Month: May 2021

Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

by Henry Marsh

I have a friend who underwent brain surgery last year for a tumor. He had a fifty/fifty chance of recovering without complications, and thankfully that was the case. It could have very well been otherwise. I thought about that a lot as I read this book. It’s authored by a neurosurgeon who works in the NHS- so a lot of details about the system and management were a bit different than what I’m used to, but all the same in a way- frustrations caused by things out of his control, for example. Like sending away for a test while the patient is waiting for their operation and something happens so the test never comes so the procedure gets delayed to the next day- resulting in a very upset patient of course. The surgeon was usually kind and apologetic, but at the same time he often came across as arrogant or dismissive, as when he waved aside someone’s concerns that they woke up from surgery with huge bruises on the face (doctor knew it would go away quickly, patient was very alarmed). The book is full of individual stories about different cancers and injuries he treated- sometimes with descriptive details on how the procedures are performed, other times with more about the patients as people, or the circumstances surrounding the surgery, or how the surgeon felt himself about it all. The tricky balance he had to keep between caution and confidence, to do such delicate and dangerous things inside people’s heads. Some of the stories have good endings, some are terribly tragic, and occasionally there’s one where he never hears of the patient again. As many of the people seeking treatment (or their families) were elderly suffering from brain tumors, there’s also things about end-of-life care and decisions- brought to mind Being Mortal. And purely from the descriptions of the physical art and skill, I was reminded of Mortal Lessons. I also had in mind the few Oliver Sacks books I’ve read- when Marsh explained how specific damage to the brain would affect certain parts of the body or abilities. I think what struck me most about this account, is how acutely honest the surgeon was about his mistakes. It’s rather terrifying to think that if you need brain surgery done, it is, after all, another human performing the operation.

Rating: 4/5
291 pages, 2014

More opinions:  Ex Libris
anyone else?

The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

by Susan Cain

The book about introverts. Those of us who are, might feel like we’re often surrounded by extroverts. Certainly they get a lot of the attention and American culture tends to adulate them. Yet Susan Cain says that a third up to half of the population are introverts, but many can mask it well, acting more extroverted when it’s expected or advantageous to do so. Interesting. The first thing she tackles in this book is relating some cultural history- how extroversion came to be seen as the ideal- it wasn’t always so. I’d never considered it before- but this was also rather dry to get through and it almost put me off reading the book. Glad I moved on, because there’s so much more- what makes people introverted or extroverted- it’s not simply nature/nurture but a complex combination of many factors and influences. How group work has become popular both in workplaces and schools, but why introverts tend to be more productive when working alone. Tips on how introverts can learn to be better at public speaking, navigating house parties, getting through a bustling school day, etc. Or for parents: how to encourage and guide a shy, quiet child without pushing too hard (which can be damaging). Much of the examples in the book are from the world of business- how investors, lawyers, etc ignored the good advice of quiet-spoken people and why extroverts get the spotlight and followers, sometimes to their detriment. The difference between introverted and extroverted leadership types. The strengths that quiet people can bring to all kinds of workplaces, and so on. There was actually so much of this it got tiresome for me- I related much better to the final section which was about the personality types in relationships- how introvert/extrovert friendships and marriages can work well (or not) for example. But that felt so briefly dealt with, compared to all the prior chapters. I did appreciate that so much material was drawn from real interviews- with students in different types of universities, for example. With people from different cultures and backgrounds, how they experienced and viewed types of social interactions. (Extroverts tend to find social interaction energizing, introverts may prefer their downtime alone). Lots of studies quoted and explained, many examples of famous people. I nodded my head in affirmation at many things, and was nicely surprised by other details. One of those books that can give you a better understanding of why you are the way you are (for either personality types, also those in between).

Rating: 4/5
334 pages, 2012

by Betty MacDonald

Author of the famed book The Egg and I wrote this memoir about her time in a sanatorium when she caught tuberculosis in her thirties. She had to quit her job and leave her young children at home with her mother, not knowing if she would even return. The place sounded very dismal. No talking, laughing, even reading in bed! Sponge baths only once a week, hair getting shampooed even less frequently. Her greatest complaint was simply being cold all the time, even when hot water bottles were brought to her bed, they were lukewarm at best. The main treatment at the time (1930’s) was very strict bed rest- and there were a number of unpleasant-sounding surgical procedures that were done to intentionally collapse the lung in order to make it rest completely. I can’t imagine having to lie absolutely still in a bed for weeks or months on end. She mentioned quite a few patients who had been in the sanatorium for years. Rumors abounded among the patients of who had died, what type of surgeries or treatment they’d had, etc. Sounded like nothing was ever explained to the patients- where they were going when a nurse arrived with a wheelchair, what the results of tests were, what the doctor thought after evaluating their condition, etc. Always kept in the dark- and then lectured to constantly about the rules.

Well, eventually she healed enough to be allowed to sit up in bed for a short period of time per day, which was gradually extended until she earned the privilege to walk to the bathroom, or down the hall, or have a bed outside on the porch, etc. She gives lively character sketches about her fellow patients, roommates, the nurses and staff- sometimes not very complimentary, of course. Oddly enough, what I found most interesting about this book was simply reading about treatment for a disease that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem anymore- how archaic and long-suffering it sounded. How dismal the outcome for so many. While I could tell the author was attempting to put a humorous spin on everything, I only chuckled a few times, I didn’t really find it funny even when I knew she was exaggerating. It just felt- kind of dull. Might be my mood. Of course she was relieved to finally be declared healthy enough to go home- but then had to face a difficult adjustment period, still finding more to relate to with her prior roommates from the sanatorium- she stayed in touch with a few- disgruntled that her family hadn’t cleaned out the room she was going to stay in, and alternately annoyed or embarrassed that many people shunned her presence in public, fearful she was still contagious. It’s interesting for a glimpse into the past, but I didn’t find it much more than that. I think I ought to read it again at another time.

Rating: 2/5
226 pages, 1948

More opinions: A Penguin a week
anyone else?

by Kelly Barnhill

This was a wonderful story that I’m sure I would absolutely love if I were around ten years old! As as adult, I found it a nice read but not quite there for me (hard to put my finger on why, though). Perhaps it’s the multiple viewpoints, that kept me from feeling entirely engaged in the story. It’s about a dangerous forest and a suppressed town. The forest is on the slopes of mumbling volcanoes, full of hot vents and vast bogs and other tricky features to be avoided. The townspeople are held under the thumb of a ruling Council of Elders and an even more oppressive group of Sisters who live cloistered in a tower and forbid access to their library (that alone tells you they’re evil). The townspeople live in fear of a witch in the forest- every year they leave a baby in a clearing to appease her. Some of them don’t believe there really is a witch, and that the baby gets eaten by wild animals. Two of the alternate storylines are from people in this town- a woman who protests when her baby is taken, goes mad with grief and is locked up, and a young man from the Council who objects to the baby sacrifices and starts really questioning things.

The other storyline follows one baby that was left in the clearing. And the witch who comes for her. The witch Xan isn’t terrible as the townspeople have been told- she’s actually very kind, and baffled at why these people keep abandoning their children! She always rescues the babies and takes them to cities on the other side of the dangerous forest, where they are adopted into happy families. But this one baby- Luna- is accidentally fed magical moonlight during the journey. When Xan realizes what happened, she decides she has to raise Luna herself.  Luna’s body has become infused with the magic, which spills out uncontrollably and she doesn’t even realize she’s doing things (like the baby in Incredibles). This is funny at first, then really hazardous, so Xan performs a spell to lock the magic up inside Luna until she turns thirteen. It’s so effective that Luna can’t even hear the word “magic” spoken in her presence, and promptly forgets everything Xan tells her regarding it. So Xan’s plan to teach Luna how to handle magic and do spells until her power is unlocked, fails. Luna grows up not knowing who she is, basically lied to her whole life so far by the person who loves her most and is trying to protect her. Lies of love, in contrast to the lies for control and manipulation told to the townspeople.

