2016 Favorite Books & Posts

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Under the tree this year

 

Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS, 2016

#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS OF ALL TIME

Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

Lab Girl

lab-girl “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory.”

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Lab Girl is an extraordinary memoir, and Hope Jahren is an important new voice who breaks new ground in literary autobiography. We just don’t hear from enough scientists and researchers, and certainly we don’t hear from enough women in science who have struggled and prevailed at making careers in difficult, often male-dominated fields.

Lab Girl is for the lay person who loves plants, trees, and nature, and for the lay person who thinks plants, trees, and nature are boring and who wants to be dazzled, moved, changed, and reconnected with the holiness and mystery of life.

hopeLab Girl is for women in science and research, and women thinking of careers in science and research. But men in science and research will love the book, too.

Lab Girl is for anyone making a career and building a family in the face of a serious mental illness, and for those who want to better understand people with mental illness.

Lab Girl is for those who care about the environment and climate change, and who want to connect with someone of like mind whose passion and energy are contagious. Because, as Hope says, we won’t have any trees left in six hundred years if we keep on our current path.

Lab Girl is for anyone who has important work to do and wants to be inspired and emboldened by someone not afraid to be different and go her own way.

I have Katie at Doing Dewey to thank for letting me know about this book. I’ve included several passages from the memoir because I couldn’t decide between them. They make me want to read Lab Girl all over again. I’m sure I will, since I’m working on a memoir of my own. For those of you who are memoir writers, this one is both inspiring and a great memoir model.

Women, and men, doing important work in science simply don’t get enough attention in our culture, which is especially saturated by superficial drivel at the moment. Lab Girl is the antidote. When I was a clinical librarian at UR Medicine, I was always impressed and mystified by the grad students and faculty, the women especially, who had lives so different from mine, who spent hours and hours in labs and out in the field researching esoteric topics that had the potential to change lives.

We should know more about them, the important work they are doing, and how they navigate the challenge of carving out rich, fulfilling personal lives as well. There is a deep vein of fascinating life stories in science that appeal to experts and lay people alike, and I hope Lab Girl will inspire many more memoirs of this kind.

The excerpt below is a good example of the organizing metaphor in Lab Girl: the rich and evocative parallels between plant life and human life. Hope alternates between chapters about plant life and her own life, which makes for a satisfying structure:

“Every species on Earth – past or present – from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people – must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself….It seemed outrageous to hope that fertility, resources, time, desire, and love could all come together in the right way, and yet most women did eventually walk that path.”

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

“On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

The boldface in the next quote is mine; I think it is an important point:

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.” 

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

Have you read Lab Girl? Do you have memoir favorites to recommend?

Read Harder 2016

Have you heard about Bookriot’s Read Harder Challenge?

I thought it would be interesting to see which books I’ve read in these categories, since Ann Patchett just wrote about her own progress in making her way through the list.

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, too, so let us know in the comments. Book suggestions are appreciated and welcome, especially for those categories I’ve left blank.

commonwealthBy the way, Ann just released her new novel, Commonwealth. Many of you know she’s one of my favorite novelists, so I’ll be sure to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

True story, when Ann was a girl, one morning she woke up to find kids she didn’t know in the kitchen. Turned out, her mother had gotten remarried, and these were her new half siblings.

Ann has translated some of that strange family experience into a novel that isn’t, literally, a true story, but that I imagine has plenty of emotional truth, as writers of fiction often say about their work.

If you’re looking for other suggestions, check out the New York Public Library’s Read Harder recommendations. See also the reader-generated lists on Goodreads.

If I’ve left the category blank, it means I haven’t read that category and don’t have any particular suggestions. If you do, please let us know.

BOOKRIOT’S READ HARDER CHALLENGE 2016

Read a horror book

Read a nonfiction book about science: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. (I’m reading it now). It has gotten excellent reviews, a memoir about a female scientist. It’s an eye opener, in part about what women in science are (still) up against, but there’s a lot more to this memoir about a woman passionate about plants.

I just borrowed Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson from the library. Nearing the end of his life, Wilson felt compelled to sound the alarm once more. He proposes that we devote half the surface of the earth to nature.

Queen of the Fall book coverRead a collection of essays: Queen of the Fall, by Sonja Livingston; and Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran.

Read a book out loud to someone else: The Harry Potter series; The Giver; and Hatchet. Not this year, but when our sons were growing up, these were unforgettable read alouds. Harry Potter is especially captivating read deep in the woods at night when you’re camping.

Read a middle grade novel: see above, none this year for me.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography): Charlotte Bronté: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harmon is on my to-read list. See the feminist category below.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroRead a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg. I read everything by Ishiguro. The latter novel by Van Den Berg was well reviewed and is excellent, though it didn’t really speak to me.

Read a book originally published in the decade you were born: I’ve been wanting to re-read Australian Neville Shute’s chilling dystopian novel, On the Beach. His  A Town Like Alice blew me away in 1981 as a 5-hour Masterpiece Theatre production, and I would love to watch it again. (It’s only available on VHS.) I don’t believe I ever read the book.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award: 

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. OK, I haven’t read this book or even listened to it, but I gave it as a gift to a friend who loves Teddy Roosevelt. It won an Audie in 2015 for the best History/Biography category. This would qualify for the over 500 pages category, too, which is reason enough to listen to the audio version. I should read this or listen to it, considering that I believe journalism today is in a sorry state.

There is an Audie Classic Category, which I didn’t know about but just may entice me to finally start listening to audio books. Here’s a suggestion that sounds intriguing, also an Audie award winner: The New York Stories by John O’Hara.

I will try audio books soon, but I resist them. I don’t want to constantly fill my head with media, I need plenty of silence to think and to let my own writing germinate.

I’ve read and hear often that print books will disappear. Some people announce this with a great deal of glee, and I don’t understand why. Can we have both? Why does it seem to make some people happy that print books may disappear?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverRead a book over 500 pages long: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I’m counting this as a long read, even though there are four in the series. Had a great discussion about these books in a book club attended by many Italian-American women. One day I’ll read her other novels, which I’ve heard are rather devastating.

Read a book under 100 pages: Tribeby Sebastian Junger. (130 pages, close enough)

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorites. Read this a few years back, superb.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

To the Bright EdgeRead a book of historical fiction set before 1900: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eown Ivey; De Potter’s Grand Tour, by Joanna Scott.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color: Not a series, but this year I read and loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. 

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: This book is older than three years–I picked up Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, but didn’t finish it. I may get back to it someday. It’s becoming a classic.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better:

I did see the movie, Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, but didn’t read the book, don’t plan to. The movie was pretty good, mostly because of the acting, otherwise predictable.

I also saw this year the movie Carol based on the novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. I thought it was excellent, haven’t read the novel. I was flabbergasted when someone I know said the main character in the movie was a predator. That is not how I interpreted the character in this movie about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s. I saw her as sympathetic. If anyone else has seen the movie and can comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I felt the predator comment revealed perhaps unconscious LGTBQ bias; but then again, Highsmith’s novels have disturbing characters. Perhaps the actual novel was darker, and some of that came through in the movie?

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes:

My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem is a big bio this year, though I haven’t read it. I HAVE read, this year, and in the case of Bronté’s novel, many years in the past:  Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower and Jane Eyre. These, because my memoir has a Jane Eyre theme. Last year I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Fabulous.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction): After Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor. (On my to-read list)

67 ShotsRead a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction): 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard MeansThis one is personally meaningful.

Read a food memoir: On my to-read list is Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen. Classics I love are Laurie Colwin’s food memoirs. Elizabeth David was a superb food writer, though her books aren’t really memoirs. Ruth Reichl has come out with a new food memoir this year that I haven’t read, My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes that Changed My Life.

Read a play

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness:  A Common Struggle, by Patrick J. Kennedy. This is a memoir. I also read the riveting memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning. The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes is fiction, and it’s absolutely great.

Here’s a smidgen of The Masterpiece Theatre version of A Town Like Alice.

Have you read any books in these categories, or do you have any suggestions? Are you following the Read Harder challenge? Let us know in the comments.

Excavating a Life

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About the creative life and writing memoir…

“I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

“What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

“This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were.”      – Louise DeSalvo

When I was staying in Port Townsend, I picked up a copy of Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing As a Way of Healing, at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore.

I’d heard DeSalvo speak at a free National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar, and she was fantastic. (The founder of NAMW is my wonderful writing coach, Linda Joy Myers, who does an outstanding job connecting the best memoir writers and teachers with those of us trying to make our way through the wilderness of writing our own memoirs.)

I would say if you are writing a memoir, a novel, or any long-form work of nonfiction, or if you want to write about your life as a form of self-expression, this book is a must-read, a valuable companion to have at your side at all times while you work. DeSalvo’s voice is warm, wise, encouraging, and firm. She’ll help you develop a common sense writing practice that is less of a struggle and more intentional, self-caring, and restorative.

One of DeSalvo’s key points is that writing your story is healing and transformative, but only if you go about it the right way. As a medical librarian, I’m all for looking at what the scientific research has to say before making a claim about anything, and DeSalvo does just that.

We’ve all heard that writing can be healing, but simply venting emotions on the page may cause a writer to get stuck or even set the writer back. On the other hand, telling what happened in a dispassionate way – a mere listing of events – won’t do much, either.

Writers need to do both – honestly tell about events and honestly recount their emotions – and link them in a meaningful way. “A healing narrative links feelings with events.”

Research has shown that only when a person tells what happened with honesty, nuance, and detail that includes not just events, but feelings, and with the intention of unearthing and crafting a true, meaningful story – only then does writing about one’s life hold the possibility of transformation.

This is not easy. It requires honest self-evaluation and facing aspects of yourself you may have kept hidden. It requires putting yourself in the place of others so you can understand why they may have behaved in certain ways.

Vivid characterization, dialogue reconstructed to the best of your ability, movie-like scenes that highlight key events and emotional peaks and valleys, all woven into a narrative, is a lot of work, but it’s a way to re-experience life events that can bring catharsis, insight, and meaning.

DeSalvo points to research that suggests people who recall traumatic events in a vague, general way – without detail or nuance – have not yet begun the healing process. I was amazed when I read this, because my first drafts tend to be frustratingly superficial. As a child and adolescent, I’d numbed out to protect myself and, as an adult, to avoid grappling with painful events. Writing about them now often requires several drafts as I gradually mine through to the essentials of the experience. I thought this was a sign that I was a mediocre writer. DeSalvo helped me understand that this is a normal part of the healing and writing process.

Even though I haven’t finished writing my memoir, I’ve already reaped benefits. Writing about events that are emotionally difficult or that arouse shame indeed lose their repressive power over me once they are on the page.

Honoring people’s privacy is also a concern that can hold writers back, but DeSalvo encourages us to remember we are writing a draft, and that these issues can be carefully considered later, if we want to publish. At that time, we can make revisions to protect privacy.

She reminds us, too, that there is a lot to be said for public testimony (in a way that doesn’t harm others) about trauma and issues that society has pressured many of us to keep silent about. In the case of mental illness, for example, no one is healed and nothing can improve unless long-avoided issues are brought into the light of day and confronted.

For me, DeSalvo’s book is most valuable because she has given me a way to write a memoir without losing my mind. She breaks down the process into phases and walks me through each one: Preparing, Planning, Germinating, Working, Deepening, Shaping, Ordering, and Completing.

Not every phase is pleasurable, and if we have difficulty, we aren’t to blame ourselves, but persist. It’s just part of the process. We learn what we can realistically expect in each phase, which greatly reduces anxiety.

I’m still learning how to integrate writing into my everyday life so it becomes habitual, manageable, and enjoyable. I’m still learning how to care for myself as I write – for example, by writing in short, frequent doses so I’m not overwhelmed emotionally and by judiciously sharing my writing only with those who support my work and have some understanding of the rigors of the process.

I should add that, as I’ve excavated my life and the effects of my mother’s mental illness on our family over the years, I’ve had the help of an excellent therapist. DeSalvo encourages writers to connect with a good therapist if they’re having difficulties. Writing is not a substitute for therapy. She says: “I personally believe it is essential for people wanting to write about extreme situations to have skilled professional support while writing or to attend a reputable support group.”

There is so much more to this book. DeSalvo draws on the wisdom of psychologists, researchers, and well-known writers, integrating their knowledge into a compelling and enormously helpful guide.

Many, many passages in my copy of Writing As a Way of Healing are underlined. Here are a few:

“Sometimes the writer is unsure about precisely what happened because…she or he was in a state of shock or emotional numbness while it was happening. The most basic and important survival tactics often involve blunting the emotions, carefully watching, splitting the consciousness (watching the event as if it’s happening to someone else), even splitting the self (into two or more personae). Finding words, finding literary forms to convey these self-preserving defensive tactics, these superlinguistic layers of meaning, often seems impossible.”

“Virginia Woolf said moments of profound insight that come from writing about our soulful, thoughtful examination of our psychic wounds should be called ‘shocks.’ For they force us into an awareness about ourselves and our relationship to others and our place in the world that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. They realign the essential nature of our being.”

“In time, I learned how Zen artists and writers devote themselves to an orderly, contemplative way of life that prepares them for their work. But how doing their work, too, becomes a form of meditation. Work and life are deeply integrated.”

A quote by Henry Miller:“[Writing] lifts the sufferer out of his obsessions and frees him for the rhythm and movement of life by joining him to the great universal stream in which we all have our being.”

Note: After reading this post, my dear writing coach, Linda Joy, tried to leave a comment, but either WordPress or my comment settings didn’t allow her to. So I’m putting her words here, which I greatly appreciate:

What a wonderful essay about the essentials in writing memoir and narrating our truths. I have loved Louise DeSalvo’s book for years and was so happy when she joined us for two NAMW presentations last year! I also got the other books, Jane Eyre’s Sisters thanks to you Valorie, and love it. It offers a more accurate template for the heroine’s story, which is necessarily an internal journey, not just an external one. Thank you for illuminating these gems and what you find valuable in your lovely blog! – Linda Joy Myers

Thank you, Linda Joy.

Below are photos of Port Townsend, where I did some writing and read Louise DeSalvo’s book. Nature is a wonderful restorative when you’re writing memoir.

(By the way, the photo above shows Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which I also picked up at The Writer’s Workshoppe and Imprint Bookstore. I’m still making my way through it. Jane Eyre has a role to play in my memoir.)

 

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My airbnb had a secret garden with a view of Puget Sound, which has many moods…

 

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7 a.m.

 

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Shades of pink as sunset approaches

 

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One morning I woke up and saw the Cascades.

 

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A blue and gray day

 

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I zoomed in with my iPhone so the photo is grainy, but this day was exceptionally crisp and clear.

 

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Port Townsend has many fascinating and unusual shops where you just want to linger. (Note the reflection of the bay in the window.)

 

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I bought this luscious Australian mohair in another color at Bazaar Girls Yarn Shop & Fibre Emporium on Quincy Street for my sister-in-law. They are a crafting community, crafting community. Don’t you love their tagline?

 

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The Port Townsend Farmer’s Market is lots of fun, and a good place to meet people because everyone there loves to talk about the wonders of living on the Olympic Peninsula. The musicians below are Ranger & the Re-Arrangers, a Gypsy jazz band from Seattle.

 

 

 

A Common Struggle

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A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction

“‘I have never seen a case worse than you, Patrick. You’ve been at this for so long, and the fact that you’ve survived and you’re still doing it almost makes you more dangerous. You’re able to manage it, just like your father managed it….’

He [Chris Lawford, Patrick Kennedy’s cousin] said he knew that at any given moment, I could say I wanted to go off to Australia with all my money and drink and drug myself to death. What he didn’t know, and neither did Amy, was that I had considered such a plan.”   Patrick J. Kennedy, A Common Struggle

I never thought I’d read a Kennedy memoir, we’ve been so saturated through the years with media coverage about the Kennedy family. Usually, I read literary memoirs, and this one isn’t. But I knew I had to read A Common Struggle, given my interest in mental health issues and wanting to see things change for the better, for once, rather than for the worse.

Patrick Kennedy has bipolar disorder, severe anxiety disorder, and has struggled with addiction to alcohol and prescription medication most of his life. His memoir, A Common Struggle, co-written with Stephen Fried, describes in excruciating detail how Ted Kennedy’s son managed somehow to keep this a secret (more or less) even as he served as Congressman from Rhode Island for many years.

In fact, Patrick’s entire nuclear family struggled with addiction, and all of them went through rehab at least once, if not multiple times – all except for Ted Kennedy. Not that he didn’t need it – Ted Kennedy’s family staged an intervention once, but Kennedy refused to acknowledge or accept that he had an addiction to alcohol.

This is a fascinating read. The Kennedys have a remarkable record of public service and, despite his debilitating mental health and addiction issues, Patrick Kennedy led the fight for successful passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. Given our complex and often dysfunctional political system, this is truly an achievement, even though the act, which requires insurance coverage of mental illness and addiction equal to coverage of physical illnesses, hasn’t yet been fully implemented.

Patrick Kennedy and others had to fight hard to make sure that addiction was included along with mental health. This was an enlightened step. It’s about time, since there is an epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction and overdose in the US. Only now are attitudes beginning to change so that addiction is increasingly viewed as a health problem, not a crime or a personal weakness.

Patrick ultimately decided that he couldn’t sustain his lifestyle as a Congressman and handle his addiction and mental health issues, so he eventually left Congress. He is currently the leading advocate in the US for mental health and substance abuse care, research and policy.

I’ve sometimes been dismissive of the Kennedys and their privilege, but Patrick’s memoir made me realize how devoted the extended family is to public service and what a difference they’ve made on many fronts. If you are interested in mental health and substance abuse issues, and/or if you want to become an advocate for better mental health care and research, I think you’ll get a lot out of Kennedy’s memoir. He weaves into his personal story a detailed history of mental health legislation in this country – legislation that is woefully lacking.

There are fantastic appendices, too, that summarize the many issues we need to advocate for and change, and that list the most prominent mental health and substance abuse support groups and organizations in the US.

I get discouraged about the lack of funding and services for people who suffer from mental illness and addiction and the long road it has been over the years to see improvement. Seems like common sense that we’d want to make changes for the better, but sadly our priorities are elsewhere. This is a shame, because these issues affect one out of five families – so is there anyone among us who hasn’t been touched in some way by mental illness or addiction?

Last weekend my husband and I took part in NAMI Walks in Rochester, an annual May is Mental Health Month fund-raiser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Over a thousand people walked. (There is still time to donate, go to the NAMI Walks link!)

I’m also proud to report that NAMI Rochester has such an extensive and devoted cadre of family members and volunteers working on behalf of mental health education and advocacy, they have been named the TOP NAMI affiliate in the country for 2016. They will be honored at the NAMI National Convention in July.

NAMI Walks

NAMI Rochester Streakers take the lead for NAMI Walks.

NAMI Walks On the March

NAMI Walks leaving the Village Gate in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts.

A Mother’s Reckoning

A Mother's Reckoning

“The ultimate message of this book is terrifying: you may not know your own children, and, worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you. The stranger you fear may be your own son or daughter.”  from the Introduction, by Andrew Solomon

Imagine being Susan Klebold, the mother of the Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, and writing this about your son:

“Then they went into the library….Dylan fatally shot Kyle Velasquez, who was hiding underneath a computer workstation. The boys reloaded and then began shooting out the window at the rescue workers helping the students outside. Dylan then shot at a table, injuring Daniel Steepleton and Makai Hall….Dylan shot Patrick Ireland as he was helping Makai Hall.

The just-published memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy has already been read by hundreds of thousands of people and is currently on the New York Times Bestseller List. I wasn’t planning on reading it; I remember watching some of the extensive news coverage of the Columbine shootings seventeen years ago and then turning off the TV, horrified. My sons were five and eight years old at the time, and I didn’t want to know the details.

As we all know, Columbine was the first in a series of devastating shootings in the following decades. The Virginia Tech shooter and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter possessed Columbine-related materials and drew inspiration from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. An ABC News investigation quoted in Sue Klebold’s memoir found “at least 17 attacks and another 36 alleged plots or serious threats agains schools…can be tied to the 1999 massacre.”

I thought I’d had enough of the Columbine story for one lifetime. But after I listened to an interview with Sue Klebold on “Fresh Air,” I wanted to know more, because Klebold is saying some important things about certain kinds of mental illness that I’ve never heard before.

Far From the TreeFurther, I was impressed when I saw there was an introduction to her memoir by Andrew Solomon, one of our finest nonfiction writers, who won the National Book Award for The Noonday Demon, about depression, and who also authored Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, a book that’s been on my to-read shelf for a while. (It’s 700 pages, not including the references.) Solomon interviewed the Klebolds for a section in Far from the Tree about children who commit crimes.

I read A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy in one long sitting. I stayed up until 4 am because I couldn’t put the book down and because I wanted to get reading this nightmare of a story over and done with.

Really, I don’t know how Sue Klebold managed to write it or how she has found the strength to go on. I think she’s been driven by a super-human determination to give her life purpose and meaning in the aftermath of the tragedy and to make whatever amends she can.

Sue Klebold has immersed herself in research on suicide and violence to try and understand her son.  She is a frequent speaker at mental health venues such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; she wrote her memoir to share what she has learned in hopes of helping others recognize when someone is in serious trouble.

Sue worked with writer Laura Tucker to fashion a cohesive and compelling narrative from the hundreds of pages contained in her journals. She wondered how to tell her story effectively when everyone knew the ending, but that quandary proved key to the memoir’s structure.

The book is two parts: Part 1: The Last People on Earth, highlights in Sue Klebold’s limited point of view Dylan’s childhood, their family life and, in excruciating detail, how blindsided she and her family were by the events of April 20,1999.

Sue calls Part 2: Toward Understanding “the end of denial.” She describes unflinchingly the Littleton sheriff department’s presentation of evidence to her and her husband: Dylan’s journal writings that reveal his secret torment, a reconstruction of his role in the shootings, the infamous “Basement Tapes” that he and Eric Harris made, and other searing evidence that Dylan had become, in Sue’s words, an unrecognizable “monster.” I don’t know which to me was more horrifying–her description of the events as they unfolded on April 20 and in the days after, or her account of the damning evidence they learned of six months later.

Here is more of the terrible sequence of events, continued from the quote above:

“Underneath another set of tables, Dylan found Isaiah Sheols, Matthew Kechter, and Craig Scott, Rachel Scott’s younger brother. Dylan hurled racial epithets at Isaiah before Eric shot and killed him. Dylan then shot and killed Matthew Kechter…”

The second half of Part 2 chronicles Sue’s immersion in research literature and the knowledge she gleaned by interviewing experts on mental illness, suicide, and homicide. From these she pieced together glimmerings of what may have caused Dylan to take such a tragic turn.

After reading the memoir, I’m convinced the Klebolds were loving, attentive parents who didn’t realize their son had undergone a devastating deterioration in mental health that probably began a few years before the shootings.  I’ll try to summarize the theories behind Dylan’s behavior below, but it will be an over-simplification. If you want a fuller, more accurate and nuanced picture, I encourage you to read the memoir.

Sue only began to approach an understanding of her son when mental health professionals she consulted suggested that Dylan could be viewed primarily through the lens of someone who wanted very much to die. Like others who commit suicide, his mental suffering had become so uncontrollable and intolerable, he saw death as the only way out. He was in the small subset of people with suicidal tendencies who commit murder-suicide.

Alternatively, it has been posited that Eric Harris had a very different profile – that of a psychopath, without conscience, whose primary intention was to kill. As one psychiatrist put it, Eric wanted to kill people and he didn’t care if he died; Dylan wanted to die and didn’t care if others died in the process.

It’s been suggested by those who have studied Columbine that Eric and Dylan had a deadly symbiotic relationship: Eric needed a co-conspirator whom he could dominate to fuel and help him carry out his homicidal visions; Dylan needed Eric’s energy and drive to help him carry out the act of suicide.

In the months and years after Columbine, Sue Klebold understandably had periods of severe anxiety and extreme panic attacks that she could not control. For a time, she hid her condition. Sue realized that she had lost control of her own mind and couldn’t regain some semblance of normalcy without medication. She writes that this has given her insight into what she believes was Dylan’s devastating brain disease. Eventually he, too, lost his mind; it had become so impaired and his thinking became so distorted, he was unable to make rational decisions and was led instead to make tragic and monstrous ones.

My own feeling, although this is not stated in the memoir, is that the keeping of secrets and covering up of the ravaging symptoms of mental illness, or brain disease as Sue Klebold calls it, can be an inseparable part of the disease itself. The person doesn’t seek help, may have no insight that he/she does need help, and can sometimes successfully hide their dark side even from family and close friends.

It’s because of these nuggets of wisdom that I believe Sue Klebold’s memoir is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of mental illness and a much-needed call to action. Sue writes:

“We teach our kids the importance of good dental care, proper nutrition, and financial responsibility. How many of us teach our children to monitor their own brain health, or know how to do it ourselves?”

“…we want to believe that parents create criminals because in supposing that, we reassure ourselves that in our own house, where we are not doing such wrong things, we do not risk this calamity.”

And this:

“I think often of watching Dylan do origami….he’d only have to see a complicated pattern once to be able to duplicate it…..

Origami is not magic. Even the most complex pattern is knowable, something that can be mapped and understood. So it is, too, with brain illness and violence, and this mapping is the work we must now do. Depression and other types of brain disorders do not strip someone of a moral compass, and yet these are potentially life-threatening diseases that can impair judgment and distort a person’s sense of reality. We must turn our attention to researching and raising awareness about these diseases – and to dispelling the myths and raising awareness about these diseases – and to dispelling the myths that prevent us from helping those who most need it. We must do so, not only for the sake of the afflicted, but also for the innocents who will continue to register as their casualties if we do not.”    (The boldface type is mine.)

Since Columbine, Sue Klebold and her husband have received an outpouring of support but, of course, vilification and death threats as well. There has been bankruptcy from lawsuits and legal defense. Sue and Tom Klebold divorced recently, although they remain friends and close in their support of their remaining son, Byron.

I found it heartbreaking that Sue repeats the same sentiment over and over in different words throughout the memoir, as if she can never apologize enough or alleviate her shame and guilt:

“A day does not pass that I do not feel a sense of overwhelming guilt – both for the myriad ways I failed Dylan and for the destruction he left in his wake….” 

She goes on to say:

“The loss of the people Dylan killed, ultimately, is unquantifiable…..I wish I had known what Dylan was planning. I wish that I had stopped him. I wish I’d had the opportunity to trade my own life for those who were lost. But a thousand passionate wishes aside, I know I can’t go back. I do try to conduct my life so it will honor those whose lives were shattered or taken by my son. The work I do is in their memory. I work, too, to hold on to the love I still have for Dylan, who will always remain my child despite the horrors he perpetrated.”

Of course, Sue’s memoir haunts me because I grew up baffled by a mother who had schizophrenia, a serious mental illness. I wondered if I should have children, and after I did, I obsessed every time they had a temper tantrum or acted out in the ways growing boys do. Was it a sign of incipient mental illness?

(I’m happy to say that as adults they are more informed about mental illness than many people, and they have great compassion towards those who suffer from mental illness, including their grandmother. They’ve never given me any flak over my obsessing, either.)

I also know how isolated and stigmatized people with serious mental illness and their families can be, and I’ve experienced firsthand the dearth of effective and compassionate mental health treatments and services.

To those who might cast blame on the Klebolds, I would suggest that, many mass shootings and almost two decades later, perhaps we as a society have some collective denial and mental health issues of our own.

Sue Klebold will donate all author profits from A Mother’s Reckoning to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health.

We've Got IssuesFor further reading, We’ve Got Issues: Children & Parents in the Age of Medication by Judith Miller is a stirring and well-researched investigation into the appalling lack of quality care for children with mental illness in the United States and the isolation, stigma and blame their parents face.

Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and often miss because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

Sons of Madness

Sons of Madness book cover

Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent

Considering the huge numbers of people who have a mental illness, their suffering and lost potential, and the tremendous cost to society, it’s high time we made mental illness a priority. Instead, it continues to be a topic we avoid. Our mental health services are shamefully and sorely lacking. Those who suffer from mental illness are not being served, nor are their families.

I’ve written about this topic before at Books Can Save a Life when I’ve featured books about families with mental illness, particularly the plight of children and adult children with mentally ill parents. (See Children of Mental Illness Part I, Children of Mental Illness Part 2, Encountering the Dark Matter of Mental Illness, and Do Genes Affect Our Mental Health?) I grew up with a mother who had schizophrenia and, as I’ve conducted research for a memoir about our family’s experiences, I’m sad to say many aspects of the mental health system are no better than they were decades ago, and mental illness carries as much stigma today as it did in the 1960s.

Today, I’d like to highlight the newly published Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent, by Susan Nathiel, PhD, LMFT. It’s a companion volume to her first book, Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother. Susan (whose mother had schizophrenia) has collected here interviews with twelve men whose mother or father suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, or another serious mental illness.

These are deeply disturbing stories of men who in many cases have never talked about their families or their childhood and teen years. They were too ashamed and traumatized to reveal their family secrets, and they’ve never been asked. Consider these chapter titles: “Nobody cared until my family was destroyed,” “My mother’s lobotomy saved my life,” “If you leave the house, you’ll be murdered,” “Our family code: Protect Dad at all costs,” “I called them nightly shows – all violence,” and “I should have been able to save her.”  While it’s never easy having a mentally ill parent, boys and men are especially challenged by the cultural expectation that they not show their emotions.

Some of these men have healed, some have not, and all are scarred. I want to point out that most people with mental illness are not violent, but their families, including their children, must contend with a high degree of dysfunction that can be continual, extremely frightening, and traumatizing. It’s painful to read the words of these men, but what impressed me especially was their profound isolation as children. In many cases, it was impossible to get the mentally ill parent anywhere near a psychiatrist or treatment facility. Saddest of all is that extended family members and sometimes the healthy parent turned a blind eye to the needs of the children. No one helped them, and no one seemed to care.

I can’t fathom how children this neglected, with no support systems, encouragement, or empathy, can grow up to be healthy, trusting, fulfilled, and able to contribute their unique talents and gifts to society. Many do. But consider all the lost potential. I also wondered, as I read the interviews, where child abuse and addiction end and mental illness begins – my point being that I believe many children grow up contending, alone, with parents whose dysfunctions can cause lifelong damage and persist across generations, whether or not the parents are ever formally diagnosed with an identifiable mental illness.

There’s been some criticism of the many memoirs of family dysfunction that have been published in the last few decades, and accusations of whining and naval gazing. This only increases shame and makes those who’ve been affected hesitate to bring their experiences into the light of day, where solutions can be found and those who need it given relief and support.

We need to pay more attention to our children and the invisible traumas they may be contending with.

In his New York Time’s column today, Nicholas Kristof has identified mental illness as an issue that needs more attention. I hope you’ll add your thoughts about mental illness and families here in the comments or on Kristof’s blog, On the Ground.  You can also visit his Facebook page and leave a comment. I welcome comments about this on my Facebook page as well.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ian Maclaren, Scottish author and theologian

Books Can Save a Life: most viewed posts in 2013

Snow-covered trees

Attractions in 2013

These are the Books Can Save a Life posts that got the most views in 2013.

I was gratified to see three of my most popular posts are about having a family member who suffers from mental illness. Early in the new year I’ll be writing about Susan Nathiel’s new book, Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent. There is still very little written about the experience of having a mother or father with a mental illness; Susan’s book is an important contribution.

Body and mind

What are the pros and cons of getting genetic testing if your parent has Huntington’s Disease? What about dating and relationships?

A resident in the pediatric intensive care unit wants patient education information about shaken baby syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

A mother whose child has just been diagnosed with epilepsy wants to know if a special diet will help.

At teaching rounds, medical students on their first patient rotations are led through the process of making a diagnosis. “He has weakness in his arm and leg,” says the neurologist. “If his symptoms are on the right side, where is the lesion in the brain?”

These are some of the situations I’ve seen as a medical librarian. Sometimes we forget how precious and fragile are our bodies and minds. We can walk, run, speak, love, laugh, cry, sing, read, write, think, create, make plans, give comfort, enjoy a meal with family and friends. Until one day something changes.

I know from personal experience a mind can become irrevocably altered and an identity can vanish seemingly overnight. Which is probably why I am so fascinated by medicine, especially medicine having to do with the brain and behavior.

Here are some of my favorite books (fiction and nonfiction) about illness, recovery, medicine, the search for cures and miracles, and the people caught up in it all: medical professionals, researchers, patients and families. If you follow my blog, a few of the books will be familiar.

FICTION

I Know This Much Is True book cover

I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”

This is the best evocation of schizophrenia I’ve ever read. Wally Lamb is my hero.

By the way, Wally’s newest novel, We Are Water, was just published this month. It is on my nightstand in my little stack of books to read.

Saturday book cover

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

A neurosurgeon. Huntington’s Disease. A home invasion. A poem.

(The poem nestled deep within the plot sparks a crucial turning point. It also happens to be one of my lifelong favorites.)

State of Wonder book cover

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

“She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.”

“I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and  your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian tradition….Despite any setbacks, we persevere.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves book cover

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

“…I’d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her…..Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply – her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers.”

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MEMOIR

God's Hotel book cover

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet

Inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century German mystic and medical practitioner), as well as her own instinct for compassionate, attentive care, Dr. Sweet practices “slow medicine” at the last almshouse in the U.S. as it transitions to the modern age. We should all have a physician like Dr. Sweet.

My Beautiful Genome book cover

My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank

“…we are each of us temporary depositories of information that has an almost eternal life, and which is passed on and on and on…”

“I am what I do with the beautiful information that has flowed through millions of years through billions of organisms and has, now, finally been entrusted to me.”

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