Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”

I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy.  I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it.  And it’s going to be a hard review to write.

Allow me to explain.

The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me.  I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another.  Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.

I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety.  Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what.  But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative.  I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition.  He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them.  This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.

Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that.  A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means.  I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.

Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.”  Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like.  I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible.  The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is.  The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.

Structurally, the book is all over the place.  Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots.  The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit.  For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating.  Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.

I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety.  After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety.  I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all.  Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.

This review was originally posted on November 4, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Sexual Assault is Not a Vehicle for Character Growth: Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

For the first time ever, I’m doing a book review as a feature, because I feel strongly that this book has issues that should be addressed.  I got so angry after reading this that I decided to sleep on it and see how I felt in the morning.  My anger has not abated.  If you check out this title on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see a bunch of good reviews for it.  You’ll also see some passionate one-star reviews, and they all focus on much the same thing: this novel uses sexual assault to promote character growth.  In my opinion, this is a dangerous trope that needs to be dealt with.  Worse, the author himself has no understanding of what he has done and actively refuses to consider that what he wrote was non-consensual.  We’ll get to that later, but first, let’s start from the beginning.  And, by necessity, this review contains major spoilers.

“Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up on New Year’s Day to find himself in the hospital—specifically, in the psychiatric ward. Despite the bandages on his wrists, he’s positive this is all some huge mistake. Jeff is perfectly fine, perfectly normal; not like the other kids in the hospital with him. But over the course of the next forty-five days, Jeff begins to understand why he ended up here—and realizes he has more in common with the other kids than he thought.”

Okay.  I’m not sure where to begin with all the things that bothered me about this book, but I’ll try to do this in some kind of logical order.  Let’s start with Jeff.  If you’ve read past reviews of mine, you know that I’m not averse to unlikable main characters.  You don’t always have to like the person you’re reading about, as long as their story is well told.  In this case, I deeply disliked Jeff, and there really wasn’t anything in the story that–for lack of a better word–redeemed him in my eyes.  He comes across as an unrepentant jerk for much of the book.  He backs that off a little towards the end of the novel, but for me, it was too little, too late.  There are scenes of him making fun of other teens in his ward, and although the author tries to counterbalance those with his kindness towards a young patient named Martha, it didn’t work very well.  Basically, I didn’t believe Jeff’s change of heart, as he isn’t show experiencing any real growth–he just gets tired of fighting the people who want to help him and gives in.  To me, there’s a big difference.

My next complaint concerns the depiction of the hospital.  There are several things about it that are not true to real life.  I have had occasion to visit someone in a psychiatric ward, and I can tell you for a fact that, in a facility with teen suicide risks, other patients would not be allowed to possess or use a razor unsupervised.  The teens would not have had such lax supervision as to allow them to sneak into each others’ beds.  And when you’re given medication, you have to swallow it in the presence of a nurse, so building up a stash of pills with which to commit suicide wouldn’t happen.  If by some extreme event that did occur, the aforementioned supervision would have that patient down in the ER and their stomach pumped within a short period of time.  Staff would not leave patient files in a patient’s room, nor would it be tolerated for security guards to gossip about patients with other patients.

In this story, Jeff forms a friendship with another patient named Sadie.  He sneaks into her bed one night and they fool around, but he realizes that he’s not sexually attracted to her and leaves the room.  Later, after some other events happen (which we’ll get into later), Jeff’s psychiatrist blurts out in the middle of a session that Sadie killed herself.  The manner in which he broke the news was just… no.  Doctor finds out that patient fooled around with another patient, and then feels that it’s imperative to immediately tell him that said other patient offed herself?  What the hell?

And now we get to the big thing that made me scream “Oh hell no!” at this book, and the thing that forms the title of this post.  A patient arrives named Rankin.  One night, Jeff catches Rankin masturbating in the shower.  (Showering without supervision?  Nope.)  Rankin notices Jeff watching and isn’t fazed.  He sneaks into Jeff’s room, gets into bed with him, and start masturbating Jeff.  Jeff says “Don’t,” but Rankin continues.  They eventually pleasure each other, although Jeff is disgusted by the whole thing.  The next time they meet in the bathroom, Rankin has obviously twigged into the fact that Jeff may be gay and disrobes in front of him and beckons Jeff into the shower with him.  Jeff, rather confused by everything, goes.  Rankin pushes Jeff to his knees and orders him to perform oral sex on him.  He doesn’t ask Jeff what he wants, he just does it, and again he’s disgusted.  And then, one night, Rankin sneaks into Jeff’s room, and Jeff wakes up with Rankin trying to penetrate him from behind, and when Jeff seems about to say something, Rankin covers Jeff’s mouth with his hand.  Jeff is portrayed as struggling to get away when they are interrupted by the staff.  Later, the encounter makes Jeff come to terms with the fact that he is gay.

Now, I can understand sexual confusion.  I imagine many gay teens go through a period of confusion and possibly even disgust as they come to grips with their sexuality.  But there are two major issues here: one, that last scene is definitely rape and is never characterized as such, nor does Jeff ever come to that realization; two, it is dangerous to portray a sexual assault as a way for a teen coming to grips with their sexuality to make that leap and admit who they are.  This is a damaging trope that shows up in far too many books.  An author that I read, Seanan McGuire, has received e-mails from fans asking when her female main character is going to be raped, because too much fiction portrays this act as crucial for someone to grow in strength and understanding.  In this book, Rankin is transferred to a different facility, presumably with no warning that he’s a rapist.  Jeff doesn’t deal with the trauma at all.  It’s glossed over as just an unfortunate sexual encounter or something.

And somehow, this manages to get worse.

After reading this book–and wanting to throw it against the wall–I hopped onto Amazon to look at the reviews.  I didn’t think I could be the only one to feel this way.  Sure enough, there were other reviews pointing out what I’ve talked about above.  One of those reviews was graced by comments from… the author himself!  And may I just say, it would have been much better for him to do the traditional author trick of ignoring the comments.  He accuses “I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you haven’t actually read the novel and the so-called ‘rape scene’.”  He continues, “It might interest you to know that the industry review journal including PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and BOOKLIST–both of which have a deep understanding of young adult literature and its readers–have given the novel rave reviews.”  He doesn’t stop there, and goes on to address the scene in question: “[s]omething happens to Jeff that he wants to happen (in the sense that he longs to experience sex with another boy) but that he’s afraid of because it means accepting who he is.  He can’t express what he wants.  He’s not violated.  He’s not raped.”  As evidence to the contrary, I offer the following excerpt:

“I was sleeping, and then I felt something pressing against my back.  Rankin had pulled my shorts down, and he was pushing himself against me.  I was still only half awake, so I didn’t realize what he was doing at first.  He put his arms around me and pulled me closer.  I could hear him breathing in my ear.

Believe it or not, that’s not even the bad thing.  If that was all, I could probably handle it.  Probably.  But that was just the beginning.

Like I said, Rankin was holding on to me and trying to… I don’t think I can even say it right now.  But he was getting close.  As soon as I realized what he was doing, I woke up fast.  I even opened my mouth to tell him to stop.

And that’s when the screaming started.

At first I thought it was me screaming.  Then I realized it was a girl’s voice.  I don’t know what Rankin thought was going on, but he pulled me closer to him and put his hand on my mouth.  Maybe he thought I was the one screaming too.”

That right there?  That’s sexual assault.  It doesn’t matter if Jeff is scared of admitting that he’s gay, it doesn’t matter if can’t accept that part of himself.  The simple facts of this scene are as follows: Rankin initiated sex with Jeff while he was asleep, and therefore, unable to consent.  When Jeff woke up, he didn’t want the encounter to be happening and he tried to say no, but he’s prevented from doing so by Rankin physically muffling him.  None of those facts are overshadowed by what Jeff does or does not think about his sexuality.  What matters is Rankin’s actions.  What also matters, in this case, is the author’s attitude towards this scene.  He implies that, because Jeff is curious about having sex with a boy,  he must necessarily be ready for sex with any convenient boy, regardless of circumstance.  No, he doesn’t say that, but that’s the implication of his statement that Jeff “wants to happen”.  Also, implying that teenagers can’t “express what they want” strips them of a lot of agency.  None of this is in the book itself, of course, but it does provide some backdrop to how the author was thinking about this situation while writing it.  And I firmly believe that thoughts like that will inform an author’s writing.  Mr. Ford is conveying a skewed and dangerous view of consent.

Then, to make matters worse, it’s that encounter that appears to be the catalyst for Jeff accepting that he’s attracted to men and beginning to accept himself.  Jeff even states that he realizes that he wants to have sex with men, just not with Rankin.  That scene I quoted is not just a case of deciding that you aren’t attracted to a particular person.  That scene is assault.  Jeff never realizes that and never deals with it.  His psychiatrist is never shown giving Jeff any assurance that he believes Jeff when he says that he didn’t invite what happened to him.  Nor does the doctor do anything to help Jeff deal with the event.  It just… gets glossed over in Jeff’s acceptance of his sexuality.  I’m sorry, but that’s just not something that teens need to be integrating into their worldview.

I freely admit that after reading this novel, I was angry.  After reading the author’s views on what he wrote, I was incandescently angry and disgusted.  I laid in bed for two hours fuming over the whole thing and woke up not much cooled down.  Mr. Ford, if you ever read this, I sincerely hope that you have educated yourself on rape, sexual assault, and consent and can better convey any such scenes you may write in future books.  I don’t fault you for defending your work, but please, please, listen to people who come away with different views of what you think you wrote.  You can learn something.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

A World Without You by Beth Revis

a-world-without-you“Seventeen-year-old Bo has always had delusions that he can travel through time. When he was ten, Bo claimed to have witnessed the Titanic hit an iceberg, and at fifteen, he found himself on a Civil War battlefield, horrified by the bodies surrounding him. So when his worried parents send him to a school for troubled youth, Bo assumes he knows the truth: that he’s actually attending Berkshire Academy, a school for kids who, like Bo, have ‘superpowers.’

At Berkshire, Bo falls in love with Sofía, a quiet girl with a tragic past and the superpower of invisibility. Sofia helps Bo open up in a way he never has before. In turn, Bo provides comfort to Sofía, who lost her mother and two sisters at a very young age.

But even the strength of their love isn’t enough to help Sofia escape her deep depression. After she commits suicide, Bo is convinced that she’s not actually dead. He believes that she’s stuck somewhere in time—that he somehow left her in the past, and that now it’s his job to save her. And as Bo becomes more and more determined to save Sofía, he must decide whether to face his demons head-on or succumb to a psychosis that will let him be with the girl he loves.”

Read more

Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars

polarity-in-motion“Fifteen-year-old Polarity Weeks just wants to live a normal life, but with a mother diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, that’s rarely easy. Her life gets exponentially more disastrous when her sixth-period history classmates start ogling a nude picture of her on the Internet. Polarity would never have struck such a shameless pose, but the photo is definitely of her, and she’s at a complete loss to explain its existence.

Child Protective Services yanks her from her home, suspecting her parents. The kids at school mock her, assuming she took it herself. And Ethan, the boy she was really starting to like, backpedals and joins the taunting chorus. Surrounded by disbelief and derision on all sides, Polarity desperately seeks the truth among her friends. Only then does she learn that everyone has dark secrets, and no one’s life is anywhere near normal.”

This book was an unexpected jewel, one that I found by accident when it was a daily deal on Barnes and Noble.  I thought it was going to be another typical “teen angst” novel mixed with issues like sexting and/or bullying, but what this book deals with goes so much deeper than that.  What I found as I got into this novel was a nuanced and bluntly honest look at a girl learning about privilege.

The base of the story is Polarity’s quest to figure out who took the picture of her and how they could have done it.  From this beginning, the novel branches off in several directions that all feed into each other.  The first thing you notice is that Polarity is presumed to be guilty of deliberately taking the picture, no matter what she says.  She’s the new girl and has attracted the attention of the bullying girls, so as the odd one out, she’s automatically thought to be ripe to do something like that.  From there, Polarity briefly enters the foster care system and is confronted by the realization that her case is likely prioritized not only because she’s white, but because she has two parents actively fighting for her.

Slowly, Polarity begins to notice the inequalities all around her, and the all-or-nothing mindset that feeds into such beliefs.  Her name is symbolic of more than just her mother’s desire to remember that there’s always another side to what she thinks; it’s symbolic of the extremes that can often seem to characterize our day to day social interactions.  Something is either wonderful or terrible; a person is either completely good or completely bad; we rush to judgement based on the thinnest of tidbits of information.

This isn’t to say that Polarity gets it right the first time, or even the second or third time.  She stumbles, she backslides, she makes mistakes.  The important thing is that she learns from those moments.  Again, many novels would portray Polarity as just that–either completely ignorant of her privilege or a paragon of knowledge about the problem.  Polarity here is very real, learning by doing and not always getting the point immediately.  It gave me a lot of respect for her, and a lot of respect for the author to have written Polarity so well.

Yeah, there’s a lot of “issue” novels out lately, but this one is one of the best.  Questions of how we combat privilege are rampant in our society today, and we need novels like this one to help us think through these ideas in a safe and honest way.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)