The Center Cannot Hold

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks 9781401301385

publication date: 2007
pages: 346
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0138-5

Elyn Saks is a very intelligent, driven woman. She graduated from Oxford in England and Yale Law School in Connecticut. She is also a tenured legal professor at USC and a psychoanalyst. She has also championed for the rights of those declared incompetent or incapacitated personally and by writing books on the subject and appearing on television. But perhaps most impressively, she accomplished all this while living with the mental illness of schizophrenia.

In her autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold, Saks details her struggle with her mental illness. Starting with her night terrors as a young child, her first experience with delusional thoughts and voices as a teenager, her hospitalization while at Oxford in England, her much more confining and destructive hospitalization while at Yale in America, and, finally, her diagnosis.

Throughout all this, Saks gives very thorough descriptions of what was happening inside her head. For example, her description of her first experience with delusional thoughts:

I began to realize that the houses I was passing were sending message to me: Look closely. You are special. You are especially bad. Look closely and ye shall find. There are many things you must see. See. See.

I didn’t hear these words as literal sounds, as though the houses were talking and I were hearing them; instead, the words just came into my head – they were ideas I was having. Yet I instinctively knew they were not my ideas. They belonged to the houses, and the houses had put them in my head.

The book also contains several thought-provoking passages on questions concerning identity, body, and mind. For example:

Intelligence, combined with discipline, could overcome any challenge. And mostly, that belief had served me well. The problem was, it assumed that the intelligence at hand was fully functional, fully capable – but I’d been told by experts that my brain had serious problems. Was my brain the same thing as my mind? Could I hang onto the one while conceding that there was a big flaw in the other?

Clearly, Saks is a smart, reflective, admirable woman; but, she is not necessarily an author. The book is sometimes dry and boring and is riddled with pacing issues. She would focus on one moment or experience for paragraphs and then skip over entire parts of her life. However, her willingness to delve into the uncommon and often bleak aspects of her mind and illness made the book generally engaging.

The illness of schizophrenia is still often met with fear and misunderstanding. Therefore, this book is important and meaningful simply as an example of a successful product of a schizophrenic mind. Saks adds further meaning by conveying her illness, and her life, with such honesty and contemplation.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of The Center Cannot Hold:

Psy Blog
Lit And Life

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

publication date: 2014
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-06-226834-1

There was very little joy in this book. There was passion and there were exhortations and exclamation points, but it was as though every paragraph was wrung out of Poehler after much pleading and coaxing. That came across in her writing, and Poehler also admitted as much in her prologue.

That made the book a little hard to read at times. I found myself wondering why she wrote certain passages or why I was reading them. For example, Poehler included a chapter about her divorce, but she prefaced it with:

I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit. I will say a few things.

If you don’t want to talk about your divorce or other personal things, why write this chapter at all? In fact, why write a memoir?

I also did not always find Poehler likable or relatable. She could be very judgmental and egocentric. This is how she talked about New York City post-9/11:

It was a tough time to join [Saturday Night Live]. It felt like America might not ever smile, never mind laugh, again. . . . I had to attempt to do comedy in a city that was battered and still on fire, while avoiding being killed by the ANTHRAX that had been sent to the floors below us.

Of course, a book, and a narrator, does not have to be likeable or relatable to be good or effective. And Poehler was often effective. The theme of the book was to accept life, experience, and fun as it comes to you and, generally, do what you want. Reading the book made me want to do that. It made me want to follow my dreams, and stand up for myself, and have an Amy Poehler in my friend group. (According to Poehler, “a key element of being [her] friend is being comfortable with [her] forced fun,” which sounds awesome.)

The book contained a lot of sincere advice and beautiful insights. For example, she reminded us that “other people are not medicine.” There’s also this great line that I loved:

People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.

The book was also pretty funny. For example, Poehler described her writing style like this:

I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

Poehler wasn’t as good a writer as her contemporaries, like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling, but her writing, though inconsistent, resonated and often delighted.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
Bonjour, Elly

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

publication date: 1992
pages: 247
ISBN: 0-575-05315-1

As someone who has not watched a lot of soccer (or “football”) and has never watched British football and, in fact, cannot even name a single current football player, I don’t know if I’m the best person to review this book. Fever Pitch was Nick Hornby’s first published book, and it followed his obsession with Arsenal, a British football team, from the late 1960s to the date of the book’s publication, 1992.

There was so much about this book I didn’t understand. The British idioms alone had me frequently checking Google. I’m still not quite sure what a “scouser” is. Additionally, there were elementary football references that I didn’t appreciate. Hornby often mentioned “Hillsborough,” a 1989 disaster wherein an overcrowded football stadium resulted in a crushing mob and the death of 96 people. I kept expecting Hornby to explain the situation but he never really did, presumably because he expected his reader to know what Hillsborough was. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia after the fifth mention. Finally, there were dozens and dozens of obscure football tidbits that I didn’t even bother to research. Here’s a sample sentence:

I experienced the big things – the pain of loss (Wembley ’68 and ’72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) – only at Highbury.

However, there was much about the book I did understand. Hornby was a funny, engaging writer who attempted to impart something about humanity but realized that football could only take him so far. In Hornby’s words, “in some ways, football isn’t a very good metaphor for life at all.” As Hornby reflected on his own life, he was able to discover insights about the modern experience:

The white south of England middle-class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on Earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish, blacks, the rich, the poor, even Americans and Australians have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.

Hornby also discussed his own conflicted relationship with the object of his obsession and his own past in funny and relatable passages.

One of the most interesting portions of the book was its discussion of the more sordid aspects of football. For example, he discussed some of the apparent racism found in football, such as the first time he went to a game and fans threw bananas on the field:

Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight, orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this.

Hornby admittedly had an intense love-hate relationship with football and his frank but decidedly subjective views were interesting.

This book started Hornby’s writing career and was very well-received. I imagine that any Arsenal fan would enjoy it. And maybe anyone who is a fan of anything would enjoy it, too. For all I know, any British person would find it clever and relatable. However, I can only really recommend this to someone who loves sports. And maybe only someone who loves soccer. And maybe only specifically British soccer.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

The Sports Book Review

I Remember

Hi. I’m sorry I haven’t posted for a while. I was moving, traveling, and generally shifting my life for a month and didn’t have Internet for most of that time. Starting now, I should be back on track!

I Remember by Joe Brainard

publication date: 1975
pages: 144
ISBN: 014024521

In this slim book, Joe Brainard blurs the lines between poetry and memoir. I Remember is composed of disparate statements all starting with the phrase “I remember . . .” These rememberings encompass all of Brainard’s life up to that point, from his young childhood in the 1940s and 50s to living on the East Coast in his thirties. Brainard uses this format to connect with the reader by revealing universal, yet individual, truths.

Some of the passages were very effective. Here are a few:

I remember rubbing my hand under a restaurant table top and feeling all the gum.

I remember when a Negro man asked me to paint a big Christmas picture to hang in his picture window at Christmas and I painted a white madonna and child.

I remember a little boy down the street. Sometimes I would hide one of his toys inside my underwear and make him reach for it.

I remember taking an I.Q. Test and coming out below average. (I’ve never told anybody that before)

I remember those times of not knowing if you feel really happy or really sad. (Wet eyes and a high heart)

He also included several passages about his sexual past and present, including late night fumblings with young women and men. These passages imbued the book with an aura of vulnerability.

Overall, however, I found the book to be dull. There’s only so many times I can read about something banal but universal, like cinnamon toothpicks or movie theaters. It’s possible the book would have been more satisfying if I read it randomly and in short bursts, instead of reading it all the way through like I did. Also, for how relatable the book could be, I didn’t think it was very insightful. Maybe it was because some of Brainard’s statements were just so ordinary that they couldn’t be extrapolated to other lives or experiences. I’m not quite sure.

This book wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some special interest in it. Like if you are a poetry buff or are going through some of the experiences Brainard did, such as coming out.

3/6: more good than bad

Some other reviews of this book:

she is too fond of books
The Guardian

Life Itself

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

pages: 415
publication date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-446-58497-5

I was late to learn about the rich and varied life led by film critic Roger Ebert. Of course I was familiar with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system he created with Gene Siskel to rate movies. But beyond that, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know about his extensive body of written work. I also didn’t know that his bout with cancer in 2006 left him unable to speak, eat, or drink. After he passed away in April of this year, the Internet was brimming with tributes and memorials about Ebert. Many of these contained excerpts from his memoir, Life Itself. The excerpts were always winsome and charming. So I decided to pick up his memoir and read it in full. (By the way, although the subtitle of Life Itself is “A Memoir,” the book reads more like an autobiography than a memoir.)

Although the excerpts I had read were captivating and inviting, the book as a whole fell somewhat flat. First of all, Ebert was an unabashed list-er. He listed everything from the TV shows he watched with his father to people he interviewed and later became friends with. And if Ebert was a consummate lister, I am a consummate list-skimmer. So, whenever a passage contained a list, my mind went on auto-pilot until I noticed that blessed serial comma and focused on Ebert’s writing again. Also, the book contained a lot of material about celebrities and other members of the Hollywood crowd. Many of the people Ebert discussed I had never heard of, but even when I had, I didn’t really care that they drank Heinekens or had mommy issues. These incidental details would give Life Itself a sodden, plodding feel.

The book was at its best during the chapters when Ebert described his own life and feelings. In the first chapter, Ebert is describing his childhood home and running up and down the hallway from the living room to his bedroom. The passage is personal, yet universal. Ebert explains that he returned to his childhood home years later and “saw that the hallway was only a few yards long. I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely.” In another similarly satisfying passage, Ebert is discussing the conversations he has with an old friend. Ebert says, “Our conversations all take place in the present tense. We are always meeting for the first time. When you’re young you don’t realize that at every age you are always in the present, and in that sense no older.” The passages like these – the personal, reflective, inquisitive passages – were what gave the book life and wonder.

Life Itself has a lot to offer. Readers who are movie buffs, fans of Ebert, or who enjoy reading about celebrities will find a lot to love in the pages of Life Itself. And Ebert’s prose is often bright and funny. As someone who seemingly lived a life full of travel, melancholy, love, and adventure, Ebert had a lot of wisdom to impart to anyone willing to read his works.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Entertainment Weekly
National Post