Sunday 1 March 2015

Reading Journal #6: Catching Up

As predicted, I simply didn't have time to post during the week, and unfortunately I didn't get to visit many blogs either. By the time I have taught all day, attended meetings, got Giles home, cooked dinner, eaten dinner, given Giles his bath, put him to bed and sorted out everything for the next day, including planning and marking, I'm not in much shape for anything! Happily, one of the things I am in shape for is reading, so I've still been steadily going through books. Here's what I have read over the past two weeks or so:

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre is a non-fiction expose of the pharmaceutical industry and how trials, biased publications and access to doctors' training can lead to drugs being prescribed incorrectly, and patients not always getting what is the best for them. Prior to reading this, I had heard about the pharmaceutical industry in the USA, but had naively thought that we were more protected here in the UK, because we have the NHS and our medical system isn't for-profit. Goldacre quickly disabused me of this notion, pointing out how missing data, where nine unsuccessful trials could be buried and one successful one published, skews prescribing habits in all countries. It turns out that our regulators are no good at enforcing their own rules, that doctors can be paid to add their names to papers they did not write, and that drugs reps are allowed way too much sway over GPs. The single scariest fact in the book was that drugs are rarely if ever compared against the best available treatment, only against a placebo. This means we have no idea which drugs are the most effective for a whole host of common treatments.

Bad Pharma is well researched and it helps that Goldacre is a UK trained doctor, but at times his rhetoric was a bit over the top. I could have done without lots of the repeated anger, especially in a book as long as this one. It did however make me appreciate my own GP, who prescribes generic medications rather than the fancier branded ones that have the exact same ingredients, and who has explained this to me before prescribing. Bad Pharma covers an important topic and is well researched and written, so I would recommend it if you don't mind a bit of repeated anger on the part of the author.  3.5 out of 5

After non-fiction, I always need a bit of palate-cleansing fiction.  I've read White Teeth and On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and liked them both, so I decided it was time to pick up N-W. It tells the story of four Londoners from the same area - Leah, who is trying to avoid growing up and starting a family; Natalie, who has worked hard to leave her working class roots behind; Felix, who is trying to start again, and Nathan, who is angry.

Reviews of N-W seem to be very mixed, with readers tending to rank it lower than her other books. This is mainly due to the experimental writing style; parts of this novel are written in numbered sections, in fragments of sentences and in lists. Personally I loved that Smith had chosen to write like this, as she is definitely talented enough to pull it off.  The chaotic writing style matched the chaotic lives of the characters and I was hooked within a few pages. This book was challenging to read at times and the style didn't always work, but I found it thoroughly engrossing and a realistic portrait of London today.  3.5 out of 5.

And finally, an audio-book.  I was excited to start China Dolls by Lisa See, as See is one of my favourite historical fiction authors. Shanghai Girls in particular is up there with the best historical fiction I've read, and I've never read a bad book by her. Until now. China Dolls is the story of Ruby, Helen and Grace, who meet when they are auditioning to become dancers in a Chinese night-club in 1930s San Francisco. They soon become firm friends, and the narrative follows them through several decades, as they move through disappointments and traumatic times. Each is hiding a powerful secret.

To start with what I liked - I had no idea about the way 'Orientals' were treated in America at this time, and it was fascinating to learn about the 'Chop Suey Circuit' and the interment camps for American citizens of Japanese descendants during WW2. I liked the epic-ness of the story, how it covered many decades and events and gave a real sense of time passing. However, the three main characters were a major let-down. The only one I could ever really like was Grace, which wouldn't have been a problem if their storylines weren't so unbelievable.  Ruby, Helen and Grace kept on and on hurting each other, and their friendship seemed based only on jealousy and a common race. I just couldn't comprehend how they kept forgiving each other some pretty unforgivable things, and why they were so keen to hurt each other. It completely ruined what could have been an interesting novel, if only the portrayal of female friendship was more nuanced.  2 out of 5 stars.

So that's me almost up to date.  I've also finished The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, but as it has led directly on to a reread of Jane Eyre, I'm going to save it for a joint post another time.  What have you been reading lately?


  1. I didn't like China Dolls either, for the same reasons as you. The setting and the historical details were fascinating, but the main characters were a big problem. Their friendship was completely unconvincing - they seemed to hate each other! Very disappointing as Lisa See's other books are so good.

  2. I didn't realize that Bad Pharma was about the UK pharm industry. I thought it was about the US industry, which is pretty bad. It still sounds scary enough, but angry narrators do bug me a lot. I would like to read some Zadie Smith sometime - she has been on my wishlist for a while.

  3. Glad you have time to read at least! I've been reading a bunch of the contenders from the Battle of the Kids Books coming up here, organized by School Library Journal. I feel I need to be more up on what's current in children's and YA books. Right now I'm on Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire -- I love his version of Baba Yaga -- and A Volcano Beneath the Snow, about John Brown and the fight to abolish slavery.

  4. I absolutely loved Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (it's one of my favourite books ever) but I was quite disappointed in China Dolls.

  5. White Teeth was a great read. I have to get to the rest of Smith's books soon!

    I don't know how people get things done after putting the kids to bed. I always have grand plans to accomplish a whole list of things, but all I want to do is sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV.

  6. I've never heard of The Bronte Myth - sounds very intriguing :)

  7. I love how diverse your reading is. Most of the books you read I've never heard of, so they end up making their way on to my (ever-growing) TBR.
    I've actually nominated you for the 'One Lovely Blog' award. Check out my post about it:

    Don't worry I had to google it to see what it was about! I love your blog - always enjoy reading your reviews.

  8. Glad you enjoyed NW, it's the only one of Zadie Smith's books I've read but I'm eager to read more! Bad Pharma sounds really interesting, think this one's going on my to-read list :)


  9. Bad Pharma includes some reasonable information, but I'm not totally believable. Some details need more evidence for the fact.

    Helen@Learning English

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