Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson****

furiouslyhappyJenny Lawson is well known as The Blogess (the blogger that came up with Beyonce, the metal chicken). She won awards for her previous memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.  The only DRC I saw for this title was for readers in UK and Australia, so I waited till I could scoop it cheaply and bought it digitally. Those that read my reviews often know I almost never do this. For the $3 it cost on an Amazon Prime daily deal, it was worth it to me.

Lawson is one of a handful of authors that talks candidly and often very humorously about her own struggle with mental illness and autoimmune disorders. Her capacity to create imaginary scenarios totally out of left field is her greatest strength, second only to the ability—sometimes—to find a way to laugh at the nest of spiders that occasionally takes over her brain. And sometimes she is painfully candid. Try this one on:

 

“Sometimes being crazy is a demon. And sometimes the demon is me…And some of us just carry around our tiny demon as he wreaks havoc in our mind, tearing open old dusty trunks of bad memories and leaving the remnants spread everywhere. Wearing the skins of people we’ve hurt. Wearing the skins of people we’ve loved. And sometimes, when it’s worst, wearing our own skins.”

 

She rants about the well intentioned but ignorant advice she’s received from clueless amateurs. At various times she’s been told to shake it off, to stop eating gluten, and to let Jesus into her heart in order to experience a full and immediate cure.

Sure.

Her musings about flying, which her fame requires her to do a great deal of, though she is afraid both of flying and of leaving home, are brilliant. This reviewer crowed out loud from glee at Lawson’s suggestion that flight attendants be permitted “to whack one person per flight with a piñata stick for being the stupidest damn person on the plane.”

My favorite section is the one in which she details the horrors of remodeling in a way that makes me howl. And goodness knows we all need to do that.

Lawson inserts women’s reproductive anatomy into almost any sort of discussion, and whereas I applaud the feminist spirit that demands the word “vagina” no longer be treated like a dirty word, I confess it was a bit much for me. But then, I am probably older than you are; this may be a generational thing. And there may also be plenty of women from the Boomer generation that think her use of the word is great.

Now and then there’s an odd moment in which I stop reading and stare at the text. What? Did she proof read this, and did her editors? There are occasional remarks that strike me as racially insensitive. She spins a thread about the wild things in the out of doors, and cautions us that since bears don’t play, we should shoot one first and ask questions later. Assuming said bear is in one’s back yard or trying to fit through a window of one’s home, I can see the point, but it came out of left field and made me wonder. Really? Just shoot bears? And the thread further spins itself into a bison-and-Native-Americans discussion in which she assures us that it’s not great to have bison in one’s yard, but it would be awesome to keep a lot of Native Americans out there. My e-reader says, “?!?”

But then she drops and is off onto another stream-of-consciousness spiel before I can fully digest what’s been said. She does it a couple of other times also. And it occurs to me that she has perhaps the ultimate excuse, having said up front that she has known for most of her life that she is “not right” in the head, but I still wonder that her editors didn’t look at that and say, “Umm…Jenny? This part right here…?” There are no overt racial slams or this review would have a lot of empty stars, but there are small moments where I wonder if she understands how others may read what she’s said.

Many of her entries if not all of them are drawn from her blog, and it’s possible that if you’ve read her blog faithfully, you won’t want to pay for this book. As for me, I found it worth the three bucks to be able to get everything at once in a well organized format—known as a book—that I could read comfortably. I confess I would not have paid full jacket price for it now that I get most books free and also have less money to spend on them than when I was working, but for others it may well be worth it.

On the whole, this is a courageous and often eloquent, fall-down-funny memoir, and with the small reservations mentioned above, I recommend it to you.

Run, Don’t Walk: The Curious and Chaotic Life of a Physical Therapist Inside Walter Reed Army Medical Center, by Adele Levine*****

RundontwalkI loved this memoir. I read it in 2014 through the Goodreads First Reads program when I first began writing reviews, a few months before I began my blog. This is a memoir intended for general audiences, disarmingly funny and engaging. I recommend it to everyone.
I’ve been through physical therapy for things like whiplash from car accidents–yes, some folks really do get whiplash–but nothing like the scale experienced by the veterans and soldiers that Levine treats. And so the first sign of expertise is in the title, where she wisely excluded any reference to amputations.
Ask yourself: is there a tasteful way to laugh about amputations and amputees, as well as the people who work with and visit them?

Amazingly, there is. She’s found it.

