Cutting for Stone (and Somewhat Associated Things Like Marley and Chang and Eng)

cutting for stone cover

If you’ve been around me in the past 2 months (since that’s how long it takes me to read a novel these days, apparently) and the subjects of nuns/medicine/twins/
Ethiopia/India/Rastafarianism/Haile Selaisse happened to come up, chances are I couldn’t help but mention the very, very good book I finished last weekend: Cutting for StoneIt had come to me on recommendation from my parents and an aunt, and I’ll admit I didn’t know what to expect. While they all swore that it was definitely a book worth reading, other adjectives that speckled their reviews included ‘weird,’ ‘odd,’ and ‘dark.’ Not that any of those things are necessarily bad, especially when it comes to literature.

I’m still feeling out how I want to approach the sharing-of-books on my blog. I have no interest in supplying spoilers (where’s the fun in that?!) and I realize I’m in no way a qualified book reviewer, but suppose I could present a brief summary of the basic plot? And, however ridiculously, I’m including a catalog of my favorite quotes from the book at the end of the post. To be honest, this was a pretty gratifying part of the reading experience, for me. I’d make a small dog-ear at the bottom of the page where a memorable quote appeared, then when I finished I went back to all those pages and found the pertinent passages. It was a good way to really refresh and absorb some of the more interesting parts without having to re-read the entire story, though I’d say this is a book that certainly deserves a Second Read.

Dr. Marion Stone narrates our tale, which takes place predominantly at the Mission (or “Missing,” as it’s referred to for the entirety of the book on account of a mispronunciation on the part of the local people) Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The story follows the childhood of Marion and his brother, Shiva– [formerly]-conjoined twins, the almost-instantly-orphaned love children of a young Indian nun (who dies giving birth) and the English surgeon to whom she was a loyal and invaluable assistant (who flees upon delivery). (Their birth and the circumstances leading up to it– most of them, anyway– take up the first quarter of the book.)

Their orphancy is short-lived, as they become the cornerstone of what becomes a family unit between them and Hema and Ghosh: the remaining two surgeons at the hospital, also Indian immigrants. Abraham Verghese paints a vivid and intricate scene of 1960’s Addis Ababa– the blend and clash of the influences of various North African ethnicities, Indians, and Brits (and not without the residual Italian touches); the precarious politics of Emperor Haile Selaisse; the scents of the stews, the grime of the bars, and the warmth and comfort within their little homes. Perhaps even more vivid and intricate are Verghese’s periodical descriptions of a variety of medical procedures; which, though detailed, graphic, and at times grotesque, are fascinating above all. As any good story should, it’s got its fair share of love, heartache, betrayal, and forgiveness as the boys grow into men and demonstrate that they have very different things to offer to the medical world (and each other).

Lolzlolzlolz that ended up turning into a super cheesy review anyway but I’m over thinking about it so, voilà.

To make up for that I’ll take this time to make a quick plug for the 2012 Bob Marley documentary simply titled Marley. I won’t even make a lame attempt at a review, I’ll just tell you it’s awesome and (of course) chock-full of great music and you won’t be sorry you watched it.

What the hell does that have to do with Cutting for Stone?, you may be wondering. Emperor Haile Selaisse is the link… I have a bit of a fixation right now (as I mentioned in my People’s Key post, because Conor makes a number of Haile Selaisse references on that album as well). The Rastafarians believed he was their new Messiah and he was also revered by (most of) Ethiopia for awhile as well, but you see in the book that he has his share of skeletons. But his whole story has struck such a deep chord with me… I like, almost feel like I want to get a Lion of Judah tattoo or something. (I mean, not really…)

Oh and one last somewhat-associated thing that I promise is worth your time:

The story of Chang and Eng Bunker, the Thai conjoined twins whose condition (and circus appearances) inspired the name “Siamese Twins.”


Alright and finally… my preferred quotes from the book (as I said this was as much for my benefit as anyone’s haha):

My father, for whose skills as a surgeon I have the deepest respect, says, “The operation with the best outcome is the one you decide not to do.” Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for the assistance of a surgeon of my father’s caliber– that kind of talent, that kind of ‘brilliance,” goes unheralded.

But you don’t always know the answers before you operate. One operates in the now. Later, the retrospectoscope, that handy tool of the wags and pundits… will pronounce your decision right or wrong. Life, too, is like that. You live it forward  but understand it backward. It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel.

In 1909, Emperor Menelik had imported an electric chair, having heard the invention would efficiently get rid of his enemies. When he discovered it needed electricity, he simply used it as a throne.

As she bent over the child she realized that the tragedy of death had to do entirely with what was left unfulfilled. She was ashamed that such a simple insight should have eluded her all these years. Make something beautiful of your life.

“A good surgeon needs courage for which a  good pair of balls is a prerequisite,” he had even written in the manuscript of his textbook, knowing fully well that his editor in England would take it out, but enjoying the experience of putting those words on paper.

Life for the Italians was what it was, no more and no less, an interlude between meals.

Her skills were so rare, so needed for the poorest of the poor, and even at times in the royal palace, that she felt valued. Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?

The Emperor in his palace made plans for a state visit to Bulgaria and perhaps to Jamaica, where he had followers– Rastas– who took their name from his precoronation name of Ras Teferi and who thought he was God (an idea he didn’t mind is own people believing, but when it came from so far away and for reasons that he didn’t understand, made him wary).

What a bad idea it had been to give the Bible to anyone but priests, Ghosh thought. It made a preacher out of everybody.

Ignorance was just as dynamic as knowledge, and it grew in the same proportion. Still, each generation of physicians imagined that ignorance was the special provenance of their elders.

Ghosh recognized the song, a very popular one. It was called “Tizita“; there was no single equivalent English word. Tizita meant “memory tinged with regret.” Was there any other kind, Ghosh wondered.

“I don’t think I knew I loved Melly until he was dying. I was so young. Easiest thing in the world is to love a dying man.”

“My journey, my pain, my operation…,” the Colonel went on, “God was showing me the suffering of my people. It was a message. How we treat the least of our brethren, how we treat the peasant suffering with volvulus, that’s the measure of this country.”

“God will judge us, Mr. Harris, by”– her voice broke as she thought of Sister Mary Joseph Praise– “by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don’t think God cares what doctrine we embrace.”

It rained so much that it even rained in my dreams. I awoke happy that there was no school, but that incessant murmur on the tin roof immediately dampened the euphoria.

He invited me to a world that wasn’t secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide. You had to know what to look for, but also how to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive.

The floor space was hardly big enough for Ali and his family to sleep spooned against one another, knees bent, and now he had visitors. They sat around a pile of khat. Ali was worried. “Marion, times like this are when foreigners like us can suffer,” he said. It was strange to hear him use the word ferengi to describe himself, or me, because we were both born in this land.

Ghosh kept nodding his head, a big smile on his face, waving, keeping up an agitated chatter, “I know, I know, you unkempt rascal, good morning to you, too, yes indeed, I have come to delight in this heathen spectacle… Let’s hang you, by Jove, it certainly is most civilized of you to do this, thank you, thank you,” and inching forward.

“There is nothing wrong with [the water]. You will feel better in a few minutes.” Shiva looked at me. A glimmer of hope. Hema rose then, testing her limbs, her head. Later we found out that similar scenes were playing out all over the city. It was an early lesson in medicine. Sometimes, if you think you’re sick, you will be.

“Another day in paradise” was his inevitable pronouncement when he settled his head on his pillow. Now I understood what that meant: the uneventful day was a precious gift.

“The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling ou were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

“If ‘Truth needs no disguise,’ why do we have to pretend that His Majesty isn’t short or that his affection for his ugly dog is normal? You know he has a servant whose only job is to carry around thirty pillows of different sizes to place at His Majesty’s feet, so that whatever throne he sits on his feet don’t dangle in the air?”

“When you land in New York,” the cousin had said, “a beautiful blond woman will engage you in conversation at the airport. Her perfume will drive you mad. Big breasts, miniskirt. She will introduce you to her brother. They’ll offer you a ride into town in their convertible, and, of course, not to be rude, you accept. As you are driving, the man will say, ‘Let’s just drop by my house in Malibu and have a martini before we get you to Manhattan.’ You pull in to their mansion. A house like you’ve never seen. As soon as you are inside, the man will pull out a gun and point it at you, and say ‘Screw my sister or you will die.'”

I had a new respect for his line of work, which brought him closer to God than any cleric. He was the first of three pilots who carried me through nine time zones. Rome. London. New York.

My hubris was to think I understood America from [the] movies. But the real hubris I could see now was America’s and it was hubris of scale. I saw it in the steel bridges stretching out over water; I saw it in the freeways looping over one another like tangled tapeworms. Hubris was my taxi’s speedometer, wider than the steering wheel, as if Dali had grabbed the round gauge and pulled its ears. Hubris was the needle now showing seventy miles per hour, or well over one hundred and ten kilometers per hour, a speed unimaginable in our faithful Volkswagen– even if we’d found a suitable road.

The observer, that old record keeper, the chronicler of events, made his appearance in that taxi. The hands of my clock turned elastic while I imprinted these feelings in memory. You must remember this. It was all I had, all I’ve ever had, the only currency, the only proof that I was alive. Memory.

“I tell my students, ‘If you read this newspaper every day for a year, you’ll have the vocabulary of a Ph.D. and you will know more than any college graduate. I guarantee you.'” “Do they listen?” He held up a finger. “Every year one does,” he said, grinning. “But that one makes it worthwhile. Even Jesus only did twelve. I try to get one a year.”

“Whatever America needs, the world will supply. Cocaine? Colombia steps up to the plate. Shortage of farmworkers, corn detasselers? Thank God for Mexico. Baseball players? Viva Dominica. Need more interns? India, Philippines zindabad!”

“That’s the funny thing about America– the blessed thing. As many people as there are to hold you back, there are angels whose humanity makes up for all the others.”

“Call me old-fashioned,” Deepak said, “but I’ve always believed that hard work pays off. My version of the Beatitudes. Do the right thing, put up with unfairness, selfishness, stay true to yourself… one day it all works out. Of course, I don’t know that people who wronged you suffer or get their just deserts. I don’t think it works that way. But I do think one day you get your reward.”

The mind was fragile, fickle, but the human body was resilient.

One year ago: Homemade Ricotta and Pesto Penne (with Homegrown Basil and Tomatoes)
Two years ago: The Motorbike Diaries
Three years ago: Dumpling Party

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