Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.


Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.

This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle

With Brian Doyle’s reliable good humor, this collection reveres human efforts and love in situations both moving and laughable.

mighty currawongs

The Mighty Currawongs and Other Stories by Brian Doyle (Martin Marten) roams broadly in subject matter, but always offers joyful, whimsical wordplay and an abiding love for life’s absurd and profound moments. These short stories–almost all under 10 pages–deal specifically with human experiences and relationships, rather than embracing the wider natural world of Doyle’s novels, but the same voice and fanciful tone appear clearly.

A Boston basketball league plays through hilarity and scuffles, and finds a player who deepens the game. A likable archbishop loses his faith; a grandfather teaches his grandson to play chess; a tailor offers a young newspaperman sartorial and other advice. Through these everyday incidents, Doyle’s approach to the world is poignant (as in a veteran’s memories of the Vietnam War) but steadfastly hopeful. Indeed, the only criticism of his work might be for his unrelenting optimism, expressed by consistently likable, essentially good characters. But with his mastery of language and eye for detail, Doyle’s characters always feel authentic, and their ups and downs are realistically proportioned. His gift for finding the sublime in even the small and dirty details is alive and gleaming in this short story collection.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 halves of the door.

Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, trans. by Anthea Bell

This clever, stylish novel in translation follows a German man’s quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village.

cabo de gata

In this slim, unassuming novel, Eugen Ruge (In Times of Fading Light) experiments with form and style, setting a plot of quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village. Cabo de Gata is almost minimalist in its events, but expert detail fills out a story larger than its circumstances. In Anthea Bell’s translation from the German, the unnamed narrator’s voice suits him perfectly.

In Berlin in the years just after the Wall came down, Ruge’s narrator feels stuck. He has a good-enough if meaningless job; his ex-girlfriend calls only to ask him to help care for her daughter; he suspects the punks in the ground-floor apartment stole his bicycle. He sees the rest of his life rolling out in front of him in mind-numbing routine, doomed “like the undead” to empty repetition. And so he leaves.

Indecision about where to travel pleases rather than alarms him: he seeks the unknown, “for the sake of experiment,” because he is also an aspiring novelist. He chiefly wants someplace quiet and warm, and so flees to Cabo de Gata, a town in Andalusia promised by the travel guides to offer “a breath of Africa.” The nearly abandoned fishing village turns out surprisingly to be terribly cold, the inhabitants gruff and standoffish; his writing comes out bitter. He is a curious, contradictory character, perhaps not entirely reliable: he is not superstitious, he announces, and then proceeds to find signs in hermit crabs and his dead mother in a stray cat. Intermittently obsessive, he fills his days as much with invented tasks and rules as he does with writing the intended novel.

It may sound absurdist, but Ruge’s quietly affecting story is more understated than it is bizarre. The narrator has his quirks, such as a fondness for humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Jimi Hendrix taught it to me in his famous appearance at Woodstock”). But he is essentially involved in a search both existential and humdrum: where to go from here.

The narrator tells his story from a distance, from a much later time in which he hints that he has been very successful, and he pointedly chooses not to consult notes or check his facts (“I could Google it,” he writes, but he doesn’t). This meta-view offers another layer for the discerning reader to dissect. On the surface the odd story of a troubled man haunting a Spanish ghost town, Cabo de Gata also poses questions about life’s directions and perspectives.

This review originally ran in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 candles.

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide by Jeremy Gavron

The legacy of a mother and her suicide reveals the story of both a woman and a social movement.

woman on the edge

Jeremy Gavron grew up with the faintest of impressions of his mother, who died when he was four years old, in 1965. He didn’t know that her death was a suicide until he was 16, and only decades later did he embark upon an exploration of her life and reasons for ending it. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a record of his examination and tentative conclusions.

Gavron’s mother, Hannah, is a tantalizing character. A talented, magnetic youth, she excelled in acting, equestrian sports and poetry; had an affair with the headmaster of her boarding school; married at 18; earned a doctorate in sociology while raising two young sons; and wrote a feminist text that would be published shortly after her death. In an echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide two years earlier, she gassed herself in a flat just one street over from Plath’s. And, like Ted Hughes, Gavron’s father all but erased her presence from the lives of her two children.

In chasing this shadowy figure, Gavron corresponds and visits with Hannah’s friends, colleagues and family, and studies letters, diaries and photographs left behind. Along the way, the reader is exposed to English cultural history, particularly in Gavron’s investigations of Hannah’s book The Captive Wife, a qualitative study of young homebound mothers. As he concludes, there can be no thorough comprehension of a suicide or of a mother he doesn’t remember. A Woman on the Edge of Time ends with Gavron’s attempted “narrative verdict,” which though incomplete does offer him some closure.

This review originally ran in the September 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 gurns.

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Photos, essays and interviews with rank-and-file Black Panthers “complicate the Panther story in a good way.”

black panthers

With The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams seek to tell a nuanced story of the Black Panther Party, one different from the popular conception of gun-wielding “thugs,” chiefly male, in black leather jackets and Afros with the leadership–Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver–centered in Oakland, Calif.

In pursuit of the rank-and-file perspective, Shih photographs and interviews Panthers or former Panthers, male and female, whose narratives express pride, humility, trauma, frustration and hope. Accompanied by essays solicited from scholars, this collection tells a more complex and sympathetic story. While not uncritical, the authors do champion an interpretation that emphasizes love and service over violence, featuring, for example, party programs like Breakfast for Schoolchildren (in more cities than just Oakland), free busing and ambulance services, free health care clinics and more. Shih’s photographs are striking and expressive, capturing the “humanizing details” he sought.

The Black Panthers is not the complete story: for instance, the “deep misogyny and sexism within the rank and file and leadership” is mentioned but not really addressed. Perhaps there is no complete story–as proven here, the party was made up of diverse members, with varied goals and motivations. Shih and Williams’s objective to expose this multiplicity, and inspire a second look at an energetic but ill-fated cause, is achieved with this intelligent, unapologetic book.

This review originally ran in the September 16, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 humanizing details.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.

This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 shots on goal.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.

This review originally ran in the September 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 lines of scripture recited.
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