Sunday, July 31, 2011

Winter Garden ~ Kristin Hannah

I must admit that I am a big Kristin Hannah fan.  She is a talented author who describes the scenes in her stories vividly and has superior character development.  These things combined absolutely draw the reader into the story.  This said, I expected to be immediately drawn into Winter Garden.  This, however, was not the case.  The story is slow to start - the first 150 pages were a bit of a struggle to get through - but once I got into the meat and potatoes, I could not put the book down.

In Winter Garden we are introduced to two sisters - Meredith and Nina - who could not be more different.  Meredith is married, with 2 college-aged daughters, tending to the family apple farm.  Meanwhile, Nina is a photo-journalist who travels around the world documenting human strife, especially in Africa.  When the girls' father falls ill, they come together at his side.  His dying wish is for the girls to get to know their distant mother, Anya, better - to understand the reasoning behind her "cold" personality and he asks Anya to tell them the complete and honest version of the fairy tales that she told them as children and he asks Meredith and Nina to never give up in persuading their mother to do so.  The story continues on for about another 100 pages before the unabridged version of the fairy tale of their childhood begins; and by the end the relationship between mother and daughters transforms to a loving, nurturing relationship of love and understanding.

The issue at the heart of the story is the fact that almost everyone has a background or even an incident in their past that others may not have knowledge of, and however small it may be, they are effected and their personality shaped by it.  I mean, who doesn't have something that has happened to them that doesn't affect how they feel towards a topic of some sort.  Your past helps pave your future.  It doesn't always have to be so, however.  As I will talk more about in my next book blog entry about Kathryn Stockett's The Help, depending on the circumstances, one can almost always change their attitude or perspective as long as they have the will do so.

In Anya's case, her distance from her children roots itself in untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, I believe.  Her mindset was that she could prevent being hurt if she simply distanced herself.  This belief was rooted in her previous life experiences. I can't help but wonder - how many of us do this on a daily basis?  Whether it be acting a certain way based on our own life experiences, or judging others based on outwardly gestures and/or appearances - in our society, we don't often stop to think and reason, do we?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years - Michael J. Collins, M.D.

I must admit that the medical world absolutely fascinates me.  If I could get over my queasiness with blood, guts and other people's bodily fluids overall, I don't think that a career in the field would be completely out of the question.  It's amazing what modern miracles doctors perform on a daily basis - and you have to admit that the pay isn't half bad either.  All of these "perks" come at a price, however, and in Michael J. Collins' memoir  Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years he tells the reader all about the hardships that doctors must go through before they strike it big.  Collins organizes his book into four sections - each section chronicling a year of residency. Within each section, he goes through each year month by month, describing the events that occurred both professionally and personally.  Besides sharing his successes and failures inside the doors of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Collins also records the hardships that his family had to go through. His wife, Patti, continuously pregnant and raising the growing Collins brood as essentially a single mother.  Collins also describes the seemingly endless hours that he had to work in order to just make ends meet and have the bills paid for his family.  In addition to his residency and "on call" duties at the Mayo Clinic, he also had to "moonlight" at a local hospital in order to provide for his family.  On a professional level, Collins also talks about his experiences in the Mayo Clinic and how they changed his perception of the profession.  There is an especially striking section towards the end of his residency, for example, where Collins feels as though he has become bored with some of the more mundane, every day procedures of orthopedic surgery - like setting fractures - and he reflects on how he ceased to treat patients as actual people, and began to focus simply on accomplishing the task at hand, fixing what was wrong with them, as quickly as possible to go on to other, presumably more pressing cases. The words of wisdom of an x-ray technician bring him back to reality and remind him of the reasoning for his pursuit of this profession in the first place.

One of the stories that really touched me, and that you can tell touched Collins as well, is the story of a young woman, Sarah, who he treats during his oncology rotation.  Sarah was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma in her left leg, and is therefore referred to Mayo for a hemipelvectomy, a procedure where her leg and half of her pelvis are removed.  The goal of this procedure is ultimately to eradicate the cancer, but as with all malignancies, there is never a guarantee.  This is a case that sticks with Collins' throughout his residency, and will throughout his career, I'm sure.  What makes this young woman so memorable is her spirit throughout her experience.  Even as she is laying in the hospital recovering from this major surgery, she is so upbeat and hopeful, according to Collins.  The positive energy just seems to radiate from within in, and it simply amazes me that after all of the hardship that she goes through, she can still be so happy.  I don't believe that there are many people, myself included, who could be in such good spirits after such a diagnosis - and especially procedure - such as Sarah's.  Indeed, reading about some of the patients that Collins treats in his four year residency, and the hardships that these people encounter and take head-on with such a positive outlook truly makes one feel fortunate for all that they have - good health above all.

Overall, Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years is an interesting read that makes you think about what doctors must go through in order to achieve the prestige that is so often assigned to their profession.  They must go through many hurdles, especially in the early years, and the memoir reminds the reader that, like anyone else, young doctors don't necessarily have it easy to start off either.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Other Life - Ellen Meister

In Ellen Meister's newest novel,  The Other Life, the reader is introduced to Quinn, a suburbanite and wife to Lewis and mother to Isaac and (unborn baby) Naomi, who is able to do something many of us have undoubtedly pondered at one point or another - Quinn is able to travel through a portal in her current life to live her "other life."  In this "other life," Quinn chose to stay with her boyfriend, Eugene, and is living the life in posh Manhattan.  Additionally, whereas in this life, Quinn's mother is deceased, in the "other life," Quinn's mother is very much alive.  It is this fact that propels Quinn to continue making the journey between lives. However, with each additional passage, the journey between this life and the other becomes increasingly difficult and the portal between lives continues to close more and more.  Towards the end of the story - Quinn is faced with a decision to live either one life or the other, and it is at this cross point, that I feel the story truly peaks and Meister's storytelling talent clearly shines through. 

A quick read, simply because you just cannot put it down, the cover asks the reader - "What if you could return to the road not taken?" And it is this exact question that this blog entry is going to focus upon.  How many of us have thought of this question before at least once in the past few years.  Each and every day people make choices.  Whether it's a larger choice like the decision to marry or have children, or a smaller, more minute choice, like what to have for breakfast or what route to take to work, each and every single choice has a series of effects that follow it - and the question remains what if you had chosen the other?  In The Other Life Meister tackles that larger choice of life partnership, but let's face it - almost every choice has a distinct path that could potentially take your life in a whole different direction.  Take for example the minuscule choice of what to have for breakfast. 

Option A - You have your cereal at home, shower, get dressed, go to work, yadda yadda yadda.

Option B - You decide to splurge and head down to the local Starbucks (I'm in no way promoting Starbucks, just know that everyone has a local one ;) haha).  You order your coffee, bagel, sit down and as your reading the obituary section look up and lock eyes with Mr. Right.  He comes and sits across from you, you have the most engaging conversation you've had in awhile and then exchange Facebook accounts before heading out the door to work.

I know it's a little over the top - but it's true!  Life is like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels that you can read a hundred times and have a different story each time.  The only difference is that unlike those novels, you can't live life a hundred times over.  I suppose there are some situations in which you can go back and "do things over," in some sense, but you can't go back and change what's happened in the past.  Everyone must live with the choices that they have made.

This isn't to say that it isn't okay to occasionally sit and ponder the question"What if?"

I look at my dog sometimes (usually when she is in one of her "cute" moments - which is like 99.9% of the time haha) and couldn't imagine my life without her.  Yet, I almost didn't get her due to life circumstances at the time.  What if ... I never adopted my pup?  I think my life would be drastically different.  For starters, I would be coming home an empty house each day after work - no one would be running down the hallway and drifting around the breakfast bar to come jump at me.  I would also probably be cold on those frigid Chicago nights when I don't have a real-life Yorkichon scarf around my head and neck.  Most of all, though, I would miss her companionship.  I wouldn't have someone to snuggle with me and need me like she does.  She is definitely a great choice that I made in my life and I am absolutely ecstatic that everything worked out for the best at the time so that I could adopt her. (Shout-out: I love you to bits, little monster!)

Then there are the times where I think about some of the bigger choices I have made, like my choice in college.  The main basis of my choice in university was their excellent teacher education program.  In my 4-year experience, many major life events and experiences transpired.  What if ... I chose a different university?  Would life be different?  Of course! If I chose to go elsewhere at 18, I don't know if I would be living in Chicago.  I wouldn't have my dog in my life. I'm not sure if I would be with my boyfriend.  I don't even know if I would be sitting here writing this blog at the moment!  There are so many factors that play in to every single decision - large or small.

On the same note,  it's unhealthy if always wondering "What if?" takes over your life and you're left questioning and doubting every single decision that you make.  So, I guess the moral of the story is this:

"Be wise in the decisions that you make, but make sure to live your life without regret."

Excellent job, Ms. Meister!  A fun summer read turned out to be quite the "thinker."  I hope to see more from you in the future ...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

These Things Hidden - Heather Gudenkauf

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf is an engrossing story about 2 sisters, a girl, a family, and a town ripped apart by the decisions that people make.  I don't want to give too much away as to the plot, but I must say that, in my opinion, Gudenkauf authentically portrays each of the characters in this gripping tale.

