20 Books of Summer, #14–15, RED: Gabriel Weston and Marie Winn

I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.

Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.


Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)

Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.

Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.

The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.

Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.

Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.

To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.

It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.

Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)


Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)

In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.

Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)


Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).


Would you be interested in reading one of these?

17 responses

  1. I loved Direct Red. It’s a good thing that most medical dramas like Holby City have more female surgeons than male these days – but some of them are just as tough/egotistical as the guys. You might ‘enjoy’ Weston’s novel Dirty Work, about the dark side of Obs & Gynae work… challenging in its subject matter but very good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve heard about Dirty Work and I’m definitely interested!


  2. I’m distincly squeamish but admired Direct Red very much. Have you read her novel, Dirty Work?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not yet, but I’m keen to.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the sound of Direct Red very much although I’m not usually drawn to these kind of medical memoirs.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s short and from an interesting perspective, so it wouldn’t be a bad way to dip your toe into the genre!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Non fiction can be palate-cleansing after a heavy meal of fiction (and vice versa, of course); Direct Red sounds, for all its concluding abruptness, like it might function like this for me!

    Good sightseeing list: I haven’t seen Highclere, Sandham or Mottisfont but the rest are fairly familiar from when I used to live in Bristol, and all good choices! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like to keep a fairly even split of fiction and nonfiction in my piles. In recent years I’ve been at roughly 50% F and 40% NF, with the rest made up by poetry.

      We cast our net out for daytrips an hour’s drive or so away and came up with some good variety, making use of our National Trust membership as much as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been drawn to medical memoirs in recent years most likely because I had to have my fair share of encounters with consultants and surgeons for a while. They’re often showing an interesting mix of the personal and the pragmatic – as you say, trying to strike the right balance between empathy and distance.

    I wonder if each medical practitioner goes through a cycle where their level of empathy increases with practice and maturity but then reaches a peak when they’ve seen so many people and given the same news, and their waiting rooms are so full that their capacity for kindness is exhausted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. It must be difficult to maintain your humanity when you’re so stressed out. That may help explain why she went part time.


  6. Read Tails in Love would definitely be more my speed, especially since I’m into nature writing more and more this year. I run the other way from anything medical, LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a sweet book. I’m sure Central Park still has a lot to offer the wildlife watcher. The 1990s setting somehow felt long ago, though!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the birds rather than the cuts for me!! I bet my friend Cari would like it as well, as she lives very near Central Park. It’s funny to think all those campaigns would be digital now, isn’t it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely a book for you! There are a few sad scenes, but I think you could handle it. My husband and I have had absurdly good sightings in American parks before, such as a black-crowned night heron in the centre of Chicago.


  8. […] book The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, and the memoirs Darkness Visible by William Styron and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston. A varied and mostly great selection, all told! I read six books from the library […]


  9. Flights over slices for me, too, please. But I’m glad to see that it’s becoming less uncommon to see/hear from female surgeons. Change takes such a long time.

    Do you feel like you’ve had more “colour” stories than you could get to, for this reading project?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had lots to choose from so I ended up putting some books back on the shelf unread, or passing them off to the Little Free Library. I didn’t intend to read from the library for this challenge at all, but in the end 6/20 were from my library stacks.


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