Tag Archive | non-fiction

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.

 

 

My Ideal Bookshelf – Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount

myidealbookshelf1_grande My son gave My Ideal Bookshelf to me for my birthday back in May.  It’s one of those books that is both a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at. The premise was to ask 100 plus people (writers, designers, chefs, artists, photographers) about their ideal bookshelf.  In other words:

Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favourite favourites. You begin, perhaps, by walking over to your bookshelf and skimming the spines on the top shelf. You pull down a handful that you remember loving; you grab a couple that you read over and over again. Some you know just by the colour of their dust jackets. One is in tatters – it was passed down by your mother – and it’s dog-eared and carefully held together by tape and tenderness. The closer you look, the trickier the task turns out to be.

You got that right. But before I talk about what I did with My Ideal Bookshelf let me just point out how much fun this book was to read. Although I don’t know everyone whose bookshelves were included, it didn’t matter. If you are a book lover, you are naturally drawn to other people’s bookshelves. You know it’s true. If I am in someone’s house, their bookshelves take precedence over anything else. I must snoop. It’s futile to resist the siren call of the books.

I read My Ideal Bookshelf cover-to-cover. Each person’s shelf is artistically recreated by Jane Mount. For example, this is Stephanie Meyer’s shelf:

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Each shelf is accompanied by a personal reflection. Meyer offers this insight into her choices:

These books contain threads of what I like to write about: the way people interact, how we relate to one another when life is beautiful and horrible. But these books are greater than anything I could ever aspire to create.

None of the commentaries explain the person’s entire collection, but each  offers a glimpse into that person’s reading life.  For example, book designer Coralie Bickford-Smith says “The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again.”  Interior designer Tom Delavan offers this: “Books are the very best kind of decoration, really. There are two types of books, the ones you read and the ones you have on your coffee table. Both make a space feel like home – you spend time with them, they have meaning for you, and they actually look good, too.” Writer Dave Eggers says “These are the books that crushed me, changed me when I first read them, and to which I have returned many times since, always finding more in them.”

Book lovers always have something to talk about. Always. My Ideal Bookshelf is like a beautiful conversation. With pictures.

I liked the book so much that I thought it would be really cool to ask my students to build their own ideal bookshelves and then write an essay to talk about their reading lives.  There’s a handy template at the back of the book (and it’s also available on their blog). As the school year winds down, this is a great way to have students reflect on the books they’re read – not only during their time with me, but for as long as they’ve been reading. We just got started on Friday, but it was so much fun to walk around and see what had made students’ lists. (When I saw that my Turkish exchange student had Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on her list – we both shared a moment of squealing delight.)

I wanted to take up the challenge, too. I’m going to cheat, though, and do a YA bookshelf and another bookshelf – although there may be some cross-over titles. I am no artist, but here’s what I came up with.

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It wasn’t easy to come up with these titles…and I left off a dozen more…so I am looking at this like it’s a snapshot of my YA reading life…including both books that I  read when I was a teenager and younger  (Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, That Was Then, This Is Now and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl all fall into that category. I read them between 35-40 years ago!) and more recent reads. The thing they all have in common is that I loved them and the characters that inhabit the pages have stuck with me.

My Ideal Bookshelf would make an excellent gift for any book lovers on your list.

I’d love to hear about your ideal bookshelf!

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.

 

 

 

 

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty

aliaMark Alan Stamaty’s graphic story will resonate with anyone who has ever visited a library. Its simple black and white drawings tell the story of Alia, a woman who lives and works in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign. Iraq is on the verge of chaos as Britain and the U.S. are planning to invade the country and remove Hussein from power.

Alia is the head librarian at the Basra Central Library. We are told that “ever since she was a little girl, books have been a source of happiness and adventure for her.”  When she reads the story of how the Mongol Invasion destroyed the Baghdad library resulting in the loss of  “irreplaceable treasures” Alia worries that something similar could happen to her beloved library. alia1 When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq is a simple story, geared for younger readers.  It only took me about ten minutes to read, but don’t let that deter you from checking it out. Alia’s story proves what book lovers already know: books are worth fighting for.

I Am Scout – Charles J. Shields

It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.  I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.

tkamIn case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.

It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.

I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee  ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.

If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:

had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”

Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be  “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”

Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success –  even though he was certainly no slouch.

I am scoutSo, why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel?  According to Shields:

She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.

I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.

Reading, Writing and Leaving Home – Lynn Freed

Although I have never read any of Lynn Freed’s fiction, I was interested in her collection of essays, Reading, Writing and Leaving Home: Life on the Page because as a high school writing teacher I am always looking for writing advice to share with my students. You know, something like King’s “If you don’t time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” While there aren’t necessarily any pithy quotes in this collection, it was an interesting book because Freed herself has had an interesting life.

Born and raised in South Africa, Freed’s parents were actors, and she grew up – the youngest of three girls – surrounded by books.

Most of the books in the house were kept in my parent’s study, a cosy room with leather chairs, teak bookshelves, leaded windows, and piles of scripts stacked around on the floor. It was there that my mother was to be found during the day, either timing scripts or drilling a new actor. And there that I was allowed to read whatever was available – mostly plays, but also opera libretti, the odd history, a few biographies, a selection of popular novels – as long as I didn’t interrupt.

Her writing career began when she wrote “ninety tedious pages” for an AFS scholarship application. The following year, when she actually landed in New York after having won the scholarship, she was told that the organization had put a two-page limit on the essay because of her entry. That story and those characters continued to swirl around in Freed’s head and eventually found their way into her novel. But none of it was easy.

The world I was writing about was the same world I had tackled for AFS, but now  could life it from the restraints of myth and detail and report and do with it anything I pleased. Or, at least, so I thought.

Freed writes about writing as I believe writing is: hard freakin’ work. Frustrating. Painstaking. A labour of love, sure, but it’ll kick your sorry ass.

…I would suggest that one should never overlook two essential elements in the development of the writer: long years of practice and a ruthless determination to succeed. Writers come to their material in different ways, but come they must if they are to succeed.

Even though this sounds like advice, Leaving Home isn’t actually a how-to book. The book chronicles Freed’s journey from girlhood to adulthood and covers everything from her relationship with her sisters to a trip back to the house she’d once called home – and all if it is fodder for her writing. If, as she claims, she has chosen truth over safety in her writing – I suspect her novels would be worth a look. I certainly enjoyed this collection of essays.

 

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I have a friend who is all about the self-help books.  Of course, she also believes in reiki. I don’t know if she’s read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project but I know she’d love it. I’m a skeptic (a hopeful skeptic) and I really liked this book. Perhaps I read it at the perfect time in my life – lots of changes and upheaval and uncertainty, but hope, too. In less capable hands, The Happiness Project might have been a different book. (a la Eat, Pray, Love, a book I didn’t love.) Instead, Gretchen Rubin’s musings on what happiness means and how to achieve it comes across as less how-to manual and more why happiness should be pursued and valued.

Rubin’s personal happiness project was inspired by that moment (which will likely come to us all) when she realized she was “in danger of wasting [her] life.” Okay, truthfully, who hasn’t thought that a time or two? Of course, she knew all the ways her life was pretty damn perfect: great husband, wonderful kids, work she loved, terrific extended family, lived in NYC etc etc…Still.

What I liked the most about Rubin’s happiness journey was that she understood and even poked fun at her personal shortcomings: her need for praise and her short fuse. I also liked that her quest for happiness wasn’t all abstract and metaphysical. She understood the sinple joy of getting rid of junk and splurging once and a while on something you really needed or wanted.  Rubin herself seems incredibly down-to-earth…someone you’d like to sit and have a cup of tea with (I’d say a glass of wine, but she’s mostly given that up!)

 Threaded through the entire book was this notion that “the days are long, but the years are short.” It’s true, isn’t it? When she and her husband take a moment to watch their sleeping children, it is a moment of sheer happiness – if only because that moment will never come again.

 Happiness spreads. I know this is true. I know the power of a smile because I use it every day in the classroom….even when I don’t feel like smiling, it’s amazing how smiling at a surly kid makes them smile, too. I want to be happier. I deserve to be. And so I owe it to myself to make that happen.

If you’re looking for inspiration, for a way to make your life happier, The Happiness Project is a great place to start. You can visit Rubin’s website, The Happiness Project, for lots more info.