This month we're curling up in our proverbial chairs with life stories, biography and memoir, stories that run the gamut and take you all over Canada and beyond. Here are twenty compelling life stories that are rocking our world this spring.
I Hear She's a Real Bitch, by Jen Agg
About the book: Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, the woman behind the popular The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, and Agrikol restaurants, is known for her frank, crystal-sharp and often hilarious observations and ideas on the restaurant industry and the world around her. I Hear She's a Real Bitch, her first book, is caustic yet intimate, and wryly observant; an unforgettable glimpse into the life of one of the most interesting, smart, trail-blazing voices of this moment.
Why we're taking notice: More books about kick-ass, talented women, please. This book is getting so much buzz.
The Unfinished Dollhouse, by Michelle Alfano
About the book: No mother is prepared for the moment when a child comes out to her as a person whose physical gender is out-of-keeping with his emotional and psychological gender-identity. In Michelle Alfano's intimate memoir, she recounts her experience as the mother of a transgender child. The central metaphor of The Unfinished Dollhouse tells the story: on Frankie's fourth birthday, her parents Michelle and Rob purchased a kit to create a beautiful dollhouse. Michelle imagined building the home, buying the tiny pieces of furniture and accessories to fill it and, more importantly, the times she and her daughter would spend constructing the perfect dollhouse—a fantasy of domestic and familial happiness. Frankie expressed no interest in such typically girlish pursuits because Frankie harboured a secret—a secret about gender. In the years to follow, Frankie's parents experienced an education in parenting a child transitioning from female to male—which pronouns to use, how to disclose the information to friends, family, school and how to deal with the reactions of all—some heartening, some surprising, some disappointing. There is no memoir like The Unfinished Dollhouse in the Canadian cultural landscape, a memoir by the mother of a transgender child.
Why we're taking notice: The latest by an award-winning, Journey Prize-nominated author. At a moment when gender identity is much pontificated about in theory, it seems important to read a book that sets these ideas in context.
Deep Salt Water, by Marianne Apostilides
About the book: Deep Salt Water is a stirring memoir about loss and abortion, expressed through the layering of imagery from the ocean. In detail at once sensual and sophisticated, Apostolides unfurls the emotional experience of a love affair and unwanted pregnancy, the abortion itself, and her reconnection with the man seventeen years later—a rekindling of love which stimulates this gentle attempt to come to terms with the abortion and its consequences. Moving from a place of intense intimacy to an outward focus that engages with the broader world, Deep Salt Water discusses abortion in all its complexity, rejecting polarizing rhetoric in favour of the unfathomable truths that women hold in their bodies.
Why we're taking notice: From a review in the Hamilton Review of Books, “The engagement demanded by Deep Salt Water is more than rewarded with the narrative’s richness, originality, and daring in the connections Apostolides is willing to make, the questions she is bold enough to pose.”
Radio Okapi Kindu, by Jennifer Bakody
About the book: When Jennifer Bakody steps off the plane in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004, she walks right into the hardest and most inspiring job an idealistic young journalist from Nova Scotia could ever imagine. Six years of war involving eight countries and several million deaths has just ended in a ceasefire. Two weeks later, Bakody finds herself two thousand kilometres up the Congo River in the heart of the jungle, managing a small UN-backed radio station. Radio Okapi Kindu tells Jennifer's story, as well as that of the team of hard-working local reporters determined to cover the country's rapid march towards elections. Can one small station known as the "frequency of peace" stand the strain of maintaining its editorial rigour when so much is at stake?
Why we're taking notice: "It is my hope that the humanity portrayed by Radio Okapi Kindu will help to rally the world around the many forces for positive change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo." —Dr. Denis Mukwege, world-renowned gynecological surgeon & founder & medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Living Up to a Legend, by Diana Bishop
About the book: Diana Bishop recounts growing up in the shadow of her famous grandfather, Canadian First World War flying ace Billy Bishop.
As a child, Diana Bishop showed up one day at school with a brown paper bag. Inside was a large breastplate of some of the most precious war medals on the planet, including the Victoria Cross. They belonged to Canada’s most celebrated First World War pilot, Billy Bishop, and until her family donated them to the Canadian War Museum, they had been kept in her father’s underwear drawer. That day at school was the first time Diana realized she was not growing up in an ordinary family.
Now, after more than two decades in Canadian media, Diana Bishop looks back on her grandfather’s legacy and its profound influence over her life, and also her father’s—the only son of Billy Bishop, who had so much to live up to. Living Up to a Legend is a unique memoir that covers Billy Bishop’s legacy through the eyes of one of the people who it affected the most.
Why we're taking notice: Not just the story of a myth, but the story of his legacy. Bishop's book is a fascinating mix of biography and memoir.
Where I Live Now, by Sharon Butala
About the book: In the tradition of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal comes a revelatory new book from one of our beloved writers.
When Sharon Butala’s husband, Peter, died unexpectedly, she found herself with no place to call home. Torn by grief and loss, she fled the ranchlands of southwest Saskatchewan and moved to the city, leaving almost everything behind. A lifetime of possessions was reduced to a few boxes of books, clothes, and keepsakes. But a lifetime of experience went with her, and a limitless well of memory—of personal failures, of a marriage that everybody said would not last but did, of the unbreakable bonds of family.
Reinventing herself in an urban landscape was painful, and facing her new life as a widow tested her very being. Yet out of this hard-won new existence comes an astonishingly frank, compassionate and moving memoir that offers not only solace and hope but inspiration to those who endure profound loss.
Often called one of this country’s true visionaries, Sharon Butala shares her insights into the grieving process and reveals the small triumphs and funny moments that kept her going. Where I Live Now is profound in its understanding of the many homes women must build for themselves in a lifetime.
Why we're taking notice: Butala continues on her project of telling the stories of Canada's west (intermingled with her own story) that began with her award-winning 1994 memoir, The Perfection of the Morning.
The Man Who Carried Cash, by Julie Chadwick
About the book: Before there was Johnny and June, there was Johnny and Saul. The Man Who Carried Cash chronicles a relationship that was both volatile and affectionate between Johnny Cash and his manager, Saul Holiff. From roadside taverns to the roaring crowds at Madison Square Garden, from wrecked cars and jail cells all the way to the White House, the story of Johnny and Saul is a portrait of two men from different worlds who were more alike than either cared to admit.
Saul handled the bookings and the no-shows, the divorce and the record deals, drugs, overdoses, and arrests. He was there for the absolute worst of times, but also for the best: Carnegie Hall, Folsom Prison, “A Boy Named Sue,” and Cash's hit television series. But in 1973, at the zenith of Cash’s career, Saul quit. Until now, no one knew why.
Why we're taking notice: Check out the excerpt published in VICE: "Working for Johnny Cash Was a Nightmare."
The Dependent, by Danielle Daniel
About the book: The Dependent is a true story written by a military wife married to a paratrooper who served in the Canadian Armed Forces for fourteen years before his army career came to a crashing halt—a freak accident near Armed Forces Base Trenton left him paraplegic and their future in shards. Danielle, a fiercely independent university student, meets Steve, an ambitious infantry private. Much of the first years of their marriage are spent apart, as Steve's infantry unit is sent overseas for duty in Croatia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. With each tour of duty, the emotional distance between them intensifies. After four tours, Steve finally comes home to stay, but little changes: their marriage remains a difficult ménage-à-trois made up of a man, a woman, and the military. In this deeply candid depiction of their marriage before and after a life-altering trauma, each chapter unveils an intimate portrait of marriage—one in which Danielle and Steve must navigate shifting roles and learn to co-exist in a space where the collateral damage of military service is absolute. The Dependent is a brave and modern love story revealing immeasurable loss and grief and the journey to lasting hope and forgiveness.
Where It Hurts, by Sarah de Leeuw
About the book: Where It Hurts is a highly-charged collection of personal essays, haunted by loss, evoking turbulent physical and emotional Canadian landscapes. Sarah de Leeuw's creative non-fiction captures strange inconsistencies and aberrations of human behaviour, urging us to be observant and aware. The essays are wide in scope and expose what—and who—goes missing.
With the insight of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Sarah de Leeuw reflects on missing geographies and people, including missing women, both those she has known and those whom she will never get to know. As in Lynn Coady's Hellgoing, but hell-going made real, the writing is courageously focused, juxtaposing places and things that can be touched and known—emotionally, physically, psychologically—with what has become intangible, unnoticed, or actively ignored. Throughout these essays, de Leeuw's imagistic memories are layered with meaning, providing a survival guide for the present, including a survival that comes with the profound responsibility to bear witness.
Why we're taking notice: Not an easy book, by any means, but an important one. As Patricia Dawn Robertson writes in Quill & Quire, "De Leeuw’s razor-sharp prose cuts to the bone."
The Bosun Chair, by Jennifer Delisle
About the book: Part family memoir, part poetry, part love letter to Newfoundland and its people, The Bosun Chair is a lyrical exploration of how we are fortified by the places of our foremothers and forefathers and by how they endured.
Like 'ballycater,' the ice that gathers in harbours along the coast, Jennifer Bowering Delisle gathers fragments of history, family lore, and poetry—both her own and that of her great-grandparents—to tell stories of shipwrecks, war, resettlement, and men and women's labour in early twentieth-century Newfoundland. With the deftness and haunting imagery of Michael Crummey's Hard Light, The Bosun Chair reveals the inherent gaps in ancestral history and the drive to understand a story that can never fully be told.
Why we're taking notice: "A treasure-box of Newfoundland lore, collected by the great-granddaughter of not one, but two, shipwreck-braving poets, The Bosun Chair’s seamless movement between memoir, poetry, interview and historical document echoes Ondaatje’s early genre-blending lyric prose. Deslisle tenderly imagines a family history of the ancestral Newfoundland she never knew." — Sonnet L'Abbé, author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe
Unbuttoned, by Christopher Dummitt
About the book: When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King died in 1950, the public knew little about his eccentric private life. In his final will King ordered the destruction of his private diaries, seemingly securing his privacy for good. Yet twenty-five years after King’s death, the public was bombarded with stories about "Weird Willie," the prime minister who communed with ghosts and cavorted with prostitutes. Unbuttoned traces the transformation of the public’s knowledge and opinion of King’s character, offering a compelling look at the changing way Canadians saw themselves and measured the importance of their leaders’ personal lives. Christopher Dummitt relates the strange posthumous tale of King’s diary and details the specific decisions of King’s literary executors. Along the way we learn about a thief in the public archives, stolen copies of King’s diaries being sold on the black market, and an RCMP hunt for a missing diary linked to the search for Russian spies at the highest levels of the Canadian government. Analyzing writing and reporting about King, Dummitt concludes that the increasingly irreverent views of King can be explained by a fundamental historical transformation that occurred in the era in which King’s diaries were released, when the rights revolution, Freud, 1960s activism, and investigative journalism were making self-revelation a cultural preoccupation. Presenting extensive archival research in a captivating narrative, Unbuttoned traces the rise of a political culture that privileged the individual as the ultimate source of truth, and made Canadians rethink what they wanted to know about politicians.
Why we're taking notice: Charlotte Gray, of all people, found details in this book "jaw-droppingly hilarious." So it will probably also appeal to you too.
In the Black, by H. Denham Jolly
About the book: In the Black traces B. Denham Jolly’s personal and professional struggle for a place in a country where Black Canadians have faced systematic discrimination. He arrived from Jamaica to attend university in the mid-1950s and worked as a high school teacher before going into the nursing and retirement-home business. Though he was ultimately successful in his business ventures, Jolly faced both overt and covert discrimination, which led him into social activism. The need for a stronger voice for the Black community fuelled Jolly’s 12-year battle to get a licence for a Black-owned radio station in Toronto. At its launch in 2001, Flow 93.5 became the model for urban music stations across the country, helping to launch the careers of artists like Drake.
Jolly chronicles not only his own journey; he tells the story of a generation of activists who worked to reshape the country into a more open and just society. While celebrating these successes, In the Black also measures the distance Canada still has to travel before we reach our stated ideals of equality.
Why we're taking notice: Don't miss the powerful excerpt from this book on our blog.
Confederation Drive, by Janice MacDonald
About the book: In the summer of 1967 Janice MacDonald and her mother Joyce jumped into their Plymouth Barracuda and drove across Canada to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday and Expo in Montreal. Fifty years later she recreates this road trip with her husband to experience the same magic that defined her childhood.
Janice MacDonald’s Confederation Drive looks at how Expo was Canada’s coming out party to the rest of the world and how we are seen by the global community fifty years later. It’s a love letter to her beloved mother. It’s lobster dinners and Anne of Green Gables and Saskatchewan rest stops and Manitoba detours.
As Canada’s 150th birthday is right around the corner there is no more Canadian thing to do than curl up with this book and reflect on where we’ve been as a country and, more importantly, where we’re going.
Why we're taking notice: We love MacDonald's Randy Craig mystery series, and are looking forward to this new literary direction for her, which Ali Bryan calls "a wholly charming cross-country adventure."
Daddy Hall, by Tony Miller
About the book: A striking visual saga in linocuts of the life of John 'Daddy' Hall, a man of Mohawk and African-American descent who survived war, capture and slavery to become a pillar of the community in nineteenth-century Owen Sound, Ontario.
Why we're taking notice: A gallery of images from the book was published on our blog this week—check them out.
Just Jen, by Jen Powley
About the book: Jen Powley was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at fifteen. By thirty-five, she had lost the use of her arms and legs.
Just Jen is a powerful memoir that tells the story of Powley’s life at the time of her diagnosis, and the infinite, irrevocable ways it has changed since. Powley’s writing pulls no punches. She is lively, bold and unapologetic, answering questions people are often afraid to ask about living with a progressive disease. And yet, these snapshots from Powley’s life are not tinged with anger or despair. Just Jen is a powerful, uplifting and unforgettable work by an author who has laid her life—and her body—bare in order to survive.
Why we're taking notice: The story of how Powley wrote her book is as powerful as the book itself.
A Quiet Roar, by Heidi Redl
About the book: Compelling and honest life of a stubborn BC rancher living tenaciously in the face of her Multiple Sclerosis condition. The devastating diagnosis of an incurable, debilitating disease does not ordinarily form the starting point of a triumphant story. This, however, is a triumphant story. Heidi Redl was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004 and immediately chose to fight the disease with the only tools available to her: sheer stubbornness and courage.
Growing up on a pioneer ranch in the rough and dusty days of the late 1960s and the 1970s, Redl learned at a young age to be self-reliant and tenacious. Life as a rancher had given her the courage she would need to bravely and persistently fight back against this chronic disease that now affects 2.5 million people worldwide. But nothing in her previous experiences could fully prepare her to live with an equally tenacious enemy. In A Quiet Roar, Redl shares the struggles and triumphs in her uphill battle with multiple sclerosis. To survive, Redl must first learn to trust and rely on other people for the help she would need in the new reality of her daily life. This compelling and honest memoir is a record of her struggle against the physical challenges of living with a progressive disease but also of the support and incredible friendships she found along the way.
Why we're taking notice: Sharon Butala likes it! She writes, "Heidi Redl has written a story about living with MS as it progresses degree by degree and year after year. But this is a story about stubbornness, perseverance, courage, hope, and a good deal more success than failure, and as such, it is a book we could all learn from about how to get through and past the many adversities and travails of a life. I think you should read and learn from it."
My Peerless Story, by Alvin Cramer Segal
About the book: In 1951, Alvin Cramer Segal, at the age of eighteen and without a formal education, started working in the factory of his stepfather’s company in Montreal. Today he is the chairman and chief executive officer of the largest supplier of men’s fine-tailored clothing in North America, and is considered an outstanding business and community leader, at the forefront of policy-making in Canada’s apparel industry, with commitments to philanthropic efforts that echo his business accomplishments. In My Peerless Story, Segal recounts how he learned business from the collar down and from the ground up, transforming a family-owned business into one that would eventually come to licence labels such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Michael Kors. Sharing anecdotes and personal experiences, Segal describes the history of garment manufacturing in Montreal and his intuitive strategies to leverage growth by improving fabrics, and adapting to innovative changes in the industry, eventually becoming the main inventory source of designer label suits to major department stores. Written from the heart, not as a handbook but rather as the story of a well-suited business career, My Peerless Story nonetheless includes relevant business lessons for the aspiring and inspired.
Why we're taking notice: "His story about how he made Peerless Clothing into a world leader in the Production of men’s suits is a straight-ahead account of savvy business practice, exceedingly hard work, and fearlessness in the face of risk—both a valuable document for anyone building a company who wants to know how high-wire entrepreneurship works, and an important contribution to the history of garment manufacturing in Montreal.” —Bryan Demchinsky, former business editor at The Montreal Gazette
The Barefoot Bingo Caller, by Antennas Sileika
About the book: In The Barefoot Bingo Caller, Antanas Sileika finds what’s funny and touching in the most unlikely places, from the bingo hall to the collapsing Soviet Union. He shares stories that span his attempts to shake off his suburban, ethnic, folk-dancing childhood to his divided allegiance as a Lithuanian-Canadian father. Antanas has a keen eye for social comedy, bringing to life such memorable characters as ageing beat poets, oblivious college students, the queen of the booze cans, and an obdurate porcupine. Passing through places as varied as the prime minister’s office and the streets of Paris, these wry and moving dispatches on work and family, art, and identity are ones to be shared and savoured.
Why we're taking notice: Because Miriam Toews calls this memoir "dead-on funny," and she knows funny. Take note.
What Remains, by Karen Von han
About the book: Being left with a strand of even the highest quality milky-white pearls isn’t quite the same thing as pearls of wisdom to live by, as Karen von Hahn reveals in her memoir about her stylish and captivating mother, Susan — a mercurial, grandiose, Guerlain-and-vodka-soaked narcissist whose search for glamour and fulfillment through the acquisition and collection of beautiful things ultimately proved hollow.
A tale of growing up in 1970s and 1980s Toronto in the fabulousness of a bourgeois Jewish family that valued panache over pragmatism and making a design statement over substance, von Hahn’s recollections of her dramatic and domineering mother are exemplified by the objects she held most dear: from a strand of prized pearls, to a Venetian mirror worthy of the palace of Versailles, to the silver satin sofas that were the epitome of her signature style. She also describes the misunderstandings and sometimes hurt and pain that come with being raised by her stunning, larger-than-life mother who in many ways embodied the flash-and-glam, high-flying, wealth-accumulating generation that gave birth to our modern-day material culture.
Alternating between satire and sadness, von Hahn reconstructs the past through a series of exquisitely impressionistic memories, ultimately questioning the value of the things we hold dear and—after her complicated, yet impossible-to-forget mother is gone—what exactly remains.
Why we're taking notice: We're long-time fans of Von Hahn's journalism, and looking forward to reading her first book.
From the Tundra to the Trenches, by Eddy Weetaluk
About the book: “My name is Weetaltuk; Eddy Weetaltuk. My Eskimo tag name is E9-422.” So begins From the "Tundra to the Trenches." Weetaltuk means “innocent eyes” in Inuktitut, but to the Canadian government, he was known as E9-422: E for Eskimo, 9 for his community, 422 to identify Eddy.
In 1951, Eddy decided to leave James Bay. Because Inuit weren’t allowed to leave the North, he changed his name and used this new identity to enlist in the Canadian Forces: Edward Weetaltuk, E9-422, became Eddy Vital, SC-17515, and headed off to fight in the Korean War. In 1967, after fifteen years in the Canadian Forces, Eddy returned home. He worked with Inuit youth struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and, in 1974, started writing his life’s story. This compelling memoir traces an Inuk’s experiences of world travel and military service. Looking back on his life, Weetaltuk wanted to show young Inuit that they can do and be what they choose.
From the Tundra to the Trenches is the fourth book in the First Voices, First Texts series, which publishes lost or underappreciated texts by Indigenous writers. This new English edition of Eddy Weetaltuk’s memoir includes a foreword and appendix by Thibault Martin and an introduction by Isabelle St-Amand.
Why we're taking notice: From the National Post: “Endlessly interesting; an account of a traditional way of life now lost, a gripping first-hand account of a front-line soldier during the war, and an honest account of a young man’s adventures and misadventures. It is to all our benefit that it has, at last, found its way into print."
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