Book reviews: non-fiction by Claudia Kalb, Amye Archer and Ruth Wariner
Kalb looks at historical greats through a psychiatric lens, Archer is disarmingly honest about her weight issues, and Wariner recounts a shocking childhood inside a cult
Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder
by Claudia Kalb
National Geographic (e-book)
Are you a hoarder? Do you think you’re the bee’s knees? And what’s wrong with wiping doorknobs before touching them? These are symptoms of mental conditions included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, writes Claudia Kalb. Trouble is since 1952, when the reference book made its debut, the number of mental disorders has jumped from 80 to 157. Which means it’s possible a doctor will prescribe medication for your condition. That understood, Kalb then profiles 12 figures in history, all of whom achieved fame despite (or perhaps because of) behaviour linked with autism, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. Andy Warhol (a compulsive shopper who resisted binning anything) joins Marilyn Monroe (with borderline personality disorder), Princess Diana (helped by psychological counselling), Albert Einstein (his symptoms of high-functioning autism would have been diagnosed as Asperger’s until recently), and others. Most intriguing is the inclusion of Frank Lloyd Wright, a narcissist. But does “colossal self-admiration” a mental disorder make? Apparently he exhibited “symptoms”, including rewriting his past. He also had fractured personal relationships. This book is a rollicking read that might open your eyes to your own mental “disorders”.
Fat Girl, Slim
by Amye Archer
Big Table Publishing Company (e-book)
Amye Archer took four years to write this book. A memoir of a woman trying to lose 100 pounds while going through a divorce, it no doubt changed during its seven revisions to reflect her outlook on life at various stages of her Weight Watchers’ programme. In a group session, she tells “Pantsuit Pam” (a composite of the organisation’s leaders) that her prime reason for wanting to be lighter than her initial 265 pounds is “revenge”. Her husband has left her for another woman, she says, and her goal is to have him want her again, just so she can reject him. The honesty is disarming, although Archer has moments of weakness, which includes hooking up with past boyfriends and pandering to her food addiction with comestibles that blow her calories, fibre and fat numbers. She spares us the day-to-day calculations and the misery of going cold turkey to combat her habit, instead allowing readers a glimpse into how she came to be the type of person who would binge almost nightly on fast food, mostly in secret. Fat Girl, Skinny is not a self-help book. Perhaps that’s why it works so well.
The Sound of Gravel
by Ruth Wariner
Macmillan Audio (audiobook)
The cover deceives you into thinking Ruth Wariner’s will be the story of a happy childhood in a big family. A different picture of her life, however, is clear from her first chapter. “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth,” she reveals, explaining that she grew up in Mexico, in a colony founded by her grandfather “after God sent him a vision”. Established in 1944, the site attracted polygamist Mormon families and would give rise to a church, where her father was prophet and preached the coming destruction of America. Having sketched her story’s landscape, Wariner, also the narrator, then describes a childhood of absolute poverty, growing up with a paedophile stepfather (her natural father was murdered) and moving constantly, while her mother has more and more babies (several of them possibly retarded). She also tells of how the sister wives tolerate each other, weep with jealousy when a new spouse joins the family and live on social security cheques, drawn in America. Sexual abuse darkens the tale, as do the horrific deaths of her mother and two brothers. Wariner has put together an eye-opening account that is thoroughly shocking.