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Hidden Valley Road

Title: Hidden Valley Road

Author: Robert Kolker

Genre: Biology, Schizophrenia

My poor husband has had to deal with hearing this phrase a lot over the past few days…”Do you want to know something I learned about schizophrenia?” And whether he wanted to learn it or not, I just proceeded to tell him. Because this book is fascinating. It’s not just about this one family, but it’s also about the history of research into the mental illness. All the things doctors have learned about schizophrenia since the early 1900s, which isn’t as much as you’d expect, honestly. Schizophrenia is really complex, and the treatments don’t work well for everyone.

From Goodreads: Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins—aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony—and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?

What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.

With clarity and compassion, bestselling and award-winning author Robert Kolker uncovers one family’s unforgettable legacy of suffering, love, and hope. 

The Galvin story is just so awful. The family really had no idea what to do with the sick boys. But their willingness to help researchers was so important into the discoveries made in the 80s and 90s. Because as the boys were growing up in the 60s and 70s, schizophrenia was so misunderstood. We now know that it’s a genetic illness, assumed to be formed in utero. There’s no longer a nature vs nurture debate. It’s nature. 100%. But isolating the gene has been tough. This book was absolutely fascinating, and I learned so much. If the book had simply been about the family, or simply about the research, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. But having both aspects in the book was perfect. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the subject.

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The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

Title: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

Author: Dashka Slater

Genre: True Crime, LGBTQ+ issues

PopSugar Prompt: a book in a different format than you usually read (ebook, audiobook, graphic novel, etc).

As much as I love podcasts, I’m not a big audiobook person. I like that I can listen to podcasts in small chunks, doing dishes, laundry, running errands, but to listen to a book in small chunks is really hard. I just forget what happened last time. Yesterday, I had massive chores ahead of me. I knew I was in for the long haul of several hours. Through the amazing https://www.audiobooksync.com/ site, every summer I download free audiobooks. They give you two choices, you pick one. Knowing I wanted to listen to the whole book yesterday, I selected the shortest one and put it on 1.5 speed. Voila! Entire book in one day.

From Goodreads:

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

I’ve been told how amazing this book is. I knew it was non-fiction but that was all I knew. So when we first meet Sasha and learn that they are an agender person, I realized the magnitude of what this book was about. It wasn’t just about two teens involved in a crime, but it was potentially a hate crime against an LGBTQ+ individual. We learn Sasha’s backstory and how they came to be known as Sasha. Born a male, Sasha never really felt truly male nor truly female, hence the agender decision. They (pronoun of Sasha’s choice) renamed themself Sasha because it’s a gender neutral name and started wearing skirts because that was the clothing they felt was most comfortable.

One day riding the 57 bus in Oakland, Sasha’s life collided with Richard’s. He was a good kid, but he had made some dumb mistakes, fighting, skipping school, bad grades, but he was really trying to turn things around. He and a friend saw Sasha, wondered why a boy was wearing a skirt, and decided to play a prank, or so they thought. Richard took a lighter to Sasha’s skirt, fully expecting a little flame that Sasha would quickly pat out and would go on about their day. However, as Sasha was sleeping, the fire quickly erupted into a fireball, burning their legs from thigh to calf.

The entire book lets you into both Sasha’s and Richard’s lives before and after the first. You really get to know these kids. Richard made a poor decision, but had Sasha not been wearing a skirt, the fire never would have happened. Make no mistake: Richard’s decision was horrendous. He was also 16 and severely underestimated what would happen. That’s no excuse. He deserved any and all punishment he received. I’ve taught 16-year-old, and boy can they be poor decision makers. I absolutely do not justify his actions, but I see how Sasha and their family came to the realization that forgiving Richard (who took full responsibility) was the right thing to do.

This book was fantastic. Pieced together through social media posts, news articles, public records, and interviews, the author does an amazing job of telling the full story. The book, while telling a terrible story, is one of optimism. Sasha, despite the fire, has moved on to college, living a great life. Richard, since he took full responsibility and has the support of his family, could really turn his life around. This book is critical for students to learn empathy for people who might look different, act different, or feel differently than them. I’d love to see every high school student read this one!

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Same Kind of Different as Me

*originally posted 2010 on another site

I was a little skeptical of this book and for good reason. It’s certainly heartwarming, but that’s just not something I enjoy reading most of the time. The book starts out strong but becomes more and more depressing as it continues. It was to the point that I was reading it just to be finished with it.

The story is told from two narrators: Ron- a wealthy white man in Ft. Worth and Denver- a homeless black man in the same town. They tell their own stories for a bit, and these were my favorite part. I enjoyed learning where they both started their lives. They are very short vignettes, so I could easily use some in the classroom. Ron meets his wife, Debbie, and after several years of marriage, she decides that God has told her to do some good in life. Now, I’m not the religious type, so this book quickly lost its appeal simply because the level of Christianity mentioned. I’d rather hear of people who helped the homeless because they wanted to, rather than because God led them down that path. In any case, the friendship that was formed was meaningful and true. Ron and Denver became reluctant friends, but each found something special within the other.

Halfway through the book, Debbie is diagnosed with cancer. There’s where the fun ends. It went downhill for me at that point. I just don’t enjoy reading about people’s sadness.

I imagine this book is inspirational to a lot of people, which is perfectly understandable. It just isn’t my thing…

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Ghost Boy

I really don’t enjoy sad books. If it’s one that will make me cry, I steer clear. And even though this book was about a person with a disability trying to overcome challenges, it was nowhere near as sad as I expected it to be.

I originally heard the author’s, Martin, story on the news and was really interested in his life and his progress. When he was 14, Martin fell into a non-responsive, vegetative state. The process took about a year, and to this day, no one is really sure what happened. He spent every day at a care facility while his parents worked and his siblings went to school, and every evening, his parents brought him home. After three years of this, Martin began to “wake up” and become aware of his surroundings. His brain was fully functional, but his voice and body wouldn’t respond really. He could move his eyes,  could barely move his head, and could smile. Most of his care givers chalked this up as involuntary. However, one woman, an aromatherapist who would come and massage Martin’s body (being stuck in a wheelchair and in one position most of the day is very painful) and she began to notice he was trying to communicate with his eyes or smile. She was one of the few people who ever talked to him directly during his time at the facility.

Martin’s parents agree to have him tested to see if he is able to communicate, and sure enough, the aromatherapist was right. When asked to look at a picture of a ball, he was able to look right at it. A picture of a dog, again, right at it. Slowly, through more directed therapy, Martin was able to communicate using a laptop, specialized software, and a board with pictures listed on it. Since Martin came out of his state, he lost all formal education and couldn’t read. Slowly, he taught himself. As his body grew stronger, his ability to teach himself did too.

Martin’s story truly is amazing. I would think that at some point, since he was progressing, someone would have noticed the changes in him, but the aromatherapist was key to it all. To this day, Martin is still unable to speak, but that doesn’t stop him in any way. He lives his life to the fullest and has accomplished more than you could imagine.

This book is absolutely a must read. I didn’t cry, but I do admit that I got teary towards the end, but for such happy reasons.

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The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific

A friend recommended this book to me a few years ago. And, immediately, I was turned off,  simply because of the title. But they, he proceeded to tell me about the plot: a guy and his girlfriend movie to a tiny, barely inhabited island in the Pacific and try to survive for a few years. What all this has to do with sex lives and cannibals, even after reading the book, I still have no idea. However, don’t judge this book by the title. It is entirely worth reading.

Maarten and his girlfriend, Sylvia, move to Tarawa, which is near the equator, nearly a third world country where water must be boiled before drinking, where people (literally) shit in the ocean only to have it washed back up to shore, where dogs are such a nuisance that they are either eaten or aren’t even braked for when driving, where fish is eaten at every meal, where canned goods are flown in, sporadically, from Australia, where this is no hospital or medicine, and where the live expectancy is just over 50 years old. So, yea. Given all that, this book is really funny. Maarten’s experience, harrowing and hilarious, is not one I would ever embark on. Ever. But I’m glad he did, and survived, to tell us this story. And, of course, in the back of your mind, you will realize just how wonderful we have it with food, water, medicine, and shit free oceans.

He has written other books about his travel, but my friend says this is his best work. Between vignettes of his situation, he tells us about the history of the island and its surrounding neighbors. This was much less interesting to me, but for no reason other than I’m just not interested in it. It was still well researched and well written. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I’m very glad I picked it up.

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The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer

About a year ago, I participated in a book exchange with some friends. We all brought a book wrapped as a gift, drew numbers, and the book you picked was what you took home. Of all the books my friends brought, this was the only one I had never read, so it was lucky that I picked it. Granted, it took me an entire year to finally sit down to read it, but I should never have waited. What a fascinating book!

I had never heard of Richard Kuklinski until this book. He was a Polish man, abused by his parents, grew up poor, made fun of by all the neighborhood boys, and he turned into one of the mafia’s biggest contract killer. Because he wasn’t Italian, he couldn’t be made, so he worked for the 5 biggest families in NY, and the 2 biggest in NJ. He was simply a killer for hire. And, and far as anyone knows, all the families used him, but never targeted him for a hit he did as retaliation. He was too good, too efficient, too successful to hold any hits against him. If Family A wanted to kill a member of Family B, they called Kuklinski. If Family B wanted to kill a member of Family A, they called Kuklinski, no hard feelings for his previous job against their family.

He was a killer for over 30 years, no regrets, no conscience. He was also a giving family man. He was terribly abusive to his wife (beating her until she had miscarriages, even), but never beat his children. He bought them anything they wanted, paid for sick kids in the hospital to have treatment, enjoyed feeding the ducks at the park. I watched a documentary on HBO after I read this book, and he had such a shift in personality when speaking about the killings vs his family. He teared up (maybe crocodile tears, I don’t know) when talking about how his family meant so much to him, but had zero remorse for the over 100 people he killed. It was just a job to him. He killed at will. Anyone who looked sideways at him was a target.

Kuklinski was eventually brought down by police. An undercover cop gained his confidences and set him up. Kuklinski was arrested and confessed to 5 murders. He wasn’t given the death penalty because of his confession, but died in prison due to a rare blood vessel inflammation.

There are a few books on Kuklinski, and this is the only one I read, but I highly recommend it, if true crime is something you enjoy reading. It read like a novel, telling Kuklinski’s life story. I would love to hear the author speak about all the interviews he did to get this information. This book is such a well written comprehensive of Kuklinski.