stuff I read

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD

39893608Summary from Goodreads:
At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.

When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve human lives. Mezrich examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

Mezrich takes us inside the operating room and unlocks the wondrous process of transplant surgery, a delicate, intense ballet requiring precise timing, breathtaking skill, and at times, creative improvisation. In illuminating this work, Mezrich touches the essence of existence and what it means to be alive. Most physicians fight death, but in transplantation, doctors take from death. Mezrich shares his gratitude and awe for the privilege of being part of this transformative exchange as the dead give their last breath of life to the living. After all, the donors are his patients, too.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? The human story behind the most exceptional medicine of our time, Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

When When Death Becomes Life came across my pitch emails a few months ago, I marked it down as a to-read immediately. A history of medicine, specifically transplant medicine? Sign me up.

Mezrich presents a history of solid organ transplantation alongside his own memoir of learning to become a transplant surgeon (mostly kidneys and livers). Each road was long and hard and Mezrich is very honest about his own path as a surgeon. If you know anything about this branch of medicine, it comes with significant risk of failure and he also gets into the ethics of listing patients with significant co-morbidies or addition. Mezrich includes two chapters where he presents the stories of some of his recipients and of the donors and their families. If you are not moved by those stories you have no soul.

This is also a reminder to consider marking “Organ Donor” on your driver’s license and having that conversation with your family. We are unlikely ever to have a “voluntary opt-out” policy in this country, so patients in need of a transplant are reliant on people, mostly their loved ones, consenting to donation when the situation arises.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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audiobooks · Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

43228964Summary from Goodreads:
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times -bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

The Poison Squad is a very good overview of the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the political struggles of the era which are, annoyingly, still the same struggles today. “Regulation stifles business and prevents us from making as much greedy money as possible” versus “please stop trying to poison the populace with unknown food additives, pesticides, chemical dyes, etc.” (you can guess what side I come down on). It’s a bit dry in places but since I tend to listen to audiobooks on 1.5-1.75x speed I didn’t notice as much.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library via Libby.

mini-review · stuff I read

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Called the work of “a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose” (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, “anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love,” by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take “us on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most profound, moving books I have ever read. I read it twice through cover-to-cover. Kimmerer seamlessly twines together the scientific rigor of botany and ecology and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Potawatomi to make the case that humanity should work in concert with the natural world to be good caretakers of the earth and work to reverse some of the scars we’ve left behind us. Some essays are more fluidly narrative, telling of creation stories or of memories from when her daughters were small (the maple syrup story is a favorite). Others take a more businesslike tone, with Kimmerer as teacher.

If you’ve read Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, or even Rachel Carson though Kimmerer doesn’t go in for the shock value, then Braiding Sweetgrass is a step along the same path, but with a different way of walking.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Best American · mini-review · stuff I read

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018 edited by Sam Kean

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
“This is one of the most exciting times in the history of science,” New York Times-bestselling author Sam Kean proclaims in his introduction to The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018. “Things aren’t perfect by any means. But there are more scientists making more discoveries in more places about more things than ever before.” The twenty-six pieces assembled here chart the full spectrum of those discoveries. From the outer reaches of space, to the mysteries of the human mind, to the changing culture in labs and universities across the nation, we see time and again the sometimes rocky, sometimes revelatory road to understanding, and along the way catch a glimpse of all that’s left to learn.

Hello, hello, it’s Best American time again! *wriggles* (Although, no more Infographics, womp womp.)

I started with my perennial favorite, Science and Nature. I like Kean’s popular science books, so I wasn’t worried about his ability to find good articles for this anthology. But this year’s anthology is another fantastic installment in the series – such a great spread of science writing, with call-backs to other included pieces (whether intentional or not), and all so very relevant to the current world today. AND the pieces are organized by theme using slogans from the March for Science. Yaaaaas. A great way to kick off October reading.

The Best American Series publishes today!

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this when it arrived at the store because I am insufficiently cool enough to get a galley.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre

39721925Summary from Goodreads:
An unprecedented history of a personality test devised in the 1940s by a mother and daughter, both homemakers, that has achieved cult-like status and is used in today’s most distinguished boardrooms, classrooms, and beyond.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most popular personality test in the world. It has been harnessed by Fortune 100 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military. Its language – of extraversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. feeling – has inspired online dating platforms and BuzzFeed quizzes alike. And yet despite the test’s widespread adoption, experts in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry, struggle to account for its success – no less to validate its results. How did the Myers-Briggs test insinuate itself into our jobs, our relationships, our Internet, our lives?

First conceived in the 1920s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of aspiring novelists and devoted homemakers, the Myers-Briggs was designed to bring the gospel of Carl Jung to the masses. But it would take on a life of its own, reaching from the smoke-filled boardrooms of mid-century New York to Berkeley, California, where it was honed against some of the twentieth century’s greatest creative minds. It would travel across the world to London, Zurich, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Tokyo; to elementary schools, nunneries, wellness retreats, and the closed-door corporate training sessions of today.

Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers examines nothing less than the definition of the self – our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you you?

Chances are, you’ve probably taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test – with all the questions that seem to have no answer (I’m an INTJ, hello). Have you ever been curious about the origins of a test that so many companies have come to rely on for team-building and sales success? In The Personality Brokers Emre has set herself the task of investigating the origins of this million-dollar industry. And it turns out that the current owners of the MBTI really don’t want anyone poking into the rigor of the indicator. In-teresting….

If you were ever a skeptic of personality testing then this book will confirm that belief. I had suspected that the MBTI was less than scientifically rigorous, but WOW is it not even valid over repeat testing. The author really pulled a lot of information together – even when she couldn’t gain access to Isabel Myers Briggs papers – to try and shed some light on this widespread (and lucrative) evaluation. The beginning of the book was a bit hard to get into but it picked up. Once you get through all the Jungian fan-worship it gets better.

The Personality Brokers is out today.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson

38769051Summary from Goodreads:
A groundbreaking book about making once-in-a-lifetime decisions, from the bestselling author of How We Got to Now and Where Good Ideas Come From.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson’s fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for the important decisions that can alter the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. But Farsighted explains how we can approach these choices more effectively, and how we can appreciate the subtle intelligence of choices that shaped our broader social history.

As a fan of Steven Johnson’s (The Ghost Map, yaaaas), I was really interested to see him take on neuroscience and decision making analysis. And, well, this is fine. He’s packed a lot of information into the book, with several major examples he returns to as a way of explaining concepts: the raid and capture of bin Laden, Washington’s loss in Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War, Darwin’s decision to marry (he made pro/con columns), and examples from literature. However, this just didn’t gel as a compulsively readable work of narrative science reporting. He got there at times – the final chapter has an analysis of Dorothea’s decision-making in Middlemarch, which is interesting but also weird given that she’s a fictional character (it occurs to me just now that Johnson chose to do this given the access to an internal narrative that isn’t available for a real person) – but it just wasn’t as fun to read as a book.

Farsighted is out tomorrow.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

36544852Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of Proust and the Squid, a lively, ambitious, and deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies.

A decade ago, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid revealed what we know about how the brain learns to read and how reading changes the way we think and feel. Since then, the ways we process written language have changed dramatically with many concerned about both their own changes and that of children. New research on the reading brain chronicles these changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium.

Drawing deeply on this research, this book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us—her beloved readers—to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums. Wolf raises difficult questions, including:

Will children learn to incorporate the full range of “deep reading” processes that are at the core of the expert reading brain?
Will the mix of a seemingly infinite set of distractions for children’s attention and their quick access to immediate, voluminous information alter their ability to think for themselves?
With information at their fingertips, will the next generation learn to build their own storehouse of knowledge, which could impede the ability to make analogies and draw inferences from what they know?
Will all these influences, in turn, change the formation in children and the use in adults of “slower” cognitive processes like critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that comprise deep reading and that influence both how we think and how we live our lives?
Will the chain of digital influences ultimately influence the use of the critical analytical and empathic capacities necessary for a democratic society?
How can we preserve deep reading processes in future iterations of the reading brain?
Who are the “good readers” of every epoch?
Concerns about attention span, critical reasoning, and over-reliance on technology are never just about children—Wolf herself has found that, though she is a reading expert, her ability to read deeply has been impacted as she has become, inevitably, increasingly dependent on screens.

Wolf draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and warm anecdotes to illuminate complex ideas that culminate in a proposal for a biliterate reading brain. Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

Reader, Come Home is better than Wolf’s previous book, IMO, in how she describes the science and research into “the reading brain.” But I can’t shake the feeling that:

  1. It’s a bit Chicken Little/the-sky-is-falling at times.
  2. There’s a weirdly elitist bent to certain sections. Why choose the deepest Herman Hesse deep cut for a re-reading faux experiment? The average adult reads, what, twelve books a year? I don’t think the average adult reader has been critically reading Hesse or Proust in their spare time, either before or after the advent of digital or social media. It would be far more likely that people are reading James Patterson for pleasure. Why not try a re-reading experiment with a book that is more popular or mainstream?
  3. If we’re worried about KIDS not being able to develop “deep reading” or the ability to critically evaluate new information due to digital media maybe we should back up and worry about the ADULTS who currently have made it very clear that they lack both abilities and grew up without digital media.

That said, by the end of the book Wolf does present solutions to develop a “bi-literate” reading brain involving both digital and print reading which I find very interesting/confirms my own personal preferences.

Reader, Come Home is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of Theranos, the multibillion-dollar biotech startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end, despite pressure from its charismatic CEO and threats by her lawyers.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley.

I remember reading the initial WSJ story with my jaw on the floor and I read Carreyrou’s book-length expansion in almost the same position.

Bad Blood makes my scientist blood boil (I mean, I was drawing “angry epidemiologist face” in the margins – it’s on IG). This is why we need better whistleblower protection. Elizabeth Homes deserves to be in jail and/or living in a box under a bridge. The only reason she and Theranos didn’t kill patients is that some scientists and doctors stood firm against major legal and personal threats. They managed to find a journalist who could keep confidential sources confidential to air the science that proved Theranos was making vaporware and then lying about it to the very agencies tasked with keeping us safe. Carreyrou has written a compelling and compulsively readable account of Theranos and it’s clear this mess isn’t over yet.

(Generous read: ok, so maybe in the beginning Holmes actually invented a device that really could have helped people and actually started her company in good faith. But somewhere between that first funding round and over a billion dollars down the drain she went really off the rails and I’m not going to be generous about that.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book and proceeded to mark the shit up out of it.