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This collection of 16 short stories focuses on doctors and patients in San Francisco, where a wide variety of wealth and culture impact the delivery of medical care. Further, there are many restrictions—financial, bureaucratic, ethical, and legal —that limit what doctors can do, especially in cases of patients near death.
The author, Louise Aronson, is a geriatrician who knows this terrain very well, having trained in San Francisco and worked as a physician there. A skilled writer and close observer, she has created dramatic and often funny stories that reveal social and bioethical complexity. About half the stories describe end-of-life issues for the aged and the dilemmas for their physicians and families.
In ‘The Promise,” Dr. Westphall orders comfort care only for an elderly patient who has suffered a massive stroke, but a hospital gives full treatment because there was no advance directive and the daughter told the attending to do “what he thought best.”
When Dr. Westphall sees this barely functioning patient in a skilled nursing facility seven months later, he tenderly washes her face and hair—although the text teases us that he might have been prepared to kill her.
In “Giving Good Death,” a doctor is in jail charged with murder; he has fulfilled the request of Consuela, a Parkinson’s patient, to help her die. When it appears that she may have died for other reasons, he is released, his life “ruined.” He leaves San Francisco, and, we surmise, medicine. In three other stories, doctors also leave the profession: the cumulative stresses of work and family and/or a sense that it’s not the right path bring them to that choice.
On the other hand, one of the longer pieces “Becoming a Doctor” celebrates the profession, despite all the rigors of training including sexism against women.
The stories bring multicultural insights; we read of people from China, Cambodia, Latin America, India, Russia, and the Philippines. Some are African-American; some Jewish, some gay. These different backgrounds color notions of health, death, and medical care. There are also pervasive issues of poverty and, at another extreme, professionalism that is hyper-rational and heartless.
Indeed, a recurring theme is care and love for people, no matter their background or current health status. A surgeon realizes (regrettably too late) that the secret of medical care is “caring for the patient—for anyone—just a little. Enough, but not too much” (p. 135).
Summary:The first person narrator of this debut novel is a young pathologist, a woman who relates the story of her family over the course of the book. The story is bleak: a young German woman marries an Austrian soldier in WWII, moves to Austria with him and has three children - two sons (one of whom dies as a youth following abdominal surgery) and the narrator-daughter. In a running commentary, almost hallucinatory at times, the narrator offers brief descriptions of a traditional preliminary internship year during which she acts as a pathologist, cares for in-patients, and even makes a futile ambulance call to a fatally injured man in a freight yard. Yet, virtually the entire novel revolves around her family:her father (whose tuberculosis is briefly described), a factory worker with dreams of inventing an electronic security relay (never realized); intermittent holidays of evanescent family happiness; and a long threnody about her father's eventual death at the end of the book from a hopeless and domestically abusive alcoholism. Her detailed description of his death traumatizes everyone around her and leads to a rupture in the family.
One of two sons of a broken U.S.-Dutch family, Kiddo chooses to live off the Dutch welfare system spending his state alms on drugs. Although he realizes it is but the bleakest of efforts not to come to grips with a difficult relationship with his older brother, Morton, Kiddo perseveres, forming an uneasy alliance with Pietje, a woman who also knows Morton.
The novel is told by Kiddo with contributions to the multi-faceted story in the form of letters from Morton, who gives up a brilliant future as a genius in physics to travel around the world, and diary entries by Pietje, who has some unpleasant truths to tell about Kiddo's world. Morton, known as Mort, writes Kiddo that he has cancer and not long to live, returning home to die. Honoring the dying request of his brother, Kiddo attends Mort's autopsy (yes, the play on Morte/Mort proves irresistible to Morley, or is it Mor(te)ley), a fairly gruesome scene. This proves not to be the death of Mort/Morte/Death for Kiddo and he requires help from Pietje and more introspection before Kiddo can lay his brother's bones to rest.
The Matisse art work which forms the center for this story is the painting, "Le Silence Habité des Maisons," which shows a parent and child with featureless faces sitting at a table while looking together at a book. This painting is described as the reader is introduced to a family of artists and their unusual housekeeper, Mrs. Brown.
The mother is the design editor of a magazine, A Woman’s Place, and the father is a rigid, relatively unsuccessful painter. There are two children in the family. Mrs. Brown provides the cement to keep the family together and learns from them ways to develop her own unusual kind of art. Interpersonal relationships are fragile and personal needs are great. There is a surprise ending.
This is the story of the experiences of a middle aged university teacher when visiting her regular beauty salon. A copy of Matisse’s painting, "Rosy Nude" is part of the decor of the salon and is actually what attracts her to the salon in the first place. The main character’s self image and her desire to maintain a natural appearing hairstyle are central to the story.
Her relationship with the owner, who is her personal hair dresser, is also central and the body images of him and others who work in the shop or are customers add interest and color to the story. The conclusion is theatrical and unexpected and points out the many differences in the way we view ourselves and the way in which we are viewed by others.
This is a story of the interactions of an art student and her assigned mentor, with whom she is at odds, and the interactions of the mentor with a university professor who has been given the task of arbitration between the student and the mentor. The problem for the student and the mentor is that they have totally divergent views of Matisse as a painter of women's bodies.
