Thursday, December 18, 2008

Short Ones

Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain, by Kirsten Menger-Anderson, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008

One of my usual I-saw-it-on-the-bookshelf picks, the cover caught my eye as well as the intriguing title. On the book’s first page, one reads this fantastic opening:

Doctor Olaf van Schuler, recently arrived in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines, moved into a one-room house near White Hall and soon found work at the hospital on Brugh Street. There, surrounded by misshapen bottles containing tincture of saffron, wild strawberry, maple, and oil of amber, as well as more common tools of his trade – amputation saws, scalpels, sharpened needles, and long, painstakingly pounded probes – he indulged in his peculiar perversion: slicing heads.

Now if you think that wasn’t enough to have me hooked, you must be new to this page. Not so much a novel, except in the very, very loosest sense as employed by Milan Kundera to describe his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. While Kundera referred to the series of novellas that made up that book as a “novel” because of its consistent, coherent theme, this book has a stronger claim to the title even if it is essentially a short story collection packaged as a novel.

The book first opens with the desperate life of the titular doctor, intrigued enough by the workings of the brain to investigate it despite legal and religious prohibitions. We then follow the strain of his family line, his descendants showing a decided penchant for the medical profession. What Menger-Anderson has done throughout the book is present seeming crackpot medical theories as they were viewed at the time: the latest scientific breakthrough guaranteed to improve the lives of people everywhere. We are treated to a baquet (a peculiar magnetic “cure” involving a wooden barrel filled with water, magnetized iron filings and iron rods), radium tonics, phrenology, electromagnetic shocks, silicon breast implants and the prions held to blame in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Menger-Anderson’s attention to period detail is expertly handled and we travel through hundreds of years of New York City history with suffragettes and psychoanalysts and plastic surgeons. Never overdone in its historicity, Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain is an entertaining history lesson at the same time it’s a seminar in skepticism regarding overwrought claims by medicos.

A much more impressive skill, the author also solicits your emotional involvement with a family over the generations whether they are the focus of each specific chapter or merely a tangential part of the tale. Because you know about the back story between Dr. Stuart Steenwycks II and his dreamer ne’er do well brother, Jack, one reads about Stuart’s daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Steenwycks, and her work with an extra measure of concern. Much like the genetic code of madness that is tangled up in the DNA lineage of van Schuler’s family, our sympathies are transmitted down the line.

While you needn’t read it as all-consumingly as you might a more traditional novel, very few of the stories featuring overlapping characters and every one of them sufficient unto itself, Doctor Olaf van Schuler’s Brain is engaging enough to pull you along and wonderfully strange and fascinating and rather unlike many other books out there.

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, A Perigee Book, 2008

Weird and fantastical in its own right, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED is about one man, obsessed with words and dictionaries, and his decision one day to purchase and read from cover to cover the entirety of the 21,730 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Luckily for his eyes, though they may have been strained, that he chose the old school route and stuck to the last printed edition of the landmark dictionary. The OED’s online version is considerably longer and a computer monitor considerably more taxing on the eyes.

Part semi-biography, part history, and part minuscule dictionary in its own right, Shea’s book is broken up into twenty eight chapters, one for each letter and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is prefaced by the on-going story of Shea’s tribulations in reading this massive work including the mice infested lower floor of a college library where he chooses to sit for eight hours a day reading the dictionary (oh, to have the kind of life where I could do that for one solid year without worry regarding rent), brief accounts of various dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson’s and Noah Webster’s, how freakish Shea and his quixotic task appeared even to lexicographers at a gathering of such, and various stories from his life. A favorite in the last category was an exchange he had with his high school English teacher who, in a game of homonyms, refused to accept whored for hoard.

At times I preferred Shea’s fully developed chapter devices more than his list of definitions, which he strove to keep Bierce-ishly short and witty, and at other times the words chosen from among the whole were just too deliciously funny. There is a curmudgeonly strain running through his definitions, which aren’t typically full blown but just a quick-bite version of his favorite usages. A word such as happify is sure to do just what it appears its definition might be were you to drop it on a word lover you know.

Other such pleasures can be found in words such as advesperate (to approach evening), bully-writer (a cruel critic), assy (asinine), back-friend (the original frenemy), conspue (to spit on someone with contempt, leading to the obvious question, is there another way to spit on someone?), gove (to stare stupidly), gound (the gunk in the corners of your eyes each morning), fleshment (first flush of excitement from an initial success), lant (to add urine to ale to make it stronger – yeah, right), the related unbepissed (having not as-of-yet been soaked with urine), misdelight (pleasure in something wrong), kakistocracy (government by the worst citizens, see Bush Administration), wine-knight (a person who drinks valiantly), goat drunk (made lascivious by alcohol), and lastly, the dictionary’s final term, zyxt (to see).

The entirety of Shea’s book is filled with delights such as these and it is lovely to have for your own enjoyment such a delightful list of obscurities. I myself own the two-volume OED where each single sheet has four near-microscopic pages laid out on it (the package comes replete with magnifying glass). This was a gift from The Wife, a gift she has come to regret at times because apart from its usefulness in wiling away the hours and learning things like the origin of the term cakewalk, the OED is also a pedant’s greatest weapon. Games of Scrabble or other types of word-based entertainments can come shrieking to a sniffy halt when definitions are challenged. As a devotee of British novels, I can’t say chuffed I am when a particularly well-chosen bit of English slang is challenged as not cricket.

Nevertheless, Shea’s book is that perfect bathroom/guestroom book. The kind of thing you can pick up and read at any point in its entirety and never quite feel like you’re missing out on the action, a book you can return to when you’re feeling idle or when little else on your bookshelf is appealing. Much in that way, if you’re a lover of dictionaries, Shea has created something like a very popular version of a browser's dictionary that will appeal to lovers and the indifferent alike.


Erin said...

and you complain about me not blogging regularly...

The Critic said...

Wow, someone actually commented and it wasn't about the book review. Grrrrrrrr.