The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Book Review

By: Christy Lefteri

“Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope.”

My synopsis of the book:

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is centred around a Syrian family affected by the civil war that is spreading around them.  The first few chapters show the reader how ordinary life was in Syria before the war. Nuri and his cousin Mustafa owned and ran a bee farm where they made honey.  Nuri is the novel’s main character; he is married to a woman named Afra and has a son, Sami. There are many other important characters, like Mustafa, that play a role in shaping this story.  The reader travels with Nuri as he escapes Aleppo with his family and tries to reach England, where his cousin Mustafa lives.  Nuri travels across the Syrian border into Turkey, where he then begins his trek to the Mediterranean Sea to get to Greece. Once in Greece, his troubles only worsen as he tries to find ways to leave and continue to his final destination, England.  Christy Lefteri shows the reader the difficulties refugees face in their journey to safety and the personal struggles refugees carry as they leave their homes, friends and families.  Nuri and his family’s story of freedom are filled with heartache and sadness that will follow them for the rest of their lives. 

“Money gets you everywhere. This is what I always say. Without it, you live your entire life travelling trying to get to where you think you need to go.”

My review:

I’m finding it very difficult to write a review on this book because I don’t want to take away from the importance of the Syrian refugee crisis.  The Beekeeper of Aleppo gives a voice to the Syrian people who lost their homes to the civil war.  Unfortunately, I must admit, the book itself struggled to captivate me. 

In the beginning, it was difficult to follow along with the different periods presented in the chapters. I usually have no problem with books not written in chronological order, but this story did not flow from one period to another well. It eventually became much clearer but, the first impression of the book wasn’t great.

Also, I never found myself connecting with the main characters. There needed to be a bit more character development in the beginning to draw me into their story.  I found myself hoping I would become more attached to the characters as the chapters continued but, it never really happened. I was heartbroken when each horrible event happened to them but, mainly because I knew somewhere in this world, these events happened to real people. 

Although I found this book to be pretty average, I would still recommend it because of the importance of understanding the Syrian refugee crisis.

The most important message to get from this story is that Syria was a developed, established nation that was struck by a civil war that tore the entire country apart.  Unfortunately, because of the multiple middle eastern conflicts that we are accustomed to now, we assume that all of the middle east is continuously at war, this was not the case for Syria.  Syria had been living peacefully for many years.  This is what made the civil war even more difficult for Syrians.  Lefteri does a good job at making this message clear.

About the author:

Christy Lefteri has a close connection to the story.  She spent two summers volunteering at the refugee camps in Athens, getting to meet many Syrian families.  Writing this story was also important to her because she is also the daughter of Cypriot refugees. 


Hidden Valley Road – Book Review

By: Robert Kolker

“…for almost as long, Donald has consistently and unwaveringly maintained that he is, in fact, the offspring of an octopus.”

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker is a true story of a post-world war II family, the Galvin’s, living in Colorado, USA. Through the Galvin family, the reader sees the advancement of mental health research in America’s medical community, beginning in the 1950s and progressing to the modern-day. Six of the twelve children in the Galvin family get diagnosed with varying levels of schizophrenia. This number of diagnoses within one family is extremely rare, and therefore they become the primary test family for mental health research in America. 

“As she walked through the door of the house at Hidden Valley Road, she couldn’t help but recognize a perfect sample. This could be the most mentally ill family in America.”

Kolker dives into the story of the Galvin family, hearing first-hand accounts of what life was like growing up as a Galvin, watching members of your family “lose their minds.” Diary entries, first-hand interviews, medical records and community research are used to piece together who the Galvin’s were. He explores the children’s childhood, Mimi and Don’s marriage, and even the paternal and maternal family history. By the end of the book, you have a clear understanding of who the Galvin family were and how they live their lives today. Kolker writes this book with such vivid detail that it is sometimes hard to believe that this isn’t a work of fiction.  

“At the heart of Jung’s objection was the question of the nature of delusional mental illness: Is schizophrenia something you’re born with, a physical affliction of the brain? Or is it acquired in life, after one has become scarred somehow by the world?”

I was a bit worried about how difficult it would be to read and comprehend the scientific medical information that Kolker would inevitably include in his book about mental health. This is where I believe Kolker deserves the most praise. He includes detailed and complex information about mental health research written in such a simplistic way to allow everyone to understand the information regardless of scientific background. In each of those chapters, I learned something new about mental health and understood the medical advancements he discusses. These sections are very well done, leaving the reader feeling enthusiastic with the scientific progression and, at times, disappointed with the research results. I hope that there will be a follow-up book after twenty years showing more advancements in mental health.

“One of the consequences of surviving schizophrenia for fifty years is that sooner or later, the cure becomes as damaging as the disease.”

There were a few topics that Kolker explores that really affected me. At the beginning of the book, it was clear that when the Galvin’s first son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1960s, the medical community had few answers for them. Additionally, it seemed that the doctors were blaming mental illness solely on mothers. As a mother myself, I know what it feels like to continuously wonder if I am making the right decisions for my child. This is a feeling I think most mothers feel. I believe mothers from the 1960s would have also had these same thoughts. Now, after doing the best they can, these mothers are being told by a room full of mostly men (if not all men) that they have concluded that there is a correlation between mothers and children who develop a mental illness. Mimi, the mother in the Galvin family, was devastated by this accusation and challenged it relentlessly whenever doctors would discuss it with her. As far as she was concerned, she did everything in her power to raise her children right, committing no different acts than other mothers. My heart broke for Mimi thinking about how she felt during this time. This type of “mom blaming” continues later on when a woman in the medical community chooses to continue her studies after having children; Lynn DeLisi is told by her medical peers that this choice could cause her children to develop mental health problems. DeLisi challenges those conclusions, asking for proof. However, the researchers could give no evidence; these conclusions were, in fact, unresearched and anecdotal. The doctors were merely stating opinions, not researched facts. What mothers like Mimi and DeLisi would have experienced during this time is unimaginable but women like DeLisi challenged the medical community and eventually debunked these theories. I think mothers everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude.  

“And so I was crushed,” Mimi said. “Because I thought I was such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only time I felt disappointed by the medical community. There were many examples in the book where companies were more interested in the monetary benefits of the medical research than the possitive results. Time and time again, we see funding for mental health diminishing; we see private for-profit organizations choosing to shelf necessary research because the monetary benefits were not high enough. There were some medical advancements made that needed to be halted because of these reasons, and that is truly devastating for families who are in desperate need of support for their mentally ill family members. 

“The National Institute of Mental Health spends only $4.3 million on fetal prevention research, all of it for studies in mice, from its yearly $1.4 billion budget,” Freedman noted recently. “Yet half of young school shooters have symptoms of developing schizophrenia.”

Lastly, the repercussions of the stigma on mental health are shown clearly in the “well” children’s accounts. Since Mimi and Don tried to hide what their family was experiencing in fear of what people would say, the children who were not affected by mental illness underwent many challenging times. Often these children did not understand or could not comprehend what was happening to their siblings. These same children couldn’t separate appropriate behaviours from inappropriate ones, and unfortunately, their parents were providing little insight into what was happening. Although I initially wanted to blame Mimi and Don for these experiences, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose everyone around you, even your closest family members, at your most vulnerable time. This reaffirms the importance of breaking the stigma towards mental illness.

“When you don’t find a sense of love and belonging where you are, you go searching for it somewhere else.”

I believe this book is one of the most essential reads of our generation. Hidden Valley Road teaches the reader about mental health, early detection methods, the effects on families and how to treat and care for the mentally ill. For years people with mental health were stigmatized and ostracized, which isolated the most vulnerable people in our society. Kolker shows his reader the importance of supporting families who experience these illnesses. This book has impacted me in many ways, and I recommend that others read it. 

“Our relationships can destroy us, but they can change us, too, and restore us, and without us ever seeing it happen, they define us. We are human because the people around us make us human.”


How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division – Book Review

Author: Elif Shafak — My Rating: 5/5 — Genre: Current Events, Non Fiction — N. of Pages: 90

This is a very short read but an important one.  I find that in today’s world of division it is sometimes hard to see where you fit.  To see where your ideas, values and opinions meet.  Society focuses on the “us vs them” narrative leaving little room for people in the middle. How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak encourages people of all different opinions to communicate. 

This book was very recently published, so recent, that it includes commentary on the current protests in the United States and the ongoing global pandemic- COVID.  I recommend everyone read this book, in hopes that it will underline the importance of understanding the views of others.

Since this book is short, I will not detail what it is about (the title gives the plot away anyway!).  Instead, I will list below the quotes that impacted me the most.

Book Quotes:

Part 1: Introduction

“We are made of stories — those that have happened, those that are still happening at this moment in time and those that are shaped purely in our imagination through words, images, dreams and an endless sense of wonder about the world around us and how it works.  Unvarnished truths, innermost reflections, fragments of memory, wounds unhealed.  Not to be able to tell your story, to be silenced and shut out, therefore, is to be dehumanized.  It strikes at your sanity, the validity of your version of events.  It creates a profound, and existential anxiety in us.” (page 9)

“… when you feel alone don’t look within, look out and look beyond for others who feel the same way, for there are always others, and if you connect with them and with their story, you will be able to see everything in a new light.” (page 14)

“The moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning.  Because the truth is we don’t learn much from the sameness and monotony.  We usually learn from differences.” (page 16)

Part 2: Disillusionment and Bewilderment 

“Whether in public or digital spaced nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. ”  (page 29)

“In the aftermath of the pandemic fewer tourists will be able to take overseas trips, fewer international students will apply, and fewer immigrant workers will be welcomed.  It worries me immensely, seeing the walls rise higher and higher.” (page 45)

Part 5: Apathy

“When we are indifferent, disconnected, atomized.  Too busy with our own lives to care about others.  Uninterested in and unmoved by someone else’s pain.  That is the most dangerous emotion —  the lack of emotion.” (page 77)

“One of the greatest paradoxes of our times is the hardliners are more passionate, engaged and involved than many moderates.  When we do not engage in civil discourse and public space, we become increasingly isolated and disconnected, thereby breeding apathy.” (page 77)

Part 6: Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

“Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” (page 87)

“It is natural to seek out a collegial and congenial group who will reinforce our core values and primary goals, and bring us closer to the stories we want to hear and prioritize.  That can be a good starting point but it cannot be the entire destination.” (page 89)

About the Author:

Elif Sharak is a British – Turkish author, that has published 17 books.  She advocates for women’s rights, minority rights and free speech.  Sharak is a founding member of the European Council of Foreign Affairs.  She has also spoken at TED Global.

Other books she has published: 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World 

Three Daughters of Eve

The Forty Rules of Love