Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

24510511In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to “do no harm” holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh must make agonizing decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.

If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practiced by calm and detached doctors, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candor, Marsh reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets, and the moments of black humor that characterize a brain surgeon’s life.

Review:

You know you’ve read a lot of medical nonfiction when you think, “This is an alright book by a neurosurgeon discussing the intricacies of brain surgery, but I’ve read better.”  (For the record I like When the Air Hits Your Brain by Frank T. Vertosick Jr. more.)

Marsh hits all the expected beats and themes – surgery that goes well despite all odds, surgery that doesn’t go well despite all efforts, kids you don’t want to see die, adults who face death with dignity. The cases are engaging and the writing solid.

But I’m not sure I get along with Marsh as a person.  He’s nearing the end of his career, which is good in that we can see how hospital conditions and doctor training have changed over time.  These changes, though, are often framed in terms of the good ol’ days and how they compare with the bad ol’ now.  For example, an anesthetist refused to do a big surgery at 4 pm because she didn’t have childcare for the evening.

“But we can’t cancel it,” I protested.  “She was cancelled once already!”

“Well I’m not doing it.” …

For a few moments I was struck dumb. I thought of how until a few years ago a problem like this would never have arisen… I envy the way in which the generation who trained me could relieve the intense stress of their work by losing their temper, at times quite outrageously, without fear of being had up for bullying and harassment.

Oh, I’m sorry that asshole-ry is no longer tolerated.  Geesh.  This doesn’t take away from the amazing work Marsh has done in his life, including humanitarian work in rural Ukraine, but neurosurgeon as god thing turns me off.

In sum the book is good but there’s better out there – check out Vertosick’s first.

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Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #1)

25578803In a world that denies emotions, where the ruling Psy punish any sign of desire, Sascha Duncan must conceal the feelings that brand her as flawed. To reveal them would be to sentence herself to the horror of “rehabilitation” – the complete psychic erasure of everything she ever was…

Both human and animal, Lucas Hunter is a changeling hungry for the very sensations the Psy disdain. After centuries of uneasy coexistence, these two races are now on the verge of war over the brutal murders of several changeling women. Lucas is determined to find the Psy killer who butchered his packmate, and Sascha is his ticket into their closely guarded society. But he soon discovers that this ice-cold Psy is very capable of passion – and that the animal in him is fascinated by her. Caught between their conflicting worlds, Lucas and Sascha must remain bound to their identities – or sacrifice everything for a taste of darkest temptation.

Review:

Singh is one of the big names in paranormal romance and while I have read from her Guild Hunter series this was my first foray into the world of Psy-Changelings. While I had no idea what I was in for I like what I found.

The Psy are Borg-like, shunning emotion and sharing a hive mind of sorts.  Uniformity and logic rule.  Changelings are were creatures that burst with emotion and sensual energy.  I see why this series is at sixteen books and counting – a romance between such opposites is a gold mine of internal conflict, and the mechanics of the world provide all the external oomph you could need.

A series opener like Slave to Sensation could be overloaded with info dumps but the romance balances out the world building nicely.  While part of me would love some more back story I’m more than willing to let it play out in the many books ahead.

As for the romance itself… it’s okay.  Lucas is sexy as all get out and respects Sascha’s professional abilities from day one, which is much appreciated.  Once the action plot kicks in, though, I got annoyed.  Any time the heroine is offered up as bad guy bait my mental alarm bells go off.  Luckily she’s not too stupid to live, and the way things went down stayed just this side of forgivable, but I’d rather it not happen in the first place.

A negative note, to be sure, but I’m excited to continue the series.  The world Singh is building holds a lot of promise and fans clamoring for volume eleven-zillion of a series can’t steer me too wrong.

Nonfiction November – Be the Expert

This week’s Nonfiction November topic gives us lots of choice!

NonfictionNovember-e1506979820517Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I have decided to Be the Expert in medicine, more specifically “books by doctors doing their thing awesomely”.  I’m a medical interpreter and work in hospitals, so it’s a topic that’s close to my heart.  After I made the list I realized all the authors are women – extra bonus!  The titles link to my full reviews.

