Book Snap #111

Title: Greenlights

Author: Matthew McConaughey

Date Read: July 24, 2021

Two (exuberant) snaps.

Alright, alright, alright.

This was a blissful surprise. It was peripherally on my radar ( a few casual “you should read this”… had come my way)… and then I started listening to Dax Shepard’s podcast, “Armchair Expert” (recommended by colleagues and students alike) and while enjoying a sunny walk with my dog, Teddy, we listened to the interview with Matthew McConaughey. And then I bought a copy of Greenlights.

I love memoirs. And I absolutely love memoirs that start by saying they are not really memoirs. McConaughey opens this way:

THIS IS NOT A TRADITIONAL memoir. Yes, I tell stories from the past, but I have no interest in nostaligia, sentimentality, or the retirement most memoirs require. This is not an advice book either. Although I like preachers, I'm not here to preach and tell you what to do. This is an approach book. I am here to share stories, insights, and philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. 

This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life. Adventures that have been significant, enlightening, and funny, sometimes because they were meant to be but mostly because they didn't try to be. I'm optomistic by nature, and humour has been one of my great teachers. It has helped me deal with pain, loss, and lack of trust. I'm not perfect; no, I step in shit all the time and recognize when I do. I've just learned how to scrape it off my boots and carry on. (McConaughy, p. 3)

Reaching his fiftieth birthday, McConaughey became introspective and sat down with the diaries and journals he had been keeping most of his life. Within them he finds inspirational quotes, intricate poems, sketches and doodles, deep thinking, perceptive questions and sum-it-all-up bumper stickers that show who he was, who he became and who he has always wanted to be.

It’s a love letter. To life.

It’s also a guide to catching more greenlights – and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too. It is simply delightful.

McConaugheyconsiders himself a storyteller by occupation, believes it’s okay to have a beer on the way to the temple, feels better with a day’s sweat on him, and is an aspiring orchestral conductor.

In 2009, Matthew and his wife, Camila, founded the just keep livin Foundation, which helps at-risk high school students make healthier mind, body, and spirit choices. In 2019, McConaughey became a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as Minister of Culture/M.O.C. for the University of Texas and the City of Austin. McConaughey is also brand ambassador for Lincoln Motor Company, an owner of the Major League Soccer club Austin FC, and co-creator of his favorite bourbon on the planet, Wild Turkey Longbranch.

Book Snap #97


Title: Broken (In the Best Possible Way)

Author: Jenny Lawson

Date Read: Sometime last spring, 2021

Two Snaps.

Jenny Lawson is a vulnerable, courageous, and hilarious memoirist. I love the way she openly discusses depression and anxiety, and the hilarious way she does it. There are tough stories there too, but they are honest and brave. Jenny is relatable but eccentric– her life is broken, in the best way possible.

Jenny has written two other memoirs: Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and they are amazing for all the same reasons. These memoirs are mirrors for those who struggle with mental health and wellness and windows in to the world of depression and anxiety for those who are reading to learn.

“I can tell you that ‘Just cheer up’ is almost universally looked at as the most unhelpful depression cure ever. It’s pretty much the equivalent of telling someone who just had their legs amputated to ‘just walk it off.’ ” (Lawson, Broken). 

Book Snap #93


Title: Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life

Author: Christie Tate

Date Read: December 27, 2020

One and a half snaps.

It is a trope in several films you have likely seen. Pan by the long table with donuts and black tar coffee poured from a large silver urn into small white styrofoam cups; move toward the middle of a large, nondescript room– an abandoned classroom or a large hall in the basement of a church… land on a circle of chairs in the middle. This is group therapy. It is also the central setting of Christie Tate’s memoir: Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life.

Tate’s invitation to her own personal experiences with years of group therapy, under the direction of Chicago’s Joseph Rosen, is unadulterated and unashamedly honest. Tate was a top-of-her-class lawyer and workaholic that just could not seem to get her personal life in order. Dr. Rosen promises healing from several hours of weekly group meetings. Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: “You don’t need a cure. You need a witness.” She has witnesses in the circle, but each reader adds to those who will attest to her unravelling and the miraculous arc of her healing journey.

We do bear witness to Chrsitie’s bulimia, her childhood sexual trauma, her relationship disasters, and sex that makes her feel bereft and dirty. The group has no rules around disclosure or fraternizing with others from group. Indeed, we find out that Tate had an affair with a married man from group– a relationship she subsequently points to as evidence that Dr. Rosen is not helping her as he promised. But Rosen’s aloofness, his quirky prescriptions, and the weight of the group puts Christie right again.

Christie Tate is a writer and essayist. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Pithead Chapel, McSweeney’s, Motherwell, Entropy Magazine, A Perfect Wedding, Together.com, Brain, Child and others. Now married and a mother of two (see Epilogue in Group), she wrote a viral essay about her daughter asking her to stop writing about her on the internet. Read it here.

Book Snap #89

Title: A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Author: Alicia Elliott

Date Read: August 25, 2020.

Two snaps.

Powerful.

Smart.

Gripping.

Alicia Elliott’s collected essays explore a large array of topics that include but are not limited to: poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, inter-generartional trauma, colonization, gender, parenthood, mental illness, and racism. Elliott writes with searing precision and a captivating prose. She makes clear perspectives and positions that are often overlooked and underexamined.

Her work posits essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on the intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma. What is the relationship between depression, colonialism and loss of language — both figurative and literal? How does white privilege operate in different contexts? How do we navigate the painful contours of mental illness in loved ones without turning them into their sickness? Elliott skillfully navigates these complex problems with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and honesty.

Not only is this an enjoyable read– it is necessary for your anti-racist education; your better understanding of mental illness and a clear vision of how poverty and colonialism link them all.

This book will make it’s way to my classroom bookshelf to be shared widely.

Two very loud snaps.

Book Snap #84

Title: Untamed

Author: Glennon Doyle

Date Read: June 22, 2020

Two snaps.

I think I would like to be friends with Glennon Doyle. She is thoughtful, intelligent, and fierce. She reminds me of many women I am lucky to call friends.

She also has a unique back story that make her all the more interesting to listen to. She suffered with bulimia, alcoholism and drug addicition. She became pregnant and vowed to overcome her addicitons and be the best mother she could. What followed was a prescribed Chrsitian path; she married, had more children and then became a Christian mommy blogger and successful writer.

But, after her husband cheated on her and threw her marriage in to closer inspection , she fell in love with Abby. She is now in a loving marriage with a woman and sharing the raising of her children with her ex and her new partner, whom the children refer to as a bonus mom. I love this picture of Abby’s sweatshirt proclaiming her status.

Untamed begins with an explanation of a metaphor that she weaves throughout several of the essays contained in her book; about Tabitha the Cheetah. She talks about visiting the Cheetah Run at a zoo. The zookeeper explained the training they gave Tabitha, and Glennon felt sick to her stomach as she thought of how Tabitha had been tamed– and that she must miss the wild.

She writes:

“I knew what she’d tell me. She’d say, “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannahs. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black sky filled with stars. It’s all so real I can taste it.

Then she’d look back at the cage, the only home she’s ever known. She’d look at the smiling zookeeepers, the bored spectators, and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab.

She’d sigh and say, “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.

I’d say:

Tabitha. You are not crazy. You are a goddamn cheetah.” (Doyle, xv-xvi).

It is in this spirit that Doyle uncovers what tames us– what keeps us from what we are longing for. Our work to be good mothers, partners, daughers, employees, friends– we strive so hard to be good, and deny that this work actually makes us feel weary, stuck and overwhelmed. Doyle offers her insights in a series of short essays where she unpacks the thinking that blocks women– the cultural conditioning and institutional allegiances– they are cages, and we don’t have to stay in them. Untamed is a feminist manifesto; a parenting handbook; an introspection; a love story; marriage counselling; and thoughtfully and beautifully written. It should be on every woman’s to be read pile.

Glennon Doyle is also the founder of Together Rising. Together Rising exists to transform collective heartbreak into effective action. It has raised over $20 million for people in need with a most frequent donation of $25. They have taken on projects such as pulling children out of the sea outside of refugee camps in Greece, providing a single mother access to breast cancer treatment, or reuniting families at the U.S. border. She speaks of the foundation’s work in her book, but you can also find and follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Book Snap #83

Title: From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless and Finding My Way

Author: Jesse Thistle

Date Read: May 19, 2020

Two snaps.

Some of the best stories are the ones lived and not made up. From the Ashes was heart-wrenching and traumatic– but also honest, poetic and hopeful.

Jesse Thistle’s memoir was a short list contender for this year’s (pandemic post-poned) Canada Reads competition. This year sought the one book all Canada should read. I think they found it.

I try to select titles from the annual Canada Reads short-list. I have reviewed a few in the last two years: Marrow Thieves (short-listed in 2018 as a book to open your eyes); Brother and The Woo Woo (both on the 2019 short list as a book to move you); and We Have Always Been Here (short listed this year alongside From the Ashes).

Why should you read this book? Because Thistle’s lived experience reveals the consequence of trauma. Children who experience disconnect in childhood, inevitably seek to numb in adulthood. Thistle and his brothers experienced severe physical and emotional neglect from their father, a drug addict, who was frequently incarcerated or on the run. As much as relatives did step in to look after the boys, much of the enduring damage was done.

His memoir is divided in to four sections: Lost and Alone; Falling Apart; The Stolen Streets; and Reconciliation. His dedication speaks to the damage done not only to himself and his family, but to so many Indigenous families. He writes: “The pages of this book speak to the damage colonialism can do to Indigenous families, and how, when one’s Indigeneity is stripped away, people can make poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak, choices that see them eventually cast upon the streets, in jail, or wandering with no place to be.”

The Homeless Hub, (part of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness) suggests that many of the personal issues (including familial dysfunction, substance use, addictions, health issues, community violence) faced by Indigenous Peoples and that act as contributors to homelessness can be directly linked to various types of historical trauma. Research has also shown that Indigenous Peoples experience lower levels of education, poorer health, higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels compared to non-Indigenous people. You can research this and more about the trauma and injustices faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada, but if you need one book that Canada needs to read, to really understand— it should be Thistle’s story.

There is power in story. We live our stories everyday– we show up and face our truth. Our stories make us who we are; the torment that breaks us and the mettle that builds us up. And, in sharing our stories we give voice and power to our ways of seeing the world and living in it.

As Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Let Thistle’s catharsis be your invation to see Canada in a whole new way. From the Ashes is my (unofficial) choice for the book Canadians should read.

Book Snap #76

Title: We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir

Author: Samra Habib

Date Read: March 8, 2020

One and a half snaps.

One of this year’s (indefinitely postponed) Canada Reads Selections.

I liked it, but I am not so sure it meets the criteria as the: “one book to bring Canada in to focus.”

Habib writes honestly and irreverently, and with a distinct and lovely prose, but I didn’t find her story particularly compelling, and I am not sure why I didn’t feel much. It was more factual than tender and more clinical than emotional. Her memoir helps us to understand the racism, bullying, and sexism she faced– as it happened to her both in Pakistan and Canada; illuminating the duplicitous trials of her sexuality, culture and faith. But understanding something is different from feeling it.

In anticipation of what lay beyond the glass doors, I thought back to the lush green landscapes I’d seen in episodes of Little House on the Prairie. That is what I imagined Canada– the entire Western world for that matter– would look like. Miles of green hills dominating the horizon. Rich with abundance. Nothing like Pakistan. In my ten-year-old mind, war and persecution didn’t exist this many oceans from home. Bodies weren’t disposable.

But that is not the Canada I encountered on that ripe July day in 1991. Instead of blooming with potential, Canada felt oddly sterile. Or maybe overly polite, as though it didn’t want to ruffle any feathers with a jolt of personality.

(Habib, p.45)

She did help me pass the time on a few flights… but I will need to read another of the finalists to find the book that brings Canada in to focus.

Book Snap #74

Title: Know My Name: A Memoir

Author: Chanel Miller

Date Read: February 26, 2020

Two snaps.

You probably don’t know who Chanel Miller is. For a long time, she was known as Emily Doe, or more memorably, the rape victim of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer.

The case was internationally publicized for many reasons: Turner was caught in the act of attempting to rape Miller while unconscious behind a dumpster; he was thwarted by two Swedish students who intervened and captured him when he attempted to run from the scene; there was public outrage at the lenient sentence given by a judge who was later recalled; and the internationally disseminated victim impact statement written by Miller resonated with victims of sexual assault the world over. Her statement can be found here.

Although Miller’s case preceded the #MeToo movement, her statement and Turner’s sentence became part of the intense debates around rape, sexism and sexual misconduct over the past years. In addition to the judge’s recall, a bill imposing mandatory minimum sentences in sexual assault cases was also signed. Ms. Miller’s statement was read aloud on CNN and on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Miller is a talented writer and I loved her memoir. She writes for so many women who have similar stories of feeling powerless; for being blamed for unwanted sexual advances; and pinpoints the fear that women carry with them throughout the everyday world. Miller also reveals her ethnic background, thus also shedding new understanding of what she experienced and how she was perceived — as a woman of color, assaulted by a white man, trying to obtain justice in a courtroom presided over by a white male judge. Read about it here.

Throughout the trial, Turner was consistently referred to as the Stanford swimmer and we were repeatedly informed of his impressive swim times. Miller, was paradoxically diminished to what she had drunk, what she wore, and what she could not remember.

There were times now when I felt like crawling into the hole. In bed some nights, I stared up at it hovering above me. Wouldn’t it be easier? I took inventory; I was twenty-three, assaulted, unemployed, my only accomplishment being a nameless body in the local paper. When I thought of my future, I saw nothing. I wanted to stop.

(Miller, p. 148-9)

It is time to know Chanel Miller, and all the nameless victims she writes for. A must read memoir.

You will find society asking you for the happy ending, saying come back when you’re better, when what you say can make us feel good, when you have something more uplifting, affirming. This ugliness was something I never asked for, it was dropped on me, and for a long time I worried it made me ugly too… But when I wrote the ugly and painful parts into a statement, an incredible thing happened. The world did not plug up its ears, it opened itself to me.

#MeToo

Book Snap #67

Title: Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Author: Trevor Noah

Date Read: October 27, 2019

Two snaps!

I think Trevor Noah is a brilliantly witty and savvy political analyst. I think he does outstanding work as the host of The Daily Show. When I saw his memoir, I knew I wanted to read it– but it was the title that truly caught my eye.

Noah grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He writes: “…which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family. My mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is black. My father, Robert, is white. Swiss/ German, to be precise, which Swiss/ Germans invariably are. During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime.” (Noah, 21).

Noah’s memoir is written the way you would expect– in a way that helps you make sense of complicated issues, like apartheid; race relations; poverty; domestic abuse– but also with his irreverent sense of humour and masterful wit.

Through his memoir Noah reveals an origin story that is thoughtful, educational, alarming, and wonderfully comedic. His relationship with his mother reveals a complicated and enduring connection between a woman that refused to let racism, apartheid, or rules of any kind guide her life, her love, or her decisions. I fell in love with Trevor’s mother, you will too. It says it all in his dedication: “For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man.”

Here is an excerpt from his opening chapter:

Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.

I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car. It happened on a Sunday…

excerpt from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (p.5).

I loved this memoir for the stories and their wit; but mostly for the illuminating education and analysis of apartheid and the entrenched racism of South Africa. Noah writes: “Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.”

Book Snap #56

Title: The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family

Author: Lindsay Wong

Date Read: July 16, 2019

Two snaps

Almost unbelievable. Like, when Oprah couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around James Frey’s memoir… but here it was, wildly incredible– but just grounded in enough legitimacy that you have to let go and trust Lindsay Wong as she recounts her wildly eccentric life with keen prose that is at once castigating of her parents and her upbringing and also graciously sympathetic to the mental illness that ran unchecked amongst them all.

In the prologue Wong sets us up for the ride. Finding herself in a neurologist’s office in Manhattan, she discovers that she has migraine-related vistibulopathy– an intense neurological disorder that plagues her with acute vertigo. This diagnosis is a relief to her, because it is not the Woo-Woo. The Woo-Woo are the ghosts that her Chinese family believed responsible for cancer, viruses, and psychological disturbances– and she and her family actively evade the Woo-Woo as best they can by camping out in Walmart parking lots, not sitting too long on the toilet, or living at the mall eating processed food and endless amounts of candy.

As a parent, my heart ached for Lindsay and her siblings and the disregard for their emotional and physical well-being as centuries-old beliefs kept her grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles from facing and treating the mental illnesses that made them unprepared and unable to cope with the needs of their generations of children. These disorienting relationships left Lindsay feeling crushingly alone, and often pushed her to react and retaliate with physical anger. A lot of her physical aggression was meted out as a goon in the hockey rink– and widely championed by her parents as they collected her medals and encouraged her high-sticking and brutal checking.

Wong offers an unflinching look at mental illness. Hers was a life filled with anxiety and uncertainty, where her needs were often neglected as she competed with the symptoms of her family’s crippling mental illnesses. Wong miraculously succeeds despite it all and shows a personal resiliency and fortitude beyond what could ever be expected.

It is a stunning memoir. Like a car crash in slow motion– you cannot look away. It is heart-breaking, candid, and somehow all at once funny, bitter and melancholy. It is a must-read. Wong’s bravery in telling this story makes her the real poster child for the Let’s Talk About Mental Illness campaign.

A 2019 Canada Reads contender.