Rise

Rise.jpgTitle: Rise: How a House Built a Family
Author: Cara Brookins
ISBN: 9781250095664
Pages: 310 pages
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press, c2017

Pouring the house’s footing had been a wake-up call. Not only was the project a million times more difficult than I had imagined, but it was a mere metaphor for what I really needed to do. I had fooled myself into believing that building a physical house was the same as rebuilding our family. While we might still use the physical build to accomplish the personal one, they were two distinctly different creatures and required individual diets. I felt enormously out of my league in both cases, like I’d adopted a Saint Bernard and an elephant. (92-93)

Cara Brookins and her four children suffered from her marriages, first to a man suffering from delusions and schizophrenia and then to an abuser. Both were scary in their own right, leaving everyone in the family, including the dog, jumping at shadows, looking behind their shoulders, and checking the locks on their doors. Intent on making new memories and helping her kids and herself, Cara pursues a piece of land, a construction loan, and a nine month timeline to build a new house, and hopefully a new home for her family. With no experience, knowledge, or free-time due to school, work, and chores, even they realize the impossible task they have created for themselves.

Even though I laughed over the image of the kids and me as a construction team, I liked the idea a lot. Sure, it was a little nuts, but it was the first workable plan I’d come up with that fit our limited finances. We could do it. I knew we could. Building a house would prove we were strong. It would prove that despite my stupidity in staying with idiots for so long, I was still intelligent. It would prove so many things–most of all that we were alive. (22)

Several of the reviews mention that Cara embarked on this effort due to financial necessity, but if that was mentioned I didn’t catch it. Instead, she stresses repeatedly the need for a safe harbor, a place where ghosts wouldn’t plague their fragile state of mind. In alternating chapters, she jumps from flashbacks focusing on two of her unsuccessful marriages (briefly touching upon her first marriage to an unnamed high school sweetheart) to an accounting of the nine months it took to raise the house from nothing. The flashbacks are graphically detailed, and the fear the whole family felt is palpable when they are chased in a car by the schizophrenic ex-husband and their dog is abused when left alone at the house. It’s psychological warfare, whereas the third husband is physically abusive towards Cara.

The actual build is composed of delays, setbacks, and uncertainties. Things get slightly repetitive, and the addition of pictures and diagrams might have aided in the explanation of how the walls were raise, the pipes were laid, or the electric wires were strung. That was when I felt most invested in that part of the story, like when she discusses how she rationalized the choice of piping, or what they had to do to make the waterlogged wood work. The enterprise began in 2009, when YouTube was in its infancy and there were no smart phones, which makes it all the more impressive.

It’s impossible to not be awed by her tenacity, but I do wonder about the children, who Cara frankly admits do not get to experience a true childhood during that time frame as they slog through mud, slinging studs and sand around. There are benefits in their pursuit, as they all gain valuable skills and confidence and come together as a family. For those who might be inspired to follow her pursuit, she might have included a timeline or list of resources. I’m a huge fan of triumphant underdog stories, and while it does leave me wondering what I could accomplish if I committed to a goal like Cara and her family, I certainly don’t have the confidence (or is it naivety?) to attempt it by myself.

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Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down.jpgTitle: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
ISBN: 9780525555360
Pages: 286 pages
Publisher/Date: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Daisy and I were scanning stations in search of a song to a particular brilliant and underappreciated boy band when we landed upon a news story. “–Indianapolis-based Pickett Engineering, a construction firm employing more than ten thousand people worldwide, today–” I moved my hand toward the scan button, but Daisy pushed it away.
“This is what I was telling you about!” she said as the radio continued, “–one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the whereabouts of company CEO Russell Pickett. Pickett, who disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation, was last seen at his riverside compound on September eighth. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is encourage to call the Indianapolis Police Department.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said. “And you know his kid.” (15)

When news breaks of the disappearance of a local billionaire, sixteen-year-old Aza’s friend Daisy can hardly believe that Aza used to go to camp with his son, Davis. Aza and Daisy lead very different lives compared to Davis, and Daisy is definitely interested in the reward money. After Daisy and Aza are caught snooping around, Davis and Aza reconnect in a manner that only two lost souls who are looking for support can appreciate. However, Aza is more interested in simply getting through the day, as her spirals of thought prove more consuming and destructive. Her medicines and therapy visits aren’t helping, and even she is beginning to realize that maybe she can’t handle everything as well as she thinks.

Be warned, this review includes several longer quotes. I tried very hard to avoid any spoilers in their content. But if you want to be as blown away by the thought-provoking nature of the book as I was the first time you read it, this will probably impact your enjoyment and awe.

Aza suffers from an unnamed illness which appears to my uneducated brain as some combination of paranoia, anxiety, and OCD. She is constantly reopening a wound on her finger in an attempt to drain any infections or harmful bacteria from her body. I don’t think I have ever read a book that has so thoroughly described a mental disorder from the sufferer’s perspective. It begins a conversation about identity, awareness, and self-control that was started long before the phrase “I think therefore I am”. In fact, that quote is discussed at length in the book:

“It’s . . . like, I’m just not sure that I am, strictly speaking, real.”
Dr. Singh placed her feet on the floor and leaned forward, her hands on her knees. “That’s very interesting,” she said. “Very interesting.” I felt briefly proud to be, for a moment anyway, not not uncommon. “It must be very scary, to feel that your self might not be yours. Almost a kind of . . . imprisonment?”
I nodded. […]
“You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.”
I nodded.
“But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.”
“But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?”
“No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.” (166-167)

I love the way that John Green presents mental illness in a manner that helps me empathize with sufferers but also allows me to see that there is still a lot to be understood about the brain and how it works. There is a lot to process as the book raises questions on self, awareness, identity, being, and thought. I would love to use this as a book discussion pick, and see what others have to say, either based on their own experiences with mental illness or how they interpret the interactions of biological, chemical, and mental responses.

There’s another passage that I quoted to a friend who is suffering depression right now who said that it pretty damn accurately describes her brain.

“I don’t understand how you can be so inhumanly calm down here, […] but you have a panic attack when you think your finger is infected.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This just isn’t scary.”
“It objectively is,” she said.
“Turn off your light,” I said.
“Hell, no.”
“Turn it off. Nothing bad will happen.” She clicked off her light, and the world went dark. I felt my eyes trying to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. “Now you can’t see the walls, right. […] Spin around a few times and you won’t know which way is in and which way is out. This is scary. Now imagine if we couldn’t talk, if we couldn’t hear each other’s breathing. Imagine if we had no sense of touch, so even if we were standing next to each other, we’d never know it.”
“Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are, which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air. You’re senseless and shapeless– you feel like you you can only describe what you are by identifying what you’re not, and you’re floating around in a body with no control. You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary. This,” I said, and turned on the flashlight. “This is control. This is power. There may be rats and spiders and whatever the hell. But we shine a light on them, not the other way around. We know where the walls are, which was is in and which way is out. This,” I said, turning off my light again, “is what I feel like when I’m scared. This” –I turned the flashlight back on– “is a walk in the fucking park.” (262-263)
There’s another scene where Aza is fighting her OCD, and the claustrophobic nature of the conversation is palatable in the prose. It’s these scenes that make the book a stand-out among young adult fiction.
The rest of the book was less effective from my point of view. The plot of Davis’s missing father is all but forgotten for most of the book. Now this was probably intentionally done to emphasize Aza’s point of view and how all consuming her mental health issues are from her perspective. However, for a book billed as being about a search for a missing billionaire, there is very little searching done. The search for clues that does take place is short, conveniently accomplished, and then the mystery is left on the sidelines until the very end of the book. I also wish we had seen more of Daisy. While the subject is broached of how self-consumed Aza can be, Daisy seems equally one track, talking exclusively about herself, her likes, her relationship, and making decisions for both of them. There are one or two scenes where their problematic friendship is broached, but then the disagreement is truncated and they return to each other without resolving the underlying issues. The above quote is one of the few times that I feel there is actual understanding and connection happening between these two life-long friends.

Davis was equally enigmatic. We see more of him through his blog posts and poetry than we do during his interactions with Aza. He’s memorable qualities are his fascination with astronomy, his apathy towards his father, and his uncertainty about his brother. His concern over what will happen to his brother and himself as opposed to what has happened to his father is heartbreaking and the one thing that made him a relatable character. He sees his life as reactive to his father’s actions, a life he has no control over, which is what really allows him to connect so easily with Aza. Both Davis and Aza see their lives as a result of reactions, Davis to external forces (his father, the media, his brother) and Aza to internal forces (bacteria, chemical reactions, the OCD inside her head).

The last two pages seemed unnecessary to me, as the whole tone changes and it’s added almost intended as an “It gets better” postscript” or epilogue to the story. While that might not stick with you, Aza’s struggles will. Don’t pick this book up for the mystery or the romance. Instead, read it for the thought-provoking portrayal of mental illness and the conversations, self-reflections, and empathy it will elicit. If that was the sole intent of the book, to wrap a discussion of mental illness into a digestible package bookmarked by a billionaire’s disappearance, than John Green succeeded in his goal.

The Monsters’ Monster

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Monsters' Monster.jpgTitle: The Monsters’ Monster
Author/Illustrator: Patrick McDonnell
ISBN: 9780316045476
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2012.

Together they would make a MONSTER monster. The biggest, baddest monster EVER!

Grouch, Grump, Gloom ‘n’ Doom are monsters that live in “a dark monster castle, high atop a dark monster mountain, overlooking a monster-fearing village.” To settle an argument over who was the biggest, baddest monster, instead of choosing among themselves they decide to pool their ideas and resources and build one. Monster is the result of this teamwork, obviously drawing inspiration from the 1931 classic movie Frankenstein. But Monster is neither big nor bad, and the original trio/quartet (Gloom ‘n’ Doom are two heads on one body) are sorely disappointed. Obviously standing out with his green head and oversized body and his less violent attitude as compared to the other primarily white and orange-brown creatures, Monster has by the end won them over to his way of thinking. With frenetic and funny word use, it’s a great read-aloud to share this Halloween for kids of all ages.

Cockatoo, Too and Toucans, Too

Cockatoo Too.jpgTitle: Cockatoo, Too
Author/Illustrator: Bethanie Deeney Murguia
ISBN: 9781499801026
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group, c2016.

 

 

 

Toucans Too.jpg

 

 

 

 

Title: Toucans, Too
Author/Illustrator: Bethanie Deeney Murguia
ISBN: 9781499804218
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, c2017.

A pair or two of two cockatoos, two toucans, and in the end of the second book two gnus dance to their own tune of homophone words and phrases. Tutus, cans of stew, and canoes play a role in this wonderful wordplay, and cuckoos and owls (“WHO?”) make an appearance. The author’s bio mentions a fascination with Seuss at a young age, and that inspiration is evident in the fun. While the story isn’t action packed and younger children might be slightly confused, elementary aged children learning rhymes and word sounds might enjoy hearing it read aloud, if only for the silliness. I’m no art expert, but I’m pretty sure the illustrations are water color and ink. They portray a vibrant forest background, and overlaying the words on a generous white footer allows for easy visibility and readability. Tata you two toucans and cockatoos, until hopefully a third showing.

Whobert Whover, Owl Detective

Whobert Whover.jpgTitle: Whobert Wover, Owl Detective
Author: Jason Gallaher
Illustrator: Jess Pauwels
ISBN: 9781481462716
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2017.

Whobert Whover, owl detective, is patrolling the forest when he sees Perry the possum dead on the ground. Or is he? Astute readers will see Perry’s eyes open during Whobert’s examination of Perry and interrogation of nearby animals. The culprit of his feigned demise is someone Whobert would never expect as he jumps from one false conclusion to another with little or no evidence. Brightly colored illustrations dedicate a single color to each animal. I wish the jaunty clothing seen on the cover was included in the story. Perry’s final reaction and Whobert’s continued cluelessness seems overly dramatic, perfect for the story time crowd.

Imagine That

Imagine That.jpgTitle: Imagine That
Author/Illustrator: Yasmeen Ismail
ISBN: 9781681193625
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017 (US edition), originally published in Great Britain in 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing Pic

Lila’s mother repeatedly asks her what she is doing, and consistently receives the response “Nothing”. Her actions though are far from ordinary, as in her imagination she is off wrestling with an octopus, performing in a circus, scaling a tower Godzilla style. Sometimes little snippets of reality in the form of her mitten minders leach into her imaginings, but not always. Her imaginings are relayed in rhyme, either couplets or alternating rhymes, and that inconsistency might call for practice before reading aloud. Although Grandpa and Mom ask Lila the same type of questions, Lila only invites Grandpa into her imaginative play, which makes me feel bad for Lila’s mother whose frustrations seem to grow with every interaction with her daughter. A strangely abrupt and didactic conclusion does not do the story any favors. I seem to be in a minority as it receives rave reviews elsewhere online, but I felt that there are other, more imaginative books about imagination available.

Meditate With Me

Meditate with Me.jpgTitle: Meditate With Me: A Step-By-Step Mindfulness Journey
Author: Mariam Gates
Illustrator: Margarita Surnaite
ISBN: 9780399186615
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin Young Readers Group, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

 

Imagine a jar full of water and glitter in any colors you choose. […]
Your mind is like that glass jar, with shiny thoughts and feelings zooming this way and that.
But you can use your breath and body to set that busy mind down flat.
Gently, just like that. Swish!

With little introduction, the book leads children through a short meditation. Five animals (a rabbit and elephant who are clothed as females, a cat and bear shown as male, and a pig of indeterminate gender) act out the instructions presented. The narrative is uneven, sometimes in labored rhymes (“Now notice your breath, / in and out through your nose / Is the air cool? Is it warm? / Can you feel in your body where it goes?”), other times in straight prose. The drawings are bright, colorful, engaging, and uncluttered, although reading it while the text encourages students to close their eyes might prove counterproductive. The jar of glitter imagery and the encouragement to be still and quiet in order to listen and identify how you feel and what you hear is well suited for the age, but hardly groundbreaking as they are common in the practice. A summarizing “Four Easy Steps to Meditate with Me” neglects any mention of emotional awareness, which the book spends several pages exploring “What does happy feel like in your body? Make a happy face.” Possibly read through, have a discussion, and then adults could use only the words to guide students through their own efforts. A well-meaning introduction to the idea of meditation, but children might need prompting to picking-up the picture book and the practice.