And at first I could not accept that this was Levine’s first book, because the amount of synthesis and development of characters is not in any way rookie writing, and I don’t care how brilliant the writer might be. The blurb says “experienced writer”. Everything clicked into place when I noted that she had been writing a weekly humor column for a local news source.

I didn’t set out to learn anything here–it’s not as if I am considering becoming a PT. And as stated, this should not be viewed as a niche book just for medical folk or military types, but for the general book-loving public. It would even make a good beach read.

But I learned some things, nevertheless. I didn’t know that anyone who loses both legs ever has a shot at walking on two prostheses, for example; and indeed, some don’t, but the possibility is strong. I didn’t know some prostheses have computers. And I groaned at the obstacles put in place by the fishbowl environment where she worked: deliberately limited computer access so that anyone, celebrities, congressional staff, or John Q. Public, will see the therapists ONLY working with patients, and then therapists have to stay after work in order to enter notes about progress registered, because people who come to see the circus don’t want to see more than two people using a computer at a time. The banning of coffee for the same reason; nobody wants to see your cup! And I loved reading about the guerilla response to said ban.

Levine uses either real people with changed names, or patients and colleagues that are an amalgamation of more than one person. Characters Cosmo and Major Dumont were favorites of mine. And I loved the Jim-quote and how it is used at a party full of insufferable assholes that think that they are really something because they went to Walter Reed and WATCHED the patients and therapists for awhile. The punch line is awesome, and I won’t ruin it by telling it here.
And I really loved the Miracle reference.

I was on my third day with this book when someone in my family died. It was a total fluke, someone younger than me whose time should not have been up yet, and it hit all of us in the solar plexus. The writer’s chapter on the bone marrow transplant proved really cathartic. It wasn’t written for that purpose; I just had the right book at the right time, and so I sat with the book in my hand and cried awhile. Thanks; I needed that.

Sometimes I recommend getting a book free or cheap, but this one is worth the jacket price. Funny, absorbing, and informative.

Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine, by Luba Vikhanski***-*****

immunityElie Metchnikoff is credited with several medical discoveries, some of which were found before Mother Russia was entirely ready to receive them. This interesting though technically challenging text is the story of his life, and especially of his scientific career and achievements. Thank you Net Galley and Chicago Review Press for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public April 1, 2016.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Russia still had a tsar—a royal ruler with power similar to that of an emperor—and it still had serfs, who legally could not leave the plots of land assigned to them to farm for the benefit of royal landowners. It was not an ideal climate for science or any other aspect of enlightened thinking, but Metchnikoff was not only gifted, he was immeasurably stubborn, and by such methods as posing as a college student in order to sneak into lectures, he achieved an excellent education and began to pave new inroads toward discovering how the human immune system works.

His theory that cells in the human body swarm around and dispose of microbes that enter the body in order to kill germs was true, but proving it to those with authority in Russia was not an easy thing to do. Only recently had germs been discovered to cause disease; not so long before, it was assumed that God smote certain people or their loved ones in retribution for their bad behavior or thoughts. Being a scientist in such a place was challenging, and eventually, after being snubbed repeatedly by the German academics he sought to win over, Metchnikoff found his way to Paris, and the Pasteur Institute, where he would spend the bulk of his career.

His refusal to participate in elitist cliques that feasted on 8 course gourmet meals while half of London starved warmed my heart, as did his refusal to be roped into other social pretensions. Really, in another time and place, this would be my kind of guy.

Here I must disclose the fact that the sciences are not my forte. Only since retirement from teaching in the humanities have I found the time and confidence to explore memoirs of famous scientists. Last autumn I read and reviewed the biography of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man that discovered a brain disease that was the result of repeated blows to the head consistent with American football. Cheered by my success in understanding and reviewing that fascinating story, I decided to tackle this one…with less satisfactory results.

I have never been good at understanding science. It’s that simple.

So if science and in particular the history of immunology or disease is your wheelhouse, this may be a four or five star read for you. But although I am not scientifically minded, I do have a sturdier education than the average American, and so I think I’m being fair in saying that the average reader-on-the-street that picks this up due to general interest rather than exceptional training may find it to be a great deal of work.

I did check the endnotes; I always do. So unless the author has simply invented a lot of sources in other languages than English—which seems very unlikely indeed—then I can safely say that this author has relied primarily on sources that the average English-speaking reader will not be able to tap into. Strong documentation from a wide variety of sources.

Recommended to those with a higher than average facility for matters of science, and for those interested enough to wrestle with challenging material.

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi*****

whenbreathbecomesairPaul Kalanithi was a promising young physician who had nearly finished completing ten years of training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. His twin ambitions had been to become a neurosurgeon and to write. When he realized how little time was left of his too-brief life, he decided to spend his remaining time writing this book. Thank you, Net Galley and Random House Publishing House for the DRC. Dr. Kalanithi died in March 2015, but he left this luminous memoir behind as part of his legacy. It is available to the public January 19, 2016.

The memoir starts with fond adolescent memories that left me dumbfounded, not only at the level of privilege he was born into, but the assumptions that go along with that. I was afraid I would fall into the uncomfortable place of not being able to generously review a dead man’s memoir. To make matters worse, I read two other memoirs that bitterly recounted the arrogance of doctors. I set this one aside about a third of the way into it until I could look at it with fresh eyes, and I am glad I did.

The spell of entitlement is broken by the forty percent mark; in fact, when he decides to continue in college simply because he isn’t done learning—a luxury that would never occur to most of us—I find myself interrupted mid-eye-roll when he mentions that in order to afford his apartment, he has to take a part time job. Now we are back in the realm of the real, and I can relate to the author.

With deft pacing and remarkable eloquence, he takes us into the world of the medical student, and we go with him to his first dissection and learn a few basic facts about the brain, including what tumors, both benign and malignant can do, and what priorities are generally set in maintaining its function. He explains why doctors sometimes recommend against heroic measures to continue a patient’s life when the patient inside is forever gone. There is information that should be shared, and information that should sometimes be saved for later; we see this from a much more personal vantage point later on.

And upon Kalanithi’s own diagnosis of terminal cancer, which has invaded his lungs and his brain, he is left “searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death.” Once his medical options are gone—oh, so swiftly!–he delves into poetry, philosophy, and even religion in order to come to terms with what he knows will happen, as well as the frustratingly ambiguous aspect of not knowing how long that will take.

Despite the fact that his death interrupted his writing, Kalanithi’s work is eloquent and absorbing, and it really didn’t feel as if it were under length to me. Maybe its brevity is what prevents it from becoming too emotionally taxing for the reader to absorb. It should rank high along with the work of Mitch Albom and Randy Pausch as a story that helps us learn to let go. Because as he points out, death will come for each of us. It always wins; the only question is when.

This book contains an epilogue written by his wife Lucy, but it stands quite nicely on its own.

Recommended for those facing death or dealing with loss, as well as for those who just like a powerful, hyper-literate memoir.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard *****

AthousandnakedstrangersTake a former journalist; make him a paramedic in a high-poverty, high-danger area for a decade; then turn him loose again to write about it, and he will play his readers like violins and make us like it. A Thousand Naked Strangers is a high octane, gloriously visceral ride in an ambulance and out of one, through Southeast Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you to Net Galley and to Scribner for the DRC. Since I read multiple galleys at a time and I loved this one best, I tried to feed it to myself in small nibbles, like Mary Ingalls hoarding her Christmas candy, but it was just too riveting and I could not stay away.

At the memoir’s beginning, our guy is just looking for work. With just a few months of training, he can become an EMT. His journalistic career wasn’t working out as he had expected, and he found himself working as a paperboy instead, delivering the newspaper for which he had written. That’s about as rock bottom as it gets.

He becomes an EMT; then he sets out to discover whether he wants to commit to the extra year and a half of schooling required become a medic. Once in, he’s hooked, not so much in spite of the risk and unpredictability of the job, but because of it.

And when you think about it, what other job pays so very little, involves so much danger, and gets so little respect? Teaching comes to mind, but being a rescue worker trumps even that, particularly for the low pay and insane hours–holidays missed–to do it, a person needs to be young, and to be an adrenaline junkie. And for a decade, Hazzard fits that description.

When he starts out, he is callous, as youth often are, speculating with his partner about what constitutes the perfect call. The perfect call, to their way of thinking, has requirements that are measured in the number of dead and wounded, the amount of danger. Does the patient have to survive in order for it to be a perfect call? Nah.

Over the years he matures, and he becomes more respectful of the patients with whom he deals. He talks to addicts, hookers, and children in a way that is forthright and kind. The job takes a lot out of him, but it also gives him a lot. He grows up. He deals with the dead; the nearly dead; those that are feigning death; and those that are just looking for a free ride somewhere. He delivers babies in record numbers, and he transports a guy on a roof down to the ambulance. He sees just about everything, from suicides to homicides, from the domestically abused, to the kid with a roach in her ear. He plays the wildest imaginable pranks, and once in awhile he gets called on the carpet for it.

