Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li**

dearfriendfrommylifei  It’s an honor to be invited to review any book by Random House and Net Galley, and so when the email came, I accepted without hesitation; I thank them for thinking of me and wish I could honestly recommend this one. Others have referred to this memoir, whose title is taken from a quote by Katharine Mansfield, as “exquisite, intimate, and lyrical”, and the author has won awards for her novels. I looked carefully to see if I could locate the genius in this book, but it eluded me completely.

The intimacy of the work is surely apparent. In essence, this is a mental health memoir, and the author writes of her fight with depression, her multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, of the expectation of others that she should continue to live when she didn’t want to. It’s brave writing, although mental health battles are now a fairly mainstream topic, but I am unable to find anything tangible to engage my interest.

My only real pleasure is in discovering that Li is already a successful writer; had it been a debut, I would have been scared silly. After all, if I say I don’t like the book, will the writer harm herself? What if I simply dodge the whole thing and let it get lost in the shuffle; will it happen then as well? But in seeing that this is someone with an established career and a wall full of accolades, probably the displeasure of one humble blogger won’t create a great deal of trauma.

The whole thing is bleak. The writer reminds us repeatedly that her life is private, that no one has the right to know any of its details and all I can think is, so what are we doing here, exactly?

Those that have read and enjoyed Li’s novels may find more to hang their hats on than I have found. All I know is that it is painful to read, has no beginning, middle or end that I can find, and is devoid of the literary qualities that can sometimes make a sad book enjoyable. I can’t recommend it.

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.

Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom*****

tuesdayswithmorrie My older sister gives away most of the books she reads when she is done. She doesn’t have a lot of shelf space, and she likes the idea of other people getting to read something free. So imagine my surprise when, seeing how much I liked Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, she gave me this book and said, “You may want to read this.” Almost as an afterthought, I asked, “Do you want it back?” I was amazed when she said, “Yes. Take your time, but I would like it back.”

This was a first!

I did take my time. My sister lives in Portland, and I hadn’t yet drifted into the wonderful world of advance reader’s copies, so I had come home to Seattle with bags and bags of new treasures from Powell’s City of Books. Those I’d been wishing for were the ones I read first, and then I moved into the curiosities. When I started this one, I realized right away that it was an important read.

I’d thought a fair amount about dying lately; we’d lost someone, and my thoughts followed them from time to time. Reading the positive way that Morrie approached death was inspirational to me. Instead of stiffening and pulling away from others when he knew his physical form had become unattractive to people, he took a chance by asking for what he needed, and his wishes were met because of who he had been earlier in life, and because of his mentorship as a younger man.

I loved the little aphorisms, said in the midst of really awful pain, such as “Don’t leave too soon…but don’t stay too long”.

The fact that so many people came from miles and miles away to see him off speaks well of the character of this old man. His willingness to own the self-absorbed person he had been, and to credit the old man’s influence, speaks well of the writer.

And for me…it helped me accept what will happen one day, with a little more grace. That is a life-changing thing. Not many books change my life, but I think that Tuesdays With Morrie has.

Don’t be afraid, as Morrie says. Death isn’t contagious. Even if you are young, well, and fit…don’t be afraid to read about death. It may do you some good.

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

This beautifully written memoir is for sale today, and definitely worthy of a re-blog!

Seattle Book Mama

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…

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