A Review of The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller (by Jill)

the year of the gadfly cover

 

Bethany reviewed this book in 2015 (see her review here), and I remember thinking it seemed like an interesting read. When it turned up on Kindle Unlimited, I added it to my queue, and when I was bored in a pizza parlor alone back in April or so I started reading it. And when I was camping in June I figured I’d read it since I’d already read a few pages. I have intense feelings of ambivalence about The Year of the Gadfly. On the one hand, it was a quick read, and didn’t require me to think a whole lot, and when one is way the hell behind (thanks to a tome called Voyager and a very busy work life) on reading for the year one appreciates these things about books. On the other hand, the characters are sort of caricatures. There’s the angry redhead, and the nerdy little kid with the slightly less nerdy and less little twin brother, and the albino with the requisite sunburn story, and then there’s poor Iris whose only friend (besides the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, of course) killed herself last year. Don’t worry, I’ll back up a bit.

The novel opens with Iris as our narrator, in August of 2012. She has been relocated to Nye, Massachusetts from Boston by her parents at the recommendation of her therapist, Dr. Patrick, after her BFF Dalia kills herself. She is set to start at Mariana Academy, an elite private high school. They are living in the house of the former headmaster, who is friends with Iris’ parents, while he and his wife are out of the country. There is a new biology teacher at the school, Jonah Kaplan, who Iris notices at a welcome back to school event.

We also have a “historical” story line that takes place in 1999-2000 and focuses on Lily, the albino daughter of the headmaster of Mariana, and coincidentally the same headmaster whose house Iris and her family are currently living in. Also coincidentally, Jonah Kaplan’s dead twin brother Justin was Lily’s boyfriend back in 1999-2000. There are just too many coincidences here. I guess double narratives have to rely on a small number of coincidences to justify the conceit of putting them in the same novel, but I don’t know. The more I think about this book the less I think it holds up to scrutiny. I should probably hurry up and finish this post so I don’t get more pissed off all the “coincidences.” And can I just say that it horrifies me a little that 1999 was so long ago that someone who was a high school junior then is able to teach high school (with a PhD, no less) in 2012. And for that matter why in the hell would Jonah Kaplan, who is has a doctorate, and is a minor genius in his field, give up a post-doc at a university to teach high school freshman biology?? There. Rant accomplished.

Iris’ passion is investigative journalism, hence her imaginary friend Edward R. Murrow. She joins the staff of the school paper and is given horrible assignments. Somehow she learns that there is an alleged secret society at Mariana, called Prisom’s Party, named after the founder of the school, supposedly by the founder of the school, over a hundred years ago. Is this like Dumbledore’s Army? It is, if the D.A. engaged in pornographic vandalism and blackmail, which I am pretty sure it didn’t. Turns out, Jonah has a vested interest in Prisom’s Party as well. He holds the group responsible for the death of his brother, and wants to figure out the puzzle of Prisom’s Party. As well as himself, but mostly them. Or mostly him. Things get a bit convoluted as the parallel narratives reach their climaxes, and let’s just say that the poor albino gets her pubic hair dyed black (which I’m shocked Bethany didn’t mention in her post, as is she).

I guess the point I’m trying to make about The Year of the Gadfly is that it’s essentially harmless and superficially enjoyable for those of us who like mystery/suspense/high school angst/parallel narratives. But don’t think too much, or you’ll start getting irritated with the whole thing. Except for Iris. I was really rooting for her the whole time.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Mystery, fiction - thriller, Jennifer Miller, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

Yarn Along photo 7.27.16

With two nominating conventions and an upcoming summer Olympics, I thought it was time to start a somewhat-complex knitting project. This tank sweater isn’t hard to make (if you’ve been reading our blog for a while you’ve probably seen me make several), but it takes a while because the yard is very fine. I’m enjoying the yarn and the pattern as much as ever. I’m also enjoying Larry Watson’s Laura, and I’ll be back soon with a review. Happy Wednesday!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

 

 

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Final Thoughts on Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

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The anti-intellectualism of early Christianity makes me genuinely angry. This anger dates back to my reading of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason in the winter of 2012, but it was reawakened by The House of Wisdom, which, in spite of my anger, I enjoyed. If your medieval theology is rusty, the short version of the story is that the early Christians were influenced by neo-Platonism, which said that everything we can observe in the physical world is just a pale shadow of the “real” and “eternal” world of forms. In 1 Corinthians, Paul promises to “destroy the wisdom of the wise,” and a couple hundred years later Augustine watched his city sacked by “barbarians” while writing his own treatise against the physical world and in favor of the eternal. If you believe that the world you see around you is corrupt and that your own senses are unable to lead you to truth, I suppose it makes sense that you would not want to study the physical world – but still. It’s true that our senses are imperfect and that sensory perception can lead to misunderstandings, but our senses are what we have. The idea of faith as something separate and distinct from – not to mention superior to – the senses makes absolutely no sense to me.

For example, the medieval Christian determination to resist studying the physical world is the brains behind this little operation, known by scholars as the T-O map:

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The T-O map is what passed for world geography in early medieval Europe.  The “T” shape is the Mediterranean, and if you imagine that you’re in Gibraltar and facing east, you’ll see that Europe, Africa, and Asia are in approximately the correct positions relative to one another. But seriously, they didn’t know that Italy was a peninsula? That England existed and was an island? This map was the brainchild of Isidore of Seville, who lived in the 6th century A.D. Norse sailors were crossing the Atlantic in the 6th century. The collapse of the Roman empire and the hegemony of rival “barbarian” kingdoms made overland travel so unsafe that most people stayed put. As someone who’s afraid to cross the desert on I-10 when it’s windy, I can’t exactly quibble with this form of self-preservation. But the deep distrust of established learning (and refusal to use the senses to observe the physical world) that accompanied this temporary hiatus in overland travel was deeply destructive to European culture.

Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization is about what happened east of Greece and Turkey during these same years. Lyons’ primary emphasis is the Abbasid Empire, which was based in Baghdad beginning in the 8th century, a period known as the Golden Age of Islam. The book also covers the Umayyid Empire, which was based in Spain during the same period of time, and its central thesis has to do with the importance of a small handful of Europeans who reached out to the Islamic empires in hopes of re-igniting the ancient Greek knowledge that their own ancestors had abandoned. Lyons spends time on such figures as Adelard of Bath, King Roger II of Sicily, Gerbert d’Aurillac (who later became Pope Sylvester II), Siger of Brabant, and others.

Just as an aversion to the physical world was implicit in early Christian teachings (though NOT in the teachings of Christ), some aspects of Islam made the Arabs of this era especially attuned to science. While Christianity saw disease as a divine punishment meant to be stoically endured and urged believers to welcome death as a chance to escape the physical world, the Koran emphasizes the duty of all people to heal the sick and prescribes hygiene practices that – even in the absence of germ theory – led to a high quality of public health unheard of in Europe in this era. The Arabs also recognized that skills like celestial navigation and technologies like sundials had to be adjusted based on one’s position on the globe. When sundials did make it to Europe, Europeans dismissed them as useless because they were calibrated to tell time at a widely different latitude. Similarly, when Adelard of Bath and other travelers brought Arab farming techniques back to Europe, these techniques failed because Europeans did not know that agricultural methods must vary based on location and climate. Lyons also lists many discoveries that the Arabs made using what we would call the scientific method – a mode of thinking that requires skepticism and an attention to detail that Europeans wouldn’t rediscover until the late 17th century.

This book is full of other Arab developments from this era: the astrolabe, algebra, and the literary technique known as the framed tale (which later gained fame in Europe as the narrative device of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron). Avicenna’s canon of medicine; the philosophical and mathematical advances of Averroes. The Arabs of this era performed cataract surgery and invented deodorant. They brought Arabic numerals to Europe. (Think that’s no big deal? Try doing higher mathematics using Roman numerals.) The Arabs also spent serious time considering “the eternity of the world,” which is basically the idea – grounds for excommunication in medieval Europe – that the world has always existed and will continue to exist forever.

But enough. I seem to be writing a summary – and an emotionally charged one at that – instead of a review. With a little help from the confirmation bias, I enjoyed this book. And I hope you will too.

Posted in Authors, Jonathan Lyons, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thoughts on T.C. Boyle’s Wild Child and Other Stories (by Jill)

 

Wild Child Cover

I’ve read a few of T.C. Boyle’s short stories before, but never a whole collection of them. Wild Child and Other Stories was amazing. Each story, no matter how short, was a self-contained little universe. I wish I’d had time when I was reading this book to write about each and every story, but I didn’t. It’s too bad, really, because they all deserve equal attention, and I’m just going to mention a few of them.

Where to begin? I suppose I should begin at the beginning. The first story is called “Balto,” and is not about a wolf-dog rescuing children from a diphtheria epidemic in Alaska (I had to google that—I have actually never seen Balto), though the movie is mentioned briefly. In “Balto,” a man with two children has a wife who is out of town and a girlfriend who is in town. He forgets he’s supposed to pick the kids up from school one day and gets roaringly drunk with his girlfriend. It appears that he is often this drunk, but not on days he has to pick up his kids from school. The story opens with the dad’s attorney counseling the older daughter, Angelle, about how there are “two kinds of truths, good truths and hurtful ones (1).” Over the pages of the story it’s revealed that when the father gets to school and he asks Angelle to drive the rest of the way home. She’s not old enough to drive, but is old enough to read Faulkner for school and instant message her friends, so I’d put her at late middle school, though I don’t think Angelle’s age is ever made exactly known. Anyway, there’s some sort of minor accident involving someone on a bicycle while she’s driving. The lawyer tries to convince Angelle to say that her dad was driving when the kid on the bicycle got hit, and explains that if she admits to being the one who was driving her dad will be in even more trouble than he already was. Angelle ends up telling the truth, and that’s where the story ends. That’s the problem with short stories sometimes—you don’t get every detail. But Boyle does an excellent job of building suspense and leaving us wondering why in the heck Angelle’s mom is in France and not at home with her family during all this business, and wondering what’s going to happen to the kids after Angelle does the right thing (or was it the right thing? We’ll never know) on the stand. The father, who I think doesn’t ever get a name, is obviously an alcoholic, and Boyle also describes his addiction and cravings really well too. But that’s all I’m going to say about that one. There are thirteen more to talk about, after all.

Next up is “La Conchita.” Told in first person by an organ currier, you know, like the guys who transport organs for transplantation, when there’s an avalanche on the road in the town of La Conchita, a small beach town in southern California. I just googled the town, and found that there actually was a terrible landslide here in 2005. So I guess this story takes place then. Anyway, the transporter (in my mind he looks a little bit like Jason Statham) is trying to get a liver to a hospital in Santa Barbara when the road is suddenly covered in mud and rocks, as is a good portion of the town. The liver gets to where it needs to go, I think, and the transporter gets roped into helping a woman try to dig her family up out of the mud. Good suspense and all that business here too.

“Question 62” was maybe my least favorite of the collection. It’s about two sisters, Anita, who lives in Wisconsin, and Mae, who lives in Southern California. Anita meets a man named Todd who is weird, and Mae meets a loose tiger who eventually gets shot. I never did quite get the purpose of this story, though it moved along fine. I was also very concerned both sisters would end up dead. Because Todd may have been a psychopath, and the tiger is, well, a tiger.

“Sin Dolor” is about a kid who doesn’t feel pain and the local doctor who tries to experiment on him. Enjoyable, but kind of depressing.

“Bulletproof” was kind of awesome. It is about a small town that’s having a creationism vs. evolution controversy and a man who meets a woman on the opposite side of the debate. I wanted to ridicule the creationism characters, but I found their reasoning fascinating, and I think their God is a good one.

“Hands On” was creepy, but as interesting me as “Bulletproof.” An unnamed woman goes to a plastic surgeon for Botox, and then gets kind of obsessed with her surgeon as well as plastic surgery and looking better. I’m not a believer in body modification of this type (both because I lack the financial means to invest in it and also because maybe it’s okay to just look the way the good Lord and genetics intended you to as long as you get some exercise and don’t eat junk all the time), but I can see how things can spiral out of control. And this poor woman is lonely and just needs a friend to tell her she doesn’t need to do all this stuff to be happy.

Next up was “The Lie.” Now this guy. This guy needs to grow the heck up. Lonnie is married to Clover, and they have a baby daughter. Lonnie is having a hard time accepting adult responsibilities and starts telling lies to get out of work. Eventually his coworkers think the baby is dead and they’ve given him a bucket of money. Obviously this is not going to end well for anyone.

“The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado” takes place in Venezuela, a different locale for T.C. Boyle, but it deals with the juxtaposition of two different cultures, which he actually does quite often. Aquiles Maldonado is a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and he’s been making the local folks angry with his flaunting of his American wealth. They decide to kidnap his mother, who ends up taking good care of the boys who kidnap her. I really enjoyed this story, though I can’t put my finger on why, besides that it dealt with something different than First World Problems, and that’s what a lot of the stories in this collection deal with. I’m not trying to make light of First World Problems. I have shit tons of First World Problems. But sometimes it’s nice to think about something else besides how I’m going to charge my iPad and my iPhone at the same time, you know?

