In between geeking out with the new iTunes software while waiting for the new iPhone software, I put together a little something about my two most recent books.
22 – <i>Three Bags Full</i> – Leonie Swann. I was searching for a book to take on my Kansas City trip and was torn between a international thriller-type novel and a more straight-forward detective novel. Then I noticed this one on the bookshelves of my local Border’s, noted the blurb from Carl Hiassen on the cover, and then the interesting sub-title: A sheep detective story. “OK, I’m in,” I thought. Wise choice.
One morning a flock of Irish sheep find their shepherd lying on the ground with a spade jammed through his chest. They loved their shepherd – he treated them with respect, understood their were intelligent creatures, and even read books to them – so they resolved to find out who was responsible for his murder. Over the next few weeks, they investigate leads as well as sheep can investigate, form theories, and eventually are ready to tell the townspeople who the killer is. They end up being wrong, but do get the truth out in a rather poignant closing section.
I think the best way to describe this novel is to say it is charming. I read most of it with a smile on my face, laughed out loud at parts, and there were moments that were quite touching as well. Swann is German, and the original book was published in German, but she captures the Irish spirit well. She also does a fantastic job giving the flock members personalities. Some are intelligent, others brave, others insightful. Just when you start thinking of them as people, though, something spooks them or they become overly excited about something and gallop across the meadow, bleating in anger/fear/excitement. You sense that they sheep are embarrassed that they’re acting like sheep, but know they can’t avoid it.
One of my favorite elements of the book was their misunderstanding of human theology. They believe the local priest is the person the townsfolk are referring to when they talk of God. So each time Father Will strolls by, they say things like, “Here comes God again.” That made me laugh because my three-year-old has the same problem. On days when her preschool class would go over to the church for an event, she would tell me, “We went to the Quiet Church today.” She refers to all churches as Quiet Churches because she knows you’re supposed to be quiet in church. “We sang songs and we saw God.” At first I was confused, especially when she said God had lunch with them one day. Then I asked a few more questions and determined she was talking about Father Ted. She is a very bright girl, so I think this is a glowing endorsement of those clever sheep in Ireland.
23 – <i>Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And The Age of Flimflam</i> – Pope Brock. First off, perhaps the finest subtitle ever, this the inclusion. I’m going to take a guess and say that 99.9% of my many readers have no idea who John R. Brinkley was. Neither did I until a couple months back, when I heard the Pope Brock talking about his new book on NPR. I was fascinated by the story and added the book to my To Read list, an anxiously awaited its arrival at the library.
So who was this Brinkley character? Way back in the day, to the tune of the 1920s through early 1940s, he was a practitioner of “rejuvenation” medicine. Rejuvenators believed their methods could restore lost sexual desires and powers in those who had seen said powers and desires wane. Brinkley’s particular method was the implantation of goat testicles in his patients. That’s right, goat testicles. It was quackery at its finest, but since the placebo effect can have especially profound results in this area, people not only bought into it but some actually had positive results. Over the years his methods evolved and the issues he claimed to cure broadened, and in the midst of the Great Depression, he was taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. In fact, when you adjust for time and inflation, just his radio show brought in the equivalent of $6 million/year. Along the way, he basically invented the format that AM radio followed for 40 years, invented radio advertising, ran for governor (and probably won, if not for some rare bipartisan chicanery by Kansas Republicans and Democrats) and in the process invented modern political campaigning, set an early standard for the far right to find refuge in radio, and when he later moved to Del Rio, Texas and set-up a <i><a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_blaster”>Border Blaster</a></i> across the river in Mexico, turned country & western music into the dominant form of music in the U.S. (and set the stage for R&B and rock & roll to do the same later thanks to Wolfman Jack many years later on the same station). So even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s had a direct effect on your life.
I was interested in the book for several reasons. First off, Brinkley launched his career in the small town of <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford,_Kansas”>Milford, Kansas</a>. I enjoy it when my native state gets a little publicity, even if it is for harboring one of the biggest quacks that ever lived. Second, the man who was most prominent in the race to bring Brinkley down, Morris Fishbein – an editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association – was from Indianapolis. Mo’ local ties! And I’m always a sucker for a story that revolves around radio.
This is an excellent story. It may seem odd and esoteric, but you can’t help but get sucked into it. There are some areas where Brock’s style frustrated me – most chapters are extremely short and at times it feels like he’s just regurgitating all the research he’s done rather than putting it into context or adding analysis. But the guts of the story are so good that doesn’t distract too much.
I was fascinated by a couple modern applications of the story. First, I was amazed at how much medicine has changed in less than 100 years. It wasn’t that long ago when serious “doctors” thought that things like blue light bulbs, mysterious tonics, and yes, goat testicles, could change people’s lives for the better. Or at least they got their patients to believe it. There are still many forms of alternative medicine that seem wacky today, but they aren’t mainstream. In the 1920s, completely reputable physicians were pushing all kinds of crazy treatments that had no scientific basis (Brinkley was never a true physician. He had some light training, but mostly operated with a degree purchased from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, a known diploma mill).
Second, I was struck by how little progress we’ve made on the consumer side. People may not be plunking down good money to have goat testicles implanted in their abdomens, but a couple hours of watching TV shows an seemingly endless stream of miracle cures and quick fixes. Whether you want to lose weight, grow back your hair, or sculpt the perfect body in only five minutes a day, there is a product out there that promises to help you. And more in Brinkley’s line of “expertise,” how much money is spent each year on Viagra, Cialis, and other <i>rejuvenative</i> medicines? We’re still searching for the magic treatment to cure all that ills or disappoints us. We may be more sophisticated about our search than our grandparents were, but we’re definitely still searching.