Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this summer. Share what you’re reading and send your review to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Open by Andre Agassi
Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD
Andre Agassi’s autobiography will surprise readers on several levels. We learn from the outset that Agassi hated tennis. He always did. Yet, having played it with such passion and success over so many years, readers will find the concept dichotomous to their own beliefs.
The book is largely about human relationships with tennis as a backdrop. At the center is the relationship with his father, a poor, albeit highly motivated, displaced person at the end of World War II. His father was also an intense and accomplished athlete. Often, to the unintended detriment of their children, parents foolishly attempt to correct or relive the flaws of their own life or childhood by exerting rigid control over the lives of their children. Typically, that plan is a recipe for failure at best, disaster at worst.
We come to understand and appreciate the rebellious nature of young Andre, his failed relationships with (celebrated) women, his dedication to his siblings and his ultimate success as a husband, human, father, philanthropist and, yes, tennis player along the way.
This book captured my interest and became that rare page-turner that one loves to read and hates to finish. Highly recommended.
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper
Reviewed by Susan H. Day, MD
The title of "Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf," was admittedly what caught my eye. This biography chronicles the life journey of Madame President Ellen Sirleaf: her devotion to her native country Liberia, her political rise as the first woman president in Africa and her well-deserved honors, including the Nobel Prize.
It is the “extraordinary” component, however, that creates such a captivating read. When is it time to draw a line in the sand, and when is it time to retreat and plan? What happens to a survivor who has witnessed the murder or torture of loved ones? How does one convince an international audience to not only forgive a multimillion-dollar debt but also to provide seed money for a country’s rebirth? What is tougher to endure – a civil war or an Ebola crisis? Where does strength come from? What might a woman do to express her femininity as well as authority in a predominantly male environment?
Would I ever love to share a cup of coffee with this president!
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD
The year is halfway over, and this reviewer may have already read his favorite nonfiction book of 2018. “The Monk of Mokha” by Dave Eggers is that book. It is a story about coffee, entrepreneurship, Yemen, the lives of immigrants and pursuit of the illusive American Dream.
Eggers has published successful works of both fiction and nonfiction, and his spare, Hemingway-esque style suits this true tale of danger and determination, which requires no literary embellishment.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a young Yemeni American raised in the hardscrabble Tenderloin district of San Francisco. After an aimless succession of menial jobs, he chances upon the unlikely scheme of re-establishing Yemen’s five century-old tradition of coffee exportation. Lacking business acumen and expertise in either growing or even drinking coffee, his chance of successfully achieving this dream was dismal at best. And to complicate his task further, a brutal war with Saudi Arabia and stringent American travel restrictions to Yemen occurred simultaneously.
The author describes Mokhtar’s dogged pursuit of his goal to its ultimate conclusion despite the deadly surrounding circumstances. Meanwhile he introduces the reader to a previously unknown region of the world and to the esoteric craft of producing gourmet coffee.
This handsomely bound book provides a worthy companion to a comfortable armchair and a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Unfortunately, no photographs are provided of the exotic locales or the colorful characters involved in this adventure, which seems torn from the pages of “Arabian Nights.”
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD
I thought that Yuval Noah Harari’s first New York Times bestselling book, "Sapiens," was one of the most thought-provoking and remarkable books I had ever read. So, I had very high expectations with this second and related compendium. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, as I was less “wowed.” Still, this is an outstanding work.
"Sapiens" described man in evolutionary terms as a peculiar primate. It ended as "Homo Deus" begins, as the story of homo sapiens is coming to a tipping point. We are about to turn into something new. The conclusion of the first book became the premise of the second. A capacity to tell myths that are full of values and rich with meaning allows people to organize, not on the scale of dozens, as in a hunting party, but of thousands and millions. Cultures, civilizations as well as religions and armies, inspire and even compel the individual to suborn himself to the greater good. This has given us greater control over other animals, our enemies and the world, but less control over our own future.
Only our stories have changed. Where we once had myths, religions and gods, we now have humanism, science and technology. As a consequence, we have almost overcome famine and disease. For the first time in our history, more people will die from overeating than starvation.
Having increased our access to the world’s energy and other resources, we are now tapping into the greatest resource of all — data. Technological advances have not only allowed the accumulation and processing of massive amounts of data, but now, human values and even human beings, can be left out of the loop.
Hariri suggests that we have come to the end of the human story. Either because we humans will go extinct or simply because we humans will no longer be integral to the vast network of information flows. Only information will have value. The new religion is "data-ism." And the new gods may be a very few super-elite who live in Silicon Valley, or they might not be people at all. Maybe that is what the TV show "Westworld" is about.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD
If you think you know the historical facts of Ulysses S. Grant, you should read this book. The media (basically newspapers) of his day and many of his subsequent biographies have depicted him as a drunkard, a butcher with little concern for human life and the president of a dysfunctional and corrupt administration. Ron Chernow presents a more nuanced picture of the general who won the Civil War and served as the 18th president of the United States.
Grant attended West Point and graduated in the middle of his class (not at the bottom as some have rumored), then served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. But by the late 1850s, his life was in shambles. He was forced to resign from the Army due to alcoholism and his failure at one business enterprise after another. He would have been less than a footnote in American history had it not been for the outbreak of the Civil War.
After struggling to regain his commission, his rise through the ranks in the Union Army was meteoric, with successful campaigns in the West, while Union generals in the East were losing successive battles to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. This caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who promoted him to lieutenant general, the highest rank in the military, and charged him with defeating Lee and winning the war, which he did.
Although the loss of life was staggering under Grant’s command, Chernow depicts a man with great compassion for human life, but with a soldier’s dedication to do his duty. As to his drinking, he apparently inherited a family trait of alcohol intolerance, but he is said to have avoided drinking when his sobriety was required, even though the press continued to emphasize his problem during the war and throughout his presidency.
Chernow pictures Grant as a quiet, modest man, who refused to write his memoirs until forced to by his dire financial state (another business failure due to his trust in the honesty of others). His biggest vice, at least the one that finally brought him down, was smoking cigars, which led to throat cancer and a painful death. With one final show of courage, he worked through his pain, completing his memoirs within weeks of his death.
Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark
Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA
Why isn’t British Columbia part of the United States? A few answers reside in this book.
In 1810, John Jacob Astor, already wealthy from fur trading, dreamed of a Northwest trading station that would extend his empire and exploit the vast natural resources reported by Lewis and Clark when they returned in 1806. Meriweather Lewis had strongly recommended to President Thomas Jefferson that such a seaport on the Pacific rim should be established. Jefferson gave Astor his blessing and approval.
Astor sent a ship, the Tonquin, and an overland crew. The Tonquin made it to the Columbia River, crossed the bar and thus Astoria was founded. Unfortunately, the Tonquin then sailed to Vancouver Island, treated the Clayoquat Indians poorly and was attacked and blown up by its own crew.
The overland crew finally made it to Astoria, but continued poor treatment of the Native Americans, the vast distance from the East Coast and the War of 1812 allowed the British to take possession of Astoria. Ownership of this area remained in limbo until 1846 and the 49th Parallel Agreement.
If Astor’s plan had succeeded, the United States might now own British Columbia. It's a fascinating history of the Pacific Northwest.