I loved “Admiral,” too, probably because it was about a dog. Admiral is a cloned dog. Talk about First World Problems. The Strikers lost their beloved Afghan hound, and paid a lot of money to have him cloned. They hire back their old dog-sitter, Gretchen, recently graduated from college and without a job, because they want to have Admiral #2’s upbringing be as close as possible to Admiral #1’s, so their personalities develop in the same way. It’s sensible, because genotype doesn’t always determine phenotype, and Gretchen agrees because she needs money and these ridiculous people offered to pay her $25 an hour to dog sit, with medical and dental benefits. A European journalist, Erhard, tries to convince Gretchen to help him steal Admiral, but things don’t go quite as planned. Suffice it to say that Admiral is fine at the end of the story. Because I don’t like stories about dogs with sad endings.

“Ash Monday” is another juxtaposition of cultures story, this time poor Americans and well-off Japanese, living in the hills above LA. This one has a fire in it, and the ending is somewhat ambiguous.

“Thirteen Hundred Rats” is about a lonely widower named Gerard Loomis who decides to get a pet after his wife passes away. I’ve never been a huge fan of caged mammals as pets, and this story confirms that for me. I’m going to leave it at that. But I did enjoy the macabre tone of this story.

“Anacapa” reminded me of Boyle’s novel Till the Killing’s Done, because this one also takes place in/around the Channel Islands. Damian and Hunter are old college roommates who occasionally still get together, despite the fact that Damian kind of annoys Hunter. They take a fishing charter boat out but Hunter is hung over the whole day from the prior evening’s escapades. Not much happens in this story, though some fish are caught, and more alcohol is drank, and there’s a pretty girl named Julie who helps clean the fish and who kind of likes Hunter. Or maybe she likes Damian. It’s never made clear.

“Three Quarters of the Way to Hell” is not contemporary and doesn’t take place anywhere in California. It takes place in what feels like the fifties, in a recording studio in New York. There’s a booze and pot-addled singer named Johnny, and a woman, also a singer, named Darlene Delmar, and they are contracted to sing a Christmas carol. They end up hiding out in the bathroom for a while getting high, and then sing a lot of songs together. They think they sound amazing. I’m not sure if they actually do, but what matters is that these two lonely souls have someone to be with for a couple of hours. “She didn’t know what time it was, didn’t know when Harvey and the A&R man deserted the booth, didn’t know anything but the power of two voices entwined. She knew this only—that she was in a confined space, walls and floor and ceiling, but that didn’t make any sense to her, because it felt as if it opened up forever (238).” Isn’t that lovely?

The last story in the collection is “Wild Child,” and it’s actually more of a novella since it’s close to seventy pages. This one takes place in France in the eighteenth century, and is about a real person, Victor of Aveyron, who was a “wild child,” abandoned by his family as a small boy, and left to go feral in the woods. He’s eventually “rescued,” and Boyle’s story chronicles the attempts to civilize him, which are only minimally successful. The primary character, besides Victor, is Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, a doctor who takes it upon himself to teach Victor how to communicate. Victor ended up at a school for deaf-mutes, despite the fact that is was not deaf, and mute may be an over-statement. This story was so well-done, and just made me think about what the right thing to do with this boy was. Would it have been better to just leave him be in the woods? Because “civilizing” him didn’t really succeed. Would more modern methods have worked better? Or were there other factors at play—was he autistic or did he have a history of head trauma or something?

I’ve always liked T.C. Boyle, but this collection of stories showed me how broad his range really is. Look at all the different lives and stories he tells here. This book is just over three hundred pages long and I found more to say about it than I’ve found to say about books that are almost twice that. I will definitely be digging up more of his short stories in the used book stores down the line.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - short story collections, Reviews by Jill, T.C. Boyle, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel

the fifth gospel cover image

Fact #1 that I learned from Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel: some Catholic priests can get married. The protagonist of this book is Alex Andreou, an Eastern Catholic priest who lives in the Vatican with his five-year-old son. As an Eastern Catholic, he says the liturgy in Greek and is culturally similar to Greek Orthodox Christians, but he obeys the pope. His father was also an Eastern Catholic, and Alex and his brother Simon were born and raised inside the Vatican. His father died when Alex and Simon were teenagers, and their mother died shortly later. The adult Alex lives a life similar to the lives of single parents everywhere: he cares for his young son, Peter, while also relying on a host of neighbors and a nun named Sister Helena to fill in the gaps when he needs to work, which isn’t very often. Alex teaches the gospels at a pre-seminary, which is sort of like a high school, I think. But in spite of the fact that school is in session during the events of the novel, Alex never goes to work, or calls anyone to explain why he is not coming to work. I was always under the impression that priests had, I don’t know, shit to do – especially priests that are also teachers. This little failure of verisimilitude bothered me here and there while I was reading, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.

