Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 2016 "Quick Lit"

As I do on the 15th of most months, I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy's "Quick Lit" linkup, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

All Out by Kevin Newman & Alex Newman (memoir). 
This excellent memoir explores the relationship between a father and son. Kevin Newman's demanding career as a journalist and broadcaster in Canada and the United States not only exhausted him and caused him to doubt who he really was -- but also created distance between himself and his son Alex, who was struggling with his own identity and his sense that he was not the son his father wanted him to be. Alex's coming out as gay was a catalyst to bring the two closer together and allow them to start really knowing and understanding each other. I loved the honesty and authenticity of this book; its unique structure, with the two authors' voices alternating from chapter to chapter, allows us to see many of the same events from both father's and son's perspective, adding to the emotional impact.

This is Not My Life by Diane Schoemperlen (memoir). 
Schoemperlen, a well-known Kingston novelist, was volunteering at a soup kitchen when she met and became romantically involved with another volunteer, Shane, a parolee who had been convicted of murder. In this book, which chronicles their tumultuous six-year relationship, Schoemperlen explores why she fell in love with Shane, why she stayed in the relationship as long as she did, and the truths she had to face about herself in order to move on with her life. Schoemperlen's beautiful, honest writing makes you want to keep reading, even as you sense that the relationship can't possibly have a happy ending. The book also takes a sobering look at the effects of the Canadian prison system on inmates and their loved ones.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (memoir). 
Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon with a brilliant future when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 36. In this small but powerful book he discusses the questions about calling and purpose that led to his becoming a doctor; the decisions he and his wife had to make after receiving his diagnosis (could and would he continue to work? would they have a baby?); and the process of facing death while embracing life. His wife Lucy, also a doctor, provides a moving epilogue describing her husband's death and the legacy he left to their family and others. A beautiful exploration of life, death, and meaning.

Positively Powerless: How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity by L.L. Martin (nonfiction).  
The "forgotten movement" in question is the positive thinking movement, whose history Martin sketches in the first section of the book -- but as she shows, the ramifications of this philosophy are still present. She explores how the foundation of this movement -- a focus on self-affirmation and optimism -- is largely at odds with Christianity and can be dangerous because it fosters pride, de-emphasizes human brokenness, and wrongly encourages people to expect perfection in this life. I particularly liked her final chapter on facilitating safe, transparent community, as well as her "Appendix of Practical Ideas and Resources for Cultivating Humility and Staying Focused on Christ"; these help show that her purpose is not just to criticize a movement but to encourage readers toward a healthier view of self and God. Martin, whose blog I often read, is a thoughtful, clear, balanced writer.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (fiction). 
My book club did this novel for our latest meeting; this was my first time delving into the popular young-adult trilogy. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. The concept -- highly controlled dystopian world in which two children from each of twelve Districts are forced to compete in a violent death game in which only one can be left standing -- is original and interesting. The narrator, 17-year-old Katniss, is an intriguing character: tough, brave, and reluctant to trust. I found the writing a bit cliched -- "My whole body's shaking like a leaf" [of course it is!] -- but the book raises thought-provoking questions about heroism, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and power; and it kept me turning the pages.

What about you: have you read any of these? What have you been reading this past month?


Friday, June 10, 2016

The power of the putdown

Last week Allison and I went to Toronto for a day so she could see a specialist about the jaw problems she's had these past couple of years. The appointment went well: the doctor suggested a wait-and-see approach, and booked us for a follow-up appointment with the oral surgeon at the same clinic eight months from now.

Allison saw a resident first; he was very pleasant and took her medical history and did a brief exam. He was being shadowed by a first-year dental student, who basically just stood in the corner and watched. Then they went off to consult with the senior dentist, whom we were booked to see. 

While we waited, I watched the activity in the hallway. It was a busy clinic. Another senior dentist was working across the hall. I could tell he was one of the head guys because he said (loudly) to his patient, "I guess it's OK if we use this room; my name is on the door." His patient, whose first language wasn't English, was inquiring about the fit of her dental plate, and he was contradicting her opinions in a way that seemed brusque and dismissive.

The resident and student soon came back with the doctor we were seeing. He was older than the doctor across the hall and was very nice and friendly. Allison clearly warmed to him, saying more to him in two minutes than she'd said to the resident in twenty.

Then the guy from across the hall stuck his head in and asked if he could "borrow" the resident for a few minutes. The dental student moved toward the door to go too, and the doctor laughed loudly and said, "No thanks, I don't need your incompetence!" Still laughing, he said with even more sarcasm, "Right, this is a problem that can only be solved by a first-year dental student!

The student laughed, too, but his face turned red and he was obviously embarrassed. Of course he hadn't been offering to come to provide expertise; most likely he just thought he should follow along and learn. He probably wasn't sure exactly what was expected of him and was all too aware of his lack of knowledge. And it wasn't like he'd made some rookie mistake or technical gaffe that earned him a scolding.

There's a saying attributed to Plato: "The measure of a man is what he does with power."  My exposure to this doctor was limited, I know; but if how he treated the student was a representative sample of what he does with power, then I don't think he measures up. He had a high status in the clinic, yet he felt the need to make fun of someone who was already at the bottom of the hierarchy, and for no real reason. It was a little unnerving, actually, that this was such an instantaneous response, and that he seemed to get so much enjoyment from it. 

It's nice to have prestige and skill in our field, but without a bit of consideration for those who don't (yet) have those things, they can be pretty hollow. I hope the student benefits from the experience, though -- that when he's an acclaimed doctor he'll treat awkward newbies with respect rather than unnecessary putdowns.