Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Review: Down Below by Leonora Carrington

When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression.  About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself.  I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day.  I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest.  Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health.  The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.

While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness.  There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons.  The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940.  But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness,  has always haunted me.  Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality.  She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”

Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost.  She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944.  As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole.  She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:

I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.

As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her.  She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist.  But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story.  She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:

I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing.  However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish.  My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.

The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines.  It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house.   This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.

The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness.  There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen.  Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp.  Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her:  She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,

I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap.  I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.

An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe.  Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior.  Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant.  “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says.  The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read.  The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:

I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked.  Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.

Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.”  She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place.  When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness.  She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”

Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander.  Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa.  But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico.  She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain.  She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.

After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons.  She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author.  Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.

This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art.  I have collected a few of these links here:

An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on

A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances

An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art

 

 

 

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Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

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Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

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Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Review: Hostage-Kidnapped On the High Seas by Linda Davies (A Memoir)

Today I am very excited to welcome Sage’s Blog Tours to the Book Binder’s Daughter with a memoir entitled Hostage: Kidnapped On the High Seas by Linda Davies. I invite you to read my review, learn a little about the author and visit the other stops on the book tour.

My Review:
HOSTAGECOVERLinda, her husband Rupert and three children are British expats living in Dubai.  One bright and sunny autumn day they, along with their Australian Captain named Brad, take their catamaran out for a sail on the Persian Gulf.  When they try to moore on the island of Abu Musa they do not realize it is occupied by militarized Iranian forces and they are captured at gunpoint.  Linda, Rupert and Brad feel that at any moment they could be shot.  The men who captured them do not speak very good English, so they are never quite sure of what is going on.

The three captives are finally taken to men on the island who speak better English and are interrogated.  Their captors are afraid that they are spies and taking pictures of the military base.  How can Linda and Rupert convince their captors that they are tourists who have simply sailed to the wrong island?  After two days of being constantly interrogated that are put on a rickety plane and flown to Iran.

Linda also fills in the back story of how her family moved to Dubai and she gives us details about the beauty she sees in the place.  Even though she is terrified once she is in Iran, she also manages to be observant of her surroundings and gives us a description of that country as well.  The memoir also serves to educate the reader about Islamic customs such as how they dress, how they treat family and how they celebrate holidays.

The hardest part of being held hostage is the time that Linda and her husband had to spend away from their children.  They did manage to talk their captors into letting them have brief phone calls with their sons and daughter.  Linda and Rupert were adept at inventing ways to stay calm and sane under such stressful circumstances.  They would play Boggle, read, watch movies, exercise and even pray.  They are living proof that the human spirit is capable of  being remarkably strong under situations of extreme duress.

The end of the book deals with the aftermath of their captivity which also had a lasting impression on their children.  Linda reminds us that despite suffering horrible tragedies that we can and must move on with our lives and learn from our experiences.  This memoir is an inspiring and uplifting read.

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About The Author:

Linda Author PhotoLinda Davies is half Welsh, half Danish, or half Celt, half Viking, and loves myths, legends of warriors and the sea. A graduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University, she worked for seven years an as investment banker in New York, London and Easter Europe before escaping to write novels. She grew up steeped in economics as both her late father, Professor Glyn Davies and her late brother, Professor John Davies, were economists. Like them, she believes that economics is more art than science and she particularly enjoys delving into the emotions of markets and market makers, both the honest (yes, they do exist!) and the fraudsters, many of whom remain invisible.

Her first Novel, Nest of Vipers, has been published in over thirty countries, selling over two million copies. It has also been optioned three times by major Hollywood studios. Linda has written four more novels for adults which have all been published internationally; Wilderness of Mirrors, Into the Fire, Something Wild and Final Settlement. She is known for her portrayal of strong, independent and rebellious women in extreme situations. Linda lived in Peru for three years, and in the Middle East for eight years, during which time she was kidnapped by Iranian government forces and held hostage for two weeks in Iran. After UK government intervention, she was freed.

Linda writes for Young Adults too. Her first series, the Djinn Quintet – Sea Djinn, Fire Djinn, Storm Djinn and King of the Djinn (and in time War of the Djinn) – has been optioned by Hollywood producer, Sandy Climan.

As well as writing novels, Linda also writes for The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent and the Guardian newspapers in the UK, and the National Theatre. She is a winner of the Philip Geddes Prize for journalism. Linda is married with three children. She lives by the sea in Suffolk.

Follow Linda On Twitter: @LindaDaviesAuth

Click on the banner below to see the full list of stops on the blog tour:

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