Thursday, February 25, 2016

Gracefully Insane-Alex Beam

Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital-Alex Beam

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 296
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1996
non fiction

A history of the McLean mental hospital outside of Boston.

I think this book suffers from Beam clearly having a lot of information but no way to really tie it all together. From its blurb, I thought it was going to be a bit more of an architectural treatise. I love architectural treatises and I'm fascinated by the theory behind Kirkbride's architecture. McLean even involves one of my (and everyone else's?) favorite landscape architects, Olmstead! But other than telling us that McLean's grounds were pretty, elaborate, and expensive, Olmstead kind of just popped in and said hello. While we get to hear all of the various stages of building at McLean with other star architects popping in to say hello, there's no real discussion of why the buildings were designed the way they were other than money. So, the other thing that people are intrigued by in terms of mental hospitals is patient treatment. You hear plenty of opinions of generalized treatment such as the disaffected 1970s youths but none of the gritty details people like to read. So what's left? Beam follows the history of the hospital through vague themes but since they are not diachronic, you get a fairly disjointed set of pieces of information. Some administrators get singled out for special notice and some famous patients as well but it felt more like most of those patients were mentioned because some editor said, no, you have to talk about Plath so Beam put it in. The exception is Sexton who gets a detailed and sympathetic profile which you may have expected from the title itself.
But at the end, this book suffered from a lack of engagement through the text.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Courtesan-Alexandra Curry

Courtesan-Alexandra Curry

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 400
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2015

A fictional account of the life of the courtesan Sai Jinhua.

I was just unenthused. I've heard of Sai Jinhua a few times before and I adore that it's so difficult to really discuss her in polemics as she was so controversial during a period when women were not allowed to be so (What was she actually doing in the Boxer Revolution? The long succession of husbands. The alleged prostitute deaths...) but Curry didn't really do her justice. Instead this is a very simplified version of Jinhua's earlier life. I mean, I liked Jinhua in this book, she is a lively and curious character who tried to explore Vienna as much as she could given the constraints of women within Chinese culture (bound feet, subservience to men, etc) but it felt...sanitized? It seems odd to say sanitized when we're talking about a prostitute but Curry subverts Jinhua's actually quite messy and sordid history into a series of tropes we've all seen before-the mean/crude brothel owner, the ugly maid, the jealous chaste wife etc. Just as I was getting interested (the Boxer Revolution), the book ends, leaving me dissatisfied. Its opening scene, the beheading of a Mandarin, was my favorite part-it was fantastic and set a tone that the rest of the book did not continue. It's a nice book, kudos to Curry on avoiding the exotification of Chinese culture, and likely to be popular but to me doesn't stick out among its genre.