Good books from this year

Shenzhen library

After all the complexities and disappointments of this year, I feel the need for distraction. I decide the best way to do this is share  the books that I read this year that I liked the most.

I track the book’s I’ve read on I rate them 1-5 stars, and give a brief review so I can identify the book in the future. I use goodreads for three things:

  • Tracking what I’ve read, so I can find titles and authors I’ve read so I don’t have to rely on my memory
  • Creating a list of books I’d like to read
  • Use the goodreads recommendation system to identify interesting books.

Here’s the extraordinarily unscientific process I used to select my best books – Anything I rated 5 stars is going to be a best book. It turns out that I grade pretty hard.  Only 15% of the books I read were 5 star books, while another 52% were 4 star books. It seems that I save the 5 star rating for the very special books. What was most interesting was the variety of books that were 5 star books for me. They were all well written, but each had some special characteristic that grabbed my my attention, which meant they are more diverse in than my 4 star list, which tends to have a lot of history and historically themed fiction.

First book – out of a very good lot, one of the best.

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. GrantAmerican Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fine biography of a man who is both modest and audacious. A fascinating bio of an unusual person.

This is a very thorough bio of Grant, which covers both his personal life and his life as a war general and President. The body of the book is about 650 pages, with another 150 of notes and bibliography. We learn about a modest man, with strong convictions, a knack for personal friendships, though he sometimes appeared stiff and standoffish. We also learn about a man who grows into the roles circumstances thrust upon him, especially the Presidency.

I find many things to praise. The sections dealing with Grant’s early life give a sense of a family striving to find a home in the expanding nation of the United States, and their political and religious sensibilities. The sections dealing with the Civil War give me a vivid sense of the Western campaigns, including the actual maneuvering of the armies, as well as the political maneuvering that was occurring amongst the military figures and the politicians. The periods of Reconstruction break my heart – once he committed to voting rights and education for former slaves, Grant was disappointed by the political shenanigans that eventually gave most of the power in the South back to the white Democrats who had seceded.

The writing is good, the research is solid, and there is an excellent use of photos and maps throughout the book. The maps are particularly valuable in the war sections, as it makes clear the events occurring.

I think this will become the “standard” bio of Grant for some years to come.

View all my reviews

Help to pay for medical costs

fallbreak09 047I am about to start infusions of a very expensive drug. My doctor’s office recommended I check with the manufacturer of the drug to see if they have any programs to help.

Genetech, the drug manufacturer, has a number of programs to help, but my Medicare coverage disqualifies me for most.  Genentech also provided me with some other places to look. Here’s the resources they provided.  I have not used them myself.

Getting help with costs

  • HealthWealth offers assistance for medical costs for specific health issues if you meet income guidelines. It’s a charity based organization, and the specific health issues that it will cover change over time.
  • Patient Access Network is also a charity that will help pay for treatments for people with specific health problems, subject to income For some diseases they will also cover travel. Their website also lists a number of other groups that may provide emotional support.
  • Chronic Disease Fund provide help to cover co-pays for certain medications.
  • If it’s an expensive medicine, see if the manufacturer has any programs. Some offer discounts, cheap trials and programs if you have limited resources. Your doctor may also have samples, which let you try the drug without a lot of cost upfront

If you know of other resources, let me know through the comments.

Helping you find insurance

Haven’t tried this out myself yet, but there’s a start that is using data from the website to help you select insurance based on your specific concerns. For example, if you take a lot of medicines, you may want to focus on lower drug costs and higher deductibles for the actual care.

HoneyInsured uses economic research—and a connection to—to suggest certain plans.

Source: The Algorithm That Will Buy You Health Insurance

Managing Chronic Illness – Not just about doctors & treatments

I don’t like how much time I spend on all the administrative trivia that comes with chronic illness. Not only do you have to deal with not feeling well, and finding the right course of treatment and good doctors, but you have to learn to deal with the health care system, insurance, and possibly things like disability insurance, government programs and support systems.  I’ve now been dealing with that for 6 years, since my original diagnosis with Sjogren’s Syndrome.  I’ll try to share some of the things I’ve learned here, including:

  • Understanding billing and insurance
  • Tracking the costs of your care
  • How to prepare for a initial doctor’s visit
  • Understanding how Medicare and disability work
  • How to get information about medical treatments
  • How to laugh when dealing with all of this

No one ever becomes an expert in these things unless they need to be an expert in these things.
I hope that by sharing some of my experiences, and even some templates and tools that I use, it will help others.

Use the comments to share your ideas or questions.

Knowledge is good

What I learned today…

There is such a thing as a California Ground Squirrel, and they are spotted and interesting. Ignore the fact that many see them as a pest.

California Ground Squirrel
California Ground Squirrel

Went for a walk today at the park at the end of San Antonio, in Mt. View.  Was playing with a camera that Geoff lent me, and saw this little guy. He was considerate enough to freeze in the way that some animals do when they spot something potential dangerous, giving me a chance to get some very nice photos.

The California Ground Squirrel is broader than the squirrels back east, and with a wider tail (though it seems to be mostly fur).

Eventually someone came by and startled him. I watched him go down a trail in the grass, probably to the safety of his burrow.

Images of workers

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Coit Tower images that I saw last weekend. I was going to write a post about movies that best show the Depression era, but just saw these color photographs of workers and families in the 30’s and wanted to share them.

They are part of a larger collection at the Library of Congress of photos that where collected by government agencies in the late 30’s and 40’s.

I love contemporary sources. One of the things that I find fascinating in most of the collections of photos in this period is how most people are unsmiling. Even children don’t seem to smile much.

Children at the fair
Children at the fair
I can’t help but wonder if it was just a cultural norm at the time, or if the exhaustion and hunger were so widespread that most people look grim.

Workers, Unite! – Coit Tower

Last weekend, Geoff and I went to San Francisco to see Coit Tower, which is perched on Telegraph Hill. I first saw Coit Tower in the late ’80’s and was blown away by the murals created in the mid-30’s by a group of artists employed by the Federal Government, under a scheme to employ artists during the Depression.

It’s always interesting to revisit a place that you remember fondly. There’s always the possibility that it’s a trick of nostalgia that renders the place attractive, or that as your tastes have changed, and what once amazed you now seems obvious, or overdone.

But Coit Tower’s murals still deliver. It’s not that they are great art – they are, in general, a very stylized yet realistic form popular in the 30’s. Many of the artists were inspired by the artist Diego Rivera, who had recently created a mural for Rockefeller Center that was rejected by Rockefeller because Rivera included a portrait of Lenin. What is exciting and compelling about them is that they record a very specific time in American history. They were painted in 1933-34, in the depths of the Great Depression. They are focused on the workers of California, and show them in many aspects, working in the fields, creating a great dam, generating a newspaper. But what truly makes them exciting is the political aspect of the murals.

In one, which shows a street scene, a newspaper stand shows not only the more popular magazines of the time, but also The Daily Work and the Masses, a communist and radical papers, respectively.

Coit Tower - newspapers
Coit Tower - newspapers

In the same scene there are not only ordinary people going about their business, but a man being robbed.


The most famous mural is of a library, where one side there are men reading newspapers with dire headlines about the politics and the economy, and one man, crumpling up his newspaper, reaches for a volume of Karl Marx.

Reaching for Marx
Reaching for Marx

I find it interesting that in the ’30’s the reaction to economic disaster, in part caused by excessive financial speculation, was a turn to the radical and communist elements, which demand that the government do the right thing, and today, the reaction for many is to turn to the Tea Party, which wants the government to stop doing things.

Worth a look – Coit Tower.

More pictures here, and here

Never Mind – bad historical fiction

I just read The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion. The book jacket claims that she is the world’s foremost scholar on Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III mentioned in the title. I’m not quite sure how many scholars of Alice Perrer there are, that she can make the claim.

Here’s a review that was posted for me on Amazon. My friend Geoff gets items from Amazon’s Vine program, so what I read was a proof copy.

There are several ways an author can create a successful historical novel. The novel can

– Tell a good story, even if a few of the historical facts are wrong
– Recreate a time and place so well that the reader feels as if he understands it
– Be titillating and tell all

This book, about Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III, fails in all three categories. Historical accounts describe Alice as a greedy woman who accumulated great wealth for herself and her friends, and was eventually tried and convicted by Parliament of numerous crimes. In this first person narrative she is a victim, again and again, and again.

The story itself is unsatisfying. There is a complex and unbelievable back story that robs her of her much beloved husband, forcing her to the protection of the Royal Court, and eventually into becoming the King’s mistress. She frequently proclaims herself innocent – the gifts the King gives her, the lands she acquires, the things she does are all because the King made her do them. She is shocked when people misinterpret their relationship and think her greedy and self serving, when all she has done is to serve her king.

The book also fails to provide a satisfying sense of the time period, the late 1300’s in England. Most of the historical elements are mere window dressing. And the author even trots out Geoffrey Chaucer as Alice’s best friend since childhood!

And if you’re looking your fix of historical fiction soft porn, which is such a popular category these days, this isn’t it. There a whole lot of limbs entwining, but nothing more erotic than the description that “we had a night of passion”.

Overall a disappointing book

"Celebrating" World Sjogren’s Day

I’ve received several reminders that today is World Sjogren’s Day. I can’t say I can really celebrate a day that is about a disease, but I will use it as a chance to do what I love to do, which is look at the history of Sjogren’s (said “show-grins”).

Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disease, in which your immune system, instead of attacking external viruses and infections, identifies part of your body as foreign, and attacks them. In Sjogren’s, the most common issues are

  • Dry, gritty eyes
  • Dry mouth, making it hard to eat without liquid
  • Dry skin
  • Exhaustion and “brain fog”
  • Joint and muscle pain

This excellent diagram outlines the wide range of problems that can occur.

Sjogrens Symptoms
Sjogrens Symptoms

There are a host of other symptoms that can occur, and it is a disease when you have times where you feel relatively good, and times when you feel like you’ve had the flu for a week. When you will have which is not predictable. The Sjogren’s Foundation has more information.

It’s estimated that about 4 million people in the US have Sjogren’s. About 90% of them are women, and it’s diagnosed more frequently in women in their late 40’s and older. There is no “cure”, just things you can do to try to make the symptoms better.

The name of the disease comes from the doctor who first documented the condition, Dr. Henrik Sjögren. Today is the day of his birth. He was a Swedish ophthalmologist who first identified a pattern in patients that he was seeing, and wrote a dissertation describing the syndrome in the 1930’s. He continued to be interested in the problem throughout his career and in the 1960’s was recognized by his peers for his contributions to the topic.

So hurrah for Dr. Sjogren for identifying the problem. Let’s hope that we can continue to find solutions to the problems of the folks who have Sjogren’s .