and—most important—love and friendship. A moving, frank and funny book.”

—Brandeis Magazine

“Merrill’s description of her journey through the strange, new world of cancer is warm and wise. It’s by turn funny and despairing, but always heartrendingly personal.”  Read more….

—Peg Schulte, PegOLeg.com

“Short, easily digestible chapters. [Gerber] also includes clear, black-and-white close-ups of her affected breast during various stages of treatment, among other images…. The featured photographs of the author make this one stand out among the pack.”  Read more….

—Library Journal

“Gerber has penned a primer for holding fast to everything dear in the face of a terrifying diagnosis. The author, a former Stegner fellow (1962-63), handles cancer’s curveballs with candor and a sense of humor, reaching clarity amid the confusion. Her frank and funny narrative of the discovery, biopsy, surgery and treatment makes the experience relatable.”

—Stanford Magazine, Nov/Dec 2016

When award-winning author Merrill Joan Gerber was diagnosed with breast cancer, she set out on a journey familiar to too many women. It began with denial that her precious breasts could become the agents of terror and even death. What followed was a parade of doctors and their treatments, of surgery, the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy, and the dangerous but life-saving beams of radiation to her breast. Along the way, Merrill found a new appreciation for the blessings in her life, her beloved husband, their daughters, and their daughters’ children. As she recalled her parents’ illnesses, her childhood in Brooklyn, and her complicated relationship with her own breasts, she reflected on long-held notions of fear and death.

In Beauty and the Breast, Merrill bares her soul and her breasts as she navigates the terrors of cancer and treatment and learns with courage and gratitude what it means to be a survivor. Many have reported on the cancer wars, but Merrill’s memoir delivers a special contribution of humor, passion, candor, real-life photos, and a poetic gift to the reader.

“I read Beauty and the Breast nonstop: the pages turn themselves. Horror, humor, humaneness, fear, fatigue, love, honesty, bravery, and so much more, including even charm—all movingly mingled. The book (science and sensibility) is the triumph of an ordeal overcome and transcended.”

—Cynthia Ozick, author of Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and other Literary Essays

“As much rumination on the mortal predicament as it is testament to the continuous discovery that is life, Merrill Joan Gerber’s memoir of her negotiations with cancer makes for richly provocative reading. And in the hands of a gifted and insightful writer with a penchant for the humorously quotidian, those negotiations are at once profound and entirely accessible. Cancer demands courage. Writing about it may require something like meta-courage.”

—Lynn Stegner, author of For All the Obvious Reasons

“Merrill Joan Gerber is one of the finest writers of our time. There is no way to stop reading this very moving, compelling, sad but affirmative memoir. Whatever she touches, she illuminates.”

—David Evanier, author of Woody: The Biography

“Beauty and the Breast could be one of those books like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care that just doesn’t quit selling because there is always another group that needs to know. The voice throughout the narrative is so superb. In some ways, the book feels more like a novel than a memoir. The pictures are extremely, extremely important. The interesting thing is that, at the end, the book becomes less about breast cancer and escaping death as it is about mortality and the seasons of life.”

—Dr. Dean Paschal, Emergency Room physician, New Orleans

“While reading Beauty and the Breast, I am close to tears all the time. Merrill’s incredible clarity and honesty is profound and necessary. The details, the photographs, the emotions make me feel as if it’s me going through this. It’s a real page-turner.”

—Mary Trunk, documentary film maker (Merrill Joan Gerber is one of four women artists in her film, Lost in Living)

Beauty and the Breast will pour into a reader just as it poured from the author into her keyboard. It is hard to break away. Her voice is so powerful and intimate … she has borne witness in a voice that is unique and yet will reach everyone who reads it just where they are in their own lives. A beautiful and irresistible book.”

—Charlotte Zoe Walker, author of Condor and Hummingbird and winner of an O. Henry Award

“With fluid writing and pitch-perfect timing, Merrill Joan Gerber has written a remarkable story of a woman’s breast cancer journey. The photos and paintings rendered by the author of her treatments, her doctors, her husband and children add a wonderful visual layer to the tale. The author draws a heartwarming picture of family and friends who stay at her side and from whom she draws comfort, hope and delight. Gerber shares humorous takes on much that goes awry and offers many moments of wonder, joy and gratitude as well.”

—Nancy Levinson, author of Moments of Dawn, an Alzheimer’s Memoir and a two-time breast cancer survivor

“Beauty and the Breast has such a wonderful combination of humor, love of life, and sheer terror. It’s about breast cancer, but so much more. And it is about a long and happy marriage and the cancer that doesn’t interrupt it. Bravo!”

—Dr. Madeleine Moskowitz, Doctor of Psychology and breast cancer survivor.

Says the author, “During my cancer treatment, my husband took me to see a concert of the six Brandenburg Concertos by Bach. As I sat in the darkened church listening to this most transcendent music, as I watched the musicians on stage, particularly the women playing violins, a thought came to me: ‘Breasts are everywhere in Brooklyn.’ I quickly began to make notes on the sides and top of my program, suddenly realizing the enormity of the story that perhaps I was now destined to share. Though I was a writer, I never intended to recount the ordeals of my breast cancer journey. Now, in this illuminated moment, I saw there was a greater story to tell. Perhaps it was the thrilling music of Bach that loosed a flood of words and images in me. Beauty and the Breast was the result.”

Read an interview with the author on the Psychology Today blog.

MERRILL JOAN GERBER has published ten novels—among them King of The World, which won the Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award and The Kingdom of Brooklyn, winner of the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine—as well as seven volumes of short stories, nine young-adult novels, and three books of non-fiction. She has also published stories and essays in numerous magazines, including the New Yorker and Redbook, as well as literary journals. Her story, “I Don’t Believe This,” won an O. Henry Prize. She earned her MA in English from Brandeis University and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship to Stanford University. She presently teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. For more information, click here.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Before I learned I had breast cancer, I belonged to a Jewish book club. Eight Jewish women meeting for forty years, once a month in one of our houses.

Did we ever read a book? Who knows? Did we ever discuss a book? We had arguments every time:

“Why should I read a historical novel when I’m not interested in historical novels?”

“Then why should I read a book about how Yiddish is coming back from a lost language when my grandparents only wanted that it should be a lost language?”

“They told secrets in my house in Yiddish so the kids wouldn’t know what they were talking about.”

“I think next month we should read a modern romance novel. There’s a new one on the bestseller list.”

“I’m against reading bestsellers. They’re crap.”

“I’m too old for romance. I can’t be bothered with romance.”

“Molly, you’ve had three husbands. How did you manage that without romance?”

“Look at my breasts! They speak for themselves. Also I’m a good cook.”

“Could it be your cooking poisoned the first two?”

“Funny that is not.”

“Sex must figure in somewhere.”

“If it figures, it figures. Remember how in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ‘Do you love me?’ and his wife answers, ‘For twenty-five years I’ve cooked your meals, washed your clothes, shared your bed …. If that isn’t love, what is?’ ”

“It’s your bosoms, it’s not your cooking, that got you three husbands.”

“They should live and be well,” Molly said, patting her bosoms lovingly. “But you never know. One in eight women gets breast cancer. It could be one of us.”

“Never one of us. We’re not the type.”

We are the type, in fact. We are especially the type. Women with Ashkenazic genetics are especially at risk. If we carry the Braca gene mutation, we have an eighty-five percent risk of being diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, and are also at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Sprinkled over the years among our discussions of life and literature were exchanges of really important information. Who were the best pediatricians? Orthodontists? The best summer camps for the kids? When busing started in our city, most of the neighborhood children were pulled out and put into Christian or Catholic private schools. And since all of us in our book club had been educated in the public schools of New York—the Bronx or Brooklyn—we strongly resisted private schools. Pay for schools? Ridiculous! Didn’t we all feel grateful for our public school educations? And look how smart we were?

Smart we were. There was no argument there.

We and our husbands had all bought houses in our Southern California neighborhood in the late sixties. When our children were young, we stayed home and raised them. Our husbands were out there in the world doing something respectable—being teachers or engineers or working for Xerox or the Jet Propulsion Lab. But when the children were older, all of us women went back to school and finished our degrees if we hadn’t already done so. We went to work. Teaching.

How come we continued to call our group a book club when we practically never read the same book? We fought each other at every meeting. Why not read about gardening, about art? Why not read the novels of Philip Roth? All the women but me claimed they were disgusted by Philip Roth’s books.

“Such a dirty mind.”

“Such a dirty mouth!”

“What he did to that piece of liver!”

“You didn’t have to read it, did you?”

“Such an honest writer,” I said.

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