A collection of personal anecdotes, case histories, and reflections notable for their Zen-like quality of absolute acceptance. Remen (Univ. of Calif., San Francisco, Medical School; The Human Patient, 1980) was once a pediatrician and is now a ""psycho-oncologist,"" counseling people with cancer. Her success in that field probably lies in her skills as a listener and her conviction that the stories friends, relatives, and patients tell about their lives are ""the way wisdom gets passed along."" When she was a child, those stories were (and still are) often told around kitchen tables, hence the title. The stories that she retells here are drawn from her own life as a medical student and a practicing physician, and from the lives and dreams of her patients. Organized into chapters that celebrate spiritual and emotional breakthroughs, the tales are funny, moving, enlightening, and often based on seemingly inconsequential moments. For instance, Remen uses the sight of blades of grass growing through a concrete sidewalk to demonstrate that, despite natural disaster and human clumsiness, ""life is not fragile."" Other lessons are taught by a young gang member, an air traffic controller, and the people of Fiji, as well as by Remen's grandfather. She also borrows insights from Zen teachings and from Buddhism, matching them with anecdotes from her own childhood; one of the ideas that emerges from this blend is that life is like a jigsaw puzzle, with lessons to be learned from each dark and light fragment. The simplicity and immediacy of the insights take the curse off an inclination to New Age speak. Part of Remen's work is to help sick people die, but this modest volume, very like a series of meditations, will inspire healthy lives as well.
Pub Date: Aug. 6, 1996
Page Count: 368
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1996
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