As 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:
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
4 out of 5 stars
- The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
4 out of 5 stars
- Barefoot Season by Susan Mallery
4 out of 5 stars
- Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia by Megan Warin
4 out of 5 stars
- A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
4 out of 5 stars
- Haunted by Glen Cadigan
3 out of 5 stars
- January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
4 out of 5 stars
- Germline by T. C. McCarthy
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!
Oscar is a reporter and lands an assignment with Stars and Stripes to go over to Kazakhstan and report on the new war between the US and Russia over resources needed for technology. This is a new kind of warfare. One fought mostly underground, and with the soldiers permanently wearing suits. Plus they’re fighting side-by-side with Genetics–human-looking robots who are all female and all look alike. Oscar started out just wanting a Pulitzer in between his drug addiction, which is easily fueled in Kaz. But Kaz changes people.
It’s been a while since I ventured in military scifi. I usually stick with the more sociological/psych experiment or cyberpunk areas of the genre, but this one just stuck out to me. I think its combination of aspects is just intriguing–a drug addicted journalist, a future war on earth, underground warfare, and robots. It certainly held my attention and flamed my interest in military scifi, plus it wound up counting for the MIA Reading Challenge, which was an added bonus.
Oscar is a well-rounded character. At first he seems flat and frankly like a total douchebag, but that’s because he’s a depressed drug addict. We learn gradually what landed him there and how he grows out of it with time. It’s an interesting character development arc because although many arcs show how war leads to alcoholism or drug addiction, in Oscar’s case although it at first makes his addiction worse, it ultimately helps him beat it. Because he ultimately snaps and realizes that the drugs are not helping the problems. They’re just making them worse. This is so key for anyone struggling with an addiction to realize. Pain in the present to feel better in the future. And McCarthy does an excellent job showing this progression without getting preachy. Sometimes you want to throttle Oscar, but you ultimately come to at least respect him if not like him. I wasn’t expecting such strong characterization in a military scifi, and I really enjoyed it.
The world McCarthy has built is interesting. The war itself is fairly typical–first world countries butting heads over resources in third world countries. But the content of the battles and the fighting methods are futuristic enough to maintain the scifi feel. There are the Genetics of course, and they are used by both sides. It’s interesting that the Americans use only female Genetics, and that is explained later on. There are also different vehicles and weapons that are scary but still seem plausible. Of course there’s also the suits the soldiers permanently wear, the front-line tunnels (the “subterrene”). It all adds up to a plausible future war.
Now, I will say, some of the battle scenes and near misses that Oscar has seem a bit of a stretch. I know odd things happen in war, and anyone can get lucky, but. Everyone’s luck runs out eventually. It seemed sometimes as if McCarthy wrote himself into a corner then had to figure out a way to make his main character survive. Escaping danger is fine, and necessary for the book to continue. But it should seem like a plausible escape. And if you have one that seems miraculous, it seems a bit excessive to me to have more than one.
The audiobook narrator did a fine job, in my opinion. He didn’t add anything to the story but he also didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I will note, however, that he pronounced “corpsman” wrong, saying the “s,” which is supposed to be silent. This only came up a few times and didn’t really bother me, but some readers, particularly ones who have been in the military themselves, might be bothered. Nothing else was mispronounced, and the voices used fit the characters nicely.
Overall, this piece of futuristic military scifi showcases both war and addiction in an engaging manner. Some readers may be off-put by Oscar at first, but stick it out. It takes many interesting turns. Recommended to scifi fans, whether they generally like military scifi or not.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
Michael and Susan thought their daughter, January’s, high energy levels and vivid imagination were the result of her high IQ, but when she turned five her imaginary friends started to tell her to do bad things like hit her baby brother or throw herself out of windows. Soon it became apparent that her imaginary friends were actually hallucinations. What followed was a harrowing struggle to get their daughter diagnosed and treated.
It’s rare to see a memoir by a father. There are a ton of memoirs by mothers but not a lot by fathers, particularly not by fathers of daughters. Put this together with the fact that Jani (her parents’ nickname for her) has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and you have one unique book.
This is an excellently told memoir. It opens with Michael speaking about having his daughter’s diagnosis now and struggling with all the barriers toward a normal life presented not just by her illness but by the world we live in. He talks about how some people argue that it’s impossible to diagnose a child with a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia, and of course some people even suggest that Jani is possessed by demons. He gets the denial. It’s scary to see a child consumed by an illness that is completely arbitrary in choosing its victims. But he says,
Denial is not going to help Jani or any of the other mentally ill and schizophrenic children I have come to know. What they need is acceptance. What they need is for us to be telling them “your illness does not define you.” We cannot go inside their minds and “fix” them. But we can fix the world so they can live in it. (location 90)
That speaks very strongly toward the whole reason I created the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, and I knew then that this was going to be not just a unique read, but a challenging and good one.
After the introduction, Michael tells the story in a linear fashion. He does a good job remembering how he felt in the early days. His immense pride at his daughter’s high IQ and creative mind coupled with a determination to help her succeed and be herself. It’s fascinating to see, as an outsider, how early there were warning signs that something was not quite right with Jani but that Michael and Susan (her mother) attributed to a positive cause. I think that’s typical of parents and indeed of anyone who loves someone. They were looking for the best. Believing in the best for their daughter. They may be that moderately annoying couple on the play date who just insist their daughter with inappropriate behavior is gifted, but seeing it from Michael’s perspective makes that make sense. Most people (with the exception of parents with Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome) don’t want to believe that their child is sick. So of course you exhaust every other option first.
This of course makes Jani’s move toward violent behavior at the age of five that much more heart-breaking to read. I’ve heard and read stories and documentaries of how difficult it is for parents of young adults who become schizophrenic but at least they are adults. To have this happening to your five year old is completely terrifying. How do you control a child for whom no punishments seem to work? Who is more concerned with appeasing her hallucinations than with obeying her parents?
I certainly don’t agree with all the parenting choices the Schofields made in the first five years of her life (and for the record, neither do all of the psychiatrists), but none of their choices would create schizophrenia. Being overly lenient with your kids won’t make them hallucinate and become this violent at the age of five. This is one of those occasions where you don’t always agree with the choices the memoirist made, but you’re also not right in the heat of the battle. It’s far easier to say, “oh, you should have done this,” when it’s not your child who’s being lost to a mental illness right before your eyes.
That’s the thing about this memoir. Michael is so obviously completely honest. He tells things that happened that don’t present him in the best light. He is completely forthcoming in his own shortcomings, but he reiterates over and over how much he loves his daughter and wants to keep his family together. This combination does for this memoir what a lot of memoirs don’t have: it lends a complete sense of validity to the story as a whole. Michael is so honest about the emotional struggle of it all that even though you may not like him as a person, you respect him as a father.
This level of honesty combined with his writing ability make this memoir a strong call. A call to parents of children who are other-abled (whether mentally or physically) that they are not alone. It’s also a call to the rest of us who are not one of these parents to take a moment to think how difficult it must be and go easier on the parents and the child. I know I for one might think the next time I see a kid throwing an epic tantrum, “Maybe that child has an illness” instead of “Sheesh, do a better job, parents.”
Overall, this is a well-written memoir presenting the unique perspective of a father caring for a daughter with a mental illness. It also provides one of the few accounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia. Highly recommended to parents with special needs children, as well as to anyone who enjoys memoirs and the different perspectives reading them can bring.
4 out of 5 stars
Michelle ran away from mistakes made at home to the army, and now she’s coming home from three tours of duty to Blackberry Island in the Pacific Northwest. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, but left his historic inn in trust to her. Her mother was running it until she died, and now Michelle is back to reclaim her inheritance. Only it seems that her mother may have not so much been running the inn as running it into the ground. Meanwhile, Michelle’s once best friend, Carly, thought she was working toward owning part of the inn only to be side-swiped by the fact that Michelle’s mother lied to her….not to mention the bad blood between her and Michelle. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with, but toss in Michelle’s PTSD and Carly’s single motherhood, and it seems impossible for either of them to ever truly get their lives in order.
I am not usually a chick lit person, but this one slipped in under my radar thanks to Harlequin’s new MIRA line (which is chick lit with some sex scenes). I’m glad it did, because I found the story relatable, heart-warming, and a welcome escape.
The plot is complex, which I think is evident from my plot summary. There is a lot going on. But it never feels forced or like too much. It simply feels like real life. Michelle and Carly both have a *lot* of shit to deal with and watching them deal with it imperfectly but understandably is an enjoyable experience.
Although both Michelle and Carly have their own romance plot lines, the story is really about healing their broken friendship, as well as their wounds from their individual painful pasts. I enjoyed this because the story shows healing happening alongside real life. Too often books either ignore the tough things or focus on them to the exclusion of real life.
Of course, being the mental illness advocate that I am, I was incredibly pleased to see Michelle’s PTSD come up and be dealt with in such a true to life manner. Michelle at first is mentally wounded and won’t truly admit it.
While she wasn’t a big believer in PTSD, she’d been told she suffered from it. So she’d listened to the counselors when they’d talked about avoiding stress and staying rested and eating well. (location 207)
Perhaps the most true-to-life part of the whole book is that Michelle takes a while to admit that she is not ok, even while those around her who love her are expressing their concerns to her. A lot of people have difficulty acknowledging a problem, particularly if they view themselves as strong and independent. Seeing Michelle realize that reaching out for help is stronger than suffering alone is honestly the best part of the whole book.
Although we do have a couple of sex scenes, I did feel that the romance was a bit….quick and forced for both women. However, this is the first book in a series, so perhaps their romantic relationships will be explored more in future books.
I also have to say that the title makes zero sense to me. It brings to mind summer, but that’s about all the relation I can see between it and the story.
Overall, this is a piece of chick lit with an intelligent perspective on PTSD in female soldiers and a dash of romance. Recommended to fans of the genre as well as those who enjoy a contemporary tale and want to dip their toe into the chick lit world.
4 out of 5 stars
Martha, a retired, widowed schoolteacher, thought her life was pretty much over until one night when a young intellectually disabled white woman and a deaf black man show up on her doorstop in the rain holding a newborn baby. Soon people from a nearby mental institution show up to take them back away. The young woman, Linny, seems terrified and asks Martha to hide the baby. The man, Homan, escapes. Martha goes on the lam to keep the baby girl out of the institution, and Linny and Homan fight against all odds attempting to reunite their family.
I received the audiobook version of this as a gift for one of the holiday swaps I participated in in December. It was my first time reading the audiobook version of a modern story, as I’m a cheapskate and usually just get ones for free that are out of copyright. It was thus an entirely different experience to be forced to slow down when reading this piece of historic fiction about a very dark secret in American history–mental institutions. The amount of time that Linny and Homan are forced to spend simply waiting for their lives to get better. Waiting for people to recognize their humanity. It hit me much harder than if I had been able to read this in a couple of hours. (Each disc is about 1 hour long, and there are 10 discs). The wrongness of it all. The amount of time and lives wasted simply because the able-minded and able-bodied didn’t seek to understand or to grant these people the basic human right of self-direction.
The story itself is told from multiple viewpoints–Linny, Homan, Martha, Kate (a caregiver at the institution), and later Julia (the baby daughter when she grows up). Mostly Simon does a great job switching among the different voices, particularly representing Linny. She does not overinflate her internal dialogue to be that of a person with an average IQ, but she still clearly represents Linny’s humanity. I am a bit skeptical of the voice given to Homan though, mostly his tendency to give people bizarre nicknames like “roof giver.” I know that neither
Simon nor I know a deaf person who is unable to communicate with those around him, so really it is all guess-work as to what his internal dialogue would be like. But I can’t help but feel like it’s not quite there. On the other hand, his confusion and frustration at people talking around him, over him, and treating him like he’s stupid just because he’s deaf is very well done.
In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why so much time was devoted to Martha and Julia when Julia was a baby. Her story doesn’t end up being nearly as important as the Homan/Linny romance, so this focus feels a bit like a red herring. I would definitely shorten those chapters.
The use of artwork and items of visual significance to the characters is gorgeous though. Lighthouses are a central feature, and I don’t even like lighthouses myself, but I still found myself moved by how important the visual arts can be to people. This is a book that, surprisingly, winds up being almost a battle cry for the arts. For their value in helping us connect with each other and hold on to our humanity. I think any artist or someone who is a fan of the arts would appreciate this book for that reason.
On the other hand, Simon is clearly a person of some sort of faith, with a belief in god and the tendency for things to all work out right in the end. I’m…not that type of person. So when characters wax eloquent about god or an overall plan or the ability of evil people to repent and turn good, well, it all feels a bit more like fantasy than historic fiction to me. I probably would have been irritated by this less if I had had the ability to skim over those parts though.
In the end, though, I came away from this book appreciating its uniqueness and all the good qualities it had to offer. It demonstrates through a beautiful story why it’s so important not to institutionalize the mentally ill or mentally challenged. It shows the power of love to overcome race and disabilities. It is the story of the power and beauty of resiliency.
Overall, I recommend this work of historic fiction to fans of historic and contemporary fiction, advocates of the mentally ill or mentally challenged, and those just simply looking for a unique love story.
4 out of 5 stars
I started the MIA Reading Challenge in December 2010 in an effort to raise awareness, knowledge, and acceptance of mental illness. Reading, both fiction and nonfiction, is an excellent way to broaden one’s horizons and expose one to new ideas and ways of thinking and being. Many reading challenges already exist in the book blogging community to address racism, sexism, and homophobia, but I could not find any to address the stigma faced by those suffering from mental illness. In spite of mental illnesses being recognized by the scientific community as diseases just like physical ones, many still think those suffering from one are at fault for their own suffering. I hope reading and reviewing books featuring characters struggling to deal with mental illness, whether their own or another person’s, will help remove the stigma faced on a daily basis by those with a mental illness. They already have to struggle with an illness; they shouldn’t have to face a stigma too.
I think in the world of book blog reading challenges this is a fairly unique one for a good cause, and I hope you will consider signing up for it!
Just head on over to the challenge’s main page to sign up by commenting with a link to your announcement of participation and feel free to grab the 2012 button for your blog. The challenge page also contains a list of suggested books sorted by illness that 2011′s participants found to be very helpful.
Rock on, advocates!
There is one paperback copy of Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard up for grabs, courtesy of the lovely author herself. Since she lives in Scotland, she said she is fine with shipping internationally. That made me very happy, because I know I have a lot of followers from outside the States.
What You’ll Win: One paperback copy of Emotional Geology by Linda Gillard.
How to Enter: Leave a comment on this post with your email address or twitter name so I can contact the winner for his/her mailing address. ALSO please note if you took part in the MIA Reading Challenge this year. Those who did get a second entry, since this is relevant to the challenge.
Who Can Enter: Anyone! International! Yay!
Contest Ends: December 13th. Two weeks from today!
This giveaway is now over! Thank you all for entering!
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference. She deals with her emotions by cutting herself. She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed. One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option. Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War. Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.
Speaking as someone who knows a lot about mental illness, self-injury is one of the illnesses that people who don’t have it have the most difficulty understanding. It seems bizarre to those who don’t self-injure, even as for the self-injurer those moments of cutting or burning or whatever chosen method are the best coping mechanism they can come up with. It’s not easy for those who don’t self-injure to understand, which is why I am so impressed at how well Morse Kessler has grasped the inner workings of the self-injurer in order to write such a well-rounded, sympathetic character as Missy.
Missy is simultaneously relatable as a typical teenager, for instance she gets horribly embarrassed at a party one night, but she also has this deep, dark, misunderstood secret. Gradually other teens find out and are either concerned or lash out at her due to their fear and lack of understanding, but Missy feels that she can’t confide in even the sympathetic ones. In perhaps one of the most powerful passages, the reader gets to see exactly why Missy cuts, while she simultaneously explains why she can’t explain it to her sister.
She could tell her that she turned to the blade because she wanted to live and sometimes pain was the only thing that kept her alive. She could tell her that she was terrified of things she couldn’t even begin to name, that friends could be fickle and lovers could be false. She could try to explain all of that and more, and maybe her sister would understand. But trust was as fragile and cutting as a crystal sword. (page 100)
That is perhaps the most clear, succinct explanation of self-injury I’ve seen outside of nonfiction clinical books. Missy’s reasons for cutting are clear, even as it becomes more and more evident to the reader that this coping mechanism is not truly addressing Missy’s real problems.
Of course, the fantasy element comes to play here again, and it works perhaps even better this time around. Giving the fantasy personas for Missy to talk to and express herself to gives her a safe space to think out her emotions instead of cutting them out. There are also a few cameos from Famine, which is fun to see after reading the first book. The fantasy also works here because it helps give the book a distance that makes it less triggering. There are intense emotional moments, but then Death shows up with a humorous quip to lighten the situation. It addresses the real problems without getting bogged down in over-emotionality.
This book will give self-injuring teens a way to see themselves reflected in literature and accepted and loved for who they are. It will give them a chance to maybe address their own emotions and issues. Similarly, non-self-injuring teens will hopefully become more empathetic to their peers who struggle with it. It’s a book that is simultaneously enlightening but not preachy. I highly recommend it to teens and those who work in mental health or with teenagers.
5 out of 5 stars
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