Mem­o­rable mem­oirs

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - NATIONAL NEWS - BRENT JEF­FRIES

I failed to file last week af­ter hav­ing an en­counter with a piece of steak. A few hours of think­ing I was in­deed pass­ing on and then re­cov­ery. The only dam­age done was to miss a week re­view­ing books.

When I left off a week or so ago, the lit­er­ary ice ca­pades were just be­ing an­nounced. On to the Gillers where once again, Esi Edugyan is lead­ing the pack with Wash­ing­ton Black (my favourite non-read this year) fol­lowed by Pa­trick deWhitt for French Exit (one of my “best reads” of the year).

The other three are Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart, Sheila Heti’s Moth­er­hood, and Thea Lim for An Ocean of Min­utes. The prize will be handed out on Nov. 7.

Sheila Brown San­car­tier de­liv­ered a book last week and it was an af­ter­noon win­ner. To­day, David Wild­ing-Davies lives in Thorn­bury where he runs Ashanti Cof­fee En­ter­prises. Not many years ago the Van­cou­ver born cof­fee farmer and his wife went to Africa. The story is told in My Cat­tle Look Thin: A Story of Life on a Farm in Zim­babwe (Rain­for­est, $20).

In 2000 Wild­ing-Davies trav­elled with his young fam­ily to start a new life farm­ing cof­fee. Ashanti Cof­fee Es­tate soon grew with re­vived rows of cof­fee plants but, sad to say, it was dur­ing the years of Robert Mu­gabe. That should be enough said but within years, Magabe’s wovits (sup­pos­edly vet­er­ans of Zim­babwe’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary army) were on the march.

They and their fel­low trav­ellers in­vaded many a farm, tak­ing over the land, some­times mur­der­ing on the way. Even­tu­ally, Ashanti fell too. My Cat­tle Are Thin is well worth search­ing for (my copy will be re­turned to Sheila with due thanks). Although it has a sad end­ing, it is such a good read.

At the time I ran into an er­rant bite of steak, I was read­ing a trio of mem­oirs, all too good to let go over a silly din­ner­time near tragedy. Tanya Mar­quardt’s Stray: A Mem­oir of a Run­away (Lit­tle A, $24.95) tells a bru­tal, beau­ti­ful true story of a girl who runs away to find her­self.

To­day, Mar­quardt is an award­win­ning per­former and the au­thor of 10 plays. A grad­u­ate of the MFA cre­ative writ­ing pro­gramme at Hunter Col­lege, she di­vides her time be­tween Van­cou­ver and Brook­lyn. Stray is her de­but book.

It is the mem­oir of grow­ing up in a dys­func­tional and emo­tion­ally abusive home. The au­thor must learn to take care of her­self dur­ing two chaotic years in the work­ing-class mill town of Port Al­berni (it­self worth the price of the book). And then she bonds with “mis­fits”, finds a new home and re­ports back with strength and dig­nity. This is such an hon­est, sin­cere book that it should be found and read. Stray is worth ev­ery page.

I don’t know of Cathal Kelly ex­cept to say he is a na­tional sports colum­nist at the Globe and Mail and lives to­day in Toronto. He also writes a fine mem­oir; Boy Won­ders (Dou­ble­day Canada, $29.95).

This is a re­mem­brance of grow­ing up in the 70s and 80s. By turns funny and in­sight­ful, Kelly writes so well. Lis­ten to him. “The most fas­ci­nat­ing things about life are the ba­nal­i­ties we so rarely dis­cuss amongst our­selves but that we de­vote most of our en­er­gies to nav­i­gat­ing. How did that day you’ve for­got­ten look? Did you have the sense you were pro­gress­ing any­where? Prob­a­bly not. Yet string to­gether a few thou­sand of them to­gether and that’s a life.”

Kelly’s youth was a time of won­der. And, like many of us, it in­cluded books, books read late at night, books given and bor­rowed, books and more books. He re­mem­bers, “Books are cheap, sim­ple and good for you.”

Late in the evening in the 80s, a pack of D& D play­ers would find a ta­ble at the li­brary and indulge in the most imag­i­na­tive game of that decade. It was known then and now as Dun­geons and Drag­ons (does any­one play it anymore?). Kelly brings that mem­ory and more home in his writ­ing that is, in turn, funny, nos­tal­gic, and fa­mil­iar as the au­thor stum­bles through a youth to find pur­pose in this strangest of places.

Jell-0? Re­mem­ber it? In the 1890s, the patent for this much-be­laboured dessert was sold for $450. It was one of the most prof­itable busi­ness deals in Amer­i­can his­tory, set­ting the stage for a cen­tury of fam­ily tragedies; sui­cides, can­cer (the Jell-O curse), al­co­holism, and other mys­te­ri­ous ail­ments.

It was Al­lie Row­bot­tom’s great­great-great un­cle who started it all. Af­ter a cen­tury she be­gan to write the story of a fam­ily like no other. The re­sult is Jell- O Girls: A Fam­ily His­tory (Lit­tle, Brown, $36.50). It is that rare thing, a won­der book about a priv­i­leged fam­ily, their tri­als and tribu­la­tions across the decades. Row­bot­tom weaves a great tale that is deeply per­sonal – and read­able.

And once again, it is books that res­cue peo­ple. “Af­ter that, Mary con­sumed ev­ery fem­i­nist text she could get her hands on. Evenings she sat out on her porch and read, car­ing for her­self with books and sto­ries and lan­guage.”

Row­bot­tom lives to­day in Los An­ge­les, a much-pub­lished au­thor and the win­ner of the Im­print Mar­ion Barthelme Prize in Cre­ative Writ­ing. Jell-0 Girls also in­cludes a his­tory of the pow­der (made of ground-up bones and flavour). The best parts are the re­mem­brances of youth and those sal­ads, float­ing in the stuff with cher­ries thrown in for colour. It sure is nos­tal­gic stuff!

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