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Real Life

From a meditation on baseball to the B.C. doctor Bonnie Henry’s account of the first days of COVID-19, we’ve got true stories, some of which are indeed stranger than fiction / BY Kim Honey / April 1st, 2021

Spring has sprung and that means baseball is on the horizon, so we’ve got two tomes about life around the diamond, as well as fascinating reads on racial identity, schizophrenia, memory, the euthanasia underground and a primer for transgender people and those who want to support them.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1100 Miles of BaseballDale and Heidi L.M. Jacobs

This Windsor, Ont., couple always looked forward to spring and their season tickets to see their beloved Detroit Tigers. But in 2016, their Sunday outings to home games began to feel like a chore and, in 2017, they didn’t renew. “I thought I was through with baseball,” Heidi, an author and University of Windsor librarian, writes in the prologue.  Then Dale, an English professor at the University of Windsor, proposed they see other ball games instead. They came up with the idea of drawing a 100-mile radius around their home and writing about their relationship to the game and what it taught them about themselves. And so 100 Miles of Baseball: Fifty Games, One Summer was born, and they set off in March 2018 on a journey that would take them from London, Ont. in the east to Albion, Mich. in the west, south to Sarnia, Ont. and north to Saginaw, Mich.

They reconnect with the game they love, and each other. By Game 50, Dale feels like he’s “mourning the passing of this summer of baseball.”

2The Short Life of Hughie McLoonAllen Abel

This riveting biography about a diminutive Philadelphia baseball mascot who went on to become a professional boxing manager, speakeasy owner and an undercover source for police is subtitled “A True Story of Baseball, Magic and Murder,” and that is a caveat required by this stranger-than-fiction tale. At 26, Hughie McLoon was gunned down in the street, supposedly “collateral damage” in an assassination attempt on the two gangsters he was talking to outside his café, which sold bootleg whiskey and beer from buckets behind the counter.

As a child, McLoon had fallen off a seesaw and never grew taller than 4’2”. Deformed from the accident, he became the bat boy and mascot for the local Connie Mack Athletics baseball team, and players used to rub the hump on his back for good luck before they went up to the plate. A local celebrity, 10,000 people lined up to view his body the day after he was shot in 1928.

Abel, the former Maclean’s magazine correspondent in Washington and author of a travelogue on Brooklyn, N.Y., captures the superstitious atmosphere of the early days of professional baseball as well as the seedy underbelly of Prohibition-era Philadelphia.

“Today, in the new Roaring Twenties, the killing of Hughie McLoon remains a mystery,” Abel writes. The witnesses with McLoon – one of whom was injured as well – refused “to squeal,” and the gunmen were never caught.

3When Gender is In QuestionSuzanne Shenkin

Transgender people and gender fluidity can be baffling, especially for parents and grandparents who grew up in a binary world where everyone was considered a man or a woman. In this book, partly about her own experience supporting her trans son Skyler, Suzanne Shenkin breaks down the myths and presents the facts in a primer that demystifies everything from gender identity to pronouns to sexual orientation, which, she emphasizes, has nothing to do with gender.

Skyler explains in the foreward that transitioning from female to male was a long journey, and invites the reader to “move beyond fear into self-curiosity.” The text is interspersed with first-person stories from trans folks that will be particularly helpful for those who are questioning their gender.

Shenkin explains the basics in a refreshingly simple way. For example, cis or cisgender is derived from the Latin prefix that means “on the side of” and refers to people who agree with the gender on their birth certificate, while trans or transgender, which comes from the Latin prefix meaning “on the other side of,” refers to people who do not.

“There is nothing broken here,” Shenkin affirms. “Nothing needs to be fixed. The problem lies in how trans people are treated, how they are stigmatized, and how attitudes can sometimes show up as discrimination, harassment, or violence.” It’s still a scary world for trans people, and Shenkin and her co-author, psychotherapist Helma Seidl, advocate nothing less than unconditional acceptance.

4Surviving the White GazeRebecca Carroll

This engrossing memoir by a Black American podcaster and cultural critic who grew up in a white household in New Hampshire describes her search for racial identity. Carroll always knew she was adopted, and it was no secret that she was the child of Tess, a white student in her father’s art class, and Tess’s Black boyfriend. Her childhood is idyllic, but Carroll describes in searing detail meeting her ballet teacher, the first Black person she has ever seen. “Often in her company, I felt small pangs of fragile awareness regarding who I might be, what my skin colour might mean.” When Carroll meets Tess, her biological mother is dismissive of her Blackness and undermines the girl’s self-esteem. And when Carroll finally meets her biological father, he tells her, with tears streaming down his face, that he wanted to keep her, but Tess and her mother intervened.  “They took you, just like slave times,” Joe tells her. This is the story of a woman reclaiming her racial identity, and Carroll’s perspective offers a unique view of the racial divide from both sides.

5The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to DieKatie Engelhart

There’s right-to-die legislation and then there’s the euthanasia underground, where people like Betty, a well-off New Yorker in her 70s, turn to the internet for tips on how to plan a DIY death.

“The first one who gets Alzheimer’s get the Nembutal,” Betty tells Englehart, referring to a pact she and two older female friends have made. The Canadian journalist began researching the alternative-death subculture as a Vice News reporter covering the physician-assisted suicide controversy in London. As Englehart delved into laws in countries where assisted dying is legal, like Canada and Belgium and the United States, she came to the same conclusion as many older folks. The laws “speed up an inevitable process, but not by much.”

Englehart describes the book as “a collection of stories, conversations and ideas” that grew as she talked with people who wanted to avoid prolonged suffering from cancer, dementia and other illnesses, but there was another common thread. “For most of the people I met, choosing to die at a planned moment was a matter of dignity.”

Englehart devotes a chapter each to six subjects, one of whom is Australian Philip Nitschke, the leader of Exit International. He lost his medical licence for advising people how to kill themselves at his DIY Death seminars and it was his online publication, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, that Betty consulted. When Betty met Englehart, she was preparing to fly to California and drive across the border to Tecate, Mexico, where she would buy lethal doses of barbiturates at a pet store under the thin guise of putting a fur baby to sleep. She even had empty cosmetics containers to smuggle the pills home.

“There was a slogan that Betty liked that was shared by right-to-die enthusiasts online: ‘I would rather die like a dog,’” writes Englehart. “Here we were, in a country that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world, and people were begging for a veterinary solution.”

6Hidden Valley RoadRobert Kolker

On the face of it, Don and Mimi Galvin had an all-American family, raising 12 children born between 1945 and 1965 in their Hidden Valley Road house on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, where they moved in the 60s so Don could teach political science to Air Force Academy cadets.

Inside those four walls, unspeakable trauma was unfolding. Six of their 10 boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia; one of them, who is now dead, sexually abused both his younger sisters. The Galvins tried to get help for their children, but mental illness – let alone schizophrenia – was so poorly understood there was little help to be found. A lot of the blame was put on Mimi, as the prevailing wisdom was that mental illness was due to a fault in nurturing rather than nature.

The author weaves the boys’ illnesses with the history of schizophrenia and mental-health treatment. The Galvin family was the first to be studied by the National Institutes of Mental Health, for example, and scientists have since identified genetic markers for the illness. Sadly, they are no closer to a cure or even treatment without serious side effects. Four of the surviving six boys are now in their 60s and struggling with health issues like diabetes and heart ailments caused by the drugs prescribed to treat their mental illness.


7Be Calm, Be Kind, Be SafeDr. Bonnie Henry and Lynn Henry

On March 12, a day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Lynn Henry flew west to visit her family in B.C. For the next four weeks, the Toronto publishing executive watched her sister, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, manage chaotic and contradictory information unfolding in real time as experts assessed and reassessed the threat.

By that time, Henry was already dealing with about a dozen cases of COVID-19 and the province’s first outbreak of COVID-19 in the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, B.C., where a man in his 80s was the first Canadian to die on March 9, 2020.

Through it all, Dr. Henry gave daily updates urging B.C. residents to “be calm, be kind and be safe” each time she signed off, a catchphrase that took off as she gained a reputation for transparency at a time when other health officials were accused of obfuscation.

Their book chronicles those first few weeks, and combines Lynn’s observations with Bonnie’s recollections of how and why decisions were made.

8Value(s)Mark Carney

The Goldman Sachs investment banker and former governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England argues our societal values are misplaced by focusing on price. These market societies are basically inhumane, since they leave social inequity, racism, the environment and our health, to give just a few examples, out of the equation. Carney’s eye is on the horizon and the carnage that will be unleashed on Earth – and financial systems – by climate change. This is his manifesto on how sustainability can fix it. 

9RememberLisa Genova

The Still Alice author is back with another book about memory, this time about how imperfect it is and why you shouldn’t panic if you can’t remember someone’s name. The U.S. neuroscientist explains how our brains aren’t made to recall every detail of our lives, how memories are made and retrieved, and how meaning, emotion, sleep and stress all affect our recollections. Most importantly, she explains the difference between normal memory lapses and the signs of serious disease like dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

10New YorkersCraig Taylor

Taylor, an Alberta-born writer and author of 2011’s best-selling Londoners, spent years interviewing 200 New Yorkers for his latest book project. About 75 subjects, including a 911 operator, a homeless man and a dog walker, appear in the book, which he has described as “closer to playwriting than anything else.”

As a Canadian he was the ultimate outsider, but his gift for finding people who make oral history come alive is unparalleled. These are the everyday denizens of the city that never sleeps, and through their eyes you feel the hustle that fuels the bustle, as well as the inequity that lives in the shadow of Wall Street and Fifth Avenue. He talks to the window cleaners of Rockefeller Center and the balloon handler for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as well as the mom of a Latino teen imprisoned on Rikers Island, a Black Lives Matter activist and Joe, a homeless Vietnam vet he befriends at a soup kitchen.

11Finding FreedomErin French

This is the memoir of a 36-year-old Maine chef who has been lauded in the New York Times for turning her tiny hometown of Freedom into a dining destination.

By age 12, French is working the line in her irascible father’s diner. When the book opens, she is 21, single, nine months pregnant and still putting in 16-hour days at the diner as her father disparages her for having a child out of wedlock.

French eventually marries an older man she meets as she’s waiting tables, and opens the first Lost Kitchen restaurant in the town of Belfast. As her marriage crumbles, she turns to prescription pills and alcohol to dull the depression and anxiety that dogs her.

After her ex-husband closes the restaurant and wins custody of her son while she is in rehab, French starts over by holding weekly dinners in a barn and, finally, opens the second Lost Kitchen in a renovated gristmill in Freedom. This is the story of how one woman rebuilds her life, with the help of a “village of women,” one plate at a time.


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