Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: Featuring Jared Diamond; Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

By Lynn Willoughby

Germs, Guns and Steel ~ Jared Diamond

The Fates of Human Societies
This Pulitzer Prize winning book of non-fiction gives us a new perspective and understanding of human history.  The author argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.  Advancement in food production in a society always leads to success, throughout history.  “…the very people who gained a head start in producing food would collide with preliterate cultures, shaping the modern world through conquest, displacement and genocide.”
Diamond is convincing as he argues that germs in domesticated animals led Eurasisns to spread epidemics through their  voyages of discoveries, erasing entire races and cultures.  He gives convincing evidence that germs, more than steel and guns, were the number one factor in rising and falling societies, worldwide.
In Canadian history we know how smallpox decimated Aboriginals. Even more recently, AIDS has impacted the entire world, some places more evidently than others. And of course, the media and TV talk shows, and TV series are often scaring us with threats of germ and biological warfare.
This book is often dry and the author sometimes moralizes.  However, Diamond does give credit to the Eurasians in 3400 BC for having metal tools and a written language, giving them advantages.  He also gets over the interpretation of the supposed superiority of the Eurasian people themselves.  As Diamond is not an historian, but rather a professor of geography and physiology, and a renowned biologist with a passionate interest in ornithology, he does bring a new perspective to human history.
Freud’s Mistress ~ Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman
This is a book club selection and when I saw that Garth Stein gave it a glowing review, I was looking forward to the read. I was very disappointed.
While it is historical fiction, and I did learn a great deal about life in Vienna in the 1890s, about Freud the man, and also his revolutionary theories and  how he was shunned by his peers, much of this book just did not ring true.
This novel is inspired by the love affair between Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. We see into the home life at the Freuds. We realize that Minna, unlike her sister, is outspoken, educated, curious, a free thinker, an avid reader and not at all interested in marriage. Because she is not afraid to speak her mind, she is often sacked fairly quickly from each new position as governess or ladies companion.
She is constantly broke, can’t stand her mother and won’t ask for help there. What’s a girl to do?
Her older sister, Martha, comes to Minna’s rescue by inviting her into the Freud home to help with their six children, running errands and all round dog’s body. Minna accepts and soon falls under Sigmund’s charm.
At first their relationship is one of intellect. Minna is able to debate with Sigmund, she reads and edits his books and papers, attends his lectures at the university and eventually travels with him to present a paper in Switzerland. So, we know where this is going.
What didn’t ring true for me, were the examples of Minna’s cursing, her secret gin drinking, her smoking and that she even steps unaccompanied into a bar and orders whisky, all while she never has any money. To me she was not at all likeable. She was always whining about her lack of funds, her life in general, her mother, her employers and her life.
This book could have been so much more. We see glimpses of what life is like for Jews in Vienna, there is a lead up to Nazi occupation, there is the political and intellectual scene. We see Minna’s introduction to cocaine, we learn about Freud’s addiction to collecting antiquities that he can’t afford.
“Freud, the raison d’etre, is little more than a cliche cad in this fictionalized incarnation.” – Dianne White.  I couldn’t agree more.
  • Literacy and Longing    Jennifer Kaufman
  • A Version of the Truth    Karen Mack
Who Knew?
Cocaine was once promoted as a wonder drug and praised by some of the greatest minds in medical history including Sigmund Freud, and the pioneering surgeon William Halstead (who invented the surgical rubber glove). Cocaine was promoted by the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. Cocaine was sold in drinks, ointments and margarine. The most popular proponent was Vin Mariana, a Bordeaux wine with six milligrams of cocaine in every ounce.

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