“…thinking about all the things we’ve inherited, all the carefully saved fragments from another time…each generation preserving them in turn, wanting future generations to know of this long, braided chain of genes, habits, and attitudes that binds us together as a family: our history and stories.”
This is a memoir about a woman who takes on the task of clearing out her parents’ house after they have passed on. When we die we don’t take anything with us, and everyone else gets to go through what we have left behind! Johnson grew up in this house in Oakville, Ontario, and as she handles objects from the past, she reflects on her life, her relationship with her parents and siblings, and the life her parents had before they moved into this house. She had a disciplined British father, an exuberant Southern mother, and four siblings, all living together in this 23-room house. Johnson has a warmly candid writing style that is at once funny and poignant, but also delves into serious issues of managing loss and grief.
What I didn’t notice about the title when I first came into contact with this book was that the word EVERYTHING in the title is capitalized. Yes, the house was FULL of STUFF and for anyone who has done it, removing it all and making decisions about what to throw and what to keep, is a colossal task that does take one on an emotional journey. I’m glad Johnson shares hers. She also raises some interesting questions about whether it’s better to clear out your own mess before you die, if possible, or if it’s somehow therapeutic for your children to do it. Despite the fact that it can be frustrating if story-less objects are left without the ability to ask questions about them, there is value in reliving the memories and there may even be some surprises!
Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun. Bruce McCall
Absolutely brilliant. Just loved this memoir by American cartoonist Roz Chast. It’s an honest heartfelt account of her parents’ final journey into old age, disability, and death. The slow decline of her meek father and overbearing mother is described in all of the detail that anyone dealing with elderly parents will be able to relate to–bedsores, assisted living, dementia, guilt, love, memories, worry, decisions, etc.–Chast holds nothing back. As she tells her story using cartoons and family photographs, Chaz strikes the right balance between humour and pathos. It would be so helpful to anyone going through the same experience. If you’ve read this book, be sure to see the epilogue which appeared in The New Yorker in 2016.
Epilogue in The New Yorker
Note: According to the reviews I read, the graphics of this book are not well represented in the e-book format (Kindle). Hard cover is best. I borrowed a copy from the public library.
“I am a refugee. My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow to the future.”
This is the incredible personal account of a refugee who fled from certain death and found flourishing life. It is a real-life rescue story, a poignant family drama, and a telling of recent world history. Many North Americans will remember the “boat people” who became thankful recipients of resettlement to a new life in a new land through resilience, determination, and many helping hands along the way. But what was it like for a young boy in a large family, suddenly separated from all he’d ever known, thrust into a different culture? Why was his Dad, who used to be a wealthy manager, now working a menial job? How would he be affected by this survival and redemption? How does a refugee see himself differently from an immigrant who chooses to leave?
Vinh Chung, originally from China, was born in South Vietnam, just eight months after it fell to the communists in 1975. His family was wealthy, controlling a rice-milling empire worth millions; but within months of the communist takeover, the Chungs lost everything and were reduced to abject poverty and forced to leave. They had no choice but to take their chances in a boat on the pirate infested waters of the South China Sea.
Rescued by a World Vision mercy ship, Chung went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate, successful surgeon, and philanthropist. Chung is now a WV US board member. The book includes some history of the early days of that organization under Stan Mooneyham and operation Seasweep. There’s a wonderful collection of photos included in the back of the book.
Rod Dreher is a columnist for The American Conservative, author of several books, and blogger about topics like religion, politics, film, and culture. He was brought to his knees by the death of his little sister Ruthie. When she was diagnosed at the age of forty with a hugely aggressive cancer, Rod returned to the small town where he grew up but had left behind in his youth. When he returned, he was surprised and humbled by the great love he witnessed in the community. His relationship with this town was fraught and his ties to family sometimes misunderstood and thin. Through a hard won lesson, Dreher learned that living in a small town did not mean living a small life. Rod wrote this memoir as a tribute to his sister, being brutally honest about loss and love, faith and family, struggle and sacrifice. He tells this true story well and honestly, discovering even things about himself along the way that he did not know. What he did know in the end, was that his sister’s death taught him how to live.
I once heard American writer Rhoda Janzen speak about memoir at a writer’s conference. She said memoir should be more than the story of a life, it should point to something beyond, some further resolve or purpose. She did this beautifully in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as does Dreher in this book. The books are very different stories but come to very similar conclusions. Both authors, in an unsentimental and thought provoking manner, rediscover their roots and humbly realize the warmth and joy of coming home.
NPR Interview with the author:
A Grieving Brother Finds Solace in his Sister’s ‘Small Town’
(Grades 3-5) Judith Kerr was a child in Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her father was a journalist who had to flee with his family first to Switzerland, then to Paris, and finally to England where Judith has lived ever since.
In the story, Anna (Judith) sees posters everywhere of a man called Hitler who she thinks looks like Charlie Chaplin, but has no idea who he is. Why does her father have to leave? Why is it suddenly so dangerous to stay? Where are they going to go? Because of Hitler they must leave everything they know and love behind, including a stuffed pink rabbit.
Judith Kerr writes and illustrates books for children. You may also know the Mog series based on the family cat, and The Tiger who Came to Tea. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (first of the Out of the Hitler Time series) was written to convey to her children what it was like for her to be a refugee during the war. Her son had seen The Sound of Music and said, “now I know what you went through in the war.” She wrote Pink Rabbit to set him straight. Even though her family was displaced, she has good memories of how her parents made it seem more like a positive adventure than being uprooted. She said she never realized until much later how hard it must have been for her parents to make the decision to flee to foreign lands. She has always been thankful they did.
Today I had the pleasure of being in the audience at a BBC recording and asking Judith Kerr a question. She is a very youthful 92 indeed and it was wonderful to listen to her speak about her life, art, and writing. There were several elderly war veterans who attended, having some connection to Judith and her family as well, and she enjoyed meeting them. In the interview it came up that sometimes people think that Pink Rabbit is a metaphor for “childhood.” She replied in a down-to-earth tone, “Absolutely not. Don’t read into it, it was just a stuffed pink rabbit!” She said her husband came up with the catchy title because he thought it would help sell the book. Well, he was right!
Teachers will find plenty of teaching resources online to use with this upper elementary book, focussing on the refugee experience as much as the Holocaust. Other similar books are Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry.
“Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”
If you liked Tuesdays with Morrie, you’ll like this one. And if you are committed enough to reading to be in a book club, you’ll like this one. But what is the definition of ‘book club’? Not what you might think. In this case, all ‘book club’ really means is two people in conversation after having read the same book. That lets almost everyone in.
This is not a sad book. It is a poignant yet compelling memoir written by a loving son chronicling the end of his mother’s life. It’s a book about finding hope and joy in the midst of mortality. And it’s about the incredible power of books in our lives, affecting our thinking and stimulating our conversation.
Will and Mary Ann Schwalbe began an informal ‘book club’ simply by reading the same books and discussing them. It was something that just happened when Mary Ann found herself with pancreatic cancer and Will found himself spending time with her during treatments. He recounts conversations, mentions book titles they enjoyed, shares his feelings and her reactions to a variety of literary works. It is open and honest about what their family went through after their mother’s diagnosis of a disease that was “treatable but not curable”, an important distinction she makes.
The title is not The End of “Her” Life Book Club. The use of the word Your is deliberate. You (and I), even if perfectly healthy, have no idea when we might be reading our last book or having our last conversation. Although we don’t usually dwell on that, it is absolutely true.
There is a lot of wisdom in this book. Here are some notable quotes:
“…when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.”
“The world is complicated…You don’t have to have one emotion at a time.”
This book did not cost me anything initially, because a good friend gave it to me (thanks Nandy!). But it did cost me in the end because I was compelled to order three more books which the Schwalbe’s made irresistible. They are: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, The Etiquette of Illness by Susan Halpern, and Daily Strengths for Daily Needs by Mary Tileston.
The subtitle for this part two memoir is a summary in a nutshell: ‘A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems’. This is Rhoda Janzen’s sequel to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, which I thought was funnier and fresher, but then sequels often find it hard to compete with the original. It is still vintage Janzen: funny, honest, grateful, and self deprecating. This is a brave story cloaked in dark humour. Janzen teaches creative writing at Hope College and has a Ph.D. from UCLA. She is a poet and knows how to write.
In the first book she survives the end of her marriage and a serious car accident. In the second book she enters a new love relationship, finds a new church home, and battles a serious cancer, not necessarily in that order. Her life has undergone some significant changes. Although her faith language can be a bit rough around the edges and delightfully irreverent at times, the journey she shares speaks volumes about how much she appreciates her roots and is surprised by faith at every turn. Barbara Brown Taylor said this and I agree with it. “Rhoda Janzen is one of the few people I trust to write about faith without using God to clobber me.”
My best takeaway from Janzen’s books is that even though inevitably things happen in life that we do not choose and are not able to change, what we do have control over is choosing our attitude about it. This is a great responsibility, but also a great freedom.