Friday, August 09, 2013

Travis' Book Review: Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos


Sixteen-year-old James Whitman confides in Walt Whitman’s poetry, not just because they share the same name, but because they both see the things that everyone else seems to miss – the beauty in a blade of grass or the quiet weeping of a tree.  James takes comfort in hugging trees (literally) because they are the unsung heroes of the world, living and dying in silence as they slowly suck poisons from the air. He, too, lives in silence, always in a state of quiet introspection. He silently watches from the social sidelines of high school, and he silently watched as his sister, Jorie, was subjected to emotional abuse from their parents, the Banshee and the Beast. He even kept quiet as his sister was expelled from school and thrown out of the house. Now, James really misses his sister, but some other kind of pain is really starting to affect him. 


James really wants to be happy, to find joy in the world and celebrate being alive, but simply can’t.  Maybe there’s something wrong with his internal wiring, something in his blood that makes him anxious and depressed. Maybe he was born with a strange darkness that causes him to have suicidal thoughts. To help him cope, James creates an imaginary therapist, a giant pigeon named Dr. Bird, but she can only tell him what he already knows about himself. Also, glassy-eyed looks, head bobbing, and coos can only help so much. So, James starts looking into the events that forced his sister to leave him alone with their parents, thinking he can find a way to bring her back home and help them both. The more he digs, though, the more he finds out about her secret struggles, some very similar to his own, and the more he begins to understand what he must do – he needs to find real help. But what will help? Therapy? Anti-depressants? The affection of his crush? Maybe he should simply let his feelings be known, putting a resounding exclamation point onto the words of Whitman, “I, too, am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world!”


Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets tackles the subject of mental illness in teens with a combination of poetic grace and serious narrative. Evan Roskos does a nice job syncing the poetry of Whitman into his own prose, creating a story that juxtaposes the observations of the poet with the life of a teenager suffering from depression. Unfortunately, the book may come off as a bit lacking to some because the plot is very uneventful, and James isn’t always a reliable narrator. While James, himself, is typically well-written, his parents aren’t exactly depicted as the Beast and Banshee that he dubs them to be. And Dr. Bird? Well, she is a minor character at best, not showing up nearly as often as the title of the novel would suggest. James’ voice and thoughts, however, are pretty accurate in regards to the nature of an adolescent male. James’ observations of his crush are actually quite descriptive and endearing, giving insight to both the character’s feelings and the writer’s ability. Even with quality writing, though, the story continually feels like it is written for the sole purpose of making a single point – that point being that depression in teens is often not simply angst, but can actually be a serious disease. While that point is very well handled, it may be lost on a casual reader that’s expecting an inspiring journey of self-discovery where some singular event changes the main character’s perspective on life and ends on a happy note.  That just not how it works in life, so that’s not how it works in the novel.


At times, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets can become quite sad and for no real reason, other than that’s how the main character feels. Roskos was wise to add a giant imaginary bird to the mix because it gives the reader a chance to enjoy a bit of absurdism, bringing the reader, ironically, back to reality. It also takes a keen writer, especially one that understands teen guys, to be able add humor to the seriousness of the issues discussed. Roskos manages to do so. He also manages to address the fact that there is no single magical cure for depression, and what works for one, may not work for others. For some, it takes time, effort, and a deep understanding of the self to start the ascent to happiness. This is James’ journey. It’s a realistic depiction of the teenage-self that should be experienced by any teenager that has ever suffered from the often confusing feelings of anxiety and depression. 


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