Thursday, March 8, 2012

Literary Bite: Cutting for Stone

If you want a really good book to read, look no further. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a rare find in terms of its artful combination of subject, character development, race, setting, and drama. (I've already mentioned how awesome Indian authors always are!) The one-sentence summary:  it’s about a family of Indian surgeons, twin boys born attached at the head, at a convent in Ethiopia who eventually move to America. 

The title itself is a double-entendre. “I will not cut for stone,” runs the text of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”

“Stone” is also the last name of Marion the narrator, his twin brother, Shiva, and their absent father and master-surgeon, Thomas Stone.

Throughout the book there is a lot about the art of surgery – something I know absolutely nothing about. Verghese (the author) is a medical professor at Stanford, and was astonishingly able to translate his passion for surgery into plain enough language for someone like me to appreciate. Parts are a bit overly graphic, but I promise they’re short, push through and you’ll love the book!

I love this reviewer’s characterization of Verghese’s prose:

  • There is no doubt about it; Verghese is a lyricist whose way with words rivals his mastery of the scalpel—though I cannot attest to this as I have never had the opportunity to be operated on by him. Indeed, he is a prose poet whose manipulation of words makes every minutia an event of Biblical and lyrical proportions. It is the sanctity of his syntax, the deliberate and precise choice of words and their order in the sentences in which they appear that sets his novel apart, forcing even the least interested reader to continue turning pages, trancelike and mystified. 

There’s also some great historical context –the twin brothers grow up in the political turmoil of 1970s Ethiopia, until Marion flees to New York and Boston (I always appreciate a literary Boston reference!). In many ways this book is about the difficulty of immigrants and the challenges of fitting into a new culture and community. The Stone brothers, though born in Ethiopia, were "outsiders" due to their Indian heritage. And in America, Marion faces assimilation into an even more complicated mix of culture. 

While Marion tries to follow in the medical school-focused footsteps of their absent father, Shiva instead turns to the needs of their community in Ethiopia. He specializes in fistula operations, learning the skill from their adopted Indian mother. 

The bottom line is, Cutting for Stone is a great book and I definitely recommend it!