Category Archives: history

A Friend’s Legacy: Bryon Burruss and the Famous Tuscan Springs


Let’s say one day you’re at work, maybe feeling a little under-engaged with whatever it is you do. Someone you know crosses your mind, and you say, “hey, let’s give ‘im a Google!”

And about 20 seconds later, you learn that they recently died.

Last month, this happened to me. (“Local Author, Former Scribe Passes Away.”) Bryon died of a “massive heart attack” in his home on St. Patrick’s Day. He was discovered by his housemate. He was 48 years old.

Over the last few weeks since I went a-Googling, I’ve been ruminating over every detail about Bryon I can remember. Searching in my records for notes sent, remembering details, trying to make sense of how a close friend could be gone just like that. Having the random crying jag when I remember another detail of something that’s so important to me, that I may not know about if it wasn’t for him.

In Summer 2001, I met Bryon Burruss when I was in a Portland production of The Famous Tuscan Springs, a play he wrote with his friend Joe Hilsee. We started corresponding shortly thereafter, and the last time I heard from him was via text in August 2010, about two weeks before I was to move to Canada and start my graduate program. The last time I sent him a brief email was the following summer, when I was in Montana and my brain was starting to work again after a tumultuous year.

He had a master’s degree in theater but lived in rural California. Yet he managed to open a theater company and keep it running for five years. The theater encouraged aspiring playwrights each year by holding a new plays festival—submissions came from around the world. Those plays that didn’t quite make the stage were sometimes adapted for radio, which he produced.

Theater was Bryon’s love, possibly more than anything else in the world. The pains he took to keep that theater running were great.

Perhaps those are the facts that most people could tell you. What I alone could tell you is this: Bryon once suggested a medicinal tea which is still my go-to for colds, a decade later. I sent him the script of a favorite play—Killer Joe by Tracy Letts—and a year later his theater performed it. Bryon suggested I might like a Canadian television program called Slings and Arrows, which was about a Shakespeare company in Ontario. When I got the first season on DVD, I anticipated watching the first hour and then doing the dishes. Six hours later I was exhilarated, watching the final few minutes after I just could not turn the thing off. When Bryon was desperate for readers for his slush pile of new plays, I gladly helped out, reading in one case a rather large box of scripts over the course of just a few weeks.

Aside from theater, Bryon had another special project as well. The Famous Tuscan Springs, the play I was in, was a real place that existed outside of Red Bluff, California. In addition to writing a play about the place, Bryon knew pretty much all there was to know about the resort that sat there in the early part of the 20th Century. At one point, I helped him locate a booklet held in a medical library in New York City that he was previously unaware of.


It turns out that when his life ended unexpectedly, Bryon was having some success with his Tuscan Springs research. Tuscan Springs was released by Arcadia Publishing under their ubiquitous “Images of America” series.

There are plenty of other things I could say about Bryon too. At times, he seemed to be anti-feminist. Once, when I offered a feminist take on something, he snarkily asked if I would start talking about herstory. My vegetarianism also seemed to make him uneasy—he tried to convince me that in the town he lived, you just couldn’t be vegetarian. And yet, I never had any problem feeding myself when I was there.

The worst thing I could say about Bryon is, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Naturally, I purchased a copy of Tuscan Springs. I never saw Bryon’s collection of imagery and artifacts on the few occasions we visited, but so far I’m impressed by what he managed to dig up over the years.

Readers, friends, to everyone I say—you make sure and take care of that heart of yours. Treat your body well. Cherish the relationships you have, even if they’re not perfect—one day you may wake up to discover that person you’ve known for years is gone.

Goodbye, Bryon.

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Gonzo Blogging

Surely you’ve visited Bookish and wondered, ‘who writes this crap?’ Perhaps you saw a post that had a missing “the” or a sentence with a subject-verb agreement issue. Yep, I’ve spotted those too.

Given you are a bookish audience, you’re likely also familiar with Hunter S. Thompson and his “gonzo journalism.” In a complete misappropriation of the term, I often think of and refer to my blogging activities as gonzo blogging.

Ideally, a piece of writing goes through some amount of editorial work before it is published. The piece is drafted, revisited, copyedited, and scheduled for publication. Usually there is at least one reader aside from the writer. The longer it takes from first draft to publication, and the more eyes that see it, usually the more polished the final piece can be.

Not here at Bookish!

More often than not, Bookish posts tend to get written in minuscule pockets of time, and published almost immediately. If I revisit the post hours or days later, copy problems will often jump out at me and I’ll fix them. That’s the magic of the internet: once something is “published,” you can change it pretty easily.

Why are we all about gonzo blogging here at Bookish?

Like the little blue guy above, I like to throw myself whole-heartedly into an idea when real inspiration strikes (“lunatic daring”), but there’s usually not a lot of time. If the inspiration has passed by the time I’m able to sit down and work, I usually write about something else. (Or watch IT Crowd videos on YouTube.) But if I do have a pocket of time, watch out! Over at Bikish I recently wrote a piece about the death of Working Kirk Reeves (aka “trumpet guy”) in about an hour.

Blogging is also a way to continue developing my non-professional writing skills, and promote projects I’m working on. Perhaps someday my blogging will need to step it up a few notches as the audience builds, but for now launching my motorcycle into the rafters at a moment’s notice is just fine by me.

(Apologies and much ‘don’t sue me’ boot-kissing to Disney, new corporate overlords of the patron saint of Bookish.)

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Geeking Out on The Doris Diaries

Damn!! I’m beginning to rebel. I crave adventures. I want to live. Not merely exist. -Doris Bailey Murphy, age 17

One thing you may not know about me, at least through this blog, is that I am a bonafide history detective. (In fact, at one point I almost got to work as a researcher on History Detectives.) When presented with a historical question or problem, my brain can instantly achieve laser focus and not let up for hours. Days, even. This skill has been put to use on scads of educational projects, from Bridging World History to the Muhammad Ali Center. My favorite historical topics are social history (studying traditionally marginalized groups, such as women) and local history.

Meaning it was either fate that I discovered The Doris Diaries, or editor Julia Park Tracey’s worst nightmare.

Twitter suggested I follow @TheDorisDiaries one evening, and soon I was engrossed in short quotes from the diaries of Doris Bailey Murphy, a 17 year old girl who lived here in Portland in the 1920s. When she died, a lifetime’s worth of diaries were entrusted to her great-niece, Julia Park Tracey. When I discovered the feed was advance publicity for I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do: The Diaries of a Roaring Twenties Teen 1925-1926, I was chomping at the bit to read the entire book. Doris has totally captivated my imagination.

Readers are introduced to a spunky teen in this volume. The daughter of a well-off Portland architect, Doris regularly skips school, bangs up the family’s car, and goes necking with a string of boys. She curses. Eventually she is plucked out of Lincoln High School for a more structured religious school, St. Helens Hall (now Oregon Episcopal School). Come summer she is wrangling at a dude ranch in Central Oregon, where she rescues a horse near death and sneaks into off-limits buildings. Naturally she keeps adding to a long list of infatuations which are enumerated and ranked in her diary.

One mystery man haunts these entries: Micky. He is the handsome classmate that Doris mentions again and again, melodramatically imagining his fate after he is expelled from Lincoln High School, and sighing wistfully over his whereabouts:

I’m never going to kiss another boy. I’m going to have nothing more to do with them, because I’ve discovered the only one. He is my aim in life. I shall keep my lips fresh and clean only for him, and SOMEDAY he’ll come back. -May 11, 1926

[Ed. note: five days later, on May 16, Doris was kissing another crush, Jack Hibbard, in the back seat of a car.]

One thing is lacking in the book: a confirmed photo of Micky. A mystery! Naturally then, at 5:00am I started hunting down an archive that would have a 1925 Lincoln High School yearbook. Surely it would have a photo of Micky, right? And this history detective could help close a case! Archives aren’t open before sunrise on Sunday though, but Ebay was—I found the listing linked above, shared it with the author, and shortly after receiving her enthusiastic response, noticed the listing is now sold. 🙂

While the diaries mostly revolve around Doris’ love life, a number of place references are sprinkled throughout. Doris regularly visits her best friend who lives in Oak Grove. She swims at The Oaks (now Oaks Park) and notices the traffic congestion due to the opening of the Hollywood Theater. Doris even visited my alma mater, Milwaukie High School, on April 12, 1926! That was when the main building was just one year old.

This volume only covers about a year and a half of Doris’ life, but I’m hooked. It sounds like she only got more interesting as she matured. Eventually Doris went to Reed College—my friendly neighborhood institution of higher learning. True to Reed form, she shocked the community by interviewing prostitutes for her thesis work, and graduated in 1938. Later she became involved with labor union issues and eventually married famous Wobbly Joe Murphy. Two years before her death she wrote a memoir, Love and Labor. (Reed ran a profile in their magazine with a photo!) Mature Doris was just as spunky as her younger self, known for owning a pair of condom earrings and being “blunt, interested to the point of intrusiveness” among her family. After an amazing life, Doris died in 2011 at age 101.

Julia Park Tracey will be presenting The Doris Diaries at History Pub on October 15th. Help me cheer her on that evening at Kennedy School from 7-9:30pm!


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Does Forbes Hate Young People?

Forbes recently ran a couple of pieces online that made my eyes bulge out of my head. “Is Gen Y Underemployed—Or Just Lazy?” was followed by “Dude, Where’s My Student Loan Bailout?” Both pieces paint fairly unflattering portraits of the younger generation.

The first article summarizes some recently released studies, using some quotes that generally seem to make sense. They state that younger workers dislike large corporations and prefer to work in smaller firms with more flexibility, and where their entrepreneurial desires may be given room to flourish. Sounds about right to me! The writer attempts a few jabs at the young throughout, but attempts a surprising knockout in the conclusion:

Though this report says that this is a strong indicator of the underemployment issue in the US today, it seems more like a strong indicator of a generation with an issue of entitlement and extreme laziness – despite the opportunities that await them.

Of course Forbes is probably playing to their demographic (Uncle Moneybags), but there seem to be a lot of other explanations. If the writer had explored the number of US firms outsourcing their labor, taken a look at the scant job listings in local newspapers, or explored market saturation of people with college degrees, maybe an article with more serious exploration of the issue would have materialized. These seem to be pretty obvious factors to the people I regularly talk to.

Nah. It’s that lazy young generation with their long hair and their rock ‘n’ roll music, skipping out on Vietnam. I mean…with their internets. Isn’t that right, Mr. Rockefeller?

(Before his estate sues me, please know that Mr. Rockefeller’s appearance in today’s post is thanks to our friends at the Library of Congress, who provide public domain images to lazy young people such as myself!)

In the second piece, the writer uses current statistics about student loan repayments to paint an equally dark portrait of recent grads. Because the current default rate is 8.8% (and it would be higher if they included those in forbearance), and many grads expressed support for more forgiveness opportunities (if you work in the Peace Corps or teach at a Headstart program for two years, you can get small amounts forgiven on your Stafford loans), this means that recent grads are all a bunch of entitled good-for-nothings. To quote my friend Cat (a recent graduate herself), “I don’t know anyone who is trying to ‘get out of’ their student loans…they pay their loan payments even when they can’t or won’t pay other stuff.”

Personally speaking, I’ve always been eager to pay down the principal of my student loans, so I’ll pay less in interest over the years. This approach allowed me to pay off $25,000 in debt in about six years (instead of the usual ten) after my undergraduate work. At the moment though, I am about a month and a half away from my first graduate loan payment—and I’m living (with extreme frugality) off my savings while taking any temporary work I can. It’s slightly terrifying.

Two other things seem surprising when considering these articles. First, both the writers appear to be early career, meaning they are in fact insulting themselves. Second, why is Forbes running these pieces on the internet, where they invite a deluge of criticism from the very people they are insulting? A quick scan of the comments confirms that the vast majority are from young people defending themselves. Everybody knows that those lazy good-for-nothing youngsters won’t pay newsstand price, and Uncle Moneybags is afraid of people stealing his identity if he is connected on those internets.

What say you, Bookish reader? Are we lazy nogoodniks or does Forbes just hate young people? And do you think they would like me more if I dressed like Alex P. Keaton?

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Think Different: A Review of the Steve Jobs Biography

At one point in my life, I thought if I ever got a tattoo, it would be of the rainbow-hued Apple logo.

Those days are in the distant past.

At the time, Apple was the underdog of the tech world, at a time when Bill Gates and Microsoft were ubiquitous, undisputed kings. Apple stock was just over $13 per share. Few companies bothered to write their software for Macintosh because it required licensing that didn’t pencil out financially.

And then Steve Jobs returned to the company.

Things have changed! In 2011 Apple’s revenue was $108 BILLION dollars. Apple’s stock (AAPL) closed yesterday at $663.87 per share. Crowds regularly line up at Apple’s retail stores to nab the latest iPhone release. Apple is huge—regularly referred to alongside Google and Facebook as the current giants of Silicon Valley. An Apple product announcement has even been parodied on television!

As an Apple devotee since the early 90s, I naturally wanted to read Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson. At 630 pages, the book is almost as giant as its subject—but I plowed through it in just over a week. A pretty easy read given such a fascinating subject tackled by a great writer!

Once Jobs knew he was not long for this world, he called upon famed biographer Walter Isaacson to get to work. Jobs offered generous access to himself without being nosy about Isaacson’s portrayal. Jobs died on October 5, 2011, and the release date on the book got pushed up to October 24—two and a half weeks after his death.

Isaacson clearly has a sense of humor about his subject. He editorializes in small ways throughout the text, such as imploring younger readers to ask their parents about the Atari game Pong, and when he writes about Jobs’ habit of not showering as a young adult:

Jobs clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor, even if he didn’t use deodorant or shower regularly. It was a flawed theory. (p. 43)

Stories of Jobs’ boorish behavior are everywhere, and Isaacson makes no attempt to cover this up. It is a huge part of Jobs’ character, and Isaacson cites it as one of the main themes of the book. Ex-colleagues tell stories of Jobs parking in the handicapped spaces at Apple, yelling “it’s shit!” in response to carefully prepared designs, and his abhorrence for PowerPoint slides. Even worse, Jobs essentially refused to acknowledge his first child for many years, because it didn’t fit in with his “reality distortion field.”

The character study also includes his sensitive artist side. Jobs attended Reed College (my neighborhood university!), where he was known for his collection of Bob Dylan(!!!) bootleg recordings. His experiences in Oregon gave him an artistic foundation that later came to fruition in his product philosophies and elsewhere. Whether the crying jags at Apple came from Oregon, I don’t know—but the name Apple was partially inspired by a farm he lived on near Eugene. (Yup, that’s a Reedie for you.)

At least for me, the latter half of the book dragged a little as the narrative basically became a series of pissing matches between Steve Jobs and executives at other companies. Unlike the early years, the years since the release of the iMac has more or less played out in the public eye. More interesting was studying Jobs’ character during this period—how the man who was clearly a pill to work with handled having a wife and children. How Jobs cultivated his best working relationships, including those with Tim Cook and Jony Ive. How not even a reality distortion field or money can make pancreatic cancer go away.

In this later period, Isaacson makes an attempt to counter-balance all the Apple cheerleading with some significant criticism. A favorite example was about the iPad:

His main reservation, a substantive one, was “that while it’s a lovely device for consuming content, it doesn’t do much to facilitate its creation…The iPad shifts the emphasis from creating content to merely absorbing and manipulating it. It mutes you, turns you back into a passive consumer of other people’s masterpieces.” (p. 496)

And Isaacson adeptly describes the Apple cult:

With the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984, Jobs had created a new kind of theater: the product debut as an epochal event, climaxed by a let-there-be-light moment in which the skies part, a light shines down, the angels sing, and a chorus of the chosen faithful sings “Hallelujah.” (p. 354)

Before I finished the book still unsure of how I felt about Steve Jobs, one short paragraph won me over to his side. Jobs spent his school years in Cupertino, California, when the area was still primarily comprised of farmland. As he designed the new Apple headquarters,

One of his lingering memories was of the orchards that had once dominated the area, so he hired a senior arborist from Stanford and decreed that 80% of the property would be landscaped in a natural manner, with six thousand trees. “I asked him to make sure to include a new set of apricot orchards,” Jobs recalled. “You used to see them everywhere, even on the corners, and they’re part of the legacy of this valley.” (p. 536)

Having lived in Clackamas County, and having regularly visited Washington and Clark Counties over the past 30 years, I’ve seen plenty of bucolic farmland and greenspace get bulldozed for strip malls, large apartment complexes, and McMansions (I’m lookin’ at you, Mount Scott!) A development project that could also honor the area’s history and make such an area less of an eyesore, while potentially providing opportunities to feed the hungry, would be a great idea indeed. Let’s hope people up here follow his lead.

Isaacson’s biography certainly had me thinking different about Steve Jobs. While I may not have been such ardent Apple fan had I know him while he was alive, the book painted a picture I could live with after his death. Sure, he was a jerk, but there was more to him than that. As a tortured genius, he was pursuing a greater good—and as hokey as it is to say this in summary, he changed the world.

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Happy 100th Birthday, Gene Kelly!

Today is Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday (born August 23, 1912), and I’ve been waiting for a year to talk about it!

One thing that you just don’t see today is a lot of movie musicals. Sure, Chicago is pretty fabulous and started a pretty minor movie musical revival. But I’d argue that nothing comes close to the MGM musicals of the 1920s-1940s in any way: performers, material, costume design, set design, direction, or historical/artistic significance. And in my opinion, one of the greatest triple (quadruple? quintuple?) threats to come from that era was Gene Kelly.

What’s so great about Gene Kelly?

Um, really? Have you never seen any of the guy’s work? There’s his dancing—from the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin’ in the Rain (that’s right, I didn’t go with the obvious choice there), to his groundbreaking work with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh. There’s his roller skating prowess, which included tap dancing in skates. Clearly he had a sense of humor, given his starring role as Serafin in the “marizpan dream” that is The Pirate. And combining roller skating and his sense of humor, the curious mashup musical Xanadu. (He was 68 at the time—skating, dancing, and singing beside costars decades younger than him. Nothin’ funny about that!)

Then there are the little details that make my heart (closed to many these days) go pitter-pat. How his dancer thighs look in 1940s-era trousers. An expressive face that can go from furrowed brow to intimate smile in two seconds flat. Stories from his costars, from slipping a 19 year old Debbie Reynolds the tongue in the last shot of Singin’ in the Rain, to Cyd Charisse’s claim of his strength: “when he lifts you, he lifts you!” Knowing that he choreographed and performed in what is probably my all-time favorite movie musical number: “Prehistoric Man” from On the Town. Sigh!

Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about the real life Gene Kelly, but I’ve heard several anecdotes that lead me to believe he was by and large a swell guy. The only reason I haven’t already read more about him is that I enjoy his film persona so much and don’t want to find out any ugly secrets, like that his tap shoes were made out of kittens or something. A girl sometimes needs to keep hope alive, especially when it comes to people who make your heart go pitter-pat.

When I do face my fears about reading Gene Kelly biographies, I suspect I’ll be aiming to read Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams by Alvin Yudkoff or Gene Kelly: A Biography by Clive Hirschhorn. There don’t seem to be a plethora of biographies on the market, or one that is more well-reputed than others though—so if you have any recommendations, suggest away!

On the web, there is a lot to like about Gene Kelly Fans, a site run by Kelli Marshall, a film professor. Marshall often posts articles about some little-known facets of Kelly’s career, including his hairpiece and how he got the scar on his cheek. In fact, Gene Kelly Fans has been celebrating all year with 100 Reasons to Celebrate Gene Kelly.

Celebrate with me today by leaving a comment and sharing why you love Gene Kelly! Christopher Walken is away from his computer today, but wanted to share this tribute:


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A Readin’ Machine (Or, Squeezed Out)

Earlier this year I set a goal: as a participant in the Goodreads reading challenge, I would aim to read 12 books this year. On April 15th, I met my goal.

Over the last couple of months reading has been my primary downtime activity. I’ve read books in less than 24 hours while waiting for feedback on the latest draft of my project report, waiting for the Portland rain to subside, or just because I was so excited to finally read the thing.

I unloaded much of my library before my temporary move to Canada, but plenty of books remain that need to be read. I’ve read newly acquired books, borrowed books, and library books. I’ve sold a few back to Powell’s since reading them, and plan to continue paring down my library once I’ve read some more titles. This isn’t even including the magazines I’ve piled up, nor the scholarly articles about bikes I found on JStor a couple weeks ago that I want to read just for fun.

A few of the books I’ve read have inspired some wistful nostalgia. Ever since getting back to Portland it seems my brain has soured a fair amount on my hometown. (I’ve a half-written blog post about this, but it’s a weighty topic, likely to be unpopular with most of the transplants I know, so I’ve been keeping it to myself—for now.) Reading three books in a row that reminded me of Portland Past then, was enough to push me into a full-on nostalgia bender.

The first book was Dark Horse’s recent release The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story. Sure, this is a story primarily set in Seattle, but as a Pacific Northwesterner growing up in the 80s, Green River Killer news (also Diane Downs news) was pretty pervasive. When I was a kid, my mother’s favorite books were true crime novels, and I sometimes I picked up her books and browsed the photo plates in the center. Let me tell you something: you cannot un-see some of the photos in those books.

Next was Beverly Cleary’s memoir A Girl from Yamhill. Portland’s own literary hometown heroine, Beverly Cleary was born in the Willamette Valley south of the city but spent much of her childhood in NE Portland, the setting of her Ramona books (and current site of the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden). I picked up the memoir at Goodwill for a couple of bucks. So much time had passed since its original release I wasn’t expecting to find it as utterly engrossing as I did. In the book, I discovered that Ramona is essentially based on Cleary herself as a child, and the book includes some very specific incidents that I remember were written into Ramona the Pest.

The book also illuminates moments when Cleary was encouraged by teachers in specific ways that set her on course for her adult career. In one masterfully written passage, she talks about her mother often encouraging her to “try.” When she takes this message to heart and enters an essay contest at a local grocery store. She wins—because no other children entered the contest:

“This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying.” (p. 132)

Given the amount of care I spend on blog posts (and nearly everything else I write), often I wonder why I continue. This is the reason: I am trying. And even if nobody sees my online opining, I’m continuing to develop my writing for future professional writing opportunities.

Where does the nostalgia come in? In the beginning of the book, Cleary writes about Oregon weather masterfully, as if she too has patiently sat through as many Oregon winters as I have, waiting for the spring:

“I stood at the window watching the weather, the ever-changing Oregon clouds that sometimes hung so low they hid the Coast Range, rain that slanted endlessly on the bleak brown fields, stubble stiff with frost, and, sometimes, a world made clean and white by snow.” (p. 30)

Later in the book she paints a vivid picture of Depression-era Portland, peppering the text with references from the past. In fact, at two points she draws attention to phrases Portlanders say, and that’s where the real nostalgia set in. She remarked on Portlanders observing “the mountain is out today.” Of course, “the mountain” is Mt. Hood, being “out” refers to being able to see it on a non-overcast day, and that is a phrase I’ve neither heard, nor used myself, for years. It set my brain on a path of thinking about the ways in which Portland has changed over the past decade as the city has become more notable nationally and internationally.

Perhaps the area of Portland that has changed most in the past decade is NE Portland, and the next book I read just happened to take place there in the 1980s. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is the current Everybody Reads book at Multnomah County Library, and I wouldn’t have read it had there not been a free copy at the circulation desk of my local branch when I visited. At certain points this book described a place and time in the past that I personally experienced. When the 1988 death of Mulugeta Seraw was referenced as a current event, this book ignited some synapses that hadn’t been fired in years. (If you’re not familiar, read A Hundred Little Hitlers by Elinor Langer.)

Since reading these three titles in a row (pure coincidence!) I’ve moved on to other fare. For a few days though, I was thinking about the Portland Past, both the one I have directly experienced and the one that belongs to my dead relatives’ memory. While I am glad I’ve gotten to know many of the transplants who have arrived in the last ten years, a small part of me feels like I’m being edged out by an invasive species. As the narrator in Said the Whale’s song “False Creek Change” laments about her hometown of Vancouver, BC, “there’s no room for me here anymore, anymore, there’s no room for me here anymore.”

If you’re interested in following my reading habits, this is my page on Goodreads.


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