My Struggle Book Three: Boyhood

mystrugglebook3_catcover_r5Karl Ove Knausgård, 2009
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, 2014

“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone done down in front of you.” (136)

Of the three Knausgård memoir-novels I’ve read thus far in this six part opus, book three is easily my favorite.

Both books one and two were fantastic in establishing the voice of this ongoing story. Each of those two volumes relied upon a non-linear collage of personal memories from the author’s life in order to articulate Knausgård’s intoxicating vision of an entire life of personal reflection expressed in novel form. Book one wove back and forth from childhood and adulthood, focusing on Knausgård’s tenuous lifelong relationship with his father and book two danced between stories of Knausgård as a single and then twice-married man as that book explored his trust in his ability to love and settle into his identity as both an author and father. Book three approached the memoir-novel narrative in a more conventional linear fashion as is expected of the coming-of-age genre.

I don’t know if it is the fact that this is the first book that I’ve had a chance to finish in the past four months or if the fact that my past four months have been focused on my own new identity as a father but this book’s focus on childhood really spoke to me and added to my enjoyment of the simple linearity of the storytelling. Both books one and two established a kinship between reader and author and that kinship is magnified through Knausgård’s exploration of his early childhood as the subject of this book. There is a simplicity and honesty of the retelling of childhood memories.

The narrative voice is still the voice of today reflecting upon the past but the bulk of the narrative moves linearly through Knausgård’s childhood from early school days through his early pubescent struggles of personal identity and relationships. Of course, book three takes a closer look at Knausgård’s relationship to his father, since his presence is looming over the author’s childhood, but the relationship is always told from the perspective of child to father and not adult to adult as was reflected in volume one.

There are many moments of the father-son conflict, but the one that impacted me the most in my reading was a story about a time when young Knausgård did a good deed for an old woman and was rewarded with enough money to buy some candy. He took the candy home and his father immediately assumed that Knausgård stole the money and lied about the the theft that did not actually occur. The imposing and suspicious nature of his father forced young Knausgård to throw the candy away in the garbage and the good deed goes punished, conflicting the young boy’s identity in public versus familial life. The story was sad and deflating and is an example of many in an unending string of examples of unjust punishments inflicted by a father that had valued order and appearance more than the development of a relationship with his son.

Although young Karl Ove Knausgård’s boyhood existed in the time and place of Norway of the 1970’s, his storytelling achieves a universality that spoke to my own boyhood of the geographically and culturally very distant Southern California of the 1980’s. The precise experiences cataloged in this book  are unique to Karl Ove Knausgård, but the way in which those experiences are expressed ignited a firestorm of memories about my own boyhood. This is what makes all of the My Struggle volumes engaging reads. Knausgård focuses on the mundane and in so doing he reveals universal themes that speak to existence and life in our modern times. Although the title My Struggle implies a melodramatic narrative, in no way is this story a tragic story told with the cynical voice of Holden Caufield; there is no single metaphorical or life affirming event that drives the struggle in these pages. The struggle is one of identity and loneliness. In boyhood the struggle is a common story of many themes. Those themes are varied, but common to the boyhood experience and  include the difficulty of living with an authoritarian and mistrusting father, the liberating freedom of riding a bike with friends, the camaraderie of playing sports on teams, the self-defeat of being suppressed by constant teasing of one’s peers, self doubt and questions of sexuality simply because one doesn’t fit in with the tastes and interest of peers, the liberation of discovering woman through the teen-boy trade of porn mags found in the forest, awkward discomfort with girls and first kisses and the deflating ego-crush of repeatedly being dumped in short-lived romances.

The struggle to find oneself and make an effort to legitimize one’s identity and behavior becomes a central part of Knausgård’s youth. His interest in arts and literature grows as he grows and his reading interests transition from comic books to literature as he becomes increasingly interested in eclectic music and artistic expression. His interests set him apart from his peers who are more interested in popular tastes and as he observes his peers engage in the all to common popularity contest of youth and he is beside himself in an effort to pursue a life that is good and just and not simply driven by popularity. He discovers himself aligning with christian ideals, but not through any church-going or social influences but through his interests in reading books and the messages within the stories he reads.

