03/15/13

The fiction world of Edison McDaniels

 

EPMwriter

 

What I write—And Why.

My writing has been repeatedly described as intense but engaging, as well as heart-breaking and—by at least one reviewer—absolutely fantastic.

I seem to thrive when working with ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. Think fiction at its most intense, life at its highest volume.

I write with a style that is both immediate and intense, bringing the reader into the moment or onto the battlefield, if you like. In The Crucible, I took readers into a 1951 operating room to watch as a surgeon worked to save the life of a little boy. In Not One Among Them Whole, my second novel, my canvas was a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. In The Burden, a supernatural medical thriller & my first novel (soon to be available as an eBook so watch for it!), we watched a surgeon come apart after the death of his young daughter. Later, he discovers a door to her afterlife—a door never meant to be opened. In my novella Blade Man, an itinerant scalpel salesman meets his worst nightmare on a lonely, snow bound, North Dakota highway. In Juicing Out, another of my favorite novellas, a surgeon’s already difficult night gets worse—much worse—when he gets home. Hint: have you ever tried to change the battery in your smoke detector?

I know of no other way to write than with intensity, like a fire fighter telling of his time inside a burning building while the soot and snot are still running heavy from his nose. We all know it’d be hot inside that building, but what about the sparks burning through your clothes and biting at your skin, the close sweat stinging your eyes until blindness threatens, the raspy sound of your ventilator with every suck of breath you take. How about the feel—cool? refreshing?—of the oxygen blowing into your face mask? And what does the fire sound like? Can you hear anything else? Your own pulse maybe?

I believe anybody with an interest in medicine and surgery, or who likes shows such as Law & Order or CSI will like my stories. If you’ve ever wanted to ‘open the door’ to see what goes on in the operating room, pick up Not One Among Them Whole.

If you are the kind of person who might like being a voyeur in the emergency room, even for just a short time, you’ll find much of what’s here interesting, even compelling.

Yet, despite all of the intensity alluded to above, there is a certain grace to my words. The writing is, simply put, beautiful.

Some of my favorite authors include Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian is nothing short of brilliant), Stephen King (especially his earlier books — he is always a great storyteller, but for my money his best pure story is Delores Claiborne, followed closely by Salem’s Lot & Pet SemataryFull Dark, No Stars is his best recent story collection and it rocks), Nevil Shute (read A Town Called Alice, nothing beats it for sheer storytelling, but just about every novel he ever wrote is worth picking up; there are 26 I believe, most centered around events which occurred during WWII; if you are one of those into apocalyptic fiction, as I am, On The Beach is a must read), Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain is pure artistry), and, of course, Michael Shaara & The Killer Angels (as good as the legend says it is).

Bruce Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War (The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat) is second only to Shelby Foote’s three volume epic history The Civil War: A Narrative. I highly recommend Shelby Foote.

There are five works I would recommend for those interested in the suffering war brings, and all are tough reads but worth every effort:

The first is Stalingrad, by Theodore Plievier. This is a brutally terrifying novel of life amid war. There is no greater depiction of the suffering wrought by war so far as I am aware. Written in 1948. It is not available as an eBook. If you can find it, buy it. Note: there are a number of books named Stalingrad or some version thereof. Look for the author.

The second is Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. Probably the best Civil War novel ever written, though not widely read today. A long book at over 750 pages. If you stick with it, you will not be disappointed. In fact, you may well consider it the best book you have ever read. Nuff said.

The third is also called Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, by Antony Beevor. This is not a novel but a history of the Battle of Stalingrad and stands alone as perhaps the finest account of that terrible siege ever written. An acclaimed book. Highly recommended if nonfiction is what you are looking for.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff is a recent novel of life in Leningrad during the WWII. Very good and a much easier read. Highly recommended.

Finally, I would recommend Ulysses S. Grant’s Presidential Memoir. Widely considered the best of all presidential memoirs, highly readable despite being two volumes. This is his account of the Civil War. He finished it only days before his death.

Anyway, thanks for reading my blog, thanks for supporting me. And thanks for reading my fiction.

03/13/13

The Definition of Neurosurgery

The Definition of Neurosurgery
as defined by the American Board of Neurological Surgery

NSurgery Definition

 

03/1/13

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Nine

My father is the tallest child in this picture. He was about 13 or 14 at that time.

It was 1937, the dust bowl years. My family was living in Henderson, Ok. They were sharecroppers, cotton mostly. My father used to tell me how he chopped rows and rows of it in his boyhood, rows that went on for miles, and how much he hated it. 

After that cotton season, the family set out in what was sometimes described to me as a beaten down old station wagon, sometimes as a truck. It held fourteen people, kids and adults, as well as luggage and dogs. My dad, Edison, spent the trip in the back seat, with a girl named ‘Pumpkin’ on his lap for most all the way. I guess I never thought to ask her real name.

A note. Papa (my father’s stepfather—his own father died in a streetcar accident in NYC when my dad was three) once owned a shiny new car. This would have been a few years before the move. But according to my dad, it stalled crossing the tracks one day and was struck by a train. Papa barely got out before the car was totaled. Apparently the kids in the area spent the summer playing on the wreckage. If this story sounds a bit far-fetched to you, so it did to me. But he swore it was true.

They spent the entire summer of 1937 making their way across Texas. They stopped often to pick cotton, were received warmly nowhere, and mostly sucked dust blown up by the tires as they wheeled down the road. They frequently picked cotton from first light to darkness. There was no school.

My dad never knew why they left Oklahoma exactly. Probably, he thought, because his parents realized they were getting nowhere as sharecroppers. That’s certainly the sense he had of it. 

My dad is the oldest child in this picture, holding his youngest sister. My youngest uncle was yet to be born, c. 1937.

He remembered the state of Texas as endless, the cotton as endless. At night they parked on the side of the road, put up a tent or two (not enough for all of them) and ate a dinner of hoecakes. My dad described them as essentially nothing more than flour mixed with water and then fried in a pan until all the water was steamed out. The hard cake left behind wasn’t bad if you ate it with syrup. They also had plenty of vegetables and fruit, mostly watermelon. My dad couldn’t recall eating meat once on that trip.

He recalled the nights as difficult, mostly because one of his older sisters (he never said which one—he had six) had her boyfriend along and the sound of them secretly making love every night was a misery to his ears. He was afraid she would get caught and he was afraid to say anything to her directly because he didn’t think she knew he could hear her. He said this single issue nearly drove him nuts. He was fourteen at the time.

He remembered Arizona as more friendly (to the day he died he hated Texas) and hot as the blazes. The cotton grew taller, often over their heads I guess, and for some reason there were lots of people taking pictures of them. At least that’s how he remembered it.

Sometimes they encountered rattlesnakes in the cotton, but nobody ever got bit.

They passed into California at Blythe. Their reception was not kind. The place was filthy, full of homeless folks (like themselves) and at the border they were forced to dump all their fruit and vegetables. My dad remembered as appalling the mountain of fruit and vegetables on the side of the road there. In the days that followed, when there wasn’t always enough food, that sight haunted him.

They managed to leave what he called Okie camp fairly quickly and made their way to an uncle’s place. The man, his name remains unknown to me, somehow owned a sizable farm just outside of Indio, Ca. Later, they settled in Palm Springs and my dad attended the inaugural four years of Palms Springs High School, which he described as a blissful place where racism was unknown and the American Dream was still alive. He felt he owed much of his success to the four years he spent there. In his last year, he was captain of the football team and they won seven out of eight games. His letterman’s certificate is dated December 6th, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor.

In February of 1943, shortly after he graduated, he was drafted into the Army. 

Nothing would ever be the same again.

02/24/13

What’s With That Soft Spot On My Baby’s Head?

What’s With That Soft Spot On My Baby’s Head?

 

BabyMy wife gets a kick out of watching me and my brain surgery buddies at parties. She says she can always pick out who the neurosurgeons are. “How?” I ask.

“It’s easy,’ she says. “You guys all have the same little habit of poking at the top of a baby’s head.”

She’s right. Force of habit I guess, but every time I meet a new baby, whether it’s in the supermarket or my office, I always want to put my finger on the soft spot at the top of their head. You know the one I mean. The spot in the midline just behind the hairline (or future hairline; some of these little tykes don’t have much for hair).

It’s called the anterior fontanelle. Every parent knows it. Some parents fear it, perhaps afraid they might damage something inside if they push too hard (they won’t). Others fixate on how quickly it is or isn’t closing, which—with very few exceptions—matters not at all.

So what is that spot all about anyway? Why is there a hole in my baby’s skull?

 Actually, there’s lots of holes in your baby’s skull, this is just the most obvious. There is a much smaller posterior fontanelle, which generally closes very early, within a month or two of birth (which is probably why few parents even know it’s there). There are also tiny fontanelles on the side of the head in several cases, which close even faster. Other openings allow for the passage of nerves (like the optic nerves for the eyes—which actually aren’t nerves at all but an extension of the brain and thus the only part of the brain actually visible externally in a normal person). There’s a big opening for the spinal cord at the base of the skull, called the foramen magnum. And many openings for smaller nerves and blood vessels.

But what about the anterior fontanelle? Nothing passes through that, right? Right.

The fontanelles are membranous patches, which, as we all know, close eventually (if you don’t know and are old enough to read this, just reach up and try to find your anterior fontanelle now—you can’t, there is no remnant after it closes). Usually the anterior fontanelle closes by a year of age, but it can close as early as six months or as late as eighteen months and still be normal.

It is, of course, a remnant of the newborn’s need to pass through the birth canal. Though you might not want to think about it, a newborn’s head is too big to pass through that little tunnel of love. My wife, who has given birth four times, once likened it to passing a watermelon out of your ass. Or perhaps she was suggesting I try that, I can’t quite remember. Oh well. My wife is a smart woman and who am I to argue with her?

Except, in this case, the good Lord has provided. The cranial vault, otherwise known as the brain case, is comprised of several bones: the paired frontal, parietal, and temporal bones, as well as the two unpaired bones, the occipital (at the back of the head—which contains the biggest hole in the skull, the large foramen magnum noted above) and the oddly named and even more oddly shaped sphenoid bone, with its greater and lesser wings making it look something like a bat. It turns out the sphenoid bone has an extremely complicated 3-D shape and is of great importance to the neurosurgeon because it’s various wings (and the various edges and ridges associated with them) are excellent landmarks to guide us as we move about during brain surgery.

In addition to enclosing the seat of human intellect (or lack thereof in some folks), these bones have one other commonality—they can articulate and slide over one another during birth, only to become rigid in the months that follow until the idea they could ever have been flexible in the first place is unthinkable.

Have you ever looked at a newborn in the first hours and days after birth and imagined them to be coneheaded, like on the old Saturday Night Live skits? Well, you weren’t imagining that of course. During the passage through the birth canal, the bones of the cranial vault overlap just enough to allow the head to distort as it slides though a woman’s pelvis. They can do this because  the joints between the bones, the sutures, are membranous and distensible.

The anterior fontanelle is simply the confluence, that is the intersection, of four of these membranous sutures:

1. The suture between the paired parietal bones—the sagittal suture, which runs along the midline of the head from front (the anterior fontanelle) to back (the posterior fontanelle);

2. The suture between the parietal bone and the frontal bone on each side of the head—called the coronal suture; there are thus two coronal sutures, one right, one left;

3. The suture which splits the frontal bone in the midline—the metopic suture. The frontal bone, a large single bone in the adult, is actually two bones in the infant; the metopic suture is the continuation of the sagittal suture from the anterior fontanelle to bridge of the nose and occupies the real estate in the exact center of the forehead.

So, there you have it. The anterior fontanelle is a remnant of our passage through the birth canal and really serves no useful function after that.

Except to the inquisitive finger of the neurosurgeon.

Turns out, you can tell a lot about a baby by the state of their anterior fontanelle at rest. That, however, is a subject for another day.