Friday, 13 April 2012

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

There are a few books by Iain Banks in our house - or even by Iain M Banks.  But this is the first that I've read, and I will be reading many more.  This story is about aspects of the human condition, and I'm going to list them here because my other half insisted that if I knew what it was about, I had to tell him.  Well, it's about a man getting over his first teenage love, about families and how nutty they are, tolerance and acceptance, and a small scale observation on large corporations.  

Alban McGill falls in love with this cousin as a teenager and spends the next ten years of his life getting over it.  But what happens in between is a life story of a man who is not quite as conservative as his family would like, who goes his own way, taking the long road, in the words of the Dixie Chicks.  Although the narration does meander a bit (hence the confusion about the exact premise of the story) it perfectly illustrates the story of a young man who has lost his way in the world, doesn't know where he quite fits, doesn't feel he belongs anywhere.  

Alban is a likeable, even loveable, character and I cheered him on which is he secret of the page turning quality of the novel.  I cheered particularly at his anti-capitalist outburst directed at the representative of the multimillion dollar company who wants to buy his family firm.  

Also lovely in this novel is the Shakespearian comedy duo of great Aunts Beryl and Doris, lending light relief with their mis-heard comments and half-sloshed ramblings, occasionally promoting a laugh out loud moment.   

Alban eventually does find his place in the world, but to tell how this happens would ruin the story... 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Madness in post 1945 British and American literature by Charley Baker at al

This title looks at the portrayal of mental illness, or 'madness', in postwar english writing literature. The term madness issued deliberately to de-medicalise it and dissociate from medically-defined types of mental illness. It challenges head-on the notion of madness as 'other' simply by using the term madness, and asks us to question our beliefs of what madness is, and why our perceptions of social norms exist as they do, and why anything other than these norms are locked away inside the sanatoriums often depicted in the novels examined in the book.

Amongst many themes, the role of institutions are examined, as are psychiatrists, and their relationships with their patients. Patients in the novels mentioned in the book suffer from a whole range of illness and psychosis, reminding us how far we have come (and how far we haven't). An obvious example is shell shock - what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome- and the treatment for it, which was institutionalisation immediately post-war.

 Modern life brings its own problems, however, and a common theme in the book is a warped sense of reality common in the LSD soaked 60s, and in the new century, isolation and fragmentation of society and the consequences this can bring to the vulnerable. In a fairly recent talk, psychologist Oliver James said that if we are said to be well in this society then we really are in danger of being mad, as this society is not a healthy one. Can we then use the bibliography of this book as a 'symptom checker'? Can we look at, for instance, Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest' and see now far we have come in the treatment of madness, the symptoms of which, taken in isolation, can identify most people at some time or another? When is, say, OCD madness and when is it attention to peculiarities of environment?

 This book poses many questions about postmodern society and how individuals interact with medical power, cultural differences and our perception of madness. The ultimate aim of this book is to try and use literature to understand madness from a non-medical point of view.