I’m not sure I have much of a sense of humor. C’est la vie; we can’t all be great at everything and I already have a pretty nice array of skills. I’ll take “Intuitive Computer Ability,” “Didactic Flexibility,” and “Cookie Baking” for $600 apiece, Alex! You can have your good sense of humor – I know how an ALU works. But I feel I have to mention this little thing about humor because it’s possible I’m just not getting the joke in this particular case.
This is the case of the medical memoirs that make fun of their patients.
I first ran into this in A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard. This is an account of an average man’s descent into the nightly hilarity known as people in severe, traumatic, and life-altering medical crisis. Parts are poignant, but what I remember most about the book is how entertaining Hazzard’s voice was.
And why not? It’s a piece of consumer literature. It’s made to sell, and stories about people desperate for help are just riveting. And, according to Hazzard, sometimes very funny. Like the poor man who misinterpreted a paramedic intervention as an alien abduction. A riot! I admit I was captivated.
And deeply disturbed. Sure, the names were changed, but these were real people who could easily recognize themselves from this account. If nothing else, their anguish and bad memories had become fodder for some random writer they’d encountered in a previous life, someone they didn’t even know. Did he track them down and ask permission? Did he pass on any royalties, or even let them know that they’d be in his book?
I can’t find any evidence that he did.
Hazzard is a way more successful writer than I am. Moreover, he’s not a librarian, and librarians tend to be hyper-aware of patron privacy. That’s not to say that we don’t have some wild patron stories. I myself have a few absolute cookers that I wish to goodness that I could share. But I can’t – those are people, not fodder for my ego and my writing career. Their foibles, fallacies, addictions, heartbreaks, joys, hopes, and loves are not mine for the writing. And I’m not even in medicine!
Now, I’m running into the same issue with
This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident by Adam Kay. I got this as an ALC from Libro.fm earlier this month, but apparently, it’s been out in Britain since 2017. While Kay focuses on lampooning himself – and sometimes dragging other doctors – he also does the obligatory patient-put-something-up-the-butt thing. Because patients! Aren’t they wacky? Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it?
Maybe I’m suffering from a terminal case of not-fun, but I’m past the point where I can stomach these types of memoirs. I had to stop listening to Kay’s book two hours in because I found myself sympathizing more with the misinformed, confused, and guilty patients than with the snarky ex-doctor. While I’m glad he was able to make something good, or at least satisfying, from a job that was apparently stressful to the extreme, I also wouldn’t want this guy treating me – ever. The thought of becoming fodder for a clever punchline about the craaazy doctoring life chills me, and I felt increasingly guilty about my sudden knowledge of his hapless ex-patients. Because what non-medic among us hasn’t gone to the doc for something stupid? God help me, I will use my inhaler every damn day if it means that I don’t have to risk the UrgentCare guy writing a side-splitting account of my annual self-inflicted need for an emergency nebulization.
Moreover, who among us hasn’t been written off by a medical professional because the physician assumed that we were histrionic idiots? These memoirs are about meds being smart and the rest of us being, if not outright dumb, then certainly passive. The arrogance from which many docs suffer is really a symptom of an overclocked healthcare system, the objectification of a real human and their real suffering by the inevitable overworking of qualified medical professionals. It’s sad that good people get worked into the ground like this, but it doesn’t excuse the dismissal of patients as numbers, symptoms, or, worst of all, problems.
I can’t help but see Kay and Hazzard as contributing to the problem from an oblique angle. They’re objectifying people who are already vulnerable to becoming numbers by packaging them as good stories. Anonymization is beside the point – and anyway, I’m not sure how anonymous a story can be if it features a unique medical ailment in a particular location, like Atlanta or Scotland. The point is that these folks are being commodified because they were sick once. The sickness is their defining trait, and even in Hazzard’s book, which claims that “we’ll…learn from [patients]” in the course of his book, it’s hard to see them as anything but a case.
As I write this, I wonder about another medical memoir, Atul Gawande’s
Better : A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, a book that received widespread approbation and glowing reviews when it came out in 2007. I haven’t read it. After beginning – and dumping – Kay’s book, I really feel that I ought to. This is how reading binges start, and I’m scared of where this one will ultimately take me. Here’s hoping that Gawande’s book lives up to its good name and redeems literary doctors in my eyes.
It’s Saturday! That means I recommend a book that I think you’ll like. (Yes, you!)
Today, I’m recommending Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming by Jason Briggs from No Starch Press. And I’m recommending it…for adults!
That’s right! If you (yes, you!) want to learn how to code, Python is a great place to start. It’s versatile, easy to learn (relatively speaking,) and professional coders do use it in actual applications. Kids can absolutely learn to make basic programs using the fun and surprisingly practical projects in this book, but I’m not ashamed to admit that this is where I started my own coding journey…at the age of 30. Remember that Jeopardy! champ who taught himself everything using children’s books? It’s not a bad way to introduce yourself to something new. Personally, I’ve not only learned to love Python thanks to Python for Kids, but found myself well prepared for the infamously difficult Java classes at my college because I’d already learned a similar programming language.
This book is fun, hands-on, and wonderful for all ages. There are some knockoff programming for kids books from other publishing houses, but don’t settle for them. No Starch Press is the best. This book is exactly where to start for kids or adults, and there are follow-up books that will rocket your skills to the upper atmosphere, if not to the moon. I recommend!
It’s turkey time! Around this time of year, when debate turns to the possibility of zombies freezing solid, I like to throw a few dried femurs on the fire and ponder life’s great questions. This year, I’m wondering just how wide zombification has spread in literature. There’s Jane Eyre, of course. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, oh my.
Then there’s an entire army of zombie Christmas books. Twas the Zombie Night Before Christmas: A Zombie Kids Book, a heartwarming tale of how we hung up the stockings and “ate every mouse,” meets It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies!: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols, a collection of undead holiday chestnuts fit for an Addams Family Christmas. Or, you know, a pretty good prank on the neighborhood for a fun-loving group of social anarchists.
Don’t forget the Zombies Christmas Carol, because Marvel Zombies: The Complete Collection Volume 1 wasn’t hilarious enough when it was fresh. (Poor Spider-Man. Truly, we have all eaten someone we loved in one way or another.) A Zombie Christmas: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume One appeals because you should always help others at the holidays even with an apocalypse on.
Then there’s my personal favorite, a sequel of the oddly compelling Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament entitled I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus: A Breathers Christmas Carol. Any zombie fan who hasn’t read Breathers is cheating themselves, by the way. It’s a lovely book about community, sacrifice, and secretly eating your parents to preserve your way of life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll examine your prejudices against the living dead.
But what about the Thanksgiving zombies? Well, there’s another Mike Beem book, A Zombie Thanksgiving: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume Five, as well as Zombie Thanksgiving: A YA Paranormal Story and Gobble: A Thanksgiving Novelette of the Zombie Apocalypse. But that appears to be it.
This is weird, right? Zombies are the ultimate symbols of overconsumption, specifically of a consumption style that’s actively driving life on Earth into the ground. I can see why Christmas would evoke zombie tales aplenty – not only is it a very popular holiday, but the rabid, unremitting waste of the season is basically its own apocalypse. The metaphor’s not much of a stretch, is what I’m saying.
But Thanksgiving is, if anything, more food-focused. Why aren’t zombies more of a thing in November? The parallels are uncanny.
- The month starts slow. A few of the early infected begin to consume pumpkin spice and baked goods in quantity. Smart survivor types begin to stockpile food while it’s still cheap.
- Innocuous news reports about odd eating behaviors abound.
- As the month comes to a head, enormous numbers of people begin to travel. This is not unlike the zombie survivor’s futile flight from the plague, which only follows them because it is already endemic everywhere.
- No matter how prim you may be normally, you rip into a 3,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner like you’ve never seen food before. You’re not consuming to survive, you’re consuming to consume. You are a zombie.
- Holdouts are cranky loners.
- Everyone becomes an eating machine in the end.
The zombie narrative is comforting in many of the same ways that a cozy mystery is comforting. There’s a structure, a plot that follows certain traditions, and usually a posse where characters fill certain roles. To a great extent, it doesn’t matter if the zombies win or the people win. (Although most of my experience suggests that people usually triumph in these stories.) The point isn’t the zombies – they’re the window dressing of our collective Jungian neuroses. The point is that it’s a comfortable pattern. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about, too?
It’s an odd holiday. People complain about it, but love it too. How like my own relationship with the zombie novel. As rote and repetitive as they can be, and as low as I find the literary quality of certain zombie stories, I keep coming back over and over again for that feeling of safety that I get when the first revenant reanimates inside of a zipped-up body bag. Maybe that makes me a bit of a zombie for zombie books. So be it.
Happy holidays, fellow shamblers. For just one day, let’s indulge without guilt. After all, there’s a certain bliss in being part of the horde.
Featured image from GirlZombieAuthors! Give them a look!
I originally came from a small town in central New York. Cows outnumbered people approximately three to one, rural values dominated, and it’s fair to say that I left as soon as I could drive. I went to college in central New York, then grad school, and got my first job there. The place continued to not work for me, and about eight years ago, I moved to Massachusetts.
Weirdly, since I moved here, I’ve encountered several books that make me nostalgic for home. Not that they make me want to move back – I spent 25 years trying and failing to be a good fit for CNY – but because they terrify me. They’re frightening in the same way that I used to associate with some of the small towns I’d drive through on my way to work, and then also frightening in the way that I used to feel when people would tell me, without affectation or agenda, that I’d be back. Because everybody came back. That was just the way New York was.
I cannot describe the dread I’d feel when people would say this to me. It always felt prophetic. Reading home – specifically, reading horror about New York State – feels a lot like daring fate. Or pondering a return. It’s hard to say. I don’t know why the concept of living in a place that scares me is somehow so comforting.
My first experience of reading home was The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories. Little-known fact: Ron Serling may have based the show upon his upbringing in the Syracuse area. You can really see it in this collection, some of which were adapted and some of which weren’t. It’s…uneven in quality. By today’s standards for science fiction, anyway. Part of the problem is that what was fresh when Serling wrote these is now old hat. Maybe I’d be more impressed 40 years ago. But the eerie quality that carries them all is as spine-tingling as anything from Clive Barker, or so it seems to me. That sense that the rest of the world might be a myth or a delusion, that your neighbors could turn on you if the snow lasts a day too long, that you’re the alien is palpable in my childhood home. It’s a weird place and weird stuff happens there. If you’ve ever seen My Brother’s Keeper, then you know of Munnsville. It’s literally just a couple towns over from where I grew up.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mr. Splitfoot took my breath away with its treatment of mystic cults, restless ghosts, and asteroid strikes upstate. I think I was lukewarm about this book when I first read it, but I may need to read it again. I’ve been thinking about it for years. The plot revolves around a pregnant woman whose horrible lover tries to slip abortion drugs into her food, prompting her to follow her long-lost aunt on a pilgrimage to a mysterious house in the woods of the northern foothills. Believe it or not, it gets stranger. I loved it. Part of the action took place in Troy, for goodness sake. I skated in a roller derby bout there once.
Did Mr. Splitfoot appeal to me because I recognized the place names or because it pinned the haunting nature of the place where I grew up? It’s hard to say. I’m certainly haunted by central New York now. One of the central themes that I noticed in this particular book was that it was impossible to tell who was the ghost and what, exactly, was doing the haunting. At times, it seemed like the living were haunting the dead, that the dead were being haunted by their pasts, and that New York was haunting everybody.
Finally, did you know that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in New York?
In case you’re curious, Sleepy Hollow is here. So it’s not far upstate, but I count it because the easy, immediate way that Ichabod Crane loses touch with reality doesn’t strike me as superstition. I like to read the story as an examination of an intellectual man trying to escape the appetites and desires of his baser half, which eventually attacks the very thing that makes him superior – his imaginative mind – and makes it so he’s never heard of again.
I can relate to the fear of being erased, tracked down by a part of yourself that you want to dominate and instead falling prey to it. It is reminiscent of the person I was back home – angry, isolated, and steeped in my issues with nothing to do about it but pace around my snowbound living space. Sometimes I feel like that paranoid way of being is constantly riding behind me, and if I look at it too closely, it’ll attack. Maybe it’ll replace me after all. Is that what I’m running away from? And will I make it to the covered bridge on time?
It’s past Halloween, and therefore past the time of year when we can have fun being frightened. Now comes the really scary time of the year: the cold months. Even ensconced in our modern comforts, life is a little less certain when the snow starts to come down. You could skid on ice and crash. You could run out of food in a freak snowstorm. You could get snowed in on the highway without a sleeping bag.
So I do the New York things that remind me of home. I put on snow tires. I stock up on food in case we get a bad storm. I pack a down sleeping bag in my trunk.
I pack a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. And I don’t look over my shoulder.