Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker

Although I could no longer save Adriaen, perhaps I could give his body form in the painting, give his death some kind of reality, restoring, at the very least, a sense that he was a human man and not just a corpse. (194)

18077844In Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel (Anchor Books, 2014), the story behind one of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s earliest successes comes to life in homage to the great artist’s ability to make the macabre positively luminous. In order to write this novel, Siegal, an American journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, clearly did a great deal of research, and her book both informs and delights the modern reader interested in the artistic and scientific world of the Dutch Golden Age.

Siegal earned a BA in English at Cornell, completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and earned several fellowships towards researching and writing this novel. The Anatomy Lesson takes a decidedly different direction from the genre and tone of her first novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008). This debut work featured a young and ambitious New York journalist investigating the mysterious death of a famed graffiti artist and was acclaimed for cleverly revamping the noir detective genre by wedding it to chick lit. The thread that connects her first novel to The Anatomy Lesson is art, clearly an area of expertise and a fascination for Siegal whose journalistic writing also focuses primarily on the art world of today and the past. This affection for art characterizes each page of The Anatomy Lesson. Readers who love art and enjoy imagining the worlds out of which famous artworks emerged will delight in this novel. Continue reading “Book Review: The Anatomy Lesson”

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Friday Fiction Feature: MedHum T.V. for the Holidays

On this Friday after the last night of Hanukkah, exactly a week before Christmas Eve, I hope many of you are enjoying or about to enjoy a few weeks of relative rest and relaxation as we close out the old year and look forward to the new. If your find yourself looking for some binge-watching fare to balance out — or perhaps become the featured entertainment of — holiday gatherings, here are a few television shows I’ve viewed in part or in whole over the past year with medical humanities themes. Here’s hoping you find something on this list to round out your year in viewing — or get you started on 2016!

ANZAC Girls (2014). From Australia comes a six part miniseries dramatizing the experience of women who served in Egypt and at the Dardanelles during World War One as part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corp. Trained as nurses, Alice, Hilda, Elsie, Olive, and Grace arrive in Cairo ready to do their part for the war effort. Starry-eyed patriotic idealism soon gives way to gritty, even horrific, realities of battlefield medicine on and near the front lines of the Gallipoli Campaign, April 1915-January 1916.

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Murdoch Mysteries

Murdoch Mysteries (2008-). In 1890s Toronto, science geek detective William Murdoch and forensic pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden solve crimes using the latest scientific methods, adorably falling in love on the way by. Murdoch remains grounded in historical realism while playing with both paranormal and steampunk elements. Halfway into the second of nine seasons, I can say I’ve also been impressed by the way the show has handled race and gender as both particular plot elements and a consistant part of the background narrative.

Penny Dreadful (2014-). Headlined by the commanding Eva Green, Penny Dreadful offers us a thoroughly steampunked, paranormal Victorian world in which the likes of Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray stalk the streets of London and demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings flicker at the edge of the everyday. Watch Penny Dreadful for the rich literary allusions and superb acting by Green and her talented supporting cast including Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, and Billie Piper.

Penny-Dreadful
Penny Dreadful

Outlander (2014-). Based on Diana Gabaldon’s series by the same name, Outlander is part costume drama, part romance, part science fiction as WWII battlefield nurse Claire Randall time-travels from late 1940s Scotland to 1740s Scotland on the eve of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Forced into a marriage of political necessity to a highland outlaw (it’s complicated), Claire struggles to decide whether to continue to search for a way back home, or whether to choose a life in the time and place she has found herself. In season one, Claire’s futuristic medical expertise both gives her value to the 18th century Scots and also puts her life in danger as her unconventional healing techniques cast suspicion on her intentions, at one point even leading to a trial for witchcraft.

Sense8 (2015-). Like its older sister Orphan Black (2013-), Sense8 explores the nature of humanity by positing the existence of human-like beings (clones or sensates) whose existence both fascinates and threatens powerful human political and scientific interests. In season one of Sense8 we meet a global cast of characters centered around eight individual sensates who discover they are able to tap into one anothers’ sensory experiences. In this show, the world of science both illuminates and threatens as the sensates struggle to learn more about themselves while hiding from those who seek to forcibly hospitalize them and destroy their psychic potential.

Strange Empire
Strange Empire

Strange Empire (2014-). Set on the isolated Canadian borderlands north of Montana, Strange Empire echoes Deadwood (2004-2006) in setting and plot — yet with a female-centric cast of characters that include gunslinger Kat Loving, brothel madame Isabelle Slotter, and surgeon Dr. Rebecca Blithely. Each of these three characters brings with her a complex history of interaction with a world that racializes and sexualizes her in specific ways. Of particular interest to the medical humanities crowd may be Dr. Blithely’s history being treated for neuro-atypical behavior (autism?), her medical training, and work as a surgeon in the remote Canadian frontier.

All of these shows, of course, have their strengths and weaknesses — yet I hope you find at least one on the list which piques your interest enough to try and episode or two. Have fun, and happy holidays!

Friday Fiction Feature: The Dead Assassin

fictionreboot2Vaughn Entwistle’s The Dead Assassin is a direct sequel to The Revenant of Thraxton Hall (2014). Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, having successfully survived their first paranormal investigation, are pulled into another, this time in relation to a series of bloody murders occurring across London. The killer leaves behind a mutilated corpse and seems to punch through solid walls to get to a target: who could want all these men dead and who could hire an assassin of such strength?

Revenant (reviewed on this blog by Susan Jacobsen) was an entertaining if uneven read; Assassin is an excellent sequel with a solid last half demonstrating that many of the narrative kinks from Revenant have since been worked out. Entwistle toys with the edges of a steampunk Victorian universe without quite committing to it, allowing him to stay firmly within the bounds of the historical personalities he has chosen as main characters. His use of steam and clockwork technology is closer to the Victorians’ fascination with mechanical engineering than to a steampunked twenty-first century vision of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, fans of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest will enjoy the nods to ‘what might have been.’

22545438Assassin starts with a bang: Conan Doyle and Jean Leckie, a recent acquaintance from a spiritualist society, are in the midst of a mostly innocent dinner when a blood-soaked policeman staggers in looking for Doyle. A murder has been committed and Doyle is needed. Oscar Wilde shows up as if on cue when Conan Doyle is searching for a cab to the crime scene and voila. A murderous Frankenstein’s monster is introduced within the first twenty pages and, really, it just gets better from there. Entwistle builds on Revenant’s vision for a London brushed by the paranormal, introducing the horrifically charismatic Rufus DeVayne as well as a cryptic Fog Committee and a TORCHWOOD-esque security organization run out of Buckingham Palace.

Assassin also enlarges — or, perhaps, tantalizingly hints at — on Conan Doyle and Wilde’s private lives with a slightly more delicate hand than Entwhistle used in Revenant. There are several passages of dialogue that brush the edges of Wilde’s life, particularly around his relationship with his wife, Constance, and with the ‘invert’ community of London, that it would have been wonderful to see expanded. Conan Doyle, too, with his struggle between faithfulness to his dying wife Louisa and his attraction to Jean Leckie, has introspective moments that could have been expanded upon most enjoyably.

Assassin, however, is first and foremost an adventure story and Entwistle never forgets that. A denouement that includes a chase on a steam motorcycle, lions, deadly cocktails, and megalomaniacs delivers beautifully on the build-up.