Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, M.D.. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019

There are a number of problems with the way society deals with aging, and Aronson covers them here. There are few drug trials that use older people; most trials are designed around middle aged, white, males. There is no one storage place of medical records, which creates a problem when a patient must go to a new provider or seeks emergency treatment. Medicare won’t cover hearing aids or glasses, but will cover cochlear implants or eye operations, much more expensive and invasive options. It’s easier to get chemotherapy paid for than palliative care (and hospice is underfunded; ours has to do fundraisers for all the things it provides that Medicare doesn’t pay for). Geriatricians are paid lower than most other medical specialties. And many more.

Sadly, Aronson does not offer solutions for all these things. Some things- such as affordable housing for the aging population that keeps them safe but allows independence- probably have no easy solutions. But she offers a lot to think about, a lot of things to start the conversation about these problems and how to remedy them.

The author is a geriatrician and has been caregiver to an aging mother. She, herself, is officially ‘old’. For a good while, she was a home visit physician and saw all manner of situations the elderly were living in- some horrific, but with no affordable way to change them. She is well placed to write about the care of the aging population.

It’s an interesting and accessible read, despite the technical subjects. But it has its flaws; it wanders at times, and it’s a bit long on the author’s education and how she found her way to gerontology. I found some sections slow reading- but that is due to my own interests, not a problem with the writing. I feel it’s an important book; 10,000 people turn 65 every single day in the US alone, and all should be treated with dignity and good care (as should everyone, of any age or medical status). This book stands as a wake-up call.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Wild and Crooked, by Leah Thomas. Bloomsbury, 2019

When Kalyn’s grandmother has a stroke, she and her unstable mother must move back to the small town Kalyn was born in. Due to circumstances, Kalyn enrolls into high school under an assumed name, Rose. Her last name, Spence, is dirt in this town; her teenaged father killed another teen, the high school hero, and has been in jail ever since.

Kalyn also takes on an assumed personality; normally foul mouthed and in your face, she now braids her wild hair and becomes a total sweetie pie, a girl acceptable to all, including the ‘cool’ girls. But she soon becomes best friends with Gus, a young man with cerebral palsy which gives him hemiplegia and a speech impediment. These two couldn’t be any different; Kalyn’s mother doesn’t care about her, while Gus’s mother is over protective, constantly treated Gus as fragile and younger than he really is. And, worst of all, Gus’s late father was the person Kalyn’s father killed. Gus’s mother keeps the house decorated as a shrine to the man. But to everyone’s surprise, when the truth comes out and they realize who the other is, they stay friends. Then there is Phil, Gus’s best friend, who is a self-declared sociopath. These three take turns narrating, as they find out that there is a chance that Kalyn’s father didn’t kill Gus’s dad, and seek to prove it. Like many small towns, this one has a story that it has hidden for years.

The first part is extremely slow as we get to know Gus and Kalyn. The story is almost totally character driven. There is a lot of queer representation, with Kalyn being gay, Gus being pan, and Gus’s mother married to a woman, but that is not the focus of the story, any more than Gus’s CP is. They are simply traits of the characters, as it is in real life. What is an important part of the story is classism: Kalyn’s father was poor, his family owning and living at the town junkyard, while the boy he killed was the town’s golden boy: well to do, football star, headed for college. The town closed ranks against any effort to find the truth about the murder. For once, the boy-girl relationship was strictly friendship, which I found very refreshing. I really liked the writing style, other than the slowness. Four stars.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, by Katharine Smyth. Crown, 2019

Katharine Smyth idolized her father. He was her hero and the person with who she had long talks, both growing up and as an adult. She also idealized her parent’s marriage. But her father, and the marriage, had a rather large dark side. He was an alcoholic who was a tyrant to her mother, one who raved and threw things. To make things worse, after his cancer diagnosis, he continued to drink and smoke.

Smyth went on a quest to discover who, really, her father was, back before he met her mother or was her father. She interviews people from his past. And then she pairs her own story of love and loss with that of Virginia Woolf, the author of Smyth’s favorite book “To the Lighthouse”. THL acted as a map for her own grief.

This book is a meditation on not just Smyth’s own loss, but everyone’s losses, “Loss” with a capital L. It provides a clear look at death. It would help, I think, if one has read “To the Lighthouse” (a book about Woolf’s grief over losing her mother when she was a child) prior to reading this book; I had not, and frequently felt I was missing something.

Most of the book is about the author’s father and his death- in great detail. Little is written about her mother until after the father dies. Smyth and her mother had always walked on eggshells, because her father could be a real nasty drunk. One minute he’d be warm and wonderful, the next he was in a rage. I found the author’s idolization of her father rather disturbing. Why not, instead, worship her mother, who put up with so much? But you can’t apply logic to love. It is what it is. This book is a great example of how books can help us understand ourselves, our families, and our emotions.

Friday, July 26, 2019

How it Feels to Float, by Helena Fox. Dial Books, 2019

Teen aged Elizabeth (Biz) has problems. She has depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and obviously something more. She’s unsure about her sexuality but her kiss with her best friend didn’t turn out well at all. An evening around a bonfire on the beach has her branded as having had sex while there and is therefore a slut. Her father talks with her about things every evening while sitting on her bed. This is probably her biggest problem; her father has been dead ever since he committed suicide when she was 7.

