I stumbled across Jackie Kai Ellis and her memoir The Measure of My Powers online one day while I was researching memoirs and memoir writing. As both Jackie Kai Ellis’s memoir and her present life take place to some extent in Paris and France, both weaknesses of mine, I was certainly intrigued.
Not long after, I was scouring the shelves of my local library for different memoirs to use as examples for my writing course when The Measure of My Powers caught my eye. “Okay,” I thought. “I guess you are meant to be!” This book was asking to be read and I was happy to oblige – and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even reading an excerpt to my writing class.
The Measure of My Powers drew me to itself again when I shared with my writing café group that I was reviewing memoirs for my blog. Straight away, Judy, who was in my writing class said, “I can’t wait to read your review on the memoir that uses vignettes so well.”
And so here we are, The Measure of My Powers and I are back in each other’s company!
What hooked me in the first chapter?
Jackie Kai Ellis starts her book by jumping in the deep end. She writes plainly and poignantly about depression, dread and death. Off the bat her opening two lines are disturbingly strong. Take a read – it’s worth it to see how powerfully she sets the scene for her chapter and for one of the defining themes of her book – depression.
Having gone through a few deep times of depression myself, I was interested to know what depression looked like in Jackie Kai Ellis’s life. And I was about to find out.
Jackie Kai Ellis is a vivid writer who knows how to draw her reader right into her story. She opens by describing her dread at waking each morning. I didn’t realize how much I was already drawn into her story and lying with her between the sheets until she described her husband sprawled to her left and “the sheets, humid from (his) sweat” covering her “like thick, cold skin.”
I was repelled and I felt myself pull back to create space between her husband and myself. That, right there, is outstanding writing. I was only on page two and already I knew that I was in the presence of good writing. This was a book I would read to the end.
What surprised me about the book?
More than surprising me, the layout of the book fascinated me.
Each chapter consists of a distinctive theme which is reflected in the title of the chapter and a corresponding year or period. This is juxtaposed with both an appealing visual and a quote. The content is written as either sketch stories, vignettes or a blend of both. As Jackie Kai Ellis is a pastry chef and one of her central themes is food, the chapter is often rounded off with a recipe or three.
The theme of each chapter dictates which stories Jackie Kai Ellis shares from her life. Hence her snippets aren’t in a chronological order and so you may glean something about the outcome of her life, for example her divorce, without yet knowing clearly why it ended.
This style and format of writing may look and feel random and haphazard at first, but I can assure you that it isn’t.
The content of the book is as lovely as its layout.
What didn’t I like about the book?
This is, of course, personal preference but there were two incidences when I thought, “yew… too much information, I didn’t need to know that.” I felt that both could’ve been left out as, at first glance, neither of them seemed to add to the story.
Or did they? And is that I was simply uncomfortable with them?
One of the instances highlighted debilitating loneliness in a dead marriage and again, just like the opening chapter, I felt I was lying in Jackie’s bed with her in Lyons, France witnessing a private personal moment. One I would rather have excused myself from.
In the other instance I was present with her in Vancouver sharing her stress and living her consuming obsession to succeed at launching her French-style bakery. Perhaps being deathly tired and overlooking one’s personal ablutions is what it takes to get a bakery off the ground. I wouldn’t really know, but it certainly was more information than I cared to know.
But this I do know. My response to both instances is a testament to Jackie Kai Ellis’s ability to write visually taking her reader fully into her story.
Intrigued? I hope so.
Which key ingredient of memoir writing stood out the most for me?
Actually, there were two.
First off, Jackie Kai Ellis knows how to use vignettes well. In my review on Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast I talk about his use of sketch story. If sketches are short pieces of writing, vignettes are shorter still and like sketches, vignettes have no plot. If a sketch is a slice of life, a vignette is a sample, a taster. And being a taster, vignettes draw on the senses.
I’ll write more about vignettes in another blog but, for now, if you want to sample some good vignettes read Jackie Kai Ellis’s chapter on eggs. It’s all pure vignette. Delicious.
The second memoir ingredient Jackie Kai Ellis uses well is intrigue to draw the reader along on a journey. From the outset we understand that Jackie Kai Ellis is unhappy, frustrated and cobbled in her marriage. And, as early as chapter four, we know that the marriage comes to an end. What else then is there to know for the other 20 chapters of the book considering that we already know the end to that story?
Using snippets throughout her book, Jackie Kai Ellis fills in details about her marriage, about her Chinese family, about her relationship with food, and about her longing for Paris. She also explores the journey of coming to love herself and of how all these aspects of her life are woven together.
As a good writer will, in telling her story, Jackie Kai Ellis extends compassion to herself, to those who are part of her story, and also to her reader. You, the reader, are very much part of Jackie Kai Ellis’s journey of uncovering the complex layers of her life. This is quite apparent as one of the chapters is a letter written specifically to you, the reader, and to everyone who reads this tender memoir.
What did I learn? How has it added to my life?
Jackie Kai Ellis’s life-giving love of food, her desire to live deeply in the moment, and her quest to pursue her dreams came at a price. It came at the cost of her marriage. It is a cost she would have preferred not to pay. She dearly wanted to share the life she felt drawn to with her husband G. A life that drew her out of depression and towards, what I call, a full sensatual life. But it wasn’t a life that he wanted to share in. And so she chose, painfully.
Reading this memoir reminded me that there are ways out of depression to life. As I too have experienced, when it is our circumstances and our choices, even the best-intentioned ones, that have driven us deep into the abyss of depression, it is often our choices that can help move us out of that place too.
As Jackie Kai Ellis illustrates it could be as simple as choosing to eat a chocolate cookie today, or as profound as choosing not to entertain thoughts of suicide for a year, or as straightforward as realizing you need help and choosing to go for counselling.
By now I’m sure you can tell that I strongly recommend this memoir!
Read The Measure of My Powers to expose yourself to good writing and to be drawn into a story that will take you on a journey, in a very real, personal, and compassionate way.
Have you read some of my other memoir reviews:
You can find my three most recent blog posts right here.
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