Sunday, April 15, 2012


What is an almshouse, you ask?  A fine question.  An almshouse is a medical facility that provides extended care (sometimes many years) to those who no longer can provide it for themselves.  They all have medical conditions (oftentimes multiple conditions) that prevent them from being on their own.  They have already been to hospitals and county facilities and have otherwise run out of options.  God's Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, tells of just such a place.  In fact, Laguna Honda, in San Francisco, is the last almshouse in the country.  What also differentiates Laguna Honda from other hospitals is the sense of community that is present there.  This is more than just about the care of sick people (wait till you read about the aviary, greenhouse, and barnyard!).

Victoria is a doctor that has been practicing at Laguna Honda for over 20 years.  This true account of her experiences there is truly fascinating.  She not only gives a detailed explanation of how she came to be there (she thought her tenure would only last a couple of months), but she also relates how hospital, city, and state politics played such a major role in all that has happened over the last 2+ decades (she relates, in great detail, how the old Laguna Honda was replaced by the new Laguna Honda - thoroughly intriguing stuff).

If this were only a memoir about doctoring and politics, it would have been pretty interesting.  However, Victoria's journey is a unique one indeed.  She tells many stories about how patients influenced the doctor she has become.  These stories are very poignant, especially since they are about real people.  But even more fascinating is how she embraced pre-modern medicine.  She took the time to get both a Masters and a Phd in the history of medicine.  Victoria embraced the philosophy of a nun in Germany in the 1100's.  It is extremely eye-opening to discover how a modern-day doctor integrates medical practices from 800-900 years ago into how she practices medicine today.  And when Victoria explains what she learned and how she applies it, it makes perfect sense to the reader.  She even talks about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ("The Way of St. James") and how that also affected how she practices medicine.  If you think Victoria has a lot to say in her book about the influences in her doctoring life, then you would be right.

As many of you already know, I'm not big on memoirs.  This came to me from Lindsay Wood of Penguin Group (USA) and is being published by one of its imprints, Riverhead Books.  I read anything Lindsay sends me even if I wouldn't have picked it up off the shelf myself (of course, I couldn't do that anyway until it's published later this month).  But I'm glad I read this.  If all you read is mysteries, this probably won't do it for you.  But if you read different genres, including non-fiction, then I think you will get quite a bit out of reading God's Hotel.  I know I did.

Author Event:  Victoria will be at The Booksmith in San Francisco on Friday night, April 27, at 7:30 for a launch party for God's Hotel.  I certainly intend to be there.  Anybody else?

Movie Note (yes, you read that right):  Last year, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez starred in a movie, The Way, that was all about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  If you haven't seen it, get a hold of it and watch it.  It's terrific.

Book Title Explanation (what's next, an expose on the type of print used for the book?!):  Back in the old days, an almshouse were called Hotel Dieu - hence the title, God's Hotel.

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