CHALLENGER DEEP (2015)

downloadNeal Shusterman is a prolific writer of amazing young adult fiction. This is the first book of his I’ve read, but after hearing so many great things about Challenger Deep and learning it contains references to Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues (stories i both love), when it was recommended to me by my wonderful teacher friend Laura, I couldn’t put it off a second longer.

As expected, it was amazing. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful and seemingly (because what do I know) realistic portrayal of severe mental illness.  Shusterman wrote the book with the help of his son Brendan who has suffered from mental illness/psychosis, and while the book is not about his son, Shusterman’s experience with mental illness comes through making the story feel honest and personal. The thing that makes Challenger Deep really incredible, though, is its structure. As Shusterman explains in an interview, there are four different types of chapters:

“There’s the real world, in which Caden is losing touch with reality, and becomes an unreliable narrator, because his version of the world is increasingly skewed. Then, simultaneously, there’s the world on the ship – a dark, fantastical voyage which we eventually discover is Caden’s delusion – an alternate version of his experiences in the hospital.  Third are observations on life, and reflections on the nature of mental illness, that are almost like journal entries and are not tied to any specific time at all. Fourth are the chapters in which the real world of the hospital, and the world of the ship begin to flow into one another within the same chapter, as those two realities start to merge.”

This structure operates in a way that makes you feel like you are descending into Caden’s mental illness with him. The story is at its most strange when Caden is having a psychotic break and as he begins to come back to reality it is as if you as a reader are coming to understand reality again too.  It may seem like I’m giving away spoilers, but in a way there is nothing to give away. I could tell you everything that happens in Challenger Deep and still you would need to read it to understand, because it is the way that it’s written and the experience of reading it that give this book its magic.

Mental Illness is something that is still so misunderstood (partly because it is very hard to understand!!) and Challenger Deep does an amazing job of making it make as much sense as mental illnesses can. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from one of the last chapters comparing the mysteries of the brain to the mysteries of the universe:

“There are many things I don’t understand, but here’s one thing I know: There is no such thing as a “correct” diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catchphrases for various collections of symptoms… We are however, creatures of containment. We want all things in life packed into boxes that we can label. But just because we have the ability to label it, doesn’t mean we really know what’s in the box. It’s kind of like religion. It gives us comfort to believe we have defined something that is, by its very nature, indefinable. As to whether or not we’ve gotten it right, well, it’s all a matter of faith.”

Links: storyman .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: Young Adult Fiction, teenage protagonists, adventure stories, honest depictions of mental illness

OUT OF DARKNESS (2015)

perez-outofdarknessI do my best not to judge people based on abstract categories, and I do my best to understand and to see the best in everyone, even when they have fundamentally different beliefs than my own. Everyone has a history, their own unique series of experiences that lead to the building of their own world view.

But racists. Racists to even the most casual degree. Those who think we should build literal and figurative walls to prevent immigration. Those who believe there are substantially more black men in jail than white men, not because of a broken system, but because more black men tend to be criminals. Those who feel the shocking number of black males who’ve been murdered by police are justified. Those who see all Muslims as terrorists. And those who don’t really believe any of the above but still find themselves pausing to think that maybe there is some truth to it.

Those people, I can/will not understand. I understand fear of the unknown and fear of change and the desire for security for you and your own, and I understand how these fears and desires can lend themselves to putting others down; keeping them out. I understand the power of history and the extent of peoples differences and that we all can’t be expected to get along all the time. But despite all of that, no matter what explanation you have, I will always respond with what is to me the most obvious thing in the world: Kindness!!! And human compassion!!! Always! The knowledge that life is unfair and that not one of us is ever more deserving of happiness and security than the other.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is a young adult historical fiction set in East Texas in 1937 featuring a cast of whites, blacks, and a mexican girl. Sometimes it takes a narrowing of focus to generate deep compassion. When faced with constant and widespread injustice, its nearly impossible to not become hopeless and begin to see injustice as normal and inevitable.  But when it is narrowed down to one place, one tragedy, one family, one girl, you can’t help but burn with compassion.

There’s so much I have to say about Out of Darkness, but when I turned the last page, what I found myself thinking about was this: How would one of those previously mentioned people react if they read this book? What if I found someone who supported the building of a wall, and got them to read it? Would they tell me it was a lie? An exaggeration? That things were never that bad that unfair that unjustified. Would they say, “I would never have done anything like that, but….”? Would they say that things were just different back then and not at all related to how things are now? Would they truly continue to believe that they’re on the right side of history? Or, what if this book was the thing that finally made them understand how real and painful and tragic racism is and how current events are unfolding in the shadows of this cruel, not-at-all distant past? I’m inclined to think not, but that’s not my judgement to make. The most important thing I have to say about Out of Darkness is that no matter who you are, you have something to learn from it, something to gain. Please, do yourself a favor and find out what.

Links: Ashley Perez .com | Goodreads | Amazon 

You’ll like this book if you like: great books, historical fiction, love stories that aren’t stupid, mature young adult lit