Wednesday, October 30, 2013

One Lump or Two?, by Darren Couchman

One Lump or Two?: A Humourous Story of One Man's Fight Against Testicular Cancer, by Darren Couchman

Carcinomas are no laughing matter, but Couchman tells his story of battling testicular cancer with a lot of whimsy and warmth. Diagnosed at 27 years old and within a decade of losing both his parents to the disease, he had every right to succumb to despair but instead approaches his diagnosis head on using humor (much of it self-deprecating) as his main weapon. "[Doctors] are professionals and are more concerned about helping you, rather than laughing at your privates. Anyway, that's your partner's job." Couchman is not a professional writer and it often shows—the style is pedestrian leaves a lot to be desired—but his message comes through loud and clear: fighting a serious disease is an incredibly tough campaign, and a positive outlook and the support of friends and family are essential to a successful outcome. As far as patients go Couchman was lucky; one major operation and a limited chemo routine resulted in victory. I still wouldn't call his experience easy, though, and certainly don't want to go through any of that myself. If I am personally faced with such a situation, though, I hope I can approach it with the same forthright manner and joie de vivre.

First Sentence:
It's the year 2000.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Rogue, by Trudi Canavan

The Rogue, by Trudi Canavan

The second book in a trilogy is often weak, but The Rogue is a fairly solid follow-up to The Ambassador's Mission. There are four loosely connected plots which don't intersect until the very end, and all four are fairly strong: a search for a rogue magician, two students caught up in a murder, an ambassadorial trip to a far-flung country, and a man coping in a hostile city unable to leave. The murder is resolved, but the other threads have the intensity ramped up for the final volume, The Traitor Queen. Looking forward to it!

Blah blah blah

First Sentence:
According to a Sachakan tradition so old that nobody remembered where it had begun, summer had a male aspect and winter a female one.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, by David McCullough

Before reading The Path Between the Seas I knew very little about the Panama Canal other than the location, that the French started the project and failed, and it is the source of one of my favorite jokes in Arsenic and Old Lace: crazy Uncle Teddy "digging the canal" in the basement. I've always wanted to take a trip through the canal and I like reading histories, so I've been looking forward to this book for a while. As usual, McCullough doesn't disappoint.

It took nearly 45 years to build the canal, starting in 1870. There were several competing routes, but the French decided on Panama as the best place to make the cut. They had just successfully completed the Suez Canal and were considered the natural choice for bridging the Americas. Unfortunately as it turns out, digging across a desert at sea level does not take the same skills or technology as bridging a mountainous jungle region in the tropics. The death rate was astonishing in the early days. "Of every one hundred new arrivals at least twenty died, and of those who survived, only about twenty were were physically strong enough to do any real work." In about a decade, the estimates are as many as twenty-two thousand died. Disease was the main killer, as the world had yet to discover that mosquitoes carried malaria and yellow fever; in fact, the cause was so misunderstood that the legs of hospital beds were all placed in shallow bowls of water to protect against ants. If patients didn't have a serious disease when they entered the hospital, the odds were enormous they would before they left. The death toll was only one of several problems the French faced, though; poor engineering plans and irresponsible financing combined to guarantee the failure of the French effort. The only realistic remaining nation that could accomplish the feat was the U.S.A.

America didn't simply come in, pick up where France left off, and finish the canal, though. The US wanted a route across Nicaragua, and instead of a canal had wild plans such as hoisting ships out of the water and hauling them across Mexico on railroad cars. Obviously this isn't what eventually happened, but the story of what did is utterly compelling. Panama declaring independence from Columbia is just one of the momentous events of the era, and even knowing how it all ends I had a hard time putting the book down. As with all of McCullough's books, this is thoroughly researched, well-written, and highly recommended.

First Sentence:
The letter, several pages in length and signed by Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, was aggressed to Commander Thomas O. Selfridge.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

I loved this book as a kid, and liked several of the sequels as well. With a movie on the way and my sons interested in it, I dug up my old copy from 1986 and we all read it. It holds up surprisingly well, and both boys liked it as much as I did. The plot is in four loose sections: Ender on Earth, Ender at Battle School, Ender on Eros, and after the war. The bulk of the story takes place at the Battle School and is easily the best part of the book. The idea of training child prodigies as military commanders in zero gravity is both farfetched and fascinating at the same time, and the descriptions of the various games are unique and memorable enough that they largely matched what I remembered from nearly 30 years ago. Of course, after seeing previews for the movie I kept picturing Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff and Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham—neither of which matched my previous images. Ender's Game is a great sci-fi book, and if my family is any indication it holds up well through the generations, too.

First Sentence:
"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one."

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson

I don't have much use for psychology or psychiatry. These are the branches of science used by those that seemingly justify such nonsense as curing homosexuality. Psychology experiments often seem to be ethically murky and confirm their initial hypotheses at an unbelievably high rate. On the other hand, I'm not someone that believes mental illness isn't a real disease, either. Like most things, there are good and bad aspects to psychology and clearly it has helped thousands of people live happier lives. So, when my book club chose The Psychopath Test as the monthly selection I was intrigued and looking forward to a closer examination of the industry.

I found this look into psychology and psychopaths in particular fascinating. Ronson examines all sides of the situation, talking with editors of the bible of mental disorders (the DSM-IV-TR), extreme 9/11 Truther and self-proclaimed messiah David Shayler, the author of the most common tool for diagnosing psychopathy (the PCL-R), and a powerful group Scientologists that are trying to stamp out psychology entirely (the CCHR). Written in first person Ronson seems greatly influenced by whichever group he speaks with last, see-sawing between radically different points of view. He doesn't really make any conclusions, but simply walks through the various beliefs and allows the reader to decide on his own. Most compelling to me was the debate about where the line between mentally ill and simply eccentric is drawn; what I learned here makes me a bit scared as to how fast we jump to diagnosing illness and prescribing drugs for behaviors such as hyperactivity and short tempers—especially in children.

The most surprising aspect of the book is the revelation that not all psychopaths are criminal; in fact, they are everywhere and often lead normal lives. A desire to win and a love of power are common sociopathic traits, as is a lack of normal human feelings. "They're the boss or coworker who likes to make other people up just for the pleasure of seeing them jump. They're the spouse who marries to look socially normal but inside the marriage shows no love after the initial charm wears off." Even more disturbing than the psychopath next door is the realization that these behaviors result in a preponderance of such people in leadership positions. "The higher you go up the [corporate or political] ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you'll find there." From now on I'll be equating politicians with psychopaths, which frankly explains a lot about our government.

First Sentence:
This is a story about madness.

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