When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich

9780062656209_56b54At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. He examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

Review:

Books by doctors who wield scalpels are some of my favorites, and Mezrich does a great job introducing the reader to the history and current practice of transplant surgery.

The good:

  • This is not a comprehensive history of transplantation, nor a memoir, nor a collection of patient stories.  It’s equal parts of each, allowing us to get an overview of the field in a personal, relatable way.
  • Transplant surgery is amazing, and Mezrich obviously loves his job and sharing that wonder and excitement with us.  It’s almost like he’s going, ‘Look!  Isn’t this cool?’ And it is.
  • The pioneers of the field, like most doctors in the 1960s and 70s, were men, so I appreciate that he takes the time to acknowledge a woman who is leading the field today and has some bad ass stories of her own.
  • The pacing is good and the switches between history, patient stories, and his training are well done.  I never thought, ‘go back!’ or, ‘ugh, history again’.  It all fits together.
  • Mezrich doesn’t shy away from ethical issues. Some of the first donors didn’t give consent, exactly, and organs were taken from people who died in prison as a matter of course.  When the field was first getting established there wasn’t even an accepted definition of brain death.  Not all the controversy is in the past – do you give a new liver to an alcoholic?  How much risk do you let a living donor take on in order to save their spouse?
  • Overall the tone is upbeat.  He doesn’t tear our hearts out or leave us in suspense about the outcome of a case, which I appreciate.  My eyes did leak a bit while reading the chapter about donors because the details are beautiful and touching. For example, before starting the operation to procure organs the doctors, nurses, ICU team, and other staff that took care of the patient will pause and say something about the donor.  Often they’ll read a poem or express thoughts from the family, and many will have tears in their eyes as they start.
  • There are no spiels about how everyone should donate their kidneys or anything like that.  He accepts organs as they come, and always with a sense of gratitude and respect for the donors.
  • The author seems like a nice guy which is saying a lot, because there are bunches of surgeons who write books that don’t seem like nice guys.  He acknowledges the rest of his team and thanks them often, as well as share funny, self-deprecating stories.

The not-so-good:

  • As much as I enjoyed this book (a lot!) I’m not sure it will stick with me.  It’s missing that ineffable something that screams four star read.  3.5 stars, though I may bump it up later.

If you like books about medicine, look forward to the Wellcome Prize longlist, or are just curious about transplantation, you’ll want to pick up When Death Becomes Life.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Murderbot Diaries #2)

36223860It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

Review:

Murderbot, how I love thee!

That sounds so wrong but feels so right. Socially anxious and perfectly happy to escape the world via thousands of hours of video programming, our relatable narrator finds itself on a quiet transport ship that isn’t quite so quiet.

Being the second in a series I don’t want to say much, but I loved reading it’s next adventure. As much as I would have liked to see Murderbot continue on with the crew from the first book ART is a wonderful addition.

I wanted more from this book, but I think that’s just me being greedy. The plot fits the page count, we get to watch Murderbot evolve a bit, and the world is opened up to us oh so slightly. This series has become a comfort read for me. As much as I’d enjoy gobbling up the next two novellas I’m going to space them out – the next book, a full-blown novel, won’t be released until 2020. 😭

A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Tiffany Reisz

42903623Two days before Christmas 1871, the newly-minted Baron Marcus Stearns returns to London for the reading of his long-estranged and much-despised father’s will, fully certain he will inherit nothing but the title. He receives the shock of his life when he learns that he and his sister Lady Claire will only inherit their late father’s vast estate if he marries—immediately.

Kingsley, the Baron’s lover and devoted valet, offers a simple solution to a seemingly Herculean task—the Baron should simply marry his beautiful ward Eleanor. Yet while the Baron longs to do just that…he possesses a dangerous secret that threatens to destroy their marriage before it’s hardly begun.

Review:

Reisz releases a short story set in her Original Sinners universe every Christmas, but this year she followed a plot bunny and wrote an 85 page novella. I’m not complaining!  The main characters are reimagined in the Victorian era with Soren as a Baron, Kingsley his valet, and Nora his ward.

