Thursday, January 28, 2010

Complications by Atul Gawande

Wow, is it a bad sign when I can't even think of anything worth writing in my "opening monologue" here? Last week was a fun week with all the time consuming yet worthwile link posts, but now I think it's about time to get down to the business of review writing. After all the link posts, this should be quick and painless, right? I received a copy of Complications by Atul Gawande as a Christmas gift. It's a book I'd been meaning to read for quite a while, especially given my unexpected career in the medical field. I work in a surgical pathology lab, which means, in a nutshell, that if you come to "my" hospital you won't know me or see me, but chances are I've seen a part of you (i.e. your skin biopsy, your appendix, your gallbladder and the list goes on). So, I'll admit straight off the bat, that my work, occasionally alongside surgeons and always in conjunction with them gave me a particular interest in this book. With that said, however, I think that this book is an engaging and worthwile read for anyone who has or might in the future be treated by a doctor. In other words, of course, I mean everybody should read it.

Complications is a collection of essays about Atul Gawande's experience as a surgeon and his acute observations of how the medical establishment is failing and succeeding. Gawande's essays offer us a look into the murky depths of practicing medicine that we fail to understand and appreciate despite our often frequent contact with the system. Broken up into three sections, Gawande's essays explore doctors' fallibility, unknowns and mysteries that often crop up in the treatment of patients, and, finally, uncertainty itself, a prospect we often fail to consider given the perpetual technological advancement that seems inherent in practicing medicine.

Gawande engages the reader using frequent case studies of patients he and his colleagues have encountered. These serve to draw the reader in and also as great jumping off points for Gawande to tackle the struggles and questions that plague both doctors and patients about the state of medicine today. In Complications, Gawande contemplates the mystery of pain, questions how we do and essentially must entrust patient care to doctors in training, the improbable victory of a surgeon's instinct over facts and logic, and many more fascinating topics.

Complications is an important book. It's a book that asks us to consider the fact that even the doctors who are treating us are merely fallible human beings who know a lot but are often forced to rely on gut instinct in a crunch which may work to the benefit of the patient but may also work to their detriment. It's a book that reminds the rest of us, as patients, that we have an important role to play in our own healthcare. All this, and it also features the sort of compelling, easy to understand writing that makes Complications almost impossible to put down.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Best YA Books You Might Not Have Read

Last weekend Kelly from YAnnabe contacted me about a cool project. We've all heard of those "big name" young adult titles, you know, your Twilights and your Harry Potters and your Hunger Games, but Kelly's idea was to put a spotlight on some of those awesome but less appreciated young adult titles, you know, the ones you should really read, but get lost in the shuffle of those big names. Hence, today's blog post blitz about just such books, of which this post is probably obviously a part. There are some young adult books that I've love loved over the past few years that if you read my blog on a regular basis, you might possibly have heard me raving about. Imagine my surprise to find that some of them aren't nearly as popular (as measured by LibraryThing stats) as I'd like to imagine. So, my apologies if I sound like a broken record, but I'd be remiss if I didn't use this opportunity to sing their praises yet again, and who knows? I might pop a surprise or two in there just to keep you regular readers on your toes.

6 Underloved YA Titles You Should Be Reading
(even if you don't like YA or being told what to read)

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going - Take one fat kid with no self-esteem add one almost homeless kid multiply that by one genuine first person narrator then divide by several all too realistic situations = a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming coming of age tale featuring the unlikeliest of punk rock bands. (For additional raving see my review.)

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff - This book shattered all my illusions of the novel in verse. Like, if you pretty much can't be bothered with poetry, you won't enjoy this book or this is just a sad excuse to make reading easier for a generation of lazy readers. This book is simple in a way, but in a way that is stunningly profound. It illuminates the struggles of poverty and single motherhood and the importance of getting a "book" education but also the importance of learning to understand and care for the people around you regardless of how different from you they may be. (Again - here's my review for additional raving)

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger - I'll admit that the first book I read by Wittlinger didn't quite thrill me, but Hard Love was an entirely different story. This story is about John whose mother and father are so emotionally distant that he's not quite sure who or how to love. When John meets the quirky, and unfortunately for him, not straight Marisol, he can't help falling for her. John is an incredible narrator, and this is a great story. (Say, would you like to read more raving?)

