84, Charing Cross Road

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84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff’s collection of letters to her book dealer in London, 84, Charing Cross Road, kept coming up in the various book recommendation lists that algorithms have created for me over the years. I finally gave in and bought a copy of this brief book because, honestly, it sounded delightful. I was not disappointed.

Hanff was a mid-century screen writer who lived in a tiny apartment in New York. Her first letters to Frank Doel at Marks & Co., in London reveal her frustration with bookstores in New York: too expensive, too beat up, or absent altogether. The letters in this collection span twenty years as Hanff and Doel develop a pen-friendship. Hanff also becomes a friendly American Santa Claus to the staff of Marks & Co. in the early 1950s because she keeps sending them food and supplies as rationing in Britain didn’t stop until 1951 or so.

The best aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff’s caustic wit. She’s an impatient reader and holds no cow sacred. She “yells” at Frank when he can’t find an obscure book quickly enough and regularly demolishes editors who, for example, cut out her favorite entries in Pepys’ diary.  I find Hanff hilarious when she writes things like:

Savage Landor [referring to a collection of dialogs and essays by Walter Savage Landor] arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. (Hanff to Doel, December 8, 1949*)

I just happen to have peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q, whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. (Hanff to Cecily Farr**, April 10, 1950)

They told [one of Hanff’s friends] to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.'” (Hanff to Doel, August 15, 1959)

I smirked and snorted my way through the whole collection.

Though the letters are short and this collection does not include all of Hanff and Doel’s correspondence, there is enough to see the good-hearted Doel and the acerbic Hanff bond over their shared love of secondhand books. I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road to fellow book lovers who would like to kill an hour or two with a pair of kindred bibliophiles.


* Quotes are from the 1990 Penguin Books paperback.
** Another employee of Marks & Co.

Radium Girls, by Kate Moore

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Radium Girls

Kate Moore’s Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women turned out to be a timely book for me, for two reasons. First, I read it the weekend before I had a dentist appointment. (This turned out to be a bad idea.) Second, and more seriously, Radium Girls tells a story that demonstrates in no uncertain terms that American workers need government regulations and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Before these agencies existed, several companies poisoned hundreds of women with radioactive paint and fought them hard in court to keep from paying their medical bills and funeral expenses.

Between World War I and World War II, companies like the US Radium Company and Radium Dials filled millions of orders for luminescent clock and watch dials. At the time, the ingredient that made the paint used on these dials glow was radium. We know now that radium, if swallowed, is used by the body like calcium. Radium heads straight for the bones, where it bombards the body with radioactivity. Before World War I, scientists knew that that radium could cause burns if it came in contact with skin for a few hours. The men who were hired to mix the paint had rules in place to prevent them from overexposure. The women who actually painted with this stuff, however, did not.

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Radium-laced paint

Women were hired and paid by the dial. They were taught to use small brushes to carefully paint the tiny numbers on the dials. To make the best point on the brush, they would use their lips. For every dial, the women would ingest small amounts of radium multiple times. When the women went home, they often found that their clothes, shoes, and skin would glow in the dark. When they started to get sick with horrific tooth, jaw, and bone problems, doctors and dentists had no idea what was wrong with these women. Some suspected phossy jaw, an old occupational disease that caused bone necrosis in the jaw due to exposure to phosphorus because the teeth and jaws of the Radium Girls seemed to rot faster the more they tried to remove necrotic material. (Seriously, these women died terrible, terrible deaths. Readers who don’t have strong stomachs may have to skip sections.)

New Jersey (where the biggest radium dial companies were located) had a law that recognized that employers were liable for compensation for occupational diseases. Unfortunately for these women, radium poisoning wasn’t one of the listed diseases. Worse, the statute of limitations was ridiculously short. On top of that, the radium companies were so wealthy, few lawyers were willing to help the Radium Girls once they started fighting for compensation.

Most of Radium Girls follows the ins and outs of their legal battles in the 1920s and 30s. Because Moore spent the opening chapters of this book introducing readers to individual women and their husbands and families, reading about their legal struggles and deaths becomes especially infuriating and poignant, all at the same time. Seeing doors (literal and figurative) slammed in their faces filled me with outrage on their behalf. And because we now know what radium does to the body (Moore explains the effects for readers who don’t), we know that most of these women are doomed and their struggles are races against time.

Radium Girls should be required reading in a time when the White House and Congress are working on rolling back funding for and regulations from OSHA and the EPA. Those regulations are in place for very good reasons. Anyone who argues that companies won’t pollute or harm their workers are kidding themselves. As US Radium and Radium Dials show us, profits are king to big business—even when their products cause their employees to glow in the dark and slowly poison those employees from the inside out.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

A Square Meal, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

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A Square Meal

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression is much more than its subtitle promises. Not only do Ziegelman and Coe write about what people were able to scrape together for themselves and their families between 1929 and 1939, they also thoroughly discuss how Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and their Congresses approached relief (welfare) during those hungry years. The end result is a much darker history of the Great Depression than I’ve ever read.

Ziegelman and Coe start their history before World War I by describing how most Americans ate. More than half of Americans lives in rural areas, eating close to home. The war lead to rapid changes in how food was produced and eaten, and years of plenty during the 1920s changed food even more. Americans in urban areas ate out more during the 20s and chased convenience at every turn. When the stock market crash hit in October 1929, all of those changes were thrown out the window as up to 25% of Americans lost their jobs. Ziegelman and Coe also discuss the history of relief before the 1930s, portraying it as a deeply humiliating experience that was only used as a last resort before absolute destitution.

Throughout the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe explain, there was a constant tug of war between those who wanted to spend their way out of the Depression and those who were adamantly opposed to “handouts.” On the one hand, a lot of people were hungry, homeless, and jobless with no prospects. On the other, a lot of politicians argued that just giving people food and money would kill their work ethic. And besides, they said, where would all that money and food come from? (As I read, it became clear very quickly that America is still having this argument.) Between 1929 and Roosevelt’s first year as president, the general policy was:

When granting relief, officers [local administrators who decided who did and didn’t receive aid] followed the old rule of thumb that families “living on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. (122*)

In the early years of the Depression, under Hoover, some relief was given, but not nearly enough to help all of the Americans who were out of work and hungry. Under Roosevelt, things got better before the president turned away from direct relief. World War II and America’s mobilization for war finally put enough Americans to work to turn the economy in the right direction after a decade of struggle.

When I was going to high school, I got a rosier picture of the Great Depression than I should have from my teachers and John Steinbeck. I was taught that Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and other programs helped keep things from getting too dire. But Ziegelman and Coe’s history revealed that most, if not all, aid was determined partly by that old rule of thumb and partly by semi-scientific guidelines about calories and nutrients that had been developed around the turn of the twentieth century. These guidelines and that old rule left many people malnourished and hungry during the worst years of the Depression. There is evidence that people starved to death.

The cruel irony of all this hunger and starvation is that there was plenty of food in the fields for everyone to eat. It was just too expensive to transport and process. Farmers and ranchers destroyed their stock because they couldn’t make money. Until the Department of Agriculture started buying up the surplus and distributing it, the unemployed and poor had to watch while food was wasted, burned, and slaughtered.

When Ziegalman and Coe talk about food directly, I was alternately fascinated and appalled. I was very interested in the transformation of food in America as the developing science of nutrition took hold. At times, scientists and home economists (who taught people how to feed their families on pennies a day) were disturbingly clinical about food. They reduced eating to calories and nutrients, leaving taste and satisfaction by the wayside—which leads me to the appalling parts. Many of the recipes reproduced in A Square Meal sound absolutely disgusting. I know there’s only so much one can do with root vegetables, but once the home economists started messing around with gelatin and milkorno, I was out culinarily speaking.

While A Square Meal didn’t include as much food history as I was hoping for and the ending was very abrupt, I’m very glad I read it. I realize now that I was missing out on a lot of history. I also have a lot of sympathy for my grandparents, who would have been teenagers in the 1930s, and their parents who managed to keep everyone fed during the leanest of years.


* Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition from Harper.

The Zoo, by Isobel Charman

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The Zoo

Reader, I skimmed this book. Isobel Charman’s The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo, 1826-1851 is the kind of historical writing that I loathe, unfortunately. While Charman did her homework by digging through the archives of the Zoological Society of London, she writes this history as though it’s a novel, full of little vignettes of city life and the thoughts and emotions of the men who created London Zoo. The Zoo’s history is, on its own, interesting enough to sustain my interest. That’s what I wanted. So I skimmed to get the historical details and ignored what I saw as filler.

London Zoo was founded by the Zoological Society in 1826, though it took a couple years for the Society to acquire land, build the essential enclosures and buildings, and gather animals from around the world. For its first few decades, the Zoo was only open to Society members (which included Charles Darwin) and people who had permission from members plus a shilling. Still, the Zoo attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially when they had just put a particularly exotic animal on display.

Charman makes it clear that, in spite of the Society members’ collective erudition, they were woefully ignorant about taking care of their menagerie. The visitors treated the Zoo as a spectacle. Vendors sold food (cakes and such) that the visitors would feed the animals—which made the poor creatures sick. At one point, the keepers had to post a sign asking the ladies not to poke or hit the animals with their parasols. This is nothing compared to the appalling veterinary care and inadequate habitats. The veterinarians, Charles Spooner and William Youatt, tended to treat the animals’ illnesses and injuries the way doctors would human maladies: with lots and lots of mercury in the form of calomel. Spooner and Youatt were firm believers in the power of purgatives. Each chapter contains litanies of the animals who regularly died, especially during the winter.

I am fortunate enough to live near Hogle Zoo, a lovely zoo that I visit several times a year. As I read The Zoo, I couldn’t help but compare Hogle Zoo’s enormous enclosures, heavily supervised human-animal encounters, and dedicated, knowledgeable staff to those of the early London Zoo. The difference that almost two centuries has made in zoo keeping is night and day. Zoos today have to make accommodations for space, but their staff do their best to keep the animals happy and healthy; entertaining human visitors is really just a way to fund conservation efforts.

In spite of its stylistic problems, The Zoo does offer a lot of food for thought when it comes to animal welfare and scientific discovery. My impression of the Society members having read this book is that their arrogance and confidence in their own methods and objectives constantly got in the way of their ability to feel empathy for the thousands of animals that lived (and often died) at London Zoo. Two hundred years later, we know so much more about these animals and their needs. (We also know that mercury cures nothing and will kill anything sooner rather than later.) It would just take time to observe and learn from the animals, rather than forcing the animals to adapt to life in a spectacle.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 April 2017. 

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler

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Blitzed

As a reader of nonfiction, I tend to return to the same subjects over and over again: Victorian social histories, the European theater of World War II, war crimes, and weird medical history. These are pretty broad territories, but narrow in the grand scheme of things. What I like about nonfiction in these areas is that each bit of new information the historians dig up fills in the picture a little more. I thought about this a lot while reading Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler (translated by Shuan Whiteside). Historians keep coming back to Hitler’s life, searching for a reason why he committed his terrible crimes, how he suckered an entire nation into following him. Hitler is the great evil and we want to understand. Ohler’s book on Nazi drug use goes a long way to explaining the irrationality of Hitler’s behavior during the war. I was fascinated.

Ohler dug into federal archives in Germany, the American National Archives, and German medical articles to trace the history of the use of drugs like Pervitin (an early methamphetamine), Eukodol (which contains the same active ingredient as oxycontin), cocaine, and other experimental drugs cooked up by German researchers in the early Twentieth century. Ohler points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis had strict ideas about sobriety—primarily as a response to the decadence of the Weimar republic. But as Hitler moved closer to war, those ideas started to fade away. The Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were all issued Pervitin in massive quantities to fuel massive territory grabs between 1939 and 1941. Wehrmacht soldiers were reported to go 72 hours without sleep on this highly addictive drug during the invasion of France.

All of this is very interesting, but what most grabbed my attention was Ohler’s descriptions of the relationship between Hitler and his personal physician, Theodore Morell, and Hitler’s constant use of drugs. Morell built his reputation on supplying vitamins and hormones to patients, which appealed to Hitler’s vegetarianism. Also, Morell somehow managed to relieve Hitler’s stress and diet induced bloating. Hitler trusted him so much that he never dismissed the doctor, even when the cures started to lose their effectiveness. Thanks to Ohler’s deciphering of Morell’s poorly written notes in the US National Archives, he learned that Morell started dosing Hitler with Eukodol in 1943.

Eukodol was a popular Weimar drug that induced euphoria, allowing users to float away into fantasy. After Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler, the dictator was tried with cocaine for pain from ruptured ear drums. For the rest of his life, Hitler would take Eukodol, cocaine, and various bizarre medications for Morell every other day or even daily. Throughout the war, Hitler held as much control over the armed forces as he could, making frequent seemingly inexplicable mistakes when ordering halts and marches. Drug use, especially of something like Eukodol, would do much to explain why Hitler constantly ignored reality and sent his troops into disaster, approved hair-brained schemes, and held on so long in the fact of immanent defeat.

Blitzed is a brilliant piece of historical work, but I did have one problem with Ohler’s writing. Occasionally, he tries to recreate moments in Hitler, Morell, and Göring’s lives that cannot be backed up with evidence. Ohler is much better when he thoroughly documents the medical science, Morell’s notes on Hitler, and other primary sources. I tended to skim the paragraphs with the recreated vignettes to get back to the history. Other than this irritation, I was hooked all the way through and I think it answers quite a few questions that have been unanswered for decades.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017. 

The Book Thieves, by Anders Rydell

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The Book Thieves

In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (translated by Henning Koch), Anders Rydell takes a counter-clockwise journey across Europe to learn more about the lesser known theft of books by Nazis during the Second World War. Rydell begins in Berlin before heading off to Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, and Vilnius. Along the way, he visits libraries—primarily Jewish libraries—that are still trying to reclaim books that were stolen over 70 years ago. As Rydell depicts matters, returning books to their rightful owners is a nearly futile task no matter how worthwhile.

The Book Thieves is a meandering book. Often, the libraries Rydell visits are just a launching point for a long discussion about the origins of the libraries, pre-World War II Jewish communities, and the evolution of Nazi ideology. Early in the book, Rydell answers questions about why the Nazis were so keen to pack up entire Jewish and émigré libraries and ship them back to Germany. During the 1933s, prominent Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg were working to create an environment of total information control. What people would know was what the government would allow them to know. In order to do that, they had to make sure that no one would have access to other points of view. So they would steal libraries and erase the collected histories of entire communities. On top of that, the Nazis deposited many of the books in places like the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, where Nazi “scientists” would alter actual history, culture, literature, and so on to create an entirely new version of reality.

Very little of The Book Thieves is about actually returning books because it’s so difficult to trace ownership. In many cases, librarians working in German libraries would remove owners’ marks when they added stolen books to their collections. Sometimes an ex libris bookplate or some initials would remain that modern librarians could trace back to their original owners. The scenes Rydell includes about owners or the owners’ descendants received a stolen book were truly touching and served as a powerful reminder that, no matter how hopeless it might seem, it is absolutely worthwhile to try and make restitution even after all these years.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 February 2017. 

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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The Emperor of All Maladies

Many medical histories follow the same arc. A disease or condition appears. It is named and scientifically described (more or less—less if the humors are involved). Doctors through the ages attempt to cure the disease or condition with everything from what sounds like a marinade recipe (Pliny the Elder) to pseudo-scientific procedures or remedies up until modern medicine figures out what’s going on and a real cure is found. This is exactly what happens in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, but saying that damns the book with faint praise. This book is full of human stories, heart, curiosity, and stellar science writing.

Mukherjee began this book during his oncology fellowship. Cancer fascinated him. It’s been with us so long and it’s only recently (since the 1950s) that medical science has been able to cause lasting cures and remissions. After introducing his interest in the topic, Mukherjee goes back to the earliest records of cancer in ancient Egypt and Middle East, through Galen and the humors to William Halsted and his ultra radical surgeries to Sidney Farber‘s experiments with chemotherapy and the present era of gene targeting drugs. Throughout, Mukherjee shares stories of people he treated during his fellowship. These stories serve as a reminder that all of this science is in service to patients, to cure them.

What fascinates me about the history of cancer research and treatment are all the epiphanies that brought us to where we are now. So many men and women were able to make intuitive leaps about genetics and chemistry that I am in awe of their brains. Mukherjee writes:

Science if often described as an iterative and cumulative process, a puzzle solved piece by piece, with each piece contributing a few hazy pixels of a much larger picture. But the arrival of a truly powerful new theory in science often feels far from iterative. Rather than explain on observation or phenomenon in a single, pixelated step, an entire field of observations suddenly seems to crystallize into a perfect whole. (362*)

There were times, Mukherjee tells us, that theories were rejected out of hand because they contradicted established wisdom. Other times, discoveries were prevented from going into practice because they were so radical no one was sure they could work. After all, the challenge of cancer treatment is killing off cells that are terrifyingly similar to normal human cells; doctors have to kill the cancer without killing the patient. If these men and women tried something, they ran a real risk of killing people.

The Emperor of All Maladies is packed with tales of scientific experimentation, dead ends, miracles, rivalries, compassion, bravery, stubbornness, and some truly great science writing. Mukherjee has a gift for relating tons of scientific and medical information without ever condescending to his readers. He weaves together the “biography of cancer” from the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology into an amazing epic. I feel like I’ve been through a college course in oncology after reading it. (I am also exceedingly grateful to be alive now, when many cancers can be treated. If I had been born even a few decades earlier…the mere thought makes me shudder.)


* Quote is from the 2010 hardcover edition by Scribner.

Unmentionable, by Therese Oneill

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Unmentionable

I’ll admit that I was suckered in by the reviews of Therese Oneill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. How could I resist a book about Victorian life told with non-stop snark? Reading Unmentionable is a lot like sitting down with a hilarious friend who just went on a Victoriana kick and now wants to tell you the highlights of what they found. Unfortunately, Oneill uses the second person (why am I finding so many of these lately?) throughout the book and most of what she relates is par for the course. I would only recommend this book to people who haven’t read much social history about the Victorian era and want some background on the Victorian mindset in an easy-to-read format.

I could not stop comparing Unmentionable to Ruth Goodman’s much superior book, How to Be a VictorianWhile Oneill did quite a bit of research for this book, it’s primarily limited to advice books of the era. Advice books are aspirational; they tell historians what some people of the time thought people should behave. Advice books should be balanced against primary sources, artifacts, and whatever other information exists on how people actually lived during the time. After all, some of the advice (especially the medical advice) in those books is ludicrous—when it’s not outright detrimental to the health.

While most of the information in Unmentionable I already knew, I did appreciate the efforts Oneill did to dig up medical “expertise” and advice about menstruation and sex. Doctors of the Victorian era had some very strange ideas about menstruation and reproduction. I knew about hysteria, of course, but I had no idea that some doctors preached “ideal” menstruation. It’s clear these guys (and they were all guys) had never actually listened to women about their experiences. The medical literature of the time reads like a strange blend of sermonizing, half-remembered ideas from Hippocrates and the old boys of medicine, and pure guesswork. As for sex, well, there were so many social rules it’s a wonder that any of us are here at all.

Unmentionable is a breezy overview of Victoria life as seen from the advice books for the upper class. How to Be a Victorian is a better read for those who want to know what life was like for the full strata of Victorian society, with the added bonus of first hand experience as the author talks about wearing Victorian clothing and following their hygiene routines.

The Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky

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The Food of a Younger Land

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up on a blend of midwestern and Texan food (my parents come from opposite parts of the country) and as much junk food as I could sneak past my mom. (Sorry, mom.) I ate casseroles, Tex-Mex (Mexican food as interpreted by Texans), what my dad called “southern gourmet” dishes like biscuits and gravy, and lots of Italian dishes that my mom had taught herself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become fascinated by food history. Why do we eat what we eat? How old is this recipe that my mother and her mother make? Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land answered some of my long-standing questions, as well as introducing me to American cuisine prior to World War II and the interstate highway system.

Kurlansky rediscovered the notes and draft essays, recipes, and anecdotes for what was supposed to be a book called America Eats at the Library of Congress. America Eats was the brainchild of Katherine Kellock, who envisioned a massive volume that would reveal the everyday diets and regional specialties of the United States. The timing didn’t work out. By the late 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was on its last legs. The Project—which employed thousands of writers across the nation during the Great Depression—dissolved completely during World War II. Kellock sent out assignments to every state’s project and a few writers turned in content for America Eats, but the book was never completed and most of the unedited manuscripts were stored at the Library of Congress waiting for someone like Kurlansky to make sense of them.

Because the manuscripts were unedited, the quality of The Food of a Younger Land is uneven. Some of the pieces included are no more than scraps of recipes collected by FWP folklorists. Others shine, however. My favorite pieces covered Wisconsin lutefisk church suppers, a history of dishes that originated in New York, and hilarious attempts to explain things like ravioli and tortillas (included a helpful note on pronunciation) to readers who might never have encountered these dishes. There is a lot of casual racism that was common in the 1930s and 40s that wouldn’t be allowed past an editor these days. The sections that discuss Native American food are particularly condescending; the sections about African American food in the south are full of racist stereotypes. Kurlansky warned about this in his introduction, but I wasn’t prepared.

Even though America Eats was never edited, one theme did emerge. The distance between farm and fork before the interstate highway became to homogenize American culture used to be a lot shorter. In the midwestern section there are descriptions of enormous meals made from ingredients grown just outside the cook’s door. In the northeastern section, cooks and eaters dig and cook clams in gigantic bakes all in an afternoon. The entire southern section is full of barbecues of livestock raised and killed within a mile of where it would be eaten. I freely admit that I have no idea where my food comes from and it makes me a little sad that my generation (with a few exceptions) has so little connection with where food comes from. (Another, smaller theme that came out was that American men loved eating what are variously called calf or lamb fries, prairie oysters, or Rocky Mountain oysters. Who knew?)

I don’t know if I’ll try any of the recipes in The Food of a Younger Land, though some of them sound very tasty. The writers who collected and wrote the source material often noted just how long it took to create authentic baked beans or a proper barbecue. Also, it’s near impossible to get some of the ingredients these days and I just don’t have time to hunt my own opossum or squirrel. Ah, well, I suppose that feeling a bit of regret about the foods I’ll never taste* is one of the downsides of reading food histories.


* Except for lutefisk. I feel no regret whatsoever at never eating this dish. It sounds appalling and I have it on good authority that it doesn’t actually taste like much anyway.

Bellevue, by David Oshinsky

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Bellevue

When I read non-fiction, I usually end up reading something weird (Agent Zigzag or Grunt) or something awful (Nazi Hunters or Five Days at Memorial). It’s rare that I read a book that highlights the better angels of our nature, but that’s what I found (for the most part) in David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: A History of America’s Oldest HospitalThere are varying dates for the founding of Bellevue Hospital stretching back to the 1730s. Bellevue has been open ever since the eighteenth century and only closed briefly once, during Superstorm Sandy. The hospital’s mission has always been to take care of patients who couldn’t pay for their care. Even today, they take care of people no one else will.

Bellevue is as much a history of New York City as it is a history of the hospital. Oshinsky writes about the various epidemics that afflicted the city through the ages: yellow fever, typhus, cholera, Spanish Influenza. He also writes about the social pressures of waves of mass immigration, poverty, and the attitudes of the rich and powerful towards the “lower classes.” The two clash repeatedly over the centuries. Because of its huge population of poor crammed into filthy, infested tenements, disease is rife. Someone has to care for these people or, failing that, at least take care of the bodies. Bellevue was (and still is) that place.

The two factors (endemic disease and the reluctant providing of a medical safety net) would have made an interesting story all on their own, especially in an age where the social safety nets are being stripped away as fast as Congress can sign a bill. What I found most fascinating was the history of medicine at Bellevue. Bellevue is old enough to date back to the days of bleeding, various purges, and a lot of guesswork*. The patients of Bellevue, for better or worse, would be in for centuries of medical experimentation. Bellevue physicians made important discoveries in forensic medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and were on the forefront of AIDS treatment in the 1980s. Two Bellevue physicians even won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in the 1950s.

Of course, along with the beneficial discoveries, there was a lot of misguided, painful, possibly damaging, practices. Yellow fever and cholera patients were bled repeatedly. Tuberculosis patients were bundled in blankets and parked out in the fresh air in all weather. Women died in high numbers from puerperal fever in the 1860s and 1870s even after germ theory had been widely accepted. From the 1930s to the 1950s, children in the psychiatric wards were subjected to insulin- and electro-shock therapy. Psychiatric care is where Bellevue physicians struggle most. Even though the 1990s, psychiatrists struggled to diagnose and treat their patients. Part of the problem was because, as a public hospital, Bellevue takes care of prisoners for the city and its staff are regularly called on to evaluate whether criminals are faking or genuinely mentally ill.

In spite of its failings (most of which can be chalked up to lack of resources), I have to admire Bellevue and its staff. There have been times in the hospital’s history when physicians have deserted their post but, for the most part, Bellevue has been and still is a place where anyone can be treated regardless of their ability to pay. Doctors and staff stayed to care for people during epidemics and pandemics and riots and disasters. They are heroes.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.


* Fun fact I learned from this book: New York and other states in the late 1700s repealed measures to make sure that physicians had actually gotten medical training before they hung up their shingle. The reason? Legislators didn’t want to infringe on a person’s right to pursue any profession they wanted.