Saturday, October 29, 2016

Substantialreads: Doctober

Ten books about Doctors, Drs. and other variants on the spelling. You might expect the results to be tediously repetitive or colourfully diverse, but it's pretty much business as usual. Try as I might to challenge my horizons, I've got pretty good at gaming my own systems by now.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment and Other Stories

1835-50 (collected 1999) / Audiobook/e-book / 242 pages / USA


If you think I sought out this obscure reshuffling of the author's public domain works rather than one of his standard collections just so I could justify it as a Doctober, you would be cynical and correct.

I shouldn't have bothered though, as it turns out my impression of Hawthorne being an early horror writer in the vein of his contemporary Poe was mistaken. There are plenty of supernatural elements, but he's more concerned with hokey allegories and condemning New England Puritan killjoys than scaring the shit out of his readers. If only some cheapo publishing house had thought to throw together a Poe compilation headlined by 'The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,' I'd have been sorted.

Faves: 'Young Goodman Brown,' 'Earth's Holocaust,' 'The Artist of the Beautiful.'

Worsties: 'The Gentle Boy,' 'The May-Pole of Merry Mount,' 'Wakefield.'

Sax Rohmer, The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu

1913 / Audiobook / 308 pages / UK


This classic pulp villain seems to have been intentionally forgotten in recent decades for understandable reasons, but while Sax's perspective on the inscrutable devilry of the East is obviously pretty racist, it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. When characters are voicing their concerns about the rise of China threatening to reduce their own disproportionately greedy, unearned piece of the economic pie, you can't even call it dated. And at least in the book version you don't have British actors yellowing up. Where's his moustache?

Charles G. Finney, The Circus of Dr. Lao

1935 / E-book / 154 pages / USA


Nice novella and all, but it feels like it's stealing that high rating and should rightfully be surrounded by some middling short stories to bring it down a notch. I would have preferred to read it in this ace looking vintage anthology, but while its A-list contributions are widely available elsewhere, tracking down the more obscure entries would have required investing in 1940s digital back issues of Harper's Bazaar et al, which I didn't feel was worth it for a four-page story, even if I could pick up Audrey Hepburn fashion tips while I'm there.

Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories

1970-78 (collected 1980) / E-book / 410 pages / USA


I enjoyed Wolfe's quadfurcated magnum opus The Book of the New Sun last year, so I was interested to see how his earlier short stories fared. And it's not like I could resist that title once I got wind of it. It's not all glorious stylistic wank, though saying that, he's never better than when he's inverting titles, themes and perspectives with OCD precision.

Faves: 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,' 'The Death of Dr. Island,' 'Seven American Nights.'

Worsties: 'Three Fingers,' 'Feather Tigers,' '"Cues' (less substantial shorties).

Roger Stern and Mike MignolaDoctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment

1989 / E-comic / 80 pages / USA


Taking a holiday from substance, I couldn't resist this double Doc whammy. I can't say I was familiar with either of the good doctors before, but I always enjoy a good hell quest. Mignola's doodles are as reliable as ever, but they would have benefited from a more sardonic script. Stern's story takes the mystical woo-woo way too seriously.

Benjamin Woolley, The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I

2001 / E-book / 355 pages / UK


Here's another man who takes the woo-woo seriously. There's no shortage of potentially inspiring biographies out there of physicians doing their utmost in challenging circumstances, but no, I choose a magic quack. It's healthy to get some non-fiction in every now and then, even if said non-fiction is about stuff that doesn't exist (but is still unaccountably accurate from time to time). It was nice to spend some time in Blackadder II ambiance too, and if Miranda Richardson's definitive take on the virgin queen is proving to be a barrier, I say just roll with it, it makes history more fun.

István Hargittai, The DNA Doctor: Candid Conversations with James D Watson

2007 / E-book / 236 pages / Hungary


This obscure compendium of interview transcripts bulked out with the author's amateur photo collection is probably the best example of a book I wouldn't have read if I hadn't been narrowing down candidates for a stupidly-themed reading month and decided I might as well try to learn something.

Should have just gone with Doctor Who.

Edward T. Haslam, Dr. Mary's Monkey: How the Unsolved Murder of a Doctor, a Secret Laboratory in New Orleans and Cancer-Causing Monkey Viruses are Linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK Assassination and Emerging Global Epidemics

2007 / Audiobook / 374 pages / USA


I'm not going to criticise this terminally paranoid alternative history for being bananas, because it's not like I didn't know exactly what I was getting into. But it was less entertaining than I'd hoped. I was disappointed that it took a dry, anecdotal route rather than getting up in my face with passionate revolutionary rhetoric. We know they're not telling us everything, big deal.

Mary Doria Russell, Doc

2011 / E-book / 394 pages / USA


I'm not the biggest fan of Westerns – presumably because I'm British rather than American, I find gas-lit, smoke-choked London and Edinburgh cobbles a more comforting alternative for the period. But like those weirdos who claim to enjoy the best of every music genre, I do enjoy making the trip every now and again. By stripping away the sensationalism surrounding a tertiary historical figure (if not the romance), this was the most authentic frontier immersion since Deadwood. It helped that I scored most of it with Western soundtracks too.

Stephen King, Doctor Sleep

2013 / Audiobook / 531 pages / USA


The only Stephen King I'd previously read was The Shining, half a life ago, so this belated sequel seemed like a fitting follow-up, even if I did impulsively pre-judge that it would be embarrassing washed-up schlock, since that tends to be the case with belated sequels generally. As it turns out, it was solid but forgettable. I might have preferred the schlock, to be honest. At least it would have been shorter.

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