This book, like change, is a good thing

Change, they say, is good.

It’s the opportunity for growth. It’s a chance to take a breath, reassess, reconfigure. It makes the landscape look fresh; it also muddies the waters. And yet, you bounce back and, as you’ll see in “Shapeshifters” by Gavin Francis, so does your body.

Summer, spring, fall, and winter. Whether by looking through your window or through your newspaper, you know that seasons come, change happens, and each new thing is connected to all others somehow.

Ever since medical school, Gavin Francis has found such connections – especially those within the human body – to be things of “reverence, the unfolding of a kind of joy…”

Take, for instance, our very beginnings, and birth.

On a mother’s part, says Francis, pregnancy is proof that we aren’t in charge of our own bodies, and it’s physically hard on the woman who endures predictable, but sometimes unpleasant, changes. Of course, a fetus isn’t exactly having fun during pregnancy, either, and in between the two, there’s puberty, which is infamously difficult. When that hits, says Francis, puberty wreaks drastic changes in a teen’s body and in his mind, and those changes can extend well into a person’s twenties.

Speaking of age, no matter how many skin-care products you use, darn it, your skin will never be restored to that of your youth. There’s an explanation for the old “hair turned white overnight” myth. And because there are different kinds of memory, there are different ways of remembering.

Natural change is one thing, but Francis also touches upon change we cause ourselves: we can ensure that our genders match our brains, for example. We can sleep, or not, or need more if we fly across time zones. We can diet, take drugs, and work around lack of limb. We can laugh; “…most cultures,” Francis says, “have stories of muscle-bound strongmen”; and one in four Americans has a tattoo. And just so you know (because about a quarter of all tattooed folks regret their ink), the removal of said ink hurts way more than it did when you got the tat to begin with…

Don’t let the contemplative tone of “Shapeshifters” fool you. Don’t let it lull you into believing that this book is like a meditation. Really, it’s more like being at a fireworks extravaganza: every few minutes, there’s a chance to say “Wow!”

Now, admittedly, author Gavin Francis writes with a pronounced sense of serenity, and a feeling of reverence that he admits to, early in this book. That belies its liveliness: here, you’ll read topical philosophy and history before you meet pseudonymous patients who must learn how the human body deals with various kinds of physical and mental changes, welcomed or not. It’s in the ensuing and inevitable facts and observations, as Francis shares them, that you’ll have abundant chance to be genuinely amazed.

We humans, as you’ll see in “Shapeshifters,” are predictable, unique, and resilient. We are alike and different and change, as they say, is a good thing.

And so is this book.


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