American doctor's letters from Rwanda chronicle the darkest side of humanity

MAGAZINES

August 14, 1994|By Clea Simon | Clea Simon,Boston Globe

It's a small world and getting smaller. Forget the electronic media and live-action TV, even magazines are closing in on one another and their shared universes. This month's Harper's brings the carnage in Rwanda home in a series of letters written from Kigali by American doctor John Sundin, who was from May through June the only surgeon at the Red Cross hospital there. Painfully raw, these missives depict the breakdown of civilization human by human. From descriptions of the green hills, Dr. Sundin soon passes into discussion of his patients: a 9-month-pregnant woman, beaten, who delivers a dead baby; a man with shrapnel in his head and "his personality on a stretcher." Worse still is the breakdown of our correspondent, from idealist to burnout and victim. "I hid in a corner today," he writes as May ends. Prognosis for patients and doctor remains uncertain.

Harper's also touches home with an essay by Cambridge, Mass., author Susan J. Miller, excerpted from the latest, profoundly depressing "Losers" issue of Granta (No. 47). In it, Ms. Miller recounts her introduction to the colorful underworld of New York jazz. "Bird, Diz, Pres, Sweets, Al, Zoot. It was my father's music, though he himself never played a note," she writes in a memoir dense with detail. Her father's other world, she finds, is one of self-loathing and heroin, one she couldn't enter but which scared her regardless. "Look out, I urged. He grabbed the wheel and turned us toward safety. Look out, I yelled, and he did. Look out, I yelled, for what else could I have said?" Ms. Miller (echoing Molly Bloom) seeks fulfillment, but receives ashes.

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Exploring the concept of home and abroad from a more !c

comfortable vantage, that gleeful gourmand and most assimilated of Jews Calvin Trillin forsakes fine (or even varied) food to tour Jerusalem for this month's Travel & Leisure. His usual humor dampened somewhat, perhaps in awe of religious history and the vital modern city he sees as a kind of new

New York treading daily on sacred ground, Mr. Trillin still makes a charming guide. Dishing up the enthusiasm for architecture (particularly the common pinkish limestone) he usually reserves for food, he also still manages to get a few digs in at the monotony of Israeli victuals. A visitor begins to sound acclimated, he notes, when his concerns shift from the omnipresence of hummus and falafel to recommendations for better hummus and falafel.

Mostly, however, Mr. Trillin concerns himself with the roles of tourist, native and urbanite the world over -- comparing Jerusalem with Paris as well as Manhattan -- and happily skirting direct questions about the place of the Jews of the Diaspora. He is a first-time visitor, a tourist, he tells us. He may come again, and that's enough. (For other first-time visitors, one of the sidebars discusses safety concerns with some disconcertingly practical-sounding suggestions for terrorist situations.)

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Back in known territory: The summer Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin's focus on "The Writers Among Us" rounds up the latest generations of Chekhovs and William Carlos Williamses for a lovely, if self-involved, sampler of doctors writing about doctors writing. And the big names (Perri Klass and Ethan Canin) lead readers to some solid lesser-knowns, such as poet Rafael

Campo, displaying the mark of a good lit mag.

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The world of fashion gets the full-color treatment with the premiere issue of Rebelle, a glossy that uses its anti-racist platform as a license to free its art director's palette. What you see between the now-familiar postmodern jumble of typefaces -- type size and font variety have replaced staid italics -- is beauty many shades, male and female, although all the models adhere to our '90s, Western ideals of form and fitness.

Opening a section on Geo-Pop (as Rebelle niftily labels what most clumsily call World Music), Afropop star Youssou N'Dour writes on "Hearing Marvin in Dakar." American pop once reigned worldwide, Mr. N'Dour says, recalling a time when the president of the United States was unknown abroad, but James Brown's athletic dance moves were copied in the streets of Senegal's capital, and when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were the only standards a young singer could set for himself. Now, of course, African music has taken more of the spotlight -- Mr. N'Dour's modest essay singles out Paul Simon's controversial "Graceland" as well as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne for their roles in popularizing it -- and Mr. N'Dour is the international star. But the lure and power of American pop remains, and he closes on a cautionary note, reminding young African musicians of their own roots and seeking syncretism of audience more than style.

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