Some books enter your life and just kind of take up residence even after you've stopped rereading them. Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker is one for me. And so is The Blood of Strangers: Stories From Emergency Medicine (1999), by Frank Huyler, an emergency medicine doc in New Mexico, beautifully crafted, mesmerizing stories from his work in hospitals, creative non-fiction of the highest order. (See the below PDF's for an example, three pages of precise brisk prose, with a bacon theme, but not why it's one of my favorites.)
A month ago, I bought this book from Amazon to send to someone and decided to leave a review and also asked the author to write to me if he happened to read the review because I couldn't find contact info. He did, explaining that he was floating around on Amazon because soon he'd have his second novel out, Right of Thirst. I asked to read it. It turned out that we now share the same literary agency and they sent me an uncorrected proof. I've only just now gotten to it, am half through, but want to say that it's a riveting story about a newly widowed doctor who volunteers for relief work in one of the Stans, a cold mountainous otherworld. There's a brilliant passage about an amputation of a young girl's gangrenous leg and an ominous sense that things are about to go very wrong. As with Blood of Strangers the writing is spare and precise, a delight to read. Huyler has a perfect sense of exactly how much information we need and, critically, just how much he can leave out.
But most of all, I want people simply to know about this remarkable writer. I reread Blood of Strangers while I was writing my surgery book, Walk on Water. I used the book to teach non-fiction technique. I read the book to my then ten-year-old daughter who loved it (that's how accessible the writing is). Again, more people ought to know about this excellent physician-writer.
Another book that's just out, is Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, a memoir by Reynolds Price, a protean man of letters, one of the finest American authors working today, and the teacher who gave me the information I'd need to make my living as a writer. The memoir covers the years Price spent at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and his subsequent return to his North Carolina home to begin his career as a writer and teacher. The book is a delight to read, a must for Anglophiles, an engrossing portrait not only of England in the late 1950s but of an apprentice writer and scholar.
The portrayal of WH Auden is worth the price of admission alone. As is the advice Price got from one of his teachers. When Price asked one of his teachers for advice, the teacher—was it David Cecil?—recalled his own dying mother. Her last words to him were these: "I only regret my economies." Damn good advice, that.
I would go on to write about my teacher in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (link), not long after he published Kate Vaiden. While it wasn't a major piece for the Times, it was my first major piece of published writing, and I wouldn't have been able to do it at all, had I not learned from my subject the fundamental skill of sitting down every day and simply getting the work done.
If you love great writing and fine story-telling, Frank Huyler and Reynolds Price are well worth finding.