Friday, February 26, 2016

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994)

My sad-books-only book club (go Debbie Downers!) most recently read My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese (1994), a book about the early years of the AIDS crisis told from the perspective of an Indian doctor (by way of Ethiopia) who was with AIDS patients in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Verghese is an engaging writer with a fascinating story that touches on much more than just AIDS and its devastating effect on people and their families. Through his writing we learn about medical school; being a foreign doctor in small(ish)-town USA; Kerala, the region of India Christianized by the apostle Thomas; the practice of tapping on a body to diagnose problems with internal organs; the complex relationships between doctors, nurses and other staff; how to navigate around Johnson City; the inner workings of a big VA hospital and much much more. And that's just the side stories! The heart of the book is, of course, Verghese's relationship with his patients. Some we see for only a short time, but others are woven throughout the book, along with their families, and the reader becomes just as tied up in their lives and their pain as Verghese.

While the book is well-written and worth reading, there are a few dim spots. Verghese somehow completely misses any hint of racism or (oddly) black people, even though he is living in the south. There is some wrestling with his identity as a foreign doctor, but this is generally spun in a positive light -- patients open up to him because he is different, and he is able to treat them more effectively because of the trust that that difference provides. Beyond the blind spot for race, Verghese is much much better at describing the men in his story than the women -- his wife comes off as disconnected and nagging (but also sympathetic, since she is pretty much left alone with two young children and the fear that her husband is going to catch AIDS at work), and his description of the rocky parts of their marriage come across like a plot device. Finally, while Verghese has a great writing style and perceptive insights into his own thoughts and background, his recreation of other people's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. I understand wanting to break up the memoir with some speeches, but I'm not sure that device should have been relied upon so heavily.

Beyond those criticisms, though, this is a good book. It provides a snapshot of not-that-long-ago America where neither AIDS nor homosexuality were understood by the general population at all. Verghese confronts some of his own biases and misconceptions about gay people through the course of the book, and while he doesn't get everything right, his journey and his effort come off well. While this book is definitely a downer, there is a bright side in looking at how much the conversation has changed in the past 25 years, and how much doctors and researchers like Verghese have helped people living with HIV and AIDS. Definitely worth reading if you don't mind a few bumps in the road.

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