Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine by Olivia Campbell

There are so many women in medicine today – myself included – that we take it for granted. In fact, by 2017, women outnumbered men in medical school classes in the US. However, just like the right to vote and the right to enter many other professions, women had to wage war to gain entry into what was, by men, considered their holy terrain. In fact, it was not until the late 1800’s, when a few brave, brilliant, and brawny young women on both the European and American continents battled over the course of many years to achieve full MD status.

Many authors credit Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Britain and later moved to America, as a major pioneer in this area, and she is probably the most well-known. But she could not have moved the needle alone, as they say. While she was fighting the battle mostly in America (although doing a good deal of her clinical training and public speaking in the UK), her colleagues, such as Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex Blake were waging the war on the other side of the Atlantic. While they were each very different women, approaching their mission with different styles, personalities, and tactics, they also relied upon each other for support and guidance. These women suffered not only prejudice, hardship, and a brutally uphill battle, but also physical oppression. Sophia, and her 6 fellow female students in Edinburgh were harassed to the point of having mud and garbage thrown at them on their way into medical school class by their male colleagues – with the support and encouragement of their male professors. In spite of this, these women persevered, overcoming these unspeakable hardships to go on to establish medical schools and hospitals for women.

It is neither surprising nor novel to read about (white) men fearing others being included among their ranks and using their power, influence, and even violence to attempt to maintain their unilateral hold on a particular enterprise. But while they held on, the field of medicine, particularly healthcare for women, truly stagnated. It was only when women were given full medical practitioner status that women’s issues were brought to the fore and women’s health truly advanced. Women were finally able to come forward and speak about their very private complaints, expose how they’d been treated by some male practitioners in the past, and have advocates with any power to make significant scientific advancements in their care.

This is an incredibly well-researched documentation of a dramatic advancement in the care of women for and by women.. Not a light read, but an important one.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Inti is on a mission here in this sheep farmland of Australia, and these farmers are not going to stop her. Can they not understand that after they had hunted the wolves to extinction, their ecosystem faltered and the forest became unstable because of it? Here she is, with her team of scientists, trying to save the forest with her proven method of rewilding the landscape with the reintroduction of wolves and they are fighting her at every step. Out of fear? Out of ignorance? Who knows? But as Inti battles these townfolk, she is also battling her own demons – hers, and those of her twin sister, Aggie. And maybe, anger and fighting can blind a person, dangerously, to what is right in front of them.

This is a stunning novel with a lofty mission. We are carried into Inti’s story, her mission to save the forest, a suspicious death, and her past that is entangled so deeply with her sister Aggie’s. Complex plot, complex characters, engaging from page one. But we are also afforded a window into the unique and mysterious wonders of the wolf – its habits, its predatory prowess, and its deep loyalty to its pack. We learn how essential the wolf as predator is to the whole ecosystem of the forest, keeping its prey in check in order to maintain the balance that evolved over centuries and that man did his best to try to destroy.

One can read article upon article about our endangered environment, but when we connect with it in a story such as this one, I believe it has a much stronger impact emotionally. By creating characters whom we relate to and who become heroes to us, we become more personally committed. Even the wolves are characters here, and we become attached to them, come to know them and their personality traits as Inti surmises from her tracking of them. And even though we know this is fiction, albeit with much fact woven through, because we are so invested in these characters and their outcome, we are also invested – enlightened, even – in the urgency of saving our planet – so much more than an article could ever accomplish.

It is a lofty mission that is absolutely accomplished, and beautifully so. Very highly recommend this – and if you’re environmentally inclined, consider it a MUST READ.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Sheila has always harbored a soft spot for her brother Art, a tender-hearted guy always destined, it seemed, for the priesthood. His gentle manner, his lack of pursuit of earthly possessions beyond books, and his deep faith made him perfectly suited, even as she herself was filled with doubt. Sadly, though, when he was caught up in the maelstrom of accusations of child molestations by priests in Boston in the early 2000’s, even Sheila was forced to examine her own faith in her brother. Did she think he was capable of doing what he was accused of? What was the truth?

This novel was told with such authenticity that throughout the reading of it, I honestly believed that it was a true story written in novel format. Sheila’s character, her mom, her dad, Art – were all so real, so 3-dimentional, I felt this could have been a very plausible story of any of the priests accused of abuse at the time that so many were. 

The story has many layers that beg to be unpacked. One is the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, as is highlighted here, so radically conflicts with man’s natural, physical urge. Does this contribute to the abuse of women and/or children by priests? Who knows? It certainly would be interesting to see if things were to change if the celibacy rules were lifted. Wouldn’t it be worth that very experiment, given the lives it would impact? Who really benefits from a priest’s celibacy anyway? Certainly not the priests themselves, I would imagine, although I am the last person to actually know that for sure.

And what about the cover-up of all the priestly misdeeds by the church? Surely it occurs in other religions as well — it is not only the Catholic church —  but it has notoriously been present there for centuries. Because of the hierarchical structure of the church and the stringent code of silence among those involved, not to mention the power the church has had over so many over so long, it is not surprising that those who witness any wrongdoing are terrified to come forward in any sort of public way.  And even in that rare instance when one is found to be guilty of sin, there has merely been a notorious shifting around of the wrongdoer rather than actual punishment, so that the wrongdoer is not ever really held accountable or condemned. 

That said, as this story illuminates, not every priest who is accused is, in fact, guilty. Or at least not guilty of what they are accused of doing. Because of all of the revelations in the Boston diocese in the early 2000’s, we are likely to make assumptions about priests that are likely unfair, even cruel. In our country, thank heaven, we are still innocent until proven guilty. This is what this story is trying to highlight – and does so in a beautiful, profound way. Art has his own struggles, but they may be different from what we surmise.  We can never be inside another’s heart, but we must try to see what is their truth.

I think this is an important read in our time. Important to understand how we can be surprised by getting to know another’s actual circumstance, how we can be surprised by our own assumptions and prejudices. 

 

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Owen is fairly certain that had he known that Alma was the new hot shot literary scholar when he first met her, he would never have flirted with her in the first place. He would never have had the courage. But now that they’ve established a rapport, well, he’s now somewhat smitten. The question is, what does she, with her Ivy League degree, her fellowship, and her liberal, wealthy family, see in him? As he struggles to regain his footing after years of poor decisions and strained family relationships, Owen has to determine if Alma is helping him get himself together – or hindering him.

This is a contemplative and brooding novel that I felt came close to being excellent but just missed the mark, at least for me.  I felt that Owen’s rage that simmered throughout was a palpable and writhing presence. Sometimes it was expressed so eloquently, his resentment toward his Southern, Trump-supporting, Evangelical Christian parents and their blind following of the Republican, racist, party line. Similarly, the all-too-common, awkward, polarized, political conversation that folks are having around this country was expressed beautifully between Owen and one of his coworkers.  But there were missed opportunities too. While he did have an argument with his uncle over his uncle’s MAGA sticker in his window, it was brief and superficial. We never really learn more about his uncle’s online life where he spends all of his time gaming, and we never learn what happens to him at the end of the story, when he is likely to be left alone. The uncle seems to just vanish.

I will say that I loved the character of Owen’s grandfather. While he did maintain his own beliefs, which were based in his religion and his culture, he did not allow this to taint his relationship with Owen. He was open to letting his grandson live with him, he was tolerant of Owen’s relationship with someone who was quite different from them, and he overlooked Owen’s faults, even when they trespassed over the rules of his own home. He was exceedingly forgiving and loving in his own way. He demonstrated that while one may not agree with someone’s politics, one may still be able to have a beautiful relationship with that individual. And in this moment, that is a huge concept to acknowledge. 

I believe there is a lot here, about the art and strain of writing, about class structure, about political tension, and about the ramifications of the 2016 election on the South. But I wish it had been developed just a bit further, with a bit more action, and a bit more completion. Still, a worthwhile read.

 

 

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Julia cannot believe how far she’s come. Considering where she started – a teen mom, struggling to keep a roof over her head – she’s feeling almost embarrassed at the size of her new home, with its pool and its technology that her husband Brad insisted on installing. When she meets her new neighbor, Valerie, she learns about the stately old tree whose roots they’ve apparently encroached upon with the building of their pool. She also meets Valerie’s son, Zay. And so does Julia’s daughter, Juniper. And here is where it all starts to get complicated…

I loved this book. Therese Anne Fowler confronts two common themes – climate change and racism, both obviously serious and challenging – but does so without preaching and with warmth, tenderness, and suspense. Creating characters that are entirely relatable, she wraps us up in their lives as if we are living right there in the neighborhood with them. She also uses an extraordinary narrative voice of “we” (presumably the neighborhood voice, perhaps even the book club members from early on in the book) which gives the reader the feeling that we are chatting over coffee with the neighbors about what is happening in our back yard. But we’re also inside the heads of the characters, so we understand their past and why they choose the actions than impact their futures. And just as if we’re watching a bad accident in slow motion, we can’t help yelling for them to not move forward, as we see them heading toward disaster. We are so invested in them because it feels like they really are our neighbors.

One concept that I’d not really heard much of prior to reading this was the “purity pledge” which this book brought to light. This is a vow of celibacy that girls (of course, mostly girls) take during a ceremony in their (often Southern Baptist) Christian church. It was most popular in the 1990’s and was apparently a source of great shame and struggle for so many. Yet another way to oppress women, deny their sexuality, and keep them under wraps, I suppose. (see article in NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/us/abstinence-pledge-evangelicals.html)

A Good Neighborhood is a quick read, but a valuable one. I’d even go so far as to give it a MUST READ rating. I think the writing is excellent, I think the story is valuable, and the message is critical, especially in this moment.

 

 

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In February of 2020, Seymour is on a mission to fight climate change with his razor focus, his headphones, and a backpack of explosives. Upstairs in the library where Seymour is attempting his strike, Zeno is guiding a pack of 5 excited children as they rehearse a play – their version of an ancient Greek story. In the 1400’s, there are 2 young people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir, each dealing with their own version of trauma and poverty. And way in the future, there is a young girl named Konstance who is traveling on a mission to an exoplanet where she’ll be able to survive and restart a new generation of human life. Each of these threads are linked by the tale of the Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient, absurd tale carried from antiquity and retold through the ages, to entertain, to sustain, and to give hope.

This is an outrageously imaginative novel that may take a bit of time to get into, but then grips and holds you until the very last page. I am just astounded at how one person can weave together such seemingly disparate tales into one large picture that ultimately ties so tightly together. Writing like this is a gift. Moreover, each tale, in and of itself, is tender and gripping – each character, vulnerable and complex. We love Anna for her deep struggle to care for her ill sister, Maria. And we love Omeir for his tenderness toward his animals. We even understand Seymour’s frustration and anger as he acts out of desperation in a way he sees as his only choice. The author endows every character with so much humanity that we are glued to them, their actions, their struggles.

And the larger message here, that books and learning can bring joy – is the most beautiful. In this moment, when extremists are threatening to burn books, to limit the choices of literature that others read or access, we are reminded about what folks throughout history have lived through just to save our stories. So many have fought to save books, even those that might seem trivial or silly, because books bring light and hope and knowledge to those who take advantage and open their hearts to them.

Banning books is never the answer.

This book may not be for everyone – but if you open your imagination – it just might be for you!

 

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

Grace is on the brink and she doesn’t know where to turn. She knows she can’t be trusted with the care of her own children – she just can’t pull her mind out from under the dense blackness that has taken root there, and she knows that it’ll happen again if she has another child. It’s happened each time before. She just has nowhere to turn.

Decades later, Beth is grappling with her own frustration. She is clearly just stressed – her father is dying, she’s sleep deprived from a new baby, and she’s just not feeling up to going back to work yet. So why is everyone on her case, asking her what’s wrong? She’ll be fine. Won’t she?

The narrative between these two women brings us back and forth through the generations of this vulnerable, tender family and winds us through a beautiful story of love, heartbreak, and resilience.

The difference between these two women is also just one generation, and the epic difference between their generations is the passing of Roe v. Wade. One generation has the luxury of choice – the other lives without any control because they do not have that access.

I find myself writing this post on the morning that the Supreme Court of the US, staggeringly, has announced the repeal of Roe. I am still numb from this, even having tried to brace myself for what I knew was coming, although I still held out hope that some of the judges would come out on the just side of history. But no, the 6 conservative judges’ allegiance to their biased, misogynistic, utterly anti-life, hypocritical base was clearly too strong a tie.

Women will now return to the back alleys, the sepsis-inducing, life-threatening, desperate means of trying to gain control of their lives, which men put them at risk of, once again. Women will have to endure pregnancies they do not want, bear children they’re not ready to care for, and those children will likely live in conditions that are sub-par, to say the least, because those same Conservatives never vote for safeguards for these children once they are born. Hypocrisy at its very gravest.

Health care should be left to health care providers and their patients. Everyone else should stay out of it. Abortion and contraception is health care. Period.

This is a MUST READ at this time – I really wish the SCOTUS judges had read this novel before writing this decision.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Nora cannot reconcile the guilt she feels that while she was relaxing over a celebratory glass of champagne with her roommate, her father was, at that very moment, tossed into the air by an as yet unidentified driver and killed. Nor could she believe, even through her profound grief, any possibility that this was a random accident. All she had to do was convince others to see things from her point of view as well. Would she be able to do this, without any witnesses, without anyone coming forward in her favor? Especially when even her family was willing to accept the party line…?

This is an excruciatingly timely story, as it addresses the deep-seated fear and resentment that so many white folks have toward any immigrant that has achieved any modicum of success. This “replacement” conspiracy theory once again rears its hideous head here.  Nora, a smart, talented, but dark-skinned, Muslim girl has been left out and “othered” most of her life, growing up in their desert town near Joshua Tree. Similarly, she’s observed her father, a hard-working immigrant from Casablanca, survive being targeted by racial incidents as well. While Nora has found solace in her music, she’s continued to experience micro-aggressions repeatedly and continues to struggle with navigating her way through. 

The author makes excellent use of a rotating narration, imbuing a distinctive and familiar voice to each character.  It feels as if we are sitting with the characters, hearing their side of the story as it is told perhaps in an interrogation room to the investigating officer.  We come to know each character deeply, understand their passions, and feel their pain. It works.

One character that is particularly endearing is Efrain, the singular witness. I will not give away details about him or his perspective, but he is portrayed beautifully and his struggle over coming forward is both understandable and tragic.

This is an engaging story with a powerful message – a worthy read! 

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

If you don’t play hockey, or follow hockey, or at least tolerate hockey, you will not last long in Beartown. The entire population, intimate as it is, is consumed with it. Kids begin skating once they can walk, and everyone is on the lookout for those charmed few, those who have that natural gift, that drive, that will send them through to the A-team. Kevin certainly has it, and with Benji at his side, fighting off any opponent who might threaten his path, he is a sure shot. That is, until a crime is committed, which might just change everything.

Fredrik Backman is another writer who, by virtue of the beauty of his writing, has me convinced that there is no way I should ever even think of trying to write. He has the uncanny ability to weave complicated, layered, and realistic plot lines around complex and gorgeous characters.  And unlike with some novels with so many characters, we come to know each one so well that we never confuse any of them, never wonder who is whom, because we have fallen in love with most of them. The warmth with which he imbues them grants them their familiarity. They become our dear friends.

Also, there is a beautiful message here about the challenge of loyalty; whether that be loyalty to one’s family, to one’s friends,  to one’s team., or to one’s own values. Most of the characters find themselves wrestling here with conflicting loyalties. and some impress us and some disappoint us. But all of them are so stunningly human in their struggling. My favorite is Ramona, who is a bartender. She’s depicted as someone who’s seen it all, and who has been loyal to those who have lost the loyalties of most everyone else. She sees people for who they are, not who they profess to be. I would love to be more like Ramona.

This book has it all – characters, plot, warmth, important message – all the makings of a MUST READ!

 

Shrill by Lindy West

In this memoir, Lindy West shares her alternatingly traumatic and triumphant experiences as a feminist writer venturing into online journalism. Because she is also fat (her self-description), she also becomes a target in our fat-phobic, one-size-fits-all-definition-of-beauty society and is branded by trolls with repulsive vitriol. When she tries to stand up, for example, against comedians who use rape as a topic for jokes (which is about as funny to most women as I imagine Putin is to most Ukrainians right now), she gets accosted online by the most offensive trolls imaginable, with comments liked by some of her friends. (It is pathetic how quick people are to take sides against those who are perceived as vulnerable.) Lucky for women, she is a strong, smart, and good-hearted person who rises above and sees the forest for the trees, speaking out for all of us. She proceeds to make history in her accomplishments, one troll at a time.

This book is replete with paradoxes. West is vulnerable yet powerful. She puts herself out there, stands up and stands out in a public forum, knowing she’ll open herself up to criticism – and omg, does she – but yet she stands up again and defends herself so strongly that she silences others to a screeching halt. She hears the noise, feels it, but does not allow the noise to infect the clarity of her argument. Despite feeling isolated, she thinks about women in general and not just herself as a woman. She also sees herself as others see her, yet she will not bend to their perception of who she is.

Some may find her story stirring, even jarring. We are not used to hearing women with loud voices. We are not used to hearing women be comfortable and secure in larger bodies. We are not used to hearing women stand up for themselves when they have strong opinions and strong minds, especially when they go against the (male) grain. But I know it’s about time we got used to hearing and appreciating them!