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October 23, 2008

Book Notes - Kirsten Menger-Anderson ("Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain spans over three and a half centuries in its thirteen linked stories. Intricately researched and often fascinating with its focus on popular, if ineffective, medical practices, the book also follows the evolution of a complicated family as well as New York city. Seamlessly moving from one story to the next (and from generation to generation in the process), Kirsten Menger-Anderson manages a feat few other writers could in this debut volume of short stories.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"The reader can follow how far medicine has advanced, but, surprisingly, note how human suffering and misery hasn’t come such a long way."

In her own words, here is Kirsten Menger-Anderson's Book Notes essay for her short fiction collection, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain:

Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain traces twelve generations of a medically minded family whose practices are informed by the theories and techniques of by-gone days--treatments that could (and often did) leave patients sicker than they were before their cures. The book spans the centuries between the mid-1600s, when Dr. Olaf opens a cow skull in search of the soul, and the present, when the family's first female doctor uses modern methods to identify genes, but still cannot cure her ill father. In each story, the characters are limited by the science of their times, and though they may earnestly desire to help their patients, they do not always make choices that (by today's standards) are wise. Still, the science of medicine moves forward, and someday, a few generations from now, I fully expect that people will wonder how people like us could embrace some of the theories of our times.

While compiling this song list, I tried to think of music that speaks to the medical techniques that appear in Doctor Olaf, as well as songs that have a connection to a particular story or one of the characters. I hope you enjoy the selections!

"From Beyond" - Richard Howard Band
"From Beyond" is the title song of Richard Band's award-winning soundtrack for the movie of the same name; however, any of the songs from the soundtrack would remind us of either the brave scientists who attempt to stimulate the pineal gland and end up becoming brain-eating monsters or of Dr. Olaf van Schuler himself, who firmly believes that the human soul is housed in the pineal gland, though madness threatens to consume him before he can finish his work.

"Doctor, Doctor"-Thompson Twins
The title of this tune lends itself to this song list, as many of the characters in Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain are doctors. In the context of this song list, I think of the song specifically as a tribute to spontaneous combustion and the reluctance of the contemporary scientific community to embrace it as an explanation for untimely deaths. In the early part of the 18th century, a more receptive era, spontaneous combustion served as a successful legal defense in the French city of Rheims. "The Burning", the story of a NYC innkeeper whose wife may or may not have combusted, is based on the true tale from the Continent.

"Madman's Honey" -Wire
While I was working on Doctor Olaf, I saw Hieronymus Bosch's "The Extraction of the Stone of Madness". The painting depicts a doctor (wearing a hat that appears to be a funnel) cutting through the skull of a passive white-haired man while a woman with a book on her head observes. The inscription on the painting reads (and this is a rough translation) "Master remove the stone, my name is Lubbert Das." I was so taken by the painting that I wrote a short story about a character named Lubbert Das who gets trepanated, much like his Bosch counterpart, by one of Dr. Olaf's descendants in New York City. Which brings me to Wire, which also references the Bosch painting, incorporating the painting's inscription into the lyrics of "Madman's Honey": "master cut the stone out, my name is Lubbert Das."

"Grey Matter" - Oingo Boingo
Grey matter, grey matter, oh oh oh oh

"I'd Rather Have A Bottle In Front Of Me" Dr. Rock
Dr. Rock, aka Randy Hanzlick, M.D—the only doctor to appear in this song list, at least to my knowledge—sings about the relative advantages and disadvantages of alcohol and lobotomy, using himself (the alcoholic) and his brother (who is missing a part of his brain) as examples. The song echoes themes that appear in "The Siblings," in which a doctor wishes to perform a lobotomy to cure his mad sister. Note that both Dr. Rock and Dr. Steenwycks, the character in the story, speak of removing portions of the frontal lobe, unlike the odd and intriguing lobotomy referred to by the Ramones in "Teenage Lobotomy", in which the cerebellum (which to me, a writer with no formal training in medicine, looks like a sack hanging off the back of the brain) is missing.

"State of Shock"- Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger
Jackson and Jagger sing of a woman who puts them in a state of shock. In "Neurasthenia: A Victorian Love Story", Edwin Macready receives electrical shock treatments, which enable him (at long last) to speak to a woman.

"Hysteria"-Def Leppard
Hysteria was once a women's disease, believed by many to be caused by a wandering uterus. It is interesting to see how the disease has evolved—that it now, according to Def Leppard, is not only a "magical mysteria", but a condition that men suffer from as well as women. Dr. Steenwycks recommends bed rest.

"A Spoonful of Sugar" -Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews promises that a 'spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down,' and then uses this optimistic lyric to illustrate the moral of her song: "In ev'ry job that must be done. There is an element of fun." I'd just like to add that if the medicine is radium tonic, the restorative kind taken in the early part of the twentieth century (and in the story "Spoonful Makes You Fertile"), it will, within a year or two, kill you.

"Dem Dry Bones" - The Four Lads
Although it is not anatomically correct, this well-known tune is sung to children to teach them about the human body and how it works. The next time a doctor offers to connect the leg bone to the knee bone, please offer the good practitioner a copy of Doctor Olaf.

"Spirited" -Eddie Adcock w/Marth Adcock
Earlier this year, Eddie Adcock, a legend of bluegrass, played his banjo while doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center operated on his brain. The procedure, called a Deep Brain Stimulation, involved implanting electrodes into Adcock's brain and connecting them to a battery-powered generator placed in his chest—all to correct a tremor that was preventing Adcock from continuing to realize his lifelong love of banjo playing. Because so many of the stories in Olaf relate to the brain and various treatments, a song by the artist, now recovering, seemed a perfect fit for the Olaf list.

"Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain" - Ween
Bonus track, just because.

Kirsten Menger-Anderson and Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain links:

the author's website
the book's blog
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Publishers Weekly review
Trashotron review

1st Books essay by the author
Red Room profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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