The best books about people trying to keep their shit together

David Jackson Ambrose Author Of Unlawful DISorder
By David Jackson Ambrose

Who am I?

I'm an ‘expert’ when it comes to books because I've been ‘reading’ books since before I could talk – even at two years old, holding the books upside down, but somehow still immersed. I presume all of you are experts, too. Your love of books has brought you to this site. Books became my escape when the world seemed too large and too cruel to cope with. But what makes me even more of an expert, was my dedication to books….that two-year-old loved books so much he would tear out pages and eat them, he would stuff pieces in his nose….Grossed out?  Well, what can I tell ya’, I was dedicated lol.

I wrote...

Unlawful DISorder

By David Jackson Ambrose,

Book cover of Unlawful DISorder

What is my book about?

Bowie Long has been in treatment for his mental health disorder since he was eighteen years old. But experts can’t give him a diagnosis. Is it bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia? Maybe it’s schizoaffective disorder. He also has a gambling compulsion. But when he encounters the police, his fate moves beyond the control of treatment facilities and into the hands of the prison industrial complex, which eats the Black and the mentally ill, overcrowding American prison cells with bodies they're ill-equipped to handle. 

Along the way, Bowie explores a relationship with another Black man who encourages him to question a system that refuses to listen when he claims his medical regimen is causing adverse effects and who encourages him to find his own voice, free from the stigma of mental illness. 

The books I picked & why

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By Natasha Brown,

Book cover of Assembly

Why this book?

This book is slim as a Hanzo knife and its sentences cut just as precisely.

It comes in at a scant 72-page read, so those of us trying to fit in a great read between all our other obligations should take a look at this scathing look at the microaggressions endured in a male-dominated corporate environment.  

This book gets into the mind of a Black British woman; overqualified, impeccably educated, and yet still somehow made to feel inadequate through multiple tiny attacks on her character and her competence. Her white, well-to-do fiancé wants to marry her, and this marriage could be a way to lessen the impact of the toxic masculine environment surrounding her, but our nameless protagonist can’t be sure if there is true love in the union or if it is just a rebellious addition to her fiancé’s heretofore bland pedigree.

Told in a series of vignettes, Assembly shows the strain of a woman constantly striving to be the best in the room when everyone only sees you as a stigma.

This book was illuminating for me because it seems that the world tries to imply that America is the nation that struggles with race, despite the fact that colonialism (along with racism) has impacted the entire globe.


By Walter Dean Myers,

Book cover of Monster

Why this book?

This book tells a story that we’ve all seen many times in recent news; a young Black man in jail and on trial for a violent crime, but instead of the media’s perspective, this book tells the story from the mind of the young man. What makes this book unique is that it is a YA book, whatever that means, to me a good story is a good story, and it targets no one demographic. What also makes this so unique is that it is told through the use of a screenplay written by the protagonist. This is a genius strategy because it is a subtle way to create a vision in the reader's mind of a man that is creative, talented, and intellectual, but the screenplay format also shows the broken, sometimes disjointed thought processes of a young mind not yet fully matured.

Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for being the lookout in a murder. The book shows that the question of innocence or guilt is of very little consequence once people of color are caught up in the construct of the prison industrial complex, which has effectively created a public perception of guilty until proven innocent for black men.  

This is a theme that resonates for me, as it is one that I explore in my own book.

The Death of Sweet Mister

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of The Death of Sweet Mister

Why this book?

The people in Sweet Mister are broken and derelict, strong and resilient, funny and terrifying. The book opens with overweight thirteen-year-old Shuggie (Sweet Mister) being forced to climb up a drain pipe to break into a building to steal drugs for Red, his mother’s treacherous, drug-addicted boyfriend. We follow through the eyes of Sweet Mister, who doesn’t know who his father is. It’s rumored to be the town’s wealthiest citizen. That rumor, more like fabrication, is told to him in the aftermath of Red’s rage, after he’s torn through the house like a tornado destroying everything in his wake, almost like a fairytale, spinning evermore intricately by Glenda, his adored mother, the most beautiful girl in Missouri. Shug is willing to believe it. Anyone besides Red.  

Shug is in love with his mother, and he wants a better life for her. Better than a life of stealing from other people, better than a life blurred by the aroma of alcohol and the buzz of pills, but convincing Glenda she deserves a better life is a challenge.  

I loved following Shug on his ‘adventures,’ reading with trepidation at each new caper, worried for his safety, growing as he grows, learning as he learns. It was a good ride, sailing along in his thirteen year old mind, veering from thought to thought, encounter to encounter. It was a lot like reading Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Woodrell creates an enjoyably motley crew of characters, all living their lives, just trying to survive in the shadows of the myth of American exceptionalism.

Orgy at the STD Clinic

By Johnny Townsend,

Book cover of Orgy at the STD Clinic

Why this book?

This book takes us on various modes of public transportation through Seattle, following an overweight, diabetic grocery store cashier struggling to make ends meet after losing his boyfriend to mob violence during a BLM rally. I love the way this book mirrors the moments of hilarity and the moments of sleaze that anyone who has ridden a bus in a metropolitan area will immediately recognize. It took me back to my own trips on the New York City subways, reading a book while a homeless man sang "Sexual Healing" in the aisles, lol. This book is totally of our moment, as the passengers argue about wearing masks vs. not wearing masks, or ride the light rail to the latest rally advertised on Facebook.

The book is broken into short little vignettes, moving us (seemingly) randomly through unconnected encounters with a rag-tag group of fellow passengers. The joy is that the vignettes eventually add up to a great larger story.  But the broken quality makes the book more palatable to our modern-day short attention spans: a chapter will suddenly end after a drop-off at work, and then pick up for a light rail trip to a late night sexual assignation, lol.  

Next, we open on a confrontation where a woman carrying two bags of trash is stopped from boarding because she doesn’t have a mask...and chaos ensues!

I didn’t want the story to end.  It made me want to take a cross-city bus ride….but not really…lol.

Everything Here Is Beautiful

By Mira T. Lee,

Book cover of Everything Here Is Beautiful

Why this book?

In all honesty, what I liked most about this book is out of all the books I’ve read about mental illness, this one comes closest to my own book.  

It looks at the ramifications of mental illness through the gaze of a person that loves the main character. In the case of this book, it is two Asian American sisters: Lucia and Miranda.  

Lucia, like many people with a mental health diagnosis, like the character Bowie in my novel, suffers from anosognosia - a lack of insight about having a mental illness; making her oppositional to any treatment that would help level off her symptoms. Mira T. Lee compellingly describes the arrogance of ‘experts’ who know nothing about Lucia, ignoring the well-informed input from Miranda, prescribing meds that Miranda already knows from experience will have adverse effects. 

The book also examines how people with severe mental illness endure shifting diagnoses: is Lucia bipolar? Schizophrenic?  Schizo-affective? This uncertainty leads to treatment modalities in direct opposition to what Miranda deems appropriate - which, of course, leads to ineffective treatment.

The other similarity with my book was that many fictional accounts of mental illness don’t go into detail about specific medications and their usefulness/lack of efficacy, but Everything Here Is Beautiful does not shy away from that.  

One more thing about this book before I go: Lee writes very convincingly about other cultures.  There are Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, African Americans, people of both legal and illegal immigration status, and all fully developed and three-dimensional, all cultures are depicted intelligently and with interesting backstories.

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