book reviews

One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid: A Review

The majority of my friends had dipped a toe into the waters of bright careers and hefty pay stubs. Others were finishing medical school, law school, and postgraduate degrees. I was wearing slippers and mastering the art of stove-top popcorn.

Twenty-seven-year-old Iain Reid, graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, was barely eking out a living in Toronto, writing and teaching basketball to middle-aged women for forty bucks a week. So when the book review idea that he’d pitched to CBC Radio in Ottawa was accepted, Reid decided to head east. The problem: there was no time to look for a place to stay and the job was only part time.

Enter the parents, on an idyllic farm called Lilac Hill, about an hour away from work.

I’m telling myself I shouldn’t be too concerned about returning home. It’s not the end of the world. It’s temporary, only a pit stop. I’ll probably be gone again after a couple of weeks, a month or two at most.

One Bird's Choice by Iain Reid. Anansi Press, Sept. 2010. Cover design, Bill Douglas

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I’d been wanting to read One Bird’s Choice for a while, so I was pretty excited to purchase a copy at Word on the Street in TO at the Anansi table. First impression: it’s an attractive, trade-sized book, jacket designed by the talented Bill Douglas, with Tiffany-blue boards, like Annabel (also Bill Douglas, also Anansi). The memoir took Reid about three years to write; it was published this September.

I was rightly excited about it; turns out it was just what I expected and, better yet, what I felt like reading—funny but meaningful. In fact, while I sometimes felt a few things were a bit forced, overall Reid’s writing was very good (I look forward to seeing even better in his second book), and often had me busting a gut. The book is chock-full of odd and charming characters—a garrulous couple in line at the grocery store, an annoying yet hilarious drunk girl, a political party rep who calls Iain Lain and offers unsolicited advice, and a menagerie of cats, dogs, ducks, sheep, and above all Lucius, a self-possessed guinea fowl who thinks he’s family and whose personality and looks only a mother could love. And then of course there’s Iain, with an extra “i”, who gets along with his parents (bakes with Mom, goes to the gym with Dad), loves coffee, reading, writing, cooking, and house cleaning, and is a whistler extraordinaire.

Yet no one, as charming as Iain is, lights up the book as well as his parents. A quirky pair, the two play off each other like, well, an old married couple. They’re fantastic partners, cracking each other up, finishing each other’s thoughts. Together, they figure out how to set the VCR, express  concern for Iain’s well-being, squeeze into the small bathroom with him to teach him the right way to flush the toilet. They work on the farm in tandem, move around each other in the comfortable routine of a happy marriage. They eagerly share with him the joys of living in the country. Dad is an English professor, bit of a packrat, and a physical fitness enthusiast. Mom is a social butterfly who also looks after the animals—and likes to make crank calls.

If this all sounds too precious or incredible to be true, I understand. I thought so too. I actually asked Iain if his awesome parents were for real, if most of the stuff he recounts really happened the way it does in his book. I know what it’s like to be tempted to take writerly pride, to embellish things a little for the sake of how things sound. But he assured me that it was all true: we aren’t being jerked around here, this is really how it was. In fact, after he got the idea (it was when he realized how funny it was that he had to ask his parents if a friend could stay over), it was no secret he was writing about his stay at the farm; he often read his chapters to his parents (and the cats) as he wrote, and “even they agreed…that the dialogue is essentially verbatim…and any time I visit now there’s always more I could write about.” In a Torontoist interview, Reid said,

Their reaction was always the same. They would laugh. They’ve been supportive throughout. My parents understand it was a funny situation and they have the ability to laugh at themselves (and me, of course). If they ever felt uncomfortable about anything I wouldn’t have written it.

But one can also feel the boredom, stress, and sometimes frustration that is bound to occur when a person moves home with his parents after almost a decade away, and when his job becomes less and less of a job and more of an occasional outing, until it peters out altogether. Times like this led to reflection, and while this memoir is humorous and sweet it’s also insightful and as such reveals the gap between generations, the struggle of university grads to find good work, the experience of personal development and coming into one’s own (which I prefer to say rather than “growing up,” which is what several reviews have written. This isn’t a coming-of-age story to me; Reid was 27, after all. What he was experiencing, what he and we continue to experience all our lives, are the challenges of being grown up).

For the most part, however, life at Lilac Hill seems pretty comfortable, and after the initial adjustment of moving back into his old room, which hadn’t changed since he left, Reid begins to grow accustomed to, and even like, being less social, doing chores on the farm, spending time with his parents. He helps with cleaning out the sheep barn and the tool shed, feeding the animals, fixing a leaky pipe, searching for a lost duck on a blustery winter day. He experiences reluctance to go out with friends, and steps back while sharing Christmas with the whole family to reflect on where he fits in. He enjoys cooking and baking, savours a few beers on the porch alone, overlooking the farmscape, observing the changing seasons.

It was a smart decision on Reid’s part to organize the book in terms of the seasons: one gets a sense of progression of the year but also of relationships and self. Being on the farm and not working much gives Iain time to reflect on things, to observe, as a good writer does, the things around him, within him, that have changed, are changing. And while personal, Iain’s experience is also rather universal. What I hadn’t expected from the book was how empathetic I’d feel. And how nostalgic, too.

I think this, most of all, is what deepened my experience of reading Reid’s memoir. One Bird’s Choice wasn’t simply an entertaining read for me. One might ask why one should care, really, about some guy’s year living at home with his parents. But Reid does an excellent job in making us care about the characters in his book, from his parents to the animals to himself, letting us in on his reflections about life, love, family, and the pursuit of meaning. We can’t help but relate.

If I think back to why I wanted to read the book in the first place, probably something about the subtitle attracted me (A Year in the Life of an Overeducated, Underemployed Twenty-Something Who Moves Back Home): I’ll bet there are more of us who’ve done that very thing than care to admit.

I did it, sort of: after my parents moved to Malta in ’96, during my second year of university, I ended up living the summers during school at my then boyfriend’s parents’ house. I worked on a farm those days, hoeing endless tomato fields, mostly (a rather cheesy short story called “Butterfly” came out of that, and a poem called “Break”, back then). The time living with parents other than my own actually increased with the amount of education I got. After five years of university, I was living with my soon-to-be-in-laws for what turned out to be almost two years before I finally got a job at Chapters and my own place in Belleville. I spent a lot of time hiding in my room those days, trying not to feel guilty about freeloading, and mostly succeeding.

Having been brought up in a very strict Catholic home, I can hardly imagine what that time might have been like had my own parents not left the country and had I moved back in with them: when I was home before leaving for school I’d always wanted to be somewhere else. Probably I would have holed myself up in my basement bedroom, then, and written and listened to music and read, like old times, and taken long walks on our ten acres, followed by Munchkin, our orange tabby who acted more like a dog sometimes. I would have sat under the Lone Tree on top of the hill, chewed a blade of grass, and contemplated what I was going to do with my life now that I had what most people deemed a useless BA degree (English). I would have consumed copious cups of tea, pondered the moon while sitting out on the back deck, admired the view from the front porch, of the three-hilled half-acre lawn I’d still be mowing by hand, the steep long driveway I’d still be shovelling, the stone house and pond across the way— and watched Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost while eating soup and sandwiches.

Come to think of it, it mightn’t have been all that bad. Definitely doable.

Which is what Iain came to realize the longer he stayed at his parents’ farm; being back home wasn’t terrible. It was possible to survive it. There’s something about being home again, after being away for several years, that makes you dangerously comfortable, you must admit. Fridge is stocked, meals are hearty and nutritious as opposed to microwaved KD (or stove-top popcorn, say). TV, baths, and good coffee are luxuries you couldn’t otherwise afford on your budget now raped by student loan payments. Childhood pets, now seniors, rejoin you on the couch or bed, nights suddenly void of partying at O’Toole’s are times to relax. Sure, there are chores to be done. Sure, your parents still like to parent. But all in all, life’s pretty darn good when you don’t have to worry about rent or cockroaches.

But had I had the chance to live with my parents again, as an adult, I think I would have seen things in a different light. I would have actually been enriched by it; whenever my parents visit, I certainly become hyper aware of who I am, how I seem, and, more than anything, what I mean to them. That they consider me a friend now as well as a daughter actually blows my mind.

Iain Reid with Titan at Lilac Hill. Handout photo.

Iain also reflected on the changed relationship between himself and his parents, as well as parents’ marriage. In an email to me he wrote:

After the year at home I almost felt like I got a chance to see what my parents would have been like when they were first married…when I was young everyone was just so busy with life, and you’re right, things change when you get older. Different things become important, and you starting feeling lucky for different reasons…

It’s these realizations you take away with you after you finish One Bird’s Choice: That our parents are people, too. That what we think we know of ourselves, of others, can change when we experience something familiar in a new (more mature) light.

To tell you the truth, aside from sensing a kinship with Iain (we seem to value many of the same things), ultimately, I felt homesick after I finished his book. I was thinking of my mom and dad as more than just parents. Things I’d taken for granted, things I hadn’t noticed but seemed to recall now, came back to me. Had it not been 1:30 am when I turned over the last page of Iain’s book, I would have Skyped my parents just to hear and watch them.

On the back of One Bird’s Choice is this: “A hilarious and heartwarming memoir that bridges the divide between the boomer and boomerang generations.”

I usually scoff at blurbs on books. But this one actually happens to be true.

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