Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton

I knew of Kate Beaton as a Nova Scotia artist who was the genius mind behind the weird and brilliant historical and literary comics Hark! a vagrant. I was excited to see she was coming out with a memoir in the format of a literary novel, even knowing it would be something very, very different from Vagrant.

The subject matter is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Atlantic Canada: having just graduated with a liberal-arts degree, young Katie Beaton can’t find a job in her field or in her area of study (Cape Breton; history) that will even come close to helping her dig out of her massive student-loan hole, so she heads to Alberta like so many East Coasters, picking up one of the plentiful jobs in the oil sands. There, she makes the promised money, but also sees first-hand all the things that make life in that place so hard: the isolation, the loneliness (especially when she moves from living in Fort Mac to working in one of the camps), the rampant sexism (and worse) experienced by the handful of women who live and work among these men who are so far from home. The toll on the environment; the toll on human mental health. All these things are depicted unsparingly, but so are the acts of kindness, the humanity, the fragile sense of community she encountered among the many men and few other women that she worked alongside there. Ducks is a coming-of-age memoir that also paints an unforgettable portrait of life in the industry that makes our world both possible and doomed, an industry we rely on and often revile but are generally glad (if we don’t work in it ourselves) to know as little as possible about. It’s that perfect balance of a deeply personal story set against the backdrop of a huge, complex, and very relevant story that impacts us all, and Kate Beaton’s words and pictures — which are inseparable from each other; I can’t imagine this book as a straight prose memoir — brings it all to awkward, uncomfortable, touching life.

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The Year of Miracles, by Ella Risbridger

Recently I went to a bookstore and bought two hardcover new releases. You’d think, knowing how much I love to read, that this is a pretty common occurrence, but it’s actually not. While I am a voracious reader, most of the fiction I read is in the form of e-books, and most non-fiction in audiobooks, often borrowed from the library and well suited for rapid consumption. Books I love enough to own I normally buy in trade paperback, my favourite book format to look at and hold. I actively dislike the feel of most hardcover books in my hand, so rarely buy them.

However, Ella Risbridger’s new cookbook/memoir The Year of Miracles is one that I had to have in print, and I had no intention of waiting a year for it to come out in paperback (the same is true of the other book I bought at the same time, which I’ll review next; Kate Beaton’s graphic-novel memoir, Ducks). I’d already read Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken, another cookbook/memoir mashup: in the review of that one I explained how I came to know of Ella Risbridger and her work, and why it fascinated me. I did read that one as an ebook, but decided I would like to own it eventually in paper, and I had to get this one as soon as it came out, even though I don’t know how many of the recipes I’ll ever try. It’s beautifully illustrated and a joy to look at, another reason, apart from the recipes, that I wanted a hard copy. But the heart of the book is Risbridger’s essays which introduce each recipe, her chronicle of rebuilding her life after a devastating loss, leaning on a circle of dear friends for support, living through 2020’s pandemic year, and falling in love again — cooking all the while.

If you’re one of those people who hates it when recipe blogs introduce the recipe with a long personal story you have to scroll through to get to the instructions and ingredients, you’re going to hate this book, so don’t bother — it’s not really, or mainly, a cookbook. I love Risbridger’s voice, and her insights, and her thoughtfulness about grief, loss, and putting both a meal, and your life, together again.

Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, by Brian Francis

I stumbled across this book in a most old-fashioned away — seeing it on the shelf at the bookstores — and that seems appropriate, because it’s about an old-fashioned experience. Brian Francis writes about the time that, as a young gay man in the early 1990s, barely out of the closet, he placed a personal ad in the newspaper. None of the replies he got panned out into a lifelong love, though he did meet up with a few of the respondents. He also held on to several letters he never answered, and now, as an older man, he goes back to those letters and writes what he would like to say to those men all these years later. It’s an intriguing way to structure a memoir about coming out, growing up, and re-evaluating the person you were and the person you’ve become. This was a wonderful, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Please Scream Inside Your Heart, by Dave Pell

This is another one I listened to as an audiobook which is hard to categorize, although I did really enjoy it. It’s an almost day-by-day journey through 2020 from the perspective of someone who admittedly consumes way too much media (Pell produces an online newsletter called NextDraft that offers “a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news”); it’s a summary of American’s twin obsessions in that year — Donald Trump and Covid-19 — and how they were entwined; it’s also a memoir of Pell’s own personal and family response to the events of the year. The family perspective is particularly interesting as both Pell’s parents were Holocausts survivors, and their observations about the growing right-wing movement in the United States form a backdrop to the ever-escalating crises of life in 2020 America.

Ancestor Trouble, by Maud Newton

This book sounded like it would have everything I love — a woman explores her complicated family history, and along the way explores our ideas about ancestors, from “23 and me” style genetic-testing services, to ancestor worship traditions. I listened to it as an audiobook, as I generally do with nonfiction, but for some reason I just didn’t connect with this one as much as I’d hoped. Not a bad book by any means; just didn’t hit the right notes for me.

Why We Did It, by Tim Miller

Opinions will be divided on this book, but I found it fascinating. Tim Miller is a moderately well-known “Never Trumper” who used to work in communications for several Republican politicians prior to the 2016 election. Miller was working for Jeb Bush when Trump won the primary, and his subsequent disgust with Trump and all that Trump represented, led Miller not only (eventually) away from the party altogether, but to a re-examination of how the party he had once supported and worked for led to the outcomes of 2016 and beyond.

Tim Miller never worked in the Trump administration, but for this book he tells the stories of lots of people who did — some who agreed to talk to him on record and some who did not. But he titles it Why We Did It rather than Why They Did It because Miller fully owns and admits to his own culpability in building the machine that courted the votes and empowered the voices of the same people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

For some leftie readers, Miller’s self-examination won’t be enough to exonerate him (and I think he’d be OK with that). As a gay man working for an increasingly homophobic political party, the cognitive dissonance was already starting to get to him, but it’s valid to ask whether, if Jeb Bush had won the 2016 Republican primary, Tim Miller would still be a Republican operative. Did his growing questioning and discontent with much of his party’s direction require the catalyst of Trumpism to turn it into open rebellion, or would that have happened eventually anyway?

There’s no way to know for sure, obviously, and while Miller answers a lot of questions in this book, he doesn’t touch on that one directly. For me, as an interested Canadian who swore off my obsession with US politics after 2020 (and has mostly managed to keep distanced from it), Miller’s engaging voice, humour, and honesty were enough to draw me back in for as long as it took me to listen to this audiobook. (Worth noting that I’m using “voice” here in the metaphorical sense as this is one of those audiobooks that is narrated not by the author but by someone else. As Miller is a podcaster, his voice is quite listen-able and I don’t know why he didn’t narrate it himself as I would have enjoyed that even more, but that’s a very minor quibble).

Scratching River, by Michelle Porter

Scratching River is an appropriate follow-up to Porter’s Approaching Fire, though there is more prose than poetry in the current book. As with Approaching Fire, reflections on the natural landscape — in this case, the geography of rivers rather than fire — are interspersed with, and serve as metaphors for, a family memoir. The story centres around the narrator’s brother, who lives with both schizophrenia and autism, and the horrific abuse he suffered in a care facility. This intimate story is set against the broader background of a Metis community dealing with intergenerational trauma and connection to history and land. As always, Porter’s work is beautifully written and thought-provoking.

Talking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer

A family member gave my husband Rick Mercer’s memoir Talking to Canadians for Christmas. So a lot of Christmas vacation was spent listening to Jason burst out laughing while reading this book, then having him go, “Oh, I’ve just gotta read you this bit … oh, just one more bit …” while reading sections of the book.

In keeping with my policy that the best way to enjoy a comedian’s memoir is on audiobook, read by the author, I decided I would like to hear the book read aloud — but by Rick Mercer, and also in order from beginning to end.

This is as funny and thoughtful as any Rick Mercer fan would expect his book to be, with great anecdotes about growing up in Newfoundland and breaking into show business on the local scene before eventually making it big on national TV. My only disappointment came when I realized the book was nearing an end and Rick was just getting ready to launch his solo TV show. That was when it dawned on me this book was not going to cover the long and epic run of the Mercer Report — that will have to wait for another book! Thoroughly enjoyable!

How to Be Champion, by Sarah Millican

Following immediately upon the heels of Bob Mortimer’s And Away… (and not unrelated to a very long two-day drive Jason and I just went on), How to Be Champion is another entry in the “UK comedians I like who are reading their own life stories” category. I love Sarah Millican’s humour, and in this 2017 memoir she writes about childhood, growing up, being bullied, being a weird nerdy little kid and teenager, getting married very young, getting divorced, getting into comedy, being a woman, having periods, not wanting children, falling in love again, having body image issues, feminism, being a target of online hate, and so many other things. There’s also a bit of light-hearted self-help in each chapter in the form of Sarah’s “tips on how to be champion” (she also explains what “champion” means, in her North-of-England dialect, in case you’re not clear). Funny and often insightful.

And Away…, by Bob Mortimer

One of my favourite audiobook categories is “UK comedians reading their own memoirs” and as Bob Mortimer is a favourite of mine in the world of comedy, it was unsurprising that Jason and I would both enjoy listening to his memoir. Mortimer structures the story of his life and career around his 2015 heart attack, surgery, and recovery, switching back and forth from 2015 to the more distant past as he tells the story of the life he lived leading up to that event, his career in comedy, and what he learned and the changes he made after almost dying. Some serious thoughts here, but mostly the tone is light and there’s some very, very funny observations. Also, if you watch Bob Mortimer’s frequent appearances on Would I Lie to You, as we do, you’ll realize the reason his most outrageous stories are usually true — he has an incredible gift for taking incidents from his life and telling them in the most unforgettable ways (plus, he has done some really weird stuff)! Thoroughly enjoyable, though, like most celebrity memoirs, probably mostly enjoyable if you know the man and his work.