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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school, I read Samuel Shem’s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine.  I gained comfort from its gallows humor – and it made me feel connected to my peers during the most stressful time of my training. So when I was invited to review Shem’s “bookend” to House Of God, it was with a sense of eagerness and nostalgia that I accepted the challenge. How had the author’s thinking developed since the launch of his first blockbuster in 1978? I hoped to find a kinder, gentler Shem, perhaps looking back on his career in medicine with a sense of grace and dignity. I wanted the pomp and cruelty of his training to fade away into a kind of “it was all worth it in the end” conclusion. Alas, I was jarred into a very different reality.

The Spirit Of The Place is a gruesome portrayal of American suburban decay, mixed with some unexplained hostility towards non-Jewish Americans and those with conservative values. The hero of the book, Orville Rose, escapes his mundane American life for a two year adventure with Doctors Without Borders in Europe. He soon is ensconced in a carnal relationship with a gold-digging, alternative-medicine practicing, Buddhist, Italian yoga master who later dumps him for a Swiss banker. Orville returns from Italy to his home town of Columbia, New York, to sort out his family affairs after his mother’s death. She has arranged to transfer all of her wealth to him if he agrees to live in his childhood home for a full year and thirteen days – a fate almost worth than death.

Columbia is a horrific place, filled with poverty, violent crime, summer mosquitoes, and winter ice storms. The central medical figure is an aging general practitioner (Bill Starbuck) who regularly prescribes a kind of snake oil for various life-threatening ailments (Starbusol). Orville sees this physician as a kind of avuncular mentor, excusing his gross medical malpractice as simply “old fashioned.” Bill soon asks that Orville take over his practice while he goes on a much needed vacation, which turns out to last over a year. Orville is stuck being the only GP for a town of about seven thousand. He soon becomes overworked and overwhelmed. But that doesn’t stop him from falling in love with a single mom and polio survivor who was secretly asked by his dying mother to mail Orville letters (written in advance) after her demise. These letters are filled with venom and manipulative accusations (paging Dr. Freud).

The plot makes the reader predisposed to feel empathy for the protagonist, but Shem so exposes Orville’s character flaws that he is nearly entirely unlikable. Every tender moment in the book is derailed by some sort of unpleasant comment or thought. Take for example, the death of Dr. Starbuck. Orville is at his bedside in the ICU, explaining how important it is to treat patients with dignity, even when they are unconscious. He gently whispers that it’s ok for Dr. Starbuck “to let go” and provides one last facial shave as the man drifts off into his final breaths. And in the middle of this, what does Orville also think to himself?

“…Bill’s groin, the purple crowned penis that had had its share of adventures in repayment for his tending the whores on Diamond street. ‘Two dollars a housecall, Bill, and you never came away empty-handed.’ He took out his comb and combed Bill’s thin hair, gray lines on a shiny dome.”

And then there’s the awkward sex scene where Orville describes kissing his lover’s limb shriveled from the polio virus. I’ll save that one for your imagination.

The point, we are left to assume, of this depressing exploration of human defects (from the physical to the emotional, and at every level of organization – from the family unit to the city government and even national and international politics) is to promote tolerance and understanding of the human condition. Unfortunately the book is more likely to suck the last breath of optimism and hope out of you. The darkness has consumed the light, and with little to admire in any character portrayed in The Spirit Of The Place, it is difficult to read. In fact, it took me over two months to complete it.

That being said, Shem is an excellent writer. And for those who enjoy wrist-slitting fiction, this may be just the book for you. I was personally quite astonished by Abraham Verghese’s exuberant cover jacket blurb:

“An incredible and heartfelt story… The Spirit Of The Place entertains, satisfies, and affirms; it is beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed.”

Clearly not everyone agrees with my analysis. I’d be curious to know which one of us is crazy – me, Verghese, or Shem?

I suppose Shem would say we all are, and that’s the point…

Your Nagging Fitness Questions Answered With Scientific Evidence

I just finished reading a great little book called, “Which Comes First, Cardio Or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, And Other Surprising Discoveries From The Science Of Exercise” by Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D. I’m very grateful to Alex for patiently sifting through over 400 research studies in a quest to answer (with evidence, not subjective opinion) some of our most nagging exercise questions.

Alex is the perfect guy to do this exercise myth-busting as he is a competitive runner, professional journalist, and has a Ph.D. in physics. His writing is crisp, uncluttered, and bears the understated humor of a Canadian. To be honest, I enjoyed his book so much that I was contemplating blogging about most of his conclusions. However, I don’t want to teeter on the edge of copyright infringement, so I’ll just provide you with some highlights from my favorite sections of the book:

1. Do compression garments help you exercise? I’ve wondered this many times as I jiggled my way down the road on a long run. I’ve always liked the theory behind tight outer-garments, that they reduce unnecessary movement during running, thus making one’s movement more efficient and reducing the bounce and drag on muscles and skin. They may also help with blood return to the heart and reduction in peripheral edema, speeding recovery from exercise. Believing the plausibility of the argument, I have indeed sprung for some rather expensive running tights.

So what does the scientific literature have to say about compression garments’ role in exercise? Apparently there is nothing conclusive yet. Small studies have shown no clear improvement in exercise economy, athletic power or endurance, or recovery from exercise. The only measurable benefits appear to have occurred in those who believed that the compression garments would help their performance. A nice reminder of the importance of the “mind-body” connection in athletic pursuits. Bottom line: if you like how you feel in compression garments, by all means wear them. But don’t expect any dramatic improvements in anything more than your jiggle factor.

2. Will sitting too long at work counteract all my fitness gains? The short answer to this question is: possibly. I was surprised to note that at least one large study found that sitting for more than six hours per day increased one’s risk of death by 18-37% regardless of how much exercise one performed in the other eighteen hours of the day. Long periods of sitting appear to be quite bad for your health, so getting up and moving around every hour or more is important if you have a sedentary job or lifestyle.

3. Does listening to music or watching TV help or hurt my workout? Listening to faster-tempo music can result in increased exercise effort (in many cases completely unconsciously), while TV-watching usually results in a reduced exercise effort. This is because watching videos requires visual attention and subtle changes in balance and movement occur to accomplish it.

4. Will stretching help me avoid injuries? As a person with limited flexibility, I found this section of the book to be quite comforting. As I have blogged previously, stretching has not been shown to reduce the risk of injury or post-exercise soreness. In fact, it can decrease power and speed for certain athletes, though it is important for those who intend to perform great feats of flexibility (such as gymnastics).

5. Should I take pain killers for post-workout soreness? Interestingly, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are not particularly effective in reducing post-exercise pain and can even interfere with muscle repair. NSAIDs block prostaglandins, which are important in collagen synthesis. While NSAIDs are useful in reducing inflammation and swelling in acute injuries (such as an ankle sprain), general muscle soreness isn’t a good reason to pop some ibuprofen.

6. Will drinking coffee help or hinder my performance? I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t drink coffee, so I was surprised to discover that I may have been missing out on an important exercise enhancer. According to decades of research, caffeine is likely to improve your exercise performance. Studies have shown that pure caffeine (not necessarily in its coffee form) enhances sprint performance as well as endurance activities up to two hours. In 2004 the World Anti-Doping Agency removed caffeine from its list of restricted substances, so expect to see some caffeinated athletes in this summer’s Olympics.

7. What’s the best way to breathe during exercise? If you’ve ever marveled at your own panting, you’ve also probably wondered if there is a more efficient way to breathe – or at least a less embarrassing way. The answer is no. Studies have shown that people who consciously work to make their breathing less labored expend more energy and get less oxygen in the process. So, keep on breathing the way your body wants to… you’re naturally more efficient at it than you think.

I hope that these little tidbits have whet your appetite for more of Alex’s excellent insights. I have fully equipped myself with fast-paced music and a little caffeine, as I move my inflexible, jiggly, panting self down the road on another long run.

Psychiatrist Reviews “Crazy” Book: Finds Some Genuineness Behind Author’s Bravado

Rob Dobrenski, PhD. is a psychologist who blogs over on  He’s written a book about what it’s like to be a psychology graduate student, a psychotherapy patient, and a psychologist.  Oh, we like the folks who go from Shrink blog to Shrink book — it somehow feels familiar — and so I agreed to read his book: Crazy: Tales on and Off the Couch.

So bear with me while I tell you that the book rubbed me wrong at the outset.  Dr. Dobrenski begins by saying something to the effect that he describes things that all shrinks feel, and if they say they don’t, they aren’t being honest.  I really hate it when people tell me what I feel.  It’s like saying that Prozac made your depression better and if it didn’t, then you just didn’t recognize it.  And then the book gets off on a provocative start — Rob discovers that many people in his life, from a patient, to a colleague, to himself — are “f***ing crazy.” The asterisks are mine. Dr. Dobrenski had no trouble using the word — I counted 19 times in the 39 pages, including in direct quotes of discussions he has with both a patient and one of his supervisors.  Not in a million years.  I wasn’t sure what the point was.  To let people know he knows obscene words?  To be Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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