Eight Thousand and Counting

mentally ill person iStock_000003209413SmallEight thousand patients recently went begging for mental health care.

That’s because a large nonprofit hospital and clinic system shut down its psychiatric hospital and outpatient clinic.

“Christ, we should do a march,” my cousin says.  “Karma Health Services doesn’t have a psychiatrist.”  (The mental health clinic gave her a list of mental health services, and, yes, Karma was actually on it.)

By all means, discontinue treatment for people with brain disorders and then be surprised by the consequences.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said that 13.4 percent of adults in the United States in 2008 received treatment for a mental health disorder.  SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that only 58.7 percent of adults in the United States with a serious mental illness (SMI) in 2008 received treatment, usually outpatient services and prescription medication.

This cartoon shows how it sometimes is:

mentally ill cartoonMy cousin is having a small breakdown.  She is usually fine, she has a good job, and her chemical imbalance is controlled by psychotropic medications.

But she can’t get one of her prescriptions filled this week because she hasn’t been able to see a psychiatrist since last spring. And the only psychiatrist her insurance covers can’t see her until next week.  (There aren’t enough psychiatrists in the region now.)

Having seen my cousin in a state of very painful psychosis in the hospital, I believe it’s better for her to have the meds than not.

Without access to the meds, the level of illness can go up a notch.  I was recently contacted by an “ex-” (“Hello” after 30 years) who seemed to be having a breakdown.  He said he had survived an experience of extreme violence, and his disturbing emails led me to suggest he see a psychiatrist.   Given the lack of mental health education and the stigma of brain disorders, I shouldn’t have surprised when he replied that he was the last person who needed mental health care.

My cousin hasn’t slept in four days and is obviously very anxious, so she stayed here last night.   “What are you watching, Shoah?”  I asked when I found her crying at 3 a.m.  Now I am prescribing rom/coms with Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan.

We have an appointment with my GP, who is more knowledgeable about mental health medication than some.  I am going with her to explain her mental health history.  She has a more serious problem than “Put this woman on Prozac.”

So all will be well, but it’s kind of touch-and-go.

In Which I Go “Alternative”: Trashing Books

U2:  commercial for a free album at iTunes

U2’s new commercial for a free album at iTunes

“U2, you sluts, you’re supposed to be giving your money to an AIDS charity in Africa,” I said to U2 on the new iTunes  commercial.

There’s always something slightly slutty about an alternative rock band’s doing commercials, don’t you think?

I have a thing about slutdom.  I also have a thing about “alternative.”  Call me old-fashioned or call me an “ordinary radical,” because I think there is something radical about quotidian bloggers in our marketing-driven  society.

I am a middle-aged housewife, a reader, a feminist, a bicyclist, and a Latinist.  What I’m not is a marketer.  I recently promised to trash some books here, because I am a little tired of all the positive posts I’ve written.

joshlyn jackson pretty 10960383

Nothing could persuade me to finish this.

I have rejected as many contemporary novels as I’ve read recently.   Nothing could persuade me to finish Joshilyn Jackson’s rather Oprah Club-ish Southern novel, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, in which the daughter of an unwed mother finds a buried baby under a tree. (What are the f—-g odds?)   I also gave up on  Edan Lepucki’s best-seller, California, a bittersweet dystopian novel, liberally peppered with details of pregnancy in the post-apolyptic age. (Can there BE any more dystopian novels? )  I also struck out with Laline Paull’s The Bees, a much-touted science fiction novel about a rebel bee and, yes, rogue pregnancy where only the Queen is allowed to breed.

Come on, women, birth control has always been my thing.  I’m also pro-abortion.  What’s with all the pregnant lit?

As I’ve become more connected to people on the net, my “criticism,” particularly of women’s books, has, become less strident.   A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about Mary Beard, a celebrity classicist  I consider overrated, I didn’t stress the extent of her self-promotion.  After all, the poor woman has received death threats on Twitter.   But it’s really her writing that is overpraised:  her work is aimed at a popular audience, probably undergraduates, and I question how interesting it is to scholars or even ordinary Latinists like myself (it’s not very).

Should I  be quiet about my opinion of these successful women writers?  Probably.  They ARE my sex, after all,.

Yes, it might be nice of me, but I am proceeding with this blog from now on as though the writers won’t read this.

I promise I’ll post very soon about a contemporary woman’s novel I have hugely enjoyed.

Because there is the bad, but there is also the good.

Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life

“Just aMcCarthy a charmed life 80057 minute!”  I said.

I didn’t really want to go on a bike ride on Sunday.

I was addicted to reading Mary McCarthy’s  A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village.

