August 25th, 2012


Books 56-60

56. Gods and Soldiers, by Rob Spillman. Came across this while getting ready to move. We get all sorts of books due to the nature of the job. Many are duds, but sometimes we get a gem. I'd put this in the latter category. This is an anthology of contemporary African writing, ranging from short stories and essays to snippets from longer works. Works include both fiction and nonfiction. The quality varies but for the most part I found it enjoyable. There was only one story I found irritating; the author had a severe case of "run-on sentenceitis." I kid you not- one sentence ran more than three pages. A pity because the story itself was somewhat interesting but it was hard to follow. The stories are organized by regions and cover writing from much of the African continent. I especially enjoyed the darkly funny "The Manhood Test" and "Voice of America," and the gripping, tragic "Half a Yellow Sun," a fictional account of the civil war in Nigeria.

57. The Healing of America, by T.R. Reid. This should be required reading for anyone interested in a serious, intelligent discussion on how to fix the health care mess in the United States. Reid, on a quest to investigate other health care systems - both for general knowledge and for feedback on the best treatment for his "bum shoulder" - traveled to several different countries to observe how health care was handled in other parts of the world. Reid combines a fun, lively writing style with a lot of facts, and those facts cast a harsh light on how screwed up our health care system (or non-system) really is. Two of the best features of this book are it not only dispels a LOT of the myths about health care in other countries, but points to various models - and solutions -that could work here (personally I liked the Bismark model, which is what France, Japan and Germany use in some form). The sobering truth: The United States spends more -- far more -- in health care, yet ranks poorly compared to other industrialized nations in terms of longevity, quality of life, fairness and infant mortality (the US was ranked 22 in that last category). A big reason, Reid writes, is the country's insistence on a private, for-profit model in its insurance companies. No other nation does this, he writes. In other countries, insurance companies are nonprofit entities. Another reason is the digitization of records. In France, which consistently ranks high in health care outcomes, health records are on a microchipped card issued to its residents. There's no office staff, no filing cabinets- because none are needed. Reid does point out the things that the US does well -its state-of-the-art facilities in its larger cities can provide treatments not offered anywhere else in the world. If someone has money, or a generous insurance plan, the most advanced medical services are available. The problem is with the significant part of the population that does NOT have money or insurance (or inadequate insurance). Those people are little better off than someone who becomes ill in a developing country- they get sick and stay sick, or they go bankrupt - a phenomenon unique to the United States, compared to other wealthy countries. Reid also points out the problems that other countries face with health care: low wages for doctors in France and Japan -- although the flip side is that their education is free or very low cost, and their malpractice insurance is miniscule compared to a doctor who practices in the U.S. One doctor- I think it was in Germany - said her malpractice insurance payments per year were about what U.S. doctors pay in a month, and she had never been sued in her 20+ years of practice. I do wonder if it means that doctors are really that competent, or if it's just impossible to win a case and most people don't bother to try. I get the impression that is what happens in Great Britain for example. So the question for me is - how are incompetent doctors exposed and weeded out? Then there's the waits - not exaggerated, for non-urgent cases - in Canada for more than basic care. Still, again- these countries get more bang for their buck when it comes to health care- less expense, better result (although costs are rising everywhere, Reid points out). And the spooky specter of "socialized medicine"? Mostly a myth. Indeed, two forms of U.S. medical care - Medicare and the medical care offered through Veterans Services - are more socialized than anything found overseas, Reid writes. The U.S. actually has smatterings of health care service, depending on the population: complete care for 65 and older, another system for veterans, a third system for Native Americans, another for renal care patients, yet another for those considered at or below the poverty line, one for those whose employers provide health care - and of course the out of pocket "solution" for those without insurance and who are veterans, seniors or Native Americans. I did find it interesting, too, how fast the U.S. doctor recommended a surgical solution (joint replacement) to Reid's shoulder, and how reticent doctors elsewhere were in recommending surgery. Reid said he found the best treatment wound up being a form of massage therapy in India, plus injections from Japan, which, while not a cure, eased the pain and increased his range of motion in his shoulder significantly. Hmmmm.

58. M is for Myanmar, by Elizabeth Rush, illustrations by Khin Maung Myint. Stumbled across this book while looking for something else. I know where I live has a high population of Myanmar refugees, so I decided to check out this book to see what I could learn. It's geared, I think, for older grade school (more on this later). This is an okay book. The positives: there's a lot of good information, and it is written in both English and Burmese. The story involves an older sister telling her younger sister about Myanmar, which they are visiting. This book would be good for students - both of Burmese descent, who might have moved when they were young to the United States and might not have memories of the country, or for non-Burmese students curious about the culture. It was neat seeing examples of Burmese writing, which is like no writing I've ever seen before. The illustrations are nice, very colorful, although they tend to be a bit small (I blame it on the book format). The big problem is with the text. One, it's rather small (to fit both the English and Burmese in). But two, some words are set off in a different font, and sometimes quotes are set off in speech balloons, with no rhyme or reason to either. I think whoever was putting this together was trying to be creative with the text, but the result was just confusing and annoying. This would be a good book for older grade school, or younger children with an adult to help with the advanced vocabulary. But this isn't a good book for a story hour- the illustrations and text are too small to make that practical.

59. Baltimore: The Plague Ships, by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck. Fans of dark comic series will love this one- vampires, fungus zombies and dark, tragic backgrounds galore. This is a good start to what looks to be a riviting, if bloody, series. The time is in an alternate universe, just after World War I. The war has ended because a plague of vampirism is devastating humanity. Lord Baltimore, a former soldier, has sent himself on a mission to hunt down and kill vampires, specifically the one who killed his family. The illustrations are well done; graphic, but not overly so (I've seen far worse). This would be good for teens and older.

60. Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol. I really liked this graphic novel, a good book for younger teens. Anya is a teen struggling with her self image, her Russian heritage and her first crush (the author herself was born in Moscow.) One day, while coming home from school she goes to a nearby park to blow off some steam, and falls into a deep hole. There, she meets up with a ghost, who tells her that she, too, had fallen in nearly a century ago. Anya escapes and the ghost is able to follow. At first, Anya's spirit friend seems to be a great boon to the shy, reclusive teen. But after discovering things aren't often what they seem, Anya begins to wonder if her ghostly friend is so benign. The illustrations are straightforward and clean, and done in black and white- a bit unusual. Anya is a flawed but likable heroine. She's not perfect - she smokes, cuts school, is a mediocre student who is not above cheating and thinks (at first) that the bullying and teasing of another student - Dima, a nerdy Russian teen- is justified because of his naivety (part of this could be because her mother is trying to make her be friends with Dima because of their shared heritage). Through the book, Anya begins to change her beliefs and her attitude.

Currently reading: A is for Alibi, by Susan Grafton.