The other John Snow…and the mystery of cholera

The father of epidemiology? A man that helped stop cholera in its tracks? Nope, not this Jo(h)n Snow….

John Snow

This one! A somewhat more dashing but less follicle-d  (Dr) John Snow.

Dr John Snow

About Cholera….

For me, cholera was always most comfortably viewed at a distance as a disease entrenched in the past, keeping company with the likes of typhoid, dysentery and typhus. A disease, that while sometimes fatal, could almost be glamours (owing perhaps to deceptive fiction titles such as Love in the Time of Cholera. ) Oh, how wrong I was! Sandra Hempel’s non-fiction history book, The Medical Detective: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera is a fascinating account of the spread of cholera to Europe in the 19th century, its impact on the human body, and the fact that, despite the amazing work of Dr John Snow, it still persists today.

Summary and Analysis

The Medical Detective is a richly detailed read that chronicles the spread, treatment and eventual prevention of this deadly virus. Central to the story is the ground-breaking work of the now famous Dr John Snow, who fought to prove that cholera was a water-borne disease, despite conventional wisdom suggesting its source came primary from ‘bad air’ or miasma.

Despite the slow start, Hempel’s account of the rise of cholera in Europe, and the investigative work of  Dr  Snow, is gripping. She tells, in just enough detail, the frightening pace in which cholera spread from India across to Europe, and the toll it exacted on the populations of major 19th century cities, including St Petersburg, Hamburg, and finally, London. By using extracts of letters, personal accounts, speeches and various images, Hempel is able to give her reader a rare insight into the real ‘time’ of cholera.

Hempe’s tell-all style also draws out the shocking impact that cholera (or the Blue Death) had on the human body, including discoloration of the skin, vomiting, low blood pressure and diarrhea. She also details the frightening  ‘treatments’ ministered by the medics of the day: hot mustard “poultices applied to the abdomen and boiling water to the feet; enemas of every description…and draughts of medicine containing ammonia, oil, pepper, spices and sulfuric acid” (p42).  It is here, in the first stages of the book, where Hempel’s experience as a health and social issues journalist really shines.

Cholera and miasma theory of disease spread

The Work of Dr Snow

As cholera swept  to the UK from Continental Europe, the quest to discover how the disease spread became even more urgent. The dominant theory of disease spread in the 19th century was based on the idea that a disease was caught via ‘bad air’ or miasma, a theory that had its roots in medieval times. While the efforts of leading miasmatists, including Sir Edwin Chadwick, did lead inadvertently to some reduction in disease via promoting better hygiene, cholera outbreaks were still occurring into the mid- late 1800s.

It was the ground breaking work of anesthetist, Dr John Snow, that identified that cholera was spread through water, thus leading the way to the rise of modern sanitation in London. The turning point for Snow was when, during the  1854 cholera epidemic that swept Soho, he was able to map the presentation of the disease across the local areas, linking water from the Broad Street pump as the source of the cholera outbreak. This water was supplied by a private company who used dubious sanitation and filtration measures .

Sadly, Dr Snow’s work was only acknowledged in the years after his premature death at 45. In fact, during his lifetime, not only was his work not considered serious, he had to face ridicule and skepticism from the medical establishment in London. As Hempel tells it, Snow’s ground-breaking work in disease theory and epidemiology eventually prompted William Farr,  a statistician, to conduct further work into the spread of cholera in 1866, resulting in further, concrete, evidence to support Snow’s hypothesis. This led to vindication for Snow and the demise of miasma disease theory.

Not only is Hempel’s book a celebration of Snow’s work, but it is a lesson that sometimes being right is one thing, but being heard is absolutely another…

Conclusion

I recommend The Medical Detective to readers with an interest in medical history, Victorian literature (Dickens gets a mention) and public health.

On a sadder note,  I did some further reading about cholera and discovered it caused the death of 7000+ people worldwide in 2011, primarily due to poor sanitation and limited access clean drinking water (Source: WHO). A dire situation indeed, when, due to the diligence and hard work of Dr Snow, we do know how to prevent this disease. However, the lack of resources limits what can be done. It’s a strange world.

Book Details:

First published in Great Britain by Granata Books in 2006. ISBN-13: 978-1-86207-842-0

Further Reading:

What do you know, a vampire/cholera article!….

World Health Organisation

John Snow and Epidemiology 

Cholera and the Thames

Posted in Authors A-K, History, Non-Fiction, Titles L-Z | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bad Sex in Fiction: Even more awards for The Narrow Road….

Well, well. According to the London Literary Review, the Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book I have just publicly raved about, is a contender for this year’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ Award (see recent article here).

In my defence, I actually read the passage in question, thought, ‘hmmm that’s a bit odd. Not sure what point Flannagan was trying to get across there…?’ and kept moving. I thought perhaps it was a comment on the unexpected nature of life. Or that extramarital sex can be a bit tricky, especially when you are out in the open? ;)

Anyway, have a great weekend and happy reading

 

 

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Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Narrowroad Deep North

Richard Flannagan’s most recent novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North has propelled me out of my reading impasse and back into the blogsphere. It is an incredible book, full of intense imagery,  beautiful dialogue and an enduring topic at its heart: war and lost love. It is this year’s Man Booker winner and rates as one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North made my (sparse) reading list after I saw a clip of Flannagan’s Man Booker acceptance speech in October. Here was writer with an air of alacrity, intelligence and determination minus the attitude. More than that,  Mr Flannagan seemed to struggling for spondulas.

Summary

The Narrow Road to the Deep North  tells the story of a brilliant surgeon and former Prisoner of War (POW), Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans, a slave labourer on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. We first meet Evans in his twilight years, an old man reflecting on his early life, including flashbacks to his harsh Tasmanian childhood, his time spent in Adelaide as a young medical officer and importantly, his experiences during World War Two. Slowly and ever so gently, Flannagan draws us into Dorrigo’s life by sharing pivotal moments and flashpoints – like the magical afternoon when he meets Amy, a married women he falls in love with,  a woman who becomes a symbol of life-long yearning. Another key point is when he attempts a risky amputation to save a man’s life – in the middle of a jungle with no medical equipment.

In the latter part of the novel, Flannagan introduces a number of other narrators into the story – Dorrigo’s digger mates, his wife Ella (in a limited fashion), the Japanese and Korean POW guards, and of course, the striking Amy. This range of perspectives allows Flannagan to present an intense and realistic version of events that surround Dorrigo during World War Two, and allow for different and contrasting perspectives on an event – the building of the Thai-Burma Railway – that could easily be written from one side only. Multiple perspectives over time also allows Flannagan to comment, ever so subtly, on issues of class, gender and culture.

Analysis and Comment

Through this novel, Flannagn is asking us to reconsider Australia’s mythology about war and about war heroes, but not in a way that disrespects Australian men and women that served in World War Two (e.g. Sir ‘Weary’ Dunlop, on which I suspect this book is loosely based).

I think Flannagan is striving to give the picture balance. The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes the lens filter off any romantic imaginings of war heroism. Dorrigo is a memorable and likeable leading man – a brave, intelligent soul that personifies mateship and selflessness with an understated disdain for authority. And yet his is a man riddled with insecurity, a philanderer, someone who is ill at ease with civilian life, yet continues to play the roles allocated to him. In Dorrigo, Richard Flannagan has created a character that we can’t really love, but who becomes someone we respect deeply.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become war hero…He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero, But he was not him. He’s just had more success at living than dying…

Of course, war and the experiences of the POWs on the Thai-Burma railway are key aspects of this novel. It is most harrowing and physically gut-wrenching to read, and is the element that can keep a reader up at night.

More even than the physical brutality, the most disturbing aspect of the treatment of the POWs, according to this fictional account, was the unwillingness of the Japanese guards to see their prisoners as anything remotely human; they were less than nothing. The POW’s lack of basic dignity is equally unsettling – the affects of cholera and what it does to a starving man, the fact the POWs were working with oozing ulcers, broken bodies and sleep-deprived minds.

