Book Review: War Doctor

In a growing field of medical memoirs War Doctor stands out for its purpose – to increase awareness of the reality of modern warfare on the individuals and communities directly affected. The author has volunteered his services as a trauma surgeon in active war zones including: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza and Syria. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of the horrific injuries and personal dangers encountered in each of these places. By describing the treatments offered as he attempts to patch up bodies torn apart by weapons designed to inflict maximum damage, his story avoids polemic. Rather it is a humane account of the many good people risking their lives to help those caught up in evil deeds carried out by those seeking to gain or hold on to power in a region.

David Nott spent his early years in rural Wales before moving with his parents to England. He studied medicine at the Universities of St Andrews and Manchester, staying in the north of England for his Junior Doctor years. He realised during this time that he wished to work in war zones where his surgery could make a significant difference. He set out to gain relevant experience.

“I’d need a fantastic breadth of knowledge in general surgery, which I was on the way to achieving. And I realized it would also be good to know a lot about vascular surgery, too: if I was to spend time in dangerous places, I’d be seeing and dealing with a lot of injuries from bullets or bombs, and knowing how to clamp off blood vessels would be essential.”

Nott’s first consultancy post was at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Surgeon friends there told him about Médecins Sans Frontières, an organisation offering short placements abroad for medical personnel. With agreement from his employer, Nott was able to take unpaid leave from the NHS and go on his first mission – to Sarajevo in 1993.

Over the course of the following decades he would travel to sites of conflict gaining a wealth of experience working in the most challenging environments, often with minimal supplies and equipment. Chapters detail a number of these placements focusing on patients who left key impressions. As a reader it is difficult to comprehend how those who caused the injuries could inflict such pain and suffering on their fellow human beings.

Much of the book focuses on memorable surgeries carried out in makeshift hospitals. With a constant stream of all but destroyed bodies arriving, decisions needed to be made quickly about who it would be worth treating. On one occasion a man required every unit of blood available in the city. When he subsequently died the question of how many others would die for want of a blood transfusion lingered.

On a mission in Africa Nott treated pregnant girls as young as nine years old – victims of rape whose pelvises were not developed enough for full term births – who were brought to the camp hospital after many hours in labour to have their now dead babies removed in an attempt to save the mother’s life. In Afghanistan he witnessed the public spectacle of punishments meted out under Sharia law, Taliban style.

“women being stoned to death after being buried up to their necks in sand; women being placed beside a wall they had built with their bare hands and killed after a truck was driven at the wall at high speed. […] I was astonished and sickened by the cruelty that one human being could bring to bear on another, and it filled me with revulsion. The football stadium was full of people watching and I wondered what they all felt. Were they completely inured to it?”

The impressions left by such monstrous behaviour increasingly affected the doctor when he returned to his job in London. During a private consultation he all but lost it when a patient complained about how she suffered due to unsightly thread veins.

On a mission in Aleppo, Nott noticed that patients would arrive with similar injuries that changed each day.

“Abdulaziz told me that he’d heard that the snipers were playing a game: they were being given rewards, such as packs of cigarettes, for scoring hits on specific parts of the anatomy. […] This sick competition reached its nadir towards the end of my time there when it appeared that one particularly vicious and inhumane sniper had a new target of choice: pregnant women.”

The author treated several of these women whose babies had been shot in utero. It was this experience that finally drove him to try to publicize the horror of what was happening in Aleppo once he returned to London. The media showed interest and he began to offer interviews and share pictures taken. Harnessing his increasingly public profile, Nott sought to help those now trapped and in imminent danger in Syria.

Given the horrors recounted, this book could be challenging to read yet much of it comes across as hopeful due to the determination of the medical teams to continue to offer treatment whatever else is happening in their vicinity. Nott includes many instances when his efforts were unsuccessful, and examples of risks he took that with hindsight were foolish. He does not paint himself as a hero but rather as a man who relished the adrenaline rush of danger. Nevertheless, it is hard to do anything but admire the tenacity and bravery of all the medics.

The writing is precise and succinct but retains a compassion for the suffering of those whose lives have been stripped to a struggle to survive in unimaginable conditions. Details of the medical procedures are fascinating and described in accessible language. And yet, with so many wars included there is a feeling of despair when considering what man is capable of inflicting. Nott admits that his work has left him in need of therapy for PTSD.

