Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese I'd seen this pop up periodically on my friends' list on Goodreads, almost always with raves and often five stars. But I avoided it for a while because what I'd heard of the plot made it sound so unbelievably ludicrous. The story of a Siamese twin born to a disgraced nun? Seriously? I thought it would be one of those absurd pretentious literary works, steeped in misery with touches of magical realism. Well, not in the usual sense, but I found it magical and realistic in different ways, and nigh UN-putdownable, a true page turner and very, very quotable. It mostly takes place in Ethiopia--in fact I finally slotted it in to fill a need in my 52-books-around-the-world challenge. But it also had one of the most vivid descriptions I've ever read of my hometown of New York City--as a "superorganism." Some say they're put off by the jargon, and one reviewer said she wondered if someone not steeped in medical terminology would enjoy this book so much, because this is a book about doctors and doctoring. Well, the closest I got to medical training was a short time as a candy-striper and a brief period of pre-med (until I hit Organic Chemistry and decided maybe I should try law school instead.) But the jargon-filled text didn't bother me--I rather reveled in it. My shiny new ereader might have helped. Tap on a bothersome word, then tap again at the "Look Up" and voilĂ  definition. That probably helped. But I also love books that transport me to a different place or time or initiate me into the mysteries of a profession. And this does. Verghese is himself a physician and his knowledge and love for the profession is contagious. I was fascinated by his picture of medical practice in both the third (Ethiopia) and first (Bronx) world. It's also uncomfortable at times. I admit it wasn't just Organic Chemistry that dissuaded me. To be a doctor is also to be confronted with mortality--that of others and your own. It made me think of the physicians I've known--especially our family doctor Dr. Karl Nacht. He was killed some years ago in a traffic accident. We've had other doctors since, but no one can replace him. Because like doctors in this book, he never forgot he was treating patients--people--not diseases. And that is why I'm giving this book a five, because it made me think about life and the people I've known living it, and not many books do that. I'm not sure really what is meant, or at least fully meant, by the title. It comes from the Hippocratic Oath: "I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art." I think it's connected to something Ghosh says, "own who you are... own the talents you have, and own the ones you don't." So maybe the bottom line is both "know thyself" as well as "heal thyself?"