Monday, January 18, 2016

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

Subtitle: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

I read this for one of my book clubs, though it seems I've been on an "oceans" kick of late.  I really enjoyed the author's earlier books: In the Garden of the Beast, Isaac's Storm and The Devil in the White City.  This one did not disappoint.

The Lusitania was an ocean liner in the early 1900's that was sunk on a voyage from New York City to Liverpool on May 17, 1915, during World War I, before the Americans joined the fighting.  Almost 1200 people died and two years later America joined the war.

The story goes back and forth between the passengers on the ship, President Woodrow Wilson's state of mind after the death of his wife earlier in the year and its effect on his response to the tragedy, and the German U-boat captain and crew.  It's a fascinating slice of history and a fresh reminder of the atrocities that are committed when countries wage war.

I was expecting to find a list of the passengers and where they were from but it was not included in the book.  I found one at a site dedicated to the ship---had to check for ancestors!

Published: 2015  Read:  January 2016  Genre: History

Infectious Madness - Harriet A Washington

Sub-title: The Surprising science of how we "catch" mental illness

The cover caught my eye on this one when I was in the library.  The author discusses studies and case histories that indicate that some mental illness may be caused by infections and our bodies immune system's reaction to them.  She refers to some conditions which were in the past attributed to mental illness that are recognized today as being caused by bacteria, viruses or other pathogens.  Without treatment, a disease would lead to dementia and bizarre behaviors associated with mental illness.

Once anecdote is that in 1872 cat ownership became popular in America.  That same year brought a sharp rise in U.S. schizophrenia rates.  Cats carry a zoonotic infection (a disease humans acquire from animals) that causes schizophrenia.

Paresis was once a familiar species of madness, given to one in five patients in mental asylums in New York by the 1920s.  Individuals experienced coarsening of the personality followed by mania, vivid delusions, and dementia and it was viewed as a punishment for depravity.  It was found to be caused by the disease, syphilis, which today is treated with antibiotics.

She points out the tendency for the medical community to maintain the status quo and dismiss different hypotheses for the cause of an illness, and suggests it is a reason more research is not done on the role of infectious agents in mental illnesses.

She relates cases of autism, bipolar depression, schizophrenia, OCD, and other mental conditions being linked to infections such as strep throat, influenza and measles.

The author has a B.A. in English and completed a fellowship in Public Health at Harvard and in medical ethics at Stanford.  She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008 for her book Medical Apartheid, about the treatment of African-Americans in the health care system.

While the science was not rigorous I thought the subject had merit and I agree with her that in the future we may find closer ties between infections and their impact on our mental health.

Published:  2015  Read: January 2016  Genre: Non-fiction, medical science

Monday, January 11, 2016

Pirate Hunters - Robert Kurson

Subtitle: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a legendary pirate ship

In late 2015 I read the author's earlier story of shipwreck divers.  They are back in this story searching for a pirate ship.  Like the earlier book, its about more than just diving for treasure.  There's the story of the men who do this and why they are driven to pursue the dream, sacrificing their relationships, their finances and their health.

I learned that only a couple pirate ship wrecks have been found.  The one John Chatterton (from the earlier book and his new partner John Mattera are searching for lies near the Dominican Republic.  It's known as the Golden Fleece.  It was an English vessel that was stolen by an English sea captain, Joseph Bannister, who somehow turned pirate and terrorized the seas for a time.

I love reading the history of the past and the challenges of locating the ship in the present.  The divers are passionate, larger than life personalities that the author captures, warts and all.  Great read.

Published: 2015  Read: January 2015  Genre: Adventure non-fiction

ISBN: 9 781400 063369


Deep - James Nestor

I have a great best friend with varied interests and she has led me to topics I never would have discovered on my own.  This book, about deep water freediving, is her most recent share.

I was fascinated from the first chapter where the author described his first encounter with competitive freediving.  The physical limits of the human body are tested and pushed to the limit to achieve a condition that hearkens back to our ancient sea roots.

I enjoyed learning how practitioners learn to hold their breath for several minutes while diving and the physical changes that happen that allow them to go deeper and longer underwater.  Great read.

Published:  2015  Read: December 2015  Genre: Science, non-fiction

978-0-544-48407-8

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood

I liked Margaret Atwood's early books.  They were a mixture of real life and futuristic possibilities with a sense of foreboding (Handmaid's Tale, for example).  This book feels very familiar.

A couple who are living out of their car after the economy collapses joins a planned community where you are given a home for a month and then work in the prison as a prisoner for a month.  This looks better than trying to live in a car with unsavory characters attacking in the middle of the night so they agree to join.  Problem is, once in, never out.

People being human, the wife falls for a seductive lover and the husband retaliates with his own affair and then the management of the place gets involved and the couple wants out.

The problem with this book is it is so much a rehash of her earlier tales without the punch.  The ending just limps along without really generating any hard thought.

Not a good way to finish up the year; not recommended.

Published:  2015  Read: December 2015  Genre: Speculative Fiction

  • ISBN-13: 978-0385540353

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins


I'd waited to read this bestseller because of all the hype, contrarian that I am.  I don't care much for mysteries and the inevitable plot twists and turns.   To my mind, mystery writing is like being a magician - you need to divert the reader's attention, mislead them so they don't see the sleight of hand and identify the perpetrator.  Hawkins does a masterful job of keeping you guessing without stretching credibility.

Rachel, a divorced woman sees the backyards of homes in the neighborhood where she used to live as she rides the train to work.  Her self-esteem is shattered from the divorce and its instigating event and she daydreams about the people and the perfect lives that she sees passing by, finding her life wanting:
"Let's be honest: women are still only really valued for two things - their looks and their role as mothers.  I'm not beautiful, and I can't have kids, so what does that make me?  Worthless."
Then a woman in one of the homes goes missing and she thinks she has information that could help find her.  She's a poor witness, having become an alcoholic and still harassing her ex-husband and his new wife.  She recognizes her failings yet continues to give in to her depression and self-hatred:
"Drunk Rachel sees no consequences, she is either excessively expansive and optimistic or wrapped up in hate.  She has no past, no future.  She exists purely in the moment.
She continues to struggle to be sober and the story tracks her redemptive action that resolves the mystery.  A great read, sorry I waited so long!

Published:  2015  Read: December 2015  Genre: Fiction, mystery

ISBN: 978-1-4104-7776-7

The Japanese Lover - Isabel Allende

I really like this author.  I loved her biography of her daughter, Paula, and her early books had a mystical quality about them.  The last one I read, Maya's Notebook was a disappointment but I was willing to try again.  I shouldn't have.

The Japanese Lover begins with our heroine, Alma, in an assisted living facility by her own choice, one that dismays her family, undoubtedly part of her motivation.  She befriends one of the workers, Irina, and her grandson, Seth and Irina try to figure out where Alma goes on her frequent excursions from the home.

We're taken back in time as Alma shares her life story with Inna.  She was sent to America to live with relatives during WWII and never saw her birth parents again.  She grows up privileged and loved by her relatives and falls in love with the gardener's son.  The gardener and his family are imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps and the young lovers are separated.  Their love never dies and they stay in touch throughout life but conform to society and never come together.

I don't know if its Allende's translators of the last couple of books, but her prose is flat and repetitive. The story goes off on tangents with characters (Alma's long lost brother) showing up for a few pages then disappearing again.  I was disappointed.


Published: 2015  Read: December 2015  Genre: Fiction