The mentor sees these paintings as beautiful but they are abhorrent to the student, who has developed an eating disorder as part of her rebellion against the emphasis on female pulchritude. The painting "La Porte Noire" is used to describe the mentor's great admiration for Matisse's amazing use of color.
The university professor brings to the encounter with the mentor her astute understanding of the problem, but also some of her personal issues; this interaction includes a subtle description of the many possible reasons for suicide attempts. The story skillfully describes academic conflict, unhealthy human behaviors, and the importance of skillful arbitration.
Fat Louise, with an eating disorder since she was nine, would diet in public and sneak candy and peanut butter sandwiches in private. Her parents pitied her and were embarrassed by her. Her college roommate caught her at the secret eating and offered to help her get control of her eating. The diet and exercise ritual, combined with smoking, brought her weight down 60 pounds and made her beautiful and eligible to be married. Her parents were proud. She got married. But often she felt "no one knew her"--that she really wasn't this slim 120 pound beauty.
Then during her pregnancy she lost the discipline and ate compulsively and secretly. After the baby was born she continued to eat--her husband disapproved and didn't want to touch her, her mother scolded. The marriage, based on appearances, started to fall apart; she looked forward to being alone with her child and able to eat anything she wanted without other people judging her.
Summary:Eric Calhoune is known to his classmates as "Moby" because of the extra weight he has carried since grade school. Though his mother is young and athletic, he has inherited the body type of the father he's never known. Now, in high school, the fat is turning to muscle under the discipline of hard swim team workouts. But that transformation has been slow in coming, since for some time Eric has taken on a private commitment to "stay fat for Sarah Byrnes." Sarah, whose name is a painful pun, was severely burned as a small child not, as we are given to believe early on, because of an accident, but because of a cruel and crazy father who stuck her face and hands into a woodstove in a moment of rage. She has lived with him and his threats for some time; that and her disfiguring scars have made her tough, smart, and self-protective. Eric and she became friends as social outcasts. Well-matched intellectually and in their subversive wit, they write an underground newspaper together. Sarah, however, lands suddenly in the hospital, speaking to no one, making eye contact with no one. Eric faithfully visits her and, per nurses' instructions, keeps up a running one-sided conversation as if she could hear him. As it turns out, she can. She is faking catatonia because the hospital is a safe place, and she has chosen this as an escape route from her father. Eric and a sympathetic coach/teacher go to great lengths to find Sarah's mother-who, it turns out, can't bring herself to be involved in her daughter's life because of her own overwhelming shame. Ultimately the father is apprehended, and Sarah, nearly eighteen, is taken into the coach's home and adopted for what remains of the childhood she bypassed long before. In the course of this main plot, other kids enter the story and in various ways come to terms with serious issues in their own lives, some of which are aired in a "Contemporary American Thought" course where no controversy is taboo.
Summary:Tora lived happily on a mountain farm in Norway until her beloved mother's death and her own subsequent diagnosis with leprosy, an illness common in early 19th-century Norway and one that drove her mother to suicide. Upon diagnosis (at the age of 13) she is taken to the leprosarium in Bergen, from which very few emerge. Most are left there by families whose fear of the disease leads them to abandon even much-loved children, parents, and spouses. There, despite the misery of living among many who consider themselves the living dead, she finds a friend in Marthe, the chief cook and general caregiver, a woman of almost boundless kindness; and the "Benefactor," a pastor who is remarkably unafraid of the disease from which most flee, and who befriends Tora as she grows into an unpromising early adulthood. Another unlikely friend is a noblewoman who has languished, embittered, behind a closed door with a trunk full of her old gowns and several cherished books, including the Bible, The Divine Comedy, Gulliver's Travels, and a popular Norwegian epic about the adventures of Niels Klim at the center of the earth. She gradually softens toward Tora, who cares for her tenderly as the older woman teaches her to read. Reading becomes not only Tora's consolation, but that of many of her fellow inmates. Near the end of her own short, but surprisingly rich life, Tora's father shows up after years of neglect. Forgiving him, almost against her will, she reaches a new level of acceptance of her own mysterious fate. The book includes a short afterword about the actual leprosarium in which the story is situated and about Gerhard Armauer Hansen who in 1873 discovered the bacillus responsible for leprosy, the first bacterium proved to be the cause of a chronic human disease.
Summary:It started with a faint. Javier Miranda, a generally healthy 69-year-old man living in Venezuela, attributes his episode of dizziness to the summer heat and humidity. His only child, Andres Miranda, is a physician whose intuition tells him something is seriously wrong with his father. The doctor obtains blood work and schedules a CT scan and MRI of the brain for Javier. The medical work-up reveals rapidly progressing lung cancer with metastases to the brain. Violating his credo of complete honesty with patients, Dr. Miranda lies to his father and reassures him instead. Dr. Miranda's mother died when he was just 10 years old. Now his father's remaining lifespan has dwindled to a couple of months. The doctor must find a way to break the bad news to his dad.