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review 2017-10-19 09:53
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
Challenger Deep - Neal Shusterman

A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman.

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.
Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence to document the journey with images.
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.
Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a deeply powerful and personal novel from one of today's most admired writers for teens. Laurie Halse Anderson, award-winning author of Speak, calls Challenger Deep "a brilliant journey across the dark sea of the mind; frightening, sensitive, and powerful. Simply extraordinary."

Amazon.com

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel does periodically bring up the topic of suicide. 

 

The outside world sees Caden Bosch as a regular high school student. In his own mind however, Caden sees himself as artist in residence aboard a submarine assigned to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, the deepest section of ocean in the world. What most would consider his real life, that of a HS student, to him is more like a secondary dreamworld. Pay attention and you will see subtle, parallel characters and situations between life aboard the ship and Caden's time in school.

 

Forget solar energy -- if you could harness denial, it would power the world for generations.

 

There are others, fellow crew members on the ship, around Caden's age. Most of these teens come from broken or troubled homes. As for the ship's captain -- who has apparently has a preference for speaking like a pirate -- well, there is something dark and mysterious about him. 

 

Regardless of what world he was in, for me there was one constant about Caden: those elements within his personal story which insisted on keeping my heart just a little bit broken for him all the way through the story. When people try to reach out to him, Caden tends to verbally push them away but deep inside he mourns not having a good enough understanding of what's wrong well enough to let others help. He struggles with his parents' questionable behavior, to say the least. In one instance, they get drunk and pressure him to bungee jump. There was a part of the story, about at the halfway point of the book, where Caden's parents make a decision they think will help him and his inner struggles but for me, it felt that a little more explanation was needed, as far as where the dual realities come into play. 

 

Everything feels right in the world... and the sad thing is that I know it's a dream. I know it must soon end, and when it does I will be thrust awake into a place where either I'm broken, or the world is broken.

 

Over time, Caden develops near-crippling anxiety, but tries out for his HS track team in an attempt to stay connected with schoolmates. There are some laughs when it comes to Caden's therapy sessions... well, if you've been in therapy yourself, that is. It's relatable humor: "I tell him that everything sucks, and he apologizes for it, but does nothing to make things less suckful."

 

I also loved Shusterman's use of analogies. One of my favorites was a car one, and its likeness to therapy: "useless check engine light... but only, the people qualified to check under the hood can't get the damn thing open."

 

Caden does struggle with suicidal thoughts at times, but he says the existence of his little sister is a "fail safe" from actually going through with anything. Even so, he still ponders the subject near the end of the novel, so heads up if you are sensitive to that sort of theme / material. I'm happy to report that while much of the plot is heavy in tone, Shusterman does close things on positive, empowering thoughts. He also provides two pages of resources after the novel to help any reader struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all of the above, etc. 

 

The artwork you'll find in this book was all done by Shusterman's son, Brendan, who suffers from chronic depression himself. Brendan's own story of struggle, along with his artwork, inspired the adventures and trials Caden of Challenger Deep experiences. 

 

 

 

My initial interest in picking this book up was spurred by rave reviews from so many friends and fellow reviewers saying "This is the most accurate depiction of mental illness I have ever read." I've lived with mental illness my entire life. My mother battled depression, my father agorophobia and bipolar disorder. Both my brother and I were diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety and PTSD in our adulthoods. So I figured I was going into this on pretty firm ground. While on one hand I could see what Shusterman was trying to convey, the novel didn't always represent my own experiences. But at times it hit it spot on. Then, other times I was admittedly kinda bored outta my gourd. But that's the thing about mental illness, there's no one clear-cut way to have it. Everyone's battle is different. So I took that into consideration when weighing my end thoughts on my reading experience. 

 

While I would not put my vote in with the "best ever" crowd, I do vote that it has its merits when it comes to the subject of mental illness. 

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review 2017-10-18 05:53
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch,Jeffrey Zaslow

A lot of professors give talks titled "The Last Lecture." Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can't help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn't have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave--"Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams"--wasn't about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because "time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think"). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

In this book, Randy Pausch has combined the humor, inspiration and intelligence that made his lecture such a phenomenon and given it an indelible form. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

"The Last Lecture" idea is one that a number of universities host in which a highly regarded professor is asked to imagine they were just given the news that they were to die soon, then tailor a unique lecture incorporating what advice they would offer or life lessons they've experienced that they'd want to share with others.  Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University as well as a professor of technology at the University of Virginia, was given such a task but in his case he truly was nearing death at the time he offered his lecture. Shortly before giving this lecture, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, his doctors notifying him he had mere months of life left. But Pausch points out early on that once he agreed to do the lecture, he didn't want the focus to be on his impending death but instead on how he managed to fulfill his dreams with the time he had been given. 

