Monday, December 21, 2015

The Death of Cancer (2015)

by Vincent DeVita

This is a very readable and informative book by a medical scientist who has been in the field for the past 50 years.  It is blends facts and anecdotes in an entertaining and educational manner.  It will appeal to patients, their families. educators and practitioners.

In her NY Times review, Abby Zuger wrote:
Now 80, a professor at Yale and one of the nation’s premier oncologists, Dr. DeVita has produced, with the help of his daughter, an utterly absorbing memoir, fierce and frank. Ears will burn, memories will doubtless differ on a few counts, and even his take on the particulars of cancer treatment may provoke debate. But the average reader will come away from the book with a superb basic education in all things oncological, from events on the cellular level to those in the rooms where research agendas are settled and checks are written.

The Death of Cancer is a great companion piece to Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday). Love it or not, this was one of 2015’s big books, a dense and hefty drama following a close-knit group of male friends through triumph and adversity. Mostly adversity: The book’s universe revolves around Jude, a mysterious wounded bird who has been hurt so deeply that it takes Ms. Yanagihara 720 pages to explain him. Overwrought but indelible.

(This was a hard book to read.  However, it gives much insight into what Anna Luis Kirkengen calls, "The Lived Experience of Violation.")

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie
Exploring Indian identity, both self and tribal, Alexie's first young adult novel is a semi-autobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old was born with hydrocephalus, is regularly the target of bullies, and loves to draw. He says, "I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats." He expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one's community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist's grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney's simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. The teen's determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things  (2010)
by Randy O. Frost, Gail Stekeete
What possesses someone to save every scrap of paper thats ever come into his home? What compulsions drive a woman like Irene, whose hoarding cost her her marriage? Or Ralph, whose imagined uses for castoff items like leaky old buckets almost lost him his house?

Randy Frost and Gail Steketee were the first to study hoarding when they began their work a decade ago; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls from the families of others. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies in the vein of Oliver Sacks.

With vivid portraits that show us the traits by which you can identify a hoarder - piles on sofas and beds that make the furniture useless, houses that can be navigated only by following small paths called goat trails, vast piles of paper that the hoarders churn but never discard, even collections of animals and garbage - Frost and Steketee illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us.

Whether we're savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, very few of us are in fact free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live. For all of us with complicated relationships to our things, Stuff answers the question of what happens when our stuff starts to own us.

See: Coming Clean by Kim Miller.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


From Amazon: Kim Miller is an immaculately put-together woman with a great career, a loving boyfriend, and a tidy apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. You would never guess that Kim grew up behind the closed doors of her family’s idyllic Long Island house, navigating between teetering stacks of aging newspapers, broken computers, and boxes upon boxes of unused junk festering in every room—the product of her father’s painful and unending struggle with hoarding.

In this moving coming-of-age story, Kim brings to life her rat-infested home, her childhood consumed by concealing her father’s shameful secret from friends, and the emotional burden that ultimately led to an attempt to take her own life. And in beautiful prose, Miller sheds light on her complicated yet loving relationship with her parents that has thrived in spite of the odds.

Coming Clean is a story about recognizing where we come from and the relationships that define us—and about finding peace in the homes we make for ourselves.

Also see Stuff by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee

Friday, October 23, 2015

Becoming Nicole (2015)

When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, Jonas and Wyatt, at birth in 1997, they were thrilled at the idea of having two sons. For a while, it was virtually impossible to tell the boys apart. But as they grew older, one child, Wyatt, started insisting that he was a girl.

