Tag Archives: mental illness

Darkness, Darkness

Heartbroken: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Crown, $24.00, 384 pages)

Heartbroken

Lisa Unger coerces her readers into experiences of the soul that can leave an indelible mark. The interactions among three generations make this a tale for a wide audience. Heartbroken provides a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots. Again, as in Darkness, My Old Friend, Ms. Unger makes alienation, self-absorption and serious mental illness the undercurrents for her most recent creation. It’s all about contrasts and the need for visibility/balance in life.

On one side of the equation are the old-money Burke family members and on the other is Emily, a coffee shop waitress who has gotten herself in a bit of a tight spot thanks to her conniving boyfriend, Dean. Birdie Burke, the matriarch of the Burke clan, owns an island on a lake in the Adirondacks where her family has enjoyed the comfort and recreation known to precious few people. Daughter Kate is firmly fixed in the sandwich generation as the mother of teenager Chelsea who is feeling awkward and plain.

The annual family gathering brings Kate, Chelsea and Chelsea’s best friend Lulu to the island. Kate has been trying without success to crawl out from under her mother’s thumb. She hates being coerced into the summer ritual. Kate’s father, Joe, escapes from his wife’s tyrannical island rules to tend his business in New York City leaving Kate and the girls to endure until Kate’s husband and their son make the trek to the island.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, Emily is drawn in way beyond help into a scheme that Dean has cooked up. Emily has family issues. She’s the daughter of a less-than-ideal mother who is buried in her own issues. Emily, Dean and his evil friend from Florida go on a rampage reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. Naturally there is a meeting of the disparate tales. The drama builds to a magnificent, exciting, ending.

Ms. Unger is a highly-skilled author whose work deserves more attention than the airplane read. Nevertheless, any time spent reading Heartbroken, in the air, on the beach or on a comfortable sofa will be well spent.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Heartbroken was released in trade paper form on April 9, 2013.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Have You Ever Been Mellow?

The Other Side of Normal: How Biology is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior by Jordan Smoller (William Morrow, $27.99, 390 pages)

“When it comes to the human mind, we’ve long had an uneasy relationship with the concept of normal.”

Author Jordan Smoller has written a book with a purpose.   Smoller invites the reader to consider taking a new look at what is considered normal human behavior.   As an associate professor at both the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, he has the background and experience that make this book a compelling read.

There are multiple threads of thought that weave together as Smoller provides a survey of the approaches taken in psychology, psychiatry and biological research since the late 1880s.   Moreover, he states that the notion of normal has historically been viewed from the extremes of abnormality.   Smoller sees a continuum of behavior with abnormality arranged at the ends.   Rather than viewing mental disorders as sitting on one side of a bright line, a new approach would begin at the center of normal and establish how far normal extends before the abnormal is encountered.

A charming phrase that stayed with this reviewer is “the intersection of genes and experience.”   Smoller and others in his field have been examining brain/mind function with the intent of clarifying whether the old nature vs. nurture concept for determining causality for behaviors holds true in the 21st Century.   In light of the recent findings related to the human genome, genes are now seen as present in a person at birth and they are often activated by experience and exposure to nature (nurturing).   That is to say, genes and nature are dependent upon each other for bringing about human behavioral development.

This is a book that approaches textbook status.   A reader is well served to have some familiarity with or a strong curiosity about perceptions of normal.   To his credit, Smoller takes the time to explain in detail the study of genes and experience that he is so committed to recasting in a new format.   The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is referenced frequently throughout the text.   It has been a help for practitioners in the past and now, in Smoller’s view, it has become a hindrance due to a universal perception that it is “The” source for determining a diagnosis of mental disorder.

In the DSM, diagnoses are pigeonholed within rigid parameters and, in some cases, arranged and categorized in ways that hinder helpful treatment.   Alternatively, Smoller makes a strong case for exploring methods for effective treatment that are likely found outside of the current framework.   Practitioners are seeking cures at all levels – genetics, re-conditioning therapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, and pharmaceuticals.   A new view of their methods for determining appropriate treatment seems like a breath of fresh air.

Much is at stake as normal is being fine-tuned.   Differentiating normal from abnormal has a measurable impact when viewed from the perspective of health insurance coverage as well as the setting of qualifying criteria for disability payments.   Hopefully, Smoller and his associates will prevail in their efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and provide better treatment for people whose position on the continuum is outside the range of normal.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Other Side of Normal is also available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Runaway

City of Whispers: A Sharon McCone Mystery by Marcia Muller (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 262 pages)

“Mick booted up his Mac and fired off a message to Marco’s address.   Then he checked his mail: nothing of importance, but he hadn’t expected there to be.”

The first 190 pages of this mystery novel read like a PowerPoint presentation.   Could it be that author Marcia Muller has become ultra-formulaic in this her 29th book of the Sharon McCone series?   The short chapters, each emanating from the perspective of several characters (Sharon McCone, Mick Savage and Darcy Blackstone) felt like a rotation among them.   If one were to harken back to olden day’s technology, a slide carousel click could almost be heard as the reader turns the page to a new chapter.

The scenes are set in the lovely San Francisco Bay Area which Ms. Muller exploits to keep the reader’s attention.   Clearly, her fans are locals who delight in knowing the intimate details of each place sullied by the crimes at hand.   This reader was somewhat upset at the gruesome scene set near the site of her granddaughter’s first Halloween outing.   It will not be the same when we visit there next year!

Family ties provide the other hook.   Detective Sharon McCone’s family is oddly configured and her relationships provide some tension as McCone vacillates between loyalty and confusion with her half-brother Darcy Blackstone’s mental illness and recent disappearance.

This tale is something of an improvement over Coming Back, which was previously reviewed on this site.   That said, it seem to be suitable for a recommendation to faithful followers of Sharon McCone and perhaps a few diehard San Francisco mystery fans.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Here is a link to the earlier review of Coming Back: A Sharon McCone Mystery by Marcia Muller:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/out-of-time/

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Only A Pawn In Their Game

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall by Frank Brady (Broadway Books, $16.00, 432 pages)

“(Bobby Fischer was) the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.”   Mikhail Tal

“(He was) perhaps the most mythologically shrouded figure in chess.”   Garry Kasparov

“I am the best player in the world.”   Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer’s life was proof positive that genius often lies close to madness.   The boy who once went to high school in Brooklyn with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond made chess a household game in the U.S., and at one time he was one of the two best known people in the world – along with Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.   Fischer was a child prodigy at chess and he became a grandmaster (at 15) and World Champion who, notably, would win every chess match or tournament he completeted from the age of 23 onward.

Rumors began to spread that Bobby and his mother were estranged…  (However,) he did remain close to his mother…  they could agree to disagree.

Frank Brady decades ago wrote the then-seminal biography of Fischer, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy, and he uses this opportunity to both update and correct so-called facts about the life of the chess legend.   He also tells us much about the relationship between Fischer and his mother Regina.   Most of the bios of Fischer have claimed that he and his mother were estranged, which is simply incorrect.   As Brady notes, Fischer was actually close to – and a lot like – Regina:  “As Regina had proselytized all her life for various causes – always liberal and humanistic ones – so, too, Bobby (became) a proselytizer.   The pawn did not stray too far from the queen.”

The misunderstandings about Bobby and Regina appear to stem from the fact that they had very different positions on political issues.   However, they were able to set these aside in order to maintain a respectful personal relationship.

This is, to be certain, an account of Fischer’s late-in-life madness – his “state of increasingly frequent paranoia” – which destroyed his reputation as a gaming genius.   Although Fischer was half-Jewish, he became a raving anti-Semite and a foe of the United States government.   To his credit, Brady places all of this in perspective, noting that Fischer was battling a form of mental illness that he could not accept or control.   Fischer, for example, was living virtually penniless on the streets of skid row in Los Angeles in 1975 when he rejected a $5 million dollar purse to defend his World Championship title against Anatoly Karpov.   It still seems shocking:  “…five million dollars!  It was the largest refusal of a prize fund in sports history.”   (Emphasis in the original.)

It is hard for Brady to recreate the context of a time when chess was a spectator sport; a time when 10,000 fans and spectators would show up to watch Bobby Fischer play Tigran Petrosian or Miguel Quinteros.   What Brady does extremely well – a major failing with most bios of talented figures – is to detail for the reader exactly how smart, how intelligent Fischer was in his prime.   So how smart was Fischer?   Well, before playing Boris Spassky for the World Championship, he demonstrated that he had memorized every move made by Spassky and his opponents in 355 games of chess – over 14,000 individual moves!   Fischer could recite every move of every one of these matches the way another person might recite a poem or the lyrics to a song…  But, for him, it was not a way of showing off – it was simply a tool of his intellectual trade.   Fischer was nothing in his life if not the most prepared individual who ever sat down before a chessboard.

Absent the behaviors created or caused by his mental illness, Fischer would likely have died as the  most beloved chess player of all time.   He was certainly loved by his great rival Spassky, who said at Fischer’s death, “My brother is dead.”

This is a beautifully-detailed and well-rounded biography of “America’s greatest prodigy,” a man who died near “the edge of madness.”   Endgame checkmates any all of the other bios of the brilliant but troubled man who may well have been the greatest chess player of all time.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Bobby Fischer’s IQ was 181.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Loner

outside-the-linesOutside the Lines: A Novel by Amy Hatvany (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 358 pages + A Reader’s Club Guide)

He thought he could white-knuckle his way through to normalcy.   He thought he could do it without the meds.   He couldn’t decide which was worse – life on the meds or life off of them.   He concluded it was just life he couldn’t bear.   The simple act of breathing had become too much to bear.

Amy Hatvany’s fourth novel is an engaging and provocative look at mental illness.   Eden is a 10-year-old girl whose artist father leaves her and her mother behind in Seattle after he’s attempted suicide and refused to take the medications needed to “silence the rumblings in his head.”   The adult Eden achieves her dream of becoming a successful chef in the city, but realizes that she needs to find her father before it’s too late.

I’m not usually a fan of stories that are told in non-chronological order – they tend to be too clever by half – but here the author makes it work, and work well.   In fact, some of her time-shifts seem to have been crafted for a screenplay version of the story.   Hatvany has a gift for dialogue, although in Outside the Lines she’s created a character in Jack (Eden’s charitable boyfriend) who’s just too good to be true.

“Is he perfect all the time?” Georgia asked when I went on dreamingly about some wonderful thing Jack had said or done.   “I might have to hurl if he is.”

outside-the-lines-back

While the family novel’s set in The Emerald City, there are side trips to San Francisco and Portland which provide changes of scenery.   This is a morality play in which Eden (as in the Garden of…) must save her long-lost dad before she can save herself and the world she lives in.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

“Hatvany’s novel explores the tragedy of a mind gone awry, a tangled bond of father and daughter, and the way hope and love sustain us.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You

“I finally felt like I was contributing to something that made a difference in the world.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Crazy

Running With Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $7.99, 352 pages)

Don’t you ever feel like we’re chasing something?   Something bigger.   I don’t know, it’s like something that only you and I can see.   Like we’re running, running, running?   Yeah, I said.   We’re running alright.   Running with scissors.

I was intrigued when my book club chose this memoir, Running With Scissors, as our first nonfiction choice.   Rumored to be both dark and humorous, it did not fit our typical book club culture.   However, our discussion was lively and laden with comments from “disturbing” to “hated it.”  

