Book Review: The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris.

Study breaks in beautiful multistory bookshops are dangerous. After a long study session in Senate House, I wandered into Gower St’s Waterstones and my day was made; a beautiful bookshop with artwork, study spaces and a WHOLE WALL OF MEDICAL HISTORY BOOKS. After an hour I left with a beautiful wee book, one that I had had my eye on for a long time, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities.

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First off, the cover is stunning. A beautiful shade of blue with lovely floating illustrations of the various cases featured in the book and little shards of a tooth. I live in a grungy student maisonette with no communal area but I wish I had a little coffee table to place this book on. It would bring to delight to all that peruse it.

My copy has a little advertisement on the front saying ‘Horrible Histories for Adults’ and I can see the comparison. The book features weird and unusual medical cases of the gross, mischievous and saucy. I will never look an egg cup in the same way again. Morris proves that history can be funny and that people never change. What’s lovely too, is the way Morris contains tales of misadventure without ever making fun of those featured, which could be easily done and would cheapen the humour. The book kind of seems like a celebration and acknowledgement of our enduring habit of being A* muppets. I don’t necessarily believe this book is purely for adults though; the book would be a great introduction to the history of medicine and also print history for a mature history-minded child.

The book isn’t just a collection of tales of ailment by misadventure. Some of the cases are touching, mildly terrifying or a poignant reflection on the mental and physical conditions that have plagued us for centuries. You will also thank your lucky stars that you’re are alive now! The medical treatments of the past are not for the faint of heart.

Another thing I like about this book is its breadth. The cases are from multiple countries giving a broader overview of the history of medicine than if it was just anglocentric. But my absolute favourite thing about this book is the fact it contains sections of the print journals and articles from which the cases are taken. As somebody who is interested in the medical humanities and studying book history, I loved seeing little snapshots of the print media. It was lovely to have print, archival work and archives feature within the book.

This book is an enjoyable, easy read. I devoured it all in one go, but the book is also dip-in-able. A perfect coffee table book to surreptitiously make your guests fall in love with the history of medicine and ‘make you grateful for modern medicine.’

Follow Thomas Morris on Twitter at @thomasgmorris . Check out his blog at www.thomas-morris.uk.

Book Review: The Ravenmaster

The nights are drawing in in London. When I moved here in September, the days were still summer-like, sunny and lingering. But now it is dark when I get up to commute into town and it is dark when I come home. It is blustery, the leaves are dropping off the trees and London’s historic nature seems to tint the banality of the rat race with a hue of mystery. This is the season The Ravenmaster was written for. It is the perfect book to come home to. Shake off your brolly, put on a warm knit, make a brew, light a candle and let Skaife’s storytelling envelop you into the world of the Tower of London.

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife offers a window into the inner workings of one of England’s best loved historic attractions, the Tower of London. He tells us about the high standards, the routine, the diligence and care that goes into ensuring every guest has a magical experience.

But most of all, Christopher Skaife tells us about the ravens…

Out of all the birds, the raven that has captured our imagination like no other. They are present in our myths and legends and in some of our scariest stories. Intelligent. Regal. Fickle. Beautiful. More than a little deadly. Christopher Skaife, current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, introduces us to the Tower’s ravens, past and present. Make no mistake, they are BIG personalities. As you read about each raven and their idiosyncrasies, prepare yourself for the inevitable desire to want to meet the ravens, to be accepted by them, to form a bond with them…Whilst also recognising why that A) Is highly unlikely and B) might be the worst idea you have ever had. Just because you may love a raven, doesn’t mean that raven may take kindly to you. (Well, that’s unfair, they may take a fancy to one of your fingers.) This book will make you simultaneously crave raven companionship and recognise that they are beautifully dangerous birds that defy ownership, even by the Tower!

As much as I loved reading about the Ravens, I would argue that the real star of the book (although I doubt he would see himself as such!) is Skaife himself. My favourite thing about this book is that Skaife isn’t just a great storyteller and an interesting character in his own right, but he also seems like a down-to-earth, stand up guy. His personality emanates through his narrative and his own life story is fascinating. I think he should be considered a national treasure. His love for the birds shines throughout The Ravenmaster. His tenderness for them is something truly special. He loves them even when they are being mischievous little buggers. In fact, I think he finds their sandwich stealing habit just a tad bit amusing. I use this term inaccurately and romantically, but Skaife is their sentinel; watching out for them, risking life and limb for them, passionately advocating for their welfare and mourning their passing like they are family. Skaife’s storytelling is wonderful too. He is hilarious but also modest. He asserts multiple times that he is ‘no expert’ but he weaves in bird facts and literary references in his narrative with skill. One of his most impressive feats is his ability to describe the science of ravens without detracting from their folkloric and mysterious appeal. In Skaife’s writing, the two inform each other.

Why you should read this book…

When I am squished on the Tube, tired and a bit fed up of modern London’s industrial and faceless grind, I think about the Tower, about the Ravenmaster and the ravens. It brings a smile to my face to think that amongst the corporate sprawl there is still a vestige of myth and magic. The Ravenmaster is an antidote to the weariness of modern life.

Book Review: Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies

It has been a long time since I have fallen for a book as hard as I have fallen for Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies. The blend of art history, medical history and history of religion and empire gives a depth to the work, which I have rarely seen in a book smaller than a hefty and inaccessible tome. The book’s scope ties together the forces within a medieval person’s life which would have impacted the way they understood their body, how their bodies interacted with the world and also the bodies of others, be that friend, foreigner or foe. In this way, the text presents a much more well rounded and three dimensional discussion on medieval bodies than a book purely focused on medicine, or art, or religion.

A book like this could easily become overwhelming and muddled, but the structure of Medieval Bodies maintains a clarity over the whole text. Each section focuses on one aspect of the body or bodily experience. This allows Hartnell to explore the significance of each body part in great depth, without having to sacrifice any content for the sake of a specific or restricting sustained narrative. This layout is also unbelievably valuable for people like me, who often write on medieval understandings of the body (and specifically on how the intersections between medieval understandings of religion and medicine clash with post-reformation doctrine) and a text divided by body part would have been an amazing starting point for so many of my projects and essays. This is a book that I am definitely going to use time and time again within my academic career and in my blog.

Medieval Bodies was bought for me by a friend as I struggled with my last undergraduate exams and I managed to have the willpower not to touch it until I had finished. The book doesn’t just detail historical curatives, my tired eyes found it to be a curative itself. Resurrecting my love for learning and reading after it had been bludgeoned by the exam diet – the book is stunning, exquisite even, and not just the cover. One of my pet hates is when a book sticks all its photographs and illustrations in an index at the back. Medieval Bodies is chock full of beautiful images of relics, medical texts and art, which have all been arranged on the page in a way which compliments the text around it. This means that the reader will never be taken out of the reading experience by having to flick back and forth to locate images. It is always a great moment when a book about art can marry its own artistry with an accessible reader’s experience. Medieval bodies is a work of art in its own right.

The issue that cropped up with this book for me is that the dust jacket has become worn very quickly. This is partly (if not wholly) my fault, though. As I said, I fell for this book hard and fast and I have taken it everywhere with me – to work, to the park, in my weekend bag. I haven’t loved it gently. That being said, I do wish the cover had a plastic or laminate or at least a more sturdy cover. As much as I am fascinated by material book culture and the analogous relationship between books and bodies, it makes me sad that the beautiful cover of my book has become tarnished and scuffed.

To sum up, this book strikes a balance between being a work of art and providing a detailed and nuanced discussion of medieval bodies that is so far unsurpassable by any other book that I have read, both in my studies and spare time. I know that this is a book that I will come back to again and again, whether that be to inform my academic writing or to rejuvenate my love of learning and soothe my reading tired eyes.

Event/Book Review: All That Remains by Sue Black

Is this a book review, an event review or review of the author? I am not sure. There is no way this could be impartial as I have followed Sue Black’s work since I was in high school and I admire her greatly. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sue Black talk about her first non-academic book All That Remains and she did not disappoint.

Let’s begin with the book. All That Remains is beautifully presented. The cover is understated and elegant; a lone skeleton on a cream background and each chapter is demarcated by a relevant image or illustration and quote. The beauty of the book took me by surprise – you should never judge a book by its cover but the look of All That Remains is as fantastic as its content. The book is a poignant blend of science, memoir and unintentional motivational life guide. Having penned textbooks, Black excels in her elegant descriptions of the body’s systems, which highlight the beauty and complexity of our bodies whilst still allowing the layperson to digest it. As a humanities student with no link to medical science, I felt like Black was divulging secret information that I shouldn’t be privy to – quatsch of course, but a fun thought none the less. Isotope analysis fascinated me when I was younger and saw it discussed on archaeological shows and Black’s own History Cold Case, it was amazing to hear of how this process worked and hear mind-blowing facts about how our bodies are maps of where we (and even our parents) have been. It made me laugh to think that, in an age in which we are so paranoid about CCTV and smart trackers, our own bodies will reveal our secrets to anyone with the knowledge to ask the right questions. Black reveals our bodies to us with expertise, humour and a skill for teaching complex ideas.

It’s no surprise that Black explains well as she is, amongst many other things, an educator. What you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, is the wit and poignancy with which she writes; from her descriptions of her first dissection to her ruminations on human frailty, identity and family. I didn’t expect All That Remains to have such poignancy, but one thing that really struck me was Black’s focus on the interconnectivity of not only humanity, but our actual bodies. I think because of our individualistic culture, we acknowledge that our bodies follow roughly the same spec; they share limbs, blood types and so on but focus on the divisiveness that our differences in strength cause. We ignore the commonality of our frailties or the fact that the location of our pregnant mothers can be traced through our skulls. Our bodies are a testament to the places we come from, the places we are, and will map where we will go. From our hair to our bones, we exist within a context and I find that comforting.

Now for the woman herself…

I hate the phrase down to earth. When people say it I always have the mental image of someone’s face being smushed into mud. That being said, Sue Black is amazingly gracious and relatable for someone who has done such good in the world. She held the attention of the room effortlessly, not through any artificial showmanship but by being a genuine and interesting person. Her talk wasn’t rote either – when a man coughed whilst she described her grandmother’s lung cancer, she zeroed in on him like a hawk, laughing at the misfortunate timing of his coughing fit. There were two things that I especially appreciated about Sue Black’s talk and by extension her book; that was her focus on family and her delight in the folktales that she grew up with. In her book and within her talk, she spoke about the importance of family and folktales or the spooky ways our grandmas claim to have a sixth sense. She told us to write our loved one’s stories down, not out of vanity but out of ‘family’; our children and children’s children will want to know from whom they came from. I loved this, as a girl who grew up in a family of Irish descent, I grew up with ghosts and have always found the conflict between faith and science uncomfortable. I asked Black about this in the Q&A, ‘Science and faith/the folk are presented as the antithesis of each other, how do you balance the two?’

‘Balance’ She said, ‘Is exactly the right word.’

Black’s book gave me an insight into the body, to the important work Black has done, to the poignant frailty of life. Black herself gave me a friendly memento mori, a reminder to laugh and love my family and a desire to head to Paperchase to buy a notebook in which to chronicle my family’s mad, mundane but equally wondrous tales.

Book Review: From Here to Eternity

 

 

Book Review: From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty

I was first introduced to Caitlin Doughty by a friend who recommended her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. Due to experiencing both a bereavement and a personal brush with death within an eighteen-month period, I was paralysed by a fear that something bad would happen to me or someone I cared about. I was anxious that it was negatively influencing how I was living (read: not living) my life. I was pretty sure the last thing I needed was to listen to someone talk about death, but I was quickly proved wrong. I was being incapacitated by a fear of the unknown and it was Caitlin Doughty, with her perfect bangs and cheerfulness (and taxidermy), who opened the door on the world of death literacy. Through her videos, Doughty broke down the stigma around talking about death and gave me a space to confront what was troubling me. Remember, Deathlings, you will die.

It is unorthodox to start a book review, a piece which is by nature about the book you are reading, by talking about yourself. However, I think it highlights the profound effect that Doughty has on the lives of those who follow her. In a Western culture which deems any talk of death a taboo, most of us have become ill-prepared for facing the death of loved ones and ourselves. Doughty’s debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, is a moving account of her journey into the funeral business. Her second book, From Here to Eternity, is a global tour of death practices, shedding light on the differences between cultures but also highlighting the universal qualities of mortality and bereavement.

There is always an element of voyeurism to learning about another culture’s rituals, but Doughty is aware of this and approaches each chapter with the sensitivity it deserves. What makes From Here to Eternity stand out from the online listicles and videos on ‘weird death rituals’ is precisely that she does not sensationalise or fetishize these practices. Instead, Doughty takes us on her travels as a guest, grateful and appreciative to be allowed into these private moments. By providing the stories of the people featured within the book, both deceased and living, we are reminded that it is the same deep love and respect for the deceased behind each practice, despite how different they look to each other.

Following suit from her debut, From Here to Eternity does not flinch away from difficult topics, such as the loss of an unborn child. Doughty shares the moving and poignant story of fellow death acceptance activist Sarah Chevez, whose reconnection with her Mexican heritage gave her the space to grieve her loss. From Here to Eternity covers expansive ground, both geographically and thematically, exploring not just the practicalities of different death practices themselves, but the tensions and issues that arise from them. From the contentious relationships between traditional magic and religion to the use of technology to honour the forgotten dead, Doughty provides a comprehensive and nuanced depiction of each culture’s practise. Woven throughout the book is Doughty’s trademark humour. Humour and death may seem like strange bedfellows, but many of these death rituals are times of celebration and gaiety as well as poignancy. What’s more, sharing a chuckle with Doughty felt like a small subversive triumph over death itself; you can’t be afraid of something whilst laughing at it.

From Here to Eternity is also a visually stunning book. Landis Blair’s illustrations capture the beauty of the death traditions. Some are busy scenes of ritual celebration, some are quiet and meditative. I sincerely hope that the frontispiece illustration is available as a print because it is a striking Memento Mori. Not just a traditional ‘remember you will die’ but a ‘remember you can return to the earth. There are options out there aside from those encouraged by the mercenary funeral industry.’ A sentiment which very much encapsulates the message of From Here to Eternity.

Book Review: The Butchering Art

 

 

 

The Butchering Art, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’ debut, follows the life of Joseph Lister, the ‘father of modern surgery’ and pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The book isn’t purely a biography though. Fitzharris’ style flits expertly between time and space, seamlessly bestowing little morsels of medical history knowledge without any cost to the narrative. In a relatively short book, Fitzharris explores medical advancements from America, Continental Europe, and of course, Edinburgh and London- making this book a must-read for anyone interested in the pioneers of modern surgery.

The Butchering Art dishes the dirt on the unsanitary hospitals of the past, detailing the devastating effects of the ‘big four’-erysipelas, gangrene, septicaemia and pyaemia- on the wards. Nowadays, the wealthy choose to be treated in private hospitals but during Lister’s time, those who could afford it were treated at home on their dining room tables. It seems a foreign concept to a modern reader but with postoperative infection ravaging the wards it was the safer option. Fitzharris doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details either. She perfectly captures the brutal nature of pre-anaesthetic surgery, recounting an incident were celebrated surgeon Robert Liston broke down a door and dragged a terrified patient back to the operating table to which he was subsequently bound. Liston is painted as brilliant, all fierceness and fire.

By introducing the reader to Robert Liston before Lister, Fitzharris creates an artful juxtaposition between Liston’s showmanship and Herculean strength and Lister’s contemplative quietness. Born a Quaker, Lister was mild, well-mannered and polite in the face of his rival’s criticism. I had no idea that a book which details the development of antiseptic surgery would be such an emotionally gripping read. Fitzharris describes Lister with such tenderness that I became quickly invested in his journey. I have read other reviews of The Butchering Art which lament Lister’s ‘amiable’ nature, asserting that perhaps a more hot-tempered nature would have made for a better story. I disagree. Lister’s cool methodical nature was precisely what surgery needed after the introduction of anaesthesia when speed was no longer such a pressing issue. Lister’s breakthroughs weren’t made in Robert Liston’s brutal and bloody operating theatre, but under the microscope – a tool which his own father had advanced.

One thing I really appreciate about The Butchering Art is its focus on the surgeons and physicians themselves. Fitzharris provides humanizing and touching details about the lengths the surgeons took to be as compassionate as possible to their patients, whom they knew weren’t likely to survive. The book also highlights how dangerous it was to be a surgeon which is something I had never previously considered. An accidental nick with a scalpel and a surgeon could die of one of the very infections he was fighting so hard to eradicate.

Overall, The Butchering Art is an amazing debut; Fitzharris doesn’t just describe the world of Victorian medicine, she transports you there. The Butchering Art is a testament to the stoicism of the pioneers who fought an uphill battle against injury and disease. The history of medicine has so many facets, and I can only hope that Fitzharris writes a book for each and every one of them!