 

In addition to being a college professor, Pausch was also an award-winning researcher for tech companies such as Adobe, Google, EA (Electronic Arts gaming company) and Walt Disney Imagineers, so he had plenty of life experience to pull from to craft his message! Pausch came from a family that strongly endorsed educating yourself -- go to the library, crack open some reference books, find the answers yourself, go for walks and think on a subject, that sort of thing. His parents also taught him to be tenacious. He writes of first getting established in his technology career during the 1960s-70s and being reminded of Captain Kirk's line in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan"I don't believe in a no-win situation." Pausch's parents' lessons on building a tenacious spirit served him well, spurring him in later years to pay it forward, in a way, when he imparts his own version of the idea to his students: "Brick walls are there not to keep you out, but to teach you how badly you want to get to the other side."

 

The most formidable wall I ever came upon in my life was just five feet, six inches tall, and was absolutely beautiful. But it reduced me to tears, made me reevaluate my entire life and led me to call my father, in a helpless fit, to ask for guidance on how to scale it. 

 

That brick wall was Jai.

 

~ Randy Pausch on first meeting his wife, Jai.

 

Pausch tells of an early experience of trying to get a job with Disney. He desperately wanted a spot on the Imagineers team and had to spend years using that well-worn tenacity before he even got an interview with anyone. As he puts it, they regularly sent him "the nicest go to hell letters ever ". He eventually went on to take a job as a professor at the University of Virginia because, y'know, dreams are great but bills still gotta stay paid! In 1995, while he was working at this university, Pausch heard news of a team of Imagineers struggling with a project to create low-cost virtual reality technology for Disney's Aladdin park attraction. Once again, Pausch found himself regularly contacting Disney offering his knowledge. FINALLY, his efforts payed off and he was patched through to one of the leaders of the Aladdin project. But his work wasn't done. It took Pausch more schmoozing, getting the guy to agree to meet with him over lunch and hear his ideas, before Pausch truly got a foot in the door. 

 

Pausch also admits that it's beneficial to have at least a few "tough love" friends in your life who will give it to you straight, even if the truth hurts. He tells of some of his close friends who would sit him down and tell him at various times when he was being arrogant, brash, tactless, always correcting people yet being stubborn and contrary if he himself was ever corrected. Essentially, they would let him know whenever his sometimes hypocritical nature was driving people away. So Pausch recommends that its important for flaws to be "social rather than moral". 

 

The Last Lecture, as presented here, is a book translation of Pausch's original speech at his college. Pausch's ideas were molded into book form with the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, who was present in the audience at the original lecture. Pausch's words got such rave reviews, people immediately clamored for a book form they could gift to friends, family, co-workers, etc. 

 

This book has gotten a flood of rave reviews pretty much since its day of publication. Pausch does offer some nice morsels of inspiration such as:

 

  • *Give yourself permission to dream
  • * Stay humble. "No job is beneath you."
  • * "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you want."

 

All nice, warm sentiments but IMO Pausch didn't always consume what he was selling others. There were a number of passages here that came off pretty self-congratulatory. To some extent, one can cut the guy some slack, he was nearing death. Still, in my mind, even death shouldn't allow one to go out on too smug a note. There were some things about this guy that just REALLY bugged me. Choosing to do a speaking engagement over being at home for your wife's birthday when you both know you won't get another chance to celebrate? Nope, sorry, not cool. And the whole ranking system he did with his students where everyone was publicly given a rating from worst to greatest and him claiming he was "doing them a favor." Whaa?! I know this book is well loved by many but there were just some things here that screamed "jerk" to me. 

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review 2017-10-09 08:38
Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James
Can You See Anything Now?: A Novel - Katherine James

Follow a year in the small town of Trinity where tragedy and humility reveal true motivation and desire. This raw and unsentimental story exposes the complicated ways that interwoven lives affect each other for good and for bad. There is the suicidal painter, Margie, who teaches her evangelical neighbor, Etta, how to paint nudes; Margie's husband, the town therapist, who suspects his work helps no one, and their college age daughter, Noel, whose roommate, Pixie, joins them at home for a winter holiday, only to fall into Trinity's freezing river. 

