Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas looms but there’s still time to read a few more good books

I’ve done all my Christmas shopping so I’m taking a minute to do a quick post, but the books I’ve read lately that I felt were noteworthy had to go back to the library!

(I know authors love to hear that. Not. Honestly, I would love to buy every book I read but a) I can’t afford it and b) there’s no room in my house for more books.)

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Lionel Shriver is a totally fearless writer and in this book she tackles the issue of obesity. The main character’s brother comes for a visit and has put on so much weight he’s unrecognizable. He’s become an obsessive eater, much to the alarm of his sister and her family. He actually breaks handmade furniture with his bulk. Shriver looks at the root causes of this character’s obesity and makes links to depression, the dangers of peaking too early, and self-worth. There were great paragraphs about youthful entitlement that I wanted to quote but I already owed the library major late fees. I actually don’t mind paying money to the library; I figure it’s going to a fantastic public service that I’m happy to support.

The Gates, The Infernals and The Creeps, by John Connolly. This trilogy is actually YA fiction, but I enjoyed it mightily. I’m a Christopher Moore fan, and John Connolly is essentially a British Christopher Moore. Basically, a Hadron collider opens a wormhole between Hell and a small village in England. Mayhem ensues. It’s very fun and witty, and I was reading bits out to my sister that made us laugh out loud and now she’s reading the series.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Book Reviews in brief: The Golem and the Jinni, The Abominable, etc.

I have powered through a pile of library books and some, in fact most, have been absolutely wonderful. I’d like to say I bought them all but I can’t afford my own reading habit. There are some books I will buy for my Reader and then I hoard them for holidays and for reading on the elliptical machine. Right now Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam and Bill Bryson’s One Summer are on the Reader for when we go to Hawaii. Also G.J. Meyer’s history of World War I, A World Undone. Remember him? He wrote about the Borgias and the Tudors and I am a fan. But I thought I’d quickly run through some of the fabulous books that have kept me reading late into the night….

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. GolemI didn’t know what to expect from this book but from the first paragraph I was totally mesmerized and neglected my work and family so I could finish it. I think everybody’s enjoying this book because it took AGES to get from the library. I love stories about magical creatures finding their way in our world and in this novel a golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City circa 1910. I was rhapsodizing about this book to anyone who would listen, forcing my husband to look up from the sports pages, and found that I had to explain what a golem was quite a few times. I guess everyone hasn’t read Marge Piercy’s amazing book He She and It, and if you haven’t you should. Its main point is the immorality of creating a self-aware intelligent being for your own purposes and denying its right to its own life. In Piercy’s story a futuristic self-aware robot is created for the defense of a community, yet it has its own needs and desires. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the golem of Prague, the clay man brought to life by a rabbi who also desires to protect his community. In Wecker’s book, the golem’s master dies within hours of bringing her to life and she arrives in New York masterless. Wecker just takes it from there and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Ms. Wecker, and please get right to work on your next novel. I’ll buy it.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. On the theme of intelligent self-aware beings, this book is about the fallout when a family that has adopted a chimp is forced to give her up. I heard today that there is a lawsuit in the United States being filed on behalf of a male chimp named, I believe, Tommy, which is interesting as it argues Tommy’s rights as a person, so the whole issue of personhood will soon be wrangled in the courts. This book is gripping and made me remember the films from Psych 101 with the signing gorillas and chimps. I didn’t really consider what would happen if one of them threw a grad student into a wall. If you raise an ape with a human family, they believe they are human. To then – even though it’s clearly necessary for everyone’s safety – send them to an ape research facility is incredibly cruel. It’s hard to believe that smart people like psychology professors don’t see the eventuality looming, but there you go. Fowler’s previous book, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a good read but this one blew me away. I needed to take a break after I read it so I could properly process and then I told the whole story to Justin. It’s ok, he wasn’t going to read it anyway. I’d love it if he would read more fiction, but you know. Horse, water, drink.

3. The Abominable by Dan Simmons. I just love books about climbing, even though you would never get me near a mountain. I’m fascinated by the thought processes of people who can’t wait to endanger their own lives and those of others in this totally unnecessary physical feat. Into Thin Air? Awesome, and it got me started on this genre. Abominable The Abominable is a novel about climbers in the 1920s and has a great spy-novel-ish plot. There are lots of minutely detailed descriptions of climbing that made my eyes glaze over a few times, but overall it’s great fun to read. It’s even more fun if you read it with Google Earth by your side so you can look up the Matterhorn and the Eiger and say knowledgeably, “Yeah, that north face does look pretty tough,” from your warm and cozy bed.

