Tell Me How It Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions
In 2015 Mexican novelist Valerie Luiselli, while waiting for her green card, took a job at the U.S. Immigration Office interviewing children seeking "immigration relief." Her job was simply to translate from Spanish into English the answers they gave to a series of standard questions regarding their current home, where they came from, why they left, where their parents were now, and so on. Unlike most journalistic treatments of the immigration issue, hers is anchored in descriptions of what individual boys and girls face as they attempt to leave behind a childhood scarred by gang violence, abandonment, and other troubles.
It soon became clear to Luiselli that her interlocutors faced a variety of issues in even answering the questions, ranging from fear to incomprehension. Her job was simply to translate what she heard, but it soon occurred to her that phrasing an answer in one way was more likely to help the child than putting it another way. Whether or not a child was eligible for legal representation was determined on the basis of these interviews . Children who are deemed worthy have three weeks to locate a lawyer on their own initiative or else face deportation.
Luiselli occasionally shared elements of one story or another to her young daughter, who would invariably respond: tell me how it ends. In most cases, her mother didn't know. Luiselli does succeed in staying in contact with one teenage boy whose best friend was murdered by gang members when he refused to sign up. He eventually gets accepted into the U.S. and relocated to a high school on Staten Island, where he meets up with the same gang that was harassing him and his friend in Honduras.
Along the way Luiselli also takes some time exploring her own feelings about applying for a green card: citizenship, nationality, identity. She also shares plenty of information about "coyotes," the hazards of border crossing, human trafficking, and so on. But her personal tone make for easy reading, the sad, unpleasant, and sometimes horrific nature of the material notwithstanding.
Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine
For most of its history the practice of medicine has been largely hit or miss—more often miss. In this elegant book-length essay Szczeklik, a professor of medicine at the Jagiellonnian University in Cracow, reviews that history, telling us more about Greek mythology and medieval alchemy, perhaps, than about modern heart surgery or chemotherapy.
The key word in the title is "art." Szczeklik has an encyclopedic command of the pertinent history, but he's especially interested in what takes place between the patient and the physician during treatment. For example, he spends several pages analyzing the Münchhausen syndrome, named after an eighteenth-century baron famous for telling tall tales. Individuals with this condition come up with a fabulous constellation of incongruous symptoms, stumping one doctor after another. The patient seems not to be aware that the symptoms are fictitious, but enjoys moving from one physician to the next, elaborating on pains that fit no pattern and cannot be diagnosed.
Münchhausen syndrome is very rare. Then again, so is the Great Doctor who, brought in from the outside and read a litany of symptoms that has stumped everyone on staff, touches a patient, puts a stethoscope to his chest, and says, "You have such and such. Do so and so."
Suddenly everything changes. As in katharsis, a process of purification follows, and that’s when the doctor in charge of the patient, who has gone through weeks on end, sometimes months of anguish, trying to find a solution but getting nowhere, thinks about that unusual guest and says: “What a Great Doctor!”
Szczeklik argues that such scenes are tinged with something magical that "has its roots in the midst of medical prehistory." And much of his book is devoted to exposing what might almost be called the metaphysical roots of that magic. Unlike works such as Evan S. Connell's The Alchemist, which revel in the poetic illogicality of medieval medical practices, Szczeklik is interested in painting a sympathetic picture. So that when, in later chapters, he describes the early days of open heart surgery and the genome project, we place those efforts, in spite of ourselves, in the context of past practices that were speculative and often dangerous but also rooted in sound intuition about how the body works and interacts with its environment.
Chapter headings such as "Chimera," "Ribbons," "A Purifying Power," and "The Rhythms of the Heart," might convey something of the tone of this little book, which is so eloquently written and so chock-full of allusions and asides from classical and medieval literature that having finished it, I'm tempted to read it all over again and see what I missed.
The Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North
I'm a big fan of European culture, and almost invariably enjoy those books in which the "soul" of a nation is laid bare. Luigi Barzini's The Europeans is a classic study, though now out of date. Similarly Gerald Brennan's books about Spain, and all of H.V. Morton's travel books. In fact, I've already moved The New Italians (Richards, 1995) and The New Spaniards (Hooper, 1995) to the basement. Sometimes the older volumes, less concerned with current trends, have more to offer. Patricia Storace's Dinner with Persephone (Greece), Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared, Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, Paul Hofmann's The Sunny Side of the Alps: the list goes on and on.
Robert Ferguson's new book about Scandinavia is current enough to deal with mass murderer Anders Breivik and soccer great Zlatan Ibrahimović, but also well researched enough to take us back to the grave finds of the pre-Viking Vendel Period. He's equally at home discussing the revolutionary reforms instituted by the physician to Frederick VII of Denmark in the late eighteenth century and the film version depicting those years, A Royal Affair, with Mats Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, which was released in 2012.
English by birth, Ferguson fell in love with Knut Hamsun after reading Hunger and later studied Norwegian, largely because he couldn't think of anything better to do. He settled in Norway when in his thirties and went on to write the first (and still the only) full-length biography of Hamsun, while also working for a Norwegian TV station on a six-part bio-pic. (I reviewed the bio for the Star-Tribune in the late 1980s—not something you're likely to find on Google.)
Ferguson's ostensible mission in writing the book is to determine whether the reputation Scandinavians have for melancholia is justified. But that's litle more than a pretext, a peg for the use of reviewers and blurb-writers. In pursuit of this elusive truth he spends a lot of time conversing with his Scandinavian friends while drinking in bars in Oslo and other places. This rambling and personalized approach works well because Ferguson is adept at shifting from the conversation at hand to his own deeper and more well-informed analysis of the same material, whether it be the Kensington Runestone, polar exploration, the films of Ingmar Bergmann, the German invasion of the Oslo Fjord, or the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
It's a discursive book, in short, but pleasantly so. It reads like a very long New Yorker profile—400 pages worth—though he tells us almost nothing about social customs or food.