BookTalk: Do No Harm

by Sharon Kane

donoharmWe would like to think that brain surgeons are infallible, though of course that is an unrealistic expectation, as Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) demonstrates. Marsh shares his weaknesses, misjudgments, and anxieties as a neurosurgeon along with fascinating details of adventures he’s had in the operating room. We come to admire his talents in both his medical specialty and his writing as he “attempt[s] to give an honest account of what it is like to be a neurosurgeon” (p. x).

Most of the chapter titles indicate the conditions that lead to the need for Marsh’s services. The chapters include details of particular surgeries (most of which include a lot of blood), conversations with patients pre-and-post surgery, and explanations of how Marsh makes decisions in situations that are fraught with risk. Readers can feel his remorse and anguish when patients worsen after surgery, and his exhilaration when a seemingly hopeless scenario turns around due to his skill.

In one chapter, Marsh describes himself as a patient. He explains, “Most medical students go through a brief period when they develop all manner of imaginary illnesses . . . until they learn, as a matter of self-preservation, that illnesses happen to patients, not to doctors” (p. 215). He notes that doctors often dismiss their own initial symptoms and can be slow to diagnose themselves. But he could not ignore the effects of a vitreous detachment and thus had to place himself in the hands of a retinal surgeon. Another time, he broke his leg, and after that surgery his doctor “insisted on keeping me in hospital for five days on the grounds that I was a doctor and would not listen to his medical advice that I should rest my leg. . .” (p. 228). Some of his colleagues saw him in the hospital and “looked somewhat startled to see me disguised as a patient in a dressing gown with a leg in plaster” (p. 229).

Marsh manages to turn everything into a story, which is what makes this nonfiction account of his career so fascinating. He presents ethical dilemmas and then brings us along on his rounds as he deals with them. Marsh is an expert in his field and is someone I would trust.

Appropriate for high school and beyond

biology, ethics, careers, ELA

BookTalk: The Soul of an Octopus

by Sharon Kane

soulofanoctopusI have enjoyed the books naturalist Sy Montgomery has written for the Scientists in the Field series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), so I was eager to read her newest book, this time marketed for adults: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015, Atria Books). To say this book surprised and moved me is an understatement. Immediately, I was surprised to learn that the scientifically correct plural of octopus is not octopi, but octopuses. “It turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from Greek…” (p. 2). And virtually every page thereafter surprised me as I read the facts and supporting descriptions about octopuses’ intelligence, including their ability to play, interact with humans, and recognize individual people. I was surprised by the author’s passion, bravery, and lengths she went to interact with octopuses, both in captivity and in the ocean. And I was surprised at how much this reader came to appreciate and care about our fellow sentient beings. In fact, I have found myself interrupting my own work to watch YouTube clips of octopuses. Sy Montgomery has written a dangerous book!

Chapter titles reflect the names of individual octopuses Sy became friends with and fell in love with: Athena, Octavia, Kali, Karma. She also tells the stories of the tight community of fellow humans bonded by their interactions with the invertebrates. Here is how Sy relates the grief felt after Kali’s death:

Bill’s affection for his animals is as clear as the spine-tipped fin on the chimera’s back. That such a meticulous caring man has lost the most intelligent, outgoing, and beloved of them all—lost her in her healthy, vigorous, promising youth—and worst, lost her, he believes, because of his mistake—seems brutally, cosmically wrong…. Bill’s sorrow sweeps over my own like a sob. (p. 181)

In the final chapter, “Consciousness,” Sy describes being in a church built on the site of a former temple dedicated to the octopus. She meditates on what it means to have a soul, offering various definitions from religion, philosophy, and psychology, concluding, “If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too” (p. 228). Recognizing that she is on a scientific expedition, still she prays. “I pray I’ll finally get to see more than just some suckers under a rock…,and for my friends at the aquarium. And I pray for the souls of the octopuses I have known; those who are alive, and those who have died, but whom I will never forget” (p. 228).

Those who want to learn more about the scientists who study octopuses in the wild can turn to Sy Montgomery’s The Octopus Scientist: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

I think I’ll go watch another video clip. An octopus awaits.


Appropriate for middle school and high school

(biology, ELA, psychology, philosophy)

BookTalk: This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon

by Sharon Kane

thisstrangewilderness“‘My talents are to be My Support and My enthusiasm My Guide'” (p. 30). Those were the words of John James Audubon as he left his wife and young sons to head out to find and draw birds. This is one of many scenes in Nancy Plain’s This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon (2015, University of Nebraska Press) that left me pondering the sacrifices (his own and others’) that were necessary for him to follow his passion and accomplish his goals. His wife, Lucy, had to endure countless separations, up to three years in length; she had to support herself and her children; she had to watch his commitment and devotion to his life as a self-taught naturalist and artist take precedence over what most would consider his obligations to her and their children. And yet … what a gift he gave the world, and what a legacy.

I read about many “firsts” in this book. At age 20, Audubon tied silver threads around the legs of baby eastern phoebes, and thus could identify them when they returned after wintering in the south. That was the first time birds had been banded in America.

Audubon worked with paints in innovative ways:

He used pastel and watercolor together, layering and blending them, rubbing the colors with his finger or a piece of cork to create effects as rich and soft as feathers….Gold metallic paint was just right for the flash of a feather, clear glaze for the gleam of an eye. This mix was something new in painting—a revolution quietly taking shape among the magnolias. (p. 42).

I can examine the photographs from Audubon’s The Birds of America with new appreciation after reading about his trip to England to seek a publisher and solicit subscribers. So many aspects of his life involved hardships. He died at age 66 after his health and mind had deteriorated, but he certainly did remain true to his calling, and his life and work are an inspiration for readers today who love nature, art, and adventure.

I thoroughly enjoyed this extraordinary story of a truly extraordinary life. It inspired for me two new reading goals:

-I want to reread Okay for Now, a YA novel by Gary D. Schmidt (2011, Clarion Books), featuring a protagonist whose life becomes richer and more bearable when he is introduced to the works of Audubon in a public library.

-I must know more about his wife. I am heading out to get Lucy Audubon: A Biography, by Carolyn E. DeLatte (LSU Press, 1982).


Appropriate for middle school and high school

(biology, art, history, ELA)