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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover January 28, 2016

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Bookends: Don’t judge this book by its cover

By Dan Davidson

September 9, 2015

– 927 words –

 

You’re In Canada Now ….Musgrave A Memoir of Sorts

by Susan Musgrave

256 pages

Thistledown Press

$21.95

e-book available on several platforms

approx. $10.00

 

When I interviewed her back in March and again in April, when she was touring the Yukon, Susan Musgrave made a point of complaining about her relationship with technology. I expect that she would find it fitting that the e-book conversion of this collection of essays and columns was less than perfect. Most of the pieces made the transition fairly well, but several of them have real problems with apostrophes and quotation marks, rendering them as a series of nonsense symbols, &$@ something like this &$@. It’s disconcerting and distracting, having to pause to figure out just what is being represented this time.

 

That said, you figure it out and plough on through, because the material is interesting, thoughtful and often quite amusing.

 

For amusing, we might as well start with the title. There’s the one that’s on public display on the front cover of the book, and then there’s the one on the inside title page, where you find out what the ellipses are substituting for. It’s a naughty word that the publisher clearly felt would chase people away from the back in 2005.

 

Musgrave’s dedication is to her mother, of whom she has spoken and written in terms of her difficult childhood. After all, her parents did have her committed to an institution as a teenager. But what parent hasn’t felt like dong that at some point? The dedication reads, “If you’ve read this far, this is to say thank you … for everything you’ve taught me, including never judge a book by its cover.”

 

That might well be a humorous warning to the reader as well, The title of the book and the title of the essay from which it springs is not merely a case of Musgrave living up to her reputation as a one-time enfant terrible (or “rakish”, as the publisher’s notes put it) of poetry and prose. After all, the woman is my age, and would have been 54 when this kook first appeared a decade ago. No, that bit of dialogue, with its full-on use of the “m” word, is what the Mountie said to the drug smuggler on the beach when that fellow protested that his American civil rights were being violated by the police dog. In that context, it doesn’t seem to be gratuitous.

 

There are 58 pieces of varying lengths in this, her third collection of prose essays. Having only read her poetry prior to this year, I was surprised by the range of interests on display here. The material is organized into six main categories, ranging from the general to the particular and to the very personal. So there’s material about her travels, interactions with other writers, her family, sex (one piece being guilty of straying into “too much information” territory” for my taste), and the difficulties of a long distance relationship when the distance is increased by a set of prison bars.

 

While many of the pieces are set either on Haida Gwaii, where she mostly lives, and where she owns and manages Copper Beech Guest House as well as teaching poetry in UBC’s Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program. She also spends some time on Vancouver Island. She still gets around, on vacations, to do readings (as in her trip to the Yukon in the spring), trips to seek out her roots in Ireland, memories of youthful excursions to various parts of Central and South America. The latter took place during one of her first two marriages, this one to a fellow who turned out to be a drug smuggler.

 

In March she told me that she never knows, when she starts writing, just exactly where the piece is going to go. Most lives are a bit like that; perhaps hers has been a bit more so than others.

 

While I enjoyed nearly every piece in the book, the ones that seem to be sticking right now are the ones I’ve read in the last week or two, those being her observations of her life with Stephen Reid, the one-time leader of the Stopwatch Gang of bank robbers. We get some of the love story, which began when she was asked to look at the manuscript for his novel, Jackrabbit Parole. We get a peek at their marriage and then watch the drug dependency which led to his second, short=lived and very un-stop-watch-like life of crime and incarceration. There are reflections on life in prison, family visits, and the regular indignities that go with all of that.

 

Near the end are eulogies to three Canadian writers, two of whom I have been privileged to meet in the Yukon, and a sort of daily journal for the month of August, 2004, which references a number of things that have been covered elsewhere in the book, ties up some loose ends, and gives some insight into the daily life of the writer.

 

I’ve been reading this book on and off for the last several months, opening it up on three separate devices. It’s convenient, but it does keep a person from getting a feel for the book as an object. Given the length of many of the essays, it was a handy book to have on hand when I had just a short space to pass while marking time for an appointment or waiting for a plane.

 

-30-

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