Book Review: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

“Heroic medicine” is well named. Prior to the advent of anesthetics, patients were awake and aware for surgical procedures. The pain and horror of feeling a surgeon cutting into your body is something we now associate with a nightmare. Going through asurgery was nearly as likely to kill you as not receiving treatment at all. With the discovery of ether, surgeons no longer had to restrict their operations to procedures which could be completed in minutes. With the field of surgery becoming ever more ambitious, post-surgical infections became the chief danger to patients. In a time before germ theory was accepted, opinions and practices used to treat or prevent infections (laudable pus, anyone?) varied widely, and with little success. In the 1860s, Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister set about trying to determine scientifically the causes of post-surgical infections, and how to best prevent these deadly conditions.

Lindsey Fitzharris gives us a great view of Victorian medical practice, and of the scientific and medical theories and traditions that made the prevention of nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections so difficult. The Butchering Art is both a history and a biography. The book earns a place next to The Knife Man by Wendy Moore (about contemporaneous surgeon John Hunter) and The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (about Dr. John Snow, who helped trace a cholera outbreak in London to a single water pump).

Any history buff interested in the history of medicine will enjoy this book. More casual readers will likely also find this book to be entertaining and accessible. Beware though, Fitzharris provides several very accurate and vivid descriptions of Victorian-era surgeries, so the book is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

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Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.

Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4321 by Paul Auster

I’m still working out this book. It took me an insanely long time to get through (almost three months!) And while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure whether or not I liked it.

The book centers around Archibald (Archie) Isaac Ferguson. Well, technically four different Archie Fergusons. While each Archie is genetically identical, each takes a slightly different path in life, and as he grows from boy to teenager to young man, those paths diverge (and yet, still converge) all the more. Archie is born in 1947, enjoys a sometimes more, sometimes less (depending on the Archie) bucolic childhood in the fifties, and comes of age during the tumultuous sixties. The stories follow each Archie as he grows, one chapter for each period of each Archie’s life. Throughout the story, we see how each Archie is separate and distinct, yet at the same time, similarities and sameness abound.

As I said before, I’m still not sure whether I like the book or not. The writing is phenomenal. Archie (in all his iterations) is brought to life as a fully-realized human being. The boy seems to live and breathe within the pages. So too, is the setting he finds himself in. You can almost feel yourself immersed in the 1960s as Archie grows older, taste the tang of revolution and change in the air, the frustration of the United States’ useless war in Vietnam, and the longing of the younger generation to enact broad social reform. This book is real, and Auster is certainly a master of his craft.

So what the hell is my problem? Honestly, it may be more of a formatting and grammatical issue than anything else. This book was a slog. At 800+ pages, it’s physically imposing. But more than that: the chapters are generally forty to fifty pages long, sentences run on for the length of a (very long) paragraph. And while you find yourself immersed in the story, at the same time, you just want it to end; for the sentence to finish, for the chapter to be over.I really had to push myself to finish the book, and took to reading one chapter at a time, in between books. While I’m fully aware that all this is likely just my ADD throwing itself at the walls, be warned: this book is great, but this book is a commitment (which I may or may not mean in the sense of being incarcerated).

So in sum, this is a good book, a very good book, and one written by a very talented author. But I have to say that the more casual reader may want to pass this one by. But if you’re looking for a literary challenge, this is the book for you.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

I remember reading about the radium girls as a side bar in The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. The story was fascinating enough as a side bar, but in The Radium Girls, Moore brings these women to life. These girls, some as young as thirteen or fourteen years old, worked painting watch dials with luminescent radium paint. The work was considered to be quite a few steps above common factory work; the work was skilled and the girls were considered lucky to be able to work with the new miracle substance: radium. With our current knowledge, what happened next should surprise no one. The girls began to get sick, many horrifically so. Their battle for compensation from the radium companies would reshape the nature of worker’s rights in the United States.

The Radium Girls is thoroughly researched and impeccably written. The depth of Moore’s work is nothing short of breathtaking. She uses primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the girls themselves, and the reminisces of their families, to give each one a unique, real voice. Moore takes the story from the original girls hired in the manufacturing boom brought on by World War One, through the following decades into the present day. Though it has been one hundred years since radium dials exploded as a wartime necessity, the ripple effect of the fates of the dial painters is still very much felt today.

Moore has done an amazing job with this story. Her careful attention to detail makes these women, who lived and died so long ago, seem real and alive in the pages of the book. Her narrative is both educational and absorbing, making this a great nonficton read even for those who normally avoid the genre. Any fan of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot should read this next.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Inkblots by Damion Searls

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The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing by Damion Searles

In 1917, Hermann Rorschach, brilliant Swiss psychiatrist and amateur artist, invented a test that would redefine the field of psychology, and would in time become synonymous with the strengths and the weaknesses of the field.

Rorschach sought to go beyond the work of contemporaries Freud and Jung with his (in)famous inkblots. Rorschach believed that while people could alter or mask what they said, they could not alter what they saw. Rorschach developed the blots as a way of plumbing the depths of the human psyche, the test would reveal the workings of the inner mind by revealing how people perceived external images.

Searls’ book is a comprehensive history of both the test and the man who invented it. From Rorschach’s occasionally less-than-ideal childhood in Switzerland, to his coming of age in medical school, his tempestuous marriage to a Russian doctor, and his early death shortly after publishing his inkblot study. We meet a brilliant and creative man, the son of artists, who sought to excel at everything he did, whether at art, music, or medicine. We learn about his careful crafting of the blots themselves, about the planning and execution involved in making the cards both suggestive and abstract at the same time.

The book also details the rise and fall of the Rorschach as a psychological test after its creator’s death. From its height in the 1940s and 1950s, to its decline in the anti-establishment 1960s, to its emergence as a pop-culture staple.

This book is an intriguing look at a fascinating scientist and the test which bears his name. The book is strongest when dealing with Rorschach himself. The controversy surrounding the test later in the 20th century are given a drier treatment. While fascinating, this section of the book lacks something that was present in the first part.

In all this is a great book for history buffs or psychology fans. The subject matter is truly interesting, but the dryness of the later half of the book might make this a bit tougher on the average lay reader.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. Inkblots will be available for purchase on February 21st, 2017.