Book Review: THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is an essay collection so essential that I’m pained that it didn’t exist fifty years ago, or thirty, or ten. Thank goodness we have it now. Chronicling Esmé Weijun Wang’s years of living with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder (along with other compounding chronic and mystery illnesses like Lyme disease), its essays go far deeper than abnormal psych 101s. Wang instead weaves in more open-ended themes of liminal space, the boundaries of science and belief, and what it means to be permanently sick. The keenness and heart of The Collected Schizophrenias reminds me of the very best of Joan Didion.

If you live with mental illness, especially one of “the schizophrenias,” you need to read this book. If a loved one lives with schizophrenia, you need to read this book. And if you just plain love terrific nonfiction writing, you need to read this book.

You can read my full review below.


The Collected Schizophrenias Cover

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Graywolf Press
  • publication date: February 5, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. Pan Gu the giant slept in an egg-shaped cloud; once released, he formed the world with his blood, bones, and flesh. God said, “Let there be light.” Ymir was fed by a cow who came from ice. Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

–from the essay “Diagnosis” in The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

I knew I would love The Collected Schizophrenias the second I held it in my hands. It’s a sturdy paperback, perfect bound, with a cover design like a particularly lovely composition book. I knew I would love it because that is the kind of notebook they allow you to have in a psych ward–that or a legal pad, which is what I wrote on during my own stay. If you’re a writer in a psych ward, you know that such a notebook is an escape.

What’s inside The Collected Schizophrenias also feels like an escape from the overly simple and the simply overwrought. Esmé Weijun Wang establishes a distinct style from the first page, which begins, simply, “Schizophrenia terrifies.” It does. The escape velocity from that mind-numbing terror–similar to the escape velocity required from mere bland sympathy–is one part clarity, one part mystery, one part wild love for oneself, others, and the world. Wang nails the combo. This book does not put its author-subject on display the way so many mental illness memoirs and biographies do, as if this were a zoo or a classroom. She gently but firmly commands a more personal kind of attention.

In the essay “Perdition Days,” Wang documents weeks spent in the Cotard delusion, when she believed she was dead. In “Reality, On-Screen,” she writes about how watching the movie Lucy during a psychotic episode warped reality, and how watching Catching Fire after the episode restored it, fragilely. In “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” she compares her obsession with The NeverEnding Story’s The Nothing with the Creepypasta Wiki’s The Slender Man, who inspired two Wisconsin girls to stab a third.

In all three of those essays, Wang, a novelist as well as a nonfiction author, refers to needing to remove herself from fiction for her own safety when she’s psychotic. It’s a detail that moved me and perturbed me. I had never even considered it as a thing that someone might need to do. And that’s only one of many quiet but earth-shaking details in the The Collected Schizophrenias.

For each personal revelation here, there’s just as much research and reporting, on everything from the Americans with Disabilities Act to California’s dreaded 5150s to the story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who went undercover to expose the terrible conditions in 19th century psych wards.

“The schizophrenias” of the title refers specifically to the kaleidoscope of diagnoses that make up psychotic disorders: schizophrenia, nonspecific psychoses, and schizoaffective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and a mood disorder like bipolar or depression. Wang has that last schizophrenia: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.

Less specifically, “the schizophrenias” seems to be a way of talking about a life lived in, as Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” percentages. Percentages of sane. Percentages of psychosis. Schizophrenias.

Schizophrenia may onset in your late teens, twenties, thirties, long after your life is already on its course. I’ve thought about that endlessly. My bipolar I disorder crested and changed my life when I was 17. I was psychotic too, and when I started treatment they thought I might have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, just as Wang does. I have now lived for years without psychosis. The schizophrenias seem to have been ruled out–for now. But I have always wondered if they might make up a second wave of my mental illness; now that I’m 24, they could be just around the corner.

After reading The Collected Schizophrenias, the thought of that potential new wave no longer feels frightening or crushingly sad to me. Wang gave me a picture of how my life–any life–might go on with schizophrenia; the way she writes about how her “physical” illnesses like chronic Lyme intertwine with her mental health only strengthens this picture of going on. The Collected Schizophrenias offers a new framework on how to be sick and whole–perhaps wholly sick–without losing your self underneath.

There are 13 essays in the book, and the only way you might know they were essays rather than chapters of a single memoir is that certain biographical information is occasionally repeated: Wang’s diagnosis (schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type), her acceptance to Yale, her work in a psychological research lab. Somehow this works to make the book more cohesive, not less; it feels faceted, and each time this information was repeated I felt a different way about it. The narrative is remarkably tight, even when it veers far from chronology.

Every essay in The Collected Schizophrenias reminded me of Joan Didion. Maybe that’s because I’ve been working my way through The White Album for the past two months. Maybe it’s because, like Didion, Wang has strong ties to California, and California permeates this book.

But I think most of all it’s because both Didion and Wang tell stories using decisive, crystallizing, anchoring words even when those stories are about the times they felt most anchorless. Wang’s prose here is lilting and light, punctuated just enough by sharpness and dark. Didion’s, too. They blend the detail and rigor of reporters with the wide-ranging questions and openness of artists. Neither writer is ever just one thing. They are full notebooks. Perfect bound. How lucky we are to have their words to escape into.

The Collected Schizophrenias is everything I want creative nonfiction to be: sharp and soft in all the right places, conveying things that dates and numbers and statistics cannot. What a stunning book. I found it life-changing. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:

  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

I purchased my own copy of The Collected Schizophrenias and was in no way compensated for this review.

Mini-Review: SHARP: THE WOMEN WHO MADE AN ART OF HAVING AN OPINION by Michelle Dean

I’m out sick this week and don’t have the energy to put together a full review, so I’m writing out briefer thoughts instead. I loved Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion so much that right now, less than an hour after returning it to the library, I already miss its presence on my bedside table. (It’s at the top of my to-buy list.)

You can check out my mini-review below.


9780802125095

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 10, 2018
  • length: 384 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

So when I ask in the following pages what made these women who they were, such elegant arguers, both hindered and helped by men, prone to but not defined by mistakes, and above all completely unforgettable, I do it for one simple reason: because even now, even (arguably) after feminism, we still need more women like this.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, page xiii

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a biography-cum-reckoning about the legacy of ten extraordinary women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Occasionally Michelle Dean gets off zingers every bit as cool and cutting as those of her subjects, but usually her writing style is warm and nuanced, making Sharp feel like a meaningful conversation about these women rather than a mere tribute. It’s a choice I’m glad she made; the effect is more conversation than biography, which perhaps explains why Sharp is more readable than any biography has rights to be.

While nothing could eclipse the women themselves, cameos from other literary greats–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, H.G. Wells (along with his open marriage), and others–are charming and add a fun “cocktail party tidbit” touch to a book that is otherwise deep and thoughtful.

As a writer, I also loved this book for selfish reasons: I’ve been going through a rough patch in my own creative writing (i.e., writer’s block), and reading about these incredible women cured it. The fact that they also went through periods of massive output and no output, periods of astonishingly good work and shockingly bad work, made me feel like writing is something I can accomplish after all. If you’re in need of that sort of pep talk, Sharp is just what the doctor ordered. 5/5 stars.


My copy of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.20.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a YA novel about resilience, the Civil War, and zombie slaying (a killer combo!) and a nonfiction book about ten great cultural critics in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


Dread Nation: Rise Up by Justina Ireland

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780062570604the premise: In Justina Ireland’s vision of the past, the American Civil War was never won because zombies rose from the battlegrounds of Gettysburg, forcing America into an uneasy peace, united against the undead. The Negro and Native Reeducation Act forces Black and Native people–many just children–to train to protect white people from zombies, and protagonist Jane McKeene is training as an Attendant to protect the wealthy–a cushier gig than the front lines, at least. She dreams of someday returning to her Kentucky home, far from the privilege and intrigue of the East Coast…until she accidentally gets tangled up with enemies even more dangerous than the undead.

why I’m excited: Like Orphan Monster Spy in last week’s Friday BookbagDread Nation: Rise Up is an explosive YA novel that tackles history and oppression from a fresh new angle. I love alternate history (even the zombie-infected kind) and I can’t wait to get lost in Ireland’s world, which seems to have a lot to say about our own world, too.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9780802125095the premise: Sharp tells the story of ten cultural critics who have (according to the inside flap) “what Dean calls ‘sharpness,’ the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.” Those women are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. In Sharp, Dean blends biography with her own cultural criticism and commentary.

why I’m excited: Dean’s chapter on Joan Didion was excerpted in Buzzfeed as “How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion,” and it was excellent, so I requested this book from the library right away. I love history, I love feminism, I love literary criticism, and I love the inside baseball of literary criticism. This book looks to have all four, which makes it a must-read for me.

I’ve been hoping to improve my cultural criticism skills (I play around with them on this blog, but I’d love to do more work with actual media outlets with editors someday), and though Sharp isn’t a how-to book, I think I could do worse than to read about the greats. Plus, Dean’s own work as a journalist and critic is really great.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE CURSE OF THE BOYFRIEND SWEATER: ESSAYS ON CRAFTING by Alanna Okun

This book’s subtitle may be Essays on Crafting, but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is actually a work of tender autobiography through which crafting is strung like taut yarn. Alanna Okun intersperses longer, introspective essays on anxiety, dating, friendship, and family with shorter, humorous lists like “The Best Places to Knit, Ranked” and “Words They Need to Invent for Crafters”; her writing is wry and sentimental by turns and always charming, but the problem is myopia: Okun seems less concerned with crafting’s place in the world than she does with its place in her own life, and it makes the book feel insubstantial, undercutting Okun’s own thesis that crafting is an incisive opportunity for self-invention and reinvention. I look forward to seeing what Okun does next with (hopefully) sharper subject matter–her writing style is truly lovely–but I’ll admit to being disappointed with this book.

You can read my full review below.


9781250095619

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Flatiron Books (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: March 20, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $24.99

But these “soft” things do matter. What we put in and on and around our bodies is important, and so are the things we create. They’re a series of choices we get to make when we may not be able to choose much else: our jobs, our loves and losses, our place in the world. And so maybe in some accidental way, those sad-sack sitcom jokes about knitting contain a grain of truth: making things an certainly help you navigate when the outside world gets to be too much. The difference is, we’ve chosen to do it.

–The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting, page 19

It’s much harder to be kind than it is to be mean, and that’s why I love kind books, especially kind memoirs. I find myself being preemptively snide towards myself and others all the time, hiding my lumpy softnesses (crying at every movie; loving down-home country music; many others) in favor of a more uniform and boring hardness. I like books that remind me that that’s a limiting way to be.

But in abundant kindness, you do risk naïveté. I think it’s a risk worth taking, but there will always be times that kindness just…thuds, and this is one of them.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting is a very kind, sweet book, but it’s also painfully naïve. Alanna Okun strikes on a great many truths (especially about what it means to grow up and invent yourself), but she also generalizes where I think she shouldn’t and doesn’t personalize where I think she should.

First, this book is even more niche in practice than the premise suggests. There’s a significant, passionate swath of the population that’s interested in crafting (I’m one of them, obviously), but The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater isn’t about crafting so much as it’s about Okun’s relationship to crafting.

Okun comes from an upper middle class background: she does write with self-awareness about her comfy upbringing in New England (complete with a beach house), her time at a small liberal arts college, her life in the New York publishing business, and the amount of money she spends on yarn, but it’s not quite enough self-awareness for her points to land. When she writes about all her half-finished projects, I could relate, but it also made me cringe to think of all that money in unknitted yarn at the bottom of her closet.

And then I felt bad for cringing, because if there’s something I dislike more than people talking blithely about money and privilege, it’s people pretending they don’t have it. I’m also from an upper-middle class background, and I also start lots of expensive projects without finishing them, but the amount of time Okun spends writing about it felt tone-deaf, even though it wasn’t quite tone-deaf, because she doesn’t justify it or revel in it.

All those conflicting feelings were an ugly catch-22 that tied my brain in knots and really impacted my enjoyment of the book.

If you aren’t a knitter or crocheter, you might not realize how expensive quality yarn is, and the answer is really, really expensive–like $20-40 a skein, minimum. (You usually need multiple skeins for a project, too.) I mention that because I think Okun had an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what that means. Like Okun, I love to craft (I prefer sewing, but I knit too), and there’s a real dissonance between how people talk about crafting (a resourceful DIY skill!) and how it actually plays out (thanks to outsourcing, it’s far more expensive to make your own clothes than it is to just buy them at Forever 21).

But instead of essays on crafting’s semi-anachronistic place in the modern world (a once-survival skill that’s fast becoming a rich-people pastime), or really, essays on much of anything that spills beyond the boundary of Okun’s life and social circle, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is chock-full of essays about things that are much smaller. Okun proposes that the soft and personal things matter, and I agree, but I think she undermines herself by keeping such a myopic focus. If this collection had been more ambitious, it could have been really great; instead, it feels deflated.

That said, there’s a lot here that works. The essays are ordered very skillfully: each one builds on the others, deepening each previous point and adding new ones. Her writing is deceptively simple and then sparkles at unexpected times: the essays meander and then suddenly come together in a few brilliant lines, like a magic trick. I like Okun’s writing at fashion website Racked.com, where she is a senior editor, and since this is her debut, I think she has a lot of room to grow into an author to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be, as if Okun started creating a simple scarf and pivoted suddenly to a sweater. It’s an intimate memoir that strives for more general truths, but doesn’t quite reach them. 3/5 stars.


My copy of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 4.6.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’m on a nonfiction kick: I picked up a memoir from a survivor of Australia’s Stolen Generations and a more lighthearted collection of essays on knitting, crafting, second sock syndrome, and boyfriend sweater curses. Let’s dive in!


Too Afraid to Cry: Memoir of a Stolen Childhood by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781631494246the premise: Ali Cobby Eckermann is a survivor of Australia’s “Stolen Generations”–the generations of Aboriginal Australian children forcibly taken from their families and communities by the Australian government in order to be placed with white families. The practice fragmented Aboriginal culture and subjected children to horrific abuse, but the practice unofficially continues today. In this slim memoir, Eckermann writes about her experience from traumatized child, to rebellious adolescent, to an adult who has finally found acceptance in the culture that is her birthright.

why I’m excited: This memoir received a positive review in Shelf Awareness a few weeks ago; the reviewer praised Eckermann’s co-mingling of poetry and prose as well as the powerful story she has to tell. I’ve been on a memoir kick lately and am especially looking for memoirs from marginalized writers; this fits the bill.

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

9781250095619the premise: Alanna Okun took up knitting to keep anxiety at bay and regain control of her life. If that seems dramatic, well, crafting is dramatic: you transform a pile of raw materials into a meaningful object that often takes on a life of its own (the collection is titled after the dreaded “Boyfriend Sweater Curse,” the idea that knitting or crocheting a sweater for your partner will cause you to break up). The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a punchy, short, and sweet collection of essays exploring the role of crafting in Okun’s life and in the world at large.

why I’m excited: I decided I had to read this book when I saw the adorable sweater that Okun knit for the book on release day. Okun is also a senior editor for Racked, my favorite fashion website (it does some of the best longform reporting around), so I’m hoping that this book will do what Racked does best: take “women’s interests” seriously and contextualize their place in the world. I’m an amateur crafter (I knit terribly and love to sew) who comes from a family of crafty women, and I’m looking forward to reading a book that celebrates crafting’s peculiar power.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!