4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I put off reading this book because it was about the Balkans and everything I’ve read about the Balkans has been devastating. Then the due date loomed and I was forced to and I was glad I did. This book is, unsurprisingly, devastating but it’s a very good read nonetheless. It’s one of those “small world” plots in which the main characters’ stories are entangled together but they don’t know it and the reader gets to put it all together. Layers of tragedy and irony. Cue the dolorous minor-key Chopin Nocturne.

5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s books are just pure fun. My seven-year-old watches a good movie with wide eyes and a big smile on her face (it’s hilarious) and that’s what I look like when I read Neil Gaiman. I think I’ve already established myself as a fan in a previous blog post. I love it when characters from our world encounter some alternate reality and are going along with the quest or whatever but their internal thoughts are, essentially, “WTF!” That’s so fun.

6. The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. WeightofWater Another devastating tragedy, but beautifully written and so worth staying up late to finish. You know it’s well written when even though you know where this is going you still read on and on because every word is worth savouring. Then you get to the end and it’s heartbreaking but you knew it was going to be. It’s like watching a car crash. Horrid but it gets your attention. Let me start you off: A couple from Ann Arbor move to India after their 7-year-old son dies of meningitis. That’s just the beginning and it gets even more tragic. And it’s set in India, so cultural misunderstandings just make matters worse. But it’s so good.

OK, it’s bedtime and I have to make sure the kids’ light is off. (They’re allowed to read until 9.)

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Great Picture posted by my new favourite blog, Science-Based Pharmacy

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December 3, 2013 · 4:53 pm

Anti-vaccinationists: Laughing at preventable harms

Forgot to reblog this but it’s in the theme of the bit I just posted…

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The End of Plagues by John Rhodes

One of my pet peeves is people who don’t vaccinate their kids. Yeah, I said it! Not only is this misguided and misinformed, but actively dangerous to the rest of us. There are people who are immune-compromised, so it’s even more imperative that those of us who can vaccinate do, to protect those very few. If you live in a city, in proximity to other people, it is important to be responsible to your community. If you want to be selfish and irrational, and do exactly what you want when you want to do it, then you should go live in the woods like the Unabomber. It seems that there are definitely people who cherish their notions and will act on them with total disregard for others – until it happens to them. I’ve reblogged a couple of columns by a very good blogger; one is about the dangers inherent in not vaccinating. In one case, a church in Texas promulgated anti-vaccination rhetoric….until their congregation was hit by measles. Then they changed their tune. For some people, that’s always the way. It has to happen to them, then they get it. Tragic.

I think that part of the problem is that there is hardly any living memory of these terrible diseases that we worked so hard to eradicate and immunize against. Anybody remember what a diphtheria epidemic was like? Polio? Smallpox? No. Things of the past, right? Well, they were horrifying enough that people devoted their lives to discovering ways to protect populations from them. Diptheria can kill (these diseases can all kill but diptheria’s mortality rate is 1 in 10 according to the Mayo Clinic website) but if you survive, you’re likely to be crippled, or have heart damage or nerve damage, as in you can’t breathe or swallow. I’d say that’s a pretty serious complication. Ditto polio. Other diseases like measles and scarlet fever can leave you blind and brain-damaged. Still think it’s ok to not vaccinate? Even chicken pox can lead to pneumonia. That’s something that people who think that these diseases aren’t so bad don’t consider. For some reason, the one in a million chance that their child could have an adverse reaction to a vaccine totally outweighs the much higher probability of death resulting from the diseases that these vaccines are meant to prevent. Before vaccinations, these diseases used to sweep through communities, leaving death and disorder in their wake. Winter brought diptheria. Summer brought polio. Look at 10 of the kids at your kid’s school. Picture losing one to diptheria. Picture losing another to whooping cough, and let’s say another two to polio. That’s just out of 10 kids, and that’s just one year. That’s why we developed vaccines, to prevent this kind of tragedy. Still not vivid enough? Here’s a quote about the 1955 polio epidemic in the United States:

