FIELD NOTES BOOK FOR MARCH, 2018: FURIOUSLY HAPPY

After a great discussion of the February book, No One Cares about Crazy People, the Field Notes book group chose our next book, which we will be discussing on March 17 (my birthday!): Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson.  Copies are already available at the Field Library, and more will be coming in through the week, so if you’re interested, come on in and pick one up.

Furiously Happy is a hard book to describe. The author, Jenny Lawson, admits right up front that she has mental health problems.  She’s suffered from depression and anxiety disorders for most of her life.  However, this is not a sad book like No One Cares about Crazy People.  Quite the contrary.  Lawson has such a sense of humor, such a delightful writing style and so much life and energy that this is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years.  I don’t want to give away any of the particularly hysterical parts of the book (most of it is laugh out loud funny).  Let me just say that when I read it for the first time, I was riding on a Metro North train to New York City, and I was laughing so hard the woman sitting in the seat next to me actually moved to another seat.

There’s much to discuss about the book, including whether her husband should be considered for sainthood now or whether the church should wait for his death to do it (really, he puts up with a lot), whether Lawson’s approach to life is a good way to deal with horrible things even if you don’t have mental illnesses and why we don’t all have taxidermy raccoons with outstretched arms to give people a hug. I’m being facetious, a little, but the book inspires that kind of goofiness.

So come and join us on March 17, from 11 to 12:30 at the Field Library Gallery, for coffee, snacks (possibly including homemade Irish Soda Bread), and an entertaining discussion of Furiously Happy.

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OUR INSANE MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

If you’ve ever had the experience of dealing with the mental health “system” we have here in the U.S., either for yourself or for someone you love, then you need to read No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, by Ron Powers.  As a matter of fact, if you are at all interested in how we deal, or don’t deal, with people suffering from schizophrenia, you should definitely read this book, heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.

no one cares about crazy people

Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning author of nonfiction, has a personal interest in the subject matter: he had two sons, both of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia in their early 20’s.  One son committed suicide, the other came close to suicide but managed to survive the worst of the disease.  Half of the book tells the excruciating story of a parent’s nightmare: watching your beloved child suffer from a disease that medicine doesn’t understand and is nowhere close to curing. You know from the outset that Kevin is going to kill himself (Powers tells us this in the introduction), so throughout the story of the young man’s brilliance and talents you are, in some sense, bracing yourself for the horrible end of the story.  Even so, when it comes, it’s heartbreaking.

 

But this isn’t just a memoir of the loss and near loss of two young men to mental illness.  It’s also an exceptionally well-written story of what we know, and don’t know, about schizophrenia and mental illness in general, and a history of how our society, and its predecessors (all the way through recorded history), has dealt with people suffering from schizophrenia, diagnosed or not.  It’s not a pretty story at all, from the inhumanity of places like Bedlam in England (where not only were mentally ill people — and people who probably weren’t mentally ill but were behaving in a way that diverged from social expectations — treated worse than animals, chained to walls, beaten and subjected to all kinds of ugly treatments, but they were also used as entertainment for rich people who would pay to come and jeer at the crazy people) through the American system that Dorothea Dix fought against on grounds of humanity, through the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill (thanks, former President Reagan, a leader in the California movement) and the promise and abuse of pharmacological means of treating schizophrenia.  He does leave us with a little hope, but the hope depends not just on a change in science (some of which is already underway), but on a change in social attitudes, which seems less likely.  

 

The book is appalling and enthralling in equal measures.  It’s not a fun book to read, but it’s incredibly well-written and the subject matter is extremely timely and important.  If you or anyone you love has been caught in the toils of our unnecessarily complicated and difficult mental health system, this is a book you want to read.

 

WEIRD, FUNNY AND WONDERFUL: FURIOUSLY HAPPY

furiously happy cover

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson.  Just look at that cover. How can you not want to find out more about a book with a cover like that? And yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in this particular case, the cover is an excellent representation of what’s inside.

So if you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge (and it’s not too late yet to join in — lots of fun and lots of people to cheer you on and read with you), Furiously Happy counts as “book with a main character with a mental illness,” so this is a very easy, very enjoyable way to fulfill that requirement. I read it in one day without even pushing hard, and you will just whiz through it yourself.  And if you’re not doing the Reading Challenge, you still should read Furiously Happy and not be deterred at all by its being written by and about a person who struggles with depression, anxiety disorders and other mental and physical illnesses.

Why should you read it?  Because it’s funny.  The subtitle of the book is “A Funny Book about Horrible Things,” and that’s extremely accurate, though not all the things she writes about are horrible (some are just run of the mill life-can-be-difficult things).

It’s not just smile-wryly-at-life’s-peculiarities funny, either.  It’s laugh-out-loud-so-much-people-stare-at-you-wherever-you’re reading kind of funny.  It’s the kind of funny where you want to read the best lines aloud to whoever’s near you, only you can’t choose just one line or two lines or a dozen lines and half the time the real humor comes from context so you end up reading a whole page to someone else, and that someone else will probably end up either grabbing the book out of your hands or else insisting you stop reading so she or he can read it for her or himself.

The goofy looking raccoon on the cover is an actual thing.  It’s a dead raccoon that has been stuffed, that the author named Rory and keeps in her home as (sort of) her emblem animal.  She has been known to sneak up behind her husband when he is having important business conferences by Skype and slowly raise Rory behind him so the person on the other end of the conference call thinks Jenny’s husband is actually about to be attacked by a scary raccoon.  She thinks it’s a good way to see who your real friends are.  Her husband thinks he needs to lock her out of the room when he’s on Skype conference calls.

In the course of this book, Jenny discusses taking antipsychotic medications, what’s going on in her head when she’s talking to her therapist (I was reading this chapter while riding on Metro North and my seatmate, whom I’d never seen before, finally asked me what on earth I was reading that was so funny), a trip she and a good friend took to Australia, her thoughts on the helicopter-parenting phenomenon and why people really overschedule their children (her explanation is brilliant and funny and NOT the one you’re thinking of), and a number of other topics. Even her descriptions of her arguments with her husband (who must be a saint, judging by this book) are hysterically funny.

Amidst all this humor and this bizarre but entertaining stream of consciousness stuff, she manages to sneak in some deep and moving insights about what it’s like to have a mental illness, how hard it can be to live with depression and anxiety, and how important it is to recognize the strengths you gain from living with and surviving mental illnesses.

Jenny Lawson comes across as the kind of wild and quirky friend you definitely want with you in an adventure or even in a boring place.  If you can’t actually spend time with her, do the next best thing: read Furiously Happy.