The two memoirs I read immediately before Kevin Chong's kinda, sorta memoir, My Year of the Racehorse, were Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and J.J. Lee's The Measure of a Man.
A portrait of a harrowing 'Christian' childhood and an aftermath that included depression, a suicide attempt, and intermittent bouts of madness, the exposé aspect of Winterson's memoir is not there—I assume—for the titillation of a voyeuristic public (that would be an equally cynical and self-loathing performance on her part); instead, in sharing formerly private experiences and a decades-in-the-making story of recovery, the broad purpose of Why Be Happy is educative.
A significant portion of Lee's memoir recalls growing up with an alcoholic father whose failed dream of becoming a Somebody in the culinary world of Montreal resulted in an escalating series of familial disasters. Woven within the book, though, are snippets from the history of male fashion—the suit jacket in particular—and scenes from Lee's adult attempt to become a tailor (a skill he hoped to attain partially because he yearned to professionally re-size a too-large suit that belonged to his deceased father so that it fits). Like Winterson, Lee's memoir exposes personal pain. Yet in telling about the process of coming to terms with his past and learning about manhood from what appears to be a dubious role model, the experiences the memoir describes allow a reader to apply Lee's insights, successes, and limitations to their own set of circumstances.
These approaches to memoir sprang to mind while taking notes on Chong's book because now and then I wondered, "Why are you telling me this?"
Chong's book is subtitled "Falling in Love With the Sport of Kings," and the best part of it for me illuminates a sport and culture about which I knew practically nothing. And as a tour guide through the Vancouver version that mysterious world, Chong comes across as witty, urbane, and knowledgeable; in other words, he's the exact kind of person you want leading the way.
As though rebelling against the potential and apparently fatal dryness of that cultural historian/museum docent role, Chong—who mentions a desire to be cool a few times in the book—throws in an increasing number of personal anecdotes, about friendships he's neglected, romantic relationships that have gone off the rails, and so on.
While the embryonic voyeur in me has to admit to a certain degree of, um, gossipy satisfaction with the revelations of dark secrets from Winterson and Lee, Chong's detours into episodes from his daily life irritated me in the way that a vapid celebrity tweet does. Though Katy Perry might be entirely earnest when she publishes "There's nothing like a best friend when you're ill" through Twitter, anyone can see the sentence is disposable; it's an essentially meaningless communication that ultimately serves the needs of the celebrity to be a trending brand name.
Transposed to a book about horse racing, minutia from the author's life seems out of place. It's a matter of taste, I suppose. My ideal museum docent is a charismatic educator and rightly assumes that he doesn't need to tell me how much beer he drank the night before. The art on the walls is enough to keep the tour group attentive.
[The review of Chong's book (as well as Winterson's) appeared in the Vancouver Sun. Lee's was published in the National Post.]