Mini-Reviews: creative nonfiction about illness (Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey)

Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein

Published by Bellevue Literary Press, March 10th 2020

This is a book of creative nonfiction in the vein of Sarah Manguso, focussing pain in general and migraine in particular – and as such I was just the right reader for this. I like this kind of nonfiction that jumps from topic to topic, organized in short, punchy essays. Olstein looks at philosophical thought on pain, on its depiction in pop culture (especially in House, M. D.), there is a part dedicated to Joan of Arc, and so much more. I love this jumping around and connecting different train of thoughts to a more or less coherent whole, so for me this absolutely worked. I did think that sometimes this connecting could have been done a little bit more explicitly, but I did like having to close some gaps myself. For me the descriptions of migraine really resonated but I am unsure how the book reads for somebody who does not know the weird state of being a strong migraine with an aura invokes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Published by Grove Press, May 12th 2020

I tried and failed to read this book several times during the last few months of my pregnancy where I suffered, for the first time in my life, from insomnia myself. But the beginning of this book rang so true that it ended up too much for me. Now that falling asleep really is not a problem anymore, I finally finished the book and I am glad I did, even if it did not often work for me. Samantha Harvey approaches her insomnia from different angles, many of which are experimental in narrative structure. I did not like this as much as I hoped I would – particularly in the middle there were long passages that I found uninteresting and also not as well thought-out as I would have liked. I think the approach would have worked better for me had it either been closer to her own life or more thoroughy researched and cited, this middle ground made me impatient. Harvey plays with perspective in a way that I found inappropriate for non-fiction but that might have worked better in a novel; for example she imagines in great detail the thoughts one of her doctors might have to suit her narrative and I could not get on board with it (I don’t even want to imagine what her point was when she compared a homeless person to a bin bag and imagined their thoughts that she assumed would be filled with self-loathing).

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Content warning: death of a loved one, death of a pet, insomnia, suicidal idolation, divorce

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

3 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews: creative nonfiction about illness (Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey)

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