Mar 29, 2016

Mortal Lessons

Notes on the Art of Surgery
by Richard Selzer

This is so different from most other books I've read. It's a surgeon waxing eloquent on the craft and skill of his occupation. He talks about disease in the most interesting way, describes opening the body and moving into its depths to find ailments and organs as if navigating a landscape. Speaks with passion, and respect for the wonders of the human body. It's not really a book of case studies, more a selection of snapshots that show how the surgeon felt about his work, reflections on the meaning of it, looking at how his patients responded to treatment. Or didn't- some of them died under his hands. It is surprisingly, baldly honest- describing in detail many things that are hard to face- an abortion, an amputation, an explorative surgery that goes wrong, the process of embalming or autopsy. I've read a few books about medicine, hospital work, and the like, but never with things described the way they are here.

It's also an old book, and of course outdated in lots of things. Much of it admitting no understanding, no hope for cure, or putting forth mistaken ideas. I was surprised and kind of annoyed that he goes on and on in one chapter about how horrible alcohol is for the liver- and yet spends another chapter extolling his smoking habit. It's illustrated here and there with woodcuts, engravings and lithographs from the Yale Medical Library- they're not dated but give the work a feeling of more antiquity. I saw someone's comment online that this book is funny- but I guess you'd have to be a surgeon yourself to see the humor in it. I found it really interesting. Funny? not so much. The last part of it digresses from the main subject matter. Some short writings describing his childhood, his father's practice. There's an essay on being carsick- something he suffered a lot from as a child- and another rather weird one about birdwatching (which he apparently was not very good at).

And yet for all its flaws, the book was a thing I wondered at. It made me see the inner workings of the body in such a different way. Its words are so vivid, so alive.

Rating: 3/5       219 pages, 1974

more opinions:
Peter Morton's Website

Mar 20, 2016

Cry, the Beloved Country

by Alan Paton

This is one of those books I picked up at a used sale one day just because I recognized the title as being famous. Then it sat on my shelf for at least eight years. I chose it to read this weekend and was surprised at how intent the story was and how quickly I moved through it.

It is told in two parts. In the first half, a Zulu parson leaves his small, rural village and travels to Johannesburg in search of several family members who have dispersed there. His sister, his son, his brother. The great sprawling city at first bewilders the elderly parson, but even more bewildering and painful is what he discovers of his lost family members- they have each fallen into disreputable ways of making a living. Dispirited, he tracks them down, learning of their troubles and attempting to bring them back home. Some cannot be found, or cannot be recovered, or simply don't wish return. It is with a very heavy heart he returns to his village with fragments of his family and a burden of shame for the crimes his son, in particular, has committed.

Yet on his search through dark corners of Johannesburg and its skirting slums, he met with great kindness and help from strangers. And now, come home again, the parson struggles to help his village. The land is depleted, crops are failing, young people deserting the area, children dying. He carries the shame of his family back with him, and worse yet, discovers that a white man who owns farmland near the village was personally wronged by his son's crime. It is with the deepest sorrow that he admits this relationship to his neighbor. It seems that everything is falling to pieces, when help for the village comes from an unexpected source. I did wish this part of the story was fleshed out more- it interested me to read about the efforts to change farming methods, the villagers' resistance to change and new ideas even when it was obvious the old ways were failing. And while I enjoyed the simple clarity and lyrical writing, was deeply touched by the depiction of forgiveness and compassion between the characters of this story, I was also baffled at moments when the parson expressed anger. Maybe I did not read between the lines enough, but sometimes his responses seemed out of character to me.

It is a very good book, one that is difficult to put down, or stop thinking about.

Rating: 4/5      316 pages, 1948

more opinions:
Worthwhile Books
A Good Stopping Point
Embejo Etc
Vulpes Libres

Mar 14, 2016

Self-Portrait with Turtles

by David Carroll

Naturalist, author and artist David Carroll wrote this memoir telling how he became so passionate about turtles and where they led him. He caught his first turtle at eight years old, wading through creeks and ponds in scant woods near his home, and was enthralled by the reptiles from then on. At first he just spent his time looking for turtles, in later years he learned to identify them and began keeping records of his sightings. He also describes his training in art school, early directions his art took, and how it finally became focused on nature subjects. Became a teacher and often had to move his family, each time searching for a place to live where he could be near unspoiled wetlands, for finding turtles. It seems this became more and more difficult as the years went on. He describes going back to his childhood home and dismay at finding so much changed, the farm he finally settled on, and how he worked to secure and protect habitat for wildlife (especially turtles) around his property and in other areas as well.

While this book wasn't quite as captivating for me because it doesn't have the extent of in-depth, detailed nature writing I so loved in Swampwalker's Journal and Trout Reflections, it is still a good read. I appreciate learning how other people's lives become involved with wild places, and how an artist saw and portrayed nature. And of course, the turtles.

Rating: 3/5           181 pages, 2004

Mar 9, 2016

A Gathering of Wonders

by Joseph Wallace

This book is about behind-the-scenes stuff at the American Museum of Natural History in NY. I though it would be just my thing - I love visiting natural history museums- but it wasn't quite. It does have a lot of background stories- how different departments were developed and shuffled over the years, how the vision of the museum changed and shifted with various patrons and directors, how things are managed. Lots of names in here- both famous and those which remained in obscurity but should be recognized for some amazing work they did contributing to the collections or their organization. What I enjoyed most were the mention of interesting specimens and their importance, or stories of collecting expeditions, but those were all so brief it just sent me online to look more stuff up, particularly for firsthand source material which might satisfy my curiosity more.

Some interesting stuff I was motivated to look up: ants that are blind and follow scent trails can get confused into marching in a circle until they die of exhaustion. Poison dart frogs born in captivity are not poisonous- scientists think that the frogs get toxins from their natural diet. Coral is used to grow new bones. There are lizard populations comprised entirely of females- and their offspring can bear young. And there was a curious dinosaur Mononykus olecranus which had oddly stunted forelimbs attached to strong muscles- scientists are not sure why.

Rating: 2/5       288 pages, 2000

Mar 2, 2016

The Story of a Red-Deer

by J.W. Fortescue

It is the life of a red deer on the Exmoor. Very similar in many ways to the original Bambi- the deer grows up, meets other animals around him -the pitiable birds, traveling salmon, shuffling badger, bloodthirsty weasel, wily fox and so on. Very soon he learns to fear and avoid hounds, where to find safety and how to confuse them off his track. The deer followed through the story acts like all his kind, admiring the older males and proud of his antlers when they finally grow in, chasing the females when it is his time, battling other stags, crossing the landscape endlessly to find shelter from the weather and safety from hunters or just companionship when he desires it. The description of forest, valleys and high bare moorland is pretty good, it kept me interested. While the animals talk and live in a strict arrangement of upper- and lower-classes, most of the writing is just about their way of life, not so much personality as I found in Felix Salten's work. I think the most interesting contrasts came up when the pheasant scorned an invasive chinese bird that populated the area, and when the red deer met fallow deer which lived in paddocks and were fed by man. It was also interesting to see how the deer took up with an older stag to learn some wisdom of the woods, and when he became old in his turn, acted just as haughty and selfish (often turning other deer out of their beds to make them run before the hounds and save his own skin). In the end he was run so hard by a pack that he fell exhausted into a river and drowned. The ending did not feel sad, though- the deer seemed to have lived a full life.

I found this book in an antique shop.

Rating: 3/5       144 pages, 1904