Tuesday, April 18, 2006


10-pages-in book review: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

This is the 15th edition of the 10-pages-in book review, and one of my favourite books to date. I'm reading Will Ferguson's Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, and you can officially add Will Ferguson to my list of literary crushes, along with Douglas Coupland and Nick Hornby.

Will Ferguson has a lot in common with Douglas Coupland, now that I think about it: both are Canadian and of more or less the same generation as me, both have a satiric touch that makes me laugh out loud, both spent time teaching ESL in Japan (Ferguson brought home a Japanese wife on his return to Canada), both are ferverent nationalists in a Gen-X slacker kind of way, and both have a keen eye for our national idiosyncracies and write about them with such effortless panache that I stop mid-paragraph to admire the prose sometimes.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is part travel memoir, part history book, part love letter to Canada. In each chapter the author visits a different city (or town, or Fort) in a different province, and in visiting describes both the modern-day place and the history that sculpted it. In effortless strokes, he links his own personal history to the history of the nation, and his descriptions of the quirky characters that make up the threads of our national tapestry make me that much more fiercely proud to be Canadian.

One of many unforgettable vignettes describes a turn of the century shipbuilder who walked - walked! - 1000 kms from Minnesota to Saskatechewan, back to Minnesota and finally back again, and then built a giant ship on the prairies, determined to sail home to Finland. From Saskatchewan. Who would've guessed that Saskatchewan isn't landlocked?

From the fur trade to prairie prohibition whiskey tunnels to polar bears to the übercolonial Victoria, this is a gorgeous series of sketches of Canada, and Canadians. But it's the author's personal insight and observant eye that make this book so entirely charming. Pardon the long passage, but I loved this bit of description of Will and his son taking a 'rest stop' on the side of highway one traveling night:
Things I learned while standing on the side of the highway in the middle of the night, trying not to get peed on as I hold a three-year-old so that he doesn't trip or fall down a ditch as he looks up and the night sky and asks questions about the moon while he pees (invariably) into the wind:

(1) Although warm initially, pee very soon becomes cold.

(2) If you get pee on your shoelaces, there is nothing you can do. Your shoelaces will never dry, and you will never get the odour out. Best to throw them away and start anew.

(3) There are a lot of stars. Man, there are a lot of stars. Out here, beyond the refractive fog of city streetlights, the sky is awash with them. The Milky Way - it's like a river of rhinestones; it spills across from horizon to horizon. Thousands and thousands of stars.

(4) Cars on the highway travel really fast. You can hear the rishing pitch of Doppler-effect waves pushed in front of them, then blast past, rattling the air. When we are inside our cars, hurtling across a landscape, we don't realize how quickly we are moving - until we stop.

Walking back to the car, shoelaces damp, son on shoulders, I say in my wise and fatherly way, "You know son, long ago, sailors and sea captains could guide their ships by using the stars."

"Really?" he says. "How?"

I stop. Think about this for a moment. "I have no idea."

The book is peppered with self-deprecating and gentle (oh so Canadian) humour like this. I don't often have a lot of patience for non-fiction books, but this one is so entirely endearing, not to mention educational (did you know the name Moose Jaw has probably nothing to do with the jaw or any part of a moose, and instead originates from the Cree word moosgaw, meaning "warm breeze"? Or that polar bears are so dangerous that the town of Churchill has demarcated "do not enter" zones in polar bear season?) that I could go on quoting from it for quite some time.

I've read some of Will Ferguson's other books, and didn't find them quite so appealing. I wasn't overly fond of How to be a Canadian - while clever, I found it to be a little bit contrived. I did enjoy the biting satire of Happiness(TM) , but it got just a little bit long toward the end. This one, though, is by far my favourite. I can't believe the sheer volume of things I learned about this country I love so much - and in his eastward progression that starts in BC, I've only made it as far as Ontario and still have all of eastern Canada yet to go. I'm already wondering how I can plan a trip to visit some of these places - Saskatchewan and Manitoba have never been more fascinating.

Canadian history has never been so engaging, so charming, so funny and so interesting. They should teach this version in school!

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