Archive for January, 2015

State of Wonder / Ann Patchett

In this novel, Marina Singh is a research scientist working for a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company.   A physician, Marina had originally specialized in obstetrics, but after causing injury to a baby she delivered, she changed focus and left patient care behind. Her former mentor and residency teacher, Dr. Annick Swenson, has also left the field to work in the Amazon on a potential fertility drug for older women. Swenson has discovered that women who chew the bark from a particular tree in a remote jungle community are able to get pregnant throughout their lives. The same drug company that employs Marina is funding Swenson’s research. When a fellow researcher dies of a fever after being sent to investigate Dr. Swenson’s progress, Marina is deputized to fly to South America and take his place. The decision to send her is made by the drug company’s chief executive, Mr. Fox. He also just happens to be Marina’s lover (although oddly, she calls him Mr. Fox at all times, even when they are alone together). By this point of time, the book had begun to feel a bit far-fetched to me. The bulk of the story takes place in the Amazon, an exotic location that Patchett attempts to describe in vivid, colorful detail. But she never quite succeeds in bringing alive her lush jungle locale. The natives in the book seem more like caricatures, mere background ornaments that the reader only gets brief glimpses of. The story itself, once Marina arrives in South America, is intriguing enough to keep the pages flying. There are snakes, a rogue group of scientists who have discovered a clandestine cure for malaria, and hallucinogenic mushrooms as well. But the biggest secret Marina discovers is that Dr. Swenson, at age seventy, is pregnant after having taken the bark extract to become fertile again. Throw in a neighboring tribe of cannibals and you have got yourself quite the story. While I found Marina an interesting and likeable character, like the story itself, her actions throughout the book strained belief. This is by no means a poorly written novel, and I can see how some might be fascinated by its Heart of Darkness jungle allure. But for me, the story did not ring true, nor did it convey a true sense of what it would be like to live in such a remote setting.

The Fastest Boy

The fastest boy that ever was,
on a straight stretch of gravel road, has decided
to break the sound barrier.
With telephone poles lining the entire course
like an attentive audience,
a billow of dust streaming behind testifies to
his amazing speed as he pedals.
Redwing blackbirds rise from marshy ditches
and wonder what just passed.
At this velocity, the wind is a constant roar;
if that meadowlark on a post
is singing his praises, he’s unable to hear it.
He once feared the pursuit of
farm dogs, but today he leaves them panting.
At any moment, he expects
to experience a sonic boom’s deafening blast.
Head down, legs pumping,
concentrating on the far horizon, there is no
time to pity the insects that
get caught up in his whirlwind and are left
punch-drunk and directionless.
Assisted by the wind, as his bike accelerates,
he’s begun to speculate on
the possibility of breaking the speed of light.
But then, unexpectedly,
his lungs go flat as a punctured bicycle tire.
Soon sprawled by the road,
heart slowing from a gallop, the fastest boy
marvels at how close he came.

A Choir Of Sparrows

What do we care if
the furnace continually cycles on with
a reluctant grumble.

That two blankets
and a heavy quilt are still required to
preserve body heat.

That February’s view
reveals the same whitened fields
no longer welcomed.

That frost-encrusted
windows have yet to acknowledge
dawn’s first blush.

Today, prodded awake,
it is not the sound of a snowplow
interrupting sleep.

Unheard for months,
a warming melody has challenged
Winter’s dominance.

It accompanies
the breeze as it rustles through
tangled birches.

Sensing Spring,
a choir of sparrows finally dares to
contradict the cold.

Pine Tree

A parasol
with dangling ornaments,
providing shade
and shelter from the sun,
an umbrella
left open and never closed,
how pregnant it
looks, heavy with cones,
a cloud unto itself,
showering needles with
every heavy wind,
and although its canopy is
bird-punctured,
it remains impermeably
buoyant overhead,
yet how reverent it seems,
shawled in snow,
when boughs droop and try
to genuflect.

Being Mortal : Medicine And What Matters In The End / Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He has also written three previous bestselling books that focus on the use of quality control measures to improve healthcare in hospitals. In Being Mortal, he turns his pen to examining the modern experience of mortality—how people age and die, and how medicine has changed the experience, but not necessarily for the better. He rightly contends that physicians are poorly trained to deal with the dying patient. Having been taught to do everything they can to keep people alive, clinicians are not qualified to provide guidance on palliative care issues. As a result, far too many patients spend their final days still being aggressively treated, hooked to machines in a hospital setting. Gawande also examines the warehousing of the elderly in nursing homes under suboptimal conditions. By providing examples drawn from his patients and own family, he puts a human face to the topic of aging, treatment of terminal diseases, and palliative care. Having shown how the current system is broken, the solutions Gawande offers are already well known. These include training more clinicians in the specialty of geriatric medicine, introducing palliative care in the primary care setting, improving assisted living options, and most importantly, making hospice services readily available. While no magic panacea, if these were implemented, care at the end of life would be vastly improved. Even though Gawande breaks no new ground in this book, thanks to the personal stories shared throughout, he makes the topic easily digestible for laypersons planning for the care of family members or themselves when confronting mortality issues. Gawande is to be commended for providing a highly readable tome on a topic that needs to become a part of our national discussion on healthcare.

Winter Afternoon

Once upon a time,
I’d drown out this silence
with the volume
cranked to a noisy ten.
How I dreaded
any afternoon spent alone.
My self-worth
came from the validation
given by others.
These rooms I filled with
people shouting to
be heard above the music.
But now my home
is cleaner and more plain.
The silence feared
is not haunted after all.
It has a voice:
the gush of furnace heat,
reminders from
a chiming mantel clock,
that teakettle’s
insistent summoning.
This late in life,
companionship’s allure
is not required to
insure my contentment.
Just hot chocolate.

Theodore Rex / Edmund Roosevelt

Theodore Rex, the sequel to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, opens with the new President traveling by train to take the oath of office in Buffalo. The year is 1900 and President McKinley had died just the day before, after being wounded in an assassination attempt. In the book’s opening chapter, Morris introduces the major issues Roosevelt would tackle during his presidency—military preparedness to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, regulation of industrial monopolies, conserving the country’s wilderness areas, labor relations, immigration, and improving conditions for African Americans. At 42 years old, to this day he remains the youngest man to become President. From the moment he took the oath, Roosevelt confidently assumed the reins of power. Not only did he quickly win the affection of the American people, he proved to be a master in manipulating Congress to pass his legislative agenda. His accomplishments while in office were numerous, with lasting implications. He strengthened the Navy, spearheaded the building of the Panama Canal, negotiated peace between Russia and Japan and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and introduced regulations to curtail corporate power and government corruption. But the eighteen national monuments and five national parks he created are by far his most important contribution to the nation. His one notable failure was in improving race relations; lynching of African Americans remained a common practice during his Administration. During his seven and a half years in office, Roosevelt seemed to be a whirling dervish, crisscrossing the nation numerous times and always seeking new ways to remain physically active. When not dealing with national affairs, he climbed mountains, hunted in the wilderness, swam nude in the Potomac, and played tennis every chance he got. Morris does a marvelous job of capturing the physical presence of Theodore Roosevelt and his boundless energy. The writing is concise, rich in detail, and always entertaining. He also shows how the President was sorely tempted to run for another term in 1908. After all, Roosevelt was just fifty years old and still in his prime. Yet, wisely, he chose to leave politics behind. At least that is what he hoped when he decided not to run for reelection, although by this time it is obvious that the lure of power had become an intoxicant he craved. This sequel proved to be just as well researched and fascinating as the first in the series. I’m eager to dive into the third book that chronicles the remaining days of Roosevelt’s life.