Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Hi all.  I'm taking a break from novellas to talk about a piece of medical literature.  Christina of The Blue Bookcase wrote a list of medical narratives and invited further suggestions to add to the list.  I immediately thought of Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder and felt compelled to share it with everyone.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is the non-fiction account of Dr. Paul Farmer, an incredibly dedicated anthropologist and doctor as well as a remarkably compassionate human being.  A while ago, I participated in a Literary Blog Hop in which we were asked whether non-fiction could be of literary merit.  At the time, I affirmed the question with the example of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but this piece by Kidder is another excellent example.  I read it during my freshman year of college in one of those generic classes we were all required to take, but it stood out in my mind as probably the best book of the entire course.  Paul Farmer's life is absolutely noteworthy, and in the hands of Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy Kidder, this true story is captivating and inspiring.

Farmer is a globe-trotting, catch-all physician who gives esteemed lectures, leads social policy, and still meets with patients one-on-one in remote corners of the world.  Take one look at his bio and you will be baffled by the number of affiliations, awards, and commitments he has.  Kidder explains in his book that Farmer barely leaves time for sleep because he is so active in so many different ways.  His specialty is infectious disease, and he has worked particularly hard to fight against HIV and TB.  He has spent a considerable amount of time in Russia, Peru, and Haiti, and I just read that he is now based in Rwanda, which has been a new initiative since the book was published in 2003.  In addition to these somewhat long-term placements, he regularly travels to a number of different countries and bases his US operations in Boston.  In Boston, he is on the board of Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital.  As a Bostonian myself, I feel proud to have him in the area and am on the lookout for an opportunity to perhaps hear him lecture if that were ever possible.

Despite his impressive credentials, Mountains Beyond Mountains is much more focused on the story of the man and not the highly pedigreed doctor.  With a man like this - one who is so devoted to caring for others that he doesn't seem to ever think of himself - it would be easy to be intimidated or perhaps even turned-off by his super-human persona.  Yet in the book, we sense that Farmer is a quiet, humble man who is unaffected by the acclaim he has garnered.  Moreover, I was moved by the feeling that he in no way expects others to live the kind of life he does and has no judgment for those who do not or cannot.  There was one particular passage that struck me in this regard.  His friend Tom White had consistently donated thousands and even millions of dollars to Farmer's endeavors but expressed a sense of failure for not helping people first-hand like Farmer.  But Farmer quickly shot down his concerns and insisted that it was necessary that White continued to help in the way that best suited his gifts and abilities.  Farmer explained that his work would not be possible without White's contribution in this way, and he was doing exactly the right thing.  I think that this is applicable in a lot of ways and illustrates Farmer's genuine spirit.  He doesn't view himself as some kind of superhero, and he has sincere respect and gratefulness for anyone who extends themselves to help as best as they can.  His favorite moments are not the ones in front of an audience but when he is one-on-one with a needy patient. 

Kidder tags along with Farmer for a number of visits and meetings, which gives us an intimate and personal look at this remarkable man.  There are just as many deaths and failures as there are saves and successes, which demonstrates how real the story is.  Farmer's earnest devotion to caring for the poor, together with his genuine humility, is truly inspiring.  For me, this is not your average "feel good" story about someone who made a difference but an intimate look at a man who fights for what has been deeply engraved on his heart.  And I have to praise Kidder for his talent in crafting the story.  He is a wonderful writer, and he allows the story to unfold in an interesting and captivating way.  He takes the time to show us that there is more to uncover than the actions of the doctor, and he gives us a peek at the heart of the man. 


Christina said...

Oh boy, I CAN'T WAIT to read this!

Seth said...

Thanks for commenting at Free Listens. Your blog looks interesting, so I've joined via GFC.

This book sounds great. You may or may not know that the title is likely a reference to At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft, a classic novella, thus tying together your previous posts. I'm a bit of a novella fan myself. My favorites include The Time Traveller by H.G. Wells, The Dead by James Joyce, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Overcoat (aka The Cloak) by Nikolai Gogol. I've included links to my reviews and the free audiobooks, so you can listen to them if you haven't read them yet.