Review: “The People in the Trees,” Hanya Yanagihara

Rating:  5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  In 1950, a young doctor named Norton Perina embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe.  There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind.  Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success.  But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

Disquieting yet thrilling, The People in the Trees is an anthropological adventure story with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide.  It marks the debut of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.

I’m going to be completely up-front here:  this isn’t a book for everyone.  It is in turns eerie, disturbing, introspective, and cynical.  I wouldn’t call it a pleasant read.  That being said, I’m very glad that I read it.

It’s fairly well-established here that I love an unreliable narrator, and The People in the Trees has two:  Dr. Perina’s story is recounted through his memoirs, which he has written while imprisoned for sexual abuse and sent to his good friend Ronald Kubodera, who sings his praises and maintains his innocence.  Furthermore, Kubodera uses the introduction as an opportunity to admit that he will edit and remove passages from Pernia’s memoirs. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

I first heard about The People in the Trees in passing through the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and I think that I had a wrong impression of it.  It had seemed to me as though this would be a scary novel.  While it was certainly disquieting, even creepy at times, I wouldn’t call it scary.  There was an element of psychological thrill; the reader spends most of the book waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Yanagihara does a commendable job of building an intangible suspense – not only are you now sure exactly what you’re waiting for, you’re not sure that you want to find out either.

Since we see everyone and everything in this novel through the Norton/Kubodera filter, the characters all seem to be constructed as merely supports for Norton’s story.  In another context, that would bother me, but it works well here.  Norton is not a sympathetic character, but as a reader, I found myself more or less agreeing with his impressions of the other characters.  The way that Yanagihara persuades the reader to see entirely through this man’s eyes is what makes this novel at once so brilliant and so disturbing.

Without revealing too much, this is a story rife with moral relativism.  It unflinchingly examines colonialism, biomedical ethics, society’s obsession with youth, charity, and the entire discipline of academia.  It also happens to contain one of the best descriptions of the scientific process that I’ve ever seen.  It is also based on the true story of Nobel Prize Recipient and convicted child molester Daniel Carleton Gajdusek.  It’s neither a light nor an easy read, but it’s thought-provoking in the extreme.  I highly recommend it.


Redhead in Scrubs: The Story So Far, Part 3

In absolutely no way is anything in this series to be taken as advice.  I am not an expert in how to get accepted to medical school – I’ve been rejected exponentially more than I’ve been accepted.  If there was a formula to get in, I’d share it – but there isn’t.  Everyone who is accepted gets to that point a different way.

In April 2013, I had the best job interview that I will probably ever have.  I explained my medical school application history and that I was looking for clinical experience, and my interviewer said “It sounds like we need you and you need us.”  (This is the abridged version, but not by much.)  In May, I graduated and went to Texas to learn how to be a scribe.  When I returned, I started working in a Level 1 Trauma Center ED here in Memphis.  Within three weeks, I was promoted and had a job with actual responsibility.
A few months later, I started applying again.  This time, I applied to MD (Allopathic) and DO (Osteopathic) schools – in 2012, I’d only applied MD.  I got my applications in for MD earlier (in August) and my DO applications in in November.  Again, we waited.  We completed secondary applications.  And we waited some more.
In January 2014, I got my interview invitation for the University of Tennessee.  It was a much better interview experience overall, but apparently not better enough. I found out in February that I was on the waitlist.  I didn’t have any other interviews.  In June, I found out that, not only was I in the middle third of the waitlist, it was much longer than usual due to a computer glitch.  I was told to be “hopeful but realistic” and began to prepare myself to do it all over again.
This year, we did things a little differently.  I applied to only one allopathic school (University of Tennesee), and the rest osteopathic.  My applications were in the day they opened, and I got secondaries in within two days of receipt.
I’ve decided that timeliness was the turning point.  One morning in July I was sleeping after a night shift and got an email with an interview invitation from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill.  I thought it was a joke!  I’d never even heard of an interview invitation in July.
The interview was in August, and it was great.  It was actually a fun day; it was my first group interview and I really enjoyed the format.  My mom and I made a trip out of it and visited family and our old stomping grounds in the Baltimore/DC metro.
On September 30th (the day after I went to a Career Fair just in case), I got an acceptance letter from LECOM – Seton Hill.  I was too scared to check the mail – Matt had to do it for me and I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the tiny envelope.  Then I nearly had another one when I opened it.  For a few weeks, we more or less basked in being able to relax for the first time in four years!
A few weeks later, I got my second interview invitation, for the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific – Northwest.  A few weeks after that, I got my third, for the University of Tennessee.  The UT interview was just before Thanksgiving and went extremely well (I thought) and the COMP-NW one was at the beginning of December.
Matt and I had made a trip of the COMP-NW interview; we spent a day in Seattle, a day in Astoria, a day in Salem, and a day in Portland.  Neither of us had ever been to the Pacific Northwest before and it was a great time!
After that, there was more waiting.  It didn’t take long to find out that I was on the waitlist at both of those two schools.  So… that brings us up to where we are now.

Reading Patterns Explained by Physics! (Or Something)

I don’t have a review for today because I haven’t finished another book yet.  I like it, but I haven’t finished it.  And that got me thinking:  I finished Attachments and Station Eleven within a few days each.  I’ve been working on The People in the Trees for two weeks.  Does that mean I don’t like it as much?

And then I thought:  it’s just physics!

Continue reading

Review: “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel

Rating:  5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night, Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear.  Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid.  A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead.  That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread.  Hospitals are flooded, and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony.  Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors.  Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, is a line from Star Trek:  “Because survival is insufficient.”  But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty.  As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all.  A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

There’s no way that I could pick a favorite book, but Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would definitely be in my top five (just don’t ask me to read it again).  I can’t know for sure, of course, but I can’t imagine that Emily St. John Mandel didn’t intend her readers to see some parallels between The Road and Station Eleven.

What Station Eleven does that The Road does not, and what I thinks sets it apart from most post-apocalyptic novels, is that it dedicates a nearly equal amount of text to the time before and during the apocalypse as to the time after it.  In fact, I think that Station Eleven is unique among most contemporary novels in that parts of it read like a love letter to the society that most of us are so disillusioned with – Facebook, 24-hour news, and noses buried in iPhones everywhere we look.

I have found that with novels that jump around in time and place, as this one does, I often get to a new chapter and long for the last to continue, rather than moving excitedly onward through the narrative.  That was not the case here.  With every change in perspective, I found myself eager to learn what new piece of the puzzle was going to be revealed, and confident that my questions about the story I was moving on from would be answered adequately in time.  Perhaps this says more about my attitude as a reader than about St. John Mandel’s storytelling, but I am inclined to believe that it is because although her different narratives are fragmented, the vignettes would stream together seamlessly were they put ‘in order.’

Often, when a story promises to connect various storylines into a single climax, that connection feels contrived.  One of the great pleasures of reading Station Eleven was watching the differently threads weave together organically.  St. John Mandel gives enough clues even from the very first chapter that there is nothing contrived or forced when everything falls into place.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the brilliance of Station Eleven lies in doing something new or groundbreaking.  It is, at its heart, a post-apocalyptic survival story.    However, that gross oversimplification doesn’t give the novel nearly enough credit for doing everything that it does exceptionally well – from telling the story of a plague, to building a world on the foundations of the one destroyed, to giving each character nuances and enough back-story so that they can be seen shades of gray.

Redhead in Scrubs: The Story So Far, Part 2

In absolutely no way is anything in this series to be taken as advice.  I am not an expert in how to get accepted to medical school – I’ve been rejected exponentially more than I’ve been accepted.  If there was a formula to get in, I’d share it – but there isn’t.  Everyone who is accepted gets to that point a different way.

In May 2011, Matt and I moved to Memphis.  The same day that we arrived was the only time we’ve actually seen a tornado – the sirens started going off and we could see the cyclone to the west.  It was quite a welcome.

I started taking my medical school prerequisites in June.  There was a 2-course difference between taking just the prerequisites and getting my Bachelor’s in Biology, so I had decided to go ahead and get the second degree.  It would take 2 years of huge courseloads.  I also started working 20 hours per week in retail, only a few minutes drive from school.  I volunteered for a few months, 4 hours a week, in an intensive care unit in the area.

My grades were great at first and good after that – they were certainly never bad, but good for medical school is different than good for everything else.  That’s one thing that I would change if I could do it over, but I honestly don’t know how I could have put forth more effort than I did.  The challenge was that I had never truly learned to study.  I hadn’t needed to in high school, and as an English major, I didn’t study so much as review.  I had to learn from scratch – what had worked for me in the past simply wasn’t cutting it in advanced science courses.

In August 2011,  Matt and I got engaged and started planning our wedding.  We moved out of our apartment and into a beautiful house in January 2012, and we adopted a black lab mix (Stella the Skittish) in April.  Classes and work went on as they had been.

That summer, I took five weeks off from work and strapped myself to my desk to study for the MCAT.  This was the one hurdle that I thought would be a ‘make it or break it’ moment.  I took every practice test I could get my hands on and studied between 6 and 12 hours a day (while taking Bio-Organic Chemistry, I might add).  It was like training for a marathon – I had a whole schedule of how I would taper down my studying just before the test.  I remember laying in bed the night before, singing to myself under my breath (“House at Pooh Corner”), trying to get to sleep.

I couldn’t have asked for a better test day.  I’ve heard horror stories, but everything went smoothly for me.  Matt and I went out to celebrate that night, and started waiting for scores to come back.  A few weeks later, they did; I was very happy with mine, although, being a perfectionist, I would have liked it to be higher.

That fall, I applied to medical school for the first time.  We applied in October, which was a huge mistake in retrospect.  The thing about this process is that unless you’ve been through it recently or know someone who has, you’re in the dark.  You don’t know what’s important and what isn’t.  After the last few years, I’ve decided that applying early is probably the most important thing.  Applicant decisions are made on a rolling basis – the earlier an application is in, the better chance of acceptance.  We waited.  And waited.  Rejection letters started showing up in the mailbox.

Matt and I got married in January 2013, and we were still practically holding our breaths for news.  Until this past autumn, we both look back on our honeymoon as the one time in the past four years that we haven’t been worrying obsessively about my medical school future.

In February 2013, I had my one interview of that application cycle – at the University of Tennessee.  My immediate reaction was to cry in my car afterward, so when I got my rejection letter in March, I wasn’t shocked.  They were kind enough to provide some feedback, and recommended that I expand my clinical experience.  I got a job as a scribe in the Emergency Room at a Level 1 Trauma Center in Memphis, I graduated Cum Laude with my Bachelor’s of Science in Biology, and we got ready to apply all over again.

Bout of Books 12.0 – Days 4 and 5

Bout of Books

Well that’s more like it!  The last two days were fantastic reading days.
On Thursday, I finished Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell (249 pages) and read 79 pages of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
Yesterday (Friday), I finished Station Eleven (254 pages) and read 39 pages of The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara.
If you’re participating, how are you doing so far?