These are the books I read over the last two weeks.
Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond is an intriguing little book. Jules Maroni is a high wire artist in a family of circus folk, and when an opportunity presents itself to take part in a prestigious new circus, she drags her strangely unwilling family into it. It turns out that another family, the Flying Garcias, are also part of the circus, and there is a long running feud between the two families. Strange, possibly magical things start happening and putting people’s lives in danger, and Jules and Remy Garcia have to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. It’s clever and charming, but some pieces are a bit too on the nose- the main characters are from feuding families and are named Juliette and Romeo? But the parts about growing up in the circus are interesting, and the magic elements are well done.
Everything could end at any moment. The difference between life and death was one breath, one second, one act. And that meant that life was worth everything, every minute of every day.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is one of my absolutely favorite books of all time. So I was very excited to see a new book by Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. In it, Nafisi takes a look at American literature, and how it expresses the American spirit. She also considers how we are tied to other readers all over the world through the process of reading and love of literature- as though we all live in the Republic of the Imagination. Both of these ideas were of special interest to me, having read The Fall of Language in the Age of English not that long ago. Nafisi looks at three novels- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and intersperses memories of her own throughout her analysis. I can’t possibly detail everything she covers, as she starts in one place and takes you, conversation like, through a hundred different ideas before you get to the end – just like in Reading Lolita in Tehran. So much of this book is highlighted. All I can say is that I highly recommend it.
The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.
I came to see my passion for books and reading as intimately connected to my life as a citizen, as a teacher, as a writer, and felt I had a responsibility to articulate and share it in a public manner.
What these societies lack- what citizens in Iran and China go to jail and are tortured for, what tyrants are afraid of when they talk about Western democracies- is not technology or scientific prowess but a culture of democracy, a culture that understands and respects freedom of expression, of ideas, of imagination.
Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran by Gohar Homayounpour was not what I wanted it to be. The premise of the book, at least in the synopsis, was that it would be a look at whether psychoanalysis is possible in Iran, given the deeply embedded cultural beliefs. What it is is a memoir of the author returning to Tehran and attempting to set up a practice, and her own culture shock and difficulties with patients. She raises fascinating questions that she then completely sidesteps and never answers. For example:
Greek mythology seems to be populated with myths about killing fathers, while it is impossible to escape the pattern of killing sons all over Iranian mythology.
This- this is interesting. And she talks about it for one page before going on to something else. There just wasn’t enough meat here for me.
The formatting on the Kindle version is also wonky, so that for a lot of the book, the indenting was wrong, and the margins kept getting smaller and smaller in a strange claustrophobic way.
The Book of Heaven: A Novel by Patricia Storace is fascinating. It reminds me of The Red Tent, in that it’s alternate tellings of some well known stories, but the tone is different. The premise is that Eve is being shown various constellations before she goes to the Garden, so that she can learn from the women behind the constellations. There are four stories, and two of them are based on Biblical stories (I won’t say which because part of the fun is the moment of realizing which story you’re in) and the fourth pulls in a couple of others. The stories are beautiful and sad, honest about the mistreatment of women through so much of history and the strength that they showed despite their treatment. Parts are difficult to read because the injustices are so great, but it’s important stuff to read and to think about. One of the best parts of the book is the “proverbs” at the end of each story.
Every man has prayed at some time in his life to a false God.
A blessing given at another’s expense is not from God.
One sees in God only what one worships.
Like Zeus, men pretend women are cows so that they can pretend to be gods. Contempt for women is the expression of men’s secret scorn for God.
Rape is a kind of physics, steadily obeying laws of action and reaction. The rapist suffers from his own violence. His only relief is to transmit it to the object he is determined to harm as well as have; when he has replaced love in her with terror, and the lust to kill, he is satisfied. He has then raped in self-defense.
The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks is incredible. Inspiring, harrowing, so so so good. Saks graduated at the top of her class at Oxford, got a law degree from Yale, became a tenured law professor at USC, won numerous academic accolades and awards, has written numerous books, and did it all while suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. That she’s brilliant is obvious- anyone who could take graduate classes as a freshman, maintain stellar grades, and routinely write the best papers her professors had read (her masters thesis report said that while the extent of the thesis was appropriate to a masters, the quality was equal to that of a doctorate), all while hiding the terrifying and destructive thoughts and hallucinations in her mind has to be. She details her thoughts while cogent and while psychotic, and her experiences being committed and treated in mental hospitals in England and the US. It’s sad (I just kept wanting to hug her) and utterly fascinating.
The part that I found the most interesting is that it wasn’t until years and years and years of treatment and medication and relapses that she actually realized that her brain worked differently than other people’s. She truly believed that everyone heard voices and was being controlled by an outside force and could kill people with their minds and saw hallucinations, they just hid it better than she did. She truly felt that if she could just control her behavior better, she would be normal like everyone else. It wasn’t until a new anti-psychotic was created and she tried it that her brain worked “properly” and she realized that most of the world wasn’t constantly holding back a constant stream of psychosis.
This view into someone else’s mind is invaluable, I think. To get a glimpse of a thought process so different, and still so human. And her descriptions of her treatment are vital- she was rushed to the ER with what turned out to be a brain hemorrhage and was sent home as soon as the intake doctors saw her schizophrenia diagnosis because “she’s just having another episode”. A lot of the disgraceful treatment she was given happened in the 1970s, so I hope that things are better now, but remembering back to All My Puny Sorrows, which was based on the author’s actual experience, I wonder if it is. So often she talks about procedures being done or drugs being administered that are clearly for the convenience of the doctors and nurses, and I wonder how difficult and hopeless it must feel to be a psychiatric doctor.
So many questions, so many thoughts, so many things to think about. Such a good book. I highly, highly recommend it, with the warning that it’s intense reading, but so worth it.
“Yes.” I was desperate. I held my own life in my hands, and it was suddenly too heavy to be left there.
When you’re really crazy, respect is like a lifeline someone’s throwing you. Catch this and maybe you won’t drown.
This is a classic bind for psychiatric patients. They’re struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others, and at the same time, they desperately need the help of those they’re threatening to harm. The conundrum: Say what’s on your mind and there’ll be consequences; struggle to keep the delusions to yourself, and it’s likely you won’t get the help you need.
When you have cancer, people send flowers; when you lose your mind, they don’t.