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My Favourite Nonfiction

By kerryclare
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Book on trees, family, travel, and *everything*. These essays turn the ordinary into the extraordinary via their authors' remarkable vision.
Mnemonic

Mnemonic

A Book of Trees
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : essays, trees, literary

Shortlisted, Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Award

Warm, imaginative, and thoroughly original, this memoir intertwines the mysteries of trees with the defining moments in the life of novelist and essayist Theresa Kishkan. For Kishkan, trees are memory markers of life, and in this book she explores the presence of trees in nature, in culture and in her personal history. Naming each chapter for a particular tree — the Garry oak, the Ponderosa pine, the silver olive, the Plane tree, the Arbutus, and othe …

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Afflictions & Departures

Afflictions & Departures

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : essays

'Afflictions & Departures' is a collection of first-person experiential essays by writer and academic Madeline Sonik. Although Sonik explores some of the salient personal experiences of her young life, the essays in 'Afflictions & Departures' are not traditional memoir. In addition to incidents and feelings recaptured from memory, Sonik seeks out connections between the microcosm of of the daily events of her childhood and the social, historical, and scientific trends of the time. 'Afflicitons & …

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Threading Light

Threading Light

Explorations in Loss and Poetry
edition:Paperback

Lorri Neilsen Glenn in Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry offers a compelling and poetic work. This collection of linked prose explores Neilsen Glenn's journey into poetry and deepening understanding of poetry as a model of secular compunction that serves as a form of prayer. Here are personal essays about loss from childhood through to adulthood as well as essays about Neilsen Glenn's initiation into the practice of poetry that was both timely and necessary. Neilsen Glenn is the a …

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Pathologies

Pathologies

A Life in Essays
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

In these fifteen searingly honest personal essays, debut author Susan Olding takes us on an unforgettable journey into the complex heart of being human. Each essay dissects an aspect of Olding's life experience--from her vexed relationship with her father to her tricky dealings with her female peers; from her work as a counsellor and teacher to her persistent desire, despite struggles with infertility, to have children of her own. In a suite of essays forming the emotional climax of the book, Ol …

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Subject to Change

Subject to Change

edition:Paperback

Composed of stories that sketch the resonant heights and depths of an auto- biography, Subject to Change is a series of portraits along the road of a life well lived. Each story is an articulate, intelligent, passionate record of how an encounter with a significant “other,” be it a parent, a lover, a neighbour, a child, a grandchild, a politician or a friend, has changed and shaped the humanity, character and community?the “subject”?of the writer.

These are masterfully crafted stories: at …

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Belonging

Belonging

Home Away from Home
edition:Paperback
tagged : france

The long-awaited new book from the acclaimed short story writer, author of The Elizabeth Stories and You Never Know.

Belonging is pure pleasure to read -- entertaining, beautifully written, laced with gentle humour and perceptive insights. Shifting from memoir to fiction, it focuses on the commonplace experiences underlying our lives that are the true basis for storytelling. At the book’s core is Isabel Huggan’s old house in rural France, from where she contemplates the real meaning of “hom …

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Excerpt

There Is No Word For Home

In the country where I now live, there is no word for home. You can express the idea at a slant, but you cannot say home. For a long time this disconcerted me, and I kept running up against the lack as if it were a rock in my path, worse than a pothole, worse than nothing. But at last I have habituated myself and can step around it, using variants such as notre foyer (our hearth) or notre maison (our house) when I mean to say home. More often, I use the concept chez to indicate physical location and the place where family resides, or the notion of a comfortable domestic space. However, if I wish to speak of “going home to Canada,” I can use mon pays (my country) but I can’t say I am going chez moi when I am not: for as long as I reside in France -- the rest of my life -- this is where I will be chez moi, making a home in a country and a language not my own. I am both home and not-home, one of those trick syllogisms I must solve by homemaking, at an age when I should have finished with all that bother.