I mentioned that the stated purpose of the book was to raise awareness and in this it succeeds. It is, however, difficult to know what to do with such awareness in a world controlled by the egocentric – venal governments willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out by extremists. Whilst being a moving, balanced and insightful account of the horror of war and the commitment of medics, it is also a harrowing read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.

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Book Review: The Stepford Wives

Anyone who does not already know the story of The Stepford Wives should skip the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk that opens this edition and read it at the end. It is a thought-provoking opinion piece but gives away key elements of the plot. I picked up my copy of the tale having seen the film (the 1975 version) so was familiar with what would unfold. As is often the case, the book offers a much more powerful depiction than that shown on screen.

Given the way many men, and also certain women, are currently regarding today’s young women, this is a story that deserves to, once again, be widely read. Have we gone backwards from 1972 when the book was first published? Palahnick writes in this 2011 edition:

“In The Nannie Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, in this new generation of ‘chick lit’ novels, men are once more the goal. It’s successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators […] women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s . . . okay.”

“It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.”

The story opens with Joanna and Walter Eberhart, parents of Pete and Kim, settling into their new suburban home in Stepford having left the dirty and dangerous New York City. Joanna, a freelance photographer, is telling The Welcome Wagon Lady about her interests for the ‘Notes on Newcomers’ section of the local paper. Her female neighbours seem more interested in maintaining their already immaculate homes than in socialising. She hopes the article will help her find more forward thinking, like-minded friends. Walter plans to establish himself within the community by joining the local Men’s Association. Joanna is appalled that her supposedly liberated husband will consider attending a club that bans women.

Through the article in the newspaper Joanna meets Bobbie and then Charmaine. The three women get together and collectively wonder at the many beautiful and carefully presented wives in Stepford whose key interest seems to be housework. Their invitations to set up some sort of club for women have been declined with claims that there is no time for such pursuits if homes are to be maintained. And then the vocal and energetic Charmaine changes.

The gradual shift from suburban bliss to the horror of the situation is masterfully achieved. Even knowing the denouement I had to set down the book to catch my breath before finishing. The lengths the men of Stepford will go to in order to ensure their wives take more care over their appearance and become quiet and subservient may appear extreme. Swap their direct action for relentless and widespread emotional coercion and it is all too believable today.

This is a short book that packs a mighty punch with its succinct and fluid structure and language. I am left pondering just how many men would secretly prefer a Stepford Wife to a partner who is, at least, their equal.

The Stepford Wives is published by Corsair.

Independent Bookshop Week 2019 – featuring #TheBristolBag

A number of weeks ago I was sent a tote bag depicting iconic Bristol landmarks in colourful artwork. Doesn’t it look gorgeous? In exchange I was asked to write about its design and functionality. I decided that, in order to do this, I needed to travel to the city and test it on location. The best way to test a tote bag is to fill it with books.

This week is Independent Bookshop Week – what better time to carry out my plan. On Wednesday afternoon I caught the train to Bristol intending to explore some of the city’s independent bookshops – previously I had only visited Waterstones and Foyles. A quick search in Google showed that other bookshops existed, although some were a little too far from the centre and spread out from each other for me to visit on foot in the time available.

Walking from Temple Meads Station to the harbour and then through Queen Square, I made my way up Park Street where I hoped to find the Last Bookshop. What a treasure trove it turned out to be.

 

Having browsed the shelves I struggled to limit my purchases – I will definitely be returning to this bookshop. My tote bag was now being put to good use and coping well with the added weight. It is constructed from good quality cotton canvas and has comfortable shoulder straps, easily taking my raincoat and new books.

I checked my phone for directions before making my way to the next independent bookshop Google had located.

 

Bloom and Curll is a small and eclectic bookshop featuring packed shelves, double packed in places, and tottering piles of both old and new titles. There was plenty to tempt me. I was even offered Jaffa cakes by the proprietor to keep me going while I made my selections.

 

What books did I buy on my day out, I hear you ask.

The top four are for myself and the bottom for my daughter – her reward for accompanying me. I did not come across any titles from my beloved independent publishers, but each of my purchases have been on my radar for quite a while.

Now I just have to find time to read them before my ever growing TBR pile falls over and inflicts serious damage.

 

The Bristol Bag was designed by a Bradford on Avon based company, Overt Design, who have created colourful tote bags featuring iconic landmarks for five local locations.

Random Musings: How not to write a book review

I read a lot of book reviews. As well as checking out books I may want to read, or finding out what other readers think of books I have already read, I am eager to observe styles of writing and learn from them in order to improve my own review writing.

Sometimes, however, I read a book review and cringe. One that I read last week prompted me to add this to my Twitter feed.

Avoiding spoilers is a basic rule of good review writing, but what else should be avoided? At the request of a fellow writer I have pulled together my thoughts.

How not to write a book review

Every book will have a blurb created by the publisher. Don’t just repeat this – it is already available for the reader to check out. A book blurb is a marketing tool, not a review.

Following on from the above, don’t just summarise the plot or subject matter. Potential readers will want to know what the book is about, perhaps where and when it is set, but they will be most interested in how satisfying the reading experience is. Knowing what types of books they are likely to enjoy, readers will be looking for a match to their preferences.

Publicists love to promote a book as ‘The next [insert bestselling title]’. If a book reminds you of another title in style or content by all means mention this in your review but explain how or why. What elements brought a previous work to mind? Does this work in the wider context of the book being reviewed?

A review is not a set of notes to enable a literature student to pass an exam. Neither is it a detailed critique of the entire text. Both of these serve a purpose and can be of interest but most potential readers simply want an indication if this book could be for them.

Be honest about what you liked and disliked about: the writing style and structure; the pace and accessibility; your lingering impressions. An aspect that you didn’t enjoy may be exactly what another reader is looking for.

Quotes can provide a useful indication of writing style but don’t overuse them. You are not providing a condensed version of the text.

Don’t be afraid to say how the book made you feel. Some readers will want happy ever after stories while others prefer to be educated, challenged or even angered. If emotions are triggered mention this. If a book is bland consider why and explain.

A review is about a book, not an author. It is fine to refer to their other work but don’t criticise them as a person. Some fine literature has been created by reprobates.

If you are writing a review then you are a writer and should be taking care with your craft. Spelling, grammar and punctuation matter as do content, structure and flow. Read your review aloud and rework any sections that jar. Ensure your review says something – adds value – although don’t stress if it is not of the quality you aspire to. We can all improve with practice.

Don’t be put off writing a review by the quality of other reviews you may have read. Potential readers are interested in a variety of opinions. A review is, after all, just one reader’s opinion.

Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press. 

Book Review: The Porpoise

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in contemporary fiction writers re-imagining classic myths and tales. As I have read few of the originals I come at these stories with fresh eyes. Perhaps I miss clever references. Perhaps I out myself as being less well read. I have little time for literary snobbery or being told I should read any work. A book should stand on its own merits whatever its inspiration.

The Porpoise is based on the story of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Alongside older renditions of this tale, the version resurrected by Wilkins and Shakespeare is cited. Other, more divergent, interpretations have also been woven into this new take. Details change over time but the template remains the same: the beautiful daughter of a powerful man is no more than a device to set a young suitor on the journey where he will have his real adventures.

Opening in modern times the story starts with a plane crash in which the only survivor is a newborn child. Her father – a wealthy and powerful aristocrat who is devastated by the loss of his wife – raises their daughter, named Angelica, in what he considers protective seclusion. The description of her childhood is harrowing. When a young man, Darius, visits their home she is quietly desperate for change. The books that have been her solace growing up lead her to believe that Darius will orchestrate her escape. Her father understands the scandal this risks and sets an assassin on the young man’s tail.

“there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life”

Darius flees and, in doing so, travels back in time. He becomes Pericles and is warned by advisors that he must leave Tyre. There is a shipwreck. He encounters and impresses a princess. Further tragedies strike.

Timelines are intertwined. The reader is kept updated as to what is happening to Angelica. There are sections involving Wilkins and Shakespeare. Characters observe the lives they are leading as their past or future selves through dreams. They feel what is happening even though they do not always understand.

It is a story of fathers and daughters, of grief and the cruel madness that grows from acceptance of entitlement. Women are broken because men use them for pleasure. Any suggestion that the tables could be turned leads to fear.

“The world turned upside down, the weak given power. The revenge they could justify if they had the means at their disposal. A life would not be long enough to repay the debt.”

At some level these men know what they are doing is wrong yet they suppress such thoughts when they can get away with their actions. Roles are ingrained; challenging them can be life threatening.

“She has grown up as a woman. She has been taught to flatter, to please, to depend, to give away, to make herself small and quiet. She has been told to be soft so that men will always have a means by which they can hurt and control her, that ring through the nose which men call femininity.”

The beliefs of the ancient world are referenced with their superstitions and blood sacrifices. When death seems near it is to within, rather than a deity, that the victims turn.

“Perhaps this is what all prayer is, when the ceremony and the theology are peeled away, a serious stillness in which one talks quietly to one’s own best self.”

Such best selves are ultimately selfish. The love so strongly felt is for how the recipient makes the lover feel. When faced with the power of wealth and social standing one’s best hope is to be overlooked, somehow hidden from the notice of those who seek to control behaviour for personal benefit.

“the wisdom that comes with knowing you could be prey”

One wretched scene involves young boys and their burgeoning need to prove themselves strong and fearless. Artistry is recognised then sacrificed, its value secondary to a more primal need when amongst peers.

After the adventures, the risk and the losses, there must be a denouement. It felt contrived although may well be based on the stories from which this one has grown. The author offers alternatives while pointing out the difficulties these would bring. Happy ever after is not how life is lived.

There is a short digression that explores an afterlife in which comeuppance is not as expected. It added to a tale where death, or near death, is a perpetual driver. The men portrayed rarely acknowledge the damage caused by their behaviour. When faced with consequences, regret is for what is now happening to them.

Any Cop?: The layered and interwoven structure works well in drawing attention to key issues and bringing accepted horrors, particularly in the ancient setting, a contemporary empathy. The fluid writing offered moments of insight. Although at times unsettling, this was an enjoyable read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The South Westerlies

“the land was in her blood”

The South Westerlies, by Jane Fraser, is a collection of eighteen short stories mostly set in and around the Gower area of South Wales. The land is depicted as windswept and often damp. Family roots run deep although some branches long for an escape.

Each tale stands alone yet there are suggestions that the cast of characters interweaves. Many in the community have familiar names. Places feature in numerous tales.

The farming families have tended the land for generations. Young men who take on their father’s farms look for wives who, like their mothers, will have dinner on the table at a set time whilst raising sons to ensure a continuum.

“Gower born and Gower bred
Strong of arm and good in bed”

The farmers’ teenage daughters accept as husbands the sons of neighbouring farmers – those suggested by their parents. They feel complimented when described as “good breeding stock”. They consider with satisfaction the agricultural acres joined by such marriages. Later in life these women ponder their lot. Stories included tell of widows who do not mourn the loss of husbands who demanded that they “put up and shut up”.

Other stories introduce young people who left the area to build lives elsewhere. They return to visit embittered parents, still critical of the strengths shown that enabled their offspring’s escape. School friends who stayed – met up with again after many years – conjure memories and thoughts of what might have been. Severing from a root may not eradicate it.

There is much grief in the tales: longed for children who were never born; children lost young whose shadows forever weaken sunbeams of happiness.

Within families there is blame and resentment. Men try to control wifely behaviour. Parents complain of their grown children’s choices and distance. Friends ponder what they have missed by letting time drift.

In Look What the Wind’s Blown In a young couple try to help an increasingly infirm elderly parent. The old man wants his daughter-in-law to look after him as his wife once did. When more practical alternatives are offered there is an impasse.

In Search of the Perfect Wave introduces a surfer’s consuming need to chase the perfect wave. In this and other stories, unhappiness exists when a character cannot find the strength to insist that their needs are considered. Desires are individual and rarely transferable.

This is the Boat that Dad Built is a moving account of a family man who tries his best and, for one summer, succeeds. It offers a reminder that happiness is hard to bestow without willing acceptance from a recipient. Individuals cannot be all things to all people.

The stories are often bleak yet the sense of place evoked is one of dark beauty and an innate affinity. The writing is polished but also affecting with each story harbouring nuance and depth. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.