Dystopian fiction

The DO Book Club, Nov. 2021: Station Eleven

In addition to this apocalyptic novel, our new books columnist, Daniel J. Waters, DO, MA, also reviews Physician Leadership by Karen J. Nichols, DO, and Mortal Lessons by Richard Selzer, MD.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Welcome back to The DO Book Club! Starting this month, two literary DOs will alternate writing this column each month. November’s author, Daniel J. Waters, DO, MA, will be reviewing three medically themed books in his column—one current, one classic and one work with significant DO authorship or editorial input. All non-academic genres are open, including but not limited to fiction, nonfiction (creative and reportage), and poetry. If you have suggestions for works to review, please submit them to thedo@osteopathic.org.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf/Doubleday, 2014, 352 pp.)

I took a chance on this novel—it’s not one I would have immediately chosen to read, but it was highly lauded and recommended to me by several colleagues. Even though it’s not exactly current, what drew my attention is that its “hook” involves a worldwide pandemic that decimates the human population, seemingly overnight. Life imitating Art, as it would turn out.

This type of post-apocalyptic theme is not new (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), but St. John Mandel uses it to a different effect. The reader sees the run-up and the acute onset of the modern plague, but then is time-warped to 20 years after its devastation has been wreaked, leaving North America a borderless wasteland.

The narrative shifts back and forth between these time frames, which keeps the story moving but occasionally derailed this reader. There are a good number of secondary and even tertiary characters to keep track of in both settings. There’s a lot of internal dialogue and a sometimes uneasy balance between telling and showing.

The story-world is complex, and the parallel plots develop like old Polaroid pictures, the elements slowly coming into focus and then commingling. But the writing is wonderful, and this keeps the reader highly engaged through the early expository chapters. Ultimately, however, the fictional pandemic is the book’s MacGuffin, a plot device which underpins and drives the narrative. This aside, I enjoyed the novel more than I expected to; for readers raised on Harry Potter, the plotting and array of characters will be familiar territory. There are some classic tropes, but they don’t detract from the overall effort.

Station Eleven is not the “ripped from the headlines” medical thriller you might expect to read during a global pandemic. Still, if you enjoy good storytelling and appreciate well-crafted writing, it’s worth the time and effort.

Physician Leadership: 11 Skills Every Doctor Needs to be an Effective Leader by Karen J. Nichols, DO (Wiley, August 2021, 256 pp.)

I usually approach books on leadership the way I do books on writing – cautiously and from a safe distance. But when the author has proven herself to be an effective leader in several prominent roles and is a DO to boot, this one caught my attention. If the author’s name is not familiar to you, it should be – she is a former COM Dean and an AOA past president (2010-2011).

The book is an easy read because its tone is familiar without being folksy or condescending. It’s like you sat down with the author for an extended personal conversation on the subject. There is a short summary of all the chapters at the beginning, which you can probably skip – after all, you’re going to want to read those chapters, and each one has a summary contained within it.

I won’t rehash the 11 titular skills. Suffice it to say, Dr. Nichols seamlessly blends proven leadership principles and personal experiences. The book is a trove of great quotes from leaders and writers worth remembering and using yourself at strategic moments. In addition, the narrative is sprinkled with comments and questions that act as a Greek chorus, asking or saying things the reader is probably thinking.

Along with a summary, each chapter has workbook-like questions and scenarios that highlight the usefulness of the content in real-world situations. The book is written with a strong but never overbearing osteopathic perspective – the author’s experiences and lessons as a woman physician and a DO in a world that was not and sometimes still is not kind to either.

Dr. Nichols’ description of mastering the art of “manterruption” in doctors’ dining room exchanges and her discussion of “emotional proprioception” alone are worth the book’s modest price.

It is often said that Readers Are Leaders. Readers who are, or would like to be, Physician Leaders should start with this book.

Editor’s note: Dr. Nichols, chair of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) board, notes that the opinions in her book are hers alone and do not represent the policies of the ACGME. Her book is not sponsored by or otherwise affiliated with the ACGME.

Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery by Richard Selzer, MD (Simon & Schuster, January 1976, 226 pp.)

Don’t be put off by the titular reference to surgery or the publication date – this is (still) a great book.

Before there was such a thing as Narrative Medicine, before Abraham Verghese, MD, and Atul Gawande, MD, hit the bestseller lists, there was Richard Selzer, MD, a respected professor of surgery at Columbia University and a writer of uncommon grace and power.

Yes, Dr. Selzer was a surgeon, and many of his stories involve surgical situations, but this is not a book about surgery – it’s about the mystical connection between doctor and patient, doctor and disease, and the moment when detached observation becomes human engagement and clinical curiosity turns to wonder.

Dr. Selzer’s writing style is fluid and familiar and thankfully free of academic Newspeak. I read this book in college when I wanted to be a physician, but well before I became one. I faithfully reread it at least every other year.

The narrative is a mix of essays, reflections and short stories. Many are powerfully moving; others are laced with humor and uncommon lyricism. Dr. Selzer’s lighthearted yet detailed examination of specific organs gives these structures individual personae, something you’ll rarely, if ever, hear in a med school anatomy lecture.

If you’re looking for a dry recitation of clinical facts or tales of medical derring-do, this is not a book you’ll even want to open. But if you wish to see our chosen profession illuminated with a different kind of light, you’ll want it on your bookshelf for a long time, whether you’re an OMS I or a life member of one of the specialty colleges. After reading it, you’ll never let anyone call you a “provider” again.

December’s book

For December, Joan Naidorf, DO, will review Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, MD. We encourage all who are interested to read along (this book club can be followed at any pace)! If you are unable to get out to a local library or bookstore, we recommend checking out eBook options.

If you read Station Eleven or any previous Book Club selection and want to share your reflections, please leave a comment below or email rraymond@osteopathic.org.

Happy reading!

Related reading:

The DO Book Club, Oct. 2021: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The DO Book Club, Sept. 2021: The House of God

One comment

  1. Dr Rebecca Levy-Gantt

    I love the book reviews. I was lucky enough to have my first book reviewed last year. Is it possible to suggest reviewing my recently published second book called Motherhood, Medicine and Me ? It’s a memoir as a DO ObGyn going through medical training, residency, private practice and motherhood. Thanks in advance for your consideration.

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