Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Hidden Valley Road: Iffy, but maybe still worth it

Like The Emperor of All Maladies, Robert Kokler’s Hidden Valley Road takes the exploration of illness as its focus. A biography of a disease, I guess you could say. Though woven through with the proper biography of the Galvin family: twelve children, six of whom have schizophrenia. Where this book is at its best is in exploring how researchers develop theories of the illness, challenge on another, reform theories, test them and grow frustrated with the limits of what can be known, or is known. Which is to say, the book is most fascinating when it’s thinking about the nature of how we know things – an irony, perhaps, in a book about an illness that radically alters the way reality operates.

I did find the narrative of the family captivating. (True, I’d probably find a biography of any family with twelve children engaging: like how many loaves of bread do they eat in a week? And where do they all sleep? And how prolapsed is a uterus after that many babies?) But captivating aside, I think on the balance the family element was more unsettling than it was revealing. Even while the book tries to emphasize that schizophrenia cannot be ‘blamed’ on environmental causes, or more properly ‘bad mothering,’ the narrative nevertheless slips into a sort of trauma porn element that risks reinforcing the idea that mental illness is caused by inattentive moms. Similarly, just as the book – at least toward the end – poses class advantages as one factor in different experiences of mental illness, the attention to class as a significant determinant of how schizophrenia will be experienced by the individual is under examined. (I mean, there is some discussion of how treatment options varied depending on access to private versus state-run hospitals, but little is made of this except to say that there are differences). And I didn’t relish the moments where some of the children’s hallucinatory episodes are captured – as if verbatim – I guess in order to shock the reader? And finally the book offers only a glancing nod to the idea that individuals with schizophrenia might elect not to take medications with harsh side-effects and might instead suppose that the people around them adjust their expectations of a stable reality.

All those issues raised, I think I’d still recommend it, if only for the way it explores the way schizophrenia is more a symptom (like a fever, the book at one point suggests, is a symptom of an infection) than a single illness. And also for the answer to how many loaves of bread. Spoiler: many.

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Man’s Search for Meaning: In Which I Do Not Offer a Review

I’m not sure reviewing Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is what I want to do with what remains of this nap. So instead I’ll note that I read it. And had some feelings about it. Also that it was the third non-fiction book IN A ROW that I have read (and I’m reading another one right now). So much for not enjoying non-fiction.

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Say Nothing: I Read Some Non-Fiction

Is it ‘non fiction’? ‘non-fiction’? ‘nonfiction’? I have so much to learn.

I started with Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and it was an education. Turns out nonfiction (or non-fiction) is… good. Or THIS book was good. It was also long. Is all of nonfiction long? (Don’t answer that. I’m currently reading a memoir and it’s only medium to short. Maybe memoirs are short? And books about the IRA are long? [Sorry, M., the memoir is not one from your list – but they’re coming!]).

I liked it because I learned some things about Ireland and the IRA but there was also a lot of murder mystery. Less character than I like. Though still some characters. Because there were people.

Guys. When I try to write book reviews about nonfiction it reads like I’m stoned. I am not stoned. Though I did just eat a lot of really salty popcorn?

Okay let me try this again. It’s a book about Belfast and Northern Ireland in the 60s-2010s and the people Disappeared by the IRA through these years and the who and how of their Disappearance. I didn’t know most of the things in the book because I didn’t know anything about the Troubles. And now I know some things!

So yes. So far nonfiction: I learned some things, enjoyed the reading, and am concerned that all of it may be Very Long.

I hope my next review is better. Or else this 2021 resolution of 1 in 5 is going to ruin me as a reviewer. I WILL IMPROVE.

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Grief Works: Why Thinking About Death Beats Cat Videos

I can’t remember the last time I read book length non-fiction. I’m going to guess at least a year. Maybe two, if you don’t count books for work. Which is to say it has to be a compelling proposition for me to entertain non-fiction (like I considered reading Fire and Fury but then thought – who cares, there are podcasts). But when I heard that the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival, Julia Samuel, was coming to my city, I looked into the book. And that was enough for me to pick it up.

The gist: Samuel is a grief counselor and the book presents 15 case studies from her years of practice as a way of inviting the reader to consider how folks experience grief and keep living after significant loss. The book is broken into sections (death of a sibling, death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a child, facing your own death) and each section has three case studies and then some reflections on the chapter. The book concludes with some general notes about death and dying in Canada (presumably only for the Canadian edition), supporting others in grief, supporting yourself in grief.

I haven’t experienced grief up close. Yet. Samuels is great, however, at reminding the reader that it is only a matter of time – and chance – before we encounter death and grief, and that hiding from this certainty does nothing to protect us from the inevitability (sort of like my relationship with global warming, actually). And she reminds the reader without being scary or macabre.

In fact, I’d say the overarching mood of the book is ‘gentle.’ Readers are allowed space to digest as each case study is relatively short, and within them are moments of levity and reflection. (One complaint I have is that Samuels dwells a bit too much for my taste on her therapeutic process (i.e. how she needs to go slow in asking some questions because trust needs to be established first), but then I wasn’t reading it with interest in how grief counselling works, but I can see how other readers might have this interest).

I was talking to my dear friend S. about the book (as well as my mum and my Auntie P.) and sharing with them that what I found most valuable about the book (at this moment in my life anyway) was in supporting others in their experience with grief. But it was also a key read for me at the moment because I am – inexplicably? – preoccupied with knowing that those I love will die. And dwelling in this morbidity has been scary and disquieting and all the other feelings you’d expect to have. And while fiction does it’s best to help me prepare for death (there are no shortage of novels exploring all the many different ways death finds us), I suppose I wanted something practical. And this is a desire Grief Works frustrates. Samuels acknowledges the desire for a practical guide, and notes that these kinds of books do exist, but she resists giving a check-list because of her emphasis on how individualized and contextual grief is experienced. Sure she offers a few ‘pillars’ (meditation, running and visualizations seem to be her fan favourites), but these are couched in the insistence that each individual will have to find their own path.

So maybe what I’m most appreciative of is the way the book has opened conversations for me. I can say I’m reading, or just read this book, and it made me think about these things. Instead of being like “I’m thinking a lot about death these days,” which is odd because it is sunny, and springtime, and there are baby cats (aka: kittens) all over Facebook, I can use the book to begin conversations that let me know that other people are thinking about death, too. (And yes, I know I should check out a death cafe).

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