A review of and thoughts on – A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin writes beautifully and the novel reads like a fable. The world of Earthsea and its characters are sketched lightly but with skill. There are moments of commanding emotional resonance and others of delicate imagery. It is a lean but generous story, and I was surprised at it’s impact – although I am not too certain that it will persist and grow as time passes, something that the best novels do.

What I particularly enjoyed were the snippets of insightful quotables:

“Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light?”

This is how wizards should be, enigmatic and wise:

“For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before and after.”

The book follows Ged, the boy Sparrowhawk, as he grows from child to man and into wizard. He owns his great magical ability and learns its limitations.

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower; until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.” 

Le Guin can be heavy-handed with her themes – but that is part of the reason I enjoyed the book so much. The didactic tone serves the story in such a way as to give it strength.

“From that time forth, he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years, he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.” 

A Wizard of Earthsea resonates with me particularly because it emphasises the ultimate valuelessness of material wealth and power, of action without insight.

“A man would know the end he goes to, but he cannot know it if he does not turn, and return to his beginning, and hold that beginning in his being. If he would not be a stick whirled and whelmed in the stream, he must be the stream itself, all of it, from its spring to its sinking in the sea.”

This is fantasy without the pulpy trappings or pretense. Magnificent.

Physician, Heal Thyself – the difficulties of the doctor as patient

The stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes – Jonathan Swift

Medicine is an interesting gig. Surround yourself with the sick, the dying, with those suffering ragged edges of life – the parts of human existence that humanity seems most keen to dissociate itself from. Spend the best years of your life, so they say, with those experiencing their worst. It is interesting that medical doctors belong to one of the few professions outside of the clergy that regularly refer to those not blessed to be counted among the members of their fraternity as ‘laypeople.’ This voluntary distinction between patient and physician fosters an ‘us-versus-them’ attitude, one that requires as a prerequisite the dissociation from the role of the patient to claim that of the doctor. Over there is the patient, we say; over there is illness and disease and death. And you are here – not there. Upon the foundations of such clinical detachment are the atrocities of history built. But this dissociation, the root of so much human suffering begat by humanity for humanity, is a necessary byproduct of a fundamental truth of medicine – that in order to heal, we must sometimes harm.

To survive, to be a doctor – from the very first day we see the gaping chest of the surgically prepared cadaver and on until our deaths – over there is sickness, illness, patients, disease and death. And you – you are here, not there. It is part of the hubris of medicine – it teaches a professional heirarchy over patients and people. As Doctor Robert Klitzman explores in his book, “When Doctors Become Patients,” there is inculcated a belief in Magic White Coats: that if, when ill, the doctor decides to work harder and harder and treat more patients and help more people, they will not get sick, and they will not die.

The longer the good doctor lives the more likely he or she is to become the bad patient. Perhaps it is not possible to be otherwise? To survive, the doctor must protect the inner flame of empathy with a toughened shell – one that is hopefully sufficiently translucent for the patient to at least glimpse (however fleetingly) the caring feeling within. The reason for such a carapace is twofold – the protection of the patient and the protection of the doctor.

Doctors in clinical practice are confronted by some of the most private, primitive and powerful experiences that can be shared with another. Each of these is dramatic or devastating for the patient, but paradoxically commonplace for the doctor. Being crucial and decisive for patients, licensed tools and protocols are correspondingly powerful and dangerous. In consequence, we can only use them legitimately if we are, or at least seem to be, strong, sagacious, impressively knowledgeable and benevolent. Such formidable requirements tend to involve denying or at least controlling to an extreme degree natural feelings and actions that would otherwise emerge. Disgust, fear or overwhelming sadness may be spontaneous, healthy and authentic reactions to situations that are unsavoury, offensive or tragic. The doctor’s armour of detachment and continence is necessary if he is to get on with the job.

Doctors believe they understand the disease process – that they understand what it means to be sick, to be ill, to be in pain and nauseated and vomiting and dying and dead. Spending so much life in hospital, clinic or theatre allows doctors to believe they understand sickness. And they do to an extent – but it is an understanding limited by perspective. The doctor who has never suffered more than a sore throat or a runny nose fools themselves if they believe this allows them to know in what disease consists. To suffer true illness is to see death in shadows.

How is the patient healed? Through knowledge – of medicine, and of the person. In medicine, we seek to know others – the circumstances of their illness and their lives, the state of their minds and their homes, the quality of their stool and the number of times they have defecated – today, in the past week, in their life? The patient will be asked to bear the insertion of digits into orifices more commonly associated with evacuation – finally agreeing to be observed and tapped and palpated and scanned and hmmed and hahed over by the equivalent of complete strangers – all on the basis of a social contract established when the Art of Physick was more akin to shamanism than science. To assist with the diagnostic process, the patient must expose themselves candidly and to a degree far greater than most well-armoured doctors are comfortable with. But there is a reason for all this. We seek to know the patient more intimately than they know themselves, for to know is to possess the power to heal.

A study from 2008 published in the BMJ found that 71% of doctors described themselves as embarrassed when seeing another doctor (1). But where does this embarrassment come from? Medicine is an occupation founded on paternalism – the cultural icon of the doctor and his patients is perhaps not so far removed from the pastor and his flock, temporally or actually, as we might think – however much modern practice strives to alter this. And it is this ingrained paternalism – vividly demonstrated in the traditionalism and entrenched hierarchical structure of many medical environs – that is most effective at instilling the sense of embarrassment, even shame, that accompanies the doctor filling the role as patient. What father wants to take on the role of the son?

It is the role of the doctor to act as caregiver, and it is this role that can come to define the doctor’s life. It is understandable, then, that illness can be perceived as a revocation of the role of caregiver and ‘regression’ to that of the care-receiver – the patient. In it’s more evidence-based format, the aforementioned embarrassment was stated to stem from a general discomfort with the patient role, concern that the treating doctors might think they were overreacting to trivial illness, discomfort at exposing the self to peers personally and emotionally, and feeling like a failure at the inability to cope with physical or mental illness (1).

Although modern medical folklore insists against it, there is perhaps a deeply buried morsel of the medical psyche that believes that the good doctor – the great doctor – can doctor the self as well as the other. Yet it is interesting that each of us is not fully capable of knowing our self. We lack the objectivity. If to know is to be given the tools to heal, then the isolated doctor is in a singularly difficult position. “Physician, heal thyself,” demands Luke from medicine’s spiritually-minded brethren’s seminal text – but it is a thing easier thought than done. Perhaps the best response to the demand: “physician, heal thyself,” is the recognition that we cannot – that the best way to heal the self is to have someone else do it for you. What else are doctors good for anyway?

References:

  1. Kay M, Clavarino A, Doust J. Doctors as patients: a systematic review of doctors’ health access and the barriers they experience. Br J Gen Pract. 2008 July 1; 58(552): 501–508.

A review of and thoughts on Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 persists (long past it’s publication in the 1960s) as something of an internet phenomenon, especially over on reddit. It seems that a sizeable portion of the early-20-something male demographic still love it, particularly if the adoption in some pseudo-esoteric internet-elite circles of the snappy byline ‘Yossarian lives’ is anything to go by.

I am partial to a disjunctive narrative, but Catch-22 is not so frustrating as some other postmodern stuffs. Less onanistic, less impressed with itself maybe (and as a result less virtuosic) but still – impressive in parts, and surprisingly moving in its absurdity. In between the crazy bits there are breathers, scattered poignancies among the psychic and physic remains of the people.

In parts of Africa little boys were still stolen away by adult slave traders and sold for money to men who disembowelled them and ate them. Yossarian marvelled that children could suffer such barbaric sacrifice without evincing the slightest hint of fear or pain. He took it for granted that they did submit so stoically. If not, he reasoned, the custom would certainly have died, for no craving for wealth or immortality could be so great, he felt, as to subsist on the sorrow of children. – pg. 406

At times, I felt the repetition of phrases, flipped in on themselves again and again, was grating; at other times, it was charming and powerful. The novel grows in seriousness as it progresses, before ending unexpectedly and very appropriately. If you can’t win the game, there’s not much point playing.

Major Major and the Chaplain standout as characters (other than big-Y himself) due to their helplessness in the face of the bullying idiocy of the rest of them all.

Of Major^4, I feel all that needs to be said is as follows:

Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one. – of Major Major, pg. 85

The chapter surrounding this quote is delicious in its exploration of the young Major M.’s childhood and adulthood woes. The reasons for his suffering are all a bit stupid at the end of the day – why won’t the soldier’s play basketball with him? why his name, why his rank, why the persecution by C.I.A. stand-ins C.I.D.? Silly, stupid, life.

The chaplain is innocent in a world of horror. No lampooning of faith – too easy a target maybe. He is a tragic, appealing figure, a man trying to keep faith – in his God and in humanity – and ends up doing a decent job of it in spite of personal weaknesses.

He made so many people uneasy. Everyone was always very friendly towards him, and no-one was ever very nice; everyone spoke to him, and no-one ever said anything. – of the chaplain, pg. 269

The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalisation, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he say, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honour, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character. – pg. 363

The chaplain felt most deceitful presiding at funerals, and it would not have astonished him to learn that the appraition in the tree that day was a manifestation of the Almighty’s censure for the blasphemy and pride inherent in his function. To simulate gravity, feign grief and pretend supernatural intelligence of the hereafter in so fearsome and arcane a circumstance as death seemed the most criminal of offenses – pg. 271-72

The last quote above is one that resonated in particular – and is a feeling that  I’m sure anyone who has lived through suffering and loss as the comforter rather than the afflicted knows for the truth.

I was surprised by how complete the characters were – Heller doesn’t plumb Tolstoylian depths, but he does a good job with broad strokes. Cartoonish, but in a way that complemented the insanity of the setting.

Orr was an eccentric midget, a freakish, likeable dwarf with a smutty mind and a thousand valuable skills that would keep him in a low income group all his life. – pg. 312

Yossarian’s introspection and contempt for the war and the flying of planes and the dying resonates – as I think it would – with anyone that has ever felt trapped and a part of THE SYSTEM. There are moments of frustration expressed against those less-squeaky wheels, the cogs that happily spin:

He could not make them understand that he was a crotchety old fogey of twenty-eight, that he belonged to another generation, another era, another world, that having a good time bored him and was not worth the effort, and that they bored him, too. He could not make them shut up; they were worse than women. They had not brains enough to be introverted and repressed. – pg. 347

and frustration, that rage and that impotence combined:

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up. – pg. 409

The man is always keeping you down.

There is a chapter, very near to the end of a book, when Yossarian walks through the streets of Rome, and it feels like life and war and suffering finally touch the character in a real way. The novel up to that point lacks heart (sort of). That chapter and those surrounding it – the horror of Aarfy, the absurdity of Yossarian’s arrest, the children and women and cows in the raining street – give gravitas to the ridulousness that seeps through the rest of the novel. Silly stuff is serious business, sometimes.

The boy had black hair and needed a haircut and shoes and socks. His sickly face was pale and sad. His feet made grisly, soft, sucking sounds in the rain, puddles on the wet pavement as he passed, and Yossarian was moved by such intense pity for his poverty that he wanted to smash his pale, sad, sickly face with his fist and knock him out of existence because he brought to mind all the pale, sad, sickly children in Italy that same night who needed haircuts and needed shoes and socks. – pg. 412

This is something that weaves its way through the whole book – the silliness of it, the meanness of people and the vaingoloriousness of glory. Everything is stupid, shallow, vacuous, and people do people things for silly people reasons.

Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything – pg. 35

And it reaches its culmination (spoiler alert zomg) with the revelation of Snowden’s secret. A secret that has been telegraphed since the beginning and nestled in various safe places throughout the text until finally:

It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all. – pg. 440

I particularly enjoyed the interactions with doctors and nurses throughout the book. The spirit of the writing – if not necessarily the deets – was true to everything that I’ve seen in medicine behind closed doors.

If your appendix goes wrong, we can take it out and have you back on active duty in almost no time at all. But come to us with a liver complaint and you can fool us for weeks. The liver, you see, is a large, ugly mystery to us. If you’ve ever eaten liver you know what I mean. We’re pretty sure today that the liver exists, and we have a fairly good idea of what it does whenever it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Beyond that, we’re really in the dark. After all, what is a liver? My father, for example, died of cancer of the liver and was never sick a day of his life right up till the moment it killed him. Never felt a twinge of pain. In a way, that was too bad, since I hated my father. Lust for my mother, you know. – pg. 176

But it’s not all a scathing indictment of the medical establishment:

Doc Daneeka had lost his head during Milo’s bombardment; instead of running for cover, he had remained out in the open and performed his duty, slithering along the ground through shrapnel, strafing incendiary bombs like a furtive, wily lizard from casualty to casualty… – pg. 259-60

I say that I like the medical bits of the book, but I almost put it down after the first couple of pages due to the following passage, which suggests that Yossarian feels

…a pain in his liver that fell just short of being called jaundice. – pg. 8

The outrage! felt at the suggestion that ‘jaundice’ and ‘pain’ are somehow qualititatively related – that ‘jaundice’ and hepatic ‘pain’ are both the points on the same scale of nociceptor activation. NEIN! Jaundice is yellow(ish) discolouration of the skin, due to the retention of bilirubin (either from excess production, or decreased excretion). Bilirubin (in it’s unconjugated form) is a byproduct of haemoglobin breakdown, and is associated with scleral icterus and pruritis – but NOT PAIN. Never pain. Ugh. I’m as disgusted at my own pedantry as you are.

My favourite passage involving medicine is a series of interviews between Yossarian and Major Anderson, the psychiatrist assigned to Pianosa base.

‘You do understand!’ he exclaimed, wringing his hands together ecstatically. ‘Oh, you can’t imagine how lovely it’s been for me, talking day after day to patients who haven’t the slightest knowledge of psychiatry, trying to cure people who have no real interest in me or my work! It’s given me such a terrible feeling of inadequacy.’ A shadow of anxiety crossed his face. ‘I can’t seem to shake it.’

‘Really?’ asked Yossarian, wondering what else to say. ‘Why do you blame yourself for gaps in the education of others?’ – of Major Anderson, pg. 296

Not all psychiatrists are this bad – but it’s terrifying how close to reality the narcissism displayed by M. A. successfully skirts.

There are stretches of boring writing and ups and downs in this book – but I was surprised at how well it drew me in and maintained my attention. I suppose it doesn’t really need my endorsement anyway, but for what it’s worth, I give it.

Review: A Universal History of Iniquity by Jorge Luis Borges

A Universal History of Iniquity, 1st ed.
A Universal History of Iniquity, 1st ed.

Perhaps I’m too underdone to appreciate this. Started reading it as part of Borge’s ‘Collected Ficciones,’ but could not persevere throughout the entire compilation. As I delved deeper into the collection and Borge’s aged, more and more self was given up to indulgence. Stolen stories then made up and into new things is a good self-description of this collection. I enjoyed it – but less than I expected in light of the mammoth reputation that Borge’s short fiction possesses.

Pirates and bandits, love and adventure and life and death live in these stories. On the surface at least. Peel it back and find yourself bemusedly spending time with a writer not wholly engaged with any of the aforementioned – examining them and dreaming them and, most importantly, writing them, but not bringing you with him to live them. It was an interesting experience to read writing that never forgot it was literature – that never peeled back the curtain and flung the reader directly into the story. Instead of immediacy – that metafictional framework. Reading a writer writing about a writer writing about what he’d read. Fictional historians of sometimes fictional, sometimes factual history – clever and engaging and stimulating.

Review: The Scar by China Mieville

The Scar
The Scar

Although in some ways this novel is better plotted than ‘Perdido Street Station,’ (which is not to say that it doesn’t drag in parts) I will always have a soft place in my heart for Mieville’s Bas Lag debut despite its comparative clunkiness. The Scar didn’t surprise me as much; the setting, whilst creative, didn’t have the same aura of discovery. I felt the same way that I feel after many of Mieville’s other works – that style is dominating substance (just a teensy bit).

Baroque and overwrought, prose vacillating from lumbering to evocative and used effectively to construct sword and sorcery monster of the week encounters (pew pew explosions what a badass type shenanigans) within a truly engaging setting with not so engaging characters. A mixture of pulp niche genres – steampunk, dark urban fantasy, Cthulhu-lite monstery fun – that gives a chunky sort of goodness somewhat lacking in nutrition.

Review: The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

The Lives of Christopher Chant
The Lives of Christopher Chant

A boy with nine lives walks through worlds, gets up to mischief and no good. Loses lives, makes friends and grows up a little. In doing so he becomes the Chrestomanci, guardian-enchanter-magician of the multiverse. Loved it.

A modern day fairy tale in an idyllic magical England. A twist on some common and not-so-common fantasy tropes framing a light-hearted coming of age story with a hint of prepubescent romance.

There are some things that you’re exposed to as a child that you end up carrying around with you for the rest of your life. The books I’ve read as I’ve gotten older do move me – but never in quite the same way.

The first time I read this novel in primary school I was still reeling from early exposure to Harry Potter. Diana Wynne Jones has a lighter touch than Rowling, more whimsical and strange. The sort of book I want to read to my children when I get around to having them.

Review: Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners
Dubliners

Collected stories that speak with soul. Portraits of people, the small happenings in between life lived. More alliteration than I expected, but that’s the sort of thing that I find charming (although a friend from my high-school english days couldn’t bear to read it in my essays. Too cringe-inductive by far).

Traditional inspection and dissection of the lives of the common folk of Dublin. Tight woven stories worthy of the label ‘short,’ capture fleetingly in motion character and situation. Easy to read and without pretension or overwrought construction. Quietly moving. Surprising from the author of ‘Ulysses.’ He doesn’t feel the need to impress anybody with these stories, I would think. Passing time changes things.