Bedside Table books for June

Here are a few of the books that have landed on my desk in the past month.  Some will be reviewed in full later. All but the first book, Holding my Breath, and the last, The Price of Mercy, are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 best reads for June.

Holding my Breath – Further exploits of an ER Doctor, by Anne Biccard (Jacana)

The furore around the letter by paediatrician Tim de Maayer about the situation at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital has underscored the appalling conditions in which doctors and patients often find themselves in public sector hospitals.

After his cri de coeur open letter he was suspended, later reinstated and it now appears disciplinary action against him is continuing.

Last week another doctor, Dr Aayesha Soni, published an article in the Daily Maverick in which she wrote: “Being a doctor demands incredible emotional resilience and fortitude, as you serve people at their most vulnerable of times.

“Being a doctor in the South African public healthcare sector often means that the emotional reserve required is amplified tenfold.”

She went on: “What is happening at Rahima Moosa hospital isn’t isolated to that hospital — it is a problem that has metastasised throughout the healthcare system in South Africa.

“When people like Dr De Maayer and Professor Ebrahim Variawa come bravely forward to point out the glaring deficiencies in one of the basic building blocks of our society, their pleas should be heard with earnestness.

“What they say is a representation of what most — if not all — doctors in the public healthcare system experience and feel.”

Reading about the experiences of Dr Anne Biccard, an emergency room doctor in a private hospital in Johannesburg, is rough enough — so it’s hard to gauge the horror of conditions in many state hospitals.

This is Biccard’s second book ­— her first, Saving a Stranger’s Life, came out at Christmas 2020 and chronicled the first nine months of the pandemic in South Africa.

This second volume also details the pandemic, but much else besides.

Even in the relatively well-heeled private sector, doctors are worked to breaking point, and various waves of Covid make life very much tougher.

Biccard’s narrative describes cases after case, some bizarre — like the male patient who reported his right nipple had slipped into his armpit, although it was back where it should have been when Biccard examined him — some amazing, and some frankly funny.

She also has a way with words. She writes about the 70-year-old woman with bleached blond hair, breast implants and an overall tan, who “looks like a pickled Barbie doll, and is about as responsive…

“I wonder why so many unconscious people seem to be arriving in the Emergency Department recently. It is like a sardine run of semi-dead people.”

But she makes it clear that being a hospital doctor is hard and emotionally draining.

If you’re interested in what life is like for just one doctor, Holding my Breath is a great read.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned, by Sally Hayden (4th Estate)

This book’s arresting title would stop most people. Then you look at the back cover and see no less a writer and journalist than Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent of the London Sunday Times saying of My Fourth Time: “A veritable masterclass in journalism… The most riveting, detailed and damning account ever written on the deadliest of migration routes.”

It is about the experiences of refugees looking for a safe new home in Europe, as well as “negligence of NGOs and corruption within the UN; the economics of the 21st century slave trade, the EU’s bankrolling of Libyan militias; the trials of people smugglers…”

Sally Haden works as the Africa correspondent for the Irish Times, and in 2019 was one of Forbes “30 under 30” media figures in Europe.

I suspect this will be a tough read, but the shouts on the cover could not endorse it too highly. Irish writer Sally Rooney described the book as “the most important work of contemporary reporting I have ever read”.

Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury)

I’ve just started reading this one, set in Belfast in the Troubles. Early on there’s a reference to the Dubliners song The Town I Loved so Well, and so I found it on YouTube and read and listened and had a thoroughly pleasant Irish hour.

Cushla, a schoolteacher, meets an older man in the pub her family owns, and is immediately drawn to him. But he’s Protestant and married, she’s Catholic and you sense trouble is on the way. In the meantime she discovers wryly that her eight-year-old pupils’ vocabulary includes words like booby trap, petrol bomb, gelignite and internment.

You sense things will not go well.

Finding Me, by Viola Davis (Coronet)

I had never heard of Viola Davis until this book arrived. Clearly I’m in a minority. She has risen to the top of the American film, TV and stage acting profession, having won an Oscar, a Primetime Emmy and two Tonys, becoming the first African-American to achieve this.

Her background, growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, was appalling. She was one of six children, and her father regularly beat her mother in drunken rages. There was no money, often no food, and in the vicious New England winters usually no heating and often no water. She said she and her siblings usually smelt of pee. There were plenty of rats.

School was a relief, even if the children’s smell made other children shun them. There was food and heat and a lot to engage a bright mind.

But for years she felt she was an outsider, that no one saw her. This is a remarkable story.

The Long Road from Kandahar, by Sara MacDonald (HarperCollins)

It is 2007 in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, and Raza, who is supposed to be minding the family’s goats, is firing his wooden gun at the hordes of infidels who have invaded his country. He can’t wait to join the Taliban like his big brothers. But his father has other ideas.

Meanwhile British soldier Ben is on a military base in Lashgar Gah in Helmand Provincie, Afghanistan, wondering if he will survive the war to get home to his family in Cornwall. And his young son Finn is worrying about the state of his parents’ marriage.

Finn goes to stay with his grandma, Ben’s mum, and somehow there Raza and Fin’s worlds collide. They form an unlikely friendship — but can it last?

In writing this novel Sarah MacDonald has drawn on her experiences as a British army wife, a year spent in north Pakistan and her love for Cornwall. This is her eighth book.

The Price of Mercy — A fight for the right to die with dignity, by Sean Davison (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Professor Sean Davison doesn’t need much introduction in South Africa. Born a Kiwi, he is a professor in the department of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape, and famously the man who helped four terminally ill people, including his own mother, to die with dignity. He is also a founder member of the pro-euthanasia Dignity SA.

In the past week he was freed from five years’ house-arrest after being convicted in the Western Cape High Court of three counts of murder. This memoir describes how he felt when he was arrested, facing the prospect of three life sentences,  how he and his family coped with his house arrest, and the morality of helping desperately ill people to die.

In his foreword, Philip Nitschke, the founder and director of Exit International, says Davison is warm, trusting and kind. But “make no mistake, this is a man of cold steel rail determination”. He adds: “We all deserve a good death. The state must do better than hanging well-intentioned good men like Sean Davsion out to dry.”


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