Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ask the Ape!: Did Somebody Call for a Doctor? Edition

Welcome back to Ask the Ape!, wherein readers, acquaintances, and even possibly fabrications of our imagination pose questions of the literary stripe. This week’s question is about doctors.
My brother just graduated from college and will be starting medical school in the fall. This summer he’s not doing much of anything and I thought a good, belated graduation gift idea might be some books about being a doctor. He’s a good reader, but it is his only free time of for the next like 20 years, so maybe nothing too hard. 
This was a little more difficult than we initially thought it would be; it seems like the medical profession hasn’t been as mined as some others, though that might be some sort of selection bias. Still here are a few ideas for a doctor-to-be, with the special twist that all of these were written by doctors themselves. Unfortunately, they cost ten times what they should (kidding).

The House of God by Samuel Shem is the story of six new doctors trying to survive a year-long internship. I’ve been told by MDs who’ve read it that it’s remarkably spot-on with medical details and the practice of medicine—a fact that non-doctors, (re: the Ape),  will find vaguely terrifying. Throw in some sexual melodrama and the faintest whisp of existential dread, and you have a brisk and captivating read.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. There’s a lot going on in Cutting for Stone, including family melodrama, sibling weirdness, Ethiopian politics, and nuns, but the core of the novel is medicine. Set largely in a Catholic missionary hospital in Ethiopia, this is the story of Marion Stone, progeny of a nun and the missionary doctor who loved her. After his mother’s death in childbirth and his father’s subsequent flight to America, Marion, and his twin brother Shiva, is adopted by another of the hospital’s doctors. Together, the two boys grow up watching and learning what it means to commit one’s life to the betterment of others—and the costs of doing so. This is an epic book, and though it is a little overwrought in places, it somehow manages to be both moving and informative—a rare and welcome combination. (Also, your knowledge of prenatal care in sub-Saharan Africa will increase exponentially, and if you’re anything like me, you’re always thirsting for more knowledge of African prenatal care.)

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
The Novel-as-linked-stories is probably an especially useful technique in writing about medicine, since medicine itself seems quite episodic; each patient is a new story connected only by the physicians and nurses who tend to them. Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures uses the flexibility of short stories to great effect, moving from the trials of being accepted to medical school in China, to the sleep-deprivation and soul-searching of medical education, to the cultural and racial mélange of the modern health care system. Lam’s dialogue is a little tin-eared, but Bloodletting is generous and imaginative—a higher-rent version of something like Grey’s Anatomy.

So those are three picks from us, what would you, sage readers, suggest for books about the scions of Hippocrates? Let us know in the comments.


  1. I haven't read it yet myself, but I have had Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell recommended to me. It was written by a doctor and it's a "comic thriller" about a mob hit man who goes into the witness protection program and becomes a doctor. Can't give it my own personal thumbs up yet, but I can give you my friend Joyce's thumbs up, and it sounds like it fits the bill.

  2. Vote #2 for Beat The Reaper - Bazell's actually a medical resident. Is that different than a full-fledged doctor? Not sure, but his book is goddamnned funny.

    Let's not forget the massive output of Robin Cook, too. Or, maybe we should...

  3. Haven't heard of Beat the Reaper, so that's terrific! And the whole cadre of authors whose names are 3 times the size of their titles on the cover are banished forthwith from the Ape. They have their place, but it aint here.

  4. I haven't read it but Direct Red by Gabriel Weston is supposed to be very good. The early Micheal Crichton books are fantastic too.

    I also love Ghosts of Eden by Andrew Sharp. Not about doctors, but written by one, so has some good medical knowledge in there with a fantastic plot. I think doctors make the best writers!!

  5. I haven't read it, but if nonfiction is a possibility, I hear good things about the essay collection Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. My stepmother, a former surgical nurse, read it last year and said that it was extremely accurate regarding what goes on in medicine these days.

  6. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. Bazarov is studying to be a doctor in that one. Great book. Can't think of any others, but I'm hungover. I think the medical profession calls it alcoholism.

  7. Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.

  8. My husband liked Beat the Reaper, and I loved Fathers and Sons. I'd also recommend Chekhov, who was a doctor and wrote about doctors. There's even a collection of stories called Chekhov's Doctors.

  9. Kicking myself for forgetting Fathers and Sons, thanks Lisa and Kenneth. Definitely would have included that if I had thought about it, though it's somewhat less about doctoring than the others.