3 out of 4 stars
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It's frequently repeated that "it's not the years in your life that matter; it's the life in your years." At the age of 89, Doris Markland has accumulated a wealth of both. Life - the celebration and appreciation of it - permeates every page of her poignant, reflective collection titled Playing Life By Ear: Notes From Eighty-Nine Years of Living, Learning, Laughing, Loving, and Believing. A lifelong writer, Doris has culled 9 decades of whimsy, wisdom, and witticism; gathering the choicest pieces and expertly weaving them into this patchwork "autobiography," although that term doesn't do this book justice.
As is hinted at in the subtitle, Playing Life By Ear is divided by theme into five sections: living, learning, laughing, loving, and believing. Under each heading, the reader will discover a surprising mix of personal anecdotes, both free-verse and rhyming poetry, and occasional life-inspired fiction. Markland's joy and humor, often deliciously snarky, are the two gilded threads that tie all these pieces together. The result is a very relevant memoir that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Markland draws heavily from her roles as a child of the depression, daughter, farmwife, mother, sister, friend, and senior citizen. Nearly every entry on the table of contents gave me a fresh appreciation for everyday events, such as coffee breaks ("The Round Table"), assembling a puzzle ("And That Leaves Blue"), surfing the web ("Connecting"), or even ironing ("The Palmer Method"). Her unique voice is so effective - and affecting - that even her prose absorbed me in a way that I've only previously enjoyed with fiction or poetry; narrowing my focus to the point where I forgot my surroundings and was carried off by the flow of the text. Having written for Hallmark and composed taglines for household goods, an experience she elaborates on in the story "Twenty-Five Words or Less," Doris is adept at packing meaning and poetic imagery into each line. An excellent illustration of this is found in a piece called "Rain on My Parade, Please":
Markland's sense of humor shines in selections such as her limerick titled "He-Mail (or E-Male)":"Straight down at first, the drops become silvery streams, slanting now in sheets that strike and powerwash the driveway, then turn tame and curl in rivers down the street, taking flaky autumn leaves and any last hints of summer."
Doris doesn't pull her punches, openly reflecting on subjects we often prefer to avoid, such as aging and death. Sometimes her tone is pensive, as seen in "Darling, I Am Growing" and "Revolving Door." Frequently, she is hilarious, an expert in the use of irony, and I delighted in poems like "The Granny Nest," "Dermatheology," stories like "When Grandma Said the F-F-Forbidden Word," and her many entries that have graced the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. As a parent, I was highly moved by the poems "Come to Mother" and "DeKarmalizing." As a Christian, I was encouraged by pieces like "Meditation" and "Lifting the Old Rugged Cross." "Precipice" and "Lovers of 1943" left me breathless. I even found myself simultaneously laughing and crying when I read "No Albatross in Heaven.""It's clear you don't
Know me from Adam.
Your mail for a sir
Reached a madam.
The products you're selling
Are rather repelling,
And I couldn't use
If I had 'em."
Doris Markland's work resurrected in me a vital childhood belief that we seem to suppress as adults: Commonplace does not equal unfulfilling, predictable does not equal uninspiring, and we do not have to dig to find the beauty in everyday life. I heartily wish I could give this memoir 4 stars, but there were enough minor, punctuation-related errors to cost it a perfect score. Since I'm only permitted whole-star ratings, I award it 3 out of 4 stars. I recommend Markland's book to every reader, as there's something here for everyone, and I urge you: Do not underestimate this semi-retired, puzzle-loving, octagenarian grandmother. She is living proof that Playing Life by Ear does not preclude you from mastering your art.
Playing Life by Ear
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