Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker****

Happy anniversary, Doubleday. This is my thirtieth review for you.

Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy.

I wanted to read Kolker’s book because so little is written about schizophrenia for the general readership. My best friend’s older brother was schizophrenic, and sometimes she would phone me crying and whispering from the floor of her bedroom closet. The bro—let’s call him Marco–was a large person, over six feet tall with a towering red afro that made him appear even larger. He and my friend were both adopted, and their parents weren’t nearly that big. Marco hated taking his medication, and once he reached his teens, he self-medicated with every street drug he could get his hands on. As a result, he often became violent, breaking out all of the windows of the family home and assaulting his poor sweet mother with a crowbar before the cops arrived to haul him off to the hospital again.

And so I wondered, when I saw this book, whether this was a common experience (yes,) and what inroads had been made in the decades between then and now (very few.)

The Galvin family is an anomaly, a very large family of twelve children, half of whom were stricken and the other half traumatized from growing up with them. The family participated in The Human Genome Project, a compilation of genetic samples and other information aimed at unlocking Mother Nature’s terrible secrets. Of course, researchers were also absorbed in the question of nature versus nurture.

Kolker does an outstanding job of chronicling the Galvin family’s history alternately with passages about what was known about this disease at the time when the eldest sibling began to show symptoms, and what has been learned since. It’s a lot of information to organize and share, and who knows what information he weeded out as unnecessary, because one has to stop somewhere.

When the Galvin children were diagnosed in the mid-twentieth century, professionals in the field leaned heavily toward the idea that there was no hereditary cause for the condition, but instead embraced a “mother-as-monster” theory. Because of this, Mimi Galvin, the mother of all of those children, was inclined to stonewall rather than seek help. But who could blame her? Our society was only slightly removed from the days when the ‘crazy’ family member was locked in the attic. (“That thumping sound? Oh dear heaven, perhaps that old raccoon has snuck back in. Enjoy your pie; we’ll chase him out of there after you’re on your way.”) To make matters more complicated, Don, father of the brood, had a high profile position in the U.S. military, and rumors of family drama could have impacted his career.

Like my friend’s family, the Galvins dealt with the noise, the horror, the disruption by moving to the far edges of town, seeking geographical isolation so that neighborly complaints need not be an added worry.

Here’s the difficult part of writing about schizophrenia: readers want to find a grand discovery at the end; if not a cure, then a new and impressive treatment, or an historic advance in eliminating the problem. But solutions are elusive, and because of the stubborn nature of this disease, what may seem ground breaking to a researcher looks like a big, fat so-what to the average reader.

All told, Kolker has done a fine job describing what has taken place within the family and within the field; I thought he was a little hard on Mimi, who made a lot of errors but was facing a terrible dilemma during a period when our culture was very different from today. That aside, I do recommend this book to you. It will be available April 7, 2020.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact, but two children do, one at a time, to proprietors Liam and his estranged and dysfunctional wife, Val. First Wavy arrives, a daughter that grows up with instructions never to let anyone touch her, especially her father; next comes little brother Donal, whom Wavy undertakes to raise as best a small child can do, since nobody else is available for either of them. Val struggles with mental illness and has given in to addiction with no struggle at all. Liam lives elsewhere with a small harem of junkie women that he uses sexually and as part of his drug business. When Wavy sees him, he usually yells for one of the women to get her out of there and take her somewhere else. He doesn’t seem to care who she’s with, or what they do with her.

Wavy lives briefly with her grandmother, a nurturing woman who despairs of Val’s habits but is more than willing to take care of her grandchildren, and slowly Wavy begins to bloom. But Grandma is elderly and sick, and she dies. During the brief time Wavy is with her, Grandma teaches her to read the stars. Wavy has a quick, sharp mind, and with just a little encouragement she learns the constellations. They form her only reliable connection to the world, since they are the sole immutable part of her life. Take her to live here; take her to live there. Put her in school; yank her back out. No matter what happens, she can still find Cassiopeia.

Liam’s mechanic and sometime-employee is a man named Kellen. He sees Wavy left like yesterday’s mail by the side of the road and gives her a lift on his motorcycle. To stay on board, she must touch his jacket in spite of what her mother has told her about never touching other people. We all need to be touched, and children of course most of all, and a bond is formed.

As to Kellen, he’s a strange bird, and the reader is never fully informed what his deal is. Is he, as some say, a slow learner? Is he mentally ill? All we really know comes from the inner narrative we hear from him in alternate chapters, and what others say about him. And we know what he does. When Wavy’s parents don’t show up to pick her up from school or to attend parent conferences, Kellen goes. And we know that other members of Liam’s meth crew consider Kellen to be the kind of man that won’t pull the trigger, but will help move the body when the deed has been done.

Sadly, Kellen really is the best parent figure in Wavy’s life. For those that think this is melodramatic nonsense: teach in a low income school district for a decade or two, and then come back and tell me that. Because these kids are out there.

Greenwood is dead smart when it comes to developing character. The peculiar behaviors that Wavy develops along with the period in which her physical development ceases to move forward are right on the money. The author states that portions of the story are autobiographical, and that sounds about right.

The relationship that develops between Wavy and Kellen will cause plenty of fireworks way after Independence Day has passed. Those that have triggers related to anything at all should steer clear. But for the rest, this novel is worth your time and dime. As the relationship between Wavy and Kellen begins to change, readers may lean in, or may want to hurl the book at a wall, but no one will be left unmoved.

This book is available to the public August 9, 2016, but you can order it now.

Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, by Michael G. Long ***-****

peaceful neighborI confess I was intrigued by the title and description of this biography. Mr. Rogers came on television when I was entering adolescence, and so I didn’t watch it for myself. When I had children of my own, I tried to limit their time spent in front of TV, and so I tended to watch Sesame Street with them and then reach for the off button. But my son wanted to see Mr. Rogers, and I confess that although the magic escaped me—who wanted to watch this dull man with the puppet on his hand, seriously?—my son, who was three years old, thought differently. I watched the little smile play on his lips as Mister Rogers spoke to him, face straight into the camera. It made my kid feel better. And so I decided to plunge into this biography and see if I could figure out what made the show so appealing to little kids. I went all the way through a Master’s degree in education and came out still clueless, so why not? Thank you to Net Galley and Westminster John Knox Press for the DRC. The title was published in March and is available for purchase.

On the whole, I never did find the magic, but from an analytical standpoint, I could see where the work done by Fred Rogers was effective. He treated small people with respect. He was an expert in the psychology of very young children, and his show was crafted around gently, reassuringly addressing some issues that parents might not know how to talk to their children about. This is not to say that he had a superior attitude or spoke down to parents, when he acknowledged our presence, but I was a mom who had spent my entire pregnancy unemployed, sitting around the house reading books about pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of young children, and I had no idea that my son had been afraid he might go down the drain after the bath was over. And I watched his little face light up when Mr. Rogers sat at the piano and sang, “You can never go down, never go down, never go down the drain!”

The first twenty percent or so of this biography deals with Rogers’ religious beliefs, and I nearly had to stick myself with a pin to stay awake through it. The guy was a pacifist, and so although he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, his belief system and his quiet, subdued manner was largely that of the Friends, or Quakers. So for those who have a strong interest in examining the intricate details of faith as it relates to war and children, this will be more absorbing than it was for me.

Just at about the point at which I had decided that grabbing the galley had been a mistake—seriously, 176 pages and I had only read twenty percent? It felt like forever—and gave myself permission to skim and review this thing, it became more interesting. And although I think the author very much overstates his case in calling Rogers “subversive”, I agree that he openly, if subtly and carefully, disagreed with Presidents Reagan and HW Bush about the wars in the Middle East, and before that, with the Vietnam War. He never carried a sign, our writer points out several times, but chose to work behind the scenes and to use his television show as a platform for peace.

“War isn’t nice.”

He was no radical; during the Civil Rights movement, rather than encourage integration, he held fundraisers to buy supplies for the African-American schools that were separate and entirely unequal, to try to level things out a little bit, one school district at a time. Good luck with that.

But the real gift that he gave to small children was that of absolute acceptance. Children were valuable no matter what they looked like. He acknowledged that we feel mad sometimes, and talked about ways to work out the mad without hurting anyone. He recognized that sometimes girls want to play with machines, and sometimes boys might like to hold a doll, to dress it and pretend to feed it. His was a gentle persona, and he let everyone know that men can also be nurturers. And when a company presumed to use his likeness on a tee shirt with a gun in his hand, he took their ass to court and made them not only stop selling those shirts, but destroy every last one they still had in their possession or for sale.

He also had blind spots. He was raised in a wealthy family—Mr. McFeely, the neighborhood postal character in the Make Believe neighborhood where Mr. Rogers filmed, was also the name of his grandfather, who built the family fortune. And at Christmas time, the staff of Mr. Rogers’s TV show each got a nice card with a note saying he had made a gift in their name to a charity; but one of the staffers pointed out to the author that some of them were paid very low salaries, and sure could have used the holiday bonus instead.

A documentary that was filmed about Fred Rogers was made with the understanding that the cameras must not show “the tasteful opulence of my home”.


The writer does a fine job of analyzing where Fred Rogers stood on all of the key issues of the day before his rather sudden death due to stomach cancer. If this man was important to you, or if you have an interest in the connection between social justice and religion, or children’s television shows, this might be a great book for you. If you are not interested in religion, you may want to skim through the first chapters and get to the meatier parts.

Either way, Fred would’ve liked you exactly as you are now.

The Hurried Child, by Dr. David Elkind ****

thehurriedchildI’m using today’s book review to revisit a previously published book. I think it’s valuable to both parents and educators. Recently I’ve seen some reality TV competitions in which girls in their middle teens were dressed up to look like they were twenty-five. Sometimes that’s a judgment call, I guess, but this brief but authoritative book reminds us that it’s important to let kids be kids, and that when our girls feel rushed to become women, they may later thank us if we remind them to slow it down a bit.

To put it another way folks, don’t put mascara on your twelve-year-old, and don’t buy it for her, either.

Elkind makes a lot of really strong points here. This book is more geared toward those who are raising children (parent/guardians…so many, many grandparents raising kids these days!) than toward educators, who follow the school or district’s policies regardless, but since teachers often influence the choices made by the children they teach, it’s worth reading whether you have children in your home, your classroom, or both.

The last chapter draws a lot of extremely conservative conclusions with which I would not care to be associated, and this is why the final star is denied. However, in this day and age in which kids in fifth grade come home and announce they have a boyfriend, in which teensy children are packed off to beauty contests carefully coiffed, manicured, and covered in cosmetics, this is a breath of healthy, let’s-get-real common sense.

If you are a parent who is not sure what children should do as they move past early childhood, or if you have questions about adolescents, this is a good read. Sadly, the people who should most read this book probably won’t, and those who are already doing a pretty decent job probably will.

Still, highly recommended.