Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 6)

Say Nothing – Patrick Radden Keefe

I loved Empire Of Pain so much, I immediately ran out and picked up a copy of Patrick Radden Keefe’s previous best-seller, Say Nothing. It was published in 2018, and billed as a history of the Troubles told through a single cold case, “a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland”. I was sure it was going to be a five-star read.

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In 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year-old widowed mother of ten(!), was abducted from her Belfast home and never seen alive again. No one has ever been officially brought to justice for her abduction and murder. Through this unsolved case, Keefe explores the sectarian violence that has divided Ireland, and specifically the culture of silence that underpins the social contract in all areas of Irish life as a result. The title, Say Nothing, is actually taken from a Seamus Heaney poem about the conflict called Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

Although Say Nothing is broad in scope, a conflict this complex couldn’t be completely captured in a book twice the length. As Keefe says himself in his author’s note on sources:

“This is not a history book but a work of narrative non-fiction…. Because I have elected to tell this particular story, there are important aspects of the Troubles that are not addressed. The book hardly mentions loyalist terrorism, to take just one example. If you’re feeling whataboutish, I would direct you to one of the many excellent books cited in the notes that address the Troubles more broadly or your favoured subject in particular.”

Patrick Radden Keefe on say nothing

So, bearing that in mind, here’s a refresher of the essentials. Nearly 4,000 people were killed in the Troubles between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. For the most part, these deaths were attributable to violence between Catholic republicans – who sought to unify Northern Island with the Republic – and the Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British military, who sought to squash their revolution. This period was punctuated by frequent shootings, riots, and bombings. Many of those killed and injured were civilians.

Surprisingly, fewer than twenty people were “disappeared” during this period (as far as Keefe/we know). Jean McConville was one of them. She was far from the “perfect” victim, as far as the true crime genre goes; by Keefe’s report, she had PTSD (as I’d imagine most people living in Belfast at the time did), she was dependent on prescription tranquilizers, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment at one point. Her life circumstances were tragic, and her disappearance took things from bad to worse for her whole (huge!) family.

So, given the complex nature of the crime and victimology at the heart of Say Nothing, why would Keefe spend a decent chunk of the first half describing the life and (mis)adventures of political activist and Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer Dolours Price? It wasn’t immediately clear what she had to do with the disappearance of Jean McConville, and in my view Keefe took a little too long to connect the dots.

It’s also worth noting that another decent chunk of Say Nothing is focused on unravelling the myth of Gerry Adams: the good, the bad, and the bitter. He’s famous for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement that saw a rapid de-escalation in violence, but as Keefe shows, his hands are covered in blood.

Around the end of Part Two and the start of Book Three, though, it really started to come together – and from then, I could barely tear my eyes away.

It turns out that Dolours Price, and her sister (also an activist/volunteer), were almost certainly involved in the abduction and murder of Jean McConville, on the orders of Gerry Adams – but proving it is a pipe dream. The only hope of testimony as to their involvement came in the form of the Belfast Project, an archive of oral histories of key players in the Troubles, recorded and stored in the high-security Treasure Room at Boston College in the U.S.

On the one hand, this sounds like a win (“heck yeah! break into the Treasure Room, get the transcripts, solve the cold case!”), but it’s actually a really sad and horrifying story of good intentions and good faith ruined by political zeal. The Belfast Project transcripts were supposed to be sealed, only to be opened after the death of the project participants, for the purposes of academic research. That courts would demand access to them to solve political crimes is, in retrospect, a foreseeable consequence of the project, but not one that the College or the coordinators properly planned for. I’ll leave it to Keefe to explain it in full (you’ll have to read Say Nothing to really “get it”), but suffice to say here, it’s a mess of grey areas and ethical quandaries.

In the final chapter, Keefe switches to a more personal tone, and offers his own insights without his journalistic hat on. He provides some context as to his own Irish heritage, how he heard about Dolours Price and Jean McConville, and why he chose to pursue the story. He draws conclusions as to what “really” happened to McConville – as the true crime genre dictates he must – but he makes clear to the reader what can be “proven” and what is purely his own educated guesswork.

I guess I came to Say Nothing expecting a bit more true crime, and a little less history – which is a fault of my own, not Keefe’s incredible work. It’s less of a family saga than Empire Of Pain, and more a documentary-style investigation into the consequences of violence and silence. So, even though it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was still pretty damn good, and I learned a whole heck of a lot.

(Trigger warning for a dog death – it’s glanced over, early on, but it was enough to make me teary, reading while hormonal and drinking wine. Also beware sectarian violence, mass murder, and abuses of many kinds.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of Say Nothing:

  • “this book is as exciting as reading the Dublin phone book.” – amazon customer
  • “Unless you’re a historian, this book is overpriced and simply boring” – Alain Blanchette

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a ‘biography’ feels reductive. This 2010 masterpiece of journalistic non-fiction, by first-time American writer Rebecca Skloot, is much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s an study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot!

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For those of us unfamiliar with the life of Henrietta Lacks (which I’d imagine is most of us, if you haven’t read this book yet), here’s the run-down. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black, Southern tobacco farmer, still working the land upon which her ancestors were enslaved. She sadly developed cervical cancer in the prime of her life. While undergoing treatment at John Hopkins, her cancer cells were taken – without her knowledge – and used to create the first ever “immortal” human tissue grown in culture.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand exactly what that means: Skloot explains it, a couple of times over, the for-dummies version that even people who hated high-school biology can comprehend.

Basically, before Henrietta’s cancer cells were stuck in a test tube, scientists didn’t know how to make cells grow outside of the human body. They’d stick them in some jelly, wait a bit, and watch them die off, time and again. Henrietta was just one in a long, long, long(!) line of patients whose cells were harvested to see if they might grow – but hers were the first that did.

That’s incredible enough on its own – they took cells out of her body and the cells kept growing – but it’s just the beginning. Henrietta’s cancer cells (now known in scientific circles as HeLa, taken from the first two letters of her first name and surname) are – as the title of this book suggests – immortal. They’re still growing today, even though Henrietta has been dead for seventy-plus years.

So, the immortality isn’t (just) metaphorical: there are literally trillions of living HeLa cells in laboratories all around the world, as you read this right now. According to Skloot, if you could put all of the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh 50 million metric tonnes (that’s 100 Empire State Buildings).

The skeptical among you might be wondering: so what? We grew a bunch of cells from a lady? Why should that matter?

Well, for lots of reasons. The ability to grow human cells – Henrietta’s cells – in culture has allowed us to develop all kinds of medical advancements that would have otherwise (probably) never come to be. The polio vaccine, cancer treatments, the effects of radiation, in-vitro fertilisation, gene mapping – all of it was tested first, or developed using, HeLa cells. It’s no stretch to call Henrietta Lacks’s cells the most important tool in modern medicine.

And yet, through a bizarre and tragic series of events, most people have no idea who she is. Rebecca Skloot only heard about her by chance, when a biology teacher mentioned her in a class. Skloot followed her nose, learned everything she could and went searching for more – that research became The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, the definitive true story of one of the most important women the world doesn’t know.

Henrietta’s own family knew nothing of her “immortal” cell line until two decades after her death. Even though their matriarch’s cells have become a multi-million dollar industry, they can’t afford health insurance. They’ve been screwed by journalists, con-men, and the doctors they were supposed to trust. So, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is just as much a study of bioethics and law as it is the story of the woman before the cells.

(Hot tip: don’t skip the Afterword! It offers fascinating insight into the current-ish state of human tissue research, regarding collection, consent, and commercialisation. I was shocked to learn that what happened to Henrietta and her family could quite easily, and legally, still happen today!)

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is very just-one-more-chapter-y. Skloot doesn’t rely on gimmicks or cliffhangers; the real story is enticing enough to have you wondering what will happen next (in Henrietta’s life, and in Skloot’s quest to learn about it) all on its own. Henrietta’s legacy – her cells, her life, and what the medical field did to her family – is profoundly sad, but also moving and powerful. Skloot has done a great thing in bringing it to the world.

The critics agree: not long after its release, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks was named one of the best books of the year by over sixty different media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR, and Oprah. Over a decade later, it is still required or recommended reading at over a hundred universities, and widely taught in classrooms at all levels.

I’m sure you can tell, by this point, that I loved The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks and I highly recommend it – especially to fans of Susan Orlean and John Safran.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks:

  • “I really like the story it was a nice book. Very interesting and nice.” – Juan
  • “It’s like reading a book about the theory of relativity that doesn’t discuss its specifics but rather focuses on the family of the man who maintained the big clock that helped to “give” Einstein the idea, and how they never got paid for their contribution to science. A background on Einstein, Bern, the ethics of the trade of medieval clock tower maintenance and the family history included. If all of the inspirational medieval clock towers could have been gathered on a scale, their total weight would have measured more than 50 million metric tons. Now, think about that you dullards. This book is pointless claptrap, spacious claims, morbid interests, a rotten flavor of the “month”.” – JakeSW
  • “What were the publishers thinking!!?? I purchased the Kindle version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in 2014 which had the original cover featuring the late Henrietta Lacks. Unless you are among ardent fans of Oprah Winfrey, you will be disappointed that the new Kindle version features Ms Winfrey. The book is NOT about Ms Winfrey. Therefore, I was beyond shock when I saw that my 2014 Kindle version was automatically updated to the new cover. This was not acceptable (admittedly not a fan of Ms Winfrey).” – EGALITARIAN

Year Of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

I’m not ashamed to admit that, prior to reading Year Of Yes, all of my Shonda Rhimes knowledge was Grey’s Anatomy-related. In fact, prior to Year Of Yes, Rhimes herself really preferred it that way. All her life, she had been a self-confessed introvert; she once hired a publicist for the express purpose of keeping her from actually having to do any publicity for her ground-breaking television.

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Really, Rhimes said “no” to everything as a way of hiding from things that terrified her (can’t we all relate, just a little bit?). As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted her when she said she was “too busy”. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid.

Then, while cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 2013, her sister said something to her, something Rhimes calls the “six startling words”: you never say yes to anything.

Well, you can’t lay down a gauntlet like that in front of a powerhouse like Rhimes. She embraced the challenge and decided to go against all her better instincts, to spend the year saying YES. She’s now written this book, Year Of Yes, about her experience. It’s not a memoir, exactly – even though it’s told through the frame of Rhimes’ experiment. It’s not self-help, either – even though Rhimes offers a lot of advice and wisdom gleaned from what she’s done. I’d say Year Of Yes is a non-fiction book about the transformative power of being open to new things and overcoming ingrained anxiety, as exemplified by one extraordinary woman.

I knew from the prologue alone that Rhimes and I would be great friends (she and Gabrielle Union and I should really get together sometime). She likes wine (in a let’s-drink-about-it way, not a snobby way), and her searing self-deprecation (whilst never losing sight of, nor apologising for, her many accomplishments) is totally endearing. What’s more, it’s abundantly clear throughout Year Of Yes that she poured a lot of herself into her most-beloved Grey’s Anatomy character, Christina Yang. Trust me, if you’ve ever identified as a Yang, Year Of Yes is a book you’ll want to read.

That’s not why I picked it up, though – just a happy coincidence. Mostly I was curious about Year Of Yes as a fascinating counterpoint to all of the calls for busy women to say “no” more often. Rhimes is busier than most of us (combined). Surely, I thought, saying “yes” – to everything – would simply lead to her feeling over-committed and exhausted.

She addresses the over-commitment question directly in chapter seven (“Yes to All Play and No Work”), when she realises that saying “yes” also means saying yes to silly things, fun things, and sometimes saying yes to those things means saying a grateful “no” to others. This is not the year of indiscriminate yes; it’s the year of yes to things that make us feel alive. There are some things (and some people, ahem!) that it is absolutely right to say-yes-to-saying-no-to.

When Rhimes starts saying yes, she finds that her fear won’t actually kill her. Most of the time, facing the fear she feels really pays off. She does interviews, speeches, cameo appearances, all kinds of awesome stuff that brings her a lot of joy – all of which she would have said “no” to, had her sister not made a crack at her at a family get-together. Year Of Yes turns out to be Rhimes’ own self-guided form of exposure therapy. The more she says yes, and follows through, the easier (and better) it gets.

I got nervous when she started to talk about health and her weight – but I needn’t have worried. Though some of her self-talk and concerns might be a bit triggering for readers particularly sensitive to those issues, I thought Rhime’s message was ultimately a positive and empowering one. She is not here to advocate for losing weight in order to feel beautiful. Rather, she discovered that once she felt beautiful and said “yes” to doing things that made her feel good, losing weight was a side effect of that. Say “yes” to loving your body and commit to doing the best you can for it, and the rest will fall where it may. Sometimes that means saying “yes” to a hike, sometimes it means saying “yes” to extra cheese.

I hesitate to share this, for fear of sounding like a gross cliche, but… what the heck. Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got.

Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Hell yes, Shonda!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Year Of Yes:

  • “I had such high hopes for this book! And I tried. I tried soooo hard to make it through. But it is was so incredibly boring and self-centered and seemingly without an ability to connect to others hardships and experiences of life. If you DO find yourself as a very wealthy, very successful TV writer and producer with an amazing life who just can’t seem to say yes to fancy events with other wealthy, successful people, then PLEASE buy this book. It will no doubt help you on your journey.” – Jessica Michele
  • “The book came with what very much appears to be snot on the cover, complete with multiple pieces of nose or beard hair in it. Delivered during the peak of COVID. Not feeling great about this.” – Amsat
  • “I’m in a book club and this was our book… not sure if I’m going to stay with the book club.” – Jeff & Erin

Know My Name – Chanel Miller

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted – literally caught in the act – of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle.

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In January 2015, Miller was a 22-year-old graduate living in Palo Alto. One night, on a whim she decided to attend a Stanford campus party with her sister and friends. Within hours, Brock Turner sexually assaulted her, and she became “unconscious intoxicated woman” – Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Miller doesn’t ease you into this harrowing story with any meandering anecdotes about her upbringing. She’s setting this scene for her assault by page 2.

I was deeply disturbed to realise, in these early chapters, just how little Miller was told about what had happened to her once she regained consciousness, even after she made it abundantly clear to doctors and police that she had no memory of leaving the party. One of the most confronting scenes from Know My Name (and that’s saying something) comes when Miller learns the details of her assault from a news article, sitting at her desk at work. At the same time as the rest of the world, she read about her assailant’s dreams of swimming at the Olympics and his record-breaking pace, alongside the allegations that he had violently penetrated her with his fingers and left her mostly-undressed on the ground behind a garbage bin when two cyclists intervened.

He was the one who lost everything. I was just the nobody it had happened to.

Know My Name (Page 48)

This pattern plays out time and time again in Know My Name, each instance as sickening as the last: the perpetrator’s accomplishments and ambitions are highlighted, his crime(s) diminished, Miller’s pain and suffering barely mentioned.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

Know My Name (Page 241)

Of course, the assault is only the beginning. Over the course of Know My Name, Miller recounts in gut-wrenching detail the ways in which she was repeatedly violated over the following years: the investigation, the hearing, the trial, the sentencing, the aftermath. Institutions seem to fail her at every turn. The courtroom turns into a circus with rival ringleaders, each seeking to make their own performing monkey seem most sympathetic to a jury. The administrators of Stanford offer Miller little more than a pamphlet and a condescending pat on the shoulder, their fears of litigation and bad publicity far outweighing any fear they have for the safety of students and visitors to their campus.

Miller does remind us at intervals (though she shouldn’t have to) that Know My Name exists for so many people. One in five women have a version of this story that they could tell. What happened to Miller is not an isolated incident, it was not an extraordinary once-off. It happens every day, in every part of the world. It’s an excellent companion read to She Said (the journalists’ account of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story), in that regard.

It struck me, about halfway through Know My Name, that this was the first full account I’d ever read of the victim’s journey through the judicial system. In TV dramas, they cut right from the confession to the guilty verdict, and everyone goes home feeling justice has been done in 38 minutes. Miller’s account exposes the indefinite timeframes, the potential minefields, the unexpected demands – women just don’t know that this is what they’re agreeing to when they’re encouraged to report. Collectively, we “know” that it’s difficult, demoralising, retraumatising, but that knowledge is abstract. By sharing the full story in Know My Name, Miller makes it tangible.

She also emphasises the ripple effect of trauma. The man who attacked her didn’t only victimise her, he victimised her sister, her parents, her grandmother, her friends. Her sister lives with enormous survivor’s guilt. Her parents had to see close-up images of Miller’s brutalised vulva displayed in the courtroom. Her friends had to fend off reporters and the defendant’s investigators looking to dig up dirt. One assault, so many victims.

Chapter 12 provides a particularly striking rebuttal to the “but what about innocent until proven guilty?” argument. Miller lays out all the ways in which we currently interrogate the past behaviour of the victim (what they drank, what they wore, who they’ve slept with); if the victim can’t be “innocent until proven guilty”, why should their attacker be? The benefit of the doubt doesn’t seem to extend to the person who is bleeding. Miller has been caught in this trap herself, but incredibly she has retained the capacity to articulate the flaws of the “system” in stunningly eloquent ways. “When a victim does go for help, she is seen as attacking the assailant,” Miller says in Know My Name. “Inherently the victim is outnumbered,” (page 287-8).

It’s hard not to turn this review into a series of extracts; Miller’s voice is that powerful. Just one more…

For years, the crime of sexual assault depended on our silence. The fear of knowing what happened if we spoke… The barricades that held us down will not work anymore. And when silence and shame are gone, there will be nothing to stop us.

Know My Name (Page 327)

Goosebumps, right? This is an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival.

Educated – Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling.

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Educated, first published in 2018, is Westover’s account of her remarkable life: growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons, leaving them to step foot in a classroom for the first time as a university student, and going on to complete a PhD at Cambridge University. The story is told in three parts, to match that chronology.

Part One begins with Westover’s birth – date unknown, sometime around the end of September, 1986 – on an isolated rural property that served as both family home and junkyard. Westover didn’t have a birth certificate for the first nine years of life. When the time came for her to get one, none of her family members could agree on their recollection of the day she was born. “I remember the day [my delayed birth certificate] came in the mail,” she says, on page 26. “It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.”

Her parents were deeply suspicious of any government or organisation, be it hospitals, schools, or the tax man. Westover and her siblings grew up fearing the kind of federal intervention we’ve seen play out on the evening news, where operatives would come to take them away – and for them, the threat was a lot more tangible, and local. A 1992 siege upon the home of a like-minded Idaho family nearby resulted in three deaths; you might know it as Ruby Ridge.

Westover’s attempts to attend school or participate in any other aspect of “normal” childhood were (sometimes violently) opposed by her father. That included seeking medical attention. Educated has any number of stories of junkyard injuries that the family “treated” (homeopathically) themselves at home, and more than one serious car accident – each more stomach-turning than the last.

Despite that stumble start in life, Westover managed to “home school” herself enough to pass the required exams and gain entry to Brigham Young University. In Part Two of Educated, she details the pressures and obstacles that come from starting college at 17, having taught yourself to read with only the Bible and the Book of Mormon as reference texts.

Once Westover begins her formal education, she is reluctant – in the extreme – to tell the truth of her upbringing, her circumstances, and her needs. It’s easy, with privilege and hindsight, to shout at the page: “Just tell them! It’ll help! It’ll make things better for you!”. It takes a long time for Westover to concede that she does, in fact, need more than her upbringing gave her to survive in the world.

I’ll never forget one particularly harrowing episode where Westover finally found the courage to ask a question in class: the meaning of the word Holocaust. Her classmates were horrified, but of course, none of them knew why she asked.

I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.

Educated (Page 101)

The final section of Educated covers Westover’s opportunity to study at Cambridge, the financial assistance and mentorship she received to help her stay there – and, of course, what choosing the path of education meant for her relationship with her family, her hometown, her religion, and herself. The book learning’s not all beer and skittles, after all.

Westover writes her true history without judgement, a remarkable feat given her circumstances. She says at the end of her memoir that she’s in touch with only a few of her family members, and lives a life entirely separate from the mountain that was her first home, but she doesn’t seem to wish them ill or bear any bitterness for the life they gave her.

In the interests of a right of reply, I’ll tell you here that Westover’s parents (via their attorneys) have said that there is “only a little germ of truth” in Educated, and her brother Shawn in particular has vehemently denied the instances of abuse Westover described. Westover hasn’t given a public response to that – the book kind of speaks for itself, really, having been professionally fact-checked by the kinds of very smart and thorough people who do that kind of thing.

What Westover has lost in family, she has won in fans, hundreds of thousands of times over. Educated was an instant best-seller, and received wall-to-wall positive reviews (a frightening number of which appear as blurbs in my edition, pages and pages of them!). The book spent over two years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has been translated into over 45 languages. As of last year, it had sold over 6 million copies worldwide.

I found Educated to be a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Naturally, I must offer any prospective readers content warnings for family trauma (and one particularly alarming incident of cruelty towards a dog, near the end), but trust me: if you can stomach it, Educated is an incredible and transformative read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Educated:

  • “By purchasing this book, helped her pay for her psych bills.” – Gloria H. Pedrick
  • “Survivalist, near- death experiences, severe mental illness, religious conflict, this book has it all. And you think YOUR family is nuts!” – Nancy
  • “I need this book downloaded on to my iPad, please” – Yvonne barmon swanstrom
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