Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading List: Mental Illness in Fiction

Welcome to this week's installment of our newest feature here at The Blue Bookcase: Reading Lists. Every week one of us (or a guest blogger) will post on one of his or her favorite topics and provide a list of books he or she is familiar with on that topic. At the end of each post we will invite you to throw out any suggestions of books, fiction or non-fiction, that you have read or know about on that topic and we will add them to the list on that post.
These lists are not comprehensive by any means, but may be useful in helping you find your next read.

[This has turned out to be not that weekly of a thing, but it's still fun! You can find all the Reading Lists in the tab above titled as such.]

This week, Christina is compiling a list called: Mental Illness in Fiction.
Picasso: Blue Nude

When I was about fifteen I bought an old psychology textbook from a library book sale on a whim. The book was published in like 1990, and I'm sure a lot of the information inside was already long-since outdated when I read it in the late 90's. But that didn't make the chapter on mental disorders any less intriguing to me. I was simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the symptoms of psychosis, personality disorders, mania and depression. And I will forever be scarred by the cruelty described in the section on the history of mental health institutions and treatments.

But even more startling and memorable were the artwork samples included in the text and the excerpts of interviews with people suffering from various disorders. I read that chapter again and again, and thus began my interest in the experience of mental illness.

I've read some memoirs that deal with mental health issues (Prozac Nation, Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, When Rabbit Howls, An Unquiet Mind, Girl Interrupted) and they are powerful. There's nothing like a first-hand account. But at the moment I'm more interested in mental illness as an aspect of character development; I don't come across this as often in my reading. So that's why I'm choosing to limit this list to fiction. I can't wait to get your recommendations! Here we go.

**EDIT: I just want to clarify that in writing this post I was absolutely not motivated by a desire to present mental illness as entertainment. Literature should be a venue for empathy, not exploitation.

The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides
Bet you didn't see this one coming! Yeah, I'm kind of obsessed with this book. Here's my review. One of the main characters, Leonard, has bipolar disorder (or, as it was known in the early '80's when this book is set, manic-depression). Eugenides really beautifully shows how Leonard relates to his illness and how the illness effects those around him.

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
Though I thought it was kind of a cop-out when the author suddenly switched to his point of view for a chapter, I loved Kit. His break with reality and the earlier foreshadowing of his mental instability were especially interesting within the historical framework of this novel. I felt the suffering he felt, and I loved the way 19th century New Englander townspeople responded to him. Here's my review.

A Fan's Notes by Frederic Exley
Ok, so this one is just barely fiction. The narrator is a depressive alcoholic who spends time in and out of psychiatric institutions. There's a really great review of this one over at BookSlut. A fictional book about the author (called Exley) also has some mental health issues going on.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
How could any discussion of mental health and literature be complete without Sylvia Plath? This is one of my favorite books, and the best book about depression I have ever read. Read it and weep.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Another classic. It's been ages since I read it so I don't even remember which disorders are represented, but I appreciated the inherent commentary on institutionalization and treatments that were popular in the 1950's.

*Edit* 1/5/2012 I just remembered two others: Jane Eyre and Hamlet.

Ah... I know I'm forgetting some good ones! I'll add your recommendations (and your reviews, if you link 'em) below.

Your Recommendations:
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (short story) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - recommended by Connie of The Blue Bookcase
Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb by George Rabasa - recommended by Melody at Fingers and Prose (title linked to her review)
Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan - recommended by Laura at Devouring Texts
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky - recommended by Laura at Devouring Texts (title linked to her review)
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - recommended by Meg at The Terrible Desire
Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk - recommended by Meg at The Terrible Desire
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenburg - recommended by Sherry at Semicolon
Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufeld - recommended by Sherry at Semicolon
Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons - recommended by Sherry at Semicolon (title linked to her review)
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst - recommended by Christine-Chioma of The Blue Bookcase

Do you consider yourself particularly well-read on a certain topic? Or maybe you find yourself drawn to books about specific people, places, or things? We would love to have you write a Reading List post for us! If you are interested please email us at