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*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryPsychopath Test      
by Jon Ronson
Book #4, read during February, 2015

In his book, The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson explores the history, classification and presence of psychopaths.  Admit it, we all have used this word, sometimes liberally with certain people (come on, we all have that one co-worker or in-law) when labeling someone who acts so irrationally or manipulatively that they are beyond our comprehension.  But how do we know who is crazy, eccentric, or just quirky?  This is what Ronson sets out to explore, and we soon learn that from a clinical standpoint, it’s damn near impossible, but yet all the more intriguing.

We learn from the outset that Ronson’s personality is goofy and insecure, which makes for an amusing journey into what could be an otherwise depressing and humdrum exploration into the history of this facet of psychology.  The backbone of the book is the psychopath test, or the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, created in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Hare to determine whether or not a person is a psychopath based on a series of questions, including pathologically lying, lack of remorse, and grandiose self-worth (see full list here).  We are placed in the room with Ronson as he learns about the test and we, like him, begin to believe that we may indeed be mentally disturbed.  Irresponsibility? Check! Emotionally shallow?  I’ve been there!  Lack of empathy? Sometimes I lack empathy!  However, as one mental health professional tells him, if we believe that we have failed the test and think ourselves to be psychopaths, then we aren’t–psychopaths lack self-awareness and empathy.

The way that Ronson relates his subject reminded me of the true crime documentary, The Staircase.  You are given the facts, and yet all of these “facts” completely conflict, making everyone seem right and simultaneously wrong, leaving you without a concrete conclusion.  Throughout the book, Ronson explores different cases and personality types, attempting to pinpoint the what’s and who’s of psychopathy.  He introduces us to Scientologists who hate psychology, and we’re given some pretty compelling evidence in support, such as sane people overanalyzed and wrongly incarcerated in mental health facilities, children being needlessly medicated (does the ADD crazy of the 90s ring any bells?), and homosexuality being labeled as a mental disorder in older editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise known as the DSM.  On the flip side, we also meet doctors who have spent their lives attempting to remove the stigma of psychopathy and mental illness by radical yet humane treatment, thereby ostracizing themselves within their own professional community.  Ronson creates a compelling case by giving us all sides of everyone’s story, thereby leaving you without a clue!  It’s a torturous experience because you can’t make up your mind, and when you do, you’re given a difference perspective and have no idea what to think of psychiatry, your safety, or if we live in a world of true chaos.

The issue is so complex, and the difficulty of an effective diagnosis can be seen in the individuals interviewed throughout the book.  They beat someone up, but does that make them crazy?  They have sexual fantasies involving hair pulling (hello, Fifty Shades), but does that make them sadistic, and who decides?  Psychiatrists and psychologists trained in what course of study?  Yes, there are unfeeling, disturbed psychopaths out there who want to harm others and feel no remorse.  There are also people all along the spectrum of mental illness who don’t want to harm others. Because of the varied personality types in the world, it seems improbable that the dangerous ones could be weeded out of society until they do harm to others, and even after that, how do we know if they’re truly a danger to society?  Ronson presents us with all of these questions and we are left pondering the answers along with him.

Of the books read thus far for my Stranger by the Book project, I enjoyed this one the most.  Unlike some of the past books, such as Vellum, where I would have only finished the book for a project, I couldn’t wait to turn my audiobook back on and hear more stories of the criminally insane, and the appalling stories of the wrongly accused.  Ronson’s research method and style reminded me of one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Mary Roach, as she also focuses on a subject and explores its history and current day implications in lay-person’s terms with a sense of humor.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy read that is also thought-provoking, entertaining and maybe just a little bit crazy.

Post-apocalyptic world (virus) written with subtlety, restraint and heart.

(M.R. Carey, 2014)

Girl with all the gifts

Happy Valentine’s Day!

May you love and celebrate the person that you were, are and have yet to become.

JillValentine's

Anxiety often mixed with disgusted curiosity; the ending was great.

Miranda July (2015)

First Bad Man

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

The Forest Lover by Susan VreelandForest Lover
Book #3, read during January, 2015

Susan Vreeland is one of those authors in the library world where you know of her popularity from the vast amount of books on the shelf, much like your everyday Lee Child, James Patterson, or Louise Penny.  I could decipher the genre from a glance–historical fiction–and Caucasian women seem to be the main protagonist.  The Forest Lover is what I typically refer to as a “book club book,” meaning that I would recommend for a general audience, probably women, and it has a lot of elements that would make up a good discussion: Native Americans, Native American women, a white, middle-class woman’s role in the early 20th century, artistic freedom, et al.  It’s not particularly controversial, it’s well-written, and there’s no sex or direct violence–it’s a nice book.

Written as historical fiction, where one creates a story using sprinkles of fact, TFL is about an artist in the early 1900s in Canada who chooses to stay single and childless, eschews religion, loves animals, painting nature, and hangs out with Native Americans at at time when whites were in full-swing Christian colonization mode (yes, nothing much has changed; just wait, there’s more).  At first, I wondered if reading a novel written in that time period instead of reading a modern-day interpretation would be more effective, such as books by women who lived what Vreeland writes about, such as Kate Chopin or Virgina Woolfe.  However as I delved deeper into the impetus for the creation of the novel, I read that this book’s main character, Emily Carr, was indeed an actual artist and that the book is loosely based on her actual life.

Vreeland creates Emily Carr’s world by weaving social and personal (to Carr, and probably Vreeland as well) threads that reveal the complexities of social injustice concerning gender and race.  Throughout the book, and Emily’s real life, she frequently receives the underhanded compliment, “You’ll be a fine woman painter” or that she’s a “woman artist”; woman being the operative word here.  This reminds me of a Twitter entanglement in 2014 when musician Neko Case was called a “woman in music” by Playboy Magazine, striking back, “Am I? IM NOT A FUCKING ‘WOMAN IN MUSIC’, IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!”  Though this book takes place in the early 1900s when Carr lived, was written in 2004, you’ll be delighted to know that zero has changed in over 100 years concerning the gendered nature of art–men are the norm and women are the outsiders.

Another curious discrepancy that stood out as I read TFL, especially after reading Vellum by Hal Duncan as my last Stranger by the Book: A Year of Unknown Reading selection was the difference in the description of sex scenes written by men and women.  From my own empirical reading observations, there are some marked differences between a man’s description of sex from what I’ve read from Hal Duncan, Joe Hill, Stephen King, and John Updike to name just a few.   From what I’ve read, they use basic physical language, “my penis feels and looks like this and this is what I did with it, and this what I saw,” and these authors, like many other male authors, just love to use the word “cunt” in their sex scenes.  To me, it seems like showing off; feeling like rebels, using a word that seems “naughty.”  In others that I’ve read, including feminist and lesbian erotica, the sex scene is very different in this story, describing Carr’s emotional well-being and psychological process mixed with issues from her past.  She ties in unsettling memories from childhood and here, I feel like Vreeland has a unique handle on how the complexities of the past can impede on a woman’s growth as a healthy–sexual or otherwise–adult.

To contextualize my reading experience a bit more, it’s written from the point of view of someone who reads horror, sci-fi, independent fiction, books where it’s necessary to extend your belief, science and biographies, and therefore mainstream NY Times best sellers are typically off my radar.  This being said, I appreciated this type of general reader, thoroughly fleshed out and full of good “issues” to talk and think about book.  Unless recommended, I probably wouldn’t have read this, labeling it too much of a Lifetime Television flick in book form.  Thankfully, Vreeland gives the reader enough historical fact to keep us slightly appalled and friendships to emotional invest us.

 

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace

Lynn Povich (2012)

Solid; enlightening; infuriating; we still have a lot to do.

Good Girls REvolt

Exploring Feminisms is five years old today!

Thank you to everyone who has read and contributed to the conversation!

suffragettes-celebrating

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