SHAKESPEARE’S TREMOR AND ORWELL’S COUGH: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers
By John J. Ross
St. Martin’s, 291 pp., $24.99
John Milton tried everything to retain his sight. As author John J. Ross, a doctor, points out, his options were limited as 17th century medicine was dominated by “substances of doubtful therapeutic value, including cat-ointment, human sweat, human placenta, human ordure, saliva of a fasting man, oil of spiders, oil of scorpions,” and so on. Nothing worked; Milton went blind, and it was as a blind man that he composed “Paradise Lost,” the epic poem about the Garden of Eden and Satan’s relationship to God. Without having endured illness (along with political disgrace and imprisonment), Ross argues, Milton couldn’t have written with such sympathy and nuance. This lively, occasionally squirm-inducing book sketches the case histories of 10 writers whose health influenced their literary work — whether by cutting it short, as with George Orwell and Charlotte Brontë, both of whom died young of tuberculosis, or by influencing mental and emotional states, as Ross posits in the cases of Jonathan Swift and Herman Melville.
This is not new territory, and Ross spends nearly as much time debunking previously-held diagnoses — rejecting the idea that James Joyce’s syphilis caused his daughter Lucia’s mental illness, for instance — as he does advancing his own theories. Into a satisfying series of medical mysteries he injects notes of wry humor and obvious affection, especially for Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose friendship fizzled as quickly as it ignited, no doubt due in part to the former’s bipolar grandiosity and the latter’s extreme social anxiety. Ross sniffs out a lot of Asperger cases — he suggests the high-functioning autism variant as a possible or partial diagnosis for Milton, Swift, Emily Brontë, and W.B. Yeats — and seems to go down a wrong-headed path when he argues that “[e]arly life traumas, such as parental loss, also favor literary achievement by increasing the likelihood that a mood disorder becomes manifest.” Surely we can be grateful when childhood pain fosters imagination and empathy in great writers without seeming to propose it as a useful preparation for the same. This is a small quibble, though, in a book as strangely entertaining as this one.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
By Benjamin Anastas
New Harvest, 177 pp., $25
“Most of us open our eyes at some point in our lives and find ourselves in a place we never would have chosen,” writes Benjamin Anastas in this brutal self-indictment of a memoir. For Anastas, the author of two well-respected novels, that place is the Penny Arcade — a creepily animated automatic coin counter at his bank, where he brings ever-smaller baggies of pennies and nickels to exchange for bills that barely cover his grocery tab. Divorced and desperate for more time with his son, he regards his relative poverty (and it is relative: There’s still a nice apartment, the occasional freelance writing gig) as the result of a lifetime of pleasing others, of not quite attending to his own life.
Growing up in a disintegrating family, Anastas and his siblings found themselves participating in group therapy from an early age — it was during one session that someone hung the sign around his neck: “TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.” Scenes of a ’70s childhood, complete with pot-smoking parents and “a lot of adult nudity” yield unexpected sweetness and humor in a book that’s often searingly painful.
FAKES: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts (And Other Fraudulent Artifacts)
Edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer
Norton, 361 pp., paperback, $18.95
This anthology gathers not so much artifacts as artifices — nobody would mistake its fake letters, lists, and essays for real, but all of them hum with a finely burnished unreality. Among the best are “Reply All,” Robin Hemley’s social satire in a series of misbegotten e-mails among a group of poetry enthusiasts, and the deliriously grotesque prose poems of Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s” (posed as a series of notes on those comment cards businesses leave for customer feedback). “This Is Just to Say That I’m Tired of Sharing an Apartment With William Carlos Williams” by Laura Jayne Martin imagines the poet, plausibly, as the world’s worst roommate — one of his imagined notes ends, “whoops my bad,” to which the author replies: “Newsflash, dirtbag: they don’t serve plums in prison!”
Editors Shields and Vollmer contribute an introduction full of important-sounding ideas about information overload, a renewal of language amid the stifling conventions of genre, and so forth. But mostly the collection is just fun.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.