Carolyn Steele, A Year on Planet Alzheimer (and a Little Longer in Canada) (AuthorHouse, 2004)
I am, as a rule, not a fan of memoirs. They’ve gotta do two things to make me sit up and take notice. First, you have to have done something that’s actually worthy of writing a memoir about. (That running joke in Tove Jansson’s books about Moominpappa writing his memoirs? That really WAS a joke in the fifites. Now, it’s business as usual.) Second, your life can’t be the sole purpose of the book’s existence; you have to spend at least as much time talking about that bit in Part One as you do about what you ate for lunch every Tuesday. This is on top of all of the other strictures about what makes a book good—character development, pacing, etc. (Oh, you thought those were only worth paying attention to in fiction? Try reading 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed to find out just how bad a nonfiction book with no pacing or character development can be. Yes, it’s a memoir.) A Year on Planet Alzheimer fits both bills. It’s not a perfect book by any means, and both the jacket copy and the book itself play something of a part in that (more on this later), but as far as memoirs go, it’s one of the better ones I’ve read in recent memory; the last one I remember liking this much was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which (I just checked) I read back in 2006.
Carolyn Steele, at a loose end in her native England, finds herself with wanderlust. She’s always wanted to see Canada, so she starts applying for home care positions. She finds one that seems to suit, caring for the elderly mother of a woman named Pat in the town of Kitchener, Ontario, while Pat is involved with building a house in Newfoundland. After mountains of paperwork, she and her son head off for a two-year stint in Canada. I can’t say that’s where the weirdness begins, as anyone who’s left a country for any amount of time can attest to. (But when you’re going for that long, well, the paperwork gets worse. Exponentially so.) But, as expected, culture shock sets in, and Steele keeps a clear enough head about things to report on it, provide a translation guide, and generally keep her wits about her. (As long as she remembers to drive on the correct side of the road.) Things rarely go as planned, however, and as tensions mount and things that were supposed to go smoothly don’t, along with unexpected difficulties popping up (how does one transport a bicycle across a country without paying a small fortune?), as much as Steele and her son start thinking of Canada as home, the lure of the familiar is always beckoning.
I alluded to the book’s biggest failing above, and the irony of it is that had the book not thrown down that particular gauntlet, it would never have occurred to me to make the comparison in question. However, both the back cover copy and at least one place in the text have Steele (I am assuming she, like most authors using vanity/self/POD presses, wrote her own jacket copy) comparing her work to that of Bill Bryson. I’m not the world’s biggest Bryson disciple—I’ve found his work to be inconsistent, and he’s not above quirking the facts a bit to get a better joke, but that’s still some pretty big shoes to fill. I don’t think Steele was quite up to the task; this is in no small part because Bryson is a travel writer, and any memoir-ish qualities in his writing play third fiddle at best. Steele is a memoirist who has adopted travel writing as the platform on which she’s going to bounce her personal recollections. And I rush to reiterate that she does a very good job with that balance, and this is quite an enjoyable piece of work as a result; even people who aren’t fans of memoirs may find this one worth reading, if a little oversold. I can attest to this firsthand. ***