In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a haunting, unforgettable study of addiction

In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With ...

I can’t for the life of me remember how Dr Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction ended up on my To Read list. This fascinating treatise on the many facets of addiction from brain chemistry to early childhood experience was an excellent read but not always an easy one. Maté is a doctor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the non-profit Portland Hotel Society provides a “hard-to-house” population of drug addicts and those with serious mental health issues with a place to live and medical and social care. This book weaves stories and anecdotes from Maté’s practice there with scientific research, case studies and his own perspective on the issue of addiction to create something that is incredibly nuanced and complex.

Maté tackles the War on Drugs, exploring its irrefutable failures and their catastrophic consequences, both for the ostracised addicts under siege and society as a whole. He delves deep into the issue of childhood trauma, documenting both the heartbreaking personal stories he has encountered in his practice and the research about what trauma and neglect in early childhood do to the human brain and how this fosters a predisposition to addiction. He considers how modern industrial society with its dislocated families and breakdown in traditional social structures contributes to the West’s current crisis of addiction. He also reviews government and policing policy regarding addiction both in his home country of Canada and in the wider world and he takes in the spiritual and holistic framework that may offer another way of looking at drug addiction.

There is so much insight in this book for anyone interested in addiction, whether on a personal or professional level – or even if you are just a curious reader looking to better understand part of the human condition. Those reading this book primarily from a social perspective (like me) can hopefully get a lot out of the incredible wealth of scientific research Maté has broken down in a clear, accessible manner (that’s not to say I didn’t struggle on tired days with certain portions of the book, or have to reread the odd passage!). You can tell Maté is passionate about helping addicts and effecting real change and all the research he explores is filtered through that perspective – there are no dry, fusty studies for the sake of studies here. Some of the animal research he discusses, however, does make for uncomfortable reading.  

Those coming at this book from a purely medical or scientific angle may, at the other end of the scale, benefit from the very personal, human stories contained in this book – Maté tells these with great compassion yet without sentimentality. There are no great film-worthy triumphs over addiction here and, strikingly, Maté would like society to promote harm reduction policies that accept that, for some, abstinence is not a realistic option, at least for the foreseeable future. That’s actually quite radical and powerful, I think – this idea of meeting people where they genuinely are, and caring about their treatment even if the end result isn’t the outcome we would ideally like to see.

All in all, this book is a powerful and comprehensive study of addiction. I finished it with a sense of relief as some of it felt grim and unrelenting, but I respect that Maté doesn’t shy away from the reality that his patients and others like them truly face. There were moments in this book that made me feel absolute despair for the future and traumatic stories that I will struggle to forget that genuinely gave me nightmares – but I was also left with a sense that much is possible for the addicted person and the addicted brain, that there is another way forward for societies rife with addiction and the myriad issues that arise from that. There are no quick fixes, Maté is clear on that, but with greater knowledge comes greater understanding, from greater understanding comes greater compassion – both for ourselves and for others – and, from that, real, enduring change could grow.

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The Circle – descent into the Google Gulag

Dave Eggers’ The Circle came highly recommended to me by a friend, and as usual he didn’t let me down. Set in the very near future, it follows recent graduate Mae Holland as she embarks on an exciting new career at the Circle, a Google-esque tech company which looks to be very much on the verge of taking over the world.

Among my friends, I’m known to be a bit of a tin-foil-hat-wearer. I don’t post pictures of myself or my life online, I resisted the lure of Whatsapp for years because their terms of use (what do you mean you need access to all my files and data? Why?) creeped me out, and I never use my real name or date of birth to sign up to anything if I don’t absolutely have to. I am generally mystified by the prevailing culture of sharing everything with strangers, and with capitalist businesses, without any thought about who might end up with this information and what it might be put together and used for at some point in the future. I’ve never trusted people who say “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?” As if the world isn’t and hasn’t always been prone to creating regimes where being outside the norm in an endless variety of ways becomes punishable by loss of livelihood, freedom, or even your life itself. People who trust that the people in charge are always going to be benevolent, or even benign… well, read a history book… or read The Circle.

Eggers’ story of an uncomfortably familiar dystopian hell is exhaustingly familiar in places. A wish for privacy becomes uncool, then suspicious, then by degrees a crime. He has painted, in vivid colour, in accessible, entertaining prose, a totally plausible vision of the future, where we have willingly, joyfully, surrendered to giant internet monopolies with impressive technologies and terrifying scope to dominate every aspect of our existence.

At the heart of Eggers’ genius in this novel, though, is that he is not the cranky tin-foil-hat-wearing curmudgeon (see me) laughed at by owners of Apple watches. He inhabits, on this journey into the seventh circle of hell, the wide-eyed and ambitious Mae, who is totally wooed by the bright, shiny world of the Circle, and who allows us to walk a very plausible and understandable path to this horrible destiny. When government officials are railroaded into ‘going transparent’, with tiny cameras around their necks all day, every day, many applaud it as a step away from backroom deals and shady practices. When Circlers are shamed for not sharing content, reciprocating the friendly (if increasingly overwhelming) energy of others, or opening up their lives to the world, it is because they are deemed selfish. If you enjoy kayaking, why wouldn’t you want to share this with others? Help others know where the best spots are, the best currents can be found etc., etc.? What about the child with cystic fibrosis who can’t climb Mount Kilimanjaro but can feel like he has watching your video feed? Why would you deny him that experience, and so on? There were moments when even I could imagine myself being swept along with the reasoning a little. It’s certainly tiring to resist sometimes, I know that much. People make you feel like you’re mental. But inch by inch, Eggers creates a world that even the most open, tech-fanatic person surely wouldn’t want to live in, a brave new totalitarian hell. Will we try to resist at that point, even? And will it be too late?

I don’t want to go into too much detail on this book because to do so would be to deny you the chance to let it unfold before you in awful, yet glorious technicolour. And I won’t do better than the thoughtful, balanced, imaginative genius of Dave Eggers. This novel is perfectly calibrated and never heavy-handed, never preachy or anything other than gripping. But its subject matter is real and huge and unavoidable. We should all be reading The Circle, and asking ourselves what kind of world we want to end up living in…

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August – a game of two halves

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Mr Literary Kitty bought me Gerard Woodward’s debut novel August because I’d enjoyed Nourishment. I liked Woodward’s style – his plain but quietly eloquent prose, and the way he wrote women so convincingly (a rarer talent than you’d think). He took the everyday and the mundane and people’s squirrelly secrets and tangled relationships and made them totally compelling.

So I had high hopes for August and I started out disappointed. The story of the Jones family and their yearly camping trip to the Welsh mountains was mundane alright, but it seemed bereft of the quirkiness that had made Nourishment such a great read. I waded through the monotonous tent-pitching details and found myself feeling cold towards Aldous and Colette Jones – a spark of interest only lighting on their creepily precocious son Janus.

About halfway through the book, things started to get good. The Jones’s idyll begins to shatter and Colette in particular comes into blindingly sharp focus as a great character. The upheaval is all the more poignant for life having been so humdrum before. Woodward’s writing, when he’s got his eye trained on human beings and not on mountains and tent pegs is still juicy and insightful and honest. 

By the end I was genuinely hooked on the Jones family and I think I may have to read on to complete the trilogy Woodward has written about them. But I can’t pretend I thought the relatively dreary first half of August was warranted even if things did perk up quite spectacularly.

Overall, I much preferred Nourishment, and it felt to me like evidence that Woodward has blossomed as a writer in the almost-decade between the two books. Or maybe this was just an indulgently slow start to what will end up being an earth-shattering trilogy. I’ll let you know when I’ve followed the history of the Jones family to its conclusion.

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Small Is Beautiful – a future less frightening

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This book was bought for me in 2012 by my best friend, who is now a climate change activist in Bolivia. It’s taken me a long time to get round to reading it, probably because economics isn’t exactly my comfort zone, and despite the author’s clear, accessible style I still found it heavy-going in patches, especially if I was tired, etc. But this is, nevertheless, a brilliant read for anyone who is interested in the state of the world, democracy, capitalism or the human condition and who questions what kind of future stretches out before us as we gobble up our natural resources at a terrifyingly steep rate and refuse to discuss the elephant in the room… that a system that relies on unlimited growth in a world with finite resources is unquestionably doomed.

Stay with me if all this has you starting to feel uneasy or even despairing, because Schumacher supplies an excellent antidote to that feeling that it’s all too big or too complex or too out of reach to be changed. Yes, he poses the big metaphysical questions, but alongside this he proposes clear ways in which capitalism as we know it might be made more humane and less corrupt, and how people-power can be harnessed not just for the greater good of society as a whole, but as a way of fulfilling the individual human need to have useful, creative, satisfying employment.

