Despite its charming subtitle, The Body: A Guide for Occupants reads more like a recitation of facts, some rather pedestrian ones and some more entertaining, including many short biographies of scientists who figured out various malfunctions (there are many! It’s a miracle we do as well as we do considering what we have to work with).
Rather than feeling the miracle as critics announce, I got just a little bored with all the facts.
The author of Early: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What It Teaches Us About Being Human had a premature baby girl and go curious about prematurity, but the book does not have the schmaltzy quality of similar memoir-research combinations. Instead, we are treated to the history of incubators, the amazing progress that has been achieved in saving premature babies in the last 50 years, from birth weights that one were death sentences, and the strange world of the NICU. She also shares the sad realities that prematurity is common, not well understood, and often result in lifelong disabilities of various kinds, while not being distributed evenly at all amongst the population. It’s a great book, and inspiring rather than depressing.
I suppose that the author of Medieval Bodies: Life and Death in the Middle Ages felt he had to start by defending the Middle Ages from the usual contempt of readers who think that the Renaissance is the interesting period, but his book is so fascinating that prejudices will fall away. Drawing from documents and artifacts from the Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic traditions, in multiple languages, he explores illness, conceptions of the body and brain, competitiveness amongst saints (pro tip: the more extreme the martyrdom the better), race, the crazy mechanics of bleeding patients, and chiromancy. The result is that we enter into the logic of medieval people, in a kind, not mocking way.
My favorite part of the books was the set of medical textbooks he references, some actually kinda correct, others very entertaining and always beautifully illustrated.
The title of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness comes from a study that serendipitously found that lovingly-cared for (lab) rabbits escaped heart attacks. From that, the author tries to spin an entire book showing that happy people with good friends and a supportive community have better health outcomes. It’s often a bit shaky, however much we’d like to believe that love and kindness are wonderful –and sometimes it feels like, perhaps, sick people have it coming to them before they were not kind enough, lovable enough, or connected enough (the author never says so, to be sure!) The most convincing part of the book is when it discusses how we could (and should!) organize society to minimize stressors to promote good health. Seems like a rather cheap way to go, actually.
Written by an intensive care physician in the UK, Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor talks about her experiences with very sick patients and their families, and is refreshingly candid about her emotions, not just those of the patients. She starts with fear, and it’s one of the chapters I appreciated the most, for her honesty and the power of a compliment when the outcome is poor despite best efforts.
The other chapters can be uneven but all have interesting stories, and here and there little reminders of the local flavor of medicine, across the ocean.
How to Treat People: A Nurse’s Notes is an earnest account of a British nurse’s worklife, intertwined with an account of her father’s medical journey. The overall effect is a little too workmanlike. My favorite parts of the books are when she describes the exquisite are and efforts deployed by her and other nurses to communicate with difficult, resistant patients, gently convincing them to submit to the treatments. There are many difficult patients out there!
The author of The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last is an oncologist who believes that we do too much to try to stop cancer cells once they are already multiplying rapidly, and should instead focus on early intervention. What a great idea. What’s not so great is this book, which suffers from several weaknesses. The first one is that it frequently repeats the same themes. Yes, we do understand that vast sums of money are spent developing exorbitantly expensive drugs that prolong lives for a few weeks. Second, the parade of patients that are presented all seem to be highly intelligent, educated, rich, sensible folks, who trust the good doctor completely. Don’t regular or obstreperous folks get cancer too? And perhaps the most unsettling aspect is the touting of the author’s personal tissue repository. Since the problems are so complex, shouldn’t we be sharing resources and research ideas?
Martha Ballard, of A Midwife’s Tale likely hand idea that her diary would one day be the object of learned discovery. She wrote it as a cross between a weather almanac, a recitation of the house chores she accomplished every day, the babies she delivered and patients she helped, complete with an accounting of payments, and a list of house guests. And a mass murder or two (really!) But patiently analyzed, the diary also revealed wedding customs (lots of very early babies!), her difficult relationship with her husband, her wayward son, the peril of the frozen river that separated her from half of her patients, the complicated relationships between midwives and doctors, and how overwhelming women’s chores could be, with lots of children and no appliances or read-bought anything. Highly recommended for a glimpse at the lives of everyday women in the late 18th century.
Written as a memoir, mostly by the scientist of the title, The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug tells a spellbinding story of a very sick man, her husband and co-author, who endured months of severe illness, much of it in ICU, while fighting antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. In the end, an extremely experimental procedure involving a customized bacteriophage (the unlikely shape on the cover of the book) won the battle, propelled by a formidable phalanx of scientists with FDA connections, led or at least inspired by the first author. From a scientific perspective, it’s an amazing tale. From a societal perspective, it feels a little strange to see the deployment of such formidable tools being engineered solely through the connections of the principals–but reviving bacteriophage therapy may well serve many other patients in the future.
The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves reads more like a textbook than a non-fiction book (sample sentence: “excessive action of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway, resulting from an overabundance of D2 receptors, could be the main cause of schizophrenia cognitive symptoms-because this pathway connects to the prefrontal cortex, the site of the cognitive symptoms.”). Kandel earned his Nobel prize, but no Pulitzer.