Glenn Vanstrum


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NORTHERN LIBERTIES--A painter can imitate life through art, but he can also imitate death.

In 1876, Thomas Eakins talks his way into the operating theatre of the famous surgeon, Samuel Gross. As Eakins sketches, the patient's mother, Abigail Doverlund, has a near seizure at the brutality of the operation. An anesthesiologist keeps her boy in a coma, true, but the filth and lack of sterility at the scene fill her with dread.

A homicide detective, George Callahan, investigating a series of mysterious disappearances, watches the surgery, too. Soon he finds evidence leading him to an anatomy lab tucked in the basement of Jefferson Medical College

Abigail, widowed owner of a failing newspaper, struggles to keep her son alive. Her paper's circulation grows, however, with both its coverage of the disappearances and her science editor's muckraking articles on infections and the use--or lack of use--of new antiseptic techniques. Meanwhile Eakins, when not working feverishly to create his masterpiece, utilizes his med school connections to supply his art classes with anatomic sketching materials. Gross himself has a never-ending need for cadavers for his medical students.

Abigail and George meet but have trouble acknowledging their mutual attraction, for each retains psychic wounds from the Great War. As their love grows, as Abigail's reportage leads her from hospital to hospital and teaches her about microbial theory, the dark side of Eakins and Gross's genius becomes clear. George, searching Northern Liberties, a downtrodden quarter of Philadelphia, unearths a macabre crime, but not until he comes close to losing his beloved Abigail.

When scientific and artistic experts converge for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, multiple threads of love, art, medicine, and murder weave a cloth of beauty, passion, death, and redemption, a tapestry evoked by that horribly wonderful painting itself, The Gross Clinic.


"Fine art, ideological battles over surgical procedure, wartime trauma and murder collide in Vanstrum's smartly written historical fiction.

"Opening in 1875, the novel centers on the creation of Thomas Eakins' painting The Gross Clinic, which, although considered an American masterwork today, was highly controversial at the time because of its graphic nature. Vanstrum follows multiple plot threads in his exploration of the people, fictional and otherwise, involved in the tale. The key figures include Eakins, who struggles with bipolar tendencies and attempts at fame; Samuel D. Gross, the famous surgeon at the center of the artist's painting, who disdains the then-current theorizing of Joseph Lister on the cause and prevention of sepsis; Abigail Doverlund, a newspaper owner and grieving mother; and George Callahan, a Civil War veteran and detective whose investigation into a number of missing prostitutes runs headlong into the other characters' lives, resulting in the exposure of secrets, scandal and an impressive number of corpses.

"Despite the often-salacious material that weaves in copious amounts of sex and violence, Vanstrum avoids being exploitative in a character-rich narrative that paints heroes and villains alike with nuance and care. In keeping with the tenor of the times, Vanstrum also introduces issues of the day through background detail and character discussion, such as the book-long debate over the role of cleanliness in the surgical arena and the public's increasing awareness of Darwin's writings. More impressively, he integrates the intellectual content in a way that furthers the plot, which never sags. Transitions between the various threads are handled smoothly, and none of the characters are shortchanged in the process. Although some readers may object to the bit of artistic license Vanstrum employs in his depiction of historical figures-particularly Eakins-his evenhandedness and creativity keep even negative characters, such as the pimp Slam Perkins, sympathetic.

"Strong characters and deft handling of multiple narrative elements make for a fascinating read."

Kirkus Reviews, November, 2012


"Vanstrum should get credit for a well-written book. The beauty of fiction is that you get pulled into a world and share the experiences along with the characters. Here, the world is a slice of Philadelphia's past. It's not a pleasant picture at times, but the world and characters feel real, and for a good book, that's what really matters."

Philadelphia Review of Books, August, 2013


"A really fine novel that would (and hopefully will) make a superb movie..."

--John A. Murray, author of more than 40 books, including Cinema Southwest and The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook.



HUMBOLDT --A redwood cannot change its nature. Can a dope dealer?

The authorities have sprung Hobart Hawkins, a 100% pure-blooded Yurok, big-wave surfer, and pot farmer extraordinaire, after a five year sentence in Corcoran State Prison. To help reenter the straight world, Hawkins enrolls in an extension botany course, where a young professor, Faith Bartlett, introduces him to the thrill of climbing giants--the coastal redwoods of Humboldt county.

Hobart, succumbing to the charms of his teacher, finds himself embroiled in an ambitious scheme to save an 800-acre grove of old-growth forest, a scheme that requires a tremendous sum of money, money he can only raise through clandestine agriculture. Meanwhile, a series of rivals tests the rocky relationship between the ex-con and his attractive professor.