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt.
Amazon Review: “Why IS it such a big deal to everyone what somebody has in their pants?” Excellent question, posed by an unusually astute transgender girl, the subject of Amy Ellis Nutt’s emotional and illuminating Becoming Nicole. It’s also a little ironic, since Nicole’s story makes a bit of a deal of it, but in a much different way than other stories we’ve been hearing lately, from celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and television shows like Transparent. Nicole, her twin brother Jonas, mom Kelly, and dad Wayne, are your typical middle class American family. They live next door to you--are shuttling from work, to Cub Scouts, to softball practice…. They’re also coming to terms with the fact that one of their own has Gender Dysphoria, a medical condition whereby a person does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. And so Wayne and Kelly Maines discover that they don’t have two sons at all, but a son and a daughter. This is a particularly hard pill for Republican, Air Force veteran, Wayne, to swallow, and his journey from denial to accepting and championing his daughter, is one of the more powerful and moving side narratives in a book chock full of them. That is why I really struggled to write this review, because Becoming Nicole is an important book that imparts important lessons, and the ones that resonate most have nothing to do with what’s in anyone’s pants: Be true to yourself, live an authentic life, exercise compassion. –Erin Kodicek

Listen to Terry Gross' Interview with author, parents, and Nicole. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan (2015)

An Amazon Review: 
Best book on surfing I have read. Yes, he does veer from surfing to explore other aspects of his life, but it all weaves together so seamlessly that it holds the reader's interest throughout. As a contemporary of Finnegan, I found the descriptions of beach life and surfing from his childhood and early adolescence very nostalgic. I felt envy at the experiences he had exploring now famous waves around the world when they were still mostly unknown. This is a masterful piece of writing. His descriptions of the experience of riding a wave are unparalleled in my experience. The personal dimension he brings to the tale, both the people he meets and the conflicts he goes through, brings the story to life. This is a page-turner. I was sad to come to the end.

DJE:  This book is an absolute keeper.  If you are interested in surfing or the surfing life, you will enjoy this.  Barbarian Days is literature, not a sophomoric tale.

Here are Excerpts

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Do No Harm

by Henry Marsh

You are invited to spend some time with Mr. Marsh, an eloquent neurosurgeon who escorts us into his operating theater, his parent's home as his mother lies dying, interminable maddening administrative meetings in his NHS hospital and to accompany him to Ukraine where he has volunteered as a surgeon for over 15 years. You'll share his triumphs and suffer the sadness and humiliation of his mistakes and failures.  His war stories are captivating; as are his anecdotes about his family, his education and his jousting with the bureaucracy of the English National Health System (the NHS).  Brief book review and large number of excerpts on OJCPCD.

A fine documentary, The English Surgeon, profiled Henry Marsh (you will need to scroll down if you check the link).

Friday, July 10, 2015

In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

This is from the author, Gabor Mate:

I've written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts because I see addiction as one of the most misunderstood phenomena in our society. People--including many people who should know better, such as doctors and policy makers--believe it to be a matter of individual choice or, at best, a medical disease. It is both simpler and more complex than that.

Addiction, or the capacity to become addicted, is very close to the core of the human experience. That is why almost anything can become addictive, from seemingly healthy activities such as eating or exercising to abusing drugs intended for healing. The issue is not the external target but our internal relationship to it. 

Addictions, for the most part, develop in a compulsive attempt to ease one’s pain or distress in the world. Given the amount of pain and dissatisfaction that human life engenders, many of us are driven to find solace in external things. The more we suffer, and the earlier in life we suffer, the more we are prone to become addicted.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Knocking on Heaven's Door

By Katie Butler

Butler and Her Parents

This is an honest, sobering look at what awaits so many elderly people and their caregivers, who are often family members.  It is also the story of a Medical-Industrial Complex gone wild:  doing things to people for economic gain.  Expensive procedures that have serious unintended consequences are, unfortunately, the rule.  For a variety of reasons, many physicians perform lucrative tests and interventions that do little to improve patients’ well-being.  Death is seen as the ultimate enemy, yet we all will die.  How one dies is important, yet this is not considered often enough.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door is the story of a singular family.  All families are unique.  The narrative is memorable, but there is much more.  Butler discusses American medicine and its domination of patients and families, and suggests ways we as patients and family members can try to protect ourselves.  It is also a wake-up call for physicians to try to change our behaviors from running profit centers to being caregivers in the true sense of the word.
These notes may help some of you who are too busy to read the entire book, however, should you do so, you will find much more to interest you.  I learned a lot by a fairly careful reading of Katy Butler’s book, much that will help me as a son, a caregiver and a physician.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chasing the Scream

by Johann Hari

Mount Hope May 23, 2015
I am sitting at Mount Hope on a cool clear day. The vista is beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky and the air is filled with birdsong. Here are some excerpts taken from the introduction to Johann Hari's remarkable book.

Lady Day
"How do we react to addicts and the war on drugs? We all know the script. Treat addicts and drug users as criminals. Coerce them into stopping. This is the prevailing view in almost every country.

Hari used to think that way but has changed his mind. He now argues instead for a second strategy – legalize drugs stage by stage, and use the money we currently spend on punishing addicts to fund compassionate care instead."

The journey that he took to research and write this book took him across nine countries and 30,000 miles and it would last for three years. The story is a compelling read.

Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is. There is a very different story waiting for us when we are ready to hear it. Pick up this book and read.

Johann Hari's Ted Talk: Everything You Thought You Knew About Drug Addiction in Wrong, June 2015.

Cast of Characters (in order of appearance)
Harry Anslinger: Bureau on Narcotics "godfather."
Billie Holiday: Jazz singer hounded to death by Anslinger
Arnold Rothstein: NY drug/alcohol lord
Chino Hardin:  FTM drug dealer turned activist/reformer
Leigh Maddox:  Policewoman/lawyer who once stalked addicts and now he workswith LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition)
Sherif Joe Arpaio: Arizona reincarnation of Harry Anslinger.
Prisoner number 109416 (Marsha Powell): small time drug user and victim of Arizona "justice" system.
Gabor Mate:  Family physician from British Columbia who is helping drug addicts on the front line.
Bruce Alexander: a psychologist at SFU in Vancouver. He worked on a Rat Park study that showed it's the environment which creates addicts not biology.
Bud Osborn: An addict and an activist who organized the Downtown Eastside drug users and got them recognition and respect.
John Marks: Liverpool psychiatrist who ran a drug prescription clinic and saved many lives until the British government disbanded it.  He self-exiled himself to New Zealand.
Ruth Dreifuss as president of Switzerland, she approved the establishment of drug distribution centres.
Jose Mujica: The anarchist president of Uruguay who implemented legalization of many drugs.
Mason Tvirt: Activist in Colorado who spearheaded that states campaign to legailze marijuana.  He fought against Hickenlooper -- the CO governor.
Tonia Winchester: An attorney who led a successful campaign to decriminalize marijuana in Washington state.

The author, Johann Hari, did a masterful job here.  When I looked at his Wikipedia page, I was surprised to learn some disquieting facts about him - but feel they only make him a more scrupulous reporter her.

Friday, May 8, 2015

My Year Off: Recovering life after a stroke (1995)

by Robert McCrum
From Amazon:  " On July 28, 1995, Robert McCrum suffered a severe stroke at the age of 42. His thoughtful memoir chronicles the long, arduous process of recovery. Drawing on his own diaries and those of his wife, Sarah Lyall (then the publishing columnist for the New York Times), McCrum presents a detailed portrait of the physical and psychological effects of a stroke. His speech was impaired and his left arm and leg were paralyzed, but almost worse was the emotional havoc those disabilities wrought. As the hard-driving, hard-living editor of English publishing house Faber & Faber, McCrum had defined himself for 20 years by what he did--now he was forced to ask himself who he was. He ruefully admits that his upbringing in the privileged British upper-middle class, traditionally suspicious of introspection, had ill prepared him for such a struggle, and he pays loving tribute to his American spouse's crucial role in his recovery. (Indeed, the excerpts from Lyall's diaries, which honestly reveal doubt, fear, and anger, are among the book's most moving sections.) Famous friends like Salman Rushdie and Michael Ondaatje make appearances at McCrum's London hospital bedside, but Lyall is the narrative's heroine, and the hard-working staff of physical and speech therapists the invaluable supporting players. The author's lucid explanation of stroke's medical aspects and thorough account of his slow progress toward nearly full recovery will inform and inspire other stroke victims, but at heart this is a touching marital love story and an exciting drama of personal rebirth. --Wendy Smith 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Amy Tan on Lyme Disease

This is a sobering and compelling pathography by a world-renown author.

I used to brag that I never got sick. I rarely came down with colds or the flu. I had health insurance for catastrophic illness and only used it once, for surgical repair of a broken leg, the result of heli-skiing, the sport of a vigorous and fearless person.

But in 1999, all that changed. I learned what it is like to have a disease with no diagnosis, to be baffled by what insurance covers and what it does not, and to have a mind that can’t think fast enough to know whether a red traffic light means to press on the gas or hit the brakes. I have late-stage neuroborreliosis, otherwise known as Lyme Disease. The neurological part reflects the fact that the bacteria, a spirochete called borrelia burgdorferi, has gone into my brain.

Read full article: SLyme Disease: How A Speck Changed My Life Forever

Image from the article

Missoula (2015)

Krakauer's book, Missoula, is focused on the most common type of rape:  non-stranger sexual assault.  While it reports from a Montana college town, Missoula's rape statistics are about average for the U.S.

The book has been criticized which is not surprising, however, I have read it twice and find it convincing and sobering.  Alcohol seems to be an almost-constant factor.  Alcohol, jocks and naive students -- female and male.

This is a hugely important topic and Missoula is an important introduction.  Probably, everyone in high school, college, or with children at these stages should read it.  Educators are another important audience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Witness to Resilience: Stories of Intimate Violence

Witness To Resilience is about everyday women who have endured domestic violence in silence and secrecy. They're your mother, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor, and colleague. Jane  Seskin's poems chronicle her more than twenty years working as a psychotherapist with survivors of intimate violence. These are brutal stories told with compassion and love.

I found this slim volume to be moving beyond what words can express.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Even Doctors Cry by Alvin Reiter, M.D.


1. Redemption: There is a belief in restorable health.
2. Quest: A person journeys through and faces suffering head on in the belief that something is to be gained from the illness experience
3. Chaos: When people are overwhelmed by the intensity of their illness, to speak coherently becomes impossible.   This is the most frequently unheard narrative because listening to chaos stories can be painful and frustrating

Add caption
Alvin Reiter's book, Even Doctors Cry, is, for the most part, a "chaos" narrative. It tells the story of an E.N.T. surgeon from his upbringing in the Bronx, through college, medical school and training as a head and neck specialist concentrating on cosmetic facial surgery, through personal illness (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) legal problems stemming from billing irregularities, to his wife's complicated breast cancer trajectory.

In some ways, this book reminded me of Saul Bellow’s picaresque novel The Adventures Augie March. There were many unexpected twists and turns and Dr. Reiter was on a strange and tragic voyage from the Bronx to Beverly Hills. He paints himself as a naif swimming with the sharks of private medical practice and academia.  His, and his wife Karen's, encounters with the medical system are frustrating, maddening, and ultimately tragic. Are they the norm for Doctor-Patient relationships in our country?

Dr. Reiter learned a lot from his misadventures as a physician and a patient.  Along the way, he has become a patient advocate. I, for one, would like to hear more of his suggestions on improving communication and care.

Even Doctors Cry is a captivating book that kept my interest from one vignette to the next. Mostly is set in the strange and materialistic venue of Beverly Hills. The small towns that I have spent my professional life in are quite different, however, many of the physicians that I have encountered have doppelgängers in Southern California.

Reiter tells us, "In our society, we trust our tax returns to accountants, our wills to lawyers, our food to farmers, our cars to mechanics. To physicians, though, we entrust our very lives, without which the rest doesn't matter. As a doctor who loved his practice, his patients and prided himself on the care he provided, I was unprepared to find a medical profession so flawed, falling so short of any level of care, that it caused the death of my wife, Karen.

Earlier, he quotes Ellie Wiesel, "Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story." Reiter does this in a captivating way and all who read this book will learn important lessons.

(reviewed by David Elpern)