“In September, a family living near Milwaukee was devastated by the disease. Four of their eight children were struck down by bulbar polio. In this, the most serious form of polio, the virus invades the cranial nerves that control breathing, swallowing, and speech…The eldest, Paul, was affected first; an athlete of sixteen, he woke up with headache, pain, and weakness in one shoulder. By evening, he could not cough or swallow. In hospital he was placed on a respirator at 6:30 pm; despite all the ministrations of intensive care, he died at 6:50. The next morning his four-year-old sister, Lorraine, woke with a headache and stiff neck and was rushed to hospital. Unlike her big brother, she ate well at suppertime, despite her sore throat, and fell soundly asleep, only to die without waking a few hours later. The day after this, her eight-year-old sister, Mary Ann, complaining of a sore throat and stiff neck, was rushed to hospital. When she began to vomit and had difficulty swallowing, doctors gave oxygen, penicillin, and plasma, and placed her in an iron lung. She continued to answer their questions until 6:15, when she died.

By now the Milwaukee family had lost three of their children, and they were praying hard for the remaining five. But two days later thirteen-year-old Barbara went down with a fever. Her headache was severe, she felt dizzy and nauseous, and in hospital she was fearfully aware of what her symptoms meant. Barbara went through the same intensive treatments as her sisters, but she died at 8 pm.” p. 117

Tragic enough for you? John Rhodes’ nonfiction book, The End of Plagues, is FULL of these stories. It’s a very well-written and concise account of the history of vaccination and immunology. It’s also full of interesting facts which I love, such as that Edward Jenner, who not only came up with the cowpox vaccine, also discovered a plesiosaur fossil. The guy had an interesting life, no? Thomas Jefferson became so passionate about vaccinations that he had his entire family and “staff” immunized, and when the doctor was busy he administered them himself. “By the end of 1801 he had introduced vaccination across Virginia as well as in Philadelphia and Washington, DC…These achievements would be admirable for any scientific investigator, but for a president of the United States they were, and surely must remain, unique.” p. 53

Of course, doctors and scientists such as Jenner and Salk, not to mention health boards, had to deal with people who were frightened of the unknown, and were skeptical of vaccinations. But in those days – Jenner’s first experiment with vaccination was May 14, 1796 – people did sometimes die from complications of the vaccinations. Also, people were not as broadly educated as they are today (you’d think) and of course feared and mistrusted innovation. But people! Hundreds of years have passed. We have education, we have safe vaccines, and even though smallpox has been eradicated, and most of these other diseases are rare in the First World, people still travel and bring back more than postcards with them.

Here’s a good place to insert this fact: VACCINES DON’T CAUSE AUTISM. That crazy theory has been totally disproved. Not to mention: VACCINES DON’T CONTAIN THIOMERSAL (MERCURY DERIVATIVE) AND HAVEN’T SINCE 2003.

Anyway, this book has lots of good information and fascinating history.  I have to finish this off now because it has to go back to the library. I’m going to leave you with a great quote:

“Every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one evil more is withdrawn from the condition of man; and must contemplate the possibility, that future improvements and discoveries may still more and more lessen the catalogue of evils. ” Thomas Jefferson, 1800.

And here’s the Mayo Clinic on vaccinations.

Also from scienceblogs.com, an interesting article about the antivaccine movement.

And please do check out this blog, Science-Based Pharmacy. I almost didn’t write this post because he’s got it covered, and he gets credit for finding the scienceblogs post, but I read this book and thought well, why not? There is an excellent chapter on the post World War I flu epidemic that I found interesting as I’m looking at the history of that conflict. (No, I probably won’t blog about that, I’ll spare you.) Overall, it’s a good reminder of what people went through to save us all from the horrific diseases that were the scourge of their time. They succeeded; in fact, they were so successful in controlling and eradicating these diseases that some of us now disregard and actually sometimes vilify the results of their efforts. Isn’t that incredible?

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Japan post coming up soon…..

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Trust, Television Doctors, and 15 Superfoods

This was a subject I was planning to write about, but it’s been done, and more concisely than I probably would have done, right here. Everybody needs to be following this blogger!

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Use of Homeopathy Kills Child

This is so true, and parents should be aware that reliance on homeopathic and naturopathic products can be dangerous. I think this issue is important enough to reblog, so here it is.

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