BOOK CLUB: Review: CUTTING FOR STONE

CUTTING FOR STONECUTTING FOR STONE
by
Abraham Verghese

This novel is 50 Shades of Gray medical students or maybe for the elite or very sophisticated readers of novels written in English. The novel is about the life of male twins born to an unmarried couple, a doctor and a nun who work in the same hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa around the mid 19th century.

The birth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, is a traumatic medical event resulting in the death of the mother and the disappearance of the father. The twins are taken in as natural born children of another couple who work at the primary local hospital called Missing. The story follows the life of the twins growing up with loving step parents, Hema and Ghosh, two more loving step parents would have been hard to find.

The twins experience as normal an upbringing as one could have in a country which was in turmoil after tumultuous years of Italian occupation. There is stereotypical African poverty, cultural and sociological deprivation, economic and commercial difficulties but still the two boys had a caring and loving home life. Ghosh is a step father of sensitivity and unlimited love while Hema provides maternal care and the expected love of a mother. Their home has live-in assistance, less hired help, but more like indebted assistants and they also have children one of whom, Genet, becomes the center of a malevolent relationship storm which alienates one twin from another and results in a terrible medical alteration to Genet.

The social and cultural incidents reinforce the stereotypical views westerners have of many African nations: poverty stricken, lacking natural resources, without productivity to create any revenue source by international trade and socio-cultural traditions which are viewed as being primitive and tribal. Yet, the medical practitioners are people of intelligence, mostly educated abroad in the United Kingdom and India when it was part of the British Empire.

The novel is a heavy read because of its extensively detailed medical descriptions and its comprehensive narration of life in Addis Ababa under the Emperor Selaissie. The twins experience numerous traumatic events, even being the cause of the death of one of the revolutionary soldiers.

Sidestories abound from the medical career growth of Ghosh, the step father, to Hema’s growing reputation as being more than a simple midwife or medical probationer. Both step parents become highly respected medical professionals at Missing and logically this puts the twins on a path of medical education. Marion eventually becomes a surgeon, while Shiva establishes himself as a renowned and highly respected medical innovator, though he does not study to become a doctor. Eventually, a new revolution leads to the overthrow of the Emperor and through rumour, hearsay and malicious gossip, many of the citizens are falsely labeled as being disloyal to the revolutionary cause. Marion gets caught up in these malicious rumours and is forced to escape Eritria, arriving in New York City where he is contracted to work as a surgeon in a hospital surrounded by inner city slums, violence and upheaval.

Dr. Stone, the twin’s natural father, is never heard of again, until during an operation, Marion has someone comment over his shoulder about how the particular patient is bleeding profusely and what is Marion doing to stem the flow. The voice belongs to Dr. Stone. The story unfolds in another direction with Marion struggling to build a rapport with the father for whom he feels nothing, maybe even animosity. Dr. Stone, Sr. turns out to be a liver specialist working in Boston but with medical affiliation with New York hospitals. The book finally captures the reader’s attention and becomes a much better read now because of the suspense which is introduced when Marion contracts hepatitis B. His liver is so severely damaged, the doctors give up hope and contact his mother and brother to come to New York as Marion’s days are numbered. Ghosh has passed away at this point but his legacy for his family, especially the twins, is an extreme sensitivity and care for their family members.

Shiva and Hema arrive in New York, only to learn that there is no hope for Marion unless a liver transplant can be found, an exactly matching liver. Voila, the twins relationship takes on a whole new dimension, and added to it, Shiva proves to be an incredibly knowledgeable and astute medical authority through his years of devotion and study as inspired by his step father Ghosh. The suspense grows and comes to a negative but very surprising conclusion.

The first half of the book was a slog. Too much cultural and social detail; too much medical terminology and medical jargon; overly long and unnecessary concentrations on incidents and events better shortened and summarized. However, Varghese likely cannot resist weaving his own medical expertise and his own social and cultural experiences into the novel. I think most writers struggle with the challenge of finding an acceptable level of integration of their own lives into their literary works.

But where the initial part of the book was a slow and tedious reading, it never relents into becoming poor writing and when Varghese introduces the suspense surrounding Marion’s illness, the novel takes on wings and soars. Thank goodness for this is what makes the novel an interesting and enjoyable piece of writing.

A comment on best seller lists
Our book club has been reading a number of books, always found on some best seller list. However, Cutting for Stone and The Secret have proven to be questionable entries for designation as best sellers, The Secret especially so. At some point, I will have to explore how books get listed on these best seller lists. It can’t simply be because they sell a lot. If that is so, then it is no guarantee that the books are good reads. It just means someone has succeeded very well in marketing and promotion of the book. If the books are chosen because of their readability…then again, says who. This has to be very subjective, one person’s gold is another’s tin. Stay tuned as I delve into this more.

