The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (Solomon)

Solomon, who suffers from depression himself, clearly has an agenda. He wants to provide a thorough accounting of the history of depression, its causes and ‘cures.’ And the book is certainly exhaustive. There are sections that are utterly engaging and others required some effort to push through. He can be a bit too casual with his use of often hyperbolic anecdote as evidence. And it’s often hard to track how and why he includes accounts of his own struggles.

But a thesis emerges. Depression is hard to define. It needs to be treated as its own entity, not as a corollary or symptom of something else. It still carries an incredible stigma. Those who struggle, almost by definition, are not particularly good advocates for themselves, so there’s little political motivation to develop a more coherent approach to our treatment of the mentally ill. Throughout history, we’ve shifted from blaming the person, to blaming God, to blaming the chemical imbalance. [Solomon, to his credit, will have none of these. We are, he argues, more than our illnesses. “Medication and therapy,” he writes, “are tools to be used as necessary. Neither blame nor indulge yourself” (102). ]

It’s hard to know whether to recommend this book. There’s a lot in it – to consider, to digest – particularly if you know someone who struggles with depression. [And there are more, Solomon argues, than statistics generally suggest because of the stigma attached to self-reporting.]

The writing is fine, the organization a bit cryptic [why does he tell the history of depression in Chapter 8?), but the argument is clear. Though I think Solomon’s sweeping glosses in the inevitable final chapter called “Hope” are too broad, I think there are small moments of hope here – in the people Solomon meets and some of the places he visits.


The Thin Man (Hammett)

I think I’ve been curious about this book ever since I read Salinger’s allusion to a film version in The Catcher in the Rye. I’m not sure why I finally got to it, but I did. The appeal can’t be about the plot. After all, it takes 8 pages of exposition to unravel the mystery at the end. It has to be character – not just Nick & Nora, but the whole supporting crew – and dialogue. Hammett has his own language and its delightful to read. So this is not an earth or mind shattering book – more of a cultural artifact. Is the movie any good?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carroll)

Yes, I admit it. I had never read it before. I was certainly familiar with parts of it – the classic set pieces – but I’d never read the whole thing. It was interesting to read it out loud to the kids. I’m not sure they liked it, at least not as much as The Hobbit. And it’s funnier than I expected; there are a fair number of sly jokes that must have been inserted for adults. My proof that I hadn’t read it. I knew nothing about the ending (which I won’t spoil here). So, yes, it’s a good read aloud. The moments are evocative and funny. The illustrations help. Through the Looking Glass is next.

The Orphan Master’s Son (Johnson)

I already owned it, but when it won the Pulitzer, I decided to make it next. I finished it yesterday, and I am still not sure what to make of it. Part of me wonders whether its success is akin to the success of The Kite Runner. At that time, Afghanistan was a regular feature on the front page, so we embraced its first real popular story in order to learn more about the country. Let me be clear. Adam Johnson is a MUCH better writer than Hosseini. The Orphan Master’s Son is extremely well-written and well-plotted. Johnson uses shifting perspectives effectively. The ending is something of a farce, and I think it’s meant to be one. Is this a comic novel? I don’t insist that books necessarily fit themselves into a particular genre. On the other hand, what is someone named Adam Johnson doing writing about North Korea? Though I normally avoid such things, I did glance at The Reader’s Guide supplement for long enough to know that Johnson did do his research, and he actually visited North Korea. Still, some of the characters and plot elements come off as cartoonish and stereotypical. Does that make them wrong? I don’t know, but I worry about this book being for now (and as far as I know) the sole representation of life in North Korea.

There is much to admire here. I particularly liked the motif of how we create and need stories and not always for a particular reason we can name. And certainly not for any kind of honest reason.

I’d love to hear what other people think about the book. It is provocative, so that’s a strong point in its favor.

Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (Ferry)

At first, I was going to go the obvious route and suggest that the title of this collection reflected my reaction to it. But I slowly found my way in, thanks to the translations of familiar poems as well what was for me, the unique experience of reading Ferry’s set of poems in response to Arthur Gold’s poems.

My favorites came late in this collection. (And I was grateful for the length of the collection. It’s quite hard to pay the prices poetry demands when collections often top out at 60 pages.) I recommend “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember” ( and “Untitled Dream Poem.” But “Resemblance,” with the lines below, is the one I’ll return to most:

Is it because there is a silence that we / Are all of us forbidden to cross, not only / The silence that divides the dead from the living, / But, antecedent to that, is it the silence / There is between the living and the living, / Unable to reach across that silence through / The baffling light there always is between us?

Ferry’s writing is precise and rewards careful attention.

The Song of Achilles (Miller)

There is much to admire about this book, Miller’s first novel. She has clearly done her homework and is subtle about how she interweaves it into the narrative. Her interpretation of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is not new, but it is a story well-told. By relying on Patroclus as a narrator, she puts herself in a kind of a bind. But (as with the interpretation of the relationship between the two men, I’m trying to avoid spoilers) she deals with it well. Until page 369 of this 369 page book. Put it this way, I was tempted to tear it out.

As one of the few people I know who counts himself more of a fan of Iliad than Odyssey, I really enjoyed this book. I consider this impressive because there’s little in the plot that’s new. Miller offered one insight into Achilles’ pursuit of Hector that stopped me short because of its precision and, in my mind, accuracy. I look forward to her next effort.

The Marriage Plot (Eugenides)

After the epic briliance of Middlesex, I expected great things from Eugenides this time around. In that regard, The Marriage Plot is disappointing. It reads like a first novel. In other words, it reads, plot-wise, like thinly-veiled autobiography. As three students graduate from Brown, a love triangle emerges. There’s travel across Europe. There are a lot of witty potshots at academia and religion. The book reads smoothly, but it seems too easy for Eugenides. I expected more ambition, or at least more originality. As I said, I think he’s a great writer. Some examples –

After four years at college, nobody was anybody she knew.

Each neighbor was going his or her own to keep up standards, which was difficult because the French ideal wasn’t clearly delineated like the neatness and greenness of American lawns, but more of a picturesque disrepair. It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.

Finally, he climbed the hall and entered the church’s massive doors. The vault seemed to draw him upward like liquid in a syringe.

Great writing, but right on the border between clever and contrived. And 400+ pages of it was, at times, irritating. The story seems to be the product of a smart aleck. A talented smart aleck, but that somehow makes it worse.