Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital
by David Oshinsky
Bellevue has always been more than its psych ward, said Suzanne Koven in The Boston Globe. Though David Oshinsky’s “deliciously readable” history of the nation’s first public hospital never skimps on lurid tales about the most notorious patients taken in by the New York institution, the author also can’t hide his affection for the place. Bellevue Hospital, whose roots date to the 1660s, has always existed to serve the city’s neediest, and that commitment has made it a first responder to every epidemic and a pioneer in practices both brilliant and foolish. Bellevue created the nation’s first ambulance corps and its first maternity ward. It battled yellow fever in the 18th century and Ebola in the 21st. “The story of Bellevue, Oshinsky convincingly demonstrates, is the story of modern medicine, of New York City, and of America itself.”
The chapters on the field’s pioneer days prove “distractingly interesting—so much so that they’ll inspire you to read them aloud to anyone who’ll listen,” said Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. Doctors robbed graves to study anatomy. They tried curing illnesses by injecting patients’ bloodstreams with warm tobacco juice. Surgery before anesthesia required stuffing the patient’s ears with cotton to muffle the sound of tearing flesh. But Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2005 book on polio, has so much story to share that his Bellevue “feels too tightly compressed, like an accordion snug in its case.” He’s “moving and humane” when describing the hospital’s heroic response to the AIDS epidemic, and funny elsewhere, but he can’t even spare a full chapter for Bellevue’s famed criminal psychiatric ward.
He also does “a less-than-adequate job” of contextualizing the story he tells, said Andrew Solomon in The Washington Post. He persuades us to admire Bellevue’s heroes without connecting their achievements to memorable anecdotes, and he fails to tease out what the hospital’s perennial struggles with underfunding tell us about America’s oddly stratified health-care system. “Oshinsky’s greatest strength may be his capacity for admiration,” however, and he “writes with particular vigor of Bellevue’s refusal to subscribe to popular prejudices”— whether those biases were aimed at immigrant patients, violent criminal offenders, or female doctors. Bellevue wouldn’t be as well known if it hadn’t at times been guilty of mistreating patients, but mostly its doctors and nurses did their vocation proud, and “it makes you feel better about humanity” to read about so many people working so nobly across more than three centuries.
Novel of the week
by Michael Chabon
In this gorgeous new novel, former wonder boy Michael Chabon has at last freed himself from the tyranny of plot, said A.O. Scott in The New York Times. Moonglow is the story of a family, presented as a grandson’s attempt to jot down his grandfather’s deathbed reminiscences, and it “meanders where it will,” piling up a surfeit of incident and “an abundance of beautiful sentences” on its way to capturing life the way it looks to us in all its messy glory. Much of the tale might even be true, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. The narrator’s name is Mike Chabon, and the family secrets he uncovers feel emotionally authentic. His grandmother turns out to have been a mentally ill beauty and his grandfather a war hero whose fierce integrity was sometimes overshadowed by a capacity for rage. In the book’s finest stretch, the patriarch is a young man wandering a ruined Europe seeking German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. That episode, which mixes grim history with the fantastic, represents “Chabon at his magical best.”
Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away
by Lisa Napoli (Dutton, $27)
Ray and Joan Kroc were nothing if not colorful, said Peter Lewis in CSMonitor.com. Ray, the man who built McDonald’s, was “a boor, a peacock, and a mean drunk.” Joan, his much younger third wife, was “a wildly unpredictable study in extremes.” But their stories, taken together and in just the right proportions, make for great reading, as Lisa Napoli has proven, in her “playful, even waggish” dual biography.
Ruthless Ray wasn’t even a true self-made billionaire, said Bill Savage in the Chicago Tribune. The former paper-cup salesman surely had bet right when he persuaded Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1954 to let him sell franchises of their small California burger chain. But he didn’t really strike gold until 12 investors started guiding him in 1961, and even several years later, he resisted taking the company public. Ray had met Joan four years earlier, when she was playing piano at a supper club, and he expressed his infatuation by setting up her husband with a McDonald’s in South Dakota. Though Joan was 26 years Ray’s junior, they started a relationship, and they ended marriages shortly before they finally wed in 1969. Their tumultuous union lasted until 1984, when Ray’s death put Joan in control of a fortune that eventually exceeded $3 billion. What motivated her to give most of it to charity instead of leaving it to family? Ray & Joan doesn’t really say. Entertaining as the book is, “it would have been better had it focused more on Joan.”
Seeking to ascertain Joan’s motives “misses the point,” said Marc Levinson in The Wall Street Journal. Joan was idiosyncratic in her giving, supporting Greenpeace one year, the Epilepsy Society the next, and dropping $5 million on Notre Dame University on the occasion of the school president’s birthday. As Napoli sees things, Joan was simply a woman who’d worked hard for years and had learned how to bask in wealth. Each time Joan signed a charity check, Napoli writes, she was “relaxing into the ultimate luxury, of being able to indulge her whims— with no concern about cost, outcome, or better yet, what anyone else thought.”