When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?
Written by a journalist, the reader soon discovers this memoir is a survivor’s tale of brain encephalitis. Divided into three parts, the first establishes Susannah’s life when she came down with the illness and the first appearance of symptoms. The second covers the time period of her illness that she actually can’t remember, and features her own investigative journalism into what happened during that time. The third part covers the first part of her recovery time in the first year or so after she recovers her memory.
The first two thirds of the book are quite strong for different reasons. In the first third, Susannah recalls with such clarity the feeling of is this really happening or am I losing my mind? Specifically, the first thing that happens is she’s sure she has bed bugs but other people (including the exterminator) see no evidence of them. To this day, no one knows if Susannah really had bed bugs or if hallucinating them was a first symptom of her illness.
The second third of the book highlights her skills as an investigative journalist. Since she herself doesn’t remember the worst of her sickness immediately prior to or during her hospitalization, she is able to take an impartial distance to the whole situation and report on how her divorced parents put aside their differences to care for her together, as well as look at how the medical system both cared for her but also almost missed her critical diagnosis. Susannah recognizes how lucky she was to have people on her side advocating with the hospital for her, as well as to be in a city with such high-quality and cutting edge medical care.
The last third where she talks about her years of recovery and her life now was the weakest. The level of insight and analysis found in the first two parts was absent. While Susannah clearly empathizes with those with mental illness, there’s a clear sense that she thinks that all mental illness is just an illness making you look mental and not actually maybe a different way of interacting with the world. A different kind of normal you’re just born with. I think Susannah fails to take into consideration what if she was just born seeing colors more brightly and seeing the walls breathe? What if that was just always her normal? That’s the reality for many with a mental illness, and she kind of just glosses over that and comes down on the it’s all just a physical illness side. I’m more of a believer that it’s ok for there to be different ways to be “normal” and maybe society should stop shoving us all into the same shaped peghole. While it’s true that situations like Susannah’s where your whole personality changes overnight are devastating, that’s not how all mental illness presents, and I think she misses that in her quest to find and diagnose those with a brain inflammation misdiagnosed.
Overall, this is an intensely readable book that leaves you questioning what is truly madness and what is just abnormality? And what makes us who we are? If a person is unable to remember what they are doing, does that mean they’re behaving as themselves authentically or as quite the opposite?
4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for my honest review
Maguire is bad luck.
No matter how many charms she buys off the internet or good luck rituals she performs each morning, horrible things happen when Maguire is around. Like that time the rollercoaster jumped off its tracks. Or the time the house next door caught on fire. Or that time her brother, father, and uncle were all killed in a car crash—and Maguire walked away with barely a scratch.
It’s safest for Maguire to hide out in her room, where she can cause less damage and avoid meeting new people who she could hurt. But then she meets Jordy, an aspiring tennis star. Jordy is confident, talented, and lucky, and he’s convinced he can help Maguire break her unlucky streak. Maguire knows that the best thing she can do for Jordy is to stay away. But it turns out staying away is harder than she thought.
I picked this up because I heard it featured mental illness in a realistic manner, and I think that’s something that’s important, particularly in YA. I was not disappointed.
Maguire has a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that developed in response to trauma. She’s been around when some very bad things happened, and her survivor’s guilt has kind of gotten out of control. The reader meets Maguire initially through her therapy session, where she is definitely a sullen teenager. Maguire’s approach to her mental illness is one of the more realistic parts of the book. She at first very firmly believes that everyone else is crazy in refusing to acknowledge her “bad luck.” But slowly with the help of her therapist she comes to see that maybe it’s all in how she’s perceiving the random universe, and that her magical thinking won’t really fix anything.
While I didn’t think having a love interest was necessary (why couldn’t it be a friend for once), I get why Jordy was included and I liked him beyond the love interest part. Jordy’s existence shows that therapy can be useful for things beyond more serious mental illnesses, such as relearning coping mechanisms or dealing with issues in your family. I also appreciated that for once there wasn’t a love triangle.
I did think the writing was a little bit too simplistic for the audience, and I also thought that sometimes the descriptions were rocky. Some sentences read early first draft with the list of descriptors that are then repeated every time characters show up again. But I also think that YA readers who aren’t used to seeing themselves (or their loved ones) in literature will be so enthralled by Maguire and her realistic therapy assignments and issues that they will quickly gloss over that.
Recommended to fans to contemporary YA lit looking for a realistic mental illness depiction.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashada
Born in 1992 and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 5, Naoki uses an alphabet board to painstakingly write. In this book, he addresses answers to common questions neurotypicals have about people with Autism, such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” Mixed in with answers to these questions are short stories that Naoki has written, squashing the myth that those with Autism lack imagination.
I read this for Katie of Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Book Club back in April, which was also Autism Awareness Month. I don’t often have the time to do group reads, but this book appealed to me and was short, would count for the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge I host, and I was able to get a digital copy from the Boston Public Library. I read this in one day in just my morning and evening commutes. It’s a short but mind-opening work.
For those who don’t know, Autism is a spectrum disorder. This basically means that Autism can severely or minorly impact how a person with it functions with the world (and everything in-between). Someone who is high functioning may mostly just strike others as a bit odd, whereas those most severely impacted are unable to communicate at all. You may read more about Autism here.
Naoki’s Autism is more severe. He is mostly unable to speak but he has learned how to communicate by pointing to an alphabet board with an assistant who writes down what he points at. Since Autism is so individualized, bare in mind when reading this book that his answers might not necessarily apply to everyone with Autism. That said, Naoki generally answers the questions with the word we, not I. My suspicion is this may be due to cultural reasons. Naoki is Japanese, which is generally a less individualized culture than our own. Additionally, his words have been filtered through a translator. It’s important, I believe, for a reader to keep all of these things in mind when reading this book.
This is a short book and an easy read, so I won’t say too much beyond the two biggest takeaways I had. First, I think in general people often wonder if people with Autism are similar to neurotypicals inside or are completely foreign. I think Naoki’s book smashes that question with a sledgehammer. It left me with the distinct impression that people with Autism are extremely similar to neurotypicals, but their signals from their bodies interfere with their ability to interact with the world. But Naoki puts this better than me.
It’s as if we’re remote-controlling a faulty robot. (page 16)
My second takeaway was that we should never make assumptions about anyone with Autism. The biggest example of this is that it is generally assumed people with Autism do not have an imagination. (I’ve even seen having an imagination being used as a way to rule out some people as having high functioning Autism). But Naoki, who very clearly has Autism, also very clearly has a bright imagination. His own short stories are inter-mixed throughout the book. They struck me as things any 13-year-old might write. That may sound simple, but that’s a big deal for a person who others might assume is “abnormal” for 13 with “no imagination.”
I do wish that the person interviewing Naoki had asked a wider variety of questions. Some of the questions can get a bit repetitive, and I wondered why they didn’t ask something deeper. Instead of continually asking things like why do you do this or why do you do that ask more about what he enjoys. What his hopes and dreams are. Does he think there’s a god. Things like that.
Overall, though, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about what it’s like to have Autism, as well as to those who do or may come into contact with someone with Autism.
4 out of 5 stars
Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge
Malorie thought the hardest thing she was going to have to face was dealing with her pregnancy and impending single motherhood. She thought the warnings about seeing something that makes you go crazy and become violent was just the news blowing things out of proportion, or at least just hysteria. Her sister believed in it, but not herself.
But that was all years ago, and now Malorie is alone in a house with her two children. Children who have never been outside without blindfolds on. She only leaves the house blindfolded, tapping the ground with a stick to find the well. But now it is time for her to be brave and to take a boat on the river, just she and her two children, blindfolded, in the hopes of finding salvation.
I was drawn to this book for two reasons. First, the mere thought of a mother and two young children boating down a river blindfolded had me intrigued. Second, it’s set in Michigan, which is where my husband is from, and honestly I can’t recall the last time I saw a book set in Michigan. These two elements came together to tell me this book is probably unique. So when I saw the kindle version on sale on Amazon, I snatched it up. What I found was a chilling tale that could easily fit within the Lovecraft mythos.
The order the story is told in helps build the suspense and keeps it from being a same old apocalypse and survivors’ tale. The book opens with Malorie and her two children living alone in the house. It opens post-apocalyptic. Through flashbacks we learn various things such as who used to live in the house with Malorie, why there are certain parts of the house she doesn’t like to go to, and why neither she nor the children leave the house without blindfolds on. From here, the reader is then taken forward into Malorie’s action onto the river, going down it trying to find a safe haven of other survivors that she knows used to be there years ago. It’s a nice combination of flashback and plot progression forward that keeps the suspense interesting.
It is no spoiler to say that what caused the apocalypse is something that causes people to go stark raving mad when they see it. This is included in the official book blurb. What was interesting to me was how Malerman kept this from being purely straight-forward. Some characters believe in the mysterious creatures right away, others don’t. Some think that merely believing it will cause you to go crazy makes you go crazy. Some think that some are affected and others aren’t. Some wonder if animals are affected too, and no one knows where the creatures came from or, if you don’t believe in the creatures, how the phenomenon started. The lack of clear-cut answers reflects reality. In general, with large-scale catastrophes, it’s hard to know exactly what happened or what is going on. This lack of knowing made the situation read as real, even if the exact situation is an absurd sounding one at first.
I was also struck by how well Malerman wrote a female version of experiencing the apocalypse. Malorie is both focused on surviving for herself and her baby but also distracted from the apocalypse because she is having normal hormonal reactions to pregnancy. Similarly, while some characters embrace her as a symbol of hope, others see her as a burden. Malorie was a refreshing change from the young, virile, kick-ass heroine often seen in post-apocalyptic books. She is strong, yes, but not in a kick-ass way. She is strong in a she’s doing her best to be a good mom and still survive type way. And that’s a nice thing to see in post-apocalyptic horror fiction.
The book naturally ends up pondering “madness” a lot. The creatures drive any who see them into near-caricature depictions of madness. Sometimes the person becomes violent against others. Sometimes the person turns on themselves, killing themselves or self-injuring to the extent that they die. There are a lot of questions about what the human mind can handle. There is a lot of argument in the book for agency against all odds.
It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces. (loc 4034)
On the one hand, I appreciate the argument for agency and fighting for your sanity and humanity. On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a metaphor where madness happens to people who just aren’t careful enough or don’t have enough of a plan. While it’s valid that a mental illness must be fought every day and some have more natural resiliency than others, there’s a tone of blame to the theme that strikes me the wrong way.
At one point, it is postulated that perhaps the only ones immune to being driven mad by the creatures are those who are already mentally ill because they are already mad. There is no science behind this thought. There is simply a character who appears to have paranoid schizophrenia who firmly believes the creatures are not actually dangerous because he has seen them and is fine. Yet he is a character who ends up instigating an incredibly violent scene. While it is true that there are violent extremes of mental illness, there are also those that are not. The book fails to bring out the subtleties and varieties of mental illness. Imagine the power that could have been from a character who had, for instance, OCD and was able to see the creatures and interact with them without harming anyone and able to understand that others cannot see them safely. Imagine if it was simply that seeing the world differently already, being abnormal, protected one from being driven truly mad by the creatures. What an interesting direction that could have taken the story.
Thus, in general, while I appreciate the more unique and interesting things the book did, such as focusing on a pregnant woman and then a young mother as the main character and telling the plot in a non-linear way, ultimately the book did not push the boundaries or the ideas far enough to truly enrapture me. Recommended to horror, Lovecraft, and post-apocalyptic fans looking for a read with a young mother as the focus.
4 out of 5 stars
When two of Toby’s good friends’ children go missing from their own bedroom and another won’t wake up from being asleep, they call Toby in immediately to look for them. Soon the King of Cats reports that some of his kingdom’s children are missing too, and Quentin’s human girlfriend disappears as well. It quickly becomes clear that it’s time for the 100 year cycle of Blind Michael’s Hunt. Blind Michael, the Luidaeg’s brother, is incredibly powerful, and only three roads lead to his realm. Toby can only take each road once. That means she has only three chances to save the children and stop the Hunt.
I picked this book up immediately after finishing the second in the series and, oh man, it did not disappoint. This book presents an old school Brothers Grimm style blood-curdling, toes-curling fairy tale, peppered with characters we’ve already come to know and love.
Blind Michael is scary. What he does to the children is really scary. He turns the fae children into “Riders” monstrous twists on real fae features. He turns the human children into their horses for them to ride. Everything about Blind Michael and his twisted land scared the crap out of me, and I don’t scare easily. It was exactly the sort of scare I used to seek out as a child from the original Grimm Fairy Tales (the ones that are not cleaned up). This book goes a lot darker than the first two, which were already dark, and it went there in such a different way from the first two plots. The first two plots were entirely about murder, here we have someone stealing children from their beds. It’s a completely different type of scare and different sort of mystery for Toby to have to figure out.
The plot tells more than just this one mystery, though, it also brings out some information that is key to the overarching plot of the series. I really enjoyed how smoothly this was worked together, and I also must say I didn’t predict at all where it was going.
There are basically two themes in the book, one I appreciated and the other I didn’t particularly agree with. Let’s start with the one I didn’t agree with.
There’s a theme in the book that children on some level must deal with and be held responsible for the choices of their parents. Toby tries to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t work out so well for her.
Blood will tell. I tried to pretend it wouldn’t that we could change, but blood always tells. We carry the burdens of our parents. (loc 312)
It basically reads as the idea that you can’t run away from your family or from your blood, your nature. Personally, I don’t like that frame of thought. You can leave your family of birth and not have to be held responsible for them. You are not your parents. You are your own person. You are not responsible for what your parents do after you leave home. So this theme didn’t sit well with me. Other readers who agree with this theme will obviously enjoy it more.
The other theme was one I was quite happy to see so directly addressed in an urban fantasy and that is of suicidal ideation. There are many different ways that suicidal ideation can manifest, but with Toby her symptoms are that she firmly believes her death is imminent and is planning for it, and she repeatedly throws herself into risk situations because she doesn’t care if she dies. Suicidal ideation essentially means that a person is lacking self-preservation instincts and is ok with dying. They won’t actually commit suicide but they will put themselves into dangerous situations because part of them does want to die. So they might run across a street without looking, go walking alone at 2am in a dangerous neighborhood, etc… Toby’s depression from the first two books has grown so much that she is now at this point, and people have started calling her out on it. Seeing her realize that she’s, in layman’s terms, got a death wish, is interesting and well-done. What I appreciate most about it is how directly it is addressed.
Because, dear October, you’re the most passively suicidal person I’ve ever met, and that’s saying something. You’ll never open your wrists, but you’ll run head-first into hell. You’ll have good reasons. You’ll have great reasons, even. And part of you will be praying that you won’t come out again. (loc 3876)
Overall, this entry in the series brings back the characters readers have come to love and puts them into a new mystery much more terrifying than the first two. Two strong themes in the book include nature/nurture/ties to parents and dealing with suicidal ideation. Fans of the series won’t be disappointed. This is a roller coaster ride of emotions and peril.
4 out of 5 stars