Stephen Fabes is an emergency room doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Not exciting enough for you? Well, he also spent six years of the past decade cycling six continents (so, all bar Antarctica). His statistics are beyond impressive: 53,568 miles, 102 international borders, 1000+ nights of free camping, 26 bicycle tires, and 23 journals filled with his experiences. A warm-up was cycling the length of Chile with his brother at age 19. After medical school in Liverpool and starting his career in London, he found himself restless and again longing for adventure. The round-the-world cycle he planned fell into four sections: London to Cape Town, the West Coast of the Americas, Melbourne to Mumbai, and Hong Kong to home.
Signs of Life is a warm-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny account of Fabes’ travels, achieving a spot-on balance between major world events, the everyday discomforts of long-distance cycling and rough camping, and his humanitarian volunteering. He is a witness to the Occupy movement in Hong Kong, the aftermath of drought and tribal conflict in Africa, and the refugee crisis via the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais. The desperate situations he saw while putting his medical expertise to good use in short bursts – e.g., at a floating clinic on a Cambodian lake, a malaria research center in Thailand, a leper hospital in Nepal, and a mental health rehabilitation clinic in Mumbai – put into perspective more minor annoyances like fire ants in El Salvador, Indonesian traffic, extreme cold in Mongolia, and camel spiders.
Wherever he went, Fabes met with kindness from strangers, even those who started off seeming hostile – having pitched his tent by a derelict cabin in Peru, he was alarmed to awake to a man pointing a gun at him, but the illicit gold miner soon determined he was harmless and offered him some soup. (Police officers and border guards were perhaps a bit less hospitable.) He also had occasional companions along the route, including a former housemate and a one-time girlfriend. Even limited shared language was enough to form common ground with a stranger-turned-fellow cyclist for a week or so. We get surprising glimpses of how Anglo-American culture permeates the developing world: For some reason, in the ‒Stans everyone’s point of reference when he introduced himself was Steven Seagal.
At nearly 400 pages, the memoir is on the long side, though I can see that it must have felt impossible to condense six years of adventures any further. I was less interested in the potted histories of other famous cyclists’ travels and would have appreciated a clearer sense to the passing of time, perhaps in the form of a date stamp at the head of each chapter. One of my favorite aspects of the book, though, was the use of medical metaphors to link geography to his experiences. Most chapters are titled after health vocabulary; for instance, in “Membranes” he ponders whether country borders are more like scars or cell membranes.
Fabes emphasizes, in a final chapter on the state of the West upon his return in early 2016, that, in all the most important ways, people are the same the world over. Whether in the UK or Southeast Asia, he sees poverty as the major factor in illness, perpetuating the inequality of access to adequate healthcare. Curiosity and empathy are his guides as he approaches each patient’s health as a story. Reflecting on the pandemic, which hit just as he was finalizing the manuscript, he prescribes global cooperation and innovation for this time of uncertainty.
We’re all armchair travelers this year, but this book is especially for you if you enjoy Bill Bryson’s sense of humor, think Dervla Murphy was a badass in Full Tilt, and enjoyed War Doctor by David Nott and/or The Crossway by Guy Stagg. It’s one of my top few predictions for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize – fingers crossed it will go ahead after the 2020 hiatus.
With thanks to Dr Fabes and Profile Books for the free copy for review.
It can’t happen here. Or can it? That’s a question Rosamund Lupton asks with her novel about a siege at a progressive school in rural England. When out in public with my copy of the book, I was asked a few times what I was reading. I would explain that it was about a school shooting in Somerset, and the reply was always “In the UK?!” Guns are difficult to come by in this country thanks to firearms legislation that was passed following a couple of high-profile massacres in the 1980s and 90s. So, to an extent, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief about the perpetrators getting access to automatic weapons and bombs. And you should, because the story that unfolds is suspenseful and timely.
Cliff Heights School is in the midst of a surprise November blizzard. It’s also under attack. At 9:16 the headmaster, Matthew Marr, is shot twice. Students bundle him into the library, barricade the doors and tend to his head and foot injuries as best they can. He recognized the shooter, but the damage to his brain means he’s incapable of telling anyone who it was.
At 8:15 Rafi Bukhari, a Syrian refugee pupil, had seen an IED explode on the school grounds and alerted Marr, who promptly evacuated the junior school. But the institution is based across several buildings, with some students in the theatre for a dress rehearsal, more in the pottery hut for art class – and now a few trapped in the library.
Lupton toggles between these different locations, focusing on a handful of staff and students and the relationships between them. Hannah, who’s doing her best to help Mr. Marr, is Rafi’s girlfriend. Rafi is concerned for his little brother, Basi, who’s still traumatized after their escape from Syria. Mr. Marr sponsored the boys’ move to England. Could it be that anti-Muslim sentiment has made the Bukhari boys – and thus the school they attend – a target?
We also spend time behind the scenes with police investigators as they pursue leads and worried parents as they await news of their children. I found the book most gripping when the situation was still a complete unknown; as the options narrow down and it becomes clear who’s responsible, things feel a bit more predictable. However, there are still unexpected turns to come.
A few elements that stood out for me were the use of technology (FaceTime, WhatsApp and drones weren’t available at the time of Columbine), the Syrian boys’ history, and the student production of Macbeth, whose violence ironically comments on the school’s crisis. While not my usual fare, I found this well worth reading and will look into Lupton’s back catalogue, too.
Three Hours will be published by Penguin Viking on the 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
My pal Annabel has also reviewed the book today.
“For fans of Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt and Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness,” the blurb on my press release for Leah Hazard’s memoir opens. The publisher’s comparisons couldn’t be more perfect: Hard Pushed has the gynecological detail and edgy sense of humor of Kay’s book (“Another night, another vagina” is its first line, and the author has been known to introduce herself with “Midwife Hazard, at your cervix!”), and matches Watson’s with its empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout.
Hazard alternates between anonymized case studies of patients she has treated and general thoughts on her chosen career (e.g. “Notes on Triage” and “Notes on Being from Somewhere Else”). Although all of the patients in her book are fictional composites, their circumstances are rendered so vividly that you quickly forget these particular characters never existed. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room with Eleanor, one-half of a lesbian couple welcoming a child thanks to the now-everyday wonder of IVF; Hawa, a Somali woman whose pregnancy is complicated by the genital mutilation she underwent as a child; and Pei Hsuan, a Chinese teenager who was trafficked into sex work in Britain.
Sometimes we don’t learn the endings to these stories. Will 15-year-old Crystal have a healthy baby after she starts leaking fluid at 23 weeks? What will happen next for Pei Hsuan after her case is passed on to refugee services? Hazard deliberately leaves things uncertain to reflect the partial knowledge a hospital midwife often has of her patients: they’re taken off to surgery or discharged, and when they eventually come back to deliver someone else may be on duty. All she can do is to help each woman the best she can in the moment.
A number of these cases allow the author to comment on the range of modern opinions about pregnancy and childrearing, including some controversies. A pushy new grandmother tries to pressure her daughter into breastfeeding; a woman struggles with her mental health while on maternity leave; a rape victim is too far along to have a termination. At the other end of the spectrum, we meet a hippie couple in a birthing pool who prefer to speak of “surges” rather than contractions. Hazard rightly contends that it’s not her place to cast judgment on any of her patients’ decisions; her job is simply to deal with the situation at hand.
I especially liked reading about the habits that keep the author going through long overnight shifts, such as breaking the time up into 15-minute increments, each with its own assigned task. The excerpts from her official notes – in italics and full of shorthand and jargon – are a neat window into the science and reality of a midwife’s work, with a glossary at the end of the book ensuring that nothing is too technical for laypeople.
Hazard, an American, lives in Scotland and has a Glaswegian husband and two daughters. Her experience of being an NHS midwife has not always been ideal; there were even moments when she was ready to quit. Like Kay and Watson, she has found that the medical field can be unforgiving what with low pay, little recognition and hardly any time to wolf down your dinner during a break, let alone reflect on the life-and-death situations you’ve been a part of. Yet its rewards outweigh the downsides.
Hard Pushed has none of the sentimentality of Call the Midwife – a relief since I’m not one to gush over babies. Still, it’s a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering. If you like books that follow doctors and nurses down hospital hallways, you’ll love it. This was one of my most anticipated books of the first half of the year, and it lived up to my expectations. It’s also one of my top contenders for the 2020 Wellcome Book Prize so far.
A few favorite passages:
“So many things in midwifery are ‘wee’ [in Scotland, at least!] – a wee cut, a wee tear, a wee bleed, the latter used to describe anything from a trickle to a torrent. Euphemisms are one of our many small mercies: we learn early on to downplay and dissemble. The brutality of birth is often self-evident; there is little need to elaborate.”
“Whenever I dress a wound in this way, I remember that this is an act of loving validation; every wound tells a story, and every dressing is an acknowledgement of that story – the midwife’s way of saying, I hear you, and I believe you.”
“midwives do so much more than catch babies. We devise and implement plans of care; we connect, console, empathise and cheerlead; we prescribe; we do minor surgery. … We may never have met you until the day we ride into battle for you and your baby; … you may not even recognise the cavalry that’s been at your back until the drapes are down and the blood has dried beneath your feet.”
Hard Pushed was published in the UK on May 2nd (just a few days before International Midwives’ Day) by Hutchinson. My thanks to the publisher for the free proof copy for review.
Following up on my post from June, here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for places that aren’t my blog.
Review essay of Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour UK
The female body has been a source of deep embarrassment for Altman, but here she swaps shame for self-deprecating silliness and cringing for chuckling. Through a snappy blend of personal anecdotes and intensive research, she exposes the cultural expectations that make us dislike our bodies, suggesting that a better knowledge of anatomy might help us feel normal. While 11 of her 15 topics aren’t exclusive to women’s anatomy—birthmarks, hemorrhoids, warts and more apply to men, too—she always presents an honest account of the female experience. This is one of my favorite books of the year and one I’d recommend to women of any age. It’s funny, it’s feminist, and it’s a cracking good read. (My full review is complete with embarrassing personal revelations!)
