Published by University Of Iowa Press on October 1, 2014
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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In When Mystical Creatures Attack!, Ms. Freedman’s high school English class writes essays in which mystical creatures resolve the greatest sociopolitical problems of our time. Students include Janice Gibbs, “a feral child with excessive eyeliner and an anti-authoritarian complex that would be interesting were it not so ill-informed,” and Cody Splunk, an aspiring writer working on a time machine. Following a nervous breakdown, Ms. Freedman corresponds with Janice and Cody from an insane asylum run on the capitalist model of cognitive-behavioral therapy, where inmates practice water aerobics to rebuild their Psychiatric Credit Scores. The lives of Janice, Cody, and Ms. Freedman are revealed through in-class essays, letters, therapeutic journal exercises, an advice column, a reality show television transcript, a diary, and a Methodist women’s fundraising cookbook. (Recipes include “Dark Night of the Soul Food,” “Render Unto Caesar Salad,” and “Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake.”) In “Virtue of the Month,” the ghost of Ms. Freedman’s mother argues that suicide is not a choice. In “The Un-Game,” Janice’s chain-smoking nursing home charge composes a dirty limerick. In “The Hall of Old-Testament Miracles,” wax figures of Bible characters come to life, hungry for Cody’s flesh. Set against a South Texas landscape where cicadas hum and the air smells of taco stands and jasmine flowers, these stories range from laugh-out-loud funny to achingly poignant. This surreal, exuberant collection mines the dark recesses of the soul while illuminating the human heart.
Schoolteacher Laura Freeman has a nervous breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. When Mystical Creatures Attack! is the story of her recovery, told through letters, emails, student assignments, stories, an advice column, a journal, and even a cookbook. Side stories focus on the aspirations of two of her students, Janice Gibbs and Cody Splunk.
It’s a quirky, clever format; maybe a bit distracting. It reads like a series of shorts that are interconnected, but not exactly cohesive. I did feel I had to work a little too hard to keep up with what was happening.
Dark humor and a healthy dose of social satire cover tough topics such as mental illness, suicide, postpartum depression, abortion, poverty, questioning faith, the state of education, the value of life, and finding peace and happiness. Sounds like a lot for a 200-page book, right? It was; I always felt slightly off keel. Maybe that was the point? Regardless, even though the book races through all of these issues, it delves into each one just enough to give readers something more to think over.
I wasn’t blown away by this one, but I definitely liked it; a good, solid “like.” The format is a lot of fun and makes for a fast-paced read. The ending was pretty poetic, but wow, what a ride!