Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell

Title:  What I Had Before I Had You
Author: Sarah Cornwell
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell, a woman must face the truth about her past in this luminous, evocative literary novel of parents and children, guilt and forgiveness, memory and magical thinking, set in the faded, gritty world of the New Jersey Shore.

Olivia was only fifteen the summer she left her hometown of Ocean Vista. Two decades later, on a visit with her children, her nine-year-old son Daniel, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, disappears. Olivia’s search for him sparks tender and painful memories of her past—of her fiercely loving and secretive mother, Myla, an erratic and beautiful psychic, and the discovery of heartbreaking secrets that shattered her world.

My Review:

This year, I am being SUPER choosy about my TLC review books (because of Tater Tot's arrival and my thus-limited reading time).  Therefore, you can rest assured that any TLC books I review here have gone through my ever-so-exacting vetting process (ie. I read the synopsis and it made me feel many feels).  What I Had Before I Had You is the first TLC book I'm reviewing in 2014, and it stands up to my newly rigorous standards, because I lurved it.

I think what makes this book stick out in comparison to other family dramas is that it's a bit of a chameleon--the story has so many interesting angles, delicately woven together, that the central focus of the story is constantly changing.  One minute, you're centered on Olivia's past and her connection (or disconnection) with her mother...the next minute, you're caught up in the search for her son Daniel...and then you find yourself contemplating the ways bipolar disorder has shaped this family's trajectory over so many years.  This may make it sound like the novel is disjointed or jumpy, but it's not--the author (Cornwell) does an awesome job of blending all these elements together.  I honestly didn't realize the full complexity of the story until I sat back after reading the last page and considered the novel as a whole.

This is one of those books that would be great for book clubs--the discussion possibilities are endless.  Even the can be construed in so many different ways.  A reference to Olivia's childhood, or the genetic legacy of bipolar in her family, etc...and does it smack of nostalgia, or wistfulness, or both?  SO MUCH TO ANALYZE.  My high school English teachers would be proud.

One thing I'd LOVE to discuss with anyone else who's read this is their thoughts on the main character, Olivia.  I feel kinda bad saying it, but I didn't find her entirely likeable.  That sounds harsh, when you consider that she had a rough childhood (being brought up by a bipolar mother who was rather neglectful at times), was eventually diagnosed as bipolar herself, and is now struggling to raise a bipolar son.  But there's just something about her that I found to be...abrasive, maybe?  A little too defensive, or rough around the edges?  Hard to say.  Yet another reason why I appreciate the careful way that Cornwell crafted this story.

I'll admit that I was a little slow to get caught up in this story, but once I did, I jumped in feet first.  The multidimensional nature of this novel makes it one of the better family-based books that I've read lately.  Part drama, part mystery, but either way, a must-read.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.  And connect with Sarah Cornwell on her Facebook page.
I'm always pretty stoked when I start the year off with some awesome reads.  Have any books knocked your socks off yet in 2014?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

Title: The Memory Palace
Author: Mira Bartok
Publisher: Free Press
Publication Date: January 11, 2011
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads:

When piano prodigy Norma Herr was healthy, she was the most vibrant personality in the room. But as her schizophrenic episodes became more frequent and more dangerous, she withdrew into a world that neither of her daughters could make any sense of. After Norma attacked her, Mira Bartók and her sister changed their names and cut off all contact in order to keep themselves safe. For the next seventeen years Mira’s only contact with her mother was through infrequent letters exchanged through post office boxes, often not even in the same city where she was living.

At the age of forty, Mira suffered a debilitating head injury that left her memories foggy and her ability to make sense of the world around her forever changed. Hoping to reconnect with her past, Mira learned Norma was dying in a hospital, and she and her sister traveled to their mother’s deathbed to reconcile one last time.

Through stunning prose and gorgeous original art, The Memory Palace explores the connections between mother and daughter that cannot be broken no matter how much exists—or is lost—between them.

My Review:

Phew, what a memoir.  The Memory Palace is, at various points, sad, frightening, hopeful, and frustrating.  But mostly sad.  I was sad for the lack of support that Mira and her sister Natalia received over the years, both from their other family members and from social services.  I was sad for their mother, who Mira and Natalia loved deeply, but because she was unable to receive adequate help, they were forced to abandon her for their own well-being.  And most broadly, I was sad that Mira and Natalia had to live their entire lives under this shadow--because even when they separated themselves completely from their mother, they were still left with horrible memories and a suspicion of others' good will.

This memoir speaks strongly about the lack of social supports for the mentally ill in America.  Mira and Natalia tried countless times to get social services involved with their mother, or to appoint her a legal guardian who could take over her financial affairs--and in the end, the vast majority of their attempts failed, resulting in their mother's homelessness and declining physical health.  Also, I couldn't believe that Mira and Natalia were never taken from their mother's custody as children.  Mira does say that they never wanted that, but from an outsider perspective, it was heart-wrenching to see the fear they lived in throughout their childhoods because of their mother's illness.  It makes you wonder how many other families in this country face these obstacles with mentally ill spouses, children, siblings, etc. each day.

Well, I've made it fairly obvious that this memoir leaves a big emotional impact.  But I also have to comment on the writing style a bit.  I'll admit that, in the beginning, I almost DNF'd this one.  The first part of the book, when Mira is recounting her early childhood, took a long time to catch my interest.  I think because her memories of this time were so fuzzy (being early in life), she writes about them with a lot of symbolic references to artwork, music, etc and after a while, those references just became too abstract and flowy for me.  I wanted to know about her life...I didn't need all of the artistic imagery in its place.

However, as Mira moves into her adolescence and adulthood, she leaves a lot of these fluid images behind, and starts telling her story in a more concrete way.  (She does still rely on a lot of artistic images for embellishment--she is an artist, after all--but when paired with the more solid facts of her life, they take on  more relevance, in my opinion.)  By the time she was recounting her teenage years, I was enveloped in the memoir and found myself captivated by her life story.  In spite of the difficult time she has with her mother, Mira has led a truly amazing life, and the journey she goes on around the world is not one you'll soon forget.

Looking for a light read?  I think you need to find another book on my blog, perhaps.  The Memory Palace is sure to weigh heavily on your mind for a while after reading, but the message it sends about the treatment of the mentally ill makes it well worth your time.

Readers: read any other powerful memoirs lately?  Especially in regards to mental illness?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

BANNED! Book Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Title: Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & World
Publication Date: March 1966
Source: won in a giveaway from

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Flowers for Algernon  is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie's intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance--until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?

My Review:

As promised, today I am reviewing Flowers for Algernon in honor of Banned Book Week!  Sheila over at Book Journey hosts a Banned Book Week event each year, and last year it was one of the first blog "events" that I participated in after I opened up shop here.  I loved reviewing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey last year, and I knew I wanted to jump on the "banned" wagon again this time around.

Lucky for me, I won a giveaway from Shannon @ Giraffe Days during last year's celebrations, and I got a copy of Flowers for Algernon as a result.  So what better time to put it to use??

Anyway: the book.  The one word that kept ringing in my head as I read it was "heartbreaking".  Even in Charlie's happiest of times, I was filled with sadness either by the way others were treating him, or by the dread of what I knew was to come.  Much of the emotional nature of this novel is a direct result of the perspective that is used.  The entire story is told through Charlie's personal diary entries, so you get the full effect of his intellectual and emotional changes throughout the novel.

It feels overly obvious for me to point this out, but the book is also heartbreaking in the way that it illustrates the treatment of people who are mentally disabled.  Charlie begins the novel with an IQ of 70, before skyrocketing upwards on the intelligence scales, past even what his doctors had predicted.  This may sound wonderful for him, but in addition to all of the book-learning he gains, he also begins to see that the seemingly innocent or funny actions of his "friends" in the past were really jokes at his expense.  In a world where bullying is such a hot topic in schools, I can think of no better novel that could make an adolescent think through their hurtful words before doling them out.

Why is this book important to read, even though it's one of the top 100 banned books (according to the ALA)?  Many of the attempted bans on Flowers for Algernon are based around its sexual content.  Charlie's intellectual advances don't automatically equate to emotional advances, so as he gets smarter, he also finds that he has a whole world of sexual desires to attempt to understand.  There are several scenes that handle this topic, but I would hardly call them "filthy and immoral" (as some protesters have done).  Instead, they highlight one of the central themes of the novel: that emotional and IQ intelligence are not the same thing, and that different capacities are needed in order to reach happiness in each area.  Without these scenes, Charlie's character would be incomplete, and the full impact of the novel would never be felt.

You want happy and uplifting?  Flowers for Algernon is not for you.  But if you want an emotional read with a unique perspective that is sure to tug at your heart strings, you need to jump into Charlie's story ASAP.

Have you read Flowers for Algernon?  If not, what's one of your favorite books that often makes the "banned" list?
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