Human InterestMental Health


I haven’t done this since high school! “Done what?” you say. Written a book report! I literally haven’t written a book report since 1962. Book reports were something we did in English class to sharpen our interpretive skills and express our thoughts on paper. It was never easy because to do it right I had to read the whole book! That took a lot of time. On top of that, I had to have the insight to grasp the theme of the book, and also understand the meaning! You either have that skill or you don’t. You know, it’s like seeing the forest for the trees. Yes, a book has a story line and narrative, but there is an unspoken reason why all that happened? Why did the main character do what he did? If I didn’t figure that out, and express it in my report, an “A” was not going to be my grade.

I remember during study hall, one of my classmates, JE, was copying the summary of a book written on the inside of the jacket cover. I asked him, “What are you doing?” His reply was, “I’m writing a book report!” Oh, really? I’ll bet he didn’t get an “A.” At least I hope the teacher was smart enough, and knew the student well enough, to figure him out.

The book on which I’m reporting is titled Turtles All The Way Down. The author is 44yo John Green from Indianapolis. The decision to read it came for three reasons: one, the book was recommended by a good friend of over 60 years, two, the author resides in Indianapolis, and three, the story takes place in Indianapolis. For these reasons it piqued my curiosity. It read quite quickly and easily, held my interest, and despite the unusual title, had a much deeper meaning. I had not heard of John Green until this recommendation, but it seems he is well known in literary circles. That’s a circle with which I am unfamiliar. The book was adapted into an HBO movie in 2017, and Green has written at least 5 or 6 other books.

The most interesting thing about the book was that the story took place on the north side of Indianapolis. I lived on the east and south sides of Indianapolis, but I was familiar with all the streets, intersections, neighborhoods, natural features, and landmarks mentioned by the author. Places the characters visited I had also visited many times. It was very cool how I could visualize where the characters were walking or driving as I read the story. My local knowledge gave the book a personal feel; almost as if I were reading someone’s diary. 

That was just “the hook” that got me interested in reading it. The story revolves around Aza Holmes, the 16-year old obsessive-compulsive daughter, and only child, of a widowed mother. The two live alone and communicate only occasionally. Aza’s mother is a busy school teacher always occupied by grading papers, and Aza is busy trying to cope as an anxious teenager. Her life is greatly influenced by regular psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Singh. 

Aza’s best friend, Daisy Ramirez, is a budding author who writes about imaginary “Star Wars-like” characters and speaks of them as if they were real. One comment that perplexes Daisy is “if Chewbacca dated a human female, would it be considered bestiality?” Stumps me!

Another character is Davis Pickett, the wannabe boyfriend of Aza. Davis’ billionaire father, with whom he and his younger brother live, is divorced and has recently mysteriously disappeared. The girls, Aza and Daisy, are obsessed with investigating the disappearance of Mr. Pickett and getting the $100,000 reward offered for finding him. Additionally, Aza has a crush on Davis and hopes to get closer to him, but her psychological debilities sabotage her attempts.   

This book is about anxiety, relationships, and phobias. Daisy has no lack of self-confidence. She makes friends and finds a boyfriend easily. She has boundless energy and imagination. In contrast, Aza is crippled by self-doubt and severe phobias. She is a good student, has a job at Applebee’s, and has no hesitance in approaching the “rich kid”, Davis. Davis is a compassionate young man who becomes the father figure for his distraught younger brother. They still occupy their father’s mansion despite his absence. 

Aza and Daisy want to help Davis search for his father, the missing Mr. Pickett. That leads Davis to a closer friendship with the girls, especially Aza. They become so close, that Davis gives the $100K reward to the girls. Aza and Davis become romantically involved, but when they kiss, Aza’s extreme obsession with, and fear of, germs makes her reject his advances. In her obsessive, anxious mind she is paralyzed by the thoughts about the multiplication of microbes caused by one kiss and how it could affect her. She sweats, feels sick, avoids hand-holding, and disinfects herself by drinking a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

There are frequent references to the therapy sessions with Dr. Singh and how Aza uses them for support. Late in the story, Aza and Daisy have a disagreement. It carries over while they are riding in Harold, Aza’s car. She is so distracted, she rear ends another vehicle and ends up in the ER. She is admitted with a lacerated liver, but her obsessive fear of germs causes a panic attack. She just knows if she stays in the hospital, she is certain to get C. difficile, the intestinal infection often acquired by taking antibiotics. Her thoughts and actions paralyze her once again.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than I’ve shared. This book is filled with descriptions of psychiatric disorders and could be required reading for psychology students and psychiatry residents. It is an incredibly interesting clinical study of anxiety, phobias, self-doubt, and interpersonal relationships spiced up with a little mystery and intrigue. Daisy and Aza are polar opposites, but their friendship works—they make it work. It’s also a personality study of the three main characters—Aza, Daisy, and Davis—how they differ, how they get along, and how they cope. 

The attraction that repeatedly kept my interest was the frequent reference to North Meridian street, Pogue’s Run, Broad Ripple, White River, and to the location of Davis’s mansion with a private golf course on the property, all landmarks with which I was familiar. These real places in north Indianapolis gave the story a very personal feel. 

“Turtles All The Way Down” won’t grab you like a Michael Connolly, Lee Child, or JK Rowling book, but if you want a glimpse of OCD, neurosis, phobia, and anxiety (ie. human psychopathology) this book will fit the bill. It’s a quick read with excellent character development. I recommend it as a break from your normal reading habits. John Green has other best seller novels (“The Fault In Our Stars” being a New York Times best-seller) so if you like “Turtles…”, you have several more opportunities to enjoy this author. 

I hope my “book report” is good enough for an “A.” Sixty years of experience made it much easier to write. I wonder what ever happened to JE, the guy whose book report was lifted from the jacket cover. I’ll never know. But I know if I ever have to write another “book report,” reading the book makes it a lot easier.

Reference: Green John, Turtles All The Way Down. New York, NY: Dutton Books; 2017.

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