• What We’re Reading This Summer 2020

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

    Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

    By Malcolm Gladwell
    Reviewed by Eve Bowers and Marcia Carney, MD

    Have you ever given a lot of thought to how or why your interactions with strangers go wrong or do you try to assess what would have made the interaction better? Or are the two the same and we name them differently?

    Malcolm Gladwell, the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including “The Tipping Point,”“Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog SawandDavid and Goliath,” could have named this “Strangers and Wrong Interactions in History.” However he decides to allow us, through societal figures, to delve deeper into the personality of the “stranger” with whom the conversation is shared. This lets us intuitively look at ourselves, as he promotes, to try to make understanding out of meaning when we interact with others.

    One reader shared that “‘Talking to Strangers’ is the latest installment of Gladwell’s quest to challenge our understanding of how the world works.” This may be right. “In all these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went wrong. “In Talking to Strangers,’ I want to understand those strategies — analyze them, critique them, figure out where they came from, find out how to fix them,” Gladwell writes.

    Taking Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sylvia Plath, Bernie Madoff and Adolf Hitler, Gladwell cracks open the mystery of why we may trust people that we shouldn’t and maybe even fail to trust the people that we should. The introduction was difficult to read. A life was lost in the introduction following an altercation between strangers. It was a difficult part of history.

    The book is best described in his own introduction. Described as a Gladwellian intellectual adventure encompassing history, psychology, scandals among strangers, Gladwell weaves stories including financier Bernie Madoff and his deceptions, the Amanda Knox trial, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the hanging death of African American Sandra Bland while in a Texas jail cell and the pedophilia scandal at Penn State University involving Jerry Sandusky.

    I think that Gladwell says it best in his introduction when he writes, “Something is very wrong with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.”

    Gladwell used ideas of psychologist Tim Levine, someone whose ideas Gladwell trusted about the problem of why we are deceived by strangers such as Madoff, the investor who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, Sandusky, the Pennsylvania State University football coach convicted of sexual abuse, and the discovery of the Cuban spy Ana Montes, working undercover as a CIA agent for the United States government.

    The character development of each individual is powerful. The return of the story initially told in the introduction and returned to at the end of the novel is also very powerful. Sandra Bland was pulled over by a Texas state trooper in Waller County Texas for failing to signal a lane change. Three days later she was found hanged in her jail cell. It was later ruled a suicide.

    Gladwell dissects the eventual deadly encounter. The talking between the strangers was insulting and left no room for civility. The policeman, the public servant, left no room for this stranger to gather respect.

    In the beginning of the book, Gladwell revealed that his father liked to speak to strangers. What was his secret?

    Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
    By Geraldine Brooks
    Reviewed by Alfredo Sadun, MD, PhD

    This is a work of fiction — but barely.

    Much is nonfiction and extremely relevant to you. It is historically accurate and extremely apropos for today. It was inspired by the true story of Eyam in rural England, where the plague known as the Black Death arrived in 1666. Brooks obviously made up the dialogues, but the story of this remarkable village and how it adapted to the plague is very real. 

    The rich and influential, knowing something of the contagiousness of plague, reacted by leaving London to isolate themselves in their country mansions. There remained in the north of England a small village built around a community of lead miners and subsistence farmers.

    When the bubonic plague came, villagers reacted as most in England and Europe had. The Black Death first arrived in Europe about 1350, and then after every generation or two, another cycle of plague arrived. Often, bubonic plague would carry off half the population of a city or town. Opposite to our present pandemic, it would spare the oldest, as they were probably exposed and became immune in the previous cycle.

    In Eyam, as in other villages, the community panicked and tried everything from sorcery to the murder of innocents accused of poisoning their wells. But in Eyam, something quite remarkable and wonderful happened. A strong and charismatic preacher convinced the members of this village to self-isolate. Theirs would be a voluntary quarantine.

    Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her wonderful prose and for her careful research for her novel “March,” does a great job of showing us the gamut of human emotions during a pandemic. With heroic effort, the preacher was able to keep some control over the fear and selfishness of his community. He convinces them that if they flee, they would find themselves homeless, friendless and pilloried, and if they didn’t die from plague, they would die from starvation or abuse.

    Hence, in addition to being virtuous, it would be in their self-interest to stay and take their chances. He also convinced a rich patron from a neighboring village that it was in the interest of the broader community to support this quarantine. So food and other critical supplies were brought weekly to a stone marker on the border. A delivery cart would leave the rations and then pick up messages informing the outside world about was happening in Eyam and what was needed.

    Not having either Purell or microwaves, they used vinegar to disinfect the messages (see photo below). After a year’s time, about half the Eyam villagers died. But the plague burned out and spared the rest and immortalized the preacher and his village for their courage and sacrifice. A monument now stands not far from the stone marker.

    Brooks did her research, so I was inspired to do some more. Do you know where the word “quarantine” comes from? It’s an Italian word that means “40 days.” That was the period of time, inspired by the Bible, required for boats from plague-infested areas to isolate at harbor before they could dock.

    The boundary stone between Eyam and Stoney Middleton. The six holes for the transfer of messages were soaked in vinegar to help prevent the spread of disease.

    Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood
    By Barbara Demick
    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    Perhaps life was too busy for me or my focus was elsewhere, but admittedly I knew little of the issues and players involved in the Bosnian War during the early 1990s. I had previously come to appreciate this author’s style and the information I garnered from her book “Nothing to Envy,” concerning contemporary life in North Korea.

    When I learned of her book about the horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia, I took the opportunity to be educated by her once again. Yugoslavia was a conglomerate of nation states that, although culturally and historically diverse, existed as a socialist single nation that was held together by Marshall Tito between 1945 and 1992. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, nationalism spread across Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia split into several countries with varied cultural and religious backgrounds. Among those countries, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia battled over independence, but the war was centered also on religious differences, primarily between Serbian Orthodoxy and Muslim Bosnia.

    As is her style, Demick conveys her message through the lives of ordinary people and how they are impacted by the events of the day. Logavina Street was a six-block avenue in a residential section of Sarajevo, a multi-ethnic contemporary capital city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Before the war, religious and cultural diversity flourished among the 200 or so families that resided on this picturesque avenue.

    Roughly 11,000 residents died during the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, during which time there was ethnic cleansing, rape and attacks on civilians. Snipers regularly and readily targeted children. Through their stories, we learn how life changed rapidly and radically for some of the residents of Logavina Street and how they adapted to the loss of electricity, water, food and staples. But more so, we came to understand the resilience and adaptability of humans and how children could find joy even in a war zone.

    Although saddened by the history, I remain very grateful for what Demick has taught me. For those who enjoy nonfiction, her book is strikingly educational while enjoyable to read; there is much to learn from her.

    The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
    By Kim Leine
    Reviewed by Thomas Harbin, MD, MBA

    Set in the 1700s in Denmark and Greenland, this is the story of a young man who on his father's instructions left Copenhagen to study for the priesthood.

    He left to become a missionary in Greenland so he could convert the “heathens,” the Eskimos, but ends up being somewhat converted himself and enchanted with life and the people there. Excellent, but graphic and raw descriptions of life in that era, both in Copenhagen and Greenland. After reading this book, I doubt you will sign up to spend a winter as the native Greenlanders did in their one big house, no privacy and no bathrooms! You will appreciate modern living.

    The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the Century
    By Clay Risen
    Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD

    There seems to be a trend in historical writing over the past 20 years. Following David McCullough’s “John Adams” in 2001, there was a plethora of excellent books on leading figures during the revolution and throughout American history. But it seems that historians and biographers are running out of subjects for their epic accounts and are now focusing more on narrow aspects of history. One example is “The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century” by Clay Risen.

