Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook:Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (2010)
Engagingly written and cleverly crafted, it weaves together histories of the new science of toxicology, the first forensics department, and Progressive and Prohibition Era New York City. I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of science and medicine, in social reform, or in the sordid details of other people’s love lives and get-rich-quick schemes. Did you know that the United States government poisoned industrial alcohols during Prohibition to discourage their reformulation into potable alcohol? And that many Americans were blinded or killed because they didn’t know or didn’t care? I have recommended this book to an ICU fellow, my bookworm of an aunt, and my nerdy youngest brother. I bet you would like it too.
Rafael Campo, What the Body Told (1996) and Alternative Medicine (2014)
When Rafael Campo visited Pittsburgh for a reading, I knew he was a physician-poet at Harvard but was not familiar with his work. Afterwards I bought two of his books and fan-gushed all over him in the autograph line. This is what he wrote for me: “together in being ‘a little weird’” and “in the spirit of healing.” A fellow medical humanist, he lives the tension between medicine as an art and as a science. Medicine is better for it. He has a talent for capturing the pathos, contradictions, and moral failings encouraged by a medical system that frequently puts profits over people. Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry, What the Body Told eloquently captures the helplessness of being both a gay man and a physician in the early HIV/AIDS epidemic. Alternative Medicine contains poems both about his family (father, partner, children) and his medical practice. Campo is particularly adept at structured verse, and I delighted at parsing the stanzas that adhered to some rule and yet yielded fluent lines. I want to re-read these so that when I lead a floor team I can have a related poem at hand when patient-care issues arise.
William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)
I chose this little novel because it straddled the line between “work” and “pleasure,” being a fictionalized account of one Midwestern family’s encounter with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. The title comes from a line of a William Butler Yeats poem: “They came like swallows and like swallows went,/ And yet a woman’s powerful character/ Could keep a swallow to its first intent.” Each of the three chapters is written from the perspective of one Morison boys/men: the younger son, the older son, and the husband/father. The woman of powerful character is Elizabeth Morison, whom the reader sees through the eyes of those who revere her. It bothered me that she did not get a chapter of her own, but maybe I shouldn’t have expected as much from 1937. Nevertheless, for what it is, it is an affecting account of boy- and manhood. I am trying to get the Pediatrics Book Club to read it in honor of the coming centenary.
T Cooper, Lipshitz (2006)
As I mentioned in a post when I started this book, I bought it to practice my German, only to discover it was a translation of something originally written in English. As a historian, I found the first 2/3 of the novel the most interesting, as we follow the Lipshitz family from rural Poland to New York City to small-town Texas. The key event is the disappearance of 5-year-old Ruben when they all land at Ellis Island. His mother, Esther, who was ambivalent about her maternal responsibilities, sublimates her grief and guilt into an obsession with Charles Lindbergh, whose birthday was one day off from Ruben’s and who grew up to recapitulate the loss of a son. The last 1/3 of the novel introduces the author as a character, great-grand-nephew of Ruben, who has assumed the identity of rapper Eminem. It turns out that T is transgender, which opens up all kinds of questions about assuming a new/true identity, as explored through realistic fiction.
Memoir 6 of 1: Childhood (2015)
This interesting book from Ponies+Horses Books is six short memoirs bound together with the common theme of “childhood.” They range from Andrew J. Fitt’s and Tracy Craig’s first-hand accounts of growing up with cerebral palsy and Tetralogy of Fallot congenital heart disease, respectively, to Hillary Savoie’s coming to grips with her medically fragile daughter having a very different childhood than the one of which she had dreamed while pregnant. The mixed quality of the writing reflects the authors’ variable backgrounds. I think I will recommend this book to the physicians who are putting together a curriculum for medical students and residents rotating through the new special-needs clinic.
Michael Sappol, Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject (2017)
You know the famous picture of a human body designed to look like a factory? That was the brain child of Fritz Kahn, a German-Jewish ob-gyn who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s and popularized science and medicine. This book is all about the idea of the efficient modern body and helping people in the early 20th century understand themselves in an increasingly technologized world. Kahn was basically an enchanted mechanist who preserved the idea of an individual subject with agency despite a world (and a body) made up of machines. I waited for this book for many years and need to re-read it so I can better incorporate it into my own work on the history of bodies.
Alice Weinreb, Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth-Century Germany (2017)
This was another important book for my historical scholarship, on the place of hunger in modern Germany, whether that caused by the Allied blockade during WWI, the collapse of the Germany economy after WWII, or by dieting for fad or fitness later in the century. Weinreb does a good job teasing out some of the gendered implications, such as West German schools letting out at 1 o'clock so children could go home for lunch with their mothers. This schedule is still seen in German schools today and makes it difficult for some women to go back to work after having children. Meanwhile, East Germany tried to feed its schoolchildren cafeteria lunches, but its mothers--who by and large worked outside the home--rebelled, preferring to feed their children themselves on their lunch breaks.
Ian Miller, A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950 (2011)
Given its sweeping title, I expected more from what turned out to be a single-country case study of the evolution of the idea of "dyspepsia" and stomach ulcers. For all its narrow, internal focus, it's relatively well research and written, and Miller deserves some props for choosing examples that stretch out over a century and a half. I was surprised it wasn't (more) referenced at the conference I attended in Aberdeen on digestion in the long nineteenth century.
Manfred Berg & Geoffrey Cocks, editors, Medicine and Modernity: Public Health and Medical Care in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany (1997)
This is a collection of essays, some of which I had read before, with which I wanted to refamiliarize myself. It covers everything from hospital food in the mid-1800s to psychiatry during/after WWI to the crisis of professionalization in the late-1900s, as (West) Germans came to grips with the fact that many former-Nazis had continued to enjoy successful careers with little in the way of consequences for their actions during the Third Reich.
Diana Wylie's Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (2001) and how much I disliked Yuriko Akiyama's Feeding the Nation: Nutrition and Health in Britain before World War One (2010). I just couldn't make myself finish Walter Gratzer's Terrors of the Table: A Curious History of Nutrition (2005), which reads like nothing so much as a diletantish retirement project, in which Gratzer researched a variety of anecdotes and then compiled them one after the other. If there's any argument to the book at all--I made it four chapters and 70 pages in--it is a Whiggish one of Progress.
For Pediatric Book Club I listened to Swing Time (2016) by Zadie Smith while commuting, and I read Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid while exercising. I'm supposed to be picking up Autumn (2017), by Ali Smith next.
I can't remember if I finished these books in 2016 or 2017, but the pile also included
- The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love & High Adventure (1973), by William Goldman. I can't believe I have been a TPB fan as long as I have been and didn't realize that the movie was based on a book. As soon as I did realize it, I purchased the book and Cary Elwes' memoir for Dear Husband for Christmas 2016, and we read them together. The exercise reminded me how different the genres of print and film are, and at first I balked that the characters on the pages were not the beloved ones I knew from the silver screen. But by the end I appreciated the character development captured in the book that had to be cut in the movie.
- Cary Elwes, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (2014). High-brow literature this is not, but I did appreciate the behind-the-scenes view. Favorite part: dissolving into laughter with DH about the time the film crew bust a gut with Andre the Giant over his noxious farts.
- One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, An Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season (2012), Chris Ballard's engagingly written recreation of the Macon High School baseball team's made-for-tv-movie run at the state championship in 1971 that was a farewell gift from AS.
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843). Does it count if Dear Husband did most of the reading, and I fell asleep listening? He also tried some Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I found more interesting than I thought I would, and some Edgar Allan Poe, which I found less interesting.
- Eric Topol, The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care (2012), which Dear Husband bought for me and I appreciated more after it was mentioned at a Grand Rounds talk.
Next on the docket:
- Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (2014), a Christmas present from the nerdy youngest brother about the founder of the (in)famous museum in Philadelphia.
- Henny Beaumont, Hole in the Heart: Bringing up Beth (2016), a graphic novel about the author's daughter, who has Down Syndrome.
- Caleb Carr, The Alienist (1994), which failed to make it to the big screen has now been made into a television series.
What was your favorite book from 2017? What are you reading in 2018?