Book reviews: new non-fiction about an American surgeon in Sudan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and an adventurous couple
New books on courage in the face of inhumanity, the US Supreme Court’s most liberal voice, and quitting the day job and moving to Botswana
by James Verini
The Atavist Magazine (e-book)
With long-form journalism continuing to lose ground to blog posts and news snaps, it’s heartening to read The Atavist Magazine’s 10,000-20,000-word narratives, which lend themselves perfectly to Kindle Singles. James Verini is back, this time with a story about Dr Tom Catena, an American surgeon trying against the odds to save the lives of the Nuba people in Sudan. Blacks who practise Christianity and Islam as well as native religions, they are the target of the scorched-earth policy of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, dominated by Islamists and descendants of Arabs. The only trained surgeon left in the Nuba mountains, he works from the Mother of Mercy hospital to save victims of the bombings that started in 2011. If Verini’s writing verges on hagiography, there is a reason: his subject is saintly. In the late 1990s, Catena left the US for Kenya to work with a physician/priest. Then he heard of the Mother of Mercy in Sudan and, despite knowing of the Nuba only through the 60s photographs of Leni Riefenstahl, he made the move. Readers will move through The Doctor with a grimace but they will be grateful that Catena’s story has been told.
by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been admired for decades for her commitment to righting wrongs, but it’s only recently the US Supreme Court justice has become a pop icon. Notorious RBG wonderfully illustrates the feminist champion’s life and work, chronicling her early years as one of the first women elected to the Harvard Law Review and later Columbia Law School. In 1993, president Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court, only the second woman given a seat on the bench, from where she continues fighting for gender equality and civil liberties. The book portrays a formidable liberal voice drawn to the legal profession because “you could do something good for your society”. Known for reproductive freedom advocacy work, the octogenarian is now defiantly refusing “to meekly shuffle off the stage” because of her fear the court is lurching to the right. Notorious RBG is one of those books that deserve space on bookshelves, virtual or otherwise, beside other life-changing tomes. It should appeal to old and young readers alike, written as it has been in a digestible style with a meaty bite. Few feminists can be called lovable. Ginsburg is one.
by Andrew St Pierre and Gwynn White
Tantor Audio (audiobook)
Setting up tension, in the form of a nemesis, can add excitement to a narrative. But in Torn Trousers, the bickering between the authors and the woman who is supposed to show them the ropes drags. Morag is the sourpuss out to show up Andrew St Pierre White and his wife Gwynn, who lack the experience to manage a high-end game lodge in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. But they cope. There are also animals to contend with: hyena and baboons invade the dirty kitchen and, away from camp, there are elephants and hippos ready to kill interlopers. Andrew and Gwynn contribute alternate chapters, read by schoolmarmish Charlotte Anne Dore and James Langton, and their book’s title borrows from the name of one of the pair’s most useful staff members, Matanta. His mother had lost 13 children before he was born, so refused to give him a proper name. This could have been more of an adventure if the authors had directed their focus away from clashing personalities and towards the exotic setting. Listeners considering wilderness-camp holidays might find Torn Trousers interesting, if only because it reveals what can go on behind the scenes.