Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Five words from the blurb: doctor, Haiti, difference, global, disease

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book that demands discussion. It is a perfect book club choice, especially for those looking to branch into non-fiction for the first time. The book is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has done an incredible amount to reduce rates of infection, particularly tuberculosis, around the world. The only problem is that Paul Farmer is a controversial man and this book forces us to question our concept of right and wrong. 

As a teenager Farmer fell in love with the people of Haiti. After qualifying as a doctor he set up a clinic there and dedicated his life to improving the health of local people. The only problem is that he stole thousands of dollars of medicine and equipment from US hospitals in order to do so. Much of his illegal behaviour is glossed over and this book concentrates on the immense body of good work he has done. Many reviews have criticised Kidder for “hero worshiping” Farmer, but I think this element only adds to its discussability.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is an engaging account of Farmer’s life. The sections in which Kidder recounts the time he spent with him were particularly vivid and his admiration for Farmer’s work shines through.

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow his example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

Haiti was also beautifully described. The poverty of the people was often distressing to read, but the Haitians were treated with respect throughout. I admired the way individuals were highlighted – allowing their terrible problems to be humanised, instead of just being a statistic. The political situation was also explained well and I discovered that this country has one of the most interesting pasts I’ve come across. It has made me keen to seek out more books based in this Caribbean country. 

The second half of the book, in which Farmer becomes a global authority on infection, was less interesting to me. The book became more about statistics and, although what he achieved was impressive, it didn’t have the emotional impact of the first half. 

Overall this was an important book. It raised many questions about global healthcare and left me feeling strangely guilty about my privileged place in the world.

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Mini Reviews: Everything I Never Told You, The House We Grew Up In and The Iceberg

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Five words from the blurb: murder, child, parents, mystery, relationships

I decided to read Everything I Never Told You because it was Amazon.com’s book of 2014 and praise for it seems to be everywhere. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else. It was very readable and contained a few interesting insights into the problems of inter-racial marriage, but the murder-mystery aspect was underwhelming and I felt the entire book lacked that magical spark. I’ve heard the same story many times before and, although this was better written than similar books, it didn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking. You should probably ignore this review though – everyone else seems to love it!

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The House We Grew Up In 

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

Five words from the blurb: hoarding, family, dysfunctional, relationships, secrets

This was chosen by my book club and the majority of the group enjoyed it. I had my reservations, but it did produce one of the most interesting discussions we’ve had so far. It contained some good observations on hoarding, but then meandered off on too many unrealistic tangents. Members of my group compared it to a soap opera and this think this is a good analogy. If you enjoy the non-stop, but shallow, actions of dysfunctional families then you’ll love this, but I prefer to read more realistic books.

 

The Iceberg: A Memoir Shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Prize

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

Five words from the blurb: tumor, husband, grief, support, family

The Iceberg contains some of the most powerful descriptions of grief I’ve ever read. Marion Coutts explains what life was like in the 18 months between her husband’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and his untimely death.  It showed his gradual decline and the way this affected his friends and family. The writing was outstanding, but it was so vivid I felt I was reliving her pain. I’m afraid I wasn’t strong enough to continue reading and so abandoned this important book before the end.

Have you read any of these books?

Did you enjoy them more than I did?

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery 

Shortlisted for 2015 Wellcome Book Prize and 2014 Costa Biography Award

Five words from the blurb: brain, operate, pressures, dilemma, lives

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon and this book explains what life is like for a man performing dangerous operations on a daily basis. The book is made up of a series of short stories, each describing a different set of cases that he’s operated on. It vividly explains the pressures faced by a surgeon; beautifully describing both the guilt felt when procedures go wrong and the pride when lives are saved. 

The brain suddenly swells and arterial blood shoots upwards, turning the operative site into a rapidly rising whirlpool of angry, swirling red blood, through which you struggle desperately to get down to the aneurysm. Seeing this hugely magnified down the microscope you feel as though you are drowning in blood. One quarter of the blood from the heart goes to the brain – a patient will lose several litres within a matter of minutes if you cannot control the bleeding quickly. Few patients survive the disaster of a premature rupture. 

Neurosurgeons require our respect and admiration and this book shows the large amount of skill and knowledge they need in order to work successfully. I’m very pleased they are able to perform these lifesaving operations as I know I wouldn’t have the courage to make millimetre-perfect incisions in other people’s brains. The book is very readable, but it is filled with technical terms. An effort is made to explain the terminology, but I still felt as though much of it went over my head. I can’t criticise the book for this as it made it feel authentic, but it distanced me from the much of the action. 

I also found that after a while the chapters began to feel much like one another. Each case may have been technically different (and of interest to those with a specialist knowledge) but, as a lay person, cutting into the brain felt very similar no matter which area was damaged. As a consequence it began to feel repetitive and I found myself increasingly losing interest in the text. 

This is a very important book and I’m pleased I read it, but unfortunately it didn’t bowl me over in the way I’d hoped it would. 

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The thoughts of other bloggers: 

…a beautiful, honest and intriguing look at the world of brain surgery. Biblio Beth

…it does go into the details of several operations, so if you’re especially squeamish, you might want to avoid. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm

…a remarkable account of the philosophical dilemmas of modern medicine. A Little Blog of Books

 

March Summary and Plans for April

I had high hopes for March, suspecting it might be my best reading month for a while. Unfortunately many of the books that I was excited about (The Buried Giant, Everything I Never Told You and Wolf Border (reviews for these last two coming soon)) failed to live up to expectations. Luckily both The Martian and I Am Radar were fantastic reads. They are very different in style (The Martian is plot driven, whilst I Am Radar is a slow, reflective book packed with beautiful prose), but the thing they both have in common is great science. I love it when authors aren’t afraid to tackle complex theories and stretch them in new directions.

Books of the Month

The MartianI Am Radar

Books Reviewed in March:

The Martian by Andy Weir (Audio Book) 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen 

Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith 

Redwall by Brian Jacques 

The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos 

Outline by Rachel Cusk 

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey 

No Such Thing As Failure by David Hempleman-Adams 

Plans for April

The Wellcome Prize Shortlist

I’m planning to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist before the winner is announced on the 29th April. The Wellcome Prize celebrates the best new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness and I’ve had a very good experience with the winners from previous years (including Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot)

I’ve already read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (review coming soon) and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and plan to read the rest of the shortlist soon:

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us by Alice Roberts

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

Non Fiction

I’m also going through a non-fiction stage. I’m listening to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield in my car and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson in my kitchen. I’m also in the final section of School Blues by Daniel Pennac, so hope to have my first review of a non-fiction book in translation up soon.

Other books

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell is my book club’s choice this month and Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin and The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
are also high on my list. I’m also continuing my investigation of the Bailey’s longlist and will probably pick up a few random selections along the way.

Have a great Easter!

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief Longlisted for 2015 Baileys Prize

Five words from the blurb: woman, writing, friend, past, revealing

The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, was an outstanding book. It was beautifully written and packed with emotion. Her second novel, All is Song, was dull in comparison. I tried reading Dear Thief on its release, but abandoned it because it felt more like her second novel than her first.  Dear Thief was recently longlisted for the Baileys Prize so I decide to give it another try. Unfortunately my initial assessment was correct. It is a lot better than All is Song, but not in the same league as her debut.

Dear Thief takes the form of one long letter from a women in her fifties to a friend she knew thirty years ago. There are wonderful descriptions of their childhood in Shropshire and these are contrasted with life in London. Harvey brilliantly observes the natural world and interactions between different people. I can’t fault the writing on a paragraph level at all:

I suppose the world is constantly producing things of wonderment, every moment, at every scale, and one time in every million or so our minds will be such that we will be open to seeing it. To see the silver effervescing of that dust was as beautiful a sight as any mountain or waterfall; but then, when I saw it, I was in love and as happy as a human being can be. Of course this helped. The world is heavily changed by the way we perceive it; in all my reticence and doubt, this is one thing even I haven’t been able to dispute.

Unfortunately the writing lacked emotion. Even scenes that should have been packed with feeling were tempered by meandering thoughts.

Very little happens throughout the book and I found that there was so much foreshadowing I knew most of the plot before it was revealed. If you can enjoy a book simply for the beautiful writing then you’ll appreciate it, but I prefer a bit of emotion or plot.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a stunning novel. The Writes of Woman

It has so many merits and so many good things about it yet I still don’t feel right saying I truly enjoyed it because I don’t think I did. Plastic Rosaries

…a most unusual book, alive with matters of spirituality and philosophy. Shiny New Books

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

I Am Radar

Five words from the blurb: secretive, scientists, puppeteers, identity, history

I Am Radar is an outstanding book and is epic in terms of both size and scope. It is almost impossible to explain the plot, and to attempt to do so would ruin the magic of discovering it for yourself, but I can say that it is an immersive experience, vividly describing places as diverse as Norway, Cambodia, America and the Congo. The central theme is one of identity, but this single word is not enough to convey the complex range of subjects covered.

This book is like a literary springboard and I was surprised to discover that the numerous books mentioned within the text existed (and I have since bought a couple). It is a global book, realistically portraying each individual culture and providing the reader with information about a range of historical events.

In the world he had left behind, the differences people used to judge each other, to kill each other, to declare war upon each other – these  differences were often largely invisible: religious, ideological, ethnic distinctions not obvious until a name, an accent was revealed. During the wars, the armies wore uniforms that designated them as Partisan, Chetnik, Ustase, but for the populace at large, one could shape-shift between these definitions, depending on who was knocking at your door.

The science in this book was also extremely well researched. I loved the way that it included complex theories, developing them in plausible new directions. Charts and diagrams were used to explain concepts, the beautiful way they were drawn further enhancing the reading experience.

I Am Radar effortlessly blends fact with fiction and I enjoyed looking up anything that sounded too far-fetched, only to discover that it had actually happened. Some people might complain that the plot meanders too slowly, but I was so engrossed in each element I didn’t care.

The ending was disappointing at first, but with time I realised how clever it was. This is one of those books that improves with scrutiny. There are so many layers and different aspects to think about that more is revealed with every re-reading.

It is the sheer intelligence of this book that impresses me so much. The author’s grasp of such a diverse range of subjects leaves me in awe. I finished it feeling as though I’d learnt more than whilst reading any other book. If you enjoy learning  about the world then this is an essential read. It isn’t easy or quick, but all effort is rewarded.