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review 2017-05-22 15:41
Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can't let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It's a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

 

I'm surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she's lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She's bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

 

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn't been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he's just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he's doing and why. He doesn't seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he's another character I found I couldn't care about.

 

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He's been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

 

I won't spoil how the three characters' stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn't enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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review 2017-05-18 21:59
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I've waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author's fault or mine. It's silly to assign blame when one doesn't like a book; I suppose this one just wasn't for me, and I wish every book was.

 

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much "me." The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator--I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to--borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious "accident." The game also embodies what I understand to be the book's major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

 

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn't until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean's "accident," though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery...except it's not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you're even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don't have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

 

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn't. A book can be about roads we do and don't take, how our choices don't always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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review 2017-04-12 20:37
Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]
Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

I began reading Marie Howe when I was an undergrad taking my first poetry workshops. At first, I wasn't sure I liked her style, which is deceptively simple or plain. This was a contrast to many other poets I was introduced to at the same time, such as Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her aesthetic, and that first book of hers I read, What the Living Do, remains a favorite and a touchstone.

 

I now recognize and admire the delicate straightforwardness of Howe's language, which packs as much power as any formal poem or one with more verbal jujitsu. Her lines can be long, with lots of room between them or stanzas. They feel quiet, contemplative, so when there's a turn or revelation coming, it heightens the impact. I'm trying to explain her appeal, but part of it is that I can't. Or I could if I analyzed it to death, and I prefer letting the magic linger.

 

The poems' subjects range from desire to mental health, self-perception, spirituality, and motherhood. Though I don't read the book like one overarching narrative, it does feel like there's an arc; there's a fullness to that arc that somehow replicates the sensation of completing a big, fat novel. You have an idea of a life.

 

Here's a favorite:

 

How the Story Started

 

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.

 

Others might have looked into the future and seen

a shape inside the coming years --

a house, a child, a man who might be a help.

 

I saw his back bent over what he was working on,

the back of his neck, how he stood in his sneakers,

and wanted to eat him.

 

How could I see another person, I mean who he was--apart from me--

apart from that?

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-04-03 17:13
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

 

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

 

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

 

The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

 

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.

 

(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.

 

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

 

Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

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review 2017-03-03 10:53
Tragedies that should be remembered and never repeated
Warnings Unheeded - Massad Ayoob,Andy Brown

Thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of his book that I review as part of Rosie’s Books Review Team.

I am a psychiatrist and have worked in forensic psychiatry (looking after patients with a history of dangerous behaviour and, on occasions, criminal records) and therefore when I was approached by this writer about the book, my interest was twofold. Although I’m not currently working as a psychiatrist, I wanted to read the book to see what lessons there were to be learned, especially from the incident of mass shooting, as it was particularly relevant to the issues of mental health assessment and treatment. I was also interested, as a reader, a writer and a member of the public, in how the author would write about the incidents in a manner that would engage the readership. More than anything, I was interested in reading about his personal experience.

As a reader (not that I’m sure I can take my psychiatrist hat off that easily), the book intertwines both incidents, that coincided in the same setting, Fairchild Air Force Base, within a week period. We are given information about previous concerns about the flying acrobatics of Holland, whose antics had worried a number of people at the time, although in his case we don’t get to know much about the person (the information is more about those who reported concerns and the way those were ignored or minimised), and, in much more detail, about the past history and behaviours of Mellberg, that read as a catalogue of unheeded warnings and missed opportunities.

Concerns about Mellberg follow him from school, where he was a loner, suffered bullying, never made friends and showed some odd behaviour and continue when he joins the Air Force. He becomes paranoid, starts harassing his roommate and despite concerns and assessments, he is simply moved from one place to the next, and the mental health assessments are either intentionally ignored or missed. Later on, when somebody decides to take action, there is no evidence of follow-up or organised system to check what happens when somebody is discharged for mental health reasons (some changes ensue, thanks mostly to the efforts of Sue Brigham [the wife of Dr Brigham, one of Mellberg’s victims], after the fact) and readers can feel how the tension builds up to the point where it’s only a matter of time until a serious incident happens.

Brown, the author, shares his background and his career progression to that point, his interest in policing and security from a young age, and he happens to coincide in time and space with Mellberg, being the first to respond to the calls for assistance when Mellberg starts shooting, first the people he blames for his discharge from the air force, and later, anybody who crosses his path. Although we know what’s going to happen, and, in a way, Brown has always been preparing for something like this, the reality is no less shocking.

Brown’s description of events, what the victims did, and what he did is exemplary, and it shows his experience in crime scene investigation. We can clearly reconstruct what happened minute by minute (almost second by second). As the description is interspersed with witness statements and personal detail I didn’t find it excessive, although that might depend on what readers are used to (I know from personal experience of writing reports that accuracy and details are prime, but that’s not what readers of fiction are used to, for example). The book also includes photographs of the scenes of both incidents, diagrams of the sites, etc.

As I said above, although the reader gets the same sense of impending doom when reading about the dangerous and reckless flight manoeuvres Holland does, we don’t get to know much about Holland as a man, only about his experience flying. The issue of warnings not being acted upon is highlighted, but we don’t know if anything else might have been behind Holland’s behaviour, and we’re therefore less personally invested in the case. I must also confess to having little understanding of acrobatics and individual planes capabilities, so I found some of the details about that incident more difficult to follow and perhaps unnecessary for the general reader (the message is clear even if we don’t know exactly how the gs a fuselage can bear might be determined).

Brown’s own reaction to the shooting and his difficulties getting his PTSD acknowledged and treated form the latter part of the book, and they come to illustrate a side of these tragedies that is hardly ever commented upon or discussed in detail, as if sweeping things under a carpet and not talking about them would make them disappear. (As he notes, people don’t know how to react: they either joke about the incident or avoid talking about it completely). He honestly shares his struggle, how long it took him to understand what was happening to him, the less than helpful behaviours he engaged in, and his self-doubt and guilt feelings, not helped by the reluctance of the Air Force to share the information he requests. He had the added difficulty of being removed from service every time he tried to get help, something that he, understandingly, saw as a punishment. He eventually decided to leave active service to try and find peace of mind, but it was a lengthy and difficult process, that might vary from individual to individual. It is always helpful, though, to know that one is not alone and it is not just a matter of getting over it, and that’s why personal accounts are so important.

Brown offers conclusions and lessons on how to keep safe. Although I don’t necessarily agree with some of the comments (the right to bear arms and use them for self-defense is a very controversial subject and I currently live in a country where not even the police carry them regularly), I agree with the importance of being aware of the risks, with the need to be more sensitive to the mental health needs of the population, with the importance of providing follow-up and support to those who experience mental disorders and also the need to see human beings in a holistic way, rather than only treating their bodies and ignoring their minds.

This is an important book that should be read by people who work in law enforcement (either in the military or in a civil environment), provide security to organisations, and of course by psychologist and psychiatrists alike. It is not a book to read for entertainment, and it is definitely not a light read, but I would also recommend it to people who research the subject and/or are interested in real crime and PTSD. I wonder if a shorter version of the book, dealing specifically with the PTSD experience of the author might be useful to other survivors of trauma who might find the rest of the book too difficult to read.

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