Posts Tagged With: Falling Backwards

Top 10 Books For Not Just Summer, But Life in General

003“The most important experiences in your life are the ones that change how you look at the world.”

~ Jimmy Chin, alpinist and filmmaker

Books change our world too-even those innocently read ones, coveted under childhood blankets with flashlights illuminating far away worlds. Pilgrimages to the local library were a Saturday staple–and we always left with arms nearly out of their sockets carrying our marvelous cartel to the Pinto.
I’ve said this before here, and I probably will again, because, it’s probably the most important thing that was ever said. “Just be interesting.” My parents didn’t force-feed us academia or insist on Tiger Mom pursuits in law, teaching or doctorates. Though, Dax did get the fancy credentials, and Dr. Dax was in that scholastic vein early on.
Though I appreciated the curricula of the registered massage therapy program I enrolled in four score and seventeen years ago, I couldn’t wait to resume my recreational reading habit. The text books were shelved and I was able to submerge back into the sublime–creating my own life curricula via books.


“Only boring people get bored,” was another mantra of my mother’s. And, if you are a reader by default, then, it’s difficult to get to a bored state unless you are bookless in Seattle. When I was in highschool I remember my mom asking me to have my hyper-intelligent English teacher create a list of her favourite books. Joan was in the know and a culturally literate wundermind. Surely, given the way she spoke (she was the one who introduced me to such 25 cent words as “surreptitious” and told me my writing was like a white-water rafting adventure instead of a smooth paddle on a calm lake), many books were behind her insights, and her undiluted passion left me spellbound. Joan laboured over the list, though, I know a hundred titles came easily to her mind, and handed it to me a few days later. (*Mom, do you still have that list?)
I too am constantly asking reliable sources for their favourites. You can easily identify your reading soulmates after a few shared titles. I drift all over the genres but always gravitate towards quirky, memoirs, travel junkets and anything Africa.
Which led me to this. A book curriculum for life, in general. The books that you should read as a human. I’m not listing Shakespeare (snore) or those imagery lessons like The Great Gatsby or any of the others that we’re pushed upon us in highschool. No, this is my bespoke list, and, if you are a friend of mine, clearly we share some love and common ground.
I do believe in responsible reading, sometimes–you know, those important books that shaped a time. I’m talking about Love in the Time of Cholera, Keruoac’s Dharma Bums, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast and stuff about urban gurus like Jane Jacobs and bike-pushers like David Byrne.
Books that have found media fame like Eat, Pray, Love completely annoyed me. I never did finish The Celestine Prophecy. And, I’m definitely not going to read 50 Shades of Grey.
My bookshelf is mood-obvious and decade-indicative. Like a walk through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s shift in spirit and palette between the decades (from cheery sunflowers to utter gloom and miserable skies) is so evident.

Yes, I have beach-y, cotton candy mindless reads that sit beside soul sandwiches like Siddartha, Leo Buscaglia and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Those searching books–those were the Vancouver years of 18-23. Living with a bohemian lot of artists, writers and activists, my book choices eclipsed that time period: Salinger, Tom Robbins, everything Douglas Coupland, How to Live on Nothing and a cannonball into the gay world. I found Sappho, Ruby Fruit Jungle and the world of Jane Rule.
The Virgo in me reflexively makes lists, for everything–especially books to read and books that have been read. I have the years well-chronicled. I could probably list my entire bookshelf as each title has been critical at a particular time for growth, inspiration or (ugh, loathe the world), closure.
My brother reads depressing books as they always make him feel better about his own life (*note, he is not depressed, he just likes how books can consistently do that). I like the sob-inducing ones more out of writerly respect. If an author can make you break down with words–that’s a powerful skill. I’ve cried over so many dying dogs in books (Emily Carr’s sheepdog, Marley & Me), and had to take a crying jag break from Jane Goodall’s account of her favourite chimp, David Greybeard, dying of polio and his inability to climb up trees as the disease strangled him.
*Note: do not read the last 50 pages of Marley & Me in a public space. I made this error on a Westjet flight. Read it in the safety of your own home, preferably with cucumbers and Visine at the ready. And gin, probably.
So, this is my list–and, of course, it will be never-ending and constantly evolving with every book I read. However, as of this very moment, at age 39, these are the books I think everyone should read to build a foundation of gratitude, inspiration, awe and fuel fireside conversation and intimate and intelligent dinner talk.


1. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout.

I was disappointed when Oprah described Lindhout’s terrifying memoir as “juicy.” Being kidnapped and held captive by Islamic militants for 15 months is nowhere near juicy. But, the account of her time in Somalia and her inherent will to survive will shake up how you live your life. A life free from the nightmares and stronghold that such an experience must have on a person. It’s raw, agonizing and a remarkable display of resilience.

2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.

I initially thought the book would be too Disney, too schmaltzy. Afterall, it’s narrated by a dog. And, worse, the dog is dying. I remember standing in Indigo on Bay, already hot-eyed and swallowing hard a few paragraphs in. The dog, Enzo, is aware that he is on his last legs–but he’s okay with this. He is beyond eager to come back to earth as a human. He has been carefully observing his human for communication skills to navigate his next life. Enzo’s insights are comical, heartrendering and beautiful. If you’ve ever loved a dog, you’ll squeeze them even harder after this one.

*Also, do not read the last chapters of this book in public.

3. Still Alice, Lisa Genova.

When Alice, a Harvard professor learns that she is experiencing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the awareness and slow ride into the grips of the disease is nearly unbearable to read. Life’s fragility is evident in being witness to a seemingly perfect life suddenly shook-up by the diagnosis. The only comfort I found in this book was learning that, at some point, you don’t remember that you are losing your mind. There is a period of time when you are aware, but, as the words and memories slip, so does the awareness. For those surrounding Alice, it’s like watching a living death but the family rallies to keep the grace and spirit of Alice present.

4. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls.

I read a very yellowed,mothbally copy of this in Entebbe, Uganda. It was one of few books on the shelf at the Jane Goodall Institute that was in English. Pages fell out as I turned them–and now I know why. This is a memoir, not some fantasy childhood of eccentricities. The anchor of poverty and mentally unstable conditions that she and her siblings endured is shocking. It’s a reminder of the turbulent past that so many are trying to resurrect themselves from.

5. The Chimps of Fauna, Andrew Westoll.

Well, as a chimp crusader, this choice is a no-brainer. But, even if your only knowledge of chimps is that chimp lady, Jane Goodall (or even if you still mix chimps and gorillas and monkeys up), Westoll’s memoir shares an intimate experience–his time at a retirement facility for chimps rescued from biomedical facilities. The abuse and neglect is unnerving–and your blood will boil repeatedly–but hang on for the touching encounters and relationships that develop in this rescued family. The dynamics and personalities of a severely wounded bunch and their recovery is a shining promise of hope.

6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer.

I’ve read this book a few times and still get sucked in like quicksand. Christopher McCandless was a well-groomed academic–all his stars were in line for a promising career in law. Instead, he donated his entire bank account ($24,000 to Oxfam), ditched his Datsun pick-up and, walked “into the wild.” Eager to live off the land and escape the poisons of society, he left the conveniences and familiarity of life as he knew it with a bag of rice, a rifle and a few books on plant identification. If you’ve seen the movie (directed by Sean Penn–bravo), there’s no spoiler in learning that he dies only 100 days into his dream. What he etches into the table of the makeshift bus shelter he calls home is an affirmation of why we are here.

7. Falling Backwards, Jann Arden.

Memoirs are a natural source of inspiration, and, a deep behind-the-scenes look at lives we are curious about. The genesis of Arden’s career wasn’t all lollipops, sunshine and unicorns. But, her grace, her insightful way of being—and that inherent humour, makes for a riot of a read. The hot dog in the thermos is a passage you will want to read out loud to whoever is near you. Even if it’s a stranger–do it. Her honesty and what she shares of her life in Falling Backwards adds such a dimension to her lyrics. You will laugh like there is a laughing gas leak in the room— and cheerlead for her beating heart and continued, deserved success.

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom.

It’s a natural reflex when you hear the title of this book to think of your five. Mine are all dogs, but…who you think you will meet could be entirely unexpected. Albom really spins the idea of heaven on its side–and, religious or not, you’ll find yourself re-examining your life and all the lives you’ve crossed and uncrossed. As his book explains, you may have changed a complete stranger’s life in a way that you will never know about. Until, maybe, heaven.

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.

I read this on my way to Africa–and as the plane descended it was like landing in those very pages. Though the book is set in 1950s Congo, not a lot has changed over the decades in regards to tribal tensions, wayward ministers trying to “tame the natives” and a population continually struggling for independence and survival. This is quintessential Africa, and the story of a shiny, white family plunked down in the jungles of the Belgian Congo. It’s hairy, frustrating (ugh, the father!) and delightful (young Ruth’s narrative is pure charm). If you want a glimpse into why Africa gets in your bones after just one visit, you’ll see why in the Poisonwood Bible.

8. Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamond Carr.

My sister found this book on the shelf of a store on our way to Lake Louise. She said, “Have you heard of this woman? She was a friend of Dian Fossey?” I was hooked–who knew Dian Fossey even had any friends (that weren’t gorillas). Carr’s determination to stay and make a life out of her circumstances (a failed marriage to a big game hunter), is proof of an indominable spirit in the harshest climate and unforgiving world of farming. Her attempts to maintain a flower plantation in Rwanda against stampeding elephants and bankruptcy is a far cry from her world as a fashion illustrator in New York in 1949. And what she does with her plantation after the bloodbath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a beautiful transition. Hers was a life lived large and unselfishly.

9. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.

I love the reckless and feckless life of Bridget Jones. Though the latest, Mad About the Boy, was a bit of a lunchbag let-down, Bridget Jones is still brassy, fiesty and a fine example of what not to do. But, her character (probably not far from fiction) is reassurance that someone else out there is smoking 158 cigarettes a day while packing back 18 croissants and 3 bottles of vino. And that true love does conquer all–once you land the true love and pin them down.

10. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.

The first chapter made me want to throw up. It was so graphic and terrifying that I didn’t know if I had the steel guts to continue. But, Sebold takes the unsettling event of Susie Salmon’s kidnapping and murder by a neighbour in 1973 Pennsylvania and braids it into a supernatural-laced novel of coping, understanding and possibility.

Okay, that’s 10 off the top. I didn’t even get around to Chuck Thompson, Farley Mowat or Douglas Coupland’s biography on Terry Fox. Then there’s the Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the unbridled adrenalin of Colin Angus. Oh, and anything Anne Lamott, David Sedaris or Burroughs and the clever Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And, I really, really loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And, if you’ve lived at more than 10 addresses in your life, you’ll really lean into Isabel Huggans Belonging.

See? It’s a run-away list. But, I promise the ten books I listed will change your life is some unexpected way. You’ll see. Let me know–and please, share your favourite with me. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I like lists.

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Your Summer Homework: 5 Must-Reads

Summer. Ahhhhhh + sigh x 10,000. It’s a collectively sacred time of unruly humidex, an inflated drinks-on-the-patio expense account and mass recreational reading under the sensational sun. There’s less guilt in slacking off, and wonderfully, everything smells like coconuts and burgers on the grill.

If you are dangerously “without book” (gasp), here are five titles that are still lingering in the recesses of my mind. They pair best with beach access and flip flops, cottage docks or, if all else fails, sticky TTC rides and midday coffee shop escapes.

Falling Backwards by Jann Arden

The thrill of a memoir is that it’s like tiptoeing into your kid sister’s bedroom and rifling through the greatest bits of her diary except, you’re allowed in on the open conversation! Eavesdropping on Jann Arden’s coming-of-age expose, you’ll find quintessential Jann—just as your heart feels too heavy for your rib cage, she will have you reading passages about bloated wieners in thermoses out loud between snorts to whoever is nearby. Her raw and unfiltered portrayal of the lonely and turbulent (but rewarding) road to rocker fame illuminates all that those in the spotlight sacrifice in pursuit of “making it.” Her Prairie childhood, at times idyllic under the great Albertan skies, is revisited with the sage wisdom of an evolved Jann. At fifty, her pithy insights on life, health and family ties are gently framed in her gratitude, humour and vulnerability.

My total dissection of Falling Backwards can be read here.

This Is How by Augusten Burroughs

If you read (or cheated and watched the movie) Running With Scissors, you will have a solid grasp on the quirky kaleidoscope vision Burroughs has when examining life. This is How is the anti-self-help book that will undoubtedly leave you with highlighter in hand, dog-earing chapters for affected friends. You will find familiarity in every page—either in yourself, a loved one or a friend.  Burroughs reflects on his own addictions and tragic periods of mourning dying partners with a clarity that is encouraging and realistic. He refuses to paint any situation pretty, and takes a cannonball into the deep end of the pool. His survival techniques will find naysayers, but he is quick to point out that he is not a maxima cum laude therapist. Burroughs has become an unfortunate expert due to a series of debilitating circumstances compounded by self-doubt, suicidal tendencies and profound loss. His matter-of-fact bar stool philosopher approach wins. You will find yourself nodding your head in agreement, and blush at recognition of yourself and your actions. This is How is a gritty tell-all: this is how to be thin, fat, say goodbye to a lover, ride an elevator and stop drinking. His simplicity and rare analysis of the human condition is outstanding.

More? Here’s the rave review I did for the sun on his sassy, brassy, no-guff, shut-up and listen solutions for life.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I thought it sounded so schmaltzy. I was standing in the New Releases section of Indigo at Bay & Bloor, scoffing at the Disney-fied idea of reading a book narrated by a dog. I skimmed the back cover and thought I’d read the first few pages. There was a dull roar about this book, and I hate to miss out on the dull roars. By paragraph five, I couldn’t even read the text because the tears in my eyes were at the threshold of doing the cheek-roll in public. I took a few deep breaths in the Travel section and proceeded to buy the book to read in the privacy of my own home. And oh, how I cried. Right from the get-go. Anyone who has loved a dog will feel a resounding connection with Enzo. There is no spoiler here, it’s clear that Enzo is dying. He says so, right at the beginning (cue tears). However, due to his extensive TV-watching, Enzo had learned via a National Geographic documentary that in Mongolia, when a dog dies, their reincarnated soul can return as a human. Enzo has been studiously observing human dialogue for this very moment. As a member of the Swift family, he has been painstakingly diligent in learning as much as he can about human communication and interaction for his next life. He is okay with dying because he can return as a human, which is his dream.  Enzo’s observations showcase the absurd and inexplicable life of humans. It’s a weeper. You’ll move from moments of rage to bottomless sadness for Enzo’s eagerness to be the best dog he can be for his beloved owner. Note: Definitely read at home. If you lost it during Marley & Me, this is the equivalent.

Why be happy when you can be normal? By Jeanette Winterson

I borrowed this book from my friend Keph, and had to do a pressure-read before she went to the UK. But, this was easy enough to accomplish, unlike The Winter Vault and Love in the Time of Cholera which I had to force-feed myself in the Congo. Winterson’s memoir unexpectedly made me drink more wine and seemed to drag me into a grey skies field of clotted thinking. Which, is powerful for a writer to do. What impressed me the most was that she survived! Winterson digs into a childhood that is not all lollipops and sunshine. If you read Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle you will draw a similar comparison in survival. What propelled Winterson to bother go on living at all under such oppression and fatiguing family misery is a mystery. Her writing is smooth and punchy with dialogue that pokes that “just-one-more-page” obsession.  Adopted by over-the-top Pentecostal parents in a non-descript industrial American town, Winterson’s attempt to be happy, and maybe normal, but very gay, is harrowing and nearly defeating under the disapproving gaze of the fiercely damaging Mrs. Winterson. The eventual search for her birth mother is an emotional quagmire. In the end, Jeanette Winterson’s writing is her stronghold, and we are lucky as readers to be privy to that.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Yes, this is an oldie (2002), but, I resisted reading it for a decade apparently. The initial pages are a nightmare. Growing up in southwestern Ontario when Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy went missing, stories of kidnappings make me uncomfortable to the point of being ill. In grade 12 I remember playing soccer in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the home team gathering in a circle to say a prayer for Kristen before the game. The Lovely Bones begins with 14-year-old Susie Salmon being violently raped and murdered. It’s horrific and disturbing, but Sebold’s writing is powerful enough to engage us in the complex afterlife she has designed for Susie. Choosing Susie as the narrator we are shown the flipside of mourning and her disjointed loss. We are comforted when Susie meets Frannie, her spiritual guide and then moved to extreme rage when George Harvey, her murderer, is overlooked as a suspect, again. Sebold tackles an upsetting plot with a surreal and gentle touch that outlines how precious life is, and how an ordinary day can split the matrix of a family forever.

Up next?

I’m reading Marnie McBean’s The Power of More which I’ll be reviewing pre-Olympic fever for The Vancouver Sun in August. Stay tuned! Sneak preview: It’s like verbal Red Bull. If you’re feeling lacklustre in your job, relationship, sport and/or life, an instant energy infusion can be found here.

Other summer reads on my list:

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (I’m a sucker for anything Africa, especially a memoir. Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dog’s Tonight was a stand-out).

The Red House by Mark Haddon (loved A Spot of Bother AND The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in equal amounts): A week in the English countryside with an estranged sister, a willful stepdaughter, remarriage and what I can only imagine to be an impressive display of family fireworks!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: The hook? The book jacket talks about Lawson’s zany father, a taxidermist, and how she grew up with a freezer full of dead animals. I felt immediately connected. My mother had similar aspirations. How many times did my sister open the plastic tub of what was once rocky road ice cream only to find a very dead cardinal? This one’s going to be good.

And you? What are you reading? What’s on your summer hit list?

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Dog Walking: Toronto’s Fusia Dog is the Hottest Hot Dog Around

If you are of Canadian stock (maybe even American), and of the 70s-80s wonder years, you probably have a soft spot for the highly anticipated “Hot Dog Days” of yore. It was the brightest highlight of my elementary school years next to Blue Baby séances held in the dark of the change room after phys-ed.

This I remember as clear as my grade three complexion: pillowy steamed buns (sometimes overly steamed), boiled wieners that hung out the bun ends, and the staple condiments that invariably ended up on 20 out of 30 t-shirts and laps– mustard as bright as the sun, generic ketchup and green relish (which received the same sneer as caviar, Dijon or Brussel sprouts might from those under 10).

I also recall the awe and envy as teachers called out the confirmation numbers of how many hot dogs we would like to order (what were they? Twenty-five cents? ). Jeff Kellam and Corey Roberts always ordered three. Three hotdogs! Imagine! They were no epicurean delight, but there was an unmatchable thrill found in the anticipation for Hot Dog Day. It was an event!

I recently read Jann Arden’s memoir Falling Backwards and was nearly falling backwards out of my club chair as I read about her hot dog episode in grade school.

“I unscrewed the top of my Thermos and couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. I could see a beige bubble looking out at me. I poked at it with my finger and it hardly moved. What was it? I got out my pencil and stabbed at the thing, still not knowing what to make of what was in there. It turned out the wiener had absorbed all the water and had expanded into every possible bit of space in the Thermos. I had to pull out the wiener piece by piece with my pencil and put the pieces into my bun. My mom swears to this day she never put a wiener into my Thermos.”

 My mother tried to recreate the same Hot Dog Day experience by sending us to school with surprise hot dogs packed in Thermoses. Once.  Although, unlike Jann’s mom who wrapped the bun separately, my mom put the whole enchilada (errr, the whole hot dog, although I’m sure the same result would have happened with an enchilada) into the Thermos. The bun was like wet oatmeal, falling off the bloated wiener in big damp dough clumps with every bite.

Until now, it seems as though hot dogs were banished to those nostalgic grade school days where the entire school smelled like a woodsy armpit for three days after boiling 500 wieners. A lot of childhood birthday parties showcased hot dogs (and even worse, money cakes, but that’s another story), and were the backyard barbeque option for kids who couldn’t possibly eat an entire grown-up friendly burger.

In the Annex, there are always three or four whippet-thin students queued up for dogs and split sausages, regardless of the hour. For the rest of us non-students, “street meat” seems to be reserved for anytime after 2 am when a veggie dog or Bratwurst acts as the Hangover Helper sponge for the student-style drinking that took place earlier in the night.

And now? Hot dogs are the new black. They have pushed out all those annoying “deconstructed” things, the downtown burrito war, pulled pork poutine and cutesy Angus beef sliders with three pretentious condiment treatments.

The Grid’s Food Spy just dished it today in “Who let the dogs out?” Ironically, pre-Grid pick-up, I stopped for a Fusia Dog (65 Duncan Street) on my way home. It’s been on my must-have list for a good two months, when I first heard that Dinah Koo was opening up her wiener wonderland on Duncan, just south of Queen in the Crumbs column of The Grid.

Karon Liu (Food Spy) gave a 5 Wiener Dog rating to Fusia. This is serious! Other contenders were Umi Sushi Express who “pimp their franks with teriyaki sauce, sautéed onions and bonito flakes”—dried, fermented skipjack tuna flakes–mmmmm).  Little Dog’s Montreal  steamies on College were sent to the dog house with the hot dog stands. The Stockyards (699 St.Clair Ave) gained momentum with pork crackling and pimento cheese “accessories.” And, the Real Sports Bar earned 4 Wiener Dogs for Brian Burke’s (Leafs GM) $13 heart-defibrillating poutine-sunk franks.

Fusia Dog is the latest light bulb of Dinah Koo (of Dinah’s Cupboard fame in Yorkville).  Her knives have been thrown in many directions—as manager of Ace Bakery and a duet with Pie Pastry Princess Wanda Beaver at Wanda’s In the Kitchen. There was also her Tiger Lily Noodle House/Cafe venture on Queen West (a successful 10 year notch) and her springboard: catering to the swishy set in Rosedale in Forest Hill.

When I visited Fusia Dog today, both smiley staff insisted that because it was my first time, I should order the standard “Fusia Dog.” Topped with carrot daikon slaw, cilantro, sinus-searing wasabi mayo and kimchi, the beef (or chicken) wiener found its best marriage in the Indian paratha flatbread it was wrapped in. For $6.95 it has a sneaky spicy kapow and the flatbread doesn’t hog the flavour. It makes me want to have Hot Dog Day every week.

The Crisp Creamy dog will be my next visit pick. With dill pickles, cream cheese, scallions and fried pork belly, it’s already a shoo-in for me.  Third visit? The Boston with baked beans, crispy bacon, fried onions and cheddar. Note to self: add extra kilometre to daily run.

Japadog in Vancouver, BC is credited with kicking off the upscale hot dog race years ago. Their motto? “Making the world happy and alive through hotdogs.” Mustard and ketchup were kicked to the Burrard street curb in favour of wasabi, edamame, kimchi, miso and radish. The website menu descriptions offer a small roar:

“The Love Meat”

Luxurious melted cheese dish of meat sauce over crowded in a long time. This menu and grow rich taste of cheese is a popular source ranging from an adult child.


The signature dish fried pork exciting taste wrapped in a carefully selected clothing. Involving a popular hot dog sauce cabbage and cut thin.


Generously with sauce ultra-deep, and flavorful dish. Acidity of the sour flavor of Kraft and fried green laver, to further deepen the depth of flavor.

Japadog has also created a hot dog inspired desert called “Age Ice” (lost in translation I presume, with the cheese that appears to be sourced from an adult child). It consists of fried bread with melted ice cream (vanilla, black sesame, mango or strawberry). Does it get any better?

Where are we heading next? If we can buy cake on a lollipop stick (Starbucks wedding cake pops), macaroni and cheese sushi (“mock-i roll sushi”), duck poutine pizza, bacon marmalade and cornmeal muffins with entire hard-boiled eggs inside them—what next?

Better go for a dog walk today before hot dogs lose their Toronto de rigeur.


Japadog Vancouver (and now NY!):

Fusia Dog:

Make your own mock-i rolls:

Categories: Eat This, Sip That | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jann’s Frank Diary: A Review of Falling Backwards

Only Jann Arden can get away with repeatedly mentioning “vagina” and “retarded.”  Her just released memoir, Falling Backwards, is quintessentially Jann in 3D. Like her songs, it’s not all sunshine and cotton candy. Her book will seat readers on a see-saw that dips up and down between hyena-like laughter and the insidious penetration of bone-deep melancholy.

Red Smith said, “Writing is easy, you just open a vein and bleed.” This is precisely what Arden has done, and it’s also what fans have come to expect from her brooding lyrics, pensive Facebook posts and pithy radio show commentary.

It appears as though God gifted her with humour as a coping mechanism for the turbulence she has endured in life’s landscape. Falling Backwards doesn’t gloss over the anxiousness of a child with a father on the periphery of alcoholism. Her brother Duray’s tangled teenage years with the police and eventual incarceration for murder are also openly dissected. Always the observer, Arden has culled all her triumphs and battles into an engaging read, always questioning her surroundings and how they’ve shaped her. Her memoir doesn’t swerve away from the uncomfortable, gritty bits. No, instead we are led headlong into the emotional quagmire to see that this is also a story of survival, ambition and forgiveness.

Her writing is like that of a celebrity nose-to-tail chef’s cooking style. Beyond all the choice cuts, the carcass is appropriately used too. Arden pulls in all our senses with her wit-licked descriptions of Brussels sprouts “tasting like dog farts and copper pennies.” She laments on Wagon Wheels: “they tasted like used sport socks.” The amusing account of her botched home perm was instantly communicated in the perm solution that “smelled like someone had thrown a cat on a fire.” And a visit to the pig barn down the road? “(Pigs) sound like babies being thrown down a well.”

Her bull’s eye description of a perfectly executed silent treatment? When you are able “to hear heartbeats and mice walking on snow.” When she is in elementary school, trying to hold an HB pencil “with walnut-sized hands” readers are immediately transported back to that relatable childhood, “through panes of glass, sunlit and clear.”

This is where Arden shines like a just-buffed hardwood floor. She brings together universal elements that any human can tangibly identify. Like sitting on heat vents on brisk winter mornings (okay, maybe only Canadians can identify with that). Or that kid in school who could turn their eyelids inside out (there’s always a token one!). Whether she’s looking for ditch strawberries, playing Yahtzee with Grandma Richards or stealing ‘good wood’ from her dad, it’s all familiar.

Her recollection of school lunches and discovering a bloated wiener in her Thermos has been the part I’ve read out loud to numerous friends. My mother tried the exact same trick, but shoved the bun in there too. The bun absorbed all the moisture and was like wet dough around a lukewarm wiener by noon. I won’t spoil Jann’s experience that involves a pencil (insert laugh reel here).

As a songwriter, Arden is skilled at trusting the economy of words. Songwriters can weave decade-long stories in three minutes, and her memoir achieves the same, moving at an escalating pace to just before she turns 30. In Falling Backwards, we trail behind her as she evolves from an accidental contortionist to a small-time arson. Should I mention her attempt to put gophers on Canada’s extinction list? I’m sure a few PETA supporters will be cross-armed and huffy reading this section, forgetting the innocence of kids and the great thrill of an archery set. That’s what you do as a snotty-nosed child. You kill things smaller than you, you poke out fish eyes with sticks, and you ride around on your bike on the hottest day of the year with a small turtle in your pocket. This is all normal and familiar kid fare.

There are bum worms removed with Scotch tape blended with saccharine tales of riding Snoopy the horse down to the river, and into the river. Or, in Jann-speak, when the horse is nowhere to be found, “following Snoopy’s nuggets, like Hansel and Gretel, but much more disgusting.”

Between “youth and its boundless, heartless atrocities” and the “horrible things that stick to the inside of your eyeballs,” we learn about her not-so-glamorous road to fame that forks and dead ends and U-turns when one least expects it. From babysitting for free beer  to salmon fishing for much needed cash and clarity, to siphoning gas from her mom’s car so  she can get her Pinto into town to make her first demo tape, there is great vulnerability and innocence in her path. When she gets slugged in the face while busking on a soggy day in Gastown, the punch is palpable.  How she found the drive to persevere is admirable.

Her pilgrimage to Vancouver, scratching out an existence in a crappy apartment (that was so hot “it could double as a Bikram yoga studio”) and boozing too much while trying to decipher life and its inertia becomes a career catalyst. All the hours spent surreptitiously playing her mom’s guitar, squirreled away in the basement, suddenly gain momentum.  She’s gonna make it.

Falling Backwards is not a how-I-became-a-rock-star memoir. It’s a beautiful glimpse into a Prairie childhood and emergence, viewed by anecdotal snapshots that begin with sitting on the toilet with the Readers’ Digest Expanding Your Word Power. With a mom who keeps the toilets so clean you could make Jell-o in them.

Falling Backwards is a memoir that genuinely showcases the heart, guts and bones of a remarkable woman with a contagious, inspiring spirit. What might normally be a fireside or barstool confession, is plainly spilled out into her pages. It’s not sensationalism. It’s raw human emotion. It’s about an era. It’s about a ‘job’ not defining your being. She introduces us to a family that could have easily unravelled, but held fast, and knit themselves closer together. It’s about awkward youth, mistakes and acceptance. Her words provide solace and gratitude for life’s journey.

And it’s bloody funny. It’s Jann as we expect her.

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Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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