Monday, March 28, 2011

Body of Work by Christine Montross

Body of Work is one of the best novels I have ever read, and one of my all-time favorite memoirs—as well as my personal bit of evidence that I am not, nor will I ever be, cut out for a career in medicine.

Christine Montross, now a psychiatrist working at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, wrote this memoir of her trials and tribulations in medical school, and her graphic descriptions of medical practices are written in a beautifully poetic and intimate manner. She was a poetry professor before she decided to become a doctor, and it shows. Her literary voice reveals a warm and compassionate nature, and Montross’s personal journey involves coming to terms with death and attaining balance between professional detachment and empathy towards patients.

In particular, Body of Work deals with Montross learning to dissect human corpses for study, namely the corpse that she and her classmates are assigned, who they call Eve. In her mind, Eve becomes her friend and personal guide, and she holds Eve’s hand while a classmate cuts into her with a scalpel, wanting to comfort her through the pain she does not feel. In fact, Montross dedicates this book to Eve, who she credits with helping her become a good doctor. Her devotion to Eve is remarkably, almost achingly moving, and her philosophical musings of life, death and the nature of human relationships are at once viscerally familiar and universally relatable.

Montross also proves to be an exceptional storyteller, as she writes of the history of corpse dissection as medical practice; of eras such as the 18th century, when students could only work with corpses of executed prisoners; of medical students who resorted to robbing graves when governments wouldn’t provide specimens. There’s also the intriguing story of Burke and Hare, serial murderers in 19th century Scotland who sold corpses of their victims to a medical professor. Also fascinating is her research on how the practice currently varies among different cultures; for example, medical students in India regard their specimens as sacred, and they carry out group prayers and ceremonies for them before the dissections.

Indeed, not only is Body of Work emotionally affecting; it is entertaining and educational as well. Not only is it a must-read for anyone considering a career in medicine; it’s the spellbinding work of a master poet and storyteller. However, bear in mind that one must have a strong stomach to withstand the graphic imagery. In any case, it’s a rare and stunning book and a wonderfully worthwhile read; it’s poetry in its purest form.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

I admit it: I’m a bleeding heart for animals, and Homer’s Odyssey made me laugh, cry and hug my cat. The premise may seem cliché—handicapped pet wins the hearts of everyone he meets—but Gwen Cooper is a compelling and eloquent narrator, and she writes of her beloved blind cat with dry wit and humor as well as affection. Her voice resonates off the page in a jovial and conversational tone, and reading this book feels like having a nice chat with Cooper across the table over coffee.

Cooper was already the owner of two cats when she received a call from her veterinarian about a four-week-old stray kitten who’d had his eyes surgically removed due to an infection. The kitten was up for adoption and proving difficult to place. Cooper, who was living paycheck to paycheck at the time, had no intention of adding to her brood. However, seeing a trooper in the tiny kitten, she adopted him and aptly named him Homer, after the blind storyteller of The Odyssey.

Unlike humans, handicapped animals seem to lack the capacity for self-pity, and Homer’s adventurous spirit is not dampened by his blindness. Raising Homer is full of trials and tribulations, extra attention and vigilant discipline. He’s irrepressibly rambunctious and insatiably curious, and Cooper relates many hilarious stories of Homer’s antics that should sound familiar to any cat owner, or even anyone who has had small children. He fearlessly scales seven-foot bookcases, pushes items off the coffee table in the living room, and once, when Cooper brings a date home, he eagerly rushes to greet her with a tampon in his mouth.

Equally funny are Homer’s interactions with Cooper’s two other cats, Scarlett and Vashti. Homer quickly settles into the role of the feisty little brother who likes roughhousing with his sisters and annoying them to no end. Scarlett, a snobbish prima donna of a cat, regards him as a nuisance, while the dainty Vashti is appalled at his horseplay. They do, however, become a functional family, while managing some level of tolerance for each other.

Homer also reveals his heroic side when he protects Cooper from an intruder who breaks into her Miami apartment one night. Later in the book, Cooper moves to New York City, into an apartment near the World Trade Center, and Homer instinctively guards his territory when he hears the explosions of 9/11, placing himself in front of Cooper and hissing at any danger that might befall her. Indeed, Homer is a brave cat—as brave and loyal as your Lassie or your Rin Tin Tin—and for all the care Cooper gives him, he gives back twice as much.

Homer’s Odyssey is a guaranteed hit with animal lovers. Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, Homer will likely bat at your heartstrings. If you’re looking for a feel-good read, look no further—just look at Homer on the book cover, sitting poised on his chair, waiting for you to pick him up.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

It took a couple years on the international bestseller list, as well as an acclaimed series of Swedish film adaptations, before the Millennium trilogy caught my eye. Normally I’m one to steer clear of the mainstream, so popular crime/action novels have rarely caught my eye. However, in this case, you can believe the hype. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the full package: an absorbing, action-packed murder mystery with all the suspense and psychological intrigue of a Hitchcock film, as well as engaging characters and a heaping helping of social commentary; particularly on violence against women, which author Stieg Larsson declared was the central theme of the series.

Henrik Vanger is an elderly billionaire, as well as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family, who has been haunted for almost forty years by the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Though detectives have long since abandoned the case, Vanger employs Michael Blomkvist, a famous journalist, to solve the mystery through extensive research of archived police reports, articles and photographs. In his investigation, Blomkvist uncovers deadly family secrets and conspiracies traced back through generations of corrupt heirs to the family fortune.

Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a pierced and tattooed delinquent in her mid-twenties, who is living under legal guardianship due to being declared insane and thereby “legally incompetent.” However, Lisbeth is disarmingly intelligent and cunning, a skilled hacker and an expert at digging up confidential information. She’s an endlessly fascinating character made up of contradictions: strong yet vulnerable, proud yet insecure, antisocial yet displaying a sense of camaraderie with abused women. Although the book has plenty of merits, it’s Lisbeth that moves the story along and adds a significant human element to the mysteries and plot twists.

It’s through Lisbeth that Larsson effectively presents his criticism of the Swedish Guardianship Agency, which Lisbeth lives under the mercy of due to her psychological profile. Her guardian controls all her legal powers, including her bank accounts, and predictably, he abuses this power and sexually assaults Lisbeth. Furthermore, Larsson inserts facts and statistics on violence against women at the beginning of each divided section of the book. For example, Part I begins with “Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.” Lisbeth represents the millions of women who fall through the cracks in the justice system every day. She’s been abused by men all her life and has developed some severe trust issues with authority. On principle, she never seeks help from police, opting instead to take matters into her own hands—in her own, not-quite-legal way.

Michael Blomkvist, on the other hand, is not quite a likeable character, nor is he nearly as engaging. He’s divorced because of his infidelity, and is a neglectful father; other than that, he is the static Everyman, almost a stock character. Larsson does succeed, however, in making all his characters humanly flawed and thereby believable. Never does he shy away from Blomkvist’s flaws or go out of his way to make him likeable. I would imagine he neglected Blomkvist’s development in favor of Lisbeth, for she’s the star of the series. It is Blomkvist’s investigative journey through layers of mystery and corruption that is more intriguing than the character himself; therefore one might say the novel alternates between being plot-driven and character-driven, though it does provide a substantial amount of both.

The Vanger family is a morbidly fascinating lot: manipulative, bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic—in short, they’re better than reality TV. Even Henrik Vanger himself, a reasonably benevolent man, reveals his manipulative side, though it’s more often used for good than for evil. The Vanger lineage contains several lifetimes’ worth of financial conspiracies and histories of abuse, and some of the more interesting characters are the few (fairly) sane members of the family who survive their upbringings relatively unscathed.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the most satisfying book I’ve read in a while. For the most part, it successfully combines action and mystery with character study, and the writing style flows in a way that makes it compulsively readable. I could barely put this book down until I finished it, all the while thinking, “What’s going to happen next?” This is a novel that keeps you guessing until the end, seizing your attention and holding it until the ride is over. If you’re looking for a book that will leave you breathless, as well as characters that remain with you long after the book is closed, take this one off the shelf and clear your schedule.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I believe that, partly thanks to John Ajvide Lindqvist, I’m developing a liking for Swedish authors. There has certainly been an increase in Swedish novels being translated to English, and thankfully so. I don’t want my lack of proficiency with the Swedish language to keep me from relishing a novel as beautiful as Let the Right One In.

I wanted to read this book because I saw the movie and I fell in love with it. I was both intrigued and deeply moved by the story of Oskar, a bullied twelve-year-old boy, and Eli, a girl who has moved in next door—and who happens to be a vampire. Thus begins a friendship between two children who inhabit a cutthroat world in which their lives are little more than survival. In Eli, Oskar finds a friend who encourages him to stand up for himself. In Oskar, Eli finds her first real friend in over two hundred years.

When I read the book, I found that the movie is, for the most part, a satisfying adaptation, though strikingly different in several ways. The movie is beautifully done; it’s atmospheric, subtle and poetic, making use of a stark winter backdrop, a rhythmically poignant score, somber lighting and muted colors, all coming together into a deeply felt, aesthetically pleasing whole.

Take, for example, Oskar’s room. In the movie it is filled with earth tones like soft blue, deep brown and orange. When Eli sneaks into his room to share his bed, their skin stands out stark pale against the deep brown bed sheets. Artistically it’s a beautiful moment, and very emotive.

Now compare that to the book description of his room: a huge KISS poster on the wall and a stereo with heavy metal CDs, as well as porn beneath his bed. Not to mention that Oskar is a chubby kid who chomps on candy while lying on his bed, paging through his scrapbook of gruesome newspaper clippings, feeding his morbid fascination with serial killers and their methods of murder.

Needless to say that reading the book after seeing the movie was rather jarring.

Lindvist is not sentimental, nor is he poetic. In some ways, the book is considerably grittier than the movie; and while the movie keeps its scope narrowed to Oskar and Eli, the book is more about an ensemble of people living in this little town in Sweden. Oskar and Eli are only two of them.

To name a few, we have Gösta, a recluse who lives with dozens of cats and rarely has any human contact; there’s Virginia, a grocery store clerk with a complicated, on-again, off-again relationship with a man named Lacke; and Tommy, a young delinquent in Oskar’s neighborhood who’s having a hard time accepting his mother’s policeman boyfriend.

While ostensibly these people have little to do with each other, they all struggle with the same universal human condition: letting people in. It’s like the aftermath of a battleground littered with damaged and broken relationships. For example, at some point in the story, Virginia regrets letting Lacke in after he breaks her heart again. Meanwhile, Gösta rarely, if ever, leaves his apartment to go out in public, preferring the company of animals to humans. Tommy is an angry teenager who lashes out in acts of vandalism because he’s unwilling to communicate with his mother. While these characters are not necessarily sympathetic, they are certainly very human, and they make up the substance of Lindvist’s palpable study of isolation.

Lindvist does justice to Eli’s character by not going out of his way to make her sympathetic. While readers may feel for the innocent people she preys on, Eli herself is an engaging character. She’s manipulative, cunning and remorseless in her hunts for human blood; yet she also possesses a playful, childlike side, which emerges in her interactions with Oskar. The two enjoy solving puzzles (they bond over a Rubik’s Cube) and causing bits of mischief, not unlike ordinary children, and for the first time, Eli quenches something other than her bloodlust: her desire for a human connection is fulfilled, something that her lifestyle didn’t leave room for.

The two can relate to each other in that their instinct for self-preservation involves the spilling of blood. While Oskar frequently fantasizes about murdering the bullies who torment him—even stabbing a tree in his backyard, while imagining he’s stabbing a bully in the eye—when he does lash out in self-defense, it frightens him. The reality of it hits him; how different it is to go from fantasizing to actually committing acts of violence. Upon realizing that Eli is a vampire, he angrily confronts her about her murderous endeavors, only to be reminded that he without sin should cast the first stone. It’s what they resort to in the fight for survival that becomes their equalizer.

Let the Right One In is both a thrilling fantasy and an unflinching portrayal of human isolation, as well as what we resort to when faced with the fundamental realities of life and death. A book like this defies genre, thereby appealing both to fantasy lovers and to the mainstream reader.