Mulling over Molly of the Mall (2020)



The story of a young woman working in an Edmonton shoe store does not easily resonate with my life as an older Ottawa male whose interest in footwear runs from modest to nil.  But within the first few, short chapters of Molly of the Mall (NeWest Press), I felt touched and was certain I would enjoy the book.

This year’s (2020) winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour splits its chapters between the days that Molly MacGregor spends in the Petit Chou shoe store and her terms as a university undergrad.  

Though never specifically identified, the mall that holds the Petit Chou is West-Edmontonian with a wave pool, giant sailing ship, submarines, screaming peacocks, bewildered emus, mock Bourbon-Street restaurants, competing shoes stores, a rink, and at least one bookshop.  It provides a suitably eccentric ambiance for the store where Molly stands and strains through long days with quirky management, less committed coworkers, and performance measures that encourage the sale of gratuitous polish and protectors.

Stocking shelves and staring at feet, she thinks of classic literature, the romance of Jane Austen, and her aspirations for a degree in English.

While I have never worked in a mall nor ever squeezed feet with a promise that a product would stretch, I have, like most people, had physically and psychologically trying times on the job and found comfort in the distraction of stories about the exotic and faraway.  I thought this might be the reason for my optimism and feeling that this would be a book to enjoy.

But as I read through the pages, I found my personal connection to the story was even stronger. I realized that this was precisely the kind of book I tried to write: one that I had submitted to the Leacock Medal competition a year earlier. My book, Governing Travails, sought to share the career experience of a federal bureaucrat through stories peppered with parodies, poems, and lists, all cloaked in a love of literature and attempts at humour.


Molly of the Mall does the same, but with greater effect, greater consistency, and clearly greater success. So, my reading morphed into a study of technique and style and envying admiration.  The author, Heidi Jacobs, has the background to teach someone like me a lot.  

Like her protagonist, Heidi worked in a mall and sold shoes in her youth, but she also went on to earn multiple relevant degrees: a BA,  an MA, and Phd in English and later a Master of Library and Information Science. Today an expert in information literacy, she serves as the English and History Librarian at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library and has published peer-reviewed works on a range of topics.

These credentials find life in the personality and character of Molly MacGregor, whose name honours Dafoe’s Moll Flanders and reflects the literary and artistic interests of her university professor parents. Molly cites great authors easily and imagines herself in European landscapes surrounded by the characters created by Austen, the Brontë sisters, and the other writers that she knows well.

She also longs to study others like “Eliot, Dickens, Burney, Waugh, Joyce, and Radcliffe,”  and this ambition flows into the chapters that take Molly away from the mall and through her semesters as a student who tangles with writing assignments, hangs out with friends, and dreams of love.

I think this non-mall, less absurd element elevates Heidi’s book above efforts like mine. It makes Molly’s story more human, more relatable than a collection of quirky episodes and bits of humour however literate and classically inspired. The format also emphasizes the two sides of life, the real and the imagined, and the sweetness of the interface between the two.  It is this feature and sum of these parts that make the book something an older, shoe-store adverse bureaucrat might enjoy.


DBD
June 2020





About

My name is Dick Bourgeois-Doyle.

My waning professional life focused on science administration and communication as per this summary and these posts
on Science.gc.ca  

But I created this Blog in 2012 to document my quest to live a more humorous life - and share stuff on Canadian humour writing.  The URL tries to evoke “a year of reading humour” in the style of "Annus Mirabilis" and "Annus Horribilis." My first attempt at a blog name, "Anus Humorous", drew unfortunate associations. "Canus Humorous" has a nicer ring and might make you think of Canadian humour.  

These are all great imaginary reasons for choosing this blog name, but really, when I learned that “canus” is Latin for “grey-haired and aging,” that sealed it.

With this stuff, I want to promote


Canadian Humour Writing
by collecting, reading and reviewing books that have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal  (see kudos and coverage on the quest and resulting book);

Humorous Thinking
by indulging in more funny thoughts, stuff, things and ideas with potential to become things (see "Stubbornstuff" Columns); and

And a Sense of Humour
while still reading government memos, briefing notes, and policies as my paying gig  (see summary bio above and  this thing) .



