Posts tagged ‘mental health’

June 8, 2019

Everything in its Place – First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Picador, £20, out nowOliver Sacks EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

This collection of essays from great science writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, is a real treat for anyone who loved his previous works.

As with his other books, the essays are readable, beautifully written and engaging.  Known for his books The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and Migraine among others, he also wrote about his own life.  His insatiable curiosity shines through, and it’s clear that this carried on throughout his long and interesting life.  He covers a wide range of topics, from the joy of swimming to his love of libraries, to a piece about ferns, and the life of Humphrey Davy.

He addresses the ethics of writing about people who are or have been unwell in a clear and helpful way.  His book review of Michael Greenberg’s A Summer of Madness raises the question, as Greenberg is writing about his teenage daughter Sally’s first experience of mania.  Writing the book “… was not a quick or easy decision for either Sally or her father.  Greenberg did not grab a pen and start writing during his daughter’s psychosis in 1996 – he waited, he pondered, he let the experience sink deep into him.  He had long, searching discussions with Sally, and only more than a decade later did he feel that he might have the balance, the perspective, the tone that Hurry Down Sunshine would need.  Sally, too, had come to feel this, and urged him not only to write her story but to use her real name, without camouflage.  It was a courageous decision, given the stigma and misunderstanding that still surround mental illness of any kind” (p. 182).

My favourite essay is Travels with Lowell, an account of a road trip he takes with photojournalist Lowell Handler to find out more about Tourette’s.  In the course of the trip, they visit La Crete, a Canadian town where many of the population have Tourette’s and town life accommodates this.  I loved his observation after visiting: “There is, among Orthodox Jews, a blessing to be said on witnessing the strange: one blesses God for the diversity of his creation, and one gives thanks for the wonder of the strange.  This, it seemed to me, was the attitude of the people of La Crete to the Tourette’s in their midst.  They accepted it not as something annoying or insignificant, to be reacted to or overlooked, but as a deep strangeness, a wonder, an example of the absolute mysteriousness of Providence” (p. 106).

This is a deeply humane and engrossing collection.  Read this and then read Gratitude, a book for all time (https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2016/06/19/gratitude-by-oliver-sacks/).

Review by Bethan

March 3, 2019

The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin, £9.99, out now

Science of MeditationIf the sheer breadth of mindfulness, meditation, wellbeing and guidance books is really stressing you out, let us recommend The Science of Meditation, by science journalist Daniel Goleman and professor of psychology and psychiatry Richard J. Davidson.

This impressive work’s greatest strength is its ability to operate on many levels at once. On the one hand it’s an interrogative history of the scientific study of meditation, detailing the (more often than not, flawed) ways in which the results of this esoteric practice on the mind and body have been tested and evaluated. This technical content, while extensive, is never too dense, and always clearly laid out – so whether you’re learning about the neural profiles consistent with different meditative states, or how a sense of purpose in life can release an enzyme capable of protecting the strands of your DNA, you’re always taken through complex ideas one step at a time. it’s comprehensive but never woolly – in their own words, our guides aim to “keep it simple”.

On the other hand, it is an argument for the wide-ranging benefits of meditation. When Goleman and Davidson aren’t merrily shooting down vast swathes of studies into mindfulness practices for potentially biasing their test-subjects and making specious assumptions, they’re digging deep into sturdier research that shows the myriad ways in which these techniques can help a person. Lieutenant colonels diminish the symptoms of PTSD, zen students show improved resistance to pain, Tibetan monks (with PhDs in science) cultivate enhanced levels of compassion… The upshot, argue the authors, both long-time meditators, is that depending on your needs these practices can do a whole lot more than a) calm you down and b) bring you closer to oneness with the universe.

Which brings us to the book’s final function: that of a very useful guide on how to utilise different forms of meditation (it turns out there are quite a few) in your own life, depending on what you want to achieve from them. And – of course – they have the science to back up why each form may be the right one for you and your joint pain, or your anxiety, or your self-criticism.

Clear-headed, rigorous and insightful, this is the book for you if you want neuroscientific certainties with your spiritual enlightenment, and as a study of what we can say for sure about meditation and its psychological and physiological potential at this time it certainly feels damn near definitive.

Review by Tom

 

March 11, 2018

My Life as a Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Vintage, £8.99, out now

Emmanuel Carrere My Life Russian Novel

Linda Coverdale’s superlative translations of the work of French powerhouse Emmanuel Carrère continue to delight us at Riverside – this latest sees the writer and filmmaker tell the story of a love affair, a family history and a possibly-doomed documentary in a “non-fiction novel” heavy on sex and introspection.

At the book’s beginning Carrère is ostensibly investigating the curious tale of a Hungarian soldier who, during World War 2, was imprisoned by the Russians, transferred to a psychiatric institution and somehow forgotten about, only being released in the noughties. A fascinating story; but also a feint, as we soon discover it’s not the anecdote itself that interests Carrère but its passing similarity to the life of his Nazi-collaborator grandfather, a similarly disturbed figure who was “disappeared” after the end of the occupation. It’s this buried history that hangs over the Carrères like a dark cloud, and one which this book sees him trying to purge in one way or another.

The unexpected lyricism that made his wonderful The Adversary so effective is well served here by a narrative that interrogates love, betrayal, and ennui, flitting effortlessly from travelogue to existential rumination, erotic fantasy to historical reportage. But what’s really interesting is that Carrère often doesn’t come across at all well; a slave to his neuroses and passions, irrational and impulsive, he embarks on a poorly thought-out film project in a Russian town in tandem with a poorly thought-out relationship with a woman whose non-bohemian existence he can’t help but feel ashamed of. In both cases, as apparently in all things, he seems driven not so much by constructive sentiments as demons from his past, and having an author bare all on the page in such a borderline masochistic way is both shocking and powerful.

Props must go once again to Coverdale also; as with the best translators, the continuity of the author’s voice across the works she has interpreted is evident – which is perhaps not easy when her subject is so mercurial – and her word choices paint a vibrant picture of a narrator who is at once urbane aesthete and helpless obsessive. In short, exactly the kind of person you want to read about.

Review by Tom