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Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 9, 2008

3.7 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Menger-Anderson's vivid and original collection follows several generations of New York doctors and charts the social and political forces that shaped New York City from the 17th century to today. Dr. Olaf van Schuler emigrates from Holland to New Amsterdam in 1664 and continues his study of animal brains. After he has a child by Adalind Steenwycks, each subsequent generation spins out in its own story, concluding with Dr. Elizabeth Steenwycks, the medical researcher daughter of Dr. Stuart Steenwycks, a plastic surgeon dying of a rare and fatal brain malady. Each generation applies the then current medical wisdom to tasks as varied as explaining a death by spontaneous combustion, resuscitating a boy's corpse and using phrenology to predict human behavior. In the early 1970s, Americans' obsession with their body image arises in the woeful tale of Sheila Talbot, 21, whose leaky breast implants hark back to the less-than-helpful medicine practiced in previous generations. The reader can follow how far medicine has advanced, but, surprisingly, note how human suffering and misery hasn't come such a long way. (Oct.) ""
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

From Booklist

The history of medicine and medical quackery, and one family’s personal history within that context, conjoin in this startlingly effective, even educational, novel. The Steenwyck family represents a long procession of brilliant doctors, going all the way back to colonial New York; but if brilliant, they also have quirky, even strange personalities. In a sequence of relatively short chapters, the author, eschewing a long, continuous narrative, preferring, in fact, an album of picture portraits, takes what amounts to snapshots of each Steenwyck doctor as the generations succeed one another, with each doctor’s “professional” activities speaking to the medical issue—or fad—of the day, from learning the mechanics of the brain to raising the dead to practicing phrenology to the Salk vaccine to the current popularity of breast implants. These individuals conduct their research and practices with typical Steenwyck passion, even in the face of skepticism, adversity, and disastrous results. For the most part, medical history cannot help but be interesting, and this author brings the subject to a fascinating glow; by extension, the story of the Steenwyck family becomes one thread of American cultural history. --Brad Hooper
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (October 9, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125614
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125612
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,463,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Karen Solomon on October 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The cover art caught my attention, and i was not disappointed - I absolutely loved this book. Dark, stormy, historically accurate, and a completely intoxicating read. Each short vingette melts into the next, illustrating the history of crackpot medicine while simultaneously outlining a family rife with madness and complex interpersonal relationships. Particularly for a first book, I was completely blown away. The author can truly turn a phrase that is both slight and deep.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Kirstn Menger-Anderson leads us on a mesmerizing romp via something Mary Shelly would have been proud of.

In Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain, we are led down a path of medical quakery, or not, depending on the times - in a series of eerie vignettes designed to highlight a cure of the time while tracing a long line of a family of doctors.

In the beginning we are led by candle light to envision the soul found deep inside the brain inspired by mutilations of creatures in view of clandestine medical studies.

We end up in the more modern day of breast implants, but what lies between is pure astonishment. Each story brings to light the medical treatment for hysteria, craziness, lack of energy, personality testing, and many other maladies.

What is also intriguing and wonderful about this work is the atmosphere it portrays in each story. It carries us through history and historical happenings as they pertain to certain illness and complaints.

The author has done an amazing job at tracing this family of doctors through the decades while generating the feeling and mania involving some of the cures and causes of the disease and problems of each story.

This book will definitely make you think. You may also try to come up with other things that have been used throughout time in the name of modern medicine.

I thoroughly enjoyed this cozy, dark little book and recommend it.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I usually don't pick up a collection of short stories, so needless to say when I opened the book and began to read, I was in for a nice surprise. Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain is a wonderfully wild and vivid tale that keeps us teetering on the edge of sanity and the sheer madness of the insane. It's grotesque and frightful yet charming and witty. The book is for some, and not for others. For me, it was a great read.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This was an unexpectedly good read; at first I wasn't sure if the novel was too quirky. But the author's writing is beautiful and eloquent; she chooses her words wisely, making the sentences short with bold detail. The premise of the novel is interesting: generations of a Dutch family make a lasting impact on medicine. Overall, a great read.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Doctor van Schuler's Brain is a very strange and interesting collection of related short stories that follow a family of on-the-fringe physicians, beginning with van Schuler himself in 1664. The thirteen chapters cover three and a half centuries of a family of doctors, eleven generations touched with mental instability, obsessed with the human brain and with odd things like spontaneous human combustion. Not only do we see the development of a completely strange but brilliant family, but also the evolution of the practice of medicine and psychology.

We are treated to in-depth studies of animal magnetism, phrenology, electric shock therapy, and lobotomy as we follow each generation of physician who tries to cure the people around them but who are limited by lack of medical knowledge along with questionable decision making processes. The ambition of the van Schuler/Steenwyckes family is always to cure the madness that appears in every generation, starting with Olaf's mother, and hopefully at the same time to relieve the suffering of society.

Written against the backdrop of major historical events such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Attica Uprising, and the Great Depression, the stories focus both on the limitations of medicine but also on how change is pushed forward by personal emotional need. Quirky, sometimes disturbing, and often disjointed, Doctor van Schuler's Brain is still worth reading for the well researched history of the U.S., New York City, and medicine. But most importantly, it's worth reading for what it teaches us about the humanity of the person behind the white coat and stethescope.
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Format: Hardcover
What a fascinating collection! Menger-Anderson takes readers through a vivid journey of medical history that begins in 1664 when Dr. Olaf van Schuler flees the Old World and arrives in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother. The vignettes that follow continue through to the present day and introduce readers to subsequent generations of this eccentric family. As a student of psychology, I was familiar with many of the practices explored in this book, including phrenology, animal magnetism, electrical shock treatment, and psychosurgery. What this collection of stories does is place these procedures in the context of the human experience in a way that only good storytelling can. Menger-Anderson's smooth prose and understated tone allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. With her expertly rendered stories, Menger-Anderson has succeeded in giving the evolution of medical treatment a human face. Although I read many really good books, I don't find too many original ones. Dr. Olaf van Schuler's Brain is both a really good read and an original one. Don't miss it!
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