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!