Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson

In 1664 Dr. Olaf van Schuler flees the Old World and arrives in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines. He is the first in what will become a long line of peculiar physicians. Plagued by madness and guided by an intense desire to cure human affliction, each generation of this unusual family is driven by the science of its day: spontaneous combustion, phrenology, animal magnetism, electrical shock treatment, psychosurgery, genetic research. As they make their way in the world, New York City, too, evolves—from the dark and rough days of the seventeenth century to the towering, frenetic metropolis of today. Like Patrick Süskind's classic novel Perfume , Kirsten Menger-Anderson's debut is a literary cabinet of curiosities—fascinating and unsettling, rich and utterly singular.

My take: 3 looks
What an interesting book!

The premise is smartly done: A doctor in the 1600s, just after the middle ages, starts the book with his story, then progresses very nicely through the generations of his family tree ... doctor after doctor after doctor. The chapters read as short stories, and indeed, some were published separately in various publications apart from appearing in this book.

Not all of the stories center around the doctor. Some center around how the doctor is treating the main character. There is talk of bleeding someone as a cure, drinking a tincture to become pregnant, shock therapy, a very early lobotomy, and the move away from silicone breast implants. The stories follow the latest in medical procedure and technology, ending in the year 2006. And not all treat physical ailments. The science of phrenology is examined, as is "hysteria" and retardation.

Very compelling, very clever, nice writing and extremely fluid, giving the single thread that weaves through the book. Highly recommended for a different sort of reading experience!

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