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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 2016-09-05 23:44
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer

If you are familiar with Amy Schumer and her comedy, you likely think either the sun shines out of her ass or she's awful. I'm in the former camp. I enjoy her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, and her stand-up, as well as her movie, Trainwreck (though I admit I have not been crazy about her handling of the Kurt Metzger fiasco, which occurred just as this book was released). If you like Schumer, I can't imagine you wouldn't like The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo


Written as a series of essays and lists, plus excerpts from her old diaries (with footnotes), accompanied by often hilarious photos, the book is unsurprisingly candid and funny. What did surprise me were the serious bits--still told with humor, except for the chapter on the shooting at a screening of her movie--her relationship with an abusive guy, her non-consensual loss of virginity, her introversion. I hadn't previously read or heard many interviews with her, so these details of her personal life were news to me. She's survived much more than being a woman in the world of comedy and entertainment.


My only worry beginning this book was that it would contain too many jokes from her stand-up; that fear is definitely unwarranted. The tone is familiar--and I might just have to listen to the audio book--but the content is fresh. I laughed out loud at least once most chapters, often suddenly from an offhand-feeling quip. I appreciated her vulnerability, but let's be real; if this book weren't funny, I'd be disappointed.


Although early on she states that it's not a self-help book, there are still plenty of moments when Schumer writes directly to the reader or otherwise points to the lessons she's learned, or, more accurately, how she gets on with things and lives her life. Most aren't a surprise, at least to me, but she doesn't become preachy and those bits are borne of personal experience.


I hope she writes the theoretical future books she mentions. Especially Juggling Dicks. ;)

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review 2016-01-29 16:50
Frozen In Time: The True Fate of the Franklin Expedition
Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition - Margaret Atwood,John Geiger;Owen Beattie,John Geiger

While reading Dan Simmons's The Terror, I wasn't aware that the story was based on a true expedition at first. I'm a poor student of history, and I honestly don't believe I was ever taught about it anyway. In the Victorian era there was Northwest Passage fever, and many expeditions endeavored to find the passage. Some ended in disaster or near disaster. Sir John Franklin's expedition is famous because it ended disastrously and mysteriously (and grimly), and this book describes more recent (1980s) attempts to learn what exactly happened to Franklin and his men in the arctic.


I wish I hadn't already read the gist of things on wikipedia because this book is written as a bit of a mystery itself. I imagine it would have felt even more feverish to read not knowing the findings to come. However, it's still engaging to learn the context of the expedition, see images and data, and track the history of followup efforts to find and save whatever and whoever was left from the expedition.


This book is a combination of history, archaeology, and science. The co-author made a few trips to the area where it was known Franklin and his crew wintered and possibly died. Previous efforts had discovered bones and relics from the expedition, plus heard stories from the Inuit about what they'd seen. Research in the 1980s discovered additional remains that were scientifically tested. In addition, the three crewmen who died and were buried in the ice earlier in the expedition were exhumed. Because they were buried in the ice and permafrost, their bodies were amazingly well-preserved. The photos are haunting. The descriptions of their exhumations are detailed and record the feelings of the scientists.


Frozen in Time is a quick read, very detailed about the work conducted (sometimes too detailed; I don't need to know everything about the plane's landing and such), and it reveals that even an effort as mighty as Franklin's--with two steam-powered ships and 120+ crew) can be felled by something less dramatic but deadly: lead poisoning from the ship's huge stores of poorly, hastily soldered tinned foods. The book ends on the note that, while in the past some have blamed individual captains or the sheer harshness of the conditions in the arctic, it was really something man-made that hastened the crew's death.

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review 2016-01-05 17:45
Against All Enemies, by Richard A. Clarke: 11 Years Later
Against All Enemies - Richard A. Clarke

I've owned this book since the paperback edition was published but was moved to finally read it after seeing a documentary featuring CIA heads and analysts talking about terrorism before, during, and after 9/11. There was a lot of finger-pointing, blame or responsibility-dodging, and discrepancies. I remembered this book from 10+ years ago and thought it might be helpful to read, especially in light of the attacks in Paris.


