Tag Archives: memoir

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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Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael J. Collins

Hot Lights, Cold Steel is, in a way, like many other books I’ve read before.  It’s a medical memoir, a genre I have an interest in.  Yet it manages to set itself apart through Collins’ sensitive and insightful prose about not only his training, but, really, about the entirety of his life through the four years of his residency.  Collins has written a book enjoyable for many reasons, a feat not often achieved by a book typically focused on one, partitioned part of the author’s life.

The book starts off with a scenario Collins faced toward the end of his residency — being in charge of the almost impossible decision of whether to amputate a fourteen-year-old’s leg.  Collins then takes us back to the beginning of his residency at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in orthopedic medicine, outlining his four years there in chapters labeled by month.

One of the most refreshing things about Hot Lights, Cold Steel is that Collins is so open about the fear and uncertainty he had going in.  He felt inadequate and unprepared for a residency at such a renowned medical center.  He discusses his efforts to study up on procedures and conditions he would have to do.  He discusses the friendships that he made and the quick understanding he had to make of the personalities of each of the attending physicians he worked under.

More interesting was his discussion of the paltry amount of money a resident makes, even at a place like Mayo Clinic.  He found himself forced to moonlight at a hospital in a city ninety miles to the west, which meant that he was even more exhausted than the average resident.

Making his life more complicated was his family situation.  He had, at the beginning of his residency, a wife and a young daughter.  By the end of the four years, they had added three more children to the mix.  His wife, who had training as a nurse, became a stay-at-home mom out of necessity.  Collins is very open about the strain the long hours away from home placed on their marriage, and how his relationships with his children suffered.  This was actually the part of the book I found most compelling — many of these medical memoirs discuss the physical exhaustion, but rarely discuss the toll the long hours and unpredictable schedules can take on a family.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about Hot Lights, Cold Steel.  Collins has produced a book that allows the reader into both his personal and professional life with remarkable ease.  From his writing, he feels like someone anyone could know, yet he has the brilliance to write about his experiences with both respect and humor.  This ability just makes him more interesting, and makes his book more appealing.

Rating: 5/5.

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My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean Deli

My Korean Deli is the sometimes-humorous story of the author, Ben Ryder Howe, and his part in his family’s decision to purchase and operate a deli in Brooklyn.  Howe, an editor at the Paris Review at the time, lives, with his wife, in his in-laws’ basement.  The deli is meant to be a gift to his mother-in-law as well as a way to earn money to move out of the Paks’ home and to earn some independence again.  Instead, the deli draws them closer together by forcing them to both live and work together, making it difficult for Ben and Gab, his wife, to say goodbye.

Before I get into what I liked about My Korean Deli, let me say that I was confused by way the word “deli” is used here.  The Paks’ store is more like a convenience store at which you can also get a sandwich.  I suppose this is an example of how words can vary in meaning — a deli here in Michigan indicates that you’re going someplace that deals only in sliced meat, cheese, chilled non-alcoholic beverages, and salads.  They aren’t a place I would think to go to if I wanted beer, cigarettes, or canned cat food.

Yet sell these things the Paks did.  Kay, Howe’s mother-in-law, is a strong woman who has always worked, whether in was in Korea while her husband George was away in the Navy, or in New York sewing sweatshops to help supplement their income.  Gab and Ben help Kay find the deli in order to provide her with a workplace she could control and is more similar to the bakery she ran in Seoul.

Unexpected events greet them at every turn.  The former owner hadn’t paid some taxes, so they become responsible for those.  They also try to make changes to the products they carry, with much complaint from the regular customers.  Renovations on a grand scale are made impossible by the reality that the store needs to be open and making money more than the hole in the roof needs fixing.

Meanwhile, Howe is still working at the Paris Review, struggling to reconcile working in the deli with his commitment to one of the best-known literary magazines.  His boss, George Plimpton, is both a bit of a sounding board and a larger-than-life, frightening source of worry for Howe.  He discusses the decline of both Plimpton and the Review during this time, when his deli is getting off the ground, which makes for an interesting comparison.

Howe writes about all of this with a gentle good humor.  There’s a sense of frustration, fun, and futility all mixed together in his prose, and it’s quite fun to read.  The only thing I could do with a little less of is his continual explanation of his WASP roots in Boston and how they differ from how Kay and Gab operate.  The reader can gather the cultural differences without having to have them pointed out.

