Better Than Medical School: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is much longer, but much, much better, than The Kite Runner. Cutting for Stone and The Kite Runner were both books I read only because so many people asked me if I had, because I’m abysmally ignorant about politics and world history, and felt that my ignorance about an unfamiliar setting like Ethiopia or Afghanistan would make it harder to get immersed in the story. Also, the title Cutting for Stone made me think of stonemasons (BO-O-O-RING) when it really refers to surgery, as in bladder stones.
Cutting for Stone is a big novel that’s a good choice for a book club read, because it is packed with discussable subjects, including the exotic setting of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (pronounced by natives as “Ethyo-pya”, not “Eee-theee-op-eee-ya”); political upheavals; terrorism; hospitals as institutions; doctors as professionals and as people; emigration and foreignness; how the culture of medicine compares from one country to another or one hospital to another; twin-ness and family; the many mystical moments in the story, and the meanings the author has layered into the narrative.
Cutting for Stone is essentially the story of Marion Stone, who becomes estranged from his twin brother, Shiva, and throws himself early into the study of medicine, planning to become a surgeon, as they go from conjoined babies who had to be surgically separated at birth and who slept together head to head as boys, into identical-looking teenagers with utterly distinct talents, personalities, and ease of being in the world. Marion and Shiva (like the author himself) are raised by Indian doctors in Ethiopia. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, work and live at the run-down Missing Hospital. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic Oath, but also refers to Thomas Stone, the hospital’s third doctor for many years – the surgeon-father whose absence looms large over Marion’s childhood and whose presence in Addis Ababa is known only by the sons he left behind and the medical knowledge he passed on to Marion’s adoptive parents who then passed it on Marion and Shiva.
This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. Where Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Marion says of himself, as an adult surgeon, in the book’s prologue:

“…I am not known for speed, or daring, or technical genius. Call me steady, call me plodding; say I adopt the style and technique that suits the patient and the particular situation and I’ll consider that high praise….Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. While Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Throughout his adolescence and long years of medical training, Marion is uncomfortable in his own skin and prickly by nature. Although he struggles to find a mystical communion with his mother through her few belongings, his nature leads him to observe and describe his life clinically. As a reader, I also felt like a detached observer and wasn’t gripped by the novel until close to the end. Only a few of the other characters come fully to life. This may have been the author’s intention, but I found myself wishing for more fully-drawn characters and that Marion would get a life. Also, be forewarned, if you tend towards queasiness, the descriptions of surgeries are long and very detailed.
Cutting for Stone is a good novel, well worth reading, that will appeals to a variety of people, and would be great for a book discussion group.
This is the first book completed for my TBR Pile Challenge. I was given a friend’s copy of the book to get me to read it, and now I can tell her I finally did!

Wow!: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Audio)

Audiobook Review — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. (Yes, I am behind in my reading.) I finally came around to it after listening to Jonathan Davis narrate the audio version of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (a cyberpunk novel with a variety of accents, male and female voices, foreign phrases, cultural references, hacker jargon, and made-up words, a fast-paced plot set in a near-future America where corporations ride roughshod over government and individuals) so incredibly well that I had to hear more by Jonathan Davis. His reading of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with Staci Snell is another tour de force of audiobook narration; he deals out Dominican-style epithets, geek references, and the dolorous histories of Oscar Wao, his family, and the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo as if he’d been talking like this all his life.
In case, like me, you were too lazy or disinclined to pick up the book when it came out (maybe because you heard it has so many unexplained references to esoteric topics from comic books to Dominican legends that it requires annotations and so many untranslated Spanish expressions that you would need a glossary) the audio edition will make all the diferencia. (Confía en mí.) If you have even a miniscule smattering of Spanish and geekery, this novel will be more enjoyable, but the audio narrators add so much attitude to the dialogue that you can gather enough meaning from the context and delivery to get by.
There are some footnoted explanations on Dominican history and legends, but why is so much left unexplained? The author explains in this Slate interview that, with this book about an outsider in the Dominican diaspora (which is already outside mainstream American culture), he wanted readers to resort to using a dictionary or to ask someone the meaning of an idiom, just as non-native English speakers often have to do. (Subtext here from the author?: If you want to read it and you don’t know Dominican slang or any Spanish at all, fine, please do, but don’t expect everything to be handed to you on a f***ing platter. )
Though Oscar de León eventually adopts it, “Oscar Wao” is a mean nickname derived from “Oscar Wilde”, given to make fun of Oscar’s ineradicable nerdness, his writing, and his dream of becoming “the Dominican Tolkien.” Unwilling or incapable of putting up social facades or pretending to be different, Oscar is an overweight geeky boy bullied by his Dominican peer group, tolerated by his few friends, disdained as a romantic prospect by girls, and prodded ineffectually by his mother and sister to lose weight, go outside, get exercise, stop reading so much fantasy and science fiction, etc. — who grows up to be an overweight, geeky adult, disowned by Dominicans and unwanted by almost everyone else.
Readers are told at the start that Oscar’s extended family is under a curse, a “fukú”. Here’s the book’s first line:

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú–generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

Although there’s a lot of humor in this book, it’s gallows humor. Oscar’s is a sad, violent story; the stories from his mother, aunts, and grandparents’ lives in the Dominican Republic are bloodsoaked and tragic. Lola, Oscar’s sister, who loves him her whole life, also struggles to escape the weight of the family’s curse. The flawed characters in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may represent the tragic political mistake of the American government (and the American people?) for backing Trujillo’s reign of terror, but they’re also fully developed characters who will linger in your mind long after the audiobook is over.

Listen to an excerpt from the Penguin audiobook edition.
This book may be available to borrow/download through your local library’s Overdrive service.

Other opinions on the audio edition of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all good):
Audiofile
1330v: Thoughts of an Eclectic Reader

One Sentence Review

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