Who is the Crazy One Now?

In investigating classic novellas, I stumbled across Machado de Assis The Alienist and subsequently couldn’t put it down. This Brazilian work was written at the end of the 1800’s and explores the rising field of psychology and the dangers of judging what is sane or insane.

Now, I really don’t want to ruin the various twists in this rather short novella, so I’ll only give you with a short summary. The protagonist is a doctor who learns of psychiatry and decides to build a sanitarium in his town to which he starts to commit most of his neighbors. But that’s just the first third. Suffice it to say you are left a distinct impression that no one in the town is strictly sane by the end of it all.

But this book explores some interesting themes on the topic of mental health, ones we can relate to today. How do we define what is normal and what is insane? Are we, as humans, even capable of making that distinction for ourselves? And if everyone around us could be dubbed unstable, does that not make the stable ones the abnormalities?

Beyond these heavy philosophical arguments, the book is stunningly well written, with a compelling plot and characters. You definitely feel sorry for the doctor’s wife by the time all is said and done. And, of course, it’s gorgeously presented by Melville House.

But I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on these philosophical quandaries, particularly if you’ve gotten a chance to read some of Machado de Assis’ work for yourself. What do you classify as insane, what gives the medical community the right to make these judgment (and if you didn’t know, this week marks the newest release of the guidelines for those judgments)? What if we’re entirely wrong about who is the normative human beings, and which are the non-normative?

In Honor of Fitzgerald…

I know, I know, it’s been a long while, but I promise, I’m back now! Things have been more than a little crazy. But, since this weekend is the opening of what I am sure is a glorious rendition of The Great Gatsby in theaters across the nation, I wanted to pay tribute to one of Fitzgerald‘s lesser known works: The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.

This novella has the same flair for the dramatic and absurd indulgence as Gatsby, but this story is actually a retelling of an old fairy tale, The Glass Mountain. It’s once again the neighbor’s point of view (after a fashion) of a young lad who is befriended by the family that is at the crux of the story. He is invited by a mysterious schoolmate to visit his family’s hidden home which is actually built on top an enormous diamond in an inaccessible portion of the Rockies. Our protagonist marvels at the splendor, falls in love with the sister, and eventually escapes the mountain fortress with the skin on his back barely intact.

I personally found this little novella to be quite enjoyable. Even moreso than The Great Gatsby. While I enjoyed the ludicrous nature of the parties and Gatsby himself, I struggled to identify with the story in any fashion. But the protagonist of Diamond is different. I could really sink into this little fantasy world and enjoy it to its fullest, with Fitzgerald’s flair and verbosity serving well to emphasize the fairy tale underpinnings.

You can find this in various formats, both print and digital, but my favorite is by the Melville House Art of the Novella series. They are gorgeous little books and I am determined to collect them all at some point. And I am seriously tempted by the subscription option…

Cover of Diamond as Big as the Ritz