• What We’re Reading This Spring 2019


    Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA
    Book Review Editor

    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this Spring. Share what you’re reading and send your review to scope@aao.org

    Repentance
    By Andrew Lam, MD
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD

    Four years ago, ophthalmologist Andrew Lam wrote his excellent first novel,"Two Sons of China". His recently released second novel, "Repentance", demonstrates his progress as a novelist.

    Dr. Lam uses a more complex plot, switches perspectives between several characters and changes time frames separated by many years before the book has reached its denouement. 

    The book’s protagonist, Daniel Tokunaga, is a noted cardiovascular surgeon in 1998 Philadelphia. Although seemingly comfortable in his affluent surroundings and established marriage, and with his two children beginning college, his life is upended by a call from his embittered and alienated father telling him that his mother has been in an accident. Returning to California after a decade’s absence, he discovers that everything he has believed about his life has been a sham.

    By the book’s end, Daniel has been able to unravel long-ignored family secrets and paste together the myriad of unrelated choices he made which ultimately became his life. Lam’s novel, like any well-written work featuring the meaning of honor, family relationships and self-awakening, merits the reader’s attention.

    The secondary purpose of any historical novel is to truthfully inform the reader about a bygone era. Few Americans today recall that Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 authorizing the forced relocation of 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry to ten, widely separated and isolated “evacuation camps” for the duration of the war. Even fewer readers will remember the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most highly decorated unit in the war against Nazi Germany with twenty-one Congressional Medal of Honor winners. The 442nd consisted of volunteers from Hawaii and the relocation camps who were all of Japanese heritage, many of them American-born. Lam’s unflinching description of the primitive conditions in the civilian camps and the brutality of the sacrifices the heroic unit made while fighting in France form the background of his fictional story.

    “Repentance,” which could have easily been retitled “Redemption”, should be enjoyed by readers interested in historic fiction or the lingering damage caused by any war.

    Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic
    By Sam Quinones
    Reviewed by John R. Stechschulte, MD

    It is likely you had a friend who died, yet it was unclear how or why he or she died.

    By reading this nonfiction book you will understand what may have led to the death of your friend as well as 200,000 other Americans since 2000. Professor Marilyn Gates wrote in the New York Journal of Books:

    “Opiate addiction is all about pain – the pain of addicts constantly seeking relief from torment and of friends and relatives dealing with the fallout. It is also about hunger – the hunger for profit of corporations and dealers on the dark side of the narco-world and the hunger of caring crusaders like Sam Quinones to stop this human tragedy.”

    Quinones, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, wrote “Dreamland” in 2013 after investigating the over-prescribing and over-marketing that led to abuse of pain pills such as OxyContin. Soon after the highly addictive pain pills infiltrated middle- and upper-class American families came the introduction of inexpensive Mexican black-tar heroin to small and medium sized cities.

    The title “Dreamland” is the name of the community swimming pool in Portsmouth, Ohio where friends and families used to gather before these problems arose. The highest death rates were not in New York City or Los Angeles, but in my home state of Ohio.

    During the 1990s, pain pills were prescribed for injuries and illnesses at high doses and for long durations. Doctors viewed this as necessary to treat pain, which had become a fifth vital sign. Many physicians had been convinced of a low likelihood of addiction based on a short paragraph in the New England Journal of Medicine that stated only 1 percent of patients had the risk of addiction.

    Many pill mills were opened so patients could obtain huge quantities of these opioids. Big Pharma’s role in the epidemic is well-covered in the book, and some companies’ roles in this problem will soon be revealed in court. 

    The black-tar heroin was brought to the U.S. by several families from the small city of Jalisco, Mexico. These Mexican families established heroin cells in the U.S. that ran much like pizza delivery companies. Drivers earned a low weekly wage by selling small quantities of potent heroin that was seldom cut or used by the dealers.

    The families were rarely detected because they avoided violence, marketed to the well-to-do and smuggled by hiding small bags of heroin in their mouths. If arrested, these young men could only be deported. They would be replaced in a few days by a new young Jalisco driver, in an old car with a cell phone. The calls would come to the driver with a code about the delivery corner of address. Quinones offers minute details about how widespread this delivery system had become and how it was led.

    In the final chapters of this book, the author expresses a sense of hope. Now more families that lose a child to overdose are admitting that they were struggling with addiction. Some families are becoming advocates for intervention, treatment, government funding and even research.

     

    A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
    By Simon Winchester
    Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD

    Our annual meeting this fall is in San Francisco. If you are interested in the history of the city and the big earthquake of 1906, this book is for you. It covers the history of California as well as San Francisco. You will learn about the early settlement, the gold rush and especially the natural history.

    The title refers to the earthquake of 1906, a huge event that was measured over the entire world. Winchester clearly explains plate tectonics and the new (1960s) discoveries of worldwide geology, not just the San Andreas fault and the plate movement that created the earthquake.

    If you have time, drive an hour north to Olema, the site of the most damage. Still standing in the Point Reyes National Park is a fence where the Pacific side is 31 feet north of the eastern side. You can straddle the two plates, face south toward the city and imagine your right foot suddenly moving 31 feet to the north.

    This area is seismically very active still with plate movements measured in the inches per year. San Francisco suffered a major earthquake in 1989, but plates different from those of the San Andreas fault were involved. Consequently, Winchester quotes a 60 percent chance of the “big one,” another huge quake similar to the one in 1906, happening before 2032, just 13 years from now.

    When and if this happens, we should all hope that our headquarters and new museum will not be severely impacted.

     

    What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
    By Bernard Lewis
    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    Bernard Lewis, who passed away in 2018 at nearly 102 years old, was an emeritus professor of history at Princeton University and an eminent Middle East scholar.

    Lewis’ book is a relatively short, but remarkably concise and comprehensive analysis of the conflict between the West and the Middle East that led up to the 9/11 attack on New York’s twin towers. It’s remarkable that the book was being printed at that moment, yet presciently presaged its eventuality.

    Lewis’ view is that while Islam once ruled a good portion of the world and had great scholars, mathematicians, etc., it failed to modernize and hence fell behind the progress that the West made through and after the Renaissance. In particular, he cites the role, or lack thereof, of women in the Islamic world, suggesting that half of the population’s potential assets are not mined.

    Lewis is also careful to expose the culpability of the West, Britain and France in particular, for drawing inappropriate boundaries after World War II, leading to cultural and religious misalignment. Moreover, the West’s insatiable thirst for oil evolved into what he calls treacherous “petro politics.”

    There is obviously much fault to go around, but Lewis presents the arguments in a very clear manner. And, despite a very complex subject, Lewis’ style allows for easy reading. This book is a must for anyone interested in contemporary world history.

    There There
    By Tommy Orange
    Reviewed by Susan H. Day, MD

    “There There” is the first novel written by Tommy Orange, who describes what it’s like to be a Native American Indian in contemporary times. It is beautifully written as a fictitious chronicle of individuals’ stories. The inherited culture, the struggles with alcoholism, the burden of idyll time, and the prevailing sense of being excluded are exquisitely described.

    Underpinning his perspective seems to be that the innate talents and needs of this population have been suppressed. Life in the openness of plains, communities where roles were defined, and simplicity of living within a natural world sustained their being.  It was as if nature nurtured their culture, and that their culture depended on a certain life style in response to their surrounds. 

    The good guy, bad guy cowboys and Indians era as portrayed in the many drive-in movies we watched showed one perspective, to the detriment of our historical understanding of native Americans.   When life on the prairies was forcefully replaced with urban environments, restraint of movement despite speedy modes of transportation, and economic models centering on skills not honed historically, it was as if their culture went away.  Attempts to retain elements (e.g. native dance and attire) which previously sustained them became superimposed with realities of other cultures’ ways. 

    In essence, a way of living was extinguished and there is a collective soul that suffers. Mistreatment centuries ago continues to take its toll. It is a very poignant snapshot of a regrettable chapter in history.