Tuesday, June 28, 2011

REVIEW: DRACULA by Bram Stoker

Novelist Bram Stoker

It was absolutely fascinating to look back and see where this whole Vampire obsession started.  And as with any original, I wanted to see how modern interpretations reflected their predecessors.  I was surprised at how very close and certainly recognizable many of the main characters were: Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, Renfield and Lucy Westerna.  It was also a revelation to see just how little of the action takes place in Transylvania.  Although it certainly sets the mood with the vivid descriptions  mountain passes, castles, and frightened peasants at the outset of the novel, the bulk of it transpires in England.

Rather unexpected too was the characterization of Count Dracula himself.  Though it seems easy to snicker at anyone introducing themselves as such, I had to remember that the name "Dracula" had absolutely no connotation to the readers of 1897.  It was just a foreign-sounding name.  Yes, he is hospitable to his solicitor, but he is hardly the charmer some films portray.  The women in the book are only susceptible to him when hypnotized and sleep-walking (Interestingly, Dr. Seward and Van Helsing have an exchange about hypnotism and Dr. Charcot -- the main focus of MEDICAL MUSES, which I reviewed recently).  Most striking, to me at least, was that this Count was not clean-shaven.  He wears a distinctive moustache  -- something not seen in Nosferatu (1922) or Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931).  

Murnau's Count Orlok in Nosferatu

Furthermore, I was a bit stunned at how "trashy" some of the scenes were.  I'm used to the understated nature of Victorian literature, even when it is Gothic in style.  Stoker hides nothing in his graphic descriptions of decapitations, stabbings, and exsanguinations.  The author finds a very modern voice for his numerous characters -- the story is related through diary entries, telegrams, newspaper clippings, etc.  While each is distinct (Stoker even recreated dialects and accents), they all seem to be ahead of their time.  All are intelligent and none are useless.  In fact, Mina Harker  is very clearly one of the strongest characters throughout.  There are no whining teenagers here.
Yet the blatant violence, danger and social implications are raw.  It truly must have been shocking and yet alluring at its publication.  A great read during a summer thunderstorm...

My book photo uses a backdrop from Edward Gorey's Dracula play set (yes, I am a nerd).  Enjoy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

BOOK PHOTOS: Medical Muses and Sisters Brothers

So, I thought I might try something a little different.  I'm going to start photographing the books I review with props or in settings that are relevant.  I think it might be a little fun, plus challenge my creativity.  I'm going to try to catch-up just a bit with some past reviews and book covers.

Read my review of MEDICAL MUSES here

Read my review of THE SISTERS BROTHERS here.

Please let me know what you think!  More to come... 

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Any lover of wine, cigars, and old world charm -- as well as a good yarn -- should read this mystery.  It poses no genre-defying questions,  and it really doesn't really hold any gasp-enducing surprises.  But that's ok, because it is the perfect hammock read for the summer.  Antione Verlaque is a slightly cranky, somewhat older, but not yet entirely jaded, magistrate of Aix-en-Provence.  When the heir of the local aristocracy turns up dead, he reluctantly begins an investigation.  What at first seemed like an accident turns out to have more mysterious circumstances.

A chateau in Provence
Longworth's greatest strength lies in her ability to paint a picture of the setting.  The south of France is a locale most can only dream of visiting, let alone living in, and her descriptions are intoxicating.  The rhythm of daily life with cafes, tobacco shops, gardens, groves and jaunts to the sea are fabled, to be sure, and she makes them real for a modern reader. 

The cour Mirabeau, a main location in the novel

Longworth is also able to create realistic dialogue among her characters.  Verlaque has a complicated relationship with an ex-girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, but he must include her in the investigation.  Their awkwardness is palpable.  Bonnet's best friend, Sylvie, is blunt, funny and outspoken (At times I wondered if she were named after Audrey Hepburn's best friend in Charade).  These very distinct characters make for a fun jaunt of a murder mystery.

At some points, the mystery itself is a bit weak.  There are no holes, which is always a danger.  Still, the unraveling of the clues themselves is less exciting than her characters' dinner parties.  The climax itself is one that can be seen coming a mile away and leaves the reader yelling at the characters, like a horror movie -- "Don't go in the basement! ... Well, at least turn on the lights if you're gonna do that!" But sometimes the fun is knowing a bit more than they do -- "Well, if I were there..."  And who wouldn't want to be in Provence?
Many thanks to Gabrielle at Penguin for the review copy. 
Paperback, ISBN 9780143119524 | 320 pages | 28 Jun 2011 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP 
Author M. L. Longworth's site.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Hysteria in the Nineteenth Century Paris

An absolutely stunning and amazing book.  There were many overnight hours spent with a little light, awake and reading.  Hustvedt demonstrates such thorough knowledge and ease about her topic that her academic precision never overpowers the compelling story of Charcot, Salpetriere and the "star" hysterics. 

Hustvedt uses three main women who were in the care of Dr. Charcot to illustrate numerous social conditions.  Through their stories, we are able to understand the medical theories of the time, the societal obsession and repulsion with gruesome science, the possible (acceptable) roles for females, religious fervor, class discrimination, medical morality, artistic representation and the role of the supernatural. 