In the foothills of the Cévennes I live in a stone house that was, until only a few decades ago, home to silkworms, hundreds upon hundreds of them, squirming in flat reed baskets laid on layered frames along the walls in what was then the magnanerie, a place for feeding silkworms, and is now a bedroom. For the duration of their brief lives, these slippery dun-coloured creatures munched mulberry leaves, fattening themselves sufficiently to shed their skins four times before they’d stop eating and attach themselves to twigs or sprigs of heather on racks above the baskets. With a sense of purpose sprung from genetic necessity, they’d then spin themselves cocoons in which they’d sleep until they were plucked from their branches and dunked in huge kettles of hot water. Perhaps some luckier ones were allowed to waken and complete the magic of metamorphosis -- there must be moths, after all, to furnish next season’s eggs -- but silk manufacturers preferred the longer filament, which comes from whole cocoons. There are sacrifices to be made for beauty, and if the life of a lowly and not very attractive segmented grub has to be that sacrifice, perhaps that is the Lord’s will.

The Lord’s will rests heavy on the high blue hills of the Cévennes, for here God has been imagined in Calvinist clothes, a moral master whose plans for man and beast alike are stern. This little-inhabited part of southern France (the mountainous northern corner of Languedoc, much of it now a national park) has long been the heart of Protestant opposition to Roman Catholicism. From the mid-1500s, revolt against Paris and the Church continued with appropriate bloodshed on all sides until the Édit de Tolérance in 1787 finally allowed those few Huguenots who remained the right to practise their religion.

The rugged terrain, hidden valleys and craggy cliffs are geologically congenial to the Protestant mind -- in the back reaches of the Cévennes there have always existed stubborn pockets of religious and political resistance. This is an austere landscape where, even now, life is not taken lightly and where pleasure and ease are distrusted. The puritanical harshness of Reform doctrine seems also to show itself in the fortress-like architecture of Huguenot houses such as mine: angular, stiff-necked buildings, tall and narrow with small windows shuttered against the blasts of winter or the blaze of summer. Nevertheless, graceless and severe though it may appear from outside, the cool, dark interior of the house is a blessing when you step in from the painful dazzle of an August day. It is not for nothing that the stone walls are well over half a metre thick, or that the floors are laid with glazed clay tiles.

Sometimes I wake in the early morning before it is light, the still, dark hours of silent contemplation: how have I come to be here? But there is nothing mysterious, the reason is mundane–it is not the will of God, but the wish of the Scottish-born man to whom I have been married since 1970. The first time we came hiking in these mountains -- more than a decade ago, while we were living in Montpellier -- he said, immediately, that he knew he was chez lui dans les Cévennes. His experience was profound, affecting him in some deeply atavistic way I did not understand until later, when I felt the same inexpressible, magnetic, and nearly hormonal pull the moment I first set foot in Tasmania and knew myself to be home.

When it happens, this carnal knowledge of landscape, it is very like falling in love without knowing why, the plunge into desire and longing made all the more intense by being so utterly irrational, inexplicable. The feel of the air, the lay of the land, the colour and shape of the horizon, who knows? There are places on the planet we belong and they are not necessarily where we are born. If we are lucky -- if the gods are in a good mood -- we find them, for whatever length of time is necessary for us to know that, yes, we belong to the earth and it to us. Even if we cannot articulate this intense physical sensation, even if language fails us, we know what home is then, in our very bones.

I sometimes say jokingly that I have become a WTGW -- a whither-thou-goest-wife, an almost extinct species, but one with which I have become intimately familiar in the years we have lived abroad because of Bob’s work in development. I have met many other spouses -- men, as well as women -- who have done the same as I: we have weighed the choices, and we have followed our partners. Our reasons for doing so are as diverse as our marriages and our aspirations and the work that we do. In my case, writing is a portable occupation: I can do what I do anywhere.

And so it follows that I shall learn, as I have learned in other places, to make this house home. Over time, I shall find out how to grow in and be nourished by this rocky foreign soil. I early learn the phrase je m’enracine ici, which means “I am putting down roots here,” in order to convince myself -- for this time, we are not moving on. We are here to stay, définitivement.

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Everything Rustles

Everything Rustles

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged :

In this debut collection of personal essays, Silcott looks at the tangle of midlife, the long look back, the shorter look forward, and the moments right now that shimmer and rustle around her: marriage, menopause, fear, desire, loss, and that guy on the bus, the woman on the street, wandering bears, marauding llamas, light and laundry rooms.

This isn?t a “how to” guide to middle age and it's not a collection of memories either — for one thing, the author can?t remember that much — foranot …

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A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

edition:Hardcover

A bold and profound work by Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a personal and critical meditation on trauma, legacy, oppression and racism in North America.

In an urgent and visceral work that asks essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma, Alicia Elliott offers indispensable insight and understanding to the ongoing legacy of colonial …

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Excerpt

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose the way men in movies do whenever they encounter a particu­larly vexing woman.

“I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?”

His reaction made me think briefly of residential schools, though at the time I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the fact that he operated his therapy sessions out of a church. That certainly didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Can a metaphor or simile capture depression? It was definitely heavy, but could I really compare it to a weight? Weight in and of itself is not devastating; depres­sion is. At times it made me short of breath and at times it had the potential to be deadly, but was it really like drowning? At least with drowning others could see the flailing limbs and splashing water and know you needed help. Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed and dress itself up as normalcy, so when it finally took hold others would be so surprised they wouldn’t know how to pull you to safety. They’d stand there staring—good-intentioned but helpless. Empathetic, perhaps, but mute. Or, as in the case of this particularly unqualified ther­apist, angry and accusing. Not that I necessarily blame them. I’ve done the same thing.

When what was left of my family moved to the rez we lived in a two-bedroom trailer—my sister and I in the smaller room, my three younger brothers in the master bedroom. My parents had no bedroom, no bed. They slept in the living room on the couch and recliner. As one may assume of such circumstances, privacy was precious, if it existed at all. Doors never stayed closed for long; at any moment someone could barrel in unannounced. This meant there was no place for my mother to hide her illness.

I’d mostly known her as having bipolar disorder, though she’d been diagnosed and rediagnosed many times. Postpartum depression, manic depression, schizophrenia. Most recently, my mother has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective dis­order, which is a version of bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on which doctor you talk to. None of these phrases gave her relief. In fact, they often seemed to hurt her, turning every feeling she had into yet another symptom of yet another disease.

What these words meant to my siblings and me was that our mother’s health was on a timer. We didn’t know when the timer would go off, but when it did, our happy, playful, hilarious mother would disappear behind a curtain and another would emerge: alternatively angry and mournful, wired and lethargic. When she was depressed she’d become almost entirely silent. She’d lie on our brother’s bottom bunk and blink at us, her soft limp limbs spilling onto the stained, slate-coloured carpet. I’d sit on the floor beside her, smooth her hair—bottle red with grey moving in like a slow tide—and ask her what was wrong. She’d stay silent but her face would transform. Damp, swollen, violet, as if the words she couldn’t say were bubbling beneath her skin, burning her up from the inside.

Terminology is tricky. Initially, depression was known as “melan­cholia,” a word that first brought to my mind a field of blue cornflower and golden hay. Its trochaic metre gave it an inher­ent poeticism, an ingrained elegance. It was delicate, feminine. Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, definitely did not suffer from depression. When she floated down that river, decked in gar­lands, stones in her pockets, she was in the throes of melancholia.

The term first appeared in Mesopotamian texts in the second century BCE. At the time, they considered melancholia a form of demonic possession. They weren’t alone: ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations all attributed mental illness to demons overpowering the spiritually weak. Exorcism—which often entailed beatings, restraint and starvation—was the only known “cure.” Even during the Renaissance, when thinking about depression began to reflect the more progressive views of the early Greek physician Hippocrates, a heavily Christian Europe had another way to describe those with mental illness: witches. They were “cured” by being burned at the stake. Sometimes, as part of their trial, suspected witches underwent an ordeal by water. They were tied to a rope and thrown from a boat. If they sank they’d be pulled back to a safety of sorts, their innocence proven, but their illness unchecked. If they floated, like Ophelia, they were considered a witch and sum­marily executed.

My quite Catholic mother believes demonic possession is a real danger. She pretty much used the 1973 film The Exorcist as an instructional video for my siblings and me. It was mostly effec­tive. I played with a Ouija board only once, reluctantly, and though I remained firmly in control of my body, I still try to avoid the game (and pictures of Linda Blair) at all costs. I know demonic possession is impossible, probably, but it still scares me more than I’d like to admit.

So when my mother, now living in an adult care home in Florida, told me she was hearing demonic voices and thought she needed an exorcism, I was legitimately terrified. Not because I thought she was possessed—she didn’t mention anything about floating above her bed, and her voice sounded normal. I was scared for her. She truly believed demons were real and could take control of the spiritually weak. If she believed she was being overtaken by these demons, logic dictated that she was spiritually weak. As if her depressed mind didn’t have enough to guilt her with.
She wouldn’t tell me what the voices were saying to her. She just reiterated over and over that she was a sinner, that she had impure thoughts, that she hadn’t been going to church enough. None of this seemed to me like enough reason to call in an exorcist.

Evidently her priest down in Florida disagreed. He said it did, indeed, sound like she was in the midst of a spiritual battle, that she should contact the church about sending an exorcist right away. Though he himself was part of the Catholic Church, he never offered any assistance with her “spiritual battle,” never offered to bring in an exorcist to slay her inner demon. He just gave her his half-baked opinion like a torch and watched as she caught flame.

As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one. Both overtake your faculties, leaving you dis­connected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.

According to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers. In fact, during the Salem witch trials, the people of the Sagamore tribe were blamed—described by early Puritan minister and master­mind of the witch trials, Cotton Mather, as “horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurors . . . [who] conversed with Demons.” One person on trial claimed to have attended a black mass with the Sagamore Indians. Mercy Short, another accused witch, took it one step further: she claimed the Devil himself was an Indian, describing him as “not of a Negro, but of a tawny, or an Indian color.”

Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural exten­sion of early tactics used to move colonization along. In 1452 and 1455 the Catholic Church issued papal bulls calling for non-Christian people to be invaded, robbed and enslaved under the premise that they were “enemies of Christ.” Forty years later, when Christopher Columbus accidentally arrived in the Americas, European monarchs began to expand on the ideas contained in those bulls, issuing policies and practices that have been collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. These new policies dictated that “devil-worshipping” Indigenous peo­ples worldwide should not even be thought of as humans, and thus the land they had cared for and inhabited for centuries was terra nullius, or vacant land, and Christian monarchs had the “right” to claim it all. The Doctrine of Discovery was such a tantalizing, seemingly guilt-free justification for genocide, even U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson adopted it as official policy in 1792—and we all know how much Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Europe at the time.

The Doctrine of Discovery is still cited in court cases today whenever Canada or the U.S. want to shut up Indigenous tribes who complain. In an attempt to stop this lazy, racist rationale, a delegation of Indigenous people went to Rome in 2016 to ask the church to rescind these papal bulls. Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer said that after hearing their concerns, Pope Francis merely looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll pray for you.” Two years later, after the delegation’s second trip to Rome to discuss these papal bulls, they were told the matter was being sent to another committee. Nothing else has been done, though pre­sumably the Pope is still praying for us.

“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.

“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.

After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”

Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression.

I was sixteen when I wrote my first suicide note. I was alone in my room, for once. It was cold; the fire in our wood-burning stove must have gone out. I was huddled beneath the unzipped sleeping bag I used as a comforter, listening to the only modern rock station my ancient radio could pick up. The songs washed over me. My brothers laughing, crashing and crying washed over me. My mother half-heartedly yelling at them while she watched a movie with my sister washed over me. My father’s absence washed over me.

Even though the trailer was full I was alone. I was alone and I felt nothing and it hurt so much. More than grief, more than anger. I just wanted it to end.

Tears fell on the paper faster than I could write. It was hard to read in parts. I didn’t care. As long as it reassured my family they shouldn’t blame themselves, it would do the trick.

I looked at the knife I’d smuggled from the kitchen, pressed its edge to my wrist. Nothing happened. The blade was too dull. I’d have to stab hard and slash deep just to break the skin. I was crying so hard.

I reread my note. I looked back at the knife. Even though it could hardly peel a potato it scared me more than the void I felt.

I lay back down, disgusted with myself and my lack of resolve. I tried to listen to the radio. I couldn’t hear anything.

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