“I’m coming!”

But how could I tear myself away from  the exploits of the heroine, Martha Sinnott, an actress and writer who has also breezily taken graduate courses in philosophy?  (I took it with me in a bag, in case we rode to a cafe.)

If you are under the impression that McCarthy was a schlock writer, let me say that A Charmed Life is nothing like her best-seller, The Group.  I very much enjoyed her literary beach book about eight Vassar graduates, and it obviously paid McCarthy’s bills, but I consider it a highbrow hybrid of Peyton-Place-meets-Valley-of-the-Dolls.

But A Charmed Life really is a dazzling book, and I now have a new level of respect for McCarthy.  Many have said she is a great underrated American writer, and now I see it.

A Charmed Life focuses on John and Martha Sinnott, an unconventional couple with an idiosyncratic relationship to the village of New Leeds.  Martha used to live here with her violent first husband, Miles, but ran away from him seven years ago after he locked her out of the house in her nightgown.  Now she and her second husband, John, are back in New Leeds.

McCarthy’s eloquent description of the attractive couple piques our interest.  Not only are they bright, they are beautiful.

The Sinnotts were a romantic couple.  Strangers still glanced after them on the street, wherever they went:  waiters smiled; butchers beamed; as if they were morganatic, said Martha, who had begun to find their position ridiculous.  It was partly their appearance.  Martha was a strange, poetical-looking being, with very fair, straight hair done in a little knot, a quaint oval face, very dark, wide-set eyes, and a small slight figure; she had been on the stage.  John, also, was quite remarkable-looking, tall and small-boned, with high coloring, neatly inscribed features, and dark-brown, stiffly curling hair; he was the son of a military family and was often taken for English.

Martha is a minor artist herself, writing a play at the insistence of her husband.  But here’s the catch:   she feels like a charlatan, because she dislikes writing the play, but doesn’t dare tell  John, who keeps her to a schedule, more or less locking her in the study every day.  (N.B.  This reminds me of the writer Colette’s  husband, Willi, locking her up in the attic to write the Claudine books.)

Martha is not impressed with New Leeds, a hub of mediocre artists.  She confides in her old college roommate, Dolly, an artist who has come to New Leeds on vacation,

“This horrible bohemian life you see up here, with lily cups and beards and plastics–it’s real leveling, worse than suburbia, where there’s a frank competition with your neighbors, to have the newest car or bake the best cakes.  I can understand that.  I’m like that myself.  But here nobody competes, unless there’s a secret contest as to who can have the most squalid house and give the worst parties.  It gives me the strangest feeling, as if I were the only one left in the world with the desire to excel, as if I were competing, all alone, on an empty stage, without  judges or rivals, just myself–a solipsistic nightmare.”

The scenes that highlight the wild seesaw emotions in Martha’s relationships with men are templates for some of the more intense work of the ’60s.  McCarthy’s book can be read as a predecessor of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? or  John Updike’s fiction about suburban adultery.  Did Albee and Updike read McCarthy?  I wouldn’t be surprised.   Martha’s meeting with Miles ends in disaster.  Although he has remarried, he and Martha are a good intellectual match, who talk about Shakespeare and Kant at a play-reading at a neighbor’s house.  They also talk about the unities of tragedy.

Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  Miles drives her home, and their drunken attraction ends in a rape.  Martha does not want to have sex with him, but John is away, and Miles is so insistent that Martha finally laughs and realizes it doesn’t matter, so often have the two already had sex, and anyway she can’t stop him.   But when she gets pregnant, she wonders if the child is Miles’s.  The doctor insists that it is statistically impossible, since they had sex right after her period, and she had sex many times with John, but Martha’s ethics lead her to insist on an abortion.

This decision, in my view, makes it one of those odd Catholic novels turned on its head, the kind of think Walker Percy always manages to pull off.

I am looking forward to reading McCarthy’s other novels.  So many to choose from.

By the way, everybody of my generation, or everybody who watched Dick Cavett, witnessed Mary McCarthy’s  faux pas on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, when she said that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer.  She added, “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Lillian Hellman sued her.  The lawsuit went on for four years.

Two fascinating women.  I’ve read a good biography of Lillian Hellman, A Difficult Woman.  Does anybody know any good biographies of McCarthy?

The Blogger Rockers

When novelists say in the last line of the acknowledgements that they couldn’t have done it, i.e., written their books, without their supportive  warm-fuzzy spouse, I wonder what I was thinking of at my marriage ceremony.

Blondie and Dagwood

We’re like Blondie and Dagwood, except at the far end of middle age.

For better or worse, for richer or poorer…but nothing about supporting my writing.   My husband never read my work when I freelanced (“too trite and bubbly,” he would say of my latest feature on diners or diaries), and he has particularly avoided my blog.  Not only my blog, but all blogs, are a huge waste of talent, he says.

We’re a little like Blondie and Dagwood, only at the far end of middle age.  In other words, we don’t always share each other’s interests.

I used to write fiction, and perhaps I’ll go back to it someday.  He was more supportive of that, but of course he never had to read it.  The problem is, if you get to page 91 without a plot, your novel, or in my case, novels, are in trouble.

Blogging is like playing in a loud, fun rock band.  We’re practicing in the basement, sometimes we’re on key and other times we’re discordant, and we never, ever do covers, because we want to be ourselves.

But when you get “discovered,” you sometimes stop saying what you mean.  I broke up with myself at Frisbee:  A Book Journal (my old blog) because  I was gobsmacked to discover that a few of the writers I’d panned had visited my blog. Why?  Why?  Why?  I asked myself.

Then I got back together with myself here at Mirabile Dictu, where I have been somewhat more cautious about what I say.  I have tried to be more positive.

But now I’m thinking I just want to blast a couple of  contemporary writers BECAUSE I’VE  BEEN SO F—ING NICE for so long.

Some blogs really do PR.  They’re so nice I wonder what they’re really thinking.  But I’ll tell you where they don’t do PR.  Goodreads.  I was there the other day, just looking around, reading some of the discussions, and they were really panning a very good writer of women’s fiction.  They were hopping mad, because they’d gotten review copies and wasted their time.  I had to laugh, because most of the bloggers I know tend to get a little syrupy about review copies.

I’ll be writing about books again soon, never fear.

I intend to go back to dead writers.

I will write about a few new books I’ve read, but I might have to be a tiny bit pessimistic again.

Alcott at the Movies: Why “Little Women” But Not “An Old-Fashioned Girl”?

The 1949 Little Women:  Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, June Allyson, & Elizabeth Taylor

The 1949 Little Women: Margaret O’Brien, Janet Leigh, June Allyson, & Elizabeth Taylor

I went to the movies with my mother.

My mother loved classic movies, and whenever there was a revival of Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia, we arrived at the theater early to hunker down in good seats with our popcorn and Coke.

The most thrilling cinematic experience of my childhood was a Saturday matinée revival of Little Women, the 1949 film starring June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien.

“This is an important movie,” my mother said.

I was enchanted by this mother-daughter outing. At seven, I was already a reader-writer like Jo, and, if not quite as tomboyish, strong-willed and a great believer in social justice.  Jo was the one who had adventures, even though she was plain:  I, too, wanted to whistle and interject, “Christopher Columbus!”

Not only did the sentimental scenes of 19th-century family life via Hollywood delight me, but Little Women pushed the boundaries of my moral imagination. When Amy burned Jo’s manuscript, I was stunned by this terrible deed.  But Jo must forgive her.   Sisterhood matters.   If the bond breaks, devastation follows.  Yet all these years later, I still find it unbearable to think of the destruction of Jo’s art.

an-old-fashioned-girlMy mother gave me my own copy of Little Women, and I read everything else I could find by Alcott at the library. Although I have read Little Women countless times, I must admit that An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite.  And I often wonder, Why is one so famous and the other not?

An Old-Fashioned Girl is the brilliant, fast-paced, moving story of Polly Milton, whom we first meet as a cheerful, funny 14-year-old country girl who prefers sledding and hiking to gossiping and flirting with boys.  On a six-week visit to  her rich friend Fanny Shaw in the city, the values of her own practical, loving family are offset by the materialism and emptiness of the wealthy Shaw family.  Though Polly comes from a poor family, she is rich in imagination, kindness, and bravery.  Fanny is a typical teenager, who is concerned with the latest styles, hairdos, and boys.  It never occurs to her not to conform.

Although there are morals in every chapter, Alcott’s dashing, humorous voice and vivid portraits of the characters charm us (and, actually, as a child one doesn’t notice the moralizing). Alcott’s wit has me smiling from the beginning, when Fanny coaxes her brother Tom to pick up Polly at the railroad station.  Fanny doesn’t want to ruin her hair-do in the damp.

Tom grumbles, but doesn’t really mind the errand.

“Suppose she wears a top-knot and a thingumbob, like everyone else; and however shall I know her? Too bad of Fan to make me come alone!”

Tom can’t find Polly, because he’s expecting someone chic.  But Polly, a fresh-faced girl with curly hair, recognizes him and approaches him.  She is so competent that she has already found a hack to carry her boxes. Tom can’t help teasing her. Even though he likes her, he pretends the driver of the hack is tipsy, so that he will have an excuse to ride up front and eat peanuts.

From the beginning, clothes is an issue for Fanny. She is sometimes ashamed of Polly’s simple dresses, and explains she can’t fit in with Fanny’s set if she isn’t more stylish. When she persuades Polly to buy bronze boots, Polly realizes she cannot buy presents for her family.  With the help of Fanny’s grandmother, she makes presents for her siblings.  And her appreciation of Grandma’s funny stories bring Fan, Tom, and six-year-old Maud into a closer relationship with the neglected matriarch.

On this rereading, I discovered that Polly is a Latinist.  This amused me very much:  do you suppose this influenced my own choice of studies?  (Well, probably not.)  When Tom hurls his Latin book across the room, Polly offers to help.

“I like Latin, and used to get on well when I studied it with Jimmy.  Perhaps I can help you a little bit,” said Polly, as Tom wiped his hot face and refesehed himself with a peanut.

‘You?  pooh!  girls’ Latin don’t amount to much anyway,” was the grateful reply.

Polly’s Latin turns out to be quite good, by the way.

In the second part of the book, Polly returns to the city at the age of 20 to earn her living as a music teacher.  The description of her poverty, of the boredom and repetition of teaching, and her loneliness are very evocative.  One of Polly’s friends is a young seamstress who attempted suicide because of poverty.

I have to say that I love Fanny, who has matured and is a complicated young woman in unrequited love with an admirer of Polly.  Tom is a college student who runs into debt, and Maud prefers Polly’s poor rooms to their huge house.

Then the Shaws go broke….

According to Susan Cheever’s biography, Louisa May Alcott, Alcott tried to get her publisher to increase her royalty from 6.66 percent to 10 or 12 percent for An Old-Fashioned Girl, published after the successful Little Women.    He refused, but she was right about the success of An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Cheever writes,

An Old-Fashioned Girl reads as well as Little Women, and its narrative energy speeds it along.  Alcott’s growing public audience agreed, ordering 12,000 copies before publication and more than 24,000 afterward.  It’s written in simple, unaffected English, which was at the time a revolutionary way of writing that Alcott had really pioneered in Little Women.  In the book, she apologizes for the simplicity of her language, noting that she hopes her readers will not be able to say ‘it’s all very prim and proper, but it isn’t a bit like us.”  Instead, she hopes that the covers of her novel will be the dirtiest in the library.

By the way, Susan Cheever is also the editor of the Library of America’s second volume of Louisa May Alcott:  Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and Stories & Other Writing.  I just bought a copy and will write about it soon.

I loved every moment of rereading An Old-Fashioned Girl.

At the Indie

13898447-vintage-bookstore-backgroundOn a recent afternoon, I went to the neighborhood bookstore.  It was very hot outside, and I had intended to bicycle downtown to the library, but I biked to a nearby bookstore instead.  (Less sweat.)

I was the only one there, as usual.

I seldom find interesting books at this diminutive indie, but I struck gold with four paperbacks:  Richard Powers’s Orfeo, Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures .

I put the books on the counter. The tweedy rail-thin employee, one of several who take turns frowning beside the cash register, looked askance.  Was she thinking, Is she crazy to buy all these books?

But no, I often binge on books, as some of you know.  I went ALMOST cold-turkey in July and August and am making up for it now.

“We don’t take debit cards,” she said.

“This is a credit card,” I said pleasantly.

Some people command respect. I don’t.

Oh well, at my age things won’t change.

Although I expected her to go down on her knees and thank me for buying, she took a phone call in the middle of the transaction.

I’m a polite Midwestern woman, and I waited.  I must say, there is one very good employee at this store, who obviously was not there that day.  Eccentric curmudgeons often work here, and once a very earnest woman tried to talk me out of buying a book she didn’t like, which I thought was sweet.  Over the years,  I’ve seen the whole spectrum of bookstore personalities: super-polite-to-effervescent-to indifferent-to-melancholy to-impertinent.

The thing is, when I’m ready to buy, I just want to pay and get going.

But I was very happy with my loot, because this is my Unintellectual Autumn, and contemporary books are easy to read.  Plus the Betty Smith and Ross MacDonald are supposed to be very good.

And Richard Powers’ Orfeo is on the Man Booker Prize longlist. I’m a big fan of the Orpheus myth, so I look forward to seeing what Powers does with it.

By the way, they’re announcing the  Man Booker Prize shortlist  tomorrow. Stay tuned…