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Help!

Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. (W. W. Norton; $24.95; 302 pages)

Medical Journalist Randi Hutter Epstein presents an easy-to-understand, yet not patronizing, overview of childbirth across time.   Each of the book’s five parts features some aspect of the cold, unvarnished reality faced by pregnant women and the subsequent delivery of their babies.   The time frame discussed in the book spans the ages; however, the 19th and 20th centuries are Epstein’s primary focus.   Clearly, fads and political movements in these two centuries have had a heavy influence on how childbirth has been addressed.   The ongoing struggle between physicians and midwives for clientele became an ugly smear campaign, never mind that nearly all doctors were male and that they perpetuated ludicrous theories for hundreds of years causing massive harm to their patients.

“In the meantime, doctors were doing what they considered the best medicine.   They believed they were saving lives by luring women away from midwives and into the hospital, where doctors could control the business of babies.   Ironically, what they thought was (the) best medical care was sometimes the deadliest.”

Dr. Epstein conveys her views in a most engaging manner.   She has a very strong sense of irony and makes good use of it.   This reviewer was unaware of the sometimes-bizarre methods employed in the past during delivery, including twilight sleep that wiped out all memory of the childbirth experience.   Never mind that during labor a woman using twilight sleep had to be lashed to the delivery table in order to keep her from falling off while writhing in pain.

There is some overlap among chapters with regard to the material covered.   A reader interested in a particular section of the book will find a comprehensive write-up much like a stand-alone article.   This makes perfect sense because the author is a widely published medical journalist.

There does not seem to be an intended audience for Get Me Out.   Rather, most anyone can benefit from the book, as was the case for this reviewer whose granddaughter was born right after I finished reading it.   By the way, Dr. Epstein has four children of her own which qualifies her on yet another level.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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It’s Coming Up

Coming up next, a review of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.

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A Hazy Shade of Winter

So Much for That: A Novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper; $25.99; 433 pages)

“…the biggest tipoff that she was not in as much denial as she feigned was that Glynis had no interest in the future.   That left everyone pretty much stumped.   When you weren’t interested in the future you weren’t interested in the present either.   Which left the past, and she really wasn’t interested in that.”

This is a fictional tale of two American families in 2005.   They are typical, yet atypical in that they are both being worn and ground down by the twin pressures of a fiscal recession and deadly diseases.   The primary family, the Knackers, is composed of Glynis, sculptress, wife and mother and mesothelioma victim (a form of cancer that is killing her quickly); Shep, the ever dutiful husband who is a millionaire on paper; their absent college age daughter Amelia; and their clueless teenage son Zach.   Their friends, presumably Jewish, are Jackson and Carol Burdina.   Jackson is an angry co-worker of Shep’s who is insecure about being married to the ever-beautiful Carol.   They have two daughters, Flicka, who was born with Familial Dysautonomia (FD) – which will likely kill her by the time she is 30 – and Heather, their healthy overeating daughter who is growing larger by the hour.

Shep Knacker’s longtime dream is to cash in on his home improvement business in order to live what he calls The Afterlife on an island.   However, just as he sells his business for a cool $1 million, Glynis is diagnosed with the cancer that gives her a little over a year to live.   The longer Glynis lives, the more Shep’s Merrill Lynch account will be drawn down.   Shep quickly learns that a million dollars does not last long in a world where an aspirin costs $300 and a regimen of chemotherapy goes for $30,000.

“That had been one revelation, insofar as there was any: everything was equal.   There were no big things and little things anymore.   Aside from pain, which had assumed an elevated position… all matters were of the same importance.   So there was no longer any such thing as importance.”

One of the ironies of this tale is that while 51-year-old Glynis fights to hang on to life to the point where she becomes a near madwoman, young Flicka looks forward to the day – at 18 – when she can end her own.   And while they trouble themselves with such basic issues, Jackson becomes obsessed with penis enlargement surgery – something he presumes will please his attractive spouse.

“(It was) a world where oblivion was nirvana, where one was never allowed the hope of no pain but only of less.”

Glynis eventually becomes angry as her supposed friends either treat her like a woman already dead, or fail to follow through on their original promises to be there for her when the going gets rough.   Yet, she stubbornly refuses to ever accept a fatal diagnosis, even while undergoing a year-long regimen of toxic chemo.   She begins to view herself as a marathon runner who never seems to be able to complete the 26th and final mile.

Shep is a man who has prided himself on being responsible his entire life.   He’s the man who has always paid his own way and played by the rules.   But others tell him that he’s a responsible taxpaying sucker especially when Medicaid won’t buy Glynis even a single aspirin for her pain.   He’s not sure what to do until, surprisingly, his ever raging and thought-to-be-dense friend Jackson sends him a message.

This is a work about human values and morals in the face of impending financial ruin and death.   What would we do – any of us – in order to keep our health and our homes for an extra day, week, month or year?   In this weighty and timely fictional tale you will find an answer.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   So Much for That is also available as an unabridged audio book and as a Kindle Edition download.

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Between Me and the River

Between Me and the River: Living Beyond Cancer by Carrie Host (Harlequin; $22.95; 304 pages)

Carrie Host’s book Between Me and the River is a moving memoir that chronicles her journey and struggles to survive an incurable form of cancer.   In the book, Carries shares all the pain, physical and emotional, she went through after her diagnosis.   She also relates the guilt she felt and anger at her new life.   But more than that, she provides a story of hope, love and self-awareness that many of us have never felt in our lives.

Host compares her trial in dealing with cancer to falling in a river.   Whether sinking into the deep water, rushing toward a waterfall, or resting in an eddy, it’s easy to identify with her as she explains where in the river she feels on any particular day.   It is heart wrenching to read of her account (being a mother of five) of how she delivered the news of her fate to her children, to follow along as she struggles to do the simplest tasks a mother must do, and to see her relationship with her husband flourish under the strain of what they have to deal with.

I applaud Carrie for having the courage to write so openly and honestly about her disease.   Reading this book has changed my life in a profound way.   It has made me more patient and loving with my children and more thankful of my husband.   While Host’s book at first is a heavy read, as you turn more pages you start to see the positive impact this devastation has on her family, her friends and her own consciousness.   Overall I found this book very easy to read, though I had to put it down at times to wipe the tears away.   I would definitely keep a tissue handy.

This review was written by Denna Gibbons and is used with her permission.   You can see more of her reviews at http://www.thebookwormblog.com/ .   Between Me and the River is also available in a low-cost Kindle Edition version and as an Unabridged Audio Edition.

 

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The Unnamed

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: A Novel (Back Bay Books, $15.00, 320 pages)

ferris unnamed amazon

The heart asks pleasure first, and then excuse from pain.   Emily Dickinson

God, if He was anything, was the answer to the mystery of why you got sick…   Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) has written a second novel.  The Unnamed, is a dark and mystical tale that brings the pain before it delivers the pleasure.   This is about Tim Farnsworth who is blessed with status and a fine career.   Good luck and good fate lead him to take two things for granted: his health and his family.

Tim’s a successful lawyer in a private New York City firm until he’s hit with a mysterious condition that causes him to walk.   When the condition strikes, he’s forced to abandon whatever he’s doing and walk for miles and hours until he drops and falls asleep from exhaustion.   The condition – which the medical establishment does not want to label a disease (Tim being the only person on record affected by it) – goes into remission twice enabling Tim to resume his work.   But Tim’s already lost 17 months to this condition when, as the story opens, “it’s back.”

Initially, Tim places his faith in medicine, doctors and mental health practitioners until he comes to see that “there was never anything anyone could do” for him.   He’s first affected physically, then mentally and becomes “removed from the person who knew how to form ideas.”   He becomes a man without hope, which to him seems worse than death.   Tim comes to envy cancer patients who have the “power of a familiar and fatal disease.”

It’s not difficult to see that this is pretty dark and dangerous territory for a novel but Ferris is skilled enough to turn the ship around.   A tale of illness and disease is transformed into one about marriage and family and the strength – physical and emotional – that these can provide.   Tim loses everything – career, family, wife, daughter – before he becomes stronger (in a strange sense) than the world around him.   His suffering has a pay-off and he sees and experiences hope before the end of his days.

This is a story about redemption.   Tim literally walks away from everything, including spouse Jane, until he has to decide whether to return to her – no matter what the cost.   Eventually, Jane and others come to be amazed that he “could suffer like that.”   In the end Tim, like every one of us, comes to experience joy in life’s small things: seeing children play, observing birds, having a couple of beers with an old friend, feeling the love of a daughter.

Ferris’ work is close to breathtaking here, although the second half of the work feels much longer than the first half.   Maybe that’s because the reader is meant to experience Tim’s disease states – pain, fever, disorientation, hallucinations – before he returns to normalcy.   We wonder if he’s gone insane in his battle with “The Other” – a condition, a disease, a devil, a fear, his mortality – until he accepts that it’s his inalienable right to have a life, a normal life.

She didn’t need a prescription, she needed a life.

ferris unnamed back

Taut, engaging, emotional…   Tinged in genius and yet troubling.   The Unnamed is a stunner and one of the few novels most readers will come across in which each and every chapter closes brilliantly.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Reagan Arthur Books (Hachette Book Group, U.S.A.).  

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A Painful Read

“Though it makes no sense, I’d like to get on the court again.   I want the pain that only tennis can provide.”   – Andre Agassi

Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.   – C. S. Lewis

“(Brooke’s) concerned.   She hates I was so upset…   that I’m in pain.”   – Andre Agassi

“This is why we’re here.   To fight through the pain…”   – Andre Agassi

“…seek the pain, woo the pain, recognize that pain is life.”   – Gil Reyes

‘Cause feeling pain’s a hard way/To know you’re still alive   – Barry Manilow

“…let’s go put some pain on your opponents.”   – Brad Gilbert

This one is about pain, as reflected in the selected quotes – all taken from Open: An Autobiography – listed above.   One would think that the autobiography of a glamorous tennis star, one who ranked at the top of his profession, who owned his own jet, and dated and married famous actresses and tennis stars, would be a fun read.   Open is anything but, it’s a morose slog though a life of torture and misery.   It seems like Agassi tells us a million times in the book that he hates tennis:   “I hate tennis more than ever – but I hate myself more.”   And the point of this is?

Of course, this book was not actually written by Mr. Agassi.   It was dictated to a ghostwriter whose name won’t be used here to protect his ghostly status.   This is an “as told to…” tale in which the Agassi-ghost pair appear to emphasize every painful moment in their character’s life, while minimizing the positive.   But then Agassi, clearly, loves his stays in the state of misery:   “Rock bottom can be very cozy, because at least you’re at rest.   You know you’re not going anywhere for a while.”

It’s not as if Agassi is unaware that he’s a lucky man, “I tell myself you can’t be unhappy when you have money in the bank and own your own plane.   But…   I feel listless, hopeless, trapped in a life I didn’t choose…”   Yes, all of this misery comes from playing a sport of the leisured class.   “I’ve played this game for a lot of reasons…   and it seems like none of them has ever been my own.”   Perhaps he thinks that we’ve all been in complete control of our lives from the moment of birth on, ignoring the comment of John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

Lennon also wrote about pain:   “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”   But it never seemed like his music was overtaken by the need to paint his life as a prison of pain.   Agassi’s book does so, over and over again.   Because Agassi does not like himself much, he can hardly be expected to have nice things to say about his former competitors in the sport.   After he said some not-so-nice things about Wimbledon champion Jim Courier, Courier responded, “I’m insecure?”   Indeed.

Of course, by the time the reader finally reaches page 384 there’s the to-be-expected happy ending, with marriage and beautiful children and the founding of the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy charter school.   But what an exhausting march to get there…   filled with too much pain and too little hope.   Tiring.

This work is the opposite of a life affirming one.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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These Books Can Help with RSI…

Two Books to Buy If You Suffer From RSI

If you’re like me, you type on your computer at work most of the day, then use your PC at home to cruise the internet and/or blog in your free time; you’re also surfing the internet and blogging using a wireless machine either at the local coffee shop or in the lobby of a business hotel.   Eventually, you may wind up with forearm, wrist, hand, shoulder, or back pains from using your hands and arms in an unnatural state for so long.   You may also suffer neck or jaw pain.  These days, this is almost normal but you still should seek to avoid the type of long-term damage that comes with Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

RSI has been called the “epidemic that began in the ’90s,” and it can damage the muscles, nerves and tendons of the hands, wrists and arms.   Fortunately, there’s both free and low-cost advice available to avoid becoming a diagnosed RSI sufferer.

Three websites offer specific information and helpful recommendations on this condition: healthy computing, RSI-Relief, and rsi help.   RSI help is the website of Deborah Quilter who literally “wrote the book” on the subject, Repetitive Strain Injury:  A Computer User’s Guide, with Dr. Emil Pascarelli.   This is an excellent book that can help you determine whether you are at risk for RSI – and most of us in today’s workplace are at risk – and give you the steps and tips you need to avoid permanent injury.

Once you’ve fully learned and incorporated the lessons of Quilter’s first book, you might want to purchase her second book (pictured), The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book, which provides a type of check-list approach to remind you to continue to use the positive techniques you learned earlier.

A final point on RSI…   Everyone is different and Quilter points out that what works for one person may not work for another.   Experimenting is key.   This is quite true…   A few years back I was suffering an initial bout of RSI-type symptoms and the I.T. guy in the office gave me a roller-ball mouse.   Like Quilter, I found this was not helpful; the roller-ball actually requires more movement and led to severe pain in my right hand.

The same I.T. guy then brought me a thumb-click mouse.   As if by magic, about 80% of my pain and discomfort went away within days!   But this remedy was not meant to be a permanent one, and I likely fell back into some bad habits.   So now I’m re-reading Quilter’s books to see how I can re-learn the lessons that will enable me to keep word processing and blogging!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   These books were purchased by the reviewer.

Reprinted courtesy of the Troy Bear blog; originally posted on March 14, 2009.RSI_8

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