When she walks out into the ocean, she is saved by the new boy at school, Jasper. They don’t seem to get along very well. When Biz takes an interest in photography, she meets octogenarian Sylvia, an avid photographer. They become friends, and Sylvia teaches Biz about photography. She also turns out to be Jasper’s grandmother. Awkward. Then an adventure ends up with Biz in the psych ward of the hospital.

A pall of sadness hangs over the whole book, and one of uncertainty. The story is told by Biz, who is an untrustworthy narrator, so we are never sure of what is real or imagined. The pace is slow. While I feel this is a good book, an example of coming of age with mental illness, it never took fire for me. It felt like an obligation to keep reading, rather than a treat. I can only give it three stars.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks. John Joseph Adams, 2018

This book is…. weird. It’s a strange mashup of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and family. The town of Swine Hill (Swain Hill), already in decay from loss of industry, has become a mostly deserted, post-apocalyptic, ruin of ghosts, pig-men, corporate greed, and angry, despairing people. The only industry still operating is the slaughter house, run by a mysterious corporate entity.

Our protagonists are teen-aged siblings Jane and Henry. Their whole family is possessed by ghosts; Jane’s tells her everyone’s secrets and Henry’s is a genius engineer who compels him to build amazing machines- and work on living flesh, too. Jane considers her ghost a sort of friend, while Henry’s takes over his body and leaves Henry missing time when the ghost departs. Lately, Henry has been working at the meat processing plant, on what, he doesn’t know. But of late, a person named Walter Hogboss has been promoted to plant manager, and he’s calling Henry.

Swine Hill is a horrible place. There are no safe spots. I wondered at times if the whole world was afflicted like Swine Hill was. It’s a story of racism, grief, whether it’s all right to eat intelligent animals, ethics, slavery, and much more. It’s a hard book to read; I found myself wondering if there was any spot of beauty in this world of dirty air and falling down buildings. There is, in some character’s souls-and not just the human ones. Five stars, even though it’s not a comfortable book to read.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls. Mira, 2019

It’s 1612, in the reign of King James I, and Fleetwood Shuttleworth (a real historic person) has not had an easy life. She’s 17 and enduring her 4th pregnancy, the first three having ended in miscarriages and a still birth. She’s found a letter from a doctor to her husband saying that she will not survive another pregnancy. Her first husband, who she was married to at age 4, molested her. She’s never had a friend in her life.

By accident, she meets Alice Grey, a poor young woman who knows herbs and midwifery. Fleetwood becomes convinced that Alice is her only hope of surviving the coming birth, and ending with a live baby. But her husband’s best friend, Roger Nowell, is investigating witches (the Pendle Hill witches, to be exact), and his eye is on Alice. Convicting some witches would give Roger brownie points with the king, and enrich his retirement. In time, Fleetwood finds herself regarding Alice as a friend. She’s willing to go to any lengths to save her from being hung.

The pace is very, very slow in the first half, and then speeds up dramatically. There are several threads running through this novel, some of which don’t come to light until well into the story. Fleet herself starts out as rather a boring character- immature, na├»ve, and uneducated- who matures and grows through the story. At the start, she has no idea how the ‘other half’ lives, and is shocked at the conditions that exist outside her manor house. But she learns fast. I give five stars for atmosphere; the descriptions of the forests, people, villages, and homes are wonderful. While I loved Alice, the characters I was less taken with. I disliked Fleetwood’s husband a great deal, even at the end when all the threads are tied off. In the end, I give it four stars. This is Hall’s first novel; I assume her writing will mature and I will give any second book she writes a try.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World, by Lyndall Gordon. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019

The ‘outsiders’ that the author has selected are Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Olive Shreiner, and Virginia Woolf. They were outsiders in the way they lived their lives, and in the things they wrote. All were motherless and learned the ways of being a woman through books. Three of them published under an assumed man’s name, in order to get their work taken seriously. All were feminists. All but Woolf lived in social isolation. And even though they never knew each other, there are connections between them that Gordon makes, looping back to reference something in a different chapter.

Each woman’s life and work is explored in detail, one per section. In some ways, the book reads as if it were five separate thesis or lecture; things we’ve already been told in one section get restated in another. But there is not enough of that to get tiresome.

All these women stepped beyond the common boundaries of the time that were prescribed for women. Some lived ‘in sin’. Some lobbied for women’s and human rights. Gordon describes their lives in detail, and also tells about how the world reacted to their writing, and how the writers who lived after them were affected by their work. She also shines a light on who influenced them, be they absent mother, father, husband, or sister.

I enjoyed the book (although it wasn’t a fast or easy read), but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had known more about the women beforehand. I was lost a few times because I had not read this or that of their works. While I’ve read Shelley and Woolf, I have barely read Bronte and Eliot; Shreiner I had never even heard of. Gordon’s writing expects the reader to be widely-read. Four stars.