Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Review: Cutting for Stone

Abraham Verghese is a surgeon and a writer, but most importantly for me, he's a teacher.  He does in fact work as a Professor at Stanford Medical School, but I'm referring to the teaching he does in his book.

On its surface, Cutting for Stone is a coming of age novel about a boy born in a mission hospital in Ethiopia to an Indian nun (who dies giving birth to him and his (briefly) conjoined twin) and a British surgeon (Dr. Stone -- the name providing one layer of meaning for the title which refers to part of the Hippocratic oath -- see addendum below).  The father abandons the brothers the moment their mother dies and they are raised by two married Indian surgeons who also work at the mission hospital and who teach the boys to love the medicine they practice and apprentice them at an early age.

It's a good yarn and I enjoyed the story being told, but the best part of the book is Verghese's ability to take you through incident after incident at the hospital and teach you about medicine as you go in a meaningful and captivating way.  He uses medicine as a metaphor for life at times and it usually works, but his greatest accomplishment is combining his skills as surgeon and writer to dissect and separate various aspects of the work at the hospital with a surgeon's precision and write about them with the compassion and poetry they deserve.

This book struck me as a combination of fiction and non-fiction, in the best possible way.  I believe Verghese has mentioned in interviews that some parts of the book are autobiographical and his intimacy with his subject matter shows.  He takes his skills as an author (he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop) and uses them to make the easily dry and tedious world of medical knowledge captivating.  His characters are very well drawn and the reader's fascination with the material grows along with theirs.

I love the combination of literature with any profession because poetry should infuse everything we do -- it humanizes our actions.  The best authors can make drying paint a fascinating subject.  Medicine is, of course, inherently captivating if handled by a skilled author and Verghese certainly is that.  This is definitely a book that entertains and informs in the best possible way.

There is also a deep spirituality that runs through the book -- almost a variation of magical realism -- that imbues meaning to the actions and events that occur.  It's not magical realism though -- the magic, I think stems from a literary resonance.

I read an interview with Verghese about his dual careers and found him fascinating.  Any medical professor who regularly assigns literature to his students (for example, to teach his students about end of life issues, he assigns Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych), is my kind of guy.

ADDENDUM:  Verghese, explaining his title in an interview...

"There is a line in the Hippocratic Oath that says: ‘I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest.’ It stems from the days when bladder stones were epidemic, a cause of great suffering, probably from bad water and who knows what else. […] There were itinerant stonecutters—lithologists—who could cut either into the bladder or the perineum and get the stone out, but because they cleaned the knife by wiping it on their blood-stiffened surgical aprons, patients usually died of infection the next day. Hence the proscription ‘Thou shall not cut for stone.’ […] It isn’t just that the main characters have the surname Stone; I was hoping the phrase would resonate for the reader just as it does for me, and that it would have several levels of meaning in the context of the narrative."

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I sent a link to my review to the author (Verghese) and he just WROTE ME BACK thanking me for the "lovely review" and saying he admired my blog and all the homeschool info! Very jazzed and a bit starstruck -- may need smelling salts....