Review: Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

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Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is a true account of – using emails, conversation transcriptions, interviews, newspaper articles, and TV reports from the day leading up to, and the days immediately after – Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005. The second half of the book covers the ensuing legal events, and has its own impressive set of bibliographic entries. This book is well over 500 pages, and very little space within those pages is wasted.  Want to know what happened that day? Read this book.

The book began with a history lesson of New Orleans, her floods, and her hospitals – specifically the hospital known as “Baptist”, originally called Southern Baptist Hospital, renamed Memorial Medical Center in 1996, now Oschner Baptist Medical Center after it’s Katrina-era owners sold it. Once considered the pinnacle of technologically-advanced medical centers, Baptist (er, Memorial) became a horror story when the levees broke. When power was disrupted, medical staff – most who requested the hurricane shift because hospitals were known to be some of the strongest structures in the city, and because they could bring their families – had to take heroic measures to save the more than 150 patients stranded in the building. Patients were carried up six flights of stairs in order to reach the deteriorating helicopter landing pad, where a helicopter may or may not have been waiting for them. (For everyone’s sake, I will not delve into the response of emergency units, FEMA, National Guard, etc. because we all know it was a chaotic clusterflunk that undeniably resulted in the loss of lives. Suffice it to say that patient and staff evacuation from the hospital was erratic, at best.)

The last third of the book was the aftermath. Not just the city repairing itself, but the legal proceedings based off the belief (of many) that unnecessary euthanasia had been carried out among the sickest patients. That ending lives was considered the last and best way out, instead of waiting for rescuers. Dr. Pou was acquitted of all charges, but the fact remains that death was hurried along in quite a few patients.

Fink concluded that New Orleans’ tragedy eventually helped save lives. The time she devoted to the modern day discussion of triage – assigning a level of urgency among patients – was brief but, for me, the most fascinating part of the book. She reported on hospitals that took to the meeting rooms to discuss their own triage standards for possible future catastrophes. The entire state of Maryland took on the topic as a community, hosting discussions with medical professionals, patients, and laypeople at libraries, community centers, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. The results of those conversations were shocking. Not every parent felt that their children should be saved before an adult. And not every senior wanted to be saved.

Sometimes individual medical choices, like triage choices, are less a question of science than they are of values. In a disaster, triage is about deciding what the goal of dividing resources should be for the larger population – whether maximizing number of lives saved, years of lives saved, quality of life, fairness, social trust, or other factors.

I am glad I read this book, as it gave me a lot to think about. This was more than an expose on Baptist (Memorial) Hospital post-Katrina. This wasn’t finger-pointing reporting. This was detailed, well-researched, and open-minded reporting.

Recommended for:
Fans of investigative journalism will appreciate the vast bibliography Fink composed and utilized in writing this book. And the details are enough for any fiction fan to feel like they are in the stifling rooms.

Read-alikes:
Zeitoun by Dave Eggars, because it covers the same city during the same hurricane, but with a Syrian man and wrongful imprisonment. So intense and so well-written. (What has happened to the main character since the book was published is even more mind-blowing.)

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non-fiction Friday: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

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The Reason I JumpNaoki Higashida (translated by David Mitchell and KA Yoshida) is a 13 year old boy with autisum. Autism is so severe that he was unable to communicate with his family and caretakers until his mother developed a keyboard that let him spell out words. Since that development, he has been unstoppable, publishing books and giving keynote speeches about his experience with a disability in which relatively little is known.

I have no intimate involvement with autism, but am fascinated by growing population of people with autism. Reports claim that inventors and scientists such as Newton and Einstein had autism, but in the same breath people will claim that people with autism are unintelligble. How can both be true? Higashida’s book is the first of its kind: autism from inside the mind and memory of a person with autism. A few excerpts I found especially interesting:

Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking? You might suppose we’re just looking down, or at a general background….What we’re actually looking at is the other person’s voice. Voices may not be visible things, but we’re tying to listen to the other person with all of our sense organs.

And to answer all the all-around worst question of “Why do you jump/flap/spin?”

But when I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky….When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well, too…and that makes me feel so, so good.

Higashida was only 13 when he penned this book, but he was – and is – wise beyond his years. He is looked at oddly, like he is stupid, like he is a waste of space…and is asked why he won’t make eye contact, won’t stop moving, why he laughs at nothing. He compares it to being asked “why do you breath?” He oftenf eels bad about his behavior, but sometimes has no control over his actions – or, his actions make him feel good. Just because those around him don’t understand them doesn’t meant they aren’t acceptable.

True compassion is about not bruising the other person’s self-respect.

The last question he answers surprised me. What are your thoughts on autism itself? But I won’t ruin this for you, dearest blog reader. You have to read this yourself. It was enough to make me just stop, breathe, and re-read it three times. Whether or not you are intimately involved with a person with autism, you should read this very short book. (I read it in 2 lunch breaks, and I never finish a lunchtime book in less than a month…) Replace autism with  any other disability and the book can be considered a call to treat others better, because you never know what is going on in their heads or lives. Stop thinking you know what “normal” means, embrace the possibility of “other” and you might grow a little compassion.

Wednesday reads: no light reading

What a grab bag this week’s reads are. Zombie-people (kinda?), family relationships, and the true story of the aftermath of one of America’s worst natural disaster catastrophes. No light reading here, folks!

returnedThe Returned by Jason Mott is the story of how individuals and society deal with people returning from the dead – even 50 years after their death, as is the case with young Jacob, who died at age 8 and whose parents are now in their 70s. I’m waiting for it to get going, and I’m 6 CDs in, out of 9…so there is growing concern that the book will be more existential than literal. But check out the TV show trailer…although the storyline is drastically different, it looks awfully good. (The show is slated for Spring 2014.)

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& Sons by David Gilbert is the story of fathers, sons, men, and boys, all from the Topping and Dyer families of contemporary New York. Writers, students, professionals, amateurs…men from both families are one or the either, making for a fascinating and descriptive narrative.

Five-Days-at-Memorial-by-Sheri-FinkFive Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink is the product of incredible amounts of research into the goings-on at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans immediately before, during, and after rain and wind from Hurricane Katrina caused the levees to fail. I am a bit daunted – 200 pages in – with all the names and situations, but it is a harrowing tale.

non-fiction Friday: Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

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The Kitchen Counter Cooking School:” how a few simple lessons transformed nine culinary novices into fearless home cooks by Kathleen Flinn, graduate of the famous Parisian cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, has truly truly truly transformed me. No, for reals y’all. I cooked an omelette. I poached an egg. I sautéed carrots using only my instinct – no recipe. I tried rosemary in my quinoa thinking, “If it sucks, who cares?”* Kathleen Flinn may not own her own restaurant, be on Top Chef, or be a household celebrity chef name, but she is absolutely my favorite chef in the world because she gave me confidence in the kitchen.

Kathleen was interview by chef friends on NPR, and had dozens of emails from people interested in participating in her cooking class. She chose nine volunteers, with her first order of business being visiting their homes to observe them in the kitchen, learn about their cooking habits and fears, and taste their favorite dish to prepare. Canned soup, frozen lasagna, and “white trash garlic bread” (hamburger buns, margarine, and canned parmesan cheese) were among the favorites…but all the volunteers admitted that they didn’t love what they made; it was just what they were comfortable with.

Meet Kathleen and her volunteers via this book trailer:

I think the biggest reason for Kathleen’s success, both with the at-home cooks she teaches in her book, as well as at-home readers, is her unassuming personality. Does she know a lot about the topic? Yes. Does she impose it onto us? No. Following up with the participants a few months after the last class, she found that all of them took away some things from the classes, but no one – not even she – took away everything. For example, Terri – who had a difficult time learning to use the knife properly – chopped onions in her food processor. Who cares?! The onions got chopped and she didn’t have to suffer through her least-favorite kitchen activity. Sabra still used the highly-saturated and processed Gold ‘n Soft margarine, but much more sparingly than she used to. Kathleen wasn’t looking to create clones of herself, she was just trying to arm those women with the know-how to make them more confident cooks who, dare I say, actually enjoyed the cooking process.

