I just finished Kirsten Menger-Anderson's debut collection of short stories Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain. Loved it. Unique, absorbing, and animated, this is the kind of book that makes me wonder why it's so difficult for writers to get short story collections published. But then I think about it again and realize that the difficulty is probably because most collections just aren't as good and cohesive as this one.
It's got a great premise. The short stories begin in the 17th century when the titular character, Dr. Olaf is forced to flee from the Old World to then New Amsterdam when his propensity for slipping into catatonic spells culminates in him performing a fatal bloodletting -- and then deciding it best to go on ahead and dissect the brain of the corpse. So he brings his insane mother with him to the New World, and she is tantamount to his determination to continue to dissect brains, as he's certain he can cure her if he keeps researching. But, you know, Dr. Olaf is a bit off his rocker, too, what with the blackouts and lunatic ravings. Menger-Anderson then follows his offspring through generations as they become physicians and wrestle with the vogue maladies and chic cures of the day.
The writing in this collection is remarkable itself. Subtle and smart, Kirsten is able to alter her style to match the mood of the story and of the day to more fully immerse the reader in the already vivid historical detail. But it is still character that rules the day, and wisely so. As we move through time, although these are descendants of Dr. Olaf, each with their own story, there are recurring threads which give this collection an almost novel-like approach. There are plenty of mad men and willful women, particularly in times when that wasn't a desirable trait in one's daughter or would-be lover. In the pivotal "Hysteria," set in the early 1800's, an unhappily married doctor must demand his daughter quit her beloved job at the prison so that she may receive proper suitors, all while he resents his own wife from steering and manipulating him away from his own true love. The pendulum swings back as the daughter grows up, and, after being married and having a child of her own, her husband departs across the country to scout their relocation. The daughter, however, again takes up work at an institute where phrenology is the brilliant fad, and she eventually forces her father to allow her to begin the practice in their home.
There are hypnotists and shock therapy in here, and we move from suffragettes to silicone implants, until we finally meet another father-daughter pair, this time, both of them physicians, but again, both of them struggling to balance on the fine and important line between work and family, science and social desires, and what is most important to keep propelling forward, not just for this family, but also for humanity. And, again, it is the brain of one that drives the other in their decisions.