One-Minute Book Reviews

June 8, 2009

Daniel McGinn’s ‘House Lust’ – Why Americans Crave Remote-Controlled Toilets, Supersized Homes and Gossip About How Much Stars Paid for Their Digs

A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.

Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.

But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves).  Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:

“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”

An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”

Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”

Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.

Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good,  so they’re self-defeating.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: January 2008

About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 17, 2009

Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias’ — Are Adults-Only Communities the Equivalent of Geriatric Club Meds?

A report from the land of souped-up golf carts

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. By Andrew D. Blechman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A church at a Florida retirement community is thinking about allowing only people over 55 to become members — an age limit that would exclude Jesus. Andrew Blechman zeros in on absurdities like these in Leisureville, a well-researched but derisive account of his visits to some of America’s largest housing developments for older people, including The Villages in Florida and Sun City in Arizona.

Blechman argues fairly enough that autocratic real-estate barons have carved out vast subdivisions that amount to monocultures, or the social equivalent of a single crop such as rice or bananas, that can cause the entire local economy to crash if the demand drops. He also accuses the developers a host of lesser sins, including requiring residents to sign restrictive covenants that deprive them of many of the usual rights of home owners.

But the tone of Leisureville turns smug when Blechman suggests that some aspects of retirement communities are “a tragic parody” of the better life he and his family have in their diverse Massachusetts town. His targets include what he seems to regard as bad the taste of residents who drive souped-up golf carts around villages that resemble geriatric Club Meds. This overreaching makes Leisureville read at times like an extended Woody Allen joke: Not only are retirement communities morally, socially, and economically indefensible, but their residents hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls. Alas, if the problems with retirement communities are anywhere near as serious as he suggests, adding a few tasteful Mark Rothko reproductions won’t make a difference.

Best line: No. 1: “Boomers typically list 85 as the age when they will finally consider themselves ‘old.’ Not surprisingly, that’s two years longer than actuaries predict many of them will live.” No. 2: “Some deed restrictions [in retirement communities] — and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners’ associations — can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community’s 30-pound weight limit for dogs.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.” The early feminists who planned to burn their bras at a Miss America pageant never did so, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit. The women threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s comment were accurate — which, repeat, it is not — bra-burning is a bedraggled cliché. Nos. 2 and 3: At The Villages, a married couple displayed on their living-room wall “a print by Thomas Kinkade, an evangelical oil painter with an unusually devoted following, whose trademark is Painter of Light.” And a female tour guide is quoted as saying that the same community is “so beautiful – it’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.” So was the guide supposed to say, that “it’s like living in that brothel in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”?

Sample chapter titles: “Free Golf!” “Where’s Beaver?” “The Golden Years”

Published: May 2008. Paperback due out in July 2009 with the new subtitle Adventures in a World Without Children.

About the author: Blechman also wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.

Furthermore: A more entertaining account of young author’s stay in a retirement community appears in Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a book that treats the elderly more sympathetically. But you don’t know how much, if any, of that book is fictionalized. Leisureville is more informative, though skewed by its polemical tone and Blechman’s view of age-restricted communities as “age-segregated.”

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.  To read about the purple thong Jan caught at a Mardi Gras parade, see yesterday’s post or follow her Twitter feed www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 16, 2008

Is Frank Bidart the Susan Lucci of Poetry? He Keeps Losing the Big Ones, But ‘Watching the Spring Festival’ Could Change His Luck

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One of the country’s most respected poets is always a bridesmaid for the top prizes. At least the National Book Awards people don’t make you wear bad dresses to the ceremony.

Watching the Spring Festival: Poems. By Frank Bidart. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 58 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Frank Bidart is turning into poetry’s Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. He has spent decades in the trenches and is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won one of the Big Three honors in the field: a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each book for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the 2008 National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He still has a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 when the NBCC and Pulitzer prizes are awarded in 2009.

What explains his perennial bridesmaid’s status? Bad luck — always a possibility in the iffy realm of book awards — may play a role, given that Bidart has won many other honors.

But I suspect that more than chance explains some of his rejections. Bidart often focuses on unpleasant or even grisly subjects. The first of his seven collections had a poem written in the voice a psychopathic child-murderer and necrophiliac.

Bidart has also written many poems that, with up to 30 pages, are unfashionably long by today’s standards. And he plays with typography for reasons that at times seem opaque. The first line of “Under Julian, c362 A.D.” in Watching the Spring Festival is: “[ ] or full feeling return to my legs.”*

Even as an editor with an intimate knowledge of the uses of square brackets, I wonder how to read that line. How would you read the brackets aloud? Doesn’t it matter if you can’t?

Watching the Spring Festival is Bidart’s first book of short poems or lyrics and, on that level, might represent his swing for the fences. All 26 of its poems deal, paradoxically, with death or physical decay, as though there were an inverse relation between the length of a life and that of the poems it inspired. In the sestina “If See No End In Is,” a speaker who is nearing death wonders why life is a double-bind: “… why what we love is / precluded always by something else we love, as if /each no we speak is yes, each yes no.

Those lines express a theme of this book: the constant tension between what is and what ought to be in affairs of state as in those of the heart. In “To the Republic,” the Union and Confederate dead rise up at Gettysburg and “roll in outrage across America”: “You betray us is blazoned across each chest. / To each eye as they pass: You betray us.”

In the poem the ghosts of the dead soldiers meet with indifference: “Assaulted by the impotent dead, I say it’s / their misfortune and none of my own.”

First published in The New Yorker, these are chilling lines. But they read like a speech to an American Legion convention. How has the nation betrayed the Gettysburg dead? What freedoms has it stifled? Is the speaker describing a general or specific warp in the national unity? The poem doesn’t say and instead has a whiff of the harangue about it. The subtext seems to be: You know you’re guilty, and I don’t need to tell you why.

“To the Republic” may evoke strong emotions, but it doesn’t fully earn them. So it’s hard to say whether this and other poems in Watching the Spring Festival will help to change Bidart’s luck with the big literary prizes. If it doesn’t, a few lines from his “Little O” may offer comfort: “The French thought Shakespeare // a barbarian, because in their eyes he wrote as if / ignorant of decorum, remaking art to cut through.”

* Please note that this template can’t reproduce correctly the number of spaces between Bidart’s square brackets. There should be approximately seven spaces.

Best line: The sestina “If See No End In Is” departs from the standard form in interesting ways. Bidart omits the three-line envoi at the end. And instead of repeating the end word “no” in the prescribed numerical order in each stanza, he sometimes substitutes the homonym “know” or “know-“ (the first syllable of “knowledge”). Read the full sestina at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=180058.

Worst line: The first line of the poem “Under Julian, c362 A.D.,” quoted above.

Published: April 2008

About the author: Bidart www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/162 teaches at Wellesley College. His won Yale University’s 2007 Bollingen Prize for American poetry. The National Book Foundation site has more on Watching the Spring Festival www.nationalbook.org/nba2008_p_bidart.html. Bidart also wrote Desire, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry when I was a judge. That year, he lost to Charles Wright.

Furthermore: Bidart co-edited Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems and may have intended “To the Republic” as a dialogue with Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which the critic William Logan has called “perhaps the most significant political poem of the last half-century.” If you’ve read both poems, I’d welcome comments on how if at all they converse.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 20, 2008

Martín Espada Wears His Causes on His Sleeve in ‘The Republic of Poetry’

A visit to Chile helped to inspire a collection that includes anti-war poems

The Republic of Poetry: Poems. By Martín Espada. Norton, 63 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Martín Espada wears his causes on his sleeve, and it’s a heavy sleeve. Many of his poems read like editorials in verse, but without the surprise endorsements that most newspapers serve up occasionally. His politics are as predictable as an incumbent’s stump speech. He opposes torture, apartheid, dictatorship, police brutality and, apparently, war in general and the war in Iraq in particular. (Two of the poems in this book appeared on the site Poets Against War www.poetsagainstwar.net.) He supports poets and poetry.

Espada visited Chile in 2004 for the centenary of the birth of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and his trip inspired a dozen poems that form the core of The Republic of Poetry. In “City of Glass” he writes of the ransacking of Neruda’s home by soldiers loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the elected Salvador Allende. The opening lines set the tone for a poem that turns the fragility of glass into a graceful metaphor for the fragility of democracy in Chile:

The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles …

Elsewhere Espada reaches frequently for images that are banal or strained. On a visit to his childhood home in Brooklyn, he recalls a youthful injury with the mawkish line: “Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me.” In a bar he has a vision of a wooden figure he saw in Neruda’s home: “He likes for me to be still, / she grinned …” That “she grinned” isn’t bad poetry so much as hack writing in general; it would be as bad in your local newspaper as in a book. Espada can do better – and sometimes he does – but he clearly has the spirit of Chilean poets who once protested their oppression by bombing the national palace with bookmarks imprinted with poetry. In his way, he’s bombing you, too.

Best line: All of “City of Glass,” one of two poems in the book first published in The New Yorker.

Worst line: In “Black Islands” Espada writes of a meeting the Chilean father of a five-year-old: “ Son, the father said, this is a poet, / like Pablo Neruda.” That “like Pablo Neruda” could mean two things: “a poet, as was Pablo Neruda” or “a poet similar to Pablo Neruda.” Either way, this is unappetizing self-congratulation. You wonder what Neruda would have thought of that self-congratulatory “like Pablo Neruda” in “Black Islands.”

Published: October 2006. Paperback due out from Norton in April 2008.

Furthermore: Espada www.martinespada.net was born in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He has written seven other poetry collections, including Imagine the Angels of Bread, which won American Book Award.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 28, 2007

Take One Misdiagnosis and Call Me in the Morning – Jerome Groopman’s ‘How Doctors Think’

A Harvard Medical School professor says that physicians’ faulty logic can kill

How Doctors Think. By Jerome Groopman, M.D. Houghton Mifflin, 291 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

It’s flu season, and that’s bad news for you if you have an obscure disease with flu-like symptoms. Your doctors’ diagnoses might reflect a confirmation bias (a tendency to find what they expect to find), an availability error (a decision based on how easily examples come to mind) or other cognitive flaws that Jerome Groopman describes in this engaging bestseller.

Groopman’s thesis is that a doctor’s state of mind strongly affects clinical decision-making. And many of his examples are eye-opening if paradoxically commonsensical. Do doctors’ friends get better care? Not necessarily, Groopman says. A doctor might hesitate to prescribe a necessary but painful test for a friend. Do doctors favor the sickest patients, who may need their care the most? Actually, they prefer healthy ones. One social psychologist found that “the sickest patients are the least liked by doctors, and that very sick people sense this disaffection,” Groopman writes. Apparently many doctors feel they have worked in vain when a disease resists treatment and stop trying to help. How Doctors Think

Much of this is so interesting that you wish this book didn’t reflect biases of its own. One is that it slights mistakes that result from factors other than cognitive flaws, such as fatigue, poor training and inadequate supervision.  “Experts studying misguided care have recently concluded that the majority of errors are due to flaws in physician thinking, not technical mistakes,” writes Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for The New Yorker.

But when you go to the end notes of his book to look for the source of that hard-to-believe “majority,” you read: “Although the frequency of misdiagnosis has been studied, few researchers have focused on its relationship to physician cognition.” So who are those “experts” who found that most errors result from doctors’ thinking?  The notes name only one expert who found such a “majority,” a researcher who had studied “serious errors that led to malpractice claims.” But Groopman says that the majority of all errors result from physicians’ thinking, not the majority of errors that lead to malpractice suits. Either his end notes are incomplete or he misrepresents in the book some of the material he cites in the notes.

