Monday, December 2, 2019

Nonfiction Double Reviews: The Great Pretender by Susan Cahalan & Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth

The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of MadnessThe Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan
Grand Central Publishing
Publication: November 5th, 2019
Hardcover. 400 pages.

About The Great Pretender:
"From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine. 

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever. 

But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?"

The Great Pretender is a well-researched and highly engaging look at the history of mental illness and mental institutions. Her previous release, Brain of Fire, covers the time in her life when she discovered she has an autoimmune encephalitis, which caused her ot undergo a series of mental illness-related problems. I haven't read Brain on Fire, but after reading The Great Pretender I'm extremely interested in it!

LIKES: It's obvious that Cahaln put so much research, passion, and effort into this book and it pays off so well. This is a really comprehensive and well-rounded look at the positives and negatives of the research and treatment around mental illness. Although it often seems unbelievably grim and a lot of history around mental illness (and even present day) seems short-sighted and harsh, Cahalan also points out the positives that have happened and how there are still improvements and strides being made. Her investigation into David Rosenhan's experiment was fascinating and I enjoyed reading about her process and how deep she dove into the entire event--there is a lot to unpack and it's a wild ride, but I found the experiences of the various 'pseudopatients' compelling and that they offer a lot to consider when we talk about and treat mental illness.

DISLIKES: Any dislikes I have are largely formatting based, as I loved all of the content in this book. There was a lot more about the history of mental illness and mental institution than I expected and I was mainly impatient at times when all I wanted to do was read about the experiment. However, this issue isn't necessarily bad, it just took me by surprise (which is my own fault, really). The title and synopsis make it sound as if the Rosenham experiment is the main plotline of the book, when in reality it shares a main plotline with a few other things. It felt a bit jarring to be going back and forth all the time and I wish it had been incorporated in a slightly smoother way.

Overall, I've given The Great Pretender four stars! I highly recommend this one to anyone interested in mental illness, mental institutions, or a truly fascinating experiment.

Buy the book: Amazon | Book Depository | IndieBound

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave DiverInto the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth
Publication: August 20th, 2019
Hardcover. 288 pages.

About Into the Planet:
"More people have died exploring underwater caves than climbing Mount Everest, and we know more about deep space than we do about the depths of our oceans. From one of the top cave divers working today—and one of the very few women in her field—Into the Planet blends science, adventure, and memoir to bring readers face-to-face with the terror and beauty of earth’s remaining unknowns and the extremes of human capability. 

Jill Heinerth—the first person in history to dive deep into an Antarctic iceberg and leader of a team that discovered the ancient watery remains of Mayan civilizations—has descended farther into the inner depths of our planet than any other woman. She takes us into the harrowing split-second decisions that determine whether a diver makes it back to safety, the prejudices that prevent women from pursuing careers underwater, and her endeavor to recover a fallen friend’s body from the confines of a cave. But there’s beauty beyond the danger of diving, and while Heinerth swims beneath our feet in the lifeblood of our planet, she works with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change, and hydrogeologists examining our finite freshwater reserves."

I've always found cave diving an interesting endeavor, but it's also one that scares me to bits imagining what it's like. I am not a water person, so the idea of cave diving is, frankly, terrifying, but it's also stood out to me as something that must be incredible to experience. And then I read Caitlin --'s The Luminous Dead earlier this year, which is book with a cave diving premise (albeit it's on a different planet, but still!) and that made me even more interested in this topic so I was thrilled to see this book was coming out this year. 

LIKES: Heinerth's descriptions of her explorations were things that I can't even imagine experiencing and she did such a fantastic job of explaining the awe and magnitude she feels at seeing such sights. Her passion for cave diving is almost contagious (almost) and I loved seeing that come through on the page. I also really appreciated how real she was about the dangers of cave diving and that there is never time for even the single, smallest mistake. She relayed a myriad of stories about friends she has lost to cave diving, including professionals with years and years of experience who just made one small mistake and ended up losing their lives. This is an intense sport/career and I'm glad Heinerth conveys the dangers to the same extent that she conveys the joys and excitement. I'm also glad she included a lot of focus on women in cave diving and how it is still such a male-dominated field, which I think added a lot of context. I learned a lot about cave diving from this book and it's all information that I found incredibly interesting. 

DISLIKES: This was another one with formatting issues that I wasn't too sure about. Each chapter covers a specific event or year in her life of cave diving which she buffers with contextual information about where she was in her cave diving life and the diving world around her. I wish we had gotten a chance to follow a more specific timeline of her life and development as a cave diver since although I have a pretty good idea of how her experiences went, there are still some gaps where I'm unsure how things progressed. I also felt conflicted about the focus on her relationships and other similar commentary: on the one hand, I enjoyed seeing how her diving affected her personal life and I wouldn't want that removes, but on the other hand I felt it was just a little drawn out at times and I would've preferred that to be less of a focus.

Overall, I've given Into the Planet 3.75 stars. I loved learning about cave diving, but I wish there had been more focus on cave diving than on specific equipment and her personal life. 

Buy the book: Amazon | Book Depository | IndieBound

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