T’s summer book reviews

Without the burden of say, studying for the MCAT, I had a lot more time the summer after junior year to read. Since I was also writing secondaries, I figured non-fiction would be inspirational, and not to mention potentially good fodder for essays or even interview questions. A few interviewers have asked things like, “what’s the last book you read,” although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to always go with a medically-related book – interviewers probably want to hear something more fun with this kind of relaxed, topic-changing question.

In any case, if you’re looking for something inspiring/interesting to read, here are some interesting books related to medicine:

  1. Anything by Abraham Verghese (go read it ALL! Particularly My Own Country which was even made into a movie.)
  2. The Illness Narratives by Arthur Kleinman
  3. Final Exam by Pauline Chen
  4. This Won’t Hurt a Bit (and other white lies) by Michelle Au
  5. Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard
  6. Something For the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER by Paul Austin
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean D. Bauby
  8. Misc. by Atul Gawande

Book reviews:

1. Abraham Verghese.

Read ALL his books! His books make me want to go to take 300k in loans and go to Stanford (I’m an international student so I don’t get any aid, boo). My Own Country is Verghese’s memoir-like novel chronicling the years he spent in Tennessee taking care of those with HIV/AIDS in the early years of this disease’s dark history in the United States. It made me cry at least 3 times, and was one of those books that I will probably one day consider life-changing. Verghese writes so eloquently but so simply about working as an immigrant doctor in a conservative community devastated by the emergence of this new disease, but what I find most beautiful is the parallel portrayal of his struggling family. Medicine is a jealous mistress, and I’m a little scared that this novel is a parable about the way you can have only so much happiness and passion for what you do in your life, and that all has to be allotted between your work and your family and your personal sense of fulfillment.

The Tennis Partner is more an intimate portrayal of two human beings, the patient and the doctor, removed from the clinic situation and planted right into the reality of their personal everyday lives. Verghese is going through a difficult divorce, and forgets this pain on the tennis courts with his young mentee, an ex-drug addict who is now a medical student. Sad and very personal. If My Own Country was a tribute to a profession and an era, then The Tennis Partner writes of the micro-tragedies that run at the level of individuals and families.

I desperately want to read the third book that he has written, Cutting for Stone, but I am terrified because then there will be no books by him to look forward to. One day, I will read it as a reward to myself for some particular occasion.

2. Illness Narratives by Arthur Kleinman

A tough but very rewarding read for those that want intellectual stimulation and exercise. I am daunted by Kleinman’s demands that we be holistic doctors: physical healers and emotionally supportive partners for patients who suffer from the “lived experience” of their illness, especially those with longer term or chronic diseases. The “best” doctors were noted to be those who were almost obsessed with their jobs and their patients, perhaps motivated by their own experiences with chronic illness. I wonder if that is healthy for the doctor or the doctor’s family.

3. Final Exam by Pauline Chen

I was apprehensive at first to read a novel written by a surgeon (yes, I suppose I am prejudiced already) because I’m not all that interested in surgery as fun as it is to read about gory, incredible feats of the OR. However, Pauline Chen writes here something that I would have expected more coming from someone who is in primary care. She aspires to Kleinman’s perception of the ideal doctors, and she tells of her personal and perhaps universally relatable journey towards becoming a compassionate and helpful surgeon to patients in the face of death.

She makes the astute observation that premedical students are selected for their humanitarianism and enter all with the idea that they will be saving patients, fighting for life. But the reality is that physicians work among the dead, and more often than not that is their true profession rather than as healers. Chen documents her struggles to reconcile her practice with this understanding of physicians’ responsibilities, and it is at once heartbreaking and optimistic. She offers me hope that Kleinman was not simply preaching the unattainable.

Chen is such a role model for me – badass surgeon, two kids, and a talented writer.

4. This Won’t Hurt a Bit (and other white lies) by Michelle Au

A remarkably funny first few chapters, for which reason I will definitely recommend the book. The book chronicles the early decades of Au’s career as an anaesthesiologist alongside her family obligations, which she shares with  her opthamologist husband. After the first half of the book,  the story and its direction gets kind of muddy and the ending is slightly unresolved but I suspect that’s what happens when you write from the middle of your career. It was very hard to put down the book as it was so relatable and entertaining.

5. Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard

The essays of a dying man who also happened to be an editor for the New York Times. This book is easy to digest, but it is like one of those books of Nietzsche that just list philosophies without adequately taking your hand and walking through it with you. A bit outlandish. Fun but deep in the way that he writes beautifully (but almost in a way I feel like I would write if I were deliberately trying to be intellectual and posh and witty all at once). Maybe I’m not mature or well-read/learned enough for this yet. He leaves too much to the imagination and to interpretation, spewing lyrical metaphors and parables.

In this book, Broyard begs for more humanity in doctors. He says doctors are what stand in the way of narratives of illness. He wants a doctor who is as distinguished in personality as in his technical and medical expertise. Maybe all patients want this, and this is not an eccentricity of a dying literary critic who wants to die untamed and beautifully.

The short story at the end is beautiful in any case. Different from his first person non-fiction. Much more nuanced and clear.

6. Something For the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER by Paul Austin

An ER doc’s stories of work, and recollections of his life over the course of 20 years. Funny, not always upbeat, very real. Austin describes a path from medical school to burnout to how he almost lost his family during this time.

I really want to write a book like this someday, although I wonder if the book turned out a faithful recollection of his life, or a synthesized realized version (perhaps not unlike the story of your life as you’ll come to see it after med school interview season).

7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean D. Bauby

After a rare stroke in his brainstem, the previously vivacious and stylish editor-in-chief of French Elle is left unable to move any part of his body but his eye lids. He dictated this short and sweet, dramatic but softly heartbreaking compilation of his final reflections by blinking to select letters of the alphabet. Very poignant and personal look into medicine as it fails a single patient, a reminder that the struggle of life and health occurs most brutally in the mind, where no doctor can visit without the patient’s welcome.

8. Misc. by Atul Gawande

I read The Checklist Manifesto and Complications in the summer and I realized that, while Gawande is obviously a master writer to the general public, I am beginning to appreciate books that are a little more difficult to swallow and digest. Gawande’s books are sexy – tons of stories, analogies between medicine and seemingly unrelated fields like aviation or construction, all neatly packed into a thesis that is beautifully argued and concluded. It’s all almost too neat and didn’t seem to me like they offered any awe inspiring conclusions or a deeper understanding of the human condition. For example, Complications is about the surprising amount of uncertainty that will go into medicine. I feel for me, as a premed in a generation of premeds that have this idea into them superficially over and over again, this further articulation of this idea is superfluous. What I’d need is real experience, and the real fear of discovering that medical school, and medical training, will never give me all of the answers in the face of illness. I know that the reality will be much more riveting than Gawande’s artful portrayal of it in his books.



3 thoughts on “T’s summer book reviews

  1. Pingback: Writers in medicine (or doctors in writing) « Anastomosed

  2. Pingback: Tougher than training? « Anastomosed

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