books · politics

Tuesday Thoughts

In an effort to try to move past all the anger in my heart into something productive, I went and found a copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

I would like to point out, for the record, that my high school American literature class, in 2001-2002, did not include any readings from Dr. King. We spent a month on the Scarlet Letter, including two class periods watching a terrible movie starring Demi Moore and the dad from Home Alone, and an insane amount of time doing “art and architecture” powerpoints about daub-and-wattle, but not even one hour could be spared for one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. We half-assed the 20th century in general, both in American lit and its sister course AP US History. In fact, in 17 years of public education, including majoring in Comparative Literature, I came across only five works by writers of African descent: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (which was opt-in), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Une Si Longue Lettre by Mariama Ba, a poem by Derek Walcott, and Passing by Nella Larsen. In college I specifically sought out a seminar on the literature of the South Asian diaspora, but in my high school and college survey classes, there were no Native American or Asian American or Latinx writers anywhere. So when people say structural racism, that’s what it means, that even in an affluent, fairly progressive district where half of the student population were first-generation Americans, the only voices in the curriculum were those of Dead White Men.

To be fair, the DWM were generally good writers. (After all, they had a running start.) Mark Twain has been one of my BFF since I read A Connecticut Yankee when I was, like, 12, and he’s good enough that I can even almost forgive him for dissing Jane Austen that one time. Shakespeare’s not so bad himself. You know who else is a good writer? Martin Luther King, Jr. Frantz Fanon. Sherman Alexie. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Zadie Smith. Abraham Verghese. Yaa Gyasi. Frederick Douglass. Edward Said. Jhumpa Lahiri. WEB DuBois. Just about all of these would have been appropriate for high school (ok, maybe not Fanon, I struggled with Black Skin White Masks at age 25, I think I would have been frustrated at 15).

The reasons I’m so worked up about this right now is because a) I’m a reader and a writer, so this is the shit I think about when my bus is stuck in traffic, and b) the scumbags who descended on Charlottesville this weekend are my age. Richard Spencer graduated a few years before me; Jason Kessler was two years after me. That means they grew up exposed to the same general atmosphere that I did, and like me, they probably grew up reading mostly white texts, and seeing people like themselves on TV, and playing characters like themselves in video games. I’m not totally sure that reading other perspectives would help them empathize with other human beings — after all, The Diary of Anne Frank was definitely required reading, and the take-away message from that book is not supposed to be “Hey that Hitler dude had a good idea.” But I think it’s a little like triaging in medicine. There are some people you just aren’t going to save, because the disease has them rotten to the core. But there’s a whole bunch of kids who have literally never heard the voice of an Other, and if you dose your antibiotics (i.e. reading) appropriately, you might, you just might, be able to pull them out of the ICU, and you won’t even have to worry about renal failure.

books · fellowship

How are the mighty fallen

Back in the dark ages of medical school, I spent a summer interning at a health policy/advocacy group in DC. The office was down the street from a Barnes and Noble, so at lunch, I would often run over and read. That B&N was my private library that summer, where I discovered Jonathan Safran Foer, a (then) young author with a brilliant debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated.


Some of the images in that book, particularly of the shtetl, have stuck with me for years. This was a time I was also reading Michael Chabon (Kavalier and Clay) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth), so the two protagonists theme was big in my literary life.

Fast forward to a decade later, JSF’s newest novel, Here I Am, arrives in my mailbox from Powell’s Indiespensable book subscription club. Yay! I think. I remember this author. I like him. So I settle down to read.

Ugh. This book. I just finished it, and it was out of a sense of duty more than interest. The story is ostensibly about a failing marriage against the backdrop of a massive earthquake in Israel, humanitarian disaster, war, etc. I usually eat that stuff up, the juxtaposition of the domestic with the epic.

Not this time. I couldn’t stand either of the partners here. Jacob is a spineless neurotic Woody Allen stereotype, and Julia is your stereotypical ice queen. No sense of why these two people got married in the first place. No sense of how they drifted apart. No sense of why they are bothering to get divorced, no sense of any pain it causes either of them, or joy at being free. They neither of them seem to have any emotions.

The Israel At War stuff was bizarre, heavy-handed, and had no bearing on the divorce plot. It was like a totally separate story that had somehow wandered into the domestic family drama and tried to take it over. Similarly, there was a random section written in the first person where everything else was written in third omniscient. WHY?

Also, dear god the philosophizing. Pro-tip, six year old children do not speak in fully articulate sentences about the nature of death. Also, the endless flashback digressions which interrupt conversations only serve to set up/explain a one-liner joke in that conversation…. ugh.

I’m really glad that book is over and done with, because my next step is to sell it on eBay. Anyone in the market for a signed first edition of JSF’s latest novel?

books · clinic · PGY-4

Notes today, and some Twitter-style book reviews

“[Patient] arrived 53 minutes late for a 60 minute appointment, so evaluation was somewhat limited.”


Book #13: The Martian, by Andy Weir: [1 star]

Left for dead on Mars. But rebuilt the oxygen converter. YAY!

[I was a chemistry major. I enjoyed chemistry quite a bit. But let’s face it, narrative descriptions of the Wagner-Meerwein rearrangement does not make for compelling reading. For an action-adventure-scifi novel, this was a snoozefest.]

Book #14: Boy Snow Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi [3 stars]

Snow White Re-Told: The mirror reveals hidden secrets.

[More “inspired by” than “modern retelling,” to be honest. A meditation on race and identity and mimesis. The switch in narrators part way through, then switch back to the original voice, was jarring. The plot twist at the end felt gratuitous. But overall, an enjoyable read from a compelling writer. I’m interested in her other modern fables, too, like Mr. Fox, and the Icarus Girl.]

Book #15: Hundred Foot Journey, by Richard Morais [2 stars]

Edward Said rolls over in his grave.

Oh god. This book. It got super hyped cause of the movie (which I still haven’t seen) but it was extremely simplistic and more like a fairy tale than a book. And a Kiplingesque fairy tale at that. India is heavily Othered, throughout the book. The protagonist was dull and diffident — the real characters are Papa and Mme Mallory, and the second half of the book without them slogs. Avoid.



File:Ernest Ange Duez - Resting - Google Art Project.jpg
Descando; Ernest Ange Duez; Wikimedia Commons

Somehow, even without having anything to do on the weekend, I find myself exhausted at the thought of work on Monday.

I find out where I matched for fellowship on Monday. So maybe that’s why I’m feeling so exhausted. I have a LOT of thoughts about the fellowship match process — it was much weirder than it was for the residency match, perhaps because fellowship match is newer (until just a few years ago, people just applied, were offered a position, and went it with). I am extremely nervous. I know it will be ok. I just don’t know what ok will look like, I guess. OK could take me, literally, across the country.


Books 11 and 12

The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

This was a fun little twofer, a beach read of sorts. (I didn’t make it to the beach this year, but it’s a similar light romantic comedy.) I usually hate romantic comedies because they are SO predictable, but The Rosie Project (the first book of the two), is actually a comedy that happens to be about love. So unlike 95% of romantic comedies, this one is actually funny! The premise is that Don Tillman, a Really Smart Scientist, decides to go about finding a wife, in the most rational manner possible: with a questionnaire. Meanwhile, a friend of a friend enlists his help in tracking down her biological father. Hijinks ensue — there is a lot of very physical and very verbal comedy in this novel. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it was originally pitched as a screenplay, and it would make a great movie.

The follow-up Rosie Effect loses some of the charm of the original, in part by transplanting the action from Australia to NYC, the city where dreams go to die. (Ask me how I really feel about New York.) Now Rosie is pregnant, so Don tries to learn how to be a model father … except no one can give him a straight answer as to what that means. Rosie was smugly irritating in this one in ways she wasn’t in the last, but the scenes with Don going off on his own to study young children in the park, or enrolling himself in a Child Welfare Project, were pretty amusing. A very satisfying read to them both.

Ratings: 4/5 for the first one, and 3/5 for the second.


Books #7 through 10

I’ve been reading, I swear! But a little delinquent on the book reports. Blame summer; even without legitimate vacation, it certainly lends itself to lazy days by the pool.

Book 7: Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Rating: *****

Wow, that’s a mouthful! And it’s a mouthful of a book, too. It’s told from the perspectives of two Nigerians, once lovers now apart, as they navigate American and British sentiment on immigration, race, and the like. Strongly drawn characters; I preferred Obinze over Ifemelu — he is a deeply sympathetic man, while she is a force of nature. The structure is a little unusual and episodic, almost like its a series of connected short stories that were linked by interludes into this longer, book-length tale. But it’s the kind of book that stays with you for weeks after, especially reading it now, after the year we lost Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. Definitely a desert island read, as was her previous book, Purple Hibiscus.

Book 8: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie King. Rating: ***

Veeeeery different style. This one is the first in a series of mystery novels built on the premise that Sherlock Holmes grew old, retired to the English countryside (and kept bees??) and then was drawn out of retirement in the early 1920s by a proto-flapper by the name of Mary Russell. As an inveterate Sherlockian — the Great Detective features front and center in my personal statements ranging from college all the way to fellowship! — I’m always a little wary of adaptations and continuations of the canon. The BBC’s Sherlock won me over in spite of myself, but this one, somewhat less so. It’s really more of a Mary Russell mystery than a Sherlock Holmes mystery (and its quite a fine mystery at that), but it made the whole Sherlock thing seem like a bit of a gimmick to get attention. The sequel would probably be a good beach read if it landed in my lap but I wouldn’t go out of my way to hunt it down.

Book 9: The Frozen Thames, by Helen Humphreys. Rating: ****

I read this for my book club, way back in February or so. (To be honest, a frozen river sounds just awesome on this 90+ degree September day.) The premise of the book is simple: the River Thames has frozen solid 40 times in recorded history; Ms Humphreys has put together a series of vignettes for each of those times. She does an excellent job with the variations in style over time. And there are broader themes of hubris and wonder. In the words of my 7th grade English teacher: this book was Man vs Nature. (Funny how we never read any Woman vs Nature. I’ll save that rant for another time.)

Book 10: The Martian, by Andy Weir. Rating: *

I hated this book. I finished it, but I hated it. I usually like adventure stories, and survival stories, and what could be more adventure-survival than being left for dead … ON MARS! But the narrator was terrible. He was supposed to be a 30 something materials engineer (who randomly was also a botanist? Because people get PhDs in two totally disparate fields (“it’s science!”) by the time they are 30.) But the way he talked, he sounded like a 12 year old school girl. The flux capacitor is working!!! Yaaaay! Seriously. No. I almost expected to see hearts flying over his “i”s, the way the reeally popular girls did on the covers of their Trapper Keepers, in gel pen.

OK, folks, that’s all for now. More to come soon


Book #6: The Adventures of Miles and Isabel

The cover of this book caught my eye as I was browsing through the central library one afternoon. It’s the tale of two teenage misfits, Miles McGinty and Isabel Dowling, in 19th century Sydney who learn to build an airplane that actually flies.

In some ways, it’s the book equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie like Moonrise Kingdom. Young protagonists, joining forces against a weird adult world. And the story itself was compelling enough and funny enough. But Wes Anderson makes his movies work for adults by making them explicitly nostalgic — an adult looking back and thinking about this strange episode in their childhood. (The Grand Budapest is even more intensely layered.)

This book, on the other hand, was just adventure story, straight up. Miles and Isabel are born on the same day, grow up in very different circumstances (the satire of both upper and working classes was excellent), and then met somewhat serendipitously. It’s a picaresque (Candide, etc), but with a slightly unique structure in that there are two protagonists working their way toward each other. So … Candide but with Cunegonde’s life narrated in real time as well. But in some ways, it makes it seem like the book only gets its start two-thirds of the way in, when M & I finally meet and start collaborating on their flying machine.

Overall, a worthwhile story especially for a younger audience. I’d put the target audience of this one around ten or twelve, to be honest …. Not completely sure why it was shelved in the adult section, to be honest. Still, entertaining and charming.

[Rating: 2/5]

books · PGY-3

Book #5: The Monsters of Templeton

This was another book club read, from way back in February. It’s the story of a young archeologist who falls pregnant (as they used to say) and travels home to the Upstate New York village of Templeton to reconnect with her mother and escape from her married lover — even though she spends half the book mooning over him and wondering why he doesn’t call. Her mother promptly lands a bombshell on her, that her father was not a California hippie, but rather one of Templeton’s upstanding respectable men, scion of the Founding Family, and so Willie (aka Wilhelmina) spends her summer tracking down the descendants of Marmaduke Temple in order to discover who her father really is.

Taken as a mystery novel (whodunit = who got my mom pregnant?) it’s not the greatest. The plot “twists” are advertised a mile up the road. But as a study of a small town, especially through the centuries, it’s compelling. Each main chapter is narrated by a different Temple, ranging from the colonial era through relatively modern times. There are helpful family trees interspersed throughout the book, updated as appropriate as Willie learns more information about her family’s background. Willie herself is a tad passive, gleaning information from library books (Templeton has a library to rival the Bodleian in terms of access to primary sources, diaries, and whatnot) and mostly lets the truth fall into her lap.

A few subplots in the book were gratutitous. Willie has a friend with lupus cerebritis who calls up at all hours, stark raving psychotic. There’s a personal ghost — a strange moment of magic realism that doesn’t fit with the style of the rest of the book — and even more bizarrely, a Loch Ness monster named Glimmie who is essentially the town’s guardian spirit. Any of those elements would have been a good stand alone book, but I couldn’t really see how they added, complemented, or enriched the main plot of Monsters of Templeton.

Overall, 3/5 stars. I liked it and would check it out of the library again, but wouldn’t buy it.

[I’m going to start adding a star system to these reviews, as follows:

1/5: No good
2/5: Eh. Might pick it up again in a few
3/5: Enjoyable. Would check it out of the library again.
4/5: Pretty good. Would definitely read again, and recommend to friends.
5/5: Amazing. A desert island book. ]