Review: Daughter of Family G

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I should preface this post by saying that I never read books about disease or terminal illness. I hate when it catches me off guard in fiction and I can’t do it in nonfiction. It’s part of my completely irrational belief that reading about those things somehow invites them into my life.

I know.

But when I read the description of Ami McKay’s memoir, Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate, I honestly didn’t clock that I’d be reading about the Big C. I’m smart about a lot of things but sometimes I’m a complete idiot.

family G

McKay, author of The Birth House, The Virgin Cure and The Witches of New York, is also a descendant of Family G, the first family to be medically recognized as having a genetic predisposition to certain kinds of fast-moving cancers. Starting in 1895, her great-great aunt Pauline had worked with pathologist Dr Aldred Warthin to map her family tree and the instances of cancers that had killed them one by one. She herself was fearful of dying young because of the same and sadly, she ended up being right.

Eventually a Dr Lynch is able to determine that there is a gene responsible for the higher instances of cancer and creates a test that can find out whether a person has inherited the gene. The idea is that once a person becomes aware of their predisposition, they can begin to schedule annual tests and screenings to catch any issues before they are terminal.

McKay, like her great-great aunt before her, has become the custodian of her family’s history. And when, as a young mother, she discovers that she too has inherited the gene, she has to figure out how to come to terms with her medical reality: maintaining her status as a previvor, staying on top of the tests and screenings she needs, educating some doctors about her status as someone with Lynch Syndrome, and how she feels about the potential that she has passed the gene onto her sons.

Daughter of Family G is an intensely intimate memoir. McKay is literally sharing her medical records and that of her entire family with readers. It is a love letter to the incredible women in her family; her mom Sally, her grandmother Alice, great-grandmother Tillie, and of course, great-great aunt Pauline. In tracing the history of her family’s cancers, of the work of Drs Warthin and Lynch, McKay also tells her own story of finding love, figuring out her destiny, moving to Nova Scotia, becoming a mother.

Not only did I learn so much about hereditary cancers and the power of knowledge when it comes to medicine, but I fell in love with McKay’s family. It’s so easy to see how she is drawn to telling stories about groups of women who make a difference in their community – that’s the kind of family she comes from, it’s what she knows. I’ve loved reading McKay’s fiction for years and now I feel like I have a deeper understanding of her work and where it comes from.

It should maybe also go without saying that this book is beautifully written. McKay weaves a spell with her gorgeous prose which feels like a feat when you stop and think about the fact that this is a book about cancer.

I loved this memoir and am very glad that I let it in my life. It is very much a story about what cancer can do but it is also a memoir of love and understanding, of the power of knowledge. I’m truly sad to leave the women of Family G – it was an honour to have ‘met’ them.


A memoir of love

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Every once in a while you’re lucky enough to read a book that changes the way you see the world. Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family is that kind of book for me.


Love Lives Here is a kind of family memoir, as Knox recounts the kind of childhood and adolescence she had, of meeting her spouse when she was still a teenager, of the obstacles they faced as a young married couple with a small child. How when their second child was 11, they emailed their parents to tell them that she was a girl and that she hoped they would still love her. How Knox and her spouse went into their daughter’s room and held her and the next day started the work of becoming her champions, learning everything they needed to be effective and respectful. And how a few years after that, her spouse, someone who seemed to live under a perpetual cloud, who would get quiet or snappish or seem distant from the rest of the family, told Amanda that they were also transgender. Which is when Knox had to work through her own feelings about her sexuality and whether she still wanted to be married to a woman.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification of the book. As I was reading it, I realized that I had actually read part of this story before. A couple of years ago, I came across the Buzzfeed story of Amanda’s wife’s first day at work as a trans woman. Zoe had been coming out to family and friends slowly but hadn’t at work yet. On her first day, her co-workers threw her a party to welcome her. It was an uplifting story that showed how small gestures can make a big impact.

Love Lives Here tells so much more of the story. And what I was struck with the most about this book is the love that is on every single page. The first time I started crying reading this book was on page three. PAGE THREE. That really set the tone for the rest of the experience. I cried A LOT while reading this. But almost never were they sad tears. I cried as Knox describes her daughter blossoming, finally happy to be recognized as the young woman she is. I cried as Knox grapples with her perceived shortcomings, realizing that in order to be the most effective advocate for her child, she needed to confront her own prejudices and blind spots. I cried when Knox celebrates her wife, realizing that her attraction to this person has always been about the feminine energy she carries. I cried when she writes about recommitting to her wife, about how beautiful her wife is in everything she puts on because she’s basically a model.

This family, you guys. They are wonderful. So wonderful that they became foster parents to their daughter’s friend and just multiplied the love in their family that much more. I’m so grateful that the Knox family shared their story. I don’t want to make it seem like this was an easy thing for Amanda or Zoe or their children and friends. There were dark days, friends who walked out of their lives, other parents who were not nice to their child (I just want to emphasize that these adults were sh*tty to a CHILD), ideas of what their family looked like that they had to change. All of it took work and educating themselves and probably therapy. But mostly, it was about love. Love of their child, love for each other.

Everyone should read this book. It will change you, it will move you, it will inspire you. It’s one that I’m going to be putting in the hands of others for a very long time.


Shonda Rhimes the person

You know how sometimes, you hear about books and you don’t read them, don’t read them, don’t read them, keep hearing about them, don’t read them until finally you do and wonder what took you so long?

That’s what happened with Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

Shonda Rhimes needs no introduction. She is, of course, the genius woman we have to thank for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder. She is the powerhouse behind TGIT, an entire night of network television dedicated to her universe. Lainey Gossip and Duana Taha are big fans of hers and talk about her and The Year of Yes often on their podcast, Show Your Work.

(Have you listened? It’s dedicated to work within the celebrity ecosystem and is brilliant and endlessly fascinating)

I bought a copy of this book almost a year ago. I finally read it.

What took me so long??


The Year of Yes is kind of like one of those “I did this thing for a year and this is what happened” books. Except it’s Shonda Rhimes and she simply started saying “yes” to things that she always said no to. Her sister mentioned, offhand one night, that Shonda never said yes to anything and it got her thinking and she decided that for a year, she would say yes: to speaking engagements, going on Kimmel, spending time with her kids, having difficult conversations, to compliments, to saying no.

A few things struck me about this lovely little memoir.

  1. Shonda’s writing style is so conversational. She pulls you in like you are having a conversation with her, like you are her friend and this is all casual over dinner or drinks. It’s an incredibly effective way of making you care about what she has to say right off the bat.
  2. It’s so honest. Shonda holds nothing back. She lets you in fully. The one time she keeps details somewhat private are when she is talking about someone she was in a relationship with, who she didn’t end up marrying. She deftly manages to convey her side of things without bring anyone else into it. She is honest about how much help she has at home, her struggles with her weight, her mental well-being in certain situations – she writes it all.
  3. Shonda Rhimes is responsible for so much of our cultural lexicon! Reading this book, it really struck me what a massive impact Shonda Rhimes has had on our cultural memories, the things we say and the television events we all remember.
  4. Her relationship with Cristina Yang is intense (in a good way). Shonda talks about how she’s extremely introverted and Cristina Yang was the vehicle she used to say a lot of the things she wanted to say before she was able to be the one actually saying them. It was really interesting to read about this relationship with a character she created and what it was like saying good bye when she left the show.
  5. That even though she is pretty well single-handedly responsible for diversifying TV, she hates the concept of diversity. She just doesn’t see what the big deal is about making her shows look like what the world actually looks like.

I’m so glad that I finally read this book. It was light, funny, and so enlightening. She talks so much about self care and what that looks like for her (something we all think about a little more these days) and I so appreciated getting to know Shonda Rhimes the person. I read this book in one sitting, I couldn’t stop. It’s rare to get to read a memoir that is so captivating and offers its reader so much at the same time.

It was a delight from start to finish.


A different Canada

In Canada, we like to think that we are totally accepting and open with everyone. All colours, creeds and religions are welcome in Canada.


Not quite.

I recently read B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, In The Black: My Life and came to see a side of Canada that I’d rather was comfortably in the past.


Jolly was born in Jamaica in 1935 – in 1955, he came to Canada for the first time for school. He writes about a Canada where people smile at him but throw his resume in the garbage, where he wasn’t allowed to socialize in certain places, where even when he had paid back a student loan in full, he wasn’t eligible for another one, where schools hadn’t officially desegregated until 1954 and bad feelings lingered.

Once he finished school, he had to return to Jamaica – when he had first come to Canada, he had to sign a form saying that after he finished school, he would go home, that he wouldn’t try and stay in Canada. Jolly enjoyed his time in Canada, had built a life for himself in Toronto and wanted to stay. The reason why there were so few black people in Canada is because there were unofficial policies in place limiting the number of black people allowed to immigrate. Despite his education and his standing within the community, Jolly was shown the door.

Eventually he made it back to Canada and he was ready to start his life. He was a teacher in a small community where he met his wife – together they had three children. Jolly also set up a nursing home business, eventually owning a number of properties. And he was incredibly active within the black community, working with other activists to ensure that black Canadians were heard, that their contributions were valued and most of all, that they were given the same opportunities as white Canadians.

In The Black was an eye opening read for me. It challenged me to think of Canada in a different way. We like to think that we are better than other countries, notably our neighbours to the south, when it comes to race relations. Jolly’s experiences (and he opens the book with a run in with police that happened when he was in his 70s) illustrate that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.

Although Jolly sees that we have come a long way, he posits that there is still more work to be done. That even as an old man, who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, who is very much Canadian, he is still seen as a Jamaican immigrant. As he writes about the work that has already been done, he urges young Canadians to keep working towards a better future, to recognize that the work isn’t finished.

I think this book will challenge a lot of Canadians. But it’s an important book, a reminder of where we were, where we are and where we could be. In The Black includes the history of one man, of a community demanding more, of a country trying to be better.

We can still be better.


Books I read so you don’t have to

This time last week, I thought that I was nailing this Non-Fiction November business.

I read and loved Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, then Forty Autumns, and I finally got to Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which, in hindsight, feels like an important and timely read.

But I also stumbled a little and today I want to talk about those.

First up: The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING Or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off the Dog by Jen Lancaster.

The first time I read one of Lancaster’s memoirs (Bitter is the New Black), I remember laughing hysterically in the bathtub. It was one of the first times that I realized that non-fiction could be funny. I became a devoted fan.

Some of her fiction efforts, however, have fallen flat and I’ve recently sworn them off altogether.


Still, her non-fiction titles haven’t been an issue so I was excited to find a copy of The Tao of Martha when I was in Portland recently. The Tao of Martha is about Lancaster’s efforts to live more like Martha Stewart for a year as a way of boosting her own happiness after a difficult year. Her beloved dog, Maisy has been fighting cancer for a couple of years and that, along with a number of other personal issues, just seemed to be wearing Lancaster down. She decides to follow Martha’s edicts on how to have a beautiful home, cook, clean and entertain.

And it was kind of funny. I definitely cried reading about Maisy.

But somewhere in the middle I just got really irritated. It just felt so indulgent, especially those chapters about gardening and how the roses weren’t just right. I understand that Lancaster has worked really hard to have the life that she has. And I admire Martha’s hustle, I do. I just couldn’t get over how privileged it felt. It wasn’t what I wanted to be reading.

It could be me and the fact that I’ve recently read some really great non-fiction that challenged me a little more. Or maybe that I’ve just outgrown Jen Lancaster at this point, something that would be kind of sad.


And now, I’m about 60 pages away from finishing Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. It’s subject matter should be fairly self-explanatory: it looks at England during Jane Austen’s lifetime. At what people wore, ate, where they lived, what they did for fun, how they travelled, what the laws were, how they worshipped etc.

And I appreciate that it actually manages to look at what life was like for the everyman – once upon a time I read a book that promised to look at every day life in the Tudor era but was really just about how the wealthy lived. I let it go because at that time, of course it would have been difficult for the everyman to keep a record of his daily life as most didn’t read or write.

But Jane Austen’s England is…stuffy. It started out strong but quite quickly became bogged down into excessively long quotations. Honestly, if you took out all the passages that were paragraph length quotes, I think the book would be half as long. It’s also maybe not the best time to be reading about at time when women were barely legal people, subject to the rules and laws of men.

I would stop reading it, but I’ve come so far, spent so much time on it already. To stop now would feel like a waste of all that time.


Darling Days: A Memoir

When I started reading Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright, my reading mojo was bruised from two, basically back-to-back DNFs.

I read 10 pages of Darling Days and knew that that wasn’t going to happen here.

Darling Days is iO Tillett Wright’s memoir of growing up poor with an incredibly challenging mother as well as a queer gender identity.

This memoir is unlike any I’ve ever read before. It reminds me of The Glass Castle but I don’t want to compare the two because they are so unique. Darling Days is so unflinchingly honest, Tillett Wright’s life is laid bare but it’s written with so much love.


Tillett Wright’s mother is a Viking warrior queen, a dancer, an artist, a beautiful soul in a cruel, hard world. She loves her child fiercely, cocoons them together away from the darkness of the rest of the world the best she can. But before iO is born, his mother suffered the violent loss of a lover. She never quite gets over it, and the medications that she takes to help her cope, to help her to feel closer to that lost love, end up causing their own kind of damage.

iO spends his childhood in awe of his mother, a happy sidekick in the kinds of adventures you can only have when you are very poor – like walking all your stuff to a new apartment after you’ve been fighting eviction.

iO’s story is complex. When life with his mother becomes too much, he tries living in Germany with his father and then a boarding school in rural England. But iO is also a product of his upbringing and always feels kind of other. As a teenager, he feels incredible rage and starts experimenting: with his sexuality, with alcohol and drugs.

The one thing that I really felt the entire time I was reading this incredible memoir was love. The book opens with iO’s letter to his mother, someone who continues to be a tangled presence in his life, basically saying that this is their story but that it’s written without judgement and that he has always loved her and always will and that he wouldn’t be the person he is today without his mother.

I mean, if that doesn’t make you want to cry your eyes out right there, I don’t know what will.

The reason that the love stands out for me will be clear if you end up reading this intense, honest, captivating memoir. Few people live this kind of life, survive this childhood, and come out on the other side with love and compassion for their parents. Even contentment is difficult to achieve and iO has come out with joy, enthusiasm and a delight in what this world has to offer.

iO Tillett Wright is clearly a pretty incredible person and I felt privileged to get to read his story. If you get the chance, I hope you do too.


Celebrity Lifestyle: Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve mentioned often that I am a pupil at the Lainey Gossip School of Celebrity Studies. I love her take on fame and the celebrity eco-system and she’s taught me to take People.com with a helping handful of salt.

I also adored Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I think I talk about it less on the blog but in my real life I’m always telling people about that book and how simple she made it sound to change your own happiness quotient.

Enter Rachel Bertsche’s memoir, Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me: The Pursuit of Happiness One Celebrity at a Time. It’s basically the perfect amalgamation of the two!


After being laid off and deciding to start working from home, Rachel Bertsche starts to feel kind of sloppy. She’s not exercising like she used to, she spends her days in sweat pants because that’s the whole point of working from home and her meals are mainly of the frozen variety. She’s also a celebrity connoisseur and wonders if emulating her favourite celebrities will make her feel more fabulous and together. She decides to find out by emulating Jennifer Aniston’s fitness habits, Gwyneth’s (there’s only one) kitchen prowess, Sarah Jessica Parker’s fashion sense, Jennifer Garner’s approach to marriage and Beyonce’s…well having it all.

While Bertsche’s celebrity worship was a little too eager for me sometimes (Lainey has trained me well, I’m snarky) I really enjoyed this book. I love people’s personal transformations and I really enjoyed the celebrity aspect of it; I thought it was a really clever idea. She would spend some time researching the celebrity’s approach to their facet of life and then implement a few key rules: Don’t eat shit; invest in one statement piece; don’t talk smack about your husband in public.

And it worked! She did start to feel more content, more together, healthier. She read that Jennifer Aniston does bicep curls when she watches TV so she started doing that (I did it last night – excellent idea). She started dressing up for herself, even if she wasn’t going to leave the apartment. She became more conscious of the food she was buying and learned that she loved hosting a dinner party.

But it all also took a lot of TIME. It’s part of Jennifer Aniston’s job to look good. For the rest of us – it’s a struggle to get it all in. By the time Bertsche got to Beyonce and trying to incorporate it all, it was tough to get in the workouts, the cooking time, meditation and looking fabulous. But she was still trying and when she got in some as opposed to none, it still meant she felt a lot better about herself.

Bertsche’s chronicle of her struggle to conceive was an unexpected part of the memoir. As they are trying to get pregnant and ultimately go through IVF, Bertsche uses her celebrity methods to try and cope. Both processes kind of line up perfectly actually – when they are waiting to hear if they were successful, she is trying to emulate Julia Roberts’ calm and meditating which enables her to relax at least some of the time.

I’m probably not going to mirror my life on any celebrities ever. But I appreciated the insightful journey while Bertsche did. And I’m going to keep it up with those TV bicep curls because if it’s good enough for Jennifer Aniston…