Many blurbs for the book mention that it is a "thrilling" read, and it is as Clarke recounts the events of 9/11 from his perspective inside the White House. It feels like a movie, which made me uncomfortable. I don't mean Clarke goes out of his way to overdramatize or heighten the tension of the situation; it is naturally tense. But feeling like I was reading a thriller when it was a real life and tragic situation seems disrespectful. I shouldn't be "enjoying" the tension as I would a movie or work of fiction. This is not a critique of Clarke (though perhaps a little of the reviewers or the publisher who chose to highlight that element of the book), but a question about storytelling and narrative when it comes to recounting real life, national or global horror.


From the start I respected Clarke as a figure post-9/11. He seemed no-bullshit and critical of the Bush administration; he said things that made sense to me and that I'd suspected myself. Against All Enemies confirms or continues that impression. He details his experiences in relation to security and terrorism through three administrations (Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr.) and multiple positions. He doesn't pull punches but doesn't rant either. He manages also to make a history of al Qaeda and U.S. security and policy interesting and relatively clear, even to someone like me who has never followed the news too closely or liked politics and history. I didn't sweat it if I forgot a name or acronym; Clarke would remind you of a person's role or it wouldn't matter.


I came to feel like there are good people in government; their aims aren't always selfish or political. Unfortunately, many of those people and their ideas get rejected or ignored because of political agendas and "failures of the imagination," especially in the most recent Bush administration, according to Clarke. Many people quit in frustration after 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq.


In terms of bias, Clarke was clearly not a fan of Bush Jr. and critical of Bush Sr.'s administration as well. The exception is Bill Clinton, whose presidency Clarke feels mostly got it right except when Congress was distracted by stupid shit like Monica Lewinsky. For Clinton, al Qaeda and terrorism were a priority; for Bush Jr. they were not, despite repeated warnings from Clarke and CIA. I admit to my own bias here before I say that if Clarke is to be believed, this is not his political bias but an accurate assessment. The fact that Clarke stayed on through three presidents' administrations suggests he was valued by Republicans and Democrats alike. This book did make me miss Clinton and respect him as our best president of recent decades.


One concern that I wish Clarke would have spent more time on is civil liberties. He mentions them several times but does not elaborate on how they were being infringed upon and what about the Patriot Act(s) was problematic. I suppose since 2004 much more awareness and concern has been generated, especially post-Snowden and with continued attacks here and abroad by IS, raising fear and hatred toward Muslims.


Clarke ends with the recent Bush administration's responses to 9/11 and what should have been done instead. He predicts what would happen given the invasion of Iraq rather than a concentration on Afghanistan (and Iran), and some of his predictions have been proven accurate, such as the spread of terrorism. He notes that a big part of the battle is ideological as it was in the Cold War except we haven't come up with a compelling alternative to radical Islam; instead we've only helped radicalize more Muslims.


This book made me angry at the failure of the U.S. government to protect us before 9/11 and now.

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review 2014-01-15 16:43
Of Dice and Men, by David M. Ewalt
Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It - David M. Ewalt

I haven't played Dungeons & Dragons since...who knows. Childhood. And even then I wasn't able to play much because that was dependent on my brother and how bored he was. Still, this book really, really made me want to play again. I also had no idea about the game's history or its present status as game, and I'm glad it's made a comeback.


The writing is (mostly) easy, fun, and I liked the way the writer used various gaming scenarios to explain gameplay, though by the end of the book it got a smidge tiresome. I do wish we saw more of the game's impact on popular culture (I can think of two TV episodes that use the game significantly--Freaks and Geeks and Community, for instance) and some more developed ruminations on roleplaying culture online.


My biggest issue was the weak attempts to deflect charges of sexism. It's assumed the audience is men, and explanations why more men play are faulty and man-splainy. Later in the book, when Ewalt notes more women among the groups of roleplayers he interacts with, it's as if he's seen a shiny unicorn, and I don't remember much of an explanation.


There's also a strange relationship or tension going on between owning geek or nerd status and regularly trying to show that the author and his friends (D&D players in general) are NOT the losers you think they are--they're married to hot chicks, ya'll!


Despite these caveats, I enjoyed the book on the whole, fell into a nostalgia well, and learned a lot.

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