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Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Category: Medical (page 1 of 5)

The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman

Providing a cover for our delicate and intricate bodies, the skin is our largest and fastest-growing organ. We see it, touch it, and live in it every day. It is a habitat for a mesmerizingly complex world of micro-organisms and physical functions that are vital to our health and our survival. It is also a waste removal plant, a warning system for underlying disease and a dynamic immune barrier to infection. One of the first things people see about us, skin is crucial to our sense of identity, providing us with social significance and psychological meaning. And yet our skin and the fascinating way it functions is largely unknown to us.

In prose as lucid as his research underlying it is rigorous, blending in memorable stories from the past and from his own medical experience, Monty Lyman has written a revelatory book exploring our outer surface that will surprise and enlighten in equal measure. Through the lenses of science, sociology, and history—on topics as diverse as the mechanics and magic of touch (how much goes on in the simple act of taking keys out of a pocket and unlocking a door is astounding), the close connection between the skin and the gut, what happens instantly when one gets a paper cut, and how a midnight snack can lead to sunburn—Lyman leads us on a journey across our most underrated and unexplored organ and reveals how our skin is far stranger, more wondrous, and more complex than we have ever imagined.

Thanks to NetGalley for this review copy!

Our skin is our largest organ – a fact that is often overlooked. Author Monty Lyman strives to put our skin front and center in this book. Each chapter covers a different aspect of what a marvelous organ our external covering is, from scientific to religious. The author discusses tattoos, skin conditions such as psoriasis, and discrimination based on skin color.

I found the medical portions to be the most interesting; I learned more about lice than I ever planned to. Despite the jargon, this section of the book is easily comprehended, aided by drawings that illustrate the author’s point.

We also learn about how sunburn affects us, why itches are so maddening, and exactly how many microscopic parasites live on us, no matter how clean we are. Each chapter builds upon the previous ones, creating a thorough picture of our skin and why it is so amazingly unique.

Lyman uses anecdotes and history to supplement his writing. He also is unafraid to discuss uncomfortable topics such as racism and lepers, which I found refreshing. I learned a lot about the misinformation surrounding lepers, plus I enjoyed the philosophical leaning during the chapter on racism based on skin color. He even takes a detour into religion, noting that some beliefs require covering most of the skin, while others worship “skyclad” (naked). Despite our differences, our outer covering makes us the same, and you will understand that better once you finish THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF THE SKIN.

I have a new respect for my skin now that I have finished this book – I bet you will too! You can pick up your copy here.

 

The Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke

Mary Roach meets Bill Bryson in this “surefire summer winner” (Janet Maslin, New York Times), an uproarious tour of the basest instincts and biggest mysteries of the animal world

Humans have gone to the Moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but when it comes to understanding animals, we’ve still got a long way to go. Whether we’re seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins “holding hands,” it’s hard for us not to project our own values–innocence, fidelity, temperance, hard work–onto animals. So you’ve probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lay about. They do–and that’s just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke takes us on a worldwide journey to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret–and often hilarious–habits of the animal kingdom. Charming and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.

Thanks to NetGalley for this review copy!

This book reads like it was written by the love child of Charles Darwin and Mary Roach. There is humor, pathos, and animal facts aplenty. The author’s writing style is easy to read and captured my attention immediately. The love Cooke has for these beasties is quite obvious from the start. Hopefully, given the facts, others will learn to appreciate these maligned characters that occupy the animal world.

Each chapter is devoted (lovingly) to a misunderstood animal, where we find myths debunked through modern science. The reader will learn about sloths, bats, and hyenas, to name a few. The author will discuss how the animals were experimented on/studied over hundreds of years (Who knew that Aristotle was a proponent of spontaneous creation?) then get to modern times, where myths are debunked and the many reasons to love these animals are revealed.

Some of the experiments detailed can be a bit gory, such as when, in the 18th century, the Catholic priest Lazzaro Spallanzani practiced blinding bats in order to find out how they managed to find their way around in darkness. (He also coated them in varnish for another experiment, but I digress).  Other tales are edifying and satisfying, such as:

It may sound suspiciously like bogus medieval folk medicine, but from the 1940s through the 1960s the world’s first reliable pregnancy test was a small, bug-eyed frog. When injected with a pregnant woman’s urine, the amphibian didn’t turn blue or display stripes, but it did squirt out eggs 8-12 hours later to confirm a positive result.

Cooke’s book is full of factoids like that one. How can you not love this book? You will learn, you will laugh, and you will be full of obscure information. That sounds like a winner to me.

Yes, you want your own copy and can pick it up here.

The Body by Bill Bryson

In the bestselling, prize-winning A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson achieved the seemingly impossible by making the science of our world both understandable and entertaining to millions of people around the globe.

Now he turns his attention inwards to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.

A wonderful successor to A Short History of Nearly Everything, this book will have you marvelling at the form you occupy, and celebrating the genius of your existence, time and time again.

 

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

Did you ever wonder how many times a day you blink? Or who invented the calorie and why we are so obsessed with counting them? These answers and a multitude of others can be found in THE BODY, a wonderfully wry book of facts and stories about, well, the body we occupy. Each chapter is devoted to one of the body’s systems (the gut, the nervous system, as well as sleep and the function of glands, etc) so as to build upon the last chapter’s information. Here’s an interesting factoid from the food chapter: fruits have been genetically manipulated to be sweeter than they were hundreds of years ago. The author purports that apples in Shakespeare’s day were no sweeter than today’s carrots.

I’m trying to decide whether Bryson’s droll wit or the abundance of information about our body is the best part of the book. You will end up learning things without even trying – there isn’t any deep scientific talk so you don’t need a degree in biology to easily read this book.

There isn’t a plot so much as a description of the body part, its function, and then facts and history about it. For example, in the chapter entitled “Gut” we learn how our digestive system works, then we learn about E. coli and other dangerous microbes, there is a bit about food safety, and then it’s 1822 and we are reading about an unfortunate accident that left a hole in a fur trapper’s stomach. This fur trapper eventually became something of a living experiment due to the injury (Google “Beaumont and St Martin” for more details if you wish).

This was an illuminating and droll read – one of the better books I have read this summer. Run, don’t walk to get your copy! You will be thoroughly enlightened and entertained, and even a bit grossed out – in a good way.

You can pick up your copy here.

 

 

Mother Knows Best by Kira Peikoff

A mother’s worst nightmare, a chance at redemption, and a deadly secret that haunts a family across the generations.
There’s only room for one mother in this family.
Claire Abrams’s dreams became a nightmare when she passed on a genetic mutation that killed her little boy. Now she wants a second chance to be a mother and finds it in Robert Nash, a maverick fertility doctor who works under the radar with Jillian Hendricks, a cunning young scientist bent on making her mark—and seducing her boss.

Claire, Robert, and Jillian work together to create the world’s first baby with three genetic parents—an unprecedented feat that could eliminate inherited disease. But when word of their illegal experiment leaks to the wrong person, Robert escapes into hiding with the now-pregnant Claire, leaving Jillian to serve out a prison sentence that destroys her future.

Ten years later, a spunky girl named Abigail begins to understand that all is not right with the reclusive man and woman she knows as her parents. But the family’s problems are only beginning. Jillian, hardened by a decade of jealousy and loss, has returned—and nothing will stop her from reuniting with the man and daughter who should have been hers. Past, present—and future converge in a mesmerizing psychological thriller from acclaimed bestselling author Kira Peikoff.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

There is science. There is suspense. There is drama. There is also an important element that makes this fiction seem closer to non-fiction.

Claire wants another baby and is willing to go to great lengths to make, I mean to have, one. Against her husband’s wishes, she goes to see fertility specialist Robert Nash. Using a top-secret plausible-in-real-life-sort-of technique, Claire becomes pregnant with Abby, who is considered a “frankenbaby” after Claire’s secret is uncovered. The story jumps back and forth from the POV of Claire, Abby, Nash, and Nash’s assistant Jillian. This technique lets us see each character’s perspective and motivation (be aware, not all of them are altruistic).

The mix of science and family dynamics was done perfectly, and the bad guys are eminently hateable. As I mentioned before, the procedure to create a baby using multiple people’s sperm/eggs seems within reach. This made the book dramatic without focusing on obviously fake science.

As the author shares the character’s flaws and desires, she illustrates the desire to have and protect a child in a poignant and accurate manner. She is adept at creating psychological suspense that appears real, not overly histrionic. Except for the science and the “three-parent creation”, each character’s emotions add to the plot and support the action. Abby behaves exactly the way a kid her age would, exploiting her computer savvy and using the Internet to find answers.

There were a couple of twists in the book, one that seemed obvious and another that was a shocker. I feel there is enough going on to get the reader hooked and wanting to get to the end to see how things turn out. Things get tied up kind of quickly in the end but it was satisfying. If the author continues with her science-backed plots I’ll definitely pick up her next novel.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.

The Pain of Suicide by Dr Jo-Ann Rowland

 

Every suicide is an individual tragedy whose origins challenge our mental capacity. Suicide is a global phenomenon. Each year there are over 800,000 reported suicides worldwide and that is expected to increase to over 1.5 million by 2020. More people attempt suicide than die from suicide. Family-member survivors and communities are left with many unanswered questions, not understanding why the person chose to commit suicide. Persons responding to suicide and suicide attempts are very often not prepared for what they encounter and this exacerbates the problem. This book looks at the struggles of a high-risk people group and presents interventions and postventions proffered in a consultation forum.

Thank you to Authoright for this ARC!

Dr Rowland’s concern for those lost to suicide is evident in this well-researched book. She concentrates on the suicide rate in Guyana, South America, since this little country had the highest number of suicides in 2012 and 2014. Further into the book she examines some insights into the suicidal mind, the effect of religion on those who want to kill themselves, and a discussion of “psychache”, the ongoing mental, emotional, and psychological emotions experienced by suicidal people.

Regarding Guyana, suicide has historically been a part of the Indian experience, with an average yearly number of about 123,000. There are various predisposing factors, such as culture and sociology, which the author explores further in other chapters.

Hopelessness and suicidal ideation are common threads amongst all races, with the thought being that counseling (both for the depressed person and bereavement) would be helpful. The stigma and grief are nearly unbearable, and the act should not be glamorized. Regarding this last statement, the World Health Organization created guidelines for media reporting of suicides such that a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” does not occur. These guidelines include not placing blame, calling the act “completed” rather than “successful”, and highlight alternatives to suicide. These may appear obvious, but there are stories in the book where friends and relatives seemingly ignored or didn’t understand multiple warning signs given off, and someone died as a result of this.

Dr Rowland’s research was conducted through meetings with both relatives of, and survivors of, suicide attempts. Her goal was to determine why the suicide rate in Guyana was so high and to see if she could make a difference in this number. Transcripts of her meetings were also analyzed independently by two Guyanese, who applied both cultural and academic reason to their analysis. Intervention strategies were discussed by a panel of doctors and social workers after the research findings were examined. Some of these intervention strategies included community care groups, parenting/coping skills, school-based programs, and the establishment of drug courts. This last item is quite important, for pesticides and drugs are used as a method for suicide. Many Guyanese are farmers and have ready access to agricultural chemicals.

Reasons discovered for suicide included depression, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. Family conflicts arose out of cultural differences between children and parents, or marriages where the husband did not support his wife adequately. Guyanese families are structured around the patriarchal system, and “culture shock” can occur when mothers need to work to support the family and the children are left alone with no caregivers.

Suicide survivors expressed the pain of being misunderstood and unsupported by parents or family. There is also a stigma so forceful that one parent “self-discharged” her minor child, claiming the embarrassment of the attempt was too much for the family to bear.

The author concludes that lack of coping skills devalues the meaning of life, and drive these hurting individuals to seek “peace” via suicide. The reasons are the same no matter what country one is from, and there is heartache (or psychache) within every culture.

Dr Rowland has set up an organization in Guyana called Ephrathah, built specifically to engage those who are hurting. Counseling and persona development programs are offered to help reach those who are in despair, regardless of ethnicity or community status. I feel this organization will go a long way to help these vulnerable individuals.

I commend Dr Rowland for giving of her time and interest so freely. She is truly a caring soul who is seeking to mitigate suicidal ideation not only in Guyana, but all over the world. Her research can be translated into any culture in any country and needs to serve as a wakeup call to those who may have suicidal friends or relatives. Mental health can be a challenge at any age or stage, and we must all be willing to give that extra attention to someone who is depressed or hurting. That little bit may go a long way in saving a life. Please take the time to read this book and understand more about suicide. You can get your copy here.

Pill by Robert Bennett

Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

“You are what you eat.”

Never is this truer than when we take medications—from beta blockers and aspirin to Viagra and epidurals— especially psychotropic pills that transform our minds as well as our bodies. Meditating on how modern medicine increasingly measures out human identity not in T. S. Eliot’s proverbial coffee spoons but in 1mg-, 5mg-, or 300mg-doses, Pill traces the uncanny presence of psychiatric pills through science, medicine, autobiography, television, cinema, literature, and popular music. Ultimately, it argues that modern psychopharmacology reveals a brave new world in which human identities—thoughts, emotions, personalities, and selves themselves—are increasingly determined by the extraordinary powers of seemingly ordinary pills.

Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

This short read was at once chilling and informative. The statistics alone will make you stop to think: are you one of the 5 US adults who uses a drug for a psychiatric problem? Are you on a “cocktail” of drugs to manage your condition? If you are not, certainly someone around you is on psychotropic medication.

The first 5 chapters are reserved for discussions of drugs such as Lithium, Prozac, and Adderall. The last portion describes the author’s personal experiences of manic times, complete with eye-opening photos of what his journal looked like while in the grip of mania (omg!) and when he returned to a more stable state.

As I read on, I became concerned with the writer’s sentiment. I suffer from depression and was quite stable until about a year ago. My medication stopped working and I have been trying different ones, hoping for one to work so I can be happy again. Reading about how many “cocktails” are in use and their failure rate was not encouraging. At one point I needed to put the book aside until I felt prepared to read the rest. After I told myself that this was just one person’s opinion and that there is still hope for me, I returned to the story with a grain of salt. I can equivocally say that my first medication did not alter my personality at all – I was still “me”, just a happier version.

The book shines in its in-depth illustration of just how debilitating mental illness can be, and how the search for the “right” medication can be a struggle. However, I would strongly suggest to the author to check his writing for the word “quotidian”, as the presence of the word on nearly every page grew wearisome. I am sure he would be able to find an acceptable substitute. Otherwise, PILL was an informative and easy read. I learned some new information and have a new respect for those who struggle with trying to find the right medicine so their life will be worth living.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.

Influenza by Jeremy Brown

On the 100th anniversary of the devastating pandemic of 1918, Jeremy Brown, a veteran ER doctor, explores the troubling, terrifying, and complex history of the flu virus, from the origins of the Great Flu that killed millions, to vexing questions such as: are we prepared for the next epidemic, should you get a flu shot, and how close are we to finding a cure?

While influenza is now often thought of as a common and mild disease, it still kills over 30,000 people in the US each year. Dr. Jeremy Brown, currently Director of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health, expounds on the flu’s deadly past to solve the mysteries that could protect us from the next outbreak. In Influenza, he talks with leading epidemiologists, policy makers, and the researcher who first sequenced the genetic building blocks of the original 1918 virus to offer both a comprehensive history and a roadmap for understanding what’s to come.
Dr. Brown digs into the discovery and resurrection of the flu virus in the frozen victims of the 1918 epidemic, as well as the bizarre remedies that once treated the disease, such as whiskey and blood-letting. Influenza also breaks down the current dialogue surrounding the disease, explaining the controversy over vaccinations, antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, and the federal government’s role in preparing for pandemic outbreaks. Though 100 years of advancement in medical research and technology have passed since the 1918 disaster, Dr. Brown warns that many of the most vital questions about the flu virus continue to confound even the leading experts.
Influenza is an enlightening and unnerving look at a shapeshifting deadly virus that has been around long before people—and warns us that it may be many more years before we are able to conquer it for good.

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

Yes, this is another book on the influenza pandemic of 1918 – my goal is to read them all. Seriously, it is always good to compare one with the other and possibly learn new information. One new angle with this book is that the author discusses the Tamiflu controversy in detail (I wasn’t aware of the issues behind this drug, and the backstory makes the juxtaposition with the pandemic particularly chilling). Another angle is that this book is not restricted to the 1918 outbreak; there is a discussion of the virus in general, what type of research has been done, and puts forth the probability of when/how another outbreak could be possible.

