A CABINET OF MEDICAL CURIOSITIES

Eight history-laden essays on bizarre beliefs, fears, and behaviors, plus two additional pieces on several unfortunate human anomalies—all serving as reminders of human gullibility, mendacity, and cruelty. Bondeson, a London-based physician who specializes in rheumatology and internal medicine and has a Ph.D. in experimental medicine, appears to have a genuine love for the weird: Many of the illustrations in this odd little work bear the note ``from the author's collection.'' Those fascinated by tabloid journalism's sensational reports of spontaneous human combustion or the birth of nonhuman creatures to human mothers will, however, probably be disappointed by Bondeson's rather scholarly approach. He traces the rise and decline of beliefs in these and other strange phenomena, reveals the motives of the parties involved, and offers a medical explanation where appropriate. Among his topics are the fear of premature burial and the extraordinary mechanical precautions taken by some to avoid that fate, the notion that a race of giants once walked the earth, and the belief in a race of people with tails. Bondeson then dwells on the cases of four unusual individuals whose fate was to be exhibited like sideshow freaks. Today the Hunterian, a London museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, houses the double skull of the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal and the skeletons of the huge Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant, and the tiny Caroline Crachami, a dwarf known as the Sicilian Fairy. The mummy of the fourth individual, Julia Pastrana, known as the Ape-Woman for her hairy body and misshapen face, is in a medical museum in Oslo, Norway. With its numerous illustrations of these poor creatures, this in-depth Believe It or Not can be seen as a continuation of the exploitation that marked their lives.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-8014-3431-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Cornell Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1997

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A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

THIS IS SHAKESPEARE

A brisk study of 20 of the Bard’s plays, focused on stripping off four centuries of overcooked analysis and tangled reinterpretations.

“I don’t really care what he might have meant, nor should you,” writes Smith (Shakespeare Studies/Oxford Univ.; Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, 2016, etc.) in the introduction to this collection. Noting the “gappy” quality of many of his plays—i.e., the dearth of stage directions, the odd tonal and plot twists—the author strives to fill those gaps not with psychological analyses but rather historical context for the ambiguities. She’s less concerned, for instance, with whether Hamlet represents the first flower of the modern mind and instead keys into how the melancholy Dane and his father share a name, making it a study of “cumulative nostalgia” and our difficulty in escaping our pasts. Falstaff’s repeated appearances in multiple plays speak to Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing tendencies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a bawdier and darker exploration of marriage than its teen-friendly interpretations suggest. Smith’s strict-constructionist analyses of the plays can be illuminating: Her understanding of British mores and theater culture in the Elizabethan era explains why Richard III only half-heartedly abandons its charismatic title character, and she is insightful in her discussion of how Twelfth Night labors to return to heterosexual convention after introducing a host of queer tropes. Smith's Shakespeare is eminently fallible, collaborative, and innovative, deliberately warping play structures and then sorting out how much he needs to un-warp them. Yet the book is neither scholarly nor as patiently introductory as works by experts like Stephen Greenblatt. Attempts to goose the language with hipper references—Much Ado About Nothing highlights the “ ‘bros before hoes’ ethic of the military,” and Falstaff is likened to Homer Simpson—mostly fall flat.

A brief but sometimes knotty and earnest set of studies best suited for Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4854-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Startling, at times pretentious in its self-regard, but ultimately breathtaking: The Lost Weekend for the under-25 set.

A MILLION LITTLE PIECES

Frey’s lacerating, intimate debut chronicles his recovery from multiple addictions with adrenal rage and sprawling prose.

After ten years of alcoholism and three years of crack addiction, the 23-year-old author awakens from a blackout aboard a Chicago-bound airplane, “covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.” While intoxicated, he learns, he had fallen from a fire escape and damaged his teeth and face. His family persuades him to enter a Minnesota clinic, described as “the oldest Residential Drug and Alcohol Facility in the World.” Frey’s enormous alcohol habit, combined with his use of “Cocaine . . . Pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP and glue,” make this a very rough ride, with the DTs quickly setting in: “The bugs crawl onto my skin and they start biting me and I try to kill them.” Frey captures with often discomforting acuity the daily grind and painful reacquaintance with human sensation that occur in long-term detox; for example, he must undergo reconstructive dental surgery without anesthetic, an ordeal rendered in excruciating detail. Very gradually, he confronts the “demons” that compelled him towards epic chemical abuse, although it takes him longer to recognize his own culpability in self-destructive acts. He effectively portrays the volatile yet loyal relationships of people in recovery as he forms bonds with a damaged young woman, an addicted mobster, and an alcoholic judge. Although he rejects the familiar 12-step program of AA, he finds strength in the principles of Taoism and (somewhat to his surprise) in the unflinching support of family, friends, and therapists, who help him avoid a relapse. Our acerbic narrator conveys urgency and youthful spirit with an angry, clinical tone and some initially off-putting prose tics—irregular paragraph breaks, unpunctuated dialogue, scattered capitalization, few commas—that ultimately create striking accruals of verisimilitude and plausible human portraits.

Startling, at times pretentious in its self-regard, but ultimately breathtaking: The Lost Weekend for the under-25 set.

Pub Date: April 15, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-50775-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2003

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