A good memoir is no easy thing to write, and I can tell you that without ever having bothered to read one before.
I mean, really, why would I read someone's memoirs, for crying out loud, when there are stacks of mysteries, police procedurals, noir explorations of the seedy underside of the City of Angels and thrillers waiting to be read? There's only so much time in a day devoted to blogging, karate and work, after all, that can be used for reading -- so whatever one reads had better be entertaining.
Leo Tolstoy? Please!
This, as it turns out, is not an atypical starting place for journalists who review artistic endeavours, both because a tone of spurious authority will get you far in what used to be known as newspapering and because most of them generally started reviewing things by accident anyway. It happens when the night city editor presses a hapless police reporter into service as a theatre reviewer because the publisher's wife or someone has a cousin in the play.
I know this because I read it in Calgary author and journalist Brian Brennan's memoir, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada. I also know it, of course, because it happened to me too, but the outcome of that particular assignment is better left wherever it resides now, mercifully unrecorded, digitally or otherwise.
I know what you're thinking: You're thinking, aw jeez, he's writing a flipping' book review! And it's true, after a fashion. But, hey, it's about a book that's worth reviewing.
Now, I have to pause here in the interests of full disclosure and declare an interest. The author and I are pals from way back, and we are brothers too in the doomed struggle to bring a little workplace democracy and decency to the Calgary Herald. I am mentioned in passing in this particular memoir, too, in a useful and courageous chapter about the strike at that now-moribund daily in 1999 and 2000.
Since the immediate aftermath of the strike, no one has dared to write very much publicly about this important piece of Alberta labour history, although tens of thousands of scorching words have been exchanged in private correspondence. Mainly this has been because some of the protagonists in this ugly moment in what passes for labour relations in Alberta are known to be litigious, and to have deep pockets, and to be deeply committed to subverting Canadians' right to free expression.
So Brennan's passage on the strike is the first honest, and unsparing, description of that event that I have read, which is why I call him courageous. That said, he is always gentlemanly, and fair, and certainly kinder to some of the participants named than they deserve. (Present company excepted, of course.)
When Brennan talks of how journalism was practiced in Western Canada before that long-ago strike, and of the fine people who practiced it, he evokes a sweet sense of nostalgia for an era that in retrospect seems like a river of wit and fun and hard work and high principles. Like anyone stained with ink in this corner of the West, I knew many of the characters mentioned by Brennan along the way, and I can vouch for the accuracy and shrewdness of his portrayals. This elegance of his writing speaks for itself.
This, of course, is why I bothered to do something unique in my experience as a reader -- to actually sit down and read a memoir. And, yeah, maybe I started out of a sense of duty. But who would have thought I would have found a memoir, of all things, so entertaining, at times moving, so historically useful?
Never mind the reports from the journalism grapevine, in which I have an interest, vested or otherwise. I certainly never would have expected to be engaged by the travails of an Irish lad learning to play the piano in the early 1950s, or the start of the same youth's career as a clerk in the Irish civil service, or even scuttlebutt from the Canadian music scene in the 1970s.
But the pages flew by! And, by god, they will for you too if you just face the inevitable and buy a copy. It costs $19.95.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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