Book/Musical Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen is a popular Broadway musical created by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul. Its powerful storyline, incredible soundtrack, and the talented cast has made it the winner of six Tony Awards and a favorite of theater aficionados across the world. Dear Evan Hansen is also very unique and innovative, as it addresses issues such as teen suicide, depression, and social anxiety. It speaks to the audience in a new, powerful way and has increased awareness of the mental health struggles that people of all ages may be facing. Dear Evan Hansen has been re-made by numerous off-Broadway production groups across the world and has also been adapted into a novel in collaboration with Val Emmich.

Dear Evan Hansen follows the life of its title character, who struggles with extreme social anxiety. His therapist recommends that he writes letters to himself, discussing the positive aspects of the day. At school, Evan has few friends but develops a crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy, who becomes the subject of many letters. Zoe’s twin brother, Connor, has a reputation for being rebellious and aggressive and is angry when he finds Evan’s letter about Zoe in the school printer. Connor takes this letter with him, leaving Evan in fear of what he may do with it. A few days later, Evan finds out that Connor committed suicide later that day with Evan’s letter still in his pocket. This causes Connor’s family to believe that Connor and Evan were close friends, which develops a bond between Evan and the Murphy family. Connor’s mother feels guilty for his death, whereas Zoe struggles to feel grief due to Connor’s awful behavior towards her and their family. With the help of his friends Alana and Jared, Evan starts the Connor Project, which is an online community dedicated to remembering Connor’s life. As Evan grows closer to Zoe and the Murphy family, he begins to drift away from his mother, Heidi, and his old friends. Alana and Jared find out that Evan never really knew Connor, and threaten to share this information with the Murphy family. Evan then claims that the letter to himself was actually Connor’s suicide note, which gets posted to the Connor Project. As a result, many begin to blame the Murphy family for Connor’s suicide and they become the subject of hateful, threatening messages. Evan realizes he must come forward and confess and tells the Murphy family about his deception. He explains that he did it because he believed it would help them cope and because he felt like he needed friendship. Later, he also reconciles with his mother, who promises she will help him through his pain and always be there for him. 

A year later, Evan contacts Zoe, who agrees to meet with him at the orchard that has become Connor’s memorial. Evan apologizes again, and Zoe forgives him, telling him that he brought her family closer together. After Zoe leaves, Evan writes himself one last letter in his mind while looking around the orchard and reflects upon what he has learned from this experience and the impact the Connor Project had on people across the country.

Dear Evan Hansen is an incredibly powerful musical and book that really speaks to today’s younger generations. Not only does it help readers learn empathy for those dealing with mental illness, but also provides solace for those who are experiencing something similar to characters in the book. It has encouraged people to reach out to others and offer one another support and friendship during difficult times, because, in the words of Evan Hansen, “we’re not alone, none of us.”

-Katie A.

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

Book Review: Mr.Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow – 1969 (1977) [Roy Ellsworth ...

“Mr. Sammler’s Planet” is the work of American writer Saul Bellow. The novel describes in great detail a three days trip to New York of a Polish Jew who survived the second World War. He attended lectures, was threatened by black pickpockets, his daughter took manuscripts, and his nephew died. The story is interspersed with untold personal and painful memories of the concentration camp’s dark days—the experience of being buried alive, his wife dying, and him trembling in the tomb. The story has a strong sense of painting the protagonist’s real life in front of the reader. “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” is filled with Mr. Sammler’s musings on such weighty questions as humanity, history, religion, the past and future of mankind.

Mr Sammler’s eyes give the reader a unique perspective on the world. Mr. Sammler had only one eye, and he could see the outside world from only one angle. The beginning of the novel presupposes Sammler’s specific ethical standpoint. Mr. Sammler was blind in one eye, but that did not prevent his interest in the outside world. He still had a special interest in books and papers, implying that he was a man of learning. The author apparently reminds the reader again of Mr Sammler’s patient status. In addition, in this description, the author adds some new information, suggesting that Mr. Sammler is a man of insight, and that his observations of the outside world are worthy of the reader’s expectation which prepares the author to express his views later through what he sees and feels. The description of Mr. Sammler as a patient creates a good foundation for plot development in the novel.

-Coreen C.

Book Review: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury - Wikipedia

The Sound and the Fury follows the family tragedy of fallen landowners the Compson family in the South. Old Compson loafed and drank too much. His wife is selfish and cruel and complains about everything. The eldest son Quentin desperately clings to the so-called old traditions of the South because his sister Caddy’s liberal approach to sex is seen as a disgrace to the identity of a southern lady. The second son Jason is cold and greedy. The third son Benji is mentally disabled he has the intelligence of a three year-old at age thirty-three. Through the inner monologue of the three sons, the whole novel starts around Caddy’s depravity, and finally it is supplemented by the limited perspective of the black maid Dilcey Gibson. Faulkner adopts a multi-angle narrative approach in this book.

The relationship between children who live without love and warmth in a family is full of contradictions and discord. Jason was a victim of his parents’ cold war. His mother’s preference for Jason caused him to be isolated from the other children. While in childhood Caddy, Quentin, and Benji played together, Jason was far away alone. In order to protect the interests of Benji, Caddy rankled Jason. Growing up in isolation, Jason lacks a sense of security and trust in others and becomes callous and cynical. After taking charge of family affairs as an adult, Jason curses, sneers, and blackmails Katie as a kind of revenge. In the absence of maternal love in the family, all these problems potentially led to the decline of the Compsons.

As for Benji, Mr. Compson showed no love and care because of his mental deficiency. With Jason, Mr. Compson took a cold and dismissive attitude. Mr. Compson was partial to his daughter Caddy but neglected her proper guidance, letting her go as she pleased. Mrs. Compson as a mother exhibited the least care and love for her children and never thought of their welfare. She saw her mentally retarded son as a punishment from God, believed that Caddy had been hostile to her since childhood, and that Quentin’s suicide was an act of revenge against her. From The Sound and the Fury, we can also see Faulkner’s high level of understanding and summarizing ability of life and history. Although his work is confusing and sometimes dreamlike, it actually presents a side of historic change in the American South through the disintegration and dying of an old family. As you can see, the old South has indeed collapsed irretrievably. Its economic base has long since deteriorated, and its remaining superstructure is crumbling. Caddy’s fall implies the downfall of the Southern code of ethics. Benji had limbs but no ability to think, while Quentin had complicated thoughts but lost the ability to act. The other brother Jason saw only money in his eyes and simply abandoned his old values.

-Coreen C.

The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath

There are a number of reasons for which this book is famous, but my favorite is that The Bell Jar is the only novel ever written by Sylvia Plath, who has only published two other works (both are books of poetry). In fact, Plath took her own life about a month after The Bell Jar was published, famously putting her head into the oven and turning it on. Her novel is semi-autobiographical, as it follows her life story, changing only the names of her acquaintances and the mental health treatments that the main character, Esther, endures.

While the plot of the novel is intriguing, the most important aspect for me was psychological. The main character, Esther Greenwood, compares life to a bell jar, suffocating her when it covers her completely, and letting her breath when lifted. The bell jar’s meaning has been debated, but I believe that it symbolizes the box that society and Esther’s own perfectionist ideology create. Esther actually spirals into a depressive state, and this peaks when she attempts suicide via overdose in her other’s basement, almost exactly like Plath did with her mother’s sleeping pills under her house in 1953.

After her suicide attempt, Esther spends some time at a mental institution, where she is prescribed electroshock therapy, which was a form of therapy for depression used in the 1950s, in which electric shocks were administered until the patient had a seizure. Guess who else was prescribed electroshock therapy for years? Sylvia Plath- the sheer number of details that match between the novel and its author are the reasons for the novel being called semi-autobiographical.

Overall, this novel is absolutely fantastic, and I would certainly recommend it or anyone looking for a mental and psychological eye-opener. Plath’s detailed insight into mental illnesses that women suffered through during the early to mid-1900s as well as the treatments for these illnesses is truly awakening to the mind. A true work of art, The Bell Jar is a perfect novel for someone looking for psychological semi-fiction.

-Arushi S. 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

In Challenger Deep, written by Neal Shusterman, Caden Bosch is a teenager who struggles with mental illness. This story is told from two perspectives where it switches from his point-of-view of his life and his fantasy world. In his fantasy world, he has become a part of a voyage with a man who calls himself the Captain and his parrot to explore the Marianas Trench, Challenger Deep, to find the bottom of it.

In Caden’s daily life, he begins to show signs of his mental illness. His friends, family, and teachers begin to notice his anxiety, his random thoughts, and his new hobby of pacing and walking. At first, they shrug it off thinking it’s only a phase, but everyday Caden falls deeper in his mental illness.

Caden’s story is an emotional one about a boy going through his first mental breakdown. There were some funny moments, but it’s a sad story of a teen going through a mental illness.

Although it took me some time to read this book, I highly recommend reading it. This book gave me some new insight about how people with mental illnesses feel. The author did a fantastic job in capturing Caden’s emotions and of his family and friends emotions.

There are some curse words ( no F-bombs though) and no sexual content (Yay for those who don’t want to read smut!). This book has little to no romance since it mainly focuses more on the friendships of Caden and his recovery from his mental breakdown.

This is a good book for older teens, I don’t recommend kids ages 13 and younger reading this because of the mature themes. Also, it can be a bit confusing because it’s from Caden’s perspective, but it’s entertaining.

*Spoiler alert* In one scene, some of the patients talk about what happened to them before they were hospitalized. The author doesn’t go into detail, but it’s a little disturbing. 

-Ash A.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

itskindofafunnystory_nedvizziniIt’s always tragic when one takes their own life. Ned Vizzini, the author of this highly acclaimed novel, did so at age 32. His death lends so much more meaning to this book about a 15-year-old battling depression and suicidal thoughts. In the story, teen Craig Gilner has absolutely nothing to complain about in life. He’s got a good, loving family, great friends, and goes to one of the hardest to get into schools in Manhattan. Which is why he can’t figure out why he’s so depressed. He can’t eat, he can’t sleep, and every day is another waking nightmare. So finally, he decides he’s going to do something about it and kill himself. But Craig isn’t an idiot, he realizes something is very wrong with him. He calls the suicide hotline and checks himself into a hospital, where he is sent to the mental ward. While there, he learns about the truths behind the other patients, and more about himself than he’d ever known. Written in a tone of humor mixed with tragedy, this incredible story brilliantly illustrates how severe depression really is, and how to try to beat it.

You feel as if you know Craig personally, and are constantly rooting for him. This is because he talks to the reader casually, as he would a close friend, making him all the more relatable. When I read this book the first time through, I had unfortunately skipped the forward and didn’t find out that the author had actually killed himself until someone I had recommended it to told me. This was devastating, as I grew so close to the main character (who was based very closely on the author). This story is incredible, not only because of how well-written it is and how relatable the characters are, but because shortly before writing this book, Ned Vizzini, himself, was admitted into a mental hospital for suicidal thoughts and wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story based on his real-life experiences there. This is a book that should be read by everyone, old and young, depressed and not, because people need to wake up and seriously look at this issue. I would, however, keep this book out of the hands of children twelve and under. As many of my friends struggle with depression, this book really helped me to understand. Highly recommend!

Evan G., 8th Grade

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available for download from Overdrive.

Every Last Word, by Tamara Ireland Stone

everylastword_tamarastoneSamantha has friends that she’s known forever. She’s also one of the popular girls in her junior year of high school. She wears make-up with all the right clothes and pretends that everything is all right inside. It’s not.

Samantha thinks. A lot. She can’t turn off her mind that fills with paranoia and second guesses. It keeps her up at night and distracted during the day. Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD (though she isn’t a neat freak, common misconception). She has a thing for the number three. She always swims in lane three. When she pushes a button, she likes to do it three times. The odometer has to end in three before she can park. And when she listens to music she likes to remember the best three words to describe the song.

Even though Sam has had the same clique of friends since kindergarten, they sometimes seem more of a hassle than they are worth. There is girl drama and the need to conform on how they expect Samantha to act. That’s another thing. They will only call her Samantha. Sam is just a person in the summer who is free to swim. Sam is just temporary. That is until she meets Caroline.

With Caroline as her new friend, Sam’s life is different but better. Sam discovers the Poet’s Corner and finds a place with supportive people who make her feel almost normal. With her newfound love of poetry, it almost seems too good to be true. Maybe it is as Sam makes a discovery that puts her sanity into question on an entirely new level.

I love when a book has plot twists that you don’t see coming, but looking back there were clues that add up to something odd. The poetry in the Poet’s Corner ranges from deep to glorifying fast food. It’s a beautifully written book that deal with the Sam’s disorder, friendship, romance, poetry, and whatever clever saying is on Caroline’s t-shirts (They are pretty awesome). The only annoying parts were with Sam’s friends since childhood. Deal with them a few chapters, just like Sam has been doing her whole life and move on to better friendships and poetry readings.

-Nicole G., 12th Grade

Every Last Word is available for check out from the Mission Viejo Public Library