The author of Liar has lived a rough life. Two girlfriends were murdered. His wife suffers from an undiagnosed disease. And he is bipolar, addicted to an assortment of drugs, and has suffered from enough blackouts and concussions due to falls that it’s remakarble he is still alive. He seems to tell it all candidly, but since he is the first to note how he can rearrange the truth to suit him, the reader is never quite certain of what she is reading. It’s a rollicking story except when it’s tragic, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the trials of the author, except perhaps when he inflicts them on himself.
The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia features the author, stricken by an allergic reaction to a common malaria drug, lost and dazed in an Indian train station, rescued by a kind policeman, and eventually by his parents. The book is the story of his recovery and how difficult it is to function when even one’s girlfriend is not recognizable. The story flows well and parts of it are just delightful, starting with his stay in a Hyderabad psychiatric hospital, sharing a room with a suicidal father who is visited by his sweet son who practices his English with the author.
On the other hand, the book meanders between a straight autobiography and a virulent but also half-hearted crusade against the drug that made him sick. It would have been better to either delineate between the two or weave them more tightly together.
There are many aspects of Tumbledown I enjoyed, and mostly the many portraits of individuals in the rehabilitation center that is the setting of the novel as individuals worthy of consideration and with interesting lives, including inner lives, despite their various handicaps and limitations — although, to be sure, some of them seem to just happen to be patient and seem rather better functioning than some of the therapists. There is also a clever double ending that I did not particularly believe or enjoy, but is undoubtedly clever.
Unfortunately, the vignettes of the characters seem to juxtapose without ever coalescing into a cohesive whole, and the lives of the therapists, starting with the flawed hero and would-be director of the center, seem to be remarkably empty and aimless, and consist mostly of short relationships devoid of meaning. Perhaps a more patient reader would be able to tolerate the senseless bar-cruising action that gets in the way of the deeper anecdotes?
It is not my habit to post about books I have not read all the way through. True, I sometimes find myself turning pages a little fast when the book doesn’t grab me, but I feel a duty of reading to the end, more as a courtesy to the author (what if there is an amazingly good ending to a so-so story?) than as a badge of honor for myself.
I did not finish Umbrella. I could not. I gave up on page 119, enough to tell you that it’s a supremely clever story, written in a stream of consciousness style that smoothly moves from the psychiatrist hero to one of his patient, exploring the horrors of mental illness and especially its ill-defined treatments, alongside two extended families. A braver soul than I can try wading through the challenging presentation. I wonder if the swooning critics actually read the book. A page or ten is dazzling. Beyond that, it feels like eating a bowl of sugar.
The Memory Palace is the tragic true story of the author’s schizophrenic mother and her daughter’s frantic efforts to survive a very tough childhood and make lives beside and despite their mother’s frantic efforts at dragging them into her deranged world. It’s a very sad story, because the illness is so trying and also because there is simply no good therapeutic solution in a society that will not allow coercing mental patients to get treated (not to mention will not pay for treatment, but will pay for repeated police visits and such…)
There is a silver lining in the story, though, namely that the author and her sister managed to overcome their tough childhood and lead what appears to be normally productive lives. It’s tough to understand how no one reached out to help them when they were kids, though. Perhaps if their grandmother had had the resources to leave that abusive husband of hers, she could have been the one?
Homer & Langley tells the fictional story of two real brothers who died in a Fifth Avenue mansion filled with treasures and detritus after a lifetime of collecting, much of which spent cut off from the world, having dismissed the staff and rarely venturing out. One brother is blind and the other is nominally the crazy one, the one who accumulates the trash and clearly returned from his European tour of duty during World War I with emotional issues, but they start out with a rather normal lifestyle, even if it involves hosting paying tea parties in their immense living room before moving a car into it, dismissing all the servants, and nursing a mafia don after a shootout.
The blind brother is an interesting character. While he does not have the paranoiac and compulsive tendencies of his brother he does not exactly go out of his way to get help or to escape, although he can and does get out of the house on his own. Perhaps because the changes are gradual he seems to accept each new delirious restriction as just another opportunity to play the piano a little more. I enjoyed the book very much for his depiction of how crazy can become a way of life.
The Soloist is the unlikely story of a homeless violinist who is befriended by a Los Angeles Times columnist (the author of the boook) and turns out to be an ex-Juilliard student who became schizophrenic while still in school and never recovered. The columnist writes about him in the paper, befriends him, gets him new instruments, and along the way discovers the sad and frightening life of Skid Row and the complexities of delivering mental health care to patients who are terribly resistant to it because of their very illness.
The story grabs the reader, as it grabbed the columnist, because the violinist, Nathaniel Ayres, is a sympathetic figure whom we want to help. But it also asks a lot of questions: by helping Nathaniel the author activates a powerful network (he has a paper as leverage, after all) and in the process sometimes withdraws resources from other needy patients, as when a room is held for him for months in the hope that one day, perhaps, he will deign to sleep inside. This brings to mind The Life You Can Save, which argues that people, illogically, are more ready to help one particular individual than a mass of people. We also discover that Nathaniel, perhaps because of his illness, can behave in a very aggressive and frightening manner that belies his ethereal music, and yet many of his carers seem to forget or forgive his behavior in a way they would not do with a less sympathetic individual.
An unusual view into homelessness and mental illness.