Book Review: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness



Title: Rambler: A family pushes through the fog of mental illness

Author: Linda K. Schmitmeyer

Published: September 25, 2018

Pages: 374

Genre: Memoir/Nonfiction

Synopsis: When Steve, a successful young engineer, suddenly quits his job after a fight with his boss and begins exhibiting troubling signs of mental illness, a family’s seemingly idyllic middle-class life is thrown into chaos. Rambler takes the reader on an incredible 10-year quest of a family to stick together through the worst of his troubles and find answers from a medical community whose understanding of mental illness was lagging in the 1990s.



Final Thoughts:

In the realm of memoirs and nonfiction books based on medical issues, sometimes there are Important books, and there are Good Reads, and they do not always overlap. Many readers know the experience of trying to plod through an book just because they feel they should. The end result may be gratifying, but the doing is not. Or the act of reading a book whose narrative breezes along, but in the end, nothing of value remains.

This book is one of the fortunate few that exist in both spheres. Linda’s long career as a journalist and writing instructor is apparent, as events are presented in an engaging and easy-to-understand style. Despite the seriousness of a family struggling with the weight of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, Linda is self-aware enough to find a dark humor in her life, through things like her husband’s idiosyncratic obsession with Rambler automobiles, and an odd sequence of events that led to the cover photo of Steve standing triumphantly atop a Rambler half-sunk in the middle of a pond.

These are counterbalanced by heart-rending details of events occurring while Steve was having an episode and the family’s ensuing struggle to cope with all of the chaos that entailed, emotionally, socially, medically, and financially. Steve’s personal battle would reach an apex when, after losing his engineering job, he was arrested and placed in a psychiatric hold during an engineering conference in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, it would still be several years before the medical community caught up with Steve’s issues and figured out both an appropriate diagnosis and a mixture of medications that could quiet his mind. These years were a trying time for a family who had effectively lost their primary source of income, and for whom medical answers were not readily forthcoming.

Although the family very humanly experienced wistful despair and even anger at their situation, through all of the struggles is an undercurrent of love. Childrens’ love for their father. A wife’s love for her husband. A father’s love for his family. Each are strained to their limit in turn and for different reasons, but their resiliency and dedication to holding together as a unit is truly uplifting.

Rambler is a worthy companion to recent popular nonfiction books regarding mental illness, like Brain on Fire, by Susannah Calahan (encephalitis); and fictional entries like Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (Alzheimer’s). Especially given that this books offers something that many others do not: the first-person perspective of a family member.

The book is now available on Amazon, here.

On a final, personal note, I know the Schmitmeyer family, although not especially well. Linda and Steve were a part of a “card club” including my parents when I was growing up, and their children were a frequent part of the cast of characters at a pool belonging to a mutual neighborhood friend in the summers. Although much of the events of this book took place before I was in high school and thus my understanding of both mental illnesses and the family lives of others was extremely limited, I was very surprised upon reading at how much of the Schmitmeyer’s struggle was kept quiet within the neighborhood community. I knew Steve to be a charismatic and fun-loving person, who had a 1000-megawatt smile and an eager laugh. The family’s reasons for their reticence to share are eminently understandable: the stigmas surrounding mental illness are still very real, and even today’s relative state of enlightenment is a far cry from society’s general views in the late 90s. But, I think this is an important lesson; not that we should pry into the lives of others where it is not wanted, but that we should be aware that we may not know what our friends are going through at a particular time, and to do what we can to offer a hand or even an ear when we sense a need, because the issues may run far deeper than we realize.



Thanks for reading.

knauff13

Book Review: The Underland Chronicles (5-book series)

Series: The Underland Chronicles
Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophesy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Published: 2003 – 2007

Pages: 336; 320; 304; 352; 416 (from Amazon data, but I think these are based on small pages with a large type-face)

Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 9+ Swearing and sexual content is basically non-existent, but the books get progressively scarier and more violent. Click here for the Common Sense Media Guide!

Synopsis:

Gregor is an ordinary 11-year-old boy who lives in a run-down apartment building in New York City with his mom. Gregor’s father disappeared from his life two years prior, leaving behind Gregor, his mom, and his two younger sisters, Lizzie (7), and Boots (2). As the oldest child, Gregor feels immense pressure to help his mother care for his sisters while he watches bills pile up and the family struggles to eat.

One day, while helping with laundry in the basement of the building with his baby sister Boots, Gregor observes that she is playing perilously close to an old air duct. Too late, he dives after her, and just like that, they both find themselves plummeting… but the fall lasts far longer than it should. At long last, Gregor and Boots arrive unharmed in a cave at some unknown depth. Before he can stop her, Boots sets off exploring, and she abruptly finds some very strange company. Before he can catch his breath, Gregor and Boots are caught up in the midst of a prophesy, with the fate of thousands hanging in the balance. And maybe, just maybe, the possibility of a reunion with his long lost father.

Gregor soon learns that he and Boots have landed in the Underland, a realm where cockroaches are nearly as big as humans, and rats are a great deal larger. Not to mention vicious. And they hate humans.

The Underland is home to a lost race of humans who have been underground for thousands of years. The humans have been at war with the rats on and off for generations. Upon arriving at the human kingdom, Gregor learns that the rats have a particular aversion to “Overlanders” due to an ancient prophesy predicting that one would essentially bring about the end of the rat kingdom.

When the human  leaders learn that Gregor’s father had mysteriously vanished two years prior, speculation abounds that his father had been captured by rats, which means that Gregor may be “The Warrior” referenced in the prophesy who could save the human race. An expedition is launched (owing much to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit) to find Gregor’s father, fulfill the prophesy, and save the Underland human race in the process.

Joining Gregor in his quest are Luxa, the young heiress to the human throne, her cousin Henry, their two bats Aurora and Ares (who are bonded to their human partners sort of like Han and Chewie, but in an official capacity), two cockroaches named Tick and Temp, and a gigantic rogue rat named Ripred.

Unfortunately for Gregor, his adventures in the Underland do not end with one simple quest. No sooner has he found himself home than he is drawn unexpectedly into further adventures, with ever more complications, as Gregor’s friendships and stature in the Underland both develop and deepen.

Final Thoughts:

While Suzanne Collins is now far better known for her popular dystopian Hunger Games series, she kicked off her published writing career with the Underland Chronicles back in 2003. This is a different type of story, but built on a framework with some obvious parallels.

Like Katniss, Gregor is constantly driven by his love for his family and his desire to protect them at all costs. Also like Katniss, Gregor’s extreme selflessness in furtherance of this goal sometimes lends him a mythical quality to those around him, even though his inward thoughts show his fear and innocence. Both characters have lost their father and felt the need to step up in his absence. Gregor is perhaps more reserved in his acceptance of violence as a means to an end. When Gregor discovers that he has a particular talent for fighting, he is sickened, literally, by the idea, and wants nothing to do with any prophesy that could refer to him as a “warrior.”

In the sarcastic and battle-toughened rat Ripred, we see perhaps an early template for Haymitch. In the cold and calculating human leader Solovet are shades of President Coin.

To me, where this series diverges sharply from Hunger Games is in world-building. Pan-Em was an almost completely abstract representation of society with its rigid lines defining zones with ultra-specific economic purposes. The Underland is not a post-apocalyptic vestige of mankind. It is a fully mature civilization existing alongside ours. While Underland areas are divided mostly by species, each species functions independently and apart from the others except for profitable trade exchanges. While the humans and rats appear perpetually at war with each other, creatures like the cockroaches spiders, and numerous others fall into something of a neutral territory. The idea of impartial observers in a global conflict is something that is generally absent in Hunger Games.

At times, Gregor’s indifference for his own well-being and efforts to help others belie his tender age and strain credulity. But, perhaps his years spent without a father have toughened him and forced him to mature far faster than an ordinary pre-teen. Again and again Gregor willingly throws himself into danger to save Boots, to help the rest of his family, and, later, to do right by his friends in the Underland. As an adult reader I could not help rolling my eyes at times when Gregor took on the aura of a superhero, and adults in the Underland willingly sent him into extreme danger for their benefit, as if no one at all is on hand to say, “Hey, isn’t this kid, you know, like 11 or 12? Maybe we should help… a little?” And yet, the earnestness with which Gregor engages in his adventures is constantly endearing, and makes this an appropriate venture for younger readers. We never lose sight of exactly why Gregor is doing what he is doing, and neither does Gregor waver from his sense of what is Right and Just in furtherance of his goals. It doesn’t make his decisions throughout seem terribly complex or weighty, but sometimes it’s nice to have a simple read, in a world of black and white.

Romance is almost completely absent in books 1-4, but it does make an appearance in book 5. Unfortunately, these passages are rushed and underdeveloped, and feel almost as if they were shoe-horned in to add some emotional stakes and provide some additional ties for Gregor to The Underland rather than his family. On the other hand, keeping in mind that Gregor is still only 12 at the conclusion of book 5, I’m not sure increasing the romance is the answer. Perhaps simply an unbreakable friendship would have worked better and developed more organically over the course of all 5 books.

Ah, well, but I am nitpicking here, because I did greatly enjoy my time with Gregor in the Underland, and I would gladly venture back if ever Collins opens the door to return. I read the series over a couple months and found it to be a fun and refreshing diversion from more serious novels. I give the series 3.5* out of 5 stars.

Have you read this series? Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

*For reference, I’d have given Hunger Games a 4.

Movie Review: Inside Out

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: Inside Out

Director: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen

Release Date: June 19, 2015

Genre: Adventure, Comedy

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 95 minutes

Starring:

  • Amy Poehler
  • Phyllis Smith
  • Bill Hader
  • Lewis Black
  • Mindy Kaling
  • Richard Kind

Kid Friendly Rating: A few moments may be scary for some children, but mostly the movie is firmly in imagination-land. There are some sad scenes, but that’s sort of the point. Recommended 6+. Click here for the Parent Rating Guide!

Personal Rating: 4/5

Synopsis:

Reilly is an eleven-year-old girl whose life is upturned when her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco for a new job opportunity. While she tries to make the best of the situation, the stressful situation combined with her developing emotional maturity quickly sour on Reilly, and she is left feeling lost and out of place.

Inside Reilly’s mind, Joy is the leader of Reilly’s five key emotions, also including Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Together, Reilly’s emotions work in “headquarters” to guide Reilly through her day-to-day life. In the midst of the tumultuous changes in Reilly’s life, Joy and Sadness suddenly find themselves sucked out of headquarters and lost in the vast stacks of Reilly’s memory banks. Together, they work to find their way back to headquarters to help Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who are floundering with Reilly in their absence.

Pictures:

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Memorable Quotes:

  • Congratulations San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza! First the Hawaiians, and now YOU!
  • All these facts and opinions look the same. I can’t tell them apart.
  • Your dad’s under a lot of pressure, but if you and I can keep smiling, it would be a big help. We can do that for him. Right?
  • Things couldn’t be better. After all, Riley’s twelve now. What could happen?

Fun Fact:

According to director Pete Docter, each emotion is based on a shape: Joy is based on a star, Sadness is a teardrop, Anger is a fire brick, Fear is a raw nerve, and Disgust is broccoli.

Final Thoughts:

This movie has quickly become one of my 2.5-year-old daughter’s favorites, probably due mostly to the beautiful artwork, physical comedy, and superb voice acting by the lead characters. However, the thoughtfully written and layered innuendo which has become something of a trademark of Pixar movies ensures that there is something here to enjoy for every age group. Older audience members may find the movie somewhat more emotional than the kiddos, because there is a lot of wistful nostalgia regarding the process of growing up and maturing emotionally. There are a few laugh-out-loud situations that I don’t want to spoil, but suffice to say the actors were well-cast for their comedic roles.

If there is one real drawback to the movie, it is that there is not a ton of educational value. The various areas of the brain are cleverly plotted, but don’t offer a lot of insight on brain functions or psychology, but, perhaps this is really not the appropriate venue for those topics. On the other hand, there is one central lesson; the idea that as we get older, our emotions become less clear, and opinions about what once was simply good-or-bad, true-or-false, tasty-or-gross, may end up somewhere in the middle. And this lesson may hit home stronger with growing children than some denser educational content, anyway.

Book Review: The BFG

Originally posted on Geeks and Geeklets

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Title: The BFG

Author: Roald Dahl

Published: 1982

Pages: 240

Genre: Fairy Tale/Adventure

Kid Friendly Rating: 6+ Click here for the Common Sense Media guide! The book may be a bit violent by current kid’s book standards considering the Giants’ general habit of eating humans, but it is not any more grisly than many traditional fairy tales.

Synopsis:

Sophie’s life as an orphan meets an abrupt change when she spot a massive figure roaming the streets at night outside her orphanage. Fearing for his own discovery, the figure takes Sophie hostage and transports her to a far-off land, where Giants roam.

Fortunately for Sophie, she learns that she’s been captured by the world’s only “friendly” giant. After learning a great deal about each other, Sophie and the Giant hatch out a plan to rid the world of the evil, man-eating Giants, once and for all.

Final Thoughts:

Whenever I talk about this book, I like to tell people that I literally read the cover off of my copy as a kid. Which is true. I loved the book so much that I read it several times, and eventually both the front and back covers took so much abuse that they simply fell off. It may say more about the age of the copy and my cavalier treatment of it than my readership, but I still think it says something. And there really is no doubt that I loved this book.

And still do. I was very happy to discover upon re-opening it this week, that the book still contains some of the magic that I so thoroughly enjoyed as a young reader. What’s more, some of Roald Dahl’s clever jokes, which undoubtedly flew right over my head as a kid, are now right on target. For instance, the BFG informs Sophie that Giants travel to Wellington to eat humans for their “booty” flavor, and to Panama when they want a taste of hats.

The BFG’s manner of speaking is endearingly mixed-up and silly, which is also fun for kids as well as adults, like when the BFG refers to humans as “human beans” and his favorite author as “Dahl’s Chickens.” He also has a favorite soda-like drink called “frobscottle” with upside down bubbles that induce a certain silly bodily function that the BFG gleefully refers to as “whizzpoppers.”

The BFG’s hobby is to catch and categorize dreams. He has a collection of many thousands of dreams in jars which he enjoys blowing into the bedrooms of young children at night. Sophie is very curious about the dreams, and both she and the reader will find a lot of fun in reading the BFG’s descriptions of the dreams he has caught. It is this very hobby that led to Sophie’s discovery of the Giant, and ultimately gives rise to their plan to do away with the evil Giant brethren that torture the BFG when they are not hunting abroad for dinner.

Near the end of the book, there is a very funny fish-out-of-water scene in which the BFG meets the Queen of England, and her butler becomes increasingly exasperated in his attempts to accommodate the BFG while maintaining his proper royal butler dignity.

All in all, I give it 5/5 stars, regardless of age!

Note: This book is set to be released as a live-action Disney movie on July 1, 2016. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie will star Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Bill Hader, and Jemaine Clement. Watch the first trailer, below!

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