crap I have read recently #7

prozac pezAh, this is the summer of my discontent…

[Lots of SPOILERS below.  Just can’t help myself…]

Best Served Cold (Joe Abercrombie): This is an ugly book about ugly people doing ugly things.  There is a lot of dying, almost from the very first page. Monza and Benna Murcatto are mercenaries. Monza is the leader of the Thousand Swords, ruthlessly efficient sellswords currently in the employ of Grand Duke Orso. They are on the cusp of making him a king when he betrays them. Benna is killed and Monza is stabbed, garroted, tossed off a balcony, and left for dead. Of course she is not dead and once she has marginally recovered from her crippling wounds she embarks on a plan of revenge to kill the seven men responsible for murdering her brother.   To help her in this Monza recruits a handful of co-conspirators, some of whom have a beef with the Duke but most of whom just come along for the money. Among these are the only barely likeable characters in the book: Shivers, a Northern warrior who came south to “be a better man”; Friendly, a murderer with OCD who seems mostly to want to keep out of everyone’s way; and Cosca, a drunk old mercenary who comes out of retirement to help the woman who betrayed him.  All of these people are most likely doomed.  Anyone who comes  near Monza Murcatto is most likely doomed.

I haven’t much liked this book.   It is “fantasy” in only the barest meaning of the word.  It takes place in the same world as the author’s First Law trilogy, which I read and liked somewhat, but it is a far grimmer excursion.  There is some minor character cross-over but this book is not a continuation of the trilogy and can stand alone.   Abercrombie seems to be wholeheartedly wallowing in G.R.R. Martin-style fantasy:  lots of blood and death; hyper-realistic depictions of war, torture, sex, and other assorted mayhem; deeply flawed and unappealing characters; characters with truly creepy personal habits; shifting POV; lots of travel; dabs of politics; hints of incest.  It is so gory that it is occasionally difficult to read, especially while eating. The larger problem though is that there is absolutely no reason to care about any of the main characters. We barely meet Benna and initially he seems harmless enough as Monza’s tag-along baby brother.  It quickly becomes obvious he was a conniving backstabbing  little shit who got precisely what was coming to him.  Any interest I had in seeing the suffering of those responsible for his death wafted away.  Monza gets a bit of sympathetic back story: the early death of her parents, trying to raise her little brother on the family farm in the midst of one of the world’s never-ending wars, finally finding a friend and mentor in Nicomo Cosca, the leader of the Thousand Swords.  He gives her a home, teaches her to read, and makes her a general and she betrays him for money and power.  The farther I get into the book the less there is to like about her.  She uses people to further her goals even when it gets them maimed and killed. When her plans go awry and dozens of innocent bystanders die, she shrugs it off as part of the cost of revenge.  She numbs her pain, her sorrow, and any regrets she might have with husk, a highly addictive painkiller. Her addiction makes her sloppy and dangerous and any evidence of the relentless Butcher of Caprile is lost in the smoke.

I’m at the fourth of the seven revenge killings (so probably a bit more than halfway through) and I’m not sure I’m going to finish the book.  I can’t find anything about it compelling enough to drag myself through to the end. The main character is as bad (or worse) as the man she intends to kill. The person she is avenging isn’t worth the escalating body count.  Her traveling companions are almost to a person wholly repulsive.  The gore is near-constant and even the sex (of which there is a fair bit and graphically described) is brutal and cold.  The latest character introduced is a Lector-esque cannibal and I’m really not interested in sitting through any more descriptions of his culinary skills.   (Although perhaps he will eat Monza….)

I suppose somewhere in this book there might be a lesson in how the craving for revenge twists everyone and everything in its path into something grotesque but I’m having a hard time seeing it through all the blood.  If I decide to slog through the rest of it, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Score:  Meh.

Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill (Robert Whitaker):  Over the past several months I’ve read a handful of books on the  history and treatment of mental illness.  I have both personal and professional interest in the topic and in recent years there has been a small tide of books critical of nearly everything involving psychiatry and its approach to identifying, understanding, managing, and treating psychiatric disorders.  The most recent one is Mad in America by journalist Robert Whitaker, who also wrote the equally horrifying Anatomy of an Epidemic.

The first  half of this book is absolutely chilling. Whitaker takes us through the history of the treatment of psychiatric disorders (primarily schizophrenia) in the United States, through the years of involuntary confinement, a brief period of enlightenment (thank you Quakers), and then the long epoch of one horrific “treatment” after another, straight up to our own enlightened “better living through chemistry” era.   By the time we get to the 1950s, when Thorazine became the new hotness, we have seen the mentally ill chained, whipped, bled, starved, spun until they puked, wrapped in wet sheets, left in ice cold baths for days, forcibly sterilized, and waterboarded.  We have seen them undergo chemically induced seizures so severe that their bones shatter.  We have seen them shocked as many as 600 times.  We’ve seen doctors ram icepicks into their eyes and scramble their brains.  We’ve seen these things done to women who were “difficult”, young men with less than a year’s worth of symptoms, and children as young as four (yes, someone did perform lobotomies on toddlers).  It is almost physically painful to read about these things but it was all in the past and we can comfort ourselves with our modern tolerance and sensibility.  Can’t we?

According to Whitaker, probably not.  The second half of the book is worse than the first, if only because it rapidly becomes obvious that very little has changed.  It is hard not to hear foreshadowing of our own present when reading a highly respected physician’s spirited endorsement of electroshock therapy and prefrontal lobotomy.  It is equally difficult not hear echoes of the past when reading a contemporary paean to the efficacy of the atypical antipsychotics.  Once Thorazine came on the market in 1955 the entirety of the mental health treatment endeavor shifted toward the “chemical imbalance” hypothesis of psychiatric illness, an hypothesis for which there is a disturbing lack of evidence.  Yet physicians, therapists, pharmaceutical companies, advocates, and patients alike all assert with confidence that we now know what causes mental illness and we now know how to treat it.    Just precisely as we did when we “knew” that schizophrenia is caused by overheated blood or bad genes or whatever encouraged us to do all those awful things to people.  Are things better now?  Yes, in many respects.  But it is still shockingly easy to force treatment on someone.  Doctors still speak with unwarranted confidence of “chemical imbalances” and the best treatment is whatever the drug company rep just dropped off.   Extraordinarily profound treatments are still urged on the very young and the “worried well”.  Science is still done in the absence of informed consent (because crazy people aren’t believed competent to give consent).   As evidence mounts of extensive and permanent brain damage caused by psychiatric drugs (not to mention the more immediate side effects:  obesity, diabetes, risk of suicide, tardive dyskinesia, etc.)  one wonders how really different risperidone or quetiapine or ketamine (!) are from prefrontal lobotomy or metrazol-induced seizures.

The book is not perfect.  Whitaker is a  journalist, not a scientist or physician, and he is telling a story.  He sometimes allows hyperbole to get in the way of the data, which are compelling enough on their own without references to genocide and the Nuremberg Code.  On the other hand his fury and disgust are not misplaced and sometimes those emotions are productive.   This book was not kindly received by mental health professionals, even though they often concede that it is accurate.  If you decide to read a book on the history of  mental health treatment in this country this should be the one you read.  If nothing else, it will remind you powerfully that the past is indeed prologue.

I think I need to go read some Jane Austen and cheer up.

Its only remedy is, bodily pain, inflicted by the rod, or confinement, or abstinence from food… Terror acts powerfully upon the body, through the medium of the mind, and should be employed in the cure of madness. Fear accompanied with pain and the sense of shame has sometimes cured the disease.  —Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry”

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on July 11, 2012.

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