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HOLIDAY_HELP: CUBA: a listener/viewer’s paradise!

CUBAN BASEBALL 2

 

I started this post by writing about the contrast between  the socio-economic philosophies of CAPITALISM vs COMMUNISM. Then, I got the scent of my being pompous, maybe arrogant. I thought how great we are here in our CAPITALIST western world with all its benefits, blessing and bounties compared to how bereft the CUBANS are even in getting eggs to start each day. Then, watching a TV broadcast from the USA recently, I began to realize we are not that well off or our philosophies are not as successful as we might like to think. The USA has more people living below the poverty level than the entire population of Canada. There are thousands of Americans who cannot afford to buy a simple medication like Tylenol. As I began writing, I found I was becoming more and more lofty in my arrogance but sinking deeper in fertilizer.

So I have changed tact, changed my viewing direction. Instead of writing about how our socio-economic system fails us, even here in Canada with political corruption pervasive throughout every level of government and in every region of the country. Perhaps it simply is the nature of the beast, man…fundamentally greedy, universally lacking in unfractured integrity.

CUBAN RADIO

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, I reminisced as to how I listened to radio in CUBA, and watched baseball broadcasts on TV. Wow! Not a single commercial, not one single minute of trying to sell me something, not one presentation of something which I should consider buying which would improve my life, make me a better man, more sexually appealing, better looking, slimmer, taller and less grey. Just try to imagine watching 9 innings of pretty good baseball without one single ad, not one commercial. I didn’t get up once to go to the fridge, I didn’t go to the pantry for any nuts or chips, didn’t pause to get a beer. Lost 5 lbs too ! Amazing.

cuban baseball

Then, I must apprise you of radio in CUBA. First thing to notice about CUBAN music is that it has a background beat, a syncopation of percussion that permeates the background of every piece of CUBAN music. But this percussive rhythm, usually rat tat tatted on bongos or conga sticks, is magnetic drawing you into the melody, enhancing it with a wash of musical colours, just simply making it sound better, more attractive, more listenable. Now remove all commercial interruptions, and even remove an overabundance of vocals, and you have instrumental jazz that is mesmerizing and captivating. One radio station broadcasting from Havana is particularly good, no not good, outstanding! Radio Enciclopedia (FM 91.2 in CUBA) can be found on streaming radio on the Internet. If you have an APPLE or ANDROID device, download and install Tunein Radio which will give you crystal clear broadcasting of this station.

RADIORadio Enciclopedia plays instrumental jazz almost all day long. In the evening usually broadcasts with a theme for the show, be it art, or literature, history or romance, the announcer will punctuate the beginning or end of a lengthy series of songs with Spanish commentary relating to the topic of that night’s show. The Spanish is music to the ears, nearly as mesmerizing as the musical selections. The melodies broadcast each night are easily recognized by any North American listener for usually they are well known show tunes, movie theme songs or well-known melodies played everywhere on late night radio. Hits from Cabaret, South Pacific, Chicago, and other famous Broadway shows. Then, ABBA, BEATLES, STONES greats to the sounds of Santana and Hendrix and Coltrane. Ever hear of Jane Bunnett, look her up.

BUNNETTA Canadian musician who is the Queen of CUBAN jazz. Bunnett has been going down to CUBA for years and working with the musicians there, developing their skills and supporting their outstanding musicianship. Bunnett takes youngsters and helps them polish their musical skills, sometimes even bringing them back to Canada to showcase their great musical talent. Radio Enciclopedia showcase what CUBAN musician can do with well known music. They embellish it endlessly, make it sound better, add colour to it and make it more listenable.

Every night from 11 till midnight, Radio Enciclopedia broadcast a special hour of music dedicate to a very narrow theme, the romance poetry of some English poet, the literary genius of Dante Alighieri or even Lister Sinclair or Ernest Hemingway. The announcer’s flowing Spanish pronunciation and dialogues were a magnetic siren which proved irresistible. She spoke is such a smooth, gently flowing tone that her speaking became a haunting melody of romantic Spanish conversation.

And no commercial interruptions at all !

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HOLIDAY_HELP: CUBA: daily life controlled by the government

CUBANS are a controlled citizenry, somewhat subtlety but still very really controlled.

I was amazed the first few days I was in CUBA. I never saw an armed soldier anywhere, not even at the airport. I never even saw an unarmed one, for that matter. Nor did I see police until I went to HAVANA and saw them directing traffic, and they were unarmed. This was all very surprising as I believed CUBA today was a garrisoned civilization as a result of Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Thank goodness CUBA doesn’t imitate Mexico in relation to armed soldiers and police. In Mexico, soldiers with AK 47 machine guns are ubiquitous, visible nearly throughout any large city center. Police with rifles or machine guns stand outside banks or ATM machine outlets; armed soldiers ride in military flatbeds along city streets regularly. Pedestrians may easily feel they are in a country under siege and this may be true for Mexico is in a drug war fighting drug lords armed to teeth in astonishingly militaristic fashion.

CUBA has no such signs of a tormented and twisted society though it does have its own methods of controlling its citizens. No armed police, no weaponed soldiers. Nothing like that at all. This was surprising to see. Now the clinker, just because there are no visible signs of government control of its citizens, does not mean CUBA is a free society. It is a controlled society, controlled in more subtle, less militaristic ways.convertible peso

The first major control the government uses is control of currency. Two types of currency exist in CUBA, the peso nacional used by the locals and the convertible peso used by tourists, foreigners, and visitors to the country. Locals are paid in peso nacionals, a very devalued currency, not quite worthless, but compared to the convertible peso, nearly so. Better quality goods are sold in special stores and priced in convertible pesos, nearly equal in value to American dollar pricing. For example, a loaf of bread may cost $4 US, or $4 convertible pesos but in local pesos, it will be priced at something like $100 pesos or even more, making it nearly impossible for the local to buy the product unless they have convertible pesos or a lot of pesos nacional. Locals are paid mostly in pesos nacional, not convertible pesos and the monthly income, even in pesos nacional is abysmal.

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Public works projects seem to abandoned, but the explanation behind this could be the dismally low salaries paid to public workers is not much incentive to working on a regular basis. Why bother when the pay is so low? Perhaps other sources of income are available to the more adventurous and commercially creative thinkers. The black market in currency trade perhaps.

The value comparison of convertible pesos vs. peso nacional is about 24:1. Hence, local currency has very little purchasing power. Locals shop at their own stores where their currency is accepted but the products, though lower priced, are very inferior in quality compared to anything sold at shops dealing in convertible pesos only.

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Tourist used locations such as restaurants, bars, hotels, car rental agencies, better quality shops and such, deal in convertible pesos only. Every government worker is paid in pesos nacional. It is a horrendously confusing and discouraging currency system but the government controls its people with it.

Thanks for visiting. Come visit again.

Richard

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HOLIDAY_HELP: CUBA…five essential tips for a visit there!

Here are 5 essential tips for your visit to CUBA. 2014-04-05_15h13_38

1. Bring mosquito repellent, lots of it.

Staying on a CUBAN beach without layers of mosquito repellent is an invitation to an incessant calamity of itching. Call them sand fleas, call them mosquitos, call them whatever you want, but if you do not spray on insect protection, you will be cursed by an endless series of itches on nearly every patch of exposed skin.

2014-04-05_15h07_59 2. “After Bite” medication

You will get bitten. These insects are relentless in their hunt for fresh meat and you are prime cut if you arent protected. But given that you will get bitten, get some kind of medication to treat the bites, be it “After Bite,” or Polysporin, or Benedryl, you will need it. Bring it along and you will use it. It is inevitable.

3. Sun tan lotion2014-04-05_15h15_39

It would be redundant and superfluous to repeat the necessity of suntan lotion.

4. Small coins2014-04-05_15h18_47

CUBANS are poor and though fewer than expected actually beg, encountering beggars is inevitable, especially in HAVANA. Having small denomination coins means you can help those in need, but be prepared to become a Pied Piper attracting a throng of kids seeking a handout. The coins are also helpful for tipping which is an endless tourist activity throughout all of CUBA.

5. Pack an extra suitcase of clothing to give away.2014-04-05_15h20_06

CUBA is a communist country and sharing is taken for granted by all CUBAN service workers. Hotel and restaurant staff collect tips and share the collection amongst all the service staff, something which is not dissimilar to Canadian restaurant staff pooling their collected tips. However, if you bring clothing which will be given away to hotel staff, these things are personal and cannot be shared. Hence, what you give away, goes directly to the service person and/or their own family. Additionally, bring complimentary toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, conditioner, all for giving away. These  are scarce commodities in CUBA, and much appreciated when they are received as gifts.

Visit back for more CUBA comments…

Thanks for visiting,

Richard

PS And remember, if you have questions or seeking advice relating to travel, I will find the answers for you. Just email your question to me at richardszpin@gmail.com

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