ElCicco #CBR5 Review #49: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Unknown-1

If you’ve seen any reviews of this book, you already know that it is a novel about a woman who spent the first five years of her life with a sister, Fern, who happened to be a chimp. When I started reading the novel, I was sort of irritated that reviewers have put this plot point out there and spoiled some of the fun of reading, but now that I’ve finished, the fact that Fern is a chimp is not really the big point. The novel’s focus is more about family, communication, intelligence, memory, psychology and human treatment of animals. That Fern is a chimp is not the most important thing about her.

Our narrator Rosemary (for remembrance) starts in in the middle of things, which from her point of view is when she has been in college at UC Davis in 1996, her brother having run away from the family over a decade ago and her sister missing for even longer. Rosemary has left her parents (and, she hopes, her past) behind in Bloomington, Indiana, but much of her recollections have to do with her father, who as a psychology professor at IU did research world-famous involving Fern and Rosemary. Rosemary feels great guilt and responsibility for what happened to Fern and her brother, although she herself is not clear on the details of their disappearances. It’s only through recollections, chance meetings and conversations that the “facts,” such as they are, begin to emerge.

Rosemary is intelligent, sometimes funny, occasionally emotionally raw as our narrator, and she questions her own reliability in telling this story. She is aware that memory is a tricky thing, given the amount of psychology she has been exposed to growing up. Rosemary is self-reflective, noting that as a child she was terribly, annoyingly loquacious but as an adult she has learned to suppress certain aspects of her personality, her “monkey-girl” nature for which she was teased and bullied in school. When the story begins, she is concerned that a chance encounter with a bohemian student named Harlow will cause her to revert to her uninhibited ways and bring unwanted attention to her family history. “In the comments section of my kindergarten report card I’d been described as impulsive, possessive and demanding. These are classic chimp traits and I’ve worked hard over the years to eradicate them. I felt that Harlow was maybe demonstrating the same tendencies without the same commitment to reform.” While she knows Harlow is bad news, she feels a kinship with her that has been missing since her siblings disappeared.

Communication is an important theme throughout this novel. Rosemary tells us that her father, in doing his research with her and Fern, said he wanted to see if Fern could learn to speak. Rosemary is suspicious and posits that what her father really wanted was to see if Rosemary could learn to speak chimpanzee. Rosemary and Fern were very close and, according to Rosemary, could understand each other as well as any two sisters. And like siblings, they experienced the gamut of feelings for each other from love to resentment and jealousy. Yet the communication among the other members of Rosemary’s family seems incredibly poor despite their verbal abilities. At one point Rosemary says, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle, I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.”

By the end of the novel, Rosemary has learned the truth about her family and herself. There are some sad and unexpected turns, but overall the plot hangs together well. I was very drawn in to the story and was convinced that Fern was a genuine member of this family and that her loss was as hard as the loss of any child could be. Fowler gives her reader a lot to think about and discuss in a reading group.

Advertisements

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #45: Click by Ori and Rom Brafman

ClickClick: The Magic of Instant Connections (2010) by Ori and Rom Brafman is one of those books that I noticed somewhere (probably on Amazon?) a long time ago and finally got around to reading. I’m a big fan of these fun, little pop psychological books. They allow me a glimpse into how our minds work and how we deal with relationships without being text-book heavy or self-help-book annoying. Click was also another audio book, but unlike some other audio books I’ve picked up, the interesting stories and conversational language made listening to this one much less of a chore.

Click really focuses on how we engage with people. And really, a lot of the book is common sense. After all, I bet everyone has experienced the sensation of “clicking” with someone, so we know that it makes us happy and we work better with people we “click” with. Despite this, Click is still worth reading because of the interesting anecdotes, and the sometimes surprising psychological studies that have been done on this subject.

Click here for more.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo

Image

In August 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researches conducted an experiment in the basement of Stanford University wherein 24 perfectly normal, healthy male college students took on roles of prisoners and guards. The purpose of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to study the effects of situational forces on both sets of participants: how would the guards respond to their new positions of power, and how would prisoners respond to being stripped of their identity and freedom? I’ll sum it up for you quickly: given the right situation, it appears that just about all of us have the capacity to be total dicks.

The speed with which the prisoners seemed to lose their identity and take on the role of prisoner was impressive; however, the real surprise of the experiment was the intensity with which the guards embraced their new roles. Although they were told they could not physically harm the prisoners, they were free to employ whatever mental harassment they could come up with, including solitary confinement and sleep deprivation; they repeatedly made the prisoners get up in the middle of the night to count off their “numbers” and repeat the rules of the prison in mind-numbing repetition. (It seems to me that sleep deprivation would be physically harmful, but I’m no torture expert.) When one prisoner goes on a hunger strike, the guards force him to “make love” to his dinner sausages, ordering him to hug, caress, and kiss them. When he still refuses to eat, they try to force the sausages down his throat. At one point towards the end of the experiment, the guards humiliate a prisoner by forcing him to mime intercourse with the ground.

Have I mentioned that all of this happened within a span of 6 days?

The roles or prisoner and guard were assigned completely at random and all potential participants were carefully screened to make sure they were mentally stable (i.e., not prone to nervous breakdowns or predisposed to be assholes).  From the experiment, Zimbardo concludes that, “We overemphasize personality in explaining any behavior while concurrently underemphasizing situational influences.” In other words, we are constantly explaining bad behavior as the work of “bad apples,” instead of looking at the “bad barrel” to see how the situation can be corrected.

All of this is very interesting and I wish I could recommend this book; however, I’ve pretty much told you most of what you need to know. So unless you are getting a graduate degree in psychology, please just read the Wikipedia entry on the Stanford Prison Experiment and save yourself time.

I’m probably being unfair; this is, after all, a detailed study of an experiment, but the author’s writing made me want to go out and do some waterboarding. In Chapter 2, Zimbardo describes how he talked the Stanford police into “arresting” the prisoners for his experiment, to lend authenticity to the volunteers’ loss of freedom and start the experiment off with a little flair. He recounts his conversations with the Palo Alto police department officers in dialogue that wouldn’t cut it on Cinemax. The officers conveniently provide a framework for exposition, saying things like “I’m a little confused about a couple of things,” and “Yes, I guess it makes sense the way you put it.” I know I’m being picky, but couldn’t he have found a graduate student willing to ghost write this thing for him? The last straw was when he referenced the Milgram Experiment as having “shocking results” (wink, wink). Good God, who was the editor on this?

But enough of my literary critique. I found myself getting irritated as well with the glee with which Zimbardo set out to conduct his experiment, starting with the “arrest” and local news coverage. Zimbardo himself put pressure on the guards to be tougher with the prisoners, and the only reason the experiment ended after six days instead of two weeks was because graduate student Christina Maslach (who was also romantically involved with Zimbardo) visited the prison and expressed horror at the conditions. Zimbardo does explore in the book whether the experiment was ethical (it wasn’t) and expresses regret that he allowed it to go on as long as he did, indicating that he too got caught up in his “role” as prison superintendent. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe we need an experiment to study dickish tendencies among the scientific community.

The last third of the book explores what we can learn from the experiment about situational forces and how these forces help explain modern incidents like the Abu Ghraib abuses.  Zimbardo concludes that “this experiment has emerged as a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are alien to their nature.”

There’s plenty of food for thought in this book; I just wish it had been available in pamphlet form.

Caitlin’s #CBR5 #21: The Murmurings by Carly Anne West

13260536

This is one of those Teen books dealing with mental illness, except with a paranormal twist. It’s difficult to describe, there are these murmurs and then wraiths or something in mirrors and they want to put their life essence into people and take them over…I didn’t really get into that stuff in my review, which you can see here. It’s basically about a girl who just experienced the loss of her sister and now is worried that she may be going crazy as well.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #11: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Unknown

Set at the turn of the last century, The Orchardist is a novel whose main character, William Talmadge, is a successful middle-aged apple and apricot grower in Oregon who has spent most of his life alone. His parents died by his teenage years and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared while herb-picking in the forest, leaving Talmadge devastated. He has few close friends other than the local midwife/healer Caroline Middey and a mute Native American named Clee, who comes through the territory a couple of times every year. Clee and his men capture, break and sell wild horses and help Talmadge with harvesting. It’s a predictable and satisfying life that becomes unsettled when a couple of teenaged girls, both pregnant, begin hanging around Talmadge’s orchards, taking his fruit and steering clear of contact with others. Talmadge takes pity and tries to help them, remembering his younger sister and her fate. As a result, Talmadge’s life undergoes some rather dramatic changes.

The structure of the novel is mostly linear, with occasional flashbacks to the main characters’ personal histories. Chapters shift among Talmadge’s story, Della’s (one of the pregnant girls) and Angelene’s (one of the babies). I would characterize it as a psychological novel, demonstrating the effects of abuse, neglect, hunger, fear and loss on children and young adults, and how the effects then play out through the course of their lives. Control is another theme: whether it’s men trying to dominate the landscape or tame horses, or individuals trying to assert control over their own lives or someone else’s.