15998346 What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine by Danielle Ofri, MD

Each chapter covers an emotion doctors deal with on a near-daily basis, from empathy and fear to sadness and shame.  Good practices are shared and less than ideal situations analyzed in solid, assured prose that is still honest about the author’s misgivings and failings. The feelings behind what your doctor is thinking.

29955558Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care by Dinah Miller, MD and Annette Hanson, MD

Involuntary care is a a minefield of ethical conundrums and this book covers as many points of view as possible, from pro-involuntary treatment groups to anti-anything-psychiatry groups like Scientology. Thorough, well-considered, and fascinating.

19967171Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, MD and T.J. Mitchell

The training and most memorable cases of a medical examiner.  While the jacket copy teases the stories around terrorist attacks my favorites were more commonplace – injuries that only show up after a day has passed, how to figure out which stab wound came first, pinning down someone’s age thanks to a single rib bone. Riveting and perfect for anyone who perks up when Law and Order heads to the morgue.

I’m always on the lookout for more medical nonfiction – what’s your favorite?

The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay

34460584Mary Davies lives and works in Austin, Texas, as an industrial engineer. She has an orderly and productive life, a job and colleagues that she enjoys—particularly a certain adorable, intelligent, and hilarious consultant. But something is missing for Mary. When her estranged and emotionally fragile childhood friend Isabel Dwyer offers Mary a two-week stay in a gorgeous manor house in Bath, Mary reluctantly agrees to come along, in hopes that the holiday will shake up her quiet life in just the right ways. But Mary gets more than she bargained for when Isabel loses her memory and fully believes that she lives in Regency England.

Outings are undertaken, misunderstandings play out, and dancing ensues as this triangle works out their lives and hearts among a company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.

Review:

I love and respect Jane Austen as a literary figure but I have a confession to make – I haven’t read any of her books.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried! I’ve started Pride and Prejudice many times but haven’t gotten past page 30. Sigh.

That being said I love the Regency period so the idea of a “real” manor vacation is exactly my thing.  I like the way it was handled, too – technology is put into the background but not shunned all together.  A vacation spot that confiscates cell phones probably wouldn’t be popular, you know?  The days are filled with as many Regency activities as the guests can handle with chances to tap out when needed.  The pragmatism kept any nitpicking part of my brain at bay.

Even with the interesting setting the characters take center stage. People grow and change and everyone is fleshed out from the leads down to the manor maid.  While Austen is discussed a lot over the course of the story I felt like I was able to keep up.  Some references went over my head but it didn’t get in the way of the story.  Needless to say, Austen fans will have more to dig into. The writing is solid but not stylistically notable, and the plot pulled me through no problem.

The more you love (and know) Austen the more you’ll get out of The Austen Escape, but even if you’re a relative know-nothing like me you can enjoy the ride.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum

34144408By grappling with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing, Naben Ruthnum depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. With the sardonic wit of Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola and the refined, obsessive palette of Bill Buford’s Heat, Ruthnum sinks his teeth into the story of how the beloved flavor calcified into an aesthetic genre that limits the imaginations of writers, readers, and eaters. Following in the footsteps of Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, Curry cracks open anew the staid narrative of an authentically Indian diasporic experience.

Review:

A deep and thoughtful look at what Ruthnum calls “currybooks”, or books of the South Asian diaspora.  Curry has adapted to the many parts of the world it has been brought to, with spices and cream added and subtracted to cater to the tastes of a particular people.  Likewise, currybooks charge form based on different factors but have nostalgia, authenticity, and the idea of getting back to one’s roots as overarching themes.

Is there a problem with these expectations in the genre?  Only that they constrain and limit the potential methods of expression for brown writers.

Ruthnum examines novels, cookbooks, movies, and touches on his own experience as the son of Mauritian immigrants.  The writing is well-done and interesting, falling more on the educational side of things than entertaining.  There’s nothing wrong with that,  but go in knowing that Curry will require (and reward) your mental effort.  My e-copy is full of highlights that I suspect I’ll be returning to as I read more books set in and by authors from this part of the world.

Great for those interested in representation, the immigrant experience, race, and how they’re expressed in literature.

Thanks to Coach House Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Nonfiction November – Book Pairing

NonfictionNovember-e1506979820517How has the beginning of your Nonfiction November been?  I’m doing well, but it may have not been the best idea to read three different medical books, all dealing with death in some way, at the same time (eep).  Thankfully some well-placed fiction has kept things moving nicely.

Speaking of fiction, this week Nonfiction November is pairing fiction and nonfiction together.  It took me a while to come up with a combo but finding it was a eureka moment! Without any further ado:

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

Lotus by Lijia Zhang

2635587Factory Girls is a wide-ranging, deep, and humanizing look at the women who work in the factories of China’s Southern coast.  Chang follows them as they arrive, jump factories for higher pay, and acclimate to a new way of living.  The author weaves insights from her own family’s history in a way that enlightens, and the prose is beautiful and engaging.  Solid reporting beautifully told, it’s a book that has stuck with me since I picked it up a year and a half ago.

31204038The novel Lotus makes for a great pairing, seeing as how it’s written by a former factory girl and takes place in the same area of China as Chang’s book.  Instead of working in a factory, though, Lotus is a prostitute that is navigating a life with many lousy options.  How can she find herself, then be true that person? Who is her ally, and who is better left behind? The deep characterization pulls us through as we watch the Lotus, her coworkers, and photojournalist Bing make their choices.  Grounded yet out of the ordinary.

That’s it for me – what nonfiction have you guys been reading this week?

In Bed with a Stranger by Mary Wine (McJames #1)

Synopsis:

6025739Brodick McJames is an earl in name only. To secure his clan’s future he needs an English wife. Mary Stanford, daughter of the Earl of Warwickshire, will suit perfectly. He’s never met her, but what matter? She’ll grace his bed eventually, and once she bears his child he need see her no more.

Anne Copper looks just like her noble half-sister, but she was born illegitimate, and can never forget it. The best she can hope for is to stay a serving girl in her own father’s house. But when Lady Mary finds herself betrothed to a Scot, it seems there’s a use for Anne after all . . .

The woman who arrives in Alcaon is not what Brodick expects, and the passion that grows between them promises far more than a marriage of convenience. When fate draws two together, it may take more than a noblewoman’s plot to part them…

Review:

This book is so wrong for me.

First – you can’t tell from the description but it takes place during medieval times. Don’t let the talk of titles make you think it’s a Georgian/Regency/Victorian novel, like I did.

Second – it’s basically a Cinderella retelling complete with evil stepmom, evil stepsister, and a prince (er, Earl) that whisks her away. While of noble blood she keeps doing servant-level stuff. She even has to leave the castle before a certain time comes because… reasons. ~cough~

Third – instalust. Several times the heroine decides to say or do something next time she sees the Earl, but as soon as he walks in the room her mouth goes dry and hubba hubba music starts playing. (They had porntastic music back then, right?)

Third and a half – there were several scenes that went like this:

“Hey, your wife is hot.”
“I know! …you’re not getting any ideas, are you?”
“Nope. But she’s hot. Bet you’re looking forward to tonight.” ~winkwink~
“Am I!”~nudgenudge~

Say no more. -_-

Fourth – it takes someone the better part of a day to die from hemlock poisoning, when it should have taken hours at most. I mean, they didn’t give Socrates his tea, have dinner, sleep a bit, and then watch him die, you know? Even if the poison was weak it would have gone into effect fairly quickly.

Fifth – romances where the girl has zero agency are not my thing. She goes to the Earl in a proxy marriage, she’s pulled this way and that by others, but the only thing she gets to decide for herself is whether she’ll treat the blind girl nicely. (No brainer.)

While completely not a “me” book it somehow managed not to make me mad, so there you are.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

23377543Beauty’s wealthy father loses all his money when his merchant fleet is drowned in a storm, and the family moves to a village far away. Then the old merchant hears what proves to be a false report that one of his ships had made it safe to harbor at last, and on his sad, disappointed way home again he becomes lost deep in the forest and has a terrifying encounter with a fierce Beast, who walks like a man and lives in a castle. The merchant’s life is forfeit, says the Beast, for trespass and the theft of a rose—but he will spare the old man’s life if he sends one of his daughters: “Your daughter would take no harm from me, nor from anything that lives in my lands.” When Beauty hears this story—for her father had picked the rose to bring to her—her sense of honor demands that she take up the Beast’s offer, for “cannot a Beast be tamed?”

Review:

McKinley is proving to be a “me” author.  I like her prose, I like her stories, and I fly through her books in record time.  I got through Beauty in one sitting during Dewey’s Readathon and it made for a wonderful morning.  I was surprised to see that this is McKinley’s first novel, released some 25 years before Sunshineas there’s little “hi i’m an early novel” awkwardness.

The cover says this is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but I think it’s a straight up telling.  There’s nothing terribly new or exciting but the story kept me interested and engaged throughout. I was hoping that tropes would be pushed a little more than they were, though.

Case in point – early on Beauty ruefully says that for someone with her name she is rather homely looking.  Beast thinks her beautiful, though, and when she protests the point he says,

“You will find no mirrors here, for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds.  And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!  Unconventional heroine!  Huzzah!  I was cheering until the end, where the castle’s magic gave her conventionally pretty looks and made her seven inches taller.  Ah, well.

I would have liked Beauty even more if I were a full on YA person, but even so it was an enjoyable ride.

Nonfiction November – My Year in Nonfiction

NonfictionNovember-e1506979820517Week one is here, huzzah!  First up is a look at our 2017 nonfiction reading.  Out of the 88 books I’ve read so far this year 22 have been nonfiction, an even (…ly odd) 25%.  Despite the low numbers three out of my four five star books have been nonfiction!  Now to share some of them with you:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

30347690I adore A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero.  It’s the rarest of the rare, translated nonfiction (well done rendering it in English, Frances Riddle!), and is a fascinating look at an Argentinian dance competition.  People practice for years in order to be the best malambo dancer, which includes the “honor” of never being able to complete again. Why do they train so hard to effectively end their careers?  Superbly written and unforgettable.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

29875902300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso.  It has a pull, and after seeing a couple of the aphorisms you just have to read the whole book.

“Worry is impatience for the next horror.”

“The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.”

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

I usually find a way to talk myself out of biographies – too long, too boring-looking, too old….

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This is my first year doing Nonfiction November and I’m excited just to be participating!  I hope to meet a bunch of nonfiction lovers and have great conversations about books while growing my TBR.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

34802624John Hodgman has written a memoir about his cursed travels through two wildernesses: from the woods of his home in Massachusetts, birthplace of rage, to his exile on the coast of Maine, so-called Vacationland, home to the most painful beaches on Earth

Vacationland is also about Hodgman’s wandering in the metaphoric wilderness of his forties, those years when dudes especially must painfully stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weirder dads that they are.

Other subjects covered include the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison, and advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Short review:

Do you like John Hodgman?  Then you’ll like this book. Go get it!

Longer review:

You’ve probably heard of and like Hodgman already via This American Life, the “I’m a PC” Mac ads, or his podcast Judge John Hodgman.  I was lucky enough to meet him at a book signing years ago and can confirm that he is a stellar human being.  (He signed my book “I know you are not a villain”, so it must be so.)

I am I biased? Sure. But his awesome human-ness is what comes out in this memoir essay collection. And first up is that he recognizes his white, upper middle class privilege and calls himself out throughout the book.

I am grateful to be reminded at how vigilant I need to be about my skin and its thinness and the responsibilities both entail.

The essays range over the course of Hodgman’s life but concentrate on his second act, namely being a middle-aged, once-kinda-famous dad who vacations in Maine. Come for the stories, stay for the amazing writing, humor, and insight.  It’s very Ira Glass-y in that bits of story are followed by pulling back to get a wider view.

We said good-bye to our new friends, who seemed happy to leave.  I do not know where they went in their lives after that, but I have learned to be comfortable with that.

A turn away from his books of fake facts, the essays of Vacationland are funny and earnest and make you glad that there’s a guy like John Hodgman out there, sharing his thoughts with the world.  A must read for Jh fans as well as a starting place for those unfamiliar.

Thanks to Viking and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.