Review: Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

dr mutterDr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Gotham Books, September 2014
372 pages

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As a schoolchild in North Philadelphia, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on class trips to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which housed a collection of medical artifacts and oddities, many of which had been amassed by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a physician at the turn of the nineteenth century. Aptowicz, a poet who is also the author of another nonfiction work (Words In Your Face, a history of the spoken word movement), became intrigued with Mütter, and researched his story.

And what a story it was. Orphaned young, he traveled widely and acquired skills. He faced up to the establishment of the time, overcame opposition and became one of its most celebrated members, only to die tragically young.

The subtitle, “A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine”, indicates Aptowicz’ dual focus in her book. She offers a tale of Mütter’s life and his innovations, both in close-up and in panoramic views, telling a compelling story of medicine during a transitional phase, and of one person’s enduring influence, by combining extensive research and deft expression with the pacing and detail of a densely plotted thriller.Continue Reading

How Books Brought Me Back into the World

reading aloneMy parents worried about me when I was young. They clipped out articles with titles like “What To Do When Your Child Doesn’t Speak” and strongly encouraged me to interact with the other kids in my nursery school and kindergarten classes. When my kindergarten teacher suggested to my parents that I be held back a year, it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. I was. It was just that I wasn’t social.

Back then, there weren’t listicles on how to care for and feed your favorite introvert. There weren’t books like Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power and Susan Cain’s Quiet to reassure people that introversion wasn’t a liability . . . It was just a different way of being.

So I was looked at as someone who needed to be fixed. And in a way, I internalized this.Continue Reading

Iguala, Ayotzinapa, and Why Carolyn Forché is More Relevant Than Ever

Carolyn_ForcheI went to Mexico City to write about it. But also to read a lot too. To slough off the rust of my own ignorance about this country my family came from. You can never read enough. Such is the shame of academia. But the beauty of being young and dumb is that there’s always something new you haven’t read yet, seen yet, heard yet. Do you remember the first time you heard the Beatles? Elvis? Everything new is exciting. Everything new feels connected if only by association: I learned about this stuff around the same time. But once in a while, there’s something oogie-boogie that happens when things we learn, when new things we’re exposed to, aren’t only connected but resonating with the moment we’re living in. That’s more or less how I found Carolyn Forché’s poetry just as the Mexican moment found me.Continue Reading

Our Winter 2014-15 Issue is Now Available!

3D-cover-winter201415We are elated to announce that our staff-edited Winter 2014-15 Issue is available for purchase! Each year, two of our three issues are guest-edited by prominent writers who explore different personal visions, aesthetics, and literary circles, while the Winter Issue staff-edited.

The Winter Issue of Ploughshares features a diverse collection of poems, essays, and stories. The prose ranges from surreal humor–David Cameron’s “Mannequin,” about a man’s relationship with a life-size doll he buys to use the HOV lane–to tragedy, in Lisa Gruenberg’s essay on the experiences of her Viennese father and his family during the Holocaust. Sherrie Flick’s Plan B essay looks at the joy and rage of gardening, and Nancy Kang and Silvio Torres-Saillaint write an appreciation of the Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat.

The Winter Issue also features poetry by Philip Levine, Sherod Santos, Nalini Jones, Laurie Sewall, and Gary Young; an interview with Zacharis Award winner Roger Reeves; and work by the winners of our annual Emerging Writer’s Contest.

If you would like to read our Winter issue, and you aren’t already a subscriber, subscribe to Ploughshares today! You’ll get great reads, ideas for your own writing, and the ability to submit your work to us for free!

This issue is also available for Amazon Kindle.

You can purchase single copies of our issues or subscribe by visiting our website:

Triangular Relationships

Kathleen Skeels

Kathleen Skeels

In a previous blog post, I mentioned my difficulty with conflict and tension.  For this reason, I love triangular relationships, which bring up conflicting desires, competing loyalties, and dilemmas. All the things that make a juicy story go. When I was just starting out writing fiction, when my writing tended to be a formless blob and I learned that good writing needs a shape, a design, I turned to the idea of things happening in threes, and then I turned to triangles. As I learned along the way, there are many, many ways you might use triangles in your fiction.Continue Reading

The Saving Thing


Mark Twain called humor “the great thing, the saving thing,” and indeed I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t like to laugh. Why, then, aren’t a greater number of humorous stories published in literary journals? Why don’t more humorous books—or films, for that matter—win prizes?

“In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity,” Lewis Lapham writes. Woody Allen puts it another way: “When you do comedy, you are not sitting at the grownups table.”

I’ve got almost no interest in writing that isn’t funny. To paraphrase Martin Amis, all the great writers are funny, and if they’re not funny, they’re not great. Hold your excoriations for a second while I define “funny.” My rubric is liberal. Anything with a shred of mirth, a whisper of levity, a toenail of wit, qualifies. The blackest of ironies and the broadest of slapstick. A joke told by a hangman and an idiot’s pants falling down. What I’m saying is, there are jokes in Tolstoy, if you start looking. They won’t make you laugh out loud on the subway or anything, but they’re there.Continue Reading

Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.”Continue Reading

Roger Reeves Wins 2014 Zacharis Award

king meWe are thrilled to announce Roger Reeves as the winner of the twenty-fourth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his poetry collection, King Me (Copper Canyon, 2013). The $1,500 award, named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.

This year’s judge was Ploughshares poetry editor, John Skoyles, who wrote of the collection: “The poems in Roger Reeves’ King Me are lively, intelligent, and dramatic. They possess an astonishing range, richly populated by the things of this world. Open the book anywhere, and you will touch and be touched by a startling image, statement, or object. These poems would overflow their forms if not for Reeves’ ability to harness their power into tight and explosive lines. King Me is down to earth, tough, tuneful and wise.”Continue Reading

Round-Down: The High Sales vs. High Quality Debate

painterOne of my truly terrible habits is a reflexive desire to pour salt on a wound. Tell me your troubles, and I’m likely to say, “Oh, this is so much worse than you think.”

For example, many editors and agents have said to me over the years, “I loved this book. I can’t believe it tanked.” Without thinking, I nearly always reply, “Well, there’s no correlation between sales and quality.” I’ve yet to meet the person who welcomed this advice.

In each of these cases, I was referring to the quality of the prose. These were books that were easy to read and seemingly easy to edit, but clearly that’s not the only way to measure quality. A good book isn’t just well-written. It might be inspiring, gripping, enlightening, depressing, or a dozen other things. It might win awards or have high sales figures (though both are entirely debatable, especially since awards rarely go to the biggest bestsellers).

The debate, between advocates of sales and advocates of literary quality in determining the success of a book, had a new entrant last week in the form of Ursula K. LeGuin’s National Book Award speech, where she urged the publishing industry to remember that the point of this is art, not commerce.

I admit that as a regular purveyor of depressingly specific marketing advice, I neglect to mention this salient fact: the way to good sales starts with great art.Continue Reading