August 22, 2012

Beat The Reaper

BEAT THE REAPER by Josh Bazell grabbed me from the opening sentence: "So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!" I love a strong narrative voice with a good sense of humor, and this book delivered that all the way through. I received the book as a gift from a friend (thanks, Alison!), and I'm hoping to pass the fantastic reading experience on to as many people as possible.

The narrator is Dr. Peter Brown, a first-year resident at a terrible hospital in New York City. It quickly becomes clear from the way he takes out his would-be mugger that Dr. Brown has skills not normally acquired in medical school. The story of his checkered and violent past is revealed in flashback chapters as he goes through his day at the hospital -- and today his past is finally catching up with him.

BEAT THE REAPER is an action-packed thriller that always kept me wondering what would happen next. It's full of weird medical details and intriguing (that is, horrific) information about the realities of health care. Dr. Brown has a talent for medicine, but his methods are often unusual, which is a real asset at a hospital with so few resources. The story has many disturbing parts, medical and otherwise, but the narrator delights in finding the absurdity of all of it, so the book is darkly hilarious even when he's talking about awful events.

Josh Bazell is a doctor himself, and he somehow found the time to write this novel during medical school and residency. As a result, the book is packed with insider knowledge. This is something I particularly love in books, when done well. I often despair over the fact that I have no extensive personal knowledge of anything that I could write a novel around. (The world has more than enough stories about writers writing.)

For example, here's one detail that really stuck with me because it sounds so authentic and also reveals a lot about the character. Dr. Brown is describing the process of scrubbing in to assist with a surgery: "Washing your hands, by the way,... is the best part of surgery.... You're supposed to do it for five minutes. You do it for three, which feels like a vacation." I love the way those simple sentences convey so much about the life of doctors in general and this one in particular. The whole book impressed me in that way, and it kept me turning pages and laughing out loud at the same time. That's a pretty admirable accomplishment for any author, let alone one in the process of completing a medical education.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Lydia Sharp speaks out on the difficult topic of knowing when to let go of an unsuccessful manuscript: "Right now I'm working on my fifth completed novel, and I'd tried (and failed) to get the four others before it published.... The public admittance that I have that many unpublished novels is, in itself, a risky statement. Sure, other authors have publicly admitted that they wrote many, many manuscripts before getting one published. But have you ever noticed that they don't do so until they DO have a book deal?" (Thanks, Jennifer R. Hubbard!)

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