Sunday, January 7, 2024

New Year, New List

Finally, FINALLY … the first real snowfall of winter is blanketing the northeast and I don’t know about where you live but here in Maine we are collectively 1. Pulling out the nordic skis for the first real run of the season and 2. Settling in with some good books. I’m unabashedly one of those nerds who thinks “Read any good books lately?” is actually a terrific conversation opener, so … here we go. A few of my latest reads/reading/to be read obsessions.

Tracy Kidder (Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Mountains Beyond Mountains”) has done it again with “Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim, O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People.” It’s hard to know where to begin here. First of all, it’s classic Kidder, so well-written and beautifully researched, a compelling, important story. But given our national, growing crisis with homelessness: an urgent story. And at the heart of the story: an amazing man, Dr. Jim O’Connell. 

I first heard of Jim O’Connell when my daughter, who was living in Boston and volunteering at Boston Health Care for the Homeless, the organization which O’Connell helped found, handed me his book called “Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor.” A Harvard-trained physician who turned down a prestigious cancer research fellowship and instead devoted himself to working with Boston’s homeless population, O’Connell has profoundly influenced the way the medical community sees, hears, and treats the chronically unhoused. A clearly brilliant yet strikingly modest man, O’Connell brings to life in “Shadows” patient after patient who has endured/survived/suffered the streets, and helps us understand and better empathize with their plight. Kidder expands on this in “Rough Sleepers,” and introduces us in even greater detail to the marvelous, miraculous team O’Connell has amassed over the years. Needless to say: this one’s a Must Read.

I wouldn’t have picked up Eleanor Catton’s “Birnum Wood” if my book group hadn’t chosen it for this month. And I’m glad they did. And glad I read it. That said, as I was wading through some VERY wordy passages (think: the emperor in the movie Amadeus, telling Mozart his music has “too many notes”) I couldn’t help wondering HOW is she going to resolve all this?? And without giving away anything I’ll tell you: As they deserve. Every one of them. Everyone gets what he/she deserves. And if you’re willing to wade (one wonders why we need to know every single damn thing in Tony’s backpack) you’ll find yourself turning pages very quickly.

Catton won the Booker Prize for her novel “The Luminaries,” so trust that we’re in capable hands in “Birnum Wood.” Which yes, is named for the line in Macbeth, but in this case is the name of a guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops where no one will notice. The group has taken an interest in an abandoned farm, owned by a recently knighted pest control magnate, who is negotiating selling the farm to an American billionaire who claims he wants to build an end-times bunker on the property. Which is a lie. The billionaire is illegally mining rare-earth elements from an adjacent national park. And has to figure out what to do about the Birnum Wood hippies who have stumbled into his path.

“Birnum Wood” contains many moments when the characters are engaged in topical, relevant conversations about the state of our world today, and for that I give Catton a helluva lot of credit. It was an interesting way to bring all that to life. Plus, the plot twists are quite good. That said: this is a long book and life is short, you know? Read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” or Percival Everett’s “Trees” before diving into this.

Have you ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston? Most of my friends LOVE it. Love love love it. I find it stresses me out. It’s … cluttered. So packed with so much. I can’t take it all in and can’t make sense of it. My daughter, who is more artistically bent than I, and actually studied art collection curation in college, visited the museum and concluded that Gardner was “an art hoarder.”

So, it’s been quite illuminating for me to read Emily Franklin’s new book, “The Lioness of Boston,” which is a historical fiction retelling of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s life. I’m reading the novel alongside “Mrs. Jack,” which is her official biography, written by Louise Hall Tharp and for sale in the museum gift shop, as well as “Sargent’s Women,” which profiles four women (including Gardner) who were painted by the famous portraitist John Singer Sargent. 

And while I STILL think the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum is a mess of a collection, I now so deeply appreciate WHY she left it as she did, who she was, and what she overcame. She was a smart, spunky, resilient woman who lived in an era of incredible repression for women, and in spite of her wealth and privilege had much to overcome personally. Fans of the museum — and the inimitable Mrs. Jack — will deeply appreciate this book. Non-fans will learn much.

Finally, in my to-be-read stack is “The Corpse Bloom, a new novel by Maine author, Bryan Wiggins.Written in consultation with neurosurgeon Dr. Lee Thibodeau, this book has been described by Kirkus Reviews as “a taut, nuanced medical thriller.”

Basic plot: a kidney transplant by a preeminent Boston doctor goes bad. Doc takes a leave of absence and accepts a job at a remote transplant clinic in Mexico. After a few months transplanting kidneys from unknown origins into wealthy patients, the Doc realizes his employer isn’t who he thought he was … and his only way out and back home is muy risky.

My first medical thriller was “Coma” (published in 1977!) and I’ve loved the genre ever since, so I’m super excited about Bryan’s new book. It’s next up for me after “Lioness.”

Okay 2024, we’re off! What are you reading? 

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