Great Reads

Groopman, Jerome E. How Doctors Think

Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of medical essays, so I pretty much knew that I would enjoy this book before I started reading it.  But I had not read Groopman before (other than a few of his essays in The New Yorker) so my mind was open to dislike it.  Well, all the great reviews couldn’t be wrong!  And they weren’t.  It is a very good book.  What is particularly interesting about this collection is Groopman’s focus on the relationship between doctor and patient and how a doctor’s perceptions can influence the quality of care a patient receives.  For example, in one essay, Groopman writes about an athletic and attractive man who goes to the ER because he has pain and shortness of breath, but he is turned away without receiving the treatment he needs because the doctor treating him views him in such a positive light and is unable to see past the patient's robust facade.  If you enjoy reading books by Oliver Sacks or Atul Gawande, you will want to read this book as well.   Groopman writes in a similarly engaging style and, like the others, addresses fascinating medical issues.  Additionally, this book will give you ideas on how to become a better patient and communicate in ways that help doctors move past their preconceived notions that they may have about you and your health.

RA Blog Categories: 

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley.

P.D. James takes on life after Pride and Prejudice in her newest book, delighting mystery and Jane Austen fans alike.  On the eve of Pemberley’s annual Lady Anne’s Ball, six years after their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s household is brutally disrupted by a hysterical uninvited guest, Lizzie’s sister, Lydia. She claims that her husband, Lt. George Wickham has been murdered by his friend Capt. Martin Denny in the woods.  But upon investigation, it seems that the opposite is true and the inhabitants of Pemberley must cancel the ball and mount a murder investigation in its stead.

Infused with Lizzie’s signature wit, the plot explores the secrets, pasts and hidden agendas of the characters. And It’s no surprise that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are fantastic sleuths. James does a wonderful job capturing Austen’s style while also adding a little life to the familiar; a winning take on the classic.

RA Blog Categories: 

Moore, Christopher. Sacre Bleu

Vincent Van Gogh’s unusual suicide—he shot himself in the chest shortly after finishing a painting, then walked a mile to a doctor’s house—provides the catalyst for revelations about the origins of the painter’s madness in this humorous and layered novel.  Lucien Lessard, baker in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, has grown up around some of the greatest painters of the age, including Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Manet.  An aspiring painter himself, Lucien finds that his painting takes fire when his true love, the mysterious and beautiful Juliette, brings him a special tube of ultramarine blue paint from a strange paint dealer known only as the Colorman.  As it turns out, Van Gogh also bought his blue from the Colorman, as did most, if not all, of the other famous painters in Paris at the time. And all of those painters also conducted mad, passionate, and ultimately doomed relationships with beautiful women at the same time.  Lucien, beginning to piece this together, joins forces with his friend “the little gentleman,” the painter Toulouse-Lautrec—who, as it turns out, has also bought blue paint from the Colorman and also lost his true love, Carmen.  They must discover the secret of the Colorman and the secret of the sacred blue before they, too, end up dead.

Humorous as Moore’s books always are, Sacre Bleu, like Lamb and Fool, also contains a wealth of rich historical detail, clearly the product of meticulous reseach and a deep interest in the material. The painters are all portrayed as vividly as their paintings, and fin de siecle Paris is evoked realistically and colorfully.

RA Blog Categories: 

Kunzru, Hari. Gods Without Men

Kunzru’s assured novel wanders back and forth in time, following several groups of the lost as they seek something more or better for themselves.  Where their stories all collide eventually is the Pinnacles, three fingers of stone projecting up out of the Mojave Desert. Among the wide cast of characters are Fray Garces, a half-insane Jesuit missionary intent on conveting the natives; Deighton, a scarred and arrogant ethnologist attempting to study the culture of the native tribes before it is lost entirely; dissolute British rock star Nicky Capaldi; the members of a hippie commune, including their “Guide,” Judy; and several others. But the core of the novel is formed by the experiences of Jaz, an assimilated American Sikh; his white American wife Lisa; and their four-year-old son Raj, who has autism.  When Raj vanishes in the desert, near the Pinnacles, Jaz and Lisa become the center of a media storm.  Kunzru’s portait of their marriage is nuanced and insightful; his descriptions of Jaz and his family’s life as immigrants always slightly out of step with American culture even more so.

Complex, layered, lively, and intelligent, Kunzru has crafted an astute and piercing portrait of humanity’s continual quest for meaning—whether through religion, science, drugs, computer programming, or extraterrestrial life—amid the chaos of every day life.

RA Blog Categories: 

Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child

Childless middle-aged couple Jack and Mabel take advantage of the cheap land deals to buy a homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. Dreaming of a new start, a life of meaningful labor and simple pleasure, the couple instead find a punishing and brutal land with interminable winters and bug-ridden summers.  Mabel contemplates suicide as Jack nearly kills himself to get the planting done.  In a fit of playfulness one cold winter evening, however, Jack and Mabel build themselves a girl from the year’s first snow and decorate her with a scarf and mittens. In the morning, the scarf and mittens are gone and the couple begin to spot a real young girl in the woods around their cabin—a girl none of their neighbors have seen, or know about. And she is wearing the scarf and mittens.  Mabel convinces herself that their love and longing brought the snow-girl to life as happened in a Russian fairy tale she read as a child, but Jack suspects the reality to be darker than Mabel’s magical tale.  As the years pass, the girl, Faina, becomes as a daughter to the couple—but as Mabel knows, the fairy tale of the snow child never has a happily-ever-after ending.

Told in spare but poetic language, the  novel dances artfully around the question of Faina’s origins—magical, or not? But the real stand-out in the novel is Ivey’s description of Alaska, a landscape both punishing and spectacular—and humanity’s relationship with a place so wild. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and minor magical realism.