For a free review copy of the Book "What's so Funny?"


Leacock@150




Today December 30th, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Stephen Leacock’s birth, and as far as I can tell, no significant national events or commemorations are planned to mark the occasion.

This might baffle the many that regard Leacock as Canada’s greatest humorist and particularly those who know that he once enjoyed stature as our country’s best known writer, and, in some circles abroad, as the best known Canadian.

While many ardent Leacock admirers can be found within humour-loving and humour-writing communities, some others suggest that his sense of humour and sensibilities are somewhat irrelevant and speak to another time – one when Canada could be properly represented by the Anglican church, simple politics, small town concerns, and picnics. 

But reading more recent entries to the Leacock Medal competition, the institution that sustains Stephen Leacock’s memory, I find a fibre that runs through the mythical Mariposa of  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and the humour that resonates with a modern, multicultural Canada.  It also echoes Leacock’s oft quoted definition of humour “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof.”

With this comment Leacock intended kindly in the sense of one’s kin or kind – or one’s community.  I think that supreme humour of the type found in many Leacock Medal books in recent years can reflect a specific community but in a way that is universal and can touch us all.  

And this is what I am going to reflect on this day.  

I invite you to click around and do the same.



2019 Leacock Medal - Boy Wonders



Though textbooks, teachers, and editors tell writers to hook readers from the start, few books grab me with their opening pages.

I might expect to struggle with one that begins by detailing the process of digging a hole in the ground.

But I knew almost immediately that I would enjoy the 2019 Leacock Medal winner Boy Wonders, a memoir by Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly.  Its hole-digging introduction and the chapters that follow blend  thoughtfulness with humour in a way that makes it both fun and worthy of literary award recognition.

In recent years, the Leacock Medal has favoured narratives that tell one long, continuous story, and I had come to believe that this might be the award’s niche in the CanLit landscape. Boy Wonders seems to break with this inclination. It is a disparate collection of reminiscences set in 1970s and 80s Toronto and presented under topics running from Star Wars and Michael Jackson’s Jacket to Porno and Fights. Each story could stand alone.

But together they describe a life experience as well as any long chronicle. In fact, Kelly suggests that reliance on vignettes may be the best approach to autobiography because our memories are just a bunch of fuzzy screenshots, Freud's “screen memories,” augmented by what we think transpired around them. Afterall he says, “at our core, what are we but an agglomeration of the things we believe happened to us?”

In a big way, the book is not about the events of the author’s boyhood, but more of an effort to find meaning in his memories and to tie them to the man he is today.

He believes, for example, his enduring cynicism began in the lineup to see The Empire Strikes Back when a van soared by, announcing “Darth Vader is Luke’s father! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!”

The digging of the hole that opened the book marked him similarly and became memorable because the trench grew too deep to escape.  He stayed there for what may have been hours before his mother calmly rescued him.  As she does, you learn of her stoic Irishness and single-parent influence.  In these initial pages, you also glimpse the author’s skill in vocabulary, metaphors, and pacing; and you start to understand how minor events can assume significance both in shaping our adult selves and in illuminating the wonders of everyone’s early years.

We are reminded that childhood is the time when humans can “have purpose without an end,” play with “no objectives or goals,” and just “do in order to do.”

As I hoped, this bemused musing flowed throughout Boy Wonders. 

Yet in reading these stories, I recalled parallel personal experiences often thinking that my own were richer, more dramatic and interesting, at least to baby-boomer me.  Kelly’s recollection of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster resonates with my day around JFK’s assassination, the connection he feels for post-disco, glam-metal music surprised me with its similarity to my attachment to the sounds of the sixties, and his reactions to Orwell were much the same as what I witnessed in my kids at even earlier ages.  This all made me reflect.

But unlike my random screen memories, Cathal Kelly’s stories make for a good book because of the craft applied to their recounting. This, in turn, induces that introspection, which is the effect of a memoir that may lack technical information and historical detail, but brims with personality, candor, and wit.

Of course, when we examine our own experience, try to find meaning, and search for perspective, it helps to do so with a mollifying sense of humour: the practice that the Leacock Medal celebrates and that this year’s winner seems to do with ease.

Do yourself a favour 

Cost me $4.99 for the book on Kindle


2018 Leacock Medal - 10 months in the Making


April 2019

I will always remember the 2018 Leacock Medal banquet because of the people who did not attend.  

One was me.  Another was the winner of the medal.  

Both noteworthy absences from my perspective.

But, for many others, the most glaring nonappearance was that caused by the passing of an exceptional local woman six months earlier.  For different reasons, all of these failures to appear made it difficult for me to follow up the event with a column.

I’ve tried to attend the Leacock Medal banquet in Orillia every year since 2012 when I began writing about the medal winners for blogs and books. But the birthdays of three women in my immediate family fall around the June award weekend, making it inevitable that conflicting obligations would keep me away someday, and last year they did.  Too bad.  The 2018 award celebration was unique.

Attendees at a dinner on the eve of the banquet would have found the affair particularly striking.  Eighty-four-year-old Jennifer Craig, the B.C. writer shortlisted for the medal and destined to win, fell ill in the midst of the dinner festivities and had to be rushed to Soldier’s Memorial Hospital.  As Jennifer, a former nurse, had correctly presumed, she had a stroke.

The writer would recover in the following days to return to the mountains and savour her literary award among friends and family.  But her sudden illness obliged her daughter Juliet to accept the medal in her mother’s stead.  Juliet’s banquet speech was genuine, touching, apt, and funny as you can see in this Youtube recording.  She not only spoke of the award-winning book, Gone to Pot, but also outlined her mother’s interesting life.  It ran from hospitals in England to academia in Canada after a return to school in later life to earn Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Now, in what she derides as “the golden years,” she writes books with enthusiasm and humour.  

This alone would have made good fodder for a post-banquet, medal-award blog on Jennifer Craig.

I would have also found it easy to write about Jennifer’s novel, Gone to Pot, a first-person account of an older woman’s adventures growing marijuana for illicit purpose. The book’s 64-year-old heroine Jess lost her job after a restaurant fire leading her into the cannabis career and a new circle of friends.  

It is kind of a simple premise.  But when I read it, I thought the book worked because it reflected sound research and maintained a consistent voice throughout.  I learned later that the voice was based on cassette recordings of a deceased English aunt and the research included direct participation in the kind of gardening described in the book. This blend creates an authentic feel and the quality that defines good fiction, believability. I was ready to extol Gone with Pot, and this inclination combined with the quirky events around the award ceremony should have made the task of writing an account easy.  
Furthermore, the subsequent legalization of marijuana makes this book a snapshot point in Canadian history, and this fits with my frame for judging the consequence of the Leacock Medal books.

But it is almost ten months later, and I am just getting around to tapping at the keyboard now. One reason probably rests on my banquet nonappearance and the need to rely on second-hand information. But I struggled with other concerns as well.

Others 

I wanted to write my account of the 2018 Leacock Medal banquet in a way that acknowledged the other finalists to a greater degree than usual.  For the first time in the award’s history, all three were women. 

Television personality Laurie Gellman and BuzzFeed columnist Scaachi Koul were the other two.  Together with Jennifer Craig they not only represented the humour capacities and inclinations of a particular gender, but also three different generations and three different styles (conventional storytelling, episodic narrative, and essays).  I had a blog title ready to go: “Bugger, Baby, Bullshit,” drawing on recurrent words from each of their books and ones that seemed to capture the different themes.

Ms. Gellman’s book, Class Mom, chronicles the experience of a volunteer tagged with notifying  fellow parents of events deemed important by school administration.  The class mom role draws few kudos and no formal remuneration, so Laurie’s edgy heroine draws reward from trying to laugh.  Blunt, acerbic email messages to parents usually preface the chapters, frame what is to come, and remind readers to not take some jobs too seriously.

Scaachi Koul’s book also introduces its chapters with words that are crude, brisk, and blunt.  But, more often than not, the essay that follows explores racism, sexism, alcoholism, and other topical issues in a semi-serious way intertwined with candid emotion and personal experience.  



(Later, I learned that all the 2018 winners of the Leacock Medal Student Essay competition were also  women: Naama Weingarten (third place), Sydney Force (second place), and Atara Jurievsky (first)).
Thinking about these women reminded me of the long-held view of the Leacock Medal as a male-dominated arena.  In spite of a recent surge (six of the nine shortlisted authors and two of the three winners in the last three years), women still form a small minority of medalists over the Leacock Medal’s history. 

But I think that this statistic understates the profile women have had in the Leacock Medal over the years.  I believe a more accurate picture would be presented if attention was not limited to overall winners.  I have met a lot of people short-listed for the award who call themselves losers because they did not win.  Ottawa journalist Charles Gordon, who was short-listed and “lost” three times, but is most wistful about his sister the sports writer Allison, a twice-shortlisted non-winner.

If one expanded the concept of winning to include those and other finalists in the past, the alumnae of the Leacock medal would not only grow, but would be more diverse.  This expanded list includes Jane ChristmasZarqa NawazPatricia PearsonSusan Juby (before her win in 2016), Robin Michele LevyRupinder Gill, Shari LapeñaKathyrn Borel, Lynn Coady, Sandra ShamasMiriam ToewsSusan MusgraveChristie Blatchford, Sheree Fitchand yep, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields.  Kind of crazy to think that some of these women might consider themselves Leacock Medal losers.

So, I was glad when, a couple of years ago, the Leacock Medal elevated the finalists with larger cash awards and the status of “finalists,” but wondered whether a blog or column on the 2018 Leacock Medal should use the occasion to acknowledge all of the women short-listed in the past as well as those top three honoured in 2018.  And this was another cause for my hesitation and explains, in part, why I am writing these words a year later.


But there was another reason ... 

But the principal reason I could not bring myself to work on this blog until now was the desire to honour the other woman who did not attend the 2018 banquet.  Her name was Jean Dickson.

Like Jennifer Craig, my friend Jean was a nurse who worked in different countries before moving on to  other careers, had a passion for humorous literature, and was a recent guest of Orillia’s Soldier’s Memorial Hospital.  But Jean did not leave alive.
She was in her 87th year.  Her obituary says her death followed a brief illness, and this might have been the way Jean would have described her last days.  But many people with similar experience would say they had been fighting health challenges for close to fifty years.

In the early 1970s, a car accident ended Jean’s nursing days.  So, she turned her mind, spirit and body to other work and to volunteering, specifically in support of the Leacock Medal.  For decades, she served as the Chair of the Awards Committee.  But this title makes a modest description of her contribution to humorous literature and the award.   
When I started digging into the Leacock Medal and the project it embraces, I heard repeatedly that the medal program would not exist today were it not for Jean Dickson’s work and persistence during lean years.

When I drafted the dedication to my book, in fact, I wanted to acknowledge the Leacock Associates in general and key members in particular.  My research produced a list.  But the late broadcaster, historian, and community volunteer Pete McGarvey and Jean were the only ones that survived to publication.  Others  declined to be mentioned because they did not feel they were in the same league as Pete and Jean.  So, the dedication follows their names with  “… and the other members of the Leacock Associates.”
McGarvey’s contributions to charitable and public institutions could warrant a full biography and a separate tribute too.  But Jean has a special place in my heart.
I got to know her through correspondence and phone conversations in the preparation of
my book as well as personal encounters, the last one being at the 2015 award banquet where she presented the medal to Terry Fallis.  By then she was in failing health and living in a senior’s residence in Barrie, but still very keen about humorous literature and the Leacock Medal. 

Knowing that Jean Dickson had had a ringside seat for decades of medal presentations, I mined her memories for material.  She not only attested to key elements of my book, but also gave me a wonderful gift before passing.  Aside from her kind words of support, she flattered me by going to the trouble of engaging a CNIB volunteer to read my book aloud in a series of sessions in her room in Barrie.

This personal tie made me want to use my 2018 blog as a venue to pay tribute to Jean and her army of Leacock Medal volunteers.  As many, if not most, of these people were women, I see the influence of women readers and writers throughout the award’s history. 

So my excuse for not writing my annual blog update to my book until now flows from stewing over the many possible angles: a focus on Jennifer Craig; the three women nominees in 2018; all women short-listed over the history of the medal, or the woman who sustained the medal program and selection process that honoured them.  

Or all of the above, which is what I tried to do here.