I was impressed with Coplin’s character development. As the story progresses and the layers are peeled back, the reader catches glimpses of what motivates each, but  without fully knowing or understanding them. That might sound like a criticism but I think it’s good. We never fully know other people, their thoughts and desires; we can only guess, and that’s what the characters in this book, particularly Talmadge and Angelene, do vis-a-vis each other and Della. Della is a complicated young girl/woman. She seeks danger, independence, control, and revenge but she can be naive and flirts with mental illness. The chapters devoted to her were by far the most interesting in the book in my opinion. Actually, all of the female characters seem to be rather strong, extraordinary women. Talmadge’s mother defied convention by moving alone with her children out west. Caroline Middey is a successful single woman, respected in her community. Still, opportunities and rights for women were limited and could lead to extreme actions when a woman felt powerless. This is demonstrated several times in the novel.

Coplin’s writing, particularly descriptions of landscapes (which can be tedious and distracting in some novels), is lovely and evocative. A lot of this novel is pretty heavy and sort of depressing. The characters all contemplate the meaning of life and death at some point, but there’s still an edge of hope, such as in this passage:

Around her the garden was in verdant bloom; the smell of the air was almost sickening with odor, and although it was late in the day the last bees were industrious in the crocus, the birds had started their racket in the trees…. she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise. 

This is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and would be a great pick for a discussion group.

Katie′s #CBR5 Review 1: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Title: Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes
Author: Maria Konnikova
Source: from publisher for review
Rating:
Fun Fact: Motivation can improve IQ test results and memory formation.
Review Summary: Not the most useful as a self-help book, but a fun and inspiring way to learn about psychology.

Can you learn to think like Sherlock Holmes? Drawing on both anecdotes from Holmes stories and exciting studies in psychology, author Maria Konnikova suggests ways in which you can. She’s clearly familiar with and enthusiastic about both her topics – Homes and the psychology behind his way of thinking – and she does a great job making you feel her enthusiasm too. As someone who understands loving a good book, she had me from her description of her first experience with Holmes. She also integrated real-world, relatable examples with her Holmes/Conan Doyle anecdotes and the psychology studies in a way that constantly piqued my interest.

Read more at Doing Dewey.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #2: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

images

This novel, set in Europe at the end of the 16th century, tells of a daughter’s quest to find her father as well as herself. Gabriella Mondini is a Venetian doctor who learned her skills by her father’s side and was accepted (begrudgingly) into the Venetian doctors guild as long as her father was her patron. When the story begins, Gabriella’s father has been gone for 10 years and the guild has terminated her membership. Dr. Mondini had been working on a book of disease with Gabriella, and when he left, he took it with him, leaving his daughter without her father, her patron and her work.

 

Mondini sent occasional letters to his daughter as he traveled, and over the years, he became more and more lax with providing dates or cities from which he wrote. Moreover, the content of his letters became increasingly confusing and distressing. What really drove him away? Was it a desire to learn more of disease or was it to hide his own illness? When she receives a final message from him, without date or point of origin, telling Gabriella that he will not return and she should not look for him, Gabriella, naturally, resolves to find him. She gathers up her servants Olmina and Lorenzo, her own book of diseases that she has been recreating from memory, and bids her unsupportive and shrill mother good-by. Gabriella retraces her father’s steps through Europe, starting with his first letters, which did indicate cities and fellow doctors whom he had consulted.

The novel follows her journeys through a year and reveals much about the unstable political political situation in Europe, the widespread suspicion of “healers” as opposed to doctors (who seem to be purely intellectual in their pursuits) and particularly of women. It also shows Gabriella’s own development — is she mad to pursue her father, who seems to have left behind a dubious reputation in the cities he visited? Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from Gabriella’s book, which is largely about psychological and emotional disorders. Melancholia, loss of desire, invidia (the invisible worm that consumes the heart), the “repugnance of closed space” — how many of these maladies, which frequently defy cure, afflict Gabriella and her father?

I admire the authors’ ambition in covering so much ground — geographically, historically and psychologically. Her characters travel through Northern Europe, Scotland, France, Spain and North Africa on their odyssey, and O’Melveny does a fine job of showing the political, social and cultural atmosphere of these places. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Gabriella. At times I thought her impetuous and selfish, but this is perhaps reflective of her class and upbringing. I found the story arc to be satisfying without stretching the credulity too much, and the writing is lovely. O’Melveny is a poet and it comes through in her novel.

Some women think of love as a rising thing, but I’d always known it as a descent where I might lose myself or my beloved. A sweetness and then a severance greater than original solitude. And so I feared joy. Yet there in the library [we] climbed the bright ladder of the body, as if it were sky and we a deafening, twisting flock of birds that could never fall to earth.

This was a pleasurable read. Recommended for those who have read and enjoyed the novels of Sarah Dunant and Geraldine Brooks.