He proposes a whole new way of thinking about work, the human factor and industrialised society…and when I say new, I mean new to me…this book came out in the seventies, which is as incredible as it is depressing. Environmentally speaking, we still haven’t turned this oil tanker around – not even close – we’re heading towards certain destruction at a rate of knots, yet people seem to want to believe that ‘something will come up’ despite our obvious apathy when it comes to actually making any significant changes in our lifestyles. And here again, Schumacher is brilliant. He sets out clear ways change could be made at all sorts of levels and reminds us that no matter how stacked the odds are against us, we had better try something…or accept certain destruction.

Really, I think this book should be read by everyone, especially anyone in business. If you’ve got even a passable head for numbers it shouldn’t be too taxing, and even if, like me, you haven’t, it’s well worth rereading the odd tricky passage to get to the many, many pearls of wisdom this book contains.

E.F. Schumacher proves here that a better, more humane, more sustainable way of living is not only possible theoretically, but is within our practical grasp, and is in many ways a matter of simplifying our increasingly complex world. By thinking smaller, he shows, our world can expand to become more beautiful, more harmonious and less degrading to the human condition. Surely that’s worth at least a shot.

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Naked – storytelling, mastered

Stars and Fireworks: DD2000 - Design Discourse: Chip Kidd ...

David Sedaris was just a name to me for many years, until a friend of mine offered me a free ticket to go and see him at the Barbican since her girlfriend couldn’t make it. I said sure, even though I didn’t really understand what we were going to see. It wasn’t stand-up but it was going to be funny… he would be sitting on a stage talking to us for a couple of hours… but you wouldn’t call it a talk or a lecture. Honestly, it sounded weird but I’m so glad I tend to say yes to offers of new things indiscriminately. It was one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve ever had.

I bought this book, Naked, an insane collection of his memoirs, after the show. He signed it for me and drew an imaginary naked portrait of me in it in which I have triangular tits that would put your eye out. It’s taken me ages to get around to reading the book but once I did, I messaged my friend to thank her for taking me to see him that night and to say I’d go again in a heartbeat if she ever gets more tickets.

The book, like the show, is all about Sedaris’s crazy life and the wide variety of oddballs he’s met along the way. To call him a character would be an understatement. He’s had a fascinating journey through the world, raised in a large, crazy family populated by charming alcoholics, safety-obsessed neurotics and just about everything else in between. A man who’s lived all over middle-of-nowhere America and never learned to drive is a rare thing indeed, yet Sedaris has drifted from volunteering at a harrowing mental hospital in his hometown to hitchhiking across America with his quadriplegic college roommate, finessing strangers as he went. Whether he’s hiding in his mother’s wardrobe with a scalp covered in shoe polish or attending a nudist colony, he is hilarious, and such is the authentic essence of David Sedaris that none of this ever becomes hackneyed or cliched. You never get the feeling he’s done any of it for material – he’s just one of life’s genuine originals.

He is always delightfully relatable, happy to revel for his audience in his own shortcomings as a human being. He paints painfully honest portraits of the bizarre collection of characters he meets and gives a brilliant account of his own sprawling family. He manages to make all these people seem like a dysfunctional nightmare but with warmth and love and a weirdly life-affirming lack of judgement.

In a way, Sedaris’s genius is in the way he makes such brilliant, searing, insightful judgements – about himself, his family, the people he meets and human beings as a whole. But the other part of his genius is in meeting every experience and every person with an element of passivity. He meets people where they are and lets them be who they are (as if any of us has a hope of doing anything else, in reality). This makes him a master storyteller, the kind of person you could listen to endlessly. It’s less that he’s thrown himself into all these crazy, fascinating scenarios and more that he’s always been open to letting the winds of fate blow him wherever they happen to be going. That means a hell of a lot of wild hitchhiking stories, a collection of memoirs that can fill books upon books and the ability to sit in front of an enthralled audience for hours on a stage, just talking about your life.    

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The Sympathizer – fascinating and formidable

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I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-feted, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer for a book club, and it did exactly what I think a book-club read should do – it plunged me into a world I might not otherwise have stepped into and left me better off for it. The Guardian’s reviewer notes on the cover that the story “reminded me of how big books can be” and I know what they mean. This is the story of a communist sleeper agent/Vietnamese army captain at the end of the Vietnam War and it traverses the complete range of human emotion – from rage to love, bitter disappointment to surprising soft sweetness, ennui to shuddering terror. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “savagely funny”, which I thought, as I began it, sounded bizarre given the subject matter but it is oddly very funny, which makes the horrifying moments even more hideous. As with horrifying moments in real life they spring as if from nowhere and change the whole landscape of the book’s world in seconds.

Our narrator, a mixed-race ‘bastard’, the son of a Vietnamese teenage girl who loved him beyond measure and a French priest who never even acknowledged him, describes himself often as a “man of two faces…a man with two minds”. He is, he says, for better or for worse “able to see any issue from both sides”. It makes him an accomplished spy, an excellent narrator and a man destined to be alone in a world which always wants you to pick a side and will never trust you until you do (of course, even then, it’s no guarantee of love, happiness or loyalty).

It is a big book, a huge book and it encompasses everything humanity is – hopeful, cruel, brave, foolish, loving and unspeakably awful at times. It’s a fascinating look at power and powerlessness and what these things do to us, what they spawn and how those things then take on lives of their own. It is a unique story, brilliantly written, and it deserves all of its many prizes. It is a formidable debut novel – Viet Thanh Nguyen was clearly born to do this.

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The Secret History – the treat is in the trick

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is ostensibly about a murder at an elite New England college, but unlike your average murder mystery, we find out who did it in the opening pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to how, why and what the consequences have been or indeed will be.

Our narrator Richard Papen arrives at Hampden, Vermont, hoping to escape an drab and enervating suburban life in Plano, California, with his miserable and distant parents, and falls in with an eccentric group of students on an isolated Ancient Greek course, taught by the charming and mysterious Julian Morrow. One of these students, the larger-than-life Bunny Corcoran, is the murder victim and the others, charming twins Charles and Camilla, oddball genius Henry, and vulnerable, quirky Francis, are the murderers.

It’s a long book, but hugely readable – I flew through it in a few days; it was the ideal holiday read. Tartt is a lovely descriptive writer and she conjures the world of Hampden, which she attended as a student herself in the early eighties, beautifully. You can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the snow crunching underfoot.

But the most engaging feature of the book for me was Tartt’s psychological insight. She manages to create a group of selfish, amoral and spoiled characters that you want to see get away with murder. I felt affectionate towards all of them in different ways.  They were so believably human even in their inhumanity – a mirror held up to the darkest corners of selfish human nature.

Despite the fact that the central crime is never a mystery to the reader, there are a number of shocks on the way to the finale that kept me gripped, and a couple of moments where I, along with Richard, realised that I’d been masterfully misdirected by Tartt and her characters. That almost never happens to me. But I was seduced in this case by the charming cloistered world Tartt creates for Richard and for the reader.

It was truly a treat to be tricked by her, and I think The Secret History should be considered a modern classic, a delightful reading experience that is not to be missed.

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The Bricks That Built the Houses – a south London symphony

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The Bricks That Built The Houses is the debut novel from South London poet and playwright Kate Tempest. I first came across Tempest through her album Everybody Down, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize and has a lot of the same characters in it as this book. I didn’t enjoy the musical side of the album that much; I wanted to like it more – I thought Tempest was a great storyteller and the album was a great concept piece. So I was excited about the book, especially when I realised it must have somewhat arisen from the album – like she’s been carrying these characters around in her head for at least a few years and is finally ready to tell their stories in full.

The Bricks That Built The Houses did not disappoint. Kate Tempest is an incredible poet, and on every page of this book you know it. Her writing is accessible and beautiful and she makes the familiar world of South London sing. She makes everyday things poignant and special without polishing them up or manipulating the reader. She tugs on your heartstrings without trying. She quite literally draws you pictures with her words. You don’t build the scenes in your imagination – she shows you. Most novels aren’t quite so masterfully controlled by their authors.

The characters in this book are real, engaging, appealing or repellent, and the plot is good (we open with young drug dealers fleeing town with a suitcase full of money). But that’s not what makes it magic. It’s easy to describe writers as insightful, but when you see the gift in its true glory you remember what a rare thing insight really is. My least favourite part of this book was the ending, and I can’t tell if that’s because I didn’t think it measured up to the rest, or because I just didn’t like the fact the book was ending. I want to know what happens next to Becky, Leon, Harry and Pete. And I’m most definitely going to look out Tempest’s current two poetry collections (Everything Speaks In Its Own Way and Hold Your Own) while I wait, impatiently, for her next novel to come out.

