Sunday, March 29, 2009

Title Twenty Five: Intern: A Doctor's Initiation by Sandeep Jauhar

Why do I read so many memoirs? Is it because I'm so bored with my own life? Do I just have a voyeuristic tendency to dig into the lives of others? I don't know, but since I bought another one today, I'm just going to admit my powerlessness over the memoir and give it up to a higher power.

In the case of Intern, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar's account of his internship and residency in a New York hospital, I was drawn because I have a mild obsession with medicine. I was supposed to be a doctor when I grew up. Throughout my entire childhood I was fascinated by the human body and the way it works. Every year, while making my Christmas list from the Sears Wish Book (do y'all remember the Wish Book?) I asked for the anatomical model with the removable organs; I never got it. Maybe I should tell my mother that's the reason I never followed through. The model would have made all the difference! Anyway, when I got to high school and it was time to pick a college and a major, I set my sights on the Physican Assistant program at a local university and applied to a couple of premed programs for backup. I got into the highly competitive PA program (one of only 40 accepted, whoot!) and promptly failed out after one year, not because I wasn't any good at it, but because I was 17 years old and no one in their right minds sends a 17 year old off to live in a dorm and expects her to actually, I don't know, go to class instead of spending her nights doing beer bongs and hanging out with fraternity boys. I spent the next couple of years at community college, acing my way through biology, anatomy and physiology, microbiology and medical terminology courses, but then I got lazy and bored and said, "Fuck it, I want to get an English degree instead." Don't think that I don't kick my own ass for that at least three times a week.

Anyway. Jauhar, the youngest son of Indian immigrants (his family came to the United States when he was a small child) took a circuitous route to medicine - he originally earned his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley. His older brother Rajiv followed the family dream into a career in cardiology, and after a few years screwing around with quantum dots, whatever they are - physics were not a requirement for my PA program so I took anatomy and physiology in high school instead, and dissected a cat - Jauhar decides that he needs to do something meaningful with his life. A great part of his decision to go to medical school is tinged with jealousy of his brother and the respect and praise that Rajiv receives from their parents, who see Sandeep's little foray into academia as foolish and immature. After fast-tracking through Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, Jauhar packs up and heads out to New York Hospital to begin the three years of boot camp known as medical residency.

Jauhar does a very good job of describing his feelings of inadequacy, fear, and self-doubt as he is plunged into a reality for which no amount of reading and studying can prepare a person. Surrounded by the sick and dying, he sometimes wonders if doctors do more harm than good. He exposes the God complexes of the attendings, the futility of treating patients who seem to fight the men and women charged with treating them at every turn, and the overwhelming exhaustion of trying to be in several places at once without really knowing what he's doing in any of them. It's an interesting take on a place that is a mystery to many; unless either you or a family member has spent any length of time in a hospital (I myself went through it last summer when my grandmother was hospitalized for several weeks following an intracranial hemhorrage, or brain bleed) most of us have vague notions regarding how hospitals and doctors function, based mainly on shows like "ER," "House" or "Grey's Anatomy." Jauhar fleshes out the experience from the other side, showing what it's like to be the person responsible for those bodies in the beds, hooked up to wires and tubes and machines.

At times the narrative is bogged down by too much backstory; my real interest was in the patients and the medicine. In the course of his first year, his internship, Jauhar meets a fellow medical student who would become his wife less than a year later and does a mostly seamless job of integrating that subplot. He also hammers again and again at his sense of inadequacy next to his older brother, a cardiologist in the same hospital, and at times it gets tiring. We get it, your brother is a golden boy and you're in his shadow. He also explores the ethics involved in treatment, and in trying to find the line between helping a patient and causing more damage. It's an important point, but I just don't know if Jauhar has a hard time expressing his feelings on the subject or if, writing this book ten years later, his memories and feelings have blurred and merged in the ensuing decade, because those passages can be somewhat unwieldy and confusing. Granted, that could also be my interpretation of something that is really more of a moral issue and colored by my personal opinions and experiences.

Overall, I found Intern to be an enjoyable and informative read. Most people look at doctors and think, "Well, they must know what they're doing; we let them poke needles in our arms and shine lights in our eyes and stick us in radioactive machines and cut open our chests." The truth is that a white coat doesn't make you God; it just means you have a really good aptitude for memorization. Some doctors take that knowledge and try to do good, while others use it to lord over other people and look for glory. Jauhar does a standout job of giving civilians a peek behind the curtain and showing his readers that there is no great and powerful Oz; it's just a man who knows more than you do about something.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Title Twenty Four: Angels by Marian Keyes

I've already noted my love for Keyes on this here blog, but somehow I managed to miss Angels, which is strange, because Lord knows I love me some of those crazy Walsh sisters. Angels is Maggie's story, and it takes place after Rachel's Holiday and before Anybody Out There? for those of you playing along at home.

Maggie is married to Garv, her first boyfriend, and they have a pretty decent life - he's an actuary, she works in entertainment law, and they have a house in Dublin. Maggie's the good Walsh girl who's never let her parents down, which makes it quite a shock when her marriage ends and her job is terminated in the span of 24 hours. After fleeing to Casa Walsh and spending several days in its bedlam trying to figure out what to do next, Maggie decides to get on a plane and head to Los Angeles to visit her best friend Emily, who is trying to make it as a screenwriter. Over the course of a month, Maggie is submerged in the sterotypical L.A. culture - everyone drives everywhere, all of the people are beautiful, the drinks are complicated, the waitstaff are out-of-work actors/models/writers, and each day is spent waiting for an agent to call. In the meantime, Maggie tries to be supportive of Emily, who is desperately trying to sell her latest screenplay (if it doesn't happen, she'll have to move back to Dublin in disgrace because her money is gone) and spends her days at the beach and her nights drinking at hotspots, trying to understand how she ended up several time zones away from her old life. There are a couple of romantic interests (male and female - Maggie tries hard to shed her good girl image), funny haircuts, and amusing shopping expeditions as well, but under the surface Keyes does what she does best: she exposes the story, layer by layer, so that the reader figures out how Maggie got to this point at the same time that Maggie does.

It's not fair to give away the answers because it would take away from the reading experience. I will say that Keyes shifts so smoothly from the present-time action of the book and Maggie's flashbacks that it gives the novel a very organic and realistic feel while avoiding being jarring or confusing. The further you read, the more pieces click into place, and that's why I love reading Keyes' books so much, whether they're about the Walsh sisters or not. Her stories are both light and serious, making you think but at the same time keeping a steady flow of action, priceless characters (including, of course, the awe-inspiring Mammy Walsh), and enjoyable dialogue coming. Now if she would just write Helen's story...

Title Twenty Three: The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Sometimes I get nostalgic for the books of my youth, and I root around in the bookcases for Anne Shirley or Trixie Belden. A week or so back I found myself perusing the shelves, looking for a little comfort read, and my eyes kept going back to my nifty Little House boxed set. I said, "Why not?" and pulled out Little House in the Big Woods, intending to while away a couple of hours with the Ingalls family during their time in a log cabin in Wisconsin. Next thing I knew, I was up to The Long Winter on the prairies of North Dakota, and I just couldn't stop myself. It took me three days to read through the eight book series, which begins with Laura "Half-Pint" Ingalls as a little girl and ends in her fourth year of marriage to Almanzo Wilder.

The Little House books are sweet, quick, and reminiscent of a time and place when church socials, county fairs, and buggy rides were the excitement of the day. Settlers battled the elements, Indians, and the government as they strove to carve out their place in the history of the American Dream. While I was breezing through the series, I thought of my experience with Revolutionary Road a couple of weeks before, and how I proclaimed that the American Dream was a ghost during the 1950s, long since dead of ennui. It was interesting to be reminded that at one point in time that idea of manifest destiny was very much alive and well in our country. I'm not someone who would like to return to that time; I enjoy indoor plumbing and voting rights and my car and supermarkets and the interwebs far too much to want to live on a farm and go to town in a wagon on Sundays while deferring to my husband and keeping an eye out for blizzards, pests, and Indian raiding parties - there is a certain note of racism throughout the books that I didn't recognize as a child, most notably with regards to Ma Ingalls' view that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." However, I've always believed that every little girl should have a set of Ingalls Wilder's books and I treasure the many hours that I spent with them in my younger years.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Say goodnight, not goodbye.

On a blog about books, I'd like to tell you a story.

Once, there was a fierce warrior queen. She was a slayer of zombies, a mother, a wife, a reader, and a friend. Her wit, humor, strength and courage as she battled cancer with a sword in one hand and a book in the other were not to be underestimated, and her battle was heroic. She laughed in the face of Doom and spit in the eye of Pessimism while balancing her laptop on her knee and turning another page with her finger. She loved her family and supported her friends and made the world a better and smaller place with her fire and words, and she lived, lived, lived.

One day, at long last and yet far, far too soon, the sword grew too heavy and it was time for her to lay it down. She will be remembered in countless hearts and minds for decades to come, and her name is written in the stars. She didn't lose her battle. She won the war.

Godspeed, Alabamapink. Thank you for being my friend.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Still reading, still lazy

I've got three books to write about but with all of the goings-on in regards to starting a new job, I won't be doing that for a few more days. I haven't bowed out of the challenge; I'm going to surprise you with a quickness. Just you wait.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Title Twenty Two: Promises in Death by J.D. Robb

For those of you who aren't Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb whores, like me, I'll let you in on a little secret: the authors are one and the same. Roberts began this series about NYPSD supercop Eve Dallas about fifteen years ago, and Promises is #28 in the series, which speaks to both the prolific writing of Roberts (the woman churns out at least two Robb novels, a standalone, and usually a trilogy each year; this isn't counting her contributions to anthologies under both names) and the devotional following that the ID series has attracted and sustained. If you're not a fan and you've never heard of Lieutenant Eve Dallas, Cop Central, an AutoChef, the Urban Wars, a police-issue stunner, or the god of all men (and Dallas' husband) Roarke, I'll try to give you a little background.

The series starts in 2058 with Naked in Death, where Dallas and multibillionaire Roarke meet in her investigation into the death of a young woman from a prominent family; the victim has been murdered with a handgun, something that has been banned for decades. Eve solves the case and gets the guy, although she really doesn't want the latter at first. She's a loner, a product of the foster care system, and the NYPSD's supreme bitch cop (and superstar homicide detective) and Roarke, with his shiny piles of money and ownership of approximately 50-60% of the known universe, is the last things she wants in life. Of course, they fall in love, and over the course of the next couple books, they get married, and become every woman's dream. Throughout the course of the series, Dallas gets a life crowded with friends, more fame and notoriety than she's comfortable with - do NOT call her Mrs. Roarke - and takes out the baddest of the baddies, book by book. If you're rolling your eyes and groaning, that's okay, but the In Deaths are my crack and I'm gonna love 'em until I die. How can I resist an AutoChef, a machine that acts as a sort of insta-cooker and lets your order up whatever you want whenever you want it? In the mood for chicken parm? Press a button and it's yours. You get the idea. There are also pocket 'links in place of cell phones - actually, it looks like Roberts/Robb was ahead of her time because a link really resembles what the iPhone or CrackBerry will be in a few years - cars with vertical lift, off-planet travel to intergalactic resorts like Vegas II, universal healthcare complete with cancer vaccines and organ replacements that put the average lifespan at around 120-150 years, and all kinds of other badass gadgets and gizmos. The latest installment takes place in the spring of 2060, because Dallas has been a busy lady in two years and 28 full books. But enough background, fools.