    The book essentially covers six months in 1898, from the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February to the Battle of San Juan Heights in July. During that time, Roosevelt resigned his position as assistant secretary of the Navy, helped his friend Dr. Leonard Wood form the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders (slang for “cowboys”), trained their troops in San Antonio and Tampa, took them to Cuba and defeated the Spanish (although it was Kettle Hill rather than San Juan Hill that he charged up). He returned home a national hero and was nominated for governor of New York that fall.

    The book is obviously full of detail and might not be your cup of tea unless you are a fan of this time in American history. I personally enjoyed it and found it to be well-researched and quite readable. It was of particular interest that the author observed how this brief, and somewhat insignificant, moment in history forever changed two aspects of our country. It was our first aggression against a foreign country and changed U.S. foreign policy from isolationism to a world power, with a sense of obligation to intervene in world conflicts. And it began the evolution of our military from a small, standing army, with reliance on calling up civilian volunteers when needed, to a strong, central military force.

    Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
    By Bryan Stevenson
    Reviewed by John R. Stechschulte, MD

    “Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all,” wrote Desmond Tutu.

    This book is the true story of Stevenson as he establishes a law organization to defend poor, sick and oppressed victims who have been sentenced to death. He helps free many capital punishment prisoners who were clearly innocent. He seeks reduced sentences for those being punished to an excessive degree for crimes they committed. He forms the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and argues before the Supreme Court on five occasions.

    In “Just Mercy,” he tells the story of Walter McMillian, a young black man who was sentenced to death for murdering a white woman whom he could not have killed. Over years of representing McMillian, Stevenson discovers conspiracies, battles legal inequities and confronts political manipulations. He and EJI serve children who are prosecuted as adults and the disabled oppressed by the criminal justice system. Stevenson struggles during the book to remain idealistic and driven to succeed. He is nearly broken but is inspired by the compassion to bring true justice to those he represents. He leads the reader to show mercy to all victims and all prisoners.

    During one of McMillian’s legal hearings Stevenson meets Mrs. Williams, who comes to the courtroom to show support for both men at a time that is crucial for the lawyer. She states, “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness.” Stevenson then learns Mrs. Williams had previously witnessed beatings during the 1965 march for voting rights at the Edmund Petus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

    A few years after Stevenson gained McMillian his freedom, they travel to the New York University School of Law, where Stevenson teaches law students that brutally unfair cases of injustice occur within the United States. McMillian’s admission that he was not angry or bitter for being imprisoned for years, just grateful to be free, greatly impacts the students. The reader is left with the hope that improving our police, prosecutorial, criminal law and prison systems will continue, especially for those who do not have the means to be treated fairly.

    The Seine: The River That Made Paris
    By Elaine Sciolino
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD  

    Elaine Sciolino came to Paris in 1978 as a young foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Like many American visitors she was enchanted by the city and has made it her permanent home for the past two decades.

    Sciolino’s fifth book, “The Seine,” is an unabashed love letter to the river that begins on a plateau in the province of Burgundy and winds nearly 500 miles northwest to the English Channel. At its midpoint, like a diamond pendant on a necklace, is Paris, which would not exist without the river.

    This reviewer once spent a summer exploring the City of Light on teenaged legs and recommends this book to those fortunate enough to visit the city in person.

    Sciolino follows the Seine from its origin at a spring which had healing powers attributed to a pagan goddess, Sequana. The river meanders beneath the 37 bridges of metropolitan Paris and continues through the countryside of Normandy past the footsteps of impressionist painters like Claude Monet and weary World War II soldiers before joining the sea.

    The book manages to touch virtually every aspect of the Seine, including its influence upon French literature, art and commerce. The author swims in the sometimes-polluted water and visits book sellers on the quays of Paris, barge workers who toil on the river and the firefighters who used water from the Seine to prevent Notre Dame cathedral from burning to the ground.

    Trying to choose from among the multitude of unusual facts found within the book is as difficult as tasting only one of the delicacies found in a French patisserie. Therefore, the reviewer will simply cite the generous supply of black and white photographs included and let followers of the History channel’s series “Vikings” know that they will not be disappointed.