Books have taken over our house. They’re underfoot in the living room, piled up on the dining room table, and cluttering the kitchen. Not that we’re all that erudite, mind you. Too many of those books are along the lines of Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy for me to pretend to any high intellectual caliber on the part of my family. We’re just sloppy. Part of the problem is that with a family of six, we just don’t have enough bookcase space to hold all of the various books that come and go from the library. But a greater part of the problem, at least in my case, is that there rarely seems to be enough spare time to read all of them, especially the ones we buy. As a result, there are books scattered hither and yon that I ‘ve started but have yet to finish. But there are advantages to living in a house with books scattered willy nilly, especially when those books have been chosen by someone else. It’s like being in a bookstore. You can sample a little here and there from a wide variety of topics.
First of all, there are the medical books that I’ve collected hoping to review, but haven’t been able to devote the time needed to do them justice. For those who yearn for immortality, there’s Fantastic Voyage : Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzwell, “inventor, thinker, and futurist” and Dr. Terry Grossman, director of a “leading anti-aging clinic.” The book is part how-to manual and part review of things to come if anti-aging technology fulfills its promise. Suffice it to say, the state of the art isn’t yet perfect. In a related vein, there’s Coping With Methuselah: The Impact of Molecular Biology on Medicine and Society, a book I don’t have lying around my house, but which was reviewed favorably in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, even though it was written by committee:
The book is the product of the collaborative efforts of 17 scholars, including three medical scientists (Drs. William B. Schwartz, John T. Potts, and Alan M. Garber); a large team of reputable economists, most of whom are from the Brookings Institution; an ethicist, Alexander Capron, from the University of Southern California; and a journalist, Nicholas Wade, of the New York Times.
To transform the diverse expert opinions into a coherent book, two meetings among the contributors were organized: a planning meeting, which was held at Stanford University in 2001, and a conference, which was held at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., in 2002. In addition to these efforts to harmonize the experts’ opinions, the editors have provided six of the book’s seven chapters with accompanying detailed comments (which are sometimes as long as the chapters they complement). These have been written by other experts — in most cases, former discussants and opponents at the earlier meetings — which makes for particularly interesting and useful reading because of the diversity of opinions.
Sounds wonkish, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.
For those of us worried more about keeping pace with the present, there’s Reversing Osteopenia : The Definitive Guide to Recognizing and Treating Early Bone Loss in Women of All Ages. Although it isn’t at all clear that taking drugs for bone density values that are on the thin side of normal is of any value, the book has some common sense suggestions for exercise and diet that certainly can’t harm.
You’ve heard of PMS, and IBS, but have you ever heard of IMS? That’s Irritable Male Syndrome, and there’s a book on managing it: The Irritable Male Syndrome : Managing the Four Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. Apparently, it’s causes run deeper than nagging wives and backseat drivers.
Planning to treat yourself to a complete physical for the New Year? You might want to peruse Medical Tests That Can Save Your Life : 21 Tests Your Doctor Won’t Order. . . Unless You Know to Ask. Most of the tests are not recommended for routine health screening, but the authors do make an attempt to help the reader decide if they are at higher than normal risk for the conditions in question. The most useful section of the book, however, may be the “how to approach the doctor” part.
In the non-medical department , there’s FBI Girl : How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code, a memoir of growing up in a Catholic FBI family. Then there’s the fictional The Distance Between Us, a novel of love and intrigue in the Middle East, and Tearjerker, the tale of love and frustration in the publishing industry.
Among the non-fictional/non-medical books I keep meaning to read are Swamp Doctor: The Diary of a Union Surgeon in the Virginia and North Carolina Marshes and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village. The first is the Civil War diary of Dr. William Mervale Smith of the 85th New York Volunteer Infantry. The good doctor has a soul that is often “depressed and weighed down,” as well it might be, for an upstate New Yorker transported to the swamps of the South. His entries are short on medical details, but long on complaints about the Army hierarchy and army life in general. Most interesting sampled piece so far: an appendix contains the complete written examination he had to take to become an Army surgeon, including his answers. (This question was puzzling: “Name the roots and grains from which alcoholic drinks are distilled in various parts of the world.” He knew some, but not all. Left out the potato and sugar cane, but then he wasn’t much of a drinker.) The second is a look at the life of an English village as reflected in the accounting books of its priest. It doesn’t sound very interesting, but the story begins when the village – and its priest – were completely Catholic under Henry VIII and ends fifty-four years later completely Protestant under Elizabeth I. In between, they lost their monastery (no great loss, the parish church got the fancy windows), had to hide their valuable vestments so the Crown wouldn’t take them, rebelled and lost their church bells, switched back to Catholicism during the reign of Mary and then found their Protestant inner selves again on Elizabeth’s accession. Best slice so far: for some reason, the village didn’t build a cucking stool for punishing women scolds until after the Reformation, even though the chairs were common in England throughout the Middle Ages. The author speculates that the absence of devotion to Mary and to Saint Sidwell, a local woman saint, eroded respect for women in the village, but perhaps women were somehow embolded by the Reformation, making the chair more of a necessity.
The best books in our house belong to my husband. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher is eminently browsable and chock full of wonderful nuggets of information. The introduction alone, a lesson in the art history of the famous Washington Crossing the Delaware painting, is worth the price of the book. And the chapter on the Hessian mercenaries was absorbing, too. My husband’s current bedtime reading is Napoleon After Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision, which confines itself to the time that Napoleon spent onboard the British warship The Bellephron awaiting his fate. Best slice so far: the lengths the Admiralty went to avoid British lawyers and advocates bent on enforcing habeus corpus for the benefit of Bonaparte. My husband’s fictional reading includes two historical novels by politicians, given to him as a wry gift so he could compare their story telling abilities. One is The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War by Jimmy Carter. It doesn’t have any good bits and pieces to report. It reads, well, like Jimmy Carter talks -didactic and boring. My husband, a die-hard liberal, agrees. He hasn’t been able to get past the first chapter. The other book is Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War, by Newt Gingrich, a fantasy of Gettysburg in which the South wins. Maybe it’s because Gingrich has a background in history, or maybe it’s because he hired a professional writer to help him, but it’s a tale told better by far than former President Carter’s.
And speaking of books written by politicians, here’s one I have actually read and enjoyed – The Accidental Pope by Ray Flynn. Also co-written with a professional writer, it isn’t great literature, but it’s thought provoking. An ex-priest now a widower and fisherman with a family, ends up being elected Pope after a joke by a Cardinal gets out of hand. As so often happens when an outsider comes to town, much conflict ensues. It won’t win any literary awards, but it is entertaining.
Now, I can clear the books off the table to make room for Christmas dinner.