Recommendation and Regret

I couldn’t sleep last night and it was all Lowboy’s fault.

I was reading the novel Lowboy by John Wray. Click here for its review in the New York Times.

The book is about a 16-year old boy with schizophrenia on the run in the New York subway system. It’s a fantastic read – fast-paced yet poetic, and short enough to consume in a few days.

One of the interesting footnotes about this book is that the author wrote most of it on the NY subway line while listening to heavy metal guitar. Another is that he did a unique (albeit slightly awkward) reading from the book to other passengers on the train. Here’s a great interview of the author in a recent NPR podcast.

So that was my recommendation. Now for the regret.

The driving force of the novel is the threat of violence. The main character of the novel, Will Heller (a.k.a. Lowboy), has nearly killed someone before, has attacked others, and is now unmedicated and on the loose in public. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I couldn’t help feeling sad that it reinforced the public misconception that people with schizophrenia are violent.

This is not a criticism of the book; literature isn’t and shouldn’t be a public service announcement. A doctor in the novel even mentions that most patients with schizophrenia aren’t violent. Still, the young patient in this story is transformed into a terrifying figure.

Groups like NAMI and NIMH need to continue educating people about mental illness. The public needs to know that most people with schizophrenia aren’t violent and most violent people don’t have schizophrenia.

If patients are going to find treatment and recover, they’ll need the support of people in their lives. They will need our kindness, not our fear.

Gutenberg Would Have Been Proud

I swam in books today. Just backstroke and sidestroke; I’ve never been too good at freestyle.

Today was the LA Festival of Books, put on by the Los Angeles Times. Each year, over 100,000 people show up at UCLA to celebrate books – fiction, nonfiction, picture books, cookbooks, what have you. Panels of authors discuss their work and their process, tents brim with used books, stages host readings and interviews and musical performances.

I know some of you think LA is a screen-only city, low on culture and literacy, and I’m not going to lie- this place really is overflowing with large breasts and tiny dogs. But for all that, LA does have books and art and people who care enough to talk about them. In fact, a panelist and publisher from Brooklyn said that New York would never draw such large crowds to discuss books. He said the literati out there are more insular and snobbish. We Angelenos share. Of course, we also enjoy better weather while we’re doing it.

In an age of shrinking books sales, withering local bookstores, and library cutbacks, reading has only become more solitary with time. (Oprah and her ladies excepted.) We watch movies and television in groups, small or large. We throw Superbowl and Oscar parties, get sloshed and eat pizza. It’s a great time. But a party in honor of paper and ink: that’s something pretty special.

I think we should all take a moment to recognize Gutenberg and his nifty movable type. (Thanks, buddy.) The same for kindergarten teachers and parents who spelled out C-A-T for us a million times. And a holla to LA for occasionally surprising the rest of the country with its smartitude.

A Fascinating Life

I am going To The Lighthouse. This will be my first time reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve been wanting to read her for a while, but the more I learn about her life, the more I want to know.

A couple interesting facts: Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury group, a cluster of brilliant intellectuals and friends in early 20th century Europe. They were painters, writers, art critics, publishers, and economists, many of them famous to this day. They were also stunningly sexually and romantically liberated. Not how we picture Brits in the early 1900s, right? But the people in this group had open marriages and engaged in love affairs with men and women alike. They weren’t plagued by jealousy, despite the many changes of lovers within their clique. This may be an enlightened way to experience love (obviously they were mighty smart), but I don’t think it would work so well for the rest of us, at least not here in the US. We watch too much Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil and soaps and live mired in too much passive-aggressive melodramatic narcissism. Not that I’m judging. The same goes for me, even without Jerry and Phil. I am not about to share my fiancé.

But more than Bloomsbury’s wacky romantic escapades, I’m interested in Woolf’s mental illness. From adolescence on, she showed symptoms of severe bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression.) She’s another example of a haunted genius, a fascinating pattern from a neuroscience perspective. It’s painful to read her letters and diaries, which show the depth of her depression. In the end, she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the Ouse River. Even today, we lose many of our creative icons to suicide, despite the availability of treatment options. It reminds us that the human mind is complex and contradictory, and we have so much left to learn.

Where’s My Real Wife?

I recently read the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, written by Rivka Galchen (a trained psychiatrist). It begins when the main character wakes to find that his wife is a fraud. She looks exactly like his wife and shares her voice and mannerisms, but there’s no question that the woman in his house is an impostor.

Although the term’s never used, the main character is suffering from Capgras Syndrome. Capgras is one of those rare neurological conditions that sounds like science fiction to those of us who are more or less neurologically intact. It’s perhaps one of few syndromes intriguing enough to fuel an entire novel. (Two, in fact; it was the basis for the novel The Echomaker as well.)

One theory is that Capgras happens when regions of the brain linked to emotion are damaged or disconnected from visual/face recognition areas. That’s oversimplified, but the point is that our emotions are inextricably woven into our perceptions of other people. The feeling of love for a spouse or parent or sibling or child is so integral to our experience of that person that in its absence, despite every scrap of evidence to the contrary, we can’t believe the person is the same. I can’t help but find this both facinating and surprisingly romantic.

Atmospheric Disturbances wasn’t my favorite read overall, but I admire the creative risks it took. It lived up to the term “novel.” For one, Galchen included her actual father as a prominent character and his research in meteorology as a motif throughout the book. There’s even a family photo; she was a cute kid.

Here’s a brief interview with the author about the book and her interest in the topic:

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