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A Breakdown of the Books I’ve Read Over Break

I severely dislike graduate school reading, but yet pleasure reading is all I want to do over break. At the request of my friend Kelsey, here’s a summary and analysis of everything I read over my winter break. (Hi, Kelsey! 😉 )

Also, favorite  books and what I am currently reading can always be found my on bookshelf.

Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon by Henry Marsh

Marsh is a retired, accomplished brain surgeon who worked in the United Kingdom for 40 years. His book is about his retirement, opinions on the National Health Service, cases that have stuck with him, and his pro bono work in Ukraine and Nepal after his retirement. He has written a previous bestseller called Do No Harm (which I have not read) about similar.

I wanted to like this book. I adore Atul Gawande, and a review from The Economist stating, “Disarmingly frank storytelling…his reflections on death and dying equal those in Atul Gawande‘s excellent Being Mortal” sold me. However, comparing Gawande and Marsh as equal storytellers is insulting to Gawande. Gawande is a compassionate, humble, and refined storyteller who tells even the saddest stories with hope. Marsh is a burnout neurosurgeon who clearly has formed opinions of an array of things and fails to even consider the benefit of medical changes.

Marsh weaves an adequate story and has enough interesting patient stories that I read the whole thing. However, he does not explain medical terminology to his reader (downfall #1). He is quite pessimistic to the point of bitterness (downfall #2). And he is a bit narcissistic in that he thinks his reader will want to know minute details of his life that are irrelevant to the overall story (downfall #3).

Most of all, I have trouble empathizing with a man who even freely writes that he is disliked by his non-medical and even medical colleagues. Sure, not everyone likes me either, but a least I’m respectful. Marsh refuses to see the benefit of patient safety interventions like checklists before surgeries (even though he admits to operating on the wrong side before they existed and advocating for them in Nepal). He even relays the story of assaulting a male nurse and grabbing his nose when he refused to remove a tube that Marsh thought was unnecessary two weeks before retirement. I may respect the knowledge of a physician who treats others poorly, but I have a difficult time respecting them professionally.  I am debating reading anything by Marsh based on his own attitude towards patients and colleagues.

Recommendation: If you have not read medical non-fiction/autobiographical work, skip Marsh and read anything by Gawande. I’m a fan Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, and Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. If you’ve read everything by Gawande, please join me in my search for another medical professional who writes as well as him. Marsh may soon be crossed off that list.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

Mystery novelist P. D. James explores the unchartered lives of the Darcys and Bingleys 6 years after their marriage. All is well for both our happy couples. That is, until a murder on the Pemberley estate threatens to throw their peaceful lives into chaos.

P. D. James is not the first nor will be the last author to attempt to fill Jane Austen’s mighty pen. Though some of the characters appear to have changed since Pride and Prejudice‘s ending, much to some critics major disliking, I did not mind. I thought it was a light and quick yet intriguing read. Too, it was a much needed break from all the non-fiction I like to read!

Recommendation: I found my copy for $2 at Goodwill. Definitely worth the time and money I invested.

Good to Great by Jim Collins

My financial counselor recommended this one ages ago, but I’ve never gotten around to it….including over break… Back on the list on my bookshelf!

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond recounts the story of a variety of people (whose names have been changed) facing eviction in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Desmond has received numerous awards for the book, and it’s easy to see why. His book reads like a story, and his data is well-documented in the very illuminating bibliography. Not only does the non-fiction account take place in my city of Milwaukee, but also Desmond was a graduate student at my alma mater the University of Wisconsin at the time.

The story is easy enough to follow without extensive knowledge of Milwaukee, and Desmond offers explanations of anything and anywhere that would be unfamiliar to an outsider.  But living there added to the depth of the book. I know some of the intersections and poor neighborhoods he spoke of: my patients come from there. This book has given me new insight into their lives. It has challenged me to more fully examine any prejudices I’ve held against my patients. For examine, I often refuse to give food to patients, saying they can buy it after discharge. I see designer bags and cellphones, assuming they have money. But most of the people in the book could barely afford food and bought these items at severe discounts. I can clearly be more kind and give food.

Recommendation: Definitely read it! I’ve been recommending it and talking about it to most everyone I talk books with.I received the book as a gift from a co-worker, but if I would have borrowed it from a library, I would have bought a copy. Too, it’s been added to my bookshelf aka my recommendation list. 🙂

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel

A junior fellow at Harvard and PhD candidate for comparative literature at Yale, Moira Weigel discusses the history and culture of sex and romance in the United States. Dating, she writes, has always been tied to work. How we work affects dating and visa versa.

I picked this book up thinking it would be interesting. Initially, it was. Her overview of the start of dating in 1900 and young people being arrested for what we now consider commonplace dating was interesting. But from there, I got bored and confused. Concepts kept being muddled together, making the timeline of the cultural phenomena she was discussing unclear. Too, the author included a bibliography at the end but fails to cite anything within her chapters, even when writing something controversial or not a well-established fact.

I am a fan of non-fiction in general (if you cannot tell by this list). But I found this account of history of dating to be more about opinion (though, to her credit, the cited opinions of cultural commentators) than fact.  Overall, I was not a fan.

Recommendation: Read the preview (Ch. 1: ‘Tricks’) on Amazon and you’ve read the best part. Not worth buying.

My Life with the Saints by James Martin, SJ

I confess: I’m still slowly working through this one. I’m a sucker for memoirs, and I’m a sucker for the saints, so I don’t mind savoring this one. I’ll pick up a chapter when I have a moment of rest or to substitute eating in front of the television. The book is easily digestible and delightful.

If you’re just starting Catholic memoirs and learning about the saints, I like the story of My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell a bit better. She weaves more of a story about her life. Martin, meanwhile, discusses a saint more in depth and goes into the theology of whatever he was struggling with or getting to know at the time. Both are good. I just enjoy Campbell’s storytelling a bit more.

Recommendation: Worth the read. It’ll be a good addition to my collection when I’m finished.

The Pilgrim’s Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints by James and Colleen Heater

I’m working on planning a trip to Poland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Denmark this May, and I have a chunk of time in Rome all by myself! Italy boasts the most saints, and I wanted to learn about some off-the-beaten-path saints and places. James and Colleen learned about saints during from a yoga instructor (or so it appears) and relay their favorite spots. It appears their information is well-founded, and they offer travel phrases and websites. However, the book is 10 years old now, so I’m sure it’s not accurate anymore.

Recommendation: Glad I borrowed it from the library. Going to look for some reputable Catholic research! Too, I can just go to websites and use Google translate services…

Poland – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Greg Allen

I picked this one up from the library to get an idea of Poland for my Eurotrip this May. (Woot woot!). I was expecting a Lonely Planet-type travel guide. I got more of a cultural overview of the country and a taste of its history. This guide wants the reader to have a greater understanding of the culture more than places to visit. It wasn’t what I was looking for, so I skimmed it before returning it to the library.

Recommendation: Great if you want a mini-history lesson on Poland. Not so great if you’re looking for travel recommendations.

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist

Present over perfect is a wonderful mantra for living an authentic life. Shauna Niequist is a mother of two, wife, blogger, speaker, and very active in her community. But she was feeling burned out by her life instead of invigorated. In her own words, this book is “an invitation to a journey” to live a more balanced, authentic life.

I did not know her book was a collection of essays, as the cover states. With an introduction by my beloved Brené Brown, I was expecting her kind of authentic story-like writing. Niequist’s book reads more like a compilation of disconnected blog posts. However, she writes good and decent blog posts. I just wanted more connecting one chapter to the other.

I will not lie. I ended up skimming most of the book. I did stop to read upon finding a good quote, such as this:

“But you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you’re not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it. In my rampant yes-yes-yes-ing, I said no, without intending to, to rest, to peace, to groundedness, to listening, to deep and slow connection, built over years instead of moments.”

– Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living

Recommendation: It’s worth picking up from the library and skimming a chapter or two at will. Not something I’m going to buy, but it was a pleasant, quick read.

Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis—and the People Who Pay the Price by Jonathan Cohn

Cohn – a journalist specializing in health care and health care policy – explores the hidden health care crisis in the United States. He relays stories of various Americans struggling in one way or another and then relates their problems to overarching problems within the health care system. He concludes with a well-researched chapter on how Washington ought to change.

Sick was written in 2008. Much has changed since that time (Thank God!). The historical overviews of health care law reminded me of my graduate class and went into more detail for some, such as the establishment of health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Which, makes sense. The next book people bought who bought this one was Jonas and Kovner’s Health Care Delivery in the United States, Tenth Edition, aka an old edition of my required texts from my class last semester. Pretty sure the friend who gave me this book was required to buy it for a graduate class too.

Overall, it was well-researched, well-cited, and well-written book. It read like a story instead of a textbook, so that’s always a good thing. I ended up skimming some parts. This is not because the book was dull. Rather ,I had already learned the information and Cohn was not adding anything new.

Overall, the book confirmed for me that despite all of its flaws and frustrations, I am very happy Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came into existence. I’m not happy paying more, but a healthy nation requires all of us to pitch in. Plus, we’re all a diagnosis away from needing assistance from others. Health care has a long way to go, no doubt. But Sick reminded me why insurance companies cannot denying people for pre-existing conditions, HMOs denying covered services, and maximum amounts for services can be catastrophic and why the ACA was so needed. Also fascinating and in need of reform is how health organizations charge patients. A 2015 revealed it’s not as smooth as we may think it is (and can be found here)

However, it does help to take the case studies with a grain of salt. They are case studies after all. Case studies can be a wonderful example of an ongoing issue but not necessarily a good representation of an entire issue. I thought Cohn did well in finding good cases studies exemplifying his points, as Atul Gawande does in his article examining if health care is a right or a privilege. However, not everyone is doing as poorly as you think, given Cohn’s examples.

Too, I fundamentally disagree with Cohn’s assessment that France the best model that America can use to create a health care system. Having written an extensive paper on the health care system of the Netherlands, I think that their system which is ranked highly internationally and is a multi-payer system with public and private funds is a better fit. Too, it has scored much better than France, at least in the most recent studies. Overall, France ranked just above the United States who ranked last among developed countries. The Netherlands was just behind with the United Kingdom (whose system definitely has its flaws, according to Marsh as he wrote about quite bluntly in Admissions) and Australia.

(I’ll stop nerding out about health care policy now. I am in a health care policy class this semester, so it’s sure to come up again. Be warned!)

Recommendation: Worth a read, especially if you want to better health care issues in America. Learning about health care policy and re-affirming it with Cohn’s work led me to a greater understanding of why Trump’s proposed repeal of Obamacare would be a calamity. The BBC breaks down the difference in the two bills well here.

Happy reading! 😀

Have anything you’ve particularly liked recently? Let me know in the comments!

1 thought on “A Breakdown of the Books I’ve Read Over Break”

  1. I literally can’t believe you read all of these books in such a short amount of time! amazing. Also, I’ve hear of Death Comes To Pemberley so I’m glad to know you liked it! If I see it at Goodwill I’ll snag my own copy! And I read Present Over Perfect last year and didn’t care much for it, so I was curious to see what you had to say! Gave me some different insights into it, which I’m grateful for!

    P.S. love that you wrote this….just for me 😉


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