One of my favorite portions of the book was the story behind the exhumed victims and how the virus was recovered from their bodies. The author’s respect for their sacrifice shines clearly through in this section, which is detailed but not gory. The gore factor is minimal, compared to other books on influenza or diseases in particular.

The fact that the author is a medical doctor means that he’s done his research and can strike the balance between med-speak and conveying his ideas to the general public. The book is very easy to read and eminently understandable. I read this over the course of a few days and it kept me interested throughout. It is always refreshing when an author can take a subject and provide a fresh, relevant look at it.

You can pick up your own copy here.

The Atlas of Disease by Sandra Hempel

 

Behind every disease is a story, a complex narrative woven of multiple threads, from the natural history of the disease, to the tale of its discovery and its place in history.
But what is vital in all of this is how the disease spreads and develops. In The Atlas of Disease, Sandra Hempel reveals how maps have uncovered insightful information about the history of disease, from the seventeenth century plague maps that revealed the radical idea that diseases might be carried and spread by humans, to cholera maps in the 1800s showing the disease was carried by water, right up to the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Crucially, The Atlas of Disease will also explore how cartographic techniques have been used to combat epidemics by revealing previously hidden patterns. These discoveries have changed the course of history, affected human evolution, stimulated advances in medicine and shaped the course of countless lives.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting my wish to access this ARC! For anyone who is interested in the history of disease, this book is a dream come true. The author delves into each disease with a thoughtful manner and straightforward way, using maps of the world to show the spread of each illness. These maps add a new dimension of understanding to the text, and underscore how devastating the spread of disease can be. The trail of germs is traced across the continents for each disease, adding a quiet horror to the author’s words.  This alone makes the book worth buying – no other book I’ve read with this subject has illustrations quite like this. Interspersed in the chapters are other bits of artwork, either paintings of people suffering or government posters warning townfolk of the ravages of the flu, yellow fever, measles, and the like. THE ATLAS OF DISEASE stands out head and shoulders among other novels in this genre.

There are 4 sections to the book: airborne, waterborne, insects and animals, and human to human. Each chapter in the section then outlines a disease, from AIDS to Zika. The opening page has the disease name, the causal agent, transmission, symptoms, incidence and deaths, prevalence, prevention, treatment, and global strategy. For example, diptheria’s incidence and deaths statement lets us know that the germ causes around 5,000 cases per year worldwide, with 5-10% cases being fatal. The global strategy notes that there are childhood vaccination programs, but the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as a “forgotten” disease. On the opposite page there is a painting by Francisco de Goya showing a man holding a child on his lap, supporting his head with his left hand while he probes the child’s mouth with his right. The work is entitled El Lazarillo de Tormes or El Garrotillo (“Diptheria”). When you turn the page you see illustrations of how the illness attacks the lining of the throat, causing the victim to strangle and suffocate.

I can honestly say I have learned more from this book than from many others I’ve read. The writer’s style is straightforward, sharing facts without drama, and extremely easy to comprehend. You won’t need a medical background to appreciate ATLAS. The author’s fascination with these illnesses is clearly portrayed on every page, as well as her depth of research. I cannot say enough superlatives about this book – it is far and away the best work I’ve read this year.  If you are a devotee of disease, you will treasure this work forever.  And for those of you who are not – please still read this. You will learn, you will be shocked, and you will appreciate the fragility of life.

Pick up your copy here.

The Girls of 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

The chocolate went first, then the cheese, the fries, the ice cream. The bread was more difficult, but if she could just lose a little more weight, perhaps she would make the soloists’ list. Perhaps if she were lighter, danced better, tried harder, she would be good enough. Perhaps if she just ran for one more mile, lost just one more pound.
Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.
Yara Zgheib’s poetic and poignant debut novel is a haunting, intimate journey of a young woman’s struggle to reclaim her life. Every bite causes anxiety. Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

THE GIRLS OF 17 SWANN STREET is a poignant and haunting story of a girl who is battling anorexia only because those around her want her to “get better”. Her demons and self-loathing have caused her to deny herself foods that she used to love. Her marriage is slipping away, full of unspoken words as Anna becomes thinner and thinner. Finally, her husband brings her to 17 Swann Street, where she will undergo treatment.

The author’s way of demonstrating the character’s struggle is intense – the reader is thrown into Anna’s mind through internal rumination and flashbacks, which serve to illuminate the deepest thoughts of an anorexic. Anna is not sure if she wants to live or die, even as those around her suffer with the same affliction and vanish. Throughout the course of the story Anna’s fate remains uncertain, as she takes one step forward and two steps back. Her struggle to consume enough calories under the watchful eyes of the clinic staff (who go un-named in an effort to dehumanize them, an excellent tactic by the author) is laid bare as she is shamed publicly for hiding a small bit of cream cheese in her napkin and then throwing it out.

As I read I wondered when Anna was just going to give up – her character is severely depressed and tragic. She does everything in her power to drive her husband away, despite his constant visits. She battles the staff over each mouthful of food she is forced to eat. In fact, she is such a morose person that at times I wished she would make a choice, rather than simply give up. However, it sounds like the author either did excellent research or she has personal experience with the disorder, because Anna’s behavior is exactly what you would expect from someone with depression and concurrent anorexia.

The book is an easy read – I got through it in one day because I was driven to know what would happen to Anna. As I mentioned before, at times I wasn’t sure if I was on her side or not. It was heartbreaking to see her shunning her husband, who clearly adored her. It was frustrating to see her work really hard, then seemingly change her mind and give in to her old habits. Self-care is not easy when you hate yourself, and Anna’s character is proof that the mind can be an evil, overpowering entity that robs one of the ability to control their life. I felt the cold fingers of depression reaching for me once I finished the book – it’s so real that it gets into your own head and makes you wonder if you are ok, if you will be ok.

Want your own copy of this haunting book? You can pick it up here.

Under The Knife by Arnold Van de Laar

In Under the Knife, surgeon Arnold Van de Laar uses his own experience and expertise to tell the witty history of the past, present, and future of surgery.
From the story of the desperate man from seventeenth-century Amsterdam who grimly cut a stone out of his own bladder to Bob Marley’s deadly toe, Under the Knife offers all kinds of fascinating and unforgettable insights into medicine and history via the operating theatre.
What happens during an operation? How does the human body respond to being attacked by a knife, a bacterium, a cancer cell or a bullet? And, as medical advances continuously push the boundaries of what medicine can cure, what are the limits of surgery?
From the dark centuries of bloodletting and of amputations without anaesthetic to today’s sterile, high-tech operating theatres, Under the Knife is both a rich cultural history and a modern anatomy class for us all.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

I have read many medical history books before but none of them were as gruesomely interesting as this one. The juxtaposition of the gory surgeries and the dry writing makes for an excellent read. So many different surgeries are discussed in this book, it seems, that there should be something for everyone. If you are a fan of spurting blood, swollen intestines, gangrene, and reading about a man performing surgery on himself without anesthesia, then this book is definitely for you. If you are the squeamish type, stop reading immediately and find something else.

Each one of the 28 chapters discusses a different type of surgery, complete with history and famous examples. Some of the people van de Laar writes about are JFK, Bob Marley, Lenin, and Napoleon. I can honestly say that I learned multiple new facts in each chapter. This, plus the straight-up medical language (that may be incomprehensible to most people) made this book a winner for me. I have a medical background so this was an easy read, but I can see most people trying to figure out some of the jargon and getting discouraged. The author does provide many explanations and word sources (such as Latin or Italian) as well as a glossary at the end, but there is also a good deal of medical verbiage. The chapter also brings us into the present time, and how this surgery is performed using clean instruments and updated techniques.

As I mentioned before, the gore factor is extremely high. I don’t recall ever experiencing this level of detail, even in books containing Hannibal Lecter. A simple sentence telling us that the Sun King only bathed once or twice in his lifetime, and generously opened a window so a visitor could have fresh air speaks volumes. Can’t you just smell the stench from here?!?

There are also chapters on eunuchs, ancient Rome, and bloodletting. The detail in which van de Laar describes each procedure is magnificent. Facts just keep unrolling on the page, with minimal asides for the human detail found in so many other books written by doctors (such as Sandeep Jauhar or Atul Gawande). The book is nearly devoid of emotion; there are only procedures and facts.

I absolutely loved this book. I also may never be able to get some of the gory images out of my mind – but that’s ok.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up

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