Saturday, November 29, 2008
Review: Doctor Olaf Van Schuler's Brain, by Kirsten Menger-Anderson
In the editorial reviews of this book at Amazon.com, the Washington Post says, "this little book isn't for everyone." I believe that maybe I'm one of those people this book wasn't meant for. But because I enjoy New York City history, I thought I'd give it a try.
I enjoyed the idea for the book: Doctor Olaf Van Schuler arrives in New Amsterdam in the late 17th century, hounded from the old country after his less-than-salubrious activities become public knowledge. The rest of the book follows the Van Schuler/Steenwyck family through the generations in New York City, some of them doctors (and of these, many are quacks with some crazy ideas). Everything from hypnotism to lobotomy is practiced by the doctors in this short story collection, and I enjoyed watching the family's adventures as the generations progressed.
However, I thought that it was really hard for me to get involved with any of the characters, especially since this book is essentially a series of vignettes that often seem to not connect. As such, there's no character development, and it's very difficult to tell some of them apart. The lack of historical depth and detail is also frustrating; and as a New Yorker, I wonder why the nineteenth-century Steenwycks live on Orchard Street, in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood, when they have the means to live further uptown among other Dutch families (I don't know; maybe I'm missing some details there?). In addition, as I read, I kept hoping that there was something, aside from the doctors' interests in how the brain works and their unconventional treatments, that would tie all these stories together. I was disappointed in that.
As I've said, however, I enjoyed the idea for this book, and I also liked the author's turns of phrases. It's a small book and a fast read.
Also reviewed by: Foreign Circus Library