Category: Biography

What Matters Most

Cover image for What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds by Chanel Reynolds

ISBN 978-0-06-268943-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“It turns out the hardest thing I’d ever had to do wasn’t removing medical support; it was figuring out how to tell Gabi his dad was dead.”

In July 2009, Chanel Reynolds’ husband José was struck by a turning vehicle while riding his bike in Seattle. For a week, he hovered on the cusp of life and death, long enough for Chanel to realize that they absolutely, definitely did not have their shit together. Their wills were written, but unsigned. She didn’t know how much insurance they had, or what it covered. She couldn’t even remember to bring a copy of his insurance card to the hospital. She didn’t know how to reach the paternal side of his family without the passcode to his phone. The list went on and on. They had a mortgage that absolutely required two salaries, and now they had no salaries at all, as managing his medical care, and then his funeral, became her full-time job, along with caring for their five-year-old son, Gabriel. What Matters Most follows Reynolds through the weeks and months after the accident, as she navigates the convoluted bureaucracy of death in America today.

The larger part of What Matters Most consists of Reynolds’ memoir about her husband’s accident, the decision to remove medical support, and the fall-out from his death. She is brutally honest about the mistakes they unwittingly made in the nine years of their marriage leading up to it, as well as her struggles in the days, weeks, and even years that followed. Grief is a strange country, but Reynolds takes us there vividly, through all the wild ups and downs, and unexpected turns of such a loss. This account also follows her into single motherhood, and through picking up the pieces of her life, and having to imagine an entirely new future for herself and their son. Her style is forthright, and occasionally irreverent, but still very affecting; she had me in tears more than once. The memoir portion stands well on its own and is worth reading quite apart from the advice Reynolds also provides.

Interspersed with the memoir sections are chapters drawn from the work Reynolds has done on her website, Get Your Shit Together. Several years after her husband’s passing, she felt compelled to share what she had learned, and try to help others avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances in the wake of a tragedy. Reynolds is not a lawyer or a financial planner, so her lists and advice are broad and general, hitting highlights such as insurance, wills, powers of attorney, and so forth. Her suggested tasks are as small as updating the medical and emergency information in your cell phone, and as big as writing, signing, and notarizing your last will and testament. While intended for an American audience, it would likely provide food for thought, and a kick in the pants to anyone who doesn’t have their affairs in order, regardless of nationality. In modern society, death has become an extremely bureaucratic and paperwork intensive event, placing significant mental demands on people who are already struggling with the emotional consequences of loss. What Matters Most encourages readers to help spare their loved ones this additional burden so that they can focus on grieving and healing.

You might also like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrongby Heather B. Armstrong

ISBN 978-1-5011-9704-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.”

With the tag line “Our lady of perpetual depression” Heather B. Armstrong has documented her mental health struggles over the years on her dooce blog, mixed in with stories about her life and family, leaving Mormonism while living in Utah, and becoming one of the internet’s first professional bloggers (and getting fired from her day job as a result). In more recent years, she has shared her divorce, and raising her two daughters alone, and even semi-retired from blogging due to the changing nature of sponsorship, and the increasing demands of influencer marketing. The Valedictorian of Being Dead recounts her most recent bout of severe depression, and the experimental treatment she underwent to try to reset her brain. Ten times over three weeks, doctors used propofol anesthesia—yes, the Michael Jackson drug—to induce a coma-like state, reducing brain activity to the bare minimum before bringing her back up in an effort to gain the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy without the negative side effects. For Armstrong, the treatment was life changing.

Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” However, I fell off with reading somewhere along the way, probably because the increased focus on parenting wasn’t particularly interesting to a college student. So when I saw her memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. And indeed, I was pulled right back into what I enjoyed about her writing style, which is energetic, descriptive, and often darkly funny. “When she told me about my dazzling performance, I reminded her that when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing. No one does dead better,” she writes after her mother describes witnessing her first descent into the abyss. She is equally adept at evoking the depths of depression, and the alien feeling of her own body while in that state.

Armstrong is accompanied on her journey by her mother, who takes her to every treatment, and has to watch her child sink down into near-death ten times. While Armstrong remembers nothing, her mother has to watch the doctors grab her daughter’s almost lifeless body, and intubate her as quickly as possible so that she is not deprived of oxygen. Their supportive relationship was particularly poignant to me with the knowledge that Armstrong’s departure from the Mormon faith had strained her family relationships. There are a lot of affecting scenes in the book, but the one that really choked me up was when she describes how her mother once very matter-of-factly told her that their relationship would never be the same again without Jesus. This coldness is quite the opposite of the relationship that is illustrated in this book.

While Armstrong writes forthrightly about her mother and stepfather, and how they shared in this experience with her, she is more circumspect in the way she writes around her ex-husband, and about her father. Her ex is chiefly present in her fear of losing her children. In fact, the reason she let her depression go on so long, and get so bad without treatment, was because she was afraid he would find out how sick she was, and take her daughters away. Her relationship with her father is also fraught, and she had not intended to share the experimental treatment with him until her mother requested that she do so. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of these two relationships that is not deeply delved into, and yet the story is significantly shaped by their absence.

While the body of the text is written by Armstrong, and focuses on her personal experience, the afterword is by the doctor who led the study. While he is hopeful and excited by the preliminary work his team has done, he brings the necessary emphasis that this still an experimental treatment in need of further investigation. It balances Armstrong’s personal experience of success with the need for additional study in order to better understand how and why such a treatment might be successful, or what its limitations might be. Altogether, it is a fascinating account of one woman’s mental health struggles, and how they might intersect with treatment and acceptance more broadly.

You might also like:

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Canada Reads Along: By Chance Alone

Cover image for By Chance Alone by Max Eisen by Max Eisen

ISBN 9781443448550

 “After many visits back to Auschwitz, I can also see that the physical remnants of the Holocaust continue to deteriorate, and that the first-hand witnesses, like me, are moving on in years.”

In the spring of 1944, Max Eisen and his family were rounded up from their home in a Hungarian-controlled region of the former Czechoslovakia, and deported to Auschwitz. This was the final step after five slow years of increasing hate towards Jews, and restriction of their rights and freedoms. Max’s entire family would perish in the camps, lost to the gas chambers, and to medical experimentation. But a lucky chance, resulting in a position as an assistant at the prisoner’s infirmary, would allow Max to survive, and bear witness, fulfilling his final promise to his father by becoming a dedicated Holocaust educator, and now memoirist. By Chance Alone recounts his childhood, time at Auschwitz, and his path to Canada.

Max was fifteen when he entered the camps as slave labourer for the Nazis. As he would discover later, his mother and younger siblings, including his infant sister, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Revisiting these events more than seventy years later, he brings an unusual perspective, simultaneously capturing his youthful naïveté about what was going on around him, and the later knowledge he would gain about the depth and scope of the atrocities. For the most part, he remains in the moment, recalling the events as they occurred, though occasionally he provides information he would not have access to until later. For example, when his father and uncle were selected, he had no idea what their fate would be, only that he would never see them again. Decades later would he learn that they had been chosen to be subjects in the Nazi’s twisted medical experiments.

While Mengele’s experiments are relatively well known, Max’s account takes the reader inside a different part of the medical establishment at Auschwitz, where imprisoned doctors cared for fellow prisoners with limited equipment and resources. Max worked under Polish dissident Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who he believes to have been a member of the resistance, working to that end even while he was imprisoned. The additional comfort and resources Max was able to access as a medical assistant built up his strength, and were likely crucial to his survival of the death marches the Nazis took their Jewish prisoners on during the final days of the war. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of his ordeal as a refugee; a return to his home town did not yield a warm welcome. He recounts all of this in a straightforward prose style, bearing witness to what was done to his people, as he promised his father he would.

By Chance Alone was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by science broadcaster Ziya Tong, who mounted a thorough and impassioned defence that emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in inoculating Canadians against hatred of all types. Tong cited a study that found one in five young Canadians are not sure what the Holocaust was. She felt that it was urgently important to for Canadians to read a book that would take the Holocaust from distant, colourless historical event to a living, breathing person who experiences those events. Armed with a variety of statistics, as well as enthusiasm for her subject, she urged Canadians to read By Chance Alone and remain vigilant against the rise of hate crimes in our country, and around the world.

By Chance Alone faced a few crucial moments throughout the week, including comparison of its writing to style to more lyrical works such as Brother. Tong made a persuasive case for Eisen’s narrative style, however, arguing that he was writing the voice of a child, but with the wisdom of a ninety-year-old. Other panelists praised Eisen’s attention to detail, and the hypnotic nature of his simple prose style. Tong also made a strong demonstration for the book’s contemporary relevance, bringing to the table a recent photo of Max outside a synagogue, which had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti only last year.

On Day Two, panelist Lisa Ray raised the question of what By Chance Alone adds to the body of Holocaust literature that is not already there, contrasting Eisen’s style to that of Elie Wiesel. In her initial rebuttal, Tong pointed to the infirmary as an entirely unique contribution that provided information about the camp that even other internees did not necessarily have. The subject was raised again on Day Three, where panelist and free agent Joe Zee argued that each perspective on the Holocaust was unique and new, and that it is history told in a way that cannot be learned from a textbook. It came down to a close call that day, with Ray and Yanic Truesdale voting against By Chance Alone, while Tong, Zee, and Chuck Comeau voted against Brother. However, the book carried on to the finale.

With one vote each from the remaining defenders on the last day, it was up to the free agents to determine the final result. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone for the second day in a row. However, both Joe Zee and Yanic Truesdale voted against Homes. After much discussion on the final day of debates about the voice of the youth, and the wisdom of the elderly, both panelists were compelled by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading, and soon there will be no more living witnesses to tell their stories. Soon the books will be all we have left to ensure that we never forget. And so By Chance Alone became the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

That’s it for Canada Reads 2019! Thanks for reading along. Past winners:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Ru by Kim Thuy

Canada Reads Along: Homes

Cover image for Homes by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

ISBN 978-1-988298-29-0

 “As much as father wanted us to believe we could keep living our lives, it wasn’t true. He was wrong. We couldn’t pretend this war wasn’t happening.”

In 2010, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah fled increasing Sunni/Shi’a tensions in his native Iraq, along with his parents, siblings, and members of his extended family. They sought refuge in Homs, Syria, where some relatives already lived. Unfortunately, they had fled right into the teeth of the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprisings inspired by the movement. The streets of Syria became war zones, as the state military fought with anti-government militias for control. Mosques were shot up, businesses were bombed, and schools exploded. Homes is the story of the al Rabeeah family’s journey from Iraq to Syria and Syria to Canada, as told to Bakr’s English teacher, Winnie Yeung.

Despite being a true story, Homes is written in the style of a novel, a work of creative non-fiction recounting the memories of Bakr and his family, based on interviews given to Winnie Yeung. It is both simply written, and yet striking. Little details, such as the word “first,” become particularly poignant, as Bakr describes his “first car bomb” or his “first massacre,” things you hope to live a lifetime without seeing, let alone more than once while still in elementary school. Bakr’s childhood is full of such events, so common they become almost mundane, even as the trauma continues to mount.

Juxtaposed against the horrors of the civil war are the ordinary rhythms of the family’s daily life in Syria. Bakr and his sibling must still go to school when it is open. He plays soccer with his friends and cousins. Not really knowing any better, he and one of his cousins amuse themselves by collecting spent bullet casings, without considering the lives those bullets may have taken. The families celebrate Ramadan, and continue to attend mosque, despite the risk of another shooting. His father and older brother run a bakery, selling his mother’s recipe for soft, chewy Iraqi bread, a contrast to the dryer pita-style bread more commonly found in Homs. Life goes on with the illusion of normalcy, until it is shattered again by the next attack.

As the story moves to Canada, Homes also conveys the profound loneliness of leaving everyone you know, and everything you love, behind for a new country where you do not even speak the language. From business owner of a bakery, Bakr’s father is reduced to taking English classes, unable to care for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed. A better life has been promised, but when will it materialize? It is a blessing to be safe, but into the void of fearing for one’s life, new anxieties gather to take its place. Homes ends here, but in many ways, the al Rabeeah family’s journey has only just begun its next chapter.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by musician Chuck Comeau, whose quiet debate style emphasized love, family, and hope. He particularly highlighted the father-son relationship, as well as the partnership between Bakr and his teacher that brought the book into being, first as an after school project, and then as a published work. He also emphasized that fact that it is essential for Western culture to have more positive portrayals of Muslim people, rather than only seeing them as stock character terrorists in film and television.

Homes received one strike on Day Two from Lisa Ray, and one vote against it from Ziya Tong on Day One, who said it was too much like her own book, but otherwise it moved through the week unscathed. Indeed, Homes slid quietly into the finale to go head to head with By Chance Alone, which Tong was defending. Discussion on the final day of Canada Reads 2019 ranged over several questions, including what each of the remaining books helped panelists to understand, why the free agents should vote against their opponents’ books, and whether or not the books could move Canadians to action. Many of the panelists brought up the relative ages of the two authors. While both were writing about their youth, one is still a teen, and the other is a nonagenarian, representing both ends of the life spectrum. It was pointed out that the voices of both the youth and the elderly can be discounted by society at large.

When it came time to vote, Ziya Tong of course voted against Homes, and Chuck Comeau against By Chance Alone. The three free agents cast their ballots, with Joe Zee voting against Homes, saying that he was persuaded by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that Homes was the book she wanted all of Canada to read. This put the final vote in the hands of Yanic Truesdale, who had previously voted twice against By Chance Alone. In a surprise change of heart, Truesdale cast his final ballot against Homes, also citing the argument that the voices of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. Thus, By Chance Alone by Max Eisen was crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up on Days One, Two, and Three of the debates, and check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

Canada Reads Along: The Woo-Woo

Cover image for The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong by Lindsay Wong

ISBN 978-1-55152-736-9

“In our family, people did idiotic and medium-evil things to one another because they were possessed and not in control, so it was best not to think too much about the horrors of whatever had been said and done, because there was often no answer. We excused our behaviour by blaming the ghosts.”

Lindsay Wong grew up in a beautiful house in a wealthy suburb of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood whose moneyed façade belied the many grow ops and meth labs that dotted the mountainous foothills northeast of the city. It also did much to hide the fact that Wong’s apparently successful immigrant family, which contained engineers, and entrepreneurs, had a deep history of mental illness and abusive behaviour which they coped with in unusual ways. Displaying weakness or emotion, or being alone for too long, was a sure way to be possessed by an angry ghost or demon, and go “woo-woo,” the family euphemism for mental illness caused by possession. The Woo-Woo describes Wong’s unconventional and deeply disturbing childhood coping with her mother’s mental breakdowns, her father’s emotional distance and abusive verbal tirades, and her extended family’s general denial of healthy emotional expression or the existence of mental illness.

Wong has a rather lurid talent for description, which she applies liberally to herself and her relatives. Trying to explain the supernatural beliefs that were used to dismiss the family history of mental illness, she writes, “Our family insisted that supernatural outcasts chartered our bodies because we were born with watery minds and squishy hearts, which meant that anything dead could rent us for free.” Rarely content with a simple account, many of her descriptions are viscerally grotesque in this way. Because a history of mental illness is prevalent on the maternal side of the family, she writes that her mother’s “DNA was made from small and faulty atomic bombs,” and many other evocative ways of describing just how wrong things were in her childhood home.

But while I was willing to grant Wong license to describe herself and her family however she liked as she worked through her traumatic childhood, I recoiled in horror at the way she applied this talent others, such as a disabled high school classmate with whom she is forced to form a sort of parasitic friendship. She describes the classmate as follows: “If Wobin’s boxy torso was a tree trunk, her arms were branches. And her poor fingers were practically lobster claws, clenched together in fleshy baseball mitts—she was a cruel caricature of Frosty the Snowwoman.” This entire section churned my stomach, and I was practically incandescent with rage when I learned that after assigning Wong to accompany this classmate as an exercise in empathy building, her school also gave her the duty of changing the girl’s sanitary pads. The whole premise of using a person with a disability as an object lesson was bad enough, but then to have her privacy so intimately violated by a classmate who had shown little capacity for empathy? I honestly wanted to quit right there and throw this book out the window. Dark humour is a coping mechanism that in some cases allows Wong to side step a deeper examination of her history, and her own behaviour.

