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The Circus in Winter

From the edge of her grandparents’ yard in Peru, Indiana, writer Cathy Day watches local children learn to swing on a trapeze and perform acrobatics on a trampoline. Peru is Day’s childhood home; it’s also the residence of the great Hodgini family, former circus performers who retired to this quiet town, where a host of traveling circuses hunker down each winter. There are plenty of big-top performers around to prepare the town’s children for its annual circus.

Day, now a Pitt assistant professor of English, returned to her roots to do research for her novel about a town where every winter is literally a circus. With a writer’s eye, she observed the fledgling acrobats as she leaned on a bull-hook pole her great-great-uncle used to fight an angry elephant that drowned him in the Mississinewa River—a tragic but somehow not bizarre event for a town used to oddities and fanfare.

After sifting through memories of her youth in Peru, along with photographs and stories of her circus-working relatives, Day crafted The Circus in Winter (Harcourt). Using a series of interwoven tales, she gives readers a glimpse of the humanity shining through the stage makeup of big-top life. —Katy Rank

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe

Brains are soft, writes the neurosurgeon-in-training, like toothpaste or, on second thought, silken tofu. She stands in the hallway of UPMC Presbyterian hospital scribbling on an index card after removing a nail driven three inches into her patient’s skull.

Over the course of seven years as an intern and resident at the University of Pittsburgh medical school, Katrina Firlik stuffed her lab coat pockets with index cards full of her observations. She scratched down notes about interesting cases—brains filled with maggots, brains missing several lobes, brains overrun with tumors. She paused in hallways to jot down off-hand thoughts: Male brain surgeons should look and talk like James Bond.

Once every few weeks, she found a moment to extract the stack of cards and type her musings into a journal so she wouldn’t forget her experiences.

Years later, Firlik, the first woman admitted to Pitt’s prestigious neurosurgery residency program, mused about those journals. In an era of wildly popular medical television dramas, she decided to write an insider’s glimpse into the complex, unpredictable world of neurosurgery.

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe (Random House) chronicles her bizarre, sometimes gory days in the hospital and shows readers the humility, panic, and joy involved in caring for the body’s most mysterious organ. KR

Privacy Lost

David Mery, a Londoner, throws on a jacket, grabs his knapsack, and heads for the Underground. He usually takes the bus, but today he’s late: “The Tube” is faster. As he stands on the platform, checking phone messages, several police approach him.

They question him about his phone and the sack. Isn’t the weather too warm for a coat? The police arrest him on the spot. Photos of Mery are taken, as well as his fingerprints and DNA samples from his mouth. His apartment is ransacked. There’s just one problem: Mery hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s completely innocent.

As David Holtzman (CGS ’80) explains in his new book, Privacy Lost (Jossey-Bass), what happened to Mery can happen to anyone. New, invasive government policies and technologies mean we’re all increasingly vulnerable to an array of encroachments on personal privacy.

In fact, says Holtzman—an Internet pioneer and information security specialist—with ever-more invasive technology, a lot of our personal information is out there and ripe for exploitation. “New technologies and capabilities also mean new violations of all kinds,” he says. His book suggests some possible protective steps.

Unfortunately, David Mery knows the dangers all too well. His arrest information is still online and has been shared with police departments around the world. —Christine Hucko

Mr. Right and My Left Kidney

The last sounds Joan Saltzman hears before going under are the calm tones of the anesthesiologist talking. The words of well-wishers and the doctor’s kind face linger in Saltzman’s mind before she loses consciousness, about to undergo a surgery she doesn’t need.

Four hours later, 52-year-old Saltzman (CAS ’69) is wheeled out of the operating room. She passes her 61-year-old husband John, also lying on a hospital litter. Though her brain is still fogged by pain and medication, she thinks his skin tone seems rosier than she remembers. She realizes that giving her husband one of her kidneys was even more wonderful than giving him her heart.

Neither gift had come easily. Saltzman met her future husband at a Montreal film festival when she was nearly 46 years old. As happy as she was to find her partner so late in life, there was a catch: John suffered from kidney failure. Saltzman was a viable donor, but she had to overcome her suspicions of surgery developed from a career as a medical malpractice lawyer. Saltzman chronicles her struggle in Mr. Right and My Left Kidney (Peripety Press), a powerfully honest and funny memoir of her quest for love, from film festival to hospital bed to happily ever after. —Lauren Mylo


Psychotherapy as Religion

The engine sputters, propellers grinding to a halt. The motorboat floats, surreally motionless, in the hot and humid afternoon, its lone passenger stranded in the middle of a steamy South American river. William Epstein, a Peace Corps volunteer, feels sweat drenching his back and squishing in his shoes.

In 1963, Epstein (SOC WK ’68G) joined the Peace Corps as one of the first 1,000 volunteers in the organization’s history. With only a barebones knowledge of the local language, he lived and worked in a Colombian village where the nearest town required a three-day trek.

On the afternoon the motorboat stalled, he had just ferried some villagers across the river. He suffered severe sunstroke that day, and Epstein describes his Peace Corps duty as “one hell of an experience.” It inspired his passion for social work but also made him painfully aware of the potential flaws in systems designed to help others.

Now a professor of social work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Epstein has written Psychotherapy as Religion: The Civil Divine in America (University of Nevada Press), which examines good intentions gone awry in psychotherapy. He worries that—contrary to its claim as a beneficial remedy—psychotherapy overemphasizes the American values of self-reliance and self-invention, ultimately leaving individuals financially and socially stranded, much like Epstein was during his Colombian river passage. —Emily Karam


 
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