by Kristen Menger-Anderson; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 2008, 290 pages, $22.95
Dr. Geller, who is the book review editor, is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester.
The book Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain is the first novel by Kristen Menger-Anderson, and it's a gem. The novel traces the Steenwycks family from the arrival of Dr. Olaf van Schuler (1640–1680) in America in 1664 to the most recently arrived family member, Arabella Steenwycks-Klein, born in 2001.
Between Olaf and Arabella there are 12 generations. Each chapter has a date for the events' occurrences, from 1664 to 2006, and each generation is represented. Every generation has at least one physician member who appears in the chapter representing the era, but the physician is not necessarily the center of the chapter's plot. The first female physician appears in the 1970s. There are some exceptions to this mold—no physician in one generation—but here the generation includes a healer of some sort.
The chapters read like short stories. This comes as no surprise, since Menger-Anderson is a short-story writer. The stories are tied together by the family lineage. This is no ordinary family of physicians spanning 350 years. Each physician has his or her own eccentricities. The family is affected by a genetic predisposition to mental illness; Olaf's mother, who accompanies him to America, is a "lunatic."
The book is an adventure of medicine in historical context. The stories are fun; the history of medicine, fascinating. The book is helped immeasurably by the family genogram provided at the outset. I would have been lost without it and checked it out as I started each chapter.
Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain starts with a lunatic mother in 1664 and ends with a father, Dr. Stuart Steenwycks II (born in 1932) proclaiming to his daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Steenwycks (born in 1970), that he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In between, the reader is treated to chapter after chapter that is both humorous and full of pathos. When the reader encounters Jack Steenwycks' daughter, Sheila Talbot, who had her silicone breast implants removed after they had defined most of her adult life, it will be hard for the reader to know if the tears are those of laughter or sadness.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.