Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers

A Thousand Naked Strangers

“I did nothing to save the first person who died in front of me.”  An inauspicious beginning to Kevin Hazzard’s decade-long career as an EMT, then paramedic in Atlanta’s mean streets, to say the least.

In the aftermath of 9/11 and at the age of 25, Kevin Hazzard found himself searching for a way to make a difference with his life.  He abandoned his second of two back-to-back unfulfilling jobs and began training as an Emergency Medical Technician.  “Our class begins in March and wraps in December, putting the education of an EMT – one of two people sent to save your life should the worst happen – at eight months.”  A sobering thought.  But then I learn that the second of the life-saving pair is a paramedic who has more autonomy with immediate treatment decisions and has undergone “an additional eighteen months of training.”  A slightly less sobering thought.

Upon completion of his course- and fieldwork, Hazzard applied to Grady Hospital EMS, the crème-de-la-crème of metro-Atlanta medic postings.  According to Hazzard, Grady medics are “the standard by which all medics . . . are measured.”  He was rejected for lack of experience.  He then tried various fire departments and Rural/Metro Ambulance which covered areas of Fulton County not serviced by the Grady folks.  No luck.  He finally landed his first job with FirstMed Ambulance, a semi-shady outfit which provided private ambulances for transport of the old and infirm to doctor’s appointments and hospitals.

It turns out that Hazzard’s response to his first dying patient was perfectly understandable, in fact even appropriate in the face of the patient’s DNR – Do Not Resuscitate order.  When confronted with the elderly and/or terminally ill, first responders must determine if a DNR is in place, then treat (or not) accordingly.  “Ostensibly, we’re here for the patient, but really all we care about is the DNR.”  This thought stops me in my tracks.  Of course the EMTs and paramedics would need this all important bit of info, but “all we care about”?  Really?  Callousness, or coping mechanism?

From here the ride gets riotous and bumpy in the best of ways, as Hazzard climbs the EMS ladder to Rural/Metro and finally to the coveted Grady EMS.

Hazzard pulls no punches, and if you’ve got a queasy stomach or are the least bit prissy about blood and bodily functions, I’d suggest you stop right here.  His writing style is staccato-fast, raw and spontaneous, and he doesn’t hold back on the gore and gross-out factors.  He’s also terribly blunt:  “Disturbing as it may be, the . . . truth is that often enough the people showing up to your medical emergency do so because this was the only respectable job they could get with a GED and a clean driving record.”  I learned this disconcerting fact before the end of the second chapter.  Scatological humor (which I happen to dig – you may not) is also sprinkled liberally throughout; at one point he gives new meaning to the term “dirty bomb”.

Hazzard doesn’t avoid the fact that, in order to survive such an emotionally-charged career, many medics develop a seriously thick skin and morbid sense of humor.  Some get off on the rush, the high of returning a patient from the dead.  Still others are insolent and disrespectful, miserably inept or on the fast track to burn-out.  But most manage to serve with kindness and conscience.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribner via Netgalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Kim MacQuarrie’s Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries

Life and Death in the Andes

After reading Kim MacQuarrie’s Life and Death in the Andes:  On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries, I’m ready to pack my bags for South America.  Or at least Peru.  But not Colombia . . . definitely not Colombia.  From the Incas to Pablo Escobar, from Charles Darwin to the Shining Path, from Che Guevara to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the western coast of South America plays host as MacQuarrie, a documentary filmmaker as well as writer, takes us on a thumping trip down the length of the Andes.

Little did MacQuarrie know, as a young kid growing up in Nevada, that the authors he read to escape the heat, namely and among others, Edgar Rice Burroughs and an adventurous dude named William Willis, would inform his later years and lead him to spend much time living in, exploring, writing about and filming South America and the Andes in particular.  It was Willis’ account of his successful jaunt across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft that led MacQuarrie to volunteer in Peru for a subsequent, but unrelated, raft expedition.  He didn’t get the gig, but the failed application did lead to a chance encounter with an even-bigger transoceanic rafting celebrity, Thor Heyerdahl, who invited him along on an inland Peruvian excavation project.  Talk about your good timing!

The trip starts in Colombia and I quickly learn that it’s been a damned violent place, as if I didn’t already know that.  We’ve all heard, at least peripherally, about Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, and MacQuarrie makes a great study of the drug kingpin’s rise to the lofty heights of the Forbes’ billionaire list (who knew Forbes was so undiscriminating?) and his inevitable plummet and death.  What I had lesser knowledge of was Colombia’s bloody history of political violence and civil war in the hundred or so years prior to Escobar.  It’s made clear though, that despite the fallout from political upheaval and drug wars, Colombia’s culture has also contributed greatly to international art and literature.  It’s a country that has given the world Medellin artist Fernando Botero, whose famous sculptures can only be described by me as bulbous.  Another Colombian native you may just have heard of in the realm of great contributions to literature:  the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels are shot through with the brutal echoes of Colombia’s past.

Next up on the itinerary is Ecuador, or more specifically the Galapagos Islands.  It’s here that I learn that Darwin was actually a rank amateur in the scientific department when he arrived in the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle.  I had always dwelt under the assumption that Darwin was a seasoned naturalist and that the expedition was planned by and for him, but au contraire!  The Beagle’s mission was to finish surveying Patagonia and its captain was looking to hire an “educated companion” and naturalist, whose job would be to collect specimens but not analyze them.  That was to be left to the trained scientists back in Merry Old England.  Darwin, at 22 and newly graduated from Cambridge with an eye towards becoming a minister, seemed hardly qualified.  In fact, he was so inept at collecting that he failed to bring back even one adult tortoise from the expedition, although four juvenile specimens were returned to England.  And here’s your crazy factoid for the day:  Upon arriving in England, Darwin soon realized that the climate there was far from primo for his young tortoises so he prevailed upon a colleague who was retiring to Australia to take them there.  The last living one of the original four, a female named Harriet, died in 2006 at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, a whopping 176 years after she sailed to England with Darwin.

Peru merits several chapters, presumably because MacQuarrie spent far more time in that locale than the other Andean countries, but also because it seems to have just so many damn interesting things going on there.  MacQuarrie chronicles the Shining Path guerrilla movement of the 1980s and early ‘90s (still mildly active today), hikes to Machu Picchu and gives us the dirty low-down on its smarmy “discoverer” Hiram Bingham, and waxes rhapsodic about the Ice Maiden, a 15th-century mummy of a young girl sacrificed as an offering to the Incan gods.  Juanita, as she was called after her discovery on Mount Amparo, was found wearing perfectly preserved garments made of the finest, most intricate weavings.  From here, MacQuarrie deftly segues into a lengthy discussion of the preservation of traditional weaving practices in Peru today.  As part of his trip to a cooperative market where the Peruvian weavers hawk their wares, he was treated to a typical native lunch:  guinea pigs “served on a plate roasted and splayed, with their arms and legs stretching out, looking like road kill.”  Thanks, Kim.  You just killed my appetite and tempted me to hit PETA up for a Save the Guinea Pigs campaign.

Travelling a little further south to Lake Titicaca (a name that always inspired the giggles in my 8-year-old self), straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, MacQuarrie then introduces me, his by now fascinated reader, to Los Uros, floating islands made of reeds that house and sustain an entire population.  Everything there, the residences, the boats, the furniture, the food – you name it – is made entirely from the reeds, called totora, that grow naturally on Lake Titicaca.

And have I rambled on long enough?  I should at least give you something to anticipate and leave off telling you chapter and verse about everything this Andean chronicle has to offer.  I must be coming off like the movie trailer that shows all the best scenes and doesn’t leave you anything but filler.  Don’t fret.  There’s a heap of adventure left and you’ll keep moving south into Bolivia and Chile:  Che Guevara, the ruins of Tiahuanaco (Ancient Aliens and Giorgio Tsoukalos’ electrified hair are not in evidence, thank God!), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the Yamana Indians of Tierra del Fuego are waiting.  And Darwin makes a second but final appearance!

I guess it’s apparent by now that I was quite enamored with this book and, as such, I give it a healthy 4.5 stars out of 5.  My one quibble however is with the ending.  I’ll just say that MacQuarrie ends his journey very abruptly.  So abruptly, in fact, that I questioned whether my advance reading copy was missing its ending.  While I normally wouldn’t even comment on this as typos are common with ARCs and come with the territory, my particular electronic copy had an inordinate number of editing goofs which couldn’t help but make me wonder about that ending.  Life and Death in the Andes has since been released so I’m sorely tempted to buy a copy to satisfy my curiosity.

To me, reading is all about learning and adventure, whether you’re traveling in your armchair with words or making your reading-inspired dreams a reality, the latter being exactly what MacQuarrie has done.  The Willis books spurred the failed volunteer opportunity which led to his meeting with Heyerdahl.  The Heyerdahl dig, as well as six months spent living with the primitive Yora tribe in Peru’s Upper Amazon, gave MacQuarrie the idea to travel the length of the Andes, chronicling its troubled history and colorful personages along the way.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.  All quotes herein are from the review copy and may appear differently in the final print version.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part I

Time to trot out a list of some of my very, very favorite books ever, those closest to my heart, the ones that knocked my world ever so slightly off its axis.  You may like them, you may not, but you should at least give them a try.  Some are obvious choices, some are hiding just beyond that tree over there, but each one of these, at the time I read them, stirred up something deep inside me that I couldn’t always quite name.  Stand aside and welcome the first three on the list (in no particular order):

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation

This is a VERY fresh addition to my list, but a most deserving one.  You might think that a novel taking place in the recent history of war-torn Chechnya couldn’t be anything but a complete downer, but you’d be wrong.  Set in depressing circumstances, yes, but Anthony Marra’s 2013 debut novel punched me flat with the darkly funny, warped humor of its characters.  This particular exchange caused me to choke on my wine:

“’Let me tell you a story,’ the brother said, holding his cigarette like a conductor’s baton.  ‘When I was a child I had a pet turtle, whom I named after Alu because they shared a certain – how can I put it – bestial idiocy.  Once I went to Grozny with my father and five of my brothers for the funeral of my father’s uncle, and we left so quickly I hadn’t the time to provide the food for Alu the Turtle.  My brother, Alu the Idiot, had a fever and stayed home with my mother.  In a moment so taxing on that little intellect that steam surely shot from his ears, Alu the Idiot remembered to feed my turtle.  He caught grubs and crickets, likely tasting them before he gave them to my beloved crustacean.  Since then Alu the Idiot has grown into a Gibraltar-sized hemorrhoid, but when he was a child he used the one good idea his life has allotted him to feed my turtle, and because of it, you get a second favor.’

‘Turtles aren’t crustaceans,’ she said.

‘Excuse me, half crustaceans.’

‘They’re full-blooded reptiles.’

The brother gaped at her.  ‘You should hear yourself.  You sound ridiculous.’

‘A turtle is one hundred percent reptile,’ she said.  ‘I imagine even Alu knows that.’

‘Don’t insult me.  Everyone knows a turtle is a crustacean on its mother’s side.’

‘Explain that to me,’ she said, shifting in the seat as the car spun in circles.

‘A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out.  It’s called evolution.’

‘I hope your biology teacher was sent to the gulag,’ she said.”

If you don’t think that’s hilarious, you should just stop reading right now, since you were obviously born without the funny gene, and you and I will not get along . . . ever.  Who thinks up a conversation like that?  Anthony Marra apparently.  He’s an acrobat with dialogue and, unbelievably, you find yourself wanting to hang out in Chechnya with these folks.  As Meg Wolitzer put it in her review for NPR, “The main characters are vivid and real and stuck, and I guess I wanted to be stuck along with them.”  I could have stayed stuck for the rest of my life, and I was truly, truly bummed when I turned the final page and found there were no more pages.  Marra, you have ruined me for anything else.  Ruined me, I tell you!!

