Does Everything That Can Go Wrong Go Wrong?

I promised you an end to negativity. That was last week: Ms. Positivity Week. After the results of my blood work, I was ready to become a co-op vegan junkie who hails home-baked beet chips as the new chocolate cookie. At my local (cartoon) food co-op, I would do gentle dumpster-diving for soy yogurt past its expiration date. Then I would join the silent, socially-distanced, socially-conscious vigil in front of the Capitol. Signs scream, “End Homelessness!” “Green Energy Now!” “Black Lives Matter!” “I’m Pro-Choice and I Vote!” How much gentler than the slogans we were raised on. I distinctly remember, “Power to the People! Smash the State!”

This splendid vegan protester phase of my brief anti-negativity fantasy happened while I struggled to reduce what I call “my numbers.” There is nothing wrong with me. Really, there is not. But my blood pressure, which is usually below normal, is now normal–and I want it to go down. Three electronic thermometers at the clinic said that I HAVE NO BODY TEMPERATURE AT ALL. They knew that couldn’t be right, but they gave up. SO WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH? One wonders!

As for numbers, I mistrust the clinic’s apparently inexact new equipment. One has to go to the doctor when one is sick, but this emphasis on blood work can make one overwrought. My philosophy is essentially Carpe diem.

Since I’m on the subject of medicine, let me recommend five stunning novels about doctors (or at least medicine).

Antonia Saw the Oryx First by Maria Thomas. I The book description says: Though American, Dr. Antonia Redmond is African-born and has lived in East Africa for almost her entire life. With the end of colonialism, like all whites, she faces exile. Only the intercession of an influential lover preserves her visa, but should she leave, she will not be allowed to return. As the inevitable reckoning comes and the white population dwindles, she clings to the land to which she feels a deep connection. Antonia Saw the Oryx First is a profound exploration of personal and cultural identity, love and leave-taking.

The Citadel by A. J. Cronin. Book description: The Citadel follows the life of Andrew Manson, a young and idealistic Scottish doctor, as he navigates the challenges of practicing medicine across interwar Wales and England. Based on Cronin’s own experiences as a physician, The Citadel boldly confronts traditional medical ethics, and has been noted as one of the inspirations for the formation of the National Health Service.

Cider House Rules by John Irving. Book description: Raised from birth in the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Maine, Homer Wells has become the protege of Dr. Wilbur Larch, its physician and director. There Dr. Larch cares for the troubled mothers who seek his help, either by delivering and taking in their unwanted babies or by performing illegal abortions. Meticulously trained by Dr. Larch, Homer assists in the former, but draws the line at the latter. Then a young man brings his beautiful fiancee to Dr. Larch for an abortion, and everything about the couple beckons Homer to the wide world outside the orphanage .

Doctors & Nurses by Lucy Ellmann. Ellmann was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Ducks, Newburyport, but her earlier novels are satiric. Book description: Nursing is a noble calling. So what the hell attracted Jen, a gigantic nurse with a habit of killing her patients? Now she’s had the temerity, and misfortune, to fall in love with her boss, a dishy dashing doc known throughout the land for his long limbs, grey eyes, cleft chin, arresting bedside manner and other stereotypical attributes. Jen is ready to trample the ever-growing pile of prostrate patients in order to surrender herself utterly to him, but whenever she gets the chance, he’s winched up into the air by helicopter, to attend yet another medical emergency! It’s a prescription for disaster.

Regeneration by Pat Barker (the first of a trilogy). Book description: Regeneration, one in Pat Barker’s series of novels confronting the psychological effects of World War I, focuses on treatment methods during the war and the story of a decorated English officer sent to a military hospital after publicly declaring he will no longer fight. Yet the novel is much more. Written in sparse prose that is shockingly clear—the descriptions of electronic treatments are particularly harrowing—it combines real-life characters and events with fictional ones in a work that examines the insanity of war like no other. Barker also weaves in issues of class and politics in this compactly powerful book. Other books in the series include The Eye in the Door and the Booker Award winner The Ghost Road.

Let me know your favorite novels about doctors!

8 thoughts on “Does Everything That Can Go Wrong Go Wrong?”

  1. One of the recurring characters in the Regeneration trilogy. W.H.R. Rivers, was a real doctor psychologist and anthropologist. He also appears in books by Siegfried Sassson and Robetr Graves, characters in Barker’s books.

    1. Regeneration is such a great book! Perhaps I’ll meet W.H.R. Rivers in Goodbye to All That, which is on my to-read list.

  2. My favourite novel concerning a doctor is Brian Moore’s Intent to Kill (New York: Dell, 1956). One of his disowned pulps, published the year after The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, it concerns a brain surgeon, his cheating wife, and the leader of a South American country who is in need of lifesaving surgery.

    It’s so much better than I’ve described. Were it not following Moore’s wishes, I’d say it’s a shame that his estate has blocked the novel’s republication.

    1. I loved Brian Moore, though I haven’t seen any of his books in a while. (NYRB might have reissued Judith Hearne, but I think he is neglected here.) it does seem priggish for the estate to deny us access to his work. So what if it’s a pulp? Thank you. I’ll look for this at sales.

  3. Have you watched the documentary Forks over Knives? If so, you might already be familiar with their recipe site; I find a lot of good ideas there and they fit my taste better than many sites (enough flavour, I love garlic and onions and savoury foods). On the matter of doctors in fiction, I’m trying to think of a historical novel by a German author (I think) who wrote about a woman who dressed as a man in order to practice (Pat Duncker, I think?). The only other one coming to mind in this moment, is Middenrammers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ll include the link to the publisher’s page as it’s an indie Cdn press and perhaps not readily available there.

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