nonfiction

Book Review: Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg

Yet another pandemic book out there. I feel like I’ll be reading these the rest of my life, trying to make any kind of sense of this baffling time. Life on the Line: Young Doctors Come of Age in a Pandemic by Emma Goldberg (Harper, 2021) went on my TBR the moment I learned about it, and although it was a bit different than I expected, I’m glad I read it.

Back in March 2020, when the world shut down, this meant that colleges, including medical schools, also closed their doors. Some medical schools made deals with their students and local hospitals to graduate their students early so the students/new doctors could go help the exhausted, overworked doctors dealing with the fallout of the early days of the pandemic. Emma Goldberg’s book follows six of these newly graduated doctors on the front lines of the pandemic in New York.

It was an easy decision for these students to say yes to; helping others was why they became doctors, so despite their families’ and partners’ fears, they began working with COVID patients. Many of their patients died. Others struggled through and made it home. One in particular left behind a profoundly disabled adult child, with no one else to care for him, leaving the hospital scrambling to find a place for him for months. But the students persevered through it all, growing as people and as physicians.

This book is set during the early days of the pandemic, when the country was still very much, “We’re all in this together! Let’s stand outside and cheer on the healthcare workers!”, giving this book more of a feeling of optimism than I think any of us still taking this seriously really feel, and to be honest, this aspect of the book just kind of made me sad. I’m STILL seeing Facebook posts about how the hospitals and doctors are killing people with COVID on purpose, that they get extra money from the government to do so (EYEROLL), and I kept wondering how these not-quite-so-new-now doctors are dealing with that mess, and those kinds of patients. 

The writing here is fast-paced, and it keeps the book moving. Emma Goldberg covers her subjects, these new doctors thrown into the thick of it, with respect and clarity, and I appreciated the peek into their chaotic world and the brave choices they made.

Visit Emma Goldberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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nonfiction

Book Review: The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide by Steven W. Thrasher

I admit, as a book person, and as a huge nonfiction book person, when the pandemic first hit, I thought, ‘Man, the books about this time period are going to be fascinating.’ And they’ve started to roll in, and they are indeed fascinating, along with being utterly devastating. The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide by Steven W. Thrasher (Celadon Books, 2022) is one of those books, and it’ll pull you in and squeeze your heart with both hands.

Dr. Steven Thrasher is both Black and gay; both of these are markers for experiencing more adverse health outcomes. HIV/AIDS hits both these groups at a higher rate than white people, or straight people. There are groups that experience adverse outcomes in much higher rates than others, and Dr. Thrasher examines these, using the AIDS epidemic, the COVID pandemic, and various other viruses throughout history. This isn’t stodgy academic writing; he delves deeply into his own life, his experiences and those of his friends and colleagues, his communities, to drive the point that we have created a society where illness spreads more easily and more surely along class and racial lines. It doesn’t have to be like this…but try telling that to the people at the top of this hierarchy and see how fast they riot when there’s no one from those lower classes to serve them at Applebee’s. We’ve seen this type of behavior all throughout the pandemic. Members of the viral underclass are more likely to have public-facing jobs and cannot isolate or work from home, and we as a society demand they get back there as soon as possible. And thus, they die at much higher rates, and we as a society see this, shrug, and await their replacements.

This is a sobering book, and it needs to be read by everyone. I can’t vouch for other countries, since I’ve only ever lived in the US, but here, we’re all so disconnected from each other. We stick to our circles and don’t engage with people outside of them, and thus, we don’t understand the devastation caused by this stratification of society, outside of, “Huh, wonder where that one guy that worked at the gas station went. Haven’t seen him in months. Anyway…” Dr. Thrasher has really written an eye-opening account of how blasé we are a society of throwing away people who aren’t like us. It’s a major wake-up call, one I’m not hopeful that the majority of us will hear.

Visit Dr. Steven Thrasher’s page at Celadon books here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

Little scares me more than schizophrenia. It attacks seemingly without warning; there are very few treatments; science isn’t even completely sure what causes it. I’ve seen the devastating toll it takes on families, thanks to my friend’s openness on her son’s struggle and ultimate death due to the side effects of the medication he took (a not-uncommon outcome; meds for schizophrenia are hard on the heart and various other organs). But I feel a need to keep reading about it, keep trying to understand, maybe in the hopes that one day I’ll read something positive, a sunnier outlook, an amazing breakthrough. When Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker (Doubleday Books, 2020) came out, it sounded like my worst nightmare, and it immediately went onto my list.