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Naive, Super – short and sweet

Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe — Reviews, Discussion ...

Erlend Loe’s strange, sweet debut novel, translated from his native Norwegian starts abruptly. The story of a slightly odd young man, it has a unique voice, a Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time charm; the man quits university, unsure about life and how to live it and visits his brother in New York.

I took the short, squat, satisfyingly small and light paperback around in my back pocket and read it in cafes, and actually I thought it was quite perfect. Nothing much happens in it – action-wise, but it’s simply written, and absorbing. A lovely window into an interesting mind.

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – in and out of the Twitter trenches

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson meets people who’ve had their lives turned upside down by public backlash after various degrees of wrongdoing. He poses the question: is Twitter the new town square where we hang criminals while jeering and throwing rotten eggs at them from our comfortable place in the crowd?

Ronson considers the case of Max Moseley who managed to masterfully ride out a tabloid shaming after what was reported as a Nazi-themed sex orgy. At the other end of the spectrum, we hear the heartbreaking story of Lindsay Armstrong who committed suicide after she was subjected to intense public humiliation during her attacker’s rape trial (truly a horrible story). He also covers a lot in between: like Justine Sacco who got fired from her PR job after an ill-advised and insensitive AIDs joke went viral, and Lindsay Stone who ended up hiding in her house for a year after taking a picture of herself with her middle finger up next to a military cemetery sign and getting destroyed for it online.

Some of Ronson’s subjects were easier to sympathise with than others. One man made a joke about dongles at a tech conference to the person sitting next to him and was publicly shamed by the woman in front of him; she posted his picture on Twitter and put him forward as a kind of misogynist poster boy. He was, to me, an obvious victim of someone who just wanted to be angry and offended. (His attacker then found herself the victim of a vicious backlash and ended up being shamed worse than the original shamee. And as usual, the mob took it way too far with mind-bogglingly awful threats and so on.)

Ronson then considers why, during these social media shamings, people yell for men to get fired and for women to get raped and murdered. Just writing that feels crazy. But that’s what happens isn’t it? Ronson suggests this is because we measure a man by his worth as a worker and provider and a woman by her sexual ‘market value’. In a proof of this book he wrote something that a friend suggested he should take out – it seemed to equate women getting raped to men losing their jobs. Ronson duly removed the offending text, only to get embroiled in a public shaming of his own when a reviewer quoted it from the proof. When Ronson said that he’d already thought better of including it in the book, he was told he should never even have thought such a thing. It’s an interesting idea – that we shouldn’t even be allowed to think stupid and insensitive and embarrassingly overprivileged, moronic things. Isn’t the brain the place where we’re supposed to sort the sensible stuff from things that should never be vocalised?

There were shamees in this book who I felt probably should have understood in the first place that what ended up happening to them was a possibility.  Lindsay Stone posing with her middle finger up in a military cemetery was dumb. And not funny. And you’ve got to be immature and sheltered and myopic not to think that might create bad feeling. Or to think that the internet is a private place – and that doing something stupid there is any different from doing it at a public event where there are photographers.

Do I think we need to be hounding immature teens to the ends of the earth and ruining their lives over it? No, that’s horrible. And I’m glad that when I was at my stupidest, social media was just a twinkle in the intenet’s eye.  But I do understand the irritation of people seeing that kind of thing and knowing they’ve never been overprivileged enough to expect the benefit of the doubt for these kinds of actions. I sort of understand why Ronson pissed people off with that quote even though he’d taken it out of the final book. We live in a world that is calling for men to lose their jobs for the same “offences” that it’s calling for women to be gang-raped over. So when white middle-class journalist Jon Ronson appears to make that same equation, it touches a nerve for some people.

He’s right, though, to ask us to take a look at our knee-jerk emotional reactions. Are we interested in changing people’s hearts and minds or just punishing them for a perceived infraction and enjoying ourselves while doing it? Is Twitter still a place of free speech or somewhere you better make sure you stick to safe and popular messages or risk being dragged through the mud? If we make the shame of messing up too great, the consequences too dire, we’ll all quietly keep our stupid opinions in our heads, unchallenged, won’t we? But if we want a better world, Ronson suggests, we have to hold fire before we jump to shaming, and first ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve here and whether it can be achieved by other, less problematic, means. That is if it’s really change we’re after and the joy of shaming others isn’t the endgame in itself…

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