“My dad brought me some books…they were from his childhood in the fifties…not only did they hound and beat up this boy that was so different from them…in light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to be a good person.” (270)

The struggle to be a good person and not simply follow the crowd or succumb to the pressures of familial (or fatherly) expectation are central to Knausgård’s boyhood story. The pressures of youth and peer expectations seem monumental when living through them, but in retrospect are only a blip in the human experience. This does’t discredit the importance or weight of that experience bears while living through the burdensome trials of existence, but there is a freedom one achieves when looking upon the past with a reflective perspective, knowing that those times are gone and done and though important in the makeup of one’s life, are but a piece of the puzzle that makes one whole.

“Who I am to them I have no idea, probably a vague memory of someone they once knew in their childhood years, for they have done so much to one another in their lives since then, so much has happened and with such impact that the small incidents that took place in their childhoods have no more gravity that the dust stirred up from a passing car, or the seeds of a withering dandelion dispersed by the breath of a small mouth.” (427)

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Attempting to Process

One year ago this week I was visiting Paris when the Parisian people were attacked by Islamic fanatics enacting the largest bloodshed that the city had experienced since the atrocities and occupation of the second World War. During the events I was separated from my wife and had walked through the city streets in a confused stupor, listening to a ceaseless drone of ambulance sirens while I could faintly smell the distinctly odd aroma of gunfire. I was a mere few blocks away from several of the despicable acts of terrorism and it was a frightening and influential moment of my life.

The following day after my wife and I were reunited I was filled with many conflicting emotions about what had happened. Overall I walked away from the incident oddly inspired and hopeful as I admired the Parisian and French people. Although there was a clearly somber mood to the city and the presence of armed militia on the streets was oddly both comforting and discomforting at the same time, the people of Paris continued about their business and this inspired me. Of course I couldn’t understand the language and therefore did not truly know the thoughts muttered on the breaths of the people; the fact that their voices spoke and commerce continued was encouraging.

That attack was an assault on both the French and Western way of life and had been organized by a small number of deranged extremists. It was an atrocious event but I was mindful that this atrocity was the result of a small group of lunatics that were an outside force attempting to destroy the fabric of a just, albeit imperfect, social system in the name of fanatical, hateful idealism. This fact doesn’t make it okay, but in my mind, the external nature of terrorism makes it less terrifying because it is random and unexpected. That may sound odd, but wouldn’t you feel more comfortable visiting any European country where there exists the potential threat of terrorism than you would visiting someplace with ongoing conflict that is real, present, and expected? 

I cannot deny that both prior to and following November 13th, 2015 there have been a myriad of attacks across the globe where countless more people have senselessly died in the name of a fanatical and misguided idealism. This is very much the way of the world today. However, having experienced the Paris events my awareness was altered and when I was in Sydney over the New Year holiday, I was acutely hyper aware of the vulnerability of having so many people in such a small area. Living with this awareness I have tried to champion hope, knowing that although terrorism will continue and that the presence of these random acts are a fact of the present way of the world, there continues an ongoing struggle to reduce injustice and hate and promote peace. I had maintained these thoughts with a belief that terrorism would only win when the social fabric of order and peace is permanently disrupted and I refused to believe that day of disruption could happen.

I reflect on those past events and these thoughts regarding terrorism on this day of November 9th, 2016 because this day is just as impactful. Following the election of Donald Trump as the president of my country I am overcome with an indescribable emotional hangover that is utterly deflating. As I went on a walk during my lunch break in an attempt to gain some focus I was reminded of my feelings on that past morning of November 14th, 2015 when I had walked the streets of Paris searching for hope amidst violence. A year ago my thoughts and observations led me to follow hope but today I sadly I cannot rediscover that feeling of hope within me.

The violence that occurs through terrorism is an external force exerting a threat upon the social norms that the terrorists despise. I see this election as an social crumbling and reflection of an internal cultural terror. I see the “Make America Great Again” philosophy and marketing brand as a misguided idealism for a way of life that has been fading. This cultural idealism is no different than the violent idealism for a religious way of life that has long faded. Both idealisms are rooted in the lost hopes of a disenfranchised people. Never mind that we will be forced to look at that snarky orange face and listen to his patronizing voice for four terribly long years; the truly upsetting outcome is not Trump himself, but the fact that he succeeded in achieving the nation’s highest office by promoting a branded campaign based on misogynistic, hate-mongering, and racism with an embarrassingly unqualified platform that was only supported by ceaseless bullying, misinformation, and  of course terror. The fact that this nation voted this clown, failed businessman and reality tv star into office is totally and utterly embarrassing. This nomination speaks from a voice of fears in the other and the platform of isolationism will not inspire the self awareness this country’s people truly need. On this day the people of this country have spoken: selfish fear has triumphed over the promotion of civil liberties. Isolationistic nationalism has triumphed over global cohesiveness. Misinformation has triumphed over qualified preparedness.

This country has taken a dark step into an already frightening world and I am completely disgusted and disappointed. There may be a market collapse as a result of Trump’s economic policies, there may be oncoming war or global conflict as a result of his flippant approach to international affairs, there may be a lapse of civil liberties and environmental protection in this nation and globally: or perhaps not. There is a chance Trump will be entirely ineffective and only last 4 years but he will never be a blip in the history books. The true damage I see is not the man himself. The true damage is the cultural damage enacted by not Trump, but his supporters. This has long been coming, the cultural divide in this supposedly united nation is cavernous and the direction is now headed is at odds with logic and human decency. The disrespect and vehemence towards both Clinton and Obama has been absolutely despicable, the Access Hollywood tapes, the mocking of war heros and the handicapped  is only the beginning. I am fearful for more Fergusons. I am fearful for lynching and internal violence. I am fearful for the justification of racism homophobia and xenophobia. It is all so overwhelming that I just don’t know what to think. I am deeply saddened to call myself a part of this nation. I am deeply saddened to be raising a daughter in this world.

I am deeply saddened that I have so much fear.

And from this, I just have no more words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Physics of Sorrow

downloadGeorgi Gospodinov, 2011
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

“The physics of sorrow – initially the classical physics thereof – was the subject of my pursuits for several years. Sorrow, like gases and vapors, does not have its own shape or volume, but rather takes on the shape and volume of the container or space it occupies.” (250)

The last few books I’ve read have left me less than inspired and I was beginning to grow apathetic towards reading in general. I’d like to think that my disappointments were due to several life events that have been keeping me busy and distracting me from devoted, focused reading, but in reviewing my criticisms of Annihilation, 10:04, and The Story of My Teeth, I’m convinced that these books were disappointing for concrete, valid reasons inherent in the style and plot structure of those books and not just my own distracted perspective. As I had been growing concerned that my reading pursuits were taking a turn toward a region of unending disappointment I was pleased by the uniquely intoxicating world depicted in the pages of The Physics of Sorrow. Although the title may be slightly melodramatic, this book should not be categorized as depressive. There are a lot of fun things going on in this book and the title shouldn’t discourage the reader from exploring its labyrinthine exploration of ideas.

 I’ve opened this post with the passage above that gives mention to the gaseous, transient state of sorrow as an indication of the fluidity of ideas of emotion, identity and metaphor explored in these pages. The success and allure of Gospindinov’s novel doesn’t solely rely upon broad philosophical statements about life; this book’s true charm lies in its ability to playfully weave through different stories told from different perspectives and time in a cohesive and readable style that captivates the reader.

The central story circles around the myth of half-man half-bull Minotaur, the bestial offspring of  Pasiphaë, the greek hero Minos’s wife who was orphaned in the labyrinth to become a monster. This story touches upon the significance of myth as a tool to distort man’s view of the world: the misunderstood orphan becomes the feared monster. This central theme is at the root of the narrator’s ability to travel through time and relive the lives of his ancestors, rediscovering the lost connection between his grandfather’s illegitimate offspring when he was a Hungarian prisoner of war during World War One, or his father’s  lifetime living in poor basements in post-war Bulgaria, or his own strange disconnection to modern day technology while living in Paris. All of these stories from different slants of time are twists and turns through the labyrinth of story-telling and ultimately reveal the importance and power of story, or myth, as a deep rooted necessity for human identity.

To get a sense at what I am trying to convey, consider the following reflection told from the lense of the narrator’s grandfather’s observations of the gravestones in an ancient cemetery:

“What happened to the names after their owner died? … Words are our first teacher in death. The first sign of the parting between bodies and their names. The strangest thing about that cemetery was that the names repeated themselves. I stood for a long time in front of a headstone with my name, freed up by someone who had used it for only three years.” (51)

Ideas of identity, loss, and timelessness are infectious within this book and speak volumes about the potential of literature as a tool that transcends a mere function as a source of entertainment. The narrative that weaves through multiple perspectives from mythological musings of the story of the Minotaur to World War One to present day reflections on the influence of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and the PlayStation aren’t just gimmicky experimentalism for the sake of experimentalism. This is a profoundly enriching book that uses narrative as a tool to explore ideas of lineage, identity, abandonment, violence, and loneliness, as well as the over-arching ideas of mythology and Platonic ideals. Ultimately, this books is focused on the universal ideas of the sublime and transcendence and their relationship to the everyday:

“Even if you … haven’t heard of Kant, or if you inhabit the eternal, illiterate fields of anonymous villages and towns of empty days and nights, the sublime will reveal itself to you in your own language. As smoke from a chimney on a winter morning, as a slice of blue sky, as a cloud that reminds you of something from another world, as a pile of buffalo shit. The sublime is everywhere.” (168)

Why is this important? Why is this significant? So much human energy is spent on the ideals that are valuable only from a certain perspective. Our place in time, our moment in history, our mark on this earth, is momentary. The human belief, or rather, the western philosophical belief in the significance of individuality is brushed aside when framed within the scope of human pre-history. The importance of human achievement is fleeting and ironically discredits the significance of the individual:

“We live in houses that will continue to live on even after we die. We go to cathedrals, where long lines of people and generations who are no longer with us have trod, as if on Judgement Day. All of this tells you: you pass on but we remain. We’ve buried plenty before you, we’ll take care of the ones you’ve sired as well. Think up at least one good reason why that which is built of stone should last longer than that built of flesh. I don’t see any particular point of justice in that. We can only wonder what sense of time and the eternal the ones who came before us had, in the dark of the night in the primeval, living in flimsy huts, outliving their flimsy huts, outliving their hearths, moving from place to place, measuring out their lives in days and nights, in lighted and extinguished fires …. they truly lived forever and they died at thirty.” (172)

The Physics of Sorrow is a vapor that intoxicates, filling the void of literary potential. This book speaks so many volumes that it is unspeakable.

 

 

 

 

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The Story of My Teeth

downloadValeria Luiselli, 2015
Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, 2015

The Story of My Teeth is a beautifully bound book told in 10 short, but disjointed chapters that unfortunately don’t make any sense or provide any meaningful insight. When I say that this is beautifully bound, I am referring to the actual physical presentation of the book that includes several sketchings of physiologically accurate presentations of uprooted teeth as numerical indicators for each chapter in addition to several black and white full page microscope slide views of histological slices of tissue with additional presentation of aphorisms translated from fortune cookies as well as quotations taken from several famous authors. There are eight pages of this stuff between each chapter and although it is very pretty to look at, this overly excessive and academically experimental presentation should have been a red flag to this reader because The Story of My Teeth is a nothing more than a forced smile with nothing of substance behind it.

I’d like to think that something was lost in translation or that perhaps this wasn’t the right book for me at this stage in my life, but there was so much wrong with this book that I just never found myself finding any interest in it. It actually bored me. At least it was short and the pretty presentation kept me going, but this book felt less like an actual novel and more like a graduate student’s masters thesis in experimentation. Why oh why this is so highly recommended I can’t fathom.

The plot starts out somewhat engaging, the narrator, a young man born with screwed up teeth works for several years as a security guard at a juice factory until he is promoted to become a counselor of sorts. He doesn’t last long in this position and he soon becomes an auctioneer. He boasts that he is the best auctioneer in the world, but he is really just a small time charlatan. He manages to replace his teeth with Marilyn Monroe’s pearly whites and then he auctions off his old teeth to raise money for his church and in the process he auctions himself off to his estranged son who, in an odd set of circumstances, exacts revenge on the father that had abandoned him since childhood. Through all of this we have the auctioneer telling us stories within the story as he is portraying his allegorical style of auctioneering. All of the mini allegorical stories are pretty much meaningless drivel that become excessively annoying as they reveal themselves as opportunities for Luiselli to name-drop different famous authors within the text of the book.

The only take away I got from this story is that The Story of My Teeth is an experimental mess. Only after I read Luiselli’s Afterword, did the light-bulb turn on for me about what was going on here; this is pretentious writing at its worst:

“The Jumex Collection, one of the most important contemporary art collections in the world, is funded by Grupo Jumex – a juice factory. There is naturally a gap between the two worlds: a gallery and a juice factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice. How could I link the two distant but neighboring worlds, and could literature play a mediating role? I decided to write tangentially – even allegorically – about the art world, and to focus on the life of the factory. I also decided to write not so much about but for the factory workers, suggesting a procedure that seemed appropriate to this end.” (192)

Luiselli says it herself, this was an experiment to try to write a book not about but for the working class from the perspective of the artistic class and unfortunately that self-righteous experiment ultimately reveals that this book is really for no one – or at least it wasn’t for me! If that afterword was a forward, I would have been forewarned about what I was getting myself into and could have potentially saved me from this toothless story that had no bite.

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A Brief History of Portable Literature

downloadEnrique Vila-Matas, 1985
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean & Thomas Bunstead, 2015

“as is well known, to be born is to begin to die.” (13)

A Brief History of Portable Literature is a brief novella with much to say in a complex and whimsical way of saying it. This is the story of a secret society of novelists and artists, The Shandys, who supposedly existed in Europe during the modern period following the first World World and shortly after the second. The Shandy’s primary aim was to create literature that was “portable,” or in other words, brief, as is this novella. But the brevity isn’t just out of economy of words, but to demonstrate that brevity in size of text need not be paired with brevity of scope. This actual novella includes many true life novelists in its scope, including Duchamp, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Hemmingway, Riguat, and many others. The plot ranges from a misguided trip to Africa in search of revelations, to travels to New York art scene, to epidemics of suicide, to secret meetings in a submarine, to the eventual crumbling of the Shandy society through one of its members devotion to Satanist beliefs. There is a lot going on here in the slim 84 pages and it somehow works, provided the reader suspends disbelief in the enjoyment of the ride.

Much of that suspension of disbelief mus be attributed to the semi-nihilistic and anarchistic Shandy belief system of free-living and disconnection from societal norms:

“The portable writers always behaved like irresponsible children. From the outset, they established staying single as an essential requirement for entering into the Shandy secret society or, at least, acting as though one were.” (3)

The bachelerohood nature of the creative is a central theme to this novella and is probably the only take away I gathered from my reading. It is, admittedly, an ambitious read that some readers may find overly academic, but I believe that such a reaction misinterprets the free-spirited intention of this book. Yes, many artists and creative types have an academic vein to their behaviors and beliefs, but ultimately their creativity is motivated by a need to demonstrate vision and originality that extends beyond themselves. Interestingly, a book that is overly focused on the necessity of bachelerohood to achieve such creativity adeptly explores the contradictions of identity and lineage:

“Am I going to be my father? Does this mean that my whole life has been a fantasy lived in a another person’s name? Are we nothing more than our ancestors, and never ourselves?” (41)

With passages such as the one above, this brief history manages to touch upon central themes that extend beyond creativity or literature that are central to human identity.

 

 

 

 

 

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Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad!

Dude, You're Gonna Be a Dad hi-res jacket artJohn Pfeiffer, 2011

After sharing the exciting news that we were expecting with a close friend of mine who is a recent father, I was handed a copy of Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad! to add to the pile of expectant parenting books that my wife and I were collecting. My friend did preface the gift/loan with the admitted warning that this book is written at a pretty high level and is full of a lot of cliche humor. He had read it on a Mexican vacation over a single tequila infused evening. From my friend’s advice, this book requires little attention but does provide a few good moments of thoughtful inspiration that makes it worth the read.

Perhaps I should have had some tequila at my side because in my reading I found it challenging to find any sort of inspiration in these pages. The style of this book is so dumbed-down, self-centered, and chauvinistic that I found myself cringing at every page with embarrassment. I did finish the book eventually, just because it was light reading to have on the side of my other readings, but it took me over two months to get through what could have been finished in a day or two because I could only stomach reading two or three pages at time before I found myself rolling my eyes with embarrassed disappointment. The target audience is definitely a young 20-something frat boy who is overly focused on the sexual impact that pregnancy has upon his BMP “baby-making-partner” and how the new child will affect his bro-time. Not only is the frequent reference of partner as BMP totally objectifying, it is simply cliche for a book with “Dude” in the title.

Not more than 2 or 3 pages passes before there is a ridiculous reference to the impact that pregnancy has upon the bro’s all important sexlife or how the child would affect the dude’s frat style that it became apparent that the author is trying really really hard to be funny at the expense of being informative. Take for example the following passage about prenatal visits to the Obstetrician:

“The key here is to remember that the alternative to these boring, repetitive visits would be a visit where something is wrong with the mother or child. This is obviously a worst-case scenario, so unlike a first date in which extreme boredom signals us that yet again we have underestimated personality versus looks, we will celebrate and embrace boredom when it comes’ to the doctor’s visits.” (48)

Or this passage about selecting a name for the unborn child:

“Do not try to sneak in a name that represents something funny to you but if your wife finds out, you’re dead. I know it’s tempting. You’re thinking that every time you see your child, you’ll get a little giggle. Names of old girlfriends, that stripper you thought you loved in college, and your online avatar are off-limits.” (79)

And this discussion of C-sections was so over the top stupid that I couldn’t help but be embarrassed for my manhood:

“Certain circumstances call for the doctor to go ahead and, for lack of better verbiage, bring the baby into the world by cutting open your BMP’s abdomen and lifting the baby out. Slightly gross. Some women prefer to do this to help maintain their appearance. They’re either planning on leaving you very soon or they’re extremely vain.” (141)

Writing like this is meant to be left on the toilet and flipped through during those moments that require distraction during slow relief and that is what I did with this garbage book. This book was total garbage and an embarrassment to read.

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Gulp

downloadMary Roach, 2013

Gulp, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was an informative tasting of journalistic semi-pseudo-scientific writing. In these pages Mary Roach explores a variety of curiosities regarding the  human digestive tract, following the  route that all food must pass, beginning at the first whiff of smell and taste through olfaction all the way on to the final excretion that all bowels must pass. Although, this non-fictive book is supported by strong research and interviews with several qualified specialists, Gulp should not be mistaken as a self -help of medical text. Roach writes with a journalistic inquisitiveness to satisfy any reader’s interests in the inner workings of their digestive exploits. With this in mind, any reader looking for the opportunity to expand their understanding of the body’s workings should be warned that throughout the book Mary Roach maintains a playful awareness about the subject matter that borders on, but never crosses, the prepubescent juvenile realm of fart and turd jokes. There is good fun in these pages and for non-fiction writing Gulp is an enjoyable light read.

I can’t say that there is anything groundbreaking or overly insightful here, but of course my nursing/medical knowledge has provided me with a fairly good understanding of the inner workings of the digestive tract, another reader may find some insightful information in these pages. Gulp is a fun light read that moves quite quickly, provided the reader isn’t too squeamish. In Gulp Roach explores several alimentary ailments including the historical belief that animals could live in the stomach and cause digestive discomfort to actual evidence of tapeworms and other parasites including the bane of hospital inpatients, the bowel destroying bacteria C. diff. Roach’s discussion of stool transplants to treat/cure C. diff was perhaps the most interesting part of the book for this nurse/reader. I found it inspiring that there is good evidence that stool transplants can treat and cure chronic C. diff and I found it quite frustrating to hear that the primary reason that this procedure hasn’t become common practice is that insurance is likely to deny coverage since the research of the procedure’s effectiveness has been caught up in FDA bureaucracy. Much of the book is filled with nice little tidbits of well researched information written with an entertaining flare. It is a worthwhile read, but not one that inspires me to say much more than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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