book recommendations

Books #43

It’s been a busy month! But I did find some time to read. And of course, a bunch of books I had on hold at the library all came at the same time. It always happens that way. Anyways, here are some good ones:

#1 Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Wow. What a story, what a book. It took awhile to get through it, but I definitely recommend it. It got on my radar after hearing a podcast (maybe This American Life?) about what happened at Memorial Hospital during Katrina and so when I saw this book I had to get it.

The book reconstructs what happened during the 5 days at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina: when the floodwaters surrounded the hospital and flooded the lower floors, they lost power, the heat was intolerable…

“The hurricane cut off city power. The hospital’s backup generators did not support air-conditioning, and the temperature climbed…Early Wednesday morning, Memorial’s generators failed, throwing the hospital into darkness and cutting off power to the machines that supported patients’ lives.”

It was chaos. They were hearing reports that it was Marshall Law outside the hospital walls. “Thiele thought the hospital would be overtaken, that those inside it had no good way to defend themselves.”

“While the mayor commanded everyone to leave, many didn’t have cars or other means to do so, and officials knew that the city’s plans to help transport them had significant holes, including a lack of sufficient drivers. Residents who could go on their own were already stuck in traffic on the interstate leading out of town. The Superdome, the giant stadium that hosted the New Orleans Saints football team, was designated as a “shelter of last resort.” “

Helicopters would land on the helipad of the hospital roof but then refuse to take patients. “The pilots would not allow pets on board the aircraft and watercraft, creating stressful choices for the staff members who had brought them to the hospital for the storm.”

Pets were being euthanized. The nurses and doctors that stayed behind had to choose which patients could be rescued.

“The ICU filled with screams. Plywood grew wet and buckled. Water pooled on the floors. The metal window frames strained and creaked like the Titanic… The command team announced a shift in hospital operations from “assault mode” to “survival mode.” This unofficial designation reflected news they had received minutes before the meeting. An Acadian ambulance worker on-site had confirmed with his dispatchers that one of the canals in New Orleans had been breached…the sight of the water advancing toward the hospital, pushing the hurricane debris ahead of it, was like something out of a movie.”

And eventually, the rescue boats and helicopters stopped coming.

“…electronic medical records system would be useless. Paper was high technology in a disaster. The electronic medication dispensing cart, new to Pitre-Ryals’s unit, would also shut down, its stock of medicines locked securely inside it… The hospital was stifling, its walls sweating. Water had stopped flowing from taps, toilets were backed up, and the stench of sewage mixed with the odor of hundreds of unwashed bodies.”

Then, at the end, when there was hope of rescue, a few doctors and nurses chose to “speed up” the death of certain patients. Patients that had DNR’s. A patient that was morbidly obese and couldn’t be moved up through the stairwell to the helicopters.

” “When I made my mother a DNR, I did not know it meant ‘do not rescue.’ “ (one of the victim’s daughter’s said that)

“It was a desperate situation and Cook saw only two choices: quicken their deaths or abandon them. It had gotten to that point. You couldn’t just leave them. The humane thing seemed to be to put ’em out.”

The first 40% of the book was the reconstruction of those 5 days. The rest of the book was the investigation and trial and aftermath.

Reading about the truly horrific experiences these people went through (doctors and patients) during those 5 days, I can understand both sides of this argument. It was described as a war zone. I can understand being faced with a scenario where you have no idea if you will be rescued, not sure if you can save everyone, and make a decision about the sickest ones…but at the same time…those patients weren’t given the choice. So I can see how it can be seen has murder (hence the criminal charges and trial).

#2 Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro

I heard an interview with this author on a podcast and the book sounded really fascinating. There was a long wait at the library for this book but it was worth the wait. It was a good book and I definitely recommend it. It’s an interesting memoir and it’s also an interesting discussion in medical ethics.

Dani is an accomplished writer, mother, wife. She’s in her 50’s and her on a whim, decides to do one of those DNA kits with her husband. They send it off, forget about it, and then the results come back and she discovers that she’s not genetically related to her half-sister, Susie. This opens up a can of worms she was not prepared for.

“If it was true that Susie and I were not half sisters, my father was not my father. That he was Susie’s father was without question. She looked like him. She had his eyes, and the shape of his face. She even sounded a bit like him…”

“My mind and body seemed to be disconnected. My body wasn’t the body I had believed it to be for fifty-four years.”

It turns out, her parents had difficulties conceiving and they went to a not so reputable fertility clinic in Philadelphia. Back during those days, it was common practice to mix the sperm with donor sperm. Dani, who always felt closer to her father than her mother, has now discovered she was not genetically related to the father she grew up with.

It’s a true crisis of identity and history for Dani. “Why am I? Why am I here? And how shall I live?”

” ‘It’s rare that you get an opportunity in life to stand outside yourself. It’s as if Hakadosh baruch hu is saying, Child, come sit next to me and now, look. Finding all this out is a door to discovering what a father really is. It isn’t closure—you may not get to have that—but it’s an opening to a whole new vista.’ I had been so afraid that blood would be all that mattered. Oh, how I had underestimated my remarkable aunt.”

Thus begins the search for her biological father. And the questions about her whole life (she’s Orthodox Jewish but never looked Jewish) and her heritage. It’s a very confusing, emotional time for her. But the real emotional roller coaster starts when she finds her biological father and they start corresponding through email.

The book is very interesting and a good read!

#3 Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

A lot of people might have heard of the Mutter museum in Philadelphia,a museum of “medical oddities”, but there was actually a pretty important doctor by the name of Thomas Mutter who played an important part in medical history.

He was orphaned at a young age and then sent to a distant relative who was basically a caregiver. Eventually he went to boarding school and then medical school. He became a gifted doctor and a surgeon and created the “Mutter Flap” to treat burn victims. It was an early method of skin grafting/plastic surgery.

“The broken. The diseased. The cursed. People who were considered monsters, even by medical definition. Mütter welcomed them all. An expert and efficient surgeon, he systematically rehearsed every procedure in his mind before beginning it.”

“Monsters. This is how the patients would have been categorized in America. Mutter was used to seeing them replicated in wax for classroom display, or hidden in back rooms away from the public eye. It was not uncommon for these patients to enter the surgical room fully prepared to die. Death was a risk they happily took for the chance to bring some level of peace and normality to their mangled faces or agonized bodies.”

He was renowned for his patient care, his surgical skill, his engaging teaching techniques in the classroom and he became the Chair of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

“Mütter had fought hard to make sure Jefferson Medical College provided recovery rooms to all patients who offered themselves up to the knife at the school’s surgical clinic.”

He performed hundreds of surgeries on patients who were “deformed” and gave many their lives back. He was also the first surgeon to use ether anesthesia during surgery (in 1846).

“Mütter’s fight for anesthesia to be widely accepted—to be adopted by doctors and surgeons as swiftly as possible in order to end what he saw as unnecessary human suffering—proved to be a turning point in his career…It was often a guessing game to determine how much was needed to sedate the patient . . . and how little could be used to kill them.”

He was so ground breaking and fascinating and he tragically lived a short life. His collection of medical “oddities” was bequeathed to a museum which became the Mutter Museum after he died. The book also talked a lot about the time period and the beginning of modern medicine and discoveries. It was so fascinating!

#4 Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

This was a very good book. It started out slow and I almost gave up but don’t give up because the story picks up and it gets very good and by the end you will be crying.

The story is a fictional telling of what it was like for native Hawaiians in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s when there was an outbreak of leprosy and they were rounded up and taken to the island of Moloka’i to live a segregated life. (I read a nonfiction book about this and it was VERY fascinating and I highly recommend it.)

Rachel is just a young girl when she contracts leprosy. She’s taken from her family and sent to Moloka’i to live. She lives in a home for girls and basically spends her life on the island. She grows up, she makes friends, she watches her friends die of the horrible disease. She come of age, she falls in love, she gets married…she has a baby and must give it up the second it’s born. The baby is then given up for adoption to a family off Moloka’i that doesn’t have leprosy.

It’s a touching, heart breaking book and I liked how it ended. It was a long book and there were definitely parts that felt like it dragged a bit and could have been edited down but the story was about a lifetime on this island, so it was kind of hard to avoid.

Would definitely recommend!

#5 My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

I loved this disturbing little book! What a creepy couple! Happily married couple, the husband and his wife Millicent, are living the picture-perfect life. They live in an expensive gated community. She’s a realtor. He’s a tennis instructor. They have two teenagers. They just happen to have a secret hobby: murder.

