Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Aftermath of a Hurricane

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is a devastating account of what happened at a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Sheri Fink spent years reporting on this story and her writing is strong, filled with grim details and dreadful scenes, but it needed to be told.

After the storm, Memorial Medical Center was flooded and lost power, stranding a large staff and nearly 200 patients, many of whom needed oxygen and ventilators to help them breathe. Due to communication breakdowns, a lack of emergency preparedness, and massive failures from both the hospital's owner and the government, rescue operations were slow and stalled, leading doctors and nurses to prioritize patients into groups of who would be rescued first, or at all. 

"Nobody wrote it directly in a message, but some employees began to worry that the choice of which patients went out first could affect their medical outcomes. A realization dawned on Memorial's incident commander, Susan Mulderick, that day. The variability in the sizes of helicopters that were landing and the length of time it was taking to move patients to the helipad left her with one conclusion: not all of the patients would be getting out alive."

On the third day after the hurricane, the most critical patients — the ones who staff members didn't think could be evacuated and who had a slim chance of survival — were given drugs that would help ease their pain, and also helped them to die. Some called it euthanasia, others called it a necessary decision during an extreme disaster:

"In the days since the storm, New Orleans had become an irrational and uncivil environment. It seemed to [Dr.] Thiele the laws of man and the normal standards of medicine no longer applied. He had no time to provide what he considered appropriate end-of-life care. He accepted the premise that the patients could not be moved and the staff had to go. He could not justify hanging a morphine drip and praying it didn't run out after everyone left and before the patient died, following an interval of acute suffering. He could rationalize what he was about to do as merely as abbreviating a normal process of comfort care — cutting corners — but he knew that it was technically a crime." 

The first half of the book provides almost an hour-by-hour account of what happened leading up to the storm and in the days following its landfall. It is a gripping, emotional read, and the situation is unimaginable. As conditions worsened inside the hospital — it was stifling hot without air conditioning, the only light came from flashlights and there was a overpowering smell of urine and feces because the sewers were overflowing — the staff described it as a hellish war zone and as a place that was no longer America.

The second half of the book, called The Reckoning, focuses on the investigation into the patient deaths. One doctor and two nurses were eventually arrested, but charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence, overwhelming public and political support for the workers, and criticism of the lack of preparedness and support from the government: "The issue of larger responsibility and blame, regardless of whether it would be admissible in a court of law, was on many people's minds. Individual decisions at the hospital had occurred in a context of failures of every sort. Since the storm, government agencies, private organizations and journalists had churned out reports that analyzed and found fault with actions and inaction at nearly every level of every system." 

Fink's epilogue highlights the lessons learned, if any, from what the hospitals in New Orleans faced after Katrina. Fink compares the situation to what happened after the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. In both cases, health care workers had to make tough choices about who would get access to limited medical resources. Fink's reporting is alarming because it addresses the issue of how many hospitals and other medical facilities have their generators on the ground floor, which can become useless in event of flooding. Similarly, not enough has been done to plan for emergency situations, such as a massive flu outbreak or another natural disaster. "Life and death in the immediate aftermath of a crisis most often depends on the preparedness, performance and decision making of the individuals on the scene. It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure."

I would highly recommend the book to health care professionals, first responders, those interested in bioethics, and anyone who appreciates excellent reporting.

Girlfriend, You Need a Makeover

The Truth About Style by Stacy London
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I have a girl crush on Stacy London. Back when I had cable, I watched her on "What Not to Wear" every week and wished I could go shopping with her. She is so funny and lively and chic! She seems like a woman who has it all.

Her book, "The Truth About Style" was surprisingly personal. It was a relief to find out that the fabulous Stacy London also struggles with body image and confidence issues. As a child, Stacy suffered from a severe outbreak of psoriasis, an autoimmune disorder that left red welts and crusty skin all over her body. She said she spent years wearing only turtlenecks and long pants, even on the hottest days. She felt like a freak, and the kids in her school made fun of her. She eventually recovered from psoriasis, but in college she became anorexic, her weight dropping down to 90 pounds. Later, she couldn't stop binge eating and her weight climbed to 180. Stacy, now in her 40s, said her weight still fluctuates a bit, but she's smarter about knowing how to dress her body.

"Style, unlike fashion, is personal. It's about the individual. You have to know yourself in order to utilize style. Style isn't selling you a false promise. It's reality based, and operates on the knowledge of what is right for you. ... Style is about enhancing who you are, and not attempting to look like someone you'll never be. With style, there are as many ways a woman can look beautiful as there are women."

After sharing her story, Stacy introduces nine different women, each one who needs help with their style. Some women don't know how to dress for their age or a change in weight, others have trouble finding clothes because they're curvy or plus-sized or tall or petite; one is a breast cancer survivor who wants to feel feminine again, another is a perfectionist and is scared to buy anything in case it's the wrong choice, and one is a busy mom who hasn't bought anything for herself in years because she gives it all for her kids. Stacy said she solicited appeals from hundreds of women who wanted a style makeover, which she calls "start-overs," and she picked nine women who represent problems lots of us face.

"Making excuses and letting fear rule our style stop us from expressing our true selves and what we could look like at our best. We get in the way of our own potential instead of reveling in it. Negative thought-loops are self-perpetuating. If we don't like what we see in the mirror, we either ignore it or we overcompensate for it ... By changing your style, you're forced to change the way you perceive yourself. And if you can see yourself differently, you can start to feel differently. If you put on clothes that actually flatter your figure, you suddenly may not feel as badly about your body anymore. When you think positively about one aspect of yourself, it becomes easier to believe in yourself in lots of different contexts."

I related to several of the women's stories and appreciated the style advice Stacy gives to each. The book has lots of photographs, including before and after photos, and descriptions for the clothes and accessories. Stacy always advises people to dress the body they have now, not the one they wish they had:

"Nobody is perfect. Don't approach the mirror and hope, each time, that you'll look like someone else. You're going to be disappointed if you do ... No matter how much you subjectively love or hate your shape, it's still the same body you're going to wake up with each morning. Stop exhausting yourself hoping, wishing, praying to be someone different, and take pleasure in knowing that you are who you are, in all your fabulous uniqueness. Go about the business of working with that real body to create a style you love and can love your shape in."

At the back of the book, Stacy includes a shopping guide of stores and designers for different women's needs, such as plus sizes, petites, glamazons, shoes, denim, etc. I would recommend this book to any woman who feels like they are stuck in a style rut and needs a boost to get out. It's like getting a hug and helpful nudge from a fabulous friend.

15 Questions with Gentleman James Thane

Not only is Shelf Inflicted's James Thane adept at disposing of corpses, he's also a published author.  His newest book, Until Death, is available December 17th.  Anyway, the Shelf Inflicted staff recently peppered him with questions so here we go.

What made you know you wanted to be a writer?
From the time I was a tiny child, I was always an avid reader. My father’s cousin was the children’s librarian at the local public library when I was growing up and she tipped me to all the best books. Sometime when I was eight or nine, it occurred to me that it would be a lot of fun to be the person who actually wrote the book rather than just reading it, and so I sat down and went to work on a gripping adventure story. But before I could get very far along with it, the other neighborhood boys came along, insisting that I needed to play a pickup football game with them. That sort of thing went on for a number of years, and then I discovered girls, which was another major distraction, and by the time I finally got back around to writing, I’d lost the story I’d begun and had to start all over again.

What is the appeal of the crime genre for you?
My parents were fans of crime fiction and so the first “adult” novels that I read were books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and other folks like that. I loved the books as much as my parents did, mainly because they’re classic stories of good guys versus bad and truth and justice almost always triumph in the end. I also always enjoyed trying to puzzle out the mystery ahead of the reveal at the end of the book. In that sense, I was literally raised in the genre and, although I do periodically read in others, when I want to relax with a good book, I almost always grab a crime novel from the shelf. I’m also a big fan of series fiction; I like following characters I enjoy from one book to another and, of course, you find a lot of such series in this genre.

What authors have been the most influential on your style?
That’s really hard to say. I think a writer is inevitably influenced by every other author he or she reads, at least to some extent. I think this happens as often as not, subconsciously. The more books you read, especially in genre fiction, you tend to learn what works and what doesn’t without even thinking about it all that much. In that context, even a bad book teaches you something. But like most other writers I try as hard as I can not to mimic other authors that I really like. I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series and I also love people like Ian Rankin, John Sandford, Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, to name just a few. My dream as a writer would be one day to write a book nearly as good as any of theirs, although not exactly like any of theirs. In that respect, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. 

If you were ever murdered/abducted, which classic literary detective would you want on the case to solve the crime or ensure your safe return?
If it’s all the same to you, I’d much prefer to be abducted rather than murdered. If one of my favorite protagonists is going to be involved, I want to be around to enjoy the experience. But I don’t want to be abducted by any sloppy, run-of-the-mill kidnapper, so I assume I’m in one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. I’m probably they guy who has the combination to the safe of the armored car company that Parker‘s crew is going to knock over on Monday morning, and when I get home from work on the Friday afternoon before, they kidnap me and my family so that they can spend the weekend torturing me until I give up the combination.

When my wife fails to pick up my mother-in-law for bingo that night, my MIL knows that something is badly amiss. She calls the cops, but they won’t do anything other than taking a missing persons report. So my MIL trudges down to Armstrong’s Saloon and hires Matthew Scudder to find us. [Donald Westlake, who also wrote as Richard Stark, and Scudder’s creator, Lawrence Block, were best friends and collaborated on a couple of books. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both of their protagonists would be involved in this caper.]

My MIL makes it clear that she doesn’t care if she gets me back or not, but she is worried about her daughter and grandchildren. Scudder goes to a jazz club where he finds Danny Boy Bell in the company of an extremely tall, thin Nordic blonde of indeterminate sexual orientation. Danny Boy tells Matt that he’s heard through the grapevine that Alan Grofield is back in town. Matt know that if Grofield is around, Parker probably can’t be far behind. Matt also knows by now that I’ve got the combination to the safe and that it’s going to be overloaded with cash on Monday morning because it’s payday at the big factory on the edge of town where they still pay all the workers in cash. Matt puts two and two together and figures out what is probably going on.

Matt knows, of course, that Grofield has a huge interest in the theater and another source tells him that Grofield used to date an actress named Sally Something Or Other. Matt checks with Actor’s Equity and discovers that Sally is currently appearing in an Off-Off-Broadway play. He goes to the play and hangs around outside after. He sees Sally leave with Grofield and follows them to Sally’s shabby rooming house. 

Matt stays outside in the cold drizzling rain for the rest of the night until Grofield finally emerges at 5:00 a.m. Matt follows Grofield to a house in a run-down neighborhood where nobody looks twice if a group of tough-looking thugs suddenly moves into the neighborhood and shares a house together. Matt sees Parker and Grofield leave the house. (They’re going to steal the semi-tractor trailer that they’re going to use to haul away the loot.)

Scudder sneaks up to the house, looks in the window, and sees me tied to a chair, being brutally beaten by one of Parker’s henchmen who is still trying to make me give up the combination. Matt jimmies a window in a back bedroom, sneaks in and kills the two bad guys who are in the house at the time. Miraculously, neither I nor my wife nor any of our seven kids are hit by the hailstorm of flying lead.

Matt calls Joe Durkin who sends the cops and when Parker and Grofield return with the stolen truck, they see all the cop cars and know that the caper has been blown. They get away safely, but that’s OK with me. Even though Parker has kidnapped me and my family and has beaten me nearly to death, I’ve developed a grudging respect for him. 

I have about twelve broken ribs; I’ve been concussed, and I’ve lost thirty-seven quarts of blood. But Matt tells me to man up and with a couple of butterfly Band-Aids and a shot of Wild Turkey I’m good to go. Because I refused to give up the combination, my boss names me Employee of the Month. He gives me a nice plaque and a gift certificate from Taco Bell. 

That night my MIL invites the wife and kids to dinner. I don’t get invited, of course, but that’s OK, because Matt and I go to Grogan’s Open House and spend the night drinking and spinning tales with Mick Ballou. (Matt is drinking Coke, naturally, while Mick and I make a serious assault on a couple of bottles of Jameson.) Since Mick and I are both Irish, we have a lot to talk about, and as we’re leaving the Butcher’s Mass early the next morning, Mick and Matt tell me to drop by anytime. That, plus the fact that I did not have to go to dinner at my MIL’s, makes the whole savage ordeal more than worthwhile…

How do you react to a negative review of one of your books?
Anyone who says that they aren’t bothered by negative reviews is probably lying. They hurt and they make you question your worth as a human being. Sometimes you think that a review is totally unfair and at other times you have to grudgingly admit that maybe the reviewer had a legitimate point. It’s sort of like having your boss give you a negative evaluation at the time of your annual performance review. Still, by the time they see their first reviews, most writers have already had a lot of experience with rejection and your hide should be fairly thick. You’ve already experienced all the agents who initially rejected your book as well as the publishers might have taken a pass, and that hurts a lot too.

