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October 1, 2019

Life Stories

In terms of books, fiction is my default, the first thing I pick up, the books I tend to write about, no matter how interesting I find actual real life people, and the way that nonfictional characters’ stories are often as rich with symbolism and metaphor, and teach me things about the world I never understood before. No matter too the way that I am always interested in memoirs, which means my pile of life stories to be read is embarrassingly high, and one of my reading projects this fall is the absolutely satisfying one of actually reading them. So here’s my start.

Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis: to say that this is a story about a woman who discovers her grandfather’s diary documenting his escape from Nazi Europe and decides to retrace his steps… is far too simple to describe what’s happening in this book. For starters, Lewis is the least likely person to ever end up in a travel memoir. She has self-diagnosed herself with an actual affliction of being directionally-challenged, and she frequently gets lost in her own neighbourhood. She’s also still raw from her recent divorce, and has a complicated relationship with her Jewishness, as did her grandfather who escaped Nazi Europe, for that matter. But she decides to follow her grandfather’s steps anyway, but her real journey is one that’s internal as she navigates her connections to place, religious identity, marriage, secularism, sex, history, baggage (literal and otherwise), family, her own face, and more. It’s a fascinating and illuminating adventure, and a really beautiful book.


In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott: I had heard wonderful things about Helen Knot’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins, but I must confess that I bought it because it’s a pocket-sized hardback, a gorgeous book you can hold in one hand, and I couldn’t resist it. Good thing too, because the book is as gorgeous inside as out. Knott tells her story, which is one of seeming contradictions. She grew up in a family that was troubled and loving, she emerged as an activist and leader but struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, all of this overshadowed by her family’s history of colonial trauma and her own experiences of sexual assault. The story is told outside of chronology, each section of the book circling toward the central point, which is the violence of colonialism and also the story of resilience, as Knott fights her way out of darkness and claims the cultural heritage that colonialism would have denied her. It’s a harrowing and generous story, rich with wisdom and power.


To Speak for the Trees, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Reading Ariel Gordon’s Treed last spring changed the way I see the world, and certainly heightened my reverence for trees, so I was excited to read Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees, a memoir by the acclaimed scientist. A memoir that read somewhat incredulously if it were a novel, because surely it couldn’t really happen that way. Beresford-Kroeger born to an English aristocrat and his Irish wife, who become estranged, and then both die, leaving their daughter an orphan. She could very well be sent away to an orphanage, but instead is left in the care of a neglectful uncle, but she’s also adopted by members of her community and schooled in ancient Celtic wisdom. And she basically spends her career as a botanist proving with science all she’d been taught here, plants as cures and tinctures. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also incredibly intelligent with a photographic memory, and in conventional school it soon becomes clear that she’s an extraordinary pupil. Ireland was long ago deforested by the English, to fuel English industry but also to rob the Irish people of the spiritual power that came with the trees, and Beresford-Kroeger does not get to properly experience a forest until she immigrates to Canada, where she has spent her adult life. She writes about the importance of biodiversity, her quest to find and preserve rare trees, and how trees are instrumental in our battle against climate change. A curious and fascinating book.


Outside In, by Libby Davies

Libby Davies’ memoir of her career in activism, Vancouver municipal politics, and as a Member of Parliament in Ottawa was just the balm I needed in the midst of an election that, as expected, as turned out to be stupider than stupid. It’s inspiring, so interesting, and points out the opportunities and challenges of politics, and it was just so wonderful to read about someone driven to service, to make the world a better place, instead of seeing politics as a game, as so many others do (and Davies shows this). An activist since her teen years, Davies’ story is rich and the book is absorbing. It made me believe in the possibility of a better world, and renewed a little bit of my faith in the electoral system.

One thought on “Life Stories”

  1. Am also obsessed with memoirs. Completely obsessed.

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