Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rest in Pieces, by Bess Lovejoy. Simon & Schuster, 2013

Most people know about the resurrectionists, the grave robbers who provided bodies for medical students in the 19th century, but a lot of other things have happened to corpses. They have been stolen to use as religious relics, held for ransom, used as exhibits, moved from place to place- not always in complete form, shot into space (at least that one was the wish of the deceased), destroyed to prevent it being used as a political symbol, and preserved and displayed them as political symbols. Most of these things were done without the permission of the deceased, and most often without the permission of the family. Lovejoy recounts 51 short tales of the adventures of the deceased, from Alexander the Great to Hunter S. Thompson. All manner of people appear in the book: scientists, dictators, saints, poets, athletes, outlaws, philosophers, composers, presidents, singers, Native American chiefs, authors, assassins and more all take a turn.

While a grim subject, the book is amusing and interesting. But I read the book straight through, and that was a mistake. I started to weary of the subject and started getting the various chapters mixed up in my mind. I think this book would be better read in bits, picking it up to read a chapter or two at a time. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy the book, Amazon will give me a tiny bit of money.

Freud’s Mistress, by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman. Amy Einhorn Books, 2013

Freud has never been one of my favorite people from history; while I respect his genius in discovering the subconscious mind, conversion, and talk therapy, I never thought a lot of him as a person. He seemed egotistical and argumentative, dropping associates if they disagreed with him. All images I saw were of him as an older man, already bald, smoking a cigar. I knew nothing about his personal life. This historical novel shows us a younger man, one who could be charming when he wished to be. Sadly, he didn’t often wish to be.

The novel is told from the POV of Minna Bernays, sister to Martha Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s wife. Minna had spent her days working variously as governess or ladies companion; when she loses her job and knows she will get no good recommendation she goes to her sister’s house to stay for awhile. While she fears she’s a financial burden, both the Freud’s assure her she’s not, especially as she takes over the care of the six children for Martha, who was still recovering from the birth of her last child. It was at this time that the intellectual Minna became close to Sigmund, who seemed to respect and value her opinions, talking with her in his home office late into the night- something he did not do with is wife, who he treated as a servant. Minna becomes enamored of Sigmund, on both mental and physical levels. With Martha either in bed in pain or busy with errands and housework all the time, it is easy to see how an affair could start even in these close quarters. Minna tries, unsuccessfully, to leave, but Sigmund soon brings her back, with her sister’s blessing.

Not much is known about the real life Minna, but in the late 19th century, women didn’t have many choices in life. Women of Minna’s class would either marry or become a ladies companion or a governess, those offices which place the woman in the no-woman’s land of not being ‘good enough’ to be family but being ‘too genteel’ to be a true servant, leaving the woman with few, if any, people to associate freely with. Minna would have most likely have been lonely before she came to live with the Freuds, having had neither affection nor intellectual stimulation from her former employers. Perhaps this would have led her to fall for the first person to ask her opinion on something other than knitting or the ABCs? Or perhaps Sigmund was just that magnetic when he wished to charm someone- he’d charmed many before Minna, and would go on to charm many more, as friends, associates, and, presumably, lovers, before they disagreed with him or he got bored. The authors state right out that there is no completely solid proof Minna and Sigmund had a sexual relationship, but it was rumored during their lives and in 2006 proof was found in a resort hotel register that they had stayed there for several days as husband and wife. In those days, no upper class person would have done that just to avoid springing for a second hotel room!

In some ways, I found the story wonderful. The authors evoked fin-de-siecle Vienna in sights, sounds, smells and flavors; reading the book is an immersive experience. Minna’s life at the Freud’s feels claustrophobic; I could feel her confusion as she tried to figure out the right thing to do. But the book drags in places. I’m sure that the affair is something that Minna would have agonized over, but so many words were devoted to that agonizing that it became tedious. I think the book would have been better had it been a bit shorter. I enjoyed the ending and their version of what Martha might have thought about the whole thing.

Sadly, my opinion of Sigmund Freud as a human being didn’t improve- it actually got worse. 

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest, unbiased review. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through and buy the book, Amazon will give me a tiny amount of money. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Business of Food, by The Reference Shelf. H.W. Wilson, 2013

This book, part of The Reference Shelf series of books, is a small volume of essays- all by different authors- on the various aspects of the food business, from farming issues and the organic movement, the growing desire for local foods, celebrity chefs from Julia Child to Bobby Flay, the popularity of cooking shows, GMOs, food critics, cookbooks, and the restaurant business. While it sounds like fodder for a boring convention, it’s actually very interesting. Problems like getting healthy and affordable food into poor areas and how farm laborers are treated are examples of the big issues in food, while the sociological aspects of foodie culture another side of today’s food landscape. A good read for anyone thinking of getting into any aspect of the food business. 

Not a link. The book is only available from the publisher, and they sell to libraries and schools. Your library should be able to interlibrary loan it if they don't have it on the shelf. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey. Simon & Schuster 2009

Set in 1888 New England, orphaned Will Henry lives with his late father’s employer, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, and acts as his assistant. Warthrop is the Monstrumologist of the title, a scientist who studies monsters. The story opens with the night time delivery of a body stolen from the cemetery. That in itself is not startling to Will Henry, but this time, it’s different. There are two bodies; the young woman the grave robber was after, and a monster with no head and a shark-like mouth in his chest. This is the anthropophagi, a species found in Africa and no where else. What is it doing in a New England cemetery?

The story unfolds with constant action in dark, fetid places: the doctor’s basement autopsy lab, open graves, tunnels underground. There is constant peril- the anthropophagi are stronger and faster than humans, and are eternally hungry. Needless to say, they are strictly carnivorous, preferring human meat to all else. Warthrop, Will Henry and the slimy, showy John Kearn, another monstrumologist, strive to find out how these beasts came to be in America and where their nest is before they can devastate the people in the area. This was one of those couldn’t put it down books for me. Not only is the mystery intriguing and the danger unrelenting, but the characters are compelling and interesting. After I finished the book, I was VERY happy to discover that it’s the first of a series- without the clumsiness that first books often have. This novel would make a great movie; Warthrop, of course, should be played by Christopher Lee. When I’d read John Kearn’s dialogue, I was hearing it in Kelsey Grammer’s voice.

One note: this book is marked Young Adult, and, indeed, I would have loved it as a tween. But there is a LOT of blood and graphic violence; some parents might think  twice about letting their kids read this if they are sensitive about these things. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through it and buy the book, Amazon will give me a tiny amount of money. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo. William Morrow, 2013

In Malaya in the 1890s, 19 year old Li Lan lives with her opium addicted, widowed father. Formerly a wealthy man, opium use has caused her father to trust the business to partners who took all his money, leaving them alone in a big house with only a cook, a maid, and Li Lan’s Amah- the nurse/nanny who brought up Li Lan and also her mother. While having three servants sounds fabulous to our modern mindset, in that time and place it was the bare minimum.

Li Lan is in danger of becoming an old maid, but has given no thought to marriage, preferring reading and studying. So she is surprised when one day her father asks her, out of the blue, if she would like to become a ghost bride to the recently deceased son of one of the richest families in the city. To become a ghost bride is to wed someone who has died, and live with their husband’s family as if a widow. Li Lan turns down the offer and thinks nothing will come of it. But it’s just the start of an incredible story that’s part Chinese mythology, part fantasy, part romance, part murder mystery and part espionage, as the sheltered Li Lan finds herself under attack by demons and ends up in the land of the dead. Can she find her way back? Who is the mysterious Er Lang? Was her prospective bridegroom murdered, and if so, by who? More than one person had motive and opportunity, including a man that Li Lan desperately hopes did not do it. Who can she trust in this weird place?

I like Li Lan, a smart girl whose ingenuity and strength get her through many bad situations- even though she has a few panic moments. The story flows compellingly, and the setting is vividly portrayed. Although written for adults, I think this novel would be enjoyed by young adults, also, as it’s also a coming of age tale. This is Choo’s first novel, and I hope it won’t be her only one. 

This book was provided to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. This in no way influenced my review. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through it and buy the book, Amazon gives me a tiny sum of money.