Sadly, the issue at the heart of the novel - Safe Haven laws - really isn't a fictitious issue at all.  For many women across the country, Safe Haven laws have provided a way for them to do something positive for their child.  If you are unfamiliar with the issue of Safe Haven laws, I quote from the website for the Administration for Children and Families in explaining what these state laws essentially allow.
"Many State legislatures have enacted legislation to address infant abandonment and infanticide in response to a reported increase in the abandonment of infants. Beginning in Texas in 1999, "Baby Moses laws" or infant safe haven laws have been enacted as an incentive for mothers in crisis to safely relinquish their babies to designated locations where the babies are protected and provided with medical care until a permanent home is found. Safe haven laws generally allow the parent, or an agent of the parent, to remain anonymous and to be shielded from prosecution for abandonment or neglect in exchange for surrendering the baby to a safe haven."
These "safe havens" include hospitals, police and fire stations; community locales that are staffed 24/7, essentially, by people that can provide the necessary care for the child.  There is also a maximum age of, typically, 30 days for the child to be relinquished without any consequence of abandonment charges, etc.

So the debate remains, do Safe Haven laws make sense?

I believe that the Safe Haven laws enacted in 49 of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, are a positive and worthwhile option.  Abortion is a hot topic issue, that we are not going to get into in this posting, but is an option in unwanted pregnancy (no comments on whether it's a positive or negative option - as of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, it is an option for women by law).  Adoption is also an option.  In my opinion, Safe Haven laws are essentially adoption.  It can be assumed that most infants that are left in the care of medical professionals are adopted by loving families that desire them and are able to care for them, unlike their biological parent(s).  When a woman decides to take advantage of the Safe Haven laws in her state, she is choosing a better life for her child, is she not?  Just like a woman who chooses adoption.  The difference between Safe Haven laws and adoption, however, is the anonymity that goes along with the law.  Researching the Safe Haven law in my own state, I find that although the child must be handed to a representative of the institution, beyond having to look someone face to face in handing off your child, there really isn't much more that must be done - no name, no age, no addresses or phone numbers.  A mother (or couple) may choose to leave medical history, just for the child's knowledge in predisposition to disease, but it seems that the entire process is shrouded in anonymity, something that adoption - even closed adoption - does not provide.

So, do Safe Haven laws provide women with additional options in the case of unwanted pregnancy?  Definitely.  Are these state laws able to prevent infanticide? One would hope so; but as Gudenkauf shows us in her sophomore novel, who knows what a young girl may do in a state of panic.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Considering the fact that this story is written by the author of many articles in popular scientific journals, I expected this book to be a rather dry collection of facts on the impact of HeLa cells on modern-day society.  Boy, was I wrong!  It's not wonder that named The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot a "Best Book of the Month" for February 2010 - this book is *amazing*.  Rather than a collection of facts, Skloot really took her time to research Henerietta's condition, the collection of her cells, and her descendants' lives.  The resulting story reads smoothly as just that - a story.  I honestly could not put the book down!

What truly astounded me about the story told in the book was that, until now, I had no idea about Henrietta Lacks - or even HeLa cells - much less the types of scientific advancements that her cells paved the way for in modern-day society.  That got me thinking - why? I consider myself someone that is fairly well-educated.  I graduated from one of the top high schools in the state of Illinois, took several biology classes at the university level, and have taught Science classes the past 3 years of my career.  If HeLa cells have done so much for society, why is it that until Skloot published this best-seller, hardly anyone had ever heard of the woman from whom these cells came from?

Another factor that concerned me was the fact that these cells were taken without Henrietta Lacks' consent or knowledge.  Was this done because the doctors figured that since she was getting free medical care for her cancer, they were in some way "entitled" to these cells and the subsequent experimentation and research they would be doing upon them?  Was it because she was a minority?  One of the members of the book club that I am in brought up the point that the time period of the events had something to do with how the cells were obtained, and subsequently used.  In this day and age, with Internet diagnosis-tools and malpractice lawsuits galore, patients are often taking over the job role of doctors and self-diagnosing themselves, going into doctors' offices only to obtain confirmation and/or medication.  In the 1950s, especially at a top hospital like John Hopkins, the position of doctor was more highly regarded.  Patients listened to doctor diagnosis and recommendation, rather than the other way around.  Hmm, interesting ... but that still doesn't excuse the fact that upon discovering that Henrietta's cells were "special," no one in her family was told.

This leads to the issue of cell patenting.  Currently in the United States (and many countries worldwide), it is illegal to patent cell lines.  The argument is that cells are made naturally, so they're not something that can be patented. But, why not?  Cells belong to people!  If there is something special to be found about the cells that the body produces, even if they are produced naturally, why shouldn't the person from whom they come from be able to patent them to therefore ensure that any scientific advancements - and perhaps even profits - made off of their cells be passed on and credited to them.  Of course, HIPPA laws then start to factor into the argument.  In theory, if all current laws and procedures are put into place correctly, cells should not be able to be traced back to a specific person; however, if lab results can be traced back to a specific patient, then I'm sure the same encoding procedures could be used for cells that are obtained and used for scientific research purposes.  At the very least, is it not one's right to know what is being done with tissues obtained from their body? Profits and money-issues aside, I think that people would want to know if some amazing scientific breakthrough could be credited to their body. Granted the knowledge of scientists who spend, in some cases, their lifetimes working with cell lines attempting to find cures for the slew of maladies that affect humans worldwide, I'm not arguing that their hard work should not be acknowledged.  Of course these brilliant scientists should get credit for their work!  All I'm saying is that the individuals whose bodies (or at least body parts) help in the process should be willing participants that are aware of the fact that their cells are being used for scientific research.  I am an organ donor - that's a program that I signed up for when I obtained my drivers' license; however, when I go to the doctor and she obtains samples of my cells - whether blood, cervical, or skin - I expect that the only work done upon those cells is analysis that I am fully aware of.   If my cells are found to be special or in some way particularly unusual and it's believed that something bigger can be discovered as a result of their characteristics, then by all means I'd certainly consent to their use in research, but I would want to know - even just for my own curiosity.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings up a lot of different questions and issues - many that you would never come to think about otherwise.  It's a wonderful read to share with friends and have some high-quality, intellectual discussions.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine - Alina Bronsky

There are a lot of things out there that boil down to genetics - your height, your eye color, sometimes even your mannerisms and personality type.  It's a constant debate of nature vs. nurture on what's inherited and what's learned, but I like to think that my love of good books is a genetic trait I inherited from my mom.  Both she and I have no issue spending an entire day curled up on the couch - or even better, in bed! - reading a good book.  As such, we often like to share what we're reading with each other and make recommendations.  Granted, my mom sometimes likes to read books that are sad and serious, which I often find just depressing, a lot of the time she actually has some good recommendations.  The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky is a book that my mom recommended to me after she read it upon finding an article about it in The New Yorker.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is narrated by Rosa - a spunky woman who has a comment for everything (hmmm, reminds me of quite a few Russian women I know.)  Rosa finds that her only daughter, Sulfia, is mysteriously pregnant at 17 "from a dream."  (The fact that this belief is hardly even questioned throughout the story makes me wonder if maybe there should have been a bit more "sex education" in the former Soviet Union...) Rosa attempts many "old world" remedies to abort her grandchild with the help of dwelling-mate Klavdia, but none work and 9-months later, Aminat is born.  Rosa instantly falls in love with the child, who unlike her own daughter is beautiful - "Tartar through and through," - and essentially begins to raise her as her own.  The rest of the book goes on to tell the story of the struggles these women go through as their lives change and eventually they end up in Germany where Sulfia is intended to marry a journalist who in reality has his eye on Aminat. But even though they are out of the Soviet Union, life doesn't get any easier, and adjusting to a new way of life is harder for the two older women.

The story ends on a fairly bittersweet note, I think. Rosa is a woman full of character at the beginning of the book and throughout, but towards the end, you can really sense how she has changed as a person based on the experiences that she has gone through.  Towards the end, you really start to feel sorry for her and all hat she has endured.

Although a good story, and a fairly fast read, in my opinion (I read it in 3 days),  The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine might be more appreciated by someone who has actually endured the struggle of emigration.  Granted, I am myself an immigrant - coming to the United States at the age of almost 2 from the former Soviet Union - but I think someone that can actually recall the hardship and accurately compare/contrast lifestyles would really appreciate the little nuances in this book.  For example, Rosa's bribery of figureheads with fruits and chocolates.  Although I understand this logic based on stories from my parents and grandma about life in the "old country," I think someone like my mom - who came here at the age of 22 and can remember actually living through that use of logic - would be more appreciative of this story.

An experience rooted in boredom

What makes someone's life interesting enough to document? Is it interesting life experiences? Unusual interests? Constant world travel? And who is the authority on what's worth sharing in one's life and what isn't?

This blog is really just an outlet for my restlessness and boredom this summer. I've always been a voracious reader, more so this summer with time on my hands, but I figure maybe if I share what I read, I can take my reading experience to an even higher level. Along the way, I will probably end up sharing other things - like interesting life experiences, world travel (Chicago is a city in the world ... right?), and other interests. We'll see what happens. Who knows - maybe like in Julie and Julia, my blog will get noticed and made into a major motion picture, but we'll get there if we get there haha.

This blog is really just a way for the world to get a glimpse into the mind of Anna. So, are you in for the adventure?