7

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.

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Nonfiction November 2019: Be/Ask/Become The Expert

Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie @ Doing Dewey): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This is a week that I always look forward to during Nonfiction November even though I overthink it every year! Turns out that this is actually the fourth year that I’m participating and so far I’ve chosen to Be The Expert every time. This year is no exception I’m afraid. It’s partly that I think I know everything 😉 but mostly it’s that I get so excited about books that I’ve read that I want to tell everyone about them so that they can read them too. And Be The Expert us such a great opportunity for that!

In years past I’ve done Royal Women, Movie Stars and Authors and legitimately had read so much on those topics that I was pretty close to an expert. This year I’m picking a little from the Be The Expert column and a little from Ask The Expert because I would love to find more titles on my chosen topic which is:

LGBTQ+ Lives

In my opening post I wrote that I like to read about experiences that aren’t mine. As a ci-gendered hetero (white) woman, I think it’s important to educate myself on the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. The part about educating myself is particularly important as the burden for educating me to be an effective ally should not rest on the community.

Here are some of the nonfiction books about LGBTQ+ people I’ve read and loved.

loveliveshere Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family by Amanda Jette Knox. I know, I’m kind of cheating because I already mentioned this book in my first Nonfiction November post. But it’s that good. And although it wasn’t written by someone who is transgender – something that was rightly pointed out to me – the author’s experience of loving two members of her family who are is one that should be more widely read. This is a memoir of love and understanding and of not knowing all the answers but willing to work to find them.

 

saeed jonesHow We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones. This debut from poet Saeed Jones will take your breath away. It just won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction and Marlon James, Roxane Gay, and Jacqueline Woodson have all sung its praises. It is the story of Jones growing up as a gay black boy in Texas, with a mother who knew he was gay but never wanted to hear it spoken aloud and a grandmother who slapped him across the face when she realized his truth. Jones’ writing is raw and perfect and beautiful. How We Fight For Our Lives is an incredibly honest book, with descriptions of sex that I’ve honestly never come across before – and I mean that in the best possible way. I love love loved this one.

darling days

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright. I read this one when it came out in 2016 and I still think about it.  Darling Days tells the story of the way that Tillett Wright grew up, namely in absolute poverty with a mother who was fighting demons of her own and a father who wasn’t always present. Somehow through all of that trauma, Tillett Wright came out of his childhood with love. I was remind of iO Tillett Wright via the podcast My Favorite Murder – he was a part of a weekend event they hosted, as the host of his own true crime podcast, The Ballad of Billy Balls.

 

me

Me: A Memoir by Elton John. Taking a bit of a different direction with this last one and I haven’t finished reading it as of writing but feel confident recommending it. Elton John’s memoir is unflinching in its honesty and he strikes me as someone who has benefited greatly from therapy – his memoir is incredibly introspective. And aside from the seriously great gossip in this book (he was friends with Billie Jean King! John Lennon! He and Rod Stewart are in a decades long prank war and call each other Sharon and Phyllis!) it is almost casual in descriptions of his sexuality and encounters. And I mean that in the most positive way. Elton John didn’t have a big coming out moment, he just realized it, the people around him realized it and when he officially came out via a Rolling Stone interview, he barely thought about it. And considering all of that happened before 1985, it’s kind of mind-blowing. I am *loving* the time I’m spending with Sir Elton John.

So that’s it, that’s my list! Do you have any LGBTQ+ that I should read ASAP? I’ll take fiction as well, honestly. Ones that I’ve loved have included Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai…

 

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Nonfiction November 2019: My Year in Nonfiction

It’s time! Nonfiction November is happening!

nonfictionnovember2019

As in years past we have five wonderful hosts who will lead a prompt each week to get us all discussing nonfiction. The hosts and schedules is as follows:

  • Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julz of Julz Reads)
  • Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves)
  • Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie at Doing Dewey)
  • Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann of Shelf Aware)
  • Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) – New to My TBR (Rennie of What’s Nonfiction)

To kick things off, this first week we’re talking about nonfiction reading so far in 2019. If you’ve visited my blog before/follow me on instagram, you know that I love reading nonfiction. It’s not something recent that I’ve gotten into, it’s not a new reading niche for me, I didn’t have to learn to like nonfiction, I’ve been reading and loving nonfiction as long as I’ve been reading.

But it’s not always something that gets a lot of attention. Most people are more interested in fiction than nonfiction.

Still, so far this year 29% of my reading has been nonfiction (27 out of 94 books). I wouldn’t have said that I’d read more of any one genre or subject matter but looking back through my stats, it appears that I’ve been gravitating towards memoirs this year. I’ve also read a number of essay collections. In terms of subject matter, it looks like I’ve been reading more about race, LGBTQ experiences and true crime. A few biographies but not as many as usual.

