It has been said many times that The Great Apes never fail to eat, drink, and discuss well. This was proven once again on Saturday, December 11 when a shrewdness of nine Apes (Doc, Mike, Clark, Hal, Glenn, Tim, Phil, John, and Jeff in from IL for the weekend) gathered in the festive setting of first John’s kitchen for Phil’s appetizers and O’Dell’s growlers and then moved into the dining room for two hearty soups and breads.
Thanks Hal for contributing your following thoughts, insights, and remembrances to the blogspot.
I can’t remember if this was the initial discussion starting point, but early on (maybe still in the kitchen) someone wondered what the story would have looked like had Shiva been the narrator. I guess it would have been very short and bulleted with talking points. To be fair, Shiva was more enigmatic than that. His response to the drowning of the puppies revealed his capacity for empathy – he responded with something like, “if I were sick would you kill me too?”
Doc (and maybe others) thought he might be afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome, but I can't see that Asperger's fits him either. His behavior is neither repetitive, nor, as just noted, does he lack empathy. Here is a possibility we did not talk about: It might well be that Shiva simply characterizes his namesake, the Hindu god, the destroyer and transformer, or he is the “head” complement to Marion’s “heart.” As such, we might view him more as a vehicle rather than a character. It is interesting to note the other Hindu influences in the book. For example, Ghosh forgives Thomas, but leaves it to fate to determine, when or even if Stone will see Sister MJP's letter. Oh well!
Jeff wondered if Thomas Stone deserved the “worst person of the year award.” Was he possibly the worst of any character in any book read thus far? Perhaps, but my take is that he lived an admirable life given the deck he was dealt. Marion/Shiva's lives were enriched by his absence. So, although leaving may have initially seemed cowardly, his departure worked to everyone's benefit including (especially?) Hema and Ghosh's. I admired Thomas' courage. So paralyzed by fear, he vomited before each surgery. “Screwing his courage to the sticking place!!!” ala Lady MacBeth. In short, I see Thomas as tortured by his mistakes, but who went on to fix what was broken. Unlike some surgeons who may be driven more by ego than a sense of service, Thomas appeared to me to be selfless.
The story's main theme is fixing what is broken, be it bodies, psyches, … . After reading the piece in the New York Times about Verghese's appointment at Stanford, I came to understand that the book is semi-autobiographical. At Stanford, he takes time to write in a tiny windowless room (the autoclave?). He grew up in Ethiopia, had Indian parents, etc. He developed the Stanford 25, a list of techniques every doctor should know. Akin to Stone's The Expedient Operator: A Short Practice of Tropical Surgery?
We agreed that Verghese is a marvelous story teller, and in contrast to Franzen's Freedom, his characters are both real and likable. Doc and Jeff thought that some of the plot elements, especially the ending, were contrived. But, since such contrivances served to move the story along, most Apes overlooked them. The book crammed a lot into its 600 plus pages – history, human interest, medicine, and the plight of the poor (here and Ethiopia). Some thought that it could have been edited down to 300 pages. Although true for the plot, such editing would have stripped the book of its imagery and depth. The editing idea was voted down. It was noted that his attention to detail served him well, both in the practice of medicine and in his writing. His images are well crafted. His descriptions of the desert in bloom, Missing's Operating Theater 3 were clear and compelling.
All told, the book might have cracked the Ape's top ten. Unfortunately, after a beer or two, we were hard pressed to remember what other titles were!