Book Review: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hello again! It’s been a while; I’ve been goofing off on break and generally trying to enjoy myself before school starts again. This book was from my parents for Christmas and it was a lovely surprise. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw it at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA during the fall but held myself back from buying it at the time. I’m glad that I did because it was absolutely worth the wait! This book is the result of Kolker’s years of interviewing the Galvin family from Colorado. It’s a fantastic follow up after his last book, Lost Girls, which was a deep dive into the Long Island serial killer. This book was a great and terrible read. Kolker’s writing is delightful but the history of the Galvin family is a tragic one and it was tough just to read about it.

Hidden Valley Road tells the story of the Galvin family. The Galvins had twelve children, ten boys and two girls and six of those boys went to develop severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. The book follows all of the Galvin family, from telling the stories of Mimi and Don (the parents) to the heartbreaking stories of their children. Kolker also weaves in the story of the study of schizophrenia and mental illness which I found to be enormously helpful in understanding the cultural attitudes around the treatment of the six boys and the family and how that changed over their lifetimes. The Galvins’ stories were heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful and showed how one family could persevere in the face of so much. There is some description of sexual assault and domestic violence in the book that may be difficult to read for some. I did really like reading the book but some moments I had to put it down because it really heavy stuff. I came out of it with a lot of respect and admiration for those affected by mental illness. So I would recommend this one but maybe with some breaks! Happy Reading folks!

Book Review: Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’m glad that I have come back to my blog. I’ve been pretty vocal about sort of struggling during the holidays and this stage in the pandemic on my other social media platforms but not so much on here. I really like to reserve my blog to be a lovely and happy place where I just get to share things that went well or things that I really like. I forget sometimes that this blog is also supposed to be a chronicle of my life and that my life has its up and downs and sometimes the downs can be really tough to deal with. I had a crazy stressful period with finals and which continued in the lead up to the holidays. I have been feeling a lot better and on steadier ground since Christmas which is a good thing for me. But that’s just a brief little blurb into why posts haven’t been quite as frequent and how that’s okay sometimes! Anyway, on to the book review! This was one of the books on my Christmas list and I did read Brosh’s first book, Hyperbole and a Half. This is something of a sequel because it discusses Brosh’s life during and after the publication of her last book but it also explores a lot of her childhood memories.

The book explores a ton of subject matter and I actually think it’s the perfect book for a pandemic, especially the weird reality that we now inhabit. Brosh’s book is essentially a meditation on herself and her life through drawing. This book is definitely not as funny as Hyperbole and a Half but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Brosh went through a huge amount of major life events compressed into just a few years of her life and that’s a tough thing to talk or write about. I found that the last few chapters of the book were the most meaningful to me, where Brosh discusses her relationship with her self and what that now means to her. I think both of Brosh’s books are worth reading, Hyperbole for the hilarity and Solutions for the more mature and thought provoking content. There’s really not that much more to say, you’ll have to read the book if you want more! The book itself is pretty hefty, weighing much more than any other book of its size but its definitely worth the read. I read it in about a day and I loved it even if I wasn’t laughing but closer to crying while reading it. I hope that you seek this book out and let me know what you think. Happy reading!

Book Review: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

I cannot remember where I first saw this book but I’ve had it on my book wish list ever since it came out in 2019. I read all 412 pages in less than two days but I also had time to spare and work to procrastinate on. I was fascinated by the premise of the book that followed the murder of a young single mother during the Troubles, but this book ended up being so much more than that. The book not only follows the aftermath of the disappearance of Jean McConville, but also paints a rich history of the birth of the Provisional IRA and their role in the most violent years of the Troubles. I was aware of the Troubles as a problematic period in the history of the UK Commonwealth and Ireland but really didn’t understand the depth of the issues that were fought over and how high or low intensity that conflict was. Before reading this book, my only experience with the Troubles was from watching Derry Girls, a Netflix comedy about teenagers coming of age as a peace plan is finally agreed upon. Coming from a place where I knew next to nothing about the Troubles, this book was an excellent primer into this tumultuous period in Irish history.

The book centers on the disappearance of Jean McConville but also intertwines the stories of most of the important figures in the Provisional IRA or the Provos. At first I was mildly confused about why Keefe was sharing the history and stories of the Provo leadership and main actors in this book, but it all made sense once Keefe got into the meat of Jean McConville’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this book, even though the period of history that it discusses is dark and still a recent wound for many living in Northern Ireland. Most of Keefe’s work draws upon a prodigious and mismanaged project from Boston College to create an oral history of the IRA and the Troubles. This history was not meant to have been accessed until all the participants had died, but it became a centerpiece in the legal battle to bring Jean McConville’s murderers to justice and thus became an integral part of the story. I would absolutely recommend this book to almost anyone. It may be a bit dark for some readers, but I think that just has to do with the facts of what happened in Northern Ireland during this period. I hope you get the chance to read this book and enjoy it just as much as I did! Happy reading!

Book Review: The Orchid Thief

I’m writing this post after just finishing this book less than ten minutes ago. It was such a thought-provoking read that I feel like I both digested it as I read it but also have no idea what kind of literary journey I just took. The Orchid Thief was Susan Orlean’s debut novel after being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years. I actually read her second novel, The Library Book, over the summer. The Library Book was such a poetic tribute to the power that books and the literary arts hold over ordinary lives that I limited myself to a certain page count per day in order to stretch out the reading experience and savor the words. I enjoyed The Library Book so much that I couldn’t help but search out Orlean’s first book in an effort to repeat the experience. While I was disappointed that The Orchid Thief didn’t evoke such an emotional response for me, it was a great book. Orlean spends the novel both detailing her experience with the exotic plant world of Florida while recounting the history of exotic plant collection. She interweaves the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title, with a larger reflection on the existence of Florida as both a part of the United States that stands truly alone.

Some of the description in this book didn’t resonate with me very much but I’m also not an attentive plant lover. Orlean’s writing was powerful in this first novel and I think that she really perfected her prose in The Library Book. I’m also from California and was able to find resonance in her words about California and its history more than I was able to relate to the story of a state that I have never visited. Orlean does meditate on a lot of the elements of modernity in this novel and I would say that for that alone, The Orchid Thief deserves a read. Orleans passes no strong judgement upon the people that populate her book which I think is part of the fun. Orlean’s presence as a neutral narrator makes the reader think harder about their own biases in life. Definitely a book for an adults, The Orchid Thief is a unique reflection on life and plants and everything in between.