Monthly Archives: December 2010

Screw: A Guard’s View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan’s Screw is a report on the time he spent as a guard at Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution that was supposed to be a place where those with mental illness to be housed and receive treatment.  Rather than receive the care that the courts or their doctors recommended, however, Ryan asserts that the patients were abused.  Screw is an interesting exploration of the institutional culture of a mental hospital in the 1970s.

Let me start off by saying that the book is fairly simply written.  Chapters are short.  They typically encase one encounter or event.  The book is an easy read; perhaps too easy.  It feels almost flimsy in its written structure.  This shouldn’t be too surprising; the book was published by a company called South End Press.  Its stated opinion on copyright, as found on the copyright page of the book, is:  “Copyrights are required for book production in the United States.  However, in our case, it is a disliked necessity.”  I’m sure this was some sort of comment on the state of publishing rights forty years ago, but what comes across today is a lack of attention to detail; they didn’t care enough to make sure the book was formatted correctly and free of errors.  Perhaps this isn’t a big deal for fiction books, but if you’re accusing people of having initiated and maintained long-term abuse of patients, you might want to make sure the book has no flaws for the accused to point at and say, “Well, you spelled this wrong, and some of the details don’t make sense.  Are you sure you’re right on the rest of what you’re accusing people of?”

Once you get a grasp on and forgive the structure, Ryan gives us small accounts in each chapter.  He explains what brought him there — he volunteered first through school, and then decided to go “under cover” as a guard.  He then gives us the grisly details.  There are not one, but two, men who gouge out their own eyes in response to treatment by guards.  Many patients are beaten up.  The overall doctor of Bridgewater, even though he never sees the patients, fights to keep them in the hospital.  Most of the guards are not decent humans, as is shown over and over again.

I’m perfectly willing and able to understand that an institution can have such an atmosphere that those who are amoral can take over and call the shots.  I find it difficult to believe that the entire group of people have no consciences and allow these things to happen, but I do have to remember that people had a hard time thinking that the Nazis were killing an entire group of people.  So, yes, possible that a lot of people were doing some horrible things.  My problem, though, is with Ryan himself.  Before he even puts himself in the position of being a guard, he talks to a professor of his about going into Bridgewater posing as a patient.  His professor is not in favor of this, and offers instead that Ryan can work on a survey he’s doing on the inmates, and that he would be an author on the paper that came as a result.  Ryan turns this down, which is fine.  He was arrogant in his reasoning, however — the study is flawed and he basically thought his professor was an idiot for wanting to do it.  This behavior leads me to believe that Ryan wasn’t a quiet observer, but actively baited others in Bridgewater to manipulate them into more aggressive actions.

Screw opened my eyes to how badly we can treat each other when there’s a power differential.  I just wish the observer had been able to be impartial.

Rating: 2/5.

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Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom

Descartes’ Baby starts off with an anecdote about, fittingly enough, Rene Descartes.  He reportedly had an automoton daughter that behaved as a real girl would, which disturbed those around him so much that one man tossed it into the sea.  It was an interesting story, and has something to do with behavior — but didn’t really have anything to do with what child development tells us about all human behavior.  The opening to the book is an indication of what the reader has ahead of him; while the book discusses human behavior and how children are the same as or different than adults, a lot of the material seems to be evidence in support of the genetic basis for behaviors that already are thought to have a genetic basis, rather than presenting new discoveries that only studying children could provide.

To be fair to Bloom, a lot of the information he gives the reader is really interesting.  I loved his explanation of studies done on normal people and people with autism to discover the differences in the behaviors and expectations of the two populations.  I also enjoyed his discussion on magical thinking.  Children of fundamentalist Christians and of atheists both have a propensity for thinking that there is some sort of God or supernatural power that shapes the universe.  This stuff is cool, because it points toward definite genetic or brain structure reasons for people’s behavior.

What was disappointing to me was how much time Bloom spent on adult behavior.  I expected a book about how children behave, then a little bit about how that ties in with how grown-up people do things.  Instead, Bloom spends a lot of time discussing how and why adults do things, how they classify words and behaviors, and how they feel.  For example, Bloom spends a good amount of time talking about how adults classify morality.  He then gives an instance where children appear to also use that definition when deciding whether actions or people are good or bad.  That’s super.  What that tells us, though, is not that the study of children exposed some hitherto unknown facet of human thinking and behavior.  It tells us that developmental psychology can provide us with support for theories we already have about how people act.