The idea of an insane asylum is always harrowing, particularly in the days before rational medication and sympathetic nursing.  They are often the setting for horror and mystery movies and novel, for there is nothing my psychologically upsetting than to a) lose one's mind or b) to not be believed to be sane.  In Bedlam (1946, Val Lewton), a caring young woman (Anna Lee) unwittingly discovers the horrors within St. Mary Bethlehem Hospital and the distinctly serpentine creature that oversees it (Boris Karloff).  Her determination to expose him lands her in Bedlam where she must struggle to maintain her own sanity among the truly disturbed. 

Boris Karloff and Anna Lee in Bedlam
What is so illuminating in this book is how very unlike Bedlam that Hopital Salpetriere was.  Charcot's wards were not considered insane and therefore did not live in the asylum ward.  They enjoyed a certain status among the doctors, staff and other patients and were subject to lengthy spells of normal behavior.  Some even came and went from the hospital for months at a time to work and live in Paris.  Ostracized from "normal" society, they enjoyed an unusual sense of luxury within the walls of the hospital.

Jane Avril, a famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge, was an occasional patient of Charcot.
But, in exchange for this relatively independent lifestyle, they were test subjects for Charcot's research -- something it seems they were all too willing to be.  His subjects became something of celebrities.  Charcot's frequent lectures were open to the public as well as to other researchers and doctors.  At any one of these spectacles, a visitor might witness hypnotism, suggestion, involuntary contractions,  and other outbursts that only hysterics could produce.  Many hysterics also suffered from anesthesia in a certain hemisphere of the body.  Like a Coney Island freak show, doctors would poke large needles completely through the arm of a patient who had no feeling to prove the biological symptoms of hysteria. 

Asti Hustvedt divides her treatise into short chapters, more like sections, that deal with a particular topic.  It makes a seemingly spindly subject very accessible and organized.  Medical terminology is used, but always explained.  French phrases are sometimes thrown in, but they too are elaborated upon if they are not entirely obvious.  Though much was questioned about Charcot and his muses' veracity, Hustvedt primarily focuses on what we do know.  She draws from dozens of sources such as doctor's reports, newspapers, medical files, municipal records, interviews and fascinating photographs (an art form in its infancy) and sketches.  

While probably not for the very faint of heart, the book is not gruesome or gory.  There are descriptions of medical procedures and the case histories of the patients tends to be somewhat upsetting (no wonder then that they became hysterics).  Though it is not able to medically define hysteria for a modern system, it poses viable and probable causes for its influence during the time -- and what it has become today.  It is rather incredible to gauge just how far we have come, and yet how very little we still understand. 
Hardcover, May 2011
ISBN 978-0-393-02560-6
5.8 × 8.6 in / 372 pages       

Many thanks to the lovely folks at W.W. Norton for the review copy

Read an interview and an excerpt on NPR.org.

Monday, June 13, 2011


My introduction to this mystical place was in the film Everything Is Illuminated (based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer).  While Foer's story is a novel, it does base its setting of "Trochimbrad" on the real life Trochenbrod.  But why this place?  Of all the lives ended, towns burned, hopes crushed, and families decimated by World War II, why has this one become a focus for so many?

A still image from "Everything is Illuminated"

Bendavid-Val's grandfather was a Trochenbroder, as was his father.  Stories of the fabled town floated around his family history but he was unaware of the significance until after his father's death.  The author spent twelve years researching and collecting stories.  He writes:

"I was lucky to fall under Trochenbrod's spell at a time when a few dozen people who knew Trochenbrod first-hand were still alive.  I talked with people born there from 1912 through 1932, and who left as late as 1942.  I was able to hear a different perspective, how Trochenbrod and Trochenbroders appeared to Ukrainians and Poles living other places in the area, from people who still live there and remember well their childhood visits to Trochenbrod.  Personal recollections, as unreliable as any one of them might be, collectively made it possible to fill in the outlines with the feel of Trochenbrod, with a sense of what it was like to live there.  My father left Trochenbrod in 1932; I was capturing things he would have told me."

Trochenbroders on the main street
But this book is not simply a quest for personal genealogy.  In fact it focuses very little on his own hereditary connection to the place.  It is much more about uncovering and reanimating a vivid, lively town that has completely disappeared.  Indeed, that seems to be the main crux.  While horrors of WWI, a Bolshevik revolution, and a deep depression consumed the Western world, Trochenbrod remained relatively untouched.  This is not to say it was immune from hardship, but compared to the difficulties endured by Jews in ghettos in urban settings, life in Trochenbrod was heavenly.  Set deep in the Ukrainian forest, miles from the nearest road (really a track) and rail station, it was a world apart.  Jewish traditions flourished here, and so did its residents.  By the 1930s, the list of businesses included: Bakeries, barber shops, butchers, candy store, fabric shops, grain mills, furniture makers, horse traders, ice, inn, lumber mills, oil presses, pharmacies, produce, restaurant, and tailors -- to name just a few from the list in the book.  

What used to be the main street of Trochenbrod today

Today, nothing is left of Trochenbrod.  Its residents suffered horrific persecution and murder from the inhuman Nazi regime.  Of the approximately 6000 people who lived in the area, about 60 managed to escape by living in the Radziwell forest or by slipping through to other countries.  What is amazing is that those who survived, have only love and happiness to express when they remember Trochenbrod.  Bendavid-Val's extensive interviews with survivors and other descendants recall many things about those times, but their descriptions of life in Trochenbrod are full of warmth.  Life was plentiful.  Which is why it was all the more painful when it was torn from them and burnt to the ground. 

This book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in history or family stories.  While there are very upsetting passages, most of the book uplifting.  It manages to to be neither too didactic nor too depressing.   The author's collection of first-person narratives is so important and brings this lost town to life.  As Foer notes in the preface that this book is "the definitive history of this definitive place.  If this book feels more fantastical than my novel, or any novel you have ever read, it is because of Trochenbrod's ingenuity, the Holocaust's ferocity, and Bendavid-Val's heroic research and pitch-perfect storytelling." Read this book to understand the strength of human tenacity and the power of memories.

Learn more at Bet-Tal's website and the author's site.
Hardcover: 256 pages  Publisher: Pegasus (October 15, 2010) Language: English ISBN-10: 9781605981130 ISBN-13: 978-1605981130 ASIN: 1605981133 Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.8 x 1 inches 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


For more than a decade now Erik Larson has been digging up episodes lost to history and bringing them to the forefront.  In Issac's Storm, he revealed a fledgling National Weather Service and recounted a hurricane of horrifying magnitude in 1900.  With The Devil In The White City, he pitted the very best and very worst of human nature against each other as the collided in the 1893 World's Fair Chicago.  In Thunderstruck, Larson followed the development of Trans-Atlantic communication, Marconi and a killer who was caught using the new invention.  
In all of these, Larson seeks to present a time that was a turning-point in history.  His newest, In The Garden Of Beasts, elucidates some of the everyday life in Berlin at the beginning of Hitler's regime.  Larson's main thesis seems to be that if hindsight is 20/20, then the circumstances surround Third Reich Germany were not only short-sighted, but blurred as well.  

The Dodd Family disembarks in Hamburg, 1933

The book focuses on the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd.  He accepted the post from President Roosevelt in 1933 and moved to Berlin, bringing his family along -- Wife Martha (Mattie), son Bill, and daughter Martha.  A professor at the University of Chicago, he was hardly the obvious choice (though he had studied in Leipzig years before and spoke German fluently).  He was not a politician, or wealthy.  He was rather looking forward to a quiet retirement on his Virginia farm to reenact his Jeffersonian philosophy and finish writing his monumental history of The Old South. Yet it seems his desire to leave a greater mark overcame his initial leanings and he settled into working at Bendlerstrasse 39, near the famed Tiergarten.  

The US Embassy at the time of Dodd's service
Dodd struggled from all angles.  He was put in the impossible situation of collecting exorbitant reparations from Germany, owed from the Treaty of Versailles; he eschewed the typically ornate and grand lifestyle of a European ambassador; he was constantly deflecting negative comments from his own State Department; and he was trying to decipher just what was going on in the new German government.  How could anyone, let alone a professor untrained in diplomacy, be expected to predict what was to come?

Ambassador Dodd at his desk, a far cry from the simplicity he craved
There were inklings of political unrest, often explored by Larson through the eyes of daughter Martha who seemed to have little discrimination in choosing her lovers or even her casual dates.  Her beaus included Rudolph Diels, head of the Gestapo in '33 and '34; Ernst Udets, a high-placed Luftwaffe officer; Louis Ferdinand, the Prince of Prussia; Ernst Hanfstaengl, an aide to Adolf Hitler; and Boris Vinogradov, a Soviet intelligence (KGB) official.  Based on her owns accounts, she was both excited by the adventure of it all, and oblivious to the true underpinnings of the Reich.  

A jet-setting Martha Dodd

Indeed, even Americans were doubtful of the reports that made their way across the Atlantic.  Incidents, at first, were sporadic and seemingly random -- and quickly quelled with an official apology from the government.  They were written off as growing pains experienced by every revolutionary movement.  Yet just under this peaceful facade boiled a caustic formula that was to disfigure half of the world.  

Title page of Dodd's diary, complied by his children.  One of Larson's main sources.

Larson again uses primary sources for his research as well as archived diplomatic documents and old maps to recreate the Berlin of the early 1930s.  The voices of his subjects come through very vividly.  What is somewhat lacking is the sense of tension present in his previous books.  I think this comes mainly from the fact that we, as modern readers, are completely ignorant on his topics.  In this case, although I knew nothing about the Dodds and their milieu, I was certainly very familiar with the time and knew what was to come.  Somehow, being aware of this made their story less shocking or revealing.  Of all of those involved, Martha is the most fascinating.  Her naivete is stunning and I wish the book focused on her even more, though I imagine there was less extant resources regarding her.  

Still, Larson has once again resurrected a story that proves truth is stranger than fiction. 
On Sale: May 10, 2011
Pages: 464 | ISBN: 978-0-307-40884-6

Thanks to the folks at Crown Publishing for the advance reader's copy.