In the last few weeks I’ve become slightly obsessed with the Romanov family, the last reigning monarchs in Russia. This has dovetailed into my love for Russian literature and–strangely–has given me some additional insight into psychology and neurology. See, Rasputin, the self-proclaimed holy man who seemed to help the young, hemophiliac Alexey, heir to the Russian throne, used all sorts of mind tricks on the Tsar and his family to maintain his position. The Tsarista, Alexandra, also had an arsenal of neurological issues/weapons that she employed with her children, her husband, and the Russian people. Honestly, I was so fascinated by how these seemingly unrelated topics informed and explained each other in so many ways. Go Team Nerd!
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (4 stars). I really enjoyed this book, it is a brief skip through the mental health industry touching on a number of different components but without exploring in depth anything in particular. As an newly minted armchair psychiatrist/psychopath spotter Ronson blunders through identifying and interviewing mental health professionals, Scientologists who believe psychiatry is a total sham, criminals and professors and verified psychopaths. Entertaining and a pretty quick read–surprising for such a heavy topic–this is a good lighthearted overview of some mental health issues and the societal conditions surrounding them.
Additional Recommended Reading: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey; Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan.
Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet (3 stars). While I appreciated and was fascinated by the book, I’m not sure if I would say I “loved” it. It can be jarring to read, but I also think that is part of what makes it so interesting, the writing is a slightly edited version of Tammet’s thinking with some tangents and explanations and facts that seem a little off, but truly help us understand how his mind works. And that, I think, is the point. Very interesting read.
Additional Recommended Reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon; Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer; The Tell-Tale Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran (but ONLY the first half of this one! The last half is crap.)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks (3 stars). I’m spoiled by Atul Gawande’s medical writing. I appreciate the case studies from some early neuro-psychology diagnosis and treatments, but I wasn’t drawn in to Sacks’ writing like I am to Gawande’s. Or to House.
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, by Sigmund Freud (2 stars). Meh. Freud has a large body of research and I know he’s the father of blah blah blah, but for me it was too narrow and too anecdotal. Is Freud’s research useless? No, I found his chapters on free word association quite fascinating. But, overall, I see it as a very small starting point to explaining the much larger and more layered sciences of psychology and neurology. I also reject the idea that anything we forget–names, dates, places, faces, ideas–is a product of repression. I don’t think that every slip of language or memory is somehow due to our souls/brains being corrupted and destroyed by sex or violence or shame. I think sometimes our brains prioritize the things they view as most important, and making a mistake like forgetting the name of that restaurant you had dinner at that one time in that one place does not necessarily mean you have some kind of unrequited latent sexual need for that person/thing that is only associated with that restaurant in the vaguest and loosest possible terms.
Additional Recommended Reading: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink; Complications, by Atul Gawande; Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman; Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Romanov dynasty (or the reign of the Russian Tsars in general) before picking this book up, you know, except for that Anastasia movie with Meg Ryan’s voice (full of inaccuracies, btw! There’s a surprise!). Massie gives a detailed and thorough history of the Romanov family, which ended with Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, his wife, the German princess Alexandra, and their children. Additionally, he details the horror and tragedy of young Tsarevich Alexie’s hemophilia and the toll it took on their family, the disease was kept completely secret from the Russian people and the vast majority of the people at the Tsar’s inner court. Having a feeble heir to the Russian empire was seen as weak, and heaven forbid a Romanov be seen as weak (or, you know, that one of the four healthy daughters be named as heir to the throne. Ahem.). As Russia entered World War I–fascinating, by the way, how that all came about–Nicholas and Alexandra become more and more enamored with Rasputin, the peasant mystic who seemed to be able to bring healing and relief to her sickly son. These two things, Alexie’s hemophilia and Rasputin’s mystical healing powers, are ultimately, Massie argues, what brought down the Russian empire. (I think a healthy chunk of the problem was going into the 20th century the Russian empire had a complete lack of any democracy for millions and millions of starving, freezing peasants while the ruling minority grew wealthier and wealthier, but whatever.) Nicholas was busy on the war front and Alexandra was overseeing things at the capitol, St. Petersburg, despite zero real training in running a government, let alone managing a vast empire at war. Both were absolutely out of touch with the urban civilians and peasant poor and their need for more autonomy in their governments and ruling bodies and some basic human rights and guarantees. Nicholas was easily swayed by Alexandra’s opinion in politics and who was hired and fired in positions of power, and Alexandra was completely devoted to and controlled by Rasputin because he brought relief to the young Alexie. (Alexandra’s recommendations for government positions seemed to rest solely on whether or not that person believed in Rasputin.) And Rasputin was dead set on controlling the country’s affairs. So: Hemophiliac Heir + Rasputin + Civilian Unrest/War = Fall of the House of Romanov = Rise of Bolsheviks/Lenin –> Stalin/Communism = Cold War. Fascinating stuff (although, perhaps a bit incomplete in the details).
The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport (3 stars). Rappaport focuses her book on the 3 months the Romanov family spent under house arrest in Ekaterinburg and the details of their execution and burial. While she does explain some of the larger political movements and background of the major players, she mostly concentrates on the personal lives of the Romanov’s, their few remaining servants, and the guards and soldiers who surrounded them. Unlike author Massie (see review above), she has a wider view of the fall of the House of Romanov which includes centuries of brutal autocratic rule, a weak Tsar Nicholas II, starving masses, and Russia’s disastrous entrance into World War I followed by a simultaneous civil war between Bolsheviks and monarchists.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (3 stars). This is written for a young adult / middle-grade audience, in my (non-expert) opinion, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. Overall, I think it was a pretty decent coverage of the events leading to the fall of Imperial Russia and the murder of the Romanov family. However, there was a lot of the more horrific details, rumors, and deception that was left out completely, most likely due to the younger target audience. Which is fine, I suppose, but when you are talking about a 300-year dynasty crumbling, an empire in ruin, and a royal family being murdered…there’s a lot of gruesome and kind of essential details for it to truly make sense.
The Proposal, by Anton Chekhov (5 stars). This is a short story / one-act play and is absolutely hilarious: a hypochondriac suitor, his flustered future father-in-law, and the woman to whom he is trying to propose marriage. Go on, go read it. It may take you 15 minutes. I’ll wait. [This is you following my directions in exactness…] [15 minutes later] See? SO GOOD! You’re welcome.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (4 stars). Ah, Raskolnikov, why you gotta be like that? (Calculating murderer, thief, liar, benefactor to widows, students, and children.) While Raskolnikov’s reasons for ax-murdering two women are pretty twisted (he sees himself as one of The Greats, like Napoleon, and therefore his actions will bring about a better social good and will not be punishable), his mental state afterward shows some pretty interesting behaviors and I’d love a more educated analysis and diagnosis. Excellent read, beautiful language, lots of moral meat and philosophical contemplation. Recommended.
Additional recommended reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (this play was also made into a brilliant movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep).
Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, by Nancy Pearl (4 stars). This isn’t so much a novel or narrative as it is a reference book to flip through again and again. Nancy Pearl (librarian extraordinaire) has made a book of book recommendations based on your travel plans, or your hopeful travel plans, or your armchair travel plans. She covers dozens of countries, cities, or regions and includes history, non-fiction, and fiction books that discuss that place. The only real problem, of course, is that while published in 2010 this already is missing so many great location-centric books! I wrote a bunch of my own recs in the margins and went through the index circling books to add to my To Read mountain. I do wish that there had been a bit more about the books than just a title and (sometimes) author, two sentences would have been really helpful on all books, not just a select few from any given geographic area.
Additional Recommended Reading: The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner.