My second installment of mini book reviews as I endeavor to read more carefully and share recommendations for other readers.
- Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time. The book’s greatest strength is its stories. As a surgical resident, Gawande has the goods when it comes to interesting cases, and he’s a great teller of those stories. But it’s not merely stories. He explores important and compelling ideas like the necessity of doctors practicing on patients and the tangled decision-making in difficult cases. He owns up to the fact that doctors, even the very best ones, make mistakes. It’s unavoidable as long as humans are involved. There are three reasons that medicine is an “imperfect science”: ignorance, ineptitude, and fallibility. Gawande details advances in surgery (such as gastric bypass) and technology that show how the field is improving in the area of ignorance. There are some protocols in place to deal with inept doctors, but all too often bad doctors keep practicing until they do lots of harm, and he talks about these current limitations and how to improve. Lastly, he explores how fallibility is inevitable. There may be decisions that are never clear because the factors involved are too complex. Each patient and circumstance is unique. Almost as a bonus, he also spends time explaining interesting and perplexing phenomena such as pain, nausea, and blushing. The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award. I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
- Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans is a memoir I could relate to. Though she wrote it while still in her late 20s, she felt compelled to chronicle and share her crisis of faith that led her to doubt much of what she used to believe. Evolution is the guiding theme of the stories she relates, both because of her changing faith and because she lives in Dayton, TN, home of the infamous Scopes trial (which I’ve written about once or twice, okay at least three times or more). She even attended Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan, the defender of creationism during the trial. Evans does a nice job summarizing the high points of the trial in one of the chapters. But the bulk of the book is her telling how she used to be a model evangelical Christian who knew all the right answers for arguing with skeptics until she herself became unsettled by the injustice of what she calls “the cosmic lottery.” It seemed unfair to her that so many people should be condemned to hell because they had never heard of Jesus, only to die horribly in a typhoon or of AIDS. She couldn’t accept the answers that she used to. Her crisis led her to rethink all of her assumptions and to be willing to throw away “false fundamentals,” her term for the beliefs that accrete onto the belief system of much of Christian teaching. She now believes that faith must adapt and that it is okay to have doubts and to say “I don’t know.” But she hasn’t lost her faith. It’s a story that I share in the broad outline, and it was comforting to read how she went through the crisis but retained her trust in Jesus. I’d recommend this book to anyone who has had similar doubts or a crisis of faith. [Note that the book, though first published in 2010, has since been rereleased under the title Faith Unraveled.]
- Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible. The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal. Roach is an excellent science writer, guiding the reader through the digestive system from before the food enters the mouth to the other end of the line. It all goes down so easily (please excuse me, nearly every blurb for the book includes puns and wordplays nearly as bad), that it can feel almost fluffy at times. It’s not that Roach doesn’t include the research (the notes in the back show her thoroughness), it’s that she makes it so palatable (again, sorry) with her humorous stories and engrossing tidbits. I learned about the 19th century man who had a hole in his stomach and how his doctor used him to learn about digestion, about the importance of bacterial composition of the colon, and about the amazing capacity of the colons of prisoners and other smugglers, among other oddities. Sometimes the book is a bit gross, but nothing made me sick to my stomach. Anyone who enjoys science or who wants to know more about the digestive system or who simply wants a smart laugh should check it out.