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In 2010, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies provided a stunning history of cancer and medical scientists’ ongoing research into ways to overcome it. In 2016, he delivered a similarly breathtaking treatment of genetic biology in The Gene. Now, in The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Mukherjee tells the compelling story of cell biology and the ways that cellular engineering can help us rethink what it means to be human.

Drawing on case studies, interviews, visits with patients, scientific papers and historical archives, Mukherjee tries to understand life in terms of its smallest unit: the cell. As he puts it, he’s listening to a cell’s “music” when he observes its anatomy and the way it interacts with surrounding cells. For example, the genes, proteins and pathways used by healthy cells are “appropriated” or “commandeered” by cancer cells. “Cancer, in short, is cell biology visualized in a pathological mirror,” Mukherjee writes.

Such knowledge allows medical researchers and doctors to imagine how cellular therapy could modify a patient’s cellular structure to treat their disease or medical disorder. In one case, a girl named Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, received CAR T-cell therapy: Her own T-cells were extracted, modified to target her disease and infused back into her body. Although there was an initial setback because of an infection, the cellular therapy succeeded. Mukherjee includes other stories like Whitehead’s, as well as those of heroes such as Rudolf Virchow, who discovered that “it isn’t sufficient to locate a disease in an organ; it’s necessary to understand which cells of the organ are responsible”; John Snow, the founder of germ theory; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin.

According to Mukherjee, the cell sings of a new human who is “rebuilt anew with modified cells [and] who looks and feels (mostly) like you and me.” Using cellular engineering, he writes, “we’ve altered these humans to alleviate suffering, using a science that had to be handcrafted and carved with unfathomable labor and love, and technologies so ingenious that they stretch credulity: such as fusing a cancer cell with an immune cell to produce an immortal cell to cure cancer.” Captivating and provocative, The Song of the Cell encourages us to rethink historical approaches to medical science and imagine how cellular biology can reshape medicine and public health.

This captivating, provocative book from Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee encourages us to imagine how cellular engineering can reshape medicine.
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As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.

Healing

Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

In her early 20s, Meghan O’Rourke began to experience an array of symptoms—fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, hives, fever, a sensation of electric shocks along her legs and arms—that neither doctors nor bloodwork could connect to a diagnosis. When one doctor suggested that O’Rourke might have an autoimmune disease, a condition in which the immune system begins to turn on the body, O’Rourke recalled her practical Irish aunts who lived with rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s disease and ulcerative colitis, all autoimmune diseases. As O’Rourke entered her 30s, her symptoms grew worse, despite seeing multiple specialists. She found herself barely able to leave her apartment, let alone have the baby she’d been hoping for.

O’Rourke is the author of three collections of poetry and a memoir, The Long Goodbye. In The Invisible Kingdom, she chronicles her long search for healing, layering in extensive reporting on the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease and the way our medical system fails to see ailments that aren’t readily diagnosable or easily treated. Likewise, she notes that autoimmune diseases are far more likely to affect women, and women, in turn, are more likely to be told that their symptoms are all in their heads. “Of the nearly one hundred women I interviewed, all of whom were eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or other concrete illness, more than 90 percent had been encouraged to seek treatment for anxiety or depression by doctors who told them nothing physical was wrong with them,” she writes.

O’Rourke examines her own experience with a lucid but compassionate lens, and she brings that same mix of analysis and compassion to the book’s reporting. It’s a delicate balancing act to write about a long journey of misery without being tedious or repetitive. She pulls it off by adding lyrical imagery and the words of other writers, such as Alice James and Susan Sontag, to her descriptions of suffering, the peculiar treatments she found herself undergoing, and the effect her quest for healing had on her marriage. And yes, the book reaches a happy, though not uncomplicated, ending.

While it’s especially useful for those who have personally encountered chronic illness, The Invisible Kingdom will add to everyone’s understanding of disease and health. Ultimately it offers a fresh image of what good medicine could look like: doctors understanding each patient as a whole person, not just as a collection of parts.

With a mix of analysis and compassion, Meghan O’Rourke chronicles the rise of chronic illness and autoimmune disease alongside her own long search for healing.
Behind the Book by

To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you’d think. You’d think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don’t make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don’t do it easily. If you were, for instance, a plastic surgeon who had set up a seminar with 40 severed human heads for other plastic surgeons to practice on, would you want a writer there? You would not. I contacted the organizers of this very head event, and indeed, they did not want me there. As the day drew near, I considered paying the $500 fee and registering as a surgeon. Maybe no one would notice that the woman in the back row was holding her retractor upside down and only pretending to make incisions.

In the end, an acquaintance, a plastic surgeon whom I’d profiled years ago, made some calls and got me in. I fear for his welfare once the book comes out. Not that I say anything negative about surgeons practicing on cadavers. I simply describe the things I saw, and most surgeons would probably prefer that the public not know about these things.

Inevitably, the doctors and scientists I wanted to visit would ask me to tell them about the book. I would assure them that I was in favor of cadaver-based education and research and that the book would support and encourage the donation of bodies to science.

This is true, but it didn’t really tell them much about the book. For instance, that its title is Stiff. That it’s meant not just to inform readers, but to entertain them. What could I say? “It’s a fun book about dead people. You’ll love it!” What scientist would agree to help me?

My past made matters worse. I used to write an irreverent, goofball column about medicine and the human body for the online magazine Salon.com. Occasionally my columns were about dead human bodies. There was one about car crash tests in the ’60s that involved cadavers. I did not criticize these studies, for they were and still occasionally are necessary and have, indirectly, saved thousands of lives. However, my tone was somewhat cavalier. Flippant, you might even say. By and large, it’s fair to say that people who do research using cadavers would rather not be the subject of flippant articles. At one point, I contacted a researcher at the University of Michigan to see if I could observe a cadaver impact test for the book. The man asked me how I’d become interested in the subject, and I said I’d done a little research on the topic for a Salon article. You don’t figure engineers log on to Salon.com.

“Salon!” he said. “I hope you’re not the one who wrote that horrible piece a couple months ago.” My piece had run about a year prior, so I replied that it must have been someone else. Then he began describing the piece, which was in fact my piece. I said, “I have to go now,” and I got off and called a different lab. I became so paranoid about potential sources running a Google search on me and finding my Salon columns that I’d sign off on my e-mails as Marion Roach. (Later I realized that my messages arrive with “Mary Roach” in the From heading.) The man whose automotive impact lab I eventually visited had seen the Salon column too, but he let me watch anyway. To this day I think of him as a kind of saint.

And now comes the part where the people in the book get to read it. There are days when I honestly believe they’ll be okay with it, maybe even enjoy it. Other days I imagine them turning up at my doorstep, saying I’ve destroyed their scientific standing. And then they shoot me, and the author of Stiff is a corpse too. Horrifying, but think of the PR possibilities: Dead author goes on tour to promote cadaver book! Sales through roof!

Mary Roach currently writes the “My Planet” humor column in Reader’s Digest. Her work has also appeared in Outside, Wired, GQ and Vogue. A contributing editor at Discover magazine, she lives in San Francisco. Stiff is her first book.

To write a book about cadavers, you have to get in to see some. This is harder than you'd think. You'd think dead people would be easy to make appointments with. Their schedules are pretty open and they rarely go out of town. But of course dead people don't make appointments. The researchers and surgeons and undertakers who work with them do that, and they don't do it easily.
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“I’m of two minds,” we say. Or, “I changed my mind.” These phrases roll casually off the tongue, but we don’t mean them literally. Maybe we should, according to two new books that explore the fascinating history and tantalizing future of neuroscience.

COGNITIVE WONDERS
Are you primarily right-brained or left-brained? You might think you know, but Michael S. Gazzaniga is here to tell you it’s not that simple. Gazzaniga pioneered split-brain research with his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology in the 1960s. In Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, he details the experiments that led us to talk about the brain’s two hemispheres in the first place. Filled with scientific luminaries like psychobiologist Roger W. Sperry and theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain takes us back to the intellectually energetic laboratories of Caltech. In scenes that read like episodes of “The Big Bang Theory”—intellectual energy abounds—we sit in on experiments done with split-brain patients, whose brains’ hemispheres had been surgically separated to treat epilepsy.

Gazzaniga meticulously documents the strange things that happen when the two sides of the brain aren’t communicating, such as losing the ability to label an item held in the left hand, even though the answer comes swiftly when the same object rests in the right. What’s even more fascinating, though, is the way the brain can sometimes overcome such limits. As Gazzaniga says, the brain is not a “random bowl of spaghetti” but a “biologic machine” with the power to rewire itself. Gazzaniga tells the stories of split-brain patients who have regained lost functionality as their brains’ hemispheres learned to “cue” each other in new ways.

Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara and president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, Gazzaniga continues to search for answers about how the brain works. His impassioned writing invites readers into his world, where the science of the past sets the stage for even greater discoveries to come.

BRAIN, HEAL THYSELF
Where Gazzaniga carefully documents the past, Norman Doidge, M.D. marches enthusiastically into the future in a dazzling collection of stories about neuroplasticity and the ever-changing brain. Following up on his 2007 bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, which brought the science of neuroplasticity to a mainstream audience, in The Brain's Way of Healing, Doidge considers cutting-edge treatments that use the body’s senses to access, and improve, neurological functioning.

In friendly vignettes reminiscent of Oliver Sacks’ case studies, Doidge chronicles the heroic efforts of patients with a wide variety of apparently intractable ailments, from chronic pain to multiple sclerosis. All have been treated successfully with non-invasive, natural methods that take advantage of the adaptive abilities of the nervous system. In-depth, personal stories describe patients like John Pepper, who has kept his Parkinson’s disease symptoms in check with a vigorous, yet careful, exercise regimen, and David Webber, whose blindness was relieved with a series of relaxation and visualization exercises.

The list of successful healings is long and impressive; it’s tempting to be skeptical of such a wealth of glowing accounts, except that Doidge truly takes a holistic approach to his subjects, getting to know them and their doctors and sharing every detail with his readers. Doidge doesn’t just read about low-light laser treatments, for example, but actually sits in on multiple sessions and discusses the science behind them. Similarly, he delves into the lives and careers of innovators like Moshé Feldenkrais, whose integrative movement protocol is well known, but whose escape from Nazi Germany is likely not.

Each of Doidge’s examples suggests tangible treatment ideas for patients who may have thought they were out of options. Doidge’s penchant for considering unconventional approaches to healing offers hope for all.

“I’m of two minds,” we say. Or, “I changed my mind.” These phrases roll casually off the tongue, but we don’t mean them literally. Maybe we should, according to two new books that explore the fascinating history and tantalizing future of neuroscience.

Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE
In On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan begins her vocation with some resistance, unsure that in her own brokenness she can provide comfort to those who are broken by life and waiting for death. Reluctant to talk about religion with her patients, she soon discovers that simply listening to their stories—of their families, of their losses and regrets, of love—heals her and them: “I don’t know if listening to other people’s stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.”

Egan shares the story of Gloria, a mother who’s been withholding a secret from her son and wants to reveal it as a gesture of love in her final days. A patient named Reggie expresses regret about a life that’s been “empty and alone,” leaving him without a single friend or family member to offer comfort. Then there’s Cynthia, who struggles to accept her overweight body even as she’s dying; like all people who are dying, Egan observes, Cynthia faces the reality that she will “no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again.” The lesson for those of us not dying, of course, is that living fully means embracing our imperfect selves with joy and love while we still can.

Egan’s evocative and eloquent book reminds us that we are defined by the stories we tell, and those stories often reveal how life can be “beautiful and crushing” at the same time.

DEATH WITH DIGNITY
Deborah Ziegler’s poignant and fierce Wild and Precious Life celebrates the life of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014 at the age of 29. 

When Ziegler first learned of her daughter’s condition, she ran screaming into the dark night of hopelessness, praying that God would take her and not her daughter. She refused to accept her daughter’s impending death and wanted to pursue any treatment that would extend her life.

Brittany, however, taught her mother the one truth we most often avoid in such situations: A good death is part of a life well lived. After Brittany learned the gravity of her situation, she moved from California to Oregon, where a death with dignity law allowed her to make her own choices on how and when her life would end. Her decision prompted a nationwide discussion of assisted suicide and a patient’s right to make end-of-life decisions. 

Skillfully interspersing stories of Brittany’s growing up with a touching account of her final year, Ziegler reminds us, in Brittany’s own words, of the real lesson we need to learn: “Live your lives well. Accept the sorrow with the joy, the ineffable grief with the love.”

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.
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There’s always at least one puzzler on everyone’s gift list: your friend’s niece, your new in-law, your co-worker’s husband who’s coming to Christmas dinner. These four books err on the side of delightfully weird, and they’re bound to fit some oddball on your list!

(Illustration from Literally Me by Julie Houts.)

For a certain sect of young women, Julie Houts speaks—or rather, draws—the sometimes painful, always hilarious truth, and she’s gathered her truths in Literally Me. It may not be for you, but it’s definitely, literally perfect for someone you know. Houts, a designer at J. Crew and a skilled illustrator, initially found her audience on Instagram, and her clever, detailed drawings and satirical captions hit on everything a modern woman faces: nail polish decisions (Illiterate Sex Kitten or Skinny Ditz?), wine selections (hint: the pink one is the fun one), the arrival of the four horsewomen of the apocalypse at Coachella, conversations with a large, imaginary rat about your desires and fears—you know, the usual stuff. If you’ve got a smart, funny, slightly strange lady in your life, chances are she’ll find plenty to relate to in Houts’ charmingly off-kilter collection of drawings and essays.  

JOLLY BROLLY
Consider the umbrella. It’s an odd little contraption, and I’ve thoughtlessly lost more than I can count. But the umbrella has been around, in some fashion, for millennia and has shaded the domes of pharaohs and queens. The symbolic promise of an umbrella is rich for authors—just think of the metaphor possibilities!—and it makes cameo appearances in the writings of Dickens, Nietzsche and many more. Marion Rankine’s delightful Brolliology: The History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature unfurls the world of umbrellas, instilling an unexpected appreciation for these handy accessories in its readers. The book is also filled with illustrations and plenty of fascinating facts to pull out when conversation lulls—say, at a holiday dinner when you’re seated next to your wife’s boss.

LIFE’S A BEACH
John Hodgman’s Vacationland was recently listed as the #1 New Release in Maine Travel Guides on Amazon. Do not be fooled—with essays that touch on topics like proper etiquette at a rural Massachusetts trash dump, grotesque giant clams and the pain-inducing powers of Maine beaches, Vacationland is anything but a travel guide. Multi­talented actor, bestselling author and former “Daily Show” correspondent Hodgman takes us along as he struggles with deep-rooted anxieties and fears about aging, fatherhood and more in various dismal New England settings. The deadpan Hodgman is an excellent writer, reminding readers of David Sedaris with his self-deprecating style of comedy as he reflects on life with a sincerity that comes close to heartbreaking, but swerves at the last moment to hit the punchline.

DO NO HARM
What’s a great way to deal with blood loss? Why, bloodletting, of course! This is just one of the many “cures” described in the entertaining catalog of terrible treatments Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. In amusing yet informative, well-researched style, Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen cover the many supposed healing qualities of toxic mercury; gladiators’ blood as an epilepsy cure; the vomit-inducing toxin antimony, which would really clear out your system and was allegedly enjoyed by Captain James Cook; and the use of the melted fat of corpses as a salve in the 1700s. After perusing this book, you’ll be thankful you live in this century—and wondering what modern miracle will be considered utter quackery come the next.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

There’s always at least one puzzler on everyone’s gift list: your friend’s niece, your new in-law, your co-worker’s husband who’s coming to Christmas dinner. These four books err on the side of delightfully weird, and they’re bound to fit some oddball on your list!

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When I graduated from high school in 2008, the U.S. was plummeting into a financial collapse that tanked the rest of the world’s economy as well. By the time I graduated from college in 2012, the descriptions of most entry-level positions began, “Must have at least five years of relevant experience.” And no one really had any advice about what to do with the massive, overwhelming problem that was and is student debt.

In 2021, as graduates face not only economic hardship but also the pandemics of poverty, racism and COVID-19, good advice is equally hard to find. The past year has taught them that stability is the illusion, while change and upheaval are the norm. Facing an uncertain future means figuring out how to navigate big changes.

In Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes From a Medical Life, author Suzanne Koven explores her own personal crises and growth, weaving them within the story of her practice as an internist, or doctor of internal medicine. Koven discusses her struggles with image, identity, sexuality and weight and sees these things as inextricably tied to her desire to be someone important: a doctor. Yet, what Koven discovers is that despite succeeding and becoming a doctor, she failed to overcome the impostor syndrome that plagued her even before she held others’ lives in her hands.

In this way, Koven’s story speaks to the impostor in all of us. Koven writes that “even the most blameless patient, the victim of an accident or a random illness in no way related to anything that person did and in no way preventable by them, feels shame.” We’re all victims of senseless suffering—an economic collapse, a pandemic. These shared traumas reveal our shame; but Koven advises us not to ignore or try to defeat it but rather to allow it to shape us into better, more empathetic people.

By contrast, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims falls into the more traditional, practical advice category. With frank, straightforward counsel and to-do list chapter titles, Your Turn gives advice that all of us—adults, young adults and children—need to hear.

Citing the work of bestselling psychology researchers and writers like Lori Gottlieb and Brené Brown, Lythcott-Haims’ book advises young people to take chances and find what makes them happy, rather than following a prescribed path to success. Perhaps the most moving passages are the “don’t just take it from me” stories collected from various friends, acquaintances and pen pals. In a world that feels so isolating, reading these deeply intimate stories reminds us why we long to live in community with one another and how doing so truly helps us survive and thrive.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books isn’t the advice they provide but their acknowledgement that we all need each other. Alone, we’re more susceptible to our own shame and self-doubt. Yet here we are, longing not for some sort of undefinable success but simply to be in each other’s presence again. To be sure, many obstacles still stand in the way of our ideal lives; for example, no one envisions a pandemic as the perfect start to adulthood. But sharing our stories is the first step forward, as these tender, inspiring books make clear.

The greatest takeaway from both of these books for burgeoning adults isn’t the advice but the acknowledgement that we all need each other.
Review by

Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives is a gripping, real-life book by Dr. Pamela Grim, an emergency room physician. Grim, an ER doctor for ten years, paints a graphic picture of what life in the real ER is like the adrenaline, the life-and-death quick decisions, the burnout, and the hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror and relief. Grim recounts her most interesting cases in the ER and her travels with Doctors Without Borders the organization that recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Grim traveled to Nigeria, Kosovo, and Macedonia with that organization, and Lives portrays how heart-breaking this practice of medicine is compared to the state of the art technology-driven practice in the States. Her front-line stories from these war-ridden and impoverished countries are maddening, touching, and inspiring.

The doctor’s recollections of her most remarkable cases are enlivened by her refreshing honesty. Readers witness Grim’s doubts, frustrations, insecurities, exhaustion, and confusion her thoughts and emotions are laid on the table, making this book difficult to put down. As evidenced by the popularity of the TV show ER, we are captivated by the events that take place in this setting, and. Grim tells her stories with a realistic flavor that could only come from someone who has been there.

Grim narrates with an insightful, humorous tone that hints at a bit of cynicism about her profession. It appears the author may have written this book as an evaluation of her career, struggling to decide whether she’s too burned out to continue practicing medicine, and perhaps trying to remember why she entered medicine in the first place. Do the rewards outweigh the costs? I encourage you to read and find out.

Susanna Swilley recently finished her first year of medical school in Memphis.

Just Here Trying to Save a Few Lives is a gripping, real-life book by Dr. Pamela Grim, an emergency room physician. Grim, an ER doctor for ten years, paints a graphic picture of what life in the real ER is like the adrenaline, the life-and-death quick decisions, the burnout, and the hours of boredom punctuated […]
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Pain as God’s Megaphone, C. S. Lewis wrote, “is a terrible instrument.” Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis’s comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with.

Throughout history, pain has been an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. It still is, but over the last century we have made great inroads not only against illnesses but against the pain they cause. We would do well to remember the agonies of past generations, for which there was simply no relief but the grave. Vertosick’s beautifully written book, The Natural History of Pain explores this essential but terrifying adaptation with intelligence, sympathy, and an encyclopedic store of references from across the cultural and scientific spectrum. A literate scholar and an experienced neurosurgeon, Vertosick is the author of a celebrated account of his training as a neurosurgeon, When the Air Hits Your Brain. He combines his own case histories (suitably disguised), fascinating tidbits from the history of medicine, and an endless curiosity about the nature of pain as a physical sensation. The surprises never stop. Vertosick explains the horrific etymology of the word “cancer,” which, as in the sign of the zodiac, refers to a crab in this case, a crab’s unshakable grip. He explains sciatica, and how Shakespeare came to coin the term. Carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, phantom limb syndrome it’s all here, in lucid, witty prose.

Nor does Vertosick overlook the pains of everyday life that are not considered disorders but are nonetheless what the Koran calls “a hurt”: menstrual cramps, the pain of childbirth, office-induced back pain.

Vertosick has examined and operated upon countless patients. He admits that he likes to play Sherlock Holmes and make a tentative diagnosis at first glance. He tells of the patient who awoke on the operating table and began screaming when he saw his opened chest and exposed heart, and of the woman who had to lift her leg with a towel because it wouldn’t move of its own volition. From these anecdotes, with sympathy and wit, he builds insightful chapters about the curse and blessing that is pain.

Michael Sims is the author of Darwin’s Orchestra (Henry Holt).

Pain as God’s Megaphone, C. S. Lewis wrote, “is a terrible instrument.” Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis’s comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with. Throughout history, […]
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The concept of a body-mind connection is nothing new. With the recent rise in the use of alternative therapies to treat illness, the public has been swift to recognize this connection. Larry Dossey, one of the first in the scientific community to write about mind-body integration, now shows how this powerful combination can further affect our own personal healing. In his recent book, Reinventing Medicine, he explains the present shift away from how we have viewed medicine in the past and offers a fascinating look at what the future holds for creating wellness in our lives. Dossey identifies what he sees as three recent eras in medicine. He explains how we have gone beyond Era I (the 1860s) in understanding the mechanical or physical healing that takes place in the body. We have also ventured well beyond Era II (1950s), which allowed us to discover that the mind could actually influence the body, for better or worse. Now, Dossey believes that we have entered Era III, a combination of the two previous eras . . . with a twist. The mind-body interaction in Era III is characterized by phenomena such as familiar, unaccountable hunches, prophetic dreams, and bursts of creative energy. Although science has traditionally distrusted these phenomena for lack of evidence, Dossey offers the recent work of scientists at universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford to add convincing weight to his argument.

A perhaps troubling aspect for those in the scientific field is Dossey’s key concept, which characterizes Era III medicine, the concept of the nonlocal mind. The author believes that there is sufficient evidence to show that the mind operates beyond the body and is not subject to time. To strengthen his claim, he offers impressive studies for nonlocal events, which suggest that there is not only startling interaction between humans, but also between humans and plants, humans and animals, and even humans and inanimate objects. Anyone interested in the mind-body connection, how it influences our well-being, and how we can focus on it to positively affect our health will be interested in this book.

The concept of a body-mind connection is nothing new. With the recent rise in the use of alternative therapies to treat illness, the public has been swift to recognize this connection. Larry Dossey, one of the first in the scientific community to write about mind-body integration, now shows how this powerful combination can further affect […]

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Three-time National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin’s Undefeated charts the rise of Jim Thorpe, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and All-American fullback for the Carlisle Indians, one of the most innovative football teams ever to take the field. Despite its focus, readers need not be sports fans to enjoy this book.

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