Book review: Falling Backwards: A Memoir.

Jann Arden – Falling Backwards:  A Memoir (2011, Alfred A. Knopf Canada)

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I like Canadian musician Jann Arden’s wit and enthusiasm for song, art, and social activism.  In Falling Backwards, she reflects on her childhood and her motivation to record her first album, Living Under June, in 1994.

Arden’s upbringing in the 1970s on an acreage in Springbank, Alberta, a rural area just outside of Calgary, wasn’t idyllic – her parents were always short of cash and her father was an alcoholic.  Her brother Duray was constantly involved with drugs and in trouble with the law, which obviously caused her parents emotional and financial stress.  But Arden claims that despite all the problems, she had fun – hanging out with the wild neighbour kids, seeking her creative talents at school, running around and enjoying the great outdoors.  A cast of quirky characters is paraded throughout:  teachers both weird and great, crazy classmates, devoted friends.  She talks candidly about everything that mattered:  her mother’s home-cooking, her dad’s affection for cursing, early jobs, her health, learning to play the guitar and writing lyrics in the basement of the family home, playing games and jokes, religion, art, sex, work ethic…all her thoughts are here, everything that shaped her.

For the most part, this is a fan’s book – and an interesting look back at the 70’s and 80’s for anyone who grew up during that time.  Arden’s remembrance of her struggles on her own in Vancouver and her experience on a fishing boat off the west coast were most poignant for me – this part of the book has more depth than the rest, and the reader can really feel and sympathize with just how lost and alone she felt, for the first time on her own without the anchor of family.  Occasionally, at other points in the book, her humour seems slightly forced, and it’s hard to tell if she’s trying to milk things for laughs or if she is up on the defensive (during these times she occasionally admits that she’s exaggerating or even making something up).   But then again, memories are not always easy or beautiful things to deal with – a little levity is sometimes necessary.  In Falling Backwards, Arden gives the reader a unique, intimate chance to hang out with her and get to know the woman behind the songs.

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