Local Author Book Review: Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

Psst…we have a signed copy of JJ Lee’s book to give away! Instructions at the end of the post.   The giveaway is over – regular reader Pamela Findling won!

Local resident JJ Lee is exactly what I love about New Westminster. He is affable and welcoming, debonair and interesting, and importantly, he takes part in our community. JJ Lee is a CBC and Vancouver Sun mens’ fashion columnist who recently released his first book, Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. Measure of a Man is a memoir that blends social history of the suit with the often tumultuous relationship with his dad. It is based on a full length radio documentary for CBC’s Ideas.

The book is so lovely to read; at times incredibly witty and wry, and at other times endearing and touching. It also explores themes I wasn’t expecting to find in a book about a suit or a book about mens’ clothing.  I found myself thinking about children who live through less than ideal experiences as they grow up, and I pondered the resiliency of those kids. I asked Lee what he thought. “…when you think about it, how is it possible that a book about menswear, suits, and fashion history, can be so entangled with thoughts and ideas around fatherhood and parenting, but indeed it is. I’d hate to think all children survive their parents’ mistakes. I think literary childhoods tend to be tales of resiliency because that’s the stuff of drama and storytelling. Bad stuff happens in childhood. Those who survive get to write about it.”

Also surprisingly, I found myself learning an awful lot about suit wearing, style, and fashion history while reading the book. Lee seamlessly weaves together anecdotes and discussion about his family and his relationship with his father with incredibly interesting pieces of fashion history and commentary. I should note my personal style isn’t really fashionable, per se; I call it “West Coast Mom Army”  – fleece, merino wool, denim, gumboots, and rain jackets. I buy clothes on technical merit and durability, and then, secondarily, fit and colour. That said, I was inexplicably drawn to the beautiful conversational sections in Measure of a Man about fashion: the sections detailing the impactive and trend setting visionary fashion of Edward VIII, for example, or the incredibly thorough section about a pocket square/ handkerchief, their purpose and folding techniques for them. I also counted no less than five references sprinkled throughout the book to the Always-Sometimes-Never rule, which designates which buttons are opened and which buttons are closed on a suit jacket.

More than once I found myself chuckling with delight, moved from the sheer passion Lee exudes when discussing fashion. Take this discussion about pocket squares (itself only a fraction of a larger and longer section detailing the pocket square), in which Lee writes:

“Why can’t a pocket square be like a face, changing with moods, whimsy, and circumstances? A man with a permanently fixed half-smile would eventually be thought of as insincere, if not mad. So it goes with the pocket square. It requires only the flourish of the hand to give it new life, a new expression. A quick plunge into the pocket, and a quick tug partly out, followed by a glance in the mirror, and the final manipulation is magical. A neatly folded square for the morning business meeting can be transformed into a scrunched rosette by happy hour. Ta-da.”

The history lessons in Measure of a Man got me thinking about my own son and how children’s clothing is generally cheaply and foreign made, and how that might change over his lifetime. The most important thing, says Lee, is that we pass the knowledge on, regardless of how we are related. “Someone needs to teach men one can dress sharply without being a snob or hung up,” says Lee. “Understanding fit and proportion is everything. And it cost nothing. Guys just have to help each other how to do it right.”

Measure of a Man also examines a portion of the formative years of the city of Vancouver with an amazing insight into the legendary Modernize Tailors, an institution on Vancouver’s Eastside. “The tide of history has swung back in favour of dressing up,” JJ says. “Fine tailors will always be needed. They may come from countries all around the world and men who like attentive, well-made clothes will need them all. I do think tailoring needs formal apprenticeship programs in Canada. David Wilkes, who is a great young tailor mentioned in the book, cobbled together enough to educate and train himself. It can be done. But it is rare.”

Interestingly, New Westminster’s BC Penitentiary had a tailoring certificate program for inmates before its’ closure in 1980. From the New Westminster Public Library’s amazing historical photograph collection:

View of the interior of the Tailor Shop at the British Columbia Penitentiary. Photograph is taken looking north on the east side. This type of shop was located in the Industrial Building, shops C-1 to C-4 and Vocational School F-1. This was just one of the industrial trade shops. Inmates could take training leading to apprenticeship certification in tailoring, barbering, auto body, auto mechanics, painting, carpentry, sheet metal, and welding. Equipment from these shops was moved to the new Kent Institution in 1979, in order that inmates transferred from the Pen to Kent could continue their training. The pen opened in 1878, and closed on May 10, 1980. From the New Westminster Public Library Archives. Source: Jim Clawson Accession Number 1582

As a fledgling book author, JJ Lee says he struggled with keeping on task. “Writing is awful for me because I listen to sports talk radio: ‘BMac, Taylor, and Tomlinson, Goldie, whatup! JJ in New West. Here’s my take,‘” he jokes. “I’m very distracted. Also, there’s the internet, so don’t expect War and Peace from me.  I would have never written a book without my editor, Anita Chong. She approached me and encouraged me to explore my relationship with my father, more so than I did in my radio documentary. So, I don’t have the same experience as many aspiring writers.”

On his blog in June, Lee acknowledges his path isn’t really a traditional writer’s path. He posts, “I know it wasn’t fair. I did not slave on a manuscript for years. I did not wake up at 4 in the morning to peck out some pages before the kids woke up. I did not go through the pain of rejection letters. I was lucky.”

“Mind you, I went through an entirely different kind of pain: writing a book proposal – really, what the hell is that?” he jokes.

Lee says New Westminster is very supportive.  “This community can be very kind to writers. It is affordable and safe and that mean’s it can give a writer and his or her family time to take a stab at the risky business of writing for a year or two like we did.”

He cites Queens Park and Moody Park as two of his favourite places and lists the schools as part of what makes New Westminster so great. And like so many of us, JJ Lee lists New Westminster’s inexplicable yin-yang as a draw. “The diversity is rich and it’s simultaneously urban and a small town. Perfect.”

JJ Lee is also in good company here in New Westminster. “I am aware of great writers being in this city. They are ones that I admire immensely. Annabel Lyon wrote a beautiful book. Steven Galloway is a star and it freaks me out to think your barber talks to him every few weeks. But I’ve never met any of them. I just breath in the vapours and hope I pick up some of their mojo… I know my friends like the fine memoirists, Steve Burgess, who wrote Who Killed Mom, and Robyn Michele Levy, who wrote Most of Me – but they’re comrades from CBC.”

Measure of a Man is a great read, and I’d have to rank it as one of the better books I have read this year. It felt like the beauty and creativity of fiction but with the truthfulness of non-fiction. I find it very refreshing to read a book that makes me re-evaluate something I strongly believe and formerly thought was unshakeable. I have spent the last few days since finishing the book thinking about what I’d read and talking about it to others. I found myself thinking of my own father and his style of dress. He was a furnace man, a very physical and hard worker, and  I remember navy blue polo shirts, cheap denim, wool socks and pull on work boots. There’s a scent, too – diesel and smoke and Sunlight powdered laundry detergent, which he used to scrub his hands with after work.

Measure of a Man also left me wanting to learn more about the social history of clothing, an area I’ve never really had on my radar. I asked JJ Lee if he had plans for another book. “I have hopes to write another book but it really depends on readers. Books sales matter. Readers making choices matter. They’ll decide if I get the chance to do it again.”


JJ Lee is active on Twitter and maintains a great blog. He’s available for book clubs too!  Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit is available locally at Black Bond Books (their first order sold out, more coming next week, they tell me) and New Westminster Public Library (hardcopy only so far, e-book coming) or order hardcopy or e-book online.

Or… better yet…. get a free signed copy from us! Tenth to the Fraser is very honoured to have one signed copy to give away. To enter, leave a comment and tell us what piece of clothing you most clearly remember your dad wearing (or any special guy in your life). We’ll draw one random winner next Thursday, October 13th at 2PM. 





New summer camps come to New West

Trying to figure out how to keep your kids busy and out of your hair this summer? Here’s an option—Urban Academy is offering all sorts of summer camps this year, right here in New Westminster.

The arts-infused school is excited about this new offering and sees it as a natural extension of their arts-infused curriculum.

this is a picture of a woman dressed in a costume that is somewhat fairy and somewhat Mother Nature. She is gesturing with er hand and making a funny face. She is outdoors in a park.

“We’re looking forward to opening our doors for camps this summer,” says Michael Bouchard, Urban Academy’s head of school, in a press release. “We’ve got something for everyone, and it’s a great way for kids to continue to learn and have fun when school’s out.”

The full-and half-day camps are all a week long and will run throughout the summer at Urban Academy, in the former Robson Manor. Topics include French, drawing, painting, science, clay, and music theatre and options are available for kids from five to sixteen years-old.

All of the camps will be led by teachers from Urban Academy, except for the Clay Creations one which will be taught by an established artist.

Camp details are as follows:

  • Creative Puppetry, ages five to seven, July 11 to 15, 9 a.m. to noon, $126
  • Become a Puppeteer, ages six to 11 years, July 11 to 15, 12:45 to 3:45 p.m., $126
  • Music Theatre, ages five to 12 years, August 22 to 26, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., $226
  • Clay Creations, ages six to 11 years, July 25 to 29, 9 a.m. to noon ,$130
  • Fun in French, ages six to 12 years, July 25 to 29, 12:45 to 3:45 p.m., $126
  • Introduction to Photography and Pinhole Cameras, ages 11 to 16 years, July 4 to 8 or July 11 to 15, 9:00 a.m. to 4 p.m., $315 (materials included are valued at $60 per student)
  • Drawing and Painting 101, ages 11 to 16, July 18 to 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., $290 (materials included are valued at $60 per student)

The comprehensive camps give kids a unique experience and go beyond what many similar camps do. For example, in the photography camp, students will build a darkroom, take a photography tour of downtown Vancouver, and visit a print shop where they will print a short series.

Limited spaces are still available for most camps but are selling fast. More information is available at urbanacademy.ca/summercamps.

Please call the school at 604-524-2211 to register and secure your child’s spot.

Family Place opening satellite drop in at 12th Street

My friends at Family Place sent me this note I thought I’d share:

New Westminster Family Place is pleased to announce that we are opening a new program at 1170 – 8th Avenue (corner of 8th Avenue and 12th Street, on the main floor of the building that has Sprott Shaw upstairs).

This program will run every Friday morning from 9:30 – 11:30 starting April 1st.   Join us for fun and games, circle time and wonderful crafts.  Meet your neighbours and make some new friends.  For information call 604 520-3666.

Bloom Art Studio: messy & inspiring fun for kids

Wesley & Kale with their "shadows"
Wesley & Kale with their "shadows"

Note: Bloom Art Studio has offered a special contest for Tenth to the Fraser readers! Comment on this post to before April 21, 2011 and enter to win four free classes at the studio (valued at over $60). Plus, ‘like’ Bloom’s Facebook page for another chance to win!

Bloom Art Studio at River Market is a safe place for kids to get messy – without driving parents crazy.

Owner Kimberly Chiem recently invited me and Jen Arbo to bring our kids down  to experience one of her parent-and-toddler art classes. It was a simple activity I remembered doing when I was in elementary school: first the kids lay down on strips of kraft paper so the parents could trace them, then the parents cut out the silhouettes and taped them to the walls and windows for the kids to paint.

Our kids painted their “shadows” on the windows of the studio. Wesley glopped paint on the floor and all over the chairs. Kale channeled Jackson Pollock and started flinging paint against the window.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Kim. “I’ll clean it all up later.”

Wesley prepares an apple for stamping
Wesley prepares an apple for stamping

Magic words. At home, I like to craft with the kids, but I’m always a little leery of anything truly messy. It’s fun, but I always worry about the cleanup. In a space like Bloom, the kids are free to play with colour and form in a space that’s designed to handle mess. The washable paint cleans off their little wooden chairs and concrete floor. The wall is intended to be coloured on. And even the windows are fair game.

Wesley had so much fun that I brought him back another day, this time with his baby sister (aged16 months) in tow. That day’s plan involved fruit & vegetable stamping. Kimberly provided a plate with halved strawberries, bok choy, lemons, potatoes, apples and other produce and a selection of colourful paints. Once again the craft was simple (and messy): dip the fruit or veg in the paint and stamp it on paper.

Even my littlest enjoyed this craft, and when my son finished his prints and asked if he could have a brush to paint free-form, Kim was happy to go with the flow. A few little artists joined my son in asking for a brush, while others happily kept dipping & stamping their veggies.

Little Nora enjoyed painting too
Little Nora enjoyed painting too

Bloom Art Studio offers a variety of classes and events for kids, including “mini-camps” over Spring Break March 21-25. You can sign up for a series of lessons or opt for the drop-in rate ($8.57 + tax during the winter session). There are even some activities for grown-ups: a monthly Occasional Knitter’s Group (launching March 25 at 7pm) and a Japanese Hand-Built Pottery Class.

Kids’ Activities in the Summer

The Early Childhood Development Committee (for children ages 0-6) and the Middle Childhood Development Committee (6-12) are looking for input for their upcoming Summer Activity Guide. Do you have an event or group you’d like to share?

Stayin' Cool

“I am really interested in getting information back from smaller groups that might not already be connected to any of our committees,” says Betina Ali, the co-chair of the Middle Childhood Development Committee.

The two committees are jointly working on a summer calendar that will be distributed throughout the City (at schools, recreation centres, community service providers…) to provide families with children 0 – 12 information on what is going on in the City from June to August when schools are out. They do not intend to duplicate all the information that is currently being printed and distributed, but rather, they plan to bring everything together in one place as a resource for families. They  hope the book will be filled with lots of FREE family oriented events.

Space is limited so priority will be given to New Westminster-based programs/events/activities.

Please email bali@sd40.bc.ca for more info or to submit your activity.