Tag Archives: mental illness

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

A few years ago, I joined a musical theatre group. The first show I was involved in was a “concert” – a selection of songs from a variety of shows, all on a similar theme – with the theme “the darker side of musicals”. There were several songs from the Sondheim show “Assassins,” including “The Ballad of Guiteau”.

To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Guiteau (or Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley). I vaguely knew about Garfield, but only as one of the list – an assassinated president, or one of the Reconstruction presidents; someone to be recited, not someone to be learned. We spent almost no time on the late 19th century in my history classes in high school, and what we did learn was the social changes – things like yellow journalism or the labor safety reforms. Reconstruction went from Andrew Johnson to the Civil Rights movement with hardly a stop in between.

But the song is interesting, and I wanted to know how accurate it was. So I went on Wikipedia, read a bit, got even more interested, and heard about this book. Of course, Reconstruction-era American politics is not hugely popular or available in the UK. Luckily, my mom was also interested and bought it for our joint Kindle account.

I came away from this book with three overwhelming conclusions. First, Guiteau was certifiable and should have been institutionalised. I understand why he was executed. But there’s not a chance that he understood the moral implications of what he did. He transformed single, isolated events into a divine mandate, and he genuinely believed that other people – people like Chester Arthur (the vice president) and General Sherman (of the march to the sea), whom he’d never met – would back him up.

Second, Garfield was amazing. He was incredibly intelligent, and once he got into the habit of learning (which did take him a while), he was unstoppable. He started off in nearly devastating poverty, and was president of his alma mater by the time he was 25. He was a family man – incredibly close to his mother [his father died when he was under the age of 2] and siblings, increasingly devoted to his wife, and an involved father. He didn’t want to be president – he didn’t even really want to be in politics, but saw it as the best way that he could make a difference – but when it was pushed on him, he did as much as he could to be the best president he could be while still staying true to his own values and ideals. Even when he was dying, he was unselfish: telling the doctors that they were doing a good job, telling his wife that he wasn’t really in pain, doing what he could to make even his death not about him.

Third, Doctor Bliss was almost completely responsible for Garfield’s death. Guiteau was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong when he said that he was responsible for the shooting but not the death. Bliss had an undeserved sense of entitlement that led to him claiming sole responsibility for Garfield’s care, even to the extent of keeping his family away. He put his own reputation and desires above the care of his patient, and that is just wrong no matter what year it is. I don’t care that the medical convention at the time was anti-antisepsis, or that hospitals weren’t acceptable/accessible for anyone other than the indigent. This is the President of the United States. GET A SECOND OPINION. When the man’s personal doctor comes in? LET HIM COME IN. When Alexander Graham Bell comes in with his device to locate the bullet? LET HIM LOCATE THE BULLET – instead of telling him where to look and not allowing him to look anywhere else in the body (even as a control point! And had Garfield on a metal-spring mattress when Bell is using a metal detector!) The anti-antisepsis stuff I can forgive, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time, but the fact that he refused to acknowledge that septicemia had set in? The fact that he blatantly lied in all his press releases saying that the president was fine? And the fact that he refused to allow any sort of dissent for his opinion even after Lucretia Garfield said publicly that she’d never asked him to be her husband’s doctor? That’s delusion of an entirely different kind than Guiteau’s, and was much more devastating to Garfield.

Those were my main conclusions, but there was a lot else in the book that I found new and interesting. (I was coming in with almost no knowledge, so pretty much everything was new and interesting.) I didn’t know much about the Republican party post-Civil War, so I didn’t know much about Conkling and the spoils system. I ended up being a bit proud of Chester Arthur for breaking free of Conkling’s hold and carrying on with Garfield’s civil service reforms – and I must admit that I gave a bit of an evil laugh when Conkling lost his seat through his own hubris.

I also didn’t know anything about the reaction to Garfield’s death. In the book, the way it comes across – and I certainly hope that this is accurate – is that Garfield was personable enough and popular enough with all groups of people that the announcement of his death affected everyone – from freed black people to die-hard southerners to political rivals – and brought them closer as a nation. People didn’t riot against each other; they may have banded together against Guiteau but society didn’t fracture. Emotionally reuniting the country is something that Garfield may have been able to do while living – he was certainly making progress at it – and something that was sadly achieved by his death.

