Thursday, March 31, 2011

CR3 #27: Crazy All the Time: On The Psych Ward of Bellvue Hospital by Dr. Frederick Covan

In the early 90s, Dr. Fred Covan was the head psychologist at New York's busy Bellvue Hospital. Bellvue, of course, is where all the "crazy" in NYC eventually lands--where the doctors make their best efforts not necessarily to cure, but to at least help. It is a fast-paced environment, and anything can happen at any time.

During the year detailed in the book, Dr. Covan is advising a group of young residents, assigning them each to a variety of patients, and attempting to teach them how best to handle each situation that arises. The residents are a diverse bunch: male, female, rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, traditional, and radical. However, they are drawn together by their desire to help those who are unable to help themselves. Some of them struggle more than others. Some get too attached to their patients, others can't find a way to identify. They find their patients difficult, frustrating, and heartbreaking. Most of the residents eventually realize they are doing a thankless job that will never be done.

The book sounds depressing, but it is actually quite funny. Many of the patients are both pathetic and exceptional, and the residents' reactions to the patients' misbehavior can often be hilarious. And of course at every turn the administration is there to make life tough for everyone, whether be a shortage of Rorschach tests, a total lack of pencils, patient secretaries that either won't type or don't have time because they are wiping down every visible surface, or endless "diversity surveys" that do nothing but take up valuable treatment time. I even ran across the enemy of hospital admin workers everywhere: JCAHO -- the hospital accredation body, who exist solely to make sure every piece of paperwork that drifts through a hospital has its Ts crossed and Is dotted.

Sometimes, it becomes hard to decide who is sane and who isn't...though rollerblading naked through the streets, swallowing razors, and a self-inflicted pinking shear penectomy (go look it up--I'll wait) are certainly good indicators of disturbed psyches. There is a long and very interesting section about defining what is normal and what the goals of psychology should be. One resident argues that the goal is to make a schizophrenic patient take all her meds until her delusions go away--by committing her if necessary--while Dr. Covan argues that the goal is to allow her to function as best she can out in society while not being a danger to herself or others. It's an interesting debate.

The book is definitely a good read--it's well-written, fast-paced, interesting, and sometimes emotionally challenging. I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in mental health work, or is just interested in a great story.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CR3 #26: Pegasus Bridge by Stephen Ambrose

Pegasus Bridge is another in Stephen Ambrose's series of books detailing the actions of the Allied army in the European theater of WW2. This particular book is actually the first he wrote, so it is good, but does not have the polish that some of the later works, like Citizen Soldier or D-Day have.

The story is much more compact than any of his other books--this is basically the actions of one small group of soldiers during one battle. The soldiers are part of D-Company "Ox and Bucks," a group of specially trained British commandos, and they are arguably the first allied soldiers to be engaged on D-Day. They arrived behind enemy lines in Normandy via glider plane, with the assignment to take and hold two strategically important bridges. One of those would be Pegasus bridge. The soldiers spent months training (although they weren't told what their actual goal would be until shortly before they went into action) and learning ways to attack and defend their goals. Their commander, Major John Howard, did everything he could to be sure his men would be prepared for any obstacle they faced. Due to their excellent training, courage, and determination, the men of D-Company managed to take their bridges intact and fight off fierce German counterattacks until they could be relieved by first paratroops and then soldiers coming up from the beaches.

As always, Ambrose has done a wonderful job incorporating facts and anecdotal stories into his narrative. It is both an excellent history and an entertaining read, which I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys WW2 history.

Monday, March 28, 2011

CR3 #25: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Well, this book has confirmed that I do like Neil Gaiman, and that it's Terry Pratchett's fault that I didn't like Good Omens.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a dreadfully average Londoner during modern times. He leads a quietly ordinary life until one night he stops to help a girl he sees lying on the sidewalk. Soon, he finds himself trying to survive in "London Below," a subterranean world full of feudalism, magic, and danger where the people that "London Above" have forgotten wind up. There are rat-speakers, kings, lords, beasts, and angels. Richard is on a quest with the girl, Door, to try and help her avenge the death of her family. He also discovers there is more to life he ever expected.

I loved this book because it was both touching and funny. The plot moved along at a good pace, and all of the characters were interesting. The character of Richard is your standard cubicle-drone--a person whose personality could be easily described as "beige." He is sort of an Arthur Dent character who is thrown into totally unbelievable circumstances and has to adjust accordingly. His relationship both to Door and to the world around him grows and changes through the story. The secondary characters are also really great, from the antagonists Mr. Croup an Mr. Vandemar, to Old Bailey the Bird Man, to Hunter the bodyguard, to the Marquis de Carabas...a character who walks a fine line between good and shady.

On the whole, this was a great story was a lot of good writing and very funny bits. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a little fantasy now and then.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

CR3 #24: Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen

The last several books I've read have been heavy, dull, or generally not particularly exciting. I decided I needed a break, and picked up a good old-fashioned murder mystery book. I wasn't disappointed--this was exactly the break I needed.

This is the eighth book in Tess Gerritsen's "Rizzoli & Isles" series, and focuses more than any other on medical examiner Maura Isles. Maura has gone to Wyoming for a pathology conference, and while there meets up with an old college friend, Doug. Wanting to get away from her life for a little while and do something besides think of her failing relationship with priest Father Brophy, Maura agrees to join Doug and his friends for a quick ski trip. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong and Maura soon finds herself lost in the wilderness, surrounded by danger and dead bodies. Meanwhile, back in Boston detective Jane Rizzoli begins to worry about her friend, especially after Maura doesn't arrive home at the scheduled time. Jane, her husband Agent Gabriel Dean, Father Brophy, and the mysterious Anthony Sansone travel out to Wyoming to look for Maura. The action and suspense continues from there, winding up with a rather surprising conclusion.

This book is not going to rock your world or anything, but it is a good mindless-fun read. Although it could perhaps be read as a stand-alone, it's much better when read along with the rest of the series. The characters of Jane and Maura both continue to be tough, smart women, which is great. Some of the side characters were a little two-dimensional, but they served their purpose well enough. On the whole, this is a fun book as long you don't think or expect too much.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CR3 #23: House of Windows by John Langan

House of Windows is the story of Veronica, a young widow. She tells the story of her short marriage and of her husband's mysterious disappearance to a writer she meets during a Cape weekend. It's a tale that begins as a love story between a young woman and her much older (and married) professor. They fall and love and eventually are married. Things seem to be going well, but soon the professor's son from his first marriage arrives to cause trouble. When he dies shortly after in Afghanistan, things begin to go horribly wrong for the couple, and the trouble seems to center around their home, Belvedere House.

This is a book that wants to be both deeply suspenseful as well as literary. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it doesn't necessarily succeed on either point. On one hand, there is a great deal of literature involved, as the professor is a Dickens expert, and Veronica follows in his literary footsteps, with a concentration in 19th century literature. Perhaps I just missed the allusions, since I have read very little Dickens, and absolutely no Melville. I suppose it's possible that some of the book's themes may have gone right over my head because I wasn't able to pick up on the references. My main disappointment came from the lack of suspense. It becomes obvious fairly early on what is happening to Veronica and the professor, but then it seems to take forever for the story to come to a head. There are moments of suspense and horror, but then they dissipate and we spend another 20 - 30 pages rehashing repetitive relationship arguments or talking extensively of the history of painters who don't exist and are mere red herrings in terms of the story. It's almost as if John Langan wanted to write a haunted house story and a ghost story, but didn't connect them properly.

The was the second book in a row that I found myself looking at and going "There is still THAT MUCH left to go? I feel like I've been reading forever!"

I wouldn't recommend this one--it will be unsatisfactory both for those who are looking for good writing and for those looking for a good scare.

Friday, March 18, 2011

CR3 #22: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I wanted so very badly to like Good Omens. Many people for whose opinions I hold great respect think this is a great book. They find it funny and interesting and a 4 or 5-star read.

Unfortunately, I was just this side of hating it. I am pretty sure this is not due to Neil Gaiman's involvement, since I enjoyed the book of his that I've read. I have come to the conclusion that despite my best efforts, I do not like Terry Pratchett. This is hard for me to admit. One of my very dearest friends, Sacred Cow, loves his work. In all other things I bow to her expertise, but on Terry Pratchett I am afraid we shall just have to disagree. I find his work desperately wacky...not dryly wacky (Douglas Adams) or whimsically wacky (Ellen Raskin) but more like Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair or the work of Christopher Moore--wacky for only wacky's sake.

The plot of Good Omens concerns Armageddon. A small mix-up at the birth of the Antichrist results on a case of mistaken identity. Two representatives of of Good and Evil, Aziraphale and Crowley, are trying to make things right before it's too late. There's also two witch-hunters, a young witch, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, some demons, the Antichrist, a fortune be honest, there is simply too much going on. I enjoyed some of the characters--the interactions between Aziraphale and Crowley in particular were really terrific--but there are just too damn many of them. There are POV sections from far too many people which do nothing but distract. If the authors could have settled on perhaps three or four characters and stuck with them, I might have enjoy this more. However, all the bouncing around combined with the aforementioned desperate wackiness did nothing but give me a headache. There were bits that I enjoyed, and some things that were very clever--having the Four Horsemen as bikers, with War as a war correspondant and Famine as a diet guru was pretty cool. I was delighted any time Crowley came on the scene, since he was such an interesting and funny character.

I wish I could have enjoyed this book more, but instead I just kept finding myself checking to see how much more I had to go. I can't say whether I recommend this or not, since I seem to have a very rare opinion of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CR3 #21: Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam

Alex Beam's book details the rise and fall of McLean Mental Hospital, once the go-to destination for New England's elite and eccentric.

The book begins with the creation of the original hospital in Charlestown in 1818, and follows it from its decaying neighborhood out to the rolling hills of Newton, where donations from Boston's wealthy allowed for the construction of an asylum that more closely resembled a cluster of beautiful mansions. The grounds were designed and arranged by one of the most famous landscapers of the time (shortly to become a "guest" of the hospital himself) and the staff treated every client as though they'd never left their Beacon Hill mansions.

The story continues, chronicling the history of McLean itself, the lives of several of the more notable patients (many of whom were the black secrets of their rich families), and the evolution of psychology--the changing beliefs that led from dunking, cold sheets, and electroshock to insulin comas, Freudian analysis, and lobotomies, to pharmacology and talk therapy. He discusses the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, and their effect on the population at McLean--no longer was the place stuffed with batty elderly Boston Brahmans--it was instead filled with their grandchildren, suffering the consequences of drugs, free love, and having the audacity to challenge authority.

Beam includes many tales of McLean's more famous inhabitants: poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead, murderer Louis Agassiz Shaw II, musicians James, Livingston, and Kate Taylor, and Ray Charles, and Susanna Keysen, who memorialized her time at McLean in the book Girl, Interrupted.

Beam's book is well researched, and he has interviewed bother former patients and former employees. He also meets with Stephen Bergman, the author who wrote about his experiences as a resident at McLean in Mount Misery. It's an interesting tale, combining history and science with amusing anecdotes. I'd recommend it to anyone who has an interest in mental health or Boston history.

Friday, March 11, 2011

CR3 #20: Tunnels of Blood by Darren Shan

Tunnels of Blood is the third book in the Cirque Du Freak series. This installment follows young half-vampire Darren Shan as he and his vampire mentor, Mr. Crepsley, leave the Cirque Du Freak for a secret mission. They take along Darren's friend Evra the Snake Boy as a companion for Darren while Mr. Crepsley pursues his mysterious agenda. Through the course of the book, Darren gets a girlfriend and figures out Mr. Crepsley's secret, which puts them all in mortal danger.

This is a decent follow-up to the first two books, but it is not particularly exciting. It definitely leans more toward YA fiction (Does the girl like me? Do I like her? Should I kiss her?) than toward horror. Although it does get fairly interesting near the end, I found it on the whole to be a little dull. It's not a bad book, and would be particularly appropriate for a middle-schooler, but it's not a great piece of stand-alone work.

I am not sure that I'd recommend this -- I am not even sure if I will bother getting the next book in the series. Although there are some threads of the story that I'm really interested in, I don't know if it's really worth my time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

CR3 #19: D-Day June 6, 1944 by Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose writes some of the best historical non-fiction I have read (and I have read quite a lot.) His work regarding the European theater of WW2 is stellar--richly detailed and extremely well-researched.

This particular book deals with D-Day--there is some lead-up, details about how the invasion was planned and prepared for, but it is mostly just the events of June 6, 1944. Ambrose goes through each group that participated--paratroopers, bombers, sailors, infantry, engineers, Rangers, commandos, etc--and takes them from the staging ground up on to the beaches of Normandy. He explains, with the aid of photos and maps, where each group was, what their objectives were, and how successfully they completed the planned objectives.

The Allied invasion of France was a success due to several factors. The first was the ability of the Allies to create and produce the sheer amount of materials needed to move and equip a force of this size and nature. The second factor was the amount of planning that went into the process; the military personnel participating were trained so thoroughly that even unexpected changes and challenges were met without much panic. A third factor was the ability of the Allied troops to make adjustments--many of the commanding officers were killed early in the landing, and lower-level officers, noncoms, and even enlisted men were able (due partly to their extensive training) to stand up and lead their fellow men to the objectives. Another reason for success was the Allies' access to information--between Allied spies, Air Force photography, and members of the French resistance, the Allies were able get a very good idea of what would be waiting for them, which allowed them to plan accordingly. A final factor was the German command's almost opposite situation--the soldiers were ill-prepared (many were either too young or too old, and had spent little time combat training, and instead spent most of their time building the Atlantic wall defenses), their information was poor (the Allies' use of misdirection led the majority of German forces to be in the north of France, preparing for an assault on Norway), their troops were often disinterested (many were prisoners from the Eastern front who were perfectly happy to surrender), they had trouble moving the supplies they had (bombing raids had disabled many of the roads and train tracks, making it difficult to get any supplies to the area), and the command structure was set up in a way that did not allow for initiative--everything had to be approved, sometimes directly by Hitler himself. By the time the Germans were aware of what was happening, it was already too late.

This book is extremely detailed, and it's clear that the author was very diligent about his research. He quotes hundreds of interviews and oral histories from men involved in all areas of the conflict, so much of the book is told in the words of the men who lived it. That adds a wonderful feeling of realism to the whole thing. It is amazing, funny, exciting, and sad by turns.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys American history. It is both well-written and jam-packed with information.

CBR11 #4:Pretending to Care - The Pretenders (Cemetery Girl #1) by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

I wanted to like this, but...I just didn't. I don't know if it was too short, or whether it would have more appeal for a YA audience...