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Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain

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Overview

In 1664 Dr. Olaf van Schuler flees the Old World and arrives in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines. He is the first in what will become a long line of peculiar physicians. Plagued by madness and guided by an intense desire to cure human affliction, each generation of this unusual family is driven by the science of its day: spontaneous combustion, phrenology, animal magnetism, electrical shock treatment, psychosurgery, genetic ...

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Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain

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Overview

In 1664 Dr. Olaf van Schuler flees the Old World and arrives in New Amsterdam with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines. He is the first in what will become a long line of peculiar physicians. Plagued by madness and guided by an intense desire to cure human affliction, each generation of this unusual family is driven by the science of its day: spontaneous combustion, phrenology, animal magnetism, electrical shock treatment, psychosurgery, genetic research. As they make their way in the world, New York City, too, evolves—from the dark and rough days of the seventeenth century to the towering, frenetic metropolis of today.

Like Patrick Süskind's classic novel Perfume, Kirsten Menger-Anderson's debut is a literary cabinet of curiosities—fascinating and unsettling, rich and utterly singular.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Science is an elixir that sweeps characters under its spell. Yet the pace of [Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain] is driven as much, if not more, by the reader’s romantic appetite—by an itch to discover how each story is romantically resolved and connected to the long lineage.”—New York Times Book Review

“Good literary fiction about science and scientists is hard to find, probably because it is so hard to write. . . Fortunately there are some writers who bridge the gap well: Richard Powers, Andrea Barrett, and Alan Lightman, to name a few. And, now, Kirsten Menger-Anderson, whose debut, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, offers sharp, entertaining, moving, and above all provocative stories about doctors and their work and raises profound questions about the role of medicine in American life. . . Darkly funny, often sad, frequently frightening, and sometimes hopeful, they are the product of a gifted literary writer. . . Let us hope writers like Menger-Anderson — indeed, books themselves — are still around to poke holes in the hype and document, as she has done so deftly here.”—Boston Globe

“The year's…gems included…Kirsten Menger-Anderson's creepy first collection, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain.” Sun Sentinel, Best book of 2008

“A thriller that spans five centuries, Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain is entertaining and thought provoking. . . This book is eerie, smart, unique, and very delicately crafted, telling many stories in every layer of time. . . Truly a pleasure to read.”—Feminist Review

Elle Magazine
"[A] savvy, sordid string of tales becomes a psychological spellbinder about the good, the bad, and the mad in all of us."—Elle
SEED Magazine
"Menger-Anderson’s fictional take on the harsh realities of old-world medical science is at once grotesque and utterly compelling, as are her madcap characters, who desire so earnestly to find a cure—whatever the cost."—SEED Magazine
Washington Post
“This little book isn't for everyone, but I sure loved it. If, like me, you've thought from time to time that under our controlled demeanors, our learning and good manners, we're all about one millimeter away from being stark, staring mad, and that the doctors who set up to treat us are probably just as crazy as the rest of us, if not more so, you'll sigh and smile when you read this. These linked short stories take as their subject the sheer weirdness of the medical profession (mostly as it pertains to neuropsychiatric problems). They provide us with a history of mental ailments in America, how they went in and out of fashion according to the times in which we lived. They also give us a wonderful history of the city of New York, with all kinds of seamy and gruesome details thrown in. And they examine our unrelenting curiosity about what actually goes on underneath our skins. . . . The author provides us with a fascinating, detailed family tree so that we can follow the connections of these charlatans (or are they simply dedicated but incompetent healers?) as they diagnose the fashionable diseases of their day and attempt to cure them with the most fashionable treatments.” –Washington Post
Chicago Sun-Times
“An ingenious and appealing collection of linked stories. . . . Menger-Anderson brings a writerly order to the messiness of our minds.” –Chicago Sun-Times
San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] savvy, sordid string of tales becomes a psychological spellbinder about the good, the bad, and the mad in all of us."—Elle
Time Out Chicago
"Menger-Anderson’s fictional take on the harsh realities of old-world medical science is at once grotesque and utterly compelling, as are her madcap characters, who desire so earnestly to find a cure—whatever the cost."—SEED Magazine
New York Times Book Review
“This little book isn't for everyone, but I sure loved it. If, like me, you've thought from time to time that under our controlled demeanors, our learning and good manners, we're all about one millimeter away from being stark, staring mad, and that the doctors who set up to treat us are probably just as crazy as the rest of us, if not more so, you'll sigh and smile when you read this. These linked short stories take as their subject the sheer weirdness of the medical profession (mostly as it pertains to neuropsychiatric problems). They provide us with a history of mental ailments in America, how they went in and out of fashion according to the times in which we lived. They also give us a wonderful history of the city of New York, with all kinds of seamy and gruesome details thrown in. And they examine our unrelenting curiosity about what actually goes on underneath our skins. . . . The author provides us with a fascinating, detailed family tree so that we can follow the connections of these charlatans (or are they simply dedicated but incompetent healers?) as they diagnose the fashionable diseases of their day and attempt to cure them with the most fashionable treatments.” –Washington Post
Boston Globe
“An ingenious and appealing collection of linked stories. . . . Menger-Anderson brings a writerly order to the messiness of our minds.” –Chicago Sun-Times
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“A fascinating kaleidoscope ride across generations of physicians and their patients. The writing is vivid and entertaining, revealing lifetimes and worldviews in a few carefully chosen details. . . . The author's zest for the historical details shines throughout the collection. . . . In this quirky, moving collection, Menger-Anderson illustrates the power of medicine - and family.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Feminist Review
“[An] epic romp. . . . The scope of Menger-Anderson’s debut combined with her intellectual curiosity when it comes to archaic medical procedures is dizzying. Yet her prose is equally rich. . . . It’s daunting to conceptualize how the hell she pulls it all off.”—Time Out Chicago
Washington Post

“This little book isn't for everyone, but I sure loved it. If, like me, you've thought from time to time that under our controlled demeanors, our learning and good manners, we're all about one millimeter away from being stark, staring mad, and that the doctors who set up to treat us are probably just as crazy as the rest of us, if not more so, you'll sigh and smile when you read this. These linked short stories take as their subject the sheer weirdness of the medical profession (mostly as it pertains to neuropsychiatric problems). They provide us with a history of mental ailments in America, how they went in and out of fashion according to the times in which we lived. They also give us a wonderful history of the city of New York, with all kinds of seamy and gruesome details thrown in. And they examine our unrelenting curiosity about what actually goes on underneath our skins. . . . The author provides us with a fascinating, detailed family tree so that we can follow the connections of these charlatans (or are they simply dedicated but incompetent healers?) as they diagnose the fashionable diseases of their day and attempt to cure them with the most fashionable treatments.” –Washington Post

Chicago Sun-Times

“An ingenious and appealing collection of linked stories. . . . Menger-Anderson brings a writerly order to the messiness of our minds.” –Chicago Sun-Times

Feminist Review

“A thriller that spans five centuries, Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain is entertaining and thought provoking. . . This book is eerie, smart, unique, and very delicately crafted, telling many stories in every layer of time. . . Truly a pleasure to read.”—Feminist Review

San Francisco Chronicle

“A fascinating kaleidoscope ride across generations of physicians and their patients. The writing is vivid and entertaining, revealing lifetimes and worldviews in a few carefully chosen details. . . . The author's zest for the historical details shines throughout the collection. . . . In this quirky, moving collection, Menger-Anderson illustrates the power of medicine - and family.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Boston Globe

“Good literary fiction about science and scientists is hard to find, probably because it is so hard to write. . . Fortunately there are some writers who bridge the gap well: Richard Powers, Andrea Barrett, and Alan Lightman, to name a few. And, now, Kirsten Menger-Anderson, whose debut, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, offers sharp, entertaining, moving, and above all provocative stories about doctors and their work and raises profound questions about the role of medicine in American life. . . Darkly funny, often sad, frequently frightening, and sometimes hopeful, they are the product of a gifted literary writer. . . Let us hope writers like Menger-Anderson — indeed, books themselves — are still around to poke holes in the hype and document, as she has done so deftly here.”—Boston Globe

New York Times Book Review

“Science is an elixir that sweeps characters under its spell. Yet the pace of [Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain] is driven as much, if not more, by the reader’s romantic appetite—by an itch to discover how each story is romantically resolved and connected to the long lineage.”—New York Times Book Review

Elle Magazine

"[A] savvy, sordid string of tales becomes a psychological spellbinder about the good, the bad, and the mad in all of us."—Elle

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

“The year's…gems included…Kirsten Menger-Anderson's creepy first collection, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain.” Sun Sentinel, Best book of 2008

Time Out Chicago

“[An] epic romp. . . . The scope of Menger-Anderson’s debut combined with her intellectual curiosity when it comes to archaic medical procedures is dizzying. Yet her prose is equally rich. . . . It’s daunting to conceptualize how the hell she pulls it all off.”—Time Out Chicago

SEED Magazine

"Menger-Anderson’s fictional take on the harsh realities of old-world medical science is at once grotesque and utterly compelling, as are her madcap characters, who desire so earnestly to find a cure—whatever the cost."—SEED Magazine

