Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

Gifty is a graduate student at Stanford, studying reward-seeking behaviour in mice. She is grieving the overdose death of her brother and the continuing depression of her mother. This is a cerebral story, meaning it takes place in Gifty’s mind as she grapples with tough issues: addiction and depression, grief and love, science and religion.

Amy notes: another book by Yaa Gyasi, who also wrote the excellent Homegoing.

The Forgotten Daughter – Joanna Goodman

Ms. Goodman wrote the excellent The Home For Unwanted Girls about the Duplessis Orphans, created when Quebec re-classified orphans as being mentally deficient in order to transfer their care to mental hospitals. Her new book continues Elodie’s story to achieve justice and an official apology. The time is the early 90s with the backdrop of separation and the 1995 referendum, with two fascinating characters, James and Vero, on opposite sides of the separation debate. Anger is a powerful force in people’s actions. And the difficulty of acting on principles is a dominant theme. Highly recommended.

And This Is The Cure – Annette Lapointe

Allison is a nearly 40-year-old public radio pop culture journalist. Her past life has been messy and complicated: escaping a deeply conservative family, teenage rebellion epitomized by membership in a riot girrrrl punk band and issues with mental illness. Her current somewhat stable life is upended when her ex-husband is murdered; consequently, Allison takes on the guardianship of her angry 11-year-old daughter. Needless to say, she is unprepared for parenting. This is a brilliant novel about unresolved baggage and healing, with precise descriptions of Winnipeg and Toronto life. Both funny and poignant, a great read.

Amy notes; I am sure I didn’t get all the Canadiana inside jokes, but I got enough to appreciate their presence! Propulsive read.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

It is 1947 in a small town in Saskatchewan. Leonard is a young boy who befriends a reclusive man known as Rabbit Foot Bill. Bill commits a sudden act of violence and is sent to prison. Twelve years later, Leonard is a recently graduated doctor of psychiatry. His first job is at the Weyburn Mental Hospital where he encounters Bill again. What follows is a strange obsession that ends badly. This book explores the frailty and resilience of the human mind, and the elusive relationship between truth and fiction. The story also reveals the abysmal treatment of mental illness in the 1950s with use of LSD by both the doctors and patients. Humphreys is an under-appreciated literary goddess, with previous gems like The Evening Chorus, The Lost Garden and Nocturne.

Educated – Tara Westover

This is a remarkable memoir where reality is stranger than fiction. The author was raised in the mountains of Utah. Her parents were survivalists and totally suspicious of government so she had no birth certificate and does not go to school. To say that she was home-schooled is rather generous; her learning is self-directed and spotty. Tara is the youngest of 5 children. Her life is complicated by a controlling father and a brother who bullies her both psychologically and physically. The second half of the book details her escape to university, first to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge England. This is a compelling story of remarkable resilience but at great cost. The contradictions of memory are also a feature of a memoir that is so deeply emotional. Final comment: Westover’s parents make the parents in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle seem wonderful by comparison! Thanks Erin and Amy, for this recommendation.

The Woo Woo – Lindsay Wong

The Woo Woo - Lindsay WongCanada Reads contender. This is an extraordinary memoir about a Chinese-Canadian family in a Vancouver suburb. The Wong family is remarkably dysfunctional; Lindsay regularly received the following comments as a child: “you are fat, lazy and retarded”! She describes her upbringing with candour and does not flinch from castigating her own poor behaviour. Her mother is consumed by fears of demonic possession by malevolent ghosts, the woo-woo. This fear means that mental illness is treated as a woo-woo possession and thus is not treated except with ineffective exorcism attempts. And unfortunately there is a clear family history of untreated mental illness: a paranoid schizophrenic grandmother, a mother and aunt who may be bipolar. When Lindsay is afflicted by a rare medical condition (migraine-associated vestibulopathy), her woo-woo fears reappear. This is a disturbing story with harrowing details of abnormal psychology, interspersed with some splendid examples of comic relief. How does someone overcome such an upbringing? A challenging book, an uncomfortable read but worthwhile.

Heart Berries, A Memoir – Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries, A Memoir - Terese Marie MailhotAn ongoing quest to read more indigenous authors can be complicated because there can be a vast gap in the ability of a non-Indigenous reader to grasp meaning. This book by Ms. Mailhot produced an uncomfortable feeling because of her raw and uncompromising writing. The narrative unfolds as a stream-of-consciousness confession of many difficulties: foster care, parenthood and removal of children, substance abuse, complicated and often destructive relationships, mental illness, suicidal ideation … the list goes on. Although short in terms of pages (132), this book is thought-provoking and intense, and is best read in short segments (like poetry). Highly recommended but be warned that this is a tough read.

The Star Side of Bird Hill – Naomi Jackson

The Star Side of Bird Hill - Naomi JacksonThis is a remarkable first novel about 3 generations of women who are both powerful and vulnerable. Two sisters in Brooklyn, Dionne and Phaedra, are sent to Barbados to spend the summer with their grandmother, due to their mother’s deepening depression. There is a predictable cultural clash as the strong-willed grandchildren are confronted with a more traditional society. Life becomes more complicated with their mothers suicidal death. This is  passage near the end of the book when Phaedra thinks about her mother’s death: “This time there was no hope for her mother’s arrival, because Angie was where she would always be now, silent and below the ground. And this had, rather than saddening Phaedra, settled in beside her, the way that the hill’s red dust filmed her white clothes, the way that sand lined her pockets days and weeks after she came home from the beach. It was always there, a reminder of what had come before”.
Powerful story-telling about love and conflict, death and discovery, pain and hope – highly recommended.

Moonglow – Michael Chabon

Moonglow - Michael ChabonChabon has written many imaginative novels: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Telegraph Avenue, etc. Moonglow is a fictionalized memoir, ostensibly based on his grandfather’s life. The writing is superb: his grandfather’s experiences in WWII and a lifelong interest in rocketry; a poignant story of his grandmother’s mental illness. A powerful aspect of the story telling is the consequences of keeping secrets and telling lies. This is an excellent read; thanks Renee, for this recommendation.