At the very least How Doctors Think leaves a different impression of the causes of mistakes than the chapters on medical errors and problem doctors in Atul Gawande’s Complications, a more cogently argued book by another physician who writes for The New Yorker.  Gawande quotes from a landmark series of papers in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported that one percent of all hospital admissions involved negligence that prolonged the stay or led to death or disability of the patient. A smaller study of the treatment of cardiac arrests found that “27 of 30 clinicians made an error in using the defibrillator – charging it incorrectly or losing too much time figuring out how to work a particular model.”

Groopman is a bit like a coach who blames the problems in baseball on the character flaws of individual players instead of the culture that produced them. He says that doctors “desperately” need patients to “help them think.” If that’s true, it reflects badly on the entire American system of medical education, training and certification, not just on individual physicians. Clearly many doctors need more than “help” thinking logically – they need to learn how to work the defibrillator.

Best line: “When a patient tells me, ‘I still don’t feel good. I’m still having symptoms,’ I have learned to refrain from replying, ‘Nothing is wrong with you.’ The statement ‘Nothing is wrong with you’ is dangerous on two accounts. First, it denies the fallibility of all physicians. Second, it splits the mind from the body. Because sometimes what is wrong is psychological, not physical. This conclusion, of course, should be reached only after a serious and prolonged search for a physical cause of the patient’s complaint.”

Worst line: Groopman says his book is for people who aren’t physicians “because doctors desperately need patients and their families and friends to help them think.”  Isn’t it bad enough that we have all those TV commercials telling us to ask our doctors if we need a certain drug because, basically, they’re too dumb to figure it out on their own? Do we need this kind of smarm from doctors, too? Groopman doesn’t mention that there are 285 doctors for every 100,000 people in the U.S. and, if he’d written his book for doctors, he might make a lot less money.

 

Recommendatiom? A good but one-sided book. If you’re interested in medical errors, consider reading the chapters called “When Doctors Make Mistakes” and “When Good Doctors Go Bad” in Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Holt/Metropolitan, 2002) www.gawande.com instead of or in addition to How Doctors Think

Editor: Eamon Dolan

Published: March 2007  www.jeromegroopman.com  and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 19, 2007

Hell’s Bells! It’s Anne Easter Smith’s War of the Roses-Era Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

A tale of the dynastic marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to a ruthless Duke of Burgundy

Daughter of York. By Anne Easter Smith. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 592 pp., $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Here is a fact that may cheer you up if you’ve been plowing stony ground on an Internet dating site: At least your brother the king can’t marry you off to a thuggish Duke of Burgundy as part of a package deal that includes the lifting of a ban on Burgundian imports in England. This is more or less what happened to Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, who sent her off in 1468 to wed the expansionist Charles the Bold.

It was clearly the kind of marriage that a modern therapist would call “challenging,” at least on the evidence of the second historical romance from Anne Easter Smith. Margaret soon learns that her husband’s favorite activities include annexing large parts of the Habsburg Empire and hanging people from walnut trees. She is distressed to hear that after one conquest, he drowned all the people he hadn’t strung up: “What little respect she had for Charles was being eroded day by day.”

Amid all of this, Margaret is sustained – in a departure from history — by her love for a married courtier, Anthony Woodville. Anthony plays Lancelot to her Elaine, consoling her with, “I have wrestled with Satan over my desire for you, Marguerite. That day in your chamber, he almost won.” Even by the flexible standards of historical romances, this attraction isn’t fully plausible, given that Margaret was devout enough to have tried to reform permissive religious orders. Nor are anachronisms such as a reference to “adolescent insecurities” and a midwife who tells a woman in childbirth, “Now, one, two, three, push.”

But Daughter of York has more integrity and appeal than many books in its category, partly because Smith sticks closer to history without larding her story with undigestible chucks of research. The novel moves swiftly through signal events of the War of the Roses, has a dramatis personae that separates the real and invented Yorkists and Lancastrians, and generally shows how far such books have come from the days when people dismissed them all as “bodice-rippers.” There’s a bit of rough sex in this one, but just about the nastiest thing you’ll hear anyone say is, “Hell’s bells! or “You, you – bat-fowling, lily-livered skainsmate!”

Best line: A messenger’s report to Margaret’s mother on the Battle of Towton Field, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, where the Yorkists defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians on a snowy Palm Sunday. The courier says that Henry’s routed soldiers left pink snow in their wake: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.”

Worst line: Let’s just say that simultaneous orgasm seems to have been easier to achieve in the 1400s than in later centuries.

Recommendation? Genre fiction with meat on its bones. This could be a good choice for book groups that want to read a historical romance that isn’t cheesy.

Reading group guide: The back matter includes a reading group guide, an interview with the author and a four-page glossary of historical terms.

Published: To be published in February 2008 www.simonsays.com

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ (and that reference to “the Marriage at Canaan” may have been corrected).

Furthermore: A native of England, Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com wrote A Rose for the Crown. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find information on Margaret of York at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_York. Besides Edward, Margaret’s brothers included the future Richard III, who has a supporting role in this novel.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 18, 2007

Atul Gawande Tells What You Can REALLY Expect When You’re Expecting

A surgeon looks at the pros and cons of forceps, Cesarean sections, epidural anesthesia, fetal heart monitors and other fixtures of modern delivery rooms

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. By Atul Gawande. Holt/Metropolitan, 273 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Last year the New York Times published an article on a remarkable medical study that found that – contrary to a near-universal belief – pushing during labor helps neither the mother nor the baby. The study also found that women who were told to push may have more urinary problems after the delivery. One of the doctors who did the survey, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said that the research did not mean that women should never push. Instead, he said, they should do “what feels natural to do – and for some women that would be no pushing.”

I had two reactions to this news. First, if I were pregnant, I would ask my obstetrician if he or she planned to tell me to push and, if so, why, given there seems to be no benefit to doing this during every birth. Second, why didn’t we know this news sooner? Why have doctors for so long inflicted the needless agony of pushing on women? I had no idea what the answer to the second question might be until I came across a striking fact in the chapter on childbirth in Atul Gawande’s Better: Most doctors pay lip service to the idea that nothing should be used in medicine unless it has been properly tested and shown to be effective by a respected research center, preferably through a double-blind, randomized trial.

“But in a 1978 ranking of medical specialties according to their use of hard evidence from clinical trials, obstetrics came in last,” Gawande writes. “Obstetricians did few randomized trials, and when they did they largely ignored the results.”

That observation helps to explain why Gawande, a surgeon and writer for The New Yorker, may be our most important medical writer. Unlike many others working in the field, he doesn’t write mainly about the latest developments in medicine. He digs deeper, looking for the “why” behind the “what,” while taking on extraordinarily complex topics. But his writing is rarely harder to understand than in his lines about the 1978 survey of medical specialties. He seems to make a grail not just of accuracy but of clarity.

The chapter on childbirth in Better shows his work at its finest. It deals largely with why so many women have Cesarean deliveries, which account for about 30 percent of American births. Many people explain the statistic by saying that Cesareans are more convenient and lucrative for doctors than vaginal births. Gawande argues persuasively that there is a larger reason for the pattern. And part of it has to do with the virtual disappearance of forceps from delivery rooms.

In the 1960s fewer than 5 percent of deliveries were Cesareans and more than 40 percent involved forceps. And those numbers are related. Gawande makes a strong case that in the hands of experts, forceps are safe (according to some research, safer for mothers than Cesareans). But forceps are hard to learn to use properly – a process that can take two years. And if forceps are used by inexpert doctors, the results can be disastrous. Cesareans are easier to master. And this has led hospitals to phase out forceps and, in many cases, do C-sections instead. To discourage the inexpert from using forceps, Gawande says, “obstetrics had to discourage everyone from using them.” This change has come at a cost. Gawande notes that, as straightforward as Cesarean deliveries can be, they can go wrong. The baby can be lacerated. If the head doesn’t come free quickly, the child can asphyxiate. The mother also faces risks:

“As a surgeon, I have been called in to help repair bowel that was torn and wounds that split open. Bleeding can be severe. Wound infections are common. There are increased risks of blood clots and pneumonia. Even without any complication, the recovery is weeks longer and more painful than with vaginal delivery.”

