Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #171: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney

11612-marblesEllen Forney puts her entire self, unfiltered, into Marbles. Please excuse the cliche sentiment, but reading it brings you as close to understanding her hurricane of thoughts as you can get without actually being her. So, graded as insight into the mind of a woman saddled with bipolar disorder,Marbles receives the highest mark I can give.

Yet when graded based upon other factors, namely my personal enjoyment, it rates a bit lower. As I believe I’ve discussed in past reviews, real mental illness is the furthest thing from glamorous. Forney herself tries to hold onto that misconception to sugar coat things, but she quickly realizes that membership card she imagines getting is more a crushing weight on her head and chest than a muse.

The blurbs, which I should know to ignore by now, play up, among other things, Forney’s ability to find humor in her dire situation, but in hindsight they read as an attempt by the writers of said blurbs to trick people into reading a much more raw and serious look into living with bipolar disorder. Forney does try her best to find the silver-lining in certain moments (see the above picture), but you can tell it’s a defense mechanism more than anything. In other words, Marblesisn’t nearly as playful as its blurbs, or its cover (pictured below), would have you believe.

marbles As a result, it can be pretty hard to read at times. At least moreso than I expected. And since I rate books almost entirely based upon personal enjoyment, I have to dock Marbles a couple points for that. It may seem petty, but I need to remain consistent. If you want an honest depiction of what it’s like to be bipolar, you can’t do much better than Marbles; on the other hand, though, if you want an enjoyable read, you probably can do better.

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Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #33: Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me – a graphic memoir by Ellen Forney

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With a subtitle like Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me, you know this isn’t going to be your typical graphic novel. But then again, if you’ve read any of Ellen Forney’s other work, you’d know she’s not your typical graphic novelist/cartoonist. She’s also a teacher, cartoonist, columnist, and all around artist of life. She also is incredibly sex and body positive; early on in the book, she talks about the project she felt she was universally given: to help the women of the world to see themselves as beautiful and sexy, complete with adorable/sexy/awesome cartoon versions of the photo shoots she staged to help her with these projects.

Her work, as is the work and lives of other creative people throughout history who’ve dealt with mental illness in some way, is the focal point of this brilliant, personal, sometimes hard-to-take book. And while it was sometimes hard to take, I’m glad she created this book and I’m also grateful to have read it, since I’m also a creative person who’s had personal experience with various forms of mental illness. However, I’ve never been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, I do have friends who have been, so the insight into that was enlightening. Forney meticulously charts her life from diagnosis to trying to figure out various treatments and medications to a place where she’s fairly stable and the illness is controlled.

Sometimes, the severe highs and lows she documents can be a bit too much just from reading so I can only imagine what she felt actually living through them, but overall, it was incredibly inspiring and educational. The research she does into the lives of prominent artists, writers, directors and other creative famous people is staggering and the questions she asks related to her findings are things that I still find myself curious about. For example, there are a few pages about Van Gogh, since, as she said, he “was truly the ultimate crazy tortured genius artist.” He dealt with hallucinations, suicide attempts, voices, mental hospitals, sever anxiety, seizures, violent rages, euphoria, depression. She included quotes from him such as “I have forsaken my pencil in discouragement,” “I shall always be cracked,” “Ideas come to me in swarms….I go on a painting, like a steam engine.”

And Forney wonders:

What would his art have been like if he hadn’t been “cracked”? Was it his demons that gave his art so much life? Or did he work in spite of them? What if he’s been stabilized on meds? Who knows?

In the last four years of his life, in and out of mental institutions, Van Gogh painted more than forty self-portraits. Was he trying to pin down the confusing swirls inside his head, to bring them outside?

Painting his self-portraits, did he find a sense of calm? Focus? Relief? …like I did? I like to think so. I hope so.

This wasn’t just a novel about one person’s struggle with mental illness, it was also a record of how it affected her family, friends, and work, how she fought to find meaning and art in it and relate to others from the past who maybe tried to do the same thing dealing with similar issues. It was educational about limits of power medical professionals have, but how much they can help if you find a good one. And even then, how slow the help can be as you adjust to the medication, the different types of therapy, or as you unwittingly sabotage your own recovery with poor choices and fear. It’s also a feast of Forney’s various art styles, including her take on famous pieces by other great artistis like Van Gogh, Munch, Alfred Stieglitz, and O’Keeffe, which is fitting because I think this subject especially can get dry, one note, terrifying, and easily misunderstood if you’re only ready words. The visual element helped bring home the vast highs and horrific lows in a way that words can’t always do.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBR5 Review #7: Marbles: Mania,Depression, Michelangelo & Me by Ellen Forney

A lively, matter-of-fact memoir about an artist coming to terms with her bipolar disorder, Marbles is a great read. I laughed, I cried, I got the urge to doodle, do yoga, and have a drag queen dress-up party, and wanted to hand it on to everyone I know who has had to struggle with compromising their ideals in search of living a better life (i.e. everyone, ever).

Forney was diagnosed when she was almost thirty, and the word ‘bipolar’ hit her hard. She didn’t see the problem, being in a manic stage, wildly creative and adventurous and sexy, wasn’t that what her life was all about, after all? And at the suggestion of medication – lithium, in particular – she was terrified. But a hideous depressive episode spurred her into more action, and over the years she learns how to manage her illness and her life, and come to terms with what it means for her sense of self.

Weirdly enough, this book came along and I found myself hearing about bipolar disorder everywhere for a few days – it showed up in a story I read in a magazine, then a documentary, then another book. It drove home just how hideous it is to deal with, and what a draining experience it is. Forney doesn’t hide from the ugliness of her condition, but also bravely works with it and demonstrates that for her, it was a long road but she’s admirably coping with it. The best graphic memoir I’ve read since Fun Home or Persepolis, although her storytelling style is very different from Bechdel or Satrapi. Funny and warm and life-affirming, and featuring some very cool outfits and music recommendations as a bonus.