Books Read in 2015 – 33. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family drama

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Rosemary Cooke no longer talks very much and has difficulty connecting with people. Her brother is on the run and she hasn’t seen her sister, Fern, since they were quite young. She has no idea where either of them are. Her parents are equally traumatised by some event in their past. Rosemary needs to find out what happened to Fern if she is to come to terms with the past.

It took a little while for me to get into this book and that is the main reason that I didn’t give it five stars. Rosemary is emotionally distant from the other characters and it is hard for the reader to get close to her as well. I couldn’t imagine that her story was going to become all that interesting.

Although there are hints, I didn’t guess that Fern was a chimp  – and I managed to avoid any spoilers – and initially, I felt a little cheated but this was definitely the point where the story took off for me. I did psychology at A Level and also a little at degree level so I was familiar with a lot of the experiments that are mentioned in the book. When I was doing my A Levels, I was fascinated by the work done trying to teach chimps to sign and the comparison of a human child and a young chimp here was equally fascinating.

The traumatic event of the past was the sudden removal of Fern from the family. Rosemary eventually comes to terms with her own role in Fern’s sudden departure but not before we have seen exactly how strange the relationship was, both for Rosemary and for Fern. It is hard to imagine that these sort of experiments were allowed to take place but as the excellent documentary Project Nim shows, they definitely did, with scant regard for chimp or research students.

Rosemary’s brother discovers where Fern is and tries to visit her but instead becomes involved in animal rights activism as a result of seeing the cruelty with which she is treated. The scene where she recognises him and refuses to let him go was heartbreaking and one of the best moments in the book.

There are a couple of moments where the plot doesn’t entirely convince – the brother’s reappearance for example, but for the most part this was a strong and emotional piece of writing that I couldn’t put down.

Books Read in 2014 – 13. The Sociopath Next Door – Martha Stout

Genre: Academic, Psychology
narrative style: first person, case studies and analysis
Format: Paperback
Published: 2005

Synopsis: Stout recounts examples of sociopathy from her practice as a psychologist and analyses what the origins of such behaviours are. 

This book was part research, part pleasure. I have always been fascinated by the psychopath or sociopath in fiction and film. As such, in my next book, I have a character who has some features of sociopathy and I have been reading around the subject for a while.

The book opens with a discussion of conscience and the way most of us react in circumstances when we might have to make a sacrifice in order to help others. This is called the seventh sense and according to Stout 96% of us have it. The other 4% are sociopaths. This seems quite a large amount. And it seems that most of us will have come across at least one in our lives. She then describes exactly what she means by living without conscience. This is by far the most interesting part of the book. Stout uses case studies to illustrate the symptoms of sociopathy and they are quite horrific to read. But also, I must admit, fascinating. Perhaps it is the thought of what it would be like to never feel any obligation towards another person – intriguing but almost impossible to imagine.
She also charts the origins of conscience in a few different ways – religious, evolutionary, psychologically – all of which are also interesting. Personally, I am most drawn to evolutionary theories – what’s good for the group is good for the species. After all, as Stout points out, if we all did exactly as we pleased, the whole species would very soon die out.
However, there are irritating things about this book. There is something deeply spiritual about Stout’s version of conscience which, as an atheist, I found quite hard to stomach. One of the later chapters is devoted to religious leaders who have suggested do into others as you would to yourself as a way of life. This is not really what I would have expected from a psychological all study. It all gets a bit subjective.
Stout seems to want to have her cake and eat it. She obviously feels that she can judge sociopaths lacking as they do not have the emotional connections that we good folk with consciences have. Which maybe true. But she also suggests that sociopathy is a mental illness and may be, at least partly, innate. If this is the case, the it is hardly fair to pass moral judgement.
Finally, there is a sense of either you are a sociopath or you are not. It is black or white. I would suggest that, as with most things to do with the mind, it is a lot more complicated than that.