The husband, goes out to bars and hunts for women. Millicent kidnaps and murders them. But then all of a sudden, things are starting to unravel in their lives and their little hobby has consequences.

It is a gripping, creepy and enthralling book. I could not put it down! I could totally see it as a movie.

Happy Reading!

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Books #38

I read some pretty heavy books lately, so I apologize I don’t really have any light and fluffy recommendations for this month!

1 ) White Oleander by Janet Fitch

A compelling, dark, sometimes heart-warming read about Astrid’s difficult childhood. It starts with her life with her eccentric, but clearly mentally ill, mother in LA.

“Always learn poems by heart,” she said. “They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”

The relationship between Ingrid and Astrid is both endearing and disturbing. Even at a young age, Astrid seemed older than her years.

“I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts. I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn’t they know they were tying their mothers to the ground?”

Ingrid is a brilliant poet but ends up murdering her ex-boyfriend and goes to prison. This begins Astrid’s story of being bounced around foster homes. Each place she goes she learns something different about herself, survival, life, family and love.

“Honey, this is what happens when you fall in love. You’re looking at a natural disaster.” I vowed I would never fall in love.”

It’s not your typical book. The book is written beautifully, painting pictures for the reader that will not be forgotten.

Wherever Astrid goes, she finds solace in someone. In the first house, a trailer-trash type place, she befriends one of the young boys there. In the next place she befriends one of the neighbors who teaches her a lot about life and love.

“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love is temperamental. Tiring. It makes demands. Love uses you. Changes its mind.”

“When you started thinking it was easy, you were forgetting what it cost.”

There was one foster home where this wealthy interior designer had a beautiful home and had several foster kids, teenage girls. It seemed like it was a wonderful home. But looks were deceiving. As soon as the social worker left, Astrid found out the foster mom was basically starving all the teenagers. The kitchen was locked and they were allowed to eat dinner and that was it. Astrid began stealing food at school from the garbage because she was literally starving to death.

There were so many horrible things in the book, but it’s balanced by some glimpses of beauty and humanity. I loved this book!

2 ) If You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

What an interesting concept! Frank is in a coma in a hospital. Alice is the nurse in the coma wing. Cassie comes in to that wing in a coma as well and the mystery of what happened to put Cassie into that coma starts to unravel. It turns out that Frank is regaining his consciousness and is hearing everything that goes on around him. He’s hearing all the visitors that Cassie has, hearing the confessions, deducing who ran her down and put her into that coma. But will he be able to regain consciousness in time to warn everyone?

The way the story is told is really well done and I did not guess the ending or who had done it! I thought I had and was wrong. Very good! I could not put it down.

3 ) The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

This was a good, solid ghost story!

Maggie is an up-and-coming artist in London. Mike is her agent/dealer. After a horrible domestic violence event that puts Maggie in the hospital, she decides she needs to get away to clear her head and get some space and get away from her abusive ex-boyfriend. On her wandering road trip across Ireland, she decides to buy an abandoned, run-down cottage in a tiny seaside town. She hires some local contractors to fix it up and install electricity and plumbing, and once it’s inhabitable, she moves in.

She invites Mike and two other friends, Liz and Maggie, to her cottage for a weekend to celebrate her new abode. After spending a fun day exploring the tiny towns nearby, drinking in pubs and eating good food, they open up the whisky and someone brings out a ouija board. This is where the fun night takes a very creepy, dark turn.

The cottage is haunted by the original inhabitant. The four friends unknowingly invite an unfriendly spirit into their circle and Maggie becomes a changed person.

The book is short, and that’s the only flaw. I think it could have been made longer and really drawn out the suspense. But the book is rich in creepiness. I mean it’s Ireland, full of ghosts and spirits and druids and lush history. The cottage itself is creepy–out in the middle of nowhere. It all works! Great book!

4 ) Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin

“They say when an adult dies you bury the past; when a child dies you bury the future.”

I don’t even know where to start. Every time I try to write a review, or think about this book, I get choked up. It was beautifully written by Trayvon’s parents. They were eloquent and emotional, but direct and focused.

“I could never have imagined that my son would become, in death, a symbol for injustice.”

They perfectly described the events leading up to the death of their son, the blurry fog of disbelief after, the rage of injustice with the Florida’s justice system and the lack of humanity with the police who refused to arrest The Killer.

As a mother, I don’t know how I thought I could read this powerful book and not be a crying mess the entire time. I felt all the range of emotions Sybrina and Tracy felt. I read this book in short burst because it was so emotionally heavy I just couldn’t read it for long periods of time.

“When I became a parent, I would tell my sons, “Hey, racism is alive and well, and you have to watch out for it all of the time.”

“My mother always advised her kids, “If you see somebody coming at you with any kind of racism, run.”

“So just like my mother told me, I told my kids, including Trayvon: “If you see yourself about to get into a racial confrontation, eliminate yourself from the equation.”

“Run, because the confrontation isn’t worth it. Run, because the confrontation may escalate. Don’t stop to discuss it. This is NOT the time to have a conversation about race. If you have to protect yourself, do so. But if you can, just run.”

The most interesting part of the book was about the movement that began and spread all over the country, protesting the fact that the police refused to arrest George Zimmerman. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved. There were marches and peaceful protests and speeches and rallies. All of that was really empowering to read (and frustrating). It was also encouraging how many celebrities got behind the movement.

” ‘If they can bear the pain to stand up for us, then we can take the pain to stand up with them. They have woke America up. And they have shown something that this world needs to see. And that is we love our children, like everyone else loves their children. We may not have as much as others have, but we have each other, and we are not going to let anyone take our children from us.’ ”

“You are risking going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the twenty-first century!” he said. “You are making the world know you as a place of racial intolerance and double standards. “For one man, would you risk the reputation of a whole city? Zimmerman is not worth the history of this city.”

It even went to the White House. I remember watching Obama make a statement about Trayvon.

“I felt he was speaking not only as a parent but as an African American parent of African American children in a country where black children are still so vulnerable to violence of all kinds. Our children can’t just be kids; they have to be so much more. Our children don’t always feel safe in their own communities.

Later, President Obama would speak again about Trayvon’s death, at another press conference: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago.”

The second half of the book was the inside details of the trial. This part was long and sometimes redundant, but I think also important because it showed just how absurd the trial was. The issue of racial profiling wasn’t even allowed to be discussed in the trial. I don’t even understand how the judge ruled on that. That goes to the heart of what happened.

I still can’t wrap my brain around how the killer could invoke Stand Your Ground Laws when he was FOLLOWING TRAYVON IN HIS CAR. If he was so “threatened” he could have just driven away. The entire trial was a travesty.

“The problem that I had with this was: If this was a Stand Your Ground case, if the killer was in true and immediate fear for his life, why did he follow my son? Why did he trail and confront the person who caused such fear?”

“Stevie Wonder announced he would not play another concert in Florida until the state government repealed its Stand Your Ground law. (Florida still hasn’t repealed the law.)”

But in the end, Trayvon’s parents found grace and healing with their strong faith and the support of their community. They created a foundation and with the help of celebrities and activists, are doing GOOD WORK to help other parents who lost children to gun violence and try and change the Stand Your Ground laws.

“Trayvon’s spirit was still with us, but not just us. His spirit was motivating a movement.”

It was an excellent book. But you should be emotionally prepared to be gutted.

5 ) We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels

This was a fascinating read!

It’s three stories in one, about several generations of a family. It starts with Elizabeth Balsam in current times. She’s a reporter in Detroit. She is approached by a local man and asked to deliver a box of photos and an old camera to a relative she didn’t know she had. She says no but then she loses her job after screws up an investigation and she decides she needs a change of scenery.

So she goes out into the country somewhere in between Detroit and Flint, and stays with her great aunt Nora Balsam in a 150 year old farmhouse. And that’s where Nora’s story picks up. Nora’s story takes place in the 1960’s in Detroit. Nora comes from money. She meets an African American photographer, William, and they fall in love but it’s during a time period when interracial marriages is not ok. Nora is disowned by her family. Faced with poverty and racism, Nora and William flee Detroit and live in this old farmhouse that has been her family for centuries.

It turns out, this farmhouse has a lot of history. Nora’s distant relative, Mary Balsam, was using that farmhouse as part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. She was taking in freed slaves that fled the South, giving them a home, jobs and basically a family.

It was a super fascinating, heartbreaking, honest story about race, racism, history and love.

Happy Reading!

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