** The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

The author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma has spent his entire professional life working with victims of trauma: veterans, victims of child abuse, and victims of adult trauma. The book is divided into part, one that describes how trauma literally transforms the brain, the other in which he shows hopeful therapies for trauma victims. I found the first part fascinating, especially when he explained both the explosive rage that trauma victims can exhibit and the numbing, unresponsive patterns that others show, because they have lost touch with their own bodies.

Since the reactions to trauma can take so many forms, it’s difficult to treat trauma victims (that is, when the therapist tries to treat the root cause; the author bemoans the fact that, too often, therapists only attempt to treat symptoms). From yoga to theater, meditation to neurofeedback, treatment abound. It’s discouraging to read that therapists seem to have very little idea of what will work for a particular patient, and in any case it takes months or years to see real progress. Psychiatry has much to discover.

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** On Sunset by Kathryn Harrison

On Sunset is a delightful memoir of the author’s childhood, being raised by her grandparents as her unmarried mother lived nearby and seemed responsible enough, but not, apparently, to raise a child. Her grandparents had unusual lives. Her grandmother, born in an Iranian Jewish family, grew up in Shanghai there her father was a wealthy merchant. Her grandfather grew up poor in England but spent time working in Alaska before marrying late in life.  She tells of growing up in a mansion, the furniture of which gets sold off to pay for necessities, while proper manners and decorum are observed at all times. I loved the description of her relationship to her grandfather, who is kind and wise and generous, as perhaps only someone who grows up poor can be.

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* One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

The woman and man that stars in One Part Woman are perfectly happy, but their lack of children makes them a target for jokes, deep concern from their parents, and harassment, from friends and enemies alike. So they dutifully trudge to temples and festivals, trying to get the pregnancy that will deliver them from the stigma of childlessness.

I enjoyed the first 100 pages or so, as the couple endures humiliations and taunts despite being quite satisfied with their marriage themselves. And then, the story seems to repeat itself over and over again until the end. Too bad, the beginning had quite a pleasant mix of exoticism, marriage wisdom, and social constraints.

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** Dopesick by Beth Macy

The poorest fifth of Americans have a life expectancy 13 (!) years lower than the richest fifth, and that’s an average. As the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America tells us, it’s a lot worse in Appalachia, where the opioid crisis started, arguably, and is still raging. She starts by telling us about the pushy (and well paid) pharmaceutical reps, unfettered by government regulators, the prescription-happy physicians, some well intentioned and others definitely not, the drug dealers loitering outside Narcotics Anonymous meetings –and the grinding poverty that leads to crime, hunger, and addiction.

The book doesn’t present a lot of hopeful solutions, although it shows that appropriate regulations (sometimes as simple as maintaining a registry of prescriptions), holding awareness programs in school, providing easy access to substitution therapy, and making Narcan widely accessible all help. But it seems that the real answer is to lift entire regions out of poverty, and that’s no easy feat.

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*** Still Life with Monkey by Katharine Weber

I get it: a novel about a tetraplegic man may not be the kind of light reading you want around the holidays. But Still Life With Monkey is a gem. The monkey, a capuchin trained to help individuals with spinal cord injuries, is a delight, of course. But so is the rich description of the life of his new partner, his wife, and even the neighbors that he can easily spy from his window, since he now has so much time to do just that. Ask Santa for this novel!

 

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** Presidio by Randy Kennedy

Presidio is a classic road trip, with an unlikely trio of travelers: two brothers, one a car thief and the other a bereft abandoned husband, and a stowaway girl from one of the many cars they steal along the way. The story alternates between the trip itself and a memoir of the thief brother, improbably told through notes he supposedly keeps (in a life in which he owns nothing permanently?) and it’s a page turner, although it does not seem to resolve properly.

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** The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum

We take it for granted that our milk contains milk, maple syrup something more than mere corn syrup, and that canned meat won’t kill us. The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century recalls a time when early food manufacturers felt free to sell pretty much anything, in the absence of any legislation. The book describes the difficult fight of a chemist, Dr. Wiley, to research safe products and push for regulations, the 1906 Food and Drug Act, against the strong objections of the food industry. That should make for a great, inspiring story, and there are indeed some delightful moments, as when roomfuls of young men are enlisted to eat their way through doubtful preservatives (well, maybe not so delightful for the young men!). But the pace is slow and the details somewhat mind-numbing.

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Filed under Non fiction