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The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves Hardcover – March 2, 2010

3.6 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
In this unique neurological memoir Siri Hustvedt attempts to solve her own mysterious condition. While speaking at a memorial event for her father in 2006, Siri Hustvedt suffered a violent seizure from the neck down. Despite her flapping arms and shaking legs, she continued to speak clearly and was able to finish her speech. It was as if she had suddenly become two people--a calm orator and a shuddering wreck. Then the seizures happened again and again. The Shaking Woman tracks Hustvedt's search for a diagnosis. That search introduces her to the theories of several scientific disciplines, each one of which offers a distinct perspective on her paroxysms but no ready solution. In the process, she finds herself entangled in fundamental questions: What is the relationship between brain and mind? How do we remember? What is the self?

During her investigations, Hustvedt joins a discussion group in which neurologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and brain scientists trade ideas to develop a new field: neuropsychoanalysis. She volunteers as a writing teacher for psychiatric in-patients at the Payne Whitney clinic in New York City and unearths precedents in medical history that illuminate the origins of and shifts in our theories about the mind-body problem. In The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt synthesizes her experience and research into a compelling mystery: Who is the shaking woman? In the end, the story she tells becomes, in the words of George Makari, author of Revolution in Mind, "a brilliant illumination for us all."

Amazon Exclusive: Hilary Mantel Reviews The Shaking Woman

Hilary Mantel was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize for her novel, Wolf Hall. She is the author of nine previous novels, including A Place of Greater Safety, A Change of Climate, and Fludd. Her reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. Read her exclusive Amazon guest review of The Shaking Woman:

"Where do you get your ideas from?" novelists are often asked. "Where do you get your characters?" They are less often stolen from real life than readers imagine; they are more often generated deep inside, and stored till they are wanted. In the same way, the novelist's life, however unremarkable, has to generate the imagined stories of strangers. You are always looking inside yourself for shadowy companion selves who can be recognized and put to work.

Siri Hustvedt is a novelist with a searching intelligence, who knows that when she is not at peace with herself there is creative work going on. Her book opens with an account of her beloved father's memorial service. When she stood up to pronounce his eulogy, she began to shake--not just with a tremor of grief, but convulsively, so that she could hardly stand. She was aghast. Who was this shaking woman? Had she ever met her before?

This exhilarating and deeply intelligent book is an account of a search for her. She must be sought medically, psychologically, historically. She is a personal inner construct, part of the author's autobiography, but she is also a type, a collective. There have been shaking women before: as well as those struck down by organic diseases, there have been the 'hysterics' of nineteenth century pathology. Hustvedt sets out to explore the frontiers of neurology and psychology. She probes the history of these disciplines, and asks whether the way we organize scientific knowledge causes some of it to be lost, to leak away at the margins. It's contentious territory, where no easy formulations stand up for long; there are more uneasy questions than pat answers. Readers of Oliver Sacks will relish this book because Hustvedt displays a similar blend of scientific detachment and warm human intuition. Sensitive and highly attuned to her own processes, she is also an illuminating guide to the dark country of a writing life. --Hilary Mantel



From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Hustvedt (The Sorrows of an American) has been puzzling for years over the cause of her physical distress, from migraines to convulsions, and in this wide-ranging hodgepodge of technical jargon, research, memory and narrative, she tries to get at the root of what ails her. Since the death of her father some years before, the author has been beset by tremors, often before she has to speak publicly about him; she sensed that her shaking was hysterical, in the sense used by Freud, now called conversion disorder, a psychiatric illness whose manifestations often mimic neurological symptoms such as paralysis, seizures, blindness or deafness. Hustvedt immersed herself in the literature, visited psychiatrists and other specialists, volunteered to teach writing to psychiatric patients, tried antishaking medicine such as lorazepam, analyzed her dreams and submitted to tests like MRIs of brain and spine—all in order to try out theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world. The more she delved, the more fractured the possibilities of explanation, as the self has many facets, conscious and otherwise, similar to the voices in a novel she might write. Indeed, Hustvedt's probing of the question What happened to me? taps at the source of the creative process, as such famous victims of migraine, epilepsy and bipolar disorder as Dostoyevski and Flaubert have documented. The barest of personal detail holds Hustvedt's narrative together, in favor of a dryly detailed academic treatise on etiology that is by turns elucidating and tedious. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (March 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805091696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805091694
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 7.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,313,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By SLS TOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Imagine the irony as an inexplicable shaking phenomenon befalls an author with a PhD in English Literature who has researched the field of psychiatry to the point of even taking practice exams for the state psychiatry board.

Fascinated by the title and its topic, I was hoping to learn more about this woman's extraordinarily perplexing affliction. Sadly, "The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves" is less about author Siri Hustvedt or HER own nerves and more about the history of the mind/body issue. In fact, the author's own story is frustratingly fragmentary, which is unfortunate because Hustvedt is clearly a deeply cerebral and literate writer.

Despite the title, there is very little heard from the Shaking Woman's case herself and practically NO history of her own nerves. For every brief paragraph in which we do learn about the author's disorder, there are about 30 pages of the history of psychiatry, psychology, pharmacology, philosophy, and personality research. This is disappointing, because the author's personal story is the only new topic here; all other points made about mind/body have been discussed previously and far more lucidly by others, as indicated in her nearly 200 well-documented reference notes.

As for the plethora of reference notes, this book reads more like an advanced college term paper. Open it to any page, and you will likely find 2 to 5 references to OTHER people's musings; the author simply cannot resist interjecting quotations throughout this 200 page ramble. By doing so, she deflects attention away from her own interesting case and avoids discussing herself in any deeply meaningful way.

Hustvedt writes in a stream-of-consciousness manner that makes for a bit of a messy and manic read after just a few pages.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In this book, Siri Hustvedt, one of the best American novelists writing today, offers a few brief glimpses into her struggles with psychosomatic illness (shaking during public speaking related to the trauma of losing her father) and a long recital of different sorts of such illnesses in history and psychiatric practice. Her insights into her own situation were interesting, and I found tantalizing the few points where she connects her own physical problems with her emotional states, but most of the book is regurgitation of research on these topics, and I found her not only less insightful about the quality of the research she recounted, but also disorganized. The middle chunk of the book is just one story about a psychological oddity discovered by a doctor after another, and the thread of the tale gets lost. Too bad, I really wanted to like this.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I opted to receive this Advanced Reader's copy from Amazon's Vine program, because of my interest in medical information and stories.

The author Siri Hustvedt has written about a particular phenomena that happened to her one day while speaking at a tree dedication for her father a few years after his death. She experienced a very strange spasm of uncontrollable shaking of her body, but was able to continue speaking and completed her talk on the tree dedication.

This book centers on that one weird occurrence and the author muses through the rest of the book on her unusual health problems as well as the research she has done on this, as well as for other books.

Any one that has been unsatisfied by medical diagnoses can well understand why the author would dedicate so much time and energy to finding some answers.

The book goes into various different causes of a mind-body disconnect and covers quite a breadth of studies that support this theory or that. In fact there are 192 foot notes and all are medical or other references, so if you find something that really catches your interest you can follow up on it.

I found the book a bit dense to read as it felt like one single breath. The reason I pointed out above that I received an Advance Reader's copy is that there are no chapters in this book. I don't know if that it the author's preference or if it is an outcome of being an advanced copy. Unfortunately it makes it hard to manage such involved information, when you don't have a sense of "grouping". Since there were so many thoughts on mind-body disconnects and the various different theories associated, I found it hard to keep track of previous parts. Usually chapters do that for me. I used post-it-notes in this case.
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Format: Hardcover
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"At [my father's] funeral I delivered my speech in a strong voice without tears.

Two and a half years later, I gave another talk in honour of my father...Confident...I looked out at the fifty or so friends and colleagues of my father's,...launched into my first sentence, and begun to shudder violently from the neck down. My arms flapped. My knees knocked. I shook as if I were having a seizure. Weirdly, my voice wasn't affected...When the speech ended, the shaking stopped."

The above is found at the beginning of this book by Siri Hustvedt who has a PhD in English Literature and is known for her fiction writing.

After reading how her shaking or tremors began (as indicated above), I was looking forward to Hustvedt revealing more about herself and giving us "a history of [her] nerves." Unfortunately, this happened rarely.

Yes, she went to neurologists and they could not find anything physical or "organic." So, by default, her condition must be psychological. (This is the dangerous, simple reasoning that traditional or allopathic medicine uses.)

From here, Hustvedt delves into mainly the psychological literature (other disciplines such as neurology and neurobiology are also mentioned), telling us about those people she admired (especially Freud) and presenting those theories that seem to apply to her and even those that don't apply to her. She even looked at the literature of others (such as Tolstoy). Hustvedt documents these in great detail (to the point of tedium), but to the detriment of her own disorder and her other disorders (which are interesting in their own right).
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