I am now a fan of Flinn’s for life. She has a few instructional YouTube videos, writes her own blog, and has another book which I have requested from my library and cannot wait to devour it! I loved this book so much that the night I finished listening to it on my commute home, I bought 4 copies from Amazon with the intent of keeping a copy for myself, and giving one to my sister, my best friend/soon-to-be-mommy, and my mom. They are all at different stages of cooking in their lives (I called one the other night and she was preparing Velveeta…I knew I was doing the right thing) and I think they can all learn from and become inspired by this.

Recommended for:
Anyone. The author does not yell at you for enjoying “bad” foods; she simply educates on various topics. What you do with that information is up to you.

Read-alikes:  (these aren’t necessarily read-alikes, but cooking books I’ve read and loved)
The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball was a fascinating look into the small organic farm life from the perspective of a girl from the big city. True story. More about farming than cooking, and just as non-pretentious as Kitchen Counter Cooking School. 

White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby is a beautiful historical fiction about the real-life chef August Escoffier. The book will make you hungry.

*and for the record, it was way too much and I didn’t love it. BUT it was edible and I learned a lesson! Start with a little, you can always add more later. I didn’t beat myself up, I didn’t scold myself, I just learned.

non-fiction Friday: The World’s Strongest Librarian, a memoir of tourette’s, faith, strength, and the power of family by Josh Hanagarne

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The World’s Strongest Librarian, a memoir of tourette’s, faith, strength, and the power of family by Josh Hanagarne is the true story of a comically tall librarian who can’t stay quiet. Or still. Or not-funny. Josh has Tourette’s, lifts weights, grapples with his faith, and tries to stay sane while working in an urban public library. These combined to make the most laugh-out-loud funny memoir I have read since Chelsea Handler’s Are You There Vodka, It’s me, Chelsea and Tina Fey’s Bossypants. And this guy isn’t a celebrity, he’s just a regular dude, which makes this story all the more relate-able.

Josh is my kind of librarian. His experiences in the Salt Lake City Public Library are both cringe-worthy and hilarious, For example,

The public restrooms at my library are vile. Every minute someone’s in there relieving himself or bathing in the sink. The air doesn’t circulate and the stench is palpable. But they have nothing on the teen section. To walk through the young adult area is to traverse a cloud of hormones and poor hygiene and lust and anger that’s as real as a thicket of skunky roadkill. Whenever the teenagers are quiet, I assume it’s because they’re impregnating each other on the library furniture.

Seriously…and the whole book is like that! I wasn’t even 11 pages in and my coworker Dan said, “Are you just going to read me the entire book?” (Okay he didn’t say that out loud, because he’s a gentleman, but I know it’s what he was thinking after I’d read him yet another line.) My mom – who I was traveling to Rhode Island with for a wedding – knew I had finished the book because I wasn’t laughing anymore.  (I had moved onto The Shining Girls…a very not-funny book.)

The pages he dedicates to librarianship are passionate as well. Surrogate-parenting of tweens and teens dropped off at the library for an entire day pains me personally and professionally. I want to hug them and feed them, but I also want to chastise the teens for gaming all day and being loud and rowdy. I don’t want adults to fear the teens who loiter at the library for hours on end, but I also want the teens to be comfortable spending time here. it’s a conundrum that even Josh answers with “I don’t know.” The struggle continues, but I appreciate what he wrote, and hope that his non-librarian readers take note.

The part of the book that was most educating for me was his experience with Tourette’s. I’ve never known anyone with the syndrome, or read about it. I find it fascinating that Josh learned to partially control his Tourette’s with weight lifting.

I might be the only person whose first three-hundred pound bench press was accompanied by the Recorded Books version of Don Quixote.

The way he wrote about his gym sessions made me reflect on my own 4-day a week sessions with pity. (I can walk after my leg workouts. Clearly I’m doing something wrong.) I’ve read other fitness memoirs, and this was just as good in that he didn’t use language I didn’t understand (or couldn’t figure out after a quick Google search).

Recommended for:
Josh didn’t exhaust discussion of one element from the title (Tourette’s, faith, strength, family, librarianship). Instead he gave each their allotted amount of time and respect, which kept me reading all through the 8-hour drive to Providence. I don’t think I paused once in Connecticut. I have recommended this book to fellow librarians, and also a Page who is leaving in a couple weeks for his own Mission trip (Josh’s re-telling of his own was heart-breaking, but an interesting glimpse into the life of a young Mormon for those of us non-Mormons). But this book would definitely appeal to non-librarians as well!

Read-alikes:
As I wrote earlier, Chelsea Handler’s Are You There Vodka, It’s me, Chelsea and Tina Fey’s Bossypants are similar in that they are not exhaustive of one element of their lives (acting, relationships, family), but all-inclusive and never boring.  Both are read by the author, making the audiobooks that much better.

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Interesting facts:

The following image is of a sculpture hanging in the SLCPL, titled Psyche. It is 1,500 books and 850 butterflies made the look like a human head. In Greek, the word psyche means mind and butterfly. Some of the butterflies have writing on them, in 20 different languages, including phrases from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I just love this.

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To see the value of a library, ignore the adults. Find an inquisitive child who doesn’t have an iPhone yet, take them to the library, and tell them that they can learn anything they want there.

Non-fiction Friday: Straight Flush the true story of six college friends who dealt their way to a billion-dollar online poker empire–and how it all came crashing down by Ben Mezrich

11book"Straight Flush" by Ben Mezrich.

Sex on the Moon was a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of a guy who stole a moon rock. A moon rock. The Accidental Billionaires is the Mark Zuckerberg-story-turned-blockbuster-film. Bringing Down the House inspired the Kevin Spacey film 21. And then there’s Straight Flush.

Straight Flush: the true story of six college friends who dealt their way to a billion-dollar online poker empire–and how it all came crashing down by Ben Mezrich – the master of narrative non-fiction – kind of let me down with this one. His (true) stories are usually much more compelling than this, and I felt like he just wrote the story with little care in delivery or climax. I cared not one iota about these frat brothers-turned-online businessmen. A couple of them wanted to operate a legit business, a couple others wanted the cocaine and hookers that come along with operating such a large business. I didn’t care for any of them. And they are real people, which makes me feel bad. I haven’t ever met these guys and I don’t like most of them.

Oh right, you want to know what the book is about. Read the title again. Yeah, that’s it. No surprises. Nothing else. It’s the story of how one poker website dealt with the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, a law that piggybacked on the Safe Port Act which tightened security around – wait for it – our ports.

This is one of those times when I’m simply disappointed. I know Mezrich can do better, so why didn’t he? It’s not like it was timely or anything. 2006? 7 years? Come on. A little more editing, maybe a little more back story, maybe fewer pages?

Recommended for:
I’m not recommending this book. Read one of the titles I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Read-alikes: Any narrative non-fiction by Mezrich, Michael Lewis, or Mary Roach.

Review: May I Be Happy, a memoir of love, yoga, and changing my mind by Cyndi Lee

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A fan of yoga, I checked out May I Be Happy: a memoir of love, yoga, and changing my mind by Cyndi Lee with the intention of learning something new about the practice. Instead, I learned something new about myself. Cyndi – yoga instructor, choreographer, dancer – filled each page of her memoir with (humorous, tearful, and powerful) stories of her life. Her “feel good mumbo jumbo” as my dad would say, was not cheesy, but inspiring and lovely.

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It was refreshing to read the memoir of this woman, this “work in progress”, so-to-speak, because aren’t we all? I am healthier and more fit than I was a year ago, and I have no desire to return to my 21-year-old self. I have always considered myself a work-in-progress, and this book – written by someone who, from the outside, is perceived as having it all together – makes me even more comfortable with the very scary, unknown future.

For as long as I an remember I have been terrified of the physical issues that may or may not affect me. I fidget if I hear about broken bones, itch if I hear about a disease, grow nervous during discussions about of pregnancy. I know my anxiety comes from not being able to control what happens to me, which is why I take such good care of things I do have control over.

Lee’s memoir opened my eyes to being open to change, accepting the inevitable changes – the wrinkles, the grey hairs – so much so that I decided to stop dying my own hair. At 27, I don’t necessarily want grey hair, but I am sick of drying out my perfectly beautiful curly hair every month just because I want to cover up the grey strands. So no more dye for me. I need to learn to love who I am, who I have been, and who I will someday be. Read this book and you may find yourself looking at life with an equally peaceful outlook.

I would love to recommend this book to my mother, but I think the yoga-specific scenes may get in her way of enjoying it. But women that do practice will surely love the message as well as the anecdotes.