May 17th, 2010

_Cutting for Stone_, Abraham Verghese (kindle)

My kindle 2 screen died a horrible death on Sunday. After trying rebooting it and calling Amazon and rebooting it again, they are sending me a replacement. As long as I get this one back to them in 30 days, I don't get charged for it. My version one kindle was on loan to B., who got it back to me this morning. In the meantime, I read this book on kindle for the Mac. I guess the first takeaway is, wow, so nice to have that kindle for the Mac as a backup plan.

The book was this month's book group selection. It was nice to chat with my friends about it this evening. It's a thick book (not as obvious in e-form) and took a while to get through. Verghese has a good prose style. I think the best thing about the book is the acknowledgements at the back; Verghese has a comprehensive and appealing solution to the problem of providing sources for a work of fiction. I hope it becomes widespread.

The title is a pun on the central character(s) family name (Stone) and the importance of accepting one's limitations -- expressed in this case as a very ancient scope of practice definition.

As N. commented in book group, it is frustrating to read _yet again_ about the experiences of the poor and downtrodden (in this case, in Ethiopia) from the perspective of the privileged person Who Is Trying to Help (in this case, mostly Indians). It seems like there are a lot of books like this out there, and not so many coming our way expressing the voices of the people who are on the receiving end of all this attempted assistance by foreigners.

This problem was aggravated, imo, by the character of Genet. She is Eritrean, the daughter of a servant in the household the Stone twins (mother was from India, dad was British from India) were raised in by Indian parents (neither bio-parent). Raised with the boys, going to school with the boys, problems arise in adolescence as she becomes a Wild Child and Our Hero yearns for monogamy with her while she just wants to have fun and Experience Greatness. This pattern keeps repeating throughout the novel, making me feel very uncharitable thoughts about Verghese and orientalism. The twin relationship gets mucked up, then Our Hero has to leave Ethiopia to avoid political problems started by Genet (speaking of which, there are potentially some appalling puns buried in that name, too, the cat and the writer) and eventually, when he thinks he's lost her for good, she turns up like a bad penny to relieve him of his virginity, his liver and his twin, in more or less that order.

Honestly, I thought she'd given him AIDS. But apparently, that's a different Verghese novel.

The psychological makeup of the characters was executed with great precision, conciseness and skill. Really, watching him set up Thomas Stone and Sister Mary Joseph Praise (and, for that matter, the Matron and the Probationer) was just a thing of beauty, if you like that sort of thing. I don't; I thought it was kind of mean. Then, just to show it wasn't some sort of weird fluke that he created these self-contained wackos who could do tremendous damage to themselves and each other while desperately trying to pretend they don't have needs and if they do it's better to ignore them, he created the beautiful family that is Hema and Ghosh (despite the horrifying odds against them ever getting together, given their respective parentage -- really, about as bad as the whole nun-mother thing) raising the Stone twins and trying to save Genet from herself, her mother, the Eritrean revolution, Ethiopia in the 1960s and everything else trying to destroy any chance Genet might have of a decent life. Obviously, they're doomed to fail (because I think that was the point Verghese was making), and anyone who names a kid Shiva is probably asking for trouble but think of all the good he did before self-destructing post-liver donation for no clear reason other than God Feels Like Killing Him. And in case it wasn't completely clear that he's got a bit of an axe to grind, he sends Marion back to Ethiopia with Hema -- now that he is once again the twin who didn't have sex with Genet. Because Hema is going to get what Hema wants when she wants it.

A lot of the group _loved_ the ride that was this book. And I know at least two women who _weren't_ at book group who _loved_ the ride that was this book. It is well constructed. There are some continuity blips, but the big ones (that coup happens at the wrong time, for instance) are intentional and the little ones are, well, little. I have a lot of respect for this book. It is well constructed. But I did not enjoy it. About 20% of the way in, I had just about decided that after this book, I wasn't ever going to go back to book group again, because I have had it up to _here_ with the books I get stuck reading. I stuck it out, and much as I like the book group, I think I'm going to be much more selective about which months I attend.

I am never, ever, ever going to sign up for this nasty a piece of work again. YMMV. Like I said, I know a ton of people who loved this book and felt like they learned a lot and were utterly mystified when I slammed the author for being so mean to his characters.