If Descartes’ Baby had been presented in this way — that it is about how developmental psychology adds to our knowledge base on what it means to be human — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Much like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which doesn’t really talk all that much about Nathaniel, I felt like I was always waiting for the second shoe to drop — I’d finally see how child development explains all!  Alas, that never happened.  This book was ruined for me by its marketing.  It oversold itself in its subtitle, and it didn’t recover from the disappointment that caused.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants sat on my reading list for a while.  I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read a book about a circus.  They aren’t my favorite setting, and the fact that my mother was taking forever with her copy helped cement my decision to wait on reading it for a more suitable time.  What a shame I waited.  Water for Elephants is unexpectedly complex, proving to be a more compelling story than what I originally expected.

Gruen structured Water for Elephants in an interesting way.  The book starts off with the protagonist, Jacob, in a nursing home in ; he is in his nineties.  Then she pulls us through several chapters that take place in the early 1930s, followed by another chapter with Jacob as an old man.  In the copy that I read, the chapters involving young Jacob have a picture of circus life in the thirties before it — some were from the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida, and others were from the circus museum in Wisconsin.  I liked this touch; it gave me a good clue as to when the following chapter occurred, plus I got to see some pretty cool photographs.

Jacob is not a perfect man, which is another thing I like about Water for Elephants.  He is frequently cowardly, even though he knows what the correct action is, and I think this is an accurate portrayal of a young, college-age man.  He doesn’t know how to assert himself to protect those he cares about effectively.  He needs the help of others in order to have the courage to do the right thing.  Even as an old man, he’s prone to saying things that hurt others and being reactionary, which prevents him from forming lasting relationships with the other people in his retirement facility.

Jacob has two most obvious failings.  The first is falling in love with another man’s wife.  Marlena is a performer in the circus, controlling horses and, eventually, Rosie the elephant.  Her husband, August, is the manager of the menagerie.  He makes a case for hiring Jacob, who almost finished training as a veterinarian.  The man is his boss and seems to genuinely like him.  Unfortunately, Jacob becomes infatuated with Marlena, and it’s a mutual feeling.  Rather than finding ways to distance himself from her, he pursues a rather odd courtship with her.  This is not the way to treat a man who has taken you under his wing.

Jacob’s second failing is his inability to protect those he loves.  He doesn’t stand up for Rosie when she is abused by August.  After sustaining a concussion, he was rescued and nursed by his roommate, Walter.  Jacob then, knowing that Walter is in danger, still chooses to pursue a revenge plot, leaving Walter alone and vulnerable.  He is only partially successful in keeping Marlena safe while she is married to August.

For some reason, Jacob’s failings, rather than being overwhelmingly annoying, convince me that he is a real person.  My experiences as a college-age adult are similar.  I’m more assertive now, and I imagine I’ll become even more-so in the future.  I’m also less indecisive.  Jacob mirrors my own feelings and fears while I was that age, and thus he feels authentic to me.

The one thing I thought was not so great was the depiction of August.  Toward the end of the book, we are told by Uncle Al, the amoral owner of the circus, that he is a paranoid schizophrenic.  They put up with it, he says, because August is so brilliant.  I have a hard time with this, mainly because the description of August’s behavior are more those of a person with bipolar disorder.  Yes, he’s paranoid, but he in no way is depicted as hearing voices or having serious delusions.  He doesn’t make many irrational decisions or actions.  I dislike this confusion; people with schizophrenia behave in a different way than how August behaves.  The two mental disorders are not interchangeable.

Water for Elephants is an excellent book with a unique setting and a compelling story.  Gruen has a gentle writing voice that is very pleasant to read.  I’d definitely read something else written by her.  Her adept exploration of how a young adult approaches life makes me eager to see how she will treat other stages of life.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth, a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, has been on my reading list for a while.  I read The Namesake, one of Lahiri’s previous books, five or six years ago and really enjoyed it.  While Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of enjoyable stories, they feel more coarsely developed than her earlier novel.

Lahiri delivers to us a group of stories about second-generation Indian immigrants.  They are their coming-of-age stories; some are somewhat surprising, since it takes some of the characters forty years to reach a point of true maturity.  I think Lahiri has it right when she casts her population in that category of delayed social milestones — the pressure to be successful academically and to have a good career takes precedent above love and creating a family for a lot of these people.  Their parents want them to do both, but the push to be wunderkinds causes a lot of social immaturity.  Add to that the cultural pressure to stay within the ethnic group with all romantic affairs, and it’s no wonder the children of Indian immigrants are often seen in academia without a spouse or children until they are well into their thirties (or even early forties).

