Monday, 27 May 2013

How Books Help Charlie's Mental Health in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

I posted about The Perks of Being a Wallflower and mental health last October, shortly after seeing the film production. However, after re-reading the novel by Stephen Chbosky today (I first read it in 2011), I've decided that another post is required.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: growing up and
mental health. Image source: Pinterest

Charlie is a literary character I can relate to more than others, perhaps more than all others, and the novel means so much to me. The fact that it is YA fiction is irrelevant, and doesn't decrease my ability to learn from the novel, compare Charlie's feelings and mental health to my own, and move on from my PTSD in a similar way to him.

Charlie is an introspective, socially awkward, intelligent, freshman. He frequently acts in the wrong way and says the wrong thing, and as a result experiences rapid cycling of negative and anxious emotions. The first friend he makes upon starting high school is his English teacher, Bill, and it is this social contact that enables him to persevere through "swirlies" (involving a head in a toilet) and general isolation.

Incidentally (see what I did there, Perks fans?), literature is central to the friendship between Charlie and his teacher. Bill is struggling with his own love life, and seems to recognise the isolation Charlie feels at school. He is able to hand Charlie books that he predicts will help him, both in finding someone to relate to and in helping him deal with high school.

Here I'd like to run through some of the books that Bill hands to Charlie, while considering the reason behind each choice and the results that they bring.

For isolation...

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is the first book Charlie is given. As he feels isolated and set-apart from other pupils, Charlie would relate to the character of Boo Radley, but also learn from the character's gradual integration into Maycomb society that occurs with good deeds and social contact.

For growing up...

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is a book that Charlie classes as "fantasy", and one that allows him to "participate" in social activities rather than being entirely involved in the story's plot. Charlie states, "I think Bill gave me the book to teach me a lesson of some kind". Perhaps this was a lesson on growing up, or the difficult transition between childhood and adulthood.

For being a "wallflower"...

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is not discussed by Charlie in detail, but the reader can independently make connections between Charlie and Fitzgerald's novel. For one, both Charlie and Nick Carroway are "wallflowers": they observe quietly and listen carefully without drawing too much attention to themselves, but they also provide guidance to others.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is perhaps an obvious choice of book to recommend Charlie. Charlie writes: "It was Bill's favourite book when he was my age. He said it was the kind of book you made your own." There's something lovely about this quote, particularly as Perks is a book that so many have made their own. Charlie adds that it feels "appropriate to this time", which mirrors my frequent matching of books to feelings and situations.

For wanting to be alone...

Walden by Henry David Thoreau is a book I've struggled with, but one I love the concept of nonetheless. Charlie seems to sum up my thoughts by writing the following: "I wrote a report pretending that I was by myself near a lake for two years. I pretended that I lived off the land and had insights. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the idea of doing that right now". Rather than retreating to a lake for two years, which in practice isn't easy, Charlie spends time reading alone in his bedroom. His family increasingly direct him to do this when he seems unsettled or unhappy, perhaps expecting that it will result in a greater sense of calm. I think it does.

Others referenced books include:

I imagine this novel will always mean as much to me as it did upon my first reading. This is largely due the extent to which I can relate to the novel, but also because of Charlie's literary journey throughout the book. This journey is full of peaks and falls, but by the end of the novel we realise how much reading has helped Charlie, and how the exchange of books has strengthened the bond between him and Bill, even outside the school environment. 

The novel's use of language slightly irritated me as a teenager, but I seem to have grown out of this. Funny how that works.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A Call for Bibliotherapy Recommendations: What books have helped you?

Use bibliotherapy to feel better
Bibliotherapy: read until you feel
 better. Image from Pinterest
Dear Lovely Readers, both new and old,

I'm currently revising my "A-Z Bibliotherapy Recommendations" page by creating new sections and adding new books. I think it will prove useful (both for myself and others!) to have everything in one place and organised in an easy-access way.

I've been sorting through my multiple bookshelves (and various escapee books) to do this, although I'd like to enlist your help too.

If you have any recommendations of books that have helped you in the past, or know of books that may help others, I'd love to hear from you in the comments box. I'm currently using the following categories, although you can certainly suggest your own:

  • Accepting yourself
  • Anxiety
  • Challenging childhoods
  • Depression
  • Disability
  • Exclusion
  • Fear of death
  • Heartbreak and questions of the heart
  • Home sickness
  • Illness
  • Knowing yourself
  • Low self-esteem
  • Loss
  • Need for inspiration
  • Need for solitude
  • PTSD
  • Perfectionism
  • Persevering through hardship
  • Search for beauty and meaning
  • Understanding suicide
  • Unrequited love
If you can come up with any books to add these categories, or a new one of your choosing, I will make sure to link the recommendation to your blog (if you have one). It will be even better if you have written a post on the book you mention, although this isn't essential.

The book can be fiction or non-fiction, or even a children's book. If the book contains a valuable message, something that people can relate to, or is simply written beautifully, it's perfect.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Sunday, 12 May 2013

Bibliotherapy and TV's Mad Men: Frank O'Hara's 'Mayakovsky' and Meditations in an Emergency

Mad Men has quickly become a favourite television show of mine, and I loved the reference to Frank O'Hara in episode one of the second series.

O'Hara is not a poet that I know well, although I love the passage that Don Draper reads from 'Mayakovsky' (found in Meditations in an Emergency):

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Don sees another man reading Meditations in an Emergency in a bar, and asks if it is any good. The man replies that Don "would not enjoy it", which inevitably influences Don to read it for himself and find out. Don appears to see something of himself in the book, but he is also reminded of somebody else. He writes a dedication to this person in the book's inlay pages, and walks to the postbox to send it. Meanwhile, we hear Don's recital of the verses above (you can watch this scene here on Youtube).

While the scene is so beautiful produced, I think this poem is a fitting choice for Mad Men for various reasons. There's the obvious mention of modernity that reflects the nature of the show, but there's also the connection between Don's personal struggle and that of the poem's speaker. Don is struggling with issues that regard family, love, and identity, and we can only wait for the inevitable culmination of his anxiety and anguish. In other words, for the "catastrophe of [his] personality". Perhaps Don's reading of this poem marks the peak of his troubles, and everything will soon be "beautiful again", although I'm not convinced. I'm sure those of you who also watch Mad Men will have more insight.

I'd like to memorise the first stanza of the passage that I have quoted above: I think it would help me during difficult moments, and reminds me of the proverb "this too shall pass". The second stanza, in its description of laughter and beauty "always diminishing" is such an accurate depiction of depression, and I'm sure many can find familiarity in it. As for the final stanza, I'm sure we can all relate to the confusion of who we are and what we think. This is a reading very centred on bibliotherapy, but I think the inclusion of the poem in Mad Men has a similar purpose. Don, having felt confused and divided for some time, finds reassurance in a poem.

After some research, I've found that O'Hara's book reappears at various points throughout the second series. I'm looking forward to this, and I'll be sure to post any other reflections I have. Why didn't I start watching Mad Men before?!

As always, do comment if you have anything to agree with, disagree with, or add. Mad Men appreciation will certainly be accepted in the comments box. Also, I always enjoy hearing about poems and books that have helped you through similar situations.

If you liked this post, do check out Angeliki's post "What do Mad Men read" over at Reading Psychology. If you're anything like me, it'll fill up your to-read list!

Don Draper and Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency
Don Draper reading Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Bibliotherapy & Shakespeare's Sonnet 55: Keep Calm and Memorise Poetry

Shakespeare's Sonnets: criticism and my lovely hardback
Michael Schoenfeldt's Companion to the Sonnets, 
Don Paterson's "New Commentary" and my lovely 
White's Books Ltd edition of the Sonnets 
(find the link at the bottom of  this post).
I'm spending this week surrounded by books and students in various stages of panic. Exam season is in full swing, and I'm aware of few people who feel truly prepared for it. However, I'm choosing to approach my literature exams with a calm face and my interest in reading at the forefront of my mind. From experience, I've come to realise that this is a well-founded decision: it eliminates unnecessary stress, and reminds me why I really am choosing to put myself through long, dull hours in quiet rooms. As far as it is possible, I'm making the revision process enjoyable.

As a part of this, I have been reflecting on what the texts I'm studying mean to me, rather than one hundred other critics. I've most enjoyed studying and thinking about Shakespeare's Sonnet 55, which is what I'll discuss in this post. If you're unfamiliar with the poem, have a skim over this. Below I'll briefly discuss it, and outline my thoughts. 

Sonnet 55 - William Shakespeare
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these conténts
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire, shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So till the judgment that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

In this relatively popular sonnet, Shakespeare boasts about the longevity of his verse, something that I would not attempt to argue with even in my most critical of moments. However, as Don Paterson mentions in his lovely "New Commentary" on Shakespeare's Sonnets, Shakespeare has effectively failed to do what he's aiming for. His poems have survived, and their legacy in modern culture will not diminish any time soon, yet we cannot conjure the idealised "Young Man" of the Sonnets immediately to our mind. His image does not exactly "live in this": critics do not have an accurate recreation of his image, or even know his true identity. 

Yet I agree with Don Paterson that Shakespeare is doing something else in this sonnet. I will make a judgement here that you may dispute, and you can of course give your interpretation in the comment box. To me, Shakespeare is saying the following: even when everything material is destroyed, when buildings have fallen and war has burned through cities, I will still remember this "pow'rful rhyme", and it will perhaps mean more to me, or "shine more bright", because of the external destruction.

In an old post I wrote on memorising poetry, I wrote about my first university English lecture, in which I was told - alongside a theatre of undergraduates that were either shaking or hungover - that memorising poetry was one of the best things you could do in your youth. Memorised poems can stay with you when everything else has gone, and, in the words of my lecturer, they will even get you through a prison sentence. Studies also show that a significant number of late stage dementia patients remember words and lines from poetry they learned in childhood.

Although in a more eloquent way, I think this is what Shakespeare is suggesting in Sonnet 55. Humans are skilled at destroying everything beautiful around us, especially with "war's quick fire, but the human mind can vividly immortalise, recreate and remember. Note that in the second line Shakespeare uses "rhyme" rather than "verse". Perhaps this is because rhyme is one best ways to commit something to memory: we learn through musicality, euphony and links. 

Think of the poems that you can recall from memory: are there any? If not, consider finding some lines to commit to memory, ideally from a poem that really resounds with your experience, desires and character. It may come in more useful than you imagine. 

Here's an Amazon link to my White's Books Ltd edition of the Sonnets, as shown in the top-right photo and below, for if you love it as much as I do.

Shakespeare and memorising poetry
The eternal qualities of the written word: it won't be leaving us soon. My White's Books Ltd edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets.