Book Review: Ian Brown’s Sixty

Sixty+Ian+BrownPerhaps it’s because we are contemporaries who went to the same college and are slightly acquainted, but my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ian Brown’s recently published memoir/diary: Sixty (Random House Canada, 2015).

While attempting to read some other book, I was constantly interrupted by the laughter Brown induced in my wife. I was soon hooked, in part because some of the names Brown drops were familiar to us.

Sixty started as a Facebook post and a declaration that Brown — a feature writer for the Globe & Mail — would be conducting a diary of his 61st year. It reads more like a personal memoir than a mere day-by-day chronicle of events, although Brown deftly does both.

Not surprising, since Brown is a skilled proponent of what is variously known as creative non-fiction or literary journalism. He has over the years been a literary journalism instructor at the Banff Centre, where we once enjoyed a pleasant dinner with him.

The angst of Boomer envy

One of the appealing aspects of Sixty is Brown’s utter frankness. He probably speaks for most of the North American baby boom generation in his anecdotes about envy for anyone more successful than ourselves. For example, early on Brown describes a miserable literary event he attended: miserable because it featured a colleague who was releasing a novel, something Brown to my knowledge has yet to publish; although in one revealing anecdote he conveys one of his kids’ opinion that Brown could write a novel at least as good as Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. He probably could.

Ironically, the envy shoe was on the other foot because I recall going to a literary event at which Brown was the featured star. Everyone at our particular table was furnished with a copy of Brown’s The Boy in the Moon, as well as a chance to chat with the author. The latter book is another good example of literary journalism: it recounts Brown’s raising of his disabled son, Walker. The book was favourably reviewed in the New York Times.

The subtitle of Sixty is the Churchillian-sounding “The Beginning of the End or The End of the Beginning?” That pretty well sums up the stage of life that many baby boomers have now reached, and which the “Victory Lap” and “Longevity & Aging” sections of this website address.

Retirement savings angst

Or as Jethro Tull once sang, we’re collectively too old to rock ‘ n roll but too young to die. There may be a long time to fill after we leave our respective corporate wombs and before we succumb to the traditional “full-stop” retirement our parents enjoyed, usually courtesy of classic Defined Benefit pension plans.

In a few spots, Brown does address the topic of saving for retirement and his own parlous personal finances: confessing that because so much of his career was freelance he was only in and out of a few pension plans, with a minimal amount that he can count on from corporate pensions.

We are left to conclude that he will continue to write and work well into this decade and beyond, which of course will be the fate of many of this generation. This is turf also covered by the book I’ve just finished with Mike Drak, slated for release late in the summer: Victory Lap Retirement (and which mentions Sixty in passing).

One of the many charms of Sixty is Brown’s self-deprecation, often coupled with brave self revelations. As to his motivation, he says in the preface:

“ … original, truthful, sad but amused, authentic writing on the subject of getting older, is in quite short supply: it’s a subject we don’t care to think about when we’re younger and can’t bear to face when we’re older.”

Whether Brown’s diary/memoir unleashes a host of imitators remains to be seen but if this is a new genre of literary journalism, it’s a good one to kick off the movement. I can already see Sixty Five and Seventy on the literary horizon. Boomers, fire up your word processors!




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