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Book Reviews

A Mexico City correspondent for an American newspaper goes missing while traveling solo in the remote canyon country of western Mexico.

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Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years by Michael J. Collins, M.D. (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). Do not walk. Run to your nearest library or book store and pick up a copy of this marvelous memoir. Then prepare yourself for several hours of the finest reading of your life. Collins tells the story of his four years of residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. And what a story it is. He shares with us dozens of his experiences, beginning with his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy during his first year. He loves medicine and knows that it's the life for him, but during that first year, his ambition to become an orthopedic surgeon seems an entirely uphill journey. He has to fight his fear of failure constantly. And fight he does. We meet his many colleagues. Their relationships, for the most part, are warm and friendly. There is, of course, the inevitable bully, with whom the young residents have to contend. For obvious reasons, with few exceptions, Collins doesn't use real names. Patti Collins, the doctor's wife, strongly figures into the story as his pillar of strength and understanding. The couple struggles constantly to make ends meet as their family grows. It's necessary for the young father to moonlight at the hospital away from the Mayo Clinic. The Collins' lifestyle is far from glamorous -- they live payday to payday, hoping against hope their old automobile won't break down. In the meantime, life goes on. We share thrilling stories of successful operations against incredible odds, and Collins recounts heart-wrenching scenes of crises, emergencies and death. He takes us with him from his first year of residency to his fourth. We share his disappointments when patients are so far gone that the latest and best medical techniques are too late. -- Emily McCormack

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. (W.W. Norton, $24.95). Mary Roach has a profane knack for finding humor in the otherwise sullen topic of death. In her laugh-out-loud bestseller Stiff, she traveled around the world and through the history books to document how cadavers have been put to use in the names of both science and making a dollar. In Spook, the author and her considerable wit return to the business of mortality to find out what science has to say about the existence of an afterlife. Roach covers a great deal of ground here, investigating everything from mediums to reincarnation to special scales that weigh human souls. The author admits to being a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, but she does her best to give the subject matter a fair shake. That's not always easy when the subject happens to be a group trying to record the ghosts of the Donner Party or a sample of supposed ectoplasm from 1939. But even while she's making jokes and showing no surprise that scientists have explanations for all the things that go bump in the night (some just as fantastic as the explanations offered by believers in the paranormal), she seems to sincerely want to be convinced that the hereafter is out there. Roach's book offers no definitive answers -- the debate about life after death continues as it has for centuries. Few discussions about it will be as entertaining as this one, though. -- Steve Newman

Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True by Robert Rivard. (PublicAffairs, $27.50). What does one do when a Mexico City correspondent for an American newspaper goes missing while traveling solo in the remote canyon country of western Mexico? When San Antonio Express-News reporter Philip True, 50, husband, soon-to-be father and adventurer does just that, Robert Rivard, True's editor, joins in the search for the missing reporter. When True's remains are found in a hidden grave deep in the Chapalagana canyon, a 150-mile-long stretch in the Sierra Madre, murdered, Rivard begins his odyssey for justice. Rivard soon discovers, however, that in a country where there is often a "missing justice" and where the reclusive Huichol Indians are sensitive to outsiders, he's up against more than he bargained for. Two Huichol Indians, Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and Miguel Hernandez de la Cruz, soon confess to True's murder, only to change their stories and then change them again. There are also ambiguities as to the true nature of True's sojourn. Was True the altruistic journalist he appeared to be who respected the Huichols and their culture or was True's real interest in semiprecious stones? Trail of Feathers is not only suspenseful -- it's a classic account of the basic shortcomings in all of us and the never-ending history of one culture undermining and exploiting another. -- Barbara Weddle

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Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006