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review 2017-05-27 18:05
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink

It was hard to put down this impressive work of journalism that focuses on events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As hurricane season approaches it begs the question: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters in the U.S.? The epilogue to the book, written a few years ago, suggests in some ways we are, but in important ways we are not.


Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order (belatedly) given by the mayor of New Orleans as Katrina approached. Many staff, patients, family members, and even pets sheltered at the hospitals (lesson the first: evacuate before the storm hits), including Memorial. As the title indicates, it would be five days before all were evacuated. After power loss, the generators eventually failed as they were in the basement, where the water levels rose once the levees broke. Though they had food and bottled water, the hospital went without running water, air conditioning, working plumbing, and the power needed to run vital medical equipment.


Evacuation aid via helicopters and boats was erratic or turned away by staff at points. Communication at all levels was unreliable; rumors swarmed, including that New Orleans was under martial law and looting and violence were everywhere. The staff went without much sleep as they continued to care for patients. The bad decision was made to leave the sickest patients, including those with DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, last for evacuation, with the exception of neonates. Healthier patients (though some still critical) left first. Family members were encouraged and even pressured to leave their loved ones, assured the patients would be cared for.


Soon after the disaster, there was a reckoning. Or, I should say, an attempt at a reckoning. Troubled reports of irresponsible and ethically questionable decisions being made at hospitals and nursing homes arose, including euthanasia at Memorial. 40-some patients had died there, and about half were later found to have high levels of morphine as well as Versed, a sedative, in their systems. Were they euthanized, and by whom?


In addition to covering events at the hospital as reported by those who were there, Fink covers the development of the legal case against a particular doctor and two nurses accused of second degree homicide. Reading about what happened at the hospital, the good and, mostly, the bad, is heartrending and horrifying, impossible to look away from, like a car accident. Learning what does and does not happen afterwards infuriated me; my sympathies were with those who'd lost loved ones, who don't quite have closure. I sympathized also with nurses so traumatized by those five days that they could no longer practice.


Fink contextualizes Katrina as well as the ethics of decisions made. She profiles key players, letting their own words speak for them. I don't pretend to read much non-fiction, but it seems to me her work is exceptionally well researched, every effort made to fact-check and communicate with those involved. The book evolved from a piece she did for ProPublica and the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer. Regardless, I'm sure there's been a range of reactions. If you google the topic, you'll find a website by/for the doctor arrested who continues to deny wrongdoing, with a link to another site that proclaims "the truth" of what happened. I didn't bother clicking.


Mostly I think about the contrasting example of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, who lost fewer patients despite having more, with additional patients delivered to them. I think of proposed (and adopted) legislation or protocols that would shield physicians from legal ramifications of unethical decisions made during a disaster. I think of the following quote, with which I agree:


“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”


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review 2017-02-05 17:54
American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
American Housewife: Stories - Helen Ellis

My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection's ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground--the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife--but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.


All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive--and then just aggressive--ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.


Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.

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review 2016-03-20 16:52
Kim Addonizio's Tell Me
Tell Me - Kim Addonizio

Kim Addonizio knows how to write about desire--for sex, for drink, for the act of desiring itself. Billy Collins's blurb for Tell Me compares the poems to barroom ballads, and if bedroom ballads were a thing, that would be apt, too. I love reading about hunger, women's hunger in particular, and the strength and specificity of the hunger in these poems prevent them from feeling like wallowing. But if you're lonely, they'll still keep you company.


I found "'What Do Women Want?'" here and use it in class to help students think about word precision and tone. It's full of attitude and sensuality, like much of the book. It's from the last section, "Good Girl," which, along with the opening section, is my favorite. I was less engaged by the two middle sections, perhaps because I've never gone through a divorce, been a mother, or struggled with alcohol. Or perhaps the opening and closing sections have more attitude.


These poems are clear, longer-lined, mostly a page or less; they sprawl conversationally or punch like an outburst. There are no poetic games trying to hide the truth from you as a reader. They tell you things like a compulsion.

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review 2016-03-11 16:29
Jamaal May's Hum
Hum - Jamaal May

I stumbled across May's work hunting around for spring-themed poems on poetryfoundation.org to use in my class and instantly fell in love. I ordered Hum and have been leisurely enjoying it, sometimes reading a poem or two at a time, sometimes a chunk of poems. There isn't a poem in this book I don't like or one without a lovely, fresh image.


What drew me to May's work when I first encountered it was a complex love for Detroit, for the mechanical and the urban (that term has been ruined as code for black). These become like flowers in a Wordsworth poem, as natural. There's also something terribly tender throughout the book, and kind. There's sadness or fear, but no real despair (as in, these poems will never depress you or let you wallow in your own misery). Many last lines stunned me, but not in a way that slams the door shut on the poem.


Hum is also formally beautiful; there are literal forms, like the sestina, but everywhere it's evident May has a great eye for the line and for sound. That seems an obvious quality in poetry, but I'm surprised how often I'm disappointed by the craft of poems by contemporary poets. Often they're inert in their formality; that's never the case here.


If you don't read contemporary poetry, this book would be a great place to start.

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review 2015-08-06 18:51
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) - Elena Ferrante

I first became interested in this book and series after reading an article in the New York Times Book Review that incorporated passages from the text(s). The portrait of friendship between women and no-nonsense yet elegant writing drew me in, and, after reading My Brilliant Friend, both remain my favorite features of the novel, alongside the nesting-like structure at the beginning especially.


The title is assumed to refer to Lila, the protagonist's precocious, unique, and oft-manipulative friend, but a line near the end of the novel spoken by Lila to Elena (the protagonist) reveals the title to be (also) about Elena. This says much about the story, Elena, and friendship between women. Elena idolizes and envies Lila, and as a reader I wanted to shake her out of it, to stop comparing, to live her own life always, even as I recognized those feelings. I also came to envy, respect, but also side-eye Lila, who remains somewhat mysterious through Elena's pov. The two need each other, and their relationship is both a source of strength and occasionally toxic. At the very least, it's complex.


One element that draws the two together is their shared, poor neighborhood in Naples, which affects their ability to receive a decent education or go anywhere in life. When Lila becomes engaged to a comfortably monied merchant, her shift in class is a source of conflict as it is when Elena is permitted to attend school beyond the obviously brilliant and talented Lila.


Ferrante's prose feels muscled; she's got a strong voice that observes finely. Much of the novel circles around with its structure, beginning with the framed from the present story of Elena and Lila as children ascending the stairs of an infamous local don to retrieve their dropped dolls. The narrative goes back and forth to and from that and other moments, explaining more each time. The structure adds mystery and layers, and I read the book in big clumps as a result.


I'm certainly going to read the next novel in the series, and likely the whole thing.

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