A FUNNY BOOK ABOUT PRACTICING MEDICINE? BRING IT ON

When I picked up this nonfiction book about a doctor in Great Britain’s National Health Service, which bills itself as the “secret diaries of a medical resident”, I was expecting the kind of insider book that I really enjoy because it gives me insight into a job I know I could never do in a million years (which is not exclusively medicine; I’m also a wild fan of nonfiction about heroic school teachers, too: P.S. Your Not Listening, by Eleanor Craig, or One Child by Torey Hayden are long time favorites).  I was NOT expecting what I got, which is a hilarious book.  I’m not talking the kind of funny where you smile wryly or chuckle here and there. I’m talking about the kind of book where you guffaw and hoot and start reading the funny parts aloud to your long suffering spouse until you realize you’re going to have to read the whole thing aloud.  The best, most ironic aspect of this book experience?  The book in question, by Adam Kay, is titled This Is Going to Hurt.

Kay writes about his experiences going through the British medical educational process, and from the beginning, when he explains that would-be doctors set on their course when they’re still in what we would call high school, and says, “holding anyone to his word at that age seems a bit unfair, on par with declaring the ‘I want to be an astronaut’ painting you did at age five a legally binding document.”  He then proceeds to take us along on the many steps on the road to becoming a Consultant (the British equivalent of an attending physician), complete with helpful and not so helpful footnotes along the way (the helpful ones are where he explains medical terminology, but sometimes he also adds wisecracks as well).  Throughout his experiences as a doctor, he keeps a sense of humor, not only about his patients and the (sometimes horrific) things they do to themselves, but also about his own poverty, overwork and complete lack of anything resembling a social life.  He becomes an OB-GYN specialist, and so there’s tons of stories about pregnancy and birth and all the weird things people do to themselves and each other in the name of sex.  There’s the story of the younger doctor who asks our author for a consult on an ultrasound of a fetus he believes is dead, and it turns out the younger doctor did such a bad job of reading the ultrasound that not only was that baby not dead, but he completely missed seeing the twin baby who was also there.  There are stories about the author’s being called into duty with friends and family members, a hilarious story about a fellow doctor’s MGB (in the context of the author’s losing a valuable pen), his observations of his fellow doctors, both competent and incompetent, and his patients, from the wonderful ones to the truly annoying (but productive of a good story) ones.  I’m not sure I would necessarily want to have him as my doctor (I would be a little worried about the stories he’d tell about me), but his sense of humor makes this book an absolute delight, a real hoot.

The author is no longer practicing medicine, and the last two chapters, where he explains why, are the only parts of the book that aren’t funny, but by that time you’ve gotten to know and like him, and you’re sorry for the way things ended for him.

Up until then, though, you’re in for a great ride, insights into what it’s like on the other side of the examining table (or the labor and delivery room), and more laughs than you would ever expect from a book that claims This Is Going to Hurt.

WHEN AUTHORS CHEAT

I don’t usually write here about books I don’t like, so possibly readers get the impression that I love everything I read, which is absolutely not true.  I generally feel that there are so many terrific books out there it makes little sense to waste time talking about not terrific books, let alone loathsome books that make me seriously consider tossing them at a wall at high speeds.   But still, it’s helpful to consider what makes a book so throw-able.  There are many factors, and they vary from bad and lazy writing to ridiculous plots to paper thin characters to nasty ideas being propagated.  One of the worst, in my opinion, is when the author is so eager to give readers a twist that the author cheats.

There have long been books that used twists in the plot to keep the readers’ attention: the revelation about Milady’s background in The Three Musketeers  was a big surprise, for instance, and Agatha Christie was skilled at playing with readers’ expectations.  It seems to me, though, that the success of Gone Girl and its ilk led to an expectation, especially among thriller readers, that a good thriller needs an unexpected twist or it’s not worth reading.  For what it’s worth, I personally found the repeated twists in Gone Girl to be less and less interesting as the book went on, and the only reason I read through the whole book was because I wanted to see both the main characters die in a fire at the end (spoiler: they don’t).  Twists of plot for the sake of having a twist, or surprising the reader, become just a trick if they’re not done well, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well.

If a twist in the plot is done right, it’s a revelation to the reader. It causes the reader to rethink the basic premise of the book, or the basic nature of the characters or everything that’s gone before. That’s the fun of it, having the rug pulled out from under you when you thought you knew where things were going.

However, it’s only fun if you can look through the book again and see how the twist makes sense in light of the earlier part of the story. Here’s where a lot of writers screw up. To be a revelation, the twist has to be surprising, but to be meaningful, the twist has to be set up much earlier, and the reader’s attention diverted away from the clues that are there in the narrative.  Leaving out those clues is cheating. It’s like playing a game for the first time with someone who keeps changing the rules whenever you think you’re winning.

For instance, a thriller I read recently, a bestseller which was touted on the front cover as “the perfect thriller” by an author who should have known better, turned on a surprising twist about the nature of the relationship between the two main characters. Unfortunately, when you look back to the earlier parts of the book, there is no way you could possibly have seen any hints about that twist, because the author treated events which had happened in the deep past as if they were happening in the present of the narrative. Yes, that makes it harder for you to guess what the relationship between the two main characters was, but it also makes the revelation feel bogus. And when the big surprise feels bogus, the whole book, as you look back on it, feels the same.

You don’t need a massive big surprise for a thriller to work. I’ve enjoyed many thrillers which didn’t have those kinds of twists.  I realize it’s the fashion now, and I’m sure lots of writers feel they have to include shocking revelations in order to sell a book.  Sure, have the big surprise, the unexpected twist in the plot, but for heaven’s sake, make sure it’s justified by the rest of the book, or I guarantee you, that book is going to slam into the nearest wall at great speed.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

A THRILLER WITH CHILLS AND HUMOR

What do you call a thriller that has a unique, unthinking but utterly frightening antagonist, an interesting, unusual and well-developed location, protagonists and secondary characters who are all out of the ordinary for thrillers, and a surprisingly funny sense of humor?  You call it Cold Storage, by David Koepp, and when you pick it up, you don’t want to put it down.

You would not think a fungus is a particularly scary thing prior to reading this book, but trust me, when you encounter this particular fungus, which makes its debut in a small town in western Australia, after having hitched a ride on a fallen spacecraft, you will find it incredibly creepy and threatening.  This is no ordinary fungus (the interstellar origins might give you the first clue, but what it does to the inhabitants of that aforementioned small town is what will really give you nightmares).

Our opening chapters give us the standard sort of thriller protagonists: Roberto Diaz, a Pentagon bioterror operative, his superior, Trini Romano, a no-nonsense tough woman, and Dr. Hero Martins, a brilliant and beautiful microbiologist and epidemiologist.  They travel to the place where the fungus made its landing, encounter it in its full horror and manage to destroy most of it. The rest they send to a top secret storage facility deep underground where it will be kept in ultra cold and super secure surroundings.

You know where this is going, or you think you do.  Years later, the government sells the facility to a private developer, keeping the lowest, most highly sensitive levels buried under layers and layers of rock.  The developer turns the cave complex into a self storage facility, and no one storing his or her stuff there, or working there, has any idea of what’s lurking underneath, until (of course), one day it all goes wrong.

But here’s where the author throws us a curve, in the person of Teacake Meacham, a former convict and ne’er do well who’s working in the storage facility, his only goals to keep from getting roped into his supervisor’s plans to fence stolen goods in the facility and to meet and impress one of his co-workers, Naomi Williams, a single mother.  Neither Teacake nor Naomi is your typical thriller protagonist. Teacake talks too much and is easily persuaded to do things he knows better than to do, Naomi is only working at the storage place so she can make money to take care of her daughter and study to get herself through college and into veterinary school, and they do not fall in love with each other at first sight.

They do, however, hear some strange beeping coming from inside the walls of the facility, and their curiosity makes them two of the only three people who can save the world from the escaping fungus.

At the same time, Naomi’s ex husband ends up in the facility as well, and Teacake’s boss and his partners in crime head in there to buy and sell some televisions sets whose provenance isn’t to be trusted.  Diaz is called out of retirement, though that takes some doing on Naomi’s part, and a race against time and against human stupidity ensues.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a ticking time bomb of a thriller, and you are always aware of the stakes for these characters and the larger world.  But at the same time, the characters are so well drawn, and all so slightly off balance, that you can’t help laughing aloud a number of times in the book, even as you’re turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happens and how they’re going to pull it off (if they’re going to pull it off).

It’s not often you find a combination of great tension, really disturbing stakes, and goofy humor like this, but if you’re in the mood for a somewhat off the wall thriller that delivers, check out Cold Storage.

BOOK GROUPS IN A TIME OF CORONA VIRUS

Since it now appears the library will be closed till May 15 at the earliest, two months after the last time we were open (sob!), and since the Field Notes Book Group already put off its March meeting, we decided to attempt a meeting via zoom (what else?).  As one member noted, there was something ironic in the concept of discussing Because Internet exclusively online.

This was, I freely admit, a bad choice for the book club. Most of the members didn’t read it, and only one person liked it.  The kinder remarks were that it didn’t hold people’s interest. I will not mention some of the less kind remarks. Lesson learned!

But the hard part of running a book club during Shelter in Place is the question of how to choose the next book.  Other book groups probably don’t have this problem, as they just assume people will buy whatever book is chosen, but this is a library sponsored book group, and, aside from my scruples about expecting people to run out and buy books they may not like, I generally want people to use library resources for book group.  Unfortunately, this isn’t possible at the moment. And while there are all kinds of ebooks and e-audiobooks available through the Westchester Library System, the problem is that there might not be enough copies for everyone in the book group to get one.

So we went with a fallback: you may recall my earlier discussion of Gutenberg.org, where there are tens of thousands of different e-books available.  Yes, these are older books out of copyright, but so what? The Field Notes group has talked about reading classics anyway, and here’s our opportunity.

Our next choice, therefore, is Oscar Wilde’s immortal play, The Importance of Being Earnest, full of his trademark wit and bon mots, short enough that nobody should feel burdened reading it on screens instead of in paper form, and funny enough that we should be able to laugh a lot when we discuss it.

We’ll be meeting again virtually via zoom on Saturday, May 16, at 11:00.

 

If you are not a member of the book group (due to distance or other factors), this is one meeting you could still join.  If you’re interested, send me an email (my contact information is nmulligan at wlsmail dot org, with @ and . substituted for the words) and I’ll send you an invite.

WE COULD BE HEROES: WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS

Now, I realize the library is still closed, and maybe it seems a little cruel to be posting reviews of books when nobody can get them out of the library yet, but it’s still possible to put things on hold, even if the holds won’t be filled until the system reopens.  Besides, isn’t it better to think about something other than the current circumstances, especially when we can’t do anything to change the current circumstances but wait and muddle through?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to a wonderful book with a truly lovable protagonist: When We Were Vikings, by Andrew David MacDonald.  You might be put off by the title, which does, I agree, suggest some kind of role playing or possibly time travel (though I personally wouldn’t be put off at all by the suggestion of time travel), but actually the title fits the book really well, though not in the way you’re expecting.

The protagonist is Zelda, a 20 year old woman dealing with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  She has some issues, and she’s going to a special program with other young adults with disabilities, but Zelda doesn’t let any of those limitations bother her.  She’s a Viking enthusiast, and lives as much as she can in the spirit of the Vikings, about whom she is extremely knowledgeable. She even corresponds with the author of an authoritative book on Vikings, though “corresponds” is a bit of an exaggeration.  She sends him emails and he doesn’t respond.

Zelda lives with her older brother, Gert, who’s had some hard times of his own.  She looks up to him not only as a member of her tribe but as a person who embodies the virtues of the Vikings she so admires.  Prior to their living alone, after their father died, the siblings lived with an uncle who was abusive to both of them, and Gert got them out of that situation. He had an indifferent high school experience and now is going to community college on a scholarship he received on the strength of an essay he wrote.  Zelda has never seen the essay, but she understands it has to do with her in some way.

Obviously, the Viking expert and the college application essay, set up from the beginning of the book, are two things that are going to be important by the end of the book, but I won’t spoil either of them for you here.

It turns out, however, that Gert is not what Zelda thinks he is.  He’s flunking out of school, he’s involved with a local drug dealer as a pusher, and he owes the dealer a substantial amount of money.

With the help of other members of her tribe, and with her own indomitable spirit, Zelda sets out to save her brother from the villains he’s associated with, and to make her own legend, following and adapting to the present the themes of the old Norse sagas.

Zelda is a full fledged human being, with quirks and flaws and limitations.  There are things she doesn’t understand that we, the readers, do, but at no point do we feel superior to her.  She loves deeply, she makes mistakes (serious ones of trusting the wrong people), but they’re mistakes that grow out of who she is and what her life experiences have been. She has incredible courage, especially considering her circumstances, and she has a deep rooted sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.  She is a person I would love to hang out with in real life.

And that goes for the other members of her tribe as well.  Gert has his problems and can be pretty annoying a lot of the time (though he’s solid when he really needs to be), but you can understand what Zelda sees in him.  His former girlfriend, AK47 (real name, Annie; nickname given because of the speed with which she talks), is the kind of friend you want in dangerous times, someone who knows who and what she is and who takes no crap from anyone, not even a boyfriend.  Zelda’s therapist, Dr. Laird, whom Zelda considers the wise man of her tribe, is obviously caring and empathic and very good at what he does. Even the minor characters in the book are fleshed out with foibles and charms. Nobody is one-dimensional, not even Toucan, the major bad guy of the book.

At a time when things seem really dark and it’s hard to see a way forward, what a pleasure it is to spend time with Zelda and her tribe!  This is one of those books you don’t want to put down, and when you finish, you feel you’ve been through something special. .