May 21, 2014

Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda

Gruda is a Polish-born French author with a wicked sense of humor, and the uncanny ability to get inside the brain of a precocious young boy. Young Julek is born in Poland to staunchly Communist parents. As Russia cracks down on Polish communists, Julek's mother (who he thought was his aunt) and his aunt (who he thought was his mother - it's all very complicated) send him to live in France, where he quickly turns himself into a Frenchman (albeit, still a Communist). World War II disrupts his childhood and prompts a series of moves as he lives with different families to keep him safe. What could be a devastatingly emotional novel is instead a little gem of humor and good-will, an anthem to keeping a steady head on your shoulders, maintaining your good humor, and sticking to your beliefs even when you have control over little else. This is published by Europa Editions, which once again impresses me with the quality of foreign language books they chose to translate and publish in the US.

May 17, 2014

Ashes, by Ilsa J. Bick

"Ashes" is a YA apocalypse novel, and a rather gruesome one at that. Like most YA science fiction, it's very plot-driven, so it goes quickly. The writing is pretty good, with good authenticity, though I got a bit tired of the "dun-dun-DUN" moments (e.g. "And everything was fine. But that was the last time everything was fine.") It's a beginner's writing crutch, an easy tactic to fall back on when you want to keep the story moving. It's okay every once in a while, but having it at the end of every chapter is a bit much. I also must protest the graphic nature of the zombies. I really don't need to read about someone popping out another person's eyeball and eating it. Maybe today's teen is totally numb to that kind of disgusting imagery, but even my strong stomach had trouble handling that. Again, it was just a bit much. This is the first in a series; I won't be seeking out the next book, but if I happen upon it, I'll probably read it.

May 13, 2014

Positive, by Michael Saag, M.D.

"Positive" is Dr. Michael Saag's memoir-manifesto about HIV/AIDS and the United States' healthcare system. It has a bit too much memoir for my taste; while I find his anecdotes about patients and what they and he went through to fight back against the plague that is AIDS important and edifying, I could have done without his own family history. I guess it's a little mean to say it, but I'm not at all interested in Dr. Saag, while I am very interested in his work and his insider's view of the healthcare industry. His "magical thinking" is cute, and I don't mean to imply that it's untrue that he does think that way, but it's a little silly in such a serious piece of work.

As you might imagine, this isn't an easy book to read. I reached for tissues multiple times as Dr. Saag writes about the terrified, incredibly ill men and women he's treated over the years. Due to a bill called Ryan White, the federal government allocates money to cover any gaps in treatment of HIV-infected patients. As Dr. Saag notes, the program has completely eliminated any difference in care due to economic status, meaning that a poor person will get as good treatment and have as good a chance at life and health as a rich person. America outspends every single other developed country - by A LOT - in healthcare, yet ranks very low in actual health when compared to those same countries. So why don't we have Ryan White-like funding for ALL healthcare, instead of just one single disease?

Dr. Saag puts together a comprehensive list of what a good American healthcare system should look like, while acknowledging that it's a drastic change and will incur plenty of growing pains. What he doesn't do is suggest ways we can start making this actually happen, beyond informing ourselves of how the system really works and, um, complaining about it, I guess? What about letter writing campaigns? Surely he knows which recipients would be most effective. Or what if he starts a group of healthcare professionals that give "The System" an ultimatum: fix it, or we'll stop working? He makes no such recommendation, however, and as such, this is a manifesto without teeth, an exercise in mental masturbation as he tries to make himself feel better about the situation by unburdening his thoughts into a book. It's nice and all, but in the end, the only people reading it will be the choir to which he is already preaching.

May 7, 2014

Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan

This is a very Malcom Gladwell-type book. So much so that many of the points Hallinan makes are the same that Gladwell makes in "Blink." It has the same approachable readability of Gladwell's books, as well. Both books come to essentially the same conclusion: our intuition affects us much more strongly than we believe it does. "Blink" stops there, whereas Hallinan continues by adding that this is why we make mistakes so frequently and consistently; we are overconfident in our own intelligence and abilities and greatly downplay the role instinct makes in decision-making. It's told so plainly that it almost seems like common sense, which I think makes Hallinan's accomplishment seem less grand. But it's an incisive piece of work, and impressive for how engaging it is.

May 1, 2014

I'll Be Right There, by Kyung-Sook Shin

I have very mixed feelings about this South Korean novel. Parts of it are really beautiful, and I like how the story seeks to individualize a time of violent unrest in South Korea, but then parts of the novel are cliched and sophomoric. Thin beams of light suddenly shine upon upturned faces right at the moment of epiphany, that sort of thing. Most of this is at the beginning of the book, and it does get better as the novel turns its focus to Seoul in the 1980s. Since I've never read this author before, nor indeed anything written by a South Korean, I don't know whether the silly bits are characteristic of the author's writing, the translator's style, or South Korean writing in general. As for the story, it's very interesting, though I would have liked to see more about the relationship between Professor Yoon, a poetry scholar, and his students. There is constant reference to the closeness of this relationship, but little explanation as to why or how that situation played out. It's an interesting read, and enlightening about a period of history I know nothing about, I just wish the writing were a little deeper in some parts.