28 February 2015

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Summary from Goodreads:
A major debut from an award-winning writer—an epic family saga set against the magic and the rhythms of the Virgin Islands.

In the early 1900s, the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule, and an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea. Orphaned by the shipwreck are two sisters and their half brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them.

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Uniquely imagined, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evoke an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers
and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prizewinning young writer.

Sometimes a book comes along at just the right time (even though it takes me a bit to actually get it read, the arrival is still timely).

Amid all the discussion last year of needing diverse books and how we should seek out books by diverse authors and containing diverse characters, there was a fair amount of buzz for Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning, her debut novel set in the early to mid-20th century as the Dutch Virgin Islands were being transferred to United States control.  Rebecca Schinsky at Book Riot talked about it, other bookish friends and Internet places talked about it, and I won an ARC in a Goodreads Giveaway.  Which I fully intended to read until my second Riot Read book arrived in August and that turned out to be a brand-spanking new hardcover edition of Land of Love and Drowning.  So I intended to read that copy but here's the thing about reading diversely: when you decide to try and make reading diversely a thing, your to-read list expands exponentially squared (I have decided this is a thing).  Because not only do you have all the books that you might normally find, but you start getting backlist and frontlist recs for authors of color in the US, outside the US, books in translation, books by authors of Jewish descent, books by LGTBQ authors, and books about all sorts of different, diverse characters.  And that's just the fiction books.  The TBR goes from large to Mt. Everest.  And that's OK.  All those titles will keep, I just have to keep reaching for them even as more are added to the top.

So I finally got far enough into the pile to find Land of Love and Drowning again.  It is a tangled web of family secrets set against the backdrop of the US Virgin Islands.  Fathers and mothers have suspect motives.  Sisters keep harmful secrets.  Myth and fate become reality.

The voices in this novel are absolutely pitch perfect: Eeona, so determined to be a "perfect" upper-class lady; Anette, who embodies the culture of the Virgin Islands; Jacob, whose sense of being caught between worlds is embodied in his language; and the narrator, who looks down on these characters as they play the hands dealt to them by their parents and the politics of the time.  The plot emerges in pieces as the voices in turn impart history and perspective.

What was most interesting to me was the look at the annexation and "Americanization" of the islands from the perspective the islands' inhabitants.  It's a perspective that I, as a white US citizen, have never been encouraged to entertain.  So in the midst of this evocative novel we, as readers, are given information that tells us the US has never made good on the promise that the inhabitants of the US Virgin Islands are actually citizens.  The land has been closed off, the young men drafted in war and subjected to racism, the tourism and entertainment industries have marginalized or stereotyped the island culture.  Land of Love and Drowning pulls the rug out from under the beautiful, care-free paradise we are sold on the travel websites and makes us think about the people who truly live there.  As it should.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway and then I read a copy purchased through the Book Riot Riot Read subscription.

20 February 2015

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Summary from Goodreads:

While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.

I was at work exactly 3 minutes before one of the merch managers tossed me a book: How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis.  It was going in the Discover Great New Writers bay.  I bought it on break.  (My fellow booksellers know me well.)

Ellis's examination of her favorite childhood heroines intercut with a memoir of growing up in an Iraqi-Jewish community in London was really, very interesting.  I'd been thinking recently about how favorite books shift and change as I grow up and have new experiences (how I think about Jo from Little Women is a good example) so the fact that Ellis and I are approximately the same age, and that we'd read almost all the same books, was so timely.  And besides, where else can you read about someone's reading life stretching all the way from Anne of Green Gables to Pride and Prejudice to Ballet Shoes to Jilly Cooper's Riders to Scheherazade?

(Side note: In the eternal Jane vs Cathy debate I'm firmly in Jane's corner.  Jane saves her own backside and gets the happy ending; Cathy is a twit.)

10 February 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Summary from Goodreads:
About 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. Our ancestors shared the planet with at least five other human species, and their role in the ecosystem was no greater than that of gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. Then, about 70,000 years ago, a mysterious change took place in the mind of Homo sapiens, transforming it into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, acquiring divine abilities of creation and destruction. * How did Homo sapiens conquer Earth? * What befell the other human species? * When did money, states and religion appear, and why? * How did science and capitalism become the dominant creeds of the modern era? * Does history have a direction? * Is there justice in history? * Did people become happier as history unfolded? * And what are the chances that Homo sapiens will still be around in a hundred years?

As much as I like medicine and epidemiology, a wee little bit of me is still the little girl who wanted to be a paleontologist when she grew up.  So a book like Sapiens appeared to be a nice sidetrip to explore the part of science that I don't see on a regular basis.

However, as much as we shelve this book in the "Science" section of the store under "Chem/Bio" where the books on evolution are kept, this isn't a science or paleontology book in the way that I would define it.  It definitely falls more into the anthropology category and strikes me as a book about the social history of homo sapiens rather than the actual biology of our species.  There's some biology, but not a great deal.

The beginning of Sapiens is very interesting, particularly the examination of the question did we evolve directly in a line, one human species after another, or did several homo species exist at the same time with homo sapiens eventually out-competing the others for dominance (we are particularly good at out-competing/extincting other species of all varieties). And then the evolution of homo sapiens from hunter-gatherers/nomadic tribes to small farming villages then larger villages to cities.  I quite liked the book up until the turn of modern history.

Then it felt boring.  To me, a great deal of ground in modern history has been covered before by other books I've read.  So a re-hashing followed by predictions of the outcome of homo sapiens didn't end the book in a good way, in my opinion.  I also felt some things were glossed over (the use of slavery or the European/American slave trade was mentioned several times but feudalism or serfdom was not - that I could find - and I found that an odd omission).

Dear FTC: I received access to a digital advance copy from the publisher.

03 February 2015

The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn

Summary from Goodreads:
The secret history of our most vital organ--the human heart
"The Man Who Touched His Own Heart" tells the raucous, gory, mesmerizing story of the heart, from the first "explorers" who dug up cadavers and plumbed their hearts' chambers, through the first heart surgeries-which had to be completed in three minutes before death arrived-to heart transplants and the latest medical efforts to prolong our hearts' lives, almost defying nature in the process.
Thought of as the seat of our soul, then as a mysteriously animated object, the heart is still more a mystery than it is understood. Why do most animals only get one billion beats? (And how did modern humans get to over two billion-effectively letting us live out two lives?) Why are sufferers of gingivitis more likely to have heart attacks? Why do we often undergo expensive procedures when cheaper ones are just as effective? What do Da Vinci, Mary Shelley, and contemporary Egyptian archaeologists have in common? And what does it really feel like to touch your own heart, or to have someone else's beating inside your chest?
Rob Dunn's fascinating history of our hearts brings us deep inside the science, history, and stories of the four chambers we depend on most.

I love the history of medicine.  Get me a copy of Oliver Sacks, or a biography of cancer (The Emperor of All Maladies), or a discussion of medical ethics (When the Wind Catches You and You Fall Down or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and I'm all in.  So I was really intrigued by the title of this book.

Well, it wasn't exactly what I thought.  I was hoping for medical case studies from history - what The Man Who Touched His Own Heart is really about is the history of human concepts of the heart as an organ and the history of cardiac medicine and surgery.  Sooo...OK, I'm still in, at least for most of it.

I like the idea and concept of this book very much.  Dunn, who is a professor of ecology and evolution, starts back at the very beginnings of Western medicine, when practitioners just began to speculate about the function of the heart and what that organ represented in our religions and cultures.  Galen, Avicenna, da Vinci, and Vesalius all appear as humans began to dissect corpses to learn the correct human anatomy of the heart (only mammals and birds have four-chambered hearts, so examining, say, a frog doesn't get you very far).  Once Harvey posited the motion of the blood and the microscope was invented discovery accelerated - the first known open-heart surgery, the first heart-catheterization, the attempts to build heart-lung bypass machines to allow more extensive cardiac surgery, and - in a major part of the book - the attempts to determine the correct origins and treatment for that scourge of the modern age, arteriosclerosis (or so we think).

Now, this book is for a lay audience - which isn't even remotely my bailiwick given the epidemiology degree - and I think it works quite well most of the time.  However, a few of the arguments felt a bit convoluted.  For example, he discussed a 2012 meta-analysis (that link might not get you access to the article if you're not academically affiliated - the citation is Stergiopulous and Brown, Initial Coronary Stent Implantation With Medical Therapy vs Medical Therapy Alone for Stable Coronary Artery Disease: Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(4):312-319 - also, that citation wasn't actually noted in the text; just a note about how randomization works....gonna give a bit of editorial side-eye here) looking at medication+angio/stent for atherosclerosis vs medication alone then jumped back about 30 years by referencing two studies in the 80s/90s that contradicted the meta-analysis's findings because statins weren't available then...huh? I do research and those paragraphs didn't flow well. I also felt like bits were missing from the story of cardiac medicine such as the development of heart valve replacements or repair, the extension of the heart-lung machine to ECMO (extracorporeal membranous oxygenation - it allows the lungs to rest and heal while the heart pumps, which could have been briefly introduced/explained), and the development of extremely complex operations to save children born with severe congenital diseases like hypoplastic left heart syndrome.  The sections near the end of the book on comparative anatomy and evolution are very good, as they should be given Dunn's background

One thing that I think would have been very helpful, considering the intended audience, was an actual anatomical description - with pictures - of the normal working anatomy of the heart at the beginning of the book, then a picture of the condition or injury Dunn is describing in the relevant chapter. In example, there's a point at which Dunn describes, in writing, the congenital malformation Tetralogy of Fallot (a consistent appearance of four cardiac anomalies - stenosis of the pulmonary artery, ventricular septal defect, biventricular connection of the aortic valve, and hypertrophy of the left ventricle), but not completely.  I had to stop and look it up, even though I know what the condition entails.  For a reader not versed in medicine or anatomy, I'm sure a section like that is very confusing.  So perhaps a few more illustrations for the paperback edition? (If they were added after the digital advances were released you can ignore the comment - I haven't had a chance to see a finished copy, yet.)

(Caveat for the entire book: if you are an animal lover, this book may not be for you. The history of medical discovery is paved with the use of laboratory animals for research, often in non-ethical and very lethal ways, none more so than the treatment of cardiac ailments.)

Dear FTC: I was given access to a digital advance copy by the publisher.