The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris

33931044I’ve been following medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on Instagram for months because, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I am fascinated by the bloody, brilliant history of trying to make people well (and how it frequently went awry). When I saw her book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, listed on NetGalley, I leapt to request it. The Butchering Art is full of the kind of medical history that I find perfectly engrossing (heh) because it’s written in clear, honest language with plenty of case histories, and thoroughly documented from primary sources.

Fitzharris begins her book with surgeon Robert Liston performing an amputation using the newest medical innovation: ether. Liston had trained as a surgeon in the years when speed was the best attribute one could have. Liston was able, at the height of his career, to remove arms and legs in a matter of minutes. Ether allowed surgeons to take their time and perform more complicated procedures. Unfortunately, because ether encouraged surgeons to cut more often, the rate of hospital infections soared. Most surgeons—according to this very credible account—shrugged off infection as inevitable. The ones who were willing to experiment were usually reluctant to believe in the new germ theory of disease and would hare off in all sorts of wrong directions. As Fitzharris frequently points out, a lot of surgeons thought there was such a thing as “laudable pus.”

Joseph Lister was very much a proponent of germ theory, based on his own experiments and his reading of the work of Louis Pasteur. Lister had been interested in microscopes from a young age, which might have made it easier for him to believe the wild theory that floating, invisible creatures would cause disease and infection. After studying at University College London, Lister moved to Edinburgh to study at the Royal Infirmary and James Syme.

For the rest of his life, Lister would experiment with antisepsis techniques and wound dressing. His work really did revolutionize the medical world. While his articles for The Lancet and other journals mostly aroused anger and controversy, Lister’s teaching in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London created a new generation of surgeons and doctors who were thoroughly versed in antisepsis.

Fitzharris does a wonderful job of recreating the world of mid-Victorian surgery, with plenty of disgusting and fascinating details about filth, medicine, and innovation. (She is also careful about giving credit where credit is due to other early proponents of germ theory, like poor Ignatz Semmelweis.) The Butchering Art is so well done that it could have been longer and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. I am definitely going to recommend this book to other readers who enjoy reading about the highs and lows of medical history—and can handle the gory stuff.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017.

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Death in the Air, by Kate Winkler Dawson

34219897Kate Winkler Dawson’s occasionally overwrought Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City is a parallel history of the Great London Smog of 1952 and John Reginald Christie‘s crimes. Focusing on December 1952 and the aftermath of the Great Smog, Dawson records the vastly different responses of the authorities to the two killers. While Parliament dawdled in studying London’s deadly pea-soupers and finding solutions, British police launched a nationwide manhunt for Christie after his crimes came to light. The lesson of this book is that it’s obviously much easier to deal with a clear and present danger than to deal with a systemic problem.

London has suffered deadly fogs since the medieval era, due to meteorological conditions, growing heavy industry, and the use of coal for everything. Because so many London homes (and homes across Britain) depended on coal for heating and power, it would have cost the nation millions of pounds that it didn’t have after fighting World War II. But in December 1952, a five day fog descended on London that had such devastating effects it was impossible to ignore the human costs of the smog. Police had to guide traffic with flares and flashlights, as well as deal with opportunistic burglars. Hospitals were overrun with people in respiratory distress. Dawson notes that coffin makers ran out of coffins for people who died during and after the fog. In Parliament, the response from Conservative members was that the fog was something that Londoners just had to put up with. Labour members, however, led by Norman Dodds, pushed the majority into investigating the fog. Then, once the reluctantly formed Beaver Committee Report declared that the fog was a deadly problem with feasible, albeit difficult solutions, Dodds and the Labour Party worked to create clean air legislation.

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A police officer guides a double-decker bus during the 1952 fog. (Image via CNN)

Meanwhile, John Reginald Christie (who is often described in accurate but distracting pejoratives) had been killing women since the end of the war. Christie’s portrayal here is confusing. To me, he made baffling choices that indicate a lack of intelligence. Dawson gives Christie more credit than I think he deserves. Even though Christie is described as a neurotic, unconfident man, he hid the bodies of all of his victims in and around his house. He wasn’t caught mostly because his victims were people who were not missed and because his crimes were so bizarre no one even suspected he might be up to such ghastly acts. If anyone had investigated the awful smells in his flat, he would have been caught and convicted on the spot. Because no one did, Christie was able to carry on for years. There’s also a chance than one of his neighbors was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife, who may have been one of Christie’s victims.

I was hooked by Death in the Air even though Dawson’s writing style occasionally irked me. She is prone to using hyperbolic language when talking about Christie and the fog’s death tolls. This may be effective for some readers, but I prefer to let the historical record and contemporary voices speak for themselves. Christie and the Great Smog are more than interesting enough to carry this book; rhetoric is unnecessary and distracting.

If readers can look past this, I think they’ll find a moral lesson in how governments respond or fail to respond to dangers. Both the pea-soupers and Christie were ignored until it was impossible to ignore them anymore. Because Christie was one man, it was relatively easy to “solve” him once he’d been caught. The fogs, however, required Britons to change their attitude towards pollution, enact legislation, and upgrade their infrastructure to use cleaner fuels. The heroes in this book are the people who refused to just deal with the status quo as Londoners and actively worked to end the fogs and bring killers like Christie to justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017. 

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

25526296Eleanor West runs a school for a very special group of students: young kids who’ve wandered into other worlds, had adventures, and really want to go back. The school is meant to help them cope with the “real” world again, or at least bide their time until the door to their preferred world opens up again. In Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we watch as Nancy reluctantly attends the school while pining for the Halls of the Dead.

Nancy is used to quiet, stillness, and gravity—the exact opposite of her boisterous roommate—and is struggling to adjust. Things get even more uncomfortable when that roommate, then another student, and a third victim are murdered. Because Nancy just came from the Halls of the Dead, she’s a suspect. Every Heart a Doorway is a fast read, less than 200 pages. The plot races along as Nancy and the other “creepy” students try to figure out what’s going on using the skills they learned in their other worlds.

While the mystery gives the book structure, the book is more about finding a place to belong and feeling comfortable in one’s own, sometimes creepy skin. Nancy’s parents—and the parents of the other students—want to “fix” their kids and make them the way they were before their adventures. The cats are out of their bags and the horses have clearly left their stables. There are several long discussions about how much the students miss worlds where they could be the heroes of their stories, rather than being overlooked, pushed to conform to the wrong gender or be the parent’s idea of perfect.

I loved the set up of Every Heart a Doorway so much that I immediately bought the second book in the series and requested the third from NetGalley. I want to know more about Logical, Nonsensical, High Rhyme, and Mortis worlds. Each of the worlds has a kernel of another legend or folktale. (Nancy is a Persephone. Jack and Jill have stumbled into Dracula and Frankenstein.) I want more of this universe.

Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

33864676For decades, knowledge of the Holodomor was suppressed or dismissed as a hoax. In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Applebaum was able to take newly available archival and oral material and build on the work of previous scholars’ work to create a throughout history of what Sovietization did to Ukraine. It is a harrowing read because all of the suffering and death could have been avoided if Stalin had bowed to reality and reversed his impossible grain policies.

Applebaum begins her history in the nineteenth century. Her argument in Red Famine is that Russia, and later the Soviet Union, had an established policy of squashing any Ukrainian nationalism, culture, and language. From the 1800s, the Ukrainian language was banned. Russian and Russians were preferred. Ukrainians had a brief chance at establishing an independent republic after the October Revolution. The Soviets, the Black Army, and others, however, had other ideas. After the Soviets won the Civil War, they set about imposing their version of Communism across the country. The early Soviet attempts at collectivism (along with political repression, chaos, and bad weather) caused famines in 1921, 1928-1929, and then another in 1932-1933 that took millions of lives.

Ukraine has been fought over for centuries because of its fertile soil. It’s part of Europe’s breadbasket. Because of this reputation and because of his determination to ramp up production everywhere (regardless of reality), Stalin demanded impossible amounts of grain for export. When party officials were unable to come up with the millions of tons of grains, they began to confiscate grain, livestock, and other food from the peasantry with official approval. Internal and external pressure led the Soviets to reverse their policies in the early 1920s, but nothing stopped Stalin in 1932. Applebaum lists policy after policy enacted that lead to inescapable mass starvation. And yet, even in the depths of the famine, farmers would write to Stalin asking for help. They didn’t know that Stalin not only didn’t care, but that the famine he created was also a tool to make Ukrainians surrender any hopes for independence.

A few months ago, I read A Square Meal about how food changed in America as a result of the Depression. Some politicians fought against direct relief, but the New Deal and other programs gave food, money, and jobs to people who struggled with poverty. The situation was almost the exact opposite in Ukraine. It was as if Stalin and his circle were deliberately trying to starve the entire country to death. As soon as the peasants found a way to make a bit of money or get a bit of food, there would be a policy blocking that route. It’s heartbreaking to read.

Applebaum concludes with a few chapters that discuss how Soviet officials, then, during the Cold War, and Russian officials now, manipulated demographic data and called the famine a fascist hoax. Only after Ukraine became an independent country in 1991 did many Ukrainians openly talk about the Holodomor and its aftermath.

In Red Famine, Applebaum gives voice to so many Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Cossacks, and Russians who haven’t been heard until now. By letting these voices speak for themselves after decades of silence, Applebaum has crafted a very human history of a tragedy in clear, undeniable language.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.

Book Pairings; Or, I play book sommelier

This post is inspired by Laura Sackton, who wrote about “When the Books You’re Reading Start Talking to Each Other.” In the last two years, I’ve read three serendipitous book pairings that I’d like to share with the group:

8bceddffe3953d07731a586987554c90On Refugees: The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, and Live from Cairo, by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Both of these books feature desperate people who are trying to leave Egypt (or a place like Egypt). The Queue gives us a Kafka-esque battle by locals against a determinedly ineffective government. Live from Cairo also features a frustrating bureaucracy, but from the perspective of outsiders who want to help but can’t. The inside/outside perspectives on refugees casts a critical light on a broken, inhumane system.

On Reincarnations: Reincarnation Bluesby Michael Poore, and The Trials of Solomon Parkerby Eric Scott Fischl

Both of these books feature two men who get the chance to remedy their mistakes. The idea is that they are supposed to learn from those mistakes and become better men, but they go in completely different directions. Reading them close together set me to thinking about questions of human nature, whether we really can learn from our mistakes, and what it means to be good.

On HungerA Square Mealby Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, and Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

These two books cover contemporaneous periods of time, during extreme deprivation, yet show two extremely different government responses to hardship. In the United States, unregulated speculation caused a economic collapse. So many people were out of work that existing charity was swamped and (albeit reluctantly) the government finally stepped in to help. Meanwhile, in Soviet Ukraine, impossible grain policies lead to a man-made famine that killed millions. Aid was deliberately refused. These two books are stark, fascinating contrasts.

Does anyone else have any recommended book pairs?

Death in St. Petersburg, by Tasha Alexander

33602097Tasha Alexander’s Death in St. Petersburg sees Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin off to the Russian Empire. Colin’s superiors in the British government have sent him to the Russian to help them investigate anarchists and other subversives. Emily joins him to keep him company and enjoy the splendors of the city. It’s a fine plan, until she stumbles across a murdered ballerina after a performance.

Because Emily cannot resist a good crime, she starts poking around immediately. (She gets yelled at by the police more than once for sticking her nose into the case.) Her persistence is rewarded when the ballerina, Irusya’s, lover hires Emily to poke around even more. She follows her instincts and the clues to dive deeply into the world of Russian ballet (there are cameos by some of the biggest names of the era, like Mathilde Kschessinska and Pierina Lagnani).

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Mathilde Kschessinska

The pieces refuse to fall together, however. Jealousy just doesn’t seem to work as a motive. Irusya’s lover and past lovers all have alibis. None of the leads go anywhere. But then things—as they usually do in Russia—get political. Anarchist and Socialist literature turns up. Irusya’s best friend, Katenka, has suspiciously subversive relatives and friends. Colin (futilely) cautions Emily to stay away from the politics, as the activists are more than willing to toss bombs and shoot people. And, as usual, Emily ignores his warnings in order to find out what happened to Irusya.

Death in St. Petersburg is the twelfth entry in the series and features several characters from past adventures (including the hilariously obnoxious Sebastian Capet). That said, I had no problem diving into the book even though I haven’t read any of the latest volumes.  What I loved most about this book was the way it brings the St. Petersburg of 1900 back to life. Emily and Colin pause to converse along the Neva and Emily once chases a man through the Hermitage. I rather enjoyed this whirlwind novel set at the end of Imperial Russia’s reign, which begins as a fascinating look into high Russian culture and ends with a tense race to stop an explosive plot.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Great minds think alike…which is a problem when an author and a multimillion dollar company keep coming up with the same titles. (Kris Writes)
  • Thomas Mullaney wrote a fascinating history about Chinese language reform. (Fascinating to me, at least.) (LitHub)
  • Elisa Lorello reflects on what it means to be “well read.” (The Writer’s Habit)
  • I’m bored of people “cracking” the Voynich manuscript, but I do enjoy reading about medievalists slapping them down. (The New Yorker, Ars Technica)
  • Patricja Okuniewska rounds up ten books that were written on a bet. (Electric Lit)
  • Na Kim writes about her struggle to come up with a cover that Jeffrey Eugenides liked. (LitHub)
  • Joanne Major reports on the comedy of errors that was the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee. (All Things Georgian)

The Trials of Solomon Parker, by Eric Scott Fischl

34237441We’d like to think that, if we had the chance to do something over again, we’d do better the second time. This is what reincarnation is about, after all. But in Eric Scott Fischl’s The Trials of Solomon Parker, we see a pair of men who have the chance to take back their biggest mistakes only to see their lives go wrong in new directions.

Solomon Parker and Billy Morgan are tragic men of the old school. Parker lost his wife to madness and his son to a bad decision during a mine fire. His gambling addiction means that he’s always on the run from the people he owes money to. Morgan is caught between his government school education, his native heritage (unspecified), and his very strange father and uncle. For the first quarter of the book, from 1900 to 1917, we see their lives getting worse and worse (mostly Parker’s). But when they’re both at their lowest point, Morgan’s uncle, Marked Face, offers them a gamble.

The first time Parker gambles with Marked Face, he has no idea what the stakes are. He wins, but it’s clear that he was supposed to. The next thing he and Morgan know, it’s 1916, right before the fire that would kill Parker’s son. Over and over in The Trials of Solomon Parker, Parker gets the chance to make things right. He can remember how events went wrong before, so he knows what he has to do to change things. The problem is that the universe is messing with both men and it has a nasty sense of entertainment.

As the novel develops, Morgan (and we readers) learn more about how he and Parker got tangled up in an ongoing story that goes back a lot farther than he would have realized. We are introduced to a new mythology based on several North American tribes*. For every bad decision Parker or Morgan made, there’s another one behind it in this new mythology. Untangling it would mean going back to the beginning, but is it necessary? Parker and Morgan have to decide if their new lives are better or worse than their old, and how much they’re willing to risk for another gamble.

While other novels about reincarnation and section changes tend to be hopeful overall, The Trials of Solomon Parker has a more cynical view of human nature. Its darkness and refusal to make one set of lives better than the other had me thinking less about human nature, however, than about chaos. Making a different decision the second time around doesn’t mean that everything will be better; it just means that everything will be different. The Trials of Solomon Parker is a darkly philosophical novel, one that feels very honest for all its lack of hope.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.


* Fischl states in the author’s note at the end that he was deliberately not using any one tribe’s stories, to avoid cultural appropriation. This brings up other questions, of course, but that’s a whole other blog post.

The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck

30653967I don’t think I’ve ever seen the divide between idealism and pragmatism laid out as starkly as I did in Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle. The three women in this novel get caught on the outskirts of the July 20 Plot, in which Claus von Stauffenberg and other German aristocrats attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944.  Marianne von Lingelfels, Benita Flederman, and Ania Grabarek all suffered (though to vastly different extents) for the actions of their men. Their husbands are arrested and executed, leaving the women to fend for themselves. Each of the women has a different response to their trials, echoing the responses of their fellow Germans to the actions and legacy of the Nazis.

Marianne von Lingelfels is a dynamo. She managed to hang on to her family castle (the titular one) in spite of her husband’s plotting. At the end of the war, she wrangles a “victim of the Nazis” status from the Americans and sets about finding the wives and children of the July 20 plotters. Marianne is more an comfortable with her role as conscience of the German people—most of her neighbors loathe her for it because she refuses to let anyone forget what happened and who was to blame for it. At first glance, Marianne might look like a hero, but there’s a reason why there’s a saying about the impossibility of living with saints. She holds everyone else to a very high standard and falling short is inevitable for the women she rescues.

Benita Flederman was a very young girl when she married a man who would become a July 20 plotter. She was so young when she married just before the war that she was a recently graduated member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, a youth group that indoctrinated girls and women in National Socialism. She was virtually clueless about her husband’s actions until they landed her in prison and sent their young son to a children’s home for re-education. At the war’s end, Benita is again victimized by Red Army soldiers as they revenged themselves on the German population. Her story is the most tragic, showing us how some Germans were never able to move on with their lives because the past was too shaming, too awful.

Ania Grabarek was the most interesting character to me. She is the pragmatic one of the trio. Rather than forging ahead to do whatever she thinks is right (like Marianne would) or drifting through her memories (like Benita), Ania keeps her head down and gets on with things, doing sometimes ugly things to keep herself and her two sons alive in desperate circumstances. Ania’s path is one of compromise and secrecy—and contains a big twist that I did not see coming.

I suspect that contemporary readers would hope they’d react like Marianne in the face of the Nazis’ war crimes. She stands up for what is right no matter what the costs, but her firm moral stance is made easier by her high social position and connections. But what we’d do is probably a lot closer to what Ania and Benita did, I think. In the face of so much violence, hunger, and loss, it would be easier to capitulate or only take care of one’s own. The Women in the Castle, however, resists clearcut judgments of the three women. They and their circumstances are realistically complicated. The complications and the women’s reactions to events would make rich food for a book group’s debate about idealism and pragmatism in the face of systemic evil of National Socialism.

Bookish denial; Or, I will go down reading with this ship

Most articles about the “death of the novel” focus on declining book sales and reading rates*. A few address shortened attention spans. But Damien Walter, in this blog spot, points the finger at lack of innovation in writing. So many people prefer television, he writes, because the storytelling is better. Walter writes:

The novel has fallen behind as a storytelling medium. Not so long ago, novels were the most reliable fix of story you could find. Now they have heavy competition from box sets, video games, comics, movies and more. And here’s the really crucial issue…that contest has RAISED OUR EXPECTATIONS of what storytelling can and should.

It’s hard to argue with this. But I’m going to do it anyway.

There are innovative writers working now. In no particular order, writers like David Mitchell, the Oulipians, N.K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, and countless others have written stunningly creative books in recent years. I concede that these writers are only responsible for a small number of the total outpouring of new books in a year. Most books published these days are retreads of successful formula or, in some cases, continuations of popular series from dead authors. But the fact that there are diamonds in all that dross gives me hope that the novel is not dead. Authors are still finding ways to reinvent the form and tell brilliant stories. A reader simply has to dig to find them.

935ba1f0b76c2f619a53418022fe2a9fI blame risk-averse publishers for all that dross. (I have similar complaints about Hollywood and all the remakes.) From a cost perspective, it makes sense that publishers would spend their money on books that they know will make at least some money. It’s short-sighted, sure, but it makes sense. I resent their timidity—and not just because I frequently get déjà vu when I read book reviews in the industry magazines. I resent their timidity because the sure-bets make it harder for readers to find the good stuff.

I have hope for the future of novels, unlike Walter. I have hope because there are imprints and independent publishers who will take risks. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books have paid dividends in getting more books by and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Now, more than ever, I think more people are seeing themselves in fiction.

Another thing that gives me hope is the vibrancy of the bookish internet. Readers can help keep literature alive by swapping recommendations and geeking out about authors, and make it easier to sift through the dross. I’m happily doing my bit to spread the word about good and great books with this blog and by sending readers home from my library with stacks of books. Readers, let’s spite naysayers like Walter by talking about books and sharing our bookish joy. The novel won’t die as long as readers keep reading.


* There is some good news about this. Pew Research recently reported that more younger people are using libraries.