How did your December Challenge reading go? Did you find something that might have opened your eyes to the issue of mental illness and the stigma around it? Did you see yourself or someone you know with some of the same mental health battles?
I read the main title this month, Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. This is a seriously funny memoir of Lawson’s continuing battle with depression and anxiety. She has chosen to embrace the flawed as well as the beautiful parts of life, unabashedly insisting on being “furiously happy” whenever possible.
This outlook on life has led to some crazy (and frankly, puzzling) situations, like a trip to Australia where she insists on dressing in a koala costume while holding a koala (she didn’t actually get to hold a koala but she did wear her costume when visiting koalas at a wildlife refuge), or keeping a taxidermized racoon with a bizarre expression (see picture on the front of the book) with her whenever possible (she actually has two taxidermized racoons).
While many of these stories are odd, they are undoubtedly funny and Lawson’s joyful embracing of whatever happens is infectious. There is a serious side to the funny too – Lawson is perfectly aware that each day is a struggle and that her anxiety and depression, while managed, are never far away.
That wraps up the 2022 Online Reading Challenge. I hope you were able to find some excellent, thoughtful books this year with the help of the Challenge! The 2023 Challenge begins in just a few days on January 2nd. Watch the blog for an introduction to our first location.
Greetings Challenge Readers!
Welcome to the final month of our 2022 Online Reading Challenge. This month we’re reading books that talk about coping with mental illness and the isolation and stigma that surrounds it.
Our main title this month is Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. In this book, the author explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. But terrible ideas are what Jenny does best. It’s about “taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence. This is a book about embracing everything that makes us who we are – the beautiful and the flawed – and then using it to find joy in fantastic and outrageous ways.
Our alternate titles are: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. This is about lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara. But at its heart is Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Beautiful and gifted, with a bright future, Esther Greenwood descends into depression, suicidal thoughts, and madness while interning at a New York City magazine.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living.
Be sure to check the displays at each of our buildings for copies of these titles and many more!
Have you ever found a subject you want to know more about, so you dive into learning as much about it as you can? I know I do! The subject I have been researching for the past couple months is packhorse librarianship. In addition to the nonfiction books and research articles I have read, I have curated a list of fiction books about packhorse librarians that I have been making my way through.
The Librarian of Boone’s Hollow by Kim Vogel Sawyer is the third adult fiction book about packhorse librarians that I have read thus far. Taking place during the Great Depression, Sawyer’s novel draws inspiration from the real Works Progress Administration program that sent librarians on horseback to deliver books to hill families in Kentucky.
Addie Cowherd wants to be a novelist. Adopted by her parents at a young age, Addie wants to give readers an escape into books like what she experienced during her tragic childhood. Working at a library while going to college, Addie believes that she has finally found a way to make her dreams come true. Life has other plans for her as her adoptive father loses his job and Addie realizes that she doesn’t have the funds necessary to complete her degree. Forced to leave college and without the safety net of her parents to fall back on, Addie sets out to find a job which proves difficult given that it’s the Great Depression. Addie finally finds a job delivering books on horseback in the hills of Kentucky to poor coal mining families. Working in a library delivering books sounds perfect to Addie. She quickly spins ideas of what she’ll do and all the friends she will make once she gets to town.
As soon as Addie sets foot in Boone’s Hollow, her perfect ideas go up in smoke. The library in Boone’s Hollow is nothing like she thought. The residents in Boone’s Hollow are superstitious and wary of any outsiders. Locals who leave and come back are even subject to scrutiny. As Addie tries to find a new rhythm and gain the trust of the locals, she learns the truth about a decades-old rivalry that dictates many of the town’s actions. When someone decides to sabotage the library program, Addie and the other librarians have to work together to keep the program going or it will crumble into nothing.
Want to check out other fiction books about packhorse librarians? Below are two others available at the Davenport Public Library:
The master of unconventional happily-ever-afters has struck again! Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project, follow-up to The Love Study, is another compassionate and honest look at love in the midst of anxiety, focusing on being honest with yourself about what you really want.
Oscar struggles with just about everything, weighed down by his almost-manageable mental illness. One way he copes is by being a grouch, avoiding people where possible and sniping at them when he can’t. Since Jack joined their friend group, he’s taken on most of Oscar’s sniping, and giving back as much snark as he gets. But all that changes after Oscar is laid off – again. In desperate need of a purpose and structure, he agrees to help Jack clean out his grandmother’s house so it can be sold, in return for financial payment and a no-strings sexual arrangement. But soon he’s seeing a new side of Jack, and of himself as he starts to actually enjoy being in someone’s company. Even stranger, Jack seems to enjoy HIS company. Oscar tries to run away, as usual, but he just can’t forget how good it was being with Jack (both in and out of the bedroom). Could it be possible to face his fears and ask for a second chance?
I read this book in a day, I was so charmed by how relatable, funny, and frustrating Oscar is as a narrator. Ripper doesn’t gloss over any of the realities of living with anxiety and depression, but while it’s hard to read Oscar’s depressive sections, it just makes it more gratifying to watch him grow, admit the truth to himself, and try something different. Moreover, the depiction of an unconditionally loving and supportive chosen family is very heartwarming, a good example of how to support loved ones with mental illness. AND, as is the case in The Love Study, Ripper does an excellent job showing alternative ways for people to be intimate and make a relationship that works for them.
If you’re looking for a compassionate romance with plus-size representation, good depictions of mental illness, sharp banter, and a couple you’ll root for, you might like The Hate Project.
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson is the story of one woman’s journey through mental illness and the many places she finds herself. Jenny has been battling mental illness her entire life, so she considers herself to be an expert at how she handles her crippling depression and anxiety. She’s an expert at terrible ideas and writing a funny book about horrible things may be her best terrible idea yet.
Jenny believes in living her life furiously happy. Her depression, anxiety, and other myriad mental illnesses may run her life at certain moments, but she has decided that in the moments when she is not hiding in her bedroom, she’s going to live furiously happy. She’s going to do anything that pops into her head, anything stupid or irresponsible like having a raccoon rodeo with your cats or trying to convince your husband that having kangaroos would be a good idea. This book is packed full of stories of Jenny turning moments when things are just fine into amazing moments for herself, her daughter, and her husband. Because she doesn’t know exactly when her next down swing may happen, Jenny chooses to LIVE her life and not just survive it.
Jenny has written this book as a way to show the rest of the people in the world that the best way to live our lives is to embrace our weirdness 100%. She wants to show that by building up furiously happy moments in our okay moments, we are arming our brain with positive moments when those same brains decide to fight against us and try to kill us. Her moments of hilarity are paired with moments of such brutal honesty that you’ll find yourself on one page in the kitchen with Jenny as she plays with her taxidermied raccoons and then a few pages later sitting in the bathroom with her as she cries and pulls out her hair until she bleeds. The dichotomy between those beautiful, loving moments of happiness and the flawed, immensely overflowing, just trying to survive moments is where Jenny thrives. She encourages you to embrace yourself no matter what label you’re given and to find ways to find joy and happiness no matter what.
This book is also available in the following formats:
Cartoonist Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me is an honest, funny graphic memoir that explores her life following her diagnosis with bi-polar disorder. As an artist, Forney had mixed emotions about her diagnosis, ranging from excitement over joining what she called “Club Van Gogh” (the idea that creativity and great art come from mania) to frustration over the long road to recovery and finding the most effective drug cocktail. Forney never holds back in both words and illustrations, letting the reader join her in her head and get an idea of what it is to be an artist with bi-polar disorder.
Forney uses a combination of new illustrations and samples of the sketches that came from different times during her journey to recovery. The illustrations from her lowest depressive times are detailed, darker, and incredibly different than the cheery, simple cartoon illustrations that populate the rest of the book. While the book can come off as a tad self-indulgent and Forney’s journey is obviously her own, this is an excellent read for anyone that is looking for insight into what the recovery journey may look like for a person diagnosed as having manic depression. Even if it is just to help you feel like you’re a part of Club Van Gogh and no longer alone. When you’ve finished Marbles, I would suggest picking up the beautifully illustrated graphic memoir, Stitches: A Memoir by David Small or the unsettling account of a high school relationship with Jeffery Dahmer, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf.
Naomi Levy wrote Hope Will Find You as she was in the midst of her daughter’s health crisis. Spending much of her time in doctor’s waiting rooms, and trying to deal with the uncertainty of the diagnosis, Naomi began, unsurprisingly, to show signs of depression. She’d suspended her enjoyment of life and her career as a rabbi.
This book is a series of very short chapters that chronicle her climb out of that despair. She gains wisdom from other rabbis, mentors and, most of all, Noa, her daughter. Noa suffers from learning and physical disabilities, that may or may not be fatal. She is incredibly positive and energetic, and she is the one who actually comes up with the title.
One of Naomi’s breakthroughs is a realization that she can’t let her fear of the unknown destroy the happiness she can enjoy with her family and friends now. As Naomi lets go of her crippling fear, she is able to go back to work and even starts a new congregation.
Not only is her story inspirational, the book is a fascinating glimpse into Judaism and the Jewish principles of faith.
Overwhelmed by mounting pressures from school, home and life, 16-year-old Craig contemplates suicide. Planning to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, at the last minute he detours to the local mental health clinic hoping for a simple solution. What he finds instead, after a minimum five-day stay, is that there are no simple answers, just the support of family and friends and the belief in your own true self.
Starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a charming, witty and heartfelt movie. Craig finds himself surrounded – and accepted – by a colorful cast of characters. His fellow patients are all struggling with their own personal demons but pull together and support each other, sometimes in surprising ways. There are a lot of funny scenes and quiet moments, and there are heartbreaking insights. It’s a story not so much about mental illness as it’s about finding a way to live again.
If you liked the movie Secretariat and have been following Zenyatta’s career as an undefeated filly (up till her last race), you may want to check out more horse movies and books.
Seabiscuit stars another underdog, so-to-speak, who becomes an incredible crowd-pleaser. The movie is based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand. This true, Depression-era story stars Toby Maguire as the teenage jockey whose destitute parents left him with a horse trainer. Jeff Bridges is the owner whose son is killed in a car accident, and Chris Cooper as a homeless, former cowboy. He discovers Seabiscuit and becomes his trainer. They all form a unique team, as Seabiscuit becomes a celebrated winner, giving hope to a nation of down-and-outers.
Like Secretariat, both horses are dismissed early on as losers, but they loved nothing so much as to come from behind and win races in a nail-biting, dramatic fashion.
When times are tough, it helps to read about those who have gone through even more desperate times – with grace and courage.
Early settlers and homesteaders lived near the margin; they felt fortunate if they had the very basics of life (in the face of drought, pestilence, and economic collapse). Books like Nothing to Do But Stay by Carrie Young and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books immerse the reader in the hard life of the pioneer on the plains.
Books with a documentary slant are Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich and Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel. Both made an important societal impact and yet are highly readable.
Poverty was a fact of life at the turn of the century; poor families lived without any kind of safety net. This was a common theme in early American childrens’ literature. Two tight-knit families who lived in “ramshackle cottages” and faced eviction, illness and other disasters with humor are the Five Little Peppers series by Margaret Sidney and Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch by Alice Rice.
All these books provide context and role models for today’s tough times.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Curtis
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
DVDs (adapted from books):
Grapes of Wrath
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl