Friday, February 12, 2010

Randi Hutter Epstein

Randi Hutter Epstein, MD, is a medical journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, and several national magazines. Her new book is Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I hadn’t realized that everything I was reading was so depressing—well written but on the downer side—so I had to pick up a Bill Bryson. Any of them would do and I keep them scattered around the house, but when I really need a laugh, I grab Notes from a Small Island, one of his earlier books (before he walked the Adirondack trail). It’s about life in England circa 1973.

I’ve read it about a dozen times, so now I don’t do front to back, I just open to any page and start reading. Last night, I was in bed giggling, tears running down my face—and being super annoying to my husband who is in the middle of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail. (He says it’s a great read, but it’s not a book that gets you belly laughing.)

Bryson knows how to take the every-day annoying things, the stuff that gets most of us frustrated and turn it into something quite amusing. He also finds humor in things I never even thought to notice.

I lived in England for about five years and while I knew they had peculiar names for their villages and pubs, it never dawned on me to consider their prison names. Bryson did. Or as he put it, “There is almost no area of British life that isn’t touched with a kind of genius for names. Just look at the names of prisons. You could sit me down with a limitless supply of blank paper and a pen and command me to come up with a more cherishably ludicrous name for a prison and in a lifetime I couldn’t improve on Wormwood Scrubs or Strangeways.”

Maybe he’s not as funny to most people as he is to me, but then again, I did say this book was my rebound date. I needed something to make me smile.

So here’s the sad stuff:

I am in the middle of Memory Lessons: A Doctor’s Story, by Jerald Winakur. It is a gorgeously written memoir about a geriatrician caring for his father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I really shouldn’t say it’s sad because I find it so soothing and his prose is just delightful. He tells us in the introduction that this book is not an advice book—there is no 12-step program to make a caregiver’s life any easier. But he wrote the book for two reasons. “I am searching my past—as a son and as a doctor—in an attempt to come to terms with my father’s and my mother’s aging process and impending demise, knowing full well that I am next in line. And while I say that this is not an instruction manual for aging, I am also writing it in the hope that these stories will, in the end, resonate with you and your loved ones.”

It resonates for me loud and clear. I am coping (sometimes not coping) with my father’s Alzheimer’s disease and having Memory Lessons in my bed or in my backpack is as if I have a comforting doctor—a Dr. Winakur—holding my hand through the process. His reminisces of medical school are not the typical doctor memoir (look what I did!), but rather the coming of age of a young man.

I picked up Memory Lessons after finishing Douglas A. Blackmon’s must-read Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. The book is chock full of gruesome details of the abuse of African-Americans after they were “freed.” It really should be an essential part of high school curricula. Blackmon tells the stories through the eyes of several families as young men were duped into slave labor, tortured, sometimes to death. Unlike in the days of legalized slavery when owners had a vested interest to keep their slaves somewhat healthy so they could work, the factory owners knew they had a constant supply of replacements.

I always have to read fiction, some really good story, to lose myself in and break up all the true stuff I’m learning about. Right now, I’m in the middle of Doris Lessing’s The Real Thing, a collection of short stories based in London. (I hadn’t realized until this writing that I’m reading a lot about death (Winakur and Blackmon) and England (Bryson and Lessing) and I’m not sure what that means. If anything. Lessing does what every seventh grade English teacher tells students: Show me. Don’t tell me. We feel we know what makes her characters tick just by the way they talk to each other, or not talk, or by the decisions they make.
Read an excerpt from Get Me Out and listen to the NPR story about the book.

Learn more about Get Me Out at the publisher's website, and visit Randi Hutter Epstein's Psychology Today blog, Birth, Babies, and Beyond.

--Marshal Zeringue