As for the book itself, it was a very quick read – Millard makes it entertaining as well as informative, and there’s nothing in it that can be considered dry or unnecessary. It seemed a bit short to me, but that could be because I’m also reading a book about the history of the Mediterranean, and I’m only 20% through it after almost six weeks. (That one is verrrrrry long and dense.) It didn’t feel incomplete; it just went very quickly and I still want to know more. This is especially surprising because I generally don’t care about 19th century politics – but Garfield-the-person was so interesting to me that I want to know him better. [I’m satisfied with my level of knowledge of Guiteau now though. *shudder*]

To sum up: I would recommend this book, whether you’re already interested in the time period or not. Also, give “The Ballad of Guiteau” a listen and be amazed at Sondheim’s writing and research (as well as Millard’s).

….now to find something similar about Czolgosz and McKinley…..

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

This is the sequel to The Magicians, which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago. I compared it to Harry Potter meets Narnia, for grownups.  And I was really looking forward to the sequel – getting back into Fillory, finding out what happened with/to Julia, helping Quentin find direction and satisfaction with his life.

Well, we find out what happened with Julia. It’s really dark and disturbing, and she loses herself and her humanity and her ability to connect and relate to other people. Some of it is her own choice, sort of, as she chooses to pursue “underground” magical studies. Some of it is not, as unexpected consequences take her over. All of it is dark, with only occasional glimpses of light and sanity.

There’s a sort of implicit connection made in the book, especially in Julia’s story, between the underground study of magic and mental illness, especially depression. I don’t know if there’s a deliberate connection there -some sort of mysticism, irrationality granting access to a different realm, something like that – or if it’s just coincidental and implied. If it is deliberate, I’m just glad that i’ts not romanticized. Magic in this world is very cool, but it’s also presented as very difficult and dangerous – and the consequences of failure are devastating. It wouldn’t help to present it as glamorous.

Quentin also shows signs of ennui and depression – some of it is his general personality (he showed the same symptoms in The Magicians) and some of it is events – Alice’s death, etc. It makes me wonder whether the connection between magic and mental illness that is so prevalent in the underground (read: non-Brakebills) community is also a factor in the use of magic as a whole.

One o fthe disappointing things about  this book for me was the lack of adventures in Fillory. I find Fillory fascinating, in the same way that I find the actual world-building of Narnia fascinating (my two favourite Narnia books are Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, for the world creation and exploration), and I was looking forward to a kind of Dawn Treader-esque exploring tale, especially when the quest for the keys showed up. But instead Quentin keeps being dragged out of the situations that I’ve become invested in, and that he has. Because of this, I found the ending more frustratingly sad than poignant. Because I never got to see much of Quentin in Fillory – just his boredom and dissatisfaction – I never quite believed his desperation to get back.

The Magician King also throws in a lot of new levels to the magical world, and it’s a bit too much. I feel like the whole “Old Gods” story  and Julia’s story could have been expanded, the dragons could have been expanded, and more could have been shown of “normal” Fillory to increase the dramatic necessity of saving it/getting back to it. In some ways it felt like the second and third parts of a trilogy had been compressed into one, as if The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had been merged: cutting Hoth down to one or two scenes, skipping most of Dagobah and only telling us about the cave scene (including its significance), cutting right from Han encased in carbonite to rescuing him on Tatooine and then going straight to Endor and the second Death Star. It’s entirely possible that if the book had been extended, even turned into two volumes, I’d be saying that it was too long and padded. But I felt like there were things introduced that are presented as deep and important, but in a tell-not-show kind of way.

Luckily, Lev Grossman is a good enough writer, and I became invested in the world enough during The Magicians that I wanted to keep going and try to recapture it. It never quite made it back to the level of interest that The Magicians did, but there were still glimpses of what the world could be.

I highly doubt that there will be a third book in this world, because there aren’t really loose ends – not in the same way that The Magicians had loose ends. I almost wish there would be, because I still like what the world has, even if I found the execution less-than-perfect in this case. But a third book would either have to restart something or fill in the gaps between these two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.


Filed under Historical

In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.


With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.


I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner

Some authors have certain themes that they come back to, over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Some themes, some concerns, are important enough to come back to. Body image, bullying, mental illness – these are all important things to explore on a regular basis. Best Friends Forever does that, to some extent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it completely successfully for me.

Part of my problem may be my own high school experience.  I wasn’t bullied, per se, much – that had come in middle school, before we moved – but I was certainly not part of the “popular” group (meaning cheerleaders, athletes, the well-dressed, the apparently socially well-adjusted). I had my own (divided) circle of friends, and ultimately became the happy, functioning adult that I am today. (hahahahahahahaha)

What I have noticed, since high school, is that very few of my classmates still remember or care who was “popular” or who wasn’t in high school. When I go back to my hometown and run into someone I was in high school with, they usually greet me with enthusiasm and recognition, whether we spoke to each other in high school or not. This is even true with the bullies – several years after we’d moved, I ran across one of the girls who’d been one of my worst tormenters in middle school. This girl was one of the reasons that I had literally no friends during fifth grade. She had been one of the organisers of the physical and emotional abuse that I underwent on a daily basis. (She wasn’t the one who’d audibly cheered when she learned I was leaving the school district; that was her best friend.)  But even just a few years afterwards, this girl greeted me as though nothing had ever happened between us. As one of my friends wrote in our graduation issue newspaper – high school doesn’t matter after high school.

So I don’t completely understand the world that Best Friends Forever is set in – a world where neither the bullies nor the bullied have moved on in twenty years. I understand where the main character is coming from – her school life was absolutely horrible, my fifth-grade year multiplied by every other year – but  I don’t understand the way that her bullies have not let up on her.

There were so many frustrating things about the main character to me. I empathised with her, but I got frustrated. I got frustrated with the obliviousness to the relatively severe social anxiety disorder she was clearly experiencing, as well as everyone else’s obliviousness to her mental disorders in high school. She was secretly binge eating, like, every night, and no one picked up on this, or thought, “Hmm, maybe she needs medical intervention?”

Mostly, though, I got frustrated with her “friendship” with her high school best friend. This girl essentially betrays her in high school (although in a fairly understandable way, given a lot of other circumstances), calls her to help cover up a potential murder, and generally acts like a controlling psychotic bitch. And the main character lets her. There is nothing good about this friendship. There is no reason, other than desperation, for this friendship to exist.  And that is frustrating for me.

I would have enjoyed this book more if either of the main female characters had undergone any sort of growth, any sort of recognition of and dealing with the past. And I don’t feel like they did, really. I mean,  there was a lot of discussion of the past – quite a lot of the book is flashback/backstory. But they didn’t seem to move on a lot from the past, and that was disturbing to me.

To get back to my first paragraph, Jennifer Weiner’s first book, Good in Bed, deals with some of the same issues: especially body image. And I enjoyed Good in Bed a lot. I wish I had enjoyed this more.

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Filed under General Fiction

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Okay, so I knew vaguely about the Brides in the Bath – I have been to Madame Tussaud’s several times now, and I think George Smith or whatever you want to call him has been featured in the Chamber of Horrors. But I didn’t know many of the details, and a lot of the late Victorian/Edwardian murder sensations blend together in my brain. The only thing I really remembered (probably spurred by the mnemonic there) was that this guy had married women and then drowned them.

What I didn’t know about the case was the bigamy aspect. (Question: is it still bigamy when it’s multiple wives who don’t know about each other? Because he had about three wives at any given time.) He married all of these women in succession, of course, but at the same time he had another wife that he would go back to in between, and a first wife who left him and fled to Canada – but as far as I could tell never actually got a divorce, although I could be wrong about that. Somehow that was almost more disturbing to me than the actual murders: the way he seduced these women and was so charismatic – and how close he came to getting away with it.

Obviously, with a title like that, the case is not the only aspect of this book. It’s also the story of Bernard Spilsbury, a “real-life Sherlock Holmes”, who is sometimes considered the father of modern forensics. It’s not really about his personal life, but it does establish the procedures and principles of autopsies and forensic deduction.

That makes it sound drier than it is. I found the book absolutely fascinating and engrossing. Not just the true-crime bits about the murders, but the information about the forensics of it as well. Possibly the coolest part – and the most convincing to me about the crime – was the “re-enactment” that Spilsbury and his colleagues did in order to establish the means. (Is “means” the word I’m looking for there?) Basically, they used some strong swimmers (women who could handle long stretches underwater), and tested different ways to submerge them. By sharply pulling up on the women’s legs – and keeping them up – they ended up almost killing one of their volunteers, and proving to their own satisfaction the way that the crimes could have been committed.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s so smoothly and engagingly written that I just raced through it. I do enjoy historical true-crime type stuff, and I enjoyed this one even more than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – in part because the crime was solved, so that aspect was much more satisfying in this book. Definitely another one that I’ll be pushing on people.

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Filed under Historical

Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

I think this is the first Sebastian Faulks book I’ve actually read. I’ve known about him, of course, and Birdsong has been (and still is) on my TBR list, but I think this is the first one that I’ve actually read. And it’s so worth it. The writing isn’t as poetically beautiful as, say, Vikram Seth’s, but the character depictions are quite realistic, and the ideas in it are stunning.

Human Traces is set at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the 20th century, and basically explores the subject and history of psychiatry through the lives (and work) of two friends. They agree to work together, and start their own sanatorium in the Alps, and their lives are intertwined even while their views on mental illness diverge greatly. Mental illness is still a great mystery in many respects today, so it was really interesting to see the modernity in the ideas that both Thomas and Jacques hold. Are mental illnesses the result of brain diseases? Unexplored traumas? Genetic abnormalities? I think today many people would say that it depends on the person and the illness (I know I would) and one major problem is knowing when to discriminate between them. (A problem   for Thomas and Jacques as well.)

The idea that I found most intriguing in this book was the idea that schizophrenia – hearing voices that tell you what to do – may be an evolutionary relic, connected with the development of language and writing. Thomas’s theory in the book is that ancient texts (the Bible and the Iliad are specifically mentioned) reflect reality when they describe the literal, physical or at least aural presence of the gods, but then as mankind developed writing and better forms of communication, the gods weren’t as necessary for communication and cultural organisation so the ability to hear them faded through the generations. I think this is an intriguing idea and wouldn’t mind exploring it more.

A corollary to that theory is the idea of consciousness as a sixth sense – the sense of personal, individual identity. The way I understood it was that Achilles in the Iliad, for example, didn’t really have a sense of himself as a Greek (or more generally, as a being independent from the will of the gods – that isn’t explicitly stated in the book, I don’t think, but I’m going with it for the benefit of the argument), and so could have a personal, physical/aural relationship with the gods. Odysseus in the Odyssey, on the other hand, could conceive of himself as an independent being, which is why Athena (for example) was mostly absent from his life and how he could practice deception (on both gods and men). There are massive issues with this argument, of course: the concept of “Greek” the way we understand it now didn’t really exist then, and the Iliad and the Odyssey are fairly contemporaneous, and Odysseus certainly had a personal/aural relationship with certain gods even if he did deceive them and others…. But I do like the idea at its core, even if the examples don’t quite hold up – that consciousness and the idea of individual identity is one of the things that marks us out as human.

I skimmed a couple of reviews of this book as I was reading, and one of the criticisms seems to be that it is more didactic than some of his others. Having not read any others, I can’t make a comparison, but a fair portion of this one is taken up with lectures about the various philosophical ideas involved in the burgeoning study of psychiatry and psychology. I enjoyed them, but I can see how they would seem overly formal to others.

The only quibble I had with the book is so minor that it’s not really worth mentioning (but as it’s my blog, I will mention it) – and it’s not that I think this detail is wrong as much as I’m wondering if it’s right. At a dinner party/musical evening, in a relatively remote town in Switzerland, in the early days of the 20th century (dates were never completely clear to me….maybe around 1905?) chamber music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler is played. I have no question that Beethoven and Brahms would be played, but would Mahler? How popular was he outside of the major metropolises during his lifetime? How popular was his chamber music? I honestly don’t know – I really only know Mahler’s symphonies (which certainly wouldn’t have been played at a musical evening in 1905 in Switzerland).


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Filed under General Fiction, Historical

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room has an incredibly interesting concept. Jack has lived his entire life – five years – in one 12×12 room.  He and his mother are secluded and confined, but Jack is happy, because he’s never known anything different. But as you get more involved in the story, you realise just what is going on in Jack and Ma’s lives: Ma was kidnapped and is being held prisoner, and Jack is a product of that.

The book is divided into four sections. The first two sections are set (almost) entirely within Room – they’re a sweet but ultimately disturbing portrayal of Jack and Ma’s life: sweet because Jack and Ma clearly love each other, and Ma is doing everything she can to give Jack a “normal” upbringing, even given the constraints. Jack watches Dora the Explorer, and measures himself against the wall, and plays with his toys. Other than the fact that he doesn’t know that there is a world outside Room, he is a normal 5-year-old.

At the end of the first half, Jack and Ma escape, and it’s in the second half that things really start going off the rails. For all that Room was a dysfunctional situation, it was normal and functional within that situation.  Suddenly everything Jack has ever known is taken away and he is catapulted into a world that he thought was fictional until just a few weeks ago.

What interested me in the second half was not as much Jack and Ma’s reactions to being free – although I think they are incredibly believable. I was more interested in other people’s reactions: the reporters, implying that Ma was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome; Ma’s mother, who couldn’t believe that Jack didn’t have Legos, Jack’s aunt and uncle, who took Jack into a mall only a few weeks after the escape. It’s my old interest in assumptions: the things that we don’t realise that other people don’t know. It’s especially interesting with Jack, because he’s familiar with pop culture (they had a TV in Room)  but he’s not familiar with social conventions (like having to pay for things at a store).

It’s  a disturbing book, as any book about kidnapping, rape, etc., should be, but it’s definitely worth reading. Jack is a more reliable unreliable narrator than some: he doesn’t know what’s going on, but the reader usually does, with very little detective work. Ma is a good mother – one of the best in fiction – and incredibly sympathetic. By the end, you know that Ma and Jack are going to be fine (and the journey to fine is worth it).

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Filed under General Fiction

The Song Reader, by Lisa Tucker

Anyone who knows me at all even a little bit knows that I get songs stuck in my head all the time. Like, all the time. My head is rarely quiet. A word will remind me of a song (not always logically) and it will be there for ages. And sometimes there is no apparent stimulus.

So when I ran across a book about a woman who “reads songs” – who basically uses the songs people have in their heads as a basis for amateur psychoanalysis – I couldn’t resist. If this actually existed, I would be tempted to try it. In fact, it might come up eventually when I start seeing a counselor.

I was absolutely captivated. I’d never heard of the book before running across it in a charity shop, but the only reason I didn’t finish it in one night was because I hit a chapter break around 2 am, and I’m trying to make an attempt to stay on a normal sleeping pattern. I woke up early (not deliberately) and had the book finished by 9.30.

It’s set in a small town in the Midwest – the back of the book says Southern, and it’s about five hours from Kansas City, but I can’t remember if they ever actually specified the state. Mary Beth and Leann are two sisters, with quite a large age difference between them. Their dad is gone and their mother is dead, so Mary Beth, who is legally an adult, raises her sister. Mary Beth is the song reader. Leann is an overly intelligent young teenager.

It’s a book about the connection between music and memory; it’s also a book about mental illness (catatonic depression, and something that might be OCD or something like that). Mostly, though, it’s a book about love. Passionate, sexual love; family love; twisted destructive love; friendship and loyalty. Love is the driving factor in so many parts of this book, including past events.  Lack of love is the driving factor in most of the other parts. Parental relationships are destructive; romantic relationships are passionate and life-changing; sibling relationships are the most important factor in your life.

The two boyfriends – Mary Beth’s and Leann’s – were amazing. Almost too good to be true, except not so perfect that they couldn’t be. I loved them both. I loved most of the characters in this book, actually. I got a little bit frustrated with Mary Beth at the end, with the pressure that she inadvertently put on Leann and her patterns that were set in the relationship with their mother. I hated her a little bit for forcing their father to leave – tricking him into leaving, essentially – but given what we already knew about her character and her problems it made sense. Mary Beth is a fixer. She is there for people to need her, and she throws herself into other people far more passionately than she does for herself.  She will do whatever she can to make people’s lives better – and that started with her mother, and continues on to her song reading. Of course, because she gives everything she has to other people, she has no reserves left for herself, for when things go wrong.

One message that I took from this book – probably not ultimately the intended message, but one that I’ve thought for several years – was that sometimes it’s necessary to be selfish. It’s not good to be selfish all the time, of course – to expect the world to live up to your expectations and to criticize it when it doesn’t instead of doing what you can to change it. But you also can’t stay sane when you invest 100% of yourself in other people. You have to let yourself be selfish and need people sometimes; you can’t make your entire life revolve around other people needing you, or you’ll have nothing left.  Leann is a much stronger person than Mary Beth because she works both ways. She is there for other people when they need her, and she gives a lot, whatever she can. But she also has a role of her own in the world, a personality of her own; she doesn’t exist only when she is needed. And that is what allows her to survive emotionally the events that Mary Beth cannot.

And I haven’t even really gotten into the whole song-reading thing – which, to be fair, is only ever seen from Leann’s perspective, and she is not the one who actually does it. But the idea is fascinating, and the connection between music and memory is fascinating, and I’ll have to think about that one a little bit more.

I loved this book, I really did. I didn’t expect to, but I did. If you can find it, I recommend it.

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