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 life 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 take 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. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"Mom, after someone dies and becomes a ghost, do they become a kid again?"

My four-year-old asked me this just a day after I finished reading Atkinson's book, Life After Life.

"Well, some people believe that. It's called reincarnation." I told him, wondering if his earlier comment about how I should wear a certain necklace "the next time I got married" was related to this conversation.

While I'm not sure Life After Life is about reincarnation, parallel universes, or a hybrid of both, it nonetheless has an intriguing premise: a woman lives her life again and again, with small tweaks here and there that enable her to live longer in one life (or shorter), or follow a completely different path in another.

Ursula Todd is born (and reborn) in a snowstorm in Britain, 1910. She is primed to live through the first and second World Wars, which makes for an interesting perspective in its own right. Through Ursula, Atkinson explores themes of family, fate, intuition, free choice, and, obviously, mortality. One thing I like about this book is that there are many tongue in cheek moments, even in the darkest places Atkinson ventures. But I wouldn't describe this book as funny. It can be a bit heavy at times, yet Atkinson does a great job of giving levity here and there to remind us that even in the darkest times, there's always hope, if not in this world, then well, you know.

We learn what life in the English countryside is like, as well as life in London during the World War II Blitz, and we even learn a little about life in Germany in the 1930's. As with Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Atkinson explores that nagging feeling you sometimes get about something, but can't quite explain. She also explores what life might be like if that niggling feeling moves toward awareness.

And it's this final point, that got me thinking about what my son said next, after asking if after people die and become ghosts, they become kids again.

"After I became a kid again, my house looked different" he told me as matter of factly as if he'd just said there were clouds in the sky.

While I haven't gone all in on the prospect of reincarnation, the goosebumps on my arms reminded me that some things, like Atkinson's book, or a conversation with a four-year-old, just might make you wonder.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

According to wikipedia, Anne Rice is an author of "gothic fiction, christian literature, and erotica."

One of these things is not like the other... 

I know Interview with the Vampire has been around for awhile, after all, I was in high school when Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt played Rice's vampires, much to her dismay. That was more than *gulp* 20 years ago. But crap, the book is 40 years old people!

So if you live under a rock, like me, or you just have yet to dabble in the literary vampire arts, here's a briefing.

The story is told in the present day, with the vampire Louie telling a young reporter about his life over the past 200 years. He begins in New Orleans in the late 1700's when he was made a vampire by Lestat, a sadistic, manic vampire who doesn't seem the type to play well with others. I kinda get the impression vampires, as a class, don't play well with others though. So Louie is really an outlier. He maintains a semblance of compassion and humanity. He struggles with killing people every night and doesn't have a penchant for playing with his food, like Lestat does.

The story is great. We travel from New Orleans to Eastern Europe to Paris. We cross the span of 200 years (although there aren't a lot of historic or social landmarks that highlight the different time periods). But what I really liked was Louis' voice. Like literally. The man who narrated my audiobook did a great job. He kinda sounded like he had an eastern European accent from...well, wherever the Count is from. Yes, I'm talking about Sesame Street again. Anyway, I liked how Rice wrote him too (Louis, not the Count). He struggles with questions of immortality and religion. One of my favorite scenes is when Louis is in a church, looking around at the relics and religious symbols. Disillusioned, he thinks to himself, "I'm the only supernatural creature in this church."

And when he is talking with Armand, one of the Paris vampires, about the purpose of life without God, he says, "And what constitutes evil, real evil, is the taking of a single human life. Whether a man would die tomorrow or the day after or eventually... it doesn't matter. Because if God does not exist, then life... every second of it... Is all we have.”

That struck me. I've heard only the opposite argument, that if there is no God or no cosmic repercussions of any kind for human behavior, then what is the point of morality? Louis argues that it just becomes even more important to make the most of this life. Leave it to a fictional vampire played by Brad Pitt to bring me to an existential epiphany.

Here's another one I liked.

"Consequently, if you believe God made Satan, you must realize that all Satan's power comes from God and so that Satan is simply God's child, and that we are God's children also. There are no children of Satan, really.”

This stems from Louie struggling with whether or not he is good or evil, given his religious background and carnal reality. Whether or not you agree with these things is immaterial. Rice's writing will make you think about why you do or do not believe as you do through Louis. And according to Brad Pitt (who played him) he's a lot better in the book, than the movie. So....

An oldie but goodie. But I'm gonna watch the movie anyway.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

In the words of the great John Cleese, "and now, for something completely different..."

I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but it wasn't that. And yet, it's probably spot on for Gaiman. So what do I know?

I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to say because in reading the back of the book synopsis and other reviews, I just didn't realize that this story was so out there. Whoever was tasked with writing that synopsis stuck on his best poker face and really kept his hand close.You read the back and think, "okay, some guy visits a childhood friend's home and remembers stuff." Whatever. Maybe it's the crazy adventure to the creek or that epic slumber party.

Suffice to say, when things took a left turn (and it was abrupt) I was a bit surprised. My suspension of disbelief hadn't warmed up yet, I guess. Gaiman throws you right into his world where otherwordly creatures live amongst us mere mortals. I know all you Gaiman groupies are rolling your eyes right now in your best "er-doy" expression, but humor me.

The story is sufficiently creepy. Some of the imagery Gaiman evokes made my spine tingle. And the story seemed blissfully compact. I don't know how Gaiman told it in the number of pages he did, because it didn't seem as long as it was. There weren't any moments where I was bored or felt the action or tension really eased, yet I wasn't exhausted from all the excitement. I know I'm making myself sound like some kind of geriatric reader, "Oh the tension! It was too much! I need a nap."

I realize at this point in the review, I've normally given a better synopsis of the story. But like I said, I'm not sure what to say. Basically, if you already know you like Gaiman, I think this book won't disappoint. If you've never read him, it's a pretty good intro to his stuff. I definitely liked it better than some of his other books I've read. *ducks and hides*

Some interesting tidbits I got from Wikipedia about this tale, his characters, the Hempstocks, have appeared in other books, like Stardust and The Graveyard Book. He also wrote this book for his wife, who doesn't like fantasy. And some elements are drawn from his own childhood (like how someone stole his dad's car and commit suicide in it). Creepy.

A film may be in the works...the rights were bought a few years ago, and Tom Hanks is a producer. Should be interesting.