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Alison Pick's Memoir List

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Alison Pick's latest book is Between Gods. Here, she shares with us some of her favourite Canadian memoirs.
Tangles

Tangles

A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me
edition:Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
This extremely moving graphic memoir was a finalist for the 2010 Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-fiction Prize, and it was the first graphic narrative ever on that list. Imagine being able to both write and draw! Amazing.
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Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter
Excerpt

Prelude

Partway through the writing of this book, I called my father to ask if he and I could have a cup of tea together and talk about a few things.

“Sure, that would be terrific!” he replied, his voice bouncing with enthusiasm, so I travelled into Toronto a few days later with a notebook in my bag.

My dad knew I was writing a book about growing up witha gay father. I had sent him early drafts of the first chapters, and while he had squirmed initially, asking if I wouldn’t mind waiting until he had gone dotty before I published anything, he agreed that it was indeed an important story and would do well to be out in the world.

He just wished it didn’t have to focus so much on him.

I arranged for us to talk because I had reached a bit of an impasse, having written all the scenes that I knew were important to telling my side of the story and feeling the need to broaden the narrative’s perspective. I knew little about my father’s early adulthood, except what one gleans from passing mentions of university days and commentary on old photos, so I had questions about that period of his life. And I knew that he had comeout during the vanguard of the gay revolution in Canada and I wondered if tying his story into that cultural and political history would give the book the wider vision I was seeking.

So we had tea. Earl Grey, I believe, with milk. And toast with Marmite. Between sips and bites, I asked him about his childhood—when did he first have the hots for a boy?—about his years at university—did his time at Oxford, the stomping grounds of Oscar Wilde (among others), give him the freedom to consider the possibility that he might be gay?—and about the gay revolution in Canada—was he at the famous Toronto bathhouse raids protest and what was it like? We talked for hours, our conversation spilling over into all sorts of other topics along the way. I made a few pages of notes.

“Ultimately, this is your story, Dad,” I said towards the end. “So is there anything else that you feel would be important to include?”

My father mentioned a few books I might read—academic treatises on gay social and political movements, the odd novel—and I jotted them down. Then he looked away pensively, inhaled sharply and opened his mouth, as if to add something. But instead of speaking, he simply held both posture and breath. Without explanation, he then got up and disappeared to his basement, reappearing a few minutes later with a small box, which he placed on the kitchen table.

“You might want to look through this,” he said, and walked over to the counter to begin preparing dinner.

I asked the obvious.

“Oh, just a few papers,” he replied. Casual as could be.

I peered inside: newspapers, magazine clippings, notebooks and loose papers. The first page I pulled out was filled with my father’s inimitable scrawl. It was a diary entry dated January 31, 1980. I read the opening sentence aloud: “‘Last night I made it with a Roman Catholic priest.’”

My dad shrieked and turned around. But instead of running over and tearing the page from my hands, he melted into a coy posture and cooed, “Oooh, I remember him. He was so cute . . .” Then he giggled and returned to the task of making dinner. Duck à l’orange.

I looked back at the collection of yellowing pages and realized what it was: a writer’s dream. The Mythical Box, the treasure trove containing priceless original documents, the journals, the letters, clues and confessions. Everything necessary to inspire and inform a literary portrait.

Or, in this case, finish one.

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Why it's on the list ...
This gorgeous memoir is about growing up with a gay father. When I was writing my own memoir, Between Gods, I gave it to my dad to read as an example of what the genre can do at its best. Turns out Alison Wearing’s father taught my father at school. My own dad loved the book, and it helped him see how the personal can also be universal.

Incidentally, Confessions is based on Wearing’s one-woman show, which, if you ever get the chance, you should definitely see.
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Drunk Mom
Why it's on the list ...
I can’t say enough good things about Drunk Mom, by Jowita Bydlowska. It is a classic example of the redemptive power of honesty; it also gorgeously written. There is a chapter towards the end when Bydlowska free-associates about all the “reasons” she became an alcoholic—it’s perfectly placed in the memoir and one of the most powerful pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read.
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The Mother Zone
Excerpt

Chapter 3: Getting Pregnant

Our courtship was not the stuff of which photo albums are made. I was shocked to find myself in love with someone willing to risk losing me. So I would leave, come back. Leave, come back, like destiny's yo-yo. I tell myself now that I must have seen the gleam of the good father in him. But I didn't. Right from the start, I lavished lusty hatred on him, because he made it perfectly clear that he preferred a drum to a baby. His resistance on the reproductive front made for some poisonous fights, as I tried to intellectually manhandle him into position.

When he went on tour, which was often, I even did my best to fall in love with other, more suitable mates. For a time, this strategy worked all too well. Both of us flirted with losing each other, lobbed revenge back and forth. But he was there in his body, which is what hooked me and kept me hooked. I knew that he had a stubborn mind and a muscular heart, and maybe he would open them up to me someday. Well, I didn't know it then, but I could see the evidence, at least, in his clear passion for writing and music. I always wanted to spell things out, and he was tired of consciousness. Now he wanted it all to happen physically, or musically.

I would sometimes tag along when they went on the road, to some small-town bar up north, where girls wearing the all-pervasive Farrah Fawcett hairdo and too much blue eye shadow would linger in the dressing rooms. After every gig, the Hairdos would drift into the back rooms, perch on the sprung sofas. Then I would show up, the bad-tempered bride with sensible bangs, to claim my boyfriend, the lapsed writer, the mad drummer.

I didn't want him to give up music, although it must have looked that way to him. And I didn't care about getting married, or waffle irons, or anything like that. It was the heart, an ability to stick around, and the friendly, highly motile sperm I was after: the minimalist approach to marriage.

He saw the creative life as incompatible with family. He had a point, although I refused to accept his dichotomous view of things: art vs. journalism, fun vs. family, freedom vs. "settled down." I felt I was being typecast as the practical homebody, whereas until meeting him I was a traveler too, an adventurer. I was like him. But now the urge to have a baby was turning me into some kind of enemy.

I moved in with him, and we fought almost every night. As the band was running out of money, I felt I was running out of time. It was tempestuous, sad, and wearing. When I wasn't plotting my own escape, I wondered why he didn't leave me.

Looking back, the thing that also kept us stalled was my insistence that he match my desire for a baby, cell for cell. I wanted him to want one in exactly the same way, and to the same degree, as I did. Otherwise, I wasn't convinced. It didn't occur to me that men might come at the idea of fatherhood from a different angle. Perhaps for men babies are just an idea, an abstraction until they hold them in their arms. But the initial urge, the detailed, irresistible, and irrational longing, was mine. It was physical, like hunger. I refused to admit that this difference could exist between us and not be a failure of love. I needed him to be as sure and single-minded, if not more so, than I was. So there we were, in limbo.

Four years passed in this fashion. I was thirty-six. We had moved into our own apartment, and he had started to free-lance again. The band had turned down a recording contract to pursue success on their terms, but debts eventually forced them to call it quits. Brian decided that, generally speaking, in principle, the idea of a child might not be so bad. It could happen -- no need to set a specific date, yet. The bull was in the chute, at least. (Crass biological analogies are in order here.)

But how I resented my role in all this, which was to arrange for timely coition. I had to be ruthless and administrative about it, while he got to be vaguely spontaneous. Already, I was up there in the mother zone, overseeing, planning.

It was September and coming around to ovulation time again on the old Wheel of Fortune. I decided we would give it a whirl in two days, on a Friday. He didn't say no. Except -- except -- he was playing that night, at an event downtown at the Cameron Hotel, an artist's hangout. Once again his performance night clashed with ours.

Friday night arrived. We went down to the Cameron, he did his set, and we were about to go home around midnight. I was almost but not quite dragging him through the front room in the direction of the streetcar, the one named Desire, when he caught sight of Mojah, a drummer friend who had just arrived. "I'll be right there," he said to me and headed for the back room.

I waited. Then I heard drums. They were playing together! He had forgotten about me and our momentous unborn child. I was furious. I could have pried the tiles off the floor with my bare nails. I went outside into the raw, wind-whipped fall night, where I waited in a radioactive rage for the Spadina bus.

An hour or so later, he came stealthily up the stairs to our third-floor bedroom -- the innocent, tired, satiated musician coming home to the trusty flesh of his somewhat demanding girlfriend. I said I needed him not just to capitulate, but to choose. I accused him of all sorts of other sins, then turned my back on him, and myself, and us. There was a spare bed next door. I crawled away into it and congealed into a solid block of sleep.

Saturday morning, we had to face the fact that we were going to a friend's wedding, which was a two-hour drive north. Well, it's now or never, I thought, still seething from the previous night.

I went into the bedroom and sullenly asked him to join me on my pallet next door. He was sleepy and unrepentant, but the idea of making love in the morning, like a cup of hot coffee, perked him up. After all, this was sex, the easy part, not just another fight. We have to step on it, I said, or we'll be late for the wedding. I was shut down and stone-faced as we began to make love.

But then something took over. Soon there was nothing ambivalent about what we were doing, nothing halfhearted at all. Babies spring from heat, not ideas. I felt myself fall into the buoyant net of something bigger than our two battling egos. My anger, his resistance, were just part of a tedious game we had played with each other, like children. Our own childishness dissolved in this attempt at child-making, and we came out of it on level ground.

Then we leaped up and began racing around getting ready to go to the wedding. In our newly purchased, three-hundred-dollar used Volvo, we drove up the parkway, with the engine laboring. On the fringes of the city, the unthinkable happened. The car slowed down and rolled to a halt. Since I was in the throes of imagining myself pregnant, this was a sign, and what it said to me was: you have just bought a used car that will break down in the fast lane of the freeway. We will never leave town and reach a better, sweeter place.

Brian took over, suggesting we rent a car and carry on. We would still make the wedding in time, he reassured me. The Volvo was towed off, a new car arrived, and we sped on, distraught but persistent. By driving at frightening speeds through the strobing autumn colors of northern Ontario, we arrived at the church just before the bride appeared.

As we sneaked into a back pew, I wondered exactly how long it takes for the sperm to collide with the lost moon of the ovum. Somewhere between the smoky bar of the previous night and the small-town wedding, our son was conceived, in helpless love and human anger.

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Why it's on the list ...
I remember reading this book before becoming a mother and being both terrified and exuberant. Here was somebody who had done it and lived to tell the tale; not only that, she had turned the experience of motherhood into the best kind of art. I recommend this book frequently, not just to new mothers but to everyone.
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Nocturne

Nocturne

on The Life And Death Of My Brother
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover
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Why it's on the list ...
I will read anything Helen Humphreys writes. This memoir, like her novels, is spare and uncompromising. Humphreys tell us about her brother’s life and sudden death, putting, as always, the perfect words in the perfect places.
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The M Word

The M Word

Conversations about Motherhood
edited by Kerry Clare
edition:eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
Confession—I am included in this collection of essays about motherhood in all its guises: the drudgery, the exhaustion, the sheer marvel. There are short memoirs in here about infertility, about the choice to have one child or many; about adoption, abortion, and the decision to have no children at all. So many great Canadian authors between two covers.
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Touch the Dragon

Touch the Dragon

A Thai Journal
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged :
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Why it's on the list ...
I read this book (along with Karen Connelly’s poetry) when I was just starting to write, around the year 2000. I associate it with those first heady days of falling in love with metaphor, and with the symbolic possibility of language.
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Between Gods

Between Gods

A Memoir
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback

From the Man Booker-nominated author of the novel Far to Go and one of our most talented young writers comes an unflinching, moving and unforgettable memoir about family secrets and the rediscovered past.
     Alison Pick was born in the 1970s and raised in a supportive, loving family. She grew up laughing with her sister and cousins, and doting on her grandparents. Then as a teenager, Alison made a discovery that instantly changed her understanding of her family, and her vision for her own li …

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