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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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Book Review: The Creation of Psychopharmacology By David Healy

Summary:
A historical look at the emergence and development of psychopharmacology (psychiatric drugs) from the earliest time of psychiatry to the end of the 20th century.  Particular attention is paid to the impact psychiatric societies, economic systems, cultures, and drug companies have had on psychopharmacology.  Psychiatric drugs explored in-depth include chlorpromazine and SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors aka antidepressants).

Review:
I was quite excited to learn about the topic of this book, as psychopharmacology is one of the key aspects of psychiatric treatment.  It is therefore unfortunate that the author, Healy, allows his own biases to get in the way of presenting factual information.

The first portion of the book that discusses asylums and the original drugs discovered by scientists to work on psychoses does present the facts in an unbiased manner.  Unfortunately, Healy could not possibly write in a much more boring manner.  I have never in my life read a text that is so stale, and I do read scientific nonfiction for work on a fairly steady basis, so this is not a bias of my own against scientific writing.  The man just drones on and on.

The larger problem  arises in the second half of the book when Healy arrives in the 20th century.  Healy’s obvious anti-drug and anti-psychiatry bias emerges.  He flat-out gets facts wrong and displays paranoia, ranging from the typical conspiracy theory that the mental health community is in league with the drug companies to the more extreme idea that depression shouldn’t be treated because then there would be no more art or spirituality.  He also claims that personality disorders should not be treated, comparing such treatment to cosmetic surgery.  This claim is offensive and harmful to people who wish to become higher functioning, happier individuals.

Healy goes on to offer predictions as to the direction psychology and psychiatry will take in the 21st century.  Now that we are a decade in to that century, I can definitively tell you his predictions are wrong.  He argues that an increasing number of drugs will be used to remove most individuality and that therapy will continue to fall by the wayside.  In fact, the first decade of the 21st century saw a new movement toward CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), which are all about helping an individual change their harmful behaviors, thoughts, and tendencies purely through therapeutic techniques.  Healy is attempting to fear-monger his readers into believing psychiatry and psychology wish to drug us all up, when in fact the mental health community wants to use what works best in each situation.  Contrary to his claims, there are in fact biological bases for some mental health issues.

Although his facts are accurate in the earlier history of psychopharmacology, the second half of the book presents false facts and harmful ideas.  Due to this fact, I cannot recommend this book.  For an educated look at mental health and drugs, take a look at the DSMIV and the PDR.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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