BOOK REVIEW | Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

4/5 stars

This is an in-depth, comprehensive look at schizophrenia and its impact on one American family.

The Galvins were a large family with 10 sons and 2 daughters. Over the years, 6 of the boys would develop schizophrenia. The children were born between 1945 and 1965, and during these years the family was sought after by researchers as potentially holding the key to the mysteries of genetics and mental illness. Why were so many children from one family developing schizophrenia? And alternately, why weren’t the others?

The book is well crafted, with chapters alternating between stories about each family member and the progress of researchers and medical experts over the years. It’s heartbreaking to see the boys, once young and healthy, become more and more disconnected from reality as they grew into young men. Schizophrenia is often onset in young adulthood, and the siblings were constantly worried about who may be the next to be impacted.

The Galvins were a troubled family, dealing with sexual abuse among siblings, and even homicide. Mimi, the matriarch, struggled with maintaining the facade of a perfect household while raising her deeply troubled children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Little was known about schizophrenia at this time, and the pressure to appear perfect must not have been easy. Don, the patriarch, was discovered to suffer from depression, leaving Mimi to wonder if mental illness must have come from his lineage. The story often returns to the notion that the ill children demanded all of Mimi and Don’s attention, leaving little of themselves for their other children.

Kokler pieced together a fascinating, albeit extremely sad, portrait of the Galvin family. He was allowed access into their lives, and spent years interviewing and learning from the survived members of the family. The greatest impression this book left me with is that schizophrenia is highly complex. It impacts everyone very differently, and to varying degrees. While some of the sons with schizophrenia were violent, angry, and predatory, others were gentle even during psychosis. People with schizophrenia are no different than those without: some are good and some are bad.

BOOK REVIEW | From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

5/5 stars

Jesse Thistle shares his powerful story in his memoir, From the Ashes. From a child struggling to get by with his brothers, to a young man on the streets, it’s amazing that Thistle is here today to tell us about his life. They say you have to hit rock bottom to break free from addiction, and Thislte most certainly did.

Thistle and his brothers are left behind first by their mother, and eventually their father. When a child grows up without parents there’s a piece of their identity, a sense of home, missing. This lack of self becomes the catalyst for many of the decisions Thislte will make in his young life.

Thistle and his brothers are taken in by his paternal grandparents but, as is often the case, he starts to fall into bad habits. Before long, his life has spiraled out of control. Following in his father’s footsteps, Thistle finds himself homeless and trapped in the throes of addiction. It’s heartbreaking to follow Thistle down this road, to see him sink deeper and deeper into his illness, becoming increasingly isolated. Sick and badly injured, it’s unbelievable that he was able to find his way out of his circumstances. It wasn’t luck: he worked incredibly hard to grow further away from his addictions.

There’s much to glean from Thistle’s life, but what was especially profound for me was his journey to self identity. He shares that he grew up ashamed of his Métis heritage, even though he didn’t know much about it. The absence of his parents in his life left a void that took many years and many mistakes to begin to fill. I imagine this is a lifelong process. Much of Thistle’s recovery was supported by his wife, Lucie, who he discusses with so much love. It’s clear that she’s a remarkable woman – not afraid to push him to fulfill his potential.

Thistle’s writing is lush, even when deeply painful, and evocative; reading this was very visual, I could see each moment like a movie. I don’t gravitate towards memoirs, but Thistle’s story was both worth the time, and incredibly inspirational. I’d highly recommend this to readers interested in intergenerational trauma or addiction, or to those who are struggling in life and feel there’s no way out.

BOOK REVIEW | We Have Always Been Here – A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

4/5 stars

Book #2 for Canada Reads 2020!

We Have Always Been Here is a powerful story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and re-inventing her faith after immigrating to Canada from Pakistan, escaping an arraigned marriage, and estrangement from her parents.

Samra Habib spent the early years of her childhood in Pakistan, her family a part of a small sect of Ahmadi Muslims. Under the threat of violence from Islamic extremists, Habib’s family made the decision to flee to Canada. Their arrival in Toronto provided freedom from physical violence, but started a new chapter of pain in Habib’s life. Like many immigrant children, she had to grow up quickly. She was bullied and felt lost among her Canadian peers. Before long, her much older male cousin came to live with her family. She soon discovers she is arranged to be married to him when she is of age.

… despite having grand dreams of becoming a writer and traveling the world, my future consisted of being a good Pakistani wife. I was destined for a life of servitude …

At age 16, Habib becomes a child bride. She begins to discover herself and knows this isn’t the life she is meant to be living. Her journey of self-healing is filled with relationships, books, art, music, fashion, travel, and mentors – each of which brings her closer to her true identity. She begins to identify as queer, a taboo that can be deadly for some in the Muslim faith. In her adult life, she as grown into her queer identity, but is missing the comfort and familiarity that Islam once brought her.

The most beautiful parts of Habib’s story were in her discovery of Unity Mosque. Almost like a secret club, she finds a Mosque that welcomes queer Muslims without judgement and with open arms. Re-discovering her faith was critical to her wholeness as a person, but more significantly was her openness to re-inventing what being Muslim means.

As I sat cross-legged on the prayer mat and started out the window, I could hardly believe I was coming back to my faith in the same neighbourhood where I attended my first drag show…I was meeting myself again in my thirties.

Habib’s passion for connecting with queer Muslims was the drive behind her photography project, Just Me and Allah. Traveling the globe, she meets with queer Muslims to take their portraits and hear their diverse stories. Through these connections they find a community, and a safe space to share their truth.

I hope that more conservative readers won’t pass on this book, and I encourage those readers to find the common ground. We all seek to find acceptance, our voice, and our place in the world. Many of Habib’s influences resonated with mine, and reading this felt like having a coffee with a friend. This book is compulsively easy to read – it’s hard to put down.

 

BOOK REVIEW | The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

This isn’t a review, it’s just a reminder to read The Fire Next Time if you haven’t. James Baldwin’s brilliance and wisdom had me bookmarking nearly every page. First published in 1963 at the dawn of the civil right’s movement, it’s shocking to realize that everything Baldwin discusses is still relevant today. Below are a few of my favourite quotes.

You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to becomes a truly moral human…must divorce himself of all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, than it is time we got rid of him.

I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate.

A short and powerful read that I’ll certainly reach for again in the future.

BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.

An honest take on what it means to be a woman who takes up space in the world, Roxane Gay broke my heart. Gay is brutally transparent as she examines the violence she experienced as a child, and how it shaped, and continues to shape, her journey through life. She discusses her parents, and what it means to be the child of Haitian immigrants in America. Expectations for her and her siblings were high, both academically and physically. Though her parent’s always came from a place of love, their focus on Gay’s weight became a point of contention and rebellion during critical, formative years.

This book felt like a release, therapy – she lays so much bare. What struck me the most is that this isn’t your typical memoir that wraps up with a happy ending, or profound lessons learned. Gay lets you know from page one that this is simply her experience. Many readers will identify with Gay’s discomfort with her own skin – I think being comfortable in your own body, regardless of size, is a lifelong process for many. Gay breaks down many of the struggles of being of size – chairs with arms, places to shop, and walks with friends to name a few.

From the first page I knew I was about to read something special, and cannot wait to dig into Gay’s fiction. While this is the story of her body, there is a universality to the memoir that will resonate with readers. I can only thank Gay for bearing her soul and her pain to create something so heartbreaking, honest, perfect.

BOOK REVIEW | The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

My thoughts:
It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer in exchange for money was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed…What did Knight to for a living? He lived for a living.

This is a story that will speak to the introverts out there (hi, that’s me); the people that need quiet in their days and thrive when alone. If you’ve read the news stories about Christopher Knight, you know the facts around his mysterious disappearance. Knight vanished when he was 20 years old, leaving his family to think him dead. Maine residents knew someone was living in the woods, experiencing frequent, but minor, burglaries. After 27 years, Knight is finally captured and arrested – the hermit had been taken down.

After Knight’s arrest, journalist Michael Finkel couldn’t get the story of the illusive “North Pond Hermit” out of his mind. How did he survive for so long, completely alone, in the woods? What did he do to stay warm in the bitter Main winters?  What was his mental state? Is he autistic? Schizophrenic? Finkel eventually reached out to Christopher in prison, and weaseled his way in to a face to face meeting, determined to discover the man behind the facade of the North Pond Hermit.

This book goes deeper than the news articles, and Finkel draws his thoughts and conclusions from about nine hours of conversation with Knight, as well as conversations with Knight’s family and the police officers who captured him. Christopher Knight, in a split second decision, chose to live differently. He set off into the Maine woods with no plan, determined to to things his way. He survived by stealing from local cabins and camp sites, feeling terrible about it every time. For anyone who struggles with the mundanity of day to day life, Knight’s decision won’t feel so incredible. In fact, this book illustrates so clearly why it may have been the exact right path for him to choose (maybe minus the burglaries!). Not everyone fits perfectly into modern society, and not everyone desires the social interactions and abundance that many thrive on. I particularly enjoyed the sections about the importance of quiet in one’s day. I’m very sound sensitive, and this spoke right to me:

Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea.

If Christopher Knight’s story piqued your interest, you will enjoy this book. He’s a strange man, but the reasons behind his choices are surprisingly relatable. It’s a shame that my city is in the middle of a deep freeze, I’m craving a walk in the woods.