Saturday, March 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Finally, with a break available between book club books and lecture books, I was able to indulge in a book that I has been on my shelf since its publication day. I am an over-the-top fan of P.D. James as anyone who knows me can attest. I am also an Anglophile who loves Jane Austen. Put the two together and I am a very happy camper.  Baroness James is also an Austen aficionado who reads and rereads her on an annual basis. In Death Comes to Pemberley the best of both worlds converge.

It is six years after Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have wed. They have two sons and live comfortably on his estate. The novel opens on the evening before the Lady Anne Ball as all at Pemberley are caught up in the preparations. After a simple dinner Darcy and Elizabeth gather in the music room with a few guests to enjoy Georgiana's music. It is a light-hearted evening until Lydia Wickham arrives unannounced and uninvited in a state of panic and utter disarray. She had been traveling with her husband and a Capt. Denny to Pemberley where she intended to crash the ball. On the course of the journey Wickham and Denny disembarked their chaise and wandered into the Woodland where Lydia heard shots fired. Immediately, she demands the driver to speed on to the manor house. Darcy assembles a search party and they are off to the woods where they find a dead captain and a very drunk George Wickham, who utters what could be a confession. And so the stage is set for the novel's plot. James, out of her 20th century element, does not have a Dalgleish to conduct the investigation and so must rely on the the primitive judgments of the local magistrates to shed light on the murder and discover the murderer.  Selwyn Hardcastle, a magistrate, remarks to Dr. Belcher:
“I take it that your clever scientific colleagues have not yet found a way of distinguishing one man’s blood from another?”
What is remarkable about the book is not its mystery, although it is a good one, is the reverence paid to Jane Austen through the words of P.D. James. You can envision the Derbyshire estate this is Pemberley, feel the animosity of Elizabeth and Darcy toward Lydia, understand the loving relationship of the the Darcys as well the culture and custom of the time period. We are given a window through which we can see more of the Darcy family and the growth of each of the characters. Yet the reader is also treated to the words that we have come to expect from the 20th & 21st century James:
"We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs. Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them. It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?” 
In addition, although set a century later, one can see the legacy of Austen in the manners and actions of another manor estate, Downton Abby. I would suggest that any reader who has not read Pride and Prejudice recently, brush up on the characters and action of that novel. Characters, innuendos and references will elude the reader that has forgotten the relationships of Austen's works. There have been some lukewarm reviews of the book, but I disagree. It is not Austen and it is not James, but it is a wonderful amalgamation of the two. Are you ready to tackle Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. James?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

In this sweeping novel that takes the reader from India to Aden, to Ethiopia, to New York, Boston and back to Ethiopia, Abraham Vergehese fills the pages with love, politics, medical procedures, and relationships. At some times it is tedious and overwhelms, at others, it leaves us wanting more.

Sister Mary Jane Praise, a Carmelite nun, leaves India and on a very rough voyage to Aden, loses a friend and nurses Dr. Thomas Stone through a typhoid epidemic on the ship. One senses the romantic tension between the two and knows that at some point their love will be consummated. They both end their journey at Missing Missionary Hospital outside Addis Ababa. It is there that the story continues with Sister Mary Jane giving birth to conjoined twins, Marion and Shiva, after a pregnancy that had been hidden from all under the folds of her habit. It was a difficult birth that ended in her death. With no parents to raise the boys, Dr. Hemlatha, "Hema" and obstetrician, and Dr. Abhi Ghosh, assume the roles. The boys grow up in the culture of the hospital and the ever-changing political unrest in Ethiopia. They are nurtured by the love of Hema and Ghosh and an entourage of servants. The novel is replete with childhood memories, graphic medical procedures, the blossoming of love and the violence of a revolution.

Both Marion and Shiva enter the medical field with diverse political and philosophical principles guiding their lives. It is, however, love of a woman, Genet, the daughter Dr. Stone's housekeeper, that creates a chasm between them. In another consequence of his association with her, it is one that forces Marion to move to the United States to further his medical practice. He lands in an inner city hospital in the Bronx it is there he begins his real contribution to medicine. In a twist, the past catches up to him and he is confronted by two people who will change his world.

The novel is full of very quotable lines that show the craft of Verghese. His love is medicine, but he is adept at the written word also. Verghese did leave his practice of medicine at one point to study at the Iowa's Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The book's title is taken from the Hippocratic oath:
I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
“The eleventh commandment... never operate on a patient on the last day of their life.”
Marion attends a lecture in Boston and as a result of reading Dr. Thomas Stone's book, is able to answer the question:
 “What treatment is offered by ear in an emergency?”  "Words of comfort. "he answers. 
This statement is at the heart of the book and Verghese's practice of medicine. Throughout the novel his words reverberate with the need for more art and less business in today's health care. 

Dr. Verghese signing a copy of Cuttng for Stone, 19 March 2012
Cutting for Stone  is not an easy book to read, but in the end and upon reflection, it is a completely satisfying one. I finished the book about two weeks ago and have thought about it for  periods of time since then trying to make up my mind if I really liked it or not. There were some situations that I thought were quite contrived and I struggled at times with the change of voice. However, after hearing Dr. Verghese speak, I recognize more fully his purpose in writing the book and can appreciate the message that he was delivering. It WAS a good read.