With all of this, Gawande isn’t trying to frighten women away from having Cesareans or bring forceps back to every community hospital. He is instead trying to show the trade-offs that medicine involves. And this is only a small part of what he says in his chapter on childbirth, “The Score,” which also covers such delivery-room fixtures as fetal heart monitors, epidural anesthesia and the labor-inducing drug Pitocin. It is an even smaller part of what he has to say in the 11 chapters of Better that deal with subjects other than childbirth, including advances in military medicine and the need for doctors to wash their hands more often.

Women who are pregnant may reach for books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy. And patients who are facing surgery may turn to guides to their illnesses. But both groups could benefit from also reading this fine collection of essays. For some of them, Better may just be better.

Best line: Gawande writes about the Apgar score, which rates a newborn’s health: “In a sense, there is a tyranny to the score. While we rate the newborn child’s health, the mother’s pain and blood loss and length of recovery seem to count for little. We have no score for how the mother does, beyond asking whether she lived or not – no measure to prod us to improve results for her, too. Yet this imbalance, at least, can surely be righted. If the child’s well-being can be measured, why not the mother’s, too?”

Worst line: None.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: April 2007

Furthermore: The New York Times article on pushing during labor, “Rethinking the Big Push During Contractions, appeared on Jan. 3, 2006, page F8. I can’t link directly to it, but here’s a link to a similar reprint in its sister publication, The International Herald Tribune. When you click on the following link, you will reach a page that says “Multiple Choices” and see another link that looks just like it (below the phrase “Available Documents”). You have to click on that one, too, to read the story (which appears below an article on “lazy eye”): www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/04/healthscience/snvital/php/php.

Links: Gawande has posted many of his articles on medicine at www.gawande.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 30, 2007

Atul Gawande Takes the Pulse of the Medical Profession

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:18 pm
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True or false: More people go crazy when the moon is full.

If you said “true,” you probably haven’t read Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Picador, $14, paperback), a stylish collection of essays by a Boston surgeon and contributor to The New Yorker. Gawande reviewed more than a hundred studies of how lunar phases affect human behavior after his fellow doctors warned him to expect more hospital admissions when the moon was full. He found that researchers had pored over all kinds of evidence – police logs, homicide statistics, emergency room visits and consultations with psychiatrists. The result? There’s no relation at all between craziness and the full moon. Some studies have suggested the opposite – that full moon has a beneficial effect on human behavior.

This is the kind of fascinating material regularly dispensed by Gawande, who also wrote the new Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Metropolitan, $24). The essays in Complications deal with subjects from doctors’ mistakes to patients with terrifying diseases like necrotizing fasciitis (known, somewhat misleadingly, “flesh-eating bacteria”). Gawande often takes controversial positions. He challenges the idea – cherished by many doctors – that surgeons need “good hands,” saying the continual practice of surgery matters more. (Doesn’t the quality of the practice matter? What about education? Can practice make you a great surgeon if you went to a medical school or work at a hospital that’s a step away from losing its accreditation?) But part of the appeal of Complications is that Gawande www.gawande.com has the courage to risk saying things other doctors won’t and the rhetorical skill to give his views force. He never hides behind a cardboard shield of medical omniscience. And he deals with a wider and more offbeat range of medical topics than physician-authors like Oliver Sacks and Sherwin Nuland. So you may enjoy Complications even if you couldn’t get through The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or How We Die.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2007

Robert Cording’s Poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey’

Filed under: Poetry,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:34 pm
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A reminder for anyone observing Pentecost (Sunday, May 27) …

Robert Cording’s eloquent collection Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, $16, paperback) includes the poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.” A review of Common Life appeared on this site on April 5, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the April posts. You can find more information on Cording, a professor of English at Holy Cross, at www.cavankerrypress.org. Click on the “Reading Room” page on that site to read his poem, “A Prayer to Adam,” the first poem in Common Life.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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