Through the course of a growing season, Hobart must contend with his rebelling teen-age son, the savage murder of his pot-cultivating mentor, and the thousand natural shocks illegal farming is heir to. Rip-off artists, torrential rain, rodents, mysterious uprootings, forest rangers, corrupt cops, and drug-war storm troopers all threaten to ruin his hard work, destroy his love life, and slam his ass in stir--forever.

Whether surfing together, tree-sitting to protect a huge redwood from loggers, or having a quiet feast in an Airstream trailer parked deep in the forest, Hobart and Faith struggle to reach an understanding with themselves and the natural world. Buzzing choppers, blaring music, and a speed-freak named Fart King, though, put their love to the test.

Moral problems beset Hobart, problems that challenge the code his long-dead father instilled in him. Should he honor a million-dollar debt to a dead man's widow? Should he take the life of an evil thief? Should he sully the pure Faith by dragging her into the heart of his illegal enterprise?

The answers can only be found high in the branches of the world's tallest trees.


LET FALL THY BLADE--Only in the heart of Africa can the heart of a surgeon change.

A cardiac surgeon and long distance runner, Malcolm Hartford, pledges to take his family on surfari for a grand vacation before his daughter leaves for college. He cannot escape the hospital, though, until he finishes the most challenging case of his career. Sleep deprived, burnt-out, mentally and physically exhausted, he finds rejuvenation among the wild plains and peoples of the Masai Mara.

Guided by a wilderness-savvy Maasai guide, the Hartfords (Malcolm, his wife, son, and daughter), unlock the secrets of the tooth-and-claw African plains, witnessing rituals and events that make their California world seem distant and unreal. As a pride of lions slaughters a Cape buffalo, a hippo defends its baby from a hungry croc, and a bull elephant dies mysteriously, the family strengthens its bonds through shared adventures and revelations.

In the land of the Maasai, the Hartfords become an integral part of the intersection of man and nature at its most raw. They steal honey from African bees, perform surgery in crude conditions, and participate in a circumcision ceremony with hundreds of Maasai warriors. The experience transforms them, calling forth ancestral memories buried deep within their DNA.

When the travelers encounter a gang of poachers, though, the vacation turns into a nightmare. Malcolm must use every bit of training a lifetime of running and operating have lent him. Even on returning to the United States, Kenya leaves its mark, both for good and evil.

A fathomless love powers him to save his family in Africa. Only their faith and trust can help him choose between life and oblivion at home.

"An ambitious story, full of action and realistic dialogue, featuring a dynamic central character. Some of Vanstrum's finest writing to date."

--John A. Murray, author of more than 40 books, including Cinema Southwest and The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook.


S.I.C. MEMORIAL--A family can survive anything, if it can hang on through a hurricane, the founding of a surf religion, and a brain transplant.

Hubert Humperdinck is an anesthesiologist at Sarah Imogene Cunningham Memorial, a hospital in San Diego. Hubert does not like to work, except to earn enough money to take time off to hit the waves or write screenplays. His sons, Razor and Thor, surf circles around him. When they're not out in the water, they experiment with mice in his garage laboratory. Hubert's beautiful wife, Delilah, and a pair of geriatric golden retrievers, Darth and Penny, do their best to keep the three under control, but they pretty much fail.

When a marine fungus-among-us contaminates the air ducts and patients of S.I.C. Memorial, Infectious Disease fingers Hubert as the source. A billionaire heart transplant patient, an Arab oil sheik, offers $200 million to build a new, uninfected hospital, the offer matched by a Catholic charity. As Muslims battle Christians over naming rights for the new center, a group of terrorists take the existing building--with its patients and physicians--hostage.

Hubert, hospitalized with a fungal foot infection, battles to win over the minds of the brain-washed terrorists. He invents a new religion and succeeds in converting all but one. After a harrowing escape to the wilds of drug-ravaged Mexico, he returns to work on the remaining die-hard, but only an insane neurosurgeon and Hubert's dying dog, Darth, offer the faintest hope of a plan.

As the California ocean heats to a record eighty degrees, Hubert finds himself caught in a web of hurricane weather, medicine gone mad, and the wrath of a legal system intent on imprisoning him for murder. Will he go to jail? Will Delilah dump him? Will his latest screenplay get made into a movie?

Only a madman can survive these calamities. Dr. Humperdinck, amiable and whacked-out as he is, makes the grade. He's certifiably nuts. And insanity is the only thing that can save him.(Satire/comedy)



CERTAIN STARS SHOT MADLY--A true friend will never steal your girl, your wave, or your corpse.

Rick Justin, a burned-out Vietnam paramedic, gets an education on friendship from his first day in a California medical school, when he meets the three anatomy partners who will shape the rest of his life.

Majoring in wave-riding, he and his trio of friends, Aaron, Jody, and Natalie, learn about the human body--and the mind--the hard way. More than once, Justin becomes a patient himself. From the psych ward at UCSD to the trauma service at San Francisco General, from an OB-GYN delivery room to the Naval Hospital pediatric ward, one calamity after another crashes down upon him. Years after the war, trouble, disease, and death still surround him.

Only through surfing does Justin find release. With his buddy Aaron, he graduates from small waves in Del Mar to the mountainous peaks of Oahu's North Shore. Structuring his senior rotations to maximize this newly-found oceanic addiction, he finds only the pristine violence of the sea can wash clean his work-related troubles. Far from shore his conscience begins to heal, a conscience troubled by the accidental killing of a pal during the war.

After his medical training, Rick stays in Southern California, working as an ER doc before migrating to Oahu, where he runs the emergency ward of a hospital located minutes from Sunset Beach. Meanwhile, life unravels for his trio of friends, the brilliant Natalie and the newly-married Aaron and Jody, all residents at UC San Francisco. Aaron has made a fortune pilfering body parts and fluids from fresh cadavers and selling them to pharmaceutical companies, but he can't get away with it forever.

Jody and Natalie get drawn into the ensuing mess--with dire results. As the incestuous relationship between the four doctors heats up, Rick finds he must not only face his own demons--he must battle those of his friends.


Story Collections

DISEASE BEYOND MY PRACTICE--No one can survive a bi-polar world without a healthy dose of madness.

An infectious disease doctor falls in love with a dope addict/real-estate agent. A paranoid schizophrenic decides he must render himself sterile. A meth freak tries to destroy a trauma surgeon with a stolen tank. In such a crazed universe, sometimes the only way to acquit oneself is through the insanity defense.

In these stories, characters discover the hoofbeats they hear may come, not from horses, but from zebras. A war correspondent with a spleen the size of a football returns home to get his first physical exam in a decade--and his doctor blows the diagnosis. A heart surgeon on safari, treating a patient dying from AIDS, finds enlightenment. One of a pair of Siamese twins seduces a psychiatrist, while the other empties his bank account.

Medicine is an art, not just a science. A doctor misjudges his son's fastball and must learn to live within the limits of his own blind ambition. A man, confronting his checkered family history, must weigh the risks of donating half his liver to his brother. A plastic surgeon alters the appearance of a spy in a witness protection program and loses his clinic in the process.

Sometimes, it is nature itself that heals. A teenager on a magical Minnesota lake confronts both his own mortality and a budding awareness of the opposite sex. A pre-med student finds solace in both music and orb-weaving spiders. A young doctor struggles to keep a child alive high in the Andes, where love can be as scarce as oxygen or as common as a mystic stone ruin.

The multiple ways people take ill--and become healed--may yet surprise, jaded as streaming media and 24-hour cable news have made us. Fiction, even as it entertains, can still lend insight into the hard-to-fathom depths of human suffering and rejuvenation.

"These stories are, in both volumes, almost without exception, tight, crisp, and incredibly original. Vanstrum displays an extraordinary facility for this format of prose fiction."

--John A. Murray, author of more than 40 books, including Cinema Southwest and The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook.


OF LION PAW AND TIGER JAW--Humans may not be the only animals that crave freedom.

In these stories, we enter the minds of thirteen wild creatures and the humans that interact with them. There is no anthropomorphizing here--the beasts in this collection may be sentient, but they do not think like people, whether we encounter a captive tiger aching to kill a deer or an Alaskan eagle nervous about a pair of photographers approaching its nest. When a gray whale finds itself stranded on a California beach, it has no frame of reference for the dog that comes to sniff its overheated body. Nor can an orangutan in an Indonesian rehab center understand the origins of the flood threatening its cage.

The interior world of non-humans can only be explored through fiction--fiction based on what scientists have learned both in the laboratory and in the field. Only via story can we understand a giraffe's struggle through a nasty drought, the sizzling in a white shark's neural bundles when it finds the sea awash in tuna chum, or the pain an elephant feels from a poacher's bullet.

People living close to animals best understand the paradox of how they can be different, yet similar to humans. Nature photographers, zookeepers, wildlife biologists, even Central American macaw smugglers, have knowledge of wild creatures urban humans lack. And so within this volume we find a scientist exploring the underwater Antarctic world of a leopard seal, a drunk getting a bit too close to a polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba, and a crocodile expert in Northern Australia with a grudge to settle.

In a world where ever-growing human populations steal more and more carrying capacity from wildlife, it might behoove us to try to understand the animal mind. To understand a creature is to know it; to know it is to love it; and to love it may help keep it alive.

"Vanstrum's collection of animal stories is par excellence--certainly in the league with such notables as Roger Caras and Ernest Thompson Seton."

--John A. Murray, author of more than 40 books, including Cinema Southwest and The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook.