Friday, October 16, 2020

Three Reviews: Conspiracy, by Ruth Chorney; Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity, by Felix Veloso, M.D.; and The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills, written by M Larson and illustrated by K Brahmachari


Written by Ruth Chorney

Published by 7SpringsBooks

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$20.00  ISBN 978-0-9939757-7-6


At just 170 pages, Ruth Chorney’s Conspiracy is on the slim side for a novel, but let me assure you that there’s loads of tantalizing literary meat in the Kelvington, SK writer’s latest book, and I devoured the convincing story in one pleasant sitting.    

Chorney’s already got four children’s books and one other “Deer Creek” novel under her belt, as well as anthology and magazine publications, so she comes to this story with plenty of publishing experience and it shows in the streamlined writing. She’s got a strong handle on pacing, plot (it zooms), physical descriptions – she’s especially good at describing northeastern Saskatchewan’s rural landscapes and the seasonal business of farming – and dialogue. What’s more, she truly captures the culture of rural life in “The Land of Living Skies,” through word, deed, and community activities.  

The story revolves around the musician, dreamer, and former world traveler, Joel Weston. Five years earlier he’d married Krissy, a Saskatchewan farmer’s spoiled daughter and agronomist with Nu-Ag,” and Joel’s now running Krissy’s aged father’s cattle (“forty head of Simmentals”) and grain operation. “What Krissy wants, Krissy gets” is a recurring statement in the story; even her own cousins prefer Joel’s company to hers. The divide in the couple’s relationship can be explained via dogs: Krissy owns a yappy Shih Tzu, Mitzy; Joel longs for a proper cattle dog.

The other important and well-drawn character is Grace Matthews, a small and spritely farm woman dealing with her husband’s dementia. Joel and Grace’s friendship begins in the forest, where both are foraging for mushrooms.   

I’m guessing the author’s own love of the land played heavily in her rural descriptions: “Although the pasture was fenced for cattle, it was changeable and wild, a place where deer, elk and moose wintered, where black bears foraged for grubs and berries in the summer, where coyotes and sometimes wolves howled their freedom …”. Saskatchewan’s underscored via discussions about “snow along the fence lines,” farm chemicals and machinery repairs; through food including perogies, and “jellied salad” at the “Community Fall Supper;” mentions of The Western Producer, and the Co-op that provides “fuel, farm supplies and groceries;” and even through “the provincial government’s [privatization of] the bus line,” which forces many seniors to rely on “family and friends for a trip to the city”. (The bus issue hit a note with me: my parents live in Watrous, and must indeed rely on others for frequent medical appointments in Saskatoon.)     

I enjoyed this page-turner for the writer’s clear reverence for the prairie and farm living; the interesting dynamics between the multi-generational characters; and how easily I was transported to – and happy to remain in – a world that rings true. Joel “had tasted the air beside oceans, on mountain tops and in pine forests; nowhere in the world did it smell as good as in Saskatchewan”.

Yes, “Feeding the world [is] complicated”. This gripping novel spotlights the people who dedicate their lives to it, and it does so with grace. Thank you, Ruth Chorney.   



"Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity”

Written by Felix Veloso, M.D.

Published by YNWP

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$18.88  ISBN 9-781988-783604


The 2019 UN World Population Prospect report suggested that by 2050, 25% of the North American and European populations may be 65 or older. Clearly, now’s the time to address what an aging population will mean for society, and how those of us approaching our “golden years” can live happier and healthier lives as we age.

University of Saskatchewan professor, author, and neurologist, Dr. Felix Veloso, brings more than 40 years of expertise to the subject, and I found his well-researched book, Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity, full of vital information and interesting statistics. Furthermore, he’s wisely structured his book with a conversational through-thread – between “Dr. Ferurojo” and patient “Anita Tykinlee” – so readers feel they are actually part of a story. Tykinlee asks the questions we might ask if we were in a doctor’s office, concerned about our own or an aging loved one’s health, and Ferurojo/Veloso does an exceptional job of answering her questions in an easy-to-understand, conversational style while also organically inserting the scientific facts – and quoting numerous studies from around the globe – to support the answers. There’s a lengthy Notes section crediting original sources, a helpful Glossary, and even “Suggestions for Additional Reading”. It's an altogether brilliant package.

Dr. Veloso covers wide-ranging subjects, including diet and the many benefits of tea, exercise (special attention’s given to Tai Chi, of which he’s a strong proponent), sleep, immunization, elder abuse, and falls. As my own father, in his late 80s, is falling frequently, it was noteworthy to read that this is in fact normal: “Nearly one in three Canadians aged 65 or older fall every year”. In the chapter “FallSafe,” Dr. Veloso discusses risk factors – including “Fall anxiety” - and prevention.

I enjoyed learning about the world’s five “Blue Zones,” where “people live statistically longest” and many follow a Mediterranean-style diet. I didn’t know that a study’s proven that consuming “hot-spicy foods promote[s] healthy longevity;” that drinking tea “reduces death after a heart attack by up to 44%;” or that several studies have determined that there’s a correlation between regular exercise and cancer prevention, progression, and recurrence.

Lack of sleep is an issue many experience, and Dr. Veloso breaks down how “Sleep Slows Senescence”. He shares an anecdote about an otherwise healthy young Chinese man who “died after going 11 days without sleep as he attempted to watch every game in the 2012 European Soccer Championship”. Every living organism sleeps, from “microscopic cyanobacteria to gigantic blue whales to massive sequoia trees”.    

This 2020-published book also address COVID-19, and delivers advice on how best to protect oneself from the global virus. As well, it addresses the efficacy of vaccination, “one of the greatest advances in public health in the history of mankind,” and puts vaccination risk into dramatic perspective: There’s a “1 in 1,000,000 risk of death for all types of vaccinations” compared to “1 in 6,250” for driving, and “1 in 100,000” for dancing!   

Dr. Veloso’s remarkable handbook for healthy living is a tremendously enjoyable resource.



“The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills: Adventures of the Barnyard Boys”

Written by M Larson, Illustrated by Kaustuv Brahmachari

Published by M Larson Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$13.99  ISBN 978-1-7753218-5-9


Melanie Larson’s children’s book, The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills (Adventures of the Barnyard Boys), is a simply told and colourfully illustrated day-in-the-life story of five-year-old Finn and his family. Finn wakes at his grandparents’ log cabin in Cypress Hills, raring to begin an adventurous day with activities that range from swimming lessons to rock climbing. As the title reveals, the enthusiastic boy loses his treasured “stuffie” during the day, and he “[needs] his bear to sleep!”

The book features large-font text and bright images – the illustrator nailed Cypress Hills, with its distinctive evergreens (including Lodgepole pines) featured on nearly every image. I suggest that this upbeat story be read to and by youngsters for its vibrant celebration of the great outdoors, and its display of how much fun can be had doing things that don’t require anything but an imagination. Particularly now, during a global pandemic, it’s so beneficial for children of all ages to discover how it’s the little things - like going for a walk with one’s family, hot dog roasts, or stargazing - that often provide the most joy and remain in memory.

Finn and his brothers Owen and Dez ride bikes, play in the lake, build sandcastles, and hike: “We collected pine cones, sticks and bugs.” They visit the local museum and see a mounted “cougar, a moose and even a beaver dam”. The protagonist’s beloved bear appears in many of the illustrations, and as a bonus, Larson’s included a pictorial inventory of Cypress Hills’ creatures - both winged and land-based - at the end of the story, and invites readers to find the images in the book.  

Larson worked as an Environmental Consultant prior to writing children’s books, and the rural mother of three previously published Count Them! 50 Tractor Troubles, “to help her children learn to count and spell to 50 while learning farm safety”. Her illustrator, Brahmachari, is also an animator - with “many clients from all over the world” - and his large-eyed, expressive characters romp delightfully across the pages in their “fun-filled day!”

The writer and illustrator have teamed to create what any child might consider an ideal summer day, complete with Bubble Gum ice cream. When Finn’s ready to cuddle Bear and “look at the bright stars before bed,” he realizes the bear’s been misplaced somewhere along the way and the search begins. I love how we see bats swooping through the dark between trees, and Finn’s mom holds a protective arm over her head, just as this woman would do. Will the boy ever “hold Bear again”?

Though this well-produced book might be especially prized by anyone who’s visited Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills, it’s certainly also a story to be enjoyed by young children anywhere. I recommend it for its outdoors and family-positive themes, and the overall cheery tone. I expect that Finn and his brothers will get up to many more adventures in the unique and beautiful southwestern corner of the province. Here’s to that!






Friday, September 18, 2020

Four Reviews: Burden, by Douglas Burnet Smith; Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships, by Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling; Sleeping Brilliant, by Jessica Williams; and Serenity Unhinged: A Memoir, by Jim Duggleby



By Douglas Burnet Smith

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777729


In award-winning Canadian poet Douglas Burnet Smiths seventeenth collection, Burden – a sparely-written account of a distant cousin’s World War I experience – I often found myself wincing. This visceral reaction’s a testament to the efficacy of the Governor General-nominated poet’s precisely-chosen words; to the bone and spirit-shattering power of war; and to this harrowing, personal story that wields the force of a novel in just fifty-nine taut pages.

The title, Burden, eludes to the seventeen-year-old British soldier, Private Herbert Burden, whom the poet’s relative, Lance Corporal Reginald Smith, befriended and fought alongside with; to the permanent weight of war on one’s psyche; and to Reg Smith’s personal burden of being one of the ten soldiers who killed Burden - a deserter suffering from PTSD - upon firing squad order.  

The first four poems, written in couplets and each several pages long, are delivered from Reg Smith’s point of view from the war field or from a hospital in England or Scotland, while the final poem, “Herbert Burden,” is a one-pager told from the deserter’s perspective - almost one hundred years after his death - at the unveiling of a statue of himself in Staffordshire, England, in 2000.

What struck me from the initial poem was the poet’s spectacular ability to juxtapose the tragic and the beautiful. Section I reveals the narrator in the thick of battle in Pas-de-Calais, France (1915). Soldiers are poetically “showered in moonlight;” there are “Moths, white moths, thousands/flitting;” and dawn is “the colour of trampled grapes”. Existing within this same poem: “a clump/of mangled men;” rats in “brown waves, like the trench-/water they skirred over;” and “guts worming out of that man/cursing us from a stretcher”. These images, plus the scene of a German soldier “[pissing]/into an open mouth, a man I didn’t want to know,” underscore Burnet Smith’s literary perspicacity, and also highlight war’s inhumane nature. It’s no wonder so many of our ancestors refused to speak about their wartime experiences.   

Yet it would be remiss not to acknowledge the degradation and grief so many experienced. A century away from the “Great” War, readers may be unaware of the 666 “wiped out” by chlorine smoke in Wieltje, a town the narrator and his cohorts found “cindered with men”. The dead were members of the Second Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. And regarding the child beside the “waterless fountain” … “Pigeons made special use/of the eyes”.

Of the book’s namesake, Burnet Smith writes “We aimed our guns at him, this waif,/a schoolboy who should have been/bored to death in some dismal classroom”. Burden refused a blindfold, and after the death squad incident, Smith never stopped seeing the boy. The writer cleverly reinforces this haunting - and the injustice Burden suffered - in various ways, ie: viewing “how a single cloud/will desert the others, and float off./How the other clouds/don’t seem to care”.  

I’ve reviewed several books in the “Oksana Poetry & Poetics” series, and Burnet Smith’s Burden upholds the series’ tradition of greatness. Exceptional cover, too.   



“Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships”

By Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling

Published by Wood Dragon Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.99   ISBN 9-781989-078167


If you’ve been single and searching for a healthy new connection over the last decade or so, you’ll know that the dating and relationship landscape has changed significantly, in large part due to the popularity of online dating. With a few key strokes, finding “another fish” at the first sign of conflict or boredom is a mighty temptation for some, and short-term relationships are the new norm. Tragically, our throw-away society’s come to include people. But what about actually working on a relationship and allowing it to evolve? And why are people less likely to commit, fully and completely, today?

Professional couples’ therapists Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling address these topics and examine relationship issues like communication, curiosity, awareness, and libido differences in their book Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships. With sixty years of combined counselling experience, the pair – who met as students – have collaborated on “writing a book about the reoccurring themes” they see in their practices, and each short chapter addresses an issue. There are also numerous examples of how couples’ experience challenges, then progress. The oxymoronic titles refers to being “all-in – but only up to a certain point”.

The Saskatoon co-authors cite a major shift in romantic partnerships: “personal happiness now trumps relational longevity,” they write. They practice “an anxiety-tolerance approach,” rather than an “anxiety-reduction approach,” to therapy, as “tolerating anxiety is necessary for personal and relational growth”.

So why has this paradigm shift occurred? The 1960s had much to do with it, with “the wave of legal reforms” that ushered in no-fault divorces, and more financial autonomy for women. Morrison and Risling also reference the burgeoning self-help industry; the rise of syndicated TV talk shows (ie: Phil Donahue and Oprah), which shifted the focus “away from glamourous musicians and movie stars to ordinary people with everyday issues;” and our contemporary "happiness culture,” that’s reinforced by statements and beliefs like “‘I only live once’”.

Low times occur in every relationship, and this book offers readers strategies to overcome these periods. It aims to “encourage readers to decide what they want from a relationship and to consider the work they need to do, and the sacrifices they need to make, in order to achieve their goal”. Each chapter includes a tip or question readers might ask of themselves or their partners, ie: “Do I have a habit of reacting instead of reflecting?”

The writers are proponents of building fun into a relationship, and I love the idea of creating “treasure hunts, playful questionnaires, and day trips” for a partner. Another great idea was rewriting traditional – and “fundamentally impractical” - marriage vows for today’s realities, ie: “I will commit to nurturing my imagination so our life together can be interesting, alive, and have a strong heartbeat”.

The bottomline is that relationships require “constant effort” from both partners, but being intentional and doing the work “can pay huge dividends in happiness and emotional security”. Fully Half Committed covers several bases, and it’s bound to make you think.



"Sleeping Brilliant"

Written and illustrated by Jessica Williams

Published by All Write Here Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$16.99  ISBN 978-1-9995397-7-1

Here’s what I know about Saskatchewan writer Jessica Williams: she’s originally from British Columbia; her first book, Mama’s Cloud, thoroughly impressed me with its gentle handling of depression; and she continues to prove herself as a prolific and talented writer of childrens’ books. Her latest offering, Sleeping Brilliant, delivers a delightful spin on a fairytale we all know – but may not all love, with its prince-as-saviour theme – and this time Williams has even illustrated her own clever story.

We learn from page one that Williams is going to have great fun turning this traditional tale on its crown. The “beloved” King and Queen longed for a child, and thus “adopted a charming baby girl from a nearby village”. The baby’s named Niamh – pronounced “Neev” or “Nee-iv,” which is Gaelic for “brilliant” – and the child lives up to her moniker. Upon Niamh’s arrival her parents throw a “great feast” and invite “the entire kingdom,” as one does, but of the thirteen forest fairies, only twelve receive their invitations, thanks to a “fierce wind” that magically lifts one invitation from the purple-caped messenger’s bag. Whoops.

Flying fairies dance above the smiling child’s cradle and gift the girl with unique qualities, ie: “No riddle will be too challenging for your clever thoughts” and “You shall build wonderful inventions”. (This ain’t your grandmother’s fairytale.) But what about that fairy who missed her invitation? Ah, she arrives at the feast “like a thunderstorm,” and curses the royal baby: “‘On your fifteenth birthday,’” she hissed, “‘you shall prick your finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die!’”

Fortunately, the twelfth fairy is able to temper that curse: at fifteen the princess will not die, she’ll just “‘fall into a deep sleep for one hundred years’”.

Without giving too much of this charming, contemporarized story away, I will say that when the prince arrives he’s greeted with a perfectly content young woman sipping hot cocoa with miniature marshmallows. She’s cosy on a window-side chair in her purple bunny slippers, and matter-of-factly asks the feather-bereted prince: “What are you doing here?” As for marriage, well the brilliant princess’s response is utterly uncharacteristic of any princess I’ve ever read about.

Will there be a happily ever after? That’s for you to learn. The surprises in this book are what make it such a joy to read, and the author-illustrator combination works so well. The playful, full-bleed illustrations of cast and castle scenes perfectly complement the upbeat tone of this story.

I hope Williams continues to create these welcome stories on a wide range of subjects. Perhaps she’ll delve into even more classic fairytales and spin them upside down to make them “fit for a generation of princesses and princes who don’t need to be rescued”. This story teaches – in a completely fun way – that one is responsible for his or her own happiness, that fate can indeed be altered,  and that you never know what you’ll find at a yard sale. I’ll enjoy sharing this well-produced book.



"Serenity Unhinged (a memoir)"

By Jim Duggleby

Published by YNWP

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783574

As a writer myself, I’m always curious about other writers’ inspiration for their books. In his memoir Serenity Unhinged, Regina writer, editor and journalist Jim Duggleby mines the landscape of his own history – family, childhood, career – and his bright imagination for material, but the essays and articles in this fun read really owe their existence to a Regina writers’ workshop that took place between 2017 and 2019. The workshop, which included “fewer than a dozen people” at Regina’s Lifelong Learning Centre, was facilitated by Bob Juby and Ivan Millard, and was “loosely themed ‘As I Remember’”.    

Duggleby has a long history with and passion for the written word. The former Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reporter professes that he “can’t recall a time when [he] didn’t love writing” in various genres, from history to futurism, and his joy and wit translate into 21 entertaining stories in this recently-released softcover with YNWP.

The author earns five stars for his captivating opening lines, ie: “Perhaps the most surprising thing about my mother’s death is that some people were saddened,” and “My father died twice.” (Interestingly, Duggleby’s pop was “the last doctor in Saskatoon to make house calls.”) Duggleby has a way of turning potentially dark recollections – and realities - into gleaming anecdotes, and this book is saturated with black humour. Of his own experience with both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, he writes: “The only blessing I can find is that Alzheimer’s will likely do a full system wipe on my memory before PD leaves me bedridden, incontinent, and unable to communicate with the people I can’t remember.”

Duggleby grew up with five brothers and the bustling household “took six quarts of milk daily, and five loaves of bread.” There were a few “serene moments as a family, though we didn’t trust them,” he writes. “We just don’t do serenity.”

In the story “The Mating of Chickens … or How I Became a Journalist,” the writer begins: “It’s not everyone who can land a summer job as a sex worker for a flock of a hundred or so chickens.” Humour’s also relayed in well-carved images, ie: of a fast-typing veteran reporter, who “attacked the typewriter like it was a mortal enemy” and filled the air “with the middles of the O’s, P’s and D’s, confetti cut by the smoking typewriter.”  

But it’s not all frivolity here: there are some more philosophical observations I found myself nodding in agreement with, ie: “It’s odd the way life picks a direction for you. You get settled into a version of yourself and then, for the hell of it, without so much as a pause for permission, a new version of yourself takes over.” Yes, indeed.

Mostly, however, this book is a romp, and I found myself chuckling at the occasionally grim but sometimes-you’ve-just-got-to-laugh situations, ie: this realistic portrayal of a nursing home: “Old people in motorized wheelchairs raced back and forth on missions known only to them.”  

Duggleby’s literary self-portrait is colourful. Serenity Unhinged is candid, satirical, and entertaining.



Friday, June 12, 2020

Two Reviews: “The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind” by Mark Abley and "I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers" written by Sharon Gudereit, illustrated by Miranda Pringle

“The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind”
by Mark Abley
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777613

Does anyone ever really know anyone else? In multi-genre writer Mark Abley’s absorbing memoir, The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, the Pointe Claire, QC writer contemplates the life of his perplexing father, Harry Abley - virtuoso organist, composer, and music teacher with a complex “range of identities” – and in doing so the author attempts to reconcile why this accomplished and restless man, more than twenty years gone, never seemed enough to his only child.

Abley has a dozen critically-acclaimed books behind him and I heartily recommend this title because the writing’s exceptional: I was hooked by the end of the short prologue. The work is also honest. Abley admits that “any picture I draw of [his father] becomes an exercise in self-portraiture.” I commend that clear-eyed confession: it helps me to trust the writer, and know there’ll be no subterfuge. I also applaud the book’s interesting structure, conversational tone, and the gentle pacing of its ending … despite their often tempestuous relationship, Abley seems in no hurry to kill his father off quickly on the page.    

As Abley sets out the details of his father’s life - from a stuttering child in Knighton (on the English/Welsh border) to organist, choirmaster, and composer at Saskatoon’s St. John’s Cathedral (and other churches) to celebrated concert organist in Germany, we learn about the musician’s “artistic temperament,” his social gaffes, and his passion for “the instrument of his life,” the commanding pipe organ. “Music showed him a way to God,” Abley writes, and he never doubts his father’s musical genius, but two pages later the author wonders: “Have I ever met a person so profoundly alone?” The elder Abley seemed “equally gifted at music and resentment.”

There’s much, too, about Abley’s mother within these pages, a woman “of profound religious faith, and blessed by hope.” While reading about her husband’s obstinacy and her patience and good cheer, one can’t help but see this woman as a minor saint. The writer recalls his mother telling him, as a boy of “nine or ten,” that he was “more of a man” then than his father would ever be. Her son became “the heart of [her] emotional life.”

Probably every human is a chameleon, some just more obviously than others. Abley senior’s mood could “darken like a thundercloud.” He was outspoken, “hideously inappropriate” at social gatherings and “suffered from depression.” The depression “was like ivy, twisting and curling around his mind, adding a perpetual weight, crowding out all other growth.” All that, yet students found him “tremendously encouraging,” and his music was exquisite. “It’s as if he poured a sweetness of spirit into his art, leaving the acid for daily life.”

Among Harry Abley’s peccadilloes was this: although he delivered “speeches,” “complaints,” and “rants,” he left his son no stories. Mark Abley, then, has mined his own memory; spoken to his father’s acquaintances, colleagues, and former students; and “advertise[d] [the writer’s own] scars.” In doing so, he’s fashioned an interesting and “open-hearted” story, impeccably told.

"I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers"                                                                        
Written by Sharon Gudereit, Illustrated by Miranda Pringle

Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783536

The colourfully-illustrated softcover, I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers, is a grand example of creative collaboration, and a testament to the beauty of YNWP’s (Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing) titles. SK’s Sharon Gudereit and BC’s Miranda Pringle are teachers who exude artistic talent: Gudereit is a singer/songwriter and musician, and Pringle is the artist who brought what was originally Gudereit’s song to life on the page.

The book is “A heartfelt tribute to the nurturing women in our lives,” and the story pictorially follows the lives of an emotionally tightknit mother and daughter, from the latter’s birth to the former’s possible death; yes, the words “angel,” “far away,” and the illustration of the elder woman’s framed photo beside a glowing candle are open to interpretation, but even children of a certain age will clue-in to the gentle suggestion here.    

This feels like a personal story, but anyone who’s had the gift of a loving mother will certainly connect to it. The text – lyrics, really – contain some rhymes and off-rhymes, and the chorus is repeated. What’s so endearing to this reader is the original details the illustrator included … the “homey” images, like a succulent plant beside crystals on a window shelf; and torn jeans; and a paint chip pinned to the wall. Pringle’s done an exceptional job of aging both characters, particularly with the use of changing hairstyles.

Cats and insects – children will have fun locating the butterflies on each page – recur in the images, and one can easily create opportunities for older children throughout this book, ie: have them count all the sunflowers in the warm two-page spread, which shows the mother riding a white horse bareback through a flower field: “It’s hard to believe she was once a little girl, who used to dream of riding horses through the field.” Each image is cornered with the black triangles used in old photo albums to keep the photos in place; this gives the effect that one is indeed leafing through an album of pleasant memories, and SK is represented in the prairie lily and elevator images.  

After the daughter becomes a mother herself, we read “[The elder mother’s] got a shoulder that can handle any tears. She’s the one you always call to spill out all your fears.” There’s sweet visual repetition here: the new, ginger-haired baby is wrapped in the same blanket we see her mother wrapped in on page one, but now it’s used as a sling, the way contemporary mothers often support their wee ones.  
I resisted checking online for the song that inspired the text until after I’d read the book. It’s from Gudereit’s CD, Let It Go, and it can be accessed at . Kids will enjoy the suggested art, interview, genealogy and writing activities at the end of the book, and flipping through the pages while listening to the author beautifully sing the text is an absolute bonus.  

I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers is a delightfully touching package.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Book Review: Small Reckonings, by Karin Melberg Schwier

“Small Reckonings”
By Karin Melberg Schwier
Published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866950

Time stopped as I read Saskatoon writer Karin Melberg Schwier’s Small Reckonings. Characters in this Watrous, SK-based historical novel – set between 1914 and 1936 – are exquisitely and sympathetically drawn, the plot moves, and the portrait of this small town and its multi-ethnic pioneers rings true and clear as windchimes in a prairie breeze. Melberg-Schwier earned the 2019 John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award for Fiction with this story. If there be gods, she’ll be earning many more awards: Small Reckonings deserves a huge audience.

This book – inspired by true events – begins with a great dramatic hook. Who is this Nik, hanging from the barn rafters, looking “not wild-eyed [but] more as if he’d given it some consideration and just preferred to get it over and done with”? We soon meet William, an earnest homesteader from New Zealand, and his future wife, the enigmatic Louise, who uses food to quell what befell her while she worked “at an institution for the feeble-minded”. Melberg Schwier expertly creates individuated characters readers will care deeply about, including the central figure, Violet, who, at birth, looks like “a large pink spider,” and of whom the attending doctor says “There are places for these children.’” Equally well drawn are Violet’s doting brother, John; kind neighbour, Hank; and the Ukrainian Yuzik family. The characters struggle through the Depression years, and with the disparate lots they’ve been dealt in life.

I know Watrous well, so it was especially fun reading the descriptions of this “boomtown”. William tells Louise that “‘Watrous has wooden sidewalks now, and shops and a bakery. A very decent butcher. A poolroom and barbershop,’” and that the mineral springs possess “‘healing powers, so say the Indians’”. I can smell the “sweet scent of [Scandanavian] rosettes just pulled from hot oil,” and hear the “‘Uff da’” exclamations. I easily see the “green apron with yellow rickrack,” and I almost sneeze at the description of the schoolboy “banging erasers at arm’s length on the bottom step, a cloud of chalk dust drifting away lazily in the afternoon heat”. I transported as I read about caragana seed pods “snapping and cracking” in the sunshine, and as the lead siblings spoke of “anti-I-over” and “Simon Says”. The “forlorn autumn sound” of honking geese was like an echo.

This book succeeds so well because the writer’s learned the tricky art of literary balance, ie, as skilled as she is at penning descriptive scenes, they never slow the pacing of this taut novel. The book’s structure is nuanced, and seemingly minor details – like a fishhook caught in an eye – have resonance. The characters are people we know or can very easily imagine. Here’s Hanusia, the raw Ukrainian midwife, upon the birth of John: “‘So quick first baby! Much hair. Strong boy, good for farm work. Your husband, he will be happy.’”) And the plot? Movie potential.

“No one was ever purely good. Or purely evil,” Hank thinks. This sums up Melberg Schwier’s sensitive and riveting story. I cried. You might, too.  


Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Four Reviews: “Sauntering, Thoreau-style" by Victor Carl Friesen; “The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier” by Bruce Rice; "Wheel the World: Travelling with Walkers and Wheelchairs” by Jeanette Dean; and "Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada” edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware

“Sauntering, Thoreau-style"
Written by Victor Carl Friesen
Published by Your Nickel's Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$25.00  ISBN 9-781988-783468

I embraced daily outdoor explorations decades ago, so was delighted when Rosthern, SK writer-photographer Victor Carl Friesen’s book, Sauntering, Thoreau-style, arrived in my mailbox. Friesen, a multi-genre writer, has several books behind him - including nonfiction, short stories, poetry and children’s literature - and in this latest title he revisits a favourite subject: the writer, naturalist, and legendary Massachusetts walker, Henry David Thoreau. Many will be familiar with Thoreau’s Walden - his literary response to a two-year sojourn at Walden Pond. Friesen’s book – a compilation of essays; mostly Saskatchewan photographs; poetry; and Thoreau’s own quoted, poetic observations - is an homage to Thoreau, and the images “were chosen to reflect Thoreau’s world”.   

Friesen explains that Thoreau was a highly sensorial writer who practiced activities like looking at objects with “the under part of his eye,” and “[smelling] plants before and after a rain in various stages of growth,” to get different perspectives. Thoreau’s writing itself emulated “the course of a saunter,” and Friesen writes that his subject considered the act of consciously walking in nature as an art. I understand!

The colour photographs (there’s a single black and white), interspersed between Friesen’s engaging, Thoreau-centred text, are presented like a pleasant album. Each index-card-sized photograph is centered on the page within a thin black border. Ample white space on each page gives the nature scenes a “gallery wall” effect. Lily pads, shadowed reflections, and a moose in water are among the images in the first set, titled “Waters”.

In the chapter “The Art of Sauntering,” we learn that Thoreau tried to find a balance between observing nature and attempting to “‘walk with sufficient carelessness’”. The American writer kept “a notebook in his pocket … for much of his writing was a joint product of head and legs”. Interestingly, regarding sustenance on Thoreau’s longer walks, “If he had to buy bread or milk, he would readily find some odd job to earn the necessary coin”. It’s certainly easy to comprehend why Friesen found Thoreau such a compelling character. In the photos that follow in this chapter, Friesen provides a moody photographic study of clouds, ie: pg. 39 … a proper, dark-navy sky, and a cloud dropping torrential rain on the bare, golden prairie.

Solitude was sacred to Thoreau in his walks – “[his] communion with nature was lessened if others were present” – and he was extremely fond of the Concord township area. The “‘peripatetic philosopher’” was so tuned into the natural world, the connection elicited “a feeling that he was part of the woodland world and a feeling that that world was part of him”. Friesen says aside from woodlands, seas and rivers were also integral to Thoreau: he tried to “get the sea into him” while he “[perceived] it with all his senses”.

I admire the way Friesen sees the world through his discriminating lens. Leaves, sunsets, rivers, snow, flowers … these are the stuff of Thoreau’s world, and of Friesen’s well-written and well-photographed tribute to Thoreau’s “sensuous approach to the world of nature”.

“The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier”

by Bruce Rice
Published by Radiant Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-781989-274293

Choosing a subject most readers will be unfamiliar with is a risky undertaking for a poet. Will readers care about a subject they don’t know? Has enough research been done? Will the poet sufficiently engage his or her audience with this new literary territory? Regarding Bruce Rice’s The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier, I say Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Rice is Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, and this poetic portrait of Chicago photographer Vivian Maier (d. 2009) – whom Rice first learned of via CBC Radio – is the Regina writer’s sixth poetry collection. Maier, his “obsessively private” subject, was employed as a nanny, shot diverse subjects, and died poor, leaving a “legacy of 140,000 black and white negatives, prints, undeveloped rolls of colour film, Super 8 films, and audio recordings” that would later inspire several books, documentaries and “over 60 international exhibits”. Clearly, Rice – who’s frequently inspired by art – found an intriguing subject. He credits many – including the Saskatchewan Arts Board, re: funding his research trip to Chicago – for assistance in bringing this title to fruition.

I was unfamiliar with Maier and thus turned to Rice’s Afterward to learn more before I read the poems. Maier’s early life was “spent in a kind of serial statelessness,” affected by poverty and being raised solely by her mother, a French immigrant. Rice writes: “There are things we know about her choices, her gaze, and what attracted her whether it was beautiful or not, because we recognize it in ourselves and because we are human”. This shared humanity is as good a reason – perhaps the best reason – to explore a specific life via poetry.

Rice plays with light and shadows in these poems, much like a photographer does. Words like “mirror” and “fixes” are double-entendres, and when Maier narrates, we see the details of her images, ie: a “royal blue stag/knitted crudely into [a boy’s] siwash” and also a fictionalized philosophy, ie: “there are a few kinds of punishment/a hundred kinds of shame”. It’s this pairing – everyday details and elevated thoughts – that make these poems work so well. The way the subjects quickly shift between couplets is reminiscent of ghazals. In “Human River,” personification takes the lead, ie: “the snowy breath of Manhattan” and “this weather teaches/an avenue of empty benches”. Rice gives several of Maier’s subjects the narrator’s voice, ie: in “furniture mover,” the narrator says “you’re stuck in my mirror/don’t worry lady/I’ll get you out”.  

Window washers, gutters, “white-walled Lincolns,” “gravestones and the poses/of agreeable old men” … these are the photographic and poetic terrain. Rice has fun with colour throughout the book, ie: “white babushka,” “ruby flesh,” and “clowns /in red pantaloons”.

I’ll now find Maier’s work online, and see what’s so inspired Rice to imagine sublime lines like this: “a face is a face    and it’s hard to say/who has lived well and who simply waits/for the final punctuation”. My favourite line, however, is “Some days a light touch is all you need/to know you’ve been touched”. These poems touched me.


“Wheel the World: Travelling with Walkers and Wheelchairs”
Written by Jeanette Dean
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783505

 I’ve just spent a pleasant afternoon with Jeanette Dean’s book Wheel the World: Travelling with Walkers and Wheelchairs. As the entire world’s currently anchored with the Coronavirus pandemic, we need travel books like Dean’s: over a few hours and 202 pages, she took me on well-described journeys around the globe, across Canada, and through my home province of Saskatchewan while I practiced social isolation on my comfortable couch. The title infers that this might be a “How To” book, but I’m suggesting it’s a wonderful armchair- adventure title for people with mobility issues or fully able bodies.  

Dean and her husband, Christopher Dean, are British-born educators – now retired – who share passions for travel and photography. Saskatoon’s been home since 1966, and there Jeanette spent twenty-two years teaching at the R.J.D. Williams School for the Deaf. In her latter years, Dean’s arthritis has seen her transition from walker to wheelchair, but these challenges have not metaphorically slowed her one iota. She states: “Above all, this book is intended as an expression of the joy of travelling itself, regardless of the challenges.” Yes, there are many tips for travelers with mobility issues, ie: cruise ship passengers can take accessible taxis at ports-of-call, and design their own tours; England’s cobblestone streets don’t lend themselves well to mobility aids; and one can take a handicap parking permit anywhere in the world, and it’ll be valid. Dean rightly states that maneuvering around the Cavendish, PEI beaches or across the rocks at Peggy’s Cove would be hard-going for those with mobility issues. She advises mobility-challenged travelers not to slow group travel or put extra stress on tour guides. Planning, she advises, is the key to successful travel for those with limited mobility, and one should “recognize what [one] cannot do easily and enjoy the rest without whining”.

I made copious notes while reading this well-written, interesting, and often light-hearted book. I reminisced as Dean described places I’d been, ie: Melbourne and Moose Jaw, and made notes about the destinations I’d like to visit. Dean’s anecdotes about a “safari-like park” in small-town Glen Rose, the River Walk district in San Antonio, and Moody Gardens in Galveston compel me to visit Texas. Similarly, the couples’ tour of National Trust properties in England appeals. The “leafy lanes of Kent” led to the one-time private home of Winston Churchill (“As we walked through the Grecian colonnade at the back of the house, we could easily imagine him pacing back and forth as he practiced his inspiring speeches”).

In Maui they enjoyed a visit to a lavender farm, and I was right there when she described Maui’s “twisting road to Hana,” and watching the sun set from the Haleakala Crater, where she arrived via a bus with a wheelchair lift. “Our driver was very helpful at all the stops,” she writes, “even pushing the wheelchair and singing when the path got very steep”.  

With our aging population and contemporary society’s penchant for travel, the subject of mobility-challenged travelling will become increasingly topical.         

 “Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada”
Edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95 ISBN 9-780889-776944

This multi-voiced tour-de-force details the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement from compelling Canadian perspectives. It’s comprehensive, diverse, and explains the “origin story” and trajectory of BLM – praise-worthy, all - but I also commend the anthology’s structure. Editors Sandy Hudson (founder of the BLM’s Canadian presence and BLM—Toronto) and Rodney Diverlus (a Haitian-born artist, activist, educator and member of BLM—Toronto) have written a creative introduction set in “An Imagined Future” (2055 C.E.), after the world’s been decimated by “droughts, fires … class wars” and “race wars”. The narrator melts beneath the blistering sun under one of the few remaining trees on a “weekly water-sourcing trek,” and reflects upon this very book. “We wrote about our future,” he/she says, “and it was beautiful”. It’s a literary entry into a text that’s alternately academic, political, and also written for those just learning about the movement, which was spawned after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman re: the shooting murder of the unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin. “This case captured the public’s attention and triggered a global discourse on anti-Black violence not seen in a generation,” the editors write. (Californian Alicia Garza was first to pen #BlackLivesMatter, and the movement quickly spread “from a viral hashtag to an online platform”.)

The book’s invaluable for the myriad experiences it archives, and it’s hefty in both size and content: 320 pages of strong statements by those who’ve lived beneath the shadow of racism. “Police violence and anti-Black attitudes are realities that define the Black Experience in Canada,” the editors state. They’ve collected essays and conversations between organizers, activists, artists, academics - and the imprisoned-for-murder writer Randolph Riley - and document ideas, protests (ie: Tent City at the Toronto Police Service Headquarters), and victories, including The Black Lives Matter—Toronto Freedom School (“providing an avenue for children to be involved in the movement”) and the Canadian Freedom Intensive.

Riley’s story came painfully alive for me with the startling image of the young Nova Scotia student’s visit – “in cuffs and shackles” - to his mother’s funeral at Cherrybrook Baptist Church. “‘I’m sorry to come before you like this,” he says to his community. “There is no stopping the love” as people in the historically Black community “line up to hug him, to touch him, to cry with him”.

For some contributors, like poet Queentite Opaleke, being called “nigger”- by her Grade Four teacher! - started her activism. I learned that the Black community of Africville – formerly on the Halifax shoreline – was “bulldozed” in 1964 and its 400 residents forced into housing projects sans compensation for their properties and possessions; that scholar Tiffany King uses “fungible” to explain how “Black people were treated as interchangeably as seeds … to terraform the land in order to change it for the process of colonization;” and that the KKK received permission from Edmonton’s mayor to hold a rally at the Exhibition Grounds in 1932 (copies of the actual letters are in the book).

The stories are eye-opening, hopeful, and important.



Friday, March 20, 2020

Three Reviews: Field Notes for the Self (Randy Lundy); Loss of Indigenous Eden and the Fall of Spirituality (Blair Stonechild); and Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage (editors Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day)

“Field Notes for the Self”

Written by Randy Lundy

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-776913

It's official: Saskatchewan’s Randy Lundy is one of my favourite Canadian poets. His last collection, Blackbird Song, fueled my fandom for this erudite writer, but the recently-released Field Notes for the Self has secured it. This is a poet at the top of his game: one doesn’t so much read this new collection of mostly prose poems as she experiences it. This is Lundy’s magic: although the title indicates that these are works “for the Self” - and the second person “You” (the narrator) is addressed throughout - I felt these contemplative works so viscerally it was as if they were articulating my own intimate thoughts and practices. Move over, Mary Oliver.  

In Blackbird Song, many poems spun on the word thinking, and in this handsome new volume, knowing is central. Lundy writes: “you know you know the song, but nothing is clear to you anymore,” “Your heart knows and holds the key - meditate, live purely, do your work, be quiet,” and “You know that you almost know, and you know that is as close as you will get.”

There’s a tremulous acceptance in these quiet yet powerful poems. “You see so little and know so little, perhaps that is a kind of wisdom. But you don’t think so.” There’s also much consideration of death: “Today, the memory of all your dead drove you to your knees. It is the best place from which to see the beetles in the dirt, each a black, hard-shelled casket that will bear your flesh into the next world, and the next. Study that. Practise that kind of knowing.”

The poet’s dressing down of Self - “What you know is that everything you thought you knew, up until today, amounts to nothing. You know nothing” - contradicts the wisdom and beauty he imparts. The existentialist belief that the universe is unfathomable is a through-thread, but exquisite beauty exists and is frequently honoured: “meteorites like a necklace of fire,” a woman’s hands in dishwater are “moving like pale, lazy carp,” a doe’s “curved hooves leave quotation marks in the soft, clay-banked hillside,” and an “iris shoves its fist skyward, unfolds like a hand”.

I appreciated the journal-like openings, and the poems’ transformations: several begin with the time of day, season, place, and/or weather, ie, “Knowing What You Do Not Know” begins “Rain for hours this January afternoon and northwest wind at fifty-three kilometres an hour.” Lundy transports readers from that opening to this conclusion: “Here comes that something that’s always been consuming you—the way your yellow, whiskey-stink piss eats the white, white snow”.

The doors in are deceptively simple, ie: the seven-paged “Book of Medicine” begins “End of July, two days of rain/after two months of drought” but the poem also philosophically considers that “Maybe there is no way/to pass through this life, without/being lost over and again”.     

These are poems adrift between light and dark, between life and death, and “between metaphor and common sense”. These are poems for now, and always.   


“Loss of Indigenous Eden and the Fall of Spirituality”
by Blair Stonechild
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$32.95  ISBN 9-780889-776999

Blair Stonechild’s made a name for himself as the skilled writer of numerous nonfiction books, and as a professor of Indigenous Studies at Regina’s First Nations University of Canada. Stonechild’s led an interesting life. He attended Residential School, obtained his doctorate and became an academic and historian, and he’s worked closely with First Nations Elders for more than forty years. He’s supremely well qualified to write on Indigenous spirituality, and that’s precisely what he’s mastered in his latest book.

In this ten-chaptered new title, Stonechild discusses how “the Indigenous world preceded that of modern civilization, that it contained values vital to human survival, and that the significance of ancient beliefs needs to be re-explained for today’s world”. The author’s travelled globally to visit other Indigenous communities, and writes that “we all share incredibly strong beliefs about the transcendent”.   

He begins by discussing the fundamentally-held belief among Indigenous Peoples of the world that they possess a “sacred obligation” re: protecting the land and environment, and hold a common belief that “spirits lurk in every corner – in trees, in animals, and even in rocks”. “All things … have spirit essence and all interact in a web of interrelationships.” Humans are here to learn, Stonechild’s mentor, Saulteaux Elder Danny Musqua, told him, and our time on Earth is a journey “back to the Creator and the spirit world, their real home”. One of many things I learned from Stonechild’s book is that “stars” figure prominently in many Indigenous origin stories, including the Dakota, Navajo, Cree, and Aztecs.   

So why, according to Indigenous spirituality, are we here? “To be the servant of the creator,” in the physical bodies we’re given, and, as Musqua professed, “physical life is intended to be a challenge”. Spiritual tools consist of Seven Disciplines: “fasting, sharing, parenting, learning, teaching, praying, and meditating”. (I know something of this: my brother, Ron Meetoos (RIP), a Cree from Thunderchild First Nation, was an Elder. I’ll never forget his dedication to his culture: he participated in a Sun Dance … I saw the wounds on his chest.)

I love to learn, and reading this book was a wide education. I didn’t know that the Dene that migrated from “what is now northern Canada to the American southwest” became Navajo. I didn’t know that when First Nations Peoples say “all our relations” in prayers, these relations include “natural and supernatural realms”. And I didn’t know that the Sweat Lodge represents “the womb of mother Earth and is for cleansing through symbolic rebirth”. But beyond Indigenous spirituality, Stonechild also shares information on several other diverse topics, from the history of world religions to globalization, from water degradation to depression and anxiety – “diseases of the soul”.

One need only consider the current Covid-19 pandemic to feel great despair for our world, but perhaps if more of us “maintain[ed] a strong belief in the cyclical nature of all created things,” as Indigenous Elders do, hope would supersede fear, and we’d all enjoy this journey on Earth far more.


“Performing Turtle Island: Indigenous Theatre on the World Stage”

Edited by Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95 ISBN 9-780889-776562

In many Indigenous cultures’ origin stories, “Turtle Island” refers to the North American continent, and its aptly used in the title of a new University of Regina Press anthology about Indigenous theatre and performance “in the land now called Canada”.  

In response to “Call to Action #83 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] of Canada” - in which artists are called upon to “undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process” - Saskatchewan editors and professors Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber, Kathleen Irwin, and Moira J. Day compiled essays by Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors to promote “discussion around Indigenous theatre and performance practices … from a multidisciplinary perspective.”

The book’s partly the outcome of a September 2015 gathering at the University of Regina and First Nations University. This namesake event, “Performing Turtle Island: Fluid Identities and Community Continuities,” allowed scholars and artists “to focus on how Indigenous theatre and performance are connected to Indigenous ways of knowing and well-being, while also considering the role of Indigenous identity in shaping the country’s [identity]”.

Significantly, over the last three decades Indigenous playwrights including the esteemed Tomson Highway, Drew Hayden Taylor and Daniel David Moses, plus many newer writers, have been working to counter “hackneyed representations of Indigeneity by creating robust and dynamic expressions of Indigenous peoples”. The anthologies’ editors and contributors acknowledge the difficult ethics re: applying “Western theoretical approaches to interpret Indigenous literatures”.  

The book’s first section consists of pieces in which the authors “critique performance through an Indigenous knowledge system” to “replace or adapt old paradigms of settler colonialism with new models and methodologies.” Writer Michael Greyeyes - educator, dancer, choreographer and artistic director - concentrates on the “physical aspect of theatre training,” and the promotion of Indigenous languages through theatre. In his conversational opening essay - reprinted verbatim from his keynote conference address - he explains how he was cast for a period part (a miniseries for the National Geographic Channel) that was being shot in South Africa, and how he had to transform his “out-of-shape movement professor” body into one that was muscular and plausible for the Mayflower-era role. He writes that he respected the script for its “complex and sophisticated” portrayals of Indigenous characters. No stereoptypes here, just “vivid and breathing portraits” that revealed all characters as both saint and sinner. The Indigenous cast was coached to speak an endangered dialect -Abenaki - by one of the last dozen speakers of that language.  

Filmmaker Armand Garnet Ruffo tells the story of the challenging, ten-year making of his feature film Windigo Tale, which began as a two-act play. I enjoyed his candid anecdotes about quickly running out of money and searching for more; weather and continuity issues; and his frequent good luck (“Nanaboozho smiled on me”) in finding people willing to work with him.

The second section concerns “Performance in Dialogue with the Text” and includes Kahente Horn-Miller’s piece on the Sky Woman story and an interview with Daniel David Moses. All-in-all, a beautiful production.