The Book Worm: When things go wrong

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“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital”

By Sheri Fink

c. 2013, Crown

$27/$32 Canada

558 pages

You know exactly what you’d do. You’re prepared with a drill, if the house catches fire. In case of gunfire, you’ve got a plan in mind. You’ve watched TV coverage of crimes, disasters, and floods enough to have envisioned how you’d react to each of those.

You know what you’d do in a crisis or do you? Could you ignore your inner voice and do something wrongly right? That’s what allegedly happens in the new book “Five Days at Memorial” by Sheri Fink: One of our country’s worst disasters may’ve led to one of medicine’s most questionable acts.

When Southern Baptist Hospital opened in New Orleans in 1926, its founders hoped it would be “the greatest hospital in all the Southland.” Indeed, it had the sturdiest of buildings: When Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, the campus barely blinked.

There was no reason, therefore, to believe that the hospital (renamed Memorial Medical Center the mid-1990s) couldn’t withstand Hurricane Katrina.

As Katrina approached land on August 28, 2005, there were as many as 2,000 people at Memorial, including staff and families, 183 Memorial patients, and 55 patients belonging to LifeCare, a “hospital within a hospital” that rented facilities at Memorial. There were also hundreds of staff-owned pets inside, for safety’s sake.

At first, the atmosphere was light-hearted. It was obvious by the “little shimmy shake” of the floor-to-ceiling windows and the devastation outside that the storm was dangerous, but staff was optimistic.

And then the levee broke. Water poured into the building, the hospital’s generators became waterlogged, air conditioning failed, and the temperature skyrocketed inside. Plumbing shut down, and fetid odors wafted through each floor. Evacuations were denied (or sporadic), whispers of “martial law” circulated, and optimism waned as the sickest patients became dehydrated, overheated, delirious. Nurses scrambled to keep people alive in conditions that deteriorated almost by the minute.

When it became obvious that pets mightn’t be evacuated, some staff tearfully requested that beloved companions be euthanized. A few nurses wondered if they would ever leave Memorial alive.

And then someone asked a quiet question: “Why should we treat the dogs better than we treat the people?”

Inflammatory? You bet. And the subject of a months-long, post-Katrina investigation, all of which author and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sheri Fink details in this huge, totally absorbing book.

“Five Days at Memorial” begins with tip-of-a-shark-fin anxiety and quickly descends into chaos, which perfectly displays a mere taste of what happened to the survivors you’ll meet here.

That’s the first half of this book, before Fink’s story turns into something conversation-worthy, something that (admit it) everyone’s reluctantly thought about. From there, and during the legalities that Fink recounts, readers have a front-seat view of finger-pointing, tracks-covering and fact-finding that also became policy-changing.

Once you start it, it’s hard to let go of a book like this because the memory of what happened is still awfully fresh. Like the events surrounding that week, eight years ago, “Five Days at Memorial” can’t be forgotten so reading it is exactly what you should do.

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“Goat Mountain”

By David Vann

c. 2013, Harper

$25.99/$28.99 Canada

304 pages

It’s always about the hunt. It doesn’t matter whether the stalk takes place on an isle or down an aisle. Makes no difference if the prey has a rack or is on a rack. Could be elusive or expensive, it’s a hunt just the same.

The thing is, you never forget your first meaningful hunt. And in the new book “ Goat Mountain ” by David Vann, that’s doubly true when it goes so terribly wrong.

He had been to the hunting camp before. Each year, his father; his father’s best friend, Tom; and his grandfather took him on the long ride through land that had been in the family for ages. Up hills, around winding roads, across cliffs that made him believe they’d crash and die. He stood in the back of the truck and watched for deer.

This year, his eleventh summer, he’d be allowed to shoot one.

His rifle wasn’t nearly as powerful as the one his father carried or the one Tom owned. Still, he’d been shooting the .30-.30 for two years, anticipating this week. He was angry, sometimes, that he’d been born too late: he’d seen photos of hunts past, and wished he’d been there.

And then they got to the gate.

His father had poacher-proofed it, secured it against gun and truck, but that didn’t seem to matter: Tom saw a poacher sitting on a ledge some two hundred yards out. It angered him; it angered them all that this man was trespassing, scaring away their deer. So they decided to scare the poacher.

Leaning against the hood of the truck, his father dropped a shell in the chamber of a .300 Magnum, aimed, and drove the bolt home. On the ledge, there was no reaction to the click, so his father offered him a peek through the more-powerful rifle.

Through the scope, he could see rocks and dust. He could see everything: Clothes the poacher was wearing, his skin, his jeans as he stood up, having noticed the glint of something, maybe a rifle in the hands of an eleven-year-old boy.

Then that boy squeezed the trigger

There you have a synopsis of the first chapter of this book. But could author David Vann sustain the heart-pounding drama here?

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Told from the obvious point of an adult who was once that boy, “ Goat Mountain ” takes readers through incredible beauty, lush views, and breathtaking landscapes, down into a sharp cone of grieved madness and brutality. It’s easy to think the boy is a brat; easier to think he’s a monster, but Vann teases out his storyline until we’re not really sure where evil lies or where it came from. I like that in a novel, and I loved this one.

So pour yourself a cold one this week, settle into your easy chair, and be ready to miss a lot of sleep. You’ve been waiting a long time for a novel that’ll capture your attention like this does, which makes “ Goat Mountain” the book to hunt for.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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