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault and child molestation.

Don and Mimi Galvin appeared, on the outside, to have an amazing family. An Air Force family, they had twelve children (ten boys, two girls), but perfection evaded the ever-growing family. As the boys grew older, one by one, they became stricken with serious mental illness. Schizophrenia took down one son after another, until six of them were affected, most of them so severely that they lived in hospitals, at home with Mimi, or in supportive housing arrangements. Where had it all gone wrong?

Combining scientific research, the history of mental health research and treatment and schizophrenia in particular, and the story of the Galvins and the tragedy that befell them, Robert Kolker has crafted a deep narrative that spans multiple decades of science, from ‘Schizophrenia is caused by overbearing mothers’ to ‘This is likely due to a complicated combination of genetics and possibly some outside factors.’ Due to the large size of the family, the Galvins became research subjects for multiple studies. The results won’t be available for decades, but this family just might be partly responsible for future breakthroughs on the disease.

My God, this was fascinating. CONTENT WARNING: there is a LOT of sexual abuse mentioned in this book. If you’re unable to handle reading about this subject right now, it’s okay to skip this one. Abuse ran rampant throughout this family; both the daughters and the sons were victimized by both family and people in the community. It’s difficult to read about, so if this isn’t something you can handle right now, it’s okay to take care of yourself and choose a book that will allow you to breathe a little easier.

Hidden Valley Road is about a family unexpectedly stricken with multiple cases of one of the most complex mental illnesses out there, who likely did the best they could at the time with what they had (which wasn’t always much; even today, schizophrenia and how to best treat it remains an enigma), and whom society has often failed. It’s social and scientific history, and despite its large size, it’s an absolute page-turner.

Visit Robert Kolker’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids by Travis Rieder

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a non-US country, in which case, lucky you!), you likely know that there’s a massive opioid epidemic going on here in the US and has been for over a decade now. Doctors overprescribe, patients get hooked, and little by little, whole towns have been devastated because of this dependence on opioids. But that’s not the whole story, and in his book In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids (Harper, 2019), Dr. Travis Rieder unveils his own struggle with opioids and the underlying problems the US has that have created and continue to sustain this crisis. As a person who suffers from chronic pain with periods of acute pain caused by flares of various sorts, I’ve taken opioids before, and they scare me, so I knew this book was something I needed to read.

Travis Rieder’s life was going perfectly fine – great wife, beautiful baby daughter, a new job – until a motorcycle accident in 2015 that crushed and partially degloved his left foot changed everything. His doctors referred to his foot as ‘a salvage situation,’ his injuries were that severe. After five surgeries in five weeks and a lengthy hospital stay, Rieder was on a substantial amount of opioid pain medication – a necessary amount at first, to be sure, after an injury of that caliber. But when it came time to decrease his dosages, none of his doctors knew what to do, and none of them would take responsibility for helping him through what turned out to be an absolutely horrific withdrawal process lasting over a month and getting increasingly worse throughout that time before it got better.

Shaken by his experiences and feeling the societal shame that goes with dependence/addiction (there’s a different that he explains!), it takes Travis Rieder a while before he’s able to speak up about what happened and his suspicion that something went very, very wrong. And as he learns, his experiences weren’t uncommon. Taking a deep dive into America’s history and ongoing problem with opioids and pain control, Dr. Rieder illustrates the urgency of this problem and the steps we must take – the steps we absolutely, 100% lack the political will to take – in order to fully conquer this crisis.

What a remarkable book. Dr. Rieder’s description of what opioid withdrawal put him through alone was enough to make this a five-star read. During my last major flare, a nurse practitioner sent me home with a muscle relaxer (which I occasionally need for spasms; I only ever treat the worst of these) and a very small amount of what I think was Tylenol with codeine (of which I still have like half of the bottle left). All of this was to get me through until the next week, until my appointment with my physiatrist, who immediately put me on the schedule for a steroid epidural (which helped so much…until I mangled something else in my back and needed it redone a month later). Before this, it was about a decade before I’d received opioids for another acute flare (which took about ten weeks until I could walk normally, without a cane, and without dragging my leg behind). I could absolutely sense the danger in that Vicodin; it took away the awful pain, but it also made me feel deliciously relaxed and floaty, and that’s not something I want to get used to. There are BOOKS TO READ. THINGS TO DO. I don’t have time to sit around floating like that, and I knew I had to do whatever it took to NOT need those meds as much as possible. Fortunately for me, my doctor had also prescribed steroids, and by day three, the steroids had taken the swelling down enough that my pain had dropped to a level low enough that I could tolerate it with my normal Celebrex.

That experience alone, though not the first time my back had gone bad, was enough to scare me away from opioids, and it’s why I knew I needed to read this book. Dr. Rieder’s story is absolutely terrifying, and I never, ever want to go through what he went through while in withdrawal. This convinced me that any future use of opioids for acute pain (especially if I ever need surgery) will have me asking my doctor what the plan is to get me off those meds, and how soon.

Dr. Rieder delves into things I hadn’t considered before, such as the difference between dependence and addiction, and the societal shame surrounding both. He does mention the racial issues of the opioid crisis: why was this not a crisis when it was black folks dying of heroin use in the inner cities, but it’s a crisis now that white folks are? (Racism, obvs, and this is very much something we need to have in the forefront of our minds when it comes other present and future crises), which I appreciated. He also discusses our attitude toward pain and how living with zero pain is unrealistic, and how that’s something we all need to think about. That’s a truth I long ago accepted for myself, and while it takes a while to get there, it IS possible. And what I really appreciated most about this book: Dr. Rieder absolutely understands how unrealistic the solutions to this crisis are. We don’t care enough about each other. We don’t have the political will. We look at drug addiction and dependence as a moral failure, instead of a health condition, and thus we look at addicts as people who made a personal choice to place themselves in a bad situation, and we don’t want our tax dollars going to that. We also don’t want our money going towards a socialist, healthcare-for-all system, and thus the more expensive solutions, like extensive physical therapy for pain control, etc., are only available to wealthier patients; the rest get prescriptions for opioids, which can cost pennies per pill. As a nation, we’ve built a system set up for failure, Dr. Rieder argues, and now we’re sitting here wringing our hands over it while rejecting all the solutions.

In Pain isn’t necessarily a hopeful book, but in the right hands, it could very much be an eye-opener that gets the ball rolling. I hope that’s the case. We all deserve better.

Visit Dr. Travis Rieder’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland

At-home DNA testing is all the rage these days. How much percentage British are you? Where did your ancestors come from? To whom are you related? So many of us want to spit in that tube and then peer at the pie chart that comes out of it, but the results can be far more complicated than that. I’m one of the millions of Americans who spit in the tube and clicked the link that wound up in my inbox several weeks later, informing me that I’m a good 30% Norwegian, but almost not at all Italian, despite my mother’s Italian maiden name. Fascinating! And that’s why The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020) appealed to me so much.

The Lost Family starts out following the family of Jim Collins, the Irish Catholic patriarch who had grown up in an orphanage, and who always struggled with his fractured family. Technology hadn’t advanced far enough at the point of his death, but afterwards, when home DNA testing was in its early days, his daughters began uncovering some shocking mysteries. Why weren’t they Irish at all? How on earth were the tests saying Jewish??? Why was Dad (Jim) so very short? What was going on?

Interwoven between the stories of the Collins family and other families whose DNA tests came up with surprises or mysteries are in-depth looks at how the ancestry and at-home DNA testing industry runs: how it began, what it means to the people who ran it (most of them genuinely seem like good people and are super enthusiastic about genealogy), and what the implications are, legally and morally, both for now and in the future. If you’ve ever taken one of these tests or you’re thinking about it, or you just want to put together a family tree, this is a book you need to pick up!

Phew. There is a LOT of information in this book. I was expecting it to be a little bit more about stories like the Collins’ family (and they’re definitely in there; their story and others like theirs are just scattered in between more broad information about companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe), but I walked away with far more knowledge about the genetic testing industry as a whole than I expected. A lot of it was beyond me; I couldn’t begin to explain to you how any of the genetic comparison works and how to distinguish a third cousin from a great-uncle, genetically speaking, but there are plenty of people who could, and they’re REALLY into it (I envy their ability to grasp that kind of stuff. My brain just doesn’t work that way). I did like learning about how the companies grew and how they’re dealing with the more ethical concerns (how to aid customers who are shocked by their results; how to deal when the FBI comes calling and wants to compare genetic data on file with what they have from a crime scene or two), but what I really enjoyed were the personal stories, the family searches and bewilderment, the joy in discovering new relatives, the pain at losing what they thought was family-by-blood, or being rejected by newly discovered blood relatives. Those were the stories I enjoyed most about this book.

This was a slow read for me, simply because the book was densely packed with info, but it’s great science writing with a personal touch. I enjoyed settling down to read this book.

Visit Libby Copeland’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández

“You don’t know what you don’t know” is something we say often at my house, and I wonder a lot about how many things are out there that I don’t know about (this is why I’m so drawn to nonfiction! I want to know ALL THE THINGS). And when I learned about a book about a contagious disease that affects millions but that most people have never heard of, my curiosity was immediately piqued. And that’s how The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández (Tin House Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. And Ms. Hernández was right: I’d never once in my life heard of Chagas.

Daisy Hernández grew up with a sick aunt. Tía Dora had become sick by eating an apple, Daisy believed, until she was older and learned that her aunt, with whom her relationship was often contentious due to, among many things, the aunt’s homophobia, had been infected with Chagas disease after having been bitten by a kissing bug. Tía Dora suffered terribly throughout her life, and Daisy later learned that yet another aunt had died as well of Chagas in South America. What was the insect that had so troubled her family? Despite the phobia Daisy had developed of it, she set out to learn more.

As it turns out, kissing bugs are all over in South America and the southern US. “Every adult with Chagas is a child that wasn’t treated,” one doctor says, and it seems to be true. Many adults who are found to be infected (usually discovered when their blood donation is tested) aren’t symptomatic, though it can take years until symptoms (like heart failure) make themselves known; others begin showing symptoms early on, and no one is sure why. Several years ago, Zika was all over the news, but Chagas, which affects more Americans than Zika, hasn’t gotten a fraction of that kind of attention. With bravery, determination, and a deep-seated curiosity, Daisy Hernández has penned a part-memoir, part-scientific narrative that clues readers in to the dangers of Chagas (with climate change, kissing bugs are heading north – this is everyone’s problem) and the devastation they cause.

When I picked this up, I was a little hesitant. I had just finished a fairly heavy book and wasn’t sure I could handle any intense scientific reading at this point, but Ms. Hernández deftly combines her research with her family’s story. Instead of being bogged down by this, I blew through it in a day. The effects of Chagas are difficult to read about; Tía Dora’s suffering is detailed throughout the book and it’s not pretty, but it’s less shocking than the fact that even with all the medical and science writing I’ve done throughout my life, Chagas had never once appeared in any of it. How does this affect so many people and yet no one talks about it?

The Kissing Bug combines the best of open, honest memoir writing with science writing that is simple enough for even the most science-phobic brain to grasp (I *really* wasn’t much of a science person growing up; it’s only being married to a molecular biologist and getting a daily lecture on All Things Science that has helped me appreciate it more). I appreciated Ms. Hernández’s admissions of how terrifying it was for her to research and write about the very thing that killed her aunts and devastated her family so deeply; knowing how tough it was for her to be out in the field with researchers, collecting kissing bugs in the dark, bending over microscopes to peer at T. cruzi, added another layer of humanity to her story. I’m honestly not sure I could’ve gone on this journey if I were her. Mad respect.

The Kissing Bug is an easy read about a tough subject, and one that desperately needs this kind of light shone upon it. Highly recommended.

Visit Daisy Hernández’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes

I realize I read about a lot of niche subjects, but garbage might just be the nichiest (what? It’s a word if I want it to be a word). Reading about the trash we create, the mess we’ve made of the world, and the people devoting their lives to cleaning it all up serves as a reminder to me of the work I need to be doing in order to make things better. If you’re beginning to realize that ‘there’s no such thing as away,’ that things don’t just disappear when you toss them in the trash, that everything you buy has consequences for the planet, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes (Avery, 2012) might need to go from your TBR to your brain.

What happens when we throw things away? What exactly goes on in a landfill? (Sometimes it’s not much. People have unearthed 50-year-old hot dogs and heads of lettuce, looking pretty much fresh.) What exactly is all of this doing to the planet, and how much longer can this continue? Edward Humes has thrown the switch on the floodlights that illuminate the mess we’ve made, the dangerous situations we’ve created, and the people working to both take care of them and to make them better.

Because there are better ways, and Mr. Humes shows not only people who have chosen careers dedicated to improving how we deal with trash, but showcases people who have restructured their lives so that they create much, much less of it. While the book occasionally wanders into the technical, Garbology is a wake-up call and an inspirational manifesto for all.

This was a bit of a slow read for me, simply because I was trying to take it all in. We’ve really made a mess of things, when the ocean can be described as ‘plastic chowder’ by scientists who study this sort of thing. It’s all super depressing, but…it could be better. We could do better, and this book points that out over and over again. Garbology isn’t Pollyanna-ish in nature, but knowledge really is power, and it provides the reader with the important knowledge we need about the what, how, and why of our garbage, and how we can clean things up.

There’s a lot to think about here, and I guarantee that, if you read this, you’ll be thinking about and looking at your trash differently. I refused a plastic bag this week after finishing this book, and I’m going to try to keep that habit up (I got distracted in another line and didn’t think about saying I didn’t need bags until it was too late). I’m thinking more about how I can reuse other parts of my trash (recycling is good, but it really should be more of a last resort; there’s a reason why reduce and reuse come first!), and I’ve located some TerraCycle drop-off locations in my area so I can collect the harder-to-recycle items, like toothpaste tubes, for them.

Garbology might change you – and that’s a good thing. Our planet desperately needs that.

Visit Edward Humes’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J.B. MacKinnon

I’m a non-consumerist at heart, to the point of, I can actually list the very few things I’ve bought so far this year that weren’t fully consumable (a pair of shoes to replace a falling-apart pair that were about 18 years old, and a pair of battery-operated candlesticks. Everything else has been either food or stuff like shampoo). I’m fully aware of the fact that our societal and worldwide consumption is killing the planet – well, one of the things that is killing the planet, anyway – and that’s how The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves by J. B. MacKinnon (Ecco, 2021) ended up on my TBR.

We all know the world has a problem with stuff. Just look around at what we own: closets bursting with clothes (some of which we barely wear), garages and basements exploding with stuff. We even rent out storage units to keep the stuff we can’t fit in our house. And all of this – the production, the transportation, the space used to sell it and the electricity that powers the stores – taxes the planet in massive ways. What would happen if we…just stopped buying things? Just completely stopped? Journalist J.B. MacKinnon methodically explores the impact that would have on the planet and on life itself.

It’s not a simple question to answer, and with the way the world runs, the impact would be on the economy just as much as it would be on the environment, maybe even more so. But it would affect everything and everyone around us (okay, maybe not everyone, and Mr. MacKinnon does get into that). If you’re especially curious about the economic impact of a world that decides that enough is enough, The Day the World Stops Shopping is likely something you’ll enjoy.

This was okay. I was expecting something a little different, maybe a more personalized look at the impact on communities and day-to-day life, of the return of bartering and a more Depression-era take on repairing and making possessions last. Instead, this book focuses heavily on the economic side of the end of consumerism (massive flashbacks to helping my son with his Economics homework, ugh). It was still interesting enough that it held my attention, but I definitely hadn’t added this to my list because of an overwhelming love for the principles of economics.

So this wasn’t *quite* what I wanted, but I’m not unhappy I spent my time with it. I can’t say I care any more about economics than I did, but I learned a few things along the way, and that’s never bad.

Visit J.B. MacKinnon’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey Through the Politics and and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman

I’m pretty terrible at being pregnant. I start barfing about ten seconds after sperm meets egg, and I had to be hospitalized twice during my pregnancy with my son (not quite so bad with my daughter, but I still had to be medicated the entire time). But for all the issues I had with both of my pregnancies, the babies were never in danger and I’m truly grateful for that. But those pregnancies left me with both a fascination for all that can go wrong for both parties during a pregnancy and the unnecessarily complexities and sometimes deadly consequences the American healthcare system likes to heap upon pregnant people (would you like to hear how my insurance company wouldn’t pay for medication to keep me out of the hospital, but it would pay for hospitalization? And how during my second pregnancy, it wouldn’t pay for medication at all? I’m still incredibly angry about all of this.) This is why Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman (University of Iowa Press, 2022) caught my eye on NetGalley. A quick tap of the request button and it was added to my kindle in just a few days. Much thanks to NetGalley, University of Iowa Press, and Genevieve Grabman for the opportunity to read this thoroughly engaging account of the author’s medically complex pregnancy and the system that stood in the way of solutions every step of the way.

What doctors first suspected to be a blighted ovum turned out to be a set of twins, shocking Genevieve Grabman. And things would only grow more complicated. The twins were soon diagnosed with a complicated condition known as twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), for which the outcomes for both babies and mother are often not good (death for all three is a distinct possibility, along with lifelong neurological problems for the babies). Alongside of this, the smaller twin was suffering from sIUGR, or selective intrauterine growth restriction and a dangerous two-vessel umbilical cord (which was only tenuously attached to the placenta), both boys had heart defects- basically, a lot of what could go wrong did.

Ms. Grabman’s degree in public health and her experience as a lawyer helped her navigate the often difficult-to-understand research articles about the serious medical conditions she and the twins were experiencing, giving her a massive advantage over most other people dealing with similar problems, but even with these advantages, she ran up against the wall of politics. Anti-abortion legislation heavily limits what treatments are available to pregnant women in the US, and time and time again, Ms. Grabman found that what she wanted for her pregnancy and what was considered best practice and safest in a medical sense wasn’t allowed, in favor of more dangerous procedures with worse outcomes, thanks to anti-choice politicians.

Woven throughout Ms. Grabman’s tense and frustrating narrative are facts and statistics about the dire landscape that is American maternal healthcare. For every 100,000 live births in the US, 17.4 mothers die, a statistic that is the highest out of the fourteen most-developed countries. Women’s lives are sacrificed on the altar of politics, and outcomes are decried in favor of placating the religious right. Twin-to-twin transfusion system statistically has a particularly poor outcome (along with suffering from a dearth of good research), and readers will come away from this book with a fresh sense of horror for not only the dangers of such a complex medical condition, but also for the ease of which politicians are willing to disregard medical necessity (for children and mothers they have no stake in caring for) for ideals.

This is a moving, intense narrative. I appreciated Ms. Grabman’s attention to detail in terms of the research available, and her acknowledgement that if she found accessing proper medical care difficult, with her degrees and knowledge of reproductive law, how much more difficult and stressful is it to navigate the medical system for women with potentially deadly conditions who have less education, less ability to read the scientific studies, and fewer qualifications that mark them as someone to take seriously for the researchers and doctors she contacted?

Challenging Pregnancy will have readers questioning everything they thought they knew about the American healthcare system, abortion politics, and what the true consequences are for voting for candidates who call themselves pro-life.

Challenging Pregnancy: A Journey through the Politics and Science of Healthcare in America by Genevieve Grabman is available on March 1, 2022.

nonfiction

Book Review: Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell

Sometimes a book ends up on our TBR and sits there for long enough that we forget how it ended up there in the first place (or, you know, pandemic stress just erased all that information from our brains for more important information, like, “Where did I leave my mask?” Sigh). That’s Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell (Doubleday Books, 2020). I don’t remember how it ended up on my TBR anymore, and my library no longer had it available as an ebook, but interlibrary loan saved the day when it was up next on my TBR!

Mark O’Connell found himself obsessed with the end of the world as we know it. What would happen? How would humanity react? Would it be an asteroid or climate change or something we hadn’t yet considered? He didn’t become a prepper himself, but he began to dive into the industries that have sprung up to accommodate the fears of people who are ready to begin planning for worst-case scenarios, and Notes from an Apocalypse is the result.

In this book, Mr. O’Connell visits a community of survival bunkers in middle-of-nowhere, South Dakota. He travels to New Zealand, where rich Americans have bought up property to ride out a disaster. He investigates the prepper industry, that hotbed of American consumerism (also good for men whose wives are away and who don’t know how to cook, with those MRE-type meal packets…), and he examines the ultra-rich’s obsession with Mars colonization for when we ruin this planet too much to continue living on it. And maybe it’s exposure therapy, but in the end, he becomes a little more comfortable with not knowing what comes next.

This ended up being a really interesting book! I hadn’t given much thought to these industries in the past, so I really appreciated Mr. O’Connell putting in that thinking for me. He’s spot-on in his observations of the intersection of (toxic) masculinity and the prepper community. I hadn’t known anything about the ultra-rich (like Peter Thiel) flocking to New Zealand to buy up land (so much so that it seems New Zealand changed the laws about this; they’ve always been a difficult country to immigrate to anyway, but I’m glad they’re doing what they can to protect their land from greedy Americans), so I’m glad I’m better informed about this. And the community of underground survivalist bunkers in North Dakota? SO weird, and fascinating to learn about. (Leave me out. I’d rather the apocalypse come for me than to spend time cooped up in with the kind of people that can afford those things. Ugh.)

Notes from an Apocalypse turned out to be a quick but fascinating read, and I can already tell it’s going to be one that I think of frequently in the future. I’d love to see an updated version or another book by Mr. O’Connell about the intersection of these industries and the people who flock to them and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we all know that the people who have spent their time planning for the worst-case scenario were the first to deny the seriousness of this pandemic…

Visit Mark O’Connell’s website here.