The Red Estate

When people call me a writer I get uncontrollable giggles, like when I’m walking around the grocery store and find that aisle where a weird guy’s been hanging out for fifteen minutes belting out The Best of Celine Dion even though there’s no Muzak playing. Or when someone gets on the elevator with you at the hospital and they immediately open up about their upcoming hemorrhoid surgery.

I don’t consider myself a writer. At all. It makes me feel like a fake even though I spend a couple of hours writing every day.

In Lauren Karcz’s The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, Mercedes Moreno knows exactly what I mean. She’s finishing out her senior year in high school and not sure if she even considers herself an artist or not because she hasn’t created anything since her last piece won first place in an art show. She’s in love with her best friend Victoria, her grandmother has had a stroke and is dying in a hospital in Puerto Rico and her mother leaves, sending back word that while sitting at her mother’s bedside she saw her hand move. Mercedes knows this is wishful thinking because things do not look good for her grandmother whom she and her sister Angela are close to, having spent whole summers with her.

Rex, their landlord and next door neighbor, checks in on them and feeds them. One morning, a piano shows up on their front lawn. Her fourteen year old sister Angela has always wanted to learn how to play the piano (me too if just to annoy my brothers by playing Chopsticks for three hours straight). Mercedes and Angela haul the piano inside and make room for it. Soon, Angela can barely be torn away from it. Mercedes is trying to come up with a painting that rivals her award-winning Food Poisoning #1 (that title alone is a winner with me) but she’s feeling less than artistic as she waits for news from her mother about their grandmother, deals with her unrequited crush on her best friend who will be auditioning for Julliard (and no doubt getting in because she’s that good of a ballet dancer) and wondering what she’s going to do with her own life after high school.

Go to art school? Go to a local university? She sees her future as pretty grim, never leaving home and “playing” at her art, never seeing her best friend Vic again (or even acting on the chance that there might be more to their friendship). Life, as Mercedes knows it, feels all lived up and worn out. Until Rex announces that he has a new renter, a young woman named Lilia Solis. “She’s a painter like you!” Rex announces (insert slow eye roll here). Since Mercedes and Angela are on their own, Rex invites them over to eat and get to know Lilia. Mercedes is taken with her at first sight, this woman who’s only a few years older than Mercedes and a painter, living her life exactly the way she wants.

Lilia shows some of her work to Mercedes and says there’s this building called the Red Mangrove Estate where many artists rent space to work: painters, musicians, anyone who needs a place to unleash their creativity. I like that idea. I normally write sitting in the middle of my bed with my writing music on shuffle and then spend 45 minutes changing songs because that song doesn’t fit with my current mood of writing and then I scrap writing altogether and watch Netflix. Mercedes goes with Lilia to the Estates. She hears bands in other rooms rehearsing and looks through partially open doors snatching glimpses of other writers in the throes of creation: that place all artists go to where time has no meaning and they often look up and breathe deeply as if they’ve been underwater and now have to resurface.

The ten foot thick steel door in Mercedes’s head that has been holding back her art creaks open and she begins to create losing time, losing herself, and losing her worry over her grandmother. Her head becomes clearer. But like most obsessions that seem fantastic at first, the Estate begins to take on a life of its own. It’s all Mercedes can think about. She unthinkingly takes Vic there one day, even though outsiders and hangers-on are not allowed. She kisses Vic. She kisses the best friend she’s in love with.

But she soon finds that the Estate is truly a world of its own, a different one. There’s the life lived and created in the Estate and there’s the world outside of it where Mercedes didn’t kiss Vic. These two worlds begin to perilously overlap, especially when Angela, who has become an amazing piano player, goes to the Estate and begins playing with a band who wants to take her on tour. Meanwhile, the news from Puerto Rico is not good. Their mother spends every minute in the hospital with their grandmother who is in a coma. She is slipping further away by the minute.

Mercedes must decide what to do: continue living two lives with one in the Estate where she can create mind-blowing art or come back to the real world and continue trying to create while secretly thinking she has not a talented bone in her body.  In the end, she makes a choice that ripples through many lives, changing her own future.

There’s one part of the book near the end that blew my mind but I’m not into spoilers (thanks Internet for ruining The Walking Dead for me; yeah, I’m still bitter about that) so I won’t mess things up for you, reader. Let’s just say author Lauren Karcz weaves a tale full of Florida heat, cigarettes chain smoked, the NEED to create bursting through every vein and nervous system, and family. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is about who we are and what we think we will become in the future. But of course, unless you’re psychic (if you are you should have seen this next sentence coming) you have to let life be lived as it unfolds.

Now, I gotta boogie. I have a favorite cardboard box in the driveway I like to write in. What? It’s all I could afford.

Intergalactic Fantastic

If I heard music beamed to earth by an alien civilization, my first thought would be to whip out my phone and try to look it up on iTunes. Actually, my first thought would be ‘I really need a change of underwear.’ Also, I think if there is intelligent life in the universe and they’re driving along enjoying the cosmos, when they see Earth they’d hit the door lock mechanism and beat feet on out of there.

In Ryan Gebhart’s Of Jenny and the Aliens, the people of Earth have sent messages into outer space to see if anything would answer back. Ten years later, something does. (Seems about right. Takes a dude about ten years to text me back.) Derek is a high school senior living with his single mother. On the night the alien message, in the form of music, is heard on Earth, Derek goes to a body painting party to celebrate because hey, what else are you going to do when you hear music from another world? You go to a party, get blasted on booze and whatever weed is floating around and hope someone there is drunk or stoned enough to take you home.

At the party, there’s talk going around that the aliens might invade and everyone’s imagining alien enslavement. Except for Derek. He doesn’t give a toss because Jenny, a girl he’s had a crush on for years, is at the party. And walking around topless. I’m not talking strutting about in a bra. She’s in full skin mode and poor Derek, being a 17-year-old boy, has no idea how to not openly gawk at her. She’s talking to him, paying attention to him when he thought she didn’t even know who he was.

Short story long, they walk to her house where she puts on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Derek loses his virginity to her. Derek’s immediately in love and starts imagining their life together. After she falls asleep, he walks home deciding to stop by a local river. Derek lies down on the riverbank and looks into the sky but something else catches his attention. There’s someone on a tiny island hiding behind a tree. He sees a hand with horrifically long fingers splayed out against the tree trunk. And then he sees a baby deer and he thinks he’s still just a little drunk and makes his way home.

When he gets home it’s five in the morning and his mom is still awake. She’s glued to the TV where there’s a breaking news alert that NASA discovered a link in the alien music. It’s a video. It shows a planet that is remarkably like Earth but a little bigger. The camera pans to show strange animals as big as elephants grazing in a cornfield. They’re a cross between dinosaurs and something with feathers. The video shows a run down ranch house. The camera spots someone (something?) on the porch. It’s a small being with grey skin with mottled patches of color everywhere. It has large eyes and two slits in its face where a nose would be. It appears to struggle to speak. It says it enjoyed the music we sent out and hoped Earth liked the music he sent back. But God oh God, it has rows and rows of sharp shark-like teeth. Why so many nightmare teeth?

After seeing the alien, the world goes into chaotic survival mode. Everyone heads to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, thinking that at any moment flying saucers are going to drop from the sky and start in on the anal probing Olympics. I think my first instinct would be a healthy spike of fear but hey, at least the music they shared with us wasn’t Kanye West. I think that right there would be cause for an invasion.

Derek isn’t worried about the possible alien invasion because he just lost his virginity and is in love. He’s thinking Jenny might be in love with him too. But there’s something a little broken about her. Last summer her brother, a Navy SEAL, was killed on a mission in Raya. She and Derek become almost inseparable for two weeks. He takes her to the river after telling her about the strange noises and long fingers he’d seen by the trees. He tells her to get her camera out and start taking pictures. He swims across the river and is cracked on the head by the alien he saw a few nights ago.

When he comes to, Jenny is long gone and he’s sitting next to an alien smoking a joint. The alien has on jeans, a sports jacket and an orange turtleneck. He’s short, maybe 4 feet tall. They begin a halting conversation about sports and life back on his planet. The alien’s name is Karo. Lights and sirens are beginning to appear and Karo leaves. Jenny went to the police saying Derek had been assaulted. She captured a good picture of the alien. Derek says he’s fine, just tried to do something stupid like swim across in frigid waters to the small island.

In addition to the alien situation, all is not well in Love Land. Jenny is moody and isn’t as into the monogamous lifestyle that Derek prefers. In fact, she’s messing about with one of his best friends. Heartbroken, Derek wants a way to win her back. There’s a credible rumor that America is about to send 200,000 troops into Raya and it will likely be an all out war. Jenny makes an impossible promise to him. If he can stop the war in Raya, she’ll be his girlfriend. So what does Derek decide to do? He decides to try to get the aliens to help him stop the war so Jenny will be his. I’ve done some truly stupid things to get someone to like me (remember making a crush a mix-tape of your favorite songs?) but Derek is about to go over the top.

Of Jenny and the Aliens is told in a heartbreaking voice of first love. Yeah there are aliens in it, but at its core the novel is about love and the seemingly ridiculous lengths humans go to keep it. If you don’t have PTSD about your first teenage love (I still have fond nightmares about mine), grab this book and listen to the wisdom sung by the universe. Or whatever.

Before and After

I remember going to Planned Parenthood in my early 20s because I didn’t have health insurance and needed birth control pills. Not because I was having any fun with anyone but because my uterus and ovaries were complete jerks and the pills were the only thing that helped. I would sit in the waiting room and play the ‘Which One of These Girls Sitting Here is About to Have an Abortion?’ game. Not in a judgmental way but more like: you do what you have to do while I sit over here with this pamphlet explaining vaginal health with a wonky drawing that looks a lot like the mouth of the monster in the movie Predator.

There was not a lot of eye contact going on in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood but most of the patients were young girls, some nervously tapping their feet while their mothers sat next to them, ironically flipping through a Parenting magazine. Or best friends whispering to each other as they waited. Once, I saw a young man waiting with a girl. He held her hand while looking like he wasn’t old enough to drive. But him holding her hand was a declaration: I’ll be here when it’s over.

In Bonnie Pipkin’s Aftercare Instructions, 17-year-old Genesis Johnson has just had an abortion and goes back into the waiting room to find that her boyfriend, Peter, has disappeared. I don’t mean he was abducted by aliens. While Gen was having their baby taken from her while mellow jazz played on a speaker, Peter took off. Not only is he her boyfriend and supposed to be there for her, he was also her ride. Her cousin Delilah goes to college nearby so Gen heads over there and crashes, waking up to no phone calls from Peter, no texts.

Gen’s mother doesn’t know where she’s at but then again, she rarely cares anymore. Her mom has become a zombie after her husband’s death and Gen’s younger sister, Ally, has been taken away to live with her grandparent’s because their mother can’t cope with life. Gen’s home life is beyond suck city so when she met Peter, she found the love and affection she didn’t realize she was missing out on. He was there when Gen’s mother had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized.

Peter’s mother doesn’t approve of Genesis and thinks she’s from the wrong side of the tracks, especially because of the way Gen’s father died. Gen’s former friend Vanessa (who’s been after Peter for a long time) blabbed to everyone about how Gen’s father died. Now it seems as if Peter and Vanessa might be a thing. Gen’s life begins to spiral. Now she’s post-abortion, still bleeding, still reeling and not making great choices (then again, what 17-year-old makes consistently great choices?).

Gen goes to a party at her cousin’s college and gets blacked out drunk and meets Seth and they do what humans usually do when drunk: a lot of quality making out and then waking up sick the next morning not remembering how far things went. Don’t worry. This isn’t the usual ‘The best way to get over a man is to get under a new one’ trope. Seth’s a pretty solid dude and a total gentleman. Nothing happened between the two of them but he takes a shine to Gen while she’s not sure what’s going on: if she and Peter are still a thing, if her mom is going to have more breakdowns or if she’s finding her way out of the fog.

Written with a rawness not found in many YA books, Aftercare Instructions plunges into ideas about who we think we are, who we become and who truly loves us.

Second-Hand Love

Sometimes when a book is so good, I think about leaving a note inside of it when I return it to the library. In my imagination my note would be all sophisticated and intelligent, pointing out the themes and underlying messages. But in reality, it would probably read: Hi Fellow Book Friend! This book was good. That’s all I got.

I think I need professional help.

In Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue, Rachel returns to her hometown after having been away for three years. Her younger brother drowned almost a year ago and she’s spent the last year being haunted and hunted by sadness. She’s failed her senior year of high school, her mother’s grief is pushing her further and further away, and Rachel’s grandmother can see that to move on Rachel will need to get away from the place her brother Cal died.

So Rachel goes home and has to deal with Henry, her best friend since birth.  But what was once friendship for Rachel changed before their freshman year of high school. She realized she was in love with Henry. She wrote him a letter about how she felt and hid it in Henry’s favorite T.S. Eliot book of poetry. Then she moved to another town. Henry never mentioned reading the letter and Rachel figured he didn’t feel the same way. So, folding up on herself in humiliation and regret, Rachel stops speaking to Henry for three years.

Henry, meanwhile, is passionate about two things: his family’s second hand bookstore (Howling Books) and his girlfriend Amy. He graduated high school and blew his savings to travel the world with her. That is, until Amy sits him down and tells him that while she still loves him, she’s also interested in someone else. I didn’t know that was allowed. Huh. You learn something new every day. So Henry does what every 18 year old boy has done since the beginning of time: vows to win her back and make her fall in love with him.

The family’s bookstore isn’t doing too well, not with online book companies and the rise of e-readers. Nobody seems to want to browse in bookstores anymore. Howling Books has been in business for twenty years. Henry, his sister George, and their father are very protective of their love for books and the bookstore itself. Henry’s parents are divorced and their mother is trying to convince them to sell the building. The company that wants to buy it plans to bull-doze the building to make way for condominiums.

What’s so special about this secondhand bookstore? It has a section called the Letter Library where people can leave letters for friends or for a love interest.  Rachel had put her letter in a book in the Letter Library before moving away.  And now that she’s back, she has a job at the bookstore cataloging all of the letters in the Letter Library (yes, there are that many letters hidden between the pages of all those books).

Thinking that Henry’s just too embarrassed to mention her love letter from three years ago, Rachel decides to start over with him. They’ve been beyond close almost since birth and they’ve both missed each other terribly in the three years she was gone. Rachel doesn’t tell anyone about Cal’s death. Everybody thinks she’s just taking a break before college and living with her aunt for the summer. She doesn’t tell them she couldn’t concentrate during her senior year and couldn’t see the point of high school and flunked out.

Rachel hates Amy and the feeling is mutual. Amy, a beautiful redhead, is the type of girl who will latch onto the next thing that comes along if it’s shiny enough. But she keeps letting Henry think there’s hope for the two of them. Rachel bites her tongue about the situation, relieved that she doesn’t have any feelings of love for Henry anymore and they can go back to being best friends.

But isn’t that what we all say when confronted with unrequited love? Of course Rachel still loves him. Duh. So they spend a few weeks getting back into their friendship and coming up with ways for Henry to win Amy back. But Rachel finds that dealing with Cal’s death isn’t getting any easier and she especially wants to share her grief with her best friend.

All seems lost when Amy decides Henry’s shiny enough to take back. But does Henry finally see that the girl he loves is the same one he grew up with?

Told in alternating voices and letters from the Letter Library, Words in Deep Blue is not just about getting over grief but also about learning how to live with it while still doing the work of everyday living. It’s about a family of bookworms learning that letting go might not be a bad idea. And, maybe most importantly, it’s a book about love in all its forms and incarnations. I shied away from this book at first because of the romance angle but found that it was my kind of book: difficult love, love that makes your heart into a zombie (yes, the book could have used some real zombies too but that’s just me being me).

As Barry Gibb once sang (before the falsetto years) “Let there be love.”

And there was.

Richard Dawson Doesn’t Host This Version of Family Feud

I believe there are thin places in this world. The term ‘thin places’ refers to areas in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin but I think the term applies to other dimensions, other worlds. There are stories about people out for a stroll who blink and suddenly they’re in a place that looks like the road they were walking on but it’s different. Or there’s the story of a man out walking his dog when his dog takes off and the man chases after him. The man soon finds himself in a slightly different world, a world where John Lennon is still alive, the Twin Towers never fell. The McRib is always available.

In A Million Junes by Emily Henry, Jack “June” O’Donnell (all the offspring share the name Jack, even if a daughter is born) has one rule to follow: stay away from the Angert family. There’s been a deep feud between the O’Donnells and the Angerts for a century even though no one can remember exactly why. June lives with her mother, stepfather and two brothers in Five Fingers, Michigan in a house in a powerful thin place.

If you leave shoes on the porch, coywolves (a mix between coyotes and wolves) will come and steal them away. Window Whites, soft floating orbs, travel throughout the house and bonk against windows. Feathers is a ghost with a pink sheen who is always there, drifting in corners, shimmering where June can see her. Another ghost, a black shadow June calls Nameless, hovers nearby and unlike Feathers, who gives off a comforting vibe, Nameless oozes malevolence.

June’s father, Jack the III, died ten years ago and June still lives in the bubble of him: of his tall tales about the O’Donnell family, how both his family and the Angerts are cursed. If something good happens to the Angerts, something terrible befalls the O’Donnell’s and vice versa. Even though June has set her father up on a pedestal she doesn’t know why there’s hatred between the families.

One evening in the fall, Saul Angert returns home after being away for three years. He’s come back to take care of his father who has dementia. Of course they run into each other (literally, she almost knocks him down and somehow manages to bite him in the shoulder) and don’t you know, there is an instant chemistry. They do their best to stay away from each other but both know it is a losing battle.

June has no plans to go to college and puts little effort into school. Until she takes a creative writing class and puts to paper all the stories her father told her. A new world opens up to her. But one evening, one of the Window Whites lands on her skin and she’s thrown into a memory of when she was a child and her father was telling one of his stories. June craves more memories but what she finds at the other end is more than she bargained for.

Soon she and Saul are both given the Window White treatment and both see memories of not only their pasts but the pasts of their relatives. June finds out her father might not be everything she once thought he was. But she’s determined to go into the thin place to find him. And Saul is right there ready to go with her to find out what happened all those years ago to make their families despise one another. They want to break the curse. They want to love.

You guys, I couldn’t put this books down. I know I say that about every book I read but for this one I set my alarm clock an hour earlier than usual just so I could read it. I’m not into woo-woo magic and otherworldly love stories. This novel isn’t like that. The magic and wonder and terror in this story is subtle. It’s a story not only about falling in love but also about realizing the people you love aren’t who you thought they were. But finding that out doesn’t change the fact that you were beyond loved.

If you want a tale about falling in love with someone you’re meant to be with, the wonder of a place that sits between two worlds, and the unbreakable bond of family, get this book. Really. I mean, like, yesterday.

I gotta go. I just found a thin place in the woods behind my house and I swear I can hear Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison tuning their guitars.

Night Terrors

The internet ruins everything. Sometimes the kinder sites about movies, television shows and books will state in bold letters SPOILERS, meaning if you read ahead be prepared for something to be ruined. Those are the polite ones. Other sites seem to revel in spoiling books and movies for people so that you’re half way through an article and then: boom! You find out one of your favorite TV characters died in last night’s episode that you haven’t even watched yet. The only thing the internet is good for is for looking at pictures of puppies and kittens and dads getting hit in the nards by four-year-olds armed with whiffle bats.

I had heard the hype surrounding Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes: that the book was one hell of a trip and that once you think you have it figured out you’ll find out you don’t. At all. I purposefully ignored reviews about the book because I knew someone would let something slip and that would be it. That’s why my book blogs are frustrating to write because I want to write about everything that happens but without giving anything away. I can write about Behind Her Eyes without giving anything away. Readers, you have GOT to read this book. What? I have to write more about it? I can’t just say “Read this book. You won’t be sorry?” Geez. Okay.

Louise is a single mom to six-year-old Adam. She’s divorced (her husband left her for a younger woman) and works as a secretary in a psychologist’s office. Most nights she drinks wine at home while watching television but one night she decides to go out and meets a man in a bar and they have an instant connection. Or their bodies do. They have a fumbled kiss or two and that’s it. She fully expects to never see him again.

One of the psychologists in her office retires and a new doctor gets hired. You guessed it. The new doctor is the man she met at the bar and made out with. She’s mortified because he’s married. He and his wife come into the office for a tour and Louise hides in the bathroom. Sounds like something I would do. Then again, I often hide in the bathroom for various reasons so there’s that.

David, the new doctor, tells Louise that he made a mistake, that he’s a married man and he and Louise do the adult thing where they decide to just be co-workers. There’s still an undeniable attraction between the two but Louise has talked herself into being okay spending her nights tucking her son in, drinking a bottle of wine, and then falling asleep only to be woken by night terrors.

In case you don’t know what a night terror is, it’s this: extreme fear while still asleep. People scream, throw their arms around, sometimes they feel as if they can’t move but are still aware of everything happening around them. For Louise, night terrors mean waking up in odd places like beside her sleeping son’s bed staring down at him and not knowing how she got there. The terrors exhaust her and the broken sleep (and bottles of wine) are taking a toll on her.

One day after walking her kid to school, Louise runs into a woman and knocks her down. It’s David’s wife Adele whom Louise recognizes from pictures on David’s desk. Adele is an ethereally beautiful woman with a fragile air about her. She and Louise become tight friends although Louise feels guilty, especially when David comes over one night and yep, they both give in and become lovers.

Adele and Louise meet up constantly for lunch or for a workout at the gym. There’s a lot of wine drinking. I mean A LOT. I don’t drink wine but after reading this book I felt like going out and buying a giant bottle and drinking the whole thing. Then again, the people in this book drink good wine whereas I would feel like I’m splurging on Boone’s Farm.

Adele doesn’t want Louise to tell David they’ve become friends and Louise knows there’s no danger of that. Louise confides in Adele about her night terrors and Adele says she has them too and has had them since she was a little girl. 15 years ago when she was 17 a fire destroyed half of her family’s estate house and killed both her parents. David saved her, burning his arm badly in the rescue. Adele had a breakdown after that and was committed to a ritzy mental institution for a month where she met a young boy named Rob who was in for heroin use. They become closer than close and Adele taught him a technique she learned from a dream book about how to control dreams. He can go anywhere his brain tells him to go in his dreams, she says.

Fast forward almost 15 years and Louise is learning how to control her night terrors thanks to Adele. Her affair with David, meanwhile, is still ongoing and both of them are falling in love with each other. But there’s a coldness to David that scares Louise. One day she sees that Adele has a large bruise on her face. She says that she opened a cupboard door and it smacked her. Louise is suspicious of this. It’s obvious it wasn’t a cupboard door. Did David hit Adele? He can be so cold and he has a drinking problem.

And then there’s the weirdness with Adele always having to have the phone nearby when David calls to check up on her. There’s a cupboard in the kitchen full of pills prescribed by David (antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiety medication). Enough to make Keith Richard’s heart soar. Or stop. Louise is starting to put together a picture of fragile Adele bullied and medicated by David. She berates herself for falling in love with such a man and still being attracted to him.

Louise has managed to direct her dreams to where she wants them and is no longer having night terrors. It gives her an odd boost of confidence. She breaks things off with David deciding to focus on her friendship with Adele but there are times she wishes she could just dump both of them and have that mess out of her life.

Oh you guys, just when you think you can see which direction this story is going and feel disappointed that the rave reviews were all wrong, the novel takes such a sharp turn you feel like you’ve slipped down a muddy embankment into a pool of murky water filled with bobbing skeletons. Sorry. I just watched Poltergeist the other day and that scene is on my mind. I felt a pang of disappointment reading along and thinking “So this book’s about a lonely single mother who gets it on with a married man but befriends his wife and she has no idea which one is insane? That’s the story?” No. That is so NOT the story. One blurb I read about Behind Her Eyes was right: You will not see the ending coming.

Read this book if you want to wake up at 3 AM, haunted by the ending. I haven’t slept in three days and I’m hiding out in a bathroom.

Hard to Hide Crazy

I’m crazy. I can say that. I’ve been tested and found insane. I mean, it wasn’t an inkblot test where I see a cloudy black splotch and say it’s obviously Charles Manson teaching a fish how to fold fitted sheets. The test was more like a doctor asking me “How long have you felt this way (this way being medical talk for “depressed)?” I answered “All my life. And whatever lives I’ve lived before if reincarnation is actually a thing.” I know people will frown on me for equating depression with the term ‘crazy’ because when people hear the word ‘crazy’ they think of toothless people who smell like urine yelling at a wall while addressing it as Mr. Stalin.

I call myself crazy because it’s oddly more acceptable than admitting I’m in a decades long battle with mental illness and all I’m armed with is a spork and a smart mouth. And for a VERY long time I hid my anxiety/depression from a lot of people, even some members of my family not only because I was (am?) ashamed of it, but because I didn’t want to get the ‘look.’ You know the one I’m talking about. A couple people, friends or co-workers, find out you struggle with a mental illness and they raise an eyebrow in a way that says “That explains A LOT.”

Along with the look is the way some people will treat you, like you’re fragile: stumbling on the edge of something horrible and the next thing they say will send you right over the edge so they speak to you like you’re a freaked out cat hiding under the bed with a rubber band wrapped around its tail. I’m not fragile. Not outwardly. I’m funny and an extrovert while I’m at work. Well, at least I think I’m funny. I can sometimes hear my boss sigh like ‘Oh my God, dial it down a notch, Jennifer.’ I’m not totally out of the depression closet but I don’t go up to strangers and say “I get sad for reasons I will probably never understand.” I don’t let my crazy show too soon. You gotta dole that stuff out bit by bit.

When I started reading Eric Lindstrom’s A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, I recognized and fell in love with Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old girl with bipolar depression. I’m not bipolar but I empathized with everything Mel was going through. She had an older brother named Nolan who was also bipolar. She never comes out and says he died, but I don’t think me writing that fact is a spoiler alert. She and her mother have moved to a house left to them by Mel’s grandma shortly after Nolan’s death.

Mel’s Aunt Joan has moved in with them. Mel calls her HJ (Hurricane Joan) because she suffers from bipolar depression as well. I’m no expert but here’s the low-down on bipolar depression: not all people experience it in the same way. Some people get bitchin’ highs, the manic side of bipolar, and they’re so full of energy they don’t sleep for days. They have all of these ideas and plans and they’re going going going. And then they crash into a deep depression. Mel keeps track of her moods in a clever way (that I think I might steal): She refers to her moods by referring to them as animals:

Hamster is Active

Hummingbird is Hovering

Hammerhead is Cruising

Hanniganimal is UP!

The Hamster is her head, her pattern and speed of thinking. The Hummingbird is her heart, how fast it’s beating or ‘speeding.’ The Hammerhead is her physical health: “Cruising when I’m fine, slogging or thrashing if I’m sick.”

Mel works in a retirement home and has a special knack with older people. There’s Dr. Jordan, a retired psychiatrist who is the only person outside her family who knows about her mental illness. He checks in on her without pressuring her and she’s comfortable talking with him. There’s a new resident who just moved in, Ms. Li, who has a grandson named David who seems like a jerk at first. But there’s a definite attraction between him and Mel.

That’s another thing that worries her: relationships and her mental illness. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some people will head for the hills as soon as they find out you have depression/or are bipolar. Or even if a relationship is working out, the fear is very real that your significant other will get bored or fed up with your brain and will leave. Mel’s not even sure a relationship would work with anyone.

And friendships are also a problem. Someone you thought of as your best friend can call you a bummer and say adios. It’s a risk. A year ago Mel had a group of friends she was joined at the hip with. Annie, Connor, and Zumi. Annie was the alpha of the group and I’ll go ahead and say it: she was a real manipulative bitch. If something didn’t interest her or had nothing to do with her, she’d ignore it, even if it’s something that mattered to a friend. Mel’s not really fond of her but Zumi is in love with Annie even though her love is egged on by Annie but unrequited. Zumi is Mel’s best friend along with Connor who seems to play the role of the only dude in a trio of girls.

Mel never tells them that she had a brother named Nolan. She also doesn’t tell them about her bipolar depression because she is a little ashamed of it and she doesn’t know how they would react. Then something happens that ends the friendships, leaving Mel out in the cold. A year later Mel makes two new friends, Declan and Holly. She doesn’t tell them either. I get it. When you keep something that big from friends or family members, you feel like you’re protecting them. And at the same time, you feel like you’re protecting yourself.

But Mel’s past makes an unwanted appearance when she thinks she’s coping pretty well and doing everything she can to deal with her mental illness. She begins to amp up, the illness taking over her mind, to the point of no return for her.

Eric Lindstrom’s beautifully written book about mental illness is a must read for anyone struggling with depression and for loved ones who want to help and understand the illness better. Not only is it a good story in itself, but it’s also a way to help others open up and ask for help.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my medication.

My Raccoon is half asleep

Otter is swimming

Squirrel is snacking.

No seriously, there’s a damn squirrel in the bird feeder again.