‘Kill or Cure? A Taste of Medicine’ Exhibition

This new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales looks great.

Kill or Cure Exhibition State Library of NSW

“From the influence of the stars and the phases of the moon, to healing chants and prayers, to the knife-wielding barber-surgeon and game-changing scientific experiments, Kill or Cure? takes you behind the curtain of western medicine’s macabre history.

Explore our many treatment rooms with instruments that will make your skin crawl. Hear quack doctors spruiking dangerous cures from behind the interactive walls. Meet the bloodletting man and learn why veins were opened to restore health.

The Library’s extensive rare books collection reveals some of the powerful and enduring ideas from western medicine that have since been debunked, and those we take for granted today.”

Lots of fascinating, gory exhibits about bloodletting, leeches, plague and scurvy! It’s free and will be at the State Library’s Exhibition Galleries in Shakespeare Place, Sydney until January 2023.

And after you’ve visited the exhibition, if you want to learn even more about the weird and wonderful history of medicine, why not read (or re-read) Dr Huxley’s Bequest: A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects?

Dr Huxley's Bequest paperbacks

Five Feminist Books

Happy International Women’s Day! I thought I’d mark the occasion by recommending some feminist books. Social media has its uses and there are lots of interesting feminist blogs and online forums, but sometimes you just want a well-argued, well-edited volume written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I do try to keep up with the latest books from young feminists (for example, I’ve read Princesses and Pornstars by Emily Maguire, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran), but I often find myself underwhelmed by these books. They tend to be memoirs, heavy on anecdotes from the lives of the authors and their friends, but skimpy on historical facts, scientific evidence and feminist theory. There is nothing wrong with books about the personal experiences of women, but when these authors are white, heterosexual and famous, their experiences don’t necessarily have universal appeal or relevance. Still, these particular authors aren’t writing for me. Hopefully, the young women (and men) buying those books find them thought-provoking and life-changing. And if those readers ever decide they want to learn more about feminism, they could try some of these feminist books from the last fifty years:

1. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer

You cannot possibly claim to be well-informed about feminism if you haven’t read this book. Despite Germaine Greer’s scary reputation, this is really not a difficult read. It’s a clever, provocative, funny, infuriating argument about how and why women have been oppressed for centuries, backed up with hundreds of cultural references. It’s not her best book and it contains plenty of statements I disagree with, but it’s a great introduction to her work.

2. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (1983)

'Outrageous Acts' by Gloria Steinem

While Germaine Greer was busy being a bolshy intellectual, Gloria Steinem was disguising herself as a Playboy Bunny in order to infiltrate the toxic world of men’s clubs. This book is a collection of some of her best-known magazine articles, including I Was a Playboy Bunny, If Men Could Menstruate and In Praise of Women’s Bodies, as well as essays on Marilyn Monroe, Linda Lovelace and Alice Walker. Ms Steinem’s focus is American political and social life, written in a warm, funny, inclusive manner, although there are also essays on international issues including female genital mutilation and the politics of food. Those who think intersectional feminism was invented in the last five years might find their beliefs challenged by this book.

3. Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999)

'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi is an American journalist best known for her 1991 book Backlash, but Stiffed is a great read for those who falsely believe that feminism only benefits women. Ms Faludi began by investigating a group of male domestic violence perpetrators who’d been ordered to attend counselling. Her initial assumption was that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them.” What she eventually discovered, after years of interviews with male factory workers, athletes, military cadets, sports fans, porn stars, evangelical husbands and more, was that many men felt betrayed after losing jobs, skills and life roles in America’s post-war cultural upheaval, but were unable to work together to form a male equivalent of the women’s liberation movement. Her research is meticulous, but it’s the men’s personal stories that make this so fascinating.

4. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine (2010)

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine

This is a book to press upon people who believe that girls are inherently emotional and chatty and unable to read maps, while boys are innately superior at rational thinking, designing bridges and running the world. Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian cognitive neuroscientist, analyses the current research and produces a compelling argument that there is very little difference between male and female brains, with the small cognitive variations that do exist easily explained by the different social and cultural worlds experienced by girls and boys from birth. This is often a very funny and entertaining read, especially when she’s taking potshots at Simon Baron-Cohen, but there’s a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to back it up.

5. Bluff Your Way in Feminism by Constance Leoff (1987)

'Bluff Your Way in Feminism' by Constance Leoff

You probably won’t be able to find a copy of this, but it’s a little gem of a book, rocketing through five thousand years of feminist history, from Aristoclea and Sappho, through Aphra Behn and Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir, to Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou. There are also lots of hilarious feminist quotes, useful explanations about the different types of feminism, and a handy glossary if you’re confused about terms such as ‘biological determinism’ and ‘parthenogenesis’.

You might also be interested in reading:

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’ Shortlisted for Young People’s History Prize

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has been shortlisted for the Young People’s History Prize in the 2018 NSW Premier’s History Awards. The other shortlisted books are The Fighting Stingrays by Simon Mitchell and Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus by Stephanie Owen Reeder, both of which look fascinating.

'The Fighting Stingrays' by Simon Mitchell

'Marvellous Miss May' by Stephanie Owen Reeder

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has also been added to the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge list for Years 7-9. There’s a good list of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) book recommendations for students in Years 3-9 here.

Plus, National Science Week starts tomorrow and Children’s Book Week is the week after that and then it’s History Week. SO MUCH EXCITEMENT!

Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

Way back in 2012, I wrote this on Memoranda, in response to a reader’s question:

“Shannon asked me about the new book I’m working on, so I composed a long blog post on the subject, complete with jokes and a cool photograph of a turtle. But then I read over it and realised I didn’t feel comfortable revealing that much detail about a writing project that’s at such an early stage, it doesn’t even have a title, let alone a publisher.

So I deleted the post.

But it wasn’t a complete waste of time, because I also realised that writing that post had made me feel more confident about this new book. After I finished ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I flipped through my mental catalogue of Ideas For Books and decided I needed to write something that would not be the start of a series, would not be a complicated family saga, would not include scenes of heart-rending anguish, and would not require much research. This next book would be fun and easy to write!

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite the way I’d expected. I’ve spent the past six months compiling a vast folder of notes and diagrams and photocopies, but feel I’ve barely started on the research. It isn’t a complicated family saga, but at the heart of the story is a mystery that requires far more complicated plotting than I’ve ever before attempted. It was supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but I already have ideas for a sequel and I’m not even sure the book would be best described as a ‘novel’. Plus, there’s at least one scene of heart-rending anguish…”

And five years on, I’m still working on that book, although at least now, I know what it’s about.

Dr Huxley’s Bequest grew out of several ideas. One of them was sparked by my irritation at shoddy articles about health and medicine in supposedly reputable newspapers. One particular Australian journalist, who clearly had no scientific education whatsoever, specialised in what I came to think of as ‘blueberries cure cancer’ stories – that is, articles that misrepresented or ignored scientific research in favour of sensational, fact-free assertions by celebrities and self-proclaimed experts who had no medical qualifications. I have a science degree and have worked in health sciences for most of my adult life, so I could see these articles were utter rubbish, but what about other readers? People were spending lots of money on these useless ‘cures’ and sometimes putting their health at risk by following harmful advice.

I was especially concerned about teenagers who dropped science subjects early in high school because they hated maths or decided science was boring or difficult. Scientific literacy is just as important in modern life as being able to read and write and interact socially. Science doesn’t always have to be learned in a classroom, though. Some of my favourite reads in recent years have been popular science books – books written by experts who are good at explaining complex scientific ideas in an entertaining and informative way. But those books are all aimed at adults. Where are the popular science books for teenagers, especially teenage girls?

It’s not that there are no Australian books about science for young readers. There are thousands of colourful, interesting books for primary school students on a wide variety of science topics, from astronomy to zoology. There are science books for older students, too. There are well-written and well-designed text books used by science teachers in the classroom, but they’re not intended for general reading. I’ve also seen books with eye-catching titles and cartoon covers, along the lines of There’s a Worm on My Eyeball!, full of disgusting facts and clearly marketed at boys.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop girls picking up these books and some girls do like them, but I was interested in writing something more thoughtful and philosophical, although still entertaining – a book that would appeal to teenage girls who were interested in history and stories and people, but thought science was difficult, dull and only for boys. I decided a history of medicine, from superstition to science, might be a good way to introduce the beauty, creativity and power of scientific thinking. The book needed a framing narrative, so I came up with Rosy and Jaz, two very different thirteen-year-old girls who are thrown together one summer holiday because their parents work at the same college. A mysterious bequest sends Rosy and Jaz on a race against time to identify thirteen strange and wonderful artefacts – which turn out to tell the story of medicine, from the superstitions of ancient Egypt to the ethical dilemmas of genetic testing.

Rosy and Jaz find themselves arguing with Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, being horrified by the Black Death, body-snatching and eighteenth-century surgical techniques, and scrutinizing modern homeopathy and the anti-vaccine movement. They uncover the secrets of the brain’s anatomy in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, and find a link between herbal medicine and Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. They learn how the discovery of penicillin demonstrated the benefits of having an untidy desk, why an Australian scientist thought it would be a good idea to drink dangerous bacteria, and how traditional Aboriginal remedies might save lives when modern antibiotics fail. And there’s more:

What does aspirin have to do with secret agents, revolution, stolen treasures and explosions?
Can unicorns cure leprosy?
Who thought it was a good idea to use heroin as a cough medicine for children?
Is grapefruit evil?
Did a zombie discover the cure for scurvy?
Does acupuncture really work?
Did the bumps on Ned Kelly’s head predict his fate?
And how exactly did parachuting cats save a village from the plague?

It’s a little bit like Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, but about the history of medical science rather than the history of philosophy. (Incidentally, whenever I said this to publishers, I got blank looks. How can you work in the publishing industry and not have heard of Sophie’s World?! It was an international best-seller! It won awards! It was made into a film and a TV series and even a computer game! And by the way, it was the reason the narrator of the Montmaray Journals was called ‘Sophie’.)

Anyway, this is how Dr Huxley’s Bequest starts:

CHAPTER ONE

Afterwards, Rosy always blamed the turtle.

‘It wasn’t the turtle’s fault,’ said Jaz, as the two girls sat in the courtyard beside the pond, eating salt-and-vinegar chips.

‘You weren’t there, Jaz. You didn’t see his evil expression. He knew exactly what he was doing. None of it would have happened without that turtle.’

The turtle in question raised his head and turned his beady yellow gaze upon them.

‘Look,’ said Rosy. ‘He’s doing it again. Malevolent, that’s what I call him.’

‘How do you know it’s a boy?’

‘He’s got a beard.’

Jaz peered closer. ‘I think that’s a bit of lettuce stuck to its chin.’

‘After all that everyone here’s done for him, too,’ Rosy went on. ‘Feeding him. Cleaning his stupid pond. And how did he repay us? With treachery and disloyalty and, and … dirty tricks! Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen this college if we hadn’t come to the rescue.’

‘Well, considering there wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t –’

‘Malicious,’ Rosy said quickly. ‘That’s what he is. Mephistophelean.’

‘That is not even a word.’

‘It is. It’s from Mephistopheles. Remember, that stone demon spitting into the fountain in Science Road?’

‘Oh, right,’ said Jaz. ‘Faust. The quest for knowledge.’

‘Exactly,’ said Rosy.

The turtle lunged at a passing dragonfly, snapping off its wing and a couple of legs. The unfortunate insect tumbled onto the surface of the pond and the turtle gulped it down, then twisted his wrinkled, serpentine neck in the direction of the girls.

‘He does look a bit sinister,’ Jaz conceded.'Dr Huxley's Bequest' turtle illustration

Text and illustration © Michelle Cooper

More in Adventures in Self-Publishing:

Why Self-Publish?
Editing
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
Designing a Book Cover
Turning Your Manuscript Into A Book
All the Mistakes I’ve Made (so Far)

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

More in Adventures in Self-Publishing:

What’s This Book About, Anyway?
Editing
To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
Designing a Book Cover
Turning Your Manuscript Into A Book
All the Mistakes I’ve Made (so Far)