Carolyn See
This little book isn't for everyone, but I sure loved it. If, like me, you've thought from time to time that under our controlled demeanors, our learning and good manners, we're all about one millimeter away from being stark, staring mad, and that the doctors who set up to treat us are probably just as crazy as the rest of us, if not more so, you'll sigh and smile when you read this. These linked short stories take as their subject the sheer weirdness of the medical profession (mostly as it pertains to neuropsychiatric problems). They provide us with a history of mental ailments in America, how they went in and out of fashion according to the times in which we lived. They also give us a wonderful history of the city of New York, with all kinds of seamy and gruesome details thrown in. And they examine our unrelenting curiosity about what actually goes on underneath our skins.
—The Washington Post
Francesca Mari
The book's sheer scope and enormous cast mean that characters frequently feel like whimsical apparitions. But despite their slightness, they aren't simply mercenaries in satire's war. Menger-Anderson does indulge in some lighthearted silicone spoofing…but her tone throughout is refreshingly entertained rather than embittered. Like a benevolent aunt, she takes joy in her subjects, poking them in the sides rather than slicing them down to size.
—The New York Times
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.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut collection chronicles a family of medical misfits. In Amsterdam, in 1662, Dr. Olaf van Dijk began his study of brains. He slices open the heads of all kinds of animals before a botched bleeding provides him with both a human corpse and a need to hide it. Once he has the body in his own home, the temptation to cut into the skull and peer inside proves irresistible. Unfortunately, his mother's screams alert the neighbors. Obliged to leave, the doctor takes his mad mother with him to New Amsterdam, where he reinvents himself as a Dr. Olaf van Schuler. This medical man with a strange obsession and a family history of insanity becomes the progenitor of several generations of equally dubious physicians and outright charlatans. Interconnected stories chronicle the history of this peculiar family, as well as surveying manias, enthusiasms and questionable healthcare from mesmerism to breast implants. The collection unfolds like a Jacob's ladder, with characters from one tale growing old into the next, as younger characters are introduced. Menger-Anderson shows considerable formal and stylistic control-perhaps too much control. Each story has more or less the same shape, and each ends on a dramatic note. Although they are connected, the repercussions of one tale's climax are never felt in the next. There are revelations and reversals, but the material is so tightly structured that it allows no room for shock or surprise-or, ultimately, for much feeling at all. Anyone interested in American quackery will find Menger-Anderson's vignettes informative, even entertaining, but her style is too stiff for satisfying storytelling. Agent: Eve Bridburg/Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
In the opening sentence of Kirsten Menger-Anderson's collection of linked short stories, we're told the titular doctor arrives in New Amsterdam in 1664 "with his lunatic mother, two bags of medical implements, and a carefully guarded book of his own medicines." He is the first in a long line of physicians who treat maladies with a mixture of experiments, fringe science and spiritualism. Doctor Van Schuler's obsession is dissecting brains which contain "the seat of man's soul," but his descendants specialize in phrenology, spontaneous combustion, hysteria, neurasthenia, electric shock therapy, lobotomies and a radium curative called a Revigator. If some of those terms are lost in today's lexicon, the tales in this book remind us how they were once hotly debated medical practices. On her web site, Menger-Anderson writes: "We are all limited by the sophistication of our tools and the generally accepted theories of our times." Yesterday's animal magnetism was once today's silicone breast implants (the subject of a story in the latter pages of the collection). As Sheila Talbot's leaking implants show, the medical field may have advanced but human misery and suffering remain the same. Menger-Anderson has not only done her research -- deftly documenting three centuries of medical quackery -- but she also knows how to weave a tale. She holds the reader spellbound from the first slice into a corpse's brain to the final probe of genetic research. --David Abrams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565125612
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 10/9/2008
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Kirsten Menger-Anderson's stories have been short-listed for the Andre Dubus Award, the Richard Yates Award, the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, and the Iowa Review story contest and have appeared in a number of literary publications. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and baby.

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Table of Contents

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, 1664 1

The Burning, 1725 19

Happy Effects, 1741 39

My Name is Lubbert Das, 1765 61

Hysteria, 1820 79

Reading Grandpa's Head, 1837 105

The Baquet, 1850 127

Neurasthenia: A Victorian Love Story, 1871 157

The Siblings, 1910 183

A Spoonful Makes You Fertile, 1931 207

Salk and Sabin, 1955 229

The Story of Her Breasts, 1971 247

The Doctors, 2006 271

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2008

    Ineresting Read

    The books is seprated into 12 different stories. Each story is a different generation in the family of Doctor Olaf Van Schuler. Each one has a doctor who is just about as crazy if not worse than the one before. Makes you appreciate modern medicine. There is a story of a brother who gives his sister a lobotomy, one story where the doctors daughter would rather work with insane prisoners than get married and start a family.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2012

    Beautiful, literary linked collection!

    Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain is a tour de force. Not only is each of Kirsten Menger-Anderson's stories a gem in and of itself, but the collection as a timeline of the remarkably whacky whims of psychiatry over the years—blood- letting, lobotomies, and spontaneous combustion. The genetic outreaches of one remarkable family allow us to follow through the ages how different offspring have tested the fringes of medicine from the 1600s through the current time. Wonderful characters. Beautiful writing. A real page-turner!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2011

    Interesting and different.

    I recommend this book if you are a fan of weird but true medical history. Crazy to think they used to do this to people! I really liked the depth of some of the characters, definitely made the story flow. This was a quick read, had me fascinated from start to finish.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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