Get to know the Top 40: Medical memoirs

Sometimes true stories are difficult stories of pain, illness and loss. Today we look at the books on the Canada Reads Top 40 list whose authors have faced an illness or disability (either their own or a family member's) and lived to write about it and turn lemons into memoirs, as it were. 

Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown writes about life with his severely disabled son, Ryan Knighton finds the humour in going blind at 18 years old, Robyn Levy navigates two life-altering medical diagnoses at once, Heather Summerhayes Cariou remembers life with her cystic fibrosis-afflicted sister and Sarah Leavitt doodles her way to understanding her mother's struggle with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

The Book: The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown


What's it about? Globe and Mail columnist Ian Brown writes about life with his severely disabled son Walker, who was born with an extremely rare genetic mutation called cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC). At eight, Walker is functionally autistic, unable to speak or swallow (he is fed through a feeding tube), and has a propensity for self-harm. Brown's chronicle started off as a series in the Globe and Mail.

Did the critics like it? Yes. The New York Times loved Brown's combination of sensitivity and matter-of-factness. The book was the winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction in 2010.

What else do I need to know? You can watch an eloquent and engaging interview with Ian Brown by TVO's Allen Gregg here. And you can follow Brown on Twitter.

The Book: Cockeyed by Ryan Knighton


What's it about? At 18, Ryan Knighton was told he was going blind. Sounds depressing? Well, yes. Fortunately Ryan Knighton has a sharp (if dark  no pun intended) sense of humour, and the book is a hilarious and touching coming-of-age story.

Did the critics like it? Did they ever. Cockeyed was called one of the "hottest reads of the year" by People Magazine, and it was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2007.

What else do I need to know? Knighton adapted Cockeyed into a screenplay at the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab, and Jodie Foster is attached to direct the film. You can also follow him on Twitter.

The Book: Most of Me by Robyn Michelle Levy


What's it about? Levy was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at age 43, and then, while she was still reeling from that diagnosis, she learned she was also suffering from breast cancer. Most of Me chronicles her strange, gross and often darkly funny journey through the medical establishment, where she is well served by her imagination and sense of humour.

Did the critics like it? Levy has collected some positive blurbs from an interesting collection of personalities, including musician Bif Naked and CBC personality Bill Richardson.

What else do I need to know? Levy is also a visual artist, and keeps a frequently maintained blog featuring her work.

The Book: Sixtyfive Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou


What's it about? Heather Summerhayes Cariou grew up with a younger sister stricken with cystic fibrosis. In this memoir, she chronicles her family's pain and love, and how her parents turned their challenges into an opportunity to do good by founding the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Did the critics like it? Yes. The Globe and Mail praise Cariou for "rejecting sentimentality," and there are dozens of personal accounts online praising this book. It has clearly touched a nerve in the cystic fibrosis community.

What else do I need to know? A portion of the book sales will go towards cystic fibrosis research.

The Book: Tangles by Sarah Leavitt


What's it about? In Tangles, writer and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt chronicles her mother's stuggle with Alzheimer's disease.

Did the critics like it? Yes. Critics across the country were moved by Leavitt's work, calling it an important addition to the canon of literature about Alzheimer's.

What else do I need to know? Tangles was the first graphic memoir to be nominated for the Writer's Trust Award for non-fiction. You can keep up with Leavitt's work online.

You can vote for these titles (or any of the other 35 books) in our Canada Reads: True Stories vote for the Top 10 contest! To cast your vote, head over to the poll. You can vote for up to five titles. Doing so will help these books move one step closer to being officially entered in this year's battle of the books.

The Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10 will be revealed on Tuesday, November 1, on Q and right here on CBC Books.

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