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2D: English’s quirks

The English language has very many strange quirks – some derived from the influence the languages of many different invaders over many millennia, others derived from rather more recent influences. I’ve chosen two articles to illustrate this.

The first is this article from BBC News which discusses the origins of one of my least favourite hackneyed metaphors: that of “battling” cancer. Their short but interesting discussion tracks this back to Richard Nixon’s “war on cancer”, but the fact that the BBC is discussing this use of language at all is almost more interesting than what they have to say.

The second article on language is almost a decade old, but only came to my attention very recently. It was written by Jack Winter for The New Yorker, and is called “How I Met My Wife“. To avoid spoiling the linguistic surprise, I’ll say no more than that!

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays – except the Wednesday in two weeks, which I’m skipping because it’s New Year’s Day. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

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Weekend read: End of the line

My recommended read for this weekend is Charles Fleming’s moving piece from Los Angeles Magazine, in which he describes the suicide of Ron Iseli. He uses this very personal story to illustrate the wider problem of preventing deaths – accidental and otherwise – on railways. It’s an absorbing yet disturbing read.

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Review: See No Evil by Ron Felber

See No Evil is the story of how a “nerdy Jewish kid” grows into Elliot Litner, one of New York’s foremost cardiac surgeons in the 1970s and 1980s, who also happens to lead a second life as Il Dottore, a gambling and sex addict embroiled deeply in the world of organised crime, acting as the house physician to La Cosa Nostra.

This is a remarkable book, made all the more astounding by the fact that it is a true biography. Felber is an excellent writer, and infuses the text with just the right quantities of suspense, tension, disbelief, and occasional laugh-out-loud humour. The passage in which Litner performs a rectal examination on godfather Carlo Gambino is a stand-out moment which deftly combines all of the above!

I haven’t read much in the past about the New York mafia, and so was grateful for the background given in the book. Essentially, as well as being a biography of Litner, it is also an insider biography of La Cosa Nostra. My naivety on such subjects led to me being truly astounded by the breadth and depth of the mafia’s reach, and the role that Rudy Giuliani played in curbing organised crime in New York. I don’t think I would ever have been motivated to read about this subject if it hadn’t been for the curious medical angle of this biography, but will certainly read more widely on the topic in future.

I found it somewhat curious that the biographer chose to give the protagonist a pseudonym – Elliot Litner is not his real name – when the description of the various posts he has held and publications he has written would surely make his unmasking very straightforward indeed. That said, I didn’t bother to look it up (perhaps that’s the point).

I love a bit of moral ambiguity in a book, and – as one might expect – this delivers in spades, and with some medical ethical twists to boot. Indeed, the quite brilliant ending of the book arrives when Litner is faced with a clear dichotomous choice between his Hippocratic Oath and his loyalty to La Cosa Nostra. Perhaps I was swept along by the narrative, but I found the ending entirely unpredictable, and the building tension as the denouement approaches was some of the tightest, suspenseful writing I’ve read in a very long time. To say that I couldn’t put the book down is a cliché, but in the case of the final section of this book, it also happens to be true.

Clearly, the veracity of the events described is difficult to ascertain, and I’m certain that a large pinch of creative licence has been used with respect to the well-written dialogue. But for a story as fantastical as this, I can forgive a little bit of fictionalisation and dramatisation around the edges. Parts are so obvious cinematic that it seems unbelievable that no-one has written a movie based on this book.

I’d thoroughly recommend See No Evil. It isn’t the sort of book I’d typically choose to read, but that only made the somewhat unexpected enjoyment all the sweeter.

See No Evil is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle. There will be no book review published on Christmas Day, so the next review will be in four weeks: 8th January 2014.

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