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The wealthy financier, John William Stone, is found dead beneath the window of his home, having fallen, jumped, or been pushed. The will charges his widow, Elizabeth Lady Ravenscliff, with finding Stone’s lost child. She had known nothing about this episode in his life, but she is determined to honour his wish.
The story centers on a financial mystery told in three parts that move further back in time: London 1909, Paris 1890, and Venice 1867. Each story gives a different version of Elizabeth – none refutes any of the others.
In the first part, Elizabeth is cool, superior and in charge, but her grief is genuine. She hires Matthew Braddock to look for the missing child, suggesting that he pose as a hired biographer. The writer is smitten with Elizabeth and concludes that there was no lost child.
The second part is narrated by a spy, Henry Cort. In this version, Elizabeth began as a waif who became a high-class prostitute, involved in affairs of state. Addicted to drugs, she was dangerous and selfish, but Cort never realizes that she is his sister.
The last (but earliest) part is told by Stone himself about an affair he once had in Venice and its sorry end. The last few pages draw the disparate threads together and account cleverly for all the mysteries.
Two novellas are brought together. In the first, “Storm in June,” a host of people flee Paris in June 1941- -as the Germans occupied the city. They gather their money and most precious belongings and leave their homes, reasoning that there will be more safety in the countryside. But everyone has the same idea. The crush results in shortages of fuel, food and accommodation that radiate in ever widening ripples around the city. Many are duped by employers or by lovers. Some are robbed and even murdered by unscrupulous fellow citizens, and new conventions of behavior and bureaucracy are forged in the stress of the situation. The fortunes of several different individuals are interwoven in short chapters to explore a wide variety of adventures--tragic, miraculous, and poignantly banal. Among the most memorable is the little saga of the Michaud’s – a couple driven out of Paris, then back – all the while anxious for news of their son at the front.
The second novella, “Dolce,” is the story of the unhappily married Lucile whose husband has gone to the front. She must bide time in the home of her austere mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, who treats her with frank hostility. They are forced to billet a German officer. Lucile soon finds that she and the German share many interests in art and music; gradually the two fall in love, although they act upon their sentiments in conversation only. The full extent of their involvement must be concealed, but the community is aware and Lucile understands the potential consequences of “sleeping with the enemy.” Her mother-in-law hates her all the more for growing close to the occupier; yet their neighbours shamelessly prevail upon her connections to obtain minor favors.
When a local Frenchman kills a German soldier for allegedly courting his wife, the uneasy calm is destabilized. Almost by default, Lucile agrees to hide the fugitive murderer in her attic in bold proximity to her German tenant. The brave act is discovered by her mother-in-law who then (wrongly) perceives Lucile’s friendship with the German as a clever plot; her hatred turns to grudging admiration. Using her influence and a lie to obtain a pass from her unsuspecting German friend, Lucile escorts the ungrateful murderer to safety in Paris. The deception drives a wedge into her new relationship. They part never to meet again as his company is transferred to another place.
In 1543—the time of Henry VIII-Matthew Shardlake a hunchback lawyer, and his Jewish assistant, Barak, strive to solve a string of murders that, they quickly realize, are based on the seven vials in the Book of Revelation (chapter 16). They can almost predict when the next death will happen.
Barak is having trouble with his wife owing to a recent stillbirth that has deeply affected them both and driven them apart. Shardlake’s friend, Guy Malton, a Spanish-moorish physician acts as a medical consultant to their investigation. They encounter a boy and a woman both confined in Bethelham Hospital, the asylum known as Bedlam. A diagnostic dilemma arises over a problem of religious melancholy versus demonic possession.
Zol Szabo, is public health doctor for the Hamilton Ontario region. He is also a single parent to nine year-old, Max, because his wife could not deal with Max’s mild physical disability. He is dating Colleen an attractive woman detective whom he met in the previous novel. The story opens with Zol’s angst over his son’s expensive misuse of a cell phone that he’d been given for safety reasons.
