Posts Tagged With: memoir

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

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Poisoned Love by Melanie Cane

Date of Publication: 2008, Bascom Hill Publishing Group

Number of Pages: 395

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1993, Jimmy Breslin wrote a front page story for New York Newsday, about Melanie Cane, a troubled young psychiatrist who “let love take her too far.” Fifteen years later, Melanie tells her side of the story in Poisoned Love, a heartbreaking and staggering account of her spiral into the depths of mental illness and what she did under the guise of love.

With extraordinary courage, Melanie provides intimate access to the thoughts and feelings leading to her desperate act, as well as an unvarnished account of her subsequent psychiatric treatment and the legal and social consequences of her crime.

Melanie’s steady progress toward recovery involves an emerging understanding of the relationship between her various diagnoses and her attachment to an abusive mentally ill father.

Her story teaches people about survival and success in the face of severe mental illness.

Review: I received this book only a few days ago, courtesy of a very nice woman at Bascom Hill Publishing Group. I had known the gist of the story (woman goes crazy, poisons her ex, gets committed, gets better), but I was unprepared for how intimate and tragic the telling of that story was going to be. Suffering from depression myself, I am unfortunately aware of the difficulties of living with a mental illness, but the heartrending pain that Melanie suffered as her rationality crumbled around her is far beyond anything like a run-of-the-mill mental illness. She had everything stacked against her: a severely mentally ill and abusive father, a resentful and angry mother, and an emotionally immature and abusive boyfriend. The rapidity and the extent of her recovery is staggering. She came out of her experience a better and more well-adjusted person than she had been before her breakdown. To those that would judge her (and have judged her), I would ask this: how would you have coped with the immense betrayal, pain, and abuse that Melanie went through? To retreat from reality seemed to be the only thing her mind would allow her to do.

At times, the writing does seem a bit amateurish, and at times the author’s descriptions of her illness and conversations with her doctors struck me as something from a psychiatry textbook…but then again, how else does a medical doctor explain her illness? The flow of the story also seemed stilted to me. Details were left out and referred to later as something that the reader should have known, and memory flashbacks were sometimes inserted into the story at awkward times. But all in all, this book is an engaging read, as Melanie allows her readers a most intimate glimpse into her pain and crumbling sanity. I would recommend this to everyone, as everyone can benefit from getting to know this highly intelligent and courageous woman.

Rating: 9/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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Admit One: A Journey Into Film by Emmett James

Emmett James has been in love with movies his whole life. He grew up in a
nondescript London suburb where, to him, things seemed very ordinary, even
boring. He can remember his first movie at the age of about three, Walt
Disney’s The Jungle Book, which he largely slept through. The beginning and
the end are clear, though, and he liked what he saw. Now, how to stay awake?
The answer? Every child’s best friend…SUGAR, of course!

In this funny and upbeat memoir Mr. James takes us on a “This is your life”
kind of ride by linking his past to the films that shaped his world. The
yearly television viewing of The Wizard of Oz and the terror of the Wicked
Witch inevitably caused him to have a bladder accident. Plus if it looked
remotely gloomy outside he was jumpy, watching the skies for a rogue
tornado. Poor kid, England has gloomy weather fairly regularly.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial inspired a love for the BMX bike and eventually
led to a short lived life of teen crime, causing his parents to move the
whole family from London to Cambridgeshire, a fate worse than death to the
author. Especially when the new home, built in about 900, turns out to be
haunted. The author’s room is the scene of a hair-raising ghost sighting.

Emmett’s love of films inspire him to be an actor and so, at the first
opportunity, he moves himself to Hollywood looking for his own piece of the
American Dream. He finds it, too.

I happen to be about the same age as the author and as I was reading I was
thrust back in time, back to my own movie experiences. When I had to be
taken out of Walt Disney’s Bambi because I cried and cried when his mother
was shot. When my best friend and tough girl astonished me by crying at E.T.
(I’d never seen her cry before).

This is a story to take you down your own memory lane and remind you of the
wonder and magic of the movies.

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Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly Ex-Sorority Girl’s Guide to Why it Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me? By Jen Lancaster

Date of Publication: 2007, New American Library

Number of Pages: 380

Synopsis: Jen Lancaster hates to burst your happy little bubble, but life in the big city isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to what you see on TV and in the movies, most urbanites aren’t party-hopping in slinky dresses and strappy stilettos. But lucky for us, Lancaster knows how to make the life of the lower crust mercilessly funny and infinitely entertaining.

Whether she’s reporting rude neighbors to Homeland Security, harboring a crush on her grocery store, or fighting – and losing – the Battle of the StairMaster, Lancaster explores how silly, strange, and not so fabulous real city living can be. And if anyone doesn’t like it, they can kiss her big, fat, pink, puffy down parka. ~Blurb from back cover

Review: I bought this book based solely on the description you see above. As a person who is unhappy living in the suburbs and fantasizes about moving back to the city, I thought this book would give me an un-romanticized glimpse into city living. I was definitely not disappointed. Jen Lancaster puts city living into perspective, and does so hilariously. I found myself laughing out loud many times while I was reading, much to the discomfort and confusion of my boyfriend, and I think that anyone who has ever lived in an urban environment will do the same. She deals with noisy neighbors (my particular pet peeve), confusing mass transit systems, the soul-crushing search for that perfect apartment, and city vermin of all types. Even the passages that seem to deal with nothing more than her many irrational fears have the ability to make even the most neurotic person feel normal.

There were a few things about the book that bothered me, however. Lancaster is about as foul-mouthed as the most outrageous guest on Jerry Springer, and the constant swearing can get a bit tiring. She’s also a conservative Republican, and her tirades against liberals can be hard for someone as left-winged as I am. But these are really issues of personal taste. Lancaster presents herself undoubtedly as she really is, and to me, that is the most admirable thing about this book. She’s unapologetic and a little crazy, but that’s why her life is interesting enough to be put in books.

Rating: 8.5/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

Date of Publication: 2003, Putnam

Number of Pages: 398

Synopsis: Born into a family who believed in fate, Amy Tan has always looked for alternative ways to make sense of the world. And now, in The Opposite of Fate, her first book of nonfiction, she shares her thoughts on how she escaped the expectations and curses of her past, and created her own destiny.

Amy Tan tells of her family, of the ghosts that inhabit her computer, of specters of illness, ski trips, the pliability of memory, rock and roll, and the twinned mysteries of faith and fate. Whether she is remembering arguments with her mother in suburban California, recounting her trips to an outdoor market in Shanghai, or describing her love-hate relationship with the CliffsNotes edition of her first book, The Joy Luck Club, her recollections offer an intimate glimpse of a best-selling writer whose own life story is as magical and hopeful as her fiction.

With the same spirit and humor that characterize her beloved novels, Amy Tan presents a refreshing antidote to the world-weariness and uncertainties we face today, contemplating how things happen – in her life and beyond – but always returning to the question of fate and its opposites: the choices, charms, influences, attitudes, and lucky accidents that shape us all. ~From inside cover of book

Review: I am reviewing this book after reading it for the second time, so it should already be obvious that I enjoyed it. Amy Tan, one of my favorite American writers, finally gives her fans an inside look at what inspires and drives her story-telling. All writers are influenced by their own experiences, but none have a wealth of tragedies and settings in their lives to pull from. Tan has lived through the deaths of her older brother and her father, within a year of each other, and many years later, of her mother. She has lost friends to tragic accidents, illness, and even murder. She has lived in San Francisco, New York (which is where she was on September 11, 2001), and Montreux, Switzerland. She performs in a rock and roll band with Stephen King, Dave Berry, and Barbara Kingslover. She suffers from Lyme disease, which has caused her to experience hallucinations, overwhelming fatigue, and body vibrations. In short, she has not lived a normal life. It has been filled with mysticism and unexplainable coincidences.

Perhaps most valuable to her fans who are also writers, are her thoughts on writing. She describes her experience making the movie of The Joy Luck Club, she talks about reviewers, the students who interpret her writing for term papers, and how she wrote the dreaded Second Book. For fans of Amy Tan, this book is a definite must-read. For those who are interested in reading about the writing process, about a woman’s real relationship with her mother, or just about an interesting life, this book should be perfect.

Rating: 9/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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In the Blood – Andrew Motion


For most people childhood ends slowly, so nobody can see where one part of life finishes and the next bit starts. But my childhood has ended suddenly. In a day.

In the Blood is Andrew Motion’s beautifully delivered memoir of growing-up in post-war England — an unforgettable evocation of family life, school life, and country life. It also tells the story of how these worlds were shattered when Motion’s mother suffered a terrible riding accident. The tragedy shadows the book, feeding its mood of elegy as well as its celebratory vigilance. Told from a teenage child’s point of view, without the benefit of hindsight, Motion captures the pathos and puzzlement of childhood with great clarity of expression and freshness of memory. We encounter a strange but beguiling extended family, a profound love of the natural world, and a growing passion for books and writing.  


This book, on the whole was a disappointment. I am not sure why. Perhaps it was because of Motion’s status as a poet, that I expected more. Perhaps it was to do with how I perceived the advertising literature. I can’t say. However, I felt that although the book was based on a major event, Motion’s mother’s riding accident, it never went anywhere. It felt static. Motion grew up in a middle class, Home Counties country environment. There seemed to be nothing particularly odd or different about his upbringing…I suspect many will recognise his descriptions of hunting, and boarding school etc. Equally many will have no experience of these things themselves, but will be familiar with them from numerous other writings on such topics. His detail is well written and poetically descriptive, as you would expect, yet somehow boring, and I wondered what his point was. Why did he feel the need to write about his childhood in such poignant detail? Was it because of his mother’s accident, or in spite of…some sort of justification for the tragedy which was her life. Was he trying to convince himself that he had been the model son, despite the events which shaped his growing years?

He felt that his life changed overnight, and childhood ended abruptly. This obviously marked him, even traumatised him. He seemed not to be able to cope as well as his younger brother, who seemed to be philosophical about everything. I was not sure about the reasons for this. His relationship with his mother seemed ambivalent to me, though I could never fathom why. They seemed to become closer as he grew older and confided in her, telling her about his desire to write, but even then, I felt a coldness between them. When the book ends we don’t know what happened to Mrs Motion. Did she live or die? How did Andrew feel about her in the years after the accident?

There seemed for me, to be more questions at the end of the book, than had been answered during it, which surprised me. I was frustrated because of the lack of direction. Why was he telling us this story? Had he learned anything from it? I felt that in reality, he had not divulged all, either to his readers or himself, and this felt like a very loose end. Even though it was written from the perspective of a confused teenager, it didn’t work for me.

Strangely though, the book stayed with me for days after I had read it, and again there was nothing I could pinpoint or refer to particularly, but just a vague feeling of it not being finished…and I wanted a conclusion. I didn’t feel as if I had got to know the real Andrew Motion at all.

Overall a disappointment, but I do not regret reading it, as I believe there is food for thought there, which will be useful when reading his other works.


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