About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, June 28, 2010

#49 - Fixing My Gaze

Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, by Susan R. Barry (New York: Basic Books, 2009).

Jacket summary: "When neuroscientist Susan Barry was fifty years old, she took an unforgettable trip to Manhattan. As she emerged from the dim light of the subway into the sunshine, she saw a view of the city that she had witnessed many times in the past but now saw in an astonishingly new way. Skyscrapers on corners appeared to loom out toward her like the bows of giant ships. Tree branches projected upward and outward, enclosing and commanding palpable volumes of space. Leaves created intricate mosaics in 3D. With each glance, she experienced the deliriously novel sense of immersion in a three dimensional world.

"Barry had been cross-eyed and stereoblind since early infancy. After half a century of perceiving her surroundings as flat and compressed, on that day she was seeing Manhattan in stereo depth for the first time in her life. As a neuroscientist, she understood just how extraordinary this transformation was, not only for herself but for the scientific understanding of the human brain. Scientists have long believed that the brain is malleable only during a 'critical period' in early childhood. According to this theory, Barry's brain had organized itself when she was a baby to avoid double vision -- and there was no way to rewire it as an adult. But Barry found an optometrist who prescribed a little-known program of vision therapy; after intensive training, Barry was ultimately able to accomplish what other scientists and even she herself had once considered impossible.

"A revelatory account of the brain's capacity for change, Fixing My Gaze describes Barry's remarkable journey and celebrates the joyous pleasure of our senses."

Table of Contents:
  1. Stereoblind
  2. Mixed-Up Beginnings
  3. School Crossings
  4. Knowing Where to Look
  5. Fixing My Gaze
  6. The Space Between
  7. When Two Eyes See as One
  8. Nature and Nurture
  9. Vision and Revision
My take: Clearly written and interesting, but I suppose I'm greedy; I wanted more of Barry's research and observations, especially when it came to the last 2 chapters.

If you know me IRL, you probably know I don't have binocular vision. Never have, and while that's been vaguely annoying on occasion (I never can see the pictures in those Magic Eye books that were all the rage a few years back, and 3D movies are lost on me), I've mostly not missed it. Until now, that is. One of the book's strong points is the eloquence with which Barry describes the profound joy and wonder of learning to see in stereo as an adult. I won't do it, but I'll admit that some of these passages had me musing about whether there are any behavioral optometrists in my area and whether insurance would cover such a thing.

Barry's early overview of the structure and function of the human eye is succinct and readable; if you've had high school biology, you shouldn't find it overly technical or confusing. She then goes on to describe her own experiences growing up essentially cross-eyed (OK, technically, strabismic, which is a word you'll see a lot in this book), lacking stereo vision despite (or perhaps because of?) several corrective surgeries in early childhood. Some of her early school experiences were pretty horrific (being placed in the "problem kids" class because school administrators assumed, despite her parents' and former teacher's protests, poor test performance (due to her visual difficulties) must mean low ability. While it's remarkable that she went on to become a neuroscientist and college professor with these early experiences, and she may be trying to make a point about the dangers of overreliance on testing and/or the importance of addressing "minor" vision impairments early on, I did find the childhood-and-schooling section of the book a bit slow. Yes, it's Barry's memoir, and she can talk as much about her own life as she wants ... but this is a relatively short book, and I'd much rather have seen her devote more time to the last chapter, which touches all too briefly on what her experience and that of other late-in-life stereo viewers means for theories of neural plasticity and critical developmental periods.

#48 - The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood (New York: Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 2009).

Jacket summary: "The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners -- a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life -- has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God's Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.

"Have others survived? Ren's bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers.

"Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/ lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move, but they can't stay locked away."

Opening line: "In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise."

My take: Due to its strange and unsettling setting, this book took a few chapters to reel me in, but was well worth the effort. Fascinating, funny, depressing, and ultimately hopeful, though not all at once.

We begin with the two principals and where they find themselves as the story opens, in Year 25. (Pay attention to the date stamps on the chapter headings; this is another of those stories that jumps around temporally, and if you don't catch this right away, you'll be very confused.) Toby and Ren have survived what's been dubbed the Waterless Flood (a superplague that apparently takes no prisoners) inadvertently, by virtue of their isolation: Ren, an exotic dancer/ call girl, because she's been shut up in Scales and Tails' "Sticky Zone" until her medical tests come back clean; and Toby, an herbalist/ beekeeper, because the God's Gardeners have sent her underground to protect her (and them) from an incredibly persistent Bad Guy from her past. And to begin with, that's all we -- and they -- know. Neither knows for sure how long her food supplies will hold out or who else among her acquaintances might be left alive, though the idealistic Ren hopes desperately for news of her friend Amanda.

From here, the story jumps around to fill us in on who Toby and Ren are, and how they got to the point at which the book opens. Both came from relatively comfortable, even bourgeois, beginnings, but saw their situations go south almost overnight. Toby, penniless and on the run after her parents' deaths, lands a job at a SecretBurger (so named because you never know exactly what kind of animal protein you're going to get), but finds herself "favored" by the aforementioned Bad Guy, whose M.O. is to slowly brutalize his chosen victims to death. Just as her time is running out, a well-timed scuffle with the God's Gardeners leads to her being adopted and even embraced by the sect (though she's never quite sure just how deeply she believes). Here, her path crosses that of the young Ren, whose mother abandoned their middle-class suburban life to cast her lot with the Gardeners' resident bad-ass, Zeb.

The complex tale of how the two get from A to B is engaging in itself, and peppered with background details that are both funny and disturbing. The shadowy CorpsSeCorp, which serves as both police force and government, wholly corporate-controlled and wholly corrupt, is but one example; the omnipresent Happicuppa franchise, eschewed by the Gardeners even though it does make one darned irresistible cup of coffee, is a lighter one. I also enjoyed the God's Gardeners hymns printed at the beginning of each chapter (real churchgoers will notice after awhile that there are only one or two tunes you need to sing 'em all), the saints and feast days, and the other finely-rendered minutae that give the sect -- somewhere between right-wing fundamentalists without the right wing, and the holier-than-though organic vegan movement familiar to anyone in a college town.

Read Year of the Flood. It's a good one.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

#47 - Lavinia

Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Orlando: Harcourt, 2008)

Jacket summary: "In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire. Lavinia herself never speaks a word in the poem. Now Ursula K. Le Guin gives her a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.

"Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come. Her mother demands that she marry handsome, ambitious Turnus. But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner -- that she will be the cause of a bitter war -- and that her husband will not live long. When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands. And so she tells us what Vergil did not: the story of her life, and of the love of her life. Lavinia is a book of passion and war and the cost of war, generous and austerely beautiful, from a writer working at the height of her powers."

Opening line: "I went to the salt beds by the mouth of the river, in the May of my nineteenth year, to get salt for the sacred meal."

My take: A novel of the Trojan Wars for those whose taste runs more to Greek tragedies than the Colleen McCullough First Man in Rome series (though I'm the first to admit there's nothing wrong with the latter now and again). Le Guin makes a setting that's, well, almost as old as they come seem both original and plausible, probably by not introducing too many glaring anachronisms, and by creating characters whose views on destiny, prophecy, honor, and duty evoke shades of Antigone or The Trojan Women.

Lavinia, title character and narrator, is the sole surviving child of king Latinus of Latium, and as such, it is her duty to marry and carry her father's line and kingdom forward. While her mother, Amata, has grown cold and half-mad since the death of her two sons in childhood, her father cherishes his daughter, and entrusts her with a remarkable degree of autonomy. For years, she has accompanied and assisted him on visits to the sacred forest and oracle at Albunea; thus, it seems only natural when she requests and is granted permission to venture there on her own. Here, over a series of visits, she meets a poet who offers cryptic explanations of both his own identity and Lavinia's future:
"'I am a wraith,' he said. 'I am not here in my body. My body is lying on the deck of a ship sailing from Greece to Italy, but I don't think I'll get to Brundisium even if the ship does. I am sick, I am dying, I am on my way to ... to Acheron ... Or else I am a false dream. But they come from under there, don't they, the false dreams? They nest like bats in the great tree at the gates of the kingdom of the shadows ... So maybe I am a bat that has flown here from Hades. A dream that has flown into a dream. Into my poem. To Albunea, the sacred grove, where King Latinus heard his grandfather Faunus prophesy, telling him not to marry his daughter to a man of Latium ... ' His voice was low and musical, like the voice of one talking to the spirits, praying; and that almost laugh came and went in it. ...

"'I think it has not happened yet. Faunus has not spoken to Latinus. Perhaps it never did -- never will happen. You shall not be concerned about it. I made it up. I imagined it. A dream within a dream ... within the dream that has been my life.'"
These spectral visions give weight to Lavinia's distrust of Turnus and the other suitors vying for her hand in marriage, and on the day she is to tell her father who she has chosen, she convinces him instead to consult the spirits at Albunea. Here, of course, Latinus too hears the prophesy that Lavinia is to marry not a man of Latium, but a foreigner -- one who, even at that moment, is coming toward them.

Latinus is duly convinced, and after a rough start, goes to meet Aeneas offering peace and marriage to Lavinia. Turnus and the other lesser kings of Italy, however, are incensed that Latinus has chosen none of them for Lavinia, and a bloody, treacherous war begins. As Lavinia explains in the introduction, "Like Spartan Helen, I caused a war. She caused hers by letting men who wanted her take her. I caused mine because I wouldn't be given, wouldn't be taken, but chose my man and my fate."

The story is told mostly as it unfolds, but is interspersed with the reflections of a much-older Lavinia years later. She knows from the start that Aeneas will not live long after their marriage (though she tries to deny it years later, when the two have fallen in love), though he does not, and this knowledge lends a poignancy to their brief time together. When his death finally does come to pass, she must maintain a life for herself and their young son, Silvius, in the kingdoms of her stepson, the heavy-handed and ineffective Ascanius, and her aging father, until Silvius can grow to manhood and assume his rightful throne.

An interesting book with some downright beautiful passages. I recommend it highly.

Monday, June 14, 2010

#46 - Homer & Langley

Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow (New York: Random House, 2009).

Jacket summary: "Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers -- the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley's proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers -- wars, political movements, technological advances -- and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians ... and their household lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves."

Opening line: "I'm Homer, the blind brother."

My take: Didn't know quite what to expect here, but this was an interesting book. Loosely based on the famous if bizarre lives of the real Collyer brothers (no, I'd not heard of them either, but they died in the 1940s), it follows 2 Fifth Avenue recluses from their childhood and youth (long-haired pianist Homer goes blind; Langley goes off to fight the Great War and comes back ... different) in the 1910s, through their brushes with the Jazz Age (their long-time cook's grandson becomes a jazz horn player of some renown before moving South to wed and ultimately dying in WWII), Great Depression, and mid-20th century gangsters, and eventually providing a temporary crash pad for a tribe of hippies in the 1960s. Aside from the historical background, not much actually happens to the brothers -- largely, they become increasingly withdrawn and reclusive while the outside world transforms itself -- and normally, this bothers me in a story. Not here, though; the characters and their/ Doctorow's observations on 20th century history and progress make for compelling reading even without an action-packed plot. As was my experience with Ragtime, I find Doctorow a bit slow going in places, but I always feel richer for having read it. Homer and Langley is no exception.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

#45 - Secrets of Eden

Yesterday -- only a day overdue! -- I finished Secrets of Eden (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2010).

Jacket summary: "'There,' says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, finds his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about .. angels.

"Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice's daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor for the girl and a shoulder for Stephen -- who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.

"But then the state's attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself ... and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew."

Opening line: "As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing."

My take: Initially, I felt like I was reading the much-revised final version of a story that started out as The Law of Similars. I got over it -- Secrets ultimately proved to be a stronger book -- but it nonetheless had its flaws, and is a long way from being as compelling as Midwives or The Double Bind.

Set in contemporary, bucolic Haverhill, Vermont, Secrets of Eden is narrated in turn by four different characters: Stephen Drew, the (so it seems) unusually bereaved and guilty pastor who baptized Alice only hours before her death; state attorney Catherine Benincasa, whose storybook family life contrasts dramatically with the horrors she sees in her work, and who becomes suspicious of Drew almost immediately; Heather Laurent, rock star author whose hippie-dippie, New Age-y beliefs about angels stem from a pivotal moment in her own tragic childhood; and Katie, the Haywards' now-orphaned 15-year-old daughter and all-around Good Kid, whose future the others can only begin to imagine.

You just know when you start a book like this that there's going to be a twist at the end. There is, of course, and I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not guessing correctly what it would be. We do learn, fairly early on, that whether or not it resembles Eden, there are secrets aplenty in Haverhill. Alice's diary is found, and its easily-deciphered code reveals that Stephen was her lover as well as her pastor. Crime scene analysis (I'll spare you the grisly details, which seemed a bit over the top to me) suggests that while George Hayward may have killed Alice, he probably didn't shoot himself. And Stephen, whose faith was faltering even before Alice's murder, feels called to leave his pulpit and Haverhill ... only to arrive in New York City on Heather's doorstep. Understandably, this starts to look a little suspicious.

Perhaps the book would have been more compelling had the narrators been introduced in a different order. Other reviewers have complained that Stephen is unlikeable, and while I don't disagree, I think the bigger problem is that he's just not very interesting. This is too bad, as the introductory chapter -- in which he ponders his growing irritation with the (in his words) whiny concerns his church members bring forward for prayer each Sunday -- has some promise; suggesting a disillusionment with the ministry that's at once funny and sad. Likewise, Catherine Benincasa, the second narrator, just doesn't seem to fit into the story all that well. Sure, I understand her role as the state's attorney, but we see very little of her actually interacting with Stephen, Katie, or any of the other principals. It's as though Bohjalian dropped her in to provide explanations, forgetting that it's always more interesting to be shown than to be told.

Heather's narrative is more solid, and the character more likeable, than the previous two, but as with Law of Similars, it's hard to understand how she and Stephen become romantically involved. Given that she herself was orphaned by her own parents' murder-suicide, after witnessing years of their abuse, her empathy for Katie makes sense, but I think we'd have had a better story had the author not needed to shoehorn this whirlwind love affair between troubled souls in there.

Katie's section seemed to me the strongest of the four, probably because Bohjalian succeeds in capturing the minutae that make an adolescent character believable: her awkwardness about imposing on her best friend's family, who take her in after her parents die; her bemused observation about teachers giving her a free pass; her complicated views and feelings about her parents' marriage. Unfortunately, the skillful way in which she's rendered doesn't manage to give us a deeper understanding of her parents, or even get to know Heather and Stephen more thoroughly. In the end, it's only mildly interesting to find out what really happened, and only Katie we can bring ourselves to care or wonder about once the book ends.

Friday, June 11, 2010

#44 - The Shock Doctrine

My (ahem) legions of followers will recall that often, when I like a book well enough to finish it but am less than overwhelmed, I'll say something along the lines of, "Well, it's worth a read, but I'm glad I checked it out of the library rather than shelling out for my own copy."

Well, Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007) is different. For this one, it'd probably have been safer and cheaper if I had purchased my own copy -- not so much because I'll want to read it over and over again, but for all those times I was this close to hurling it across the room and/or plunging my favorite chef's knife through the photographic bullet hole in the cover.

Don't misunderstand me; this is a brilliant and provocative book -- but it's also by turns maddening, infuriating, and utterly depressing (which is why it took me almost 2 weeks to slog through).

Jacket summary: "The bestselling author of No Logo shows how the global 'free market' has exploited crises and shock for three decades, from Chile to Iraq. In her groundbreaking reporting over the past few years, Naomi Klein introduced the term 'disaster capitalism.' Whether covering Baghdad after the U.S. occupation, Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami, or New Orleans post-Katrina, she witnessed something remarkably similar. People still reeling from catastrophe were being hit again, this time with economic 'shock treatment,' losing their land and homes to rapid-fire corporate makeovers. The Shock Doctrine tells the story of the most dominant ideology of our time, Milton Friedman's free market economic revolution. In contrast to the popular myth of this movement's peaceful global victory, Klein shows how it has exploited moments of shock and extreme violence in order to implement its economic policies in so many parts of the world from Latin America and Eastern Europe to South Africa, Russia, and Iraq. At the core of disaster capitalism is the use of cataclysmic events to advance radical privatization combined with the privatization of the disaster response itself. Klein argues that by capitalizing on crises, created by nature or war, the disaster capitalism complex now exists as a booming new economy, and is the violent culmination of a radical economic project that has been incubating for fifty years."

Table of Contents:

Introduction - Blank is Beautiful: Three Decades of Erasing and Remaking the World

Part 1 - Two Doctor Shocks: Research and Development
  • 1. The Torture Lab: Ewen Cameron, the CIA and the Maniacal Quest to Erase and Remake the Human Mind
  • 2. The Other Doctor Shock: Milton Friedman and the Search for a Laissez-Faire Laboratory
Part 2 - The First Test: Birth Pangs
  • 3. States of Shock: The Bloody Birth of the Counterrevolution
  • 4. Cleaning the Slate: Terror Does Its Work
  • 5. "Entirely Unrelated": How an Ideology Was Cleansed of Its Crimes
Part 3 - Surviving Democracy: Bombs Made of Laws
  • 6. Saved by a War: Thatcherism and Its Useful Enemies
  • 7. The New Doctor Shock: Economic Warfare Replaces Dictatorship
  • 8. Crisis Works: The Packaging of Shock Therapy
Part 4 - Lost in Transition: While We Wept, While We Trembled, While We Danced
  • 9. Slamming the Door on History: A Crisis in Poland, a Massacre in China
  • 10. Democracy Born in Chains: South Africa's Constricted Freedom
  • 11. Bonfire of a Young Democracy: Russia Chooses "The Pinochet option"
  • 12. The Capitalist Id: Russia and the New Era of the Boor Market
  • 13. Let It Burn: The Looting of Asia and "The Fall of a Second Berlin Wall"
Part 5 - Shocking Times: The Rise of the Disaster Capitalism Complex
  • 14. Shock Therapy in the U.S.A.: The Homeland Security Bubble
  • 15. A Corporatist State: Removing the Revolving Door, Putting in an Archway
Part 6 - Iraq, Full Circle: Overshock
  • 16. Erasing Iraq: In Search of a "Model" for the Middle East
  • 17. Ideological Blowback: A Very Capitalist Disaster
  • 18. Full Circle: From Blank Slate to Scorched Earth
Part 7 - The Movable Green Zone: Buffer Zones and Blast Walls
  • 19. Blanking the Beach: "The Second Tsunami"
  • 20. Disaster Apartheid: A World of Green Zones and Red Zones
  • 21. Losing the Peace Incentive: Israel as Warning
Conclusion - Shock Wears Off: The Rise of People's Reconstruction

My take: If I haven't made this clear yet, I thought the book was brilliant. Klein's controversial thesis is that over the last several decades, Milton Friedman and his disciples -- Chicago School, laissez faire economists -- have sought to do for many of the world's political economies what Scottish psychiatrist Ewen Cameron and the CIA tried to do for individuals' psyches in 1950s and '60s experiments: apply traumatic shocks to break them down completely, erasing all remnants of what had been there before, and then rebuild them anew with totally different structures and parameters. According to Klein, the Friedmanites (or Chicago Boys, as she often calls them) were at least as brutal as, though sometimes more subtle than, Cameron's experiments, but can't succeed forever; as she suggests in the title of her concluding chapter, eventually, shock wears off.

I had high hopes of including an extensive summary of Klein's book (I don't feel like enough of an expert on the subject to offer a good critique), but as it was already overdue, it's gone back to the library before I had the chance. Thus, I'll fall back on my old trick of citing a handful of Real reviews for those whose interest has been piqued: Joseph Stiglitz's, in The New York Times (he really liked it); Tyler Cowen's, in The New York Sun (he didn't); and John Gray's, in The Guardian (not just because he was also a fan, but because a non-U.S. perspective on politically-oriented books is always a good thing).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

#43 - The Law of Similars

My 43rd book of the year was The Law of Similars, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Harmony Books, 2009).

Summary: "From the best-selling author of Midwives comes a startlingly powerful story of three people whose lives are irrevocably changed by illness, healing, and love. Two years after his wife's sudden, accidental death, a Vermont deputy state prosecutor, Leland Fowler, finds that the stress of raising their small daughter alone has left him with a chronic sore throat. Desperate to rid himself of a malady that has somehow managed to elude conventional medicine, Leland turns to homeopath Carissa Lake -- who cures both his sore throat and the aching loneliness at the root of his symptoms. Just days after Leland realizes he has fallen in love with the first woman who has mattered to him since his wife, one of Carissa's asthma patients falls into an allergy-induced coma. When Carissa comes under investigation, straight-arrow Leland is faced with a moral and ethical dilemma of enormous proportions. Set against the ongoing clash between conventional and alternative medicine -- between what we know science can offer and the miracles that always seem to be just beyond our reach -- The Law of Similars is a haunting and deeply atmospheric tale."

Opening line: "When I awoke after sleeping alone for the first time in almost two years, I hoped I was wrong about the cold."

My take: Worth whatever last-day-of-the-book-sale pittance I paid for it, and a solid sitting-around-the-campsite read -- but not nearly as gripping or intricate as Midwives or The Double Bind. Similars raises some interesting questions, sure: Were Leland's symptoms really the result of an infection, or did they spring from his protracted loneliness and grief? Are there less pharmaceutically-intensive means to treat certain chronic conditions, like allergies and asthma? And some of their implications make for a good story, i.e., Leland's need to look at Carissa's role in Richard's coma just as he himself has finally found relief from his own symptoms. Ditto for Leland's half-jittery, half-guilty dependence on Carissa's arsenic-based remedy.

Where the story falls short, IMO, is in the whole Leland-and-Carissa romance thing. Not only does it give credence to that annoying idea that everything has to have a love story in there somewhere; it's not a particularly good one, and seems to detract from the more intriguing parts of the story. It also strains believability in places; why and how, for example, does Carissa so quickly go from, "No, it's inappropriate for me to date you because you're my patient" to, well, completely abandoning all such reservations. Before they get to that point, Leland's obsession with Carissa comes off more like stalking than like love, and out of character for someone who's supposed to be very straitlaced and by the book. Maybe it's just me, but I'd have been far more interested in the rock and hard place in which Leland found himself just by being one of Carissa's patients, rather than being her paramour. As I said, an OK enough book ... but not the author's best.