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Notes on recently read books

SEATTLE, Washington -

Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara: Nice to see that an American was writing in the 1920s and 1930s while not living in Paris. This novel takes place in Gibbsville, a fictionalized Pottsville, PA, circa 1930. It's a decent enough novel about the type of people that would inhabit such a place at such a time. (spoiler alert) I didn't think the guy's life was bad enough for him to kill himself (end spoiler) but I didn't write the thing.

I didn't know much about O'Hara upon finishing this book, and I assume this was the definitive word about Gibbsville/Pottsville. But, while poking around the we're-moving sale at Twice Sold Tales I saw a big book of Gibbsville essays authored by O'Hara. On top of that he set five of his novels there. He just kept writing and writing and writing about Gibbsville/Pottsville - maybe he should have spent more time in Paris.

Stork Club : America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society, by Ralph Blumenthal: I felt mildly let down by this book. It may just be that the Stork Club's owner, Sherman Billingsley, was not a very compelling figure. It seemed to have a fine-grained focus on Billingley's various battles over the years (mobsters, unions, Josephine Baker, sticky-fingered employees) without giving much insight on either the man or the broader "café society" in which the Stork Club operated. At least he spent a few years banging Ethel Merman.

Blaming the Brain: The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health, by Elliot Valenstein: This book was written in the late 1980s and heavily updated in 1997, but some facts are eternal: the Mental Health professions continue not to have much of a clue about the etiology of many of the things that they call "mental illnesses", but they pretend that they do.

A good hunk of the book is history, covering the evolution of thought about mental disorders and the history of treatments for said disorders. He gets into what is currently in vogue (chemical explanations for "mental illness") and what some of the alternatives are (e.g. physical brain structure issues). Chemical explanations are obviously popular with pharmaceutical companies, and Valenstein is quite hard on them, blaming them for distorting research and giving detailed coverage of the speculations, crumbs of knowledge, and outright bullshit that pharmaceutical companies have peddled as established scientific fact over the years (e.g. "low serotonin levels cause depression").

Valenstein doesn't think we should abandon psychoactive drugs, he agrees that they help some people some of the time, but he thinks we should honestly acknowledge that we don't have a very good idea why they have the effects that they have or what the drugs say about the underlying etiology of "mental illness".

(all "mental illness" scare quotes are mine, not Valenstein's)


Christine said...

Wow, "Blaming the Brain" actually seems fairly unbiased from the Amazon writeups. It sounds like some of what he wrote is common sense. Yeah, the pharmaceutical companies have one obvious goal which is to make money since they are a business. Since the brain isn't really understood, they can and will manipulate their findings easily on SSRI's obviously to better sell their product.

But also, most people's medical insurance will cover drugs like SSRI's while it is often limited on counselling and so on. So people may resort to taking pills for mental reasons. And our society today is pill-popping in general and people seem to want a quick fix so asking their doctor for a pill to alleviate their mental anguish may be "perfect" for them. I am sounding like you now! I am skeptical about some mental illnesses and think pills in this industry are overprescribed but I am not anti at all. They help many people and I am glad we have them. The book sounds very thought-provoking.