Author: seanvansickel

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Full disclosure -I suffer from depression. I take medication and participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I have tried to manage this depression unmedicated -I have exercised and ate ideally, and I’ve spent cumulative weeks and months living out of backpacks in the backcountry. I’ve meditated and even fought in amateur MMA. I have tried supplementation and nutritional remedies. None of this has been sufficient. I am in possession of the kind of brain that does not function well without pharmacological intervention. This is not something that reflects poorly on my value as a person, but, obviously, neither is it something I’m inherently pleased about. I am one of the luckier ones -my mood disorder responds well to a single frontline SSRI, at a relatively low dose that elicits few side effects. I do not need to keep in balance a constantly rotating program of disparate classes of drugs, and the medication I do take leaves me mostly unencumbered. It is off-patent, cheap, and easy for me to obtain -even if I were to lose my health insurance.  

 

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is by far the best book I have read on the subject. Andrew Solomon is not only a competent and engaging writer, but a humblingly studious and thoughtful one. His prose is subtle and incisive, and the human empathy he brings to his work is made even more powerful by his own debilitating experiences with the disease. The kind of writing he has done here might be described as brutal were it not handled with such care. Every line has the feeling of meticulous editing and reworking, the kind of obsessive polishing that only very good source material can stand up to. This book is personal narrative and case study and sociology and advocacy writing and medical exposition and history. It comes at the topic of depression with the aim of encircling the vastness of it and its many practical concerns in a totally holistic fashion. The evolutionary impetus for the disease is addressed, as is the history of treatment. Many people of every imaginable experience are profiled, and the research for all contemporary methods of treatment are examined. Race, gender, sexuality and class are all considered at their points of influence. At over six hundred pages, the book seems like a daunting endeavor, and I took my time with it, but I can’t think of any part I would want to cut.

 

Depression is a mostly unseen epidemic, and because many of the deaths that it contributes to are so seemingly unconnected, it’s difficult to say how many people die as a result of their depression, beyond the most obvious examples. But the taboo against discussing it seems to be growing weaker all the time, and everything we can do to further weaken it makes it easier for people who cannot yet seek vital help. In that vein, Andrew Solomon’s work is both compelling on its own objective merits and on the imperative conversations it opens up.

West with the Night

I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.

While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.

And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is the second mythology-soaked literary account of Hurricane Katrina I’ve read in the last few months, which is odd, and completely unintentional, as I picked this book up only because of good things I’d heard about its author, Jesmyn Ward. The narrative presence of the storm doesn’t even present itself until nearly a quarter of the way through, but the intertextual dependence the narrative has on the many different incarnations that the story of Jason and Medea has taken is quickly realized. The lack of any single authoritative plot with regard to that epic makes it an incredibly nimble framing device, as the reader not only can call on many shapes of the same story, but has no idea just exactly where the novel’s narrative might be compelled to go. Nifty.

 

Ward has studied with some literary heavy hitters, including my guy Tobias Wolff, and it shows in her prose. The novel is told from the perspective of a young black teen, and while there is nothing so flashy or ostentatious that it rings false, the voice is beautiful, observant and descriptive in metaphor and allusion. It’s quiet and well-paced, building up a narrative and a  linguistic weight as the novel draws closer to its conclusion. There is no flab, no unnecessary sections or lines of thought or plot.

 

Continuing the theme of coincidence, I came across an essay on the debate about cultural ephemera in fiction, an essay that referenced both David Foster Wallace’s essay “e unibus pluram” -an essay that I had read perhaps a week prior- and this book, a novel that is directly time-stamped as it literally counts the days to Katrina, yet lacks virtually all reference to any work outside of the classics (a mention of Outkast playing on a car radio is the only thing I noticed). While there is plenty of opportunity to isolate the work in time and place, Ward chooses not to, chooses instead to tie it intractability to an ancient epic of no canonically defined narrative. While I must confess to be a bit standoffish with regard to an over-generous seasoning of pop culture references and the like, I think even a more objective reader would agree with me that these choices make Salvage the Bones an even stronger piece.

Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever

“BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever” is a Kindle Single written by Tony Horwitz, detailing his investigative reporting of as many aspects of the contemporary domestic oil situation as he can fit into 117 pages and 4000 miles (Canada tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries and all the pipeline drama in between). This project was written before the Dakota Access Pipeline drama, which was unfolding as I read it -a confluence that I’d love to recommend, were it possible.

As might be expected, “BOOM” reads like good old-fashioned investigative journalism -while Horwitz himself is inserted into the narrative, this is more Gonzo-Lite than some of the more contemporary forms of creative nonfiction, the kind of pieces that perform more as a personal essay viewed in an external framework. Neither of these forms is necessarily superior, but Horwitz has certainly chosen the correct one for his purpose, with mainly concerns exposition. You will learn shit about how Northern America does fossil fuels here. You will come into contact with good people who participate directly in potentially damaging practices, and you will have some sympathy for them. This is something that Horowitz does really well.

All in all, I think that E-readers and E-reading apps offer, if not a better media form, then an additional and valuable one. I can’t think of many magazine publications of 100+ word narrative nonfiction/reporting -the closest thing that comes to mind are the essays of David Foster Wallace, but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I don’t want to read a weighty-ass tome on this shit -as much as I perhaps ought to- and a fifteen-page distillation is going to leave a lot of worthwhile shit on the cutting room floor. I was reminded of the value of Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room. These kinds of things are time-sensitive and valuable, and digital publication of much longer longform work that simply isn’t book material is something I intend to keep paying close attention to.

Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a novel in three parts, a very common and standard thing with regard to form and execution. It is a story of adolescence and a trouble family, a story where a father’s religious zeal and hypocrisy. It’s a story about abuse and familial schism. None of these things are especially uncommon, but this story is set in postcolonial Nigeria and depicts an Igbo family defined by their father’s abusive imitations and worship of all things European. This is, needless to say, a hard break from the kind of “novel of ideas” that are so often the first things that come to mind when one hears of this narrative arc.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel isn’t worth reading on account of its novelty –Purple Hibiscus is objectively well-written and possess one of the most engaging narratives I’ve encountered since the thematically pulpy but equally prose-driven The Twelve trilogy. The further into this book you get, the more invested you become. That’s almost always the goal of good novel-length fiction, but it’s hard to pull of as completely as Adichie has here.

A bit of time has passed between my reading of this novel and my writing of this reading log, as I try to do. The neurological digestion of Adichie’s characters and narratives, her prose and her ideas, has produced nothing but further positive descriptions. The novel is a bit slow to start, but that’s all a part of the things’s intrinsic pacing, and only adds to my appreciation. This is a fantastic book, and I intend to seek out more of Adichie’s writing as soon as I can -check out her Amazon Single “We Should All Be Feminists” for a quick and easy-reading essay on her own experiences with the label.

Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.