Review: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Few of us have truly confronted our mortality. For my friends and I that are reaching middle age the stretch of days, months, and years we expect to have in our future seems almost limitless. I'll be turning 40 this year, and that probably isn't even the midway point of my life if I happen to be blessed with the same longevity of much of my family. Those days are finite, however, and we all need to regularly review what measures we would take to extend our life and what we would consider a life worth living. What's more, many in my shoes will be taking care of their own parents, if not now then soon. We need to be able to discuss what makes for a meaningful life and our wishes. This book provides an excellent window into how modern medicine often substitutes quantity of life for quality of life, and how to approach the hard decisions we must face as we approach our end.

If you read nothing else, stop in a library or bookstore and browse the epilogue. There you will find the condensed version of the book. Doctors want to fix, heal, and provide hope. We all die, however, and there is no beating death. Given that, at what point should extreme measures be taken that provide little hope of improvement. In many cases a patient will choose to undergo painful, debilitating chemotherapy in the hope of one day fully springing back to their youthful selves. The reality is that the procedure will most likely not work, and even if it does, will leave the patient at a plateau within their disease.

In addition to the discussion of medical choices, there are also fantastic chapters on attitudes towards the elderly. As we grow old, we lose our independence. That can be frustrating and frightening. Hospitals and traditional nursing homes further remove that independence by demanding that patients live on the schedule most effective for the staff, not what is most comfortable for the patient. Patients begin to feel that they are simply being stored off until death takes them rather than continuing to live fruitful and worthwhile lives. Contrast this to the independent and assisted living centers which allow such simple but meaningful forms of autonomy as choosing the thermostat settings for your room, choosing when to eat, and when to bathe. What seem like trivial freedoms are huge for those who have already suffered diminished autonomy.

Being Mortal is an important book, and an important subject for everyone to confront and have frank conversations about. This book is a great way to start that process.

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Review: The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Chrysalids drew me in the more I read. It's set in a time many centuries after nuclear war has reshaped humanity. There are pockets of civilization, small towns and not much more, that vigorously keep to the 'true image' of all things. They strictly judge not just their livestock and crops, but their offspring as well and cast out anything that is deviant. Beyond these pockets lie fringes areas where the genetically inferior are left to live among mutinous flora and fauna. Beyond that are the bad lands, where only mutations grow, and worse beyond, where anything that touches the land dies.

David is a young many growing to adulthood in these circumstances. His father is one of the community's most strict adherents to the rule of the true image. It is a difficult childhood for him.

There are a lot of themes that can be taken from this story. It would make for an excellent book club reading or classroom discussion. I can heartily recommend it to almost any reader.

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Review: The Water Knife

The Water Knife The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bacigalupi writes modern dystopias. By that I mean, he writes of potential dystopias based on modern issues. Twenty years ago and further back our dystopias were all based on the premise of some all out war between superpowers. Whether it was nukes or an EMP, it was definitely a war that brought about our end. Bacigalupi writes how our greed will be our end. The blind eye we turn to our environment so that we can make that sweet, sweet short term dollar. The Water Knife is the story of greed for water. Californians are already feeling the pinch of too little water. The end of days scenario Bacigalupi presents doesn't seem that far off.

More than a story of death by our hands, this is also a story of the lies we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves it is going to get better. We tell ourselves this little lie, when we know it won't. That lie prevents us from making the changes that would actually impact our lives in positive ways. Lucy, Angel, Toomie....they all believe the lie they tell themselves. Just get by today, and maybe tomorrow it will get better. Maria sees the lie for what it is, and is the rare creature who ignores the lie.

It's a fascinating, gripping, and depressing story of what our future could be like.

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Review: Annihilation

Annihilation Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very good emulation of H.P. Lovecraft, but without any sort of resolution. I never grew to like any of the characters. I never felt any real sort of fear. Worse, it quickly became clear we wouldn't learn anything meaningful about Area X, so I didn't even feel a sense of curiosity.

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Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd had plenty of warning in advance that this book represents a low point in the series. Now that I'm finished, I can agree that it doesn't live up to the rest, but I still enjoyed visiting the world of the expanse. As other reviewers have said at length, this episode does very little to build on the previous books. It also lacks a lot of what made the first books so good: political intrigue, interesting side characters, and gripping action. I thought we might be in for some interesting debate about who has rights to undiscovered country, how true new frontiers are explored, examined, and colonized. Perhaps we might learn something substantial about the protomolecule, or at the very least get some interesting speculative science regarding this foreign world. Instead, we get a lot of empty posturing and an 'everything and the kitchen sync' apocalypse that conveniently dissipates as our heroes save the day. I'll keep reading the series, but I get the sense that this book could be skipped without missing anything of consequence.

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Review: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thank you, Mary Roach, for giving me so much interesting material to relay to my unfortunate family and friends! I'm a big fan of Roach's other works, so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for here. Mary is inquisitive, funny, ornery, and seeks out areas of study that most folks find taboo, or at the very least unmentionable in polite company. Gulp is an exploration of how we ingest, digest, and excrete. I think this provides for one of her most relatable books as these are all acts that we are intimately familiar with on a daily basis. If you haven't read any of Mary's books before, this is definitely where to start.

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Review: Avogadro Corp

Avogadro Corp Avogadro Corp by William Hertling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Avogadro Corp is a cautionary tale of sorts. The corp, which is a not even thinly veiled pseudonym for Google, is the world's chief search engine and email provider. A group within the company has developed an add-on for gmail that can optimize the content for greatest success. When an engineer modifies the code to allow it to fully generate messages and gives it the goal of promoting the add-on's survival, it becomes incredibly successful to everyone's horror and fascination.

This story is on a seesaw between potential plausibility and utter ridiculousness. On the one hand, I can totally foresee a time when language analysis and processing leads to an engine that can analyze our messages and both effectively emulate our voice as well as assess the recipient and give guidance for best message reception. On the other hand, expecting any business arrangement, let alone government contacts, to be signed and completed in a week's time is completely unbelievable. Further, I can suspend belief that a language analysis engine might learn general topics that either improve or degrade the content of a message to a given recipient, but can't accept that the next logical step is that it would lead to that same engine understanding how to direct engineers to create an API to bridge security gaps and then utilize that bridge. I found the technical discussions of the concept for ELOPe to be mildly interesting, but much of the rest left me wanting.

The characters are bare sketches badly in need of color and texture. I'm not sure if this was the author's intent, but I get the sense that the central figures lacked a real sense of urgency when confronted with the rogue AI and it's actions. For instance, we find the team at a coffee house, espousing the quality of the bean just as they have gotten together to discuss how ELOPe has directed for it's own improvement. Perhaps this was intended to reinforce Mike's quirk of being a coffee fanatic, but it feels out of place. Gene is a Luddite in the most literal sense, and it grated on me that his interactions with others always used terms like 'boy' or 'kid' to help emphasize how out of touch and old he was. Worse was that in response he would get 'dude' from the coders, which was out of character from their other conversations.

In short, there's an interesting core to the story, but it is veiled in weak storytelling.

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Jade Mason