Tag Archive | memoir

26 Letters – Ross DeMerchant

I am not going to ‘review’ Ross DeMerchant’s book 26 Letters, so much as tell you about it26letters and perhaps share some of my own memories. The reason is because Ross is my cousin and I likely wouldn’t have ever read this book ( which is part memoir, part self-help, part spiritual)  if not for that fact.

My dad, Edgar, was the youngest of four. He had three older sisters: Alice, Dorothy and Barbie. There was eleven years between Barbie, the youngest daughter,  and my dad, which meant that most of my cousins were a lot older than my brothers and me. They also didn’t live near us when we were growing up, so unless we went back to my dad’s home town we didn’t really get to see them very much.

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L-R: My grandmother, Muriel; I am not sure who the lady is just behind Grammy; my Aunt Barbie, with her arms around my dad; Aunt Alice; Aunt Dorothy. I am going to say this is the mid-forties as my dad was born in 1937.

 

My father grew up near a really small town about four hours up the St. John River from where I now live.  Ross explains that “On one side of the river was one community called Perth. On the other side of the river was another community called Andover. Obviously, the two communities became joined by a hyphen, making it one town called Perth-Andover.”

I always remember thinking of it as Perth and (wait for it) over. Ha.Ha.

My dad grew up just outside of Perth-Andover on a farm in South Tilley. Although I am not sure of the history of the exchange, the farm came to be in the hands of my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard and so that is where Ross and his siblings Douglas, Diane, Mark  and Paul grew up.  Mark kept the farm running until 2013, but it’s a tough business and he just couldn’t do it anymore, so he sold it.

When I was a kid, going to the farm was magical. Back then it was hundreds of acres (they farmed potatoes) and I have very specific memories of visiting. I remember that there was a one room schoolhouse at the end of their driveway and that is where my aunts and father attended school. My cousin Diane had a sweet little playhouse filled with miniature dishes and furniture and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. There was also a sort of attic (although I may be remembering that wrong) filled with books like The Lennon Sisters and Cherry Ames. If we were lucky to go there in the winter, we could go out on the snowmobiles. That was a blast because there were endless fields to ski-doo through. My Aunt Barbie was a great cook. I specifically remember these raspberry squares she used to make.

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My dad, me, and my younger brothers, James and Mark at the farm.

One of the things I was most looking forward to when I picked up 26 Letters, was Ross’s recollections of growing up on the farm. I was hoping for some stories that I might have remembered, too. I guess I am at the age where I am feeling sort of nostalgic about these special places and people from my childhood.

Sadly, Ross’s stories were mostly unfamiliar to me with one notable exception –  the accident his little brother, Paul, had as a toddler.

It was during the potato harvest season when life is incredibly busy exciting on the farm. Potatoes are hauled from the fields and placed in large holding bins within the “potato house.”  The in-ground bins were twelve to thirteen feet deep and large enough that trucks would actually drive onto the platform over the bins and unload from there. It was in that setting that Paul wandered unnoticed onto the platform of the bins. Someone noticed that Paul was missing, and the frantic search by the entire crew began.

Paul was found at the bottom of one of the empty bins. He remained unconscious for two weeks, and as Ross tells it “his first word was in response to me standing at the foot of his hospital bed. He looked up and said, “Ross.”” He had to have a metal plate put in his head and I remember that we were all told we had to be careful around him when he was a kid.

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L-R: My cousin Mark, me, my brother Tom (in the brown suit) my brother Mark, my mom tucked behind, Aunt Dorothy and her daughter, my cousin Brenda, my grandmother, Muriel, Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard.

Some of Ross’s stories conjured up memories of places in Perth-Andover. Everyone knew York’s for instance. It was world famous for its food, a zillion courses of home cooking. I don’t recall ever once going there as a kid, though. It was too expensive and we never had any money.

I loved his description of how directions work. “In those days,” he says, “mile markers were such things as barns, railway crossings, houses known by the family’s last name and unique places you wouldn’t find listed on any map, like “the gravel pit” or “the four corners.”

That reminded me of a summer many years ago, when my kids were little, and we’d planned a family reunion at the farm. I was confident I could remember the way, but I got us totally lost and we eventually had to stop in a little country store and ask for directions. We weren’t even on the right side of the river and we arrived at the farm at least 45 minutes after everyone else. I was the butt of everyone’s joke that day.

My children loved the farm. They loved Mark’s son, Mitchell, who back then was probably 13 or 14. He was a beautiful kid with white blonde hair and a dark tan that can only come from spending hours working in the sun. He was sweet to my kids, too.

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My daughter Mallory and son Connor with Mitchell at the farm.

He took them on the atv and the tractor and taught them how to dig potatoes.

26 Letters is Ross’s way of encouraging people to have meaningful conversations with the people who matter in their lives. He’s spent his career working  with young people and adults.

“We don’t talk well in our culture. In a world of unparalleled convenience, we struggle more than ever to communicate with each other, ” Ross says.

I don’t disagree. And worse, our shared history is often lost. That’s why I love spending time with family. My cousin Suzanne was home from England a couple summers ago and she, her brother, John, and I went up to Fredericton to visit with our cousins Diane, Brenda and our aunts Dorothy and Barbie. We laughed a lot that afternoon and my aunts shared stories, many of which I had never heard before. At one point, Barbie started to play the piano. John and I looked at each other, stunned.

“Did you know Aunt Barbie could play the piano?”

“Nope. Did you?”

I am fifty-five. John is older than me.

Ross’s motivation for writing 26 Letters was “so that I could leave for my children and grandchildren my understanding of those things that helped shape the person I am.”

I can think of no better legacy than the stories we share with the people we love.

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Back: Brenda, Diane, Grammy holding my brother Tom, Douglas holding me, my cousins Colin and Ross.

 

 

I Must Say – Martin Short

I think it’s probably un-Canadian not to like Martin Short. He (and his alter egos) has been
making me laugh for at least 30 years, so I was really looking forward to reading his memoir I Must Say. Just the title  alone conjures up an image of Ed Grimley, the horn-haired, high-waisted-pant wearing, triangle-playing nerd who coined the phrase.

Short was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the youngest of five. His father,  Charles, an 20604377executive at the steel plant, and his mother, Olive, a classically trained violinist created a family environment that nurtured  his offbeat creativity from an early age.

Outside, on Whitton Road, normal Canadian childhoods were taking place, with kids playing hockey in the streets until darkness fell and the streetlights came on. Inside, little Marty was snapping his fingers and  singing, “Weather-wise, it’s such a cuckoo- daaay!”

Despite his artistic leanings, Short hadn’t planned on a career in show business and he credits Eugene Levy with encouraging him to try out for a Toronto-based production of Godspell. It was 1972 and Short had just graduated from McMaster University. His intention was to do social work, but he said he’d give the acting thing a year. We all know how that turned out.

I Must Say is a chatty, name-dropping memoir that is both fun to read (mostly because you’ll know virtually every single name Short drops; it’s a veritable who’s who of Canadian comedy royalty) and also illuminating. Short makes us laugh – well, he makes me laugh at any rate – but his life has not been without its tragedies. He lost his older and much admired brother, David, when he was just twelve. He was young when both his parents died. And I read about the death of his wife of 36 years, Nancy, with a lump in my throat.

Other bits of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, especially when you are familiar with Short’s iconic characters including Lawrence Orbach, Franck from Father of the Bride  and my personal favourite, the ill-prepared, self-important, overweight celebrity interviewer, Jiminy Glick. I could watch Jiminy interview celebs for hours and pee my pants laughing every single time.

I don’t read a lot of memoirs and certainly don’t care that much about the cult of celebrity
to read those written by the rich and famous, but Short gets a pass because I have loved him for many years. Whenever I need a pick-me-up, he’s my go-to guy. I was happy to ‘read’ that despite his Rolodex of famous friends he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy – a creative, smart and self-deprecating man who often had painful bouts of self-doubt. If you have any love for SCTV, SNL or The Three Amigos, I Must Say is an enjoyable way to spend a handful of hours.

Cowboy – Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson‘s memoir Cowboy chronicles her affair with a cowboy – yes, they are real – in the mid 90s. Davidson is a best-selling novelist (Loose Change), television writer (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) and biographer (Rock Hudson, Joan Didion).

Davidson meets Zack (not his real name) at a cowboy poetry and music festival in Elko, cowboy Nevada. Since Davidson was working on Dr. Quinn at the time, she convinced her co-worker to make the journey. Their first meeting, at a stall where Zack is selling his hand-crafted bridles and reins is prickly, to say the least. Later, though, despite her claims that Zack is “a yokel, an insolent yokel” Davidson remarks that he has “good hands” to which Zack responds that he has “magic hands.” Oh, Bessie.

Davidson and Zack have virtually nothing in common. He’s ten years younger, divorced with three kids. He’s mostly unemployed, making money where and when he can. Davidson, also divorced with a son, 10, and a daughter, 11, has a  successful career. Zack isn’t remotely worldly; although he was  – at one time – considering a career as an engineer, the ‘cowboy’ lifestyle grabbed him by the horns – so to speak – and never let him go. He can’t spell and doesn’t know who Anne Frank is, two details which drive wordsmith Davidson crazy. Nevertheless, there is a spark between them that Davidson can’t (or won’t – fine line) ignore.

Cowboy is, I suppose, that classic ‘fish out of water’ story. How are these two crazy kids (ahem) ever going to make it work? Should they even try? The thing is, once they get over the initial awkwardness they end up having crazy sex all the freakin’ time. I suppose as a woman of a certain age, it would be hard to say no – even if you have misgivings on a whole lot of other levels.

For one thing, after the initial blush has worn off, Davidson’s kids, Gabriel and Sophie, are hateful to Zack. They complain about his smoking (although he doesn’t do it in the house), they say he yells at them when their mom isn’t home. They are rude and disagreeable whenever he’s around.

Then there’s the money issue: Zack never has any. Davidson’s a modern woman, sure, but every once in a while you’d like your partner to at least pay his share.

In a weird way, though, Davidson and Zack make an odd kind of sense. He’s laid back, attentive and honest; she’s high strung and stressed out. They balance each other out – sort of. So I have to say that I was rooting for them by the end of Cowboy.

What once seemed ludicrous and impossible has become the norm, although, as Zack puts it, “normal’s a relative term.” At times, I ask myself, how did this happen? How did I steer so far from the conventional track?

Sadly, I don’t think they are still together.

I’d like to think, however,  that as a divorced woman of a certain age whose children are on the precipice of leaving the nest – there’s a Zack out there for me. He doesn’t have to be a cowboy. Just a decent guy who is kind and thoughtful. Magic hands wouldn’t hurt, either.

 

Paris Letters – Janice MacLeod

parisI was attracted to Janice MacLeod’s memoir, Paris Letters, mostly because of its cover. I don’t often indulge myself  – book buying via aesthetics – although I do admit that I am a sucker for books with creepy houses on the front. Still, Paris Letters is a pretty book and when I read the blurb on the back I thought it sounded familiar. I used to keep track of all the books I want to read in a little notebook which I carted around with me. Then I lost the book and now I am flying solo. It’s kind of freeing, I have to admit, but I still wonder about all those titles I have logged over the past decade and think about the reading experiences I might have had. Oh well.

Paris Letters tells the story of MacLeod’s journey from exhausted copywriter to “someone who could make a great living creating something lovely.” Originally from Ontario, MacLeod lives in Los Angeles when the book opens where she admits to being “thirty-four, single, lonely, feeling unfulfilled by my job and on the brink of burnout.”

MacLeod knows she has to make a change and so, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way,  she starts to keep a journal. She also created a blog –  a more visible way to make herself accountable. It doesn’t take MacLeod very long to figure out that what she really wants to do is quit her job, which is creatively unfulfilling.

I wrote true junk mail. I mucked up websites with ads, stuffed bills with flyers, and inundated the public with information on products they probably didn’t care about and likely never asked for. That was me. Mailing out perfect forest after perfect forest of perfectly useless messages from Fortune 500 companies. I was directly involved with the noise of daily life.

MacLeod decides that she is going to save enough money to take a year off to travel, an activity that has always given her pleasure in the past. So, with great determination, she pares down her life. She sells unused items, she gives up eating lunch out with her colleagues, she gives up cable and sells her TV. (MacLeod shares 100 things she did to save money at the back of the book.)

MacLeod’s plan was to start in Paris and end in Rome, but what she doesn’t factor into her plans is Krzysztof (Christophe), the cute butcher who “bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig.” Turns out, Krzysztof is one of the good ones and their relationship is the reason why Paris Letters isn’t Roman Letters.

Paris Letters isn’t so much of a story as it is a lovely meditation on what it is to live a simpler life. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, too. I mean, MacLeod is in Paris after all. She strolls around the city, visiting famous landmarks, writing in and about her favourite cafes and gardens and when her money starts to dwindle, she thinks about what she can do to supplement her income. That’s where the idea of the Paris letters comes from.

I would create a painted letter, copy it, personalize each copy, and mail them off to people who love fun mail….I listed the product on Etsy as a subscription service. For twelve months, people would receive a painted letter from me.

This is when I realized I had heard of MacLeod and her Paris letters, perhaps in a magazine like Canadian Living or Chatelaine. As a person who loves snail mail, I was intrigued by MacLeod’s concept. It’s cool, right?

Paris Letters is a love letter. To Paris. To Krzysztof. To living the life you want. You could argue that since MacLeod was unencumbered because she had no real ties to L.A. – no children or spouse or property –  leaving it all behind was easy. I still think it was an act of bravery. She didn’t know anyone; she didn’t really speak the language well; she was on her own. There are some days when I imagine shaking my own life up in exactly the same way.

Paris Letters is a quick read and, if nothing else, it will make you want to visit Paris. But for me, it made me consider the possibility of doing something other than.

The Reading Promise – Alice Ozma

readingpromiseAlice Ozma’s dad, Jim,  made a promise to his daughter: he’d read to her every single night for 1000 consecutive nights. When they reached that pretty impressive goal they extended “The Steak” which, ultimately,  lasted for nine years. Nine years! Ozma shares their  story in her memoir,The Reading Promise.

“Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn’t there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely.”

Reading is something that Alice’s dad clearly values and is passionate about. As a librarian/teacher at an elementary school, he believes in the research that clearly shows that reading aloud is  “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”   But this nine-year reading “Streak” serves another very important purpose: as a single father, Jim is doing his best to spend quality time with Alice. His older daughter, Kathy, had announced when she was in grade four that she no longer wished to be read to. Alice is different.

The Reading Promise isn’t all about the books Jim and Alice shared. I found the book more interesting when Alice talked about the books, though. I laughed when Jim read Dicey’s Song to fifteen-year-old Alice, skipping over the parts he felt too embarrassed to read aloud. I admired Jim and Alice when they patched up small squabbles through reading together. Not even teenage hormones or adult frustration stymied their reading. I was as incensed as Alice was when the principals at both schools where Jim worked decided he should read no more than five minutes a day to his students, that he should, instead, teach them how to use a computer.

Ozma clearly had no notion that she’d be committing the story of “The Streak” to paper when she started her reading journey with her father. If her memoir suffers a little because of it, so what? Their commitment to reading and to each other makes for a lovely story.

12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northrup

12 years I can’t say that I was thrilled when 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of slavery, was chosen for book club. I haven’t seen the much-lauded film because I’ve heard it’s quite violent and my tolerance for violence seems to be on the decline these days and I didn’t really have any desire to read this book either. I understand its importance but, truthfully, this isn’t a book that I’d ever pick up.

“Having been born a free man,” Northrup writes, and having “been kidnapped and sold into slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”

Northrup intends to offer up “a candid and truthful statement of the facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”

And factual it is – which I think might be part of the problem.

My first and most powerful experience with the subject of slavery came in 1977. I was in high school and there was a television event known as Roots. This mini-series was really must watch television and it had a profound impact on me. The story, based on the life of author Alex Haley’s grandmother, was shocking and horrific to me – a middle-class white girl from Eastern Canada. My experience with people of African-American descent was really limited; I could count the number of black kids at my school on one hand. I distinctly remember watching Roots and being ashamed of the colour of my skin. I still remember the characters Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Such is the power of fiction.

Northrup is married with three small children when he is duped by a couple of white men and taken from his life in New York to a plantation in Louisiana.  His account of the  journey and his time spent as a slave is  – I don’t know – instructive. Once in New Orleans he is purchased by a relatively kind man, William Ford. Northrup describes him as “kind, noble, candid, Christian.”

The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master…

Unfortunately, he is sold again to a less charitable master, Mr. Epps, a man whose manners are “repulsive and coarse.” When drinking, Epps’ chief delight was “dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.” It is with Epps that Northrup spends the bulk of his incarceration. 12 years_a

Perhaps modern readers have been spoiled by today’s memoirs, which often read like fiction. Northrup’s motivation for writing this book was, I believe, to instruct – and while I understand the merits of his tale, I felt it was missing a key ingredient: character. Yes, Northrup was clearly a good, intelligent, brave man, but there was something distancing about the very formal language of this tale. I think in his effort to report the facts, the story loses some of its impact. For example, when Eliza (someone else who has been kidnapped) is separated from her young children Northrup remarks “never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief.” Imagine how that scene might have played out in fiction.

I am not sorry that I read Northrup’s story, but is it great literature? Is it a book I would press into the hands of my friends and say “you’ve got to read this.” No.

 

 

 

 

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir should have made for a compelling read, but ended up winning “Book I Enjoyed Reading the Least” at our final book club meeting. (Although in my mind, it was  neck and neck with Death Comes to Pemberley for the position.)

When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’? Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.

Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing. So, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love both worked and didn’t work for me. The writing was terrific; I loved the idea of her journey, but I didn’t like her very much. Let’s compare Eat, Pray, Love to another best-selling memoir, Julie & Julia. I loved the story, the writing and Julie herself.

Then there’s Wild. At twenty-six Cheryl Strayed is still mourning the death of her mother, who died when she was 22,  the dissolution of her marriage, which ended soon after, and recovering from her addiction to a guy named Joe and their shared heroin habit. Good times. Impulsively, she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. That’s 4268 km of therapy. With very little preparation (or at least it seemed that way to me – she bought a book and some ill-fitting hiking books and suddenly she was walking), Strayed embarks on a journey which she hopes will clear her head or mend her broken heart.

Pacific-Crest-TrailWhen the book opens, Cheryl has lost a boot over the edge of a mountain:

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot. It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.                                         …

I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.

To keep walking.

I felt like Strayed’s journey had all sorts of potential. I mean, her life was a total mess and here was her opportunity to work out her issues and reset her course. But the more I read the less I cared. I can’t quite say what it was about her, but others in book club had the same sort of feeling: we just didn’t like Strayed.

Wild felt like a missed opportunity to me.  Regardless of whether your relationship is awesome or toxic, the death of a parent is a game-changer. Strayed’s brother and sister and her beloved step-father, Eddie, sort of scatter to the wind and it made me wonder why. When my parents died – first my mom and then a couple years later, my dad – my three younger brothers and I circled the wagons and became even closer. We understood that it was just us now and ‘us’ was important. Strayed’s brother doesn’t even visit his mother when she is dying in the hospital.

So, is Strayed ‘cured’ after her long walk.  I doubt it. While on the surace it would seem that her journey to  the Bridge of the Gods (and oh, those heavy-handed metaphors!) delivers her back to herself, I’m not sold.