Category Archives: Books

Micro Review: The Crossing

Just finished the latest from Michael Connelly, The Crossing, adding it to my bookshelf that contains every one of his novels in hardback. He is the most consistently high-quality hard-core detective-thriller novelist alive, and belongs in the all-time top 10.

He has a unique ability to combine a logically-rigorous plot with a consistency of purpose in his characters. Much like the experience of the best magicians, one never notices the sleight of hand that guides the action, even when one is looking for it. His lead character, Harry Bosch, combines a hardened righteousness for justice with a deep humanity for the most vulnerable that ultimately wins the day. One deft touch in this book is the vulnerability Harry displays as a single-parent, trying to reach out to his teen-aged daughter, while struggling with his own confusion about her inner life.

For those looking for a last minute gift, or for someone receiving the right gift card, I highly recommend this, or any other, of his novels.

 

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Existential Pain and History

mte5ndg0mdu0otg3mjq1mdcx“I am a dead man!” Alexander recognized immediately that his condition was mortal.

At first, the patient suffered such exquisite pain that Dr. Hosack did not strip off his bloody garments…When [the patient] complained of acute back discomfort, [the doctor] and other attendants took off his clothes, darkened the room, and began to administer [medicines] to dull the ache.

[The patient] was preoccupied with spiritual matters…No sooner was he brought to the Bayard house than he made it a matter of urgent concern to receive last rites from the…Church.

When [the pastor] entered the chamber, he took [the patient]’s hand, and the two men exchanged a ‘melancholy salutation’… He explained that…”It is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” [The patient’s] friends thought it heartless to refuse a dying man’s last wish.

As befits a great orator, Alexander roused himself for one last burst of persuasion.

At that point, [the pastor] relented and gave holy communion to Alexander, who then lay back serenely and declared that he was happy.

——————-

One common felt pain for patients at the end of their lives is existential or spiritual pain. Though difficult to define, most of us practicing palliative medicine recognize it when we see it. The proper intervention for it is not additional opiates, but rather appropriate spiritual support.

It always impresses me, when reading history, just how often our common humanity binds us across time. The patient above is Alexander Hamilton, lying on his death bed following his infamous “Interview at Weehawken” with Vice-President Aaron Burr . This slightly edited account, taken from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, Alexander Hamilton, is a dramatic rendering of a man in existential crisis at life’s end. Hamilton recognized instinctively, as he so often did, his need for spiritual input to his pain. Unfortunately, in today’s medical world, we too often fail to recognize this need, delivering the wrong intervention, in the form of another dose of dilaudid, to patients needing spiritual uplifting.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this in reading through historical biography. U.S. Grant eloquently describes a palliative approach to end-of-life care, as he completes his famous Memoirs while dying from head-and-neck cancer. John Adams describes a receding of the fear of dying, to be replaced by a fear of dementia. Human life, and death, resonates across the ages.

As I prepare for another stint on our Supportive Care Unit, a typically draining two weeks full of existential pain, I find reflecting on our common humanity, and the special role physicians are privileged to play in it, helps sustain me through the experience.

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Visiting Joshua Chamberlain’s House (Part 1)

My second favorite historical figure from the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln, is “the fighting professor”, Major General Joshua Chamberlain.  Like many, I became a fan after reading the classic Michael Shaara novel Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, in which then-Colonel Chamberlain plays a starring role as the rhetorician-turned-soldier who saves the union army on Little Round Top.  Like some Nietzchean philosopher-warrior come alive, he “refuses the line” at the far end of the Union left flank, with a desperate bayonet charge down the rocky hillside, all while contemplating the meaning of it all.  Straight out of central casting, what academician wouldn’t salivate at admiring this action-hero figure?

But was it too good to be true?  Could a rhetoric and religion professor really become a military hero?  The academic skeptic in me just couldn’t rest without separating the rhetorical chaff from the history wheat. In my typical OCD way, I started reading about Chamberlain, Gettysburg, Lincoln, and the Civil War overall in hopes of answering these and other questions. I also made the trip to Gettysburg, stood on Little Round Top – on the very large boulder from which Chamberlain anchored the “wheel” for his company’s charge down the hillside – and tried to imagine that burning hot July 2nd so many years ago.  Would I have been able to measure up?

In addition to spending much time on Little Round Top in Chamberlain’s shoes, while moving about the park, I lingered at two other places that day that invited introspection. The first, not far from Little Round Top was the national cemetery where Lincoln stood to deliver his great speech. It sent chills down my spine to imagine being there that day.  The second was standing in the woodline where the young Confederate soldiers in Pickett’s brigade would have stood, preparing to march across a near-mile long, open field into the teeth of the Union line, looking across the way to tiny copse of trees where the Union lines waited.  How could they do it?  What could possibly motivate them to make that march of death?  Would I have been willing and able to do it?

