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An Epic Of Ethiopia, Full Of Medical Lore

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast hosted by NPR's Lynn Neary. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

A nun gives birth to conjoined twins in a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The mother dies in childbirth and the father, a British surgeon named Thomas Stone, disappears. It is this birth that sets in motion the action of Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese's first novel.

The twin boys, Marion and Shiva, are physically separated shortly after their birth, but they remain unusually close throughout their childhood. Raised by doctors, they grow up in the hospital of their birth. As adults, Marion and Shiva both become doctors.

That hospitals and doctors play such a large role in this work of fiction is not surprising. Abraham Verghese was a physician before he became a writer. His first book, My Own Country, is a memoir based on the time he spent working with AIDS patients in rural Tennessee. It was then that he began to understand the importance of bedside skills and human interaction with patients.

Examining the patient at the bedside, Verghese says, is an important ritual in which patients bare not just their bodies, but their souls. He tries to impart those kinds of lessons to his students at Stanford University School of Medicine, where he is currently a professor, a position that also gives him the freedom to continue writing.

Verghese studied writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he went in 1990 after his stay in Tennessee. He wanted to write a novel, but his experiences with AIDS patients were so compelling that he was asked to write the nonfiction book that became My Own Country. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a Showtime movie.

The author's second book, The Tennis Partner, was another memoir, a story of a complicated friendship. But then Verghese decided he had to pursue his dream of writing a novel. Cutting for Stone, a big, sprawling story that takes readers from India to Africa to America as the twins are separated by jealousies and political turmoil and finally reunited, is the long-postponed fulfillment of that dream.

This reading of Cutting for Stone took place on Feb. 16, 2009, at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.