Promises hits close to home for fans; a fellow cop, Detective Amaryllis Coltraine, has been found murdered in her apartment building by her own weapon. Not only is Coltraine a cop, but she's also the lover of fan favorite Chief Medical Examiner Morris, a cool dead doctor who has become one of Dallas' closest friends. In addition, it looks like the baddie who set the whole thing up is an old enemy of both Dallas and Roarke, currently serving time in a concrete cage off-planet, where the worst of the worst live out their miserable lives, the death penalty having been abolished as well. The overall tone of the novel is one of sadness and grief, because if you've been with these characters as long as I have, you can't help but ache for Morris and his loss, an ache that Dallas feels keenly when faced with something that she can't kick the shit out of. Eventually she solves the puzzle, with the help of her delicious husband, trusty partner Peabody, and the rest of the cast of characters who have wormed their ways into her life and heart, but there isn't really a resolution here because the grief will go on.

Anyway, if this kind of thing isn't your cup of tea or whatever, just skip the review and skip the series. However if you, like me, don't mind a little bit of mind crack and you haven't had the chance to check out Robb's cult-forming series, it might just be worth a shot. And you know you totally want an AutoChef.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Title Twenty One: Band Geek by Dustin Rowles

Band Geek is actually an unpublished manuscript by my friend Dustin Rowles up there, but after some debate I decided to include it in the Cannonball because I read it, so it counts. Normally, the books I review are published and on shelves at Target and Borders and wherever books are sold, so I consider them open game since any one of the four people who may or may not read this on a random basis can go and pick up the book in question. This is a little different, since DR's memoir is still a work in progress (albeit a very fine work, which in my opinion just needs a little fine tuning in spots) and not available to the general public. At any rate, I checked with the main guy after reading it a few weeks ago, and he gave me the go-ahead to do the review, so here it is. My fervent, sincere hope is that it finds its way onto the shelves of bookstores everywhere at some point in the near future and that you all can enjoy it, because it is brilliant.

One of the things that I loved about this high school coming-of-age tale was not so much how Dustin grew, as a person, throughout the course of it, but that I could follow how, as he got older and more mature, the weight of his life grew with him. That's how life actually happens, though you don't see it at the time. It's easy to look back at tenth grade and think, really, those were my priorities? Belonging to a certain social set and having a boyfriend and wearing the right jeans? Did I really not know that life was so much bigger than that? The truth is, those WERE everyone's priorities then. At thirty I can look back and scoff at my superficiality but at fifteen that was the whole of my life; that was all that there was. I was defined by those things. It's intriguing and true to see the author's perspective open up little by little as he realized that there was more to life than that, the most major decision being the one to get himself the hell out of Benton and DO something. It was kind of like starting at the narrow end of a funnel and moving towards the mouth, with Dustin's worldview gradually widening as the months and years pass.

An integral part of Dustin's story is his father, a single parent working two jobs and trying to raise two boys on his own, just doing the best he can and realizing that it's not always enough. What's gifted about the scenes with his dad is that Dustin doesn't build him up to be more than he was, but doesn't tear him down either. He just shows the man for who he was, and that's a rare talent. Dustin's younger brother, a high school dropout with a drug habit whose life is rapidly going nowhere, plays a smaller but also vital role when it comes to the juxtaposition of the life that Dustin has and the life that he realizes he needs to live. Those of us who know Dustin know that he gets the happy ending, but that's not what the book is about. It's about the survival; it's about waking up every day not knowing if you're going to be ignored by your peers or mocked for your shoes, about wondering if you're going to die a virgin, about trying to imagine something bigger than you and getting a little nauseated because you don't even know who you are yet. The entire thing is laced with a wit and humor that keeps it from being too painful, and I admit to the fact that there were times I was laughing so hard that I had to put my head down to catch my breath. By the same token, there were passages that hit me so profoundly I found myself tearing up. The balance is admirable and strong and honest. It's beautiful, and I loved it, and I'm not just saying that because the author is a pal. I'm saying it because it's so very, very true.

Cheers, DR.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Title Twenty: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I haven't seen the film yet, and I wanted to read the book before I did. Call me a snob, but I believe that no movie is ever better than the book (with the notable exception of Atonement), so I wanted to read the novel in order to see what the fuss was about.

It's difficult for me to be unable to pin down whether I like a book or not. Normally, once I turn the last page, I have a very definite opinion. At the end of Revolutionary Road, however, I found myself ambivalent. The only way I can explain that is that, while I think the story was well-told, I absolutely loathed the characters. I've rarely met a more unsympathetic set of protagonists than April and Frank Wheeler. Out of the two, I gave April a bit more of the benefit of the doubt, but Frank Wheeler is a pompous, vain, self-centered ass and if I'd ever found myself with the misfortune of being married to his preening, holier-than-thou self it would be a miracle if I didn't go at him with a frying pan one evening.

The Wheelers live the quintessential 1950s American Dream - they have a charming house in a Connecticut suburb, two children (a boy and a girl, of course), Frank commutes to an office job in Manhattan each day, and they drink their way through everything. Booze is as much a main character as the Wheelers themselves and features more prominently than the children. Of course, the Wheelers hate their boring suburban lifestyle, a point with which I agree. I would rather jam a bamboo skewer into my eye than live in the Wheelers' neighborhood, with its subdivisions and gardens and community theater attempts. I'm not a snob; I just prefer the city and enjoy the fact that I can walk around the corner to get my milk and bread instead of driving ten miles on a highway. If you like the suburbs, or rural areas, rock on. Everyone should do what makes them happy. The Wheelers, however, aren't doing what makes them happy, and so the reader has to suffer through their ennui and complaints, page by page. April and Frank met and married in New York City, but had to move when their family became too large for dingy flats in the city. Frank has put in years in the Sales Promotion department at Knox Business Machines, the very same company that employed his father, because he didn't know what else to do with his life when his wife found herself pregnant not long after their marriage. He languishes in this private hell but at no time does he do anything about it. He prefers to complain and dissemble, while doing essentially nothing at work, and comes home to a wife who is no happier than he is at finding herself locked into suburbia. April alternates between the sterotypical cold shrew and the fawning, doting wife, both of which made me slightly nauseated and contributed to my dislike for the pair. They virtually ignore their children and see fit to associate with only one couple from the neighborhood, whom they deign to be not so far beneath them as other people.

One day April comes up with the idea for the family to move to Europe, where she can support the family as a secretary for one of the American embassies and Frank can take the time to "find himself." They're so above it all that they don't consider the ramifications for their children, their friends, Frank's job, or anything else. The immaturity and selfishness are slightly shocking, and if the author means for the reader to feel sympathy for the Wheelers' plight of having to settle for "ordinary," he went off the rails with this one. Before the grand plan can come to fruition, April falls pregnant once again and the rest of the novel lurches toward a sad ending that gives the situation no real perspective. I can't even call it tragic, because I dislike the Wheelers too much to feel any real upset.

Maybe I'm just tired of this backlash against the nostalgia so long held for the "Greatest Generation." No, things weren't perfect back then. The housewives drank and popped pills and made disgusting Jello molds, and the men wore suits and commuted to stale office jobs in the city and paid more attention to the paper, the ballgame, and their evening cocktails than to their families. The kids rode bikes and had paper routes and played with Barbies and then grew up to burn their bras or die in the jungles of Vietnam. We've known for at least a decade and a half that the "American Dream" was just that; it was a myth, a mirage, an illusion. Maybe Revolutionary Road would have had a fresher feel if I'd read it ten or fifteen years ago, but now it's just a stale retread of books that I've read before. I haven't decided yet whether or not to see the film, but if DiCaprio's Frank is anything like the character in the novel, I'll probably end up turning it off.

(If you still think you might like to give this one a try, I recommend taking a drink every time Frank Wheeler checks out his reflection in a mirror, window, door, or spoon. You'll be hammered halfway through. Drinking games are fun!)