My favorite story in this book, also called “Unaccustomed Earth”, is about a Bengali woman who is married to a white man, has a son with him and another child on the way.  Her father, with whom she trades the narrative voice, is a widower living on the other side of the United States.  He has taken to travelling, and has a secret travel partner who is also Indian.  His daughter, while starting her own family, feels the pull to follow Indian tradition and ask her father to stay with them.  I felt that the interplay between her wants and her perception of what society expects of her were interesting, as was what her father actually wanted.  I thought the end of the story, especially, was very good.

I also liked the second half of the book, composed of three short stories, which is about two families and their only children — one boy, one girl — and their journeys through growing up.  The first, “Once In a Lifetime”, is written in the second person by the girl, Hema, to the boy, Kaushik.  She talks about the re-emigration of Kaushik’s family and the interaction the two families had when hers hosted his when they were first back in the country.  The second, “Year’s End”, is from him to her, about his life during college.  The last, “Going Ashore”, is their stories to each other when the get reacquainted.  The series is pretty good, and would have been interesting as a book on its own.

My main issue with Unaccustomed Earth is with Lahiri’s narrative.  She feels as though each character’s inner workings needs to be written down for the reader to read.  Why can’t their actions speak toward their feelings?  Give the reader some work to do.  We like it.  That’s why we read.  The book could have been shorter that way, too, or it could have included more stories.  As they stand, the stories feel bloated.  The only ones where this structure makes sense is in the second half of the book, where two characters are basically writing to one another.  For the other stories, it feels heavy-handed and coarse.

I loved the stories in Unaccustomed Earth.  I like Lahiri.  I just wish that her editor had taken the time to tell her to be a little more subtle with her narrative.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Cocaine’s Son by Dave Itzkoff

I’m a fan of a good memoir.  David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, mostly because he can write about his family in a way that is both sardonic and tender.  Dave Itzkoff’s aim is not for a memoir written in the style of David Sedaris, but he is aiming squarely for a book that examines family relationships — specifically, the one between father and son.  Unfortunately, the result of that aim, Cocaine’s Son, is a book that bogs the reader down into a depressing relationship for which there never is a satisfying conclusion.

I will say that Itzkoff has a very readable style.  Unlike some other memoirs I’ve read, with authors who have more of an interesting story and less of an ability to put the story on the page, Itzkoff has a great voice.  He’s descriptive — my mind’s eye was able to be more active with this book than it is with most nonfiction.  He also uses different techniques for some chapters, like making one non-linear and another in the form of a play script.  In these ways, Cocaine’s Son was a joy to read.

What wasn’t so wonderful was the content.  At first, it’s interesting to hear about Itzkoff’s father, and his issues with him, and, yes, I realize that the book is supposed to be an exploration of their relationship.  It’s unfortunate that Itzkoff’s portrayal of his father makes it impossible to either identify or sympathize with either man.  Gerald Itzkoff is a man who treats others as if they don’t count.  His behavior makes him unpalatable to me in the highest degree — he’s not a “character”, he’s not “eccentric”.  He’s a kook who has no concept of how his actions impact others.

As to Itzkoff’s portrayal of himself … his issues with his father seem to cloud his entire life.  This is, at first, sad — after all, who wants to see someone live their life solely in response to one other person?  Then, about halfway through, the whole thing gets melodramatic.  Itzkoff sees his father everywhere, and the man is ruining everything!  Then, he’s feeling guilty for being angry at his father.  He’s a bad son.  Then, we’re back to what a jerk his father is.  And then … well, he gets married, and suddenly can see where his father was coming from all along.

Excuse me?  What?  If your father was so bad, how did he become less bad with time?  Did you, perhaps, merely mature to a point where most of us get — where you can accept others for who they are?  Most of us haven’t had parents who did coke, surely, but most of Itzkoff’s father’s behavior wasn’t because of his drug use, since it continued well after he became sober.  My only conclusion is that Itzkoff’s father is like most father’s, only more egocentric.  Most of us manage to come to terms with a self-absorbed parent without writing a self-indulgent memoir.

I looked forward to reading Cocaine’s Son, thinking I was going to get a thoughtful exploration of a childhood spent with an addict parent.  What I got was a well-written yet sadly lacking family story.

Rating: 2/5.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Zombies have become popular in recent years, featuring in movies, comic books, books, and television shows.  Unlike their main supernatural competitor, the vampire, the quality of works featuring the zombie tend to be (at least to me) more steady in their quality.  World War Z is no exception — it is a creative work that uses the undead in order to make the reader think about topics bigger than the individual — politics, humanity, ethics, and psychology, to name a few.  It’s a piece of fiction that fuels thinking, which makes it better than a lot of other books in the horror genre.

A friend of mine, knowing how much I like to read and how much I enjoy zombies, recommended World War Z to me a couple of months ago.  I said, “Sure, sounds like something I’d enjoy.”  So, while I was down at the library pulling books for that month, I thought I’d grab this too.  I had to think again when I found that, despite my local library system owning four copies of this book, I would have to wait.  In fact, I was fifth in line, and the queue reached a total length of twelve by the time I got my copy.  This told me something — people are reading this.

There is a zombie movement right now, it appears, and I happen to think it’s a masculine backlash to the vampire movement embodied in the Twilight series.  Vampires are, essentially, a romantic creature — it sucks on you, it broods, it’s creepy in a seductive way. Vampires are for romance novels that don’t want to be called romance novels.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you’re into it, you’re into it, but it’s almost exclusively women who are buying those books, watching those movies.

Now, to the zombie.  It is as far away from sexy as possible.  It’s a killing machine, one that keeps on going, requiring significant force to stop.  There’s a lot of weapons used to take them out.  Planning is needed to avoid death by zombie.  They’re a supernatural villain geared specifically for more masculine interests.  I, for one, love the fact that zombies are big right now.  I’ve not read any vampire books in a while, but I’m definitely a bit of a tomboy when it comes to my evil creatures.  I like the apocalyptic theme most zombie stories have.

World War Z definitely has that theme.  There are countries with people having to fall back and protect themselves in castles.  Some people flee to other lands.  There are fights over resources.  Countries use the zombies as an excuse to attack other countries.  Lives change in big ways, and that’s a widespread truth.  You didn’t live through World War Z without being a different person on the other side.

Brooks sets the book up like the transcripts of in-person interviews, and I think that’s genius.  We hear from all sorts of different people, from a doctor who was one of the first to encounter the zombies to a developmentally disabled woman to a man who fought zombies underwater.  We hear all sorts of different stories, through which we are able to construct our own views on what happened.  I personally liked the fact that the book allows for some ambiguity, because I like to think that most people are good, but there’s plenty of room for someone to get the opposite view, as well.

Overall, I think that World War Z is a fantastic book.  Its appeal is not limited to those who are zombie fans, but also to those who are interested in what would happen to the world in case of catastrophic events.  Brooks gives us some possible answers and allows us to form our own.

Rating: 5/5.

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Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton

The first thing I have to say about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is that its title is misleading.  Nathaniel Courthope, the gentleman referenced by the title, features him for a very small amount of time.  What the book is about, the struggle between the Dutch and the English to gain and keep control of the Spice Islands, is an interesting topic, but I felt a little let down.  I imagined a more swashbuckling tale than the one that was delivered.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the story Milton had to tell.  I knew that the spice trade was big, but I never knew how much it fueled naval exploration.  European people really wanted their spices, mainly because they attributed all sorts of magical healing powers to them.  Plus, they’re tasty.

I love that Milton is telling me a story that I’ve never heard before.  I knew, vaguely, that there are places called England and the Netherlands, and that their peoples were both seafaring and entrepreneurial.  I had no idea that the two nations fought a kind of cold (sometimes hot) war over the spice trade.  I didn’t know that it was for spice that the East India Company was founded.  I didn’t know that the fate of navies are so dependent on good leadership.

I appreciate Milton’s set-up for the story of Courthope, but the book feels lost for the first two hundred or so pages.  I kept thinking that the next chapter had to have Courthope in it, since the book’s named for him.  It’s quite frustrating, as a reader, to be forced into reading about what otherwise might be a quite interesting narrative because there’s a constant expectation for a particular person or event.  The marketing of the book, frankly, ruined a good part of the history Milton wanted to tell.

Giles Milton, the author, also attributes to Courthope the eventual ownership of Manhattan by the British due to the trouble he caused the Dutch by holding onto Run for as long as he did.  If he wanted to make that point, it would have been nice to have the juxtaposition — the lessening of the Dutch control in the Americas as their power grew in the East Indies — put to the forefront.  I think it’s a far-fetched idea, that the British gained New York solely because they traded Run for it; there was an actual battle in Manhattan for the land.  New York: The Novel devotes its first section to the waning power of the Dutch there and the rise of the English, and there were skirmishes.  Run may have been in the formal agreement, but I have serious doubts about whether it was truly a large part of the overall treaty between the two countries.  This, therefore, makes Milton’s claim for Courthope rather flimsy, in my opinion.

Overall, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had it not advertised itself as the story of one man.  I would have known what I was getting into, and could have experienced it for what it is, and not for what I expected it to be.

Rating:  2/5.

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