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Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Category: Biography

THE EDUCATION OF A CORONER by John Bateson

In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.
Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

Fans of true crime will love this book. Coroner Ken Holmes’ cases are described in great, gory detail, along with his thought process for cause of death. Some go unsolved, but all of them are a part of him.

Holmes is a self-deprecating man, which helped him move up the ladder within his department. As each case unfolds, the author portrays him with the right amount of confidence and respect. Some cases are more convoluted than others, so I am not sure who is at fault when the particulars get confusing. There were times where I had to read over the cast of characters a few times in order to determine who killed who, who had the motive, and other items of note. That is really the only caveat I have about this book – otherwise it’s an enjoyable, if dark, read. There are plenty of cases to appeal to everyone’s interest, whether it be prurient or otherwise. Holmes has an outstanding memory and usually has a philosophical turn when sharing his stories.

I got the impression that he is proud of his work, pays great attention to detail, and truly cares about those affected by the victim’s death. He emphasizes personal contact and shows empathy to those left behind.

Any book that teaches me something is a gem. In reading THE EDUCATION OF A CORONER I learned about rigor mortis (starts at the jaw, which is the strongest muscle in the body), suicide (apparently the Golden Gate Bridge was a mecca for those seeking to shuffle off this mortal coil) and government (how to work your way up through the ranks).

This was an excellent departure for the norm for me, and a thoroughly wonderful experience. If you have an interest in true crime or want to know what really happens during an investigation, pick this up. You won’t be sorry.

You can grab your copy [easyazon_link identifier=”1501168223″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

radium

The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice…

As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.

A rich, historical narrative written in a sparkling voice, The Radium Girls is the first book that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.

Many thanks to NetGalley for this advanced reading copy!

From the moment I started reading THE RADIUM GIRLS I was enthralled. The author’s goal for the reader to learn about each individual girl is thoughtful and ambitious. This is truly a book where the characters are at the forefront of the story. We see how each one, eager to earn a living, found Radium Dial and sealed their fate. The author handles the tragedy with diplomacy and underscored, yet effective use of detail, both medical and non (such as when one of the ill-fated girls catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and sees her bones glowing through her skin. She realizes she has radiation poisoning and promptly faints.).

As I read, I became infuriated and frustrated with the way that the girls were lied to and manipulated by the company. Banking upon their innocence, the “doctors” that examined them kept the true results hidden, while telling them that they were the picture of health. Over and over, they would experience a toothache or jaw pain; the harbinger of things to come. Insidiously things progressed to such a degree that walking or eating without pain was impossible.  Thankfully, finally, the stars aligned and  the case was brought to court. I am still amazed that there wasn’t more public outcry at their plight; this would never happen today. (Or would it? See the author’s epilogue.)

The author’s style is clean and easy to read; letting the story shine through without calling attention to how it’s being said. Once the “how” overshadows the “what”, I lose patience with a book. The writing flowed naturally here, letting emotions build and always keeping the girls front and center.

Each life is carefully, lovingly recreated – all the hopes, dreams and horror each Radium Girl experienced. By making each “girl” have a background, this brings them to life and makes this tragedy more real. There are so many moments in this book that made me stop to think about these poor victims – if they were men, would things have progressed as far as they did? These lives were truly taken for granted to further Radium Dial’s needs. I’m not sure which is more terrifying; the fact that radium has a half life of 1600 years (meaning their bodies are still emitting radiation from the grave) or that no one thought to care more about these women who were clearly suffering. Even the dimunitive “girls” is simultaneously endearing and dismissive, if you think about it.

THE RADIUM GIRLS was one of the best books I’ve read in a while, partly because the subject is fascinating, and because it allowed me to feel a gamut of emotions; to have me truly invested in the story and its outcome. The strength these women possessed is evident on every page, keeping the tension high and making them heroines regardless of how they were treated.

Kudos to the author for illuminating their lives as she did! She took these “statistics” and made them human…forcing us all to think about how the girls were treated as disposable. The description of the court battles is very detailed, further underscoring the evil corporation’s plans to try to drag out the proceedings, hoping the women would die before they would have to appear in court.

I have nothing bad to say about this book; there is history, pathos, hope, and humanity on every page. This should be required reading in high school, both to keep these girl’s memories alive, and to prevent suffering like this from ever happening again.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”B01N7KMS7X” locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

 

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich

patient hm

 

In 1953, a twenty-seven-year-old factory worker named Henry Molaison—who suffered from severe epilepsy—received a radical new version of the then-common lobotomy, targeting the most mysterious structures in the brain. The operation failed to eliminate Henry’s seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. Over the next sixty years, Patient H.M., as Henry was known, became the most studied individual in the history of neuroscience, a human guinea pig who would teach us much of what we know about memory today.

Patient H.M. is, at times, a deeply personal journey. Dittrich’s grandfather was the brilliant, morally complex surgeon who operated on Molaison—and thousands of other patients. The author’s investigation into the dark roots of modern memory science ultimately forces him to confront unsettling secrets in his own family history, and to reveal the tragedy that fueled his grandfather’s relentless experimentation—experimentation that would revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.

Dittrich uses the case of Patient H.M. as a starting point for a kaleidoscopic journey, one that moves from the first recorded brain surgeries in ancient Egypt to the cutting-edge laboratories of MIT. He takes readers inside the old asylums and operating theaters where psychosurgeons, as they called themselves, conducted their human experiments, and behind the scenes of a bitter custody battle over the ownership of the most important brain in the world.

Patient H.M. combines the best of biography, memoir, and science journalism to create a haunting, endlessly fascinating story, one that reveals the wondrous and devastating things that can happen when hubris, ambition, and human imperfection collide.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley for this ARC.

This book is more than a memoir; more than an expose of the lobotomy trade; more than a poignant tale of a man whose life was largely lived in the present moment. It’s an unsettling view of a medical procedure touted as something to make willful women “compliant” and violent men “placid”. The imagery of the procedure itself is even more eerie – the author describes the hippocampus as “being sucked up” by the vacuum used to perform the surgery. Implements such as a trephine drill, a scalpel, and forceps are used to obliterate parts of the brain responsible for making each of us human. Patients vomit or sing during the surgery, their brain sending out chaotic impulses. Afterwards, they are a shell of their former self, sometimes mute, dull, or forgetful.

Patient H.M.  was the most intensively studied lobotomy “victim”, and his journey from epileptic to amnesiac is well chronicled here. Adding to the drama is that the grandfather of the author (Dr William Scofield) is the surgeon that operated on H.M.

There is backstabbing and intrigue within the medical community as well; one of H.M.’s fiercest protectors, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, may have destroyed much of her written notes on H.M., thereby casting a shadow over how much of her research was actually correct and reliable. It is mind boggling to learn about the amount of “experimentation” done on men and women, all in the name of advancing scientific knowledge. Consent at times was dubious, even after the Nuremberg Trials.  The doctors thought they were doing the best for these patients, but as the author puts it, their hubris and audacity changed lives not always for the better.

Towards the end of the book, there is a section on H.M.’s actual thoughts on himself and his memory. He tries to put a positive spin on things, noting that always living in the present makes things interesting. I suppose you can’t miss what you never had; but I also was very deeply touched by the portrayal of this man who underwent a lobotomy because he was desperate to end his constant seizures. Was the quality of his life made better by suctioning out parts of his brain? That’s the gist of PATIENT H.M. – there are uncomfortable questions and sometimes dubious answers that make sense at times, but in actuality heinous, unspeakable deeds were committed against innocent people.

The author does a wonderful job of forcing the reader to consider these broken people as tragic creatures, unknowing fodder (sometimes referred to as “material”) for the surgeons who were all eager to try out this new and groundbreaking procedure.

Also broken are the main characters: the surgeon Scoville, the neuroscientist Corkin, and the brain researcher Jacopo Annese, who took possession of H.M.’s brain after the famous amnesiac died. After live streaming the dissection of the brain, there followed a volatile custody battle between Corkin and Annese over who was the “real” owner of the organ. Everyone wanted a piece of H.M. , either in life or death – and akin to Henrietta Lacks, he was never truly compensated for it.

I dare you to read this book and not be moved. PATIENT H.M. is educational, thrilling, and serves as a reminder of just how far medical science has come – and the depths it has gone to in order to reach this point.

You can pick up your copy [easyazon_link identifier=”0812992733″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

ELON MUSK by Ashlee Vance

musk

There are few industrialists in history who could match Elon Musk’s relentless drive and ingenious vision. A modern alloy of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Steve Jobs, Musk is the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and SolarCity, each of which has sent shock waves throughout American business and industry. More than any other executive today, Musk has dedicated his energies and his own vast fortune to inventing a future that is as rich and far-reaching as a science fiction fantasy.

In this lively, investigative account, veteran technology journalist Ashlee Vance offers an unprecedented look into the remarkable life and times of Silicon Valley’s most audacious businessman. Written with exclusive access to Musk, his family, and his friends, the book traces his journey from his difficult upbringing in South Africa to his ascent to the pinnacle of the global business world. Vance spent more than fifty hours in conversation with Musk and interviewed close to three hundred people to tell the tumultuous stories of Musk’s world-changing companies and to paint a portrait of a complex man who has renewed American industry and sparked new levels of innovation–all while making plenty of enemies along the way.

Until I read Ashlee Vance’s biography Elon Musk, my impression of Musk was that he was one of these hyper-efficient Silicon Valley boy geniuses who figured that being somewhat irreverent in the media would be advantageous to him. I’m cynical. What can I say?

Now, having read the book, I feel that the irreverence we see from Musk (in interviews and elsewhere)  is less manipulation than it is restraint. Vance has painted Musk as a passionate, brilliant man who would rather end up poor than not have a hand in advancing the industries where he thinks he can make a unique difference. He’s not just crazy by the standards of us mortals, who consider it a good month if we pay all of our bills and have enough left over to buy a gadget or something. After cashing out of his first company, PayPal, in a world where buying a single Cold War-era Russian rocket cost his entire net worth, he decided to design his own instead. You, me, and every other sane person would have said, “I suppose I won’t be starting an orbital shipping company today. Time to go find something to do that’s actually possible.” Elon Musk started SpaceX, and today he’s manufacturing reusable rockets.

This bio isn’t just a rundown of Musk’s accomplishments and the obstacles he conquered on the way. Vance’s account fleshes out the characters in Musk’s story with interviews and investigative fact-finding. Broad foreshadowing and perspective throughout kept me engaged. Impressive stylistic choices peppered throughout the prose brought the locales where Musk’s adventures play out to life. A particular description stood out to me – Musk’s team had recently moved their rocket testing operation to an island called Kwaj that the United States military had used to test Star Wars technology in the 70’s and 80’s:

“The military presence resulted in a weird array of buildings including hulking, windowless trapezoidal concrete structures clearly conceived by someone who deals with death for a living.”

This description punctuates the contrast between the status quo of the arena Musk was entering, and the vision he had for its future. It doesn’t just say what the place looked like, but makes me feel like I understand how it must have felt to be there. Vance is equally adept at selecting vignettes that effectively drive home her point. She included Boeing engineer-turned-SpaceX employee Jeremy Hollman’s anecdote about the ennui-inducing directionlessness on offer from SpaceX’s competitors:

“…Boeing completed its merger with McDonnell Douglass. The resultant mammoth government contractor held a picnic to boost morale but ended up failing at even this simple exercise. ‘The head of one of the departments gave a speech about it being one company with one vision and then added that the company was very cost constrained,’ Hollman said. ‘He asked that everyone limit themselves to one piece of chicken.'”

These anecdotes tend to serve their purposes well, and they never feel like they’re there for their own sake. They’re usually fun, engaging, and genuinely add insight to the narrative. After reading so many biographies that feel like a notebook of research shuffled at random with a publisher’s seal on it, I can genuinely appreciate that she has positively nailed this aspect of her work.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”0062301233″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″] here[/easyazon_link].

Guest Post by Suzanne Burdon, author of ALMOST INVINCIBLE

We will be reading and reviewing Suzanne Burdon‘s book at a later date, but in the meanwhile the author was kind enough to write this guest post for us! It’s quite apropos for the holiday.

 

Halloween – ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. Whatever the early pagan or Christian origins of All Hallows’ Eve, the creatures of the netherworld are now thoroughly celebrated or lampooned, depending on your perspective, on October 31st. These are the creatures of the ‘natural’ world, but on a stormy night in 1816, Mary Shelley conceived a man-made monster that was to capture the imagination of generations and spawn many ‘hideous progeny’.

On All Hallows’ Eve in 1831, the Frankenstein novel that most people read today, was reprinted and published in a one volume popular format instead of the three volumes usual for the time, which gave it an even wider audience. The novel had already had considerable success since it was originally released in 1818 and almost immediately captured the popular imagination. Its fame was boosted by stage adaptations, notably Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, which played at the Royal Opera House in London in 1823. Mary went to see the production and though she admitted that they had not followed the story closely, she thought it was well done. There were thunderstorms and a collapsing glacier and the monster was so suitably scary that women in the audience fainted.

franken

It is lucky that Mary was not precious about the representation of her work or she would surely be endlessly rotating in her grave. The themes and imagery from the novel have been recast into cartoons, music, plays, comedies, TV series and almost a hundred movies. The most iconic representation was of course Boris Karloff as the monster in the 1931 Hammer Horror movie adaption, with the monobrow and bolts through his neck. Frankenstein’s screen history started in 1910 in the first silent film from Edison studios and continues with new 2015 movie with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.

The story has been analysed and intellectualised endlessly, but the common, horror aspect of most incarnations has been the creation of an animated monster by human agency, and the failure to control it thereafter. Victor Frankenstein is a mad scientist who plays God and then refuses to take responsibility for his creation. The vulnerabilities of the characters and the moral and social implications of the original story are mostly marginalized. The abiding horror is contemplating human vanity and frailty.

Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she started her story and it was composed on a wild and stormy night in mid summer in Lord Byron’s villa on the lake at Geneva. That year, 1816, was known as The Year Without a Summer. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted spectacularly – it was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history – and Europe was blanketed in dust. People thought the end of the world had come. It was a suitable backdrop to the creation of a gothic story as Byron, Mary and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire and Byron’s doctor, Polidori, huddled around the fire reading ghost stories. Byron then threw out the challenge for each of the company to try their hand at the creation of something frightening.

Mary had felt enormous pressure to validate her genes and produce a literary work of value, but until Frankenstein she had struggled to find the right outlet for her creativity. So Mary’s response to the challenge was inevitably more than a simple scary story. Her parents were both radical authors; her mother wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and is considered an early feminist and her father, William Godwin, wrote a groundbreaking anti-establishment book called Political Justice. So writing something that had social meaning was not surprising.

The scientific context of Frankenstein is more unexpected but was a result of her relationship with Shelley, the poet. When she eloped with him, Mary hadn’t realised the depth of his passion for chemical experiments, nor the potentially lethal impact of his obsession on working papers, tabletops or cushion covers, as smoke rose and glasses full of foul-coloured liquid shattered. Wires and crucibles of liquids would appear on the parlour table alongside the solar microscope and the extremely thumbed and stained copy of The Elements of Chemical Philosophy by Humphrey Davy. It didn’t add to their acceptability to landladies, but it did add to her inspiration for the science in Frankenstein.

franken two

In the 1931 edition, published on October 31st 1831, Mary added a new preface where she explained the circumstances in which the novel had been conceived. By that time, Shelley was dead and she was largely supporting herself with her writing. Her other novels were ‘by the Author of Frankenstein’. Frankenstein and his monster have passed into popular culture and show no signs of diminishing impact. Indeed with current forays into gene modification and limb replacement, it is still, potentially, very much a modern horror story.

 

 Suzanne Burdon: Author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley

invincible

 

Look for our review of ALMOST INVINCIBLE, coming soon! Many thanks to Ms Burdon for sharing her story.   

 

Little Texas Sweetheart by Julia Chadwell

little texas

 

 

Little Texas Sweetheart is the gripping story of one woman’s spiritual, mental, and physical journey across America. The book takes you through the terror of domestic violence and abuse. The story of how she and their eight children escape to a free and healthy life is a hair-raising page-turner. The book is a chronicle of the advance of women’s rights in America.

 

 

 

 

I had the pleasure of meeting the author at BookCon 2015. Her story was so compelling I asked for a review copy, and she was gracious enough to give one to me. Thanks, Julia!

EXCERPT:

On a cold morning in Northern Florida, I am sent into a pancake house to ask if they could give us some food.  The manager looks at me as if I am a cur dog.  He looks out the window and sees three little cold, hungry waifs standing by an old jalopy.  Then he sees Ronald in his Army field jacket, stocking cap, and long red beard.  He winces and turns to me sighing.

     He says, “Bring the children in.  I will feed them, but not you.  I won’t even let him come in here.”
     I bring the children into the fragrant warmth and seat them on high stools at the counter.  I watch their eyes light up as the waitress brings them plates stacked high with golden pancakes.
     As they begin to eat, a gentleman customer steps up to the counter and says, “I’d like to buy breakfast for the lady.”
 Written in an unassuming style and full of raw emotion, LITTLE TEXAS SWEETHEART is an eye opening account of domestic violence and despair. I could not read this book more than a few chapters at a time, as the events described depressed and angered me. Hearing of precious possessions broken and thrown away, slaps and punches doled out, and Ronald’s viselike grip on the freedom of the family was just too much to take in large doses.
I actually had to re-read the passage when the police came to the house to see if everyone was all right, and left without doing anything. One of the officers even admonished one of the author’s children, saying “Daddies do that sometimes”–explaining that sometimes women have to get slapped to keep them in line. The times were so different then, and women truly had no rights.
Picture a woman with 3, 4, then 5 children in tow, living in a car or on a dirty campground, begging for food and clothing, washing that clothing by hand and trying to maintain a brave front. Now imagine that same woman being told that things were “her fault for being a bad mother and wife”.
Victims of domestic abuse are often people with no self confidence and a history of abuse during childhood. They may think that things truly are their fault and they are powerless to make a change. My heart went out to Chadwell time and time again, as Ronald would sweet talk her after a beating, or promise that “this time” they would stop moving from city to city, in search of the perfect job and living arrangements.
Make no mistake–this woman was no dummy. She got multiple degrees and became a teacher, and was always on the lookout for simple ways to educate and entertain her own children. Who knows where she would have made her way in the world if things were different?
Imprisoned by her own shame at the failure of her marriage, she stayed with her husband and endured years of abuse. This story matter of factly tells us how she prayed for help; sometimes her God helped her, sometimes not.
Particularly enlightening to me was the emphasis on how different things were in the 50’s and 60’s: domestic disturbances were the norm, almost expected, and were treated as minor things. Women were considered secondary citizens and sometimes “needed” to be kept in line, and the manly policeman apologized to the Man of the House for bothering him with a silly thing like an unexpected visit.
Chadwell makes no apologies for what she endured; at the end of the book she realizes that she is a battered woman with no self esteem, and that there are many others like her. She finally builds a support system and finds her backbone.  What a relief to be rid of the evil Ronald!
I guarantee you will feel outrage, disgust, and pity for this poor woman who wasted so many years of her life being miserable and downtrodden. Her goal in writing this book and exposing her shame was to help others in her position. When I spoke to her at BookCon, she was a lovely, well spoken, and kind individual, who gives no outward scars of her ordeal.  She has a strong faith in God and just wants to move forward and be happy.
This is a story I’ll not soon forget, nor will I ever forget Ms. Chadwell.
Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”0615410731″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly by Matt McCarthy

 

real doctor

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor—the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients.

This funny, candid memoir of McCarthy’s intern year at a New York hospital provides a scorchingly frank look at how doctors are made, taking readers into patients’ rooms and doctors’ conferences to witness a physician’s journey from ineptitude to competence. McCarthy’s one stroke of luck paired him with a brilliant second-year adviser he called “Baio” (owing to his resemblance to the Charles in Charge star), who proved to be a remarkable teacher with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy would learn even more from the people he cared for, including a man named Benny, who was living in the hospital for months at a time awaiting a heart transplant. But no teacher could help McCarthy when an accident put his own health at risk, and showed him all too painfully the thin line between doctor and patient.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly
offers a window on to hospital life that dispenses with sanctimony and self-seriousness while emphasizing the black-comic paradox of becoming a doctor: How do you learn to save lives in a job where there is no practice?

 

 

Not all doctors come with the confidence and arrogance familiar to us all. Every one of them started out the same way – new graduates in their intern year, struggling to assimilate their textbook knowledge with real life. Matt McCarthy shares his experience in a self deprecating and sometimes comic way.

Taking place over a year’s time, THE REAL DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU SHORTLY shows the reader how McCarthy matures as a doctor and as a self-aware human. He was so awkward and hesitant in the beginning, I wondered if he was going to make it through the year. At times I wondered what made him so timid. There was a career decision elaborated upon early in the book, and I was disappointed in his choice. I truly felt he made the wrong move, given his character and personality. In the final part of the book, he addresses that choice and why he made it. Those words provided some sort of closure for me and I finally agreed with his decision. In his own words:

But as the year wore on, I developed the ability to think outside the diagnosis,  beyond the science of medicine to the art of medicine. I discovered that there is so much more to being a doctor than ordering tests and dispensing medications. And there is no way to teach that. It simply takes time and repetition. 

…I was meant to do whatever the hell you’d call the extraordinary stuff we did at Columbia. Intern year had fundamentally changed me–it had altered the way I viewed the world and myself–and it was unquestionably the most fun I never wanted to have again. 

Patients and cases are outlined, some with great detail, others just to show what lessons he was learning. One of the complaints I have is that some patients’ stories end abruptly with McCarthy never seeing the person again; others just aren’t followed up on. I understand that real life is like that, and these patients are composites of many; but I grew frustrated with things not being tied up neatly. Two cases that loomed large in the author’s life: Benny Santos and Carl Gladstone are featured in almost every chapter, as they illustrate just how far things have progressed over the year. Others, like “Dre” and asthmatic Darryl, just vanish into the night.

That really is my only issue with THE REAL DOCTOR. McCarthy’s writing is easy to follow, and pulls no punches in showing the lay person how hard doctors work and the struggles, internal and external, they face on a daily basis.  There is a minimum of gory details, and the medical jargon is easy to grasp. Nor is there the overly glib, broadly humorous style I’ve seen in other books. That was a relief, as I think that takes away from the truly serious nature of the subject

This was a good addition to my “true medical stories” bookshelf. Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”0804138656″ locale=”US” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. Check out the author’s page here.

 

 

 

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts – Review

Napoleon book cover

The Blurb on the Jacket:

Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

 

Before encountering this book, I had not read any other biography of Napoleon. I had exposed myself to plenty of modern European history, and I felt like I know the “gist” of Napoleon’s life, but I hadn’t ever delved deeply into the man himself. When I approached this massive tome, I worried that my less-that-rigorous foreknowledge might render Napoleon, if not inaccessible, at least a chore.

This was not the case.

Rarely have I ever had the pleasure of reading a portrait of an important man or woman that was simultaneously as immersive and as insightful as Roberts’ Napoleon. Biographers who struggle to find a balance between giving their subjects personality and keeping their writing educationally valuable should take note. It often seems that this balance is a zero-sum game. Any account vastly endowed with one put pay for its endowment with the other. Roberts cheats this system by letting his primary sources stand front-and-center. Napoleon (the man, not the book) had enough moxie and humor of his own to buoy the tone of this book from dust jacket to dust jacket.

