This was really interesting, and at some point I'd like to read her other book Emma's War, which looks like a similar approach but with a more limited...moreThis was really interesting, and at some point I'd like to read her other book Emma's War, which looks like a similar approach but with a more limited scope that might work more neatly with Scroggins's method.
That's not to say that her method didn't work here, only that the results of this book are a bit messy and strange. I'd describe the Scroggins "thing," based on having read this book and on glancing at reviews of Emma's War, as a focus on the lives of individual women in order to illuminate complex issues that constitute the confounding geopolitical clusterfucks of our world today. The title claims this book's about "Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror," but it's really about what's been going on for the past decade or so with that "Islam v. the West" thing you might've heard of, and about women in Islam, women in the West, Islamist terrorism, anti-Muslim persecution, the West's ideas about Muslims, and a whole bunch of other stuff I wouldn't have had the patience to read 468 pages about if it weren't cleverly structured around these two women's parallel but unconnected lives.
I felt that while this book seemed to fail in superficial ways, in fact it was a success. Its seeming failure is that I still have no real understanding of what drives religious fundamentalists to kill people aside from their just being nuts, and I attained no special understanding of what it's like to be Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani-born, MIT-and-Brandeis educated mother of three who was the only woman on the United States' most-wanted terrorists list. I also don't understand Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch-MP-cum-American-neocon and professional Islam-hater. Scroggins really seems to loathe her and to believe that Hirsi Ali is motivated just by ruthless opportunism, but while all Scroggins's criticisms seemed justified, mustn't the truth be a bit more complex?
But no matter! Scroggins was never able to interview Siddiqui or Hirsi Ali (though she talks to a lot of people who knew them), and by the end of the book both women are still enigmas. But this winds up not being a problem at all, because Wanted Women isn't so much about either of these women as it is about what's going on around them and the intense response they provoke in others.
The beginning of this book was really fascinating to me, as a provincial American who hasn't traveled much outside this country and who certainly has never lived anywhere else. The world that Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui grew up in is much more complicated than my all-American bubble: they and others like them are born in one country, raised somewhere else for awhile... then they move to a new country, then wind up in another. They're constantly crossing borders, not just to visit, but to live, and these borders are significant: one of the main focuses of the book is culture shock; another is that old "clash of civilizations," which may just be the same thing as culture shock in more hyperbolic terms and on a grander scale.
What I felt was most useful to me in this book was its perspective on how the lunacy of individuals comes to matter because of how the wider culture responds. Hirsi Ali hating Islam has a massive impact because of the historical and cultural moment when she does it. Siddiqui's story is a bit opaque and hard to follow, but this opacity is itself a gut-wrenching indictment of my own country's outrageously dishonorable and often illegal "War on Terror," and her story concretely illustrates some of the repercussions of the way that this war has been fought.
In the end, I didn't care that much that neither woman made much sense to me, and it seemed that really their personal lives were a bit beside the point. Scroggins surprised me by not trying to make either figure sympathetic: I knew nothing about Hirsi Ali prior to reading this, beyond seeing Infidel on remainder tables in bookstores, but this feels like a brutal takedown job. And of course, it's probably not easy or even tempting to make a rabidly antisemitic radical Islamist jihadi sympathetic to an audience of readers like me, but Scroggins is (I thought) oddly sympathetic to Siddiqui's ex-husband, who was by all accounts a batterer and, in my view, suspiciously naive about his wife's bloodthirsty aspirations.
But the book worked, maybe because it wasn't so much a dual biography as it was a set of binoculars for looking at some of the hard to see stuff that's going on right now in the world. No one here comes out looking great: not Hirsi Ali, not Siddiqui, but also none of the countries they've lived in or the various political factions they've been aligned with or despised by. I'd venture to say, though, that I feel I understand the dynamics of these countries, cultures, and despisers a bit more than I did before, which is helpful because I felt really confused, and it's good to have some sense of what's going on around you even if it isn't so great.(less)
I loved this more than I've loved any novel in a very long time, but please don't interpret that as a recommendation because you might really hate it....moreI loved this more than I've loved any novel in a very long time, but please don't interpret that as a recommendation because you might really hate it. It spans something like fifteen years of a marriage and is mostly about sexy people with tons of money enjoying elaborately prepared meals and traveling around under various types of sky. But it's great.
I've noticed that many people have no tolerance for novels about unendearing rich characters doing nothing -- or perhaps more accurately, not super-rich characters, but a certain level of privileged bourgeois. While to some extent I definitely get this, I think there's a perhaps unfair exemption for books written before, oh say, 1930. Because before that point, weren't most books written about rich(ish) people lying around doing nothing, and does that seem to bother so many readers? I'd argue no, and if this irritable standard were extended back a lot of you would miss out on the best books. Light Years reminded me a lot of To the Lighthouse for many reasons, not least because I felt like if they hadn't been separated by half a century and an ocean, this family would've hung around having a lot of lushly described, unhurried lunches with the Ramsays. So I guess I'm suggesting that if you don't mind Woolf's characters, maybe try to suspend judgment on Salter's and give them a shot?
Light Years was one of those books with language that bleeds off the page and seeps into your entire life so that when you put it down and go off to do things it's as if you're living inside its world. This is some of the greatest prose that I've ever read in my life. While I felt the last fifty pages weren't nearly as good as everything that had come before -- they felt rough by comparison, not entirely edited, and dead in a way that the rest of the book lived -- it's still one of the best books I've read in a long time. Again, this isn't exactly a recommendation because I can see how a lot of my favorite people would complain that this novel is unreadably pretentious and dull, but I personally loved it so much I might start over soon and read it again.(less)
Like many Americans these days, I have no direct experience of war, so reading books like this one is (hopefully) the closest I'll get to knowing what...moreLike many Americans these days, I have no direct experience of war, so reading books like this one is (hopefully) the closest I'll get to knowing what it's like.
As far as I can tell, war is the horrific dark antithesis to civilization. The central aim of what men have done since they squirmed out of a cave and lit a fire has been to make life longer, easier, and more comfortable for themselves. Granted, they often did this at the expense of others (women, differently-hued men, etc.), but better living did seem to be the general thrust. They invented medicines and conveniences and fun stuff like ice cream and motorcycles, and by the 1960s the life span and physical comfort of most Americans was a wonder for the ages. Sure, there were problems -- racial and economic inequality and what have you -- but if you take the long view and compare it to humanity's historical lot, things were overall pretty damn sweet: most people slept indoors, ate nutritious meals, received medical care and education, and listened to terrific songs playing all the time on the radio. Cars and girls looked great and fashion was pretty fine. Given all this, it's hard to understand why this basically comfortable society sent its boys off to die horribly in an inhospitable jungle on the other side of the world, for no real reason that I or most other people can see.
Matterhorn conveys the senselessness and brutality of this perhaps especially senseless and brutal war. From the beginning, my mouth just hung open as I struggled to understand why we ever did this -- and then, as I shook myself back to the present, why we are still doing this, and when that got too hard to think about, more abstractly, why we have always done this. The novel is excruciating, painful, and close to nihilistic: it's not really a spoiler to reveal here that nearly every sympathetic character dies. But it's not ultimately a nihilistic book, or at least I don't think it quite is, even though it never wraps things up with false comfort or any pleasant answers. I think ultimately Matterhorn was about retaining your humanity in a relentlessly bleak and unjust and monstrous world, or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was about losing your humanity but continuing to exist, or not, amid all that meaningless trauma and loss and fear. Or maybe it was a recognition of what humanity is: yes it's penicillin and motorcycles and ice cream and Otis Redding and Plymouth Barracudas and cat-eye makeup and bravery that will make a man die out of love for his friends, but it's also teenagers murdering and maiming each other, being destroyed for nothing when they should be at home with their girlfriends where they belong, because war actually isn't the dark side of civilization, but is instead its inevitable result.
Anyway, yeah, kind of a downer. I actually really dragged my feet through the first two hundred pages because it wasn't the kind of book I'd for some reason gotten the impression that it was: I was expecting something High End and Literary with Exquisite Prose, and it took me awhile to realize I was reading a War Novel. Matterhorn is not that high-falutin' lyrical Vietnam Book-Prize Bait -- maybe Tree of Smoke is? I wouldn't know, not having read it.... the writing here does have its moments but is basically workmanlike, which is to say it definitely gets the job done. The landscapes and military details are great; the characters, less so. But whatever, you don't read Matterhorn for its breathtakingly stylish sentences or nuanced writerly tricks; you read it to find out what it was like to be a marine fighting in Vietnam, and while of course I have no way of knowing if it's accurate, it's definitely convincing. Some parts I felt were more successful than others: the handling of race relations felt a bit strained and wooden at times, while the battle scenes and descriptions of day-to-day life were great, and the experience of all these young men being deprived of the company of women just as they became adults was so visceral and poignant that it almost makes me misty-eyed to think of it. What is this world where power-hungry, cynical older men send young virgins off to rot and be blown to pieces on some hill in a country none of them ever would've heard of otherwise?
Ugh. Jesus. Well, I don't know how to answer that, and I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book, but I'm glad I read it and I'm really glad Karl Marlantes lived to write it. I feel like I understand slightly more about war now than I did before, which is good even though it makes me feel really despairing and sad.(less)
I assumed I'd have some overpowering reaction to this now that I was finally reading it (I only read the novella...moreOkay, so this is finally happening.
I assumed I'd have some overpowering reaction to this now that I was finally reading it (I only read the novella, not the other stories), but I didn't. Now I guess I get why people like Philip Roth so much: he's a terrific writer, and I enjoyed reading this book. I got a little bored halfway through, nothing serious, but I wasn't as crazy about it as I was at the start and didn't itch to pick it back up when I'd happened to set it down.
I feel embarrassed and bad about myself that I don't have anything urgent I need to say about this. Again, it was very good, though the only thing I think will really stick with me is how glad I am not to be female in the nineteen-fifties.(less)
Especially considering that this is an academic study and that Ko-Lin Chin's presumably a social scientist, this is a very engagingly written and inte...moreEspecially considering that this is an academic study and that Ko-Lin Chin's presumably a social scientist, this is a very engagingly written and interesting book. I'm pretty ignorant about both gangs and Chinese culture, but Chin did a great job of giving the context I needed and he maintained a human and highly readable tone throughout (with especially fun footnotes, which I always enjoy). The book was published in 1997, so it's a little old, and is the result of research in New York City's Chinese neighborhoods, specifically focused on extortion of Chinese merchants by Chinatown gangs. Chin and I guess his merry band of Rutgers grad students went around extensively interviewing merchants and gang members, and I have to say, usually when I read about research projects I think both the design and results sound pretty stupid, but this was fascinating and -- maybe I'm not supposed to say this, but -- very entertaining to read. The interview subjects come across as real people in a way that's rare in this kind of book. And I feel much more up to speed on my Chinatown gangs now, at least through the mid-nineties... This guy's more recent work sounds interesting, too.
Patrick Melrose's gothic New Age Mrs. Jellyby of a mother has finally died and in At Last we attend her funeral, presumably (and for this reader, hope...morePatrick Melrose's gothic New Age Mrs. Jellyby of a mother has finally died and in At Last we attend her funeral, presumably (and for this reader, hopefully) ending the cycle.
I have to say that while the first three Melrose novels are unquestionably among the best books I've read in years, I wasn't so crazy about the last two. The repetitive analytic musings just get to be a bit much, and the wise little moppets dispensing adorable yogi-like aphorisms just go way too far in sugaring up the acrid sourness I'd loved so much in the beginning.
Still, I wolfed this volume down with an enthusiasm I haven't felt for reading in awhile, because Edward St. Aubyn is a fabulous fucking writer. While I don't think this book or the one preceding it measured up to the ones that came before, they're still a million times better than most other books out there. And so St. Aubyn can commit whatever the authorial equivalent is to wrecking our marriage with his nihilistic substance abuse and cynical affairs, and I will continue to stand faithfully by him! If his next novel is a saccharine children's book about a precocious little boy philosophizing cutely about the nature of evil and man, I'll complain a bit but I'll still suck it up with the famished and unquenchable greed of an addict.(less)
So far, reads like Alan Hollinghurst's excruciatingly fucked up and much richer second cousin, in the best possible way. Seems to explore the unstated...moreSo far, reads like Alan Hollinghurst's excruciatingly fucked up and much richer second cousin, in the best possible way. Seems to explore the unstated hypothesis that having to earn a living is what distracts most people from destroying their children, themselves, and everyone around them. Also definitively answers the question of whether the most lurid and cliched subjects can be not just salvaged but made new, relevant, and moving through brilliant English prose. (Spoiler: yes.)(less)
Very well-written, vivid novel about the sixties, centering around Kenneth Anger, The Rolling Stones, and the Manson murders. I felt like there was so...moreVery well-written, vivid novel about the sixties, centering around Kenneth Anger, The Rolling Stones, and the Manson murders. I felt like there was sort of a momentum problem, maybe just one that's inherent to historical novels -- you know where things are going and so you're sort of just waiting for Altamont and aren't in too much of a hurry to get there. The result, for me, was that it took me awhile to get through this book: it wasn't a page turner and I wasn't in a huge rush to get through it.
That said, the writing is excellent and while I actually had it open I was very much under its spell. The familiar characters and their era were described in a new way that felt fresh and very convincing. I can't say with authority that Lazar describes these figures and events accurately, since I never personally hung around doing drugs with the Stones in Marrakech, but now I feel like I have which speaks highly of him as a writer.
Not gonna bother book-reviewing this one properly, and why should I when Donald's already done a much better job than I could? Instead, I'll just recommend his review:
I feel this book is sort of misleadingly packaged: it's not much of a biography, presumably because there's not a lot known about Pol Pot the man. Or...moreI feel this book is sort of misleadingly packaged: it's not much of a biography, presumably because there's not a lot known about Pol Pot the man. Or maybe it is known but there's still just not that much to say: Short does dutifully record biographical details, but they never seem to add up to any fleshed-out understanding of a human being... And maybe that's the point. Maybe the dark emptiness at the root of the Khmer Rouge's ideology and actions is exactly that: a lack not just of humanity, but of any comprehensible substance at all.
Anyway, while this book kind of sucks as biography, it's good as a highly thorough political history of Cambodia in the second half of the twentieth century. I thought Short had a "just the facts ma'am" approach that worked well for this material. He assumes that his readers have some familiarity with accounts of Cambodians' suffering under the Khmer Rouge so doesn't dwell too much on cataloging these and highlighting the horrors, instead reporting them within the context of everything else. I felt he did a good job throughout of contrasting the excesses of the Khmer Rouge to those of other regimes and noting in which ways they did or did not surpass what has occurred elsewhere. He also seemed to be fairly even-handed in his evaluation of all involved parties, including the United States, leaving the reader feeling justifiably bleak and shitty about basically everyone in the world.
The most depressing -- though, I suppose, unsurprising -- thing about this book was learning about how while the Khmer Rouge's reign in the late seventies was particularly horrific in scope and degree, life and politics in Cambodia weren't that great either before, or since.
To be honest, this was not the breeziest or most fun summer read. Just between the two of us, this book was kind of a downer.(less)
This is not a good book. Ebtekar comes off pretty much as described in other sources -- a humorless true believer, tiresome and gratingly one-note as...moreThis is not a good book. Ebtekar comes off pretty much as described in other sources -- a humorless true believer, tiresome and gratingly one-note as most extremely political and religious people are. This is more political tract than a participant's account of the Embassy takeover, and moreover it is a badly written one. I'm not sure why that should be, as Ebtekar didn't write the book herself: it's an "as told to" by a journalist named Fred Reed, and so I can't figure out how stuff like this ended up in here: "[In his memoirs hostage Rocky Sickman] comments on the friendly relations that developed between many of the hostages and the students, which gave the lie to the propaganda then circling the globe. Of that label used to malign Swedish humanitarianism, the 'Stockholm Syndrome,' not a trace was to be found" (p. 144). Uh... what? What does that even mean??? There is quite a bit of weird stuff like that in this book, bizarre comments and odd diction that can't be explained away as language barrier issues, as Ebtekar speaks fluent English and presumably Fred Reed does too.
Okay, but that being said, despite its not being good, I still found this book useful. Ebtekar does seem like an unlikeable ideologue, but she is no dummy, and there are admirable things about her: she is certainly intelligent and courageous. One thing that was interesting to me in reading other hostage crisis accounts was how Ebtekar is inevitably portrayed in them as a chubby, ugly, and unpleasant woman -- in other words, she's insulted not just for her role as a fundamentalist spokesperson for the hostage takers, but for not being sexually attractive. (One source cited by David Harris memorably describes her as "a dour young woman with a horsey face that looked out from under a homely scarf [with a] miserable rabbit-like demeanor" -- mixed animal metaphors I can't recall being applied to male hostage takers.) Although Ebtekar doesn't address this in her book, I think it supports her criticism of women's position in the secular west. To her credit, she doesn't try to pretend that her own culture isn't also demeaning to women, but she feels that Islam itself is not, and argues that it is vastly preferable to western-style feminism.
One thing this book really emphasized is how the students were kids. Unlike American sources who highlight their ignorance and perceived ineptitude, what Ebketar got across most was their somewhat naive idealism. While acknowledging that they were in many ways in over their heads, she has done the math, decades later, on what the students did, and concludes that it was a good thing. Without agreeing with her, I will admit that I can see her point of view, and what was good about this book was that it showed me the students' perspective in a way that I haven't seen in the American-penned accounts I've been reading. I can't really recommend this book, but I guess I'm glad that I read it.(less)
In a brief exchange with Elizabeth just now about King Leopold's Ghost, I admitted that books like that one make me feel I need a novel afterwards, to...moreIn a brief exchange with Elizabeth just now about King Leopold's Ghost, I admitted that books like that one make me feel I need a novel afterwards, to help me get back my equilibrium or faith in life and human beings or something like that. And it's true: I really like nonfiction and in many ways I do prefer it -- even if a nonfiction book's not that great, when I'm done at least I've learned something, whereas reading a crappy novel usually just feels like wasted time.
But a diet of all nonfiction inevitably turns me into a neurotic semi-suicidal, semi-homicidal, neutron-bomb-craving misanthropic mess. Nonfiction is about the truth, and, uh, well... I can't handle the truth! No one can, it just sucks too much. I'll read about atrocities in the Congo, twentieth-century genocides, totalitarianism and state-sponsored torture... and it's good to know these things but man, it does feel hard to know it. And so that's why we have art, to make sense of this shit, or momentarily to escape it, or just somehow to take the edge off and help us keep waking up in the mornings to confront such a world. Honestly, if it weren't for fiction I'd probably break down into a blubbering, nonfunctional ball of gel on the floor just from thinking about how fucked up people are. The way fiction prevents this is a mechanism I'm not going to get into, but it does, and that's something for which I'm extremely grateful.
Recently I've been reading a lot about Iran, in particular the Revolution and the hostage crisis. This is the first book I've read by Ryszard Kapuściński, and it's an interesting piece of journalism that in many ways reads like experimental fiction. It begins with Kapuściński hanging around his hotel room in Tehran after the Revolution, when most other journalists have left. The book is largely made up of his descriptions of photographs and interviews and impressions, pulling back later on from Iran to make more general observations about revolution, based on others that Kapuściński has observed.
This is kind of hard, heavy stuff to be reading about, and for me what made this book great was the way that it ended. Its final passages did what literature does, but that straight reportage or nonfiction can rarely accomplish: it expanded up beyond what it had been describing, and located some kind of meaning, or beauty, or different kind of truth, that transcended the ugliness and pain of history's bloodshed. That is, it made art, and Shah of Shahs I felt was notable for that: sort of like a whiskey that contains a hangover cure, this was one stop shopping for me, and I liked that about it.(less)
While I preferred David Harris's handling of the political maneuverings in his book The Crisis, Bowden does a much better job here of blending previou...moreWhile I preferred David Harris's handling of the political maneuverings in his book The Crisis, Bowden does a much better job here of blending previously published captivity narratives and his interviews to give a sense of what the hostages' experiences were like. While it's successful in being highly readable and in conveying a lot of information, I did have some problems with the tone of the book.
Bowden heavily criticizes the pro-hostage-taker rhetoric of some American lefties at the time, in particular clergy members who visited the hostages in Tehran, and I agree that their insensitivity and irresponsibility are shocking. He points at numerous examples throughout of how not only the students but their sympathizers repeatedly attempted to minimize the shittiness of the hostage taking, when any reasonable, ethical person must admit that being held captive for 444 days is an incredibly shitty thing that cannot be justified or excused.
Unfortunately, I think Bowden got too sucked into taking sides, and the result is a bias and lack of objectivity that I felt undermined the book. There were many places where he seemed to be trying extra hard to make the Iranians look bad, when objective language would have gotten his points across more effectively. For example, an incident that occurred during the disastrous US rescue attempt is described in language that is, simply put, jacked-up. The elite Delta Force is shocked when they encounter a bus full of Iranian civilians traveling through the nighttime desert where the Americans are staging to refuel their helicopters:
[The passengers] were all instructed in Farsi to remain silent, without effect. Most of the passengers were women, all of them wearing chadors and wailing eerily in their distress. Sergeant Eric Haney had trouble silencing one of the few young men among them, who insisted on loudly whispering to the others despite even their apparent desire for him to shut up. Haney put the muzzle of his automatic rifle under the man's nose and repeated, in Farsi, for him to be silent. But soon the offender was whispering again, so Haney roughly put the muzzle of his weapon in his ear and dragged him away from the group. Fearing he was being taken off to be shot, the young man began crying and begging, holding both hands up beseechingly. Haney sat him down on the road a good distance from the others and left him there, whimpering and praying. (p. 443)
To me, what is striking about this scene is that it is so much like the encounters between the Iranian students and American diplomats that have been recounted in the book to this point, only the roles and nationalities have been reversed (Their solution is that the bus passengers be forcibly flown out of Iran in a C-130, to be returned home after the mission!). But rather than acknowledging the irony or locating any empathy, Bowden describes the Iranian hostages in condescending and dehumanizing terms: the women are "wailing eerily," the man who believes he will be shot is "crying and begging," "whimpering and praying." In a similar scene, that of the harrowing mock execution of American captives, a hostage does not cry or whimper but shouts "Oh my God!" and "No! No! No!" These seem to me to be pretty much the same reaction to very similar situations, and for me the point was that oh man, it really sucks when you think someone is about to shoot you, whether you come from America or Iran.
I don't think showing some empathy for Iranians condones the students' actions at all, and throughout the book I think Bowden's writing gave support for the view of Americans as arrogant and spoiled bearers of a double standard, which could have been avoided and if it had been, his book would have been better. The hostages' experiences speak for themselves. I am a super lefty and I totally get why Iranians might have gotten irate with the US -- we DID organize a coup against their democratically elected prime minister, and we WERE involved in running their country in a sucky way, and our culture DID threaten these students' Islamic beliefs. I strongly believe you can understand other people's perspectives while still clearly seeing their actions as wrong. This is part of what makes me not a fundamentalist, and it's why I can't trust things that remind me at all of propaganda, as this book did at times.
Still, it's not a bad book and I feel I have a much better picture now of the hostages' experiences. I do think Bowden was basically trying to be fair -- he does explain the Iranians' grievances and repeatedly notes how little effort was made to do this by the American media at the time -- but I felt he was worried that he needed to make his allegiance to the Americans clear and that his efforts sort of weakened the book. An American audience is naturally going to "side" with the hostages, though I'm not sure taking sides in a historical incident does any of us much good in the end.(less)
First off, full disclosure: I went to college with Katherine Sharpe, I know Katherine Sharpe. Katherine Sharpe is a friend of mine. And you, honey, ar...moreFirst off, full disclosure: I went to college with Katherine Sharpe, I know Katherine Sharpe. Katherine Sharpe is a friend of mine. And you, honey, are no Katherine Sharpe.
Only... well to be honest, if you're under age thirty-five and on this website, there's a fair chance that you more or less are.
When I first heard Katherine was writing a memoir about growing up on antidepressants, I secretly felt a small twinge of dread. As you may know, I hold a perhaps unreasonable prejudice against memoir, and having worked for years with very poor people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, I have a certain bristly impatience with the problems of the more privileged, less-sick mentally ill. And so initially I was worried, like, "Oh how awkward if I don't like her book."
Fortunately, though, reading it made me realize what an ignorant asshole I was for ever thinking such things! Though to be honest, Coming of Age on Zoloft isn't exactly a memoir. Rather, Sharpe draws on her life experience in the lovely prose associated with that genre as she uses research (a massive wealth of cited psych literature and interviews she conducted) to describe what growing up in the age of antidepressants is like.
The result is a very good book that will help a lot of people. Basically, Growing Up on Zoloft is about two things: the rise and ubiquity of SSRIs, and the experience of growing up (middle-class and college educated yes, and yet still, you self-hating bourgie moron, subject to psychic pain on occasion) in America, and then of course how these two things have interacted. One surprising aspect of this book is its calm tone and balanced, unbiased commitment to nuance. This isn't a jeremiad or a polemic, and Sharpe isn't screaming about how everyone or no one should be taking these drugs. Instead, she's coolly taking a step back, observing that huge numbers of young people do and have been taking them -- by now, many since childhood -- and she's trying to answer the question of what this all means. As she observes, antidepressants are often said (and marketed as a means) to make depressed people "feel like themselves again." But for a young person who has grown up taking them, what does that mean? Does someone who reached adulthood on medication have a self to return to?
While most people accept that some of us suffer from depression so severe that needing medication is not a question, we also know there's a large grey area of folks for whom it is more open to debate. Katherine tells of a visit to the college health center her freshman year, while having a really tough time emotionally. After a twenty minute conversation, the provider she met with wrote her a prescription for Zoloft. The following year, hanging out on a porch with a group of six other girls, Katherine discovered that every single one of them was taking antidepressants. Coming of Age is her effort to explore what this all means.
Which she does, using her own ten-year antidepressant experience as a case study, interviewing dozens of people, and filling an eight-page bibliography chockablock with peer-reviewed science articles. I felt she did an especially good job of describing Big Pharma's role in all of this, in particular in the way that our culture has so wholeheartedly embraced the biomedical model. One real accomplishment of this book is its success in discussing such a charged topic in fair and moderate tones. Yes, diagnoses of depression and prescription of drugs just keep on climbing, and much of this is driven by commercial interests. But as one of Sharpe's interviewees' mother asks, "Why not just do the thing that makes you feel better?"
Why not indeed? Being depressed is terrible, and there are pills for it. Are we Christian Scientists? Is there some kind of masochism here, or perceived nobility in suffering? Sharpe doesn't prescribe a particular path to take -- meds or no meds -- which is a major strength of the book. Rather, she presents a level and informative discussion of the issues involved, filling a need for honest discourse about something that is still in many ways a very isolating and mysterious experience: being depressed, perhaps... or perhaps just being young. And of course, either way, taking these meds.
One of the important points this book makes is that being young just fucking sucks for a lot of people. Sharpe worries that our culture has come to pathologize the normal developmental pain of life. The director of mental health services at Swarthmore tells her that these days, "there's almost not a language for normal distress." As Sharpe puts it, "To live in America today is to be invited, again and again, to ask ourselves whether our problems are symptoms, to consider whether we need or would simply benefit from a psychiatric medication." Given such a context, I would definitely recommend this book to teenagers and people in their twenties who do take or might take or have taken antidepressants, as well as to their parents. I would also recommend it to older people who have taken or considered taking these drugs, and also to mental health providers.
One person I kept thinking of as I read was a former client of mine. She was a young women who had experienced a difficult childhood, and she had a severe psychotic disorder which had caused serious disruptions and delays in her life. She had finally become psychiatrically stable while I knew her, and was left to deal with the normal and often very painful problems of a woman in her twenties trying to establish a life. Towards the end of my working with her, most of our discussions consisted of me trying to convince her that her current experiences and pain were not pathological at all, but completely normal. She just didn't believe me, no matter how hard I tried, and she wouldn't consider longterm talk therapy because she associated it with sickness and stigma. If I were still working with her, I would definitely give her this book, because I think there is a huge benefit in seeing the way that others -- whether they take medication or not -- struggle with feelings that, even if they're not pathological, totally fucking suck. I recommend this book to people who have had them, which should be everyone... unless you've been taking handfuls of these meds since you were born, in which case boy, have I got a book for you.(less)
Just as it's hard to believe that the Rod Stewart who gave us the classic Every Picture Tells a Story is also responsible for "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?",...moreJust as it's hard to believe that the Rod Stewart who gave us the classic Every Picture Tells a Story is also responsible for "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?", it's baffling that Flaubert wrote Salammbô right after his more famous effort.
This is a historical novel about a revolt against Carthage by unpaid mercenaries following the First Punic War. It hasn't aged nearly as gracefully as Madame Bovary, and I consider it to be quite a difficult book. The first two thirds are just endlessly thick description, mostly of exotic settings and people's crazy outfits, punctuated by outrageously violent acts. While slogging through this, one might think, "Well, this would be a lot easier if it had any interesting characters with psychological depth, but maybe they just had not invented those yet in 1862." But then one might recall that in fact they -- specifically, Gustave Flaubert -- in fact had invented just that thing, and one might wish he'd incorporated these innovations into the present work.
But, the thing is that Salammbô is just not that type of book, and while it definitely provides rewards for one's hard work, they're not those of nuanced and realistic psychological portraits. The first big payoff comes on page 38, when the Barbarian mercenaries come across (hahaha) this:
A sickening stench struck their nostrils, and on top of a carob tree they seemed to see something extraordinary: a lion's head rose above the leaves. They ran to it. It was a lion, its limbs fastened to a cross like a criminal. Its huge muzzle drooped on to its chest, and its two forepaws, half concealed under its luxuriant mane, were widely separated like the wings of a bird. Its ribs stuck out, one by one, beneath the taut skin; its hind legs, nailed one on top of the other, rose a little; and black blood, flowing through the hair, had collected in stalactites at the bottom of its tail, which hung straight down along the cross. The soldiers stood round amusing themselves; they called it consul and Roman citizen and threw stones at its eyes to drive away the flies.
A hundred yards further on they saw two more, then there suddenly appeared a whole line of crosses with lions hanging on them. Some had been dead for so long that nothing remained on the wood but the remnants of their skeletons; others half eaten away had their faces contorted in hideous grimaces; some of them were enormous, the trees of the cross bent beneath them and they swayed in the wind, while flocks of crows wheeled ceaselessly above their heads. Such was the vengeance of Carthaginian peasants when they caught a wild beast; they hoped to terrify the others by such examples. The Barbarians stopped laughing and for a long time were seized by amazement. "What sort of people are these," they thought, "who amuse themselves by crucifying lions!"
Yes, what sort of people indeed. The crucified lions are only the first in a series of scenes of horrific sadism and cruelty that I might normally call "indescribable," except that Flaubert describes them all. Torture, maiming, starvation, child sacrifice, elephant tramplings, leper crucifixion, battlefield vampirism, and pretty much every sicko way of killing a person that Flaubert could think of is depicted here, with as much loving detail as he uses to evoke his lush and sensuous exotic world. This is one of the most over-the-top violent books I think I've ever read. Actually, though, the narrative picked up a lot in the last third -- including many thrilling battle scenes and an intense, highly sexy bodice-ripping romance -- and I wound up more or less enjoying this book, despite a slow start. And it's not all brutality and violence -- there's a beautiful naked woman dancing with her pet snake, some incredible food writing, and more dramatic sets and costume changes than any Hollywood studio could ever hope to replicate. I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to -- maybe fans of extreme graphic violence and historical epics, who don't feel Mel Gibson's Jesus movie went nearly far enough? -- but I'm not sorry I read this bizarre piece of dated gross-out Orientalism.(less)