I read most of this book over the course of two days, covering Wong’s childhood and into her university years. It is a childhood of abuse, emotional repression, and social isolation. Wong is heavily invested in seeing herself as one of the mentally stable ones in her family, but what she describes of her own behaviour is redolent of social anxiety, disordered eating, and post-traumatic stress. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that around the part of the book where she finally recounts her aunt’s famous suicide attempt, which occurred when she was twenty, I realized that the crush of family conflict and abuse was actually making me feel anxious and upset, and I had to put the book aside for a few days before finishing it more slowly. The theme of this year’s Canada Reads is “one book to move you,” and Wong was certainly successful in eliciting a powerful reaction. The lurid descriptions and dark humour belie the fact that she seems to be trying to maintain a certain emotional distance from the material just to get through it. Undoubtedly, this is a necessary survival technique when you come from a family that habitually refers to you as “the Retarded One.”

The Woo-Woo was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by fashion stylist Joe Zee, whose opening arguments focused on the necessity of talking openly about the things that make us uncomfortable, and combating mental health stigma. He championed author Lindsay Wong as an intersectional voice—a young Asian woman from a difficult background. Several of his fellow panelists admitted to finding The Woo-Woo a hard read, for many of the reasons I described above. Zee made eloquent rebuttals, arguing that Wong’s narrative choices allowed the reader to feel some small measure of the horror she was living every day.

Each book received one question on the fast first day of the debates, and the discussion of The Woo-Woo was based on a question about the book’s effectiveness in opening the reader’s eyes to cultures and experiences unlike their own. Yanic Truesdale—defender of Suzanne—spoke to the difficulty he had connecting with the people portrayed in the book, and finding his way into the narrative. Ziya Tong—defender of By Chance Alone—voiced concerns as a half-Asian woman herself that the book would reinforce some negative stereotypes that already exist about Chinese-Canadians. Joe Zee countered that while stereotypes are simplistic, the people portrayed in The Woo-Woo are nuanced and complex. Chuck Comeau—defender of Homes—described the book as being a tough read, but also an eye opener that effectively engendered sympathy. Lisa Ray—defender of Brother—did not have a chance to speak to this question, but in the Q&A after the debates, she expressed that she didn’t see an arc of growth or development, but rather a series of anecdotes.

When it came time to vote, Joe Zee cast his ballot against Suzanne, while Ziya Tong voted against Homes. Lisa Ray, Yanic Truesdale, and Chuck Comeau voted together, making The Woo-Woo the first book eliminated from Canada Reads 2019. The first day of debates always goes by extremely quickly, with each book only being briefly touched on, and one of Zee’s best moments as a defender actually came in the Q&A after the show, when he spoke powerfully about the language we use to discuss mental illness. While “that’s so gay” has been widely recognized as a harmful turn of phrase that stigmatizes a minority group, “that’s so crazy” is still a common colloquial fixture of our language. Indeed the word had been used quite casually by the other panelists during the debate. Despite the early elimination, Zee was an eloquent defender, and could prove to be a persuasive force as this year’s first free agent in the ongoing debates.

Midnight

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria Shorrby Victoria Shorr

ISBN 978-0-393-65278-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“The passion that he’d pledged at St. Pancras, the pledge that she’d taken at sixteen as everlasting—there were still moments when she felt it. But trust in it, the way she did then? Maybe not. She might not then, by nineteen, have staked her whole life on that love, as she did that first summer. Because what if it wasn’t an entirely new kind of love the two of them had discovered? What if it was just another one of those great romances that flames high and then turns to ash?”

In every life there is a midnight, a dark moment, and a critical turning point. Victoria Shorr takes three women from history, and captures them on that threshold. Jane Austen accepts the proposal of a wealthy suitor, and then the next morning, reneges and says she cannot marry him. Still recovering from her most recent miscarriage, Mary Shelley waits on the shores of the Gulf of Spezia for word of her husband, who has been missing at sea for five days. Joan of Arc’s portrait is taken on the eve of her execution for heresy. Fearing the fire, she recants, only to recant the recantation upon further reflection. These are their darkest hours, their crucial decisions.

Shorr divides her work into three separate sections, beginning with Jane Austen, then Mary Shelley, and finally Joan of Arc. The chapters also grow progressively longer; only fifty pages for Jane Austen, then twice that for Mary Shelley, and a full one hundred and twenty pages for Joan of Arc. Austen’s section is short, and sticks closely by the facts, though Midnight is by its nature speculative, imagining what these women must have been thinking and feeling in such circumstances. But this style does not become fully realized until Shelley’s section, and takes its fullest form with Joan of Arc. When she recants, Joan of Arc is no more, and becomes simply Girl X, who knows nothing of saints and kings, and simply wants to live. Joan is the hero, the chosen, the Maid of Orléans. Girl X just wants to avoid being burned alive.

As a whole, these three sections cohere somewhat. While Austen’s section feels underdeveloped, it makes an interesting counterpoint to Shelley, since both women’s choices about marriage had profound impacts on them as writers. Could Austen have written and revised her novels married to a man who sired ten children on the woman he did eventually marry? Shelley is evidence of just what a toll childbearing could take on mind and body. Most of her writing career came after her husband’s death. Both Shelley and Joanne of Arc feel fully fleshed out in their adjacent chapters, but Joanne is not English, not a writer—not even literate—and while Shelley is awaiting news of the death of her husband, Joan is a maiden awaiting the knock that will bring her own death. In many respects, Joanne seems almost to belong to another book entirely.

There will no doubt be some debate over categorization of this book, which straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is based in fact, and significantly researched, as the bibliography indicates, but it is also interpretive, verging on novelization, and this only becomes more the case as Midnight progresses. If the book’s feet are on the ground, its head is in the clouds, delighting in speculation. Despite being somewhat uneven, it makes for an interesting journey, chewing over that which we cannot know for sure, but can vividly imagine as we put ourselves into the shoes of these famous women.

Astounding

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-Leeby Alec Nevala-Lee

ISBN 978-0-06-257194-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

As the atomic age dawned, Campbell was acclaimed as a prophet, a role for which he had carefully positioned himself—he had planted “Deadline” in the magazine so that he could point to it later, orchestrating the most famous anecdote of his career to illustrate the genre’s ability to foresee the future. The fact that he hadn’t predicted anything at all was a distinction lost on most readers, who exulted in their newfound relevance.”

In 1937, a young science fiction writer with a background studying physics and chemistry at MIT, got his big break. He became the editor of Astounding, a pulp magazine that was one of the top publishers of the genre. He was only twenty-seven at the time, and though he had begun as a writer, he is better remembered for his work as an editor, shaping and choosing the direction of the genre, and the authors who would come to define it. He would go on to publish writers such as L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, ushering in what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the years before the Second World War, and serving as the genre’s gatekeeper. He would become the namesake of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is awarded by the company that owns Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine formerly known as Astounding, of which Campbell was the editor for more than thirty years. The publisher has billed Astounding as the first full biography of John W. Campbell Jr., though Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard are also major subjects of the work. Author Alec Nevala-Lee is well-read in early science fiction, and can offer commentary on the evolution of each author’s style, and how it fits into the genre more broadly. He is also a science fiction writer himself, and has had stories publisher in the current incarnation of the magazine about which he is writing.

Astounding is a work of biography that grapples directly with the more problematic history and behaviour of its subjects, and how those attitudes shaped the direction of the genre. Campbell was widely acknowledged as a difficult person to work for, even as he was accorded great respect by the writers he shepherded into the field. While he began rooted fairly firmly in the science he had studied at MIT, in the years after WWII, he veered further and further into pseudoscience, beginning with his early involvement in Dianetics. Racism also often lurked beneath the surface of the stories he commissioned and published, and both heroes and writers were almost invariably white, and largely male. His views on race only became more venomous and marked with age, and Nevala-Lee argues that “the question of how Campbell’s views affected the fiction that he published is central to any consideration of his legacy.” Nor does Nevala-Lee shy away from Hubbard’s abuse of his wives, or the fact the Asimov was known for groping and otherwise sexually harassing female fans, as well as women who worked for his publisher.

Nevala-Lee also notes the absence of women from the genre, and devotes significant attention to Leslyn Heinlein, and Doña Campbell, and the important role the two women played in their husbands’ early work, as well as the deep friendship that developed between the two couples. Doña was known to edit and retype Campbell’s early stories, liberally fixing his atrocious grammar and spelling. Both women talked through plots and stories with their partners, playing a significant role in the development of the ideas that finally made it onto the page, and into the annals of science fiction history. Heinlein even suggested that their wives could run the magazine if the two men were pulled into the war. Ultimately, however, both couples would divorce, and the two women slip from the pages of Astounding, though Nevala-Lee returns to them in the conclusion. Each man remarries, and Ginny Heinlein and Peg Campbell take up their places. Kay Tarrant, the woman who Campbell referred to as his secretary, but who in fact handled “the entire practical and administrative side of the magazine” is frequently mentioned, and seems intriguing, but unfortunately we do not get to learn much about her.

Hubbard and Dianetics play an important role in Astounding, but if you are most interested in Scientology, that is not the core focus of the book. However, Campbell was deeply enmeshed in the early days of Dianetics, before the founding of the Church of Scientology. He regarded it as scientific research, and his deep obsession with auditing tore down the remains of his first marriage, and directly led to his second. He was interested in regaining lost memories of his childhood, and recovering from the trauma he believed these forgotten events had left him with. Doña’s resistance to having their daughters audited led him to believe she was hiding some terrible abuse she had perpetrated against them. His second wife began as his auditing partner, and they continued to practice well after the schism with Hubbard. Officially speaking, Campbell’s role in the early days of Dianetics has been erased. Nevala-Lee quotes Asimov as having said, “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”

Astounding is an insightful look at the early days of science fiction provided through the examination of Campbell’s inner circle of friends and writers. Nevala-Lee’s consideration of the impact their characters and prejudices had on the formation of the genre is a particularly important contribution to the history of science fiction.

You might also be interested in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chungby Nicole Chung

ISBN 9781936787975

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. But it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her own first child that Chung truly faced up to her desire to discover more about where she had come from, and reconnect with her biological family.

Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. Despite the best of intentions, her religious adoptive parents’ emphasis on the idea that their family was fated, chosen, and meant to be made it difficult for Chung to ask the questions that she desperately needed answers to. A simplistic understanding of race and racism suffused the family dynamic, making it difficult if not impossible for Chung to find the words to explain to her adoptive family the racially motivated ostracism she began experiencing in elementary school. The simple story a divinely-ordained chosen family designed to make her feel special and loved proved drastically oversimplified when put to the test beyond the boundaries of their home.

But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. Instead of an intact family waiting to welcome her back into the fold, Chung found that her biological parents had divorced, and that her sisters had been divided by the separation. Finding her roots meant not just locating and contacting her biological family, but also figuring out what place she wanted to have within these complex dynamics that had played out over the decades of her absence. They had lives and histories to which she was a stranger, and their relationships had undercurrents she would have to learn when and how to navigate.

But happily, Chung does forge a deep bond with one of her new-found sisters, who had believed that the baby their mother had carried during that long-ago pregnancy had died in the hospital. The tentative flowering of the sibling relationship is one of the more joyful aspects of Chung’s memoir, and is explored alongside the two women’s own journeys into motherhood. Here Chung discovers that her adoption is a choice that comes with multi-generational consequences; her children will have three sets of grandparents, only some of which they will ever know, as well as their own struggles with the concept of their Korean identity, and their disconnection from the culture and language of their ancestors. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

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