Wild Roses by Deb Caletti - Okay, so maybe I'm just a sucker for a really genuine, realistic teenage first person narrator. Wild Roses has one, too. Cassie has divorced parents, a mentally unhinged stepfather, and a love interest she knows can lead to no good. She's also got a funny imagination and certain sarcastic wit about her. This is a book that tackles so many real "teenage" things with flair and accuracy. (But if I haven't convinced you yet, there's always some more raving)

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty - We've entered the pure fun category with this one. The others I love for their depth and their realism, Feeling Sorry for Celia I love for its utter hilarity. Told entirely in letters and notes to her and from the main character's mother via the refrigerator, not to mention letters from an imaginary entities like "The Cold Hard Truth Association" and something like "The Society of Cool Teenagers"(the name of which I can't quite recall) alternately awarding and revoking the main character's membership which are even more hilarious and to which I could often relate. I remember devouring this in one laughter filled evening.

The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service - All right, so I was only going to spotlight five titles, but I couldn't let this one go by. I'm not even sure if it's in print anymore, but if you can grab a copy it's a total guilty pleasure sort of historical fiction/time travel romp featuring the twin brother of an ancient Pharaoh in "modern day" (er...1980s) England attempting to rescue some sacred urns he was commissioned to protect, even well beyond the bounds of his natural life. I love the beginning with its depiction of Ancient Egypt, and the time travel thing it's got going on makes for an entertaining romp.

All six are very worthy reads that I hope you'll consider, if you haven't already. For more posts and the master list of underloved YA titles being spotlighted today, don't forget to check out YAnnabe!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too Many Books?

As always, I'll have to ask you to pardon my absence. Life has been mildly out of control lately what with an unexpected return of a friend, buying a new car, having a job, and other such diversions. This is all not to mention my massive weekend book buying insanity and subsequent shelf reorganization. As it turns out, attempting to organize 1000 books or so is a time consuming task that slurped up every last bit of my weekend. Nonetheless, I've temporarily triumphed over the unwieldy book collection and determined that I simply must start being much more disciplined in my book acquiring or maybe, at least, disciplined at all. But who wants to start out a blog post talking about discipline? Let's talk about the shiny new books I got and dole out a little blame instead. I promise I'll only write about a few of them, or else we might be here all day.

So - some of the highlights of library booksale fest Winter 2010 and the bloggers who made me buy them:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese - With thanks to Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar - Another one for Diane!

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - Thanks to Eva of A Striped Armchair who can always be counted upon to add to my TBR pile!

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - Wendy at Caribousmom wrote a great review of this one.

Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald - With thanks to the raving Susan of West of Mars. Having read Fat Kid Rules the World now, when she raves, I purchase!

To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield - I definitely would have passed over this undustjacketed massive tome if I hadn't recalled Bookfool's glowing review.

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines - Sam at Book Chase wrote a great review that propelled this one off the shelf and into my hands.

Others with no specific blame to lay include:

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

...and much much more. Should I continue I would only shame myself with my great indiscretion. In light of this, I finally decided that I had too many books. So I decided to weed out the book collection and unload some dead weight that it's time to admit that I'm never going to read. The good news is, all the books fit on the shelves now. The bad news? Well, um, they're kind of double layered. Okay, really double layered. But two weekend days later, they are in alphabetical order by author. Which was an epic chore, but also greatly satisfying, and I'm pretty sure I got a great workout without really thinking about it. Even with all of them carefully tucked into their places on the shelves, the unavoidable truth is that there are, in fact, too many. I fear it may be time to institute the sort of book buying ban that some of you with stronger wills than I have instituted. I have yet to decide on the rules I'll put in place for myself, just that I need to have some rules. After a week like the last one (or, dare I say, two?), I fear that one of the most basic easier-said-than-done rules I need to abide by is to, um, actually crack a book once in a while. *sigh*

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Downsiders by Neal Shusterman

It's time to put my nose to the grindstone and close out these 2009 reviews I haven't quite gotten to. Neal Shusterman's Downsiders was my final read of the year, and a fine read it was for the holiday season. YA adventure, very absorbing, but not too challenging for a time of year when challenging reads should just not be on the agenda for me. Especially this year when I found myself reading this book more than once while waiting to be picked up by my dad or tow truck drivers or any would-be rescuers from my numerous car troubles. Argh. But enough about me, on to the book that kept me distracted from my more material hardships!

Downsiders speculates about a scenario that, though fantasy, seems that it could be altogether possible. Shusterman's New York City is populated by "Topsiders," the people you and I can see if we wander the streets of the city. However, it also encompasses a whole civilization of Downsiders, a community of people who dwell in tunnels and cast-off remnants of the top side that exist deep below the surface untouched by the topside for no less than 10 years. Topsiders live in blissful ignorance of the entire world below them, while Downsiders, for the most part, live in fear of the Topside, drawing near to it only to gather necessities and catch "fallers," those whose hope for a life worth living in the Topside has run out. The two civilizations exist happily apart and unknown to each other until the chance meeting of Talon, a Downsider, and Lindsay, a Topsider occurs with unfortunate consequences for both.

Downsiders' two main characters are believable. Both are feeling kind of disengaged from their own worlds opening the way for their encounter. Talon's overwhelming curiosity about the Topside combined with his desperation to find a cure for his little sister's illness drives him to seek medicine in Lindsay's under-renovation home. Lindsay, having just moved to New York to live with her father and step-brother who are virtually unknown to her, has no friends and a suspicion about the city that makes her all too eager to embrace Talon and his world when they have a run in. Unfortunately, the characterization stops with them. The remainder of the people populating Shusterman's story are a variety of stock characters with predictable traits and predictable outcomes to their situations like Lindsay's oh-so-typical stepfather who's so involved in his work he barely notices her and her full of himself scumbag of a stepbrother. You've seen these characters a hundred times, and little is done to set them apart from the rest of their ilk.

Luckily, Downsiders is not intended to be a character driven novel. Shusterman's alternate New York is vividly imagined, complete with its own practices like wearing watches around the ankle because "time is of low importance" as well as a variety of invented directional terms, and a few unexpected ways of surviving and making a living. In Shusterman's hands, this home for the city's once unwanted and forgotten is inventive and oddly realistic. Downsiders is a rollicking, heartfelt adventure about two worlds colliding and a coming of age story about two characters finding themselves in the context of their own worlds and beyond.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The 2009 Leafy Awards!

That's right everyone, it's that time again. For the third time (wow, I've really been at this for three years? You'd think I'd be better at it), it's time for the Leafy Awards celebrating the best (and worst) of the few books I've read this year! As usual, the categories are almost totally bogus because I'm incapable of just writing a straight up top 10 list, and what's the fun in that anyway, right? Now, brought to you from the back of my health insurance policy envelope where I've written them down illegibly (drum roll please!) - the 3rd Annual Leafy Awards!

First, in the category of Most Delicious:

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister (Seriously, I could eat this book. Also voted "Most likely to captivate me so much that I read most of it in an uncomfortable wooden kitchen chair instead of putting it down long enough to move to the couch" and "Most Sensual in an Unnaughty Way")

Next up The Best and Only Non-Fiction to Win a Leafy This Year:

Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (also voted "Most Likely to Make Me Feel Like a Scumbag for Not Forgiving Minor Transgressions of Loved Ones." She mistakenly helped put him in prison for raping her, he forgave her, and now they're friends! What a story!)

Best Debut Novel:

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (also voted "Characters I'd Most Like to Meet" and "Most Likely to Make a Shameless Evangelist out of Me." If you haven't spotted me somewhere on the internet raving at length about this book, you must not get out too much. Or else I must not.)

Tear Jerker of the Year:

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (I sobbed. On more than one occasion. Also voted "Most Likely to make me scratch my head in confusion over why it took me this long to pick up a Sarah Dessen book," I mean, it's not like everybody isn't talking about her!)

Best Book Nobody's Heard of by a Popular Author

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute (Sure, he might have brought you classics like A Town Like Alice and On the Beach but you should really be reading this one.)

Best Book I Loved Before Even Coming Close to Finishing It

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (Also voted "Most Likely to Make me Gush Shamelessly in the Highest Amount of Blog Posts before Actually Reviewing It")

The RARE and COVETED Book I'm Starting to Think I Should Really Re-read Even Though I Don't Re-Read Books Award goes to...

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue (It's literary! It's fantasy! It's intelligent and HEARTFELT and CHARACTER DRIVEN and SETTING DRIVEN and AWESOME! Ahem. Yeah, will somebody just go get me another copy so I can get even more out of it?)

The Dagger Award for Cutting Me Deepest battles a few strong contenders. Emerging victorious is...

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty (Hurts so good.)

Most Laugh Out Loud Funny:

The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty (The Moriartys have it! Okay, so the book is totally unbelievable - who cares? It's hilarious!)

Most Likely to Cause Deep Depression and Make you Like It

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Seriously, though. How many times did I have to stop and take a breather because McCarthy was twisting his bitterbittersweet postapocalyptic knife in my heart so hard? Ow. This one hurts so good, too.)

Oh, wait, here's one last award. Who's it for? Why, it's for me!

It's the Biggest Accomplishment award, awarded to yours truly for finally finishing the epic tome that is In the Country of Brooklyn by Peter Golenbock after more than a year of non-continuous reading.

And finally...

The Hall of Shame featuring the books I can't believe I bothered finishing.

The Glister by John Burnside (What the heck was this book even about?)
Freewill by Chris Lynch (What the heck was this book even about??)
Canvey Island by James Runcie (Also, unfortunately, getting the nod for "Most Promising Beginning" which made the disappointment that much sharper.)

There you have it! Another year over. Congratulations to the winners and here's to another year of great reading!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's The Road transports us to a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland. The sun never shines, the air is clogged with ash, and what was once civilization has been reduced to a Hobbesian state of nature with each man for himself, so desperate to live that they've begun killing and eating each other. In this decimated world McCarthy introduces us to an unnamed man and his son walking the cold, decimated road south to the ocean seeking warmth for the winter and hoping to find something, anything that will help them survive in this unforgiving world. Sustained only by their love for each other, the man's desire to preserve the life of his son though it seems to be no life at all, and the son's against-all-odds empathy for those left living, human and animal, the pair soldier on in a world that seems very nearly devoid of all life.

He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father's house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.

McCarthy's post-apocalyptic world is a dark and profoundly empty place. Rendered in his stark prose, it becomes as much a character as the man and the boy, an antagonist to their protagonist. Without so much as a quotation mark, McCarthy's spare style makes the situations that the man and boy find themselves in and their responses that much more affecting. As the man and boy travel the road coming upon the dangerous and the devastated, McCarthy explores the nature of good and evil, right and wrong and whether one can truly be one or the other under such circumstances. In the characters of the boy and the man, McCarthy examines the battle between empathy and survival as well. The boy has a wellspring of compassion that gives the reader hope for humanity even in its most dire state, but the man is forced to focus on survival and finds himself dueling against the boy's do-gooder instincts on many occasions. These are the most poignant occasions, and we, as readers, are forced to wonder about on which side we would be if these things happened to us.

The Road is a powerful and heartbreaking account. With only a few words McCarthy has the power to write the most heartwrenching of scenes. The love of the man and the boy stand in stark relief against the barren, destroyed world creating an island of hope for humanity even in the worst of times.

(Disclaimer - Book purchased by me at Barnes & Noble.)

Read other reviews at...

Things Mean A Lot
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops
It's All About Books
The Little Reading Nook

Friday, January 1, 2010

It's a New Year With New Books!

And like a magical switch had been flipped, I actually woke up this morning, and when I sat down at the computer, I wanted to write a blog post instead of thinking I should write a blog post. I'm hoping this is a sign of good things to come.

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday and a bookish holiday. From what I've seen, many of you have, and so did I! I was actually very conservative about the amount of books I put on my Christmas list, and I received three of the four that I asked for. I asked for and received Complications by Atul Gawande, an essay collection about the trials faced by the medical profession as written by a surgeon. In an unprecedented turn of events I had finished a book on Christmas Eve, and so was able to start one right away on Christmas, and I've been devouring Complications, a book I've meant to read forever and even more so since Eva has been known to gush about (and rightly so from what I've read so far!). I also got The Knife of Never Letting Go, the dystopian YA that any number of my bloggy friends have been going on about, but which I probably most associate with Nymeth's raving. Lastly, I received a copy of Listening Is an Act of Love which is a collection of personal stories from ordinary people as told to their loved ones in StoryCorps interview booths. I can't remember where I originally heard about it, but I do know that I'm quite excited to have it.

Now, just because I was so well-behaved with asking for books on my Christmas list doesn't mean there's been any shortage of books coming into the house lately. In fact, you may remember this post where I came to you enablers for your help not indulging in the Book Closeouts Black Friday fiction sale. As I was counting on, you all did not dissuade me but convinced me that purchasing myself some books was, in fact, the right course of action. With that in mind, I whittled my total down to a mere 7 (for a house in which the shelf space probably stands at perhaps -150 books right now). Yes, I'm ashamed, but I'm also pretty elated with the haul, too.

It consists of...

- After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell (from which the text of my header comes, and which I decided I definitely needed a copy for my own collection)
- Stand the Storm by Breena Clark (historical fiction about freed slaves in DC during the Civil War)
- The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (more historical fiction that I've had on my wishlist for a long time!)
- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (another that feels like I've wanted it forever!)
- 26a by Diana Evans (an Orange Prize for New Writers winner for my lapsed Orange Project reading)
- The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke (which many of my blogging friends were talking up during the Once Upon a Time Challenge last year)
- Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler (which I have no comment for, but sounds really good)

And all of this doesn't count several review copies that have shuffled in in recent weeks, which I don't think I'm going to mention because I'm getting tired (and slightly ashamed), but which I haven't forgotten and will be getting to in the extremely near future once I finish the book I gave myself permission to enjoy with no strings attached for Christmas.

In other news, in one fell swoop I told myself that I would read more books this year, waaaay more books, and also joined Twitter. That's right. I've crossed over to the Twitter dark side after months and months and months of wisely holding out. Nonetheless, I went and got a phone with internet capabilities, and I felt like I needed something to make it feel like I was getting my money's worth out of it. So, Twitter it is. My name there is toadacious1, which is actually a weird screenname I've been using since I was in high school, so if you've got a sketchy follower with "toad" in their name, that's me. If you want to follow me, please do, and if you'd like me to follow you (if I'm not already), please do leave me your name, and I'll look you up! Also, if you can think of a few people or entitities that I'd really be missing out by not following leave their names, too, if you please.

All right, that's all from me for today, but I'll be trying to catch up with the blogosphere as soon as today's pork and sauerkraut eating is through. Also - keep your eyes peeled for the 3rd Annual Leafy Awards for Excellent Books Read in 2009!