Above all, this book is beautiful for its vivid, lyrical and intricate descriptions, interwoven with Basho‘s poetry. It is also rich in allegorical meanings with just enough mystical realism to add interest, but not alienate (such as Dorrigo’s strangely deep conversation with a Cascade Brewery delivery driver somewhere past Hobart, and his act of surreal heroism toward the end of the novel).

Maybe in the years to come,  my daughter will read this in high-school and be moved. Or irritated, or amused. I just hope she reads it one day, because it is a good ‘un.

And given it’s Remembrance Day in Australia tomorrow, I hope others in this country read this book and reflect on the great sadness that is caused by war.

Peace everyone and good night!

Book Details

epub ISBN: 97817 427 56394

Published by Random House, 2013.

Posted in Authors A-K, Contemporary Literature, Titles L-Z | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Discussion: The Reluctant Fundamentalist and key themes

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

Lili Wilkinson and Irfan Yusuf (a lawyer and writer) discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid during this recent Wheeler Centre’s Text in the City series. May be a good resource for VCE students or anyone else interested….;)

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Good things come in small packages?

Moving musings….

I am in the middle of moving house. This involves packing (of course), organising utility disconnections and having earnest discussions with the local moving company about the number of ‘heavy-duty-jumbo’ boxes I’ll need to transport my book collection. Good thing I also own a Kindle!

Anyway, amid the chaos that is my life right now, I am still sneaking in a wee bit of reading and writing. One has to have some small pleasure….and this small pleasure comes in the shape of a book about that very thing – small pleasures (in this case, objects) and their impact on our lives.

The miniaturist

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton:

Jessie Burton’s first novel, The Miniaturist, sets the bar high for any future work. Based in Amsterdam in the 17th century, this novel is centered around the life of Petronella (Nella) Oortman, a country girl who marries a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, Johannes, to save the family name.

But all is not as it seems. At first Nella is strangely fascinated with her new husband, who treats her with benign neglect, barely spending any time with her during her months as his new wife. For Nella, she longs to know him better, but is also apprehensive of what may await her in the marriage bed.

While the age gap between them is significant (over 20 years), is there something more holding Johannes back from his wife? And what are these business matters keeping him away  from the house at all houses of the day and night?

With Johannes away much of the time, Nella is left to seek out the company of her cold sister-in-law Marin, along with the various domestic staff including Otto (a former slave) and Cornelia (a orphan and former ward of the state).

When Johannes presents Nella with the gift of a miniature replica of their house, mysterious things being happening….

unknown-dutch-cabinetmaker-late-17th-century-amsterdam-II-petronella-oortmans-dolls-house_1405855861_crop_550x483

Example of mid-17C miniature house

Comments/Analysis: 

This novel opens well, with vivid and colourful descriptions of Amsterdams’s people, places and social norms. Throughout the first part of the book, Burton keeps the plot momentum going. By adding layers of mystery, and twists into the plot, she keeping the reader keen. Her characters too, have something that evoke deep curiosity. How will the young Nella, green country girl, fare in this new city? Is her life to be one of misery, being unable to assert her authority over a household already  dominated by Marin? But what is Marin’s story and why is she, in this patriarchal society, unmarried and living with her brother?

It is heartening to watch as Nella transforms from an inexperienced teenager into a more self possessed woman. She re-connects with her musical ability by giving a performance to household guests and draws on her knowledge of established social norms to build her confidence as the true mistress of the house.

The supporting character lose some of their surface hostility and aloofness as their relationship with Nella grows, and more is revealed about their back-stories, adding a richness to the household cast of characters.

However for all the good intentions in the first half, including the delicious mystery surrounding the miniature house and its creator, the second half left me disappointed.

The plot was subtly taken over by a soap-opera quality of the latter half of the novel, taking some shine from this ambitious work of historical fiction. I can’t say too much more here, don’t want to spoil the fun, but it involves a series of ‘oh my gosh, really? moments, one after the other.

Nella too, sometimes does and says things that call on the reader to really suspend belief. I know that’s what fiction is all about, but still….

Overall:

I think readers familiar with enjoyed Sarah Waters and Emma Donughue will also enjoy Burton’s offering, as well as those who enjoy historical fiction of all forms. Not the most well-written book of this genre I have read recently, but a decent crack from a first-time novelist, and well worth a look.

The coolest thing about the novel, is what inspired it – an actual Dutch doll house of the real-life Petronella Oortman.

Oh, and reading the  The Miniaturist also makes me want to:

1) Visit Amsterdam;

2) Eat loads of sugar (ha! Nothing new there);

3) Read more about the Netherlands and gender roles during the 17th century; and

4) Attempt to make oliebol

Happy weekend all! Thanks for reading my highly sporadic blog ;)

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Does this book hold the answer to Agatha Christie’s disappearance?

Well well it’s been a busy couple of weeks in Melbourne town, so here is a quick ‘n’ dirty review (or lazy review, call it what you will) of my most recent read….

a finished portrait

In this fascinating but sometime tedious book (sorry is that a bit nasty?), Dr Andrew Norman tells us about the life and loves of Agatha Christie, as well as hypothesizing about the mental condition that promoted her disappearance in 1926. No only did she disappear, but left behind her prized car and fur coat…..foul play? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Regardless, public and police attention was well and truly captured across the UK and beyond.

In this book, Norman details Christie’s early life, including her idyllic and comfortable childhood at the family home of Ashfield, her first marriage to a guy that turned out to be a bit of a cad, and her work with poisons during the war. Early on in the book, Norman hits at instability, or trauma, through Christie’s re-occurring dream involving a threatening figure known as ‘the gunman’. Chilling!

Christie’s life makes compelling reading for any true-crime or mystery fan – this non-fiction work is well researched and well-construed, using Christie’s novel, Unfinished Portraitas a source of clues about Christie’s real feelings toward significant figures in her life.

However, the inclusion of a few short, choppy chapters dealing with off-topic (but Christie- related themes), including her love of flowers and their importance in her stories,  detracted from the major focus: the mystery of her disappearance and the darker issues that lurked behind it.

 

 

achristie

Links:

http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/15/books.booksnews

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201203/dissociative-fugue-the-mystery-agatha-christie

Overall: 

A good read for Christie fans that sheds light on the lesser-known aspects of this famous author’s life. Well-researched and accessible.

Book details:

Tempus Publishing Limited, ISBN 0 7524 3990 1

Posted in Authors A-K, Non-Fiction, Titles A-K, True Crime | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

the luminaries

Starting Eleanor Catton’s award-winning The Luminaries  was like cracking open an exotic beer you’d heard about but never tasted. So much promise, so much to look forward to. Well, I commenced my reading adventure with Catton in one Sunday afternoon, but by nightfall, I’d already quit in frustration. How long does it take a lead character to enter the room? Seven pages? Really!?

A few nights later I resumed reading with vigour. Surely I was not giving this novel the attention it deserved. If The Luminaries was a beer,  it would be a dark, heavy NZ stout (Moa anyone?), an acquired taste.  So, with that in mind, I picked it up and started to read.  Then put it down. Then re-started a week later.

You get the idea…..

However, after a long while (at page 400 or so), the flat strange characters in the novel began to grow on me and take shape, much like the world around them – and then I was hooked! The mystery and rhythm of of The Luminaries keep me reading well into the night. 

Summary:

The Luminaries is a masterfully written and intricate novel that tells of weaves together the lives of (mostly male) characters, eking out an existence in the New Zealand gold rush village of Hokitika. They are drawn together by a mystery that spreads beyond the town, and beyond the shores of New Zealand.

The story beings when Mr Walter Moody, a new arrival  from the mother country, stumbles across a secret meeting of twelve men, all with a connection to the death of a local hermit, Mr Crosbie Wells. As events unfold, it is revealed that on the night of Well’s untimely passing,  Miss Anna Wetherell, lady of the night and opium eater, is found insensible in the local vicinity.

Is she connected to the hermit’s death? If so, how? And what about the strange appearance of Wells’ widow, Lydia, who appears to have links to Anna, and her ‘profession’?

Analysis and Comment:

In term of practice, or art, of reading, sometimes it is good to ‘take on’ a complex and challenging novel such as The Luminaries. Effort that pays off!

To me, The Luminaries is a stunning re-interpretation of a Victorian-ear mystery novel, replete with characters that are familiar yet not (the street-walker/whore, the politician, the journalist, the ship broker, the adventurer looking to strike it big, the madam, the crook etc), with language and dialogue that skillfully transcends time.

This novel is also incredibly well-researched and engaging, transporting the reader right into the gold-rush era New Zealand. You can almost smell the ocean, feel the wooden jetty underfoot and hear the muted bird-calls from Well’s cottage.

Another striking feature of this novel is Catton’s deliberate decision to tell this tale from the points of view of a number of different characters, in the third person, and base the length of chapters around the phases of the moon (well that’s my take on it anyway). A real feat of coordination and continuity. I have never come across such an organizing principle for a novel.

However, there are a few points of contention (of course!). I found the lack of commentary of any of the characters experiences a little disconcerting. The fact that Anna’s fate as  street-walker (or as she is refereed to in the novel, a whore. An ugly term, in my opinion), is really treated as one of straight-forward fact, when of course, we know from historical evidence of the time, sex workers had it tough – with rapings and beatings a regular occurrence (we do get some sense of this ‘gold rush town’ violence in Catton’s novel, to be fair). How did Anna end up in such a position, other than what is described in the novel? And what about her interactions with the other characters, specifically Crosbie Wells? Are we, the reader, expected just to take it as fact, to not judge, not to be appalled by this situation?

My other major criticism (as voiced by countless other readers and bloggers) was the pace of the novel, and the sheer amount of detailed description. Was it all really necessary? Probably not.

Overall, the The Luminaries is deeply satisfying story of adventure and mystery, entwined with romance and passion. It is a book that leaves the reader a little unsure as to what really happened, where all the pieces fit in the end. However, this is, in itself, somehow satisfying.

Recommendation:

A true original and I (begrudgingly) have to agree with the Booker judges – it deserved the win in 2013. A must of readers of award-winners, fans of historical fiction and those with unlimited patience.

For a more well-rounded and detailed review of this novel, check out FictionFan’s review here. Highly recommended!

Book Details:

ISBN: 978 1 84708 876 5. Published by Granata Publications, London, 2013

Links:

http://www.eldred-grigg.com/index.php/non-fiction/22-diggers-hatters-and-whores-the-story-of-the-new-zealand-gold-rushes

http://www.outbackfamilyhistoryblog.com/2014/04/22/violence-murder-and-dispossession-the-human-cost-of-the-australian-gold-rush/

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/04/john-mullan-book-club-luminaries-eleanor-catton

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial-rites

Last time I looked, Burial Rites was sitting at number 8 on the independent best-seller list in Oz, pipped only by heavy hitters such as The Silkworm, The Goldfinch and that searingly honest YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars (a novel that more sophisticated than I expected.) Now, there are a number of reasons why Burial Rites has occupied the top 10 for so long. For one thing, it is easy to  read, strikingly well-written and intellectually engaging. But the true genius of this novel lies in the simplicity of its central story – that of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. As the character of Agnes confirms on page one:

‘They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.’

A taste of things to come, no doubt.

Summary

During 1828 on a farm in northern Iceland, two men are viciously murdered, their bodies discovered amid the burnt-out remains of the elder victim’s farmhouse. Three people are charged with the murders and sentenced to death; this includes Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young house maid.

In the months before her execution date, Agnes is placed in the custody of the District Officer of the region, on his family farm in the north of the country – a bleak and monochrome land. She is to work on the farm, as well as receive spiritual guidance from Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti). Despite the precautions taken (Agnes is bound when she arrives, and is under supervision), the family (including two sisters) are repulsed and frightened at the reality of sharing close living area, or badstofa, with convicted murderess.

Yet during Tóti’s regular visits with Agnes, more of her sad life is revealed. As with any conflict or act of violence, there is always so much more than what meets the eye – and this is certainly the case with the Iceland murders. The bottom line is that context and history are so important in shaping present actions and events.

Comments and Analysis

One of the important elements of this story is the use of multiple points of view. An omnipotent narrator interchanges with Agnes’ first person view, allowing the reader to place Agnes in the context of her narrow, rule-bound society. This technique also allows Kent to reveal an Iceland with little compassion for those who step outside the rules, and those sentenced, by virtue of their birth, to a life of hardship.

The introduction and continuation of the first person narrative allows of deep personal insights, memories and, of critical importance to the novel, the revelation of the truth (as Agnes sees it anyway) of what actually happened on the night of the murder.

Kent also does a great job of tapping into our appetite for the less savoury aspects of life: murder, passion and revenge in an icy landscape. But Kent should not be seen as a writer who is cynically fishing for readers of a certain genre. Rather, Kent’s interested in Iceland and its culture is so genuine it is almost palpable.

Burial Rites is carefully structured, aligning historical documents with well-considered, sharp prose. With her carefully allusions to a society that sits uncomfortably with modernity, Kent’s Iceland is a land of ‘otherness’, just as Agnes, a woman who strayed outside of society’s patriarchal conventions, is ‘othered’.

Of course, as with all works of fiction, there are always a few quirks and minor irritation. Kent’s prose comes across as stiff and formal in the early stages, like she is trying just a bit to hard. It is also incredibly dark passages, filled with vivid descriptions of a harsh, cold landscape populated with judgmental, evil and selfish people. This can get wearing. But there is certainly a balance. Kent uses Agnes’ relationship with Toti, and her reflections about her life, to show there is hope in the most bleak situations, and the glimmers of compassion the District Officer’s family show to Agnes also serve to provide relief from the sheer terror of her situation.

A beautiful and compelling novel built on a strong foundation of robust historical research.

Other Reviews:

For more insights into Burial Rites, I highly recommend Chris Sullivan’s excellent review here. Some interesting insights into the novel, includes parallels with Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Links:

http://www.picador.com/blog/august-2013/burial-rites-a-photo-essay-from-iceland

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Iceland

Book Details:

ISBN: 9781742612829. Published in 2013 by Picador Australia.

STOP PRESS: Hannah Kent in Melbourne!

Oh and Ms Kent is visiting the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (huzzah!) and is also speaking at the Wheeler Centre this weekend. But of course, I have just found out both sessions are BOOKED OUT! Anyway….maybe there is a waiting list…maybe!

Until next time, good night all!

 

 

Posted in Authors A-K, Contemporary Literature, Titles A-K, Writing news and resources | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle

 

shot in the head

Before I begin….yes, I know, I know, it has been a while between posts. I blame the ‘flu for giving me a fuzzy head these past few weeks (that and the fact I am working my way through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.…hmmm!). Oh and the tragic loss of dear Rik didn’t help either. 

Anyway….here’s the new review. Enjoy!

Summary

Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle is first time author Katherine Flannery Dering’s account of a family grappling with a diagnosis of serious mental illness. Dering’s brother Paul was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia as a young man and then, devastatingly in his later life, was diagnosed with lung cancer. In this memoir, Dering has succeeded in sensitively telling her brother’s story in an uplifting way, despite the two serious illnesses he faced during his lifetime.

dering

Katherine Flannery Dering – Author

Dering begins her story with an account of childhood, one that involved international travel, adventure and glamour. Her father was a ‘car company executive who was going places’, (including Sweden, where Dering spent some of her childhood). It was a charmed existence for the family for many years, complete with European travel and a live-in au pair to support the large crew (Dering was one of 10 children).

But their fortunes turned after Dering’s father  was retrenched, forcing the family back to the United States. Then in 1976 Paul, Dering’s ‘baby’ brother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia after his first psychotic episode. Not only were the symptoms of Paul’s illness incredibly frightening, but the impact on Paul was life-long.

In this memoir, Dering skillfully weaves together the story of her own life (as a business woman, mother, writer and sister) along with her memories of family life and of her relationship with Paul. The details of Paul’s journey with schizophrenia, including treatment – firstly in an institution and then within the community – and his day-to-day life is eye-opening reading.

A primary theme throughout this memoir is the special relationship between Dering and her brother. As his much older sister, she helped care for Paul when he was a baby – she fed him, played with him, even changed his nappies. Her love for Paul is a constant and gentle undercurrent through the entire book. Yet despite this love, Dering is not overly sentimental about the challenges their relationship faced – she is honest about how tough it was a times. She recalls that visiting Paul was sometimes frightening due to his erratic behaviors and odd comments, that the management of his care, particularly after the passing of her mother, was a challenge.

Comments and Analysis

I applaud Dering for her courage to write about such a personal issue and to be honest about her experiences. Life is hard. It is even harder when you have a  family member who has a serious mental illness – an illness that brings with it unfair stigmatization and generalizations. Add a diagnosis of cancer into the mix and you have a very tough situation indeed.

Balanced accounts like Shot in the Head are vital tools for ‘health consumers’ (i.e. Paul, his family and carers) to have a voice in a system where it is sometimes hard to be heard, a way to share their valid and unique insights into mental illness treatment.  In sharing her own experiences, Dering’s account should offer some comfort to others in a similar situation.

Shot in the Head is also valuable in raising awareness about the correlation between psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia) and the incidences of lung cancer. Researchers have acknowledged the increased rate of smoking in individuals with schizophrenia, and also higher rates of lung cancer diagnosis than the general population.  (Sources: Victorian Government Health Guidelines, Consti 2007 , Tran et al 2009).

So, while this memoir was incredibly readable, and very important as a work of health consumer literature, I did have few minor quibbles with it.

Firstly, the title is unusual. The title phrase ‘shot in the head’ is linked to Paul’s delusion that his illness was due to being literally shot in the head. The phrase represents a significant turning point for the old Paul to the new (sometimes frightening) Paul, the brother living with a mental illness. However, the phrase ‘shot in the head‘ makes the book a little tricky to search for online and may also be misleading to some potential readers (leading them to think they are picking up a murder mystery or a trashy thriller, rather than a well-written memoir). To be fair, I acknowledge that the full title makes it clear to the reader what kind of a book they are in for, but as an initial ‘grab’ phrase, it didn’t work for me.

Secondly, the inclusion of longer family emails in the text (in relation to Paul’s treatment) slowed the pace of the story a little,  despite making fascinating reading. Perhaps these could have been edited down, or placed in a different way.

Thirdly, I personally found the very specific details given of US mental health policies not particularly compelling. However, I am reading this as a non-US citizen. For US readers, or those specifically interested in that side of the story, some policy detail is important to include. Also, given the family’s advocacy efforts regarding mental health treatment and care options for people with psychiatric illnesses, I understand what the author was wanting to achieve.

Recommendation:

Overall, a very compelling and thoroughly moving read, and a great effort for a first book. Katherine’s story of her brother serves to reminds us all of our humanity, of the fragile nature of existence we lead and how precious it is.

I recommend this book for people with an interest in family memoirs, biographies and in modern mental health treatment.

Oh…and kudos to Dering and her publishers for using such incredible and original cover art. Just brilliant.

Book Details:

226 pages, Published March 24th 2014 by Bridgeross Communications. ISBN 192763721X

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank the publishers at Bridgecross Communications (via Library Thing) for providing me with an advanced copy for review. Apologies for the delay in the posting of the review.

 

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Sydney Writers’ Festival 2014 and Literary Criticism…

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is running now until the 25 May 2014.

If you are in that part of Australia I urge you to check it out. Or, if you are dwelling down south like me (or just live in another part of the world), you can always listen to podcasts from previous years (including an interesting overview on literary criticism fro 2013) here or visit the Festival blog for more links and information.

Alex Miller, author of Coal Creek, spoke at the Festival on Wednesday. Sadly, as I lack a magic carpet or transporter, I missed seeing him…sigh! 

Stay tuned for a new review next week….:) Yep, it’s been a busy week. Luckily there is always time for coffee!

 

 

 

 

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