Fact #2 that I learned from The Fifth Gospel: the Vatican has its own supermarkets. It’s a country, of course, and an entire country without supermarkets would be an inconvenient place to live. Having lived in the Vatican his whole life, Alex knows it intimately. The plot of this fast-paced novel darts in and out of the Vatican’s pharmacies and supermarkets, parking garages and gardens, and I enjoyed the lesson in the day-to-day operations of the smallest country in the world.

Like all countries, the Vatican also has a State Department, which is called the “Secretariat.” Alex’s brother Simon, a Roman Catholic priest, works for the Secretariat and spends most of his time in Turkey. Simon returns to the Vatican frequently to report in on his diplomatic work and also to maintain a relationship with Alex and Peter. At the beginning of the novel, Alex and Peter are awaiting such a visit. Along with the rest of the Vatican, they are also waiting eagerly for the opening of a new exhibit in the Vatican museum, an exhibit curated by a friend of Simon’s named Ugo Nogara. On the night Simon is expected to arrive, he calls Alex and insists that he meet him at a secluded piece of church-owned property called Castel Gandolfo. When Alex arrives, his brother in covered in blood and kneels beside Ugo Nogara’s dead body.

If you’re making a connection between this opening scene and another, more famous novel that begins with the murder of a museum curator, you are on to something. This novel is very much in the spirit of The Da Vinci Code – and, even more so, thanks to the Vatican setting, the Angels and Demons. If you’re a stickler for realistic, subtly written literary fiction, there is no need for you to read this book. I do love a good race-against-the-clock-because-all-of-Western-culture-hangs-in-the-balance plot line every once and a while, and I was in the mood for this one when I first picked it up a couple of weeks ago. If you do read The Fifth Gospel, you’ll find it much better written than Dan Brown’s novels, and you’ll also find it refreshingly free of the Harvard-professor-meets-beautiful-brunette-underling dynamic that seems so essential to Brown’s work. Alex does have a love interest of sorts in this book: his own wife, Mona, who suffered a psychotic break when Peter was a year old and then left the Vatican without a trace. For four years, Alex has mourned the loss of Mona, whom he still loves, and just when this novel starts rocking and rolling with its Brown-esque plot – which, yes, involves a missing ancient manuscript that will change the way the world looks at the Catholic Church forever – Mona reappears. On the one hand, neither Mona nor Peter really needs to be in this novel. Alex and Simon could chase around looking for manuscripts and relics just fine without Mona’s lingering guilt and Peter’s childish fears. However, their presence humanizes Alex. When Alex fights to save Simon, he is doing so on some level for Peter. When Alex begins to invite Mona back into his life, he is aware not only of the possibility of his own pain and loss if she leaves again, bot also of Peter’s. And then Alex has to renege on a promise to Peter that they will call Mona, the high stakes – Peter’s anger and feelings of betrayal – are clear.

I’m going to hold off on summarizing the plot any further. It involves Ugo Nogara’s exhibit and a newly rediscovered manuscript called the Diatesseron, and it involves the Fourth Crusade and the Catholic-Orthodox split and the Shroud of Turin and the differences between the Gospel of John, which emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which emphasize Jesus’s humanity. I did learn a good deal about early Christianity, and I enjoyed that learning process a great deal. The plot also involves the reappearance of a figure from Alex’s and Simon’s past, plus any number of Alex’s friends from his Vatican childhood, plus the reasons behind his father’s death and the fact that Pope John Paul II secretly made Simon a bishop and granted him a mission of key importance to the dying John Paul.

And finally, Fact #3 about The Fifth Gospel: Ian Caldwell can write. While Dan Brown’s terrible sentences are uniformly mocked, Caldwell’s prose is transparent most of the time, occasionally punctuated by sentences that are truly beautiful. I regret that I didn’t keep a list of sentences that I especially admired, and such sentences are always hard to find in hindsight. But I’ll share a couple. First, when Alex is contemplating his reunion with Mona and the way he has kept his apartment identical to the way it was when she lived there, Caldwell writes, “Like all good Romans, Peter and I have built our roads around our ruins” (170). And later, when Alex and Simon are waiting for the results of Simon’s trial (he’s accused of murdering Ugo), Caldwell writes, “Lick by lick, the candles on the table hollow themselves out” (421). Hell, this sentence is so good that I forgot to be annoyed that it’s in present tense.

Don’t read this book if the genre of The Da Vinci Code makes you cringe; there’s probably too much overlap for someone who truly loathes far-fetched European literary/theological thrillers. But if you enjoy the genre and want to read a novel that manages this kind of plot while also featuring well-drawn characters, a contemplative tone, and highly competent prose, The Fifth Gospel may be just the book for you.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Inspired by The Da Vinci Code, Ian Caldwell, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yarn Along: The Return

Yarn Along 7.20.16

In honor of this week’s Republican convention, I’m reading Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. The “it” of the title is basically totalitarianism. The novel was published in 1935 – so presumably written mostly in the years just before 1935 – and set during the presidential election of 1936. In real life, this was FDR’s reelection to his second term, but in the novel there appears to be no FDR figure – though there is some disgruntlement about some policies that resemble the New Deal – and the election is between left-winger Berzelius Windrip and his as-yet-unnamed Republican opponent. Since the enemy of choice in this era was Communism, which is a leftist ideology, the conservatives are generally thought of as the reasonable option, in spite of the fact that they occasionally praise Hitler and Mussolini.

I can’t say that this book is especially riveting. I’ve read 48 pages and have barely made it into the plot – when Sinclair Lewis does exposition, he really does exposition. The prose is rewarding in an Edith Whartonish sort of way, with little social-criticism zingers like this: “The DAR (reflected the cynic, Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization – as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half of their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other and more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely the principles for which these ancestors struggled” (4).

I started the cowl in the photo above when I was watching Season 6 of Game of Thrones at a friend’s house last week. Its grays and tans and steel blues suited the mood of that series. I love the colors and think I’ll enjoy the cowl, though of course it will never be cold enough around here to justify a cowl.

More on the novel soon. Happy Wednesday!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

 

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Thoughts on Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think (by Jill)

 

how doctors think cover

I started a post on this book about a week ago and it seems to have vanished off my hard drive. That’s fine with me, actually, because it was going nowhere fast, and I’m hoping I can do a better job this time.

Jerome Groopman, M.D. is a writer for The New Yorker (and has published several full-length books) as well as an oncologist. This book, like Being Mortal, was handed to me by my boss Cathy, and told I had to read it sooner than I read most of the other books she gives me (as everyone here knows, I’ve been averaging about four years between her giving me a book and me actually getting around to reading it lately), because EVERYONE, i.e. all of the veterinarians in our practice, needs to read this one. How Doctors Think was similar to Being Mortal in the sense that both are about how doctors and patients can do better at their jobs, but How Doctors Think honed in on the specifics of how doctors can screw up sometimes, and not because of how you’d think they would. It’s all about errors in cognition, and the mindsets we all get into about misreading patients, focusing too much on one set of diagnostic results over another, and things like that. It was not exactly easy reading, and it made me think hard about how I practice medicine, and made me second guess a lot of things I did while I was reading it, as well as since I read it. Which is good, I admit, but made me feel pretty angsty for a few days.

Because I finished this book over a month ago, I’m beginning to lose many of the details, and since I want to actually post something today, I’m not going to go digging through the text. Sorry, gang. It’s going to be a quick post. Groopman interviewed quite a few physicians from multiple different specialties for this book, and talked to them about cases where they felt they could have done better. The early chapters dealt specifically with the different cognition errors that medical folks can have, such as the “availability heuristic,” in which one makes a diagnosis because a case is similar to others that he or she has seen recently; “confirmation bias,” in which one selectively ignores or focuses on certain diagnostic information; and “anchoring,” in which one picks a diagnosis and sticks with it, even if additional data make the initial diagnosis seem less likely. Groopman goes through multiple specialties, discussing how each type of physician can make each sort of error, and there are quite a few medical anecdotes to keep things interesting.

Groopman intends this book to be for both doctors and patients, and makes recommendations how patients can help their doctors avoid these cognitive errors. Overall I really did think this book was IMPORTANT, and that people should read it, but it wasn’t always easy reading. Some of the stories were heart-wrenching in and of themselves, and others brought up memories of cases I’ve had that haven’t gone so well. I guess my recommendation is that people read this book, but that they read it when they are not in delicate frames of mind.

Posted in Jerome Groopman, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Nonfiction - Self-Help, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment