Friday, January 30, 2009

Title Fifteen: The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D.

When we think of the term "sociopath," our minds conjure up such figures as serial killers, animal torturers, and despots. Unfortunately, the sociopath does not always fit into this neat box. According to Stout, "1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty. Who is the devil you know?"

Stout defines a sociopath as a person with no conscience, no ability to feel guilt or pity or love. A sociopath forms no attachments other than those that can benefit him. This inability makes it easier for them to blend into society and easier to destroy the lives of their targets. In some cases, it's the high-powered exec who marries to advance his career and calculates the monetary value of the people around him. He may shine in his corporate life but sweep sexual harrassment suits under the rug (with the help of his superiors) and cook the books, believing that he need answer to no one, including the SEC or IRS. Sometimes it's a psychiatrist, physician or pyschologist who undercuts her patients in order to screw with her colleagues. It may be the player who sucks in an unsuspecting, intelligent woman with low self-esteem by means of romance and wooing, only to drop all pretenses once he has her where he wants her, supporting him monetarily and bewildered by his complete ignorance of their child. Another example is the pillar of the community who plays the doting father and husband but uses his family as a front for his involvement in criminal dealings, killing a man in cold blood and using the community's support to secure his release from prison on the grounds of self-defense. Finally, it could be the old woman next door who strives to make the lives of her neighbors living hell with constant complaints and petty grievances.

It took this book for me to realize that I and my family have been victimized over the last year by a sociopath. My father played the part of a loving family man until we uncovered the truth: he had a girlfriend on the side and drained my mother's finances, leading her to a nervous breakdown. He destroyed the family business that I helped him to build and dragged us all down with him as he faces fraud charges (for which my mother may have to pay because PA is a joint marital property state). Now, as my mother attempts to distance herself from him as quickly as possible, he fights the divorce with every step even though he has leached every bit of money and love that she had, leaving her broke and broken. I am asked over and over again, "How did this happen? Your family was the last that we could ever have expected this to happen to!" I have no answers. Instead I, my mother, and my sister are left to deal with the aftermath.

Stout includes a lot of psychobabble, which I glossed over because I was more interested in the stories of the sociopaths and their families that she has met through her practice over the years. I cannot fathom the absence of conscience or love. I still cry over footage of Katrina and 9/11; my heart aches for the homeless and downtrodden that I see in my city. I wish that I had Paris Hilton's money so that I could fix the lives of these people and donate funds to cancer research. Some days I feel as if my chest is caving in at the heartbreak that I see on the news. I want to help everyone, or at the very least, buy them a Coke. When I worked in Center City I would regularly buy cups of coffee or sandwiches for the homeless perched on grates in the winter. Suffering brings tears to my eyes. I am overwhelmed by the suffering in Darfur. And I wouldn't trade any of that for the mind of a sociopath. My conscience makes me human and connects me to these people. Life without love is nothing.

Pick this up if, like me, you have an interest in psychology, but be warned that it can be slightly dry and bittersweet, like a good pizelle.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Title Fourteen: Manic by Terri Cheney

When you wait in line for a roller coaster, there's a long posted list of reasons that you shouldn't be in that line. I feel like I should post that list here, because Terri Cheney's memoir of her decades-long battle with bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) is jarring, nauseating, and may induce whiplash. It's honest, raw, visceral, and GOOD. At the end of the book you may feel like you have manic depression, and that is exactly what it should do. Cheney draws you into her life and mind so completely that the lines become completely blurred and you are on that roller coaster with her. Enter at your own risk.

When Cheney is depressed, she is unable to function. She goes for days and weeks on end in isolation, taking leaves of absence from her high-powered, high-profile job as a Hollywood lawyer, ignoring friends, associates, the phone, and basic hygiene. When she is manic, she flies. She flirts, laughs, seduces, shines, takes risks, and attempts suicide. In between she bounces through a laundry list of pharmacotherapeutics and even undergoes ECT in a vain attempt to regulate a life spinning out of control.

There is no real narrative thread to this book, which lends itself more to the experience. Each chapter is a random account of an episode in her life, which is basically how bipolar disorder operates. There is no rhyme or reason. Underneath everything is the author's shame and subterfuge because mental illness, even when caused by biochemistry, is still such a taboo in society that only a very few can be allowed behind the curtain. Everyone else must be kept in the dark, and eventually there are so many lies that Cheney doesn't know what's true. The only thing that she knows is that she's trapped and there is no way out. It's like being in a soundproof box and screaming. No one can hear you.

Quite frankly, Manic can be terrifying and nauseating. The descriptions of hospitalizations and arrests actually made me feel powerless. Hopelessness, frustration, and impotence bleeds off of the page as Cheney recounts doctor after doctor, drug after drug, and her own knowledge of her illness, a knowledge that does nothing for her when she doesn't know how to help or stop herself.

If you like your reads light and fluffy, then run away from this book as quickly as you can. However, if you have an interest in real, flesh and bone people and struggle and guts, I would suggest that you stop by your library and give this a try. Dramamine is optional.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hit Pause

I've been busy on the reading front but lazy on the writing front - I've got a backlog of four books to review (soon to be five). I've decided to give myself a deadline for the end of the week and I'll have new stuff for you. A couple of the books have been boring, so the reviews might suck, but hey, at least I'm reading, you neanderthals.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Title Thirteen: Stealing Lincoln's Body by Thomas J. Craughwell

Did you know that, in 1876, a small gang of thieves devised a plan to steal Abraham Lincoln's body from its tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery outside of Springfield, Illinois, and hold it for ransom? I never knew that, so it was with a certain amount of curiosity that I picked this book up from one of the non-fiction tables at Barnes & Noble. Craughwell has done an incredible job of researching his material (and when I say incredible, I mean it - the notes, bibliography, and index span nearly 40 pages at the end of the book) and he draws in all sorts of interesting and not-so-interesting information to create a tale that begins with Lincoln's shooting at Ford's theater and ends nearly a century later with the death of the final person involved in the entire situation - a plumber named Leon Hopkins who opened and sealed Lincoln's sarcophagus twice, and died in 1946 at the age of 94. (I told you the author took his research very seriously.)

To make a long story short, the whole plot arose out of a counterfeiting ring. When the Secret Service arrested Ben Boyd, something of a counterfeit genius operating out of Chicago, he was tried, found guilty, and summarily sent to the state pen. Jim Kennally, a saloon operator, political machinator, and all-around crook took a serious financial hit with the absence of Boyd and orchestrated a plan to steal the president's coffin and hold it for the ransom of Boyd's release. Thanks to a paid Secret Service informant, the plot was foiled, the culprits caught and sent to prison, the body saved, and this book written.

I picked up Stealing Lincoln's Body because I have a weird fascination with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I thought this looked like an interesting read. The blurb on the back even notes: "The custodian of the tomb was so shaken by the incident that he willingly dedicated the rest of his life to protecting the president's corpse." In the bookstore, my mind conjured up a lone old man, with only a pipe and lantern for company, perched in a chair in a house next to the tomb until his dying day. (Apparently I have a very active imagination.) Instead, the book was far too long on detail and minutiae - while I understand that the counterfeiting angle was integral to the plot and the history, I didn't need the entire history of counterfeiting in the United States. Did I need to know that the Indians traded counterfeit wampum to the white man in the early 17th century? Do I feel like I'm going to stab a pen into my eye if I type the word "counterfeit" one more time? The answers are, respectively, no and yes. Lincoln family lore is thrown in haphazardly and far more attention is paid to the qualities of mortar, brick, and marble than I needed.

I'd recommend this book to history buffs, but be prepared for a dry read. The most interesting fact that I took away from Stealing Lincoln's Body is that there is photographic evidence (included in the pictorial section of the book) of future President Theodore Roosevelt and his brother watching Lincoln's funeral cortege make its way through New York City. Put that factoid in your brain and chew on it, kids.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Title Twelve: The Slow Moon by Elizabeth Cox

The Slow Moon was a Christmas gift, and one of the nicest things I can say about it is that it was a quick read. Boring, but quick. The premise is somewhat interesting - Sophie and Crow, teen sweethearts, decide to have sex for the first time on the outskirts of a party in a small Tennessee town; when Crow leaves Sophie to get a condom from his truck, he returns to find her brutally beaten and raped. Sophie is so emotionally paralyzed by her assault that she cannot name her attackers, and Crow is accused of the crime.