That sounds like I’m giving the credit to Monsieur Bonaparte rather than the author, doesn’t it? This is not my intention. All of the credit belongs to Mr. Roberts for pulling off this feat. Napoleon’s original words could not have filled this book. If they could, he wouldn’t have had time to govern. The majority of the mass of this massive pack of pulp owes its existence to Roberts’ careful work of contextualization. The author takes extraordinary care to include the reader in a conversation about the external factors weighing in on the scenarios he describes.

My most common frustration when reading a biography is it is not entirely clear why some important action X was taken rather than Y. Usually, a simple explanation would do. No such frustration could find a stable home in my consciousness while I read this book. Simple explanations regularly precede the description of the actions taken here, and these descriptions are regularly followed by exhaustive investigations into the minutia revolving the decisions made. It is not boring at all. It sucks you in. It makes you feel like you can appreciate the situations as acutely as the people involved. If you read biographies because you want to better understand people and the times you choose to read about, then this sense that you might as well have been there should be exactly what you’re searching for. If not, then stop searching for whatever you’re searching for, and pick up this book. If I didn’t make that clear enough, let me make this very clear.

If you think that it is within the realm of possibility that the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte could appeal to you as subject matter, then you need to get a copy of Andrew Robert’s book into your possession, and swallow it like a python swallows an alligator. Unhinge your brain’s jaw and shove this hunk of gold down its distended gullet before you consider taking care of less important matters… like hygiene… and nutrition.

Biography Review: Russell Long by Michael Martin.

The Short Version

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Russell Long: A Life in Politics starts off even before he was born to one of the most powerful American politicians outside the Capital, Huey Long. We come to know Russell as a man who seems to have ideals: whichever ones suit his purpose. We meet a chameleon who grows more conspicuous and powerful . He skillfully harnessed his father’s controversial legacy to shape his own. Many biographies are stories of rags-to-riches. This one shows us political royalty begetting political royalty. Like father like son.

Cinderella stories and train wrecks are interesting, sure. But at the heights of national politics, all things ordinary are extraordinary. You just need to be close enough to see what’s actually going on. Michael Martin points his microscope at characters who can raise up or ruin thousands of lives with a phone call. More than just a biography, Russell Long is a life-size portrait of some of the invisible forces that shaped American civil rights and economic intervention policy from the 1920s through the 1980s. I had mixed feelings about how Mr. Martin treated some topics, but overall this book was a joy to read, and particularly transformative for my personal understanding of Congressional politics in the middle of the last century.

You in a hurry? Take your coat off, why don’tcha? Keep reading!

 

My Full Review:

Excellence in the Biographical Craft

I read a lot of really dry books. I like’em that way. I’m all about the information density. Crank it up to 11! Don’t get me wrong. I love good narration and storytelling, but I’ve left mountains of biographies more relatable than Russell Long unfinished. Why did I finish Russell Long, but not the others?

As long as a biography helps me understand the place and importance of the person in the title, I’m happy. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors use personal accounts of people who knew the title character to construct a story. These biographies usually have a very personal touch. Their success or failure depends on how easy it is for the reader to get to know the person they’re reading about. Russell Long doesn’t even try to do this, so I won’t judge it on this basis.

This book wants to teach you about Russell, not introduce you to him. Enjoyment doesn’t issue from its style or wit, but from its combination of clarity and insight. Every page is pressurized to the bursting point with information. Russell Long is such a dense piece of pulp that the absence of any one sentence would immediately stand out to most mildly-attentive readers. Even being as dense as it is, however, it’s still easily accessible. Usually, accessibility correlates well with the complexity or depth of the content. I believe Mr. Martin created this outlier by focusing on a narrative structure before thinking in terms of timelines, events, and explanations.

Russell Long’s overall structure is evidence that Mr. Martin took spectacular care to produce an account that covers a wide canvas without becoming obtuse. The lesson other biographers can learn here is that contextual information is not a commodity. What does that mean?

In the Land of the Confusing, Context is King

Some contextual information pairs best with its related content when nestled in with a tangentially related account. We learn of Earl Long’s ultimate fate early, to lose his marbles while in the Senate in 1960. Seemingly a non-sequitur at first, this knowledge casts its foreshadow over Earl’s actions leading up to that year. At no time does Mr. Martin suggest any relationship between Earl’s escalating political aggressiveness and his meltdown. Even so, I would expect any reader to make his or her own judgment about the cause for his behavior, and whether his actions or his meltdown were the chicken or the egg. Regardless of the determination you make, the very fact that I was involved so deeply for so long leading up to the reveal is thanks to a masterful measuring of just the right amount of suggestion early on and an otherwise-innocuous lead-up to the event in question. You could argue that leaving the cause for his meltdown for the reader to intuit is unsatisfying, but remember, this book is interested in the facts. Guessing and wondering is the reader’s half of the contract here. Besides, have you ever called a book that left your brain chewing on its contents long afterward a “bad book”?

Russell Long is loaded with foreshadowing that seems like fact-stating at first blush, but produces satisfying “Aha!” moments throughout the proceeding text. Much of this foreshadowing occurs in the meaty first chapter entirely devoted to the life and career of Huey Long, Russell’s father. Mr. Martin depicts him as a powerful and ruthless Louisiana governor and political boss. Huey was a New Deal-era populist, and early on we come to know Russell as a Truman/Kennedy/LBJ Fair-Deal-era/Great Society-era populist. The account of Russell’s time striving toward and later working within the U.S. Senate during this period stands tall on its own, but it benefits tremendously from the foreshadowing earlier on.

As for sections of the book that trace the cause of a significant even to its effect, Mr. Martin provides context in step with the content. He seldom leaves the reader wondering what motives the actors might have had. Often, when an author does not give particular consideration to the distribution of contextual knowledge, the reader is burdened with wondering if he or she missed something until the author gets around to providing helpful context. The combination of foreshadowing and unconstructive inline explanation makes Russell Long a relatively effortless read.

Small Book, Big Ambition: The Compromise Shows.

In spite of all of the great things that I have to say about this biography, I do have complaints. Mr. Martin’s application of foreshadowing sometimes seems to guide the book’s focus away from very important details in favor of events that mesh well with the scaffold of foreshadowing upon which the biography seems to be built. Mr. Martin glosses over, and sometimes neglects even to account for, very important transitions in Russell Long’s political career. I found the explanation of the machinations by which Russell became Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, to be unsatisfying. In sections describing the use of connections by either Long to usurp the function of government agencies, some more detail regarding how these connections were formed and maintained would have been beneficial.

Am I nitpicking? You may not even think twice about the informational gaps if you give this mainly solid book a read. I’m probably asking too much from a book in the range of 300 pages. If an editor demanded that I tamp down the word count, I might have nixed these details, too. Regardless, fleshing out these details in a longer book would have been well worth the longer read. In the end, every book must stand on it’s own two… covers. Russell Long certainly suffers from several unsatisfactory, unsatisfying, and sometimes missing explanations of what I though should have been key elements of a complete narrative.

The Last Word

To get hung up on any of these qualms would be to miss out on appreciating this book’s most important feature. Before Michael Martin’s Russell Long became available, there had been no quality account of Russell Long’s place in American history accessible to the layperson. The alternative for the average person seeking to learn about the younger Long would be a greatly fruitless Google search. Even Wikipedia, with it hordes of fanatical volunteer editors, hosts relatively little quality, cross-referenced information about this troubled, controversial, and interesting man. The publication of this book fills a conspicuous void, and there’s nothing but good in that.

The information density of Russell Long is actually dumbfounding. That Mr. Martin was able to make such a dense work so easy to read is a testament to his mastery of the biographical form. I swallowed about 300 pages of pure knowledge in hardly more than four hours. (If I’m being honest, the speed was just as much thanks to the “Spritz” reading software I use as to Mr. Martin, but I digress.) If all non-fiction books were like Russell Long, we would all be far more knowledgeable. People would read more books. People would patronize their libraries and coffee shops with equal frequency. Heck. The coffee shops would probably just be in the libraries.

 

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