Book Reviews – Rat Girl, Flowers for Algernon and Science Tales

Trying to read more books this year I’ve discovered I have some recurring themes: scepticism, humanism, mental health, artist biographies, and a fondness for the diary format, fictional or otherwise. Today’s book reviews fall into those categories squarely!

Rat Girl , (Penguin Original) is a memoir of Kristin Hersh’s early years, pre- the success of Throwing Muses and covers the formation of the band, her diagnosis of Bi-polar disorder, and the birth of her first child all by the tender age of 19. As a fan of Hersh’s solo work, I find her lyrics intriguing, they seem to say more than the some of their parts, and are in turn mystifying and evocative. I had no doubt that the girl can write and I wasn’t disappointed. A  disjointed memoir that gives a great insight into a driven teenage artist’s interior life. Full of lyric quotes and indents with childhood memories, this memoir is based on Kristin’s own teenage diaries. In this book she writes of her teenage self, with compassion and understanding. I can’t help but empathise, and I love her character very much.

Hersh has such a unique outlook,shaped massively by her illness, that only seems to add to how wonderful she is. Her book in many ways explains her working process as a songwriter, and how its related to her mental health condition. As the book ends, the band have signed a record deal and are on the brink of being properly ‘discovered’ and she is also a young single parent. I’m  left wanting to know more, hoping she will one day write about what happens next.
(This book was also later published under the title Paradoxical Undressing, and also released with a CD collecting the 69 songs quoted throughout the book. But I of course had to have the original US edition with cover art by comics legend Gilbert Hernandez).

 *****

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes (Gollancz 50 edition, back to my Sci-fi roots!)I decided to read this after it came up recommended in conversation one too many times.  I started getting crazy deja vu through the tears of the first chapter, and it turns out I’ve been here before. Most likely over 20 years ago,when I was a kid going though my massive science fiction phase! So technically this is a re-read, against the rules of the challenge but given that the book though familiar was also so different this time around, I’ve decided it counts as new.

Some of the most core ideas about humanity, intelligence and kindness are contained within. I’m not sure I can talk to you about this book without crying. It is related to of Mice and Men, this time with Algernon (the mouse) and Charlie (the simpleton), examining morality and judgement through the rise and fall of one man’s artificially enhanced intelligence. Challenging  our attitudes to innocence, knowledge, human rights and fair treatment, it is resonant and heart breaking.  I was amused to find that this too is in the form of a diary. How better to demonstrate Charlie’s personal development then through his own words? There is also an intriguing plot device which has Charlie quite literally able to see his former self watching him, waiting. Another self, a true self, at once repellent and deserving of our sympathy. Everyone should be made read this book at least once, and preferably at a formative age, and then we might all have a better world to live in.

*****

Science Tales- written and illustrated Darryl Cunningham, published in the UK by Myriad Editions. This book reads  like an illustrated introduction to critical thinking and scepticism using various examples from the field of pseudo -science (debunking homoeopathy, chiropractic and the moon landing hoax), and scientific denial (evolution, climate change and more). Thoroughly accessible, with a clear paired down writing style with simple clear illustrations to match, often adding humour and humanity in unexpected ways . I honestly think this book has a place in every school library. The opening quote from Michael Specter asserts : “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however everyone is not entitle to their own facts”, and Cunningham through this book promotes questioning and clear thinking. The final words go to him (I couldn’t put it any better) “Science isn’t a matter of faith, or just another point of view. Good science is testable, reproducible, and stands the test of time. What doesn’t work in science falls away, and what remains is the truth.”  Another great example that comics are a perfect medium for handling complex themes.

*****

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