Friday, December 5, 2014

book review: A History of the Present Illness by Louise Aronson

The backstory: A History of the Present Illness was longlisted for the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

The basics: A History of Present Ilness is a collection of short stories, some very loosely linked with characters, that examines different aspects of the contemporary health system in San Francisco. Louise Aronson has both an M.D. (from Harvard) and an M.F.A.

My thoughts: Regular readers know I am not a huge fan of short stories, but when I read them, I prefer collections to be thematically linked. Thus, the premise of A History of the Present Illness excited me. Through these stories, Aronson beautifully explores humanity. As I read, I found myself stopping after most stories to ponder them. Aronson manages to explore many themes in these stories, and her variety was a pleasant surprise.

The collection's second story, "An American Problem," tells the story of a family of Cambodian immigrants and firmly establishes the ambition of this collection: “In America, her mother explained, a man could discipline his wife, but he must never leave marks on his children.”

Favorite passage:  "People made assumptions. They assigned values. She knew people who said Holocaust as if, in recent human history, there had been only one. Newscasters and journalists said "the tragedy of September 11, 2001" and meant New York City, as if those who that day succumbed to malaria or malnutrition, to ruptured abdominal aneurysms or perforated intestines deserved less sympathy because of the quiet and unoriginal way they chose to die. In the cruise ship ballroom, she winced as her husband said his study of a promising new drug showed negligible mortality, as if one death in four hundred was the same as none." ("The Psychiatrist's Wife)

The verdict: A History of the Present Illness is a dynamic short story collection that signals a major new talent. The highlight of the collection may be "The Psychiastrist's Wife," a story that will haunt me for a long time. Whether Aronson continues writing short fiction or expands into novels or nonfiction, I'll be standing in line to read it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: January 22, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A History of the Present Illness from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Louise Aronson's website and follow her on Twitter

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  1. Wow, this sounds really powerful. I'll be on the lookout for it!

  2. I hadn't heard of this but it sounds great! This is an award I don't hear much about, but I recently bought a book that won this prize once and it looks really good. I'm going to look I to it more.

    1. Ooh--what book did you get that won the PEN/Bingham Prize? I just discovered it and am curious how the others stack up, but this premise was too interesting to not read right away.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!