Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit (2016)

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The blogosphere has been rather on fire about this short book of essays by the eloquent and passionate Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is an activist for a wide variety of social justice issues, and this quick read is a balm for the soul in terms of how to deal with 45 in the White House.

It’s not a quick fix recipe book, but does have wise words for those who have been impacted by the ascendancy of 45 and his wolf pack, and how to help affect long-term change. If, like me, you’re a tad bit overwhelmed by the sudden 180 degree change in domestic and foreign policies which veer widely every time you wake up (it seems), Solnit has some wise words about looking at change in a long-term view and reminding the reader that all long-time societal impacts are usually composed of loads of small changes happening over a longish amount of time. You might not see the impact but small changes add up.

It’s rather like the analogy of the starfish:

One day on a lonely beach, one person saw that another person was throwing beach-stranded starfishes back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” that person asked.

The starfish rescuer responded, “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea so that they can continue to live.”

The original person said, perplexed, “But there are millions of starfish. How does throwing one starfish back in the sea save the day?”

The starfish thrower responded, “It makes a big difference to that one particular starfish…”

🙂

 

Medical Apartheid – Harriet A. Washington (2007)

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Subtitle: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Well, this read left me a bit shattered, not because it’s so graphic, but because it’s so true and it hasn’t stopped – even in this day and age. This is a well-researched look at the history of medical apartheid, which means, basically, the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the era of slavery to the present day. It’s an incredible read about an important (and much neglected) topic and although it was one of the hardest reads I’ve had in a long time, it’s an important addition to the history of African Americans here in the U.S.

I think that most Americans are aware of the Tuskagee syphilis experiment  from 1932 to 1972 under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a long-term experiment to observe the natural progression of syphilis in untreated subjects, but under the inexcusable idea that the subjects (i.e. the people in the study who had syphilis) believed that they were getting medical care when in fact, quite a few weren’t – and just so medical professionals could see what happened in the lifetime of a poor syphilis patient.

These patients were severely economically disadvantaged (mostly sharecroppers) and poorly educated, and included 600 people who believed that they were receiving free medical care, meals and free burial insurance for participating in this study, a study that even gave 201 participants syphilis (who didn’t have it before), and none who were given penicillin (despite all the evidence that this fairly new antibiotic would cure their disease). (Sorry – that’s a rather long sentence, but I trust that you can keep up.)

(It’s insane that this happened, and continued to occur until the 1970’s. My god. I don’t even have words to put here to describe how PO’d I am at this situation. It’s beyond my vocabulary.

And you know what’s worse? That the medical establishment continued to abuse this population ever since slavery, and it’s happened over and over again. And when you read this book, I hope you’ll feel as disgusted as I am.)

One more example that’s more modern: there are several examples of medical studies looking at new technology (e.g. artificial medical devices or treatment approaches) that are totally based on studies filled by African-American participants. Yes, when the final device is approved and comes to market, the population who tested it for the manufacturers are actually now least likely to afford access to its benefits. Grrrrrrrr.

Back to the book: Washington has done an excellent job writing this book through the perspective of her journalistic lens, and the book’s divided into three parts: the first is about the history of medical experimentation wrt the African-American population; the second is about more recent cases of medical abuse and research, and the third examines how this history has impacted African Americans and their current views on the (mostly) white medical establishment of today.

I worked for almost a decade in public health at the local City Health Department, and when we would offer medical screenings, some folks would participate but there were times when our services were not as well attended as we had hoped, and frankly, after reading this book and learning this history, I fully comprehend any hesitation to do so. I, too, would be careful with any of my interactions, as well, if I had grown up knowing this history of continued racial and medical discrimination against my friends and family.

And this book carefully covers decades and decades of continued abuse of the African American population. It wasn’t just in the “olden days” – it continued up until close to the end of the 20th century, and actually, probably continues in some places to this day if you consider who continues to populate medical studies offering “free health care if you’ll help us with our studies”.  (It’s usually the highly disenfranchised, socially and economically disadvantaged people with few options for health care. Don’t even get me started on the availability and access to effective dental care….)

The Tuskagee study is usually the most famous study that characterizes this trend, and due to the whistle blower who let the cat out of the bag on that*, there is now an Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and federal laws and regulations requiring Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that are meant to protect human subjects in studies. (The OHRP is under the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services now.)

So – as you can probably surmise, this was a powerful read for me and it just underscores how tough and amazing the African American population are: these guys survived slavery, medical discrimination, civil rights injustices and more. Just imagine how different life for African Americans could have been without this century’s continued discrimination in almost every aspect of life. Goodness me. I’d also be very very careful when dealing with the medical establishment (or the white establishment in general) if I’d grown up learning this history and yet still continuing to thrive despite the odds.

There is nothing that I can say to make this right, so my advice would be to read this, let it in sink in, and then look at your own communities to see how you can impact them in a positive way somehow. I’m not sure that I really like the direction of this country’s administration right now (understatement of the year), but how to change that? (1) Vote. (2) Make your part of the world more just, kind, and fair in any way that you can.

This was an amazing and thought-provoking read. I hope it is for you as well.

* Someone had to whistle-blow on this study??…

Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?

April 2017 Reading Review

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So April fairly whipped by pretty speedily due to a general busy-ness of life and work. It was a pretty good reading month at the same time, but lower numbers than is traditional. (This would be due to a big mix of things, including my vision still having problems. Reading with one eye tends to slow things down, I’ve found.)

(To clarify: I still have my other eye, but the dodgy one doesn’t see very well a lot of the time. Thus the “one eye” comment. I didn’t mean that I was now Cyclops [although I might feel like that sometimes!]. I had no idea how much my reading would slow down due to this.  :-} )

The reads for April included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in April: 5

Total number of pages read: 1,507 pages (av. 301).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 4 fiction / 1 non-fiction; 0 play.

Diversity: 0 POC (that’s a bit yikes for me.) 2 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 1 library book, 4 owned books and 0 e-books. (Yeah. Good on working on the TBR pile.)

Plans for May is to read, read, read. How glorious is that?

The Man from the Norlands – John Buchan (1936)

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Another caper novel from old John Buchan (1936), this one is set in mostly Scotland and England, along with some larks in Denmark, and features eponymous hero Sir Richard Hannay as he assists old comrades in rescuing a kidnapped daughter from the hands of enemies. (The “Norlands” reference in the title is to the Northlands and which refers in this case to Denmark.)

In a similar vein as the earlier “The Thirty Nine Steps”, this story relies on completely eye-rolling coincidences and some leaps (or perhaps lapses) of logic, but if you read it as it’s intended to read (as, I assume, a fun way to while some time away and to fall into a world completely different than your own), then it’s a good read. Nothing too deep and meaningful here, it is just a fun read featuring a “Golden Age hero who battles baddies in order to rescue a young maiden from the dragon” sort of idea.

Despite the superficial plot, Buchan is a good writer with an expansive vocabulary and a strong descriptive voice who can effectively weave the various strands of the plot together in a way that makes sense. I do think that this is a book to be read in huge big chunks of time as opposed to picking up and putting down (which is what I was doing). The large cast of characters (one of whom is a Viking descendent) travel up and down England so there is quite a lot of journeying for all involved.  That’s one of the reasons why I recommend you to read this in big chunks, as if not (or as was the case in my own experience), it can get a wee bit confusing at times. It’s quite fascinating just how well Buchan has managed to pack in so many car chases in the plot that they end up making this quite a thrilling read.

Again, classified as a YA book (as was The Thirty Nine Steps), this is a pretty fun and enthralling story about a time gone by. I think this would make a good movie (if it hasn’t been made into one already). Lots of car chases, airplanes, and chasing each other over the moors…

(It’s also titled “The Island of the Sheep” (UK title) or Richard Hannay #5, if you are a serious series kind of person.)

So just a fun read and nicely balanced out a rather heavy book I’m reading about medical apartheid in the U.S. If you’re searching for fast moving fiction and an overall palate cleanser kind of read, you can’t go wrong with one of Buchan’s books.

A Curious Mind – Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman (2015)

book398Pulled off the TBR shelf after watching a presentation given by Malcolm Gladwell one evening, this was a really disappointing read in the end. I was trying to read only from the TBR pile, and thought that this might scratch that Gladwell itch, but Grazer is nowhere near as good. Although billed as a book about curiosity, this read struggled mightily with that charge and veered more often than not into the world of the vanity project.

Grazer is a Hollywood producer who has put this flimsy book together based on a few conversations between him and his friends, all of whom apparently kept begging him to write this book about one of his main interests. I felt as though he somehow expected his readers to bow before him, grateful for his small nuggets of wisdom about nothing much in particular.

