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The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit by JJ Lee
On May 10, JJ Lee visited the Fernie library to talk about his highly acclaimed memoir The Measure of a Man. The book, JJ Lee’s first, has been nominated for a slew of nonfiction prizes, including the BC Book Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, and the Governor General’s Prize. Reviewers across the country have praised Lee’s fine prose, throwing out phrases like exquisite, beautifully and cleverly executed, and deftly crafted. The Measure of a Man deserves all this praise and more.
The Measure of a Man is unusual in its melding of two incongruous topics: a sweeping history of men’s fashion and a personal memoir of domestic abuse and alcoholism. Lee brings the two threads together through one item of clothing: his dead father’s suit. He writes:
“THERE is a suit in the back of my closet. Over the years dust has gathered on its shoulders. I own other, better suits but I hold on to this one because, for me at least, it is special.
The suit attracts and repels me. It came to me under the saddest of circumstances, and I've dared to wear it in public only once. Most of the time I try to ignore it, and so years can go by without my touching it. But even so, I always know it's there.
Once in a while, I feel compelled to run my hand along its lapels and think of the man who wore it. I see the line of his jaw, his broad torso and its incipient roundness. I see the pores on his fleshy, bulbous nose. I remember the feel of his thick skin and the dryness of his hands, and I wonder if I look like him.
This is my father's suit.”
In one of the book’s main narratives, JJ Lee learns to sew and alters the suit to make it his own, with all the metaphorical weight that implies. The Measure of a Man is, then, a book about family tradition, a book about the legacy handed down by our fathers, a book about growing up and learning to forgive.
The two main threads in The Measure of a Man complement each other perfectly. The family memoir material brings a great intimacy and emotional intensity to the reading, which is then offset by more humorous and light fashion sections. Anyone who was lucky enough to be at the Fernie Heritage Library on May 10 knows JJ Lee to be a very funny and entertaining man. This humour works its way into his book in his over-the-top passion for fashion (who knew there could be so many ways to dress wrong?! I can hear JJ scolding me for calling his fashion sections “light” – what could be more serious than the way we represent ourselves to the world? You don’t want to know the things you tell the world about yourself with a simple misplacement of your boutonniere, never even mind the size of your lapels). More surprisingly, though, Lee’s humour and buoyancy of character also underlie the book’s darkest sections; without it, how could he have survived this childhood to excel in the way he has?
It’s unfortunate if you missed the opportunity to meet JJ Lee here in Fernie. Don’t miss out on his beautiful book.