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.

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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.

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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/

 

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $15.00, 302 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…   That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental illness.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to their mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released in trade paper form on August 9, 2011.   “This is an extraordinary book.”   Audrey Niffenegger

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I Knew You When

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 400 pages)

As with her prior novels, Laura Lippman does not disappoint as she again demonstrates her skill at writing crime fiction in the recent novel I’d Know You Anywhere.

To the outsider, Eliza Benedict appears to be a normal suburban stay-at-home mother of two with a loving, financially secure husband.   However, when she receives a letter from Walter Bowman, she’s instantly forced to relive her past.   Kidnapped by Walter at age fifteen, she was held hostage for almost 6 weeks.   Bowman, now on death row in Virginia, has found Eliza and reaches out to make amends.   As he presses her for increased contact, she begins to wonder what his real motivation is for contacting her.   She also wonders if she, too, may need something in return to secure full and complete closure on her past.

Lippman’s literary gift is in presenting interesting characters that the reader connects with.   By employing detailed descriptions and natural dialogue, she enables us to know each character in the story personally and intimately.

In I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman’s writing is detailed and believable even when alternating between Eliza’s confident, yet conflicted (challenging yet clinging) teenager, to the delusional thought processes of Bowman.   Lippman provides fascinating insight into what it would be like to be abducted and the impact on the victim and family members as they subsequently attempt to resume their lives.

In this novel, Lippman not only presents an entertaining read, she also encourages the reader to contemplate the political dilemmas of the death penalty and debate whether death row meets its presumed function of bringing justice to the families of crime victims.   She further provides insight into the mind of someone with a mental illness; someone with twisted justifications of right versus wrong, and warped views on how his actions impact others.   My only critique is that I would have liked to see a bit more depth in Eliza – the main character – whose passivity in life becomes daunting at times.   However, the unique storyline and the  detailed personalities of Lippman’s characters provides for an intriguing, engaging and interesting story.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   I’d Know You Anywhere was released in trade paper form on May 3, 2011.

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Things We Said Today

Things We Didn’t Say: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

As with her first novel, Real Life and Liars, Kristina Riggle presents an interesting story with well-defined characters in her recently released novel, Things We Didn’t Say.

Casey (Edna Leigh Casey) is attempting to reinvent herself while erasing her past by delving into a new relationship with her fiancé Michael and his three children.   While taking on her new role of step-mother-to-be, she believes she has escaped her former alcoholic life and the tragedy in her past that she still blames herself for.   That is, until her challenging teenage future stepdaughter Angel finds Casey’s personal journal and discovers the details of Casey’s past and her feelings about her current frustrations with taking on the role of stepmother.   This realization, combined with recent distance from her controlling, workaholic fiancé, leads to her decision to leave her current situation and – once again – start over.   However, on the very day that Casey decides to leave she receives a call that Michael’s son Dylan has gone missing.

The search for Dylan takes Casey, Michael, his children, and ex-wife on an emotionally charged journey that will change how each of them perceives their current situation.

Riggle writes with extreme clarity and develops her characters with variable dialogue that provide each of them with their own identity.   Each character’s challenges and reactions to a family crisis are believable, although a bit extreme, while presented in a modern-day blended family scenario.   Riggle also presents realistic themes such as the dangers of online communication and the prevalence of runaway teens.

However, as much as I enjoyed her writing, I have to admit that for most of the story I found the adults in her novel to be unlikable.   Casey is a meek, insecure individual who allows her fiancé to make all the decisions and accepts his criticism with silence, even when boundaries are crossed with his crazy ex-wife Mallory.   Michael is self-absorbed and so focused on the legality of child custody that he allows and even instigates ridiculous behavior from Mallory.   And Mallory is the stereotypical example of a woman with a horrid past experiencing bouts of mental illness.   I found myself entranced in the novel, hoping for a miracle that would give the children some sense of “normalcy” in their lives.

But that said, I found the book entertaining and the characters begin to redeem themselves as the story unfolds; and Riggle begins to fashion a more realistic view of a blended family undergoing a family crisis.   I have to commend Riggle for presenting her view of the possible and probable challenges that families in an atypical family structure might face.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Things We Didn’t Say was released on June 28, 2011.

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