(Some of my nonfiction highlights)

Easily my favourite nonfiction book of the year has been Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family. Not only did I learn a lot from this book but the overwhelming emotion in it is love. Even though I cried my eyes out reading it, I felt hopeful and weirdly proud that this family is Canadian. I’ve recommended it numerous times and am doing it again here.

Other memoirs that I read and loved included Becoming by Michelle Obama (obviously), Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run by Alexandra Heminsley (I was convinced it would inspire me to start running but it did not. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I have definitely recommended to others), and This Will Only Hurt A Little by Busy Philips (for the gossip).

Another book that fundamentally shifted something in me was 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Josephs. I can’t overstate the importance of this little book and really really think that every Canadian needs to read it if we’re going to get serious about Reconciliation.

Even though I didn’t read a ton of bios or history books this year, the ones that I did read were great (except for The Favorite by Ophelia Field, just watch the movie). Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo focused on a story that I had never come across in all my Royals/WWII reading. I had no idea that Hitler had such a personal vendetta against the Austrian Royals! And if J. Randy Taraborrelli has a new book out, I need to read it! Jackie, Janet, & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill was a gossipy portrait of the women behind the legends and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The most physically beautiful book I read this year was The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Scandal, Power, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone. Full colour portraits of the women who ruled Clivedon, every page in coloured ink, it was a complete joy to look at and read. Definitely not one you want to take out of the library! And for a beast of a book (657 pages), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1917 was incredibly readable and enjoyable. It had the potential to be stuffy but it wasn’t at all.

I tended to get a little obsessive about my reading this year. I started listening to The Dropout podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos but I wasn’t getting the information fast enough so I went out and bought Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carryrou and man, did it scratch the itch. I also watched the HBO documentary right after that. The whole thing was an incredibly satisfying learning experience!

They aren’t necessarily grouped around any one topic but I’ve really enjoyed essay collections this year as well. I find that they are a great way to get an overview on any one topic or person. I’ve loved Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (incredibly raw, a lot of rage, it blew me away), and 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality by Alllison Yarrow (was an eye-opening look at how I was socialized in my formative years).

I don’t think that there’s any one subject matter that I am drawn to over others or that I want to read more about. I’m such a mood reader that I tend to go to what strikes my fancy at any given moment. I have a biography of Kick Kennedy ready to go because I read a fictional account of her life this year and felt like I needed to read the whole story. I have an essay collection I want to read because I heard the author on a podcast and it sounded right up my alley. I will always want to read stories about experiences that are different than mine, Royals continue to be my reading kryptonite, and feminist nonfiction is something I never say no to.

I can’t wait to find a whole bunch of new titles to my never-ending TBR and to connect with other nonfiction readers about what is striking their fancy at the moment. I think this is my third year participating in Nonfiction November and I feel like I’ve been waiting to get started for months!

10

#15BooksofSummer – Update

Bet you all thought I had given up on the #15BooksofSummer Challenge Cathy @ 746 Books has been hosting.

(The idea is that you make a list of 10, 15, or 20 books from your TBR, you read them between June 3 and September 3, and then you post about them. A bit of focus for the summer months and a nice way to clear off some of those books that always seem to get overlooked)

But I haven’t! I’ve been trying really hard to make sure that the books get read. Posting about them however…given the choice between using nap-time (sacred, sacred time) for reading or for writing content…this lazy mom chooses reading.

I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction tear and gravitated towards the non-fiction picks on my list. Looking at the books I wanted to mention, they are all non-fiction so I guess I do have a theme today. I also really liked all of them.

mightnight

First up: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. Am I the only one that I didn’t realize that this was non-fiction? In May of 1981, antiques dealer Jim Williams shot and killed Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute. Over the next decade, there are four different trials and everyone in Savannah has an opinion on what happened.

I love true crime but this is probably one of the least interesting crimes I’ve read about. What makes this book such a compelling read is the cast of characters that the author socializes with during his time in Savannah. He has a front row seat to all the drama and introduces readers to the most incredible people: The Lady Chablis, a local transgender woman and entertainer, the folk magic practitioner Minerva, fighting with her husband, Dr. Buzzard, from beyond the grave, the guy who walks around with a small bottle of poison that could supposedly kill the entire city if he dropped it in the water supply, Williams’ lawyer, the keeper of the University of Georgia’s bulldog mascot, Uga.

Along with the people, Berendt manages to create an incredible sense of place. 1980s Savannah comes to life. It is, however, very much a product of it’s time. Berendt tells a privileged story from a position of privilege and it shows, despite the fact that at least half of the people involved in the story were actually quite poor.

After I finished the book, I watched the movie directed by Clint Eastwood. That’s probably where I got the idea that this book was fiction. The whole time my husband and I were watching it, I very helpfully explained to him what the actual story was.

les parisiennes

I’d put off reading Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba because I rightly assumed that it would be a tough read. Les Parisiennes tells stories of the women in Paris during WWII, those who collaborated, the ones who were a part of the Resistance, those who were deported to concentration camps for being Jewish.

It is a really wide picture of what it was like to be a woman in Paris during the War, how the ‘choices’ one made were hardly choices. What choice is there between your child or your husband, feeding your family or spitting at a Nazi, living or dying? Sebba does a really good job at reminding readers that the things these women did weren’t so much choices, as they were the things that had to be done.

After the war, France (and a number of other countries including the Netherlands) liked to position their citizenry as all having been a part of the Resistance but that wasn’t actually true at all. There was also a marked difference between how those women returning from a place like Ravensbruck for Resistance work and those who returned from Auschwitz for being Jewish, were treated. And a few years after the war, people started to express that they were tired of hearing about it, how it was time to move on. For so many of these women, moving on wasn’t really possible.

Reading Les Parisiennes reminded me a bit of Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter. But it was more difficult to keep track of everyone’s story in Les Parisiennes. Still, I found it to be a thoroughly researched picture of an unspeakable time.

21 things

Finally we come to the book that affected me the most: 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Josephs. Reading about Indigenous Peoples in Canada has always been something I’ve shied away from, likely because I knew it would shatter the ideal we hold that racism isn’t an issue here. But in the last couple of years I’ve tried to educate myself.

This book is based on a viral blog post that Josephs wrote. Josephs is actually a culture sensitivity trainer, working with companies to better understand Indigenous culture and history. The book covers things that you probably knew (it created reserves, forbade students from speaking their Indigenous languages, denied women status) and a LOT that you probably didn’t.

I obviously knew that the Indian Act was a travesty, stripping peoples of their culture, language and identity as resource-rich land was taken over by the Canadian government. But I didn’t know how far-reaching it actually was. I didn’t know that the Act created the band system, overriding traditional means of government that had worked for generations; that they were forbidden from appearing in traditional dress and performing dances or even just appearing at exhibitions or events; that it declared the potlatch illegal; that it renamed people with European names; or that it made it so that Indigenous peoples were unable to sell the produce from the farms they were forced to work.

I didn’t know that the Indian Act still exists.

And even allowing for the times in which he lived, John A. MacDonald (Canada’s first Prime Minister) was incredibly racist and I seriously don’t know why he’s still on our currency (he got bumped off the $10 but he’s being moved to the $100 – so long, Borden).

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released it’s report and made 94 recommendations in order for Canadians to address the cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government. Bob Josephs has included all of them in this book and I found it incredibly helpful, not only to have that as a resource, but also to have a way forward. It is 100% my responsibility to help work towards Reconciliation and now I have some concrete ideas for how I can do that.

Seriously, this book blew my mind. I’m still thinking about it weeks later and I want to press a copy into the hands of everyone I know.

So that’s it for the update for now – I’m about to finish A Gentleman in Moscow and then I will have read…7 of 15. Which is better than I thought and also really validates my decision not to pick 20!

2

SSDGM

I don’t remember if someone recommended it, or if I was looking up more content about murder but in early 2017 I found the My Favorite Murder podcast. I very quickly felt like hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark were my friends and in a time where I could barely get out of bed every day, where not even Schitt$ Creek could make me laugh, they cracked me up.

(Don’t worry, I’ve gone back and fallen in love with Schitt$ Creek since)

I listen to them every time I’m in the car (they are the reason I don’t mind my 40 minute commute), anytime I have to do chores, if I have time to do my make up, I’ve connected with fellow murderinos, I’ve seen them live and I own merchandise.

And yet, when Karen and Georgia announced the release of their dual memoir, I was skeptical.

ssdgm

The book, Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide, is a collection of stories that have been touched on on the podcast with nuggets of wisdom the women have learned the hard way. It’s billed as a dual memoir but I feel like it’s more essays that include personal stories. Georgia’s story about letting a photographer take pictures of her alone in a remote location has a lot of value for those of us who still feel uncomfortable being ‘rude’ and Karen’s chapter on her mother’s Alzheimer’s and what it was like for her family to spend years saying goodbye had me in tears. As an aforementioned long time fan, I enjoyed this book. It provided context on stories that I’d only ever heard the broad strokes of before.

But I’m not convinced that this will be a book that works for those who have no idea what My Favorite Murder is or why anyone would think of a title like that. The expands on the podcast’s themes (F*ck Politeness, Stay out of the forest, Buy your own sh*t) in ways that I found illuminating but my relationship to these women and their work is longstanding. On the podcast and in the book, both women are huge proponents of going to therapy and mention it frequently. On the podcast this seems like a reasonable thing to reiterate as required but in print, it’s repetitive (without the recognition that it’s not possible for all).

Still, if you are a fan or you’ve just dipped your toe into the wonderful world of MFM, you’ll probably like this one.

SSDGM.

7

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

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

Occasionally I will come across a book that I’m not sure I can do justice to, that I’m not sure I have the right words for.

Such is the case with Alicia Elliott’s blistering essay collection, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. But I’m going to try because I think this is an incredibly important work.

a mind

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground touches on an astonishing number of issues: mental illness, residential schools, racism in Canadian literature, Reconciliation, abuse, sexual abuse, poverty, parenthood and love. I was immediately struck by how much rage there is in her work. In every essay, sometimes simmering just below the surface, other times taking center stage, Elliott’s anger is a force to be reckoned with. And why wouldn’t she be angry? An Indigenous woman in a country that turns a blind eye to her missing and murdered sisters, that refuses to take accountability for the damage done by residential schools, that likes the sound of Reconciliation but won’t take any actual steps to make it happen.

Instead of actually dealing with the consequences of historical genocidal policies – policies that are still in place – they can pretend that assimilation settled over our people like a gentle fog. It was entirely natural; no one is to blame. Certainly not them. They like Indians. They named a few sports teams after them, after all. They also read The Orenda and it, like, changed their lives. But these same settlers will not listen to the voices of real-life Indigenous people and, further, seem unable to realize that by expecting us to be their Ideal Indian Caricatures, they’re adding another layer of colonial trauma to our already overburdened peoples.

I didn’t realize it until about half way through the collection, but I’d been aware of Alicia Elliott on Twitter for a while. Hers was a voice that was popping up on my timeline in the aftermath of the Coulten Boushie verdict. In fact, if there’s only one essay that you get to read out of this collection, it sound be Dark Matters, an examination of the trauma inflicted on people by justice systems set up to benefit the people who have historically abused her people. It is hard to read but Elliott isn’t here to make me feel comfortable.

Reading about Elliott’s mother and their relationship in Crude Collages of My Mother almost broke me. It is filled with such longing and love and hurt. Each essay slides another piece in the foundation that holds up the punishing conclusion that requires some soul searching.

What I’m trying to say, not at all well, is that you should read this essay collection. It is beautiful, important, uncomfortable and profound. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Alicia Elliott becomes a celebrated Canadian voice. I’m excited to see what she does with that platform.

11

Canada Reads: The Woo-Woo

Next month, five different books will be discussed and defended with the ultimate goal of narrowing it down to one book that all Canadians should read. That’s the idea behind Canada Reads, an annual book tournament televised on the CBC. This year’s theme is “one book to move you.”

This year’s contenders and their chosen books are:

Someone I follow on Instagram is actually the literary agent for The Woo-Woo and she mentioned it in her stories so I decided that that would be the first book I’d read.

woo woo.jpg

The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong is a memoir of growing up in a family struggling with untreated mental illnesses, believing instead that the afflicted person was possessed by ghosts. Lindsay’s mother was terrified of being possessed, taking her children to live in a mall food court for weeks at a time because the ghosts wouldn’t find them there. Her father used work as a solace, using his role as family breadwinner as an excuse for not dealing with any of the madness at home. To this day Lindsay doesn’t speak with her younger sister and her relationship with her younger brother is incredibly damaged. Her aunt once held the Lower Mainland hostage on Canada Day as she threatened to jump from one of the main bridges in the area.

That Wong manage to make it out alive at all is a testament to her strength. That she not only survived but was able to relive it all to write about it is something else entirely. While this memoir could be compared to Educated or The Glass Castle, I hesitate to make the comparison. For one thing, this book didn’t get to me emotionally like those books did. I don’t think that Wong is completely free of this story, I think she probably still lives it, so there’s an emotional distance that was likely necessary to write the book.

Reading about her childhood I felt anger and sadness for this little girl that couldn’t possibly understand how sick her family was. That there was no one at school, no friends, no friends’ parents who stepped in to offer Lindsay any kind of help, a place to go that was clean and safe. I’m still incredibly curious about how she has managed to become a functioning, capable adult from the violent, crass, unwashed teenager she writes about so callously.

The Woo-Woo is dark. I know it’s being billed as darkly humorous but I don’t recall laughing that much. What I felt was anger. Anger at her family, the city she derisively calls Hongcouver, at herself for not understanding sooner how broken her home life was. I had a hard time with some of the language used too. I have no doubt that it was accurate, that her parents absolutely used the word to refer to her but I hate the R word a lot and it was sprinkled liberally throughout. I like to think that it was a tough decision for Wong to include or not include the word but I still found it jarring to encounter it so often.

In the end, this was a horrifying look at the damage untreated mental illness can do, at the superstitions that can hold a culture hostage. But I’m not sure that The Woo-Woo has the emotional heft to win Canada Reads.