It is not my habit to post about books I have not read all the way through. True, I sometimes find myself turning pages a little fast when the book doesn’t grab me, but I feel a duty of reading to the end, more as a courtesy to the author (what if there is an amazingly good ending to a so-so story?) than as a badge of honor for myself.
I did not finish Umbrella. I could not. I gave up on page 119, enough to tell you that it’s a supremely clever story, written in a stream of consciousness style that smoothly moves from the psychiatrist hero to one of his patient, exploring the horrors of mental illness and especially its ill-defined treatments, alongside two extended families. A braver soul than I can try wading through the challenging presentation. I wonder if the swooning critics actually read the book. A page or ten is dazzling. Beyond that, it feels like eating a bowl of sugar.
The Memory Palace is the tragic true story of the author’s schizophrenic mother and her daughter’s frantic efforts to survive a very tough childhood and make lives beside and despite their mother’s frantic efforts at dragging them into her deranged world. It’s a very sad story, because the illness is so trying and also because there is simply no good therapeutic solution in a society that will not allow coercing mental patients to get treated (not to mention will not pay for treatment, but will pay for repeated police visits and such…)
There is a silver lining in the story, though, namely that the author and her sister managed to overcome their tough childhood and lead what appears to be normally productive lives. It’s tough to understand how no one reached out to help them when they were kids, though. Perhaps if their grandmother had had the resources to leave that abusive husband of hers, she could have been the one?
Homer & Langley tells the fictional story of two real brothers who died in a Fifth Avenue mansion filled with treasures and detritus after a lifetime of collecting, much of which spent cut off from the world, having dismissed the staff and rarely venturing out. One brother is blind and the other is nominally the crazy one, the one who accumulates the trash and clearly returned from his European tour of duty during World War I with emotional issues, but they start out with a rather normal lifestyle, even if it involves hosting paying tea parties in their immense living room before moving a car into it, dismissing all the servants, and nursing a mafia don after a shootout.
The blind brother is an interesting character. While he does not have the paranoiac and compulsive tendencies of his brother he does not exactly go out of his way to get help or to escape, although he can and does get out of the house on his own. Perhaps because the changes are gradual he seems to accept each new delirious restriction as just another opportunity to play the piano a little more. I enjoyed the book very much for his depiction of how crazy can become a way of life.
The Soloist is the unlikely story of a homeless violinist who is befriended by a Los Angeles Times columnist (the author of the boook) and turns out to be an ex-Juilliard student who became schizophrenic while still in school and never recovered. The columnist writes about him in the paper, befriends him, gets him new instruments, and along the way discovers the sad and frightening life of Skid Row and the complexities of delivering mental health care to patients who are terribly resistant to it because of their very illness.
The story grabs the reader, as it grabbed the columnist, because the violinist, Nathaniel Ayres, is a sympathetic figure whom we want to help. But it also asks a lot of questions: by helping Nathaniel the author activates a powerful network (he has a paper as leverage, after all) and in the process sometimes withdraws resources from other needy patients, as when a room is held for him for months in the hope that one day, perhaps, he will deign to sleep inside. This brings to mind The Life You Can Save, which argues that people, illogically, are more ready to help one particular individual than a mass of people. We also discover that Nathaniel, perhaps because of his illness, can behave in a very aggressive and frightening manner that belies his ethereal music, and yet many of his carers seem to forget or forgive his behavior in a way they would not do with a less sympathetic individual.
An unusual view into homelessness and mental illness.
Lowboy is a depressing novel about a young paranoid schizophrenic who stops taking his medication and escapes from the hospital into the vast city of New York, to wreak who knows what havoc. The police detective tasked with finding him finds his mother strangely protective and uncooperative at the same time as they interview the boy’s doctor, chase reports of encounters with the boy, trail him to his girlfriend’s school (the girlfriend he pushed under a train in a past paranoid episode, but who still loves him…), and try to anticipate his next move.
I found the character of the young man disappointing. With all due respect to how difficult it must be to capture the stream of consciousness of a mental patient, this attempt is simply boring. The most interesting character is the detective, a man whose father changed his family’s name for the worse (he thinks), a man who loves to smell photocopying toner (!), a man who clearly loves his job as “Special Category Missing Person” seeker. We’d like to hear a little more about him, not his charges.
If, like me, you don’t care for football or don’t know much about it, don’t let the helmet on the cover of The Silver Linings Playbook deter you: this is a really good book! It’s the story of a recovering mental patient who slowly comes to grip with the fact that his ex-wife is gone for good while recuperating in his parents’ basement. The end of the story is easily guessed from the start of the book and the suspense comes from not knowing exactly what the beginning may have been — we discover it as the hero does.
There’s a wonderful portrait of a mother, his mother, who never gave up hope while he was in the psychiatric hospital, who fought to get him released, and who helps him pick clothes, find friends, and lead as normal a life as possible. The other character I really enjoyed is his psychiatrist, a devoted Philadelphia Eagles friends, like the hero, who makes a careful distinction between therapy moments and joint fanhood when beer (supposedly forbidden in conjunction with his meds) and team cheers (very silly) flow freely. And of course there’s his father, who seems to be much less fit for society than the hero, with the crucial exception that he never hit anyone in anger.
I will think about Pat wearing a garbage bag during his runs (to lose weight – I guess no one told him it’s just water!) for a long time.
Manic is a terrifying and wonderful book. Written by an episodically successful lawyer (when she’s neither depressed or fully manic), it lays out the brutal reality of what it’s like to be bipolar in a world arranged for “normal” people. Despite the suicide attempts, the outrageous behavior, the prison, the mental hospitals, the author manages to tell the story amazingly calmly and matter-of-factly.
A powerful inside view into mental illness — and how we on the outside can’t really understand it or the sufferers well enough.