Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kulti by Mariana Zapata

This book is not really one I'd pick up, except for the rave reviews I was reading about it. So I decided to give it (and soccer lit) a go. Is that a thing? Soccer lit? Well, it is now.

I liked the narrator. Sal Casillas is strong, funny, and swears appropriately. But she's also a bit annoying, in a  righteously indignant way. And let me tell you, she. has. done. nothing. wrong. If there is a takeaway from this book, let it be that. Because she will remind you every flipping day.

So I guess I didn't like this one as much as everyone else.

But overall, it was good. I enjoyed the story of a U.S. professional female soccer player, whose team brings on Reiner Kulti, a soccer legend, as a coach. Of course personalities conflict, the past is dredged, revelations are made, and shenanigans ensure. Despite the soccer and professional sports thing, it's really a story that could happen to anyone. In that way, it's relatable, but also non-eventful.

Yet I kept reading. It was safe and comfortable, I guess. Like the old toaster in the attic my old boyfriend tried to compare me to when he was breaking up with me. But that's a different story in no need for further comment.

So I'll end with this: you'll probably like this book. I've heard it's really very good.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

Now that flu season is in full swing, and our flu shots aren't doing us much good this year, it's a good time to talk about all the disgusting diseases that can kill you. But let's up the stakes and focus on diseases that spread worldwide, we're talking cholera, Ebola, SARS...pandemic level contagions.

Sonia Shah's book, Pandemic, focuses heavily on cholera, tracking its meager beginnings to its reemergence today. Shah believes that by studying cholera, many other world diseases can be understood. But she doesn't just talk about cholera, she uses it as a vehicle to segue into other diseases, explaining what exactly they are, how they spread, and how environmental or cultural factors contribute to this spread.

And it's this last point I found most interesting. She talks about how China's wet markets contributed to the spread of SARS, or how public sanitation, or lack thereof, contributed to cholera's spread.

Among social and economic factors, Shah talks about how a foreclosure crisis in South Florida contributed to an explosion of Dengue fever. The foreclosures allowed mosquitos to breed in abandoned swimming pools and gardens out of sight of mosquito inspectors and homeowners. 

I particularly enjoyed her discussion of how the influence of Christianity basically made people dirtier than their ancient counterparts, who had elaborate water systems and rituals. She talked about how Hindus, Muslims, and Jews also have water based hygiene rituals, but Christians, just had to sprinkle a few drops of holy water to be "clean."

"The most holy Christians, with their lice-infested hair-shirts, were among the least washed people on earth."

And the European descendants who came to America had forsaken these ancient rituals, consuming up to 2 teaspoons of fecal matter in their food and drink a day.

And don't get her started on global warming. We are protected from many fungal pathogens that decimate amphibious populations because of the temperature of our blood, which is too warm for these pathogens to survive. But could a slow warming of the environment allow certain pathogens to soon tolerate the warmth of our blood?

She also had a great example of how the loss of biodiversity in bird species can influence the spread of human pathogens.

While this review from the New York Times suggests Pandemic doesn't offer anything new to the genre, and in fact falls short of relevant disease discussion, I suppose an uninformed person like myself just might find the book compelling.

Give Me Liberty! A review of American History and Voices of Freedom by Eric Foner

Give me liberty! And two book reviews damn it! Yes, I'm reviewing (more) textbooks. Why American History? Well, my instructor asked me the same question, and here was my answer to him:

     "I chose history because it's everywhere. It's in the events that lead to a new technology, it's in old pictures I see of myself, as I laugh at the fashion trend of the time. It's in the changes in popular culture, or in our search to understand why something happened the way it did. It's in the obituaries we read about a life now passed.

     Why American History? Well, whenever I hear a news report that talks about the workings of government. I always wish I had paid a bit more attention in my high school history class. I hope that in taking this course, I will be more informed about how this country works and why it works the way it does. I don't want to have to turn to Wikipedia anymore to figure out things I feel I should already know, like how a bill becomes a law, or why we have an electoral college. I expect to come out of this class with not only a better understanding of American History, but that by understanding the foundation and growth of this country, it will give some context to help me understand current events."

You get the gist. So Give Me Liberty is the textbook we used. Eric Foner has another, more comprehensive text. So this one is the condensed version. But a lot of the materials cut out of the main textbook are included in the companion reader, Voices of Freedom. This book has short readings that supplement each chapter, usually essays and letters by people from that particular time period.

I'm not an aficionado of History textbooks, but I actually thought Give Me Liberty was quite good. Foner really emphasized things that weren't traditionally taught, especially in grade school history courses. His focus on racial inequality and the roots of racism in America were really eye opening to me. He spent a lot of time discussing the dishenfranchisement of groups like Native Americans, women, and African Americans. And his summary of American History from Columbus' voyage to the Americas to the Civil War was brief, but impactful.

The companion book, Voices of Freedom, was a bit of a bore for me, tbh.But I suppose it's a great resource if you want a compilation of writings from that time period.

So a hit and miss, respectively, for these two books. Not that you're going out to buy either anytime soon. But you should know, I still don't quite get how a bill becomes a law (that's not really covered in this book). But there's always this guy for that:


Friday, September 1, 2017

Dr. Mutters Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

It's hard to think that there used to be a day when people would willingly go into surgery without anesthesia of any kind...without sterile procedures in place...and without a formally trained doctor. But that's just a taste of what people faced in the 19th century, when Thomas Dent Mutter practiced medicine. And the marvels that form part of his legacy are more than tangible curiosities in a cabinet.

Dr. Mutter was born into a loving family, but he lost both his parents at a young age. He also suffered from a chronic condition his entire life. But despite the setbacks life presented him, Thomas Mutter studied medicine and became a well-respected surgeon. And what I like best about him is the compassion he showed his patients, treating them as people, not mysteries to be solved. He revolutionized the way patients were treated by preparing them physically and mentally for days before surgery, and providing aftercare, rather than sending patients home within hours of experiencing the physical and mental trauma of surgery in the 1800's. His ideas on hygiene, in a time when germ theory was in its infancy, were ahead of their time. He also was one of the first doctors to use anesthetic on his patients, something that wasn't as popular as you might think among the medical community at the time. 

Mutter's contributions to medicine also include the eponymous Mutter flap surgery, a form of skin grafting used to treat the deformities of burn victims, that is still used today. And in the mid 1800's, there were a lot of burn victims, especially women, who wore flammable clothing while cooking over open flames. And such trauma often meant a lifetime of exile and shame for people who were shunned by society for their deformities. 

What's great about this book is that not only is Mutter himself an interesting person, but he lived in a strange and perplexing time. Aptowicz's narrative of 19th century medicine was the stuff of nightmares. This was a time when doctors assisted surgeons by holding the limbs of the patient, so he couldn't move, when society believed the more blood seen on a doctor's frock, the better the doctor, when surgeries were performed on stages with a live audience of medical students, and when patients were cut and bled to cure them of various ailments. 

We've come a loooooong way, and this book was an entertaining way to be reminded of that.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

After the Crash by Michael Bussi

This is a great example of what happens when a boob man writes a mystery novel. While the story at hand is fine, there were times when I'd be reading about turbulence in an airplane and then...BAM! A flight attendant with an aged fleshy bosom enters the scene. Does this character have an important role in the events at hand? Not really. Is there something about her body that is relevant to what is occurring? Nope. Well, maybe the author is just trying to paint a word picture for us...why then does he not mention anything else about this person's appearance? So now I'm left trying to solve the mystery of the mention of said bosom rather than focusing on the story at hand.

And we are only on the 2nd paragraph people.

We are then introduced to another character whose huge tits and oversized mammaries are described in two consecutive sentences. And then this character catches a ride with an acquaintance who mentions how he used to get so turned on watching her try to hide her big titties when she was on TV (his words, not mine). A totally acceptable comment from your friend's gardener while riding for 5 minutes together in the car, so I'm led to believe.

So Nicole has big boobs, got it. I'll give Bussi a pass whenever he feels the need to wax poetic about them.

But then Nicole's grandson notices her picture on a wall, and Bussi decides "ample breasted" would be an appropriate way to describe her in the photo. Maybe it's just me, but it seemed weird coming in the context of thoughts from her grandson.

And, while not quite as eyebrow raising as the anatomical fixation, I found it strange that distances were described in miles in a book that took place in France.

Luckily for Bussi, he has an out, as this book was originally written in French. There's some plausible deniability going on that allows me to wonder if all of this is really just something that is lost (gained?) in translation.

Works for me.

Boobs, miles, and hints of possible incest aside, this book isn't half bad. If you're interested in solving the mystery of a 3 month old baby who is the sole survivor of a plane crash, and whose identity is questioned, this book will not disappoint. And despite what I've said, the mystery is primary here, so boob men are better off waiting for the on screen adaptation.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Don't get me wrong, I like me a dystopian mind blow every now and again to make me feel good about my current situation, but guh-damn. I've got to read about a lot of unicorns and rainbows to cleanse my palette after this cluster of darkness.

The Handmaid's Tale is an American version of oppressive societies like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere ISIS is in charge. With fundamentalist religious imagery, creepy sex scenes, and people displayed on hooks, I noped my way through this book as fast as I could.

A part of my discomfort lies in the setting. It wasn't in some unnamed distant future. It was now. Offred (our narrator) grew up in the 80's, like me. She lived before everything went to hell, after a totalitarian regime took over the United States. She didn't wonder what things were like before. She knew. And that makes her reality more relatable to me and harder to accept.

And her kid? Don't get me started. All I have to say is Margaret Atwood owes me an apology for bringing children into her nightmare society the way she did. It's like watching effing Walking Dead after stupid Judith was born and all I could think about was how the baby wasn't going to get eaten by zombies every freaking minute of the show. Not that Offred's daughter is a big part of the book, and her life isn't in danger, but STILL.

And if you're wondering what happens, well, nothing in particular. We just hear about Offred's life - with snippets of her before. We learn basically what daily life is like for someone in her position, basically living as a concubine in a patriarchal society that suppresses women's rights (among others). No bigge.

Is it interesting? I guess. But so is a car accident, or a jerusalem cricket. Doesn't mean I need to linger any longer than necessary in their presence. And with that, I am over this book. It's thought-provoking, but too severe for my taste. Any society where people greet each other with "blessed be the fruit" or "under his eye," is one I'll only see in my rear view mirror. Real or fictional.

Just got word that the Hulu series is even worse than the book. Will I watch it? Of course! I can't NOT!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is a work of historical fiction written in 1976 by Alex Haley. He begins with the life and eventual capture of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte in Africa. In what follows is a mostly fictional story, except for possibly a few details and Kinte's lineage.

Fiction or not, Roots is an amazing saga of nine generations. The most intriguing part of the book, for me, was the beginning, which focused on Kinte's life. After Kinte was transported to America to be sold as a slave, I understood how he yearned for his village, the sounds of the monkeys in the trees, his simple hut, hunting for food, and being so self-sufficient. When I first started reading about life in his village I thought how horrible it must be to live in such primitive conditions. But by the time Kunta was kidnapped, I saw how beautiful and amazing his life had truly been.

It was also interesting to see how, when Kunta lived as a slave on two American plantations, he despised the American slaves. Their culture was so completely different from his, and they seemed more complacent to him, as he couldn't understand why they didn't all try to escape. In the first of many personal compromises he would make, he married a Christian American slave and struggled with instilling his heritage in his daughter, Kizzy. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read or write (and Kunta could do both, in Arabic), made it even more difficult. In addition, after Kizzy was sold to another plantation, her ties to her father and mother were completely severed. What would Kunta have thought, to know that his grandchildren would grow up to be culturally similar to those American slaves he despised? His dreams of a family, living as Muslims, repeating the traditions he grew into, would never be achieved.

In full disclosure, there is some controversy surrounding the book that might make it unpalatable to some. A few years after its release, Haley was sued by author Harold Courlander and Haley settled, acknowledging that some passages were taken from Courlander's book, The African.

There were also questions raised about how true certain parts of the book actually were, in terms of Haley's purported research into his family's ancestry. 

Controversy aside, this was quite the read, and so worth it. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening, and likely a  different perspective on American history than many of us were offered in school. Highly recommend.