My Korean Deli makes for a nice, light memoir about a man thrust into all sorts of unfamiliar situations — store owner, member of a Korean family, a delinquent employee from his day job — and shows him slowly growing into the idea of change.

Rating: 4/5.

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About My Sisters by Debra Ginsberg

I have no siblings.  I have been told, at various times, how lucky I am.  Brothers are bullies.  Sisters are snots.  There’s forced sharing.  I’m sure these things are true at some points.  My response has always been, “I would have liked a sibling.”  I don’t understand the relationships siblings have, which makes me sad.  I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a house with other children, experiencing most of the same things they do.  This ignorance is what drew me to About My Sisters, a memoir about growing up with three younger sisters (and a younger brother).  I really enjoyed the opportunity to look inside a family that I would consider large and take a glimpse at the inner workings thereof.

Debra Ginsberg, the author, is the eldest of her siblings.  She was already an established author at this point, having written a book about her experiences as a waitress and a book about raising her son.  She’s structured this book to follow the family through a year — February 2002 to January 2003.  Each month has some sort of event going on or an important interaction between Debra and one of her sisters.  I think the clever part of this way of telling her family’s story is that she takes the present-day interactions and then takes us back to an earlier time to explore a previous time when things were the same, or the opposite, or set her family up for today to happen the way it happened.  I really liked this.

Ginsberg explores her relationship with Maya, a sister about two years younger and with whom she’s lived for most of her adult life, first.  Maya is the person who made her feel complete when they were little, and still fills that role today.

Lavander, her nine-years-younger sister, is the one who pushes her buttons.  Lavander is moody and temperamental, much more so than the other women, and she seems to have a knack for causing drama.  Ginsberg and Lavander have the most troubled relationship out of all the sisters, and this brings out more negatively-toned introspection from Ginsberg than does her relationships with her two other sisters.

Déja, the youngest of the Ginsberg sisters, is sixteen years younger than Ginsberg herself.  She’s still quite young, and has been treated more softly than the other children.  It shows in her personality, which is also soft — to a point.  This is the sister Ginsberg treated as if she were her own daughter, and the changing dynamic of their relationship is interesting to read about.

I have three small issues with About My Sisters.  The first one is that Ginsberg is sometimes too self-reflective; her penchant toward examination is what makes the book good and valuable, but occasionally she bends delves too far into her own motivations and comes across as a bit self-centered, which I don’t think is a true depiction of her.

My second issue is the dialog.  I realize that Ginsberg had to recreate what people said after the fact, which must have been difficult.  Most of the time she does a fair job.  There are some lines, however, that feel a little artificial.  That may just be my inexperience with brothers and sisters, but I think someone with siblings would also find it a bit stilted at times.

My last issue is truly trivial.  Ginsberg and her family are apparently into astrology and the like.  She talks about it in the first chapter, then dumps it for the rest of the book.  It’s almost as if she mentions her interest in the occult in order to shed people she thinks wouldn’t be sympathetic to her family’s story and her experience as the eldest sister in a big family, which is sad.  I really liked what she had to say.  I just also really dislike astrology and tend to have a negative view of those who believe in them.

Sisters are, and will always be, an unknown element to me.  I think, though, that reading About My Sisters gave me more insight — some knowledge that I might be able to use if I have more than one child myself.

Rating: 4/5.

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Cocaine’s Son by Dave Itzkoff

I’m a fan of a good memoir.  David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, mostly because he can write about his family in a way that is both sardonic and tender.  Dave Itzkoff’s aim is not for a memoir written in the style of David Sedaris, but he is aiming squarely for a book that examines family relationships — specifically, the one between father and son.  Unfortunately, the result of that aim, Cocaine’s Son, is a book that bogs the reader down into a depressing relationship for which there never is a satisfying conclusion.

I will say that Itzkoff has a very readable style.  Unlike some other memoirs I’ve read, with authors who have more of an interesting story and less of an ability to put the story on the page, Itzkoff has a great voice.  He’s descriptive — my mind’s eye was able to be more active with this book than it is with most nonfiction.  He also uses different techniques for some chapters, like making one non-linear and another in the form of a play script.  In these ways, Cocaine’s Son was a joy to read.

What wasn’t so wonderful was the content.  At first, it’s interesting to hear about Itzkoff’s father, and his issues with him, and, yes, I realize that the book is supposed to be an exploration of their relationship.  It’s unfortunate that Itzkoff’s portrayal of his father makes it impossible to either identify or sympathize with either man.  Gerald Itzkoff is a man who treats others as if they don’t count.  His behavior makes him unpalatable to me in the highest degree — he’s not a “character”, he’s not “eccentric”.  He’s a kook who has no concept of how his actions impact others.

As to Itzkoff’s portrayal of himself … his issues with his father seem to cloud his entire life.  This is, at first, sad — after all, who wants to see someone live their life solely in response to one other person?  Then, about halfway through, the whole thing gets melodramatic.  Itzkoff sees his father everywhere, and the man is ruining everything!  Then, he’s feeling guilty for being angry at his father.  He’s a bad son.  Then, we’re back to what a jerk his father is.  And then … well, he gets married, and suddenly can see where his father was coming from all along.

Excuse me?  What?  If your father was so bad, how did he become less bad with time?  Did you, perhaps, merely mature to a point where most of us get — where you can accept others for who they are?  Most of us haven’t had parents who did coke, surely, but most of Itzkoff’s father’s behavior wasn’t because of his drug use, since it continued well after he became sober.  My only conclusion is that Itzkoff’s father is like most father’s, only more egocentric.  Most of us manage to come to terms with a self-absorbed parent without writing a self-indulgent memoir.

I looked forward to reading Cocaine’s Son, thinking I was going to get a thoughtful exploration of a childhood spent with an addict parent.  What I got was a well-written yet sadly lacking family story.

Rating: 2/5.

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You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I guess I should have learned my lesson by now — don’t judge a book by its movie.  Girl, Interrupted came out when I was in high school.  Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen.  She portrayed Susanna as a relatively normal woman who managed to be railroaded into a stay in McLean Hospital for mental health treatment, while Angelina Jolie played Lisa, another girl in the institution, as a complete nut.  The true story Kaysen tells about her own life is more nuanced than that, which I am thankful for.  It doesn’t, however, make her story more interesting to me.

First, the good part:  Kaysen writes a lot about what she thought about — and still thinks about.  It’s amazing to see what goes through her mind.  It’s also surprising that we’re allowed in there, since the movie led me to believe she was in McLean simply because of a series of misunderstandings.  From reading her exposition, however, it’s obvious that’s not the case.  Kaysen has some seriously abnormal mental processes.  Her thoughts are scattered and, at some points, downright frightening to read.

The upside of this, though, is that she has wonderful insight into the nature of what is considered sane and insane.  She makes the point that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, listed in the DSM, and implies that she hopes borderline personality disorder (her diagnosis) will at some point be removed, as well.  I think this is doubtful.

Another part of the book that drove me nuts was the claim she was railroaded into institutionalized treatment.  I found this hard to believe after learning how she, along with the rest of the patients, spent time manipulating and lying to the staff of the hospital.  My experience is that, if a person is good at manipulating others, they are also good at spotting when they themselves are being manipulated.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know where she was going or why she was going.  I find it even harder to believe that she couldn’t figure a way out of it had she not, somewhere inside her, wanted to go.

The one other thing that drove me nuts was Kaysen’s story structure.  She tells her tale in a mostly-linear fashion, but some stories occur that feature someone as a background character after we have read the story about their death or their release.  I didn’t care for that.  I suspect she might have experienced these stories, or remembers them, in the same order she presents them.  It’s part of her reality that I don’t care to share.

With that said, I did really like most of the substance of her book.  I enjoyed greatly her character studies of the other patients and of staff members.  I thought the recounted tales of their exploits, both large (Lisa’s escapes) and small (lying about sexual behavior to the psychiatrist) were both entertaining and telling about what life in a mental institution can do to someone.  Her insight into so many different aspects of mental illness, relationships, and the society of the 1960s is so good.  I wish she were able to do a better job with how much control she gives her mental illness and a more consistent stance on whether it does or does not impair her behavior.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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