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« July, 2003 »
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

My family has always had a predilection for weird medical stories, so it’s no surprise that I got this in an envelope from my Mom with a note saying “send this on to your sister when you’re done.” It was sort of a sure thing that I would like this book -- Roach is a good and accomplished writer and the topic is just endlessly fascinating. My only beef with it, and it’s a small one, is why does it also have to be funny?

Roach tackles this topic in picaresque fashion, going from one dead-guy topic to another with only the vaguest of segues or chronological patterns. She talks to people who set-up stiffs for car crashes, who leave them in the field to see how they deompose, who harvest their organs, make up their faces, or sometimes even dig up their corpses. It’s captivating, it couldn’t not be. Roach interjects herself and her little asides [often for the expense of jokey bon mots] more than seemingly necessary. At the end of the day you’re well aware that she goes back to her word processor but a lot of these people work with dead folks day after day. She tries to get some philosophical assesment from many of them but often their responses range from “hey, it’s a job” to “I like to do what I’m good at” She seems like she’s bugging people by being a bit too morbidly fascinated with their jobs, and yet the book works because most readers will also share her fascination.

This seems like a dorky wrap-up, but if you’re already pretty well-versed in the life of corpses, this book will not cast terribly much new light on them. With the exception of the crash-test dummy chapter and the plastic surgery chapter, I was already pretty familiar with most of the scenarios related by Roach and while it’s worth digging in just to see her personal take on them, or to read her well-crafted sentences, most of the information is not super new.

Fail Safe

This book appeared on the table one day and I read it in an afternoon. I had never heard of it before, but appreantly its legend. It is a story, verging on parable, of the spectre of “accidental war” what can happen when the machines we have created to keep us safe wind up endangering us instead. This story is a hypothetical -- though not too far off, the authors tell us in the preface -- scenario of what could go wrong, and what the disastrous consequences could be.

Like any stories about war, this one has almost no female characters and as near as I can tell, no female leads at all unless you count the secretary/nursemaid of the President. Also, for readers of Ayn Rand, you will recognize a lot of the jut-jawed strong iconoclastic characters in this book. Everyone’s a self-made ubermensch and as a result, what winds up happening to the world is clearly the result of accidents, not any one person’s lapse in judgment. As a result, this story really seems moralistic, as I believe was its intent. Of course, the same problems that plagued the hypothetical US in this book -- unseen technical glitches that, combined with built in “safety” features, lead to war being declared on the world’s other superpower by accident -- are still with us today, sadly, and the book’s cautionary tale and strong message have a new note of pathos since its clear they fell on deaf ears..

Women Who Marry Houses: Panic and Protest in Agoraphobia

This book had a great title, and a fascinating question: why do women [or anyone really] become agoraphobic? what makes people unable to leave their homes, even in the face of really serious hurdles they have to deal with if they won’t go out? This book, and its conclusions, seem a bit dated It has a lot of case studies of women who became agoraphobic, what their situations were, and what eventually helped them out. The upshot, according to these authors, is that women get this way because we live in a patriarchical society and, like hysterical women of yore, agoraphobia is a woman’s silent protest.

While I don’t doubt that many of the women in this book were having issues along these lines -- being single women with careers and lives and then getting married and suddenly expected to quit their jobs and serve their husbands -- it seems a bit oversimplistic to say that this is the only thing that causes agoraphobia. I enjoyed the book and the research and case studies the authors presented, but didn’t totally buy the premise it was supporting.

LA Requiem

While still sort of a page-turner thriller crime novel, ths book was a welcome antidote to this terrible book.

The villains are all real human beings, no one is truly two-dimensional, life is portrayed as complicated and none of the violence or conflict is sensationalized or aggrandized. A nice, good cop book, set in LA with a cast of interesting characters. Just about what I was looking for.

The Flanders Panel

Another good mystery from the author of The Club Dumas. When I saw the chess pieces on the cover, I almost balked because I know very little about chess and have very little curiosity to know more. My sister told me that even if I didn’t like chess, I would like this book, and she was right

The plot concerns an art restorer and a painting she is working on that turns out to have a secret inscription beneath layers of paint. The inscription is the first clue to a mystery of a murder that took place 500 years ago and an unlikely assortment of art historians, antique collectors, scalawags, chess players and auctioneers come together in various ways to help muddle out the solution. Along the way, there are chess clues, based on the game of chess that is occuring within the painting. There are some chess-y bits, but nothing too central [as long as you can understand the descriptions, you don’t need to be able to read the notation], this is mainly a compelling novel about interpersonal relationships and the strange world of buying and selling art.

Driven to Distraction

Every now and again I feel like I could use some guidance about living with someone with ADD. Since it’s a neurological disorder that some people truly believe in and others think is just a new-psychology term for inattentive, the literature on it is really varied. You get a lot of self-help books, and a lot of “how to” and tips books and a lot of “I’ve been there” books. This one is a very popular book that is one of three or four that my library had. I liked it.

The author is a well known psychologist who has treated many adults with ADD and who had ADD himself. He relates a lot of case studies of treating people, some who knew they had ADD and many who didn’t. Along the way he tries to dispell some of the myths about ADD -- that all ADD kids are hyper, that girls don’t get ADD, that ADD people can’t focus on things -- by relating stories of real people with ADD. Most of the people in his book turn out okay, which is sort of calming if you’re in the middle of some sort of ADD crisis when you read it. Also, most of the people in his book have received some sort of pharmacological intervention.

While Hallowell doesn’t think that all hyper kids should be put on Ritalin, he is an advocate of certain prescription medicines as being very therapeutic for ADD, to the point where he shrugs off anti-ADD-drug advocates as not being very in touch with reality. While this is not much of a problem, anyone tryng to cope with ADD themselves, or in their family, may find this book of limited use.

Dragon Tears

What was I thinking? I think I was thinking I’d like some sort of antidote to the sweetness and light of Harry Potter, or maybe just some violence for violence’s sake instead of all the posturing of good vs evil. However, this book was terrible. It was tawdry and sensationalistic, anti-drug and moralistic. It also was my worst kind of cop book, featuring a cops vs the supernatural theme were basically you have to sit around for the author to let you in on what the otherwise omnipotent supernatural being’s Achilles heel is so you can see how they are going to kill it. It ook most of the book to figure out this data point, which is how I explain even finishing this.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I think of reading the Harry Potter books the way many people look at watching television -- I don’t seem to really enjoy it much lately but I do it so that I’ll have reference points to talk to my friends and colleagues.

I’ll have to side with AS Byatt when I wonder why adults don’t seem to be more attracted to stories about people their own age, or why this amount of violence [and dead children and adults] is in some way conscionable for books aimed towards young children. People familiar with my politics will know that I’m not one of those types who bemoans violence and thinks we are breeding a nation of killers, weaned on horrific sensationalist media. Yet, just as I think that Wal-Mart’s discriminatory practices bear special scrutiny since they are the largest employer in the US, so I think we should pay special attention to the almost hysterical popularity of these books with their two-dimensional portrayals of good and evil and a really huge amount of deceit, violence and wanton bad behavior.

It’s easy to arge that Rowling is actually a superb cultural satirist and that the way she describes the totalitarian regimes that take over Hogwarts and threaten the very tenets of the magical world are in fact parodying our own craven governments and media. However, I live that life every day and I read young adult fiction specifically to find something new, refreshing and maybe even positive not to see my own life of conflicts, petty squabbles, and hurts writ large in 800 pages of a story I used to enjoy but now just trudge through searching for a set of characters and stories I used to really enjoy.

Quiet Journey: Understanding the Rights of Deaf Children

I am not this book’s target audience, for a few reasons. I am a hearnig person, not involved in the education or upbringing of Deaf children. I am, however, fairly knowledgeable about Deaf culture through extensive reading, hence this book. Also, I am not Canadian. Cripps is both Deaf and Canadian and has done an excellent job at assembling resources, anecdotes and tip sheets for helping parents, educators, caregivers and lawmakers understand and advocate for the rights of Deaf children. Some of Cripps’s advice is common sense: a Deaf child in a hearing classroom is not receving the same quality of education as they would in an all-Deaf classroom, even with the aid of an interpreter. Some of it is more intangible: how much do we allow the rights of Deaf people to come up against the rights of the rest of society, for example how does our criminal justice system deal with Deaf criminals?

While I agreed with most of her assertions and suggestions, readers of this book would be well advised that Cripps is staunchly pro-ASL, anti-oralism and anti cochlear implants [though perhaps not as strongly]. While this is a perfectly legitimate position within the Deaf community, people with no knowledge of the technology or systems that Cripps is talking about will not find well-rounded exaplanations here.