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With the country entering its second year of a global pandemic, hope is rather elusive. And while readers’ instincts may be to reach for escapist fiction, there is another way: leaning in to the grief of being human and letting writers who’ve grappled with it forge a path forward. A wave of absorbing dark-night-of-the-soul memoirs has been published lately, with five timely titles tackling the topic. Paradoxically, in this body of work on suffering, hope abounds. As does humanity.


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American Daughter, Stephanie Thornton Plymale with Elissa Wald (HarperOne, 288 pages)

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This blockbuster book from Portland CEO Stephanie Thornton Plymale is newly out in Canada. American Daughter chronicles a childhood of hunger, neglect and homelessness, living in cars and between foster homes, forever thrown into chaos by a mentally ill mother. The author manages to salvage stability through a decades-long marriage, motherhood and a successful career, but her past continues to haunt her. This book is an attempt to come to terms with that history, to heal her relationship with her mother and to celebrate her own resilience. Compelling and well-told, the story is full of surprises, including the revelation of a long-held family secret and the uncovering of lineage that traces back to famous American figures.


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We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing, Jillian Horton (HarperCollins, 304 pages)

When Winnipeg physician Jillian Horton finds herself at a workshop for burned-out health care workers in New York State, she’s not exactly in her element. Skeptical, skittish and full of sarcastic jokes, the forty-something specialist in internal medicine is hardly zen-retreat material. But somewhere between the meditation mat and the bonding banter with other depleted doctors, an unravelling takes place. Horton is able to face the grief she’s lived through – the pain of her childhood, the loss of her disabled sister and the guilt over patients she couldn’t save. She then sets out to rediscover the pieces of herself she’s had to shut down during long, sleep-deprived, stressful hours at the hospital. This is a poignant book and, at times, a funny one. It’s likely to resonate with health care workers everywhere. A tome for the times.


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Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming, Antonio Michael Downing (Viking, 344 pages)

Reading Toronto writer Antonio Michael Downing’s memoir is like sinking into a sorrowful song. Poetic, transporting and uniquely moving, Saga Boy is lush with descriptions of the writer and musician’s youth in the rainforests of Trinidad, his relocation to the lonely, icy expanses of Northern Ontario and his years on the glittering stage. Downing’s story weaves together disparate notes: the healing balm of his grandmother’s hymns and prayers, but also the destruction wrought by the men who came before him – the saga boys, or playboys, in Trinidadian parlance. All of is threaded through with a chorus of longing for the family life that Downing can never quite seem to find. Still, the bass line here is resilience and strength. And beauty.


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So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience, Mark Henick (HarperCollins, 304 pages)

Mark Henick is famous for a TED Talk on suicide that went viral. It was, in fact, about his own suicide attempts, and his video challenged millions to think more deeply about mental health. Henick’s new memoir chronicles his journey from lonely Cape Breton teen to confident professional and family man. It is, at once, a window into the mind of a troubled boy, a glimpse at the failings of our mental-health system and testament to love. So-Called Normal is a call to arms, yes, but it’s also a call to care, highlighting the power of kindness. Required reading for anyone working with children and teens.

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The Bright Side: Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks, and One (Maybe) Miracle, Cathrin Bradbury (Viking, 304 pages)

The year 2015 was not a good one for Cathrin Bradbury, a veteran journalist and senior news director at CBC. After divorcing her husband of 25 years, she was forced to navigate the loss of a new romance and the passing of both parents – all in one truly awful annus horribilis. The result is this warm, chatty memoir, which serves as both a meditation on family and friendship and a love letter to Toronto and its colourful media characters. The Bright Side’s high point is indeed a high one: the sobriety of Bradbury’s brother after decades of addiction. He resurfaces during this awful time, a light in the darkness, setting the upbeat tenor for this tale.

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