Category Archives: Non Fiction

A Short Life of Pushkin: Robert Chandler

I like a good biography, but selecting a book, sometimes from dozens written on an individual, can be a challenge. I want it to be the right one. What if the biography skips over chunks of a life? Then I end up reading another book and reading cross-over material.

Then there’s the completist biography. I’ve eyed, for example, the three volume set on Kafka by Reiner Stach. I’m tempted. Sorely tempted, but do I want to read around 1800 pages about Kakfa? Yes, he’s a fascinating man, no argument there, but exhaustive biographies can be just … well exhausting, and it’s often easy to lose the details when there are masses of them.

So when I saw translator Robert Chandler’s A Short Life of Pushkin, I was torn. Is this the Cliff Notes version? Did I want short? What if it was too short? What was the author leaving out and why?

A short life of Pushkin

Chandler examines Pushkin’s life and work in just over 160 pages. By trimming the fat, and I’ll get into more of that later, Chandler, left this reader with succinct details and a strong sense of the path that led to Pushkin’s early, tragic death.

Pushkin’s early life is examined in light of significant, shaping events, including the importance of his maternal grandfather, Abram Gannibal, and Pushkin’s  attendance at the “prestigious Imperial Lyceum, where he was “part of the first intake of thirty students.” Not a great deal of time is spent on Pushkin’s childhood, but we are told the essentials. There are times when the author ‘condenses’ behavior, but still leaves in a few significant details. For example we are told that Pushkin had many love affairs, but only the ones that left a mark on Pushkin, and generated creativity, are explored.

Most of us know, even without reading a biography. that Pushkin, an impetuous man from the sounds of his behaviour, fell foul of the Tsar and censorship very quickly. For this he was sent into exile. Many occasions are noted in which “Pushkin was to be saved by his friends. Unlike many children of emotionally distant parents, he had a gift for finding substitute parents who were affectionate and reliable. This may, perhaps, point to an underlying good sense in him that can easily be overlooked.”

He can’t have been too wild, as he was ‘adopted’ by several families, and yet the propensity to shock, outrage and offend was there, but was perhaps teased into prominence by frustration caused by censorship and lack of funds.

Pushkin’s southern exile began badly. During his first weeks in Yakaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) he seems to have tried hard to offend people, going as far as to attend one dinner in transparent muslin trousers and without underwear. The wife of the town’s civil governor led her three young daughters out of the room.

It’s choice details like this that pack a wallop.

There’s also a strong sense running through this lean biography of Pushkin’s self-destructive urges: his gambling, his desire to break free from society, his jealousy regarding his young, beautiful wife, and especially towards the end of his life, the duels he fought.

Significantly, the author mentions how Soviet critics, the “creative imagination” of one man and the vilification of Pushkin’s wife, Natalya have collectively impacted the impressions we have of Pushkin’s life.

Pushkin’s tangled relationships with both Tsar Nicholas I and censorship are charted, and in the dangerous political climate, Pushkin was watched, monitored and censored. Author Robert Chandler takes an interesting stance:

A great deal has been written about Pushkin as victim. The difficulties of his last years, and his eventual death, have been blamed on the Tsar–or more generally-on court intrigued. This view is too simple. The relationship between the Tsar and Pushkin was complex, and it certainly included mutual respect and affection. 

Snippets of a letter written by Pushkin to his wife are included, and this serves as a good foundation for the state of Pushkin’s mind when he challenged d’Anthès (his brother-in-law) to a duel. Another decision by the author is not to delve into the various conspiracy theories of Pushkin’s death. Conspiracy is mentioned (as it should be) but rapidly discarded. And instead the author, stating that “the truth is elusive,” follows the known facts and details of Pushkin’s final duel.

When I approached this biography, I was particularly interested in how the author would handle three topics:  Pushkin’s relationship with the Tsar, the behaviour of Pushkin’s wife, and conspiracy theories about Pushkin’s death. These three areas of interest are all tackled efficiently. I’ve read about the conspiracy theories and frankly, reading a biography that just dealt in the facts, while mentioning the theories, was oddly freeing. By concentrating on the known facts, and only mentioning rumour and conjecture, the author leaves us with plenty to ponder and also much concrete information to hang onto.

Review copy.

 

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy

 

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Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Is It All In Your Head?: True Stories of Imaginary Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan, M.D.

It is not necessarily the greatest suffering that receives the greatest consideration and sympathy. Illness is not scored in that way. Deadly disease obviously scores higher than others. After that there is an unofficial ranking system for illness in which psychiatric disorders are the out-and-out losers. Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile. They’re the charlatans of illness. 

In Is It All In Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, M.D. Suzanne O’Sullivan, whose specialties are neurology and clinical neuropathy, offers a casebook of patients who presented with powerful physical symptoms and yet in time various illness and diseases were systematically ruled out. This left these ill, debilitated people, technically speaking, or at least in the eyes of the doctors who treated them, with nothing wrong, no diagnoses.

Up to one-third of people seen in an average general neurology clinic have neurological symptoms that cannot be explained; in these people an emotional cause is often suspected. It is very difficult for a patient to be given the news that their physical illness may have a psychological cause. It is a difficult diagnosis to understand, let alone accept. And doctors can be reluctant to offer it up, partly for fear of angering their patients but also for fear of what they might have missed. Patients often find themselves trapped in a zone between worlds of medicine and psychiatry.

The book’s introduction builds a pathway to the case histories here, and I particularly loved the way the author pointed out that “modern society likes the idea that we can think ourselves better,” and while accepting that a “positive mental attitude” is invaluable, Suzanne O’Sullivan argues that “society has not fully woken up to the frequency with which people do the opposite–unconsciously think themselves ill.” The lead-in intro paves the way with commonly acknowledged physical symptoms caused by emotions or stress, and from this common point of acceptance, the author takes into her patient casebook.

 is-it-all-in-your-head

As for the case histories, there’s a range: Pauline, a 27-year-old woman with an extensive medical history, whose been ill since age 15. A general feeling of being “unwell” morphed into burning pain when passing urine. Then followed years of, how can I say this, being bounced around the medical community, being given vague diagnoses and even an unnecessary appendectomy. Finally after losing the use of her legs, Pauline ended up in a wheelchair. If you think this sounds bad, well just keep reading Pauline’s case; it’s truly appalling. I’m not going to blame the doctors here because if a person keeps complaining about pain & various other symptoms, the doctors are going to keep looking for causes (that’s their job,) and that, at the very least, led to even more complications for Pauline who ended up being kicked out of the hospital only to suffer seizures right before her release.

Wheelchair-bound Matthew is convinced that he has Multiple Sclerosis ( he can’t feel anything in his lower body, yet “despite the lifelessness of his legs the reflexes reacted as they should”) ; Shahina‘s problems began when someone accidentally steps on her hand. Yvonne becomes blind after a few drops of glass cleaning solution accidentally land in her eyes.  The treatment given her by the junior doctors and medical students is appalling, (“there’ll be no Oscars for that performance.”) Alice, I found perhaps the most interesting of the case histories, since her story started with breast cancer and from that moment on, the experience tapped into Alice’s subconscious mind. Camilla spent years with unacknowledged grief which manifested itself in other ways.

The most disturbing, controversial chapter concerns Rachel, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue symptom/ME and ends up in a locked psychiatric unit. Rachel seems to be the other end of the spectrum–someone who does indeed have something physically/clinically wrong with her even though Dr O’Sullivan argues that “psychological factors and behavioral issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome. Do I know that for sure? No, nobody does: but I am influenced by the lack of evidence for an organic disease. ME/CFS sufferers do not usually have any objective physical findings to explain their fatigue. They have been likened to those who had multiple sclerosis before that disease was properly understood.”  Fatigue (CFS) is a problem as it tends to gather up the label of malingering and that is so unfair. And on the subject of Rachel, just because a patient makes a big demonstration of being unable to do something doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. We all bring our characters to our illnesses and our diseases. Some of us suck it up and some of us don’t.

The chapters go back and forth from the case history under examination to other cases and also the history of various medical practices. This can be distracting, even though I can understand why the author took this approach. Some of the stories were tied up too neatly with a bow, but I suppose that is how the doctor’s casebook ends when the patient walks through (or wheels out of) the door for the last time and lands on someone else’s patient list. Ultimately this was an interesting read–even though I didn’t agree with the author about every issue.

In a matter of semantics, I had a bit of a problem with the book’s byline: True stories of Imaginary Illness as it implies, at least to this reader, that the patients in these pages ‘imagined’ their illnesses as in fabricated. But the whole point of the book is that these patients suffered very real physical symptoms as a result of psychological distress. They weren’t imagining anything.

Review copy

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Take Me to Paris, Johnny: John Foster

“He was like an exotic bird, the only one of his kind.”

The title of John Foster’s memoir, Take me to Paris, Johnny, is emblematic of the character and life of Juan Céspedes, the author’s lover until Juan’s death from AIDS in 1987. The two men met in New York in 1981 when John, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, travelled to America to research a book.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

The memoir begins when John Foster travels to Guantánamo to visit Juan’s family. The visit which took place a year after Juan’s death should have been the end of Juan’s story, but in Foster’s hands, it becomes the graceful introduction.  It’s a moving, powerful beginning: travelling to a beautiful foreign country of “red earth, banana plantations and hills that were crowned with a darker canopy of royal palms,” eventually to arrive at a landscape that has a “desolate air; it was brown, scarred and smudged with a confusion of railway marshalling yards. The end of the line.”

Deeply interested in dance and loathe to follow his state assigned career, Juan struggled under Cuban culture in which individualism was not encouraged, and like other young friends, Juan “more charmed than ever by the forbidden music from the radio station ar the base,” decided to seek political asylum by escaping to the US naval base at Guantánamo. And it was in this fashion that Juan finally  landed at age 15 in Hell’s Kitchen in 1969 “where the Catholic agency had installed its Cuban refugees in a cheap apartment house.”

The other residents, according to Juan ‘s calculation, consisted of 25 per cent ex-cons, 25 per cent drag queens and 50 percent addicts.

From 1969 until 1981, when Juan met John Foster, Juan’s history is patchy but involved attempts at establishing a professional dance career and a series of patrons–including a priest, but the relationships ended perhaps because Juan’s “tastes [were] too expensive or his occasional tantrums too exhausting.” Juan carefully constructed narratives around these relationships:

They each occupied a space in his memory, and he referred to them habitually, and most fondly, as if they were a line of popes or kings in whose reign an event could be located. That was the way he ordered his memories, very tidily, in much the same way that he arranged his life, in little compartments, so that there would be no unnecessary confusion or unpleasantness

Foster met Juan when the latter was homeless, and a one-night stand morphed into a long-distance relationship. Finally Juan, already ill with various mysterious ailments, moved to Australia where his tenuous residency teetered on a bureaucratic foundation. Some of the details regarding the illness were difficult to read, but Foster powerfully brings home the times and the fears. I’ll mention the Grim Reaper ad here and luckily and coincidentally I saw it recently on an Australian television programme. I’m glad I saw it as I wouldn’t have understood Foster’s reactions to the ad; it’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is Juan’s story, as the author intended, but ultimately it’s the story of a relationship. We see Juan through the eyes of Foster: an exotic figure with a taste for drama, engaging, entertaining, a man whose very existence defies his humble hard-scrabble beginnings.

We walked home, stopping off at the corner store to buy a bottle of Lucozade. According to the label  Beecham Bros supplied this energizing drink by appointment to HM the Queen, which Juan imagined she probably swigged in large quantities to fortify her in her battles with Mrs Thatcher.

While Foster remains in the background, refusing to assign blame or guilt to Juan, their relationship most effectively holds a mirror up to reflect back Foster’s character to the reader. Author John Foster wanted to create a story that transcended death and decay (the afterword by John Rickard goes into some explanation on this issue), and it’s through this afterword that Foster’s character shines through. He was a remarkable human being–full of love, tenderness and grace.

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Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.

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As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

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Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
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The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

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