It wasn’t badly written, but there was not enough material here to develop into a book and the material that was there was more about the famous people Grazer had met or who he knew, much more so than the theme of curiosity. (I felt quite badly for Fishman, who, as his ghostwriter, probably got blamed for the whole thing in the end, even though he may not have been responsible for the actual content.)

So, a disappointing read but them’s the breaks. Another one off the TBR pile and just think of it this way: I’ve now saved you a few hours of reading it yourself. 🙂

This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

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Wanting to read something from the Lost Generation time period and having really enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I picked up this 1920 fiction book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows the course of lead character Amory Blaine as he enjoys a privileged childhood of much traveling and little school, until, with the realization that college would be soon on the horizon, his mother enrolls him in his first middle school. This is rather a shock to the old bean of Amory, and as the novel progresses through his adolescence and young adulthood, it’s easy to see that his peripatetic childhood was fun but had not done him any favors in regard to his academics.

So Fitzgerald shows the reader how Amory’s life progresses (or doesn’t as the case may be), and how he is unmoored in life, not really understanding that academics are important (because they haven’t been up until this point in his life), fully aware that who he knows and who knows him is of utmost importance, and realizing he has very little intention of having a serious career of any type with not many consequences for him. His mum will always be able to rescue him.

This was written right after the Great War (WWI) had just ended (1918), and so Europe and the U.S. were still reeling from the high death count of their soldiers, the unrecognized PTSD (or shell shock, as it was called back then), and the large numbers of young men returning to an indifferent home after having survived the terrifying experiences of trench warfare. It’s around now that the U.S. has what’s termed the Gilded Age*, the “gilding” piece referring to something that is bright and shiny on the outside, but is shallow beneath the surface – just a superficial layer to cover deeper problems below.

Up until now, war had been rather a glorious thing for the returning soldiers (now free to live their own lives), and I would think that it must have been rather a let-down for them to return back to their home towns and try to pick up their lives from before the war. Another name for this time period is the Lost Generation which references back to the view that once the war was over, many did not know what would be next. For some young men, soldiering was all that they ever known, career-wise, and those skills didn’t always translate once they were demobbed. Thus, the idea of the Lost Generation – what would they do now that was peace?

So you have this idealistic young man, who had grown up in the earlier war time, who had few goals and even less structure in his life, and this rather aimless mooning around is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure – it reads as a collection of short paragraphs (almost notes) about different pieces of Amory’s life. It’s an unusual set up (especially for writing in the 1920’s) and is quite PoMo in some ways, It’s a narrative structure that works really well – the random jumping around from subject to subject, and the changes in perspective all echo the rapidly changing opinions and moods of Amory as an undergraduate finding his way through college life at Princeton.

Wiki reports that this spotty narrative structure comes from the fact that Fitzgerald only had some bits and pieces of writing put together when he first started to write the novel. The deadline for the novel came very quickly for him, and so he had to throw some writing pieces together to make a complete project. Thus, the short pieces (poems, essays, sometimes just thoughts) carry the reader along with Amory on his coming-of-age experiences as he starts the process to become an adult. (So, not sure whether Fitzgerald was structuring it like on purpose or whether it was just a lucky break for him. Either way, it worked for the most part.)

So a pretty fast read which mostly kept my attention. There were parts that you could tell were just thrown together and the ending gets very serious and philosophical (and a wee bit boring if I’m honest with you), so you can tell it’s a first novel effort. Overall, it was a pretty good read though.

* (Actually, just found out that the Gilded Age phrase was actually referring to the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, but only came into common knowledge about 1920 or so. Thought to be coined by Mark Twain. Huh. Now you know…)

Related Reading:

The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

March 2017 Reading Review

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March was a decidedly stronger reading month for me, but I’m not really sure why it was. I think some of it was that I read shorter page length books for the most part, but not certain. Most of the titles that I chose were NF (only 2 F titles this month), and, though I bow my head in shame, only two female authors and one POC. No really old books either as most of them were from the twentieth century. Interesting. (To me, at least. Maybe not so riveting for you!)

To the books:

This coming month will probably follow a similar reading pattern (in terms of number of books I read). Nothing too stupendous on the immediate horizon, but I’m looking forward to reading more titles from my TBR and less from the library. (My TBR pile is a tiny bit too high for my liking so I’ve instituted a book-buying ban for the next few months. We shall see.)

 

Update: I’ve bought two books this week. Must. Do. Better. 🙂