Tag: Heather B. Armstrong

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrongby Heather B. Armstrong

ISBN 978-1-5011-9704-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.”

With the tag line “Our lady of perpetual depression” Heather B. Armstrong has documented her mental health struggles over the years on her dooce blog, mixed in with stories about her life and family, leaving Mormonism while living in Utah, and becoming one of the internet’s first professional bloggers (and getting fired from her day job as a result). In more recent years, she has shared her divorce, and raising her two daughters alone, and even semi-retired from blogging due to the changing nature of sponsorship, and the increasing demands of influencer marketing. The Valedictorian of Being Dead recounts her most recent bout of severe depression, and the experimental treatment she underwent to try to reset her brain. Ten times over three weeks, doctors used propofol anesthesia—yes, the Michael Jackson drug—to induce a coma-like state, reducing brain activity to the bare minimum before bringing her back up in an effort to gain the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy without the negative side effects. For Armstrong, the treatment was life changing.

Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” However, I fell off with reading somewhere along the way, probably because the increased focus on parenting wasn’t particularly interesting to a college student. So when I saw her memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. And indeed, I was pulled right back into what I enjoyed about her writing style, which is energetic, descriptive, and often darkly funny. “When she told me about my dazzling performance, I reminded her that when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing. No one does dead better,” she writes after her mother describes witnessing her first descent into the abyss. She is equally adept at evoking the depths of depression, and the alien feeling of her own body while in that state.

Armstrong is accompanied on her journey by her mother, who takes her to every treatment, and has to watch her child sink down into near-death ten times. While Armstrong remembers nothing, her mother has to watch the doctors grab her daughter’s almost lifeless body, and intubate her as quickly as possible so that she is not deprived of oxygen. Their supportive relationship was particularly poignant to me with the knowledge that Armstrong’s departure from the Mormon faith had strained her family relationships. There are a lot of affecting scenes in the book, but the one that really choked me up was when she describes how her mother once very matter-of-factly told her that their relationship would never be the same again without Jesus. This coldness is quite the opposite of the relationship that is illustrated in this book.

While Armstrong writes forthrightly about her mother and stepfather, and how they shared in this experience with her, she is more circumspect in the way she writes around her ex-husband, and about her father. Her ex is chiefly present in her fear of losing her children. In fact, the reason she let her depression go on so long, and get so bad without treatment, was because she was afraid he would find out how sick she was, and take her daughters away. Her relationship with her father is also fraught, and she had not intended to share the experimental treatment with him until her mother requested that she do so. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of these two relationships that is not deeply delved into, and yet the story is significantly shaped by their absence.

While the body of the text is written by Armstrong, and focuses on her personal experience, the afterword is by the doctor who led the study. While he is hopeful and excited by the preliminary work his team has done, he brings the necessary emphasis that this still an experimental treatment in need of further investigation. It balances Armstrong’s personal experience of success with the need for additional study in order to better understand how and why such a treatment might be successful, or what its limitations might be. Altogether, it is a fascinating account of one woman’s mental health struggles, and how they might intersect with treatment and acceptance more broadly.

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ALA Midwinter Non-Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few of the non-fiction titles that I am excited about!

Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria ShorrA biography in three parts, Midnight examines three famous women at moments of crisis and reflection. Jane Austen’s moment comes at the death of her father, and a proposal of marriage, a critical choice between securing home and hearth, and a writing career. Mary Shelley finds herself on the shores of an Italian lake, five days after the disappearance of her husband in a storm. Going still further back, Joan of Arc reckons with meeting her fate at the stake for the second time. Midnight captures three notable women at their darkest hour, including two of my favourite authors, and a religious figure who fascinated me in my younger years. Coming March 12, 2019 from W. W. Norton Company.

Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Cover image for Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtSocial psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies unconscious racial bias, and its implications at the the institutional level, particularly for the criminal justice system, such as policing and prisons.  It seems especially important for those who consciously believe in equality to consider how social training and subconscious impulses may be affecting our behaviours and perceptions in ways we are not fully aware of, and the cascading effects of those behaviours on the lives of those around us. Other early reviewers have touted Eberhardt’s clear explanations, and her ability to combine academic research examples with personal stories to illustrate her point, an ideal combination for an academic publishing a general interest book. Biased is due out March 26, 2019 from Viking.

Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart KellsIn literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down William Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace.  I’m a sucker for books about books, so I expect this one will really hit the spot. Originally released last year in Australia by Text Publishing, the US publication comes April 2, 2019 from Counterpoint.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellInvestigative journalist Sonia Purnell digs into the secret life of Virginia Hall, one of World War II’s most accomplished spies and Resistance organizers. An American woman who lost her career in the diplomatic service to a hunting accident that led to the amputation of her leg, Hall found a second chance working as a spy for the British after the fall of France. She continued her work even after her cover was blown, and she became one of Germany’s most wanted, a bounty on her head, and posters of her face calling out for her arrest. I continue to be endlessly fascinated by this period of history, and I particularly like fresh perspectives that challenge our assumptions and expectations about the roles people played. Look for A Woman of No Importance April 9, 2019 from Viking.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” So when I saw her forthcoming memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. After struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for many years, The Valedictorian of Being Dead follows Armstrong’s decision to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment that would chemically induce a coma and brain death, before bringing her back. Coming April 23, 2019 from Gallery Books.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming non-fiction titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!