Books that deal with difficult topics..

Following Mental Health Day on the 10th October, I  want to highlight a couple of books which I have read recently that deal broadly with the often difficult topics of mental health and mental disability.

The first book is one which I am not sure if you can still buy, but it was one which had been in our house for a very long time. My Mum had read it when she was younger, and it had made such an impact that this thin little paperback had survived the many (many) ‘spring-cleaning’ sessions that we have in our house (oh, the books that have been lost to charity shops, never to be seen again).

And in fact, the second book has had the same sort of journey through the decades. Which gives you an idea of how incredibly important it was that these books were written, and how they have touched the lives of those who have read them.

I understand that most people read books for an enjoyable experience, as do I most of the time. Recently a friend mine, who had seen me finish ‘Walter’ and received a somewhat depressing summary of events, asked me why I would want to read such a distressing and painful book. When I read a book I am not necessarily looking for it to make me happy, make me fall in love or give me a thrill – human experiences can be hard to read, but I think the most important thing is that they’re shared.

 

‘Anna’ by David Reed

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It seems likely to me that ‘Anna’ is actually a women by the name of Hannelore Pfeifer, a doctoral student of German literature at Munich University who died in 1973, and her then husband ‘David Reed’, the award-winning British-born biographer, academic and broadcaster Nigel Hamilton.

Written in a combination of narrative prose and sentence-fragment journal style, this is ‘David’s’ story of his life with ‘Anna’ and her struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar depression.

Anna is described as having shown signs of mental illness from early-on, but with relative stability they marry and have two children. Not long into the marriage Anna experiences an almost complete break from reality. She is allowed to remain at home with weekly “talk therapy” sessions. This method is suggested by Anna’s psychiatrist (who I believe to actually be the therapist Leon Redler), the theory being that schizophrenia is a reaction to oppression, and once the patient went through a process of the breakdown they would come to recover.

This book describes psychological trauma, child endangerment, atttempted suicide and intense physical suffering. Hopes for her recovery were dashed by a suicide attempt by fire, which she survived with burns to 75% of her body and later died as a result of.

This is nothing but a heartbreaking account of the final breakdown of ‘Anna’. David looks back at their marital relationship and refusal to put her in a National Health hospital, believed to be synonymous with electric shock treatment, and reflects on the choices that were made and how they failed to safeguard her.

 

‘Walter’ by David Cook

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“Some call him ‘backward’, some say he’s ‘handicapped’, and others just think of him as a joke. But Walter’s parents stand between him and the world. Till one day Jesus comes and takes Eric away and not long after that He comes for Sarah, too. Walter prays to Jesus, asking Him to change His mind- and then Walter and the pigeons sit in Sarah’s room, waiting for her to wake up.”

This book is one of those that will stay with you a long time after you’ve finished it. Walter is described as one of “Jesus’ mistakes”. It is described in the book how his father was born as a result of incestuous abuse, and Walter as a result is mentally and physically challenged.

The book is beautifully but painfully observed, following him from childhood to adulthood – and all that he is subjected to in between. It is described not only from the point of view of Walter, but also that of his parents, as their innermost, brutally honest thoughts about their ‘simple’ son are revealed to us.

It doesn’t have the (admittedly unrealistic) happy ending you so wish for throughout. Though, I can say that Walter as a character is so wonderfully developed by Cook that by the end of book he is a positively heroic figure.

Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Thomas Matthews

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“Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens. […]

When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.

Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. […]
Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. […]

Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.” – Goodreads

I was excited to read this book considering it got generally good reviews and I have enjoyed reading books about Irish immigration in the past (sadly not including the disappointing Brooklyn, but that’s for another day).

Instead of being plot-driven, this book is entirely characters-driven, as we follow the life of one family. It’s a LONG book, so if a plot is important to you, you might find that you struggle to get through it (or don’t make it through at all). I think there are certainly areas that could have been edited down, and a least 100 pages that could have been lost at no great detriment to the story or characters. 

However, Thomas provides us with wonderfully three-dimensional characters. They are incredibly honest, and disappoint you or let you down on numerous occasions. I don’t see it as a necessity to ‘like’ the main character in a book, but after warming to Eileen as a child at the beginning, I disliked the jaded adult she had become quite a lot by the end. I think the use of third person perhaps diminished the effectiveness of the character’s voices, as I find being ‘told’ a story is incredibly different to a first-person narrative. 

The story is very human, often devastating and painfully raw – but written with sensitivity and a wonderful eye for human nature. I have to say though that the storyline itself is nothing short of depressing. I’m not one to shy away from a sad story, the more emotional the better. However, perhaps due to the length of this book it really felt like quite a slog to get through, and I found myself caring less as the book went on. 

I don’t want to discuss the final third/quarter of the book too much, as I found it an important part of my reading experience to be unaware of what would befall the Leary family. ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ is a book that needs to be digested in it’s own way by each reader; I’ve seen 1 star reviews and I’ve seen many more 5 star reviews, but I’d recommend you give it a shot. 

 

 

 

Barter Books

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If you ever find yourself in Alnwick, Northumberland… then visit Barter Books! It’s one of the largest second hand bookshops in the UK, and absolutely wonderful. After camping in Bamburgh for two nights in the rain (and in a leaky tent too), it was a very welcome surprise visit.

Review: Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri

9781447265917Hunting Season“Sicily, 1880. When a stranger arrives in Vigàta, the town’s inhabitants immediately become unsettled. It seems the young man, Fofo, is the son of a local peasant legendary for his home-grown medicines; a man who was murdered many years before.

Fofo opens his own pharmacy in Vigàta and his remedies are sought by many. But he soon finds himself entangled with the local nobility: Don Filippo – a philandering marchese set on producing a new heir, his long-suffering wife Donna Matilde, his eccentric elderly father Don Federico, his son Federico and beautiful daughter Ntontò, above all. But it won’t be long before death visits Vigàta and the town and its most noble family will never be the same again . . .

Both a delightful murder mystery and a comic novel of huge brio, fired by love and obsession and filled with memorable characters, Hunting Season is the captivating new book from the bestselling author of the Inspector Montalbano series.” – Goodreads

Andrea Camilleri is considered one of the greatest Italian writers of both the 20th and 21st centuries, but I don’t think Hunting Season is the book to justify that title. I haven’t read the Inspector Montalbano series, so I can’t pass judgement on him as a writer. I bought this after stumbling across it in Alnwick, in a fantastic second hand bookshop called Barter Books, which I definitely recommend you visit. However, I can’t recommend this book.  After reading the blurb I thought it would be up my street; I enjoy Italian historical novels, I like a good murder mystery, and I was looking forward to some dark humour.  

I don’t enjoy writing negatively about anyone’s work, but I really did not enjoy this book, and was quite thankful that it was reasonably short. Many have reviewed this book as wonderfully strange, full of eccentric characters, and a comedy of life and death. It was strange, but I can’t say that I found it funny, clever or charming. In fact, I found it predictable in it’s crudeness and boring in character and story line. 

The characters were left poorly developed, so I failed to be involved enough to appreciate their actions, or their demises. It was clear from the start that Fofo the pharmacist would be the central character, but for the most part of the story he remained in the background, and by the time he reappeared at the end of the book for the finale he had entirely lost his intrigue, and I felt as though his whole character had been lost in translation.

By the end of the book I was tired of reading bawdy sex scenes, which were intended to be comedic. I’m usually a fan of a bit of dark comedy, but the supposedly subtle and dry wit of a woman painting her bottom black, or the puns intended to poke fun at the priest with anger issues, didn’t tickle me. 

I can happily read a book with no female characters, however I can’t say I enjoyed the tone of this novel. I’m not sure whether Camilleri thought it an amusing exaggeration of the misogyny of the time, a sort of 19th century reality show, but the humour seemed cheap. There are very few female characters, and they fall into two categories;

1. Women whose purpose is purely as sexual objects and are embarrassingly grateful at being used as one, or who are out to jump every male character they find (neither surprising nor interesting to read a male author’s fantasy)

2. Emotionally unstable noble women driven mad by having to endure the same as the male characters (there’s a lot of weeping, wailing, fainting and looking sad)

It’s not a ‘whodunnit’ as there is no mystery, it’s more of a story including murders. I had thought the pharmacist might be gay, but there was no such twist or ‘zinger’ at the end. The ending seemed poorly concluded, a fragmented anti-climax where new characters were introduced. After building up a string of philandering and deaths, I had hoped for more from this underwhelming story. 

 

 

 

Review: Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

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“The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God’s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina’s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant…” – Goodreads

 

 

 

I’m a big fan of historical fiction, although I’m a bit of a stickler for a level of factual accuracy and believability, so I’m careful with what I choose to read. A particular favourite sub-genre of mine is art history; they’re always (descriptively) visually beautiful and normally quite romantic. After reading The Birth of Venus (which I could praise for days) I was eager to read more from Sarah Dunant. In Sacred Hearts she brings to life this convent community and all it’s complex residents. This is a rich, compelling and completely human love story. It illuminates not only love and passion, but also the exultation of the spirit, and the deep, enduring power of friendship against all imaginable physical, emotional and spiritual hardship. 

This is a book about women, and the deprivation of their freedom and choices. Sarah Dunant tells us about how these women, imprisoned in convents, turned to God largely as a mean’s of holding onto their sanity and the little amount of power and control that they had left in their day to day lives. They did what they needed to, to find acceptance and happiness in a life that for most was not chosen by themselves. It is often quite distressing as she portrays the extreme lengths that these women went to, to find God’s love; both self-inficted and inflicted upon them. She describes fasting to starvation, self-mutilation, as well as the emotional anguish that these women endured.

Sarah Dunant’s descriptions are sensorily vivid, so much so that I found it effortless from the first page to imagine the convent,  it’s cells, cloister and garden. The characters are likewise brought to life in beautiful prose, each made real and ‘solid’ through their individual stories, both told and untold.

It is clear that the political and historical detail of the time is well researched. I have found some historical fiction slightly on the dry side (notably Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – which I will have to try tackle again sometime) but I found that this struck a good balance between story and fact. 

Overall I thought this was a beautiful and moving novel that was wonderfully easy to read. Books about nuns are hard to get right; either too evangelical or a clichéd forbidden love story. This could be called a love story, but I found it to be so much more than that. 

In the author’s notes, Sarah Dunant quotes a nun from Santi Naborre e Felice convent in Bolgna, written to the Pope –

“Many of us are shut up against our will and deprived of all contact with the outside world. Living with such strictness and abandoned by everyone, we have only hell in this world and the next.”

 

Published July 15th 2009 by Random House (NY) (first published December 7th 2008)

Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

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“Humbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Reluctantly agreeing to marry Mrs Haze just to be close to Lolita, Humbert suffers greatly in the pursuit of romance; but when Lo herself starts looking for attention elsewhere, he will carry her off on a desperate cross-country misadventure, all in the name of Love. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.” – Goodreads

“This was an orphan. This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning”

I think after re-reading that quote, I have to wonder if whoever wrote the above synopsis on Goodreads read the same book! It is not a tragic romance about forbidden love, Humbert Humbert is not Prince Charming, and the fact that it highlights his suffering over Lolita’s is bizarre! And I think ‘misadventure’ is a bit of stretch for describing a kidnapping and abuse tour of America. Here’s a thought though, did Humbert Humbert write that synopsis himself perhaps.. 

Humbert is a fantastic character; lacking in any self-awareness he comes out with the most disdainful judgements of those around him, and his self-justification throughout in his pursuit of Lolita is almost convincing. His situation gets more and more pathetic as the book goes on, and his lack of morals is made up for by being played for a fool by just about everyone who encounters him. He is full of snivelling self-pity, and the fact that everyone else around him can see it, makes Nabakov’s use of first person fantastically effective. He’s not a reliable narrator, but there’s the feeling that everyone listening to his delusional tale already knows that.

It was interesting in Lolita’s characterisation that she wasn’t made to be overly likeable, she’s realistically portrayed as a moody teenager, and you feel all the more sorry for her because of it. How her character develops, and the visible effect that Humbert’s years of abuse had on her as a young woman, is the real tragedy of the story. 

It is a gorgeously written book, and the language incredibly rich. It’s brilliant, complex and extremely readable. 

Published February 3rd 2000 by Penguin Classics (first published 1955)

Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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“New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo. 

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth” – Goodreads

“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” 

Whenever I finish a really good book, I always get that last page come down, where I’m so sad the book is over that I think that no book could ever be as good or as life affirming as that. I was at that point when I started this book. However, I am pleased to say that this book has now become that very book which all others after it must try and surpass! 

This book is built on beautiful imagery, and the prose is wonderful to read. I have read many reviews that said they could not stick at it, some saying it’s a litte dense and the language too heavy or literary, or that moving between different time periods was confusing. It’s not to everyone’s taste – but, if like me, you like your characters to be full of depth and tangibly complex, and your imagined world to be detailed and steeped in metaphor – then this will be for you. 

It would be impossible for me to pick a favourite character, as Marie-Laure and Werner both become so close to your heart, and the people they meet are beautifully real. The lives of the two main characters are deftly intertwined, while other equally as interesting and full characters move around them. It’s woven with scientific and philosophical references. There is a theme of interconnectedness throughout, of invisible waves running parallel but world’s apart, and the strange ways in which they cross.

I found the story line to be gripping. After building slowly at the start, the last third of the book I found I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those books where at times I wasn’t sure whether I could bear to read, as I felt so emotionally invested in the characters – but it would not have been an option to stop reading. 

I wouldn’t blame anyone for shedding a few tears when reading this book, as it was often poignant and exceedingly tragic in portraying the harsh realities of war. I dislike reading books which provide a rose tinted view of historical events or life’s realities, and this certainly did not shy away away from presenting that truth. Despite all it’s harshness, however, Doerr beautifully illustrates the way in which, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. The two main characters remain delicate and child-like, and as a reader I felt throughout increasingly protective of them and their intertwined fates. 

On the whole, it is a deeply moving and haunting novel full of complex and beautiful characters. I originally borrowed the book off a friend, and it has now been surreptitiously passed on..

The author explains the title in his own words: “The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.” – Anthony Doerr 

 

Publication date: 6th May 2014
Publisher: Scribner
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780008138301
Length: 544 pages
Genres: Contemporary, Historical  
Age group: Adult