Essay on two books about “wasting time” for the Los Angeles Review of Books
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman &
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl: A poet’s delight in lyricism and free association is in evidence here. The book blends memoir with travel and biographical information about some of Hampl’s exemplars of solitary, introspective living, and it begins, quite literally, with daydreaming.
Hampl and Lightman start from the same point of frazzled frustration and arrive at many of the same conclusions about the necessity of “wasted” time but go about it in entirely different ways. Lightman makes a carefully constructed argument and amasses a sufficient weight of scientific and anecdotal evidence; Hampl drifts and dreams through seemingly irrelevant back alleys of memory and experience. The latter is a case of form following function: her book wanders along with her mind, in keeping with her definition of memoir as “lyrical quest literature,” where meaning always hovers above the basics of plot.
Book list for OZY on the refugee crisis & another coming up on compassion in medicine.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews
(Their website is not available outside the USA, so the links may not work for you).
Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau
Chamoiseau is a social worker and author from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Translator Linda Coverdale has chosen to leave snippets of Martinican Creole in this text, creating a symphony of languages. The novel has an opening that might suit a gloomy fairytale: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man.” The novel’s language is full of delightfully unexpected verbs and metaphors. At not much more than 100 pages, it is a nightmarish novella that alternates between feeling like a nebulous allegory and a realistic escaped slave narrative. It can be a disorienting experience: like the slave, readers are trapped in a menacing forest and prone to hallucinations. The lyricism of the writing and the brief glimpse back from the present day, in which an anthropologist discovers the slave’s remains and imagines the runaway back into life, give this book enduring power.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Barry Cohen, a conceited hedge fund manager under SEC investigation for insider trading, sets out on a several-month picaresque road trip in the second half of 2016. The ostensible aim is to find his college girlfriend, but he forms fleeting connections with lots of ordinary folks along the way. Barry may be a figure of fun, but it’s unpleasant to spend so much time with his chauvinism (“he never remembered women’s names” but gets plenty of them to sleep with him), which isn’t fully tempered by alternating chapters from his wife’s perspective. Pitched somewhere between the low point of “Make America Great Again” and the loftiness of the Great American novel, Lake Success may not achieve the profundity it’s aiming for, but it’s still a biting portrait of an all-too-recognizable America where money is God and villains gets off easy.
Shiny New Books reviews
(Upcoming: Nine Pints by Rose George and Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers.) Latest:
The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places by William Atkins
Atkins has produced an appealing blend of vivid travel anecdotes, historical background and philosophical musings. He is always conscious that he is treading in the footsteps of earlier adventurers. He has no illusions about being a pioneer here; rather, he eagerly picks up the thematic threads others have spun out of desert experience and runs with them – things like solitude, asceticism, punishment for wrongdoing and environmental degradation. The book is composed of seven long chapters, each set in a different desert. In my favorite segment, the author rents a cabin in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for $100 a week. My interest waxed and waned from chapter to chapter, but readers of travelogues should find plenty to enjoy. Few of us would have the physical or emotional fortitude to repeat Atkins’s journeys, but we get the joy of being armchair travelers instead.
Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart by Nell Stevens
I was ambivalent about the author’s first book (Bleaker House), but for a student of the Victorian period this was unmissable, and the meta aspect was fun and not off-putting this time. Stevens has a light touch, and flits between Gaskell’s story and her own in alternating chapters. One strand covers the last decade of Gaskell’s life, but what makes it so lively and unusual is that Stevens almost always speaks of Gaskell as “you.” The intimacy of that address ensures her life story is anything but dry. The other chapters are set between 2013 and 2017 and narrated in the present tense, which makes Stevens’s dilemmas feel pressing. For much of the first two years her PhD takes a backseat to her love life. She’s obsessed with Max, a friend and unrequited crush from her Boston University days who is now living in Paris. This is a whimsical, sentimental, wry book that will ring true for anyone who’s ever been fixated on an idea or put too much stock in a relationship that failed to thrive.
Times Literary Supplement reviews
I’ve recently submitted my sixth and seventh for publication. All of them have been behind a paywall so far, alas. (Upcoming: Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul; On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén.) Latest:
How To Build A Boat: A Father, his Daughter, and the Unsailed Sea by Jonathan Gornall
Gornall’s genial memoir is the story of a transformation and an adventure, as a fifty-something freelance journalist gets an unexpected second chance at fatherhood and decides to build his daughter, Phoebe, a boat. It was an uncharacteristic resolution for “a man who [had] never knowingly wielded a plane or a chisel,” yet in a more metaphorical way it made sense: the sea was in his family’s blood. Gornall nimbly conveys the precarious financial situation of the freelancer, as well as the challenges of adjusting to new parenthood late in life. This is a refreshingly down-to-earth account. The nitty-gritty details of the construction will appeal to some readers more than to others, but one can’t help admiring the combination of craftsmanship and ambition. (Full review in September 7th issue.)
The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.
Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.
Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.
A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.
Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.
The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.
I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.
This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.