What I Read – June 2017

This felt like kind of a strange reading month for me. I started off by reading Alexie’s memoir and Verghese’ back-to-back, while also working my way through Chesterton’s autobiography. While I enjoyed each one, it also felt like a lot of male experiences and I was itching for some feminine perspective to balance it out. Something that hasn’t really happened to me before. I was eager to read Allende, an author I’ve also heard highly of but haven’t read before. A ferry ride and a night away on my own was the perfect opportunity. Then some Agatha Christie and I was ready to finish tackling Chesterton (reviews to come).

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, 2017)

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (Harper Collins, 1998)

The Japanese Lover – Isabel Allende (Atria Paperback, 2015)

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

Re-Read:

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (Cardinal Editions, 1960)

Didn’t Finish:

Gork, the Teenage Dragon – Gabe Hudson (Knopf, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

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Book Review: The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese

The Tennis Partner – Abraham Verghese (HarperCollins, 1998)

After a somewhat awkward incident of an acquaintance thinking I’d borrowed his copy of The Tennis Partner almost ten years ago and never returned it, I decided to take it as a sign and actually read the book. (I got it from the library, however.)

Having read Cutting for Stone last year, I already knew Verghese as a talented writer and a medical doctor in his daily life.The books are, of course, very different. While Cutting for Stone is a novel, The Tennis Partner is the true story of Verghese’s friendship with another doctor named David Smith.

In the mid-1990s, Verghese and his family move to El Paso, Texas where he works in internal medicine. I found the setting of El Paso, a city I’m entirely unfamiliar with, to be fascinating. A town bordering Mexico, Verghese manages to show us a city both beautiful and dangerous. Barren but with hidden corners of bounty. Verghese’s work introduces him to many victims of AIDS and drug abuse but he doesn’t immediately recognize his colleague as a drug user.

Smith and Verghese are drawn together by a love of tennis. Smith, an Australian, travelled on the pro circuit while Verghese has simply had a life long obsession with the sport. They find that they make good partners on the court and a friendship springs up. While Verghese navigates through a divorce from his wife, Smith gradually reveals his past addiction and how he has had to start over. While clean at the beginning of the book, it’s clear that there are unresolved issues for Smith, particularly in his relationships with women.

As close as the two men become, Verghese is always slightly removed from Smith’s inner life, often not knowing exactly what’s happening to his friend. At times he seems to have a sort of willful blindness, though it’s not hard to sympathize with someone who wants to see the best in a person he cares about. Verghese is extremely knowledgeable about the mechanics of addiction and drug use, as demonstrated by his work with his patients, and yet baffled by the mental struggle behind addiction. In fact, he comes across rather callously in one section, after Smith has returned from rehab. At times, it seems that Verghese’s concern is more with losing his tennis partner than with what’s best for his friend.

Overall though, the book is a moving and intimate portrayal of medical work and friendship. As with Cutting for Stone, I found that sometimes the medical descriptions delved too deep and, while interesting, left me feeling nauseous. Perhaps readers with stronger stomachs will do better. In a similar manner, there is a lot of detail about tennis in the book. As someone who has never held a tennis racquet in my life, I just didn’t care and found myself skipping over many of these sections, which didn’t detract from the story itself.

Book Review: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

I had put off reading Cutting for Stone for quite some time, mostly, I think, from a fear that it couldn’t live up to its hype. The good news is, it definitely can and does

The book is set in Addis, Ethiopa in the 1950s and 60s. Knowing very little about that time and place, I found Verghese’s descriptions fascinating. He draws the city well – its disparate backgrounds and all the unique history and colonialism that shaped it. After reading about it, I felt like I wanted to visit Ethiopia. The central setting of the novel is Missing Hospital (officially “Mission Hospital” but known as Missing locally). The story opens with a surprise birth – a nun who works at the hospital has gone into labour, despite the fact no one knew she was pregnant. Identical twin boys, Shiva and Marion, are born as their mother dies and their father flees.

Verghese is a doctor in his own real life and it shows in his writing. He doesn’t shy away from detailed, realistic, and graphic descriptions of illness, surgery, and anatomy. I don’t think of myself as a squeamish person but I did find a lot of it hard to read. I’m simply not used to having the interiors of human beings described in such rich detail and so found it difficult to read some of the lengthier descriptions. Medicine is a big part of  the story though. Shiva and Marion are raised in the hospital, among the patients, by two doctors. Illness and healing shape their lives in a myriad of ways and are hard things to avoid. While for most readers, I think Verghese is overly detailed in this aspect, a lot of it is interesting and, again, he does a good job of explaining things.

Marion is our narrator and Verghese really brings to life the strange and incredibly close bond of these twin brothers. How natural it feels to them and yet how it can slowly unravel over time. The story spans years of Shiva and Marion’s lives (almost all, in fact) as well as mapping out a crucial and tumultuous period of Ethiopian history. The political background is important and, again, Verghese does a good job of explaining what the reader needs to know without either over-explaining or speaking down to us.

I did feel that the book went on a touch too long. There were at least two places where it could have ended and been a complete book and although what came after wasn’t bad I wonder how much it really added to the story. Without giving anything away, I found the story wound up a little too tidily. Verghese seems to lean a bit much on an emotional rollercoaster technique as climax rather than letting his excellent characters and writing find their ending more naturally. That said, Cutting for Stone is still well worth a read.

What I Read – June 2016

A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 2005)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – Chris Grabenstein (Yearling, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco