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Reading Challenge Wrap-up: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge 2012

December 24, 2012 2 comments

mia2012badgeAs you all know, the one reading challenge I host is the Mental Illlness Advocacy (MIA) Reading Challenge.  Since we’re into the last week of the year, I’d like to post the 2012 wrap-up.

This year, I read 8 books that count for the challenge, successfully achieving the Aware level.

The books I read and reviewed for the challenge, along with what mental illness they covered, in 2012 were:

  1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    PTSD
    4 out of 5 stars
  2. The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
    Mental Retardation
    4 out of 5 stars
  3. Barefoot Season by Susan Mallery
    PTSD
    4 out of 5 stars
  4. Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin
    Anorexia
    4 out of 5 stars
  5. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
    Depression
    4 out of 5 stars
  6. Haunted by Glen Cadigan
    PTSD
    3 out of 5 stars
  7. January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
    Schizophrenia
    4 out of 5 stars
  8. Germline by T. C. McCarthy
    Addictive Disorders
    4 out of 5 stars

The books I read covered genres from scifi to thriller to memoir to academic nonfiction to historic fiction.  I’m also a bit surprised to note in retrospect that all but one of these books received four stars from me.  Clearly the books I chose to read for the challenge were almost entirely a good match for me.  It’s no surprise to me that I enjoy running this challenge so much then. :-)

The most unique book for the challenge was The Sparrow.  The scifi plot of first contact with aliens was a very unique wrapping for a book dealing so strongly with mental illness.  Most challenging was Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia, which was my first foray into university-level Anthropology.  Something I’d like to see more of is more memoirs by parents of children with a mental illness, like January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her.  That was an interesting, new perspective for me.  I think I’d also like to read more schizophrenia books next year, as well as books that challenge the gender norms perceived of in certain mental illnesses, such as the idea that eating disorders are female or that alcoholism is male.

If you participated in the challenge this year, please feel free to either comment with your list of reads or a link to a wrap-up post.  I’d love to see what we all successfully read this year!

And if the MIA Reading Challenge sounds like a good match for you, head on over to the challenge’s main page to sign up for the 2013 iteration!

Book Review: Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin

May 12, 2012 2 comments

Woman standing in waterSummary:
Warin, an anthropologist, takes an entirely new approach to anorexia, looking it from a purely cultural and anthropological perspective.  She spends a couple of years interviewing women with anorexia at various points in the life of the illness from early treatment to recovery to relapse.  In this way she analyzes not just the culture of women and men suffering from anorexia but also how anorexia is a response to the culture these people find themselves in.

Review:
This was my first read from the holdings of my new workplace.  The instant I saw the title and book cover, I knew I needed to read it.  The anthropology of anorexia? How fascinating!

It’s interesting that I feel I actually learned a bit more about anthropology than anorexia from this book, but perhaps that is because I am more familiar with the latter than the former.  From my work in psychiatry and as a mental illness advocate, I was already aware that people suffering from anorexia have their own culture.  I still highly valued seeing this presented in an academic fashion with a respect for the people involved.  I commend Warin for her ability to interact with these women and glean a sense of how they came to be who they are now with a respect for them as people that is all too rare to see in this type of work.

So what of the anthropology then?  What are abject relations?  Over the course of the book I learned that abject relations are ambiguous relations.

What is abject is in between, ambiguous, and composite. Abjection is thus contrary to dualist concepts because it undermines and threatens that which is separate. As such, abjection is fundamentally concerned with the complexities and contradictions of relatedness. (page 184)

Whereas most books about eating disorders attempt to say THIS definitively caused it, this book’s premise is that the etiology is entirely ambiguous.  What caused it, what makes it persist, what it is to suffer from anorexia.  Nothing about it is clear-cut.  That is the powerful statement of the book.  There are no easy answers to anorexia, but we can do much more to understand it both as its own culture and as an aspect of our own.

This focus on anorexia as a response to the mainstream culture and a formation of a new culture leads Warin to question a lot of the inpatient treatment techniques.   Warin sees anorexia as frequently about women attempting to assert a right to control over their own bodies that goes horribly awry, ripping the control out of society’s or tormentor’s hands, into their own, into ana’s hands, then into the hands of an authority figure again at treatment.  Warin sees value in helping people suffering from anorexia recover in the context of society.  Instead of feeding them alone in a single room have them cook and eat together in a group.  This reenforces the cultural and connecting aspect of eating that they have been denying for so long.

It is an interesting idea to look at anorexia as an abject cultural response, but I don’t think it’s one that is quite as unique or revolutionary as Warin seems to think.  Whereas there have always been those who think anorexia is the ultimate kowtowing to what society deems feminine, there have also been those who view it as women protecting themselves from being perceived as feminine, from having unwanted interactions with those who would objectify them.  Perhaps it is really both, which is what makes it so hard to treat.  I believe this is what Warin is trying to say, although she is often not as clear as she could be.  She gets caught up in academic jargon.  She is at her strongest when simply organizing her interactions with the women into themes and presenting them to the reader to do with what they will.

Overall, for an academic look at anorexia this is unique in that it is an anthropological study instead of a psychiatric one.  Looking at a group of people who are a group simply because they share the same illness and studying their anthropology is a truly fascinating concept.  The book is scientific, but it is social science and is thus easy enough for the mainstream reader to follow.  It provides the human aspect of anorexia without sensationalizing.  Anyone with an interest in eating disorders or anthropology will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Work Library

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Book Review: Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler (Series, #1)

March 21, 2011 4 comments

Scales on a black background.Summary:
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare.  Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die.  It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine.  After all, she’s fat.  She has to watch what she eats very carefully.  The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off.  Yes.  Lisabeth Lewis is fat.  So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?

Review:
When I heard the concept of this new YA series–each horseman of the apocalypse representing and dealing with a mental health issue relevant to teens–I was incredibly skeptical.  Writing about mental illness in a way that teens can relate to without talking down to them as well as in a responsible manner is difficult enough without having a fantasy element present.  Toss in the fantasy and I was worried this would either read like one of those old 1950s cautionary films shown in highschools or would miss dealing with the mental illness entirely.  Boy was I wrong.  Kessler has found such a unique, creative way to address a mental illness yet cushions it in the fantasy so that it isn’t too in your face.  It’s the ideal scenario for teens reading about it, but it’s also enjoyable for adults.

The fantasy element is very tongue-in-cheek.  It strongly reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in style.  For instance, Death resembles a heroin-chic dead rock star, and he speaks in  a mix of classic English and mocking teen speak to Lisa.

“Thou art Famine, yo,” Death said.  “Time to make with the starvation.” (Location 661)

It quickly becomes apparent that Death and the Horsemen aren’t entirely what they initially seem to be.  Indeed, they seem to function to get Lisa out of her own head and problems and to look at the greater world around her.  She literally travels the world on her horse and sees real hunger, and it affects her.  It doesn’t make her feel guilty for being anorexic, but it makes her want to be better so she will be strong enough to help others.  That’s a key element of any mental illness treatment.  Getting the person to see outside of themselves, and Kessler has personified it through the Four Horsemen.

She, Lisabeth Lewis, seventeen and anorexic and suicidal and uncertain of her own path–she’d done something that mattered.  She’d ignored her own pain and had helped others.  Maybe she wanted to live after all.  (Location 2007)

Of course the non-fantastical passages dealing with Lisa’s anorexia and her friend’s bulimia are incredibly realistic.  If they weren’t, the book would immediately fail as the whole thing would ring false to the teens reading it.  Her anorexia is dealt with as a very real thing even as the Four Horsemen are presented as either truth or hallucinations of her starved mind.  This is key.  The anorexia cannot be presented as an element of fantasy.

I was concerned the ending would be too clean-cut.  I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, Kessler handles the ending in a realistic, responsible manner.  There are no easy solutions, but there are solutions to strive for.

Overall, Hunger takes the incredibly real problem of anorexia and presents it with a touch of fantasy to help bring the reader not only into the mind of the anorexic but also outside of herself to look at the bigger picture.  It is an inspiring, fresh take on YA lit dealing with mental illness, and I highly recommend it to fans of YA lit as well as those interested in literature dealing with mental illnesses.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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