Tag Archives: art

Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

I was intensely interested in reading Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So for a couple of different reasons. The first one is that it’s by the son of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. The second is that the premise of the book is that he discusses what it’s like to be both a successful doctor and a person with bipolar disorder. I liked his description of how his life unfolded and appreciated his insight into his life as a whole. I’ve not read his fiction, but I would say that his ability to show the reader what it is like to have a mental disorder while maintaining a successful and functional (for the most part) lifestyle shows there might be a familial tie for writing talent.

Vonnegut talks a bit about what it was like to grow up with his father. Kurt was a gruff man – if you want to put it mildly – and, despite the good things he did, like taking in his nephews after their parents died, Mark Vonnegut doesn’t give the impression that he ever did become an outwardly caring father. What he does show us is that his father was there when he needed him, like during his hospitalizations.

One aspect of Vonnegut’s book that I especially liked was that he wrote about what it was like to be in school and become successful at his profession and then have his disease get out of control. I think most people don’t get the fact that people with bipolar disorder can recover. It’s important, in my opinion, that people like the author come forward and talk about the fact that, yes, he has a mental illness, and, yes, he has been hospitalized for it, and now he’s doing well as a physician (and not only a physician, but a pediatrician).

I also liked that he talked about self-medication. For him, the substance of choice was alcohol, and it caused serious problems for him and his family. No matter what the drug, I think it’s important for people to know that substance abuse can be a sign of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental illness.

One thing I didn’t like was that Vonnegut appears to still have some of the risk-taking behaviors. He became a mushroom hunter and, at one point, ate one that wasn’t so good for him. His wife had to take him to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. I don’t know if it was included as an example to say that he’s not “cured” and that treatment of bipolar disorder is an ongoing process, but I found it scary that he might not realize that he still has urges to do reckless things that he might not have even full reflected on.

Overall, I’m glad Vonnegut wrote Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So. A lot of people will be educated and a lot of people will find hope within its covers.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Historical fiction, unless it specifically centers around politics or military campaigns, seems to be a feminine genre.  Hence, there tends to be quite a few books labeled as historical fiction that are, for all intents and purposes, truly romance novels.  Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus rises above that tendency.  The reader is allowed to explore art, religion, and politics in a fifteenth-century Italian city-state, as well as enjoy a rather tense coming-of-age story.

The Birth of Venus tells the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the younger daughter of a well-to-do Florentine cloth merchant.  Unlike her sister, Plautilla, Alessandra is not a cheerfully conventional girl; unlike her brother Luca, she is intelligent and loves learning.  But it is her brother Tomaso who is truly her adversary, all the more dangerous for his cleverness.  They go back and forth, exchanging cruelties, until their rivalry reaches a pinnacle that threatens both of them.

Alessandra is also a very curious girl.  She’s educated and sharp.  She also enjoys sketching and painting, which, at the time of her early childhood in Florence, meant that she was not exactly encouraged, but not forbidden it, either.  The Medicis have encouraged the arts, and, in truth, it has become a decadent city.

This is one of the things I enjoyed about this book — the political and religious climate of the city very much shapes the options and behaviors of the characters.  Alessandra’s art is tolerated in her childhood, but by the time she is married, most art by people of either sex is condemned for its ostentatious and heretical nature.  Women, under Savonarola’s regime, are restricted in what they are allowed to do.  For someone like Alessandra, who is driven to learn and to do, this is an unbearable way to live.

She also becomes hampered in other ways.  Her rivalry with Tomaso, combined with the perceived threat invading French troops cause for the city’s young virgins, leads her to a loveless marriage with Tomaso’s older gay lover.  Though they get along and appreciate each other in an intellectual sense, Tomaso holds Alessandra’s husband’s heart, which hurts her deeply.  The hasty marriage also causes the loss of her beloved, a painter who was a former monk.

It’s a fantastic plot, for the most part.  Granted, it is a little like a romance novel, but it reads like an intelligent one.  My main problem with the book is that it tends to toss things in and not tie them together in satisfactory ways.  There is a subplot, for example, about gruesome murders taking place within the city in or near churches.  While it’s interesting, and provides some mood, it’s puzzling as to why Alessandra would come to find out about them in all their grisly glory when she was deemed too innocent to learn about sex.  Was there something about the Florentine culture that made violence more acceptable to expose to teenage girls?  Perhaps sex was considered more dangerous.  I have no idea, but it’s just one of the little things that made me furrow my brow a bit.

I also was a little taken aback by the African slave, Erila.  I liked the fact that she was an intelligent, savvy individual who was a steadfast and loyal friend.  What made me so surprised was that, while the Cecchi family owned slaves, they treated them the same or better than their servants.  It struck me as a little uncommon, to say the least.

While there are these shortcomings, I thought The Birth of Venus to be a rather good piece of lighter fiction.  It gives just enough substance to make you think a little bit, but not so much that it’s inappropriate for summer poolside reading (which is what I used it for).

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Stitches by David Small

I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill.  I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion.  I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer.  But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease.  In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him.  This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.

Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir.  The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language.  No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.

Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could.  The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells.  It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.

Now, down to the actual memoir.  Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme.  His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital.  When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer.  His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.

But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life.  She is cold, almost always angry.  She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!”  After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck.  During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture.  After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer.  She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house.  Her concern was with the electric bill.

Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother.  She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children.  It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him.  Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.

The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy.  His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life.  Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment.  As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you.  One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal.  Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Rating: 5/5

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