Sunday, December 20, 2009

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

From Goodreads:
The struggle to perform well is universal: each one of us faces fatigue, limited resources, and imperfect abilities in whatever we do. But nowhere is this drive to do better more important than in medicine, where lives are on the line with every decision. In his new book, Atul Gawande explores how doctors strive to close the gap between best intentions and best performance in the face of obstacles that sometimes seem insurmountable. Gawandes gripping stories of diligence, ingenuity, and what it means to do right by people take us to battlefield surgical tents in Iraq, to labor and delivery rooms in Boston, to a polio outbreak in India, and to malpractice courtrooms around the country. He discusses the ethical dilemmas of doctors participation in lethal injections, examines the influence of money on modern medicine, and recounts the astoundingly contentious history of hand washing. And as in all his writing, Gawande gives us an inside look at his own life as a practicing surgeon, offering a searingly honest firsthand account of work in a field where mistakes are both unavoidable and unthinkable. At once unflinching and compassionate, Better is an exhilarating journey narrated by arguably the best nonfiction doctor-writer around (Salon). Gawandes investigation into medical professionals and how they progress from merely good to great provides rare insight into the elements of success, illuminating every area of human endeavor.

Aaron read Atul Gawande's first book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, right after we first got married. I read about three sentences over his shoulder and promptly commandeered it for myself.

I loved Complications (gave it 5 stars on Goodreads) and I was vaguely aware that he had written another and kept thinking I should go find it but never got around to it. Fortunately, I found it on my in-laws vast and well stocked shelves (it's like living in a library while we're here) and added it to my stack for our two week stay.

Gawande has a knack for writing about something that could be incredibly dry and dull in a way that makes you WANT to read about it. Also, it's so different and refreshing to hear a physician admit that he makes mistakes. And that ALL doctors make mistakes, despite the best of intentions. Both his books discuss how imperfect and imprecise a science medicine is and while it's frightening to have him admit it, it's also strangely reassuring.

Also, Complications gave me a long lasting and irrational fear of necrotizing fasciitis. So there's always that.

Better isn't QUITE as good as Complications, which was a lot more of his personal experiences, but it was still excellent and worth reading. I loved his section on childbirth seeing as it's the only thing in both his books that I've actually experienced, and the chapter on doctors and executions opened my eyes to a serious moral dilemma I had no idea even existed. If he came out with another I'd read it in a heartbeat. I keep coming away from his books with a lot more respect and understanding for medicine and I think that's something we all could use.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

From Goodreads:

Jeannette Walls's father always called her "Mountain Goat" and there's perhaps no more apt nickname for a girl who navigated a sheer and towering cliff of childhood both daily and stoically. In The Glass Castle, Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. To call the elder Walls's childrearing style laissez faire would be putting it mildly. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. But while Rex and Rose Mary firmly believed children learned best from their own mistakes, they themselves never seemed to do so, repeating the same disastrous patterns that eventually landed them on the streets. Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception; and being pimped by her father at a bar). Though Walls has well earned the right to complain, at no point does she play the victim. In fact, Walls' removed, nonjudgmental stance is initially startling, since many of the circumstances she describes could be categorized as abusive (and unquestioningly neglectful). But on the contrary, Walls respects her parents' knack for making hardships feel like adventures, and her love for them--despite their overwhelming self-absorption--resonates from cover to cover.

I have to start by saying that I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. It's kind of like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson in that I can't really say that I LIKED it just because of the subject matter. But it's one that I plan on recommending up and down. It's an amazing tale of courage and ingenuity and so much else.

But at the same time, this book was absolutely horrifying. Like...I don't even have words for how disgusted I am with Jeannette Walls' parents. And how much I want to write a strongly worded letter to Child Protective Services for not stepping in at some point. There were times when I wanted to throw this book at the wall because I was so angry that parents could put their children in these situations. The author herself was touched inappropriately or almost raped several times throughout the book. Her brother was molested by their nasty grandmother. Who knows what happened to the other two sisters. Their parents always shrugged it off and told them to deal with it. The blurb above references the following passage on page 184 that I wanted to include a little more fully:

"Mom, Uncle Stanley is behaving inappropriately," I said.
"Oh, you're probably imagining it," she said.
"He groped me! And he's wanking off!"
Mom cocked her head and looked concerned. "Poor Stanley," she said. "He's so lonely."
"But it was gross!"
Mom asked me if I was okay. I shrugged and nodded. "Well, there you go," she said. She said that sexual assault was a crime of perception. "If you don't think you're hurt, then you aren't," she said. "So many women make such a big deal out of these things. But you're stronger than that."

This is me, throwing myself out a window because a mother actually said that to her 13 year old daughter.

The fact that Walls can write this memoir with love and compassion is a testament to her own resilience. The writing itself is strong, the story is compelling and haunting. And eventually she gets her own happy ending. It took me several days to work through it but I know it will stick with me for a long time.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

From Goodreads:

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way they face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are–Shanghai girls.

A few years ago my in-laws got me Lisa See's Snowflower and the Secret Fan for Christmas. That was Aaron and I's first real Christmas together (we were on our honeymoon the previous year and didn't really have a Christmas) and we were so excited that we ended up opening all our presents the night before. I sat down with my book and stayed up all night to finish. It's one of those books that has gotten passed around to my friends, my mom, my mom's friends, etc. because it's so good that you just need to share it.

After Snowflower I sought out Lisa See's books only to be heavily disappointed. Nothing was even close to the level and I had more or less given up on her. Each of her other books just made me sad because I knew she was capable of so much more.

Shanghai Girls, while still not quite there, is still leaps and bounds above her other stuff. It has the heart and depth and feeling I remember from Snowflower. It probably won't be one that I pass around to everyone I know, but I feel good about recommending it. The story is solid and beautiful and, as a sister, one that I can totally relate to.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

From Goodreads:

“ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

I don't know why I had such low expectations for this book. Maybe just because it's so ridiculously popular? I've been on the waiting list at the library and I've still got like 30 people ahead of me. So when I saw it sitting on my mother-in-law's shelf after I first arrived I snapped it up and went to work. Because, seriously,

Story and plot and whatever else aside, the writing in this book made me aspire to greater compositional heights. I frequently found myself rereading sentences just to admire how awesome the wording was. It probably helped that their characters were British and quite clever (or batty), but seriously. My NaNoWriMo project could really benefit from the way the authoresses turned their phrases. It actually made me excited to go back and rewrite my forty whatever thousand words into something more readable.

The plot was really lovely. I swear I've read reviews on this book but for some reason I had no idea what it was about when I started and I was pleasantly surprised. I felt like it had some depth and substance while still feeling like fairly light reading. I loved the characters, I loved learning about the occupation of the Channel Islands (which I had been pretty clueless about), I loved the format (letters back and forth between characters). There was just a lot to like about this book.

Plus, all the characters are drawn together by a deep love of books and reading. How could I argue with that?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

From Goodreads:

MOST OF MY friends now go to Pius Senior College, but my mother wouldn’t allow it because she says the girls there leave with limited options and she didn’t bring me up to have limitations placed upon me. If you know my mother, you’ll sense there’s an irony there, based on the fact that she is the Queen of the Limitation Placers in my life.

Francesca battles her mother, Mia, constantly over what’s best for her. All Francesca wants is her old friends and her old school, but instead Mia sends her to St. Sebastian’s, an all-boys’ school that has just opened its doors to girls. Now Francesca’s surrounded by hundreds of boys, with only a few other girls for company. All of them weirdos—or worse.

Then one day, Mia is too depressed to get out of bed. One day turns into months, and as her family begins to fall apart, Francesca realizes that without her mother’s high spirits, she hardly knows who she is. But she doesn’t yet realize that she’s more like Mia than she thinks. With a little unlikely help from St. Sebastian’s, she just might be able to save her family, her friends, and—especially—herself.

Apparently Melina Marchetta's first book, Looking for Alibrandi was so good that it actually became part of Australia's school curriculum. I'm just about to spend a couple paragraphs talking about how much I loved Saving Francesca, her second novel. Her third, Jellicoe Road is probably my favorite novel of the year, so much so that I'm about to go pick it up from the library for a second reading and then possibly name my second born after one of the characters. I'm not actually joking on that, either.

I can't WAIT to see what else Marchetta comes out with. She apparently wrote another novel called Finnikin of the Rock after Jellicoe Road but for some reason my library insists on not carrying it, so I have to figure out some way to get my mitts on it. Because I think I am seriously in love with Melina Marchetta.

While Saving Francesca doesn't have the same depth and all around awesomeness of Jellicoe Road, there is still SO MUCH to love. Although, like Jellicoe Road, it's almost difficult to pinpoint WHAT exactly is so awesome about this book.

The main character is relatable and realistic. She has some real trials going on and she responds to them in ways that actually make sense to me. As someone who has a permanent dent from smacking herself in the forehead when a character makes a stupid and non-logical decision in response to a situation, this is a big deal to me.

The supporting characters are awesome and loveable, the situations are real things I saw as a teenager in high school and Francesca's resulting behavior made me think of a bunch of kids I knew who I wrote off as slackers but years later found out had real problems going on outside of school. Plus the friend and boy drama were written in a way that made them totally familiar to me.

I don't know, I just feel like it encapsulated...something...really well. The teenage experience? Growing up and becoming comfortable in your own skin? I don't know, but whatever it is, I related to it.

My one complaint is that the love story and love interest just weren't quite up to par with everything else. I actually spent most of the book waiting for her to fall in love with one of the other male characters (my money was on James) because Will just kept not making the grade. And then the way it came together at the end (despite a humorous fatherly interference at an inopportune time) didn't make much sense to me in the context of the rest of their relationship.

I will leave you with the following passage, which pretty much made my day:

Having boys around at camp is hard. You have to be on the alert. Boys, for example, like exposing themselves. They walk back from the shower blocks with their towels around them, and next minute either someone flashes you, or one of his friends grabs his towel off him and makes a run for it. I have to say it's a bit traumatic at times, not knowing when the next penis will appear.