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leyla

The Two Kinds of Decay

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Sarah Manguso's spiky little volume about her battle with a rare auto-immune illness is a stark read. My review looks tiny, having started out as it did at 1000 words and being whittled by myself to 400, but here it is:

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-two-kinds-of-decay-by-sarah-manguso-2198239.html#Scene_1

 

I saw an interesting debate on the Guardian book pages recently. Julie Myerson had reviewed Emma Forrest's new memoir about depression/self harm/bulimia, which is based on her affair with a famous actor. Myerson pointed out that Forrest seemed in places to be boasting about having been attractive to a number of very talented men in Hollywood. To my surprise, Myerson was lambasted in the comments section, with some of them being unnecessarily poisonous. Surely a reviewer's job is to review, and if the tone of the memoir seems to the reviewer to sometimes be self indulgent, then it's more honest to point that out than to ignore it?

I know that people writing memoirs about illness, especially when there is a component of depression, are highly vulnerable to negative comments, but my view is that if an author places their book out there then criticism is fair enough. I do realise that with a memoir there's a real risk that the negative comments might be seem to be of the *author* rather than the book, but it's a fine line, and if an author is seen to be being disingenuous about their motives in writing the memoir, then isn't it the right thing for the reviewer to pick up on it?

 

I had a similar problem with the Manguso: although I felt it was very well written, she was very free with criticism of bad doctors and nurses (as well as being free with praise for good ones.) Because she drew attention to examples of a few clinicians not being empathetic, I pointed out that she herself wasn't very considerate when she drove the wrong way up a busy road and into a van full of kids on purpose to try and kill herself. Obviously anyone who is suicidal is very vulnerable and not thinking straight, but it struck me as an action that could have had horrific consequences - of which, bizarrely, she makes no mention.

 

I felt guilty writing it and I wonder what other people think? On one hand I think perhaps that might be construed as a criticism of her rather than her writing, but on the other, if she's criticising others for being inconsiderate then it seemed fair enough to point it out. I'm still undecided.

 

I have a longer review of this book coming out in the British Medical Journal where there's more space to analyse the book in more detail. I wonder what other people think?

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Julie Myerson had reviewed Emma Forrest's new memoir about depression/self harm/bulimia, which is based on her affair with a famous actor.
I have a problem with Julie Myerson giving her opinion on anyone or anything after the things she's written about over the years, but that really is personal!

 

Was there any "knowing" tone in the book that you're reviewing? Does she seem aware of the contradiction in her writing or does it fit in with the general tone (some of these books can be rather self-pitying, almost by definition)? I think that if you had that response to the book then it's fair enough to include it in your review. If you get flamed in the comments section online, at least you'll be expecting it!

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Thanks Jen. There were a few things about her tone and what she said that made me uncomfortable - eg derogatory comments about a surgeon who she twice specified was a Sikh, and she said he 'sweated on her and stunk up the room with his frustration' or words to that effect, which I found unnecessary - his race/religion struck me as irrelevant to his competence, plus he wasn't incompetent in any way in any case, he just took a while to get a line in, which happens to any surgeon/anaesthetist from time to time . I shudder at him reading the book, especially because presumably he will be easily identified since she's specified that he was a vascular surgeon, wore a turban and the hospital was in Boston.

 

I've written some more of the comments that made me say hmmm on my facebook page if you're on facebook?

 

But comments like apart, Manguso writes beautifully and is very sharp witted.

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I actually don't mention in either review the bit which possibly bugged me the most: there's a chapter entitled The Sikh, about a Sikh surgeon who struggles to place a central line (iv in neck) in her. I've been on the giving and receiving end of these - I've put in many hundreds as it's a common procedure in anaesthetics, and had a few in myself. I was a bit uncomfortable with her mention of the guy being a Sikh (both in the title and the substance of the chapter) since she then goes on to paint him negatively for taking ages to put a line in.

 

I know some people can be tricky to get a line in, and felt uneasy about the juxtapositioning of the guy's being a Sikh with Manguso's obvious low opinion of him - she mentions his turban, and one line near the end - '...and sweated onto me and stunk up the entire room with his frustration' - made me really cringe. I wonder if I'm being too sensitive.

 

I know the book is like a memory album for her, so her visual and other sensory memories are important, but at the very least it strikes me as insensitive and cruel/ungrateful, since the surgeon will easily be able to be identified. There can't be that many vascular surgeons who wear turbans in a small hospital in Boston.And to my eyes, it sounds almost borderline racist, since surely the guy's wearing of a turban and his religion/race had nothing to do with his competence -especially since even competent operators sometimes struggle to place neck lines, and the guy was under increased stress because, unusually, Day's parents were present and watching with horror.There's no way parents would be allowed to watch a procedure like this in the NHS or private sector here - and Day was 21; an adult, not a child.

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