There isn't much suspense in this regard since it's clearly established in the first chapter that Crow was not the rapist; the mystery is who, exactly, was involved. The story focuses on what such a shocking attack does to the small, close-knit Southern community and how suspicious neighbors can turn on each other. Well, it tries to. Instead Cox turns out a jumbled mess of peripheral characters and their problems: there's the teen boy who finds out that the father he always believed was dead is really alive, having recently been released from jail; another who experiments with homosexuality with Crow's younger brother; another being raised by his grandparents who fear that he'll be persecuted for Sophie's attack because he's black (mmm, throw in some Southern racism for flavor!); etc. Really, all I wanted to know was when Sophie would remember who brutalized her and who they were.

Eventually, Sophie recovers her memory and the culprits are revealed. Unsurprisingly, they are three of the boys who called themselves Crow's friends. With no other choice, they turn themselves in and are tried and convicted. Sophie and Crow go to a carnival and tentatively restart their romance. The end.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Title Eleven: Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes

Anna Walsh is in the front room of her family home in Dublin with a busted knee and a Frankenstein-esque stitch job down her face and, in an interesting touch, missing two fingernails (I don't know why, but that detail really gets me). Anna is fuzzy on the accident that brought her back to Dublin, but she knows that she needs to get back to New York, her cosmetics PR job, and her husband Aidan right away. As readers and fans of Keyes' Walsh girls know, Clan Walsh is loud, boisterous, and batshit insane, in a good-but-still-get-me-out-of-here kind of way. The second the doctor clears Anna and her "gammy" knee, her older sister Rachel comes from NYC to Dublin to collect Anna and take her home, away from youngest sister Helen (now a private investigator) and their parents. It's only when Anna exits the airport and has a small anxiety attack at the prospect of getting in a cab does Keyes start to pull back the curtain a little bit on what the hell, exactly, has happened here.

Told from Anna's point of view, the novel uses a cute mix of present narration and flashbacks to describe Anna's life after her accident, her friends, and her job along with the backstory of her move to America and the development of her relationship with Aidan. But where is Aidan? Anna emails him every day and leaves messages on his voicemail, but he doesn't return them. She obsesses over reading his horoscope each day, bristling when it refers to a new start or relationship. Interestingly, she does not discuss Aidan with anyone - her sister, her friends, or her coworkers, leaving a puzzle in place - if Aidan is so wonderful, then where the hell has he gone? If you're not an idiot like me, you've already figured it out. If you are as thick as I am, the answer will punch you in the solar plexus right around page 154.

Woven through Anna's new life without Aidan and her ways of dealing with it are hilarious descriptions of her job - she reps a line that requires her to dress like a cross between Lily Allen and Chloe Sevigny and battle tooth and nail for product mentions in newspapers and magazines while contending with a boss who bears a close resemblance to Anna Wintour - and touching scenes between her and Rachel, a recovering addict who does her very best to help Anna however she can, along with email dispatches from home regarding Helen's job and their mother's overenthusiastic involvement in it. Keyes manages to shift seamlessly between lightheartedness and deeper emotion while never feeling contrived for most of the novel, until she throws in a plot twist that seems a little trite and which I found irritating at first. However, by the end of the book I came around because it keeps the entire thing from being too pat and gives it a greater sense of depth and realism.

Anybody Out There? is one of my two favorite Keyes novels, the other being Rachel's Holiday. I actually love every Keyes book I've ever read, because she's estrogen-friendly without the trappings of chick lit. Her characters are all likeable but flawed, and that's probably her greatest strength; you can't help but fall in love with them and want to see more of them. While I wouldn't recommend this novel for a discussion on gender studies, it's the perfect read for a beach or snow day.