“When a Crocodile eats the Sun” by Peter Godwin
I read this for bookclub – it wouldn’t be my first choice of reading material, I prefer fiction myself. It’s the author’s description of his concerns about his elderly ill parents and being middle aged and squeezed by concerns about your own family and your parents and trying to balance everyone’s interests. It has the added interest that his parents live in Zimbabwe and with their decline he is also charting the decline of his home and the devastation of a country. There’s a twist as well, though this is pretty well signalled by the pictures and the blurb.
What I found interesting was that this was the typical middle-aged, I’m worried about my parents line with a whole new twist. His mother needs an artificial hip and he’s trying to smuggle one into the country. She needs a blood donation but she doesn’t have one because of the high risk that she’ll contract AIDS. She knows what she’s talking about as she worked as a doctor in Zimbabwe for 40 years.
It made me look at my passion fruit from Zimbabwe in a new light and it has made me a lot more interested in the recent elections. It made me think about AIDS. You often see articles that say something along the lines of “AIDS is a tradgedy, of course, but more lives are lost to malaria” and I would wonder why AIDS is so much more of a disaster but he spelt it out for me: it kills people like me and him, people in the middle of their lives, looking after children and parents. Other diseases target the weak; malaria kills children and the elderly, AIDS kills the strong; it leaves the children and the old people to fend together as best they can and it rips apart societies. Life expectancy today in Zimbabwe is 33. Charlotte has an excellent piece on AIDS and a South Africa charity that she is supporting, if you’d like to have a look.
“Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present” by Lisa Appignanesi
This is the best book I’ve read this year. I am not normally a big fan of large factual books but this is a fascinating book.
I’ve become interested in madness since reading Siri Hustvedt’s “What I Loved” and it was the mention of the Salpetriere asylum in the review I read of this book that made me think that I would like to read it. Have you noticed that a lot of female bloggers are mad too? No, seriously, famously Dooce but others too refer to their prescriptions and bouts of depression – it seems to be generally depression I don’t see so much reference to manic depression or monomania in blogs. So with one thing and another, I’ve become interested in madness.
This book postulates that unlike other diseases, madness is shaped by the times. You know, measles is measles is measles but hysteria is neurasthenia is post-natal depression is puerperal madness or whatever you’re having yourself.
I started off and became a bit indignant as the author was making a lot of assertions and references none of which were backed up by notes. I appreciate that there is a balance between trying to write something that reads fluidly and having infinite notes but the balance seemed to be very off. I flicked to the back of the book and there were the notes, by page. A uniquely annoying way to do footnotes, in my view, bad enough that they’re at the back of the book but you don’t know where they come on the page. Do you keep flicking to the end, to see whether you’ve missed something or do you ignore the notes altogether? Also, it’s very difficult to find the information on the illustrations. Very irritating. But overall pretty mild quibbles and something they will maybe tidy up for the paperback edition.
Also, initially, the author does a lot of work to show why her title “Mad, Bad and Sad” is a good one practically saying, this is an example of someone bad and so on, she doesn’t need to and it jars but it stops quite soon. She occasionally also has an unhappy turn of phrase. These are my criticisms – I thought I’d get them out of the way early.
This is a new field to me and I don’t really have the tools to assess how good a job the author does in detail but in general, it’s an amazing sweep over the history of madness and how it manifests itself right up to the digital age.
I’m a little curious as to who she thinks is her audience. I know nothing about the topic but she brings me along safely, so I wonder would it be a bit basic for someone who knows more than me? Then, she will say, “Jung, of course, would repeat the process with Tony Wolff, another Jewish woman, one this time who would remain his lifelong mistress and intellectual partner”. See the way, she said, yes you know this to the better informed reader and went on to tell me anyway who it was – there’s a certain amount of that going on.
The book relies on a lot of case studies and, boy, are they interesting. Well worth the price of admission. Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s father’s first wife was Thackeray’s daughter Minnie and, I quote “the very child whose birth had precipiated the older writer’s wife into puerperal madness”? Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa and her step-sister “poor, mad Laura, abnormal from birth and long incarcerated” (Minnie’s daughter) were abused by Virginia’s stepbrother, “her mother’s son by a former marriage and fourteen years older than [Virginia]”. Frankly, is it any wonder she went mad?
There are some interesting observations about the 20th century belief that madness or, at the very least misery, is essential to creativity.
The author also shows the various swings in fashion from treating mental illness with physical cures or talking therapies and how cures go in and out of fashion.
One of the best things for me was how she showed that things we accept as natural, particularly in relation to mothers and babies are really just constructed ideas from the middle of the last century.
Overall, fascinating and brilliant and I fear I haven’t at all done it justice here. I never thought I would say that I was sad to finish a 500 page work of non-fiction but I was. Very.
I feel that I am the kind of person who should like graphic novels. I like science fiction, I am open to cartoons. I bought “Watchmen” because of the reviews printed on the back. It is one of Time Magazine’s 100 best books since 1923. I did not like it. At all. Anyone have a recommendation of something along these lines that might appeal?
“Vernon God Little” by DBC Pierre
Not for me but it does pick up in the last 100 pages. A number of reviews compare it to “The Catcher in the Rye”. I didn’t like that much either. The language is clever and inventive but a bit too clever and inventive for me, I found it a tough read as the plot was all but obscured by the language and the narrator’s obsession with underwear.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I hadn’t read this in 20 years, I’d say. I was amazed how brilliant it was, I had remembered all of the plot but none of the writing. It is an extraordinary book. Mind you, it’s a bit dense, I’m not sure I could take more than a novella. I note that there is a magazine called the The Conradian in which all of the editors of the Penguin edition have been involved. I once read that Martin Amis has fans not readers. I strongly suspect Conrad is the same. A little over-extensively annotated for my taste but the cover commissioned for this new penguin edition is superb.
When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
Lots of interesting ideas presented in very dull prose. This book won the Orange Prize for fiction and, if you ask me, it was unworthy. Though I found Amos Oz immensely hard going, his book “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is so much more layered and nuanced than this one that having read it, it was hard to take this book very seriously. The prose in this book is at best bland and, at times, confusing and the plot is pretty pedestrian but there are some really interesting ideas about Israel, Palestine and Britain and some superb quotes, my favourite being words to the effect (can’t actually find the quote as such): there was a time when everyone who wasn’t carrying a violin case when he came off the boat in Palestine was assumed to be a pianist.
“Airman“ by Eoin Colfer
Clever but not as good as the Artemis Fowl books. What do you mean you don’t read children’s books?