Monday, 24 February 2014

Poems, by Robert Browning

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: Stuff you missed in history class

Brow: High, especially after I discovered that although the copy I borrowed from the library was purchased in 1907, some of the pages had never been cut apart.

Preferred Poems: Of course I've read different versions of The Pied Piper of Hamelin before, but this one bears reading. I also quite enjoyed The Flight of the Duchess. I think I might just be the type who enjoys narrative poetry and isn't so much into finding the similarities between say, a Grecian urn and the poet's underage male lover.

Less Loved Poems: Clearly any collection of Browning's poems ought to include My Last Duchess and this one does not, and so I wondered if perhaps one of the poems about ancient Greece might have been replaced.

But should you read it? If poetry is not your thing, but you feel you should at least be trying to access your civilization's heritage, than Browing is a fairly easy, accessible entry point for you. If you've acknowledged that not reading poetry marks you as a philistine and have taken up the hobby, Browning's works should definitely be on your list.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara

Why I read it: Harold Bloom's Western Canon

Podcasts: None

Brow: Upper middle

Summary: Julian English is not having a great Christmas break. Although he is wealthy and well-educated and has a beautiful young wife and a thriving business, he has a self-destructive streak a mile wide. On Christmas Eve, he follows through on a drunken impulse to throw a drink in the face of one of his most important customers and investors. This sets off a three-day long series of bad choices that will include binge drinking, cheating on his wife, and starting a brawl in the country-club locker room. At the end, the reader is forced to wonder if the events are fate, or just poor decision making.

But should you read it? For some reason, I find it much easier to pick up a tragic book than I do to sit down and watch a tragic movie, even though the latter will be finished faster. But not much faster in this case. The book is about 200 pages long and the plot moves at a quick clip. So go ahead and spend a rainy late-winter afternoon reading about Julian English's self-propelled downfall.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Faber Pocket Guide to Wagner, by Michael Tanner

Why I read it: Although I didn't have the sitting capacity to sit through the 16 hours of opera in 4 days that an entire Ring Cycle would demand, I did manage to see Die Walkure in Amsterdam this month and thought I should have at least some idea of what I was watching.

Podcasts: There are many on Wagner, mostly focusing on whether his racism led to Nazism, but none on this book specifically.

Brow: People think that opera is intimidatingly high-brow because it's mostly in a foreign language, but actually the plots are quite simple, and frankly goofy, and that, in combination with the costumes, set and the fact that a character will often take 25 minutes to die on stage, makes it more kitsch than high art. Nonetheless, as long as it retains its reputation as being an expensive, difficult art form reserved for the moneyed set, it will remain in its rarefied brow ranking.

Summary: The book starts with a short biography of Wagner, a notoriously difficult man, then analyses his operas, then finally deals with his antisemitism and whether it led to the Holocaust.

But should you read it? It's the Wagner 200 year, and so you can expect to see a lot of advertisements for his operas, especially since, racism or no, it's the one way opera houses can guarantee they will sell out for at least a few nights. If those adverts do arouse your curiosity, by all means buy this book so you'll have some idea of what you're watching and the fevered, brilliant, temperamental (he hated France nearly as much as he hated Jews, for not liking his operas) mind it sprang from.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sybil Exposed, by Debbie Nathan

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: None

Brow: It was a sordid case of psychiatry and journalism gone mad that inevitably became hugely popular. Writing a biography that exposes that fact does not elevate it above low brow.

Summary: In the 1970s, a book called Sybil appeared, the supposedly true story of a woman who had 16 personalities and the psychiatrist who put her back together. The book launched a new psychiatric diagnosis: Multiple Personality Disorder, in which a person's psyche 'splits' as a way to cope with severe sexual abuse, usually Satanic in nature. Each new personality periodically takes over the brain and body of the host, leaving her (the overwhelming majority of sufferers were women) with large tranches of time that she can't remember. For the next 20 years or so, MPD, repressed memories and Satanic cults were a popular trend in psychiatry and daytime talk shows, until society finally came to its senses in the 1990s and realised that the phenomenon was largely made up. Debbie Nathan researched the three women behind the craze: the original 'Sybil', her psychiatrist, Connie Wilbur, and the journalist who helped them sensationalise their story. She traces 'Sybil's' (real name: Shirley Mason) journey from being a misfit in her Seventh-Day Adventist community in Iowa to troubled college student in New York who falls under the spell of an ethically-challenged psychiatrist named Connie Wilbur, who was looking to make a name for herself using the new drugs and treatments available to her profession, namely hypnosis, sodium pentothal or 'truth serum', barbiturates and insulin. She quickly turned her patient into a junkie and forced her to make up ever more outlandish tales about her childhood in order to keep her attention. The journalist had made a name for herself publishing human-interest stories about politicians' wives, but as public interest waned, she needed a new hook for her audience. This toxic combination yielded Sybil.

But should you read it? I was a little young to understand the whole 'Satanic ritual abuse' craze at the time it was happening, but I was a little more politically aware by the time it was being exposed as a giant hoax propagated by paranoid prosecutors and overzealous psychiatrists. I also studied psychology at university, where this was held up as the classic case study of therapeutic overreach. It's also a good reminder to all of us that mass hysteria is not a new phenomenon and we need to be careful about falling prey to it all the time, regardless of our experience with psychiatry.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cat Sense, by John Bradshaw

Why I read it & Podcast: Fresh Air

Brow: Since cats are the highest brow, reading books about them must be impossibly high.

Summary: Bradshaw is an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol and owner of 3 cats, though this book is largely the result of his actual research into cat behaviour and emotions. He argues that cats are not nearly as far along in their evolution from pest controllers to purr factories, and the lifestyle we expect them to lead now, where they are pampered, worshiped, and in my case at least, literally brought food on a platter, food that is often more expensive on a per-kilo basis than my own, I might add, is actually stressing them out, because we expect them to live in close proximity to other cats and not claw our furniture in exchange for the above. The book is also stuffed full of tips for the cat owner, such as how to tell what your cats think of each other (mine get along fine) and what kinds of toys they like (the ones they know they've killed because they fell apart. He does not explain how you are supposed to afford this).

Who should read this: Well, obviously anyone who has a cat, which is now the most popular domestic pet today, so that's a lot of people. You can probably skip the history chapters if you're looking for a quick read, but the behaviour, interaction and emotions chapters are indispensable reading for the ailurophile.

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Why I read it: Slate Review

Podcast: Writers on Writing

Brow: Solidly middlebrow

Summary: Identical twins Violet and Daisy have always had 'the senses,' an ability to foresee future events. Daisy yearns for a normal life and does all she can to distance herself from her powers, refusing to acknowledge the messages they send. She grows up to lead a conventional life, marrying a chemistry and becoming a stay-at-home mother to two children. Violet, on the other hand, embraces her capabilities and becomes a medium. She is also her sister's opposite in many ways, she never marries and declares herself a lesbian in her 30s. And there you have the fundamental tension of twins - a reflection you can't control. Then in 2009, Violet predicts that an earthquake will hit sometime soon, throwing Daisy's - who renames herself Kate at university - life into chaos. Suddenly her sister is everywhere, her husband, as a scientist, is furious. Then, to make matters worse, her own powers kick in again with a specific prediction.

What makes it good: I think any woman who has a sister that's relatively close in age has felt the same tensions as the Schramm twins. With my own younger sister, it often felt like she was defining herself in opposition to me: I like to read, she hates books; I loath sports, she's athletic and outdoorsy, and so on. We don't live very close and so don't see each other much, but I suspect that if we spent as much time together as the characters in this book, we'd also find ourselves fighting as much, and in the same ways, as Kate and Violet: at one point Violet explodes at Kate's mothering, Kate is exasperated when her sister refuses to help her corral her two children during an emergency. In other words, psychic twin powers aside, these two sisters could be any of us.

Recommended: Absolutely.