Johnny's Reviews > Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
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's review
Jul 24, 10

bookshelves: africa, ethiopia, medical, fiction
Read in July, 2010

When I downloaded this book to my Kindle, I was bowled over by how long it looked. On the Kindle, publishers can't play with font size and spacing the way they can in published books to make a book whatever length they want it to be. Undaunted, I dove in and I quickly found Abraham Verghese's style similar to that found in John Irving's lengthier books like The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp. In fact, Verghese says in his acknowledgments that close the book that he is "grateful to John Irving for his friendship" suggesting that he has "learned so much from him both in [their:] correspondence and in his published works," so he is clearly influenced by Irving's style and plot structure, the former of which is much more sophisticated than the latter.

Following the life of Indian and British expatriate doctors and nurses living in Ethiopia during the mid-twentieth century, Cutting for Stone does provide an interesting glimpse into Eastern African history and culture, yet because the narrator is the child of an nun from India and a doctor from Great Britain, the focus still lies within the colonized world. The novel does offer insight into the historical elements of Ethiopian culture, ranging from the Italian colonization to the Eritrean violence to the corrupt rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, but the native characters are all painted in savage tones. The only developed native Ethiopians in the book suffer devastating effects of rudimentary medical understanding, opting for traditional and dangerous practices like female circumcision rather than proven medical science. Whereas Verghese's style mimics Irving's in his total immersion of the reader within the vocabulary and jargon of the world in which the characters are living. Oftentimes, this immersion comes with tongue firmly in cheek (as Irving often does), such as when the doctor narrator suggests that his father "had a theory that bedroom Amharic and bedside Amharic were really the same thing: Please lie down. Take off your shirt. Open your mouth. Take a deep breath...The language of love was the same as the language of medicine. (Irving's misogyny is here too, most evident when the narrator is reunited with his past love who has wronged him terribly, forcing himself upon her as he loses his virginity in an encounter that borders on rape.)

Verghese's story structure however suffers from histrionics at points, including such tired elements as a somewhat obligatory suicidal hanging when a native woman sees the errors of her ways. Just prior to the death, an Indian doctor screams at the Eritrean woman for her poor choice in medical practice for her daughter, asking her "My God...You stupid woman! ...Oh, God, God. Why? ...You've probably killed her...do you know that?" While this sentiment is likely the same accurate subtextual feelings that exist between the native Ethiopians and the doctors that come from more developed countries, it is a bit unsettling when considering the unique perspective this text offers on a part of the world that is nearly absent from popular literature.

In the end, I did enjoy the book. Verghese provides a satisfying narrative in the totality of his scope, which is something I always loved about Irving's books. So long as the reader is aware of the inherent dangers in reading a single story based on a foreign culture, there is enough good here to enjoy!
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Quotes Johnny Liked

Abraham Verghese
“I spent as much time as I could with Ghosh. I wanted every bit of wisdom he could impart to me. All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him? It seems we humans never learn. And so we relearn the lesson every generation and then want to write epistles. We proselytize to our friends and shake them by the shoulders and tell them, "Seize the day! What matters is THIS moment!" Most of us can't go back and make restitution. We can't do a thing about our should haves and our could haves. But a few lucky men like Ghosh never have such worries; there was no restitution he needed to make, no moment he failed to seize.

Now and then Ghosh would grin and wink at me across the room. He was teaching me how to die, just as he'd taught me how to live.”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
tags: life

Abraham Verghese
“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.”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
tags: life

Abraham Verghese
“He had a theory that bedroom Amharic and bedside Amharic were really the same thing: Please lie down. Take off your shirt. Open your mouth. Take a deep breath...The language of love was the same as the language of medicine.”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Abraham Verghese
Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our giant African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in an individual ant but in the collective any mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration, of the super-organism. It's a sound I believe that only the new immigrant hears, but not for long. By the time I learned to say "Six-inch number seven on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce," the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were subsumed into the superorganism.”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Abraham Verghese
“The poorest in America are the sickets. Poor people can't afford preventive care or insurance. The poor don't see doctors. They show up at our doorstep when things are advanced.”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone


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