August 22, 2014

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test begins with a puzzling event: renowned academics around the world receive an anonymous package containing a letter and an odd, 42-page book called Being or Nothingness.  After they debate its purpose and author without much progress, one of them enlists the journalist Jon Ronson. With this mystery spurring him forward, Ronson begins an investigation into the history and current state of mental illness.  He visits prisons, attends psychiatric conferences, talks to reality television producers and scientologists, and begins to diagnose those around him.

Psychopaths in particular fascinate him.  He meets Bob Hare, the creator of the PCL, or psychopathy checklist, and learns how to apply the test. Are you superficially charming/glib?  Do you lack remorse or guilt?  Are you criminally versatile, callous, or impulsive?  Of course, Ronson assures his more nervous readers:
If you're beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognize some of those traits in yourself, if you're feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.  [91]
Okay then.  The possible psychopaths that Ronson interviews throughout the book (including a man accused of heinous war crimes and a corporate leader with a reputation for relishing cruel, public staff terminations) certainly don't seem concerned with being labeled psychopaths.  One of them even turns Ronson's questions on their heads, declaring that traits on the checklist are necessary to achieve the American Dream.  

The Psychopath Test does look at a few other topics besides psychopathy; for instance, an entire chapter is devoted to the history of the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a staple for every modern psychiatrist) and its role in increasing childhood diagnoses of things like autism and bipolar disorder.  

But it's clear throughout the book that what really tickles Ronson's fancy is the cold-blooded, unsympathetic mind of the psychopath, and particularly the idea that they are the ones running the biggest companies and governments:
This — Bob was saying — was the straightforward solution to the greatest mystery of all:  Why is the world so unfair? Why all that savage economic injustice, those brutal wars, the everyday corporate cruelty?  The answer:  psychopaths. [...] They're the jagged rocks thrown in the still pond. [89-90]
It's a quick, entertaining read that will give you a few nice facts to pull out at parties (though watch that you don't overly offend that undiscovered psychopath sitting next to you at dinner).  Four out of five stars.


The Psychopath Test © Jon Ronson and Riverhead Books, 2011.  Ebook, 196 pages.

August 11, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part VI: "My carriage has arrived."

Well, we've arrived at the last week of the How to Build a Girl readalong.  Once again, thank you to Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) for hosting this wonderful thing.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Warning: this post will spoil the ending of the novel.  So, you know, watch out.

When we last left Johanna, she was recovering from a bout of sex gone very, hilariously wrong.  Chapter 21 opens with her finally biting the bullet and playing her father's demo for her colleagues at the magazine.  Basically, their reaction:


It's actually kind of painful to read.  And poor Johanna seems genuinely shocked at how bad her father's music sounds when she listens to it outside of her living room.

Soon after, Johanna snorts her first line of speed:
     "This is the game," I repeat.  I take a tissue, and blow my nose.
     "Oh my god — your drugs, Wilde!" Kenny says in horror — staring at my tissue.  "Don't blow out your drugs!"
     I look into the tissue, where I've just deposited the half of the line my nose didn't have time to absorb.  I look at Kenny.  It seems I have made a drug faux pas.  He stares at me.
     "Should I... eat it?"

And you know what else made me want to throw up in this section?  Tony Rich.  What a colossal asshole.  Unfortunately, it takes Johanna quite a while to realize what a horrible human being he is.  Before she works that out, she even meets his parents (who, apparently, have no problem with their grown-ass son dating a 17-year-old; no wonder he turned out shitty) and all his posh friends, who she worries are secretly judging her.

When Johanna finally comes to her senses about Tony Rich's lack of decency, she does it in style:
For I am indignant.  I am affronted by this.  My carriage has arrived, it's a high dudgeon, and I am getting into it.

After she makes the executive decision to ditch Tony Rich, she stakes out John Kite's favorite bar until he shows up.  We are then treated to this gem while they caper drunkenly around the local zoo:  
There's something very beautiful about watching a man you love dueting with a monkey.
So How to Build a Girl has a happy ending, after all  Johanna moves to London and seems headed for eternal friendship (or maybe more) with John Kite.  And it turns out that loose lips didn't sink ships this time; the Morrigans' benefits were cut because Johanna decided to drop out of school.

Moral of the story, for any children whose parents have unadvisedly allowed them to read these posts:  STAY IN SCHOOL AND DON'T WASTE DO DRUGS.

Here are my final-ish thoughts on How to Build a Girl...

If I judged my books exclusively by the number of times I embarrassingly cackled in public while reading, this novel might be in my top five books of all time.  I truly did enjoy most of it, and found parts of it painfully relatable.

And I loved the book's frankness about everything: puberty, sex, class divisions, poverty, and what's it's really like to always worry that you'll be considered a bit less than for just being a girl.  There is some deep stuff in there, mixed up with the swearing and the drugs and the awkward nymphomania.

Of course, there were also things that bothered me.  I've already discussed the lack of plausibility in Johanna's writing timeline, so I'll skip that.  My main other complaint is that Moran seems to want to use a framing device in her novel, as shown by Chapter 24 and the other random times when Johanna seems is looking back on her teen years from the future.  I can see what she was going for, but it mostly just led to me flipping back and forth, trying to see why the tense was changing all over the place.

I also found myself in a mixture of relief and frustration that one of the continuous lines of conflict in the novel  her father's lack of musical ability and blind faith that his daughter would help him achieve success — never amounted to anything.  Sure, I'm glad he didn't kick her out of the house, but when a character is set up to be both 1) delusional and 2) erratic, you expect a little more from them on the chaos front.

All things considered, I'd give this book four out of five stars.  The readalong itself gets a million stars, because I love you ladies!  Thanks again to Emily for pulling this together and keeping us on track.  Let's do this again sometime.

I never know how to end these things, so here is a puppy floundering gently in a bowl.


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How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

August 4, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part V: "I am a Pirate of Privates!"

Note: this week's readalong post will contain spoilers for chapters 16-20 of How to Build a Girl.

This section is pretty much all about Johanna/Dolly 1) being drunk, 2) having sex, and 3) writing mean reviews for fun.  It's endlessly entertaining, but not that much really happens.  So I'm going to quote some of the things I underlined, and illustrate them as I see fit.  Here goes.
The next two months I feel drunk, permanently.  Half of this is because of the instant success of my new role: that of a hell-raising gunslinger.  Trouble. [...] The other reason I feel drunk, permanently, is because I am drunk, permanently.
For in a way that feels quite unfair, the only way I can gain any qualifications at this thing — sex — that is seen as so societally important and desirable, is by being a massive slag — which is not seen as societally important and desirable.  This often makes me furious. [...] By way of shame-busting exercise, "massive slag" is a phrase I often repeat to myself, in a motivational way.  "I am a Lady Adventuress!  I am a Pirate of Privates!  I am a swashfuckler!"
In later years I find this is called "physical disconnect," and is all part and parcel of women having their sexuality mediated through men's gaze.  There is very little female narrative of what it's like to fuck and to be fucked.  I will realize that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn't really hear my voice during this sex.  I had no idea what my voice was at all.

I was going to quote the scene where Johanna/Dolly has sex with Al, but it's getting late and sometimes you have to leave a little mystery.  Suffice to say, it is possibly the most hilarious sex scene I have ever read. 

I knew this GIF would get used someday...

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A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.

July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part IV: First Love, Pre-Internet Fangirling, and Crushing Poverty

It's Monday, which means it's time for the weekly readalong post for Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl.  A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Note: this week's post will contain spoilers for the third section of the novel.

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I was not over-the-moon about last week's section, but this week really delivered.  Johanna falls in love!  Dolly Wilde is resurrected, and with red hair!  Her worst fears are realized!  There is teeth-pulling and kissing!  (Not at the same time.)  It's the 90s!  You can bring a full pint of Guinness straight from a pub and onto a plane!


You will be shocked and delighted.  



First things first:  John Kite.  When we last left Johanna, she was heading to Ireland to interview this elusive songwriting fellow.

Confession:  At the end of last week's section I googled 'John Kite' because I figured this was just one more 90s musical reference that was flying over my head.  And the first result that came up was a musician!  So Caitlin Moran has led me to listen to Cole Porter solo piano covers and wonder seriously about the musical consistency of the novel — if the editors at D&ME are so into classic broadway, why did none of them get her Annie joke??

But fortunately, John Kite turned out to be a completely fictional musician.*
John.  He was not a beautiful boy, nor a tall one.  He was round, like a barrel, in a shabby brown suit — and his hair was neither one color nor the other. His face was slightly crushed, and his hands shook a lot for a man of twenty-four — although, as he put it later, "In dog-years, my liver is sixty-eight."  He looked like Richard Burton, full of song.  [132]
Johanna is in love.  He brings her on stage while he plays a show, and the music moves her to shameless, snotty tears.  The night she meets him, she sleeps in his bathtub, covered in his motley fur coat.  When she flies back to Wolverhampton, she receives a letter from him ("Oh thank God thank God thank God, I think — I am not going to die having never received a letter." [143]) and progresses to the final stage of teenage love: she papers her bedroom wall with images of him, and writes a gushy article listing all the things she adores about him.  She says he is "more important than The Beatles." 

It's okay, Johanna, we've all been there.  But because this is the early 90s and the internet isn't A Thing yet, instead of posting it somewhere she can maybe get some commiserating comments from other sadsack teen girls in love (see: geocities, livejournal, tumblr), she sends it to be published in D&ME.  



So, after that happens, Johanna doesn't get a call from the editor of D&ME for a while, but she has more important things to worry about.  There is an investigation, and her family's benefits are cut by 11 percent, which is a huge blow to their already-desperate financial situation:
Eleven percent, by way of contrast to this utter ruin, seems ... manageable?  After all, if I cut off 11 percent of my hair, I'd barely notice.  Eleven percent isn't so bad, is it?  The difference here, however, is between the math of people on a "comfortable" income, and people who are on the very edge.  There are no investments to cash in, to tide you over this 11 percent dip  — no bonds, savings, or shares.  There are no "little luxuries" to cut back on, like going to the hairdressers, or a subscription to a magazine. [...] And there's no one we can borrow from — for one of the truths about the poor is that they tend only to know other poor people, who also couldn't afford an 11 percent dip, and can't subsidize ours.  [149-150]
I feel like this quote is too heartbreaking to follow with a GIF.  Ugh.  A lot of sad bits follow, like how some men come and take away their television, and Johanna breaks out because she's eating grilled flour cakes soaked in margarine all the time (supplemented with boiled cabbage and whatever the hell "salad cream" is).  And poor little Lupin has five of his teeth pulled because they've rotted through.


At first, when I read this part, I wanted to reach into the book and strangle Violet for informing on them.  But then I realized that, even though it was only about 100 pages ago in the book, it's been about two and half years since Johanna let slip to her nosy neighbor that they were on benefits.  So, did Violet let that little morsel simmer for an exceedingly long time, or is the British welfare department just really, horribly slow at following up on neighborhood narc tips?

I'm going to end this sobfest of a post with this last quote, in which Johanna impresses John Kite, the love of her young life, by casually smoking with him at a pub:
"You smoking now, Duchess?" he asks. 
"I thought it was time for me to get another hobby," I say with a daring air, trying to light it. 
Kite leans forward.  "It's just, most people smoke them the other way round." [183]
I cackled so loudly at that bit last night that I woke up my cat.  He was not so amused, but I was.

See you all next week!

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How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.


*No offense to Cole Porter (or IRL John Kite — you have a lovely voice).

July 21, 2014

How to Build a Girl Readalong, Part III: Constructing the Walls out of Sass, Bad Decisions, and Shockingly Good Fortune

It's Monday, which means it's time for the weekly GIF-laden post about Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl.  A big thank you to the wonderful Emily over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and HarperCollins.  You can find the rest of this week's posts here.

Note: this week's post will contain spoilers for the second part of the novel (though most of this week's plot is already laid out in the back cover summary.)

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When we left Johanna last week, she had proclaimed that she was going to have to die.  Of course, she, being a melodramatic teenager and us still having several weeks of this readalong left, is still alive.

So the first thing we learn in this second section of the novel — besides the fact that Krissie is my spirit animal ("He is on his bed knitting himself a bobble hat whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audiotape from the library.") — is that Johanna has decided, in lieu of killing herself, that she will reinvent herself.



And so, I just . . . start all over again.  I have read, many times, the phrase "a self-made man," but misunderstood what it meant.  I presumed it was describing not a working-class-boy made good in industry — smoking a cigar, in slightly overshined shoes — but something more elemental and fabulous instead.  Someone mage-like, who had stitched themselves together out of silver gauze, and ambition, and magic.   
"A self-made man" — not of woman born but alchemized, through sheer force of will, by the man himself.  This is what I want to be.  I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see.  I want to be the creator of me.  I'm gonna begat myself. [62]

Thus begins Johanna Morrigan's transformation into Dolly Wilde.  She names herself after Oscar Wilde's niece, who "was, like, this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous, and died really young."  Given the fact that she was choosing between that and Belle Jar/Laurel Canyon/Kitten Lithium, I'd say she did okay with the fake name.

Two years pass, and Johanna/Dolly has landed her dream job as a music reviewer for a magazine.


Perhaps it's because I first entered the job market when the economy was at its worst, but this seems wholly unbelievable to me.  Johanna is 16, without a high school diploma, and has never seen a band live before.  Yet somehow, based on a few dozen reviews she's mailed in and an interview in which she wears a top hat and makes a few sad Annie jokes, she is immediately offered the job.

I know Caitlin Moran was a the host of a late-night music show at the age of 18, so this kind of thing can happen in the real world — but to have it happen to a fictional character after a two-year time jump and with no visible struggle or development just seems like a cop-out.  I can suspend disbelief quite a bit in a novel, but the novel in question has to have a concrete internal logic for me to do so, and this part really tripped me up.  It completely subverts the image Moran has created of Johanna as a sympathetic underdog, terrified that she will never escape the poverty she's been born into.

Of course, miraculously landing a job at a music magazine isn't without its negatives.  As any observant reader would expect, Johanna's father assumes that she will use her new job to propel his music to the top of the charts.  Fortunately for her, he seems to be content for now in accompanying her to gigs and getting trashed on the magazine's tab. But I'm sure we haven't seen the last of his request — Johanna is definitely going to be put in a hard spot by her father later on, and I'm already cringing to imagine it. 

The other thing readers discover about Johanna's father in this section is that he has decidedly not been faking his injury for disability benefits.  In fact, he was injured on the job, when he worked as a firefighter and was forced to jump from the roof of a burning building.  I honestly felt bad after reading this section, having assumed previously that he was faking it.  Of course, Moran sets her readers up for this one by showing them repeatedly that Pat Morrigan isn't above cheating the system in other ways (for instance, it's stated on one of the first pages that he has a fake grocer's permit so that he can buy produce at reduced rates).

At the end of this week's section, Johanna has dropped out of school (with her father's approval and her mother's concern) but she's off to conduct her first-ever interview!  Things are looking up!  How could anything possibly go wrong!

I am concerned.


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How to Build a Girl will be released in September.   You can pre-order it through the wonderful Odyssey Books, or through your local bookseller.