Life in the Balance is the devastating memoir of a cardiologist with a particularly nasty form of Parkinson’s. He describes his initial denial that anything is awry and the progressive worsening of his condition, which slowly takes away his mental abilities in addition to his physical abilities. For someone who was particularly happy and proud to be playing tennis, skiing, and taking care of patients, the situation of being imprisoned in a body that’s declining rapidly is awful. The prose is not the most elegant (how come ghost writers can’t do a better job? See here and here.) but the feeling of being a prisoner of his own body is rendered most effectively.
If you’ve ever wondered whether older patients with dementia really know what’s happening to them, read this book.
The Dominant Animal describes how we humans are abusing the planet as we grow ever more sophisticated and greedy. If you want to get really depressed about where we are going, this book is for you. The authors do attempt to give solutions, which are basically for us in the rich world to somehow give up our food (meat is bad), transportation (cars are bad, so are planes), and even our cities, which would have the magical effect of letting the poor people of the world raise their standards of living to meet us somewhere in the middle.
I don’t think that’s going to happen.
What an odd book! The Good Thief is a Dickens-like novel written by a contemporary author. Set in New England during colonial times, it describes the fantastic life of Ren, an orphan missing a hand who is growing up in a Catholic orphanage and is claimed unexpectedly by a man who says he’s his brother but is not, naturally. What follows includes (deep breath): dwarves, grave robbing (grisly!), an obese killer who enjoys killing, a warm-hearted deaf landlady, shady physicians, a kind drunk, and much more. Each chapter properly ends in suspense so you turn the pages and each chapter reliably produces more unlikely characters and adventures. Yet the question remains: do we need another Great Expectations in 2008?
The Enemy Within is a survey of witch hunting in the Western world, including the famous Salem witch trials but also drawing parallels with McCarthyism and even the preschool abuse trials of the 80s. It’s written by a Yale university professor who is clearly an expert on the topic, so there’s lots of good information, but I did not find it very compelling.
Anita, the author, is having difficulties finding a husband in New York city, having been unable to find one in London where she used to live as a carefree and cosmopolitan journalist. Considering that her quest involves going out to party and drink heavily with men who are married or have girlfriends in other cities, her predicament is perhaps understandable.
Therefore, she decides to move to India, where she knows that marriage is a more central part of the culture and where she may follow her parents’ example of an arranged marriage. (Her parents emigrated to the US after their marriage and are still together and apparently happy.) So she moves to India, gets a job and an apartment, and resumes her life of partying, drinking, and one-night stands. Guess what: marriage seems as elusive in the new Indian setting as in New York. Amazing. She then tries the marriage ad route, but scares away a number of potential suitors with her freewheeling ways, then discards the rest as not scintillating enough for her. Marrying Anita is a bust, marriage and book both. Fun descriptions of young adults’ lifestyles in Delhi, though.
Why would I pick up the sequel of a book I did not like (Liars and Saints)? Simply because I had borrowed both books at once and felt dutiful to finish all the books in the basket. I suppose that the book is not completely terrible if I did manage to finish it.
I liked A Family Daughter even less than Liars and Saints. Reinforcing the soap opera quality of the first one, it introduces the reader into the novel published by the back-to-life niece (the one who had slept with her supposed uncle who is really her cousin and had died after giving birth – OMG!) and that novel, which we initially think was autobiographical, is really a novel so basically the first book is a fantasy — a la the entire previous season was a dream.
This season, I mean novel, creates more fantastic licit and illicit liaisons, keeping the uncle/niece one that was unbelievable in the first book and is still unbelievable here, and adding other, wilder oddities including a crazy woman living in Argentina who manages to be both the uncle’s potential mother-in-law and the adoptive mother of the son of the lover of the French cousin who had helped the pregnant teenager in the first book (really.) By the time the climax comes with a bizarre Christmas celebration that brings together all those maladjusted people, it’s no wonder that the grandfather finds it too stressful to keep on living.
Liars and Saints appears to be an acclaimed novel — but I thought it read like a not-so-great soap opera, with so many unlikely adventures my eyes started to roll midway through the book. The first (big) twist works fine: a very Catholic mother sends her pregnant teenage daughter off to France and then raises the baby as her own. Could be interesting. But when this baby, grown up, proceeds to have an affair with his young niece (who is really his cousin, but they don’t know this) who then has a baby before dying of incurable cancer immediately after his birth, things just don’t make sense anymore, even if this is fiction.
I found the characters of the parents and grandparents, staunch Catholics throughout the morally eventful 20th century, most believable and interesting. The kids are just nuts.
Hurry Down Sunshine is another terrifying book for parents, a la Beautiful Boy, but this time with a daughter who is diagnosed with psychosis and potentially a bipolar disorder, shut into a psychiatric hospital, drugged until her personality seemingly disappears, but recovers to go back to high school, where the book ends. (The epilogue hints at more problems down the line.)
As in A Beautiful Boy, the father and author is disarmingly open about the unusual aspects of the family lifestyle. I guess one has to be very open to even contemplate writing about such an experience, and it makes the story all the more interesting, whether it’s the aging hippie lifestyle of the mother or the bohemian ways of the father and stepmother, and their conflicts about how best to take care of their daughter.
I could not help wonder once again why not much attention is paid to the family of the patient. If someone would have taken the time to explain procedures and likely outcomes to the parents at the start of the initial hospitalization, and if someone could have provided a bit of support to help them get organized for when their daughter came back home, it seems to be that their burden would have been much lighter. Even the wonderful psychiatrist who provides her outpatient treatment doesn’t seem to want to include the parents very much in her care. Perhaps it’s more a reflection of the health care system rather than the individuals who work in it?
Cigarettes tells the story of of cigarette manufactureres in America in much more accessible manner than The Cigarette Century reviewed recently. It turns out that 200 pages is enough to tell the story while avoiding the more tedious discussions. (I’ll admit it: I’m no historian.)
The author makes a powerful argument of the financial aspects of the tobacco industry, so much so that I even remember that tobacco farmers make 30 times more per acre than wheat farmers. (Unfortunately she only gives revenue numbers, hinting that tobacco farming is very labor intensive, so the profits cannot be as disproportionate. Here’s a good example of what you lose by reading the Cliff notes version of anything.)
Like The Cigarette Century she has a good description of the marketing techniques and deceitful health claims and denials of the industry. Her graphs are disgracefully embellished — Edward Tufte would definitely not approve — but chilling nevertheless. Plotting deaths against consumption suggest a link, if not causation.
The Cigarette Century is a big tome (over 500 pages) that describes the success of cigarettes in the US and abroad. Written by a history professor, it’s carefully researched and annotated and, well, a little dull for me.
It follows the industry’s legendary success at marketing and selling a product which was never a necessity and is now known to kill its customers or at least many of them, in the long run. That in itself is a great story. It also describes how the industry suppressed and minimized the research that proved that smoking, surprise, is not that good for your health. And it talks about the litigation about smoking and how both the US belief that we control our own destiny and, ironically, the danger warnings imposed on cigarette manufacturers made it very difficult to win any of the lawsuits, at least for many years.
On a separate, but related note, I was stunned to learn that about a third of American adults smoke today and I imagine the California figure is considerably lower.
P.S. for a similar, much shorter and digestible account, try Cigarettes.