Book Review Club: Silver Linings and Rose Gardens #amreading

In April my readers group chose Psychology as a topic, so I looked for novels about characters with mental illness and decided to share my short reviews for this month’s Book Review Club.

Z cover

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press, 2013

I knew Zelda had mental issues, so I grabbed a copy of this book when it was on sale at Amazon Kindle. I found it quite fascinating.

Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald meet during WWI when he is stationed near Montgomery, Alabama where Zelda lives. She’s pretty and vivacious and a good ballet dancer, and Scott is smitten almost instantly. Her parents, who are from prominent if not wealthy families, aren’t thrilled about this Yankee upstart, but she’s determined to marry him.

Though they clearly loved each other, it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven. Scott was insecure and became jealous of Zelda when she tried to step outside of her wifely role. Her first short stories were published under his name, supposedly because they would earn more money, though I think his ego was threatened also. She couldn’t ignore the economic argument as they consistently lived above their means. He was also a raging alcoholic, which didn’t help her mental state.

As I was reading, it seemed clear to me that she was bipolar, going through manic stages and then depression. In one manic state, she was practicing ballet almost nonstop and hardly eating. She had an episode where she started hallucinating, but I suspect it might have been from dehydration. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Psychiatrists now say she was misdiagnosed and was actually bipolar.

I found the book very engaging and enjoyed it although the ending isn’t a happy one. Since they were real people, it’s no secret that they both died relatively young. Zelda’s death was especially tragic, in a fire at a mental hospital. I hope the smoke got her first.

I checked the other two books out of the library, one in audio format and the second as an e-book.

SilverLiningsSilver Linings Playbook
by Matthew Quick
Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2008

I chose this book because I knew there was some kind of mental illness in the book. Written in first person, it’s apparently also a good example of an unreliable narrator. The protagonist is Pat, a 34-year-old man whom we first see in a mental health facility in Maryland that he calls the Bad Place. In the first chapter his mom springs him out of the hospital and takes him home to New Jersey where he gets a new therapist, an Indian-American named Cliff.

Pat struck me as both delusional and suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He misses his wife Nikki, but can’t see her because they are having “apart time”. From the reactions of his family and friends, the reader is pretty sure apart time is never going to end, but Pat maintains the delusion through most of the book. He has mentally blocked what led to him being hospitalized. One of the funniest things is his aversion to the music of Kenny G. He freaks out whenever he hears smooth jazz, even if it’s only in his mind. Later in the book we find out why.

Pat tries to make himself a better person for Nikki, reminding himself to be kind instead of right, but also by exercising compulsively. During their marriage he had gained “ten to seventy pounds” and now he’s slim again and buffed up from all the exercise. He becomes re-aquainted with Tiffany, his best friend’s sister-in-law. They have a strange relationship, but ultimately become friends. Pat is always looking for the silver lining in life. He says he is watching the movie of his life and believes in silver linings and happy endings. The ending is a bit bittersweet, but hopeful. I’m looking forward to watching the movie now. The narration by Ray Porter is excellent.

Rose Garden coverI Never Promised You a Rose Garden
by Hannah Green, aka Joanne Greenberg
Henry Holt and Co., 2010
First published 1964

The book takes place in the 1940’s (I think) and is semi-autobiographical. Greenberg was institutionalized when she was a teen, and her therapist helped to pull her out of her made-up world. In the book, the protagonist’s name is Deborah Blau, who is Jewish and among other slights is bullied by anti-Semitic students.

After a suicide attempt, she is hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia, which sounds right to me. She is socially disengaged, instead retreating to a world in her mind called Yr (pronounced Year). She is lucky when she’s assigned to Dr. Fried, who instead of quibbling with her about the secret world and language, focuses on getting Deb to relate in the real world. She feels that Deb’s obvious intelligence and creativity mean she is sane on some level.

The glimpse into a mental hospital of that era is rather disturbing. Some of the patients suddenly explode into violence. Others urinate on the floor. I suppose nowadays they are all in adult diapers. The title comes from something the doctor says to Deb.

I found the book quite interesting and enlightening. Now I’d like to see the movie, though I’m a little bummed that they Anglicized the Blau family and turned then into the Blakes. I guess that was the “politically correct” thing to do at the time, but it seems jarring now.

I enjoyed all three books. What are you reading? Has anyone watched the TV series Z?

Linda

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Book Review Club: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg #review #history #sociology

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

by Nancy Isenberg
History / Sociology
Audio book narrated by Kirsten Potter
White Trash cover

  • The New York Times bestseller
  • A New York Times Notable and Critics’ Top Book of 2016
  • Longlisted for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
  • One of NPR’s 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
  • NPR’s Book Concierge Guide To 2016’s Great Reads
  • San Francisco Chronicle‘s Best of 2016: 100 recommended books
  • A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2016
  • Globe & Mail 100 Best of 2016
  • Goodreads Best History & Biography 2016

As you can see by the list of accolades above, this is an excellent book. I listened to the whole thing in my car and never lost interest. Isenberg starts in colonial America, explaining how England saw it’s colonies as dumping ground for what they called “waste people”. In other words, the landless poor. Instead of recognizing that these people were poorly fed, clothed, etc. the elites simply saw them as inferior. This attitude has persisted down to the present day. She implies that part of the relentless hounding of Bill Clinton may have been because he was seen as “white trash” and therefore, not good enough to be president, no matter his natural talents and abilities. Ditto for Sarah Palin, who was denigrated as a Wasilla hillbilly.

I found it very interesting to see American history presented through the prism of class. That’s not the way it’s taught in the schools, or at least not when I was a kid. Class structure has been used by the elites to divide the masses and stay in power throughout history. During the Civil War period, the planter elites had to give the Southern poor whites reasons to fight, when they really had nothing to gain by supporting the slave owners. So the planters denigrated Northern whites by calling them mudsills, dirt farmers and grease monkeys. (Personally I come from a long line of dirt farmers and grease monkeys.) Isenberg twice quotes Lyndon Johnson saying, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Highly recommended.

Kirsten Potter has a pleasant voice, though some of her pronunciation choices were odd and jarring. Enough to be noticeable, but not enough for me to not recommend the audiobook.

Linda

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