The Galvins of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family had twelve (!) children and six of them were diagnosed as schizophrenic, eventually bringing them to become one of the families studied by the National Institute of Mental Health to look for DNA markers and, we hope treatment.
The story is rather frightening, as multiple children were abused by their unwell siblings while the parents tried hard to present a perfect external face–at a time when mental illness was considered shameful. Mental illness treatment has made very little progress; let’s hope it changes soon.
The Yellow House started out green, and more importantly as the first and only house her mother bought, in her twenties, and where she raised 12 children. The book tells the story of the family along with the story of failed development, racism, and the difficult recovery from Hurricane Katrina, of which there will be none for the Yellow House. I found the story of the family particularly well told, with nuance and love, by the youngest of the twelve children.
Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition is a thinking person’s view of what it means to finally inhabit a body that matches his self-concept. I particularly enjoyed the account of how his new body allows him to relate to other men in completely new ways, and even to indulge–a tad guiltily–in sexist comments. The complicated consequences of the transition on his relationship with his wife are melancholic and occasionally described unfeelingly: surely she has a right to find it difficult to adapt to this new development!
And he keeps it real: difficult parents will continue to be difficult parents, new body or not.
Want more escapism? Try A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, a hilarious memoir by a scientist who studied baboons in Kenya for decades. Like the book about Alaska I reviewed this week, this one contains the occasional rant against poachers, bad tour operators, inept tourists, and the endemic corruption of the place, but the rants are contained and always resolve into yet another fun fact about baboons, life with the Masai, and the self-deprecating adventures of the author, who has been attacked by fire ants, swindled, and kidnapped by a bizarre truck-driving crew as he explores his surroundings. But the best parts of the book are the descriptions of the baboons themselves, scheming, deceiving, politicking in a way that can make humans slightly envious.
In the Dream House is the sadly true story of an abusive relationship, told in a virtuoso performance of short chapters, each written in a particular literary style. This may not be the uplifting or escapist book you want to cuddle with right now, but do put it on your reading list for later. It’s a fantastic story of why and how otherwise sane, financially-independent, friends-surrounded people can stay in abusive relationships
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA is the autobiography of woman who joined the CIA as a young graduate and who trained and worked as a spy in Pakistan and East Asia. The descriptions of her training and operations are breathtaking, and the personal stories are fascinating as spy work requires cutting oneself off from family and friends in dramatic and uncomfortable ways. The tail end of the book veers into a more preachy mode that I did not care for, but the rest is excellent.
Is it possible to find a heart-warming book that also has some substance? Try Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever, which tells the story of a very unlikely TV host who started his show with no budget but quickly attracted a loyal and ever-growing audience. The author carefully details how Fred Rogers avoided fortune and political entanglement, even as he met great fame. It’s a loverly rememebrance.