Category Archives: Nonfiction — memoir

Of Falafels and Following Jesus, by Nathan Brown with Michelle Villis and Brenton Stacey

falafelsIt’s refreshing to read an account of travel to “the Holy Land” by someone who approaches the journey admitting to a level of skepticism — not about the holiness of the events that happened there, but about whether modern would-be pilgrims can access that holiness in a region torn by conflict and commercialized by the religo-tourism industry.

Nathan Brown approaches his trip to holy and historical places in Israel and Jordan with a reverent but questioning mind. The book tells the story of a fairly typical Holy Land tour, with Brown’s reflections on the day-by-day site-seeing interspersed with shorter reflections from Villis and Stacey, two other members of the same tour group. Each of them reflect on the places where they did (and sometimes, didn’t) find God in these historic places, and on what following in the literal footsteps of Jesus might mean for those of us trying to follow His metaphorical footsteps 2000 years later.

This was an honest, refreshing, and thought-provoking book about travelling in holy places.

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Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cummings

notmyfatherssonI didn’t know a whole lot about Scottish actor Alan Cumming (didn’t even know he was Scottish, although this becomes VERY clear as soon as you start the audiobook!) except that I liked his character on The Good Wife, and I read an interview with him, probably around the time this book came out, that sounded like he had an interesting personal story. And boy, does he ever.

Not My Father’s Son is not a typical actor memoir — in fact, Cumming’s career is only incidental to the story. Rather, this is a book about growing up in an abusive family, and coming to terms with this as an adult. The book alternates between “Then” — scenes from Cummings’ childhood — and “Now” — when as an adult actor he agreed to be on the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” exploring his family roots. During the process of the TV show and the publicity around it, more secrets were revealed than Cummings had intended — including a bombshell dropped by his estranged father. This book is sensitive, thoughtful, witty and perceptive, plus I would listen to a guy with a Scottish accent read the phone book, so, win-win.

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Juliet’s Answer, by Glenn Dixon

julietsanswerIt’s kind of unusual, for my reading habits at least, to read a memoir by a man about wandering around the world, trying to find himself, and straightening out his love life. I read a lot of those kinds of books by women, and Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer, while it’s no Eat, Pray, Love, definitely fits into the genre.

To be fair, Dixon doesn’t exactly wander the globe. He goes to Verona, Italy, and volunteers with the group of people who answer the thousands of letters that arrive yearly from people around the world writing about their broken hearts and hopes to the fictional Juliet of Shakespeare’s play. Dixon neatly sketches the entire Romeo-and-Juliet-centric tourist industry of Verona, and the gently good-hearted people who take on the task of dealing with Juliet’s mailbag. His stated reason for going is to deepen his own knowledge of a play he’s been teaching at the high school level for many years; his deeper reason is to untangle the threads of his own messy love life.

There are really three stories here, woven together: Dixon’s two trips to Verona, his experiences teaching Romeo and Juliet to ninth-grades back in Canada, and his unhappy long-term relationship with a woman he’s been “just friends” with since college. The Verona story is a nice piece of travel writing. The teacher story is a nice, not too idealized, look at the ways in which teaching a 400+ year old story can intersect with the lives of 21st century teenagers. I could definitely relate to this part after 20+ years teaching Shakespeare. (I say Dixon’s story is “not too idealized” — there’s obviously some editing for dramatic effect in the classroom scenes, and I almost laughed out loud at the touching scene where he and his class are reading the very last scene of the play on the very last day of school — what, they’ve spent all this time reading Romeo and Juliet and there’s no unit test, no final exam, not even a final project to complete? No assessment whatsoever?)

The narrator’s own love story ranges from “endearingly awkward” to “slightly cringeworthy” — it’s obvious that he is completely inept either at understanding the feelings of this woman he’s been in love with for decades, or at expressing his own feelings, and it’s hard not to wonder what her side of the story sounds like. However, while it doesn’t have a happy ending in the most obvious sense, there is an important message here about not being too tied to the romantic ideal of “one true love” — which guarantees that Dixon’s story has a less tragic ending than Juliet’s.

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Welcome to the G**D**n Ice Cube, by Blair Braverman

icecubeLike a lot of people who love both dogs and Twitter, I became a fan of Blair Braverman and her dog team long before they ran this year’s Iditarod, through Blair’s great online storytelling about her wonderful dogs. Given how much I enjoy her writing when it’s broken up into 280-character bites, it’s surprising I waited as long as I did to read her memoir. A few bad reviews on Goodreads put me off a bit, but I realize after reading it that the people who gave it bad reviews were expecting a different kind of book.

That’s understandable: if you know Braverman as a musher, and you can see that there’s a dog team on the cover of the book, you might expect it to be largely a book about mushing and dog teams. But while there are certainly references to mushing and to sled dogs, this is a young woman’s coming-of-age memoir, set against the backdrop of several trips to the far north in Norway and in Alaska.

Blair Braverman always felt drawn to the Arctic, and sought it out from the time she went to Norway as an exchange student in high school. She went back later, for a year at a “folk school” learning to handle a dog team, and yet again to spend some time with people she got to know during that year at the folk school. In between, along with getting a college degree (not in the Arctic), she spent two summers working with an off-season dog team on an Alaskan glacier (the “G-D ice cube” of the title).

All of these trips were about her effort to discover herself and her place in the world, which she always knew was going to involve cold weather, snow, and probably sled dogs — but they’re also about a young woman’s attempts to navigate a male-dominated world. None of her encounters is harrowing, just disturbing — ranging from the father of her student-exchange host family who makes her feel uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to define, to a first boyfriend who’s demanding and pushy and unwilling to accept that their relationship is over. Finding the ability to set her own boundaries and stand up for herself as a woman in a man’s world is as important to this memoir as anything Braverman learned about surviving in the far north or running a dog team. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find yourself — but if you do, it might just make a great memoir.

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A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

fieldguideThis collection of essays is one I would not have picked up if it hadn’t been selected for an online book club I’m in, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. Solnit, who is obviously a brilliant writer, structures each of these essays around the idea of “getting lost,” both literally and metaphorically. There is some gorgeous writing here and some moments that made me stop and reflect, but there were also large stretches where she kind of lost me and I wasn’t entirely sure what she was getting at. I usually love personal essay/memoir collections, and there were moments when I loved this, but there were also places where her ideas about “getting lost” were just too obscure for me and I guess I  — got lost, a little bit, in the book itself? 

Maybe that was intentional.

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James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes, by James Acaster

classicscrapesJames Acaster is my daughter’s favourite comedian, and she asked for this book of his “scrapes” — hilarious/ridiculous incidents allegedly culled from his real life — for Christmas. After picking up her copy to read a little bit I was convinced I had to get this as an audiobook, because with comedians, their own voice almost always makes it better. If you like James Acaster, you have to read (or better yet, hear) this book, and if you’ve never heard of him, you have to check him out. He’s one of my favourites too.

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Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, by Anne Lamott

almosteverythingI will always love Anne Lamott and she will always be my personal guru. That said, I think my preferences with her writing are pretty fixed: I like her non-fiction better that her fiction, and of her non-fiction, I like her earlier books of longer, meatier, more memoir-style essays, better than I like her more recent books that read more like “meditations on a theme.” Almost Everything is in the same vein as Small Victories; Help, Thanks, Wow, and other recent Lamott releases, in that she spends more time reflecting on ideas than telling stories, and I think she’s at her best in telling stories.

There were moments in Almost Everything — especially when she talks about being the parent of an adult child and learning to let go of control and of trying to fix your kid’s life, which is something I’m pretty interested in at this stage of my own life, when I wanted her to stop talking in theory and tell me more of the story of what she and Sam went through over the last few years. Likewise, there are glancing references throughout the book to the new relationship she is in, and having seen this unfold on social media I’m very happy for her and Neil, but I would love to see her write with her trademark unflinching honesty about what it’s really like to enter into a serious relationship in your sixties after years of singleness. Maybe she’s more concerned about her own and her loved ones’ privacy now than she was in her earlier years as a memoir writer, but as I reader, I know I’d love to sink my teeth into a good, meaty Lamott memoir in the style of Operating Instructions or Traveling Mercies that would take us along on her life journey rather than just sharing brief inspirational thoughts. 

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir