Book Review: Books with Mental Issues

I seem to have accidentally run into a recurring theme in the books I have been reading lately: mental issues. I am choosing to see this as a fluke rather than a cosmic warning, but it is interesting nonetheless. In Running with Scissors the narrator is actually the most sane person in the book. It is a memoir of writer Augusten Burroughs’ childhood. During the seventies, his mentally unstable mother ditched him with her psychiatrist in a messy, filthy house where he ends up having a fling with a paedophile. The psychiatrist knows and approves of this, but then he also thinks God is speaking to him through his faeces. He is a mental patient with a license, diagnosing other mental patients. The book consists of stories starring Augusten’s crazy adoptive family and makes you convinced people should have to pass an exam to be parents. The writer was not surprisingly sued by his adoptive family after the book appeared, claiming he made a lot of it up. A settlement was reached, though Burroughs still holds to his version of events. In any case, his memoir is an amusing and at times baffling read.

In Running with Scissors, Augusten’s brother is diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, which is what the writer of the next book I read also has. The title is Born on a Blue Day, which illustrates one aspect of Asperger: synaethesia, a cross-wiring of the senses. People with the syndrome strongly associate shapes and colours with numbers and words. For the rest they share symptoms with people with autism. They have trouble reading people’s expressions, need a lot of structure and routine and some of them are capable of astonishing things like complicated calculations from the top of their head, done in seconds. A lot of these people can’t live an independent life, but Daniel Temmet is thankfully ‘high functioning’, so he manages to. Through his memoir he gives some insight into his mind and how it works. It is a fascinating book, even if his writing can get a little dry and I zoned out during some of the bits about numbers. You end up imagining what it would be like to have a brain that works so much more efficient in some ways, but in others handicaps you.

The next book I am reading is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a novel said to be written from the perspective of someone with autism, specifically Asperger. There is some controversy about this interpretation, so his condition is not official, but comparisons were made in reviews to the autistic lead character from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Both books are written from the point of view of a sensitive young boy who goes on an investigation and both titles have some drawings and textual experimentation. Extremely Loud is a love-it or hate-it sort of book from what I heard, so I’m curious to see which camp I will land in. I suspect I will like it, as I loved Haddon’s book.

But maybe I need to take a break from autism first. Sit down and watch a movie. I hear Rain Man is pretty good…

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