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Important Book of the Day – The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

the childrens hospital blue

My last post talked about a few of my favorite things, things meaning books that stand out to me today, or in my not-too-distant past, as being some kind of revelatory. It’s hard to talk of any sort of favorites in our world without remembering the heavy hitters of Greek or Roman myth, and other classics, that timelessly walk along with us as we create new stories. I see a bit of Ulysses in every hero with too much bluster and bravado, and a bit of Oedipus in every fated family tale.

I recently read Faust, and the power lying in that tragedy totally rocked me to my core. Goethe uses such simple, short and plain exclamations of sadness which sum up incomprehensible destruction of each aspect of a person’s life, reminding me that sometimes less is more when it comes to the most poignant part of the drama. I’m a sucker for big tragedy–the downers of life thoroughly explored and encapsulated for all of us to visit again and again. I see these older stories in every new thing I read. Every news story and courtroom spectacle seems predicted by people who lived so long ago but understood so much about the deepest parts of existence, like we’re all still the pawns of vicious gods seeking to entertain themselves with our 24 hour news cycles.

One of the oldest stories is that of a flood. I’ve always been captivated with the flood myth’s timelessness, its ability to flow like water from one culture to another, from some of the first written books to all important religious texts to fiction today. This myth alone deserves its own post, as a ton of amazing literature surrounds it, but I want to talk about my absolute favorite book, which happens to be a modern take on the flood myth: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian.

This one book stands for me above all the rest. This is what I talk about when people ask about my favorite book, but I haven’t come across a person yet who recognizes his name or the title. He’s a well kept secret.

The New York Times review of The Children’s Hospital talks of Adrian’s following the formula of writing what one knows, which seems unusual in this case, as the novel is about a world-ending flood, in which a children’s hospital rises above the deluge, its patients and staff seemingly the only chosen ones left to survive. And yet, Adrian is a graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a former student of Harvard Divinity School, and an M.D. He is currently (the internet tells me) in the pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at UCSF. Fitting, then, that his masterpiece involves the world’s end, flooding of biblical proportion, angels, and a children’s hospital rising above the destruction. This stuff is on his mind, this stuff of life and death and the meaning of it all.

This is not a short book, nor a light-hearted one. I read it after its release in 2006, while unfortunately trying to date someone. His questions of “What do you want to do?” would always be answered by my “I just want to read this book.” I would lie sideways with my head hanging off my bed, arms dangling and heavy hardback copy of The Children’s Hospital laying on the floor. Eventually, the guy left, and I kept reading. This book is everything good about reading–an almost randomly imaginative concept combined with crisp exactitude in expressing the human experience. In Adrian’s writing, anarchy meets accuracy, in all the best ways possible: anorexics on the eating disorder wing vomit the food given to them by angels, a 15-year-old cancer patient paints her room and her body black after she sees the floodwaters out her window, a little boy may be mentally ill or may be something much, much darker…  Here’s an excerpt:

     Here and there, in blocks of two or three hours, she and Rob would sleep. He’d finish crying, his sobs quieting to little hiccups, and then he was snoring and already starting to drool. Jemma always fell asleep soon after him, but woke within an hour or two. She might watch him for a little while, note his eyes moving under his lids and wonder if he was dreaming of his mother and his sisters, but then she would rise and wander. Every night, passing by the patient rooms, she’d see nurses or parents or bleary-eyed residents, standing beneath the televisions and looking uselessly from channel to channel. She would have avoided the television in any disaster, anyhow. All the late junior disasters had made her stomach hurt to consider, and she’d actively run away from the screens everywhere that played them over and over again. She stopped once beside a nurse she didn’t know and looked up at the screen, imagining in the static an endless repetition of flood, a supremely high and distant vantage that showed the earth in space turning a deeper and deeper blue. If you flipped for long enough the angel-lady would offer you a cheery movie, whether you wanted one or not.

They wanted a voice and an image, she supposed. Someone to tell them what was happening, even after the windows cleared and it become so obvious what had happened. Never mind that the angel broadcast blessings in her buzzing, broken mechanical nose voice. They were as repetitious and horrible, in their way, as a television scene would have been. ‘Creatures,’ she’d call out. ‘I will preserve you.’ It sounded less comforting every time she said it.

gob's griefGob’s Grief is Adrian’s first book, and it is slightly related to The Children’s Hospital. By no means a direct prequel, it is also haunting in its portrayal of human pain and impossible not to mention. Exploring the Civil War and its tragedies with Adrian’s signature dark, eloquent magical realism, we meet Walt Whitman as he tends to the dying off the battlefield, and a doctor named Gob as he bathes unbearably in grief, spending his life building a machine to bring back his twin brother, who ran away to join the Union Army at age eleven and died in his first battle.


the great nightAdrian’s most recent release, The Great Night, published in 2011, is a dazzling, dizzying and bright retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes place in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on New Year’s Eve, 2008. Three broken-hearted people walk into the park at the same time but from different directions (one from the Haight, one from the Sunset, and one from the Castro), and so begins a night enchanted with spoiled, cruel faeries and homeless folks intent on producing a musical.

All three of Adrian’s books are memorable, with the combination of brilliantly odd ideas meshed with stunning writing ability creating believability where other authors might fall short. Adrian asks you to explore yourself and those around you by looking at impossible situations, and it somehow works. The Children’s Hospital stands alone as (so far) Adrian’s single masterpiece–a sprawling concept with precise and staggering detail, an ugly angry triumphant story of humanity at its best and worst, an examination of why we keep going in the face of so many unanswered questions, or really why we go on at all. Don’t take on this book lightly, but I urge you, please, take it on.

 The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian on Powell’

Being Human 2013


I’m excited to say I will be attending the Being Human 2013 conference in San Francisco this Saturday!  The all day event is focuses on “the science and mystery of human experience”, with talks by anthropologists, neuroscientists, and other great thinkers of our time.

A lot of smart people are speaking this year, and I hope I don’t wig out from sitting for a long time trying to listen to them all. I was first drawn to the event because of my love of Robert Sapolksy‘s random talks and YouTube videos drifting around the internet.  Sapolksy is a professor at Stanford University teaching in several departments, has received a MacArthur Genius grant, and has an epic beard.  He wrote the fairly-readable tome Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, which discusses the effects of chronic stress on the human body, among many other books.

Robert Sapolksy discussing dopamine:

He also has a ton of lectures and talks available free for download at iTunes U.  I can definitely get lost in his stuff for hours!

Another epic guest is Paul Ekman, the facial expression guru who was the inspiration for the popular (but cancelled) drama TV series Lie To Me.

And how random is this?  Marquese Scott, the epic dancer from that viral dubstep video floating around the internet, is going to perform.  I love that in the midst of all these intellectuals discussing human nature, this guy is going to bust out some moves.

Marquese Scott doing his thing:

Scott seems to be the greatest thing since the beloved David Elsewhere (remember this classic vid?):

Anyways, back to being human.  Other great thinkers will be there, including psychology professor/author Joshua Greene, neuroscientist/author David Eagleman, physician/author Esther Sternberg, some transhumanist lady who sounds INTENSE when talking about prolonging human life, and neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

Here are the mad thinkers I’d love to see included in Being Human in the future:

  • Martine Rothblatt – She has had such an interesting life.  I’m not sure if it is accurate to say she invented satellite radio, but she worked with NASA on satellites and then founded several satellite communication networks, including the first satellite radio networks in 1990.  When her daughter got sick with pulmonary arterial hypertension (a rare disease with no good drugs on the market to treat it), Martine founded a biotech company, got a PhD in bioethics, and helped prolong her daughter’s life by bringing a new drug to market.  20 years later, her daughter is doing well.  Now Martine is into transhumanism and while I don’t know about all of that, reading Jon Ronson’s encounter with Martine’s intelligent robot was quite entertaining
  • William Gibson – Yes, I went there!  Gibson may not be a neuroscientist, but I think he is one of the great thinkers of our time.  He is imagining this stuff far before anyone begins to research, develop, or prove it.  His interview in The Paris Review kept me up all night thinking about the present state of things, and the future.
  • Marlene Zuk – I recently read Zuk’s Paleofantasy, and I’d love to see her debate or discuss her ideas futher, with others in her field.  As I noted in my review of her book, I felt she really lacked the discussion of why our society is turned towards a longing for a more caveman-like lifestyle right now.

I’ll have an update after the festival about what incredible insights I learn, and what new authors and books I discover. Hopefully I can get my Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers signed by Robert Sapolsky!  And then in a week or so, I’m going to see Michael Chabon in discussion at a Park Day School benefit.

Being Human Festival 2013

Review – Virgin Soul: A Novel by Judy Juanita


Call it the sunny side of the Bay, call it the town.  Whatever name you give it, Oakland has the rich and revolutionary history expected from a city bridging to San Francisco and bundled up against Berkeley. Oakland is also uniquely its own city, with its own successes and struggles.

Originally a port city built up with the business of railroads, folks called Oakland the “Detroit of the West” by the 1920’s for its automotive factories and booming economy.  During World War II, Oakland built ships and canned foods, and the exodus of Southern workers to the area created a melting pot of cultures and belief systems.  Post-WWII, Oakland (and the rest of America) witnessed white flight, as wealthier citizens fled further East to the suburbs.  Once a shining star of productivity, post-WWII Oakland began to feel its economy slow and its racial tensions rise.

And this brings us to Virgin Soul, a novel by Judy Juanita based on Juanita’s own experiences growing up in Oakland.  Geniece Hightower, the novel’s star, is a snappy and smart African American woman on the cusp of revolution.  She enrolls at Oakland City College in 1964 and is surrounded by activists and intellectuals.  Geniece soon learns about the black power movement, and her activism eventually leads her to the Black Panther Party.  The novel is broken into four parts:  Freshman, Sophmore, Junior, Senior.  We follow Geniece as she gets an education, but classes are rarely mentioned – confronted with inequality from all sides, meeting men and women both inspirational and heartbreaking, navigating a world not yet equipped to handle an empowered black women – Geniece’s education is of a different sort.

Virgin Soul reads lyrical and very much like poetry – it doesn’t surprise me that Juanita is also a successful poet.  On going to Oakland City College:  “But we called it City, a raggedy, in-the-flatlands, couldn’t-pass-the-earthquake-code, stimulating, politically popping repository of blacks who couldn’t get to college any other way, whites who had flunked out of University of California, and anybody else shrewd enough to go free for two years and transfer to Berkeley, prereqs zapped (3).”  Juanita creates a perfect voice for her protagonist, a balance of the questions running through Geniece’s mind, funky lingo of sixties, and moments of brilliant clarity.

I imagine Juanita has captured the tone of the time perfectly – I wasn’t there, but she was, and she’s built a magical, mad world around Oakland’s past.

Virgin Soul: A Novel by Judy Juanita at Barnes &

Judy Juanita’s web page