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how Anthony Marra was going to follow up this masterpiece.  Would he go all Harper Lee, or Margaret Mitchell, or John Kennedy Toole on us, having shot his wad with the first book?  (Yes, I know Harper Lee finally did publish again . . . albeit controversially.)  Evidently not, since his next offering, a collection of short stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno just hit book stores this month.  Believe me, it’s on my short list to read soon.

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

An attorney I work for (I’ll call him Bon . . . as in Scott) and I have a long-standing disagreement about Stephenson.  Bon’s favorite is Snow Crash while mine is Cryptonomicon.  He does not like Crypto one bit, says he’s tried to read it a couple of times and couldn’t finish it.  Snow Crash may be more accessible, I’ll give him that.  Crypto is a massive tome totaling over a thousand pages, is intimidating just to look at, and even the name is a little daunting, but oh, once you crack it open!  (Hell, even I was intimidated the first time I saw this book, and I love a good, fat fatty of a novel!)  Shifting between World War II and the present, and with Alan Turing making a cameo appearance (and by the way, go stream The Imitation Game for an in-depth look at Turing; go do it right now, I mean it! You can come back to this later!), this dense saga is a techno-nerd’s dream, but you don’t have to be a nerd or a techie to enjoy it.  You just have to get past the intimidation factor and give it a good, long chance.  Stephenson’s brand of intelligent, snarky humor helps tremendously and, just like Anthony Marra, his flair for dialogue makes my mind reel.  Even though this list is in no particular order, Cryptonomicon lands squarely in my Top Five Books of All Time.

Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire

It’s been a good twenty years since I read this, and it’s long overdue for a re-read.  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:  A Season in the Wilderness sparked my now decades-long love affair with hiking and natural places, although this isn’t a book about hiking per se.  Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s three seasons as a park ranger in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Abbey, in all his curmudgeonly glory, managed to turn me into a die-hard tree hugger in my impressionable twenties, and while my environmental sensibilities aren’t quite as fervid or radical as they once were, I still give thanks to Edward Abbey each time I head down the trail.

No way in hell my entire Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) list will fit into one blog entry, so I hope that I can entice you back for Part II in a few days.  Peter Matthiessen, Ayn Rand and Lee Smith are waiting in the wings!

Just a few minutes here and there!

I usually have my nose stuffed in three or so books at any one time:  one physical book, one or two Kindle books and one audiobook.  Right now, I’m reading the trade PB of 52 Loaves:  A Half-Baked Adventure, by William Alexander; Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (which just dropped today from Random House) on Kindle, as well as a horror, short-story anthology, Suspended In Dusk, edited by Simon Dewar (also on Kindle); and finally, on audio, the second installment in Marcus Sakey’s near-future Brilliance Saga, A Better World, narrated by Luke Daniels (love me some Luke D.!).  I’ve just finished Furiously Happy:  A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) but wish it had been about a thousand pages longer.  It deserves, and will get, a blog post all its own.

52 Loaves  Thirteen Ways of Looking  Suspended in Dusk  A Better World  Furiously Happy

The audiobooks carry me through my one-hour long commute each day (one-way!) and the Kindle editions keep me going through endless miles on the treadmill.  The actual books and the Kindle versions compete for the remainder of my reading hours . . . or minutes or seconds!  All depends on when I can squeeze in a few more word-filled moments throughout my day.

If I had a nickel for every time someone has whined to me, in the most high-pitched, nasal tone she can muster, “I love to read but I can never find the time” . . .  Believe me, if you truly want to read you will make the time.  Besides the drive time and the gym, I also squeeze in a few pages while I get ready for work in the morning, on my lunch break, while the Hubs watches something loud and obnoxious on television (i.e., war movies, more war movies, and oh, did I mention war movies?), and lying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep.  It’s not that difficult if you put your mind to it . . . unless you have kids – then I know the challenge is truly amplified for you and your priorities are where they should be, with your kids.  Sure, I would much rather have a solid, uninterrupted hour or two (or three or four or five!) to really dig in and lose myself in whatever I’m reading but that’s not always realistic.  I’ve learned to appreciate the time I can get, when I can get it and to make the most of it!