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.

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s well-regarded memoir The Year of Magical Thinking recalls the year following the death of her husband and writing partner John Gregory Dunne. Didion and Dunne were married for 40 years and were literary royalty. They counted many other famous writers and celebrities among their friends. It would seem that theirs was a charmed life. John Gregory’s famous brother, Dominick, writes about his brother’s death here.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant,” Didion writes. And while we certainly all know this is true, Didion experiences it first hand at a particularly trying point in her life.

She and her husband have just returned from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana is recovering from a particularly virulent flu. They’ve just sat down to dinner  when Didion looks up from her salad and sees him slumped over the table.

I have no idea what subject we were on, the Scotch or World War One, at the instant he stopped talking.

I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.

I remember saying Don’t do that.

As it turns out, Dunne had a bad heart and was living on borrowed time. None of that lessens the shock of his sudden passing for Didion. Although her prodigious skill with the written word is apparent in this memoir, her grief over the loss of her husband is as raw for her as for any of us. Death is the great equalizer. Didion is forced to come to terms with Dunne’s death even as she continues to deal with her daughter’s illness. (In a sad post script, Quintana died just a couple years later from the complications of her illness. There has also been some speculation that Quintanta died, ultimately, of acute pancreatitis caused by alcoholism. She was just 39.)

In the early days after Dunne’s death, Didion tries to keep it together. She keeps expecting Dunne to walk through the door; she continues to store information to share with her husband at a later date. She says: “Of course I knew John was dead…Yet I was myself was in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so he could come back.”

The Year of Magical Thinking is not a romantic memoir. Didion, despite her sorrow, turns a clear, at times even dispassionate, eye on the nature of grief. She’s been trained to do that, of course. Does it lessen the impact of the story she has to tell? Not really. But was I as emotionally engaged as I thought I would be. Not really.

 

Stitches – David Small

I am not a graphic novel aficionado, but David Small’s Stitches  has been on my tbr radar for a while. Small’s memoir of growing up in 1950’s Detroit with an older brother, a radiologist father and a bat-shit crazy mother (although the discovery of her secret life makes her a tad more sympathetic) has won a slew of accolades and was a finalist for several major awards including the National Book Award.

I can’t comment on the quality of the art – or how it compares to the art of other graphic novels because I don’t have any frame of reference. All the pictures are simple and black and white, but they were very effective drawings.

The story of David’s life begins at six. The reader learns a little bit about his family, his absent father, his cold and distant mother.  Memoirs aren’t meant to dissect an entire life; rather, this is the story of one life-altering moment. A growth on David’s neck, discovered when he is 11, must be removed. The diagnosis: a cebaceous cyst. It takes David’s parents three and a half years to organize the surgery – not just one operation, but two. When David wakes up from the second operation, he discovers that his vocal chords have been severed and he is, for all intents and purposes, mute.

I read Stitches in an afternoon. It’s a sad tale, made darker because of the author’s muted drawings. For anyone wondering whether it is possible to have a worthwhile life after a craptastic childhood, Stitches is proof-positive.

Falling Apart in One Piece – Stacy Morrison

Most of my friends will tell you that I am not really a self-help kinda gal. I read for pleasure – thus the name of this blog. I have to do a fair amount of reading-to-learn for my job, so my personal reading tends to lean towards the “lost-in-a-book” category. A nice balance of fluff and more challenging fare.

That said, there are so many memoirs out there which actually fall into the category of reading I like to do. Stacy Morrison’s book Falling Apart in One Piece ticked a whole bunch of  boxes for me: well-written, engaging, takes place in NYC, heroine who was relatable and, okay, yes, it just happened to be about the deterioration of a marriage…a subject that has been much on my mind these last few months.

Morrison was, for many years, a well-regarded magazine editor (Marie Claire, Modern Bride, Redbook) in New York City. An over-achiever, her career is hitting new heights just as her thirteen year relationship (ten of them married) to Chris starts to skid. The night he announces that their marriage is over is a shock to Morrison, although she is certainly able to trace its demise once she sets herself to the task.

Falling Apart in One Piece doesn’t gloss over any of the details. The stages of grief are all there in full view: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness and finally, hope.  Morrison is also quick to share the blame for what went wrong; she’s done the hard work and scratched beneath the surface of her own shortcomings as a partner.

 Falling Apart in One Piece isn’t a finger-pointing memoir. (In fact, the book is dedicated to Morrison’s son and Chris.) Morrison honestly tries to work through what went wrong, but it takes months of soul-searching to finally get to a place of hope. The beauty of her memoir is that she doesn’t ever make it feel like all it takes is the snap of a finger or a new man to fix what has gone horribly wrong. Her heartbreak is palpable:

Somehow I came back downstairs to finish a conversation I’d never wanted to start, a conversation I had never even had the foresight to dread. I sat on the sofa next to Chris, not touching him and barely even looking at him because I was so afraid, and I cried. He talked, and I talked. I reasoned and begged and pleaded and sobbed and wailed. I tried to manipulate. I tried to convince him I would die That Very Second if he didn’t realize the total wrongness of his thoughts. I didn’t yet understand that these tactics would no longer work, that I was already out of the equation.

Morrison is left with no choice but to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and move on: she has a baby, a new job, a house in need of many repairs and suddenly, she is all alone. Her memoir is full of moments of humour, insight, sadness and, ultimately, hope.

Anyone who has been set on this path  – whether or not they have chosen it themselves or had it chosen for them – will benefit from Morrison’s reflections. The end of a marriage is heart-wrenching, but as Morrison’s favourite poet, Rainer  Maria Rilke says: “The point is to live everything.”

 

(Re)Making Love – Mary L. Tabor

Tabor has been a journalist, teacher, and business woman. She decided to add blogger to the list after her husband of 20 plus years announced that he wanted to live alone. Tabor rights her upside-down world by blogging about it. Having felt this blogging impulse myself and being closer to her age (60) than I am to my daughter’s age (14), I figured (Re)Making Love would be a worthy and interesting examination of singledom after a long relationship. Especially when the break comes at a certain point in a woman’s life. After all, who is going to consider dating again at 60!? Okay, or 50!?

Tabor’s blog turned memoir recounts the heartbroken days immediately following her husband’s departure. It spills the beans on property division, using your children as  a pseudo psychiatrist’s couch, online dating,   post-marital sex. With another man!  (Clearly though this was a possibility for Tabor; she’s incredibly attractive and doesn’t look  – from the jacket photo at least – a day over 40, even with her silver-gray hair.)

So I sat down with (Re)Making Love one Sunday afternoon – prepared to go on Tabor’s journey a la Eat, Pray, Love (which, yeah, okay, I didn’t like either – but at least I could follow it). Sadly, the book just didn’t do it for me. And I really, really, wanted to like it. I mean, I am sorta where Tabor was. I’m not quite as old; I’m not quite as well-off; my kids aren’t self-sufficient but I am looking ahead at a long, empty stretch of road which was once as crowded with traffic (hopes, companionship, sex, etc) as Tabor’s. I wanted to read the book and feel as though a kindred spirit was guiding me through the potholes.

In many places the book was strangely abstract, convoluted and difficult to understand, peppered with dreams that are meaningless to the reader because they have no context. It is peppered with references to chick flicks, fairy tales, recipes, the Obamas. It is meant to be Tabor’s journey of self-discovery, but despite her dalliances with post-marital romance and despite her son’s admonishment that she “move on. It’s time. It’s way over time” Tabor ends up with the very man who wanted to be alone. Okay, that may be her fairy tale ending, but it’s hard to buy into her happiness when D (as she calls him) is so much a non-entity. Why exactly did she want him back?

I understand that memoirs are someone’s personal story, but there has to be a reason for sharing it with the world. Despite the copious praise on the book’s jacket, I just ever settled in to Tabor’s grief or her journey. What makes her story worthy of sharing? I don’t know.

Happily Ever After Marriage – Sarah Hampson

If your marriage is way past the point of no return (aka those save-your-marriage books in the self-help section of your local bookstore aren’t going to cut it), Sarah Hampson’s memoir Happily Ever After Marriage might just be the book for you.  The book’s sub-title is “A reinvention in mid-life” and if the book had nothing else to recommend it – that would probably be enough. I was, however, standing in Hampson’s shoes.

After 18 years of marriage and with three sons, Hampson and her husband called it quits. I wasn’t actually ever convinced that they were a good match to begin with, but then it’s nearly impossible to judge standing on the outside. I know this for a fact. 

I liked Hampson immediately because she and I shared (albeit at different times, but not by much) a university and a degree. (We both studied English Literature at UNB.) What I appreciated about Hampson’s story wasn’t so much that it mirrored my own because unlike Hampson I never dreamed of being a bride and I married relatively late, at age 32, not young like she was. Hampson’s situation is different from mine in another important way, too: she was the leaver and I was the leavee.

I liked  Hampson self-deprecating humour, her willingness to indulge in the occasional sulk and her honest accounting of her own part in her marriage’s demise.

Hampson offers her own pithy wisdom on aging and dating post-40, on colouring your hair, on the demise of the body, on letting go. It’s not going to be easy – being over 40 and along, but there are rewards to be had you just have to be open to them. That’s Hampson’s advice anyway.

When she reflects on the institution, her vision is clear not jaded.

I have lived in a marriage. I have passed through what they are now entering. I would never warn them of its dangers. Why? Its promise is so beautiful, and for many, it is fulfilled.

Reading Happily Ever After Marriage for someone who is in those self-reflective post married days is the equivalent of a cup of tea on a blustery day. Hampson’s book offers a quiet respite from the emotional storm….without milky sentamentality or bitter lemon.

Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight has been on my tbr list forever.  It was universally praised and having recently finished Scribbling the Cat I am even more anxious to read it.

Fuller was born in England and moved, with her family, to Rhodesia when she was 3.  Here’s an even more interesting fact: Fuller received her B.A. from Acadia University.  Since I live next door to Nova Scotia –  I feel a certain kinship to her now; she’s an honorary Maritimer!

Scribbling the Cat is Fuller’s story of  ‘K’,  a man she meets on a trip back to Zambia to visit her parents who still live and work there. Fuller has left her husband and two children behind in the States. She does a wonderful job, throughout this book, of juxtaposing those two very different worlds: one of excess and waste and one where nothing is wasted, where potential danger always seems to be lurking.

K  is something of an enigma.  She hears about him before she actually meets him and when she meets him, he takes her breath away.

Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress.

Of course, I immediately thought that Scribbling the Cat was going to be about a sexual relationship between Fuller and K –  but their relationship turns out to be far more complicated than that. K was a soldier in the Rhodesian war and having grown up there, Fuller is intensely interested in his story. As their friendship develops, she gets the idea that they should journey to the places he had fought. She is, after all, a writer and he is a remarkable subject.

K is an endlessly fascinating subject – he rants, he weeps, he recalls with equal vigor.

Scribbling the Cat is an unflinching look at war – the horrible things people do and how they must find some sort of peace with their actions when the war is over. This is K’s story, to be sure, and it’s a horrific one.  But this is Fuller’s story, too, and it’s a remarkable.

Read for the Memorable Memoir Challenge.