Soon he and his team are investigating cases of diarrhea in a seniors’ residence. The diagnosis is difficult—but the doctors are confident they know what it is; however, the recommended treatments prove ineffective. Gradually they begin to suspect that the drugs are not working because they might be fake. Even worse, they notice that the people infected are all taking the same arthritis medicine—could that drug be the source of the infection?
In the background an unbending hospital administration and a hostile boss make the situation even worse.
A team of elderly friends who reside in the senior’s home collaborate to help solve the mystery. And of course the son’s cell phone is crucial to the dramatic conclusion.
In this tale, told by an aging Silvio, Jean the miller dies mysteriously in the river at his mill leaving his young wife, Colette, and a little boy. Was it suicide or murder – and why? Colette is the daughter of Helene Coudray, a woman Silvio once loved and still admires deeply, although she married François. They remain good friends.
Silvio is also friendly with Brigitte. She is known to all as the adopted daughter of Helene’s late unmarried sister, Cecile. Brigitte married a much older landowner who dies, leaving her well off, and free to marry handsome young Marc Ohnet. But news of the engagement devastates Colette. Suddenly it is clear that her child was Marc’s– and that it was Marc who killed Jean, possibly by accident. Colette’s angry father wants to press charges against Marc for killing his son-in-law. But Brigitte reveals that she is the biological daughter of Helene and Silvio; Marc is to become another son-in-law.
The apparently worthy Helene has deceived both her husband and her old lover, Silvio, by concealing Brigitte’s existence and identity. She also abused the goodwill of her sister who cared for her child.
During World War II, a man is found beaten and unconscious in the streets of Trieste and brought to a German hospital ship. The Finnish-born doctor serving the German naval forces recognizes the name on his uniform as that of a vessal originating in Helsinki, the “Sampo Karjalainen." When the man wakes up, he has total amnesia; his memory loss has extended to language. In a crazy gesture of compassion, the doctor arranges for the man to be conveyed across war-torn Europe and home to Helsinki to be tended by a specialist. The doctor hopes that exposure to his homeland, its culture, and especially its language, will help the recovery of the man now called Sampo. They never see each other again.
Isolated and confused, Sampo, is given a bed in an empty visitors' ward of the hospital. The much awaited specialist never appears and Sampo never understands why. His closest friend is a tippling priest who teaches him Finnish through a reading of the Kalevala legends, libated with shots of Kosenkorva. He befriends some Russians who are housed briefly in his ward and he contemplates the hostilities between the nations. He wanders the city of Helsinki looking for triggers that may hand him back his identity – his past, a narrative. One of the nurses takes an interest in his case, shows him a special memory tree in a Helsinki park – and accepts his rejection of her affection with good grace. She is transferred to another place, but writes to him. He is unable to respond. She is angry.
In desperation Sampo joins the Finnish army and leaves for the eastern front. An epilogue tracks his demise and the doctor’s later discovery of his massive error.
Summary:Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled the overlap of two catastrophes: the critical illness of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo and the sudden death of her husband of forty years, John Dunne. Between the writing of that memoir and its publication in 2005, Quintana died at age 39. She had suffered a 20 month illness which started as a flu, advanced to pneumonia and sepsis, with intracranial hemorrhage and other complications necessitating 5 surgeries and extended intensive care unit stays. Blue Nights is a meditation on Quintana, and her mother's consuming sense of loss over the tragedy of her only child.
This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.
Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.
Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease. Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.
The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.
Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.
Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible. Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.
Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.
The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin.
Summary:Candice Millard portrays several figures in the 19th century whose lives came together to change history: newly-elected President of the U.S. James Garfield; the insane would-be assassin Charles Guiteau; Doctor Bliss, the arrogant physician who claimed control of Garfield's care; Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a device to find the bullet; and major political figures of the time. Ironically, Garfield attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 where Joseph Lister was displaying his germ theory of infection and Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone. But when Guiteau shot Garfield in 1881, the bullets did not kill him. What killed him after months of suffering was the massive infections caused by the doctors' probing without clean hands or clean instruments. At the autopsy, the doctors saw evidence of massive infections, but the bullet was encysted and harmless. All the probing by the doctors created a tunnel, but it was not the path of the bullet. "Gentlemen, we have made a mistake," said the doctor.