Some of the incidents described in this memoir are just drop-dead funny, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I laughed out loud more than once. Some are incredibly dark. Some just left me with a feeling of awe. But although the tone changes many times, the pacing is absolutely consistent. Hazzard’s journalistic background shows; every single word is there for a reason. It is tight, taut, and urgently compelling, all the way through.

So it’s entertaining, but it’s also educational. I didn’t know the distinction between an EMT and a paramedic before I read this memoir. I also didn’t know that not a holiday goes by without someone having a heart attack. I didn’t know that just about everyone, regardless of their level of intoxication, says they’ve had two drinks. And I didn’t know about the tension between paramedics and firefighters, between paramedics and cops.

There’s more, but you can’t have it all in this nifty review; I’ve given you enough to move forward. If you want your own job to look easier, get this memoir. If you’re retired and have a little more time to read now, get this memoir. If you are staying home with little kids and wonder when you should call an ambulance and when you should deal with your own mess, get this memoir. And if you are considering going into the field yourself? Get this memoir!

It’s for sale January 5, 2016, but you can order it right this minute.

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas*****

concussionYou don’t have to enjoy football to appreciate Concussion, the riveting new biography of Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian neurological pathologist that discovered CTE, a type of permanent brain damage caused by repetitive concussions, such as that experienced by football players. Not only the content, but the engaging voice with which it is told, make it worth everyone’s while. I was fortunate enough to read it free, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, but when it comes out Tuesday, November 24, I recommend you get a copy for yourself. It’s information everyone really ought to have, especially those that play American football, or have family members that do.

As for me, several years ago the middle school where I taught was rocked by the news that a young man we had taught had been killed on the football field while playing for the high school next door to us. DeShawn had died in a way the Seattle Times assured its readers was unheard of, a terrible tragedy with little explanation other than that of the coroner, who said he died of a traumatic brain injury. Our in-house football coach, whose frustrated students were stuck playing the “dumb”, safe version known as flag football, opined that maybe DeShawn hadn’t burped his helmet. One of DeShawn’s team members, a friend of my son’s and a frequent guest at our home, considered that DeShawn hadn’t “kept his head down like Coach said”. But the fact is, he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Dead at 16.

So I was interested indeed to read about the discovery made by Omalu, the pathologist that by coincidence was in charge of the autopsy of Iron Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I was equally interested in Omalu’s own story, a man of great enthusiasm and character, a faithful Catholic who used “Gee!” and “Gosh!” with youthful vigor as he uncovered one discovery after another, certain, so very certain that the NFL would want his discovery announced right away so that they could modify the game and make it safer. That poor man.

Omalu left Nigeria, which some Boomers will remember as having once been Biafra, home of genocide and terrible corruption, and he could not wait to live the American dream. The USA was free and open; there were no checkpoints at any of the highways; it was the home of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Oh yes, he could shake the dust of Africa off the soles of his shoes and never look back. He had a full scholarship to the University of Washington, so although he had no idea where Seattle was, he had a ticket through the gates, and he would never live anywhere else.

Laskas uses Omalu’s own narrative in places, a wonderful thing given his buoyancy and eloquence:

Having seen this game [football] played on satellite TV on a few occasions in Africa, all I knew was the players ran into one another a whole lot and banged their heads repeatedly like guinea pigs running around…What an odd and inelegant game…If it hurts so much that you have to bubble-wrap your body, maybe you should play something different.”

But until he examined the brain of Iron Mike, the local hero who had lost his sanity following retirement, tasering himself in the hope he would be able to sleep, trying to fix his rotting teeth back into his own mouth with crazy glue, this was a side issue. His interest was in pathology, in the stories the dead had to tell.

But to Bennet, it seemed obvious enough, when the topic arose, because

“Anybody who knew anything about the anatomy of the head knew…It was a simple matter of physics. The brain floats, is suspended in a kind of thick jelly inside the skull. If you hit the head hard enough, that brain is going to move, no matter what kind of protection you put around the skull. A helmet protects the skull. A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.”

The helmet, it turns out, is more a weapon than protection for the brain.

Huh. No wonder Europe didn’t rush to join us in playing this sport.

Omalu’s story, from beginning to old age, is vividly told, and he is such a fascinating individual that you won’t want to put this story down once you’re into it. I could tell you more, but why ruin it? You really just have to read it. Order it now, or go out next week and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry!