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Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Category: Non Fiction (page 1 of 7)

The Pain of Suicide by Dr Jo-Ann Rowland

 

Every suicide is an individual tragedy whose origins challenge our mental capacity. Suicide is a global phenomenon. Each year there are over 800,000 reported suicides worldwide and that is expected to increase to over 1.5 million by 2020. More people attempt suicide than die from suicide. Family-member survivors and communities are left with many unanswered questions, not understanding why the person chose to commit suicide. Persons responding to suicide and suicide attempts are very often not prepared for what they encounter and this exacerbates the problem. This book looks at the struggles of a high-risk people group and presents interventions and postventions proffered in a consultation forum.

Thank you to Authoright for this ARC!

Dr Rowland’s concern for those lost to suicide is evident in this well-researched book. She concentrates on the suicide rate in Guyana, South America, since this little country had the highest number of suicides in 2012 and 2014. Further into the book she examines some insights into the suicidal mind, the effect of religion on those who want to kill themselves, and a discussion of “psychache”, the ongoing mental, emotional, and psychological emotions experienced by suicidal people.

Regarding Guyana, suicide has historically been a part of the Indian experience, with an average yearly number of about 123,000. There are various predisposing factors, such as culture and sociology, which the author explores further in other chapters.

Hopelessness and suicidal ideation are common threads amongst all races, with the thought being that counseling (both for the depressed person and bereavement) would be helpful. The stigma and grief are nearly unbearable, and the act should not be glamorized. Regarding this last statement, the World Health Organization created guidelines for media reporting of suicides such that a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” does not occur. These guidelines include not placing blame, calling the act “completed” rather than “successful”, and highlight alternatives to suicide. These may appear obvious, but there are stories in the book where friends and relatives seemingly ignored or didn’t understand multiple warning signs given off, and someone died as a result of this.

Dr Rowland’s research was conducted through meetings with both relatives of, and survivors of, suicide attempts. Her goal was to determine why the suicide rate in Guyana was so high and to see if she could make a difference in this number. Transcripts of her meetings were also analyzed independently by two Guyanese, who applied both cultural and academic reason to their analysis. Intervention strategies were discussed by a panel of doctors and social workers after the research findings were examined. Some of these intervention strategies included community care groups, parenting/coping skills, school-based programs, and the establishment of drug courts. This last item is quite important, for pesticides and drugs are used as a method for suicide. Many Guyanese are farmers and have ready access to agricultural chemicals.

Reasons discovered for suicide included depression, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. Family conflicts arose out of cultural differences between children and parents, or marriages where the husband did not support his wife adequately. Guyanese families are structured around the patriarchal system, and “culture shock” can occur when mothers need to work to support the family and the children are left alone with no caregivers.

Suicide survivors expressed the pain of being misunderstood and unsupported by parents or family. There is also a stigma so forceful that one parent “self-discharged” her minor child, claiming the embarrassment of the attempt was too much for the family to bear.

The author concludes that lack of coping skills devalues the meaning of life, and drive these hurting individuals to seek “peace” via suicide. The reasons are the same no matter what country one is from, and there is heartache (or psychache) within every culture.

Dr Rowland has set up an organization in Guyana called Ephrathah, built specifically to engage those who are hurting. Counseling and persona development programs are offered to help reach those who are in despair, regardless of ethnicity or community status. I feel this organization will go a long way to help these vulnerable individuals.

I commend Dr Rowland for giving of her time and interest so freely. She is truly a caring soul who is seeking to mitigate suicidal ideation not only in Guyana, but all over the world. Her research can be translated into any culture in any country and needs to serve as a wakeup call to those who may have suicidal friends or relatives. Mental health can be a challenge at any age or stage, and we must all be willing to give that extra attention to someone who is depressed or hurting. That little bit may go a long way in saving a life. Please take the time to read this book and understand more about suicide. You can get your copy here.

Fukushima and the Coming Tokyo Earthquake by Tony Smyth

This book details the story of two earthquakes, one that has already happened and one that is imminent, and their consequences, not only for Japan but also for the rest of the world. It is structured in a way that ‘chunks up’ in sections, from local/national events through to global consequences.
The first section of the book tells the story of how a country that suffered atomic bombing ended up obtaining a third of its electricity from nuclear power, despite having the misfortune to be located in the most seismically active zone in the world. It then depicts the sequence of what happened in March 2011 after the tsunami struck.
Next, the book details recent peer-reviewed studies about radiation and its effect on human health. The following chapter reveals the full costs of nuclear power– an energy source that never comes in on budget and is incredibly expensive. The final part of this section of the book describes the inadequacy of storing spent nuclear fuel once a nuclear power station has been decommissioned.
The latter half of the book adopts a larger frame or viewpoint and looks at the use of nuclear and renewable energy in the context of world climate change and the widespread use of fossil fuels.
The final section of the book depicts a coming Tokyo earthquake and its consequences. A big earthquake in or near Tokyo is overdue. They usually happen every sixty to seventy years, yet the last one was in 1923. The author asserts that Japan will have to repatriate much of its treasury bonds which are held in the United States. The tsunami and meltdowns of 2011 represent the most expensive natural disaster in history. Even though Japan is the third biggest economy in the world, because of an estimated debt from the tsunami and Fukushima meltdowns of at least $500 million and weak indebted economy, it will struggle to pay this amount. The most obvious way to pay for rebuilding will be to sell stocks and treasury bonds held in the United States.
An earthquake striking Tokyo will hit right at the nerve centre of the country. All political and economic power is concentrated there.The headquarters of many global 500 companies, as well as all the powerful bureaucracies so vital to the country, are located in one central section of the capital. Most of Japan’s imports and exports are dispatched through Tokyo Bay. After a big quake, this area is likely to be crippled for some time. Moreover, much of Tokyo’s manufacturing takes place on reclaimed land in the Bay – land which tends to liquefy in a big quake.
This book argues that because of the fragile situation of world economies since 2008 (Lehman Bros etc), and the heavily indebted state of Japan’s finances post-tsunami/Fukushima, the only way that Japan will appeal to finance the enormous amount of post-quake rebuilding is to repatriate its investment in US government bonds and securities. This will have an immediate knock-on effect on the American economy and, soon after, most of the world’s economies.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for this book!

Tony Smyth has done his research. This book is full of facts and figures, with a good deal of opinion thrown in as well. His writing style is not too fussy, so I got into the cadence of words quickly while remaining interested throughout the litany of numbers. First off, I learned a good deal about seismic activity and how the buildings in Japan are created to withstand earthquakes. Some structures have fluid filled “shock absorbers” or sliding walls while others have complex structural cross-bracing which is designed to buckle while absorbing seismic energy.

Despite these measures, nothing could prevent the nuclear meltdown that occurred at the Fukushima power plant because there was no way to protect against the tsunami that devastated the area post-quake. Thousands of lives were lost, towns were washed away, and the land was (and still is) overrun with radioactive isotopes.

The author notes that the total costs of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns of 2011 make those events the world’s most expensive natural disaster. There are a lot of absolutes in this book, yet the author remains fairly neutral about nuclear power. There are plenty of reasons (global warming, cost of disposal, impact on the planet) to seek out alternatives, yet Smyth balances his words well and merely uses them as a warning, not a condemnation. More concerning are the politics of how the reactors came to be, regardless of the fact that many of them are superfluous.

The author speaks from experience; he lives in Japan and is familiar with the socio-economic climate and Japanese culture. Despite the business-heavy title, each facet of the country and the disaster is discussed in plain language that cannot help but affect the reader. Smyth heavily includes the human element, with heart-wrenching stories of parents waiting in vain for their children to get home or children worried about their elderly parents in the flood zone.

My main takeaway from this book was not fear for the future of Japanese business; instead it was fear for the future of mankind and our planet. The section of the book concerning global warming was extremely edifying, and as a result I will personally make an effort to reduce my global footprint.

I feel this is an important book to read on so many levels. Please pick up your copy here.

 

The Rise of the Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn

An electrifying look inside the wild world of extreme distance running.

Once the reserve of only the most hardcore enthusiasts, ultra running is now a thriving global industry, with hundreds of thousands of competitors each year. But is the rise of this most brutal and challenging sport―with races that extend into hundreds of miles, often in extreme environments―an antidote to modern life, or a symptom of a modern illness?
In The Rise of the Ultra Runners, award-winning author Adharanand Finn travels to the heart of the sport to investigate the reasons behind its rise and discover what it takes to join the ranks of these ultra athletes. Through encounters with the extreme and colorful characters of the ultramarathon world, and his own experiences of running ultras everywhere from the deserts of Oman to the Rocky Mountains, Finn offers a fascinating account of people testing the boundaries of human endeavor.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

Ever wonder what an “Ultra” race is? These races generally are from 50-100 miles long and can take place over a track, a trail, or even Mount Everest. The runners are often quirky, driven, and focused. Obsessed too – maybe just a little.

The author describes his foray into the ultramarathon world and muses upon human endurance, doping, self-image, and morals, among other things. I will say that I was a bit dubious when he started running, as he didn’t really describe a strict training regimen per se. Yes, he is suffering during many races, but not many people would choose to abuse themselves the way he did to write a book. I’m alternately impressed and doubtful at the same time. That being said, we do learn (as he did) from his mistakes, such as wearing new shoes for the first time in a race and failing to fuel properly. The basic rules of ultras are the same as marathons, along with a healthy dose of mental fortitude plus a little insanity.

The racers are eager to share stories (and in some instances, their homes) with Finn, both before and after races. The author is adept at describing his transformation from a regular runner to one that can cover 100+ miles despite hallucinations and excruciating pain. Some of the descriptions of the “pain cave” (an ultrarunner term) made me cringe, then allowed me to feel grateful that an ultramarathon was not in my future. He becomes stronger physically and mentally as the book progresses. One good example he describes is about finding a place to sleep. During races that last more than a day, runners must bed down for the night before running again in the morning. Finn tosses and turns as he sleeps on the ground, or in his clothes. Later on, he comes to realize that he can sleep anywhere, because he has evolved to be comfortable with less. Finn often says that he may be becoming like the ultrarunners he is studying, then disavows that statement by saying how far he still has to go figuratively, before he can truly call them his tribe.

As in most elite sports, these athletes embrace pain and suffering. It is such a big part of their lives that if/when they become injured, they must come to terms with the fact that they may not know who they are without ultras in their life. One runner notes that she feels utterly bereft and needs to learn how to live a normal life, one without hours spent in motion.

Those who may enjoy this book the most are runners; however, anyone interested in hearing about how the human body can be forced to exceed boundaries will learn a lot from RISE OF THE ULTRARUNNERS. It is definitely a departure from most of the running books on the market.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.

Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture by Rachel Haines

Two-year-old Rachel Haines didn’t know that she would be committing to twenty-one years of hard work, dedication, and perseverance as she jumped into the foam pit during her first “mommy and me” gymnastics class. She had no idea that one day she would become a two-time National Team Member, two-time National Champion, and a Division I college gymnast at the University of Minnesota. Nor could she have known that she had just signed herself up for serious injury, emotional distress, and continuous sexual assault by world-renowned trainer turned serial molester, Larry Nassar.

In Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture, Rachel details her experiences as a competitive gymnast and the painful realities of being one of Nassar’s many victims. With honesty and candidness, Rachel shares how the sport she loved that gave her so much—friendships, accomplishments, a college education—is also tangled in a dangerously toxic culture that needs to be fixed. In a world that was setting her up for a lifetime of recovery, she tells how faith, family, and an army of survivors made healing possible.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

This story will grab you and not let you go until you reach the last word. It may even stay with you, with the atrocities and pressure that author Rachel Haines sustained buried deep in the back of your mind.

It is easy to think of gymnasts the same way we consider ballerinas: ethereal, feminine, able to perform superhuman feats of leaping and twisting that doesn’t seem possible. However, the two fields possess a few more similarities that are not so desirable. Both contain instances of eating disorders, perfectionism, toxic cultures….and abuse. In 2018 the prestigious New York City Ballet fired two male dancers after harassment charges had been brought against them. The history of abuse, both physical and sexual, is storied in the ballet world. Men (whether dancers or choreographers) hold all the power, and women are treated as second class citizens.

It seems that men hold all the power in gymnastics as well. Last year the horrific story about Larry Nassar’s hundreds of victims surfaced, which empowered other victims to come forward and share their story of the abusive culture they experienced. Coaches such as John Geddert and Bela Karolyi used their temper to mentally and physically abuse gymnasts under the guise of “encouragement” or to “toughen them up for competition”. The athletes were surrounded by a cloak of silence, looking inward and wondering if they were misreading Nassar’s “treatments”, which included taking pills and/or enduring digital manipulation (internal and external). As time went on, the gymnasts became inured to what was happening to them and accepted it as part of their lot in life. After all, they had chosen to be gymnasts, and to deny or expose this part would result in them being shunned or removed from the environment they knew and loved. As Haines notes, being a gymnast was her reason for living. No matter how painful or stressful it was, she was first and foremost, an elite athlete who performed gymnastics for a living. She knew of no other world, nor did she want to.

As Haines became more competitive, she sustained a horrific injury to her back (it was broken in multiple places) and had to work through pain on a daily basis. Nassar made sure to give her many “treatments” while telling her that while her back was injured, she was still cleared to perform her routines. As time went on, her legs grew numb. Her pre-competition ritual consisted of slathering immense amounts of Icy Hot on her legs, then punching them or cutting them so she would be able to detect a modicum of sensation. As I read further into the book, I was speechless at how she was able to keep performing (check out her videos on YouTube). Once, her legs betrayed her during competition. She bravely took a moment, then got back on the beam to complete her routine. If that is not courage, strength, pluck, bravery, and badassery, then I don’t know what is. Yet, through all of this, she was filled with self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Haines felt like she could never be equal to others and would often compare herself to other gymnasts. This left her wanting to be better, to be worthy, to be deserving.

Women are usually their own worst critics. The pressure Haines put on herself was unbelievable, as her fierce spirit held her in good stead throughout multiple years of practice, excruciating pain, and sexual abuse. Despite all her achievements, Haines still believed she was not good enough. This book will take you through her entire gymnastics journey, the highs and lows, the pain and the victories. It will also give you new respect for Haines and the other gymnasts who had to suffer through Nassar’s years of abuse. Haines bares her soul, her doubts, and her faith in this book, and I am sure it was not an easy task. Looking inward, then speaking out is one of the most intimidating things a woman can do; and Haines showed us her strength and wisdom, even as she confronted Nassar at his trial.

If this story does not move you or fill you with pride at how these women were able to overcome adversity, you had better check your pulse. Pick up your copy here.

 

Pill by Robert Bennett

Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

“You are what you eat.”

Never is this truer than when we take medications—from beta blockers and aspirin to Viagra and epidurals— especially psychotropic pills that transform our minds as well as our bodies. Meditating on how modern medicine increasingly measures out human identity not in T. S. Eliot’s proverbial coffee spoons but in 1mg-, 5mg-, or 300mg-doses, Pill traces the uncanny presence of psychiatric pills through science, medicine, autobiography, television, cinema, literature, and popular music. Ultimately, it argues that modern psychopharmacology reveals a brave new world in which human identities—thoughts, emotions, personalities, and selves themselves—are increasingly determined by the extraordinary powers of seemingly ordinary pills.

Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

This short read was at once chilling and informative. The statistics alone will make you stop to think: are you one of the 5 US adults who uses a drug for a psychiatric problem? Are you on a “cocktail” of drugs to manage your condition? If you are not, certainly someone around you is on psychotropic medication.

The first 5 chapters are reserved for discussions of drugs such as Lithium, Prozac, and Adderall. The last portion describes the author’s personal experiences of manic times, complete with eye-opening photos of what his journal looked like while in the grip of mania (omg!) and when he returned to a more stable state.

As I read on, I became concerned with the writer’s sentiment. I suffer from depression and was quite stable until about a year ago. My medication stopped working and I have been trying different ones, hoping for one to work so I can be happy again. Reading about how many “cocktails” are in use and their failure rate was not encouraging. At one point I needed to put the book aside until I felt prepared to read the rest. After I told myself that this was just one person’s opinion and that there is still hope for me, I returned to the story with a grain of salt. I can equivocally say that my first medication did not alter my personality at all – I was still “me”, just a happier version.

The book shines in its in-depth illustration of just how debilitating mental illness can be, and how the search for the “right” medication can be a struggle. However, I would strongly suggest to the author to check his writing for the word “quotidian”, as the presence of the word on nearly every page grew wearisome. I am sure he would be able to find an acceptable substitute. Otherwise, PILL was an informative and easy read. I learned some new information and have a new respect for those who struggle with trying to find the right medicine so their life will be worth living.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.

Walmart: Diary of an Associate by Hugo Meunier

In 2012, journalist Hugo Meunier went undercover as a Walmart employee for three months in St. Leonard, Quebec, just north of Montreal.
In great detail, Meunier charts the daily life of an impoverished Walmart worker, referring to his shifts at the box store giant as “somewhere between the army and Walt Disney.” Each shift began with a daily chant before bowing to customer demands and the constant pressure to sell. Meanwhile Meunier and his fellow workers could not afford to shop anywhere else but Walmart, further indenturing them to the multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Beyond his time on the shop floor, Meunier documents the extraordinary efforts that Walmart exerts to block unionization campaigns, including their 2005 decision to close their outlet in Jonquiere, QC, where the United Food and Commercial Workers union had successfully gained certification rights. A decade later he charts the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that exposed the dubious legal ground on which Walmart stood in invoking closure and throwing workers out on the street.
In Walmart: Diary of an Associate, Meunier reveals the truths behind Walmart’s low prices; it will make you think twice before shopping there.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

Walmart is famous throughout the US, Canada, and Mexico for its low prices. However, they are also famous for low wages and demanding, wacky customers. (A glance at the site PeopleOfWalmart.com may tell you all you need to know). In this book, journalist Hugo Meunier goes undercover for 3 months as a Walmart associate, then emerges to tell us all about the good, the bad, and the ugly behind the scenes.

The corporation at the top is a warm, family-oriented company. At the store level, it is a place where low pay and hard work go hand in hand. There are stories of employees who cannot afford good food, despite the generous 10% off card they are given. There is an almost cultlike atmosphere in team meetings each morning (Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an L …) and each associate is encouraged to tattle on those team members who “steal time”. Heavy, heavy emphasis is placed on the customer always being right, with posters in the break room exhorting staff to remember that “The most important person you will meet is your next customer”. Meunier portrays the clientele as brutish, demanding, and thankless. That sounds like most customers in retail – but to hear the author’s inner monologue as he complies with their demands is funny. This monologue will also be familiar to those who work in any service industry.

Something struck me amongst all the descriptions of hard work, lazy colleagues, clueless managers, and low pay. The author is someone with a good paying job and a high-end lifestyle – so the juxtaposition between his real job and his Walmart job is telling. He even notes that he misses sleeping in and not having to punch a clock.  Perhaps the most elitist moment is when he notes the difference between Walmart’s and his newspaper’s holiday party. One is filled with wine, truffles and caviar…and the other is not. Can you guess which is which? His reassuring thoughts to himself are that soon he will be able to leave the world of Walmart behind and return to his normal, happy, financially secure life. As he described his fatigue, aching feet and lack of sleep I thought to myself, This is what most of the US consists of – perhaps there needs to be reform?

Speaking of reform, Walmart believes unions are anathema and supports the illegal practice of squashing union talk. On the surface they claim to be open-minded, yet there is a top secret procedure that managers need to follow immediately when they hear talk of organizing. The final chapters of the book describe a hard-fought battle between the retail giant and some employees who wanted to unionize. If most of the book did not depress you, this portion will.

Most of the blurbs that surround this book note that you will never think of Walmart in the same way again. I will say that I wasn’t that surprised at some of the things I learned, except for the way the store demands associates interact with customers. I have never been smiled at or addressed first at my local store – perhaps it is a kinder world in Canada.

Final thoughts – this book is a quick and easily digested read about the class difference and extreme profit seeking of a major corporation. I would have liked if the author followed up in 6 months with his former co-workers to provide a bit more closure to his readers. In any case, it will be interesting to see how/if Walmart responds to the book (despite the fact that it came out a while ago in Canada and was recently translated to English).

You can pick up your own copy here.

Influenza by Jeremy Brown

On the 100th anniversary of the devastating pandemic of 1918, Jeremy Brown, a veteran ER doctor, explores the troubling, terrifying, and complex history of the flu virus, from the origins of the Great Flu that killed millions, to vexing questions such as: are we prepared for the next epidemic, should you get a flu shot, and how close are we to finding a cure?

While influenza is now often thought of as a common and mild disease, it still kills over 30,000 people in the US each year. Dr. Jeremy Brown, currently Director of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health, expounds on the flu’s deadly past to solve the mysteries that could protect us from the next outbreak. In Influenza, he talks with leading epidemiologists, policy makers, and the researcher who first sequenced the genetic building blocks of the original 1918 virus to offer both a comprehensive history and a roadmap for understanding what’s to come.
Dr. Brown digs into the discovery and resurrection of the flu virus in the frozen victims of the 1918 epidemic, as well as the bizarre remedies that once treated the disease, such as whiskey and blood-letting. Influenza also breaks down the current dialogue surrounding the disease, explaining the controversy over vaccinations, antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, and the federal government’s role in preparing for pandemic outbreaks. Though 100 years of advancement in medical research and technology have passed since the 1918 disaster, Dr. Brown warns that many of the most vital questions about the flu virus continue to confound even the leading experts.
Influenza is an enlightening and unnerving look at a shapeshifting deadly virus that has been around long before people—and warns us that it may be many more years before we are able to conquer it for good.

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

Yes, this is another book on the influenza pandemic of 1918 – my goal is to read them all. Seriously, it is always good to compare one with the other and possibly learn new information. One new angle with this book is that the author discusses the Tamiflu controversy in detail (I wasn’t aware of the issues behind this drug, and the backstory makes the juxtaposition with the pandemic particularly chilling). Another angle is that this book is not restricted to the 1918 outbreak; there is a discussion of the virus in general, what type of research has been done, and puts forth the probability of when/how another outbreak could be possible.

One of my favorite portions of the book was the story behind the exhumed victims and how the virus was recovered from their bodies. The author’s respect for their sacrifice shines clearly through in this section, which is detailed but not gory. The gore factor is minimal, compared to other books on influenza or diseases in particular.

The fact that the author is a medical doctor means that he’s done his research and can strike the balance between med-speak and conveying his ideas to the general public. The book is very easy to read and eminently understandable. I read this over the course of a few days and it kept me interested throughout. It is always refreshing when an author can take a subject and provide a fresh, relevant look at it.

You can pick up your own copy here.

The Atlas of Disease by Sandra Hempel

 

Behind every disease is a story, a complex narrative woven of multiple threads, from the natural history of the disease, to the tale of its discovery and its place in history.
But what is vital in all of this is how the disease spreads and develops. In The Atlas of Disease, Sandra Hempel reveals how maps have uncovered insightful information about the history of disease, from the seventeenth century plague maps that revealed the radical idea that diseases might be carried and spread by humans, to cholera maps in the 1800s showing the disease was carried by water, right up to the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Crucially, The Atlas of Disease will also explore how cartographic techniques have been used to combat epidemics by revealing previously hidden patterns. These discoveries have changed the course of history, affected human evolution, stimulated advances in medicine and shaped the course of countless lives.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting my wish to access this ARC! For anyone who is interested in the history of disease, this book is a dream come true. The author delves into each disease with a thoughtful manner and straightforward way, using maps of the world to show the spread of each illness. These maps add a new dimension of understanding to the text, and underscore how devastating the spread of disease can be. The trail of germs is traced across the continents for each disease, adding a quiet horror to the author’s words.  This alone makes the book worth buying – no other book I’ve read with this subject has illustrations quite like this. Interspersed in the chapters are other bits of artwork, either paintings of people suffering or government posters warning townfolk of the ravages of the flu, yellow fever, measles, and the like. THE ATLAS OF DISEASE stands out head and shoulders among other novels in this genre.

There are 4 sections to the book: airborne, waterborne, insects and animals, and human to human. Each chapter in the section then outlines a disease, from AIDS to Zika. The opening page has the disease name, the causal agent, transmission, symptoms, incidence and deaths, prevalence, prevention, treatment, and global strategy. For example, diptheria’s incidence and deaths statement lets us know that the germ causes around 5,000 cases per year worldwide, with 5-10% cases being fatal. The global strategy notes that there are childhood vaccination programs, but the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as a “forgotten” disease. On the opposite page there is a painting by Francisco de Goya showing a man holding a child on his lap, supporting his head with his left hand while he probes the child’s mouth with his right. The work is entitled El Lazarillo de Tormes or El Garrotillo (“Diptheria”). When you turn the page you see illustrations of how the illness attacks the lining of the throat, causing the victim to strangle and suffocate.

I can honestly say I have learned more from this book than from many others I’ve read. The writer’s style is straightforward, sharing facts without drama, and extremely easy to comprehend. You won’t need a medical background to appreciate ATLAS. The author’s fascination with these illnesses is clearly portrayed on every page, as well as her depth of research. I cannot say enough superlatives about this book – it is far and away the best work I’ve read this year.  If you are a devotee of disease, you will treasure this work forever.  And for those of you who are not – please still read this. You will learn, you will be shocked, and you will appreciate the fragility of life.

Pick up your copy here.

Under The Knife by Arnold Van de Laar

In Under the Knife, surgeon Arnold Van de Laar uses his own experience and expertise to tell the witty history of the past, present, and future of surgery.
From the story of the desperate man from seventeenth-century Amsterdam who grimly cut a stone out of his own bladder to Bob Marley’s deadly toe, Under the Knife offers all kinds of fascinating and unforgettable insights into medicine and history via the operating theatre.
What happens during an operation? How does the human body respond to being attacked by a knife, a bacterium, a cancer cell or a bullet? And, as medical advances continuously push the boundaries of what medicine can cure, what are the limits of surgery?
From the dark centuries of bloodletting and of amputations without anaesthetic to today’s sterile, high-tech operating theatres, Under the Knife is both a rich cultural history and a modern anatomy class for us all.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

I have read many medical history books before but none of them were as gruesomely interesting as this one. The juxtaposition of the gory surgeries and the dry writing makes for an excellent read. So many different surgeries are discussed in this book, it seems, that there should be something for everyone. If you are a fan of spurting blood, swollen intestines, gangrene, and reading about a man performing surgery on himself without anesthesia, then this book is definitely for you. If you are the squeamish type, stop reading immediately and find something else.

Each one of the 28 chapters discusses a different type of surgery, complete with history and famous examples. Some of the people van de Laar writes about are JFK, Bob Marley, Lenin, and Napoleon. I can honestly say that I learned multiple new facts in each chapter. This, plus the straight-up medical language (that may be incomprehensible to most people) made this book a winner for me. I have a medical background so this was an easy read, but I can see most people trying to figure out some of the jargon and getting discouraged. The author does provide many explanations and word sources (such as Latin or Italian) as well as a glossary at the end, but there is also a good deal of medical verbiage. The chapter also brings us into the present time, and how this surgery is performed using clean instruments and updated techniques.

As I mentioned before, the gore factor is extremely high. I don’t recall ever experiencing this level of detail, even in books containing Hannibal Lecter. A simple sentence telling us that the Sun King only bathed once or twice in his lifetime, and generously opened a window so a visitor could have fresh air speaks volumes. Can’t you just smell the stench from here?!?

There are also chapters on eunuchs, ancient Rome, and bloodletting. The detail in which van de Laar describes each procedure is magnificent. Facts just keep unrolling on the page, with minimal asides for the human detail found in so many other books written by doctors (such as Sandeep Jauhar or Atul Gawande). The book is nearly devoid of emotion; there are only procedures and facts.

I absolutely loved this book. I also may never be able to get some of the gory images out of my mind – but that’s ok.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up

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Heart: A History by Sandeep Jauhar

The bestselling author of Intern and Doctored tells the story of the thing that makes us tick

For centuries, the human heart seemed beyond our understanding: an inscrutable shuddering mass that was somehow the driver of emotion and the seat of the soul. As the cardiologist and bestselling author Sandeep Jauhar shows in Heart: A History, it was only recently that we demolished age-old taboos and devised the transformative procedures that have changed the way we live.
Deftly alternating between key historical episodes and his own work, Jauhar tells the colorful and little-known story of the doctors who risked their careers and the patients who risked their lives to know and heal our most vital organ. He introduces us to Daniel Hale Williams, the African American doctor who performed the world’s first open heart surgery in Gilded Age Chicago. We meet C. Walton Lillehei, who connected a patient’s circulatory system to a healthy donor’s, paving the way for the heart-lung machine. And we encounter Wilson Greatbatch, who saved millions by inventing the pacemaker–by accident. Jauhar deftly braids these tales of discovery, hubris, and sorrow with moving accounts of his family’s history of heart ailments and the patients he’s treated over many years. He also confronts the limits of medical technology, arguing that future progress will depend more on how we choose to live than on the devices we invent. Affecting, engaging, and beautifully written, Heart: A History takes the full measure of the only organ that can move itself.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

I am a big fan of the author and his writing, and HEART did not disappoint. There were many facts about the heart (some obscure, some not) interspersed throughout the book to complement patient stories. We read about the author as a young boy and his personal desire to work in cardiology, stemming from the story of a relative’s death during his formative years. The author comes across as a caring and knowledgeable doctor with a kind bedside manner – there are no veiled frustrations or jabs at ornery patients, as I have read in other medical books.

One of the best things about the book is that it’s part history, part medicine, part almost-gory-but-not-overly-done, and part philosophy. Each chapter can stand alone and be read a few days apart without having to remember the plot or which patient he is discussing. Thoughtful illustrations are added to underscore the meaning of the chapters, and footnotes are added to provide explanations or information without slowing down the flow of the narrative. The book strikes a great balance of science and interesting plot without slowing down the narrative with a lot of detail that the average reader without a medical background wouldn’t understand. For someone like me, with a medical background, there were also enough facts to keep me interested. Some books minimize details to make it easy for the reader; Jauhar does not do that. This makes his books fascinating and eminently readable.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.

 

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