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A Summer Reading List

A friend asked for suggestions for a booklist, so I figured I’d craft one here. This particular list focuses on historically contextualized texts and artistic representations.

Books for History of Medicine Enthusiasts:

1. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee

A comprehensive documentation of Cancer’s transformation over the years. Mukherjee skillfully weaves the narratives of patients, physicians, and researchers with the political, social, and scientific evolution of the disease.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

A canonical work about the famous HeLa cells. Skloot digs deeper into the woman behind these immortal cervical cancer cells: Henrietta Lacks, who never knew that her cells were taken, grown, and sold without her consent. This book explores the racial inequities of health care in the US, and tells the story of the Lacks family and how they have been impacted by this experience.

3. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

Another canonical book in Medical Anthropology, one that provides a more cultural spin on health disparities. Fadiman tells the story of Lia Lee, a Hmong child in California, whose severe epilepsy illuminates the cultural clashes between her Hmong family and Western doctors.

4. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

A gripping piece of fiction that follows the story of the Stone family over the years. With a cultural backdrop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a focus on the art of surgery,the reader is immersed into a different realm of medicine. 

Books for Art of Medicine Enthusiasts:

5. Stitches, David Small

A potent graphic novel set in Detroit about how cancer physically stripped Small of his voice and its psychological effects. As a talented artist himself, Small uses imagery to fill in the spaces where language falls short.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (literature and film)

These works coupled together provide a good portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s experience with full body paralysis. I suggest reading the book before viewing the film to approach the viewing experience with a more authentic perspective.

Happy reading!

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Finishing Cutting for Stone

I realized what it was about Cutting for Stone that resonated with me so much. In many ways, it is like two of my favorite books: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. This novel follows an Ethiopian family through the generations, and it also looks closely at the relationship between two brothers, Shiva and Marion. I am fascinated by these family dynamics and this sibling relationship, and part of why I enjoyed this novel was because it grounded these relationships in a rich culture within the world of medicine. Whenever I finish a novel, I always feel suspended- unable to move on to anything else, the story still sinking in. That was characteristic of the aftermath of this novel.

It’s hard to summarize this novel. So much happens, but there’s also so much more to the novel than what happens. Shiva and Marion grow up, still retreating to their united identity when necessary but developing their own sense of self. Marion is more outgoing, and in many ways he starts out as the voice of the twins. Shiva displays characteristics of a high-functioning autistic individual, one who is more reserved but highly intellectual.

They are close friends with Genet, the maid Rosina’s daughter. When military riots break out, Genet’s father Zemui is killed, shattering the lives of Genet and Rosina. Hema takes Genet in like a daughter, but when Genet and Rosina travel to their homeland, Genet returns as a rebellious adolescent woman. Marion insists that he is in love with Genet, eager to marry her and saving his sexual initiation for their wedding. He resists the temptation of the Staff Probationer, and he is shocked to learn that Shiva has already lost his virginity. When Genet learns this, she convinces Shiva to sleep with her. In exchange for Rosina’s promise not to tell Hema, Genet agrees to be circumcised but ends up in the hospital due to infection. This series of events strains Marion’s relationship with both Genet and Shiva, and he buries himself in his medical studies.

Genet’s rebellious activities continue in medical school and eventually force Marion to leave Ethiopia for America. He establishes himself in a marginal hospital in New York, coincidentally coming across his own father, Thomas Stone. They slowly build a relationship with one another, and Marion is able to fulfill Ghosh’s wish and convey his profession of friendship. Marion encounters Tsige in Boston, and Genet approaches him for help. As promised, Marion loses his virginity to Genet, who stays for a few days fresh out of prison. She leaves as suddenly as she had appeared, and Marion later finds out that she has infected him with Hepatitis B. Marion’s health unravels, and he is in desperate need for a new liver.

Shiva, who has now established a name for himself as an ob/gyn, and Hema arrive in response to Stone’s telegram. Upon realizing the seriousness of Marion’s health, Shiva does some research and insists on donating part of his own liver in order to save Marion. He makes the decision upon realizing that Marion would have done the same for him. Although the operation is risky as the first of its kind, Hema implores Stone to complete the surgery for the boys have never been his sons. While at first the surgery appears to have been a success, complications ultimately result in Shiva’s death. Marion lives on, and he finally finds the lost letter written to Thomas Stone from his mother.

I was incredibly interested in the transplant and its effects on the brothers. Living with his brother’s liver, Marion acknowledges the simultaneous presence of Shiva’s soul in his body. As a result, Shiva lives on through Marion, and ShivaMarion defies death for the time being. This allows the book to conclude on a more optimistic note, one that has high hopes for what the future has in store for Marion.

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Can’t Stop Reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I embarked on the journey of reading Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone this week, a task not to be taken lightly when more than 600 pages are involved. This wealth of a novel brings with it an incredible complexity as it follows generations through the years.

The character Marion Stone tells the tale of his past in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Africa. Abandoned as orphans at birth, Marion and his twin Shiva are now raised by a gynecologist named Hema and an internal medicine doctor named Gosh. Their mother Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a surgeon’s assistant, died in childbirth while their father Thomas Stone, her surgeon, ran away upon her death. Missing Hospital was radically transformed by their departures, both by their absence and the fresh arrival of the twins. Caring for the twins brings Hema and Ghosh together, allowing them to realize their emotions of affection for each other that were buried  all along.

Although I’m only about a third through the novel, it’s amazing to me just how thorough it is. The immense number of details help to paint a complete picture of this foreign world, and Verghese tackles many issues head-on. He not only skims the surface of these themes, such as medicine, religion, Indian culture, class, and more, but he delves into them and illuminates their depths. This elegantly written novel immerses the reader into an entirely different world; it’s the kind of book that I just don’t want to put down.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does this novel illuminate about illness from over a doctor’s shoulder?
  2. Discuss how the forces of religion and science are portrayed differently.
  3. How does Verghese successfully draw the reader into this tale?

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