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.



Saturday, January 25, 2020

Two Reviews: "Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels" by Susan Harris and “Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir” by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

“Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels”

Written by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.99 ISBN 9-780994-986948

Rural Saskatchewan writer Susan Harris wears a number of hats. I've previously reviewed two of her Christmas alphabet books, but her literary prowess also includes inspirational and nonfiction work. It's appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Sunday School students may have read her biblical literature in class. Outside of writing, Trinidad-born Harris can be found presenting on her extraordinary religious experiences, and hosting an Access7Television series called "Eternity".

In Touched By Eternity: A True Story of Heaven, Healing, and Angels, Harris explores her greatest passion, Heaven. Indeed, she claims to have an "obsession about Heaven," and if you read her new book you'll understand why. In clear, well-written prose, Harris tells the otherwordly story of her three near death experiences, each occasioned by a health crisis, and what she felt and observed on the proverbial "other side". Add anecdotes about angels, a description of fiery Hell, and a few visions, and you'll also glean why she's dedicated her book to "those who long for Heaven".

Born into a family of "old-fashioned Pentecostals," it wasn't uncommon for Harris to attend revivals where people spoke "in tongues," and the author writes of her own early ability to speak in tongues: "My English words ceased and strange words began to flow from my mouth in a foreign language I had not learned. It was a full-bodied, fluent sound that spouted at first then gushed like a stream from a rainforest mountaintop." Harris was eleven, and her own daughter spoke in tongues at age four. 

The book begins dramatically with a desperate phone call to her husband after her teeth began chattering, three days after a wisdom tooth extraction. I commend Harris for her ability to make readers feel they're in the room as she slowly drags herself from her dining room to a day bed in excruciating pain. It's 2005, and she's about to have her second near death experience. She sees "a spectacular castle," and writes that "The castle is blue, a luminescent, glorious, amazing shade that I haven't seen on earth. The sides and edges are trimmed with gold …" Heaven. And this is the beginning of the "remarkably ordinary" woman's drive to share her experiences, and "to carry peace, compassion, and the message that Heaven is gained only through Jesus Christ" to whomever will listen.

One of the angel stories is particularly interesting. After Harris and her husband marry at the Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, they're walking the Strip and get harassed and followed by a "youth of African-American descent". Suddenly a large man, "possibly of Mexican descent" with "black shorts that came down to his knees," appears and the youth halts, "as if he had bumped into something". Harris later reasons that the protector was an angel.   

Many may think of death as the ultimate negative experience, but Harris's deep grieving for a return to the peaceful "Heaven's meadow" of her second near death experience - while in the Melville Hospital - denotes that it's anything but.  



“Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir”
Written by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 ISBN 9-780889-776593

Sometimes a single line succinctly underscores the depths of the valley a person's experienced. Deep into Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali's memoir, Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir, the Torontonian's phrase "the first day I was homeless for the second time" leaps off the page, and it's an example of how this first-time writer both lives, and writes. Changes happen quickly, and the reader finds herself catching her breath.

Ali's memoir was published as part of the University of Regina Press's series The Regina Collection. These pocket-sized hardcovers emulate the U of R's motto, "a voice of many peoples," and "tell the stories of those who have been caught up in social and political circumstances beyond their control." Born in Mogadishu in 1985, Ali was removed from his mother's home at age five to join his father and the man's new family in Abu Dhabi, then relocated to a refugee camp in the Netherlands (sans Dad). The next move - with his abusive stepmother and her kids - was to Toronto's "Jane and Finch area," where in school "The relationships between the white teaching staff and the largely brown and black student body prepared many of [the students] for the cruel reality of a racist society and the undermining of [their] abilities." 

But uprooting, domestic physical abuse, school bullying, poverty, wondering how "to be Somali outside of Somalia," forced "Islamizing," and crime are only part of the story: effeminate Ali - nicknamed "ballet girl" - also recognized early in life that he was gay. As one who'd only known violence, the writer's early sexuality was also fused with pain, and he writes with brutal candour: "I … took to squatting by the highway and pushing thick branches in my ass. I kept going until I bled." 

After a fight in the Netherlands with a classmate compounded Ali's "diminished sense of self," he dived "headfirst, into the world of drugs," and by thirteen was numbing his life with Valium. He writes that by the time he'd moved to Canada, he could only observe other youth playing at a public pool: he "didn't know how to have healthy fun."

So many adjustments within such a short timeframe. From leaving the rebel-threatened country of his birth - where he watched wrestling on television while overhearing the screams from his stepsisters' bedroom as they were being circumcised - to experiencing the backlash of being a black Muslim post 9/11; from attending Ryerson (he was "kicked out" after three years) to a suicide attempt and living in a shelter, where residents had to "Watch out for broken crack pipes on the piss-soaked floors of the bathroom" … it's not a wonder that the "boy who felt unwanted by the world" grew into a homeless alcoholic.

But he also became a writer, praise be, and his "nomadic journey" would be of a different sort. "Revisionism to cover up our history has been pervasive," he writes of the immigrant Somali experience. Here's a story that speaks the truth.   



Saturday, November 30, 2019

Three New Reviews: "Critters: Underdark" by Allan Dotson; “Raymond Raindrop" and "Swings & Things” by Eileen Munro; and "Finding Fortune" by L.A. Belmontéz

"Critters: Underdark"

by Allan Dotson
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783437
How best to describe Regina writer, artist and teacher Allan Dotson's monster-inspired graphic novel, Critters: Underdark … a 153-page, 10-years-in-the-making labour of love, and black and white demonstration of great talent? An equally touching and humorous allegory for our socially-fractured and racially- divisive times? A textual and artistic tour de force? Each of the above applies, but at the heart of this fantasy's success is the creator's unique imagination, his skill at storytelling, and his deft ability to create individuated "monsters" - both visually and literarily - that readers of all ages will quickly care about.

It's easy to suspend disbelief and get wrapped up in the train-wrecked world of innocent Eddy - a pincered "ettercap" who looks like a louse - and his first friend, the snaggle-toothed monster Sally, who tells also-caged Eddy: "You're not alone. We're all scared." Eddy's toddler-like diction is adorable, ie: "Is we all getting' stuffs? Like weppins?" and "O nos! Thems gonna git us!" Many things are "skeery".

In the first few pages we learn that these creatures, captured along with several others by the dwarves at the bidding of the medusa queen, Dread Lady Linnorm, both miss their mothers. The train's taking a variety of critters "to the north to the wizards' market" where they'll be sold to humans. Lady Linnorm's daughter, Lena, is watering the imprisoned critters when the train crashes and releases Eddy, Sally, and monsters of all kinds. The pair bond with strong Gronk - part cat, part dragon - and journey toward "freedom," battling opponents and gathering comrades along the way, including spidery Uriel, who's in the habit of saying "Heehee," and ascertains that Lena, who's travelling with them, can be both "slaver" and "one of [them]".

The mother-child relationship is explored through Eddy, Sally and Lena. Sally's mother is a kindly swamp hag who taught her daughter "how to cook and stuff". Lena's powerful mother is desperate to find her. Eddy's mother will break your heart.

Dotson uses diction - and spectacular images; even caves have character - for humour and to create individuality. Lady Linnorm's minions speak with a Scottish brogue: "Thar be sum more o' tha wee beasties!" Evil, elephant-trunked Slithirgaddy is amassing an army to "follow [their] unsuspecting quarry deep into the stygian gloom of the endless underdark". Lena and sharp-toothed Sally exchange barbs, ie: Sally's superpower is the ability to turn invisible. Lena says: "That's great, Sally, then we won't have to look at you."

Dotson teaches science and art at an elementary school, and I can see how this novel would enthrall students and educators: he's made it user-friendly for classrooms via a teachers' guide, available online.

A longtime comic afficionado, sci-fi and fantasy fan, and founding member of Regina's Valuable Comics collective, Dotson also designs and publishes role-playing games. Critters: Underdark is his first novel, and the first volume in his Critters Saga. Readers can next look forward to Wandering Monsters. I wonder if foes Sally and Lena will become friends?


"Raymond Raindrop" and "Swings & Things”
Written and illustrated by Eileen Munro
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781988-783444 

I was introduced to the fun-filled illustrations and down-home text of Saskatchewan artist Eileen Munro in 2014 via her rural-themed alphabet book, ABC’s Down on the Farm. Now, five years later, she's followed up with another picture book, this time featuring two educational stories: Raymond Raindrop and Swings & Things. Munro's cover advertises "Facts and fun - 2 Books in 1" - it's a double treat for young readers and story listeners, and an ingenious way for a writer using YNWP's excellent publishing services to get the most bang for her buck.

As the title reveals, Raymond is a raindrop, which Munro visually presents somewhat like a grey Hershey's Kiss with simple facial features, three-fingered white hands and two black ovaline feet. Raymond's character, however, is far from simple. "Shy and a little bit proud," he "stayed by himself" while his fellow raindrops "bounced and bubbled" together. Our watery protagonist notes that the people on the land below him look worried re: the lack of rain for their crops.

The story is about the importance of working together. The prairie spirit of cooperation is equally as important among the raindrops as it is has traditionally been among farming communities. On each pair of facing pages Munro provides one fact about rain, ie: "Every second, about 16 million tons of water evaporates from the Earth's surface and falls back to the ground in the form of raindrops." It's a creative way to teach youngsters, and as these facts are visually separated from the story proper via a light blue text box, there's no confusing the two.

Swings & Things is subtitled Everyday Pendulums and Pivots, and it features ponytailed Henrietta, who "likes to swing," and "to find other things that swing too". As with the first story, this short tale also includes interesting and eclectic facts - about pendulums, spiders, monkeys, and more - presented in textboxes.

We discover that Henrietta loves to see the acrobats swing at the circus, and she aspires to become an acrobat one day. On this page I learned that the stretchy leotard gymnasts - and others - wear was named after the "French gymnast Jules Léotard, who developed the art of trapeze". It's the kind of trivia you could slip into a conversation at the next dinner party you attend, and then you can gift your host or hostess with a copy of this delightful, colourful and well-produced book, because we all have someone in our life who can use a small, happy story.

Congratulations to Munro, who "came from a family of storytellers who told tales that wove a path through her imagination," for putting her own storytelling talents onto the page for others to enjoy. Raymond Raindrop. Henrietta, in her red pinafore, who loves things that swing. Two "simple stories for small scientists," as is stated on the back cover. I wonder what kinds of characters will spill from Munro's imagination in her next book, and what readers will learn along the way.

"Finding Fortune"

by L.A. Belmontéz
Published by QueenPin Books, an imprint of Garnet House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$25.00  ISBN 9-781999-567606

It's astounding how frequently completely disparate parts of one's life intersect. I recently booked a flight to Colombia for early 2020, and recently received a review copy of L.A. Belmontéz's telenovela-type novel, Finding Fortune, which is set, in part, in Colombia. While reading I paid close attention to what I might learn about Cartagena through the former prairie resident and debut-novelist's 399-page debut title.

The book's main character, Las Vegas resident Valerie Verlane, has authored a book titled The Princess Problem: From the Pea to Prosperity. Verlane comes from money and much attention is given to clothing brands, vehicles, and other luxury-material matters. She has her nose and breasts "done," and is the type who "had never taken a bus and she never would". Verlane's told her daughter that the girl's father is dead, and for all Verlane knows, Dmitri - the worldly young lawyer-in-training who'd waltzed into her 24-year-old life in Los Angeles - has in fact died.

The Canadian-born protagonist was working in a high-end furniture store in Santa Monica when playboy Dmitri swept her off her stilettos. After a few passionate dates, Dmitri, who was supposedly going to Ecuador to surf with friends, went MIA. Though pregnant with Dmitri's baby, Verlane foolishly wed Pedro, a Mexican con who stole her family's inheritance.  She "had punished herself all those years after losing Dmitri by staying with Pedro," and in that time "all ideas of self-identity has been erased through marriage and motherhood".

After Verlane's lawyer manages to reinstate the inheritance, the California-prep schooled Verlane - her privileged education taught her things like never "to do anything that is considered the maid's job" - becomes determined to "show [Dmitri] what he'd been missing" in the troubled nine years that've passed. Verlane finds Dmitri as easily as you can say "Google Search" … he's registered for the "Third Annual Caribbean Master's Golf Tournament in Cartagena".  But first, she must return to her former glory, and rebuild her self-esteem. How? Via shopping. "One day I will have my yacht," she thinks. "Today I only want clothes." She "put fear aside" and "handed over her [credit] card, buying back as much self-esteem as she could carry".

Belmontéz is great at transitions, which is something new writers often struggle with, and she proves her writing chops with descriptions like this one, of a kitchen: " … almost smelling like a home with the aroma of cocoa taking shape, gathering itself like a ghost before dissipating into the rest of the house and out the windows."

I won't be seeing the same upscale locations in Cartagena as Verlane - no resorts for me - but I do look forward to seeing, from the plane, "the peninsula of Bocagrande curl up around the city like a serpent's tale," and "churches casting long shadows over cobblestone plazas in the late-day sun."

Finding Fortune is a thick soap-opera in text, and the kind of sun-soaked romp you just might be looking for in the heart of winter.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Three New Reviews: Lost Boys by Darci Bysouth, The Eater of Dreams by Kat Cameron, and Baxter and the Blue Bunny, written by Lorraine Johnson; illustrated by Wendi Nordell

“Lost Boys”
Written by Darci Bysouth
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-175-4

Lost Boys is a short story collection with three-way heft: physical (eighteen stories), technical (diverse voices and plots; excellent characterizations; realism and magic realism are each employed to great effect), and emotional (wow). Effective art makes us think and feel, and in this, her first book, BC writer Darci Bysouth has mastered the tricky business of making the world seem both smaller and larger, and she's made this reader's heart turn over.

Innate talent? I expect so, but Bysouth also honed her craft at the University of British Columbia and the University of Edinburgh, and her work's appeared in respected literary journals and anthologies; these facts tell me that she paid her literary dues before breaking into the ISBN world with this fist-to-gut collection.

I could speak of the equally convincing male and female narrators; the recurring themes of sibling relationships, poverty, addictions, and mental illness; or of  settings that range from the "sheep and potholes" of Scotland to dark Canadian forests. I could write about the double entendre, the details, the poetic language, ie: "The water was such a long way below that it looked like some other thing," or how many of Bysouth's stories lead us inside lives that would make most of us squirm, ie: the girl who was a cutter: "My art is the razor notches on my thighs, oh God, daddy how I love those little mouths chafing against my jeans." There are so many "I coulds," but I want to concentrate on two stories I consider masterpieces: "Petey" and "Sacrifice".
Like most of the stories here, "Petey" is told in First Person, but it's told by an unreliable narrator - unreliable, because he's a drunk. He's a drunk because his wife left him with their daughter "before Lily had said her first word;" there's been an accident; and he's on leave from work and expects to be fired. Seven-year-old Lily brings home an injured bird and we follow this whisky-soaked father down a rabbit hole of fantastic destruction until the story's last impactful line, which carries so much gravity it compels one to reread the story, immediately.  

"Sacrifice" is written through the perspective of Rachel: a single, aging, childless social worker in an office where everyone else has dependents/loved ones and rich lives outside of work. Rachel's the employee who brings cupcakes to work because "there may be children visiting the office". She "always admires the accomplishments of other people's children." Because this story is so credible, when it moves from one nightmare to the next, any reader with a heart will feel theirs drop at what unfolds. Extremely well set-up, full circle story. 

The stories here do tend toward darkness. In other words, they reflect the world as it is experienced by many. I admire Bysouth's bravery and skill in writing about what hurts, and Thistledown Press for bringing her insightful stories to the world. Again, wow. I was so moved, I needed to sit and be still after reading these phenomenal stories.


“The Eater of Dreams”

Written by Kat Cameron
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-184-6

Kat Cameron, a Swift Current-born poet, fiction writer, and English Literature prof at Edmonton's Concordia University, has penned a place-specific collection of sometimes-linked stories with an intriguing title: The Eater of Dreams, and the 67-page eponymous story is a fascinating read, complete with a 100-year-old ghost, a grieving and disillusioned English teacher in Japan, and so many sensory-rich glimpses into Japanese culture - albeit from an outsider's perspective - readers might almost believe they are there.

The opening stories are Edmonton-based, and as a former resident of that city I enjoyed tagging along with the female protagonists to the Muttart Conservatory, Whyte Ave, and Jubilee Auditorium, even if these gals were not in the happiest moods. One was not having any fun being the sole woman in a trio at the Muttart Conservatory without a toddler, then she lost her friend's little girl among the poinsettas. Zoe lives in a university-area garret that's so cold her "breath fogged the air while she watched late-night TV, huddling under three comforters," and she's terrified an abusive ex will reappear. In a linked story, Zoe accompanies her new boyfriend to a family funeral in Calgary, and not only does she get put on the spot by being asked to sing "Amazing Grace," she forgets the words; a snowstorm forces them to turn around on the highway at the end of the miserable day; and she contends that her "problems trailed after her like plumes of car exhaust on a winter night".

Some of the descriptions really stand out, ie: in another Zoe story, her brother "has a small goatee, like a line of dirt extending down from his sideburns". In "Searching for Spock," Kalla's grandfather "smelled of peppermints, mothballs and wool" and her grandmother's early-morning baking filled the kitchen with smells of "crystallized brown sugar and yeast with a bitter overlay of smoke".

The sensory details are strongest in the effective title story. The protagonist, Elaine, is lonely and grieving the death of her fiancé while teaching at a Japanese high school. This is good: "The air smells of gasoline, hot tar, spilled beer, overlaid with a whiff of freesias and roses. The rain starts, a few sprinkles, then falls in thick, warm ropes" and it "drums on the iron stairs". See, smell, hear.

Elaine's estranged from her parents and apart from a connection with one kind student, her "longest conversations have been crank phone calls," ie: students calling to giggle and ask "Do you li-ku sex-u?". Elaine begins to appreciate the company of Lafcadio, a former writer and present ghost who frequently materializes as a misty shape in the teacher's cockroach-infested apartment. When the details take shape - "His hair is white and springs back from his forehead with a Mark Twain folksiness," - she thinks "If I had to attract a ghost, couldn't he be thirty-something and look like Laurence Fishburne". 

Sporadic humour, cultural insights, and the wisdom the narrator gains from intensive self-study make this long story a terrific accomplishment.   

"Baxter and the Blue Bunny"
Written by Lorraine Johnson, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781988-783413

Baxter and the Blue Bunny is the debut children's book by Yorkton writer Lorraine Johnson, and the story flows so smoothly along one would think it was penned by a veteran. Complemented by Alberta illustrator Wendi Nordell's colourful and "just right" illustrations of the canine character Baxter and his home and family, this simple, well-told story hits a surprisingly deep emotional chord.

The story, told in Baxter's voice, begins at a pet shelter, with "mom and dad, and two brothers" choosing the black and white Shih Tzu-looking dog. "I am looking for them … and they are looking for me," Baxter says, "each of us wanting to find someone special to love, to look after, and to grow up with." It's easy to read this story as an allegory, for isn't that what most of us humans want in life, too?

Through the text and Nordell's inviting scenes we experience the days in the life of a happy, well-loved dog: he plays tug-o'-war with the boys, hike-and-seek with the adults, and Grandma brings a "stuffed blue bunny" which "soon becomes [Baxter's] shadow". The dog loves - and even sleeps with - the bunny … until the day Blue Bunny goes missing. "Where could he be? Will I ever see him again?"

Baxter uses his nose to search for his beloved stuffed friend, but time and again, "there is no blue bunny" and life just isn't the same for our shaggy hero. Yes, he can chase birds and roll in the freshly-cut grass, but nothing is ever as much fun without his companion.

This softcover book is beautifully produced, with black, easy-to-read text against a white background, and full-bleed illustrations featuring Baxter inside the house or outdoors on each opposing page. To her credit, Johnson presents a dog that enjoys activities we might not consider "dog-like," ie: watching Blue Bunny spin in the dryer, and standing before the oven while cookies bake. Cookies mean treats, but - and this is the refrain once the bunny bestie disappears - "there is no Blue Bunny" to enjoy them with. 

In Johnson's bio notes we learn that she was raised on a farm near Stockholm, SK, and when her family was young they did indeed find "a four-legged furry friend named Baxter to grow up with". With children's books, I've frequently found that the story often does reflect a real-life experience. Art imitates life. And why not?

Nordell's notes reveal that she's been a lifelong artist, and as such, she "claims never to have been bored as long as she had a pen and pencil and blank surface to draw on".

It could be that I'm putting my own filter on this story as I equate it with the human need for companionship, and the profound grief one experiences when a relationship's "lost," but even without that comparison, Baxter and the Blue Bunny is recommendable. A touching story in a sweet package; I hope it finds its way into many hands, large and small.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Three New Reviews: Sadie McCarney's "Live Ones," J.C. Paulson's "Broken Through," and Helen Knott's "In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience"

“Live Ones”
by Sadie McCarney
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-776500
I've reviewed hundreds of books over the decades, and have developed a kind of ritual before I read a single word of the text proper. Today Charlottetown poet Sadie McCarney's first book, Live Ones, is under inspection.

A book is a reverent thing. Firstly, I turn it in my hands, and study the front and back covers. McCarney's slim cream-coloured volume is adorned with a small purple graphic, Winged Skull / Memento Mori, by artist Susan Crawford. What does this image suggest about the poems? There will be sorrow - quite possibly death - addressed within these pages. I flip to the back, read the publisher's blurb, any other blurbs (usually provided by accomplished writers), and biographical notes about the author. Here I learn that McCarney's book "grapples with mourning, coming of age, and queer identity against the backdrop of rural and small-town Atlantic Canada." First books often cast a wide net.

Next I check the author's birth year (just curious), if available; her Acknowledgments (where these poems previously appeared - impressive); and finally, I scan the individual titles in the Contents. Titles interest me. They can provide insight into general themes, style, and mood. Three titles leap out: "Answer and Be Entered to Win," (first poem); "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is;" and "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket." But I don't leap to these pages: writers and editors specifically order the poems, and I respect that they should be read as presented.

The opening poem is a "found poem culled from dating site questionnaires," and it's a lark in couplets. Each line asks a ridiculous question, ie: "Do you ever/
masturbate to spelling mistakes?" and "In the right light, wouldn't primates be/sexy?" I expect that this (hopefully) hyperbolic take on online dating questionnaires is making a statement on modern day relationships, and the title, "Answer and Be Entered to Win," comments on the gamble - and ridiculousness - inherent in online dating. It's a fun piece.

"Early Adopters," imagines female partners queueing for a baby at a "Black Friday sale," after "the once-fertile town's life-sap/dried up and took the yearly/births along with it." Clever!

Some of the slice-of-life poems, like a cancer-riddled aunt's trip to a beach with family, are the strongest: "By now her innards are carved up/by the cancer, metastasized every/way like the night's last firework." "Steeltown Songs," is a longer poem about adolescence and growing up where "Sometimes we skipped our chalked-in court/our tire swing's welt of spit-out gum".     

The book's saturated with fabulous images, ie: "the shimmer of smashed beer bottles/like low-rent stardust," "her hair a Celtic knot of grease" (from "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is"), and Costa Rican dogs who "luxuriated in their harems/of flies."  In "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket," lobsters "wear rubber bands/as funeral corsages."

Houses, families, small towns, youth, illness, "A teacup of ticks" and "A foundered rowboat full of rain." The 1992-born author of these unflinching poems - varied in style and content - should be proud of her first book.

“Broken Through”

by J.C. Paulson
Published by Joanne Paulson
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00ftenace and her feisty  loving  ISBN 9-780995-975620

Broken Through is former Saskatoon journalist J.C. Paulson's follow-up to her first genre-blending novel, Adam's Witness, and the author's only getting better. In the new book, heroine Grace Rampling - a Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter - digs into another gritty story after a friend's neighbour's dog is shot on the same day there's been a fatal hit-and-run in Saskatoon. Then: the neighbor, a young dental hygienist who recently kicked a drinking problem, is found brutally murdered in her home. And - spoiler alert - she was pregnant. The father? The philandering dentist she worked for.

That's hardly all: Rampling's romantic partner, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis (from the earlier book), is investigating the murder, and the handsome and capable cop quickly connects this crime with others committed against petite, long-haired brunettes in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Can you say serial killer?

The novel definitely earns the moniker of a mystery, but one could also call it a romance. New lovers Rampling and Davis are extremely passionate about one another, but both are also being careful. Davis suffers from PTSD, which manifests in violent nightmares. "I feel like a piece of glass, sometimes; the tiniest chip makes me shatter," he tells Rampling. With their complementary careers, the lines between personal and professional sometimes get blurred for this love-struck couple.

This isn't literary fiction, so you won't find overly poetic passages that would slow the racing plot, except, on occasion, when the lovers are regarding one another. Here's Adam, upon seeing Grace after he's been in California for a conference: "His body was paralyzed, but his eyes couldn't look at her hard enough. With her tumbled, wild dark-auburn hair, her magnolia skin, and in her flowing dress, she reminded him of a crazy, beautiful, windblown wildflower." You will find taut and believable dialogue, cliffhangers that'll have you flipping pages as fast as you can, and a story that has more bends than the South Saskatchewan River.  

Davis and Police Chief McIvor are culturally-sensitive characters, and as three of the five victims are Métis or First Nations women, deep into the novel Davis consults Elder Eileen Bear at the women's low-security prison for "a clearer understanding of what women, particularly Indigenous women, are facing, in terms of violence, domestically and otherwise." There's a reference to BC's "Highway of Tears," and Bear says the prairie assaults are "our River of Tears". Later, during a police press conference, Davis explains that the Saskatoon police force is "going to find and train and hire more Indigenous police officers as detectives, who will bring cultural understanding to our investigations." They will also "meet with Elders, particularly women Elders, on a regular basis."

In her notes, Paulson writes that whether one reads this "as a murder mystery, a love story, a morality tale or a fury, [she supposes] it was intended to be all of those." Mission accomplished.

In the final two chapters of this satisfying story, Paulson opens the door for further adventures for her crime-fighting duo. I'll be waiting.  


“In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience”
by Helen Knott
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-776449

When a novice author earns the praise of writers like Maria Campbell and Richard Van Camp, it's like a promise: readers are in for a powerful experience. But Helen Knott's In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, also comes with a warning: the content is "related to addiction and sexual violence. It is sometimes graphic and can be triggering for readers." The author suggests that any readers who are triggered "be gentle with [themselves]." She opens her story by acknowledging other women's painful memories, and stating that she "gives this in hopes that [they] remember that [they] are worth a thousand horses." I am already wowed.

As suggested, I'm not alone. Eden Robinson's written the memoir's foreword, and says Knott - a Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw, and mixed Euro-descent writer in Northeastern BC - is "one of the most powerful voices of her generation." Knott's introduction to the compact hardcover reveals her raison d'être for the book: "I summoned these words and the healing that comes with them to lighten the loads of shame, addiction, and struggle" for Indigenous women.

Each of these curses - shame, addiction, struggle - is apparent from the book's outset. The author and mother to a son is detoxing from drugs and alcohol on a mattress (not a bed) in Edmonton. Home is Fort St. John. She's come to the city to "erase" herself. "My detoxing body had me contracting into a tight ball one minute and expanding like a starfish the next." So visual. Even poetic. Yet the author also speaks the vernacular, ie: a year after she, her grandmother ("Asu"), and young son move into her parents' "bitter cold" home, Knott writes that she "was fucking up six ways until Sunday and then skipped Sunday and added six more sins."

Via three dramatic sections, Knott ably demonstrates how "sideways shit went down" and her "adolescence was riddled with turmoil and shaky soil." Abused from an early age by an uncle with "pretty severe fetal alcohol syndrome and schizophrenia," Knott used cocaine (beginning at age thirteen), alcohol and other drugs to subdue the demons of perpetual sexual abuse, rape - including a gang rape in which her attackers cut her and she was found bleeding and naked in a ditch - colonialism, and racism. The brutal gang attack had the then Grade 9 student begging her mother to let her move. After six months in Prince George, Knott returned to find her "mom had disappeared" and "an angry drunken woman [was] living in her skin."

Disappearance is almost a theme in this riveting first book. Knott writes: "Us Native women know how to disappear. It's an art, really - we can disappear even when we are right in front of your face." Fortunately, through much hard work and disparate therapies - from reading and rehab to writing and embracing traditional healing practices - this admirable young writer, mother, presenter, and social worker "reappeared"/healed, and is using her experience to help others on difficult journeys.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

New Book Review: Rue Des Rosiers (Rhea Tregebov)

“Rue Des Rosiers”
by Rhea Tregebov
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-781550-506990

Rue Des Rosiers by Vancouverite Rhea Tregebov is not just an exemplary novel, it's also an important book that examines anti-Semitism and empathetically puts faces on the victims and aggressors, and my hope is that the novel receives the major attention it warrants. In this richly-layered story, multi-genre author Tregebov introduces us to 1980s Toronto and Paris, and the life of 25-year-old Jewish protagonist Sarah - intelligent, questioning, and floundering - who feels the aftershocks of the generations-earlier Holocaust and suffers nightmares she can't explain.

Readers can expect credibility and precise craft on every page as Sarah, the youngest of three daughters raised in Winnipeg, wrestles with a long-ago abortion, sibling dynamics, career choices, an emotionally-wrenching Holocaust history class, and her relationship with upwardly-mobile Michael, a lawyer who invites her to join him in Paris. Sarah despises the word "Jewess," and even dislikes the word "Jew": "I always hear the slur," she says. "Hear all this weight behind the world: history, the war." She makes almost every yes-no decision with the turn of a lucky penny.

This is also the story of Laila, who's come to Paris from war-battered Palestine with a man who lives for revenge against the Jews. Both Laila and Sarah are trying to ascertain their raison d'être, and attempting to learn - within very different circumstances - how one can live meaningfully in a world shadowed with fear, guilt, and expectation. Laila considers herself "a weed in the crack in the sidewalk" and desperately desires not "to be nothing."

Tregebov wields an uncanny knack for expressing much - whether about an individual's emotional state or the sad truth about what some social workers feel re: their efficacy - in just a line or two. "He was all she saw," for example, is a phrase used with great effect.

If an award for effective writing about sisterly connections was given, Tregebov could claim it for the scene in which Sarah's being soothed by her sister Rose, post-abortion. Rose is beside morose Sarah on her bed: "Rose's body was an edge to her own, a dam, so she wouldn't spill over. A container, so even if her body wasn't a solid, she wouldn't dissolve." Sarah's sister is "The only thing holding her on the earth."

Paris is exceptionally well-evoked; I felt I was exploring the lanes, patisseries, bridges, gardens, and metro stations right beside Sarah. She finds Luxembourg Gardens especially serene.

I believe Sarah when she's empathizing with Holocaust victims. I believe her when she's drunk with friends in Paris. I believe her when she's grief-stricken about her abortion and her sister Rose's suicide attempt; or examining Impressionist paintings at the Jeu de Paume gallery; or sitting alone in a Paris traiteur chinois ordering "honey garlic ribs and beef with broccoli in black bean sauce." (The book's saturated with delicious descriptions of food.) I believe Sarah, also, when in the midst of unspeakable horror, she does something "unequivocally good." You will believe her - and Laila - too.