Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

This book by Anne Fadiman has been on my TBR list for a couple of years, so when I saw it on my son's required reading list for college, I knew I'd have to snag it first. Fortunately, I finished it before he leaves tomorrow!

"The spirit catches you and you fall down" is how Lia Lee's mother describes an epileptic seizure—and Lia has many of them. Lia is the 13th child born to Hmong immigrants Foua and Nao Kao Lee and the first born in the United States. Her first seizure comes at age 3 months, when an older sister slams a door. (Her parents will remain convinced that this caused Lia's soul to flee and the mother continued to blame the older sister.) Lia's next seven years are documented here as a perplexing, frustrating, defeating mixture of cultural and language barriers, spiritual vs. medical, parent vs. doctor.

Along with the primary story of Lia's medical condition and the cultural clash, Fadiman provides a sturdy backdrop of the Hmong experience both historically and in the context of the U.S. today. The struggles that permeate Lia's story make sense when we have even a rudimentary understanding of the culture, spiritual beliefs, and ethical code of the Hmong.

Fadiman is an amazing writer. She manages to treat every person involved in this story with grace and respect. I came away from this with a huge respect for the doctors involved in this case, not because they did a great job (they didn't) but because (for the most part), they were willing and eager to learn from their mistakes. And one can't help but be in awe of the Lee family for many reasons, including the outcome of the book. But at the same time we wonder what might have happened if they had administered Lia's medicine correctly—or if she had never been treated at all.

I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating and enlightening look into the immigrant experience in America today and the clash of two wildly different cultures.

Other Reviews:
Book Addiction: "This book utterly and completely fascinated me."
Sophisticated Dorkiness: "Anyone with even a passing interest in cultural differences, literary journalism, or stories that truly tug at your heart while still making you think should read this."
Book Nut: "what this book is, more than either of those things, is a testament to what happens when good intentions go bad because of cultural differences."
Tulip Girl: "thought-provoking and emotionally rewarding."
Dogear Diary: "Fadiman has written a fantastic book about the clash between two cultures met in the arena of medicine."


Marbel said...

I've been looking forward to your review. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I'm glad to learn that it is assigned reading somewhere.

Amila Kanchana said...

Sounds a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

One of my favorite parts of the book was, like yours, the way Fadiman treats all the people in it respectfully. I think that must have been hard in this story.

Birdy said...

Nice review. I loved Anne Fadiman's writing too, though I have read another book of hers named At Large and At Small. It's a collection of essays, which are absolutely delightful to read. Especially since it deals with literary figures. For someone who loves English it's a treat :)