This installment: a teen novel about gender fluidity (f); post-coma, changes galore (f); brilliant essays on schizophrenia (nf); brilliant essays (nf); and a creepy psychological mystery (f).
Editor’s Note: The titles and links below will direct you to print when available, with occasional notes made of digital eBook and eAudiobook availability.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Subtitled Boy or Girl? Yes. And that describes 17-year old Riley (whose assigned sex at birth is never revealed). With a congressman in a conservative district for a father, and new high school after a breakdown, we know problems await. Riley’s therapist suggest a writing project which turns into a blog by “Alix,” so full of truth it goes viral. Which of course means Riley is eventually outed, with some brutal results. Having a trans person in my family, I really appreciated learning more about the complexity and conundrum of gender fluidity. (I googled the author, on the lookout for Own Voices, and only learned he’s also an actor. But however he identifies, I think he did a good job.)
With Or Without You by Caroline Leavitt
It’s a familiar domestic argument: Stella, a nurse, is ready to settle down and have baby. Her husband Nick, a rock musician, is ready to go on tour—it might be the band’s big break. In an attempt to recapture their wild younger days he hands her a pill on top of drinking, and she ends up in a coma. A long recovery but when she emerges, she’s changed and everything’s off kilter. Her best friend Libby, a doctor, offers aid and comfort to deeply confused Nick and we know what’s going to happen. All three have to confront primal wounds to come into their own. What a satisfying read—I devoured it in one sitting.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
The author knows whereof she speaks, intimately. Diagnosed first as bipolar, then with schizoaffective disorder, she’s run a gamut of drugs, treatments, and therapies, most of which didn’t help. Two years at Yale were a nightmare, but she went on to Stanford and also got an MFA in creative writing. She’s been relatively free of symptoms since 2014, and has a long, stable marriage. In these lively, freewheeling essays she shares science, history, and personal testimony, including her recent forays into experimental and spiritual healing modalities. The malady still remains a mystery, but this exploration casts considerable light on the morass of theory and practice.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn by Leslie Jamison
The author bears a tattoo: nothing human is alien to me (in Latin) and that’s obvious in this book of remarkable essays. She has enormous curiosity and can plunge the reader right into someone’s story. But here’s what I especially love: she also shares herself and that self is someone I really want to hang out with all the time. She loves specifics but also can encompass big questions and doubt, sometimes in the same sentence. The sections— Longing, Looking, and Dwelling —take us from odd preoccupations to photography and literature to her own life, respectively. The concept of saudade—an ineffable Portuguese word—keeps reappearing—the gap between what you want and what you have and will it ever (can it ever) be filled? I had to slow myself down to savor each piece which took huge restraint and was thoroughly worth it.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
Vesta is a widow who lives alone with her dog Charlie. She comes upon a mysterious note on the forest floor and it sets off an inquiry that spirals into madness quite soon. Her husband Walter was handsome, German, and as we gradually learn, a quiet tyrant. From the note she conjures up the victim, Magda, a, boy named Blake as the note-writer, and various scenarios and perpetrators among a few locals in this small New England town. The tone of the telling is matter-of-fact which makes the story even more sinister. Dark, weird, fascinating.
See you next week.