Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto

Oh how I love a book that can speak unhysterically about the hysterical awfulness of living with a severe mental illness. Em and the Big Hoom (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is a son’s story of his manic depressive mother and his family’s life with her. Through conversations with his mother, Em, about how she met his father and the course of her mental illness, we see the toll that Em’s illness has taken on her and on her family. Hat tip to Shannon for the recommendation!

Though the book is occasionally disorganized, as Pinto jumps around in time from his childhood to his adulthood to his teen years and back again, what shines is the dialogue, which conveys everything about its characters. Here’s Em:

“What’s Oedipal?”

Em loved a good story. She was off.

“Ick,” I said when Oedipus wandered off, his eyes bleeding and his future uncertain, escorted by his daughter who was also his sister.

“Well you may say ‘Ick’,” said Em. “But that’s what Freud says every boy wants to do to his mother. Ick, I say to Mr. Freud. He must have been odd, even for an Austrian. Not that I’m racist, but why would they have a navy when they’re landlocked?”

“Mr. Freud was in the navy?” I asked, confused.

“No, silly, I’m talking about The Sound of Music.

These conversations, dashing back and forth between topics, form the spine of the book. But Pinto is also superb when talking about the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, which Em has. Sometimes his narrator wonders if Em is putting on the manic phase a bit, emphasizing her craziness for dramatic effect. But he never wonders about the authenticity of her sadness, which sucks her down and takes over everything.

I really liked this book and recommend it highly. Pinto conveys the toll mental illness takes on the family as they deal with it: both the emotional difficulty of living with someone who at any moment might lash out viciously at you, or attempt to take her own life, and the paralyzing fear the child of a woman with bipolar disorder has that he will develop the same illness.

Other bits I liked:

“But window-shopping was tourism once upon a time. You never thought you would take any of that stuff home. You didn’t think it would belong to you. Like the Taj Mahal. You went to look at it and then you got a good shot of it running in your veins. You now had some beauty under your eyelids.”

“What control do mad people have? I don’t know myself. I only know there is some control. Some things you can choose not to say. Some things you can choose not to do. It’s such a mess, that’s why it’s madness. Because even when you say things which are not in your control, you’re saying them because not saying them will mean having to say other things. So you say, ‘I’ll let this one out of its cage and that should make the other cage stronger.'”

Cover report: American by a lot. Though I admit I may be swayed by the attractiveness of the American book. It’s got French flaps, which always feel enormously decadent, and deckle-edge paper, and an odd trim size. I love an unusual trim size!

Em and the Big Hoom (American)
American cover
Em and the Big Hoom (British)
British cover

Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Before writing about people writing about parenting, can I say, happy anniversary to my own lovely parents? Happy anniversary, Mumsy & Daddy! Y’all are the best ever!

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who are married and writers, both wrote books of essays about parenting and family. I checked them out of the library together. Waldman’s book, Bad Mother, had eighteen chapters and an introduction, and Chabon’s, Manhood for Amateurs, had thirty-nine chapters. So I would basically read a chapter of Bad Mother and then two chapters of Manhood for Amateurs until I had finished them both. This was very pleasing except that sometimes I would forget whose book I was reading and be like, Good heavens, Ayelet Waldman slept with a thirty-five-year-old woman when she was fifteen?

Can I recommend that you all read both of these books in the same manner that I did? I got such a crush on Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, even though I didn’t like the one Michael Chabon book I read before this one. It was touching to read their writing about each other and their kids, because it’s plain that they adore the kids and admire each other tremendously. And I am a sucker for couples who admire each other. Like the Brownings. Except the Brownings are still my favorite literary couple. Of course. A time will never come when this is not the case.

When I cried: Waldman’s essays “Rocketship” about having an abortion, and “The Audacity of Hope” about that guy who does that stupid dance all over the world and how parents try to portray the world as kind to their children. (Y’all, I know it’s dorky, but that video makes me tear up.) And also Chabon’s “The Binding of Isaac” about the Obama girls on election night, and “The Hand on My Shoulder” about his ex-father-in-law, and “The Story of Our Story” about telling stories to his brother.

One thing I loved about both books is the awareness of each of the writers of the mythologizing function of family. Chabon writes about this particularly in his essay “The Amateur Family.” It’s about Doctor Who. I’d really rather quote the part where Chabon says something about “the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor”, but instead of doing that, I’ll quote this:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.

As a girl who can easily spend hours arguing with her sisters about the proportional amounts of blame to be assigned each sister the time Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron, or discussing how Doctory Matt Smith is compared to David Tennant, I can vouch for the similarity of the two arguments. We are all very fond of Matt Smith. We just like David Tennant, in varying degrees, better. And it wasn’t at all my fault that Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron. If Anna hadn’t broken one of her porcelain horses on a previous occasion, she would not have thought I was serious when I was threatening to break the other one and taken preemptive action. Not my fault at all.

Waldman says this, which I also know is true because I swear I have had nearly this exact experience.

And I think, “A person does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.

I wrote down so many quotations from these books! Ayelet Waldman on division of labor:

But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way….One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent.

Michael Chabon on escaping from life:

When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it. When that window can’t be found, or will no longer serve, or when it inevitably turns out to be only paint on the unchanging, impenetrable backdrop of our heads, small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer form of egress.

Maybe I would like Michael Chabon’s books after all. I mean I know all about his family now, and how to pronounce his last name, and the covers of his books are pretty. But I am still gun-shy from reading Kavalier and Clay on the plane a few years ago and finding it disappointing, so I think I’m just going to read Maps and Legends for now.

Reviews of Bad Mother:

Necromancy Never Pays
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
The Book Lady’s Blog (and guest review)
Devourer of Books
In Search of Giants

And reviews of Manhood for Amateurs:

Shelf Love
Stella Matutina
Amy Reads
Necromancy Never Pays
Fizzy Thoughts
The Bluestocking Society
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On with The Written World
The Captive Reader
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Dads
Killin’ Time Reading
eclectic/eccentric

Let me know if I missed yours!

http://thecaptivereader.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/manhood-for-amateurs-michael-chabon/

Review: Poppy Shakespeare, Clare Allan

Remember when I said I love y’all?  And one of the things I said was that y’all have offered me books just because I said I really wanted to read them?  Well, Poppy Shakespeare is one of those.  raidergirl at an adventure in reading reviewed it a while ago, and I had a moan over the fact that my library hadn’t got it and wouldn’t order it (my library has a function where you can ask it to order books but they have never, ever listened to one of my suggestions; meanwhile a good friend of mine says they order every book she asks for), and anyway raidergirl sent it to me!  All the way from Canada!

Why I wanted it: It’s narrated by a patient of a mental hospital in England, and explores the whole idea of mental health infrastructure and how it works and when it fails.  The narrator, N, considers that she knows mental illness (what she calls “dribbling”) better than anyone else, as she has been crazy all her life.  She is proud when she is chosen to act as a guide to a new day patient, a woman called Poppy Shakespeare who doesn’t act like the other dribblers and passionately denies that she belongs there.

I know nothing at all about the state of mental health and mental hospitals in Britain, and I expect that a lot of the satire went flying miles over my head.  However, I thought Allen’s depiction of the Dorothy Fish day ward rang very true: the hierarchy, the scrambling to do well (or, you know, badly) on assessments, the strong and passionate resistance to change.  I also thought that N’s devotion to Poppy worked gorgeously, not just her obvious desire to be a good guide and help Poppy (by her lights), but also the way her language changed and reflected things that Poppy had said.

I generally will say that I do not like a descent into madness book.  I find them disorienting and generally not very subtle, or when they are subtle they’re too subtle, and altogether I am impossible to please on the descent into madness front.  The Haunting of Hill House is one of only a very few descent into madness books that I find acceptable.  (“Descent into madness book” is not a very snappy thing to call this sort of a book.  Hm, if only there were a better word for descent into madness books….)  Poppy Shakespeare did not bother me in this regard because the point of view character wasn’t the one descending; she’d already descended, if you will, and was comfortable with where she was.  So it was less stressful for me to watch Poppy descending into madness, and I loved it how the book kept me guessing – is she or isn’t she?

(I still don’t really know.)

(Mental illness is like that sometimes.)

Oh, you know what bugged me?  I didn’t know any of those medications!  Because, of course, they were not real ones, and Clare Allan rather cleverly gave them (and most of the doctors) dire, evil-sounding names.  This was a nifty plot idea, but I love it when I encounter drugs whose names I know in books, because then I think about what those particular drugs are for (anti-anxiety, anti-psychosis) and what their side effects are, and then I watch the characters to see if they respond the way they’re meant to.  Which I wouldn’t have been able to do here even if Clare Allan had used proper drugs, because they’re in Britain and everything is called something else in Britain.

Other reviews:

an adventure in reading

Did I miss yours?  Let me know!  I will add a link!

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Susan Jane Gilman

The word “grandiose”, in my family, is a loaded word.  When one of us uses the word “grandiose” to describe someone, we understand that we actually mean “might possibly benefit from medication; updates as warranted”.  I bring that up because if I had been traveling in Communist China with a girl I didn’t know very well, and she had started talking about the project she was working on that was going to be important to national security, I’d have called home and said, “Claire is waxing grandiose,” and my parents would have said, “You get her on a plane and both of you come home this instant.”

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a chronicle of Susan Gilman and her friend “Claire Van Houten”, who decide to go on a round-the-world backpacking trip after they graduated from Brown.  They plan to see the world raw and real, stay off the beaten path, and come home with stories of places and things unseen by Western eyes.  This already sounds very unawesome to me.  I have high anxiety levels and no sense of direction, and I do not like to go to new places (especially new places where I don’t speak the language) without a minder to mind me.  But wait!  Susan Gilman’s already unawesome plans become so much worse.  As they are traveling off the beaten path in Communist China, Claire goes crazy.  Crazy.

RIGHT IN HER HEAD.

Here is the point at which I, child of therapists, talker-out of feelings, and frequent consulter of the DSM-IV, would have decided to pack it in:

“I’m working on a world curriculum,” she said distantly, twisting her watch around on her wrist.  “A compendium of insights on all the nations we’re visiting.  I have to profile their cultures, their histories, their outlooks.  Eventually it will be adapted for grade schools, high schools, universities, and think tanks in Washington.  It’ll be a prototype – you know, a sort of Proustian examination of the world today?  But it’ll be practical, too.  Kids like Cynthia’s boys, whose parents can’t take them to China and India, they’ll be able to access it like a database…It’s something I’ve just got to do.  It’s crucial.  One day it might become a component of our national security.”

Here is the point at which Susan Jane Gilman decided to go home:

“Claire jumped in a river?” I say after a moment.

“Yes.  But do not worry,” Jonnie adds hurriedly.  “The peasants fished her out.”

“Peasants?”

“Yes.  And they gave her clothes.”

“Clothes?” I say faintly.  “What happened to her clothes?”

“It seems she took them off,” he replies, “when she jumped in the river.”

Horrific, right?  Remember, they were in Communist China in 1986, before the internet, or like, international phone cards.  They got questioned by the military police more times than one time.  Gilman does a good job conveying her own ignorance and helplessness, her (understandable, I think) failure to recognize the signs that Claire was having a breakdown, her occasional seriously awful behavior to the people she meets.  She also writes movingly of the splendor of the good moments: walking on the Great Wall of China, listening to a Chinese opera singer on a boat late at night, the kindness of the people they meet.

However, I couldn’t enjoy this book.  It resembled too closely my worst nightmares of traveling.  It was one of those reading experiences where you can’t abandon the book in the middle, because your imagination has to be worse than the truth, and at the same time, you can’t go to bed with the book unfinished, because it will crawl into your subconscious and affix itself to your dreams like a leech.  After the Oscars (which I watched using the channels on my television, and turning the volume up and down with my remote control just because I could) I stayed up until 12:30 to finish the book.  I cannot take this kind of stress.  I must never read this book again.

I felt this same way, but more so, about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I read once on a road trip.  I had to keep reading and I didn’t want to keep reading, and finally I abandoned it at a rest stop in Alabama.  What’s been an upsetting read for you in the past?  A book that you wished you had never started but you couldn’t not finish?

Other reviews:

Sophisticated Dorkiness
reading is my superpower
Bermudaonion’s Weblog
5 Minutes for Books
S. Krishna’s Books
Wrighty’s Reads
One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
A Bookworm’s World
Chick with Books
Devourer of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
She Is Too Fond of Books
Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Books in the City
Bookin’ with Bingo
Drey’s Library
A Novel Menagerie
My Book Views
Bookopolis

Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell

Y’all, at some point, I’m going to do a mental illness reading challenge.  Is there already one?  I’m going to do one if there isn’t already one.  I love mental illness (I mean I do not love it.  It is awful and ruins people’s lives.  I just find it very interesting).  As soon as I think of a clever name and invent an adorable button, I will be all over this, and Swallow Me Whole is one of the books you can read for it.  PREPARE YOURSELVES.

I read Swallow Me Whole for the Graphic Novels Challenge!

Swallow Me Whole is about two step-siblings called Ruth and Perry who both see and hear things that other people can’t.  Perry sees a small wizard creature who tells him what to do, sometimes things he doesn’t want to do.  Ruth collects insects in jars and rearranges them endlessly; she hears them speak, and she believes that she can perceive patterns that most of the world is missing.  Ruth starts taking pills; Perry does not.

At first I had some problems with the style of art and the lettering.  The lines are slightly wavery, and the letters are too, and I kept having to read the words twice.  I thought: Aha!  This is what people complain about when they say they have a hard time with graphic novels!  Overwhelming art and letters!  In the end, though, I adjusted and enjoyed the book quite a bit.  Like Ruth and Perry, the reader is not always sure what’s real and what isn’t.  It’s disorienting and scary, which makes it easy to sympathize with the characters.  I love it that Nate Powell writes characters with severe mental illnesses, while keeping them relatable.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what happened at the end though.  It made me feel stupid.  I hate it when I finish books and feel stupid.  I finished and felt stupid and resented Nate Powell with his, you know, wobbly lines, and I went online to see what he had to say for himself.  And you know what he said?  He said if there was ambiguity, it was probably down to bad storytelling.  Actually in this case I think I am just stupid, but I appreciate Nate Powell for saying that.

Mental illness challenge.  I’m going to do it.

Other reviews:

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On (thanks for the recommendation!)
Reading Thru the Night

Let me know if I missed yours!

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I love a memoir, y’all, and you know what I love more than a memoir?  A graphic novel memoir.  Delicious.  My library has a new section on their ever-growing graphic novels shelf, which is Biography.  When I went in yesterday (collecting films for my poor sick little sister and lots of excellent books for me), I took three of the five books from the new wee little section.  Including Fun Home – which I remember the library not having last time I checked, and I was well cross about it.

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel‘s memoir about her father, a closeted gay man who ran a funeral home and was (by accident or design) hit by a truck when she was nineteen.  In the book, she deals with his sexuality and her own, both their struggles with mental illness, and all sorts of things, painstakingly documenting everything with recreated photographs, letters, diary entries, and maps.

The structure of the book is loopy and self-referential, rather than chronological – she returns to crucial moments in her self-discovery and her discoveries about her father, several times in some cases, giving the reader more context each time.  I like this because that is what growing up is like – how you learn new things all the time, and then you come back to something familiar and you have to recast it in your mind, shedding the light of your new experiences on it.

I read an interview with Alison Bechdel where she said that she was nervous about herself as a writer when she began doing this book.  As I was reading it, I was struck by the elegance and thoroughness (for lack of a better word!) of the writing.  Where she’s describing scenes from her childhood, it’s very sensory, evoking the sounds and smells as well as, in the drawings, the sights.  And she is also very self-aware, exploring her own thoughts about and motives in dealing with her father – as an obsessive thought-examiner myself, I wondered whether this was another symptom of her OCD.

As I say, the writing was lovely, but there were times in the book when I thought there were too many words for the pictures – it got a bit frenetic sometimes, and I would have loved to have seen a few full-page or two-page spreads without any words in, to break up the words.

Oh, but she uses the word “perseverate”!  My anxious and obsessive (but self-aware!) family use “perseverate” all the time, just ALL THE TIME, but you don’t see it out there in the world all that often.  Shame because “perseverate” is one of those words that feels defining for my obsessive thinking – like my endless attempts to consider all the sides of any issue, and give a fair hearing to all viewpoints, it sounds like it should be a good thing, so close to “persevere”, which is a good thing.  But in fact it keeps going, past “persevere”, “perseverate”, doing it too much and it’s time to stop.  So I like seeing it being used.  Perseverate.

Bechdel makes use of myths and literature throughout the book – she talks about a book she read at a certain time in her life, then carries on talking about its relevance to her life, her sexuality, her relationship with her father, whatever – while the characters in the panel carry on discussing the book.  I am so impressed by this.  The captions shift focus, but the characters from her past are still paying attention to the literature, and she uses passages from the books/plays/whatever to deepen the meaning of what she says in the captions.  And I am not just praising this technique because there’s a chapter that features The Importance of Being Earnest, making beautiful use of Lady Bracknell’s lines.

(I’m not!  Really!  I mean, do I like it when a book makes reference to Oscar Wilde and how he is funny and brilliant?  Yes!  But do I require more than that to be happy with a book?  …Well.  No.  Actually.  Pretty much, you compliment Oscar Wilde and I am going to look upon you with favor. However, Fun Home would have been great without featuring The Importance of Being Earnest.)

And my perennial problem with memoirs: The Family.  In her acknowledgements, Bechdel thanks her mother and brothers for not trying to stop her from writing this book.  I had to go look up interviews with her – she says that she did let her family read it, and changed some of the things they objected to, and argued for keeping others.  Quote:

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for “funeral home.” When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: ” ‘No more information about your dad,’ ” Bechdel remembers her saying. “She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years.” Currently, although “it’s painful for her to have the information out there,” her mother, Bechdel said, “also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there’s a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort.”

Eeek!  I feel so anxious about this when I read a memoir!  I am a very private person, and if I had had all these problems in my marriage and my life, I sure as hell wouldn’t want the whole world to know about it.  And look, neither did the mum:

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act. You’re violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that’s just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

I am glad that she acknowledges this – at least part of my concern about memoirs is that the writers aren’t giving any weight to their family’s privacy, and Bechdel, with characteristic self-awareness, makes note that what she did was problematic.  On the other hand, Fun Home is very wondrous and if Alison Bechdel had felt the same way I do about (her mum’s and her own) privacy, it would never have existed.  So I don’t know. Does this bother you when you read memoirs – whether the family wants their secrets aired in public?

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Farm Lane Book Blog, A Life in Books, The Written World, Books for Breakfast, Valentina’s Room, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, A Striped Armchair, Bookish, and tell me if I missed yours!

Tricked, Alex Robinson

My graphic novel experiments continue!  I checked this out because I opened it up and I liked some of the things the artist did with panels.  I still do actually – there’s a page I remember, where the whole page is the character’s face, and it’s broken up into panels with dialogue across it.  It’s a good effect, how the dialogue washes across the character as he’s deep in thought.  Maybe it’s because I read Scott McCloud’s books, or maybe it’s because there were some rather flashy art choices (not flashy in a bad way!), but I noticed panel divisions and art tricks a lot more, reading Tricks, than I have in past graphic novel readings.

Tricked is about a number of people – a musician, Ray Beam, who hasn’t recorded an album in years; a pretty girl called Lily who becomes his personal assistant (with or without quotation marks); a waitress called Caprice who’s looking for luuuuv; a girl who comes to find her long-lost father; a fantastically boring forger in a pawn shop; and a schizophrenic IT guy called Steve who has gone off his meds.

I don’t know.  I enjoyed reading this, I guess,  but I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters.  They were cardboard cutouts of Types, I thought, and not much happened to make them more interesting.  A lot of the situations seemed far-fetched, and just became more so as the story went on.  Even when the characters themselves acknowledged the craziness of their lives, it didn’t make their lives any less implausibly crazy.  When I finished the book, I felt like I had been waiting for better things.

The art was excellent though.  Really.  I think the reason I finished the book at all was that the art was very cool.  Lots of good tricks (tricks, Tricked, ya see what I did there?) with the panels, and with making the pictures and dialogue work together.  I love that stuff.

If you reviewed this let me know and I will link to yours!

Takin’ Over the Asylum

So when I was a wee lass, struggling with greater than/less than and detesting long division that ended with remainders (this is why I don’t like math! – because lots of things end up with solutions that are very untidy and not whole numbers AT ALL), the BBC was creating a miniseries about a DJ at a mental hospital radio station and the patients there, called Takin’ Over the Asylum.  And although I was too wee to care at the time, they were being surprisingly careful not to be an asshole, and getting their actors to perform four major mental illnesses (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, and OCD) with care and sensitivity, if not always total accuracy.

And yes, okay, the reason I wanted to watch this in the first place is that it contains a young David Tennant, large of nose and floppy of hair, playing a manic(poor typecast thing but he does do it brilliantly)-depressive kid who also wants to be a DJ.  However, when I read a bit more about it, I discovered I wanted to see it for its own sake anyway.  The extras in the series were people who had previously been patients in mental hospitals, so they could make sure they weren’t getting mental hospitals wrong!  How good’s that?  Oh, and also, it’s set in Glasgow, rendering everyone TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

No, I’m exaggerating.  They are only a little bit incomprehensible.  I listen slightly slower than they talk, which is fine when they’re only saying one or two sentences; it’s just when they go on and on (David Tennant goes on and on) that I sometimes get lost around the middle.  There’s also the other problem of David Tennant being so damn cute (seriously, look at how adorable he was) that every time he comes on screen my sister and I have to shriek loudly because he’s just so young.  And that tends to make us miss his lines.

Takin’ Over the Asylum is sad.  I was pleased they didn’t try to make everything bright and cheery at the end, because mental illness is really sad and difficult.  I got to be really fond of the five central characters, and I wanted them all to triumph over the odds and get what they wanted.  Things got better and worse, better and worse, which is just the way it goes.

The keen-eyed amongst you may have spotted that this is not a book review.  Only when I was reading Donna Franceschild’s recollections of making this series, she says that the director sometimes worried that the hospital orderly was being too vicious, and the extras all said, no, he’s got it exactly right.  And that made me sad, and also reminded me of how interested I am in the history of mental health care and how little I know about it.

Et voila, I checked out Edward Shorter’s A History of Psychiatry.  When I used to work at one of the college bookshops in town, this was one of the books I wrote down to read.  And then one day this girl came in to sell her copy back, and I asked if it was fascinating, as I suspected it must be, and she said, “No.  It’s actually really boring.  I thought it was going to be my favorite textbook but it was really boring.”

And it wasn’t so much that it was boring, as that it didn’t give a good idea of the sweep of change in psychiatry.  It’s more a history of people in psychiatry, which is dull, episodic, and difficult to follow.  I got about a fifth of the way through and couldn’t manage to continue.  However, I did examine his bibliography to find out some other books about the history of psychiatry, so I hope I will have more to say on this subject in the future.

An Inconvenient Wife, Megan Chance

I love books about the Victorians.  It’s Oscar Wilde’s fault for being one.  And I like books about mental illness, as long as they do not do that stream of consciousness thing, which I absolutely can’t stand.  So when I read about this on the other Jenny Claire’s blog, I was pleased as punch to read it; and yes, I did mess up my don’t-check-out-any-more-library-books thing in order to get this book.  And, okay, yes, since I was at the library anyway, I may have gotten a few other books as well.

An Inconvenient Wife is about an upper-class American woman called Lucy who is very depressed and anxious and has been having panic attacks, because she’s unhappy with married life.  Her husband William wants to take care of her.  After a number of failed attempts to fix her, her husband arranges for her to see a neurologist called Victor Seth.  Seth becomes obsessed with trying to make Lucy all strong and independent, and let’s just say that their doctor-patient relationship does not remain entirely a professional one.

This was a thought-provoking book – Lucy is becoming a person who does not depend on her husband and peers to define how she should behave.  On the other hand, you never feel sure that she’s doing what she wants to do and being who she’s supposed to be, because her doctor’s manipulating her, and their relationship is never going to be acceptable because he’s abusing the entire doctor-patient dynamic.  It was disturbing.  I never felt like I had found my footing.

Given the choice, I’d rather read a book that was slightly melodramatic, than one that was so reflective you couldn’t locate a plot.  However, I thought this book could have been better than it was by being just the tiniest smidge more subtle about Lucy’s mindset, and the things that were going to happen.  Towards the end of the book, a number of slightly melodramatic things happened, and they would have been completely fine (you know, more fine) if they had been handled a bit more delicately.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, Ruth Rendell

On with the reading of books by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine to decide what I indeed think of her!

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me – of whose title, incidentally, I simply cannot approve – is all about a caddish man called Jeffrey John Leach, who is wickedly assuming false names and seducing women so that they will give him money, and then he ups and vanishes, leaving them a bit in the lurch.  He has done just this to two of the three central characters here – crazy Minty Knox who has OCD and hears voices, and opportunist Zillah Leach who is now about to enter into a marriage of convenience with a childhood friend and queer MP – while carrying on an affair with a woman called Fiona, whose married neighbors don’t much care for him.

This book was interesting, and I read it straight through in one go, though more because I want to return it to the library when I go at two than because it was so frightfully gripping.  Everyone was just so unpleasant, it was difficult to care at all what happened to anybody.  I was pleased Michelle and Matthew ended up happy, although less pleased than I would have been before Michelle started getting all hysterical (why do Ruth Rendell’s women all go to pieces every time something goes wrong?).  But Zillah was awful, Fiona was neurotic, and Minty Knox with all her craziness just didn’t ring true for me.  So oh well.  On to the next.