Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers

Naomi Beth Wakan

Hamilton: Poplar Press, 2010

Read from a review copy.


This book is deceptively simple.  Organized in 12 chapters named for each of the twelve months that the book covers, Wakan’s book strolls through a year of reading, but also of gardening, hosting, teaching, running errands,  and minding the world.  Her narrative pace is slow and her essays meander, but they belie a breakneck reading pace.  I don’t know how the library on Gabriola Island keeps her stocked because she and her husband go through 20 books a week.  The island, its library and her book box, the old milk crate in which she keeps her books to be read, become characters in their own right, and the books she reads are always firmly tethered to the context in which she reads them.  These are familiar essays, and while the pace of the individual chapters may be easy, Wakan, in her late seventies, has more than 30 books of poetry and non-fiction to her credit.  She reads and writes at a fantastic pace, but none of that urgency appears here.  On the pages of this book, she is relaxed company.

What I like best about Wakan’s book is that she knows that there are more prolific writers, more voracious and up-to-date readers out there, and, after acknowledging that there are other ways of being, she is unapologetic about the kind of writer and reader that she is. 

I have been reading a book entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (general editor–Peter Boxall) and, of course, it filled me with guilt and remorse.  What have I been doing with my life that I have probably not read more than one third of the books included? …  Reading [it] left me with the feeling that I would like to have written a novel. … But that is not to be, for here I am, yet once more, turning out yet one more little essay about books and writers and, do you know, having recovered from reading the summaries of one thousand and one books by triumphant (and often alcoholic and suicidal) authors, I am quite content to have my life running this way.

I was pleasantly surprised by how many books about books she discusses.  My beloved Ex Libris  and 84 Charing Cross Road are among more than 30 books about books and author biographies and autobiographies.  It’s a veritable goldmine of bibliophilic reading.  I had seen the title of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and dismissed it as flippant, but she calls it the best book of her reading year.  I’m sold.  I am doing a reading challenge based on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, the 1% well-read challenge, so Wakan’s book also had the added bonus of being a book about my reading challenges. 

Wakan gently points me to the truth that not all the books we bring home have to be fiction or bibliophilic.  She reads books about math and makes them sound compelling.  This is not an easy thing to do.  Lots of books about gardening, too, as she and her husband attempt a zero-mile diet by growing almost all of their own food.  Also not an easy thing to do. 

As you will have noticed from my April entries, I often prefer reading about gardening to actually doing it, so while making my garden to-do list, I began to once more think about garden writing and folks who do it.

Michael Pollan points out so nicely that writing and gardening are both ways of rendering the world in rows.

I’ve just wandered home from the bookstore with Merilyn Simond’s A New Leaf: Growing with My Garden tucked under my arm and am looking forward to its rows on rows.


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Kerry at Pickle Me This kindly asked me for a guest appearance in her Wild Libraries I Have Known Series.  It’s up today.


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reading for girls

I loved this article by Samantha Ellis in The Observer about how her female role models from her favourite books may have led her astray.  A piece to file alongside The Heroine’s Bookshelf and Reading Women.  Coming Soon:  An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula and More Than 20 Other of the Most Remarkable Women in Literature by Jamie Cox Robertson.

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared

Alice Ozma

New York: Hachette, 2011.

Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about.  It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it.  Was that book here last time?  Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock?  I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me.  It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day.  Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).

Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.  Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names.  She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.

When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights.   While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000?  They got much further than that.  From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night.  Including prom night.  They called it The Streak.

I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to.  But this book had me hooked.  It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.  

The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start.  But it was also a page-turner.  I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them.  Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading.  There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide.  The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line.  Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well.  The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat.  That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.

After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes

We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but.  Every night was different because every story was different.  Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting.  But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages.  Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces.  The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.

Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen.  (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time.  Jim Brozina was not.)  Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading.  As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort.  The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.”  This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.

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Yesterday I spent an hour-and-a-half talking to an audience about what I love, which is working with words. I am, in fact, paid to keep words around, tend them, and give them to other people. … And here I can mention that there is nothing like writing for those you love. Building something out of words, an intensely personal medium – something for someone you respect, someone for whom you care – that’s both a pleasure and a properly testing exercise. I have long argued that the writer’s relationship with the putative reader should probably be one of loving respect: it’s a way of maintaining a correct form of address.

More at The Guardian.

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Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life

Stephanie Staal

New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Reviewed from an advance reading copy from Library Thing

A great book about books for International Women’s Day: Stephanie Staal’s Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life.   Very much along the lines of David Denby’s Great Booksthis is a memoir by a freelance writer–mired in the daily details of being a wife and mother–about going back to Barnard College to take the Feminism 101 course she took as a 19-year-old student.  Equal parts memoir and reportage from the classroom, the book tackles the question of the place of the great books of feminism in this writer’s life and in 21st century sexual politics.

I was immediately hooked by the book when I read Staal’s eloquent expression of the tensions of the maternal and feminist self.  Remembering herself as a student, she writes,

We were, all of us on that graduation day almost two decades ago, poised to take over the world.

Life, however, is not lived by directive, and there has been much talk in recent years of the false promises of feminism, the disillusionment and disappointments, the lash and backlash, especially for those of us who married, who became mothers–or perhaps it has always been thus?  Each generation, I suppose, forges new paths over the same old terrain.  The role of feminist has never been easily reconciled with that of wife and mother, particularly in the public eye, but neither, it’s true, has it rested easily in the privacy of our own homes.  Parental love and professional ambition make for uneasy allies.  And for my generation–women empowered by feminism as our due course–the contradictions strike at the heart of who we are, or at least the way we see ourselves.  The same women who grew up believing we could have it all now understand the toll of the transformations into wife and mother, the ambiguities and compromises they raise, the pledges broken both to ourselves and to others, the stark realization that perhaps we are not the heroines we once thought we were. (x)

I am drawn powerfully to descriptions of maternal ambivalence, to stories that weave the mourning for a lost self into the narration of motherhood.  (Rachel Cusk’s lapidary A Life’s Work is my touchstone in the mother memoir category, a must read for its astounding articulation of the division of self after childbirth.)  The knots of our various selves are, indeed, difficult to untie, and Staal’s approach throughout is a wonderfully grounded examination of the struggle between professional ambition, the fulfillment of a feminist self and the duties of love.  She negotiates the tensions with the wit and wisdom grounded in the practical questions of who washes the dirty socks (a fight over which is one of the best passages in the book.)

Even before I became a wife and mother myself, I had heard how this particular story unfolded.  Like many women who came of age between the second and third waves of feminism, I had been taught that throughout the ages, the transitions into marriage and motherhood were the vulnerable points at which we might lose our voices, might cease to be the narrators of our own lives. … I found myself in the midst of an identity crisis much like our feminist foremothers had described, feeling especially disquieted given that I, perhaps naively, had not quite expected it would happen to me. (5) [funny note: the wordpress spell-check does not like foremothers and suggests forefathers instead!]

   Pride goeth ever before the fall.  Staal’s solution: “I turned to books.”

My bookshelves are three books deep, and piles of books spread and teeter on every open surface of my home.  If reading has always been a journey of imagination, a means of escape, it has also been, perhaps at least as importantly, a way of absorbing the intricate complexities of life and experience.  To me, books are like magic: They inform the mind and transform the spirit.  I have finished a book and felt so bereft at taking leave of its characters that I have immediately turned it over to begin again from page 1.  In a special section, old favourites, their pages by now soft as worn cotton, lure me again and again, sometimes just to savor a passage or two for a moment’s inspiration. (10)

Quite by chance, Staal picks up a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique during a trip to a bookstore with her toddler, and it brings back a self that had gone into hibernation with motherhood.  Going through her undergraduate notes for her Feminist Texts course that night, Staal lights upon a plan to go back to Barnard and reread the foundational texts of feminism.

What follows is a richly textured reading of those texts, Staal’s various selves (in her undergraduate teens, her bustling twenties and married-with-child thirties) shading the already complex politics of sex and gender.

After rereading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, she writes,

I still felt angered by the severe limitations placed upon women during Gilman’s lifetime, but at the same time, the landscapes of absolutes that once dominated my thinking had been rubbed down by experience. (95)

She follows up on a notable silence around Gilman’s autobiographical fiction.  While the story is based on Gilman’s experience of marriage to Walter Stetson, whom she eventually divorced, the story less often told is of her second, happy, and thirty-year marriage to George Gilman.  Staal includes this story, not to reinforce a retrograde happy ending–she lost custody of her daughter in her divorce and mourned that loss to the end of her days– but to underscore the real complexity of the hardships and difficult choices in marriage and motherhood, then and now.

I appreciated the effects of the wear of experience on Staal’s readings.  As I usually do, I found myself wanting more memoir, more of the author.  I could certainly have done with much less reporting of other students’ opinions from the classroom.  If the book has a weakness, it is the length of the passages of classroom dialogue.

Of course, Staal does not find an answer to the intractable problems facing the have-it-all generation of women to which she belongs, but she does find a good story, and it’s well told.

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Alphabet Table: Memoir of a Childhood in the Language

Bruce Meyer

Windsor: Black Moss Press, 2010.

This memoir, the ninth in the Settlements series of short Canadian memoirs being published by Black Moss Press, is a love letter to language and books, a tribute for the home they have given its author.  It is also peppered with poignant reminders that bookish children not only find a home in books, but are often painfully out of place among their peers.  Meyer describes how his voracious appetite for books not only alienated him from the other kids, but made him a target for teachers who bullied the boy who was bored by their classes.  It gave me a knot in my stomach to think of such isolation. 

Meyer recalls that he saved up all his pocket-money to buy books, and spent it at the local stationers: 

They had two racks that were not the usual pulp fiction in the store: a free-standing swivel display of New Canadian Library Classics that included Laurence’s The Stone Angel, Wiseman’s The Sacrifice, and anthologies edited by the University of Toronto professor Milton Wilson….  I became enamoured with the poetry of Layton, Birney, and Purdy, and determined that I would meet them and talk to them about my own work—and learn from them, if I could.  The other display was a slanted series of short shelves that contained the Signet Classic Editions of the plays of Shakespeare.  Some of the kids in my neighbourhood would hang around the plaza, smoke, and buy drugs.  My fix was found in that card and gift shop, in the back corner, where no one from my generation ever seemed to go except me. (80) 

“No one from my generation”: this phrase somehow encapsulated for me the palpable loneliness of the boy lost in books, even if they have their compensatory pleasures. 

The title of the book is its controlling metaphor.  The alphabet table is the dinner tray Meyer had as a child that clipped to his chair with the letters of the alphabet and representative animals parading around it.  He takes that wonderfully concrete introduction to letters from earliest memory and plays with its metaphorical possibilities:

Language and all the things that words can do have always been a table set before me—some days I refer to it as my work bench, but it is really a table, a banquet, where I can feast not only on the sound of the words but their role, their meaning and their vanity.  As I sit at my desk in front of a computer screen and the characters appear before me, I realize that my alphabet table, my word feast, has been a process of evolution that will keep growing and changing and feeding me for as long as I live.  Few poets can earn a living from their poetry; but every poet I know lives off language and is sustained by it. (25)

I refer often to books as food for my soul, and the gustatory metaphor and the image of the word feast resonates with my own sense that we nourish ourselves with words.

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