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Book Reviews   |    
Brief Reviews
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi:
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• The characters in Calamity and Other Stories, a collection of 12 short stories by Daphne Kalotay (New York, Doubleday, 2005) appear from story to story, at various phases in their lives, interacting with circumstances and with each other. The events take place in and around Boston, the author's home. The characters live through the affairs, divorces, remarriages, and relocations of their parents. Their parents worry about them. They go to school and university. They have barbecues and go to summer homes. They receive advice and absorb, follow, and ignore it. They find their own mates, right or wrong. They are neither evil nor saintly; their desires and foibles are common ones. Several of the stories are written in the first person, but the first person varies from story to story. Never having been an adolescent boy, I cannot attest to the accuracy of a first-person account of male puberty, but this one seems to make sense despite its being written by a woman. These stories are very short and might be better described as vignettes. They capture a time, an episode, in ordinary life, but they often don't come to expectable conclusions. Well, that's how life is. If you like your vicarious slices of life rather slim and not too intensely flavored, you may find these ones digestible and tasty.—Nada L. Stotland, M.D., M.P.H., Chicago

Missing Persons, by Stephen White (New York, Penguin, 2005), shows the sure hand of an accomplished wordsmith. White is an experienced author with 12 previous suspense novels under his belt, including The Best Revenge and Warning Signs, which were both New York Times bestsellers. He is also a clinical psychologist, which informs and colors his fictional work. In this book, the story flows and is eminently readable within a one- or two-day sitting. White's facile style makes the 76 chapters seem much shorter. The story basically involves the circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of a therapist, Hannah Grant. She is one of the professional partners of the protagonist, psychologist Alan Gregory. The story weaves in many directions, asking fundamental questions: Was Hannah murdered? Was her death an accident? Was the death related to the suspicious life circumstances of one of her clients? There is a statutory investigating detective called Jaris Slocom, who is a bit one-dimensional. However, Alan Gregory's old detective friend Sam offers a multidimensional counterpoint to the crude chauvinistic Slocum. Although the story is set in Boulder, Colorado, we are treated to a wild Las Vegas ride involving Diane, Alan, and Hannah's therapist colleague, who decides to do some investigating herself and pursues the shady origins of one of Hannah's clients who could be a prime suspect. The author's sensitivity to therapist-client confidentiality becomes an interesting tributary at the end of the story, when the author poses the ethical dilemma of disclosing confidential therapist-client information to the police even if it is in the service of a murder investigation. The protagonist officially resigns from the local state psychologist licensing board because he believes he has violated therapist-client confidentiality in a number of instances. But you will have to read the book to find out what the board decides to do.—Kieran D. O'Malley, M.D., Seattle

• Denise Mina is a contemporary murder mystery writer and professor of law in Glasgow, Scotland. Since 1999 she has written six books with themes of interest to mental health professionals engaged in forensic work. Deception (New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2003), written from the vantage point of a physician husband, details the conviction of his wife, a prison psychologist, of murdering her former patient. The complexity of the plot is heightened when the reader learns that the former patient, a convicted and imprisoned serial killer, had recently been released and newly married when he and later his bride were found murdered. The author then guides her readers along the husband's meticulous investigation of his psychologist wife's private case notes. Reported in a diary format, Deception offers the reader the unusual opportunity to review this husband's inner thoughts and feelings as he plumbs for deeper understanding of his wife's involvement in these crimes. Initially unshaken in his belief in her innocence, he soon becomes more conflicted and doubtful of her faithfulness as he explores the former patient's illegally obtained medical records and his wife's interviews with the press. The husband is tortured with questions of his wife's fidelity and possible love relationship with her former patient and seeks to understand this defection from the marriage. His quest carries him far from home and deep within himself as he considers the impact of this tragedy on his marriage as well as his own possible contribution. The unexpected finale reveals the husband's transformation as he discovers the "truth" and gains unexpected insights into his own moral compass.—Donna M. Norris, M.D., Boston

• None of the typical demons are after Richard Jury, Martha Grimes's detective creation for her series of mysteries set in England and often named after an English pub, real or imagined. The latest in the series is The Winds of Change (New York, Penguin, 2004). Jury is a straightforward kind of guy, single, pretty good-looking, and dedicated to his job, but not because of some need to escape his private life. Not even a craving for ethanol or nicotine. Orphaned during World War II, he has one personal challenge: sorting out his personal history. Are his childhood memories true? Apparently not, according to his sole surviving cousin. And, if they are not, how can he discover the reality of his past? Given that Jury's cousin dies toward the start of the novel, it's a good thing figuring out his past isn't a particularly strong drive either. Things are not what they seem. But how to know? And when should he leave well enough alone? Not unlike his professional challenges, you might note. So unfolds a plot in which well-groomed children are in fact victims of disgusting abuse and beautiful women are plain beyond recognition once the make-up comes off. Families under duress pull off implausible lies, best left untouched even by a detective. Because this book was assigned to me to review for this journal, I expected psychological depth or at least one good character with a major mental illness. Not so. But I did find a pleasant distraction with a pleasing hero, some memorable characterizations, and good fun. The evil is mainly offstage and gets conveyed without too much gore. To a large degree, the good guys win and the loose ends get tied.—Sharon Farmer, M.D., Everett, Washington

• In Sight Hound, by Pam Houston (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), we find a story of love and grief. Rae Rutherford is a famous playwright who cannot relate to humans as well as she does to her dog, Dante, an Irish wolfhound who does not take his eyes off her. Through multiple voices we hear Rae's life story: her trauma as the only child of a distant father and a histrionic mother who struggles with an eating disorder and motherhood. We get to know about Rae's unsuccessful relationships and chronic sadness. We get a glimpse into her therapy and her therapist's mind. Most important, we get to learn that the healer is Dante, through his dedication to teaching her that she deserves to be loved. This book in not for everyone. It has multiple narrators, including two dogs and a cat, as well as some stereotyped characters, such as the altruistic veterinarian and the idealistic veterinary student. Dante, "the evolved one," quotes the Buddha among others, and is clearly a spiritually gifted dog in everyone's eyes. However, the book teaches all of us is that therapy comes from multiple sources. Rae demonstrates, with all her attempts to keep Dante by her side, how once we have found a healing source, it is hard to let it go while we are still in pain. The narrators walk us through Rae's grief process, including the eminent loss of her dog. Dante shows us how his consistency is his strongest teaching tool. He is a caring, nonjudgmental presence and the true therapist among all the characters in the book.—Nancy Diazgranados, M.D., Philadelphia

• In Envy (New York, Random House, 2005), Kathryn Harrison offers a riveting narrative of choice and consequence, exploring a breadth of key human themes—bereavement, jealousy, betrayal, sexuality, spirituality, and isolation. These themes are played out through the development of the protagonist, Will, who offers insight into the humanness and vulnerability of the mental health clinician. Harrison explores Will's fallibility, writing, "He's not a blameless father or a perfect husband, and though he's made a career of listening to other people's problems, he can't always respond with patience and insight … he's also a tortured agnostic, suffering spasms of private, even desolate, self-examination." Will is an individual in crisis, constantly questioning his life choices and the degree to which factors beyond our control influence the person we become. Through Will, Harrison explores broader existential questions that resonate with the mental health clinician and the everyday reader alike. Harrison employs sexual themes to explore the more core existential issues of the novel. Will searches for connection and fulfillment in his sexual relationships but ultimately is left feeling empty and disillusioned. Harrison sheds light upon the often overlooked role of sexuality in establishing interpersonal connection. At times, Harrison's narrative lacks subtlety. Will's estranged wife is portrayed as unidimensional for the bulk of the novel. It is not until the conclusion that Harrison truly addresses the wife's more vulnerable nature. Although Harrison's writing is for the most part sophisticated and insightful, the wrap-up in the final chapter seems overly sentimental. Her suggestion that simply having another baby would resolve the couple's marital conflict seems contrived after her more thoughtful exploration of the complexity of human relationships. Despite these few shortcomings, Envy is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Harrison inspires discussion of critical issues that are paramount to our understanding of human nature.—Isabel Bergman, M.D., Boston

Life Sentences, by Alice Blanchard (New York, Warner, 2005), is a medical thriller whose main character, Daisy Hubbard, is a research scientist with the life goal to "be the first person in the world to cure a neurodegenerative disease using gene replacement therapy." The disease she seeks to cure is an inherited one, Stier-Zellar's disease—an autosomal recessive enzyme deficiency. It causes erosion of the myelin with gradual paralysis, mental retardation, and early death; symptoms generally manifest at two years of age, with death by eight years. (Daisy's only brother died from this disorder.) Unfortunately, the death and disorder in Daisy's family extends well beyond her brother. Her father died in a car crash when she was three years old, her mother has depression, and her sister has bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia, "depending upon which doctor you talk to." As if that weren't enough, both Daisy and her sister were molested as children—her sister between ages five and nine. Her sister had her first psychotic break at age 13. Child molestation is not the only boundary transgression in Life Sentences. They show up everywhere. Sometimes they are central to the theme, and sometimes they are peripheral and rarely commented upon. Life Sentences is an engaging read, and I leave the plot to your discovery. Blanchard could have been much more informative, and it is too bad she didn't do a little bit more homework on mental illnesses. One unfortunate tendency Blanchard has is to use comparisons, similes, and metaphors that range from preposterous, through silly, to just simply confusing, providing no useful images to the reader—for example, "He had more culture than Yoplait" and, my favorite, "She stumbled around in a state of liquid suspension like a million-year-old swamp mummy." Life Sentences had the potential to be realistic as well as fun. It fails in the former, succeeds in the latter. The less you know about medicine, the better you'll like Life Sentences.—Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., Worcester, Massachusetts




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