Butchers, Bad Boys, Brainiacs | What We’re Reading

The “What We’re Reading” team is skeletal during the rush-around holiday season—plus there’s no “watching” folks this time. But fear not, 2018 is full of possible “watchings” and readings. Stay tuned and here’s hoping your New Year will be filled with books, movies, and TV specials.

Mahnaz Dar, Reference and Professional Reading Editor, LJS
My reading habits are still keeping me in the realm of Victoria. I finished reading my gigantic Queen Victoria biography and have moved on to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest To Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. Grisly indeed. Though today there are few professions more prestigious than that of surgeon, back in the day, surgery was, quite literally, a hack job. Fitzharris’s descriptions of surgeons in the age before general anesthetic tying conscious patients down and hurriedly sawing through limbs in under a minute are grotesquely enthralling. I love any work of history that goes beyond dates and wars to illuminate everyday life—this look at 19th-century medicine, and the man who would eventually transform the field, gives me a newfound appreciation for the horrors that were an accepted part of life back then.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
In a pre-holiday scramble, I’m sending out piles of books to reviewers before I scram. One such title is actor Nick Nolte’s memoir, Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines (Morrow), which I was paging through before sending it out. Near the end of the book, a name caught my eye—Edward Norton, an actor whose performances I admire, but boy does that guy have a reputation. Here’s bad boy Nick talking about almost working with bad boy Edward:

I had met Ed at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles when both of us were nominated for best actor about eight years earlier—him for American History X, in which he portrays a reformed neo-Nazi, and me for my role in Affliction. This time around he would be playing my son in the new police drama, but was put off at the read-through by the way he kept telling several of us how we should play our characters. After I’d read one of the police captain’s speeches, Ed announced, “Oh we can’t say anything like that. No father talks to his son like that.”
“I beg your pardon,” I replied.
“I said, no father talks like that to his son,” he announced once more, his voice rising.
“Well, you are fucking wrong,” I said. “I guess you don’t have a father then, because my father sure as hell talked to me like that!”
Well, it’s just not playable for me,” he responded dismissively.
I said, “You are not playable for me, either.”

After that little exchange, Nolte decides to leave the movie, telling the director Gavin O’Connor “There is no way I am going to get through this film with Ed Norton. I’ll slit his throat before we even get started.” He recommends his friend Jon Voight for the police-dad part. And then he has a little fun at “Ed’s” expense:

When Pride and Glory premiered in 2008—with Jon Voight playing Captain Francis Tierney and Ed Norton playing his son—the film struggled both critically and financially, but I didn’t take any pleasure in that. Tropic Thunder, on the other hand—the movie that Ben Stiller had worried was too out-there to get made—became a huge hit when it was released in the summer of 2008. 

“I didn’t take any pleasure in that.” Suuuuuuure! Once more with feeling, Nick.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ
I’ll probably be closing 2017 out with The Best American Short Stories 2017 (Mariner). Mahnaz and I simultaneously reached for it in the discard pile, and she graciously gave me first dibs—so my plan is to hand it to her first thing in 2018. So far, a mixed bag; I’ll report further next year. My most recent read was Oliver Sacks’s posthumously published essay collection The River of Consciousness (Knopf), which was interesting, eclectic, and, as his writing usually is, multifaceted, pulling in tangents that turn out to be central to his point. Sacks’s magpie mind is well-represented here, a series of essays that discuss more than their subject matter without ever getting too arcane. Fascinating to read about Freud’s evolution from neurology to psychotherapy, or the nature of visual consciousness, or to consider what Sacks calls “Scotoma”—dark spots in the field of vision—in scientific knowledge. (It doesn’t hurt that he mentions David Kohn, my former supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project and one of my very favorite people, on the first page.) And underneath all of those explorations, a deep joy in the possibilities of creation, evolution, and art. Sacks writes:

There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have.

It’s a nice elegy.

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench

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