Sunday, December 7, 2014

Quick book reviews (#9)

Here is another set of brief reviews of books I read earlier this year. I still have quite a ways to go before I consider myself caught up. As usual, these reviews use a scale of one to five stars based on Library Thing (where I post these reviews as well). I am a tough grader and seldom give out the full five stars, so keep that in mind when looking at my ratings.

I should probably mention something about my reading style. I read mostly non-fiction and usually am reading at least five books at the same time. I tend to bounce between them depending upon my mood. Typically, I am reading at least one book from each of these categories: sports, Christianity, business, technology, and history. Generally, I don’t let myself read fiction because I have trouble putting it down and I currently can’t afford to go without sleep!

Without further ado, here is another batch of reviews.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (4.5 stars) 

I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of reviews in more or less the order I read the books, but I felt this one was too important to wait. I recently read this book after hearing Atul Gawande discussing it on the radio. The combination of his perspective, my appreciation for his earlier book (Checklist Manifesto), and being in the process of dealing with aging parents made it something I could not resist reading. 

His book is a penetrating look at aging, what is wrong with the current state of eldercare, and, more generally, end of life issues. He looks at the issues from a few different perspectives. One of them is his personal one as a surgeon dealing with patients looking to medicine (and him) to provide lifesaving treatments. Another is his own experiences with his aging relatives (including parents) as they became more feeble and ultimately face death. A final perspective is that of medical people trying different approaches in an effort to improve the lot of those in their declining years. 

The book is in some respects just a collection of anecdotes from those differing perspectives. Gawande does a good job, however, of weaving them together to give a picture of the flaws in our current systems and some hope for future approaches that may be better. His stories of his patients going through multiple surgeries that ultimately don’t help are heart rending. To counterbalance those, there are plenty of uplifting accounts of things like the joy of enabling a piano teacher to teach just a little bit longer and how adding animals to nursing care facility made a major positive impact on the patients. Ultimately, however, what makes this all very real is his own personal experience of dealing with the decline and death of his father (also a doctor).

My only real complaint is that Gawande does not offer enough in the way of concrete solutions. His many examples point out some long-term hope, but probably too late to be of much use to people currently in decline. Despite that, I came away with some ideas of how to deal with aging, both for myself and for older folks like my 90-year-old mom.

I consider this book essential reading for anyone facing aging parents, aging themselves, or expecting to die one day. Yes, that means everyone.

Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling’s Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham (3.0 stars)

Half Man, Half Bike is another one of the books I read in my cycling biography phase. This one falls somewhere between Sex, Lies, and Handlebar Tape (about Jacques Anquetil) and Slaying the Badger (Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault). While not as captivating as the latter, it is much better than the former. Eddy Merckx was always to me a revered name in cycling with one of the most incredible resume of victories. Before this book, however, I knew little of the man. He was from Belgium, spoke Flemish rather than French, won the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia five times, and Vuelta a EspaƱa as well as numerous of the so-called classics, and generally ruled the cycling world in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the kind of cyclist who rode the last six days in the 1975 Tour de France after he fractured his cheek bone in a crash all the while knowing he could not catch the first-place rider. His nickname was the Cannibal for his relentless, take-no-prisoners desire to not only win, but destroy his opponents. The only explanation he can give for this his insatiable desire to win is, “Passion, only passion.” I recommend this to anyone interesting in learning about the greats in cycling or someone who is interested in what drives a successful athlete or person. 

Making All Things New by Henri Nouwen (3.5 stars)

Making All Things New is a short book that looks at reconciling our crazy busy lives with putting God's Kingdom first. Nouwen discusses the paradox that our lives are somehow both overly filled and yet are ultimately unfulfilled. Like most of his work that I have read, this book forced me to think about how I live my life. At the same time, Nouwen's life was so far from mine that I find it hard to directly apply what he writes. Despite that, his honesty makes what he writes very approachable. He does not claim to have simple answers or even ones that he is successful at fully implementing. This book, like Gracias, is one I expect I will read periodically in the hopes that his words better sink in each time and help me to live my life more in keeping with how God would want me to. I think this book is worth reading for most 21st Century Christians looking to find balance in their lives.

The Second Machine Age: Work Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (3.5 stars)

The authors wrote this book as a follow-on their previous book about technology and the economy, Race against the Machine, which I found very thought provoking. In The Second Machine Age, they look at how things once considered un-automatable like driving and medicine may well not be and how that will affect the economy. I've read a lot about driver-less cars by Google (and others) and can't wait until I can either work or sleep in my car while it takes me where I need to go. What I had not given much thought to was how this will affect the economy. In this book, the authors explore some of the consequences if jobs like long-distance trucker are no longer ones done by humans. So too, in medicine where now there are interesting developments with IBM's Watson technology being used to diagnose patients. How will that affect doctors and the healthcare field as a whole? At one level, these are not immediate concerns, but at the same time the technology is moving very quickly and will have consequences for all of us. This book is well worth reading for anyone who likes to think about future technology and how it will affect us.