The Dressing Station
By Jonathan Kaplan
Atlantic Monthly Press (2002), $25
Jonathan Kaplan isn’t entirely right to call himself “a medical vagabond.” For a surgeon, he’s had a career that has been uniquely nomadic, yes, but any suggestion of caprice is misplaced. As this book, Kaplan’s first, makes clear, he is a driven man. By involving himself so intimately with human suffering, he seeks not only to mitigate it, but to bear its witness as well. Also a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Kaplan has certainly earned the right to assemble his memoirs, and an audience. The diversity of his experience — as clinician and researcher, battlefield surgeon, air-ambulance and cruise-ship physician — is impressive, and his stories range from poignant to devastating to freakish to downright funny. This book has no shortage, nor excess, of graphic details, but its lasting power comes from its author’s careful observation and perspective. He writes with a surgeon’s confidence in sharp, unwavering strokes. His aptitude for description allows for a balance of lyricism and terse energy, with language equal in vividness to the brutal events it often recounts. Most harrowing are his tales of treating those victims “changed abruptly from wholeness to injury”: casualties from the front lines of wars largely ignored by Americans. Kaplan was born in South Africa and studied in Cape Town, where the inevitable violence of apartheid first shook him from complacency and began his long exposure to hard-won cosmopolitanism. It has served him well. Lucidly analytical, reflective, critical, even gossipy, The Dressing Station sets a high standard for medical memoirs.
— Jonathan Kiefer
Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber
By Naguib Mahfouz, edited by Mohamed Salmawy
The American University in Cairo Press (2002), $19.95
It is while passing the train station at Sidi Gaber that Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz always prepares to get off the train for Alexandria. “The journey of life — well, with the approach of my ninetieth year, I feel I am passing the penultimate station,” he writes in this hodgepodge of a book whose pieces were transcribed from conversations because of a 1994 knifing incident that injured Mahfouz’s writing hand. This renders discussions of his creative habits especially moving, given his kinesthetic genius. He insists he is no Milton, who dictated poems after going blind; rather, Mahfouz must use a pen to do any literary writing: “An evocative combination of letters is sometimes enough to summon an entire plot.” Mahfouz remembers life in British-occupied Egypt, considers ideas and the novel, and proclaims Jerusalem equally sacred for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. However, comments such as “[N]o religion condones terrorism” or “[H]ad the United States been more just as the world’s leader, nobody would have plotted to destroy it” have a generic quality that makes them almost meaningless. Oddly, when describing Alexandrian cafes with their waterpipes, or the toy cinema of his childhood, complete with candle-illuminated projector, Mahfouz does his best work as ambassador of a place and time that require more attention.
— Alexandra Yurkovsky
By Diana Souhami
Harcourt (2002), $24
Daniel Defoe based his now-iconic fictional character Robinson Crusoe on a real person, a cantankerous Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk whose abrasive personality so annoyed his piratical shipmates that they marooned him on an isolated Pacific island where he managed to survive, alone, for four years. British biographer Diana Souhami sets out to examine the truth behind the fiction of Robinson Crusoe, focusing, oddly, not on Selkirk the man but rather on the island. This gimmick might have worked had the island been particularly interesting, yet we quickly learn that Selkirk’s Mas a Tiera — in the Juan Fernandez archipelago — is, as islands go, dull. Souhami is thereby forced to pad the book with lurid descriptions of abominable shipboard conditions among the 18th-century privateers who prowled the South Seas in search of galleons to sack. These incidental details of scurvy and maggots, of priceless religious relics deemed irrelevant and tossed overboard to make room for more pickles and snuffboxes, are vastly more entertaining than Selkirk’s tedious islandbound years. Even so, Souhami’s self-congratulatory stylistic mannerisms nearly drain the fun out of the whole enterprise. Intentionally leaving crucial concepts and historical contexts unexplained, she instead gleefully obsesses over the mundane — taking pains, for example, to explain the difference between ship and boat, as if addressing children. It’s cute the first ten times she ignores the important in favor of the trivial, but by the second chapter you want to put her ashore.
— Kristan Lawson