Calm the F*ck Down by Sarah Knight

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: Tackling anxiety’s penchant for overthinking and spiraling by focusing on what you can control.

What made me pick it up: I’ve tried in the past to get into these books and not managed it but turns out the key was the audio! This came up on OverDrive and I checked it right out.

My favorite parts: The author as narrator, honestly. Her brand of humor is just my style and I appreciate her advice to use logic to organize and tackle the parts of whatever problem you have that are within your control. She understands the struggles of those with overactive minds or diagnosed general anxiety disorder and genuinely wants to give you some big sisterly advice that will maybe help. If you also need drugs or want to try mindfulness, good on you. Mostly, I think the more books we have openly discussing mental health issues, the more normalized they can be – and that can sometimes be half the battle. If you don’t know many others are struggling the same way you are it can really compound your suffering. We’re all in this together, so let’s learn some tools to help us through.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who struggles with anxiety and rumination and wants some effective solutions.

Erica’s rating: four shells

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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Originally published in: 2015

What’s it about:  The author recounting the horribly debilitating deep depression he unexpectedly sank into in his mid-twenties and the ways he learned to cope with it and eventually, mostly, got better.

What made me pick it up: It was recommended by a blogger on her Instagram.

My favorite things: Haig somehow manages to describe what it feels like inside your head and your body when you are struggling through the heavy darkness that is depression. As someone who has also been nearly lost in the fog before I really appreciated how well articulated this depiction was and the twenty years of distance he needed to be able to write it down. If you’ve never been depressed and have difficulty truly understanding how it could be “that bad”, please pick up this book. He tells what he found helpful for him while emphasizing that mental illness is as individual as we each are, so all treatments should be on the table.

Who it’s great for:  Everyone.

Erica’s rating: four shells


For those who regularly dip into deep depression or are only recently out of one reading this book may be a bit of a trigger. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or other mental health concerns please seek help. The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. It can sometimes be hard to believe, but the darkness will not last. It does get better.


 

Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The author’s efforts to improve his mental health by practicing gratitude, which he does by attempting to personally thank everyone who had a role in providing his daily cup of coffee. All 1000+ of them.

What made me pick it up: Jacobs is one of my favorite authors. As an intermittent gratitude diarist, I was doubly curious.

My favorite parts: I’m a fan of experiential writing, especially if written with humor which Jacobs’ books always are. As much as I enjoyed his gratitude practice and the awkward and heartwarming moments of thanking it generated, the story of how coffee gets to you and all the humans involved in it was even more interesting. Jacobs tackles everything from the farmers who raise and harvest the crop to the barista who serves the cup. It really makes you pause and refocus on the great miracle any modern thing truly is. It may also make you want to take a trip to Colombia, but that’s completely understandable.

Who it’s great for: Everyone.

Erica’s rating: four shells

Dopesick by Beth Macy

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The opioid crisis in America, how it started, and why it is only going to get worse.

What made me pick it up: I was having yet another bitch session with a friend about not-even-Appalachia-adjacent author J.D. Vance and how his only solution for the opioid crisis is an offhand “it’s the addict’s own fault” and they should “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. Then my friend said if I want to read an actual good book about actual Appalachia, I should pick up Dopesick.

My favorite parts: This book is nothing but heartbreaking from start to finish. I cried a LOT. After everything that has been done to Appalachia by Big Coal to then have them taken advantage of by Big Pharma was too much. The reporting here is excellent. The unlayering of the onion is well done by the author and I couldn’t put it down. But what she’s describing is horrific and worsening and its epicenter is just a couple hours from where I live in my beloved adopted state. As someone who was employed in a public library for years as this epidemic built, and saw the adoption of library staff-administered Narcan treatment, I know something needs to change. I have humanities degrees. I should not be the front line against this drug problem. And addicts should not need me to be. What confounded me most was the stubborn adherence to abstinence-only addiction treatment that science says fails with this type of addiction. Other countries know it fails is why there are methadone clinics everywhere else but rarely here. The author doesn’t have a lot of suggestions for battling the drug’s presence, but does have recommendations to be made about treatment. And we should listen. If we do, maybe we can lose fewer lives. This book will leave you feeling grateful for all the recovering addicts you still have in your life and heartbroken for all those lives missing due to heroin. Because we all know at least one.

Who it’s great for: Everyone.

Erica’s rating: five shells

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander

Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A teen guy who loves his best female friend but can’t bring himself to tell her, so he makes her anonymous art collage love letters. And their other best friend, Swing.

What made me pick it up: I adore Kwame Alexander and read everything he puts out.

My favorite parts: My favorite thing is the thing I can’t tell you. It’s the thing that made me cry in the LAST TEN PAGES and which I never saw coming. But I guess, generally, I can say it was the friendship. This book is about an angsty, mixed up teen who needs the guidance of his bestie to help him get the girl. And his friend shows up every time for him. Giving him advice. Lending him money. Introducing him to older, wiser individuals and the all important jazz music that permeates the book. This book is sweet and then it’s unexpected and sad and hard. Alexander wrapped all his strings up so well at the end and right under my nose as a reader. In hind sight I should’ve added everything up and known what was coming, but I guess even readers get hopeful that maybe the world isn’t the way it ends up being. Or at least maybe books won’t reflect that sad world back to us.

Who it’s great for: Everyone middle grade and up.

Erica’s rating: five shells

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya

girl who smiled beads

Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The author’s refugee experience escaping the Rwandan genocide and the years she spent traveling from one camp to another before immigrating to the US.

What made me pick it up: It was really well reviewed.

My favorite parts: Wamariya escapes at such a young age she almost doesn’t understand death and war and why they are walking and not stopping. She yearns her whole life to go back to her family, as it was, even as she reconnects with them. It is heartbreaking, both reading of the little girl who does not comprehend and as the adult who cannot stop grieving all that is lost. I so admire her indomitable spirit and the unbreakable will of her older sister who helped her survive through multiple countries and camps. Wamariya examines the many ways to move past trauma, especially that caused by civil war and genocide, with no easy answers only her personal truth and what she sees others attempting as well. If you are American you will feel shame for the atrocities we ignored in 1994 and the ongoing ones we continue to ignore worldwide. You will also be immensely grateful for all you have lucked into based on the geography of your birth. Mostly, you will want to help refugees any way you can.

Who it’s great for: Readers who want to learn more about the unending trauma of war.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Drawn Together by Minh Lê

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A young boy is forced to spend time with his grandfather, who only speaks Vietnamese, so they cannot communicate and how they find a way around that to build a bond.

What made me pick it up: It was well reviewed.

My favorite parts: It has fantastic illustrations that blend a young child’s imaginative drawings with the work of more classically trained artist. They really show how even if you speak a different drawing “language” you can work together to make interesting worlds. I loved the message that you can always find common ground with someone who seems wildly different from you.

Who it’s great for: Littles who might have a disconnect from their older relatives for one reason or another.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Give People Money by Annie Lowrey

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: A look at the theoretical and literal outcomes of providing citizens with a universal basic income.

What made me pick it up: You’ve probably heard this come up repeatedly recently. If you’re curious about what it is or how it could work, like me, then pick up this book.

My favorite parts: Lowrey doesn’t shy away from the difficulties we would face implementing this or what caused us to get so  mired in intractable social safety net programs we currently have. She does provide plenty of examples of more functional social programs abroad and how and why we might implement ones like them. Mainly, there’s no way you don’t walk away from this book without seriously reconsidering how your life and the lives of many people would be totally different if no one had to toil for their livelihood. Maybe you have to work some, but you wouldn’t worry that not working would cost you your home, health, or life. It certainly seems worth trying.

Who it’s great for: The curious. The undecided. The staunchly against.

Erica’s rating: four shells

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: The struggle to accept yourself and your life when you don’t quite fit in as a kid.

What made me pick it up: I love everything Woodson writes and was excited to see this book announced.

My favorite parts: The illustrations are lovely and really add another layer of emotional depth to the story. I was not expecting the emotional gut punch this book has about not fitting in and all the self doubt that can bring up as a young person. If your lunch, clothes, or abilities are different, or your adventures are smaller, or you have no “good” stories school can be a really uncomfortable place to be. Learning to be confident with who you are and find kindred spirits who reflect that back to you is such a gift and this book is an excellent reminder that it is possible, even if it’s hard.

Who it’s great for: Unique young ones who may doubt themselves. Anyone who remembers wondering if they were enough as a child, and hopefully found out they were.

Erica’s rating: four and a half shells

Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister

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Originally published in: 2018

What it’s about: How an awkward late bloomer overcomes her anxiety. Or at least tries to.

What made me pick it up: If there is one thing I love it’s other people’s late bloomer stories. As someone who feels like they got a late start on this blooming process I like to meet the other members of the club and see the ways in which they blossom.

My favorite parts: Her voice. She’s honest and funny at the same time, which is necessary given she’s talking about some big topics of mental and personal health. Also if you find yourself employing “defensive pessimism” to manage your anxiety you’ll find a kindred spirit in her tiny triumphs, big attempts, and catastrophic outcomes. Life is scary and hard. Let’s employ all our tools so our brains don’t hijack it and make it MUCHWORSE. To see a good example: pick up this book.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who wants to step outside their comfort zone, even vicariously. Anxious ones. Readers who feel like they aren’t yet at peak bloom when the world expects them to be.

Erica’s rating: four shells