Monday, October 6, 2014

Five Books Reviewed: Margoshes, Logan, Hobsbawn-Smith, Wilson, and Hoffer

“What Do You Do All Day?”

by Miriam Hoffer

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-25-6

     Before reviewing Miriam Hoffer’s book What Do You Do All Day?: Women’s Stories of Retirement, I considered perceptions of retirement, then realized, through reading, how different perceptions often are from the realities. Do you view retirement as a desert of time? A period of loneliness, failing health, and disconnection from social and intellectual life? If you believe retirement is ”the last sad chapter” in one’s life, prepare to have your perceptions shaken up, for Hoffer-and the 25 women she interviewed about the “retirement journey”-paint a rosy picture of post-employment life.

     Common to all in this engaging nonfiction book is the sentiment that they “have no trouble figuring out what to do with [their] time.” They volunteer, work out, take classes, travel, provide childcare for family members, and engage in activities ranging from meditation to piano lessons, from clowning to seeing the world. Hoffer, a retired dietitian, says her