This book has a lot of really great aspects- on the surface it’s an imaginative tale set in a world steeped with magic, with a spunky young heroine who reminded me of Ronia. There’s some lovely wordplay, a silly miniature dragon (that made me think immediately of Anne McCaffrey’s firelizards, although this Fyrian is unique to himself) and a friendly bog monster that loves poetry. There’s also a completely duplicitous evil witch in the town who thrives on the pain of others, paper-folded birds that come to life, and so much more. I kept thinking (in a lovely way) of other stories certain details reminded me of- how Xan feeds the babies starlight brought to mind A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle, where an infant unicorn drinks moon- and starlight. The theme of family is so strong in this book, and the aspect of Xan’s power waning as Luna’s grows- that reminded me how the ederly dragon transferred its knowledge in The Last Dragon. I also kept thinking of imagery from Mirrormask, though here again, couldn’t quite tell you why. It’s been too long since I’ve seen that.

Rating: 3/5
386 pages, 2016

by Anne McCaffrey

Sequel to Dragonquest, although I think it falls more neatly into place right after Dragondrums. Another re-read. I remember liking this one quite well in the past, but this time around it started to get tiresome, dragged at the end, and I was relieved to finish it. Doesn’t bode well for continuing in the series, or picking up any of the Pern books I missed the first time around (there’s quite a few that continue events after this book, and many precursors).

The main character in The White Dragon is Jaxom, who’s in training to become a Lord Holder but impressed a small white dragon when he’s not supposed to. The dragon Ruth is a runt, everybody thinks it will die and so Jaxom takes Ruth back to his Hold instead of staying in the weyr where dragonriders live. Ruth not only survives, he thrives, even though he remains smaller than all the other dragons- which happens to fascinate all the fire-lizards- they swarm him wherever he goes. Jaxom knows his duty to learn how to manage the Hold and eventually take his place in charge, but he chafes at not being able to do what other dragonriders do: fight Thread. At first, he’s not even allowed to go between on his little dragon. He teaches Ruth to fly against Thread in secret, until being caught out, is put into a weyrling class for his own safety, but soon finds that boring as well. He shamelessly uses a common girl’s infatuation with him as a ruse for going places on his dragon alone, and ditches her when it suits him. As events progress through the book, Jaxom ends up on the Southern continent, involved in explorations there, privy to meetings between higher-ups on Pern trying to settle conflict between all those who want Southern land (and still dealing with the Oldtimers there), and eventually finding ruins from the ancients which give glimpses into Pern’s past, and might give them knowledge they seek. That should have been more exciting than it was. Jaxom takes some stupid risks, gets deathly ill as a result, has to convalesce in the South, falls in love with his nurse, and stands up to her brother who objects to their union.

Through it all, I found Jaxom himself rather boring. In fact, all the people were. The only character I really liked was Ruth, in spite of the difficulty he put Jaxom in when it turns out he will never mature sexually. Some unpleasant people mock Ruth’s stunted growth, and Jaxom feels guilty about enjoying women in ways he knows his dragon can never share (as they have a telepathic link). He does eventually come to terms with this. Many characters from the previous books make repeat appearances- in fact quite a few chapters are told from other perspectives, which also made me less interested in the story, somehow. Menolly was still an appealing person, everyone respects Robinton, Piemur was alternately cocky and bragging, then avoiding everyone’s company. I don’t get why they all despised Mirrim. I remember puzzling over this before, when I first read this books- and this time I read the scenes that included her several times over, and it just wasn’t conveyed to me, why everyone found her manner so offensive. Oh well.

As I had half-expected, this book dampened my enthusiasm to continue in the series. I have Moreta on my shelf, and there’s plenty available at the public library. But I will turn to something else now.

Rating: 3/5
250 pages, 1978

Your Happy Healthy Pet

by Betsy Sikora Siino

Of the three hamster care books I recently got, this was the best one. It has all the same range of info- history, details on different species, how to pick a healthy animal, needed supplies, what to feed it, proper handling, keeping the habitat clean, health concerns and ways to have fun! but in far more detail. The writing is more sophisticated, too- aimed at adults who are learning in order to oversee a child’s pet ownership (or keeping a hamster themselves). I appreciated that, though, as it made the read enjoyable rather than just something to breeze through. The only thing in here that I questioned was the inclusion of oranges on fresh foods you can give hamsters. I thought citrus was not good for them. Other than that, solid advice and good information. Nice pictures, too.

Edit add: Just realized I read this book before! Last time around we were preparing for a hamster in the house. Our new pet is here, btw. She’s black with a white tummy, and my ten-year-old is so thrilled. Her name is Niki.

Rating: 4/5
128 pages, 2007

by Debbie Stowe

I had no good reason to bring this book home from the thrift store, but I did. Thumbed through it in the aisle- the pictures are very nice, some beautiful, and the text appeared to be of interest, so I thought it could make a nice read when I needed something relaxing. What’s more relaxing than looking at adorable young animals with their mothers? Well, it was disappointing, even annoying, instead. It’s a large format book with very attractive, large photographs, featuring twenty-five animal species, though some are specific and others more general- for example, there’s a section on cheetahs, one on lions, and another on tigers, but the part about baby whales covers all the whale species. Other animals include: bears, cats (domestic), chicks, cows, deer, dogs, dolphins, donkeys, ducks, elephants, geese, guinea pigs, horses, monkeys, penguins, pigs, polar bears, rabbits, seals, sheep and zebras. The text is kind of a mix, varying between information about the various baby animals- how precocious or helpless they are at birth, what they eat at first, how fast they grow, how they are cared for (or not) by their mothers, etc. It tells about threats they face, both from predators and other perils (such as bad weather or food scarcity) in their natural environment, or from hand of mankind- either directly or from habitat destruction and global warming. Lots of references to how adored baby animals are in popular culture, with nods to books like Winnie the Pooh and Make Way for Ducklings, famed pieces of art, or more commonly- Disney movies. I did learn a few tidbits- I’d never heard of Chessie the cat who popularized a railway line in the 1930’s- and I finally learned why the Easter bunny is associated with eggs. If I can trust the source, that is.

Because this book has inaccuracies. There are photos showing the wrong animals, which really bothered me. The page about cheetahs has a large picture of a leopard cub nursing from a baby bottle, the section on monkeys shows photos of chimpanzees and orangutans, and there’s a sea lion pup on the page about seals. Moreover, the text is full of errors, too. No spelling typos, although the phrasing is sometimes a bit awkward, slightly melodramatic perhaps- but things like this: Camouflage is one of the fawn’s major survival strategies, particularly on its mother’s hunting forays . . . Um, I don’t think of deer as going hunting for food- foraging, maybe. Browsing, certainly. Hunting? This section also stated that a doe licks its fawn to remove all odor, so predators can’t smell it, but then said that mother deer can’t recognize their fawn’s voices, and identify them by their scent. Or this: The one time a mallard, or mother duck, will seek solitude is when she’s about to give birth. Ducks don’t give birth! And the book repeatedly referred to all mother ducks as mallards. That’s a species. Mother ducks are hens. There was also a page that called a young zebra a cub, but in the next sentence properly called it a foal. Seal pups were called cubs on one page, too. Sigh.

I can’t help it, these things just leaped off the page at me, and irked me to no end. Also, the words often felt crammed on the page to my eyes, and I finally figured out why- over and over, there were instances where a sentence had no space between its ending period and the next capitalized word. Sorry, but in spite of its charms and many endearing pictures, this book is going straight on my discard shelf.

Rating: 2/5
160 pages, 2007

the Ultimate Pocket Pet

by Virginia Parker Guidry

No issues at all with this book, compared to the last one! It has all the same basic info- how to pick a healthy hamster, what to feed it, keeping the cage clean, safe and proper handling, when to call a vet, etc. Very much about encouraging kids to be responsible pet owners. There’s far less on the breeding aspect- with admonitions to be sure you would only breed hamsters for a good reason, and to have homes lined up for the young beforehand. Way more in this book is about simply having fun with a pet hamster, joining hamster clubs or organizations that have hamster shows. It’s written in a very friendly, easy-to-read style and I had my doubts about the other book confirmed. Well, the two agree on foods: dog biscuits, occasional milk and cooked meat is okay. This book only mentions that it’s possible to build your own cage, but there’s no instructions for that and it recommends buying something prefabricated, and why. Open water dishes are discouraged (baths in them are a no), and yes the hamster should be held on the palm of one hand, with the other gently securing it, not grasped from above. There’s no mention of how hamsters have been used in research at all, but there are a few pages about wild hamsters, how some first became pets, and the different species that are now kept. I liked this little book and yes I hope my kid actually reads it.

Rating: 3/5
120 pages, 2004

by edited by G. Edgar Folk, Jr.

I ordered a few books online for my kid, about hamster care. They’ve all arrived promptly so I have time to look them over myself- and decided I’d better read this one, the oldest of the lot, before giving it to my almost-ten-year-old. Glad I did, and here’s why.

The book is outdated. It has good basic information, but also some questionable advice. We’ve kept hamsters before (and read other books on their care) so a few things raised my eyebrows. For starters, the book has a lot of information on breeding hamsters. Setups, how to tell when the female is in heat, how to track which hamsters you’ve bred, basics on genetics and how to fix desirable traits, care for the pregnant female and her young when they’re born, how to find buyers, etc. There’s pictures of the naked babies and drawings of hamster undersides so you can sex them- which I am pretty sure my kid will find squicky. And not kidding, the sections on breeding are at least half the book.

The rest is for the most part pretty good, except what I’ll mention. There’s a few pages on the origins and history of hamsters. There’s info about their habits, with some interesting facts about their ability to hibernate, if kept in an area under 40° (why would you keep a hamster cage outdoors? but this book suggests that if you do, provide plenty of warm bedding so they can survive cold temperatures- with the unpleasant note that if they’re in a colony group, non-hibernating hamsters may eat the hibernating ones!) There’s info on how to choose a healthy hamster (including consideration of good qualities for breeding and show), and instructions on how to build different types of housing yourself (but I was surprised that one of the suggested building materials was asbestos shingles!) Next is info on how to keep the habitat clean, and what to feed a hamster. This book says they can be quite happy eating dry dog food or pelleted rabbit feed and fresh greens, with occasional things like banana peels, meat or milk (for nursing mothers). Hm. Never heard of giving a hamster dog food, although dog treats like biscuits might be okay- this I figured with a quick online search. Banana peels okay if they’re organic, but meat? The book doesn’t get more specific, but I would think that means something like mealworms- although a quick online search told me some people feed their hamsters bits of cooked chicken. Moving on- the book explains how to handle your hamster- suggesting picking it up by the scruff or closing your hand over it from the top, never holding it from underneath. This is the exact opposite of all advice I see online or in other books about how to pick up a hamster. It also says that if your hamster decides to bathe in its water dish, you won’t be able to make it stop so just give it a second one for drinking water. What? I thought most people used those water bottles, because otherwise the water gets dirty. Also, never heard of hamster taking a water bath. Next, the book says hamsters have “no known diseases of their own” but can catch colds from humans, and suffer from paralysis or digestive issues. I am pretty sure hamsters suffer more ailments than just headcolds and constipation, but moving on- this is what I really objected to- in the section on what are hamsters useful for it mentions that hamster make nice pets but are also important in things like research or, well-

I don’t want my kid reading that. So this book is getting tucked onto my own shelf, I might pull it out for some additional reference if needed. It’s kind of like the Golden Book of Wild Animal Pets– interesting for what it is, but simply not the way we do things anymore.

On the flip side, this picture might give my kid grand ideas:


No, I don’t want a hamster village in my house. One will be enough!

Rating: 3/5
80 pages, 1984

Going to get my youngest a hamster for her birthday. I went to the pet store to pick out a few items- thinking I’d give her a book on hamster care to open at the little party, and then we come choose the actual pet. I haven’t been to the pet store much in recent years- I remember there used to be at least half one side of an aisle with magazines and books on all kinds of pet care, dog training, etc. Nothing. I asked an “associate” where’s the books on pet care?

He handed me a small folded pamphlet from a rack. That’s all they had. “Nobody reads books anymore,” he said to me. “Google is your friend! Hand your kid a tablet or i-pad and look it up.”

I said nothing but inwardly I was rather appalled. I wanted to tell him I have over 1,600 books in my bedroom, my kids each have fifty to a hundred on their own shelves, and my husband well over another fifty in his office! We are a household with books- but I was afraid he’d think me a freak. And I thought of all you, my dear fellow book bloggers hanging on to this archaic habit of reading words on paper to absorb information and delight. It really made me feel old. Not only my clothes (never in style) and my hair (gray streaks), but even my hobby is not with the times.

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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