If you haven’t read the main Original Sinners series don’t bother with this – you’ll need to get through the first four books or so to understand and appreciate what’s going on here. The vibe is completely “what if”, centering on what it would be like if Nora and Soren actually got married. It’s fun, it’s a good kind of silly, and it has a couple of hot sex scenes. Soren and Kingsley’s bisexuality is discussed in an interesting way thanks to the setting. Reisz even takes a plot device I despise and makes it into something palpable.

Not bad for my first read of 2019.

Surface Tension by Valentine Wheeler

42674588Sarai ran away from home to find a new life on the high seas. But when a storm destroys her ship and her life aboard it, she’s stuck on land with only a days-long hole in her memory and the tattered clothes on her back. What could have happened beneath the sea? And can the strange new world she finds when she investigates help her save the world she left behind?

Review:

I picked up Surface Tension because it’s an f/f romance with bi rep that has mermaids, and I need more of that in my life. It’s inspired by The Little Mermaid but goes off and does its own thing.

The good:

  • The author is autistic and bi, making for own voices bi rep, yea!
  • Serai’s yearns to be out at sea and make her own life to get away from a less than ideal father, and she does it. The beginning, where she meets an awful storm with her crew mates on the high seas, drew me right in.
  • The Ariel-esque character has the same grotto and love of human objects that you would expect, but with a more scientific bent, which is neat.
  • All of the icky parts of The Little Mermaid story are taken out so no one loses their voice to get legs, etc.
  • The under sea sections have the germ of a good idea, but…

The not-so-good:

  • The setting isn’t fleshed out much. It’s your typical European fantasy setting – vaguely medieval with a town, castle, forest, and ocean. I wanted more, especially from the under sea sections.
  • The one side character with any teeth, Nicholas, could have served the plot better.
  • I’m not sure I understood the point of the mermaids having four tentacles.
  • The end smacks of colonialism, which I did not like or expect.

After such a wonderful beginning I was left disappointed.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt

Liberation cover 3How do you imagine trans liberation while living in a cis world? On My Way To Liberation follows a gender nonconforming body moving through the streets of Chicago. From the sex shop to the farmers market, the family dinner table to the bookstore, trans people are everywhere, though often erased. Writing towards a trans future, H. Melt envisions a world where trans people are respected, loved and celebrated every day.

Review:

Haymarket Books recently had 90% off sale on all their ebooks, so you can bet I was all over it!  This is one of the four nonfiction books I picked up and, by virtue of being a chapbook, the shortest at 28 pages.

Melt, who is trans and genderqueer, writes directly about their experience.  We sit with them as they are misgendered, deadnamed, and forced to deal with injustice every day.

But they won’t stop murdering.
Stop legislating. Stop imprisoning.
Stop claiming we are ruining our
countries, families, friendships
and futures too.

When every day
we awaken to
build them
anew.

I’m grateful that Melt put their lived reality down on the page for others to experience – the emotion comes through loud and clear. However I’m not the biggest fan of the poetry itself.  The work’s missing oomph for me, that punch that makes you want to sit with a poem after you finish it, or go back and reread it immediately.  Some of the images will rattle in my brain for a while yet but the words themselves will unfortunately fade more quickly.

Crudo by Oliva Laing

36638609Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart.

A Goodbye to Berlin for the twenty-first century, Crudo charts in real time what it was like to live and love in the horrifying summer of 2017, from the perspective of a commitment-phobic peripatetic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.

From a Tuscan hotel for the super-rich to a Brexit-paralysed UK, Kathy spends the first summer of her forties trying to adjust to making a lifelong commitment as Trump is tweeting the world into nuclear war. But it’s not only Kathy who’s changing. Political, social and natural landscapes are all in peril. Fascism is on the rise, truth is dead and the planet is hotting up. Is it really worth learning to love when the end of the world is nigh? And how do you make art, let alone a life, when one rogue tweet could end it all?

Review:

I picked up this book because it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, one of my favorite literary awards.  I had already tried and put down a Cusk book (her writing just isn’t for me) so this was my second try at finally reading a winner (alas, that didn’t happen, either).

It took me a while to get used to this book and the writing.  I was on high alert, looking for all kinds of Prizeworthy! things, but I should have let myself sink into prose and not worry so much.  When I was finally able to do that, aided by a big fuzzy blanket and a hot water bottle, the pages flew by.

CrudoThe main draw here is the writing, and there’s just barely enough plot to keep me interested.  We follow the narrator through the summer of 2017 as the book acts as a snapshot of that scary, uncertain time. (We are still in scary, uncertain times, but it’s nice to think at least some of it is past us, don’t you think?)  It brought back some vivid memories for me, worded more beautifully than I could ever manage.

I see why Crudo was shortlisted and why so many people love it.  I was able to enjoy it once I got used to the writing style, and holy cow what writing, but not enough to tip it into four stars.

Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club by Anne Allison

 

22878618Anne Allison performed the ritualized tasks of a hostess in one of Tokyo’s many “hostess clubs”: pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, and making flattering or titillating conversation with the businessmen who came there on company expense accounts. She describes in detail a typical company outing to such a club—what the men do, how they interact with the hostesses, the role the hostess is expected to play, and the extent to which all of this involves “play” rather than “work.”

Allison seeks to uncover connections between such behavior and other social, economic, sexual, and gendered relations. She argues that Japanese corporate nightlife enables and institutionalizes a particular form of ritualized male dominance: in paying for this entertainment, Japanese corporations not only give their male workers a self-image as phallic man, but also develop relationships to work that are unconditional and unbreakable.

Review:

Nightwork is a good book in that it does exactly what it says on the tin – discuss hostess clubs in Japan from a sociological and anthropological standpoint. The problem is that it’s hard to recommend to almost anyone.

First, the subject matter.  Hostess clubs are establishments where groups of men, usually on company expense accounts, go to socialize with colleagues and potential business partners.  Hostesses are assigned to each table to light cigarettes, pour drinks, and keep the conversation going.  It is not a place of prostitution or a sex club, and the better the establishment the less the chance of anything outside a casual touch.  They don’t sell sex, they sell the idea of sex.  The hostesses and “mama” ( club owner) make men feel smart and sexy and desirable for a hefty hourly rate.

I picked up this book because I’ve heard about hostess clubs the entire time I’ve been in Japan, but I’ve never known anyone who has been to one.  They’re not as common as they used to be, I gather, and I’m not friends with any management types who have an excuse to visit on their company’s dime.  A few early chapters outline what a usual visit is like, how the clubs are arranged, and why companies see visits as an investment in their employees.

The book carries a huge caveat with it, though – it has become extremely out of date.  The author spent a few months as a hostess in 1981, and the book itself was published in 1994.  Many of the cited works are from the 70s and 80s, and I’m sure research has advanced in the intervening 30 years.

Textbook-y and sometimes dry writing aside, that time disconnect makes this book hard to recommend.  If you don’t know what Japan looks like now you may be tempted to apply everything to the current day, but you can’t.  Some insights carry over, but not all of them.  There’s no way to suss out which is which unless you’re already at least knee deep in the culture.

If you study Japan and/or speak Japanese and know the culture you’ll get some value out of Nightwork. However those with a more casual interest would do better looking elsewhere.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

36237289In Denmark, Professor Kristian Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.

Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Kristian is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?

Review:

I read this cover to cover during the most recent Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon.  I did a vlog of the experience, if you’d like to see my thoughts while I was reading.

The good:

  • Epistolary novel!  I love epistolary novels!  Woooo! 🙂
  • It’s a debut but doesn’t feel like one.  The writing is always believable as letters.  Some authors stray off, writing novel scenes in the middle of missives, but no such problem here.
  • Youngson is a retiree and her age proximity to the protagonists only adds to the authentic feel.
  • I like how they arrange to exchange letters – after sending a few through the mail they decide to continue to write longhand, but scan and send them as email attachments.  They also promise to print out each letter before reading it, to preserve the analog feel.
  • I liked learning about the characters and the plot kept me interested.  It wasn’t hard to read it within a day.

The not-so-good:

  • I feel bad bringing this up because it’s a problem with the whole of literature more than this one particular book, but… why can’t a guy and a gal just be friends?  I want more books with platonic friendships, free of “will they/won’t they” overtones and insinuations of romance.  The first three quarters of this book got my hopes up, but sadly platonic love just doesn’t seem to be a thing.

That’s just my hangup, though.  Otherwise it’s a pleasant read and an easy recommend to any and all epistolary fans.

Mating the Huntress by Talia Hibbert

42034959Chastity Adofo knows a monster when she sees one. As soon as Luke Anthony wanders into her family’s coffee shop, she recognises the evil lurking beneath his charming smile and fantastic arse. The handsome werewolf is determined to have her—but she’s determined to cut out his heart.

Little does she know, Luke’s plans for her are far more pleasurable than murder. And when the full moon rises, all bets are off…

Review:

I’ve enjoyed Hibbert’s writing in the past but each of the two novels I read had something that was not my thing.  In Bad for the Boss it was a suspense storyline I could have done without, and The Princess Trap had some triggering subjects discussed in the here and now, which I need to prepare my heart for.

Mating the Huntress, however, is good paranormal fun.  Chastity comes from a family of werewolf huntresses but hasn’t been allowed to face them herself.  Luke runs into her scent by chance, realizes they’re mates, and manufactures a meeting.  Chas goes along because she sees her chance for her first kill, and also ’cause he’s kinda cute.

It’s hard to say more because this is a novella and while the story didn’t feel overstuffed I wanted more pages.  I wanted a B plot, more characterization, and the world building could use some fleshing out.  Interesting elements are teased, but there’s no room to expand on them.

There’s lots to like, and lots that makes it a quick, easy read – interracial romance by a black woman author, all kinds of consent all over the place, and genuinely funny exchanges that may leave you cackling.  It helped me forgive the fated mate storyline and shorter page length.  I would love to see Hibbert build out a paranormal world from zero over the course of a series – Mating the Huntress is a start but I would love to see something with more depth.

Oranges by John McPhee

2799450I learned of this book via 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich, and it’s a neat little find.

John McPhee was tasked with writing a magazine article about oranges.  He went down to Florida, did some research, and came back with a 160 page book instead.

In large part this is because oranges, from their history to their cultivation and processing, is so gosh darn interesting.  The book fills your brain with trivia and “did you know”s.

The taste and aroma of oranges differ by type, season, county, state, and country, and even as a result of the position of the individual orange in the framework of the tree on which it grew.

Carvone, a synthetic spearmint oil which is used to flavor spearmint gum, is made from citrus peel oil.

Originally published in 1967, McPhee caught the industry at a turning point where American consumers started to prefer orange juice concentrate over the fresh stuff.  Concentrate is consistent in taste and texture and doesn’t go bad, making it a hit in mid-century homes.  He talks about the manufacturing process, the technical discoveries that allow concentrate to actually taste good, and how it was starting to change the industry.  I think it’s especially interesting because we have since turned back to fresh orange juice, and out of all the “how it’s made” videos on Youtube I can’t find one that shows concentrate being made.

The writing is light and easy and often Bill Bryson-esque, though without his self-deprecating humor. There are still funny bits, though. When a farmer picks McPhee up by helicopter to show him the groves:

The helicopter was yawing and swaying in a gusty head wind, and Adams – a youthful man wearing an open-necked shirt and a fiber hat with madras band – was having trouble keeping it on a true course.  The problem didn’t seem to bother him. “Isn’t this thing great?” he shouted.

“It sure is,” I said. “How long have you had it?”

“Almost three months.”

“What did you fly before that?”

“Never flown before. There’s nothing like it!”

I liked these adventures and profiles best – talking with scientists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, walking the groves with growers, and visiting an orange baron who was born in a town that wasn’t affected by cold snaps, so much so that it was named Frostproof, Florida.

That being said the middle part of the book, covering orange history, dragged me down. He gives example after example of anachronistic oranges in Renaissance paintings, details the introduction of oranges into different regions over time, and lists their myriad uses over the centuries. There were interesting facts in there but the list-y nature bored me. And do know that this book is a product of its times, so expect some casual and fleeting racism towards native peoples and African-Americans.

Oranges is good for the next time you want a light, interesting, fact-filled read, especially if you need a break from heavier stuff.