In that case you have to remember that ninety-five percent of the people who ultimately get published go through the same experience. You draw comfort from the fact that even a great writer like James Lee Burke was rejected by something like 105 publishers before someone was willing to take a chance on his first book. And, of course, you think of the agent who told Tony Hillerman that she really liked his first Joe Leaphorn book but that he should really leave out all that “Indian stuff.”

In the case of bad reviews, you simply have to remind yourself that everyone gets them—even the most successful authors. Mostly this is because readers have widely different tastes and what appeals to some will not appeal to others. I’ve seen scathing reviews for books that a lot of other people loved, by writers who’ve sold millions of books. So I console myself by saying, “Well, if it can happen to him or her, it’s sure as hell going to happen to me.” That doesn’t mean that you’re ever going to like it, and you certainly hope that it doesn’t happen very often, but if you’re going to be in this business, you have to understand that the occasional bad review is simply a fact of life.

What do you prefer reading – paperback, hardcover, or e-books?
Although I have a couple of e-readers now, I still prefer to read a traditional printed book. I’m one of those people who loves the tactile sensation of holding the book in my hand, smelling the pages and all of that. I don’t really care if it’s a paperback or hardcover book; it’s more important to me that the book is well-made and can stand up to several readings. I’ve had both paperbacks and hardcovers that have basically fallen apart on the first reading and I really hate that. Once I buy a book, I hang onto it forever and I want it to last.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
My first attempt at crime fiction was a fairly traditional mystery novel. I knew nothing at all about the business and practically the second I had a first draft done, I was sending it out to agents with visions of the huge royalty checks that were about to start rolling in. But nobody wanted to take it on and most of the responses I got were the nebulous kind about “the book doesn’t fit my list at this time,” and that sort of thing. One agent, though, actually read the manuscript before rejecting it and sent a note with the rejection slip basically telling me that I wasn’t ready for prime time. Given my exaggerated and totally unrealistic expectations, that was a hard bit of advice. But she was absolutely right and re-reading that book now, I tend to cringe a lot. Fortunately, it’s sitting in the “inactive” file on my hard drive and will never see the light of day.

At the other extreme, following that experience I wrote the first Sean Richardson novel and had learned a lot from my experience with the first book. I sent out some query letters and immediately got requests for partials and fulls from three New York agents. One of them called me a week after I’d sent her the manuscript and asked me please not to sign with anyone else until she’d had a chance to read the book a second time. She called me back two days later saying that she’d love to rep the book and that she thought it was the best first novel she’d ever read. As a newbie who’d experienced nothing but rejection up to that point, that was easily the best compliment I’d ever gotten.

Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I just write. I’ve tried outlining but it just doesn’t work for me, at least when writing fiction. I tend to approach writing a book the same way I read one; every time I pick it up, I never know what’s going to happen next and I’m always anxious to find out. The only problem with this approach is that sometimes what seemed like a great idea just fizzles out and goes nowhere. I’ve got several attempts at novels in my computer now where I got 10, or 15,000 words into a book and couldn’t see a way to do any more with it.

Do you have a day job in addition to being an author?
I’m between day jobs at the moment and hoping to stay that way. I much prefer the work schedule of a full-time writer, staying up until all hours of the night and then hauling myself out of bed at the crack of 8:30 in the morning.

Are there any characters in your stories that you personally identify with?
Not overtly. I suspect that any character a writer creates is at least in some small way an extension of her or her own personality. Sean Richardson shares a lot of my tastes in music, food and things like that for example, but I really don’t see him as an alter ego.

How do you come up with names for your characters? Do you think of names before you write, or do you have to wait until you get to know the characters a little?
I’m really bad about this. I know that a lot of other writers agonize over character names and that some of them have really complex systems for naming their characters. In my case, when it comes time to name a new character, especially one in a minor supporting role, I’m usually in the middle of the story and I don’t want to be distracted by stopping to think up a clever name for the character. So I just give the character the first name that pops into my mind, figuring that later I’ll go back and think of a name that really fits him or her. But what almost always happens is that after a while I begin to think of the character with the name I’ve already given him or her. I get attached to the name and rarely ever go back and change it. Of course this may simply be evidence of a certain amount of laziness on my part.

Have you ever wanted to work on a book with another author? If so, who? 
No, I haven’t. I think it would be difficult for me to write with another person, although some other writers relish the chance. If I were afforded the opportunity to write with another author that I really admire, I’d be very flattered but I’d doubtless reject the offer. For example, as most of his readers know, John Sandford uses collaborators for his Virgil Flowers books. I love the series, but if Sandford called and asked me to knock out a first draft of the next one, I’d have to turn him down for fear that everyone would hate me for screwing up a perfectly good series. Instead of talking about that “F***ing Flowers,” everybody would be bitching about that “F***ing Thane.”

Have you ever Wanted to write outside your genre of choice? 
Yes. I actually started by writing non-fiction, and I’ve written one book and a number of journal and magazine articles dealing with the development of the American West. Writing crime novels was actually the departure in my case.

What was the road from No Place to Die to Until Death like, what with the collapse of Dorchester and everything?
It was beyond discouraging. I had an editor at Dorchester who really liked the work I was doing and who was talking about having me do a book a year for them. Once No Place To Die was published, I thought I was finally on a roll with my writing career. Dorchester bought Until Death along with an option for the next book and then suspended operations only a few weeks before they were to release it. They had paid the full advance for the book which was both the good news and the bad, because it meant that they still owned the rights to the book and I couldn’t do anything else with it. At that point, I had no idea what would happen with my career and feared that I might be all the way back at ground zero.

When the dust finally settled, though, Amazon bought Dorchester’s intellectual property, which included my two books. They were assigned to Thomas & Mercer, which is Amazon’s imprint for crime fiction. Fortunately, T&M liked the books and negotiated a new deal, much better than the one I had with Dorchester. They then brought out a new trade paperback edition of No Place To Die and published Until Death in trade paperback. So in the end, it all worked out for the best. The people at T&M are great to work with and they are publishing much nicer editions of the books than the mass market paperbacks that Dorchester was releasing. So for all the trauma that was associated with the situation, I wound up in a much better place.

Is there another Sean Richardson book in the pipeline?
Yes, though perhaps not immediately. While writing Until Death, I had an idea for a stand-alone suspense novel that I’m just now finishing. I’m hoping that T&M will like it and will publish it as my next book. At the same time, I’m also working on a third Sean Richardson book that would be next in line if everything works out the way I hope it will.

The most important question: hard or soft tacos?
I hate to complain, but I think this question is very unfair; isn’t it a lot like asking a parent which of his children he prefers? It depends, I think, on where I’m having the taco and what’s in it. Sometimes I prefer hard; sometimes soft. There’s a place that used to be down the road from me that made a fabulous soft taco with grilled pork and mango salsa. It was my all-time favorite taco and so, if you’re really going to press me for an answer, I’d have to say soft. But it would be a very close call. Thanks for asking, though.

Mystic River

Mystic RiverMystic River by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, three boys were fighting in the street when two men claiming to be plainclothes cops show up. One kid gets in the car, the others stay put, and their lives will never be the same. Decades later, Dave Boyle, the kid who got into the car, is accused of killing the daughter of Jimmy Marcus, one of the other boys, and the third boy has grown up to be Sean Devine, the cop in charge of the case. Did Boyle do it? And if he didn't, can Sean find the real killer?

Yeah, 2013 was supposed to be the year of Dennis Lehane for me. It probably would have been had I not discovered George Pelecanos. However, I'm back aboard the Lehane Train now and quite pleased.

While Mystic River is normally classified as a thriller, it's so much more than that, an exploration of growing up and what a traumatic childhood event can blossom into. Mystic River is the tale of three Boston boys who grew up to be very different Boston men. Dave Boyle has drifted from job to job, never quite managing to bury his abduction experience. Jimmy Marcus is a former career criminal who has gone straight and become a family man. And Sean Devine is a cop with a wife he hasn't seen in over a year and a child he's not sure is his.

From the beginning, Lehane kept the waters sufficiently muddy to hold my interest. While I knew I was supposed to assume Dave Boyle killed Katie Marcus, Lehane had me changing my opinion quite a few times. None of the three leads are very simple characters. Dave's got his childhood baggage but still tries to be the best husband and father he can be. Jimmy was once a criminal and is still a hard man but is a loving family man. Sean is a supercop but his marriage is in ruins and he's coming off a suspension for something very petty.

Once Sean is on the case, the book becomes very hard to put down, like it's been duct-taped to your hands. The mystery, unlike a lot of them these days, is solvable and I guessed who the killer was about 75% of the way through, even though I got the motive wrong.

The writing is everything I came to expect from the Kenzie and Gennaro series and then some. I think this is the book where Dennis Lehane went from "Good Thriller Writer" to simply "Great Writer."

Five stars. I suppose I'll track down the movie now.

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