Monday, February 25, 2019

Two Very Different Memoirs

Boy Wonders by Cathal Kelly

I read this book because I think Kelly is one of the most talented current Canadian journalists.  He writes mostly, but not exclusively, sports stories and he writes so well he manages to interest me in topics I would only having a passing interest in, at best.

Unfortunately, I didn't come away with the same positive feelings about his memoir.  It is written in short chapters that are each more like a distinct short story or newspaper article.  His writing style is still excellent (for the most part, I really didn't like the chapter of lists).  But either his life hasn't been that interesting or he only attacked it in a somewhat superficial way.  I just didn't get drawn into his narrative (contrast that to the book I review next).  I sympathized with some of the difficulties he had as a child - particularly his relationship with his alcoholic father - but I just didn't really feel his pain.

He does admit to not being a very nice kid, which I guess takes courage, but I felt he really scratched the surface when he could have gone deeper.  I've read his stories about baseball players which have left me more satisfied.

I wouldn't bother - stick to reading his articles in the Globe.

The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and my Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong

Unlike Kelly's book, I hesitated for a long time before I decided to read this book.  The description made it sound a bit too weird.  But I shouldn't have hesitated for a moment.  I was sucked into Wong's dramatic life from the very start.

Wong is the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who grew up in Vancouver (which she refers to as Hongkouver).  Unfortunately, her grandmother, mother and aunt all suffered from mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), but due in part to their illness and in part to their cultural upbringing, believed they were haunted by "woo woo", ghosts who come to visit in times of personal turmoil.  Thus they did not seek conventional medical attention which may have vastly improved Wong's childhood.

She describes horrifying incidents where she spent days living in a suburban shopping mall to evade the woo woo, weeks when her mother disappeared and left her verbally abusive and domestically incompetent father in charge, and even a time when her mother set her feet on fire as she slept in too late.  Her parents had little regard for proper hygiene or diet and Wong was given no social coping skills other than the fighting she learned in hockey (her father actually financially rewarded her for penalty minutes).  Not surprisingly, she had no friends at school and was often suspended for fighting.

As a child Wong looks up to her aunt - but she too suffers from bipolar disorder and makes headlines when she holds Vancouver commuters hostage on Canada Day as she threatens to jump from a bridge.  And while she treats Wong kindly, she is as abusive of her own daughter as Wong's parents are of her.

Wong finally emerges somewhat from her troubled life when she attends University of British Columbia.  There, because she has few friends, she throws herself into her studies, excels and is eventually accepted into the Fine Arts program at Columbia.  But there she is struck with debilitating migraines and vertigo and begins to worry she too is succumbing to the woo woo.  But with caring medical attention, and her mother coming through when she least expected it, she perseveres - and was able to write this amazing book.

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