These questions, and many others, led me to explore a reasonable chunk of the available Civil War literature.  This includes multiple books on Gettysburg, another handful on other battles (and visits to the sites), a dozen or so Lincoln biographies, and another 10 on other significant figures.  Regarding Chamberlain, I’ve read several of his own first-hand accounts of the war he provided, but I haven’t read a full biography.

But I was tingling with excitement about seeing the house he lived in, now converted to a museum about his life.  What items did they have within?  What new facts would I learn about his extraordinary life?

In the next post, I’ll describe the museum visit itself.  As is so often the case, the truth is a little different than what I thought I knew.

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Used Book Stores

Wherever I happen to be, I have a special instinct for finding book stores, especially used book stores.  I love everything about used book stores – the musty smell, the happy clutter, the unassuming people.  The best combine the alarming pseudo-organization of mom’s garage with the anticipatory excitement of digging for treasure.  Heaven on earth!

The first vacation day here in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, my bibliophilic antennae picked up a lovely book nook: Ricki’s Place. It contains a potpourri of items – it’s a motel with beach supplies, games, CDs, wool, kites, needlecraft…and used books in English and French.  There a loose organization to the place, with books piled on shelves in quirky categories — political, French, thrillers, “antiques”, biographies, and sports to name a few.  There are others jammed into milk crates and cardboard boxes, sitting alongside paintings, magazines and various knick-knacks. Several of the boxes are piled in front of the shelves, requiring extra effort to dig behind them to find more books. Obviously, money-making from the books is a low priority.  I was tingling.

As I walk in, an older woman with a cigarette-stained voice greets me from behind a desk piled unevenly with a mountain of…stuff.  “Just looking at the books,” I say.  She says to “have a ball”, and points out that there is “good stuff for beach reading”.  Also, she points out, there is a special deal – if you return any of the books you purchase later, you get a 50% credit to get more books. I wonder: is this the actual Ricki from the sign?  I resist the urge to ask.

I start pawing through the shelves, my 11 year old son waiting patiently, longing after the Stephen King and Koonz novels his parents won’t yet let him read.  The semi-random organization of the books is thrilling; I feel like the Pickers guys from the History Channel, hoping to turn up a treasure among the debris.  There don’t seem to be any prices penciled inside the books, and I’m about to ask, when I come across an orange piece of paper tacked to the wall: a price list – paperbacks $2, hardbacks $4, and “antiques” $6.  Hallelujah!

I have multiple categories in my mind as a surf.  Category 1: Better copies or earlier editions of books I already own and love, like Killer Angles or Battle Cry of Freedom.  Category 2: Books I’ve heard about or by previously-read authors I’ve liked, especially older, out-of-print versions.  Category 3: Extra copies of books I like to give to others, like Ender’s Game, The Poet, or Fountainhead. Category 4: Genuine collector’s items, older books, especially first editions, that I can add to my collection that includes a first edition of U.S. Grant’s Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Roughing It.  As I’m squatting down like a catcher behind the plate, sifting through the stacks of the “antiques” section, my son walks up, looks at the titles over my shoulder, “Those are boring.”

Over the next hour or so, I turn up three treasures I can’t resist. From Category 2, I find two things. First, having just finished Peter Matthiessen’s magisterial Shadow Country, I turn up a nice paperback version of his National Book award-winning Snow Leopard. Score!  Also from Category 2, I discover a very nice, nearly pristine first edition, of The Reckoning by David Halberstam, author of Best and the Brightest fame.  As a bonus, the volume is likely worth more than the price as a collector’s item alone. Boom!  Finally, from Category 4, sitting randomly in a box off to the side, rubber-banded together, are three volumes of high-quality early editions (1885, 1886) of books by the writer and father of a future Supreme Court Chief Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  While not hugely valuable, they are worth far more than the $18 they will cost me and make a lovely addition to my collection. Booyah!

Ready to check out, it takes some time for me to catch the addition of the gravelly-voiced woman in charge.  She starts ringing me up, reminding me of their half-price trade-in deal.  Half-way through the transaction, she gets distracted by a phone call and wanders off talking on her cell.  She returns, and as she’s admiring the Holmes volumes, she stops suddenly to yell past my shoulder at a kid standing in the doorway, which is causing the tone-alarm to chirp repeatedly.  Someone from the back of the shop yells to her, “Ricki, you have to take care of that!” confirming that she is the namesake owner of the place.  She then checks me out, including change with several $2 bills, and offering to put the Holmes’ volumes in a separate bag to protect them.  I happily accept, and turn to go.  My son says, “finally” and we head out for the day.

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