Those that grew up in the 1960s recognized some of the “character traits” mentioned in the book, while a younger group was left on the edge of their comfort zone.   Yet the discussion was one of the best we’ve had.   We found ourselves discovering the humor as we recalled particular details described within the book.   As a memoir it was, to me, a refreshingly different view of the typical, mostly not-so-interesting portraits of everyday life.

Burroughs describes his eccentric and unconventional upbringing with incredible detail and honesty, yet with a large serving of humor that made it  hard to put down.   He describes his childhood, mostly under the guardianship of Dr. Finch – his mother’s Santa Claus look-a-like psychiatrist, following his mother’s series of mental breakdowns.   This was a home with high energy in which arguments were encouraged to dispense anger and to develop emotional growth.   Within Burroughs’s unpredictable daily life, regular off the wall adventures occurred and conventional standards like rules, discipline and structure were unheard of.

The problem was not having anybody to tell you what to do, I understood, is that there was nobody to tell you what not to do.

Burroughs’s story includes atypical details of his life such as his relationship with a patient of Dr. Finch’s, a man three times Burroughs’s age, and the witnessing of his mother’s psychotic breakdowns.   Many of the details are descriptive, vulgar and somewhat horrifying, yet the story is written in delightful prose with dark humor and such blatant honesty you’ll find yourself continuing to read…  If only to find out what else Augusten could possibly be exposed to, and feeling the need to find out what happens to these real-life characters.   (An update is contained in the Epilogue.)

While I truly enjoyed the tremendous writing skill and recommend Burroughs for sharing his eccentric story, I have to admit that the themes and facts were disturbing enough to impact my enjoyment of the book.   However, good books are created to challenge us with new perspectives.   They can challenge us with new, unique perspectives and force us to think outside of the box and outside of our comfort zones.   This memoir most certainly does that and, therefore, this book is recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Running With Scissors is hilarious, freak-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing…  It makes a good run at blowing every other (memoir) out of the water.”   Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I’ll Just Hold On

Musical Chairs: A Memoir by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $16.99)

Jen Knox’s first book Musical Chairs is difficult to describe.  

What is the likely fate of a young girl who comes from a family with a history of runaways, mental illness, and substance abuse?   It is more likely than not that their adolescence will be rife with incident, but to succumb to all three and then manage to out-do the rest by becoming a stripper on top of it?   That is the unlikely, but true, story of Jen Knox.

Readers seem to gravitate toward memoirs, especially in recent years, and especially if they tell the story of overcoming difficulties such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and the like.   Those people will like this book, although it is difficult to figure out exactly why someone would want to expose themselves to this type of content.

What is admirable about this effort is the objectivity with which the author portrays the events of her life.   She does not try to blame others or elicit pity for herself.   This third person telling of a first person story, while unique, may leave some readers wanting more:  more of the inner thoughts, the perceived reasons behind the behaviors, the emotional reactions that have undoubtedly surfaced upon reflection, etc.   In this way the book may fall a bit short.

There’s a sense of rushing through some of the events in the author’s life.   The book is sparse (176 pages) and takes the reader through a decade.   It causes one to wonder if there’s more to the brutal vignettes outlined in these pages that the author has yet to quite work through.

The book is written in three sections:  Runaway, Dancer, and The Education.   The reader learns of some of the encounters with shady characters during the dancing era; follows the author through a variety of dead end jobs and temporary residences; and, eventually, learns more about her mysterious grandmother and catches glimpses of the relationship between her and her eventual soul mate, Chris.

This is a solid first effort, if not a great one.   Several episodes of the author’s life seem to cry out for more detail or explanation; although this may be intentional.   In fact, it appears that Knox wanted it this way.  

Many readers may want more, and some will be disturbed enough as it is.   Most will be happy that the author’s life has come together.   Ms. Knox should be.   The vast majority of the people who find themselves in similar shoes are not so lucky.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author.   Musical Chairs is also available in Kindle and Nook Book editions.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized