I have a long history of leaning on the written word to navigate turbulent times. When I first became a mother 24 long years ago, Dr. William Sears’ The Baby Book was my Dr. Spock of the 1990’s. Ariel Gore’s The Hip Mama Survival Guide and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions also lived dog-eared beside my bed.
After my first marriage split up, I tapped Anne Lamott once again, lugging her Traveling Mercies in my suitcase when I travelled to Norway with my two young kids. This book served as a salve for my single mom pain.
Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam was one of the only books published 14 years ago about having a baby with Down syndrome. It gave me solace when the baby I expected was not the baby I got. Roadmap to Holland by Jennifer Graf Groneberg offered me a crucial guide to being a new kind of mother. Later, Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree offered me important perspective on disability. His book is a well-researched literary encyclopedia of parenting a child with differences. (I wrote about crushing on Andrew Solomon here). As my boy has gotten older, I have cherished Ian Brown’s musings on the value of people with disabilities in his The Boy in the Moon.
For general woe, I’ve sent Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser to many a friend who is going through a rough time. Books by strong women always perk me up. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Love Pray were both books before they were mainstream movies and I gobbled them up in the early days of my second marriage.
Cancer arrived, uninvited and unwelcome, in my left breast earlier this year. In an attempt to comfort myself, I have accumulated too many cancer memoirs, most of which I haven’t even cracked open. I’ve ventured into a few, but found them too cheery, too preachy or too prescriptive. I’ve piled them away in my bookcases for later.
I keep trying on the written word for size. The cancer agency happens to be close to an independent bookstore, so I have spent many hours loitering in the aisles between radiation treatments and oncologist appointments.
These are my favourite books I’ve read over the past months. Many of them came at me sideways, as they aren’t necessarily full-on cancer memoirs, but they contained sentiments that touched on issues that have become suddenly important to me.
Rising Strong by Brene Brown – I’m desperate to gain some resiliency and Brene’s TEDx Talk about vulnerability remains one of my favourite TED talks of all time.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs (I reviewed this for The Underbelly, here). Although it is called A Memoir of Living and Dying, I found it to be a beautifully hopeful book.
Ditto with Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a tender and tough book about a neurosurgeon who happens to have cancer. I read it a year before I was diagnosed, but recently revisited it again.
Hungry by Roxane Gay – helped me start to forgive my body as I’ve struggled with the body issues that have accompanied this damn cancer.
Birds, Art, Life – Kyo Maclear’s book was deeply soothing to me as I was searching for grace while waiting for treatment. I wrote about it here.
Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days is both funny and telling – a creative graphic memoir about living with metastatic breast cancer.
The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee is an impressive, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of all things cancer, useful as I am trying my damnest to understand this elusive disease. This book is painful to read if you actually do have cancer, but well worth the effort.
Illness as a Metaphor by Susan Sontag is a classic book that analyzes the tired old ‘cancer as a battle’ analogies and got me starting to ponder my new identity as a sick person.
I’m still trying to figure out so much. I’m a nerdy library girl at heart and reading books is my way of gathering information and soothing myself. Lately, I have remembered that books have always been my friends.
What books provided comfort when you went through dark times? I’d love to add to my collection – please consider leaving a comment with your recommendations.