 

~ from back cover

 

 

 

 

TRIGGER WARNING: This novel, from the very first sentence onward, addresses themes of suicide and self-harm. 

 

 

There's one interesting mix of folks living in the small town of Trinity! The focus of this novel is mainly on Margie, an artist who has been struggling with various forms of physical and mental illness for much of her life. Most recently, her doctor has dropped a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Struggling to get a grip on her dark moods, Margie introduces herself to the reader in the opening scene of Can You See Anything Now? via a suicide attempt. Though she's nearly successful in her attempt, due to some unexpected details of the moment, Margie is given a second chance at life. 

 

Within these opening chapters, there was something that struck me as very Sylvia Plath about Margie, what with the struggles with the emotionally distant husband and all. Perhaps that is what author Katherine James meant to convey, as the likeness between Margie and Sylvia Plath IS actually brought up as the reader nears the final chapters of the book. Margie mentions to a friend that her husband treats her like Sylvia Plath, a moment where, had I been there in person, I would've likely pointed and yelled a "haha! I knew it!" The rice box scene was particularly telling:

 

She struggled with the box of rice. "The side of the box says to push and pull up to open but it's not working." She scratched at what looked like a perforated part of the cardboard.

 

Nick said, "I don't read the directions, I just open the box."

 

"You force things."

 

He took the box from her and pressed the perforated tab in with his thumb  and handed it back to her. 

 

She turned back to the stove. "You force things and then they break."

 

Though still deeply depressed much of the time, Margie makes an honest effort to find the good in each day. Quite the feat, as the reader comes to learn that Margie is married to a therapist disillusioned with his work and quietly grumbly over how his life has turned out, though he outwardly tries to put a good face on things for show. Margie gives the impression that she and her husband, Nick, were quite happy and in love for many years but over time something ever so subtly shifted. Though there is still love there, the kind that comes with having been with someone for a good chunk of one's lifetime, perhaps these two are not IN love these days? Because there is a noticeable difference, one that is more easily defined after many years of life together, between having a general, overall autopilot kind of love for someone versus still having the hearts aflutter IN LOVE quality to one's union. Margie's source of happiness and strength these days seems to largely stem from her bond with daughter Noel... but even there Margie fears a loosening of the child-mother ties.

 

Hurting in her own heart, living with a dissatisfied spouse, these two empty-nesters struggling to stay emotionally connected with their now college-age daughter, Noel... your heart just breaks for this woman silently but fervently grasping for a lifeline of light and joy. But the important thing is she's trying. A common theme that runs through the stories of all the characters actually, that determination to make a daily effort to try, even when the path seems obscured, even impossible to traverse. Margie tries to keep things exciting and positive within her marriage, she tries to build a friendship with neighbor Etta, even if it feels awkward at first, she tries to talk with her daughter, even if she's not sure she's saying the things Noel needs to hear. 

 

There was an equation for everything. The scattered physical pain and the pall of her mind that were constantly tugging her out of alignment could sometimes feel like proof that she was responsible. Certain illnesses reek of a sovereign retribution, even though she wasn't even sure she believed in God.

 

Margie's neighbor, Etta, is another character who gets a good chunk of the novel's focus. Etta is also an artist, albeit one who has developed a following largely through her paintings of tomatoes. Just tomatoes. But Etta wants to branch out, maybe start doing some paintings of rooftops. She feels there's something magical about the way light touches rooftops that she'd like to capture. Connecting with Margie, one artist to another, Etta is pushed to explore her artistic side in ways she's never considered before. While Etta has her own struggles with depression and general dissatisfaction, her method of coping is to just push aside any and all negative thought. Instead, she challenges herself to be the very best wife, friend, bible study group member.... whatever life asks of her, she will give her all. Etta powers through the darker days with relentless optimism: visiting with the sad or lonely, cheering a down in the dumps neighbor with her homemade baked goods, whatever will turn the world's frowns upside down. 

 

This novel is definitely one that begs to be taken slow and honestly contemplated. Thinking over my reading experience after that last page, the book in its entirety was not solid gold for me, but man, it was close. There were some points where certain conversations felt a bit filler-ish. There were also multiple points within the last 100 pages or so where I thought to myself "oh, this would make for a great dramatic close right here," but the story would continue on.. and on... perhaps to its detriment.

 

But given time to think on the novel's topics days after completing the book, there's so much good here...  good in the "hard truths" sense, a kind of tough love way of storytelling ... that can really benefit those brave enough to face it. This is not a book for the reader who always and only ever wants the happy ending with rainbows and gumdrops. This is for the reader who has been run through the gauntlets of life and wants literary representation for it. The characters of the town of Trinity illustrate the person who cries out for the desire to truly be seen, the need and hope one has for loved ones to somehow innately sense your silent struggle and TRULY understand your pain when you can't find the words to ask for help yourself... impossible as that can be at times, you can't help but want it anyway. 

 

Through their individual life paths, each character within this novel, in their own way and time, discovers the incredible release that comes with a good ugly cry when you've been trying to be strong for so long, as well as the lesson that oftentimes the best way to heal or at least diminish the pain in your own heart is to help others work through their moments of suffering.

 

"Wisdom was knowing how stupid you are."

 

Though this novel technically falls under Christian Fiction, purists of the genre may struggle with the grittier themes of this story. Can You See Anything Now? touches upon mature content themes such as cursing, premarital sex, drug abuse, suicide, and self harm.  While possibly hard to stomach, these elements do play an important role in the emotional struggle and overall development of the characters. Still, readers should be aware of what they are getting into, particularly if the reader is highly sensitive to such themes. One scene involving the character who struggles with self harm is rather memorably graphic as it describes the actual process and damage on the body of the character. 

 

That being said, if you are a big fan of the topic of love languages, that topic as well has a recurring role within the characters' conversations. 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Paraclete Press kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

____________

 

EXTRA:

 

* The song "Brave" by Riley Pearce kept running through my mind as I read this novel. Just offering that if you like extra musical sensory experiences with your reading :-)

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review 2017-05-10 09:25
Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork | #AutismAwareness
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear --- part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's unique perception of reality, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer... to join "the real world". There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file -- a picture of a girl with half a face --- that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

Seventeen year old Marcelo (pronounced "Marselo") is described as having an "autism-like" condition. That's as close as doctors can come to defining his unique gift of being able to hear music where no one else can. Unfortunately for Marcelo, his father doesn't see anything particularly rare or special about his son's gift. Instead, the father pushes Marcelo to take a job in the mailroom of his law firm --- dad's reasoning being that the position will teach Marcelo useful skills about "the real world"  and put him on the path to success, rather than let his mind run away with creative dreamer fancies. 

 

Once in the mailroom environment, Marcelo meets and befriends the lovely Jasmine and Wendell, the son of one of the partners at the law firm. As his father anticipated, the first days were an experience for Marcelo, to say the least, as another "autism-like" trait that Marcelo displays is a struggle with interpreting facial expressions. But thanks to classes Marcelo attends to help him learn tips & tricks to help him out with this (instruction in voice inflection, speech patterns, and the like), it actually doesn't take him too long to find his way. It's a tough time for the reader though. We have to watch Marcelo navigate around co-workers who assume he's mentally incompetent, or those who try to bully or take advantage of him because he can't immediate recognize that he is being tricked. This is the "real world" his father so desperately wanted him to be a part of... thanks, dad! 

 

 

"What's wrong with you, anyway? With the way you think. Your father said you had some kind of cognitive disorder."

 

"He said that." It surprises me to hear Arturo refer to me that way. He has always insisted that there's nothing wrong with me. The term "cognitive disorder" implies there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.

 

Marcelo develops a love for religious texts and often turns to reading or reciting scripture to himself to calm his nerves when the world starts to overwhelm him. At one point, he finds himself unexpectedly caught up in one of his father's most important legal cases, one that will push Marcelo to fight for what he believes in, regardless of what others around him might say. 

 

After being published in 2009, in 2010 this novel was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award for Teen Fiction, an award that recognizes fiction that focuses on characters with disabilities. 

 

I've come across pages of glowing reviews for this one, and while I did very much enjoy it, I can't comfortably join the 5 star crowd here. The story had some dents for me. I loved Marcelo, the way his mind worked and his unique style of interacting with others even if he didn't (admittedly) always understand all the unspoken social cues. Something in that I found myself relating to quite a bit. His friendship with Jasmine was undeniably sweet and I found myself wishing he and Wendell could get on a bit better. So the characters undeniably spoke to me on some level. My trouble was with the writing. Some of the characters came off just a little too weirdly staccato in their speech and mannerisms for my enjoyment. The flow of things just felt a shade off from natural. In Marcelo's case it's understandable and almost expected, given that he's been diagnosed with a "autism-like" condition, but that doesn't explain the other characters!

 

Also, if I'm being honest with my reading experience... there was just something a little... lackluster... with the plot as a whole. I was all about this story in the early pages! Those first few chapters definitely had me hooked. But this was one of those books where I could feel my love and interest of it slowly trickling down instead of racing up. Reading pages on end and then realizing later, "you know, that was actually a whole lotta nothing going on"... and the book's not even that long! Still, I did quite like Stork's message here -- the way Marcelo finds his own voice in a sea of so many others telling him what he needs or what he should do --- it made me curious to try out some of Stork's other works just to compare, so I now have a couple on order. Even with the elements I myself found problematic, I would still solidly recommend this to anyone looking for YA reads featuring the theme of autism and enhanced abilities. 

 

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review 2017-05-02 21:45
Melting Down (graphic novel) by Jeff Krukar & Katie Gutierrez | #AutismAwareness
Melting Down: A Comic for Kids with Asperger's Disorder and Challenging Behavior (The ORP Library) - Jeff Krukar,Katie Gutierrez,James G. Balestrieri,Nathan Lueth

Based on dozens of intensive interviews with parents, clinical psychologists, teachers, and more, Melting Down is the illustrated fictional story of Benjamin, a boy diagnosed with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior. From the time Benjamin is a toddler, he knows he is different: he doesn't understand social and emotional cues, does not know how to play with his sister or other children, and dislikes making eye contact. And his tantrums are not like normal tantrums; they're meltdowns that will eventually make regular schooling-and day-to-day life-impossible. Told from Benjamin's perspective, Melting Down gives a unique glimpse into the journey taken by children with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior, demonstrating that the path toward hope isn't simple—but with the right tools and teammates, it's possible.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Benjamin spends his early school years struggling to make progress, not only in academics but also when it comes to social scenarios. He doesn't seem to understand the unspoken rules of the schoolyard. What is certain about Benjamin is that he does love learning! He loves all things involving history or trains, but becomes uncomfortable or even upset when asked to move away from those topics onto something else. Benjamin doesn't like interruption to his preferred daily routines and patterns and is prone to moments of intense anger, sometimes leading to physical altercations with teachers and / or students. At wit's end with the situation, his parents begin taking him to a revolving door of mental health professionals (not to mention the mountain of trial medications!), one doctor finally pinpointing Benjamin's behavior as Asperger's Syndrome. Through the doctor's recommendation, Benjamin is enrolled in Genesee Lake School, a school for students with special needs.

 

There, Benjamin learns proper coping skills on how to manage his feelings of anger and stress in a healthy manner, how to grade his moments of anxiety on a scale of 1 to 5 and take action accordingly, even how to do home skills such as cooking and laundry. The staff at Genesee teach Benjamin that he is not broken, he just requires a different approach to things in life. He is incredibly talented, he only needs to funnel that energy toward productive goals. Benjamin finds comfort in the new found order in his life. With the skills he learns at Genesee, he is able to finish school, take a job as a library aide, and even joins a tae kwon do class. 

 

Genesee Lake School is a real place in Wisconsin. The school not only provides education for autistic students, but also those with mood / anxiety disorders or victims of trauma. Dr. Jeff Krukar, one of the co-authors of this graphic novel, is Genesee's resident psychologist. He helps develop books for the ORP Library, a catalog of works that offer resource books for parents and teachers of students with mental disorders. The adult works are accompanied by graphic novels that can be provided to the students themselves, the idea being that between the two a dialogue between adults and children with said disorders might be more successfully reached. Melting Down is only one of many titles within the ORP Library. 

 

In simple, straightforward text and imagery, Melting Down gives children and adults alike a clear impression of what some of the often misdiagnosed or unaddressed challenges of Asperger's Syndrome are. The colorful artwork by Nathan Lueth keeps the reader's eyes entertained while also sucking you into the challenging life of Benjamin, a good kid who just wants to understand why life feels so hard. 

 

I much enjoyed experiencing the graphic novel portion of Melting Down and look forward to delving into its nonfiction companion book. In fact, I am most curious to get into the other titles within the ORP library which look at not only autism but also conditions / topics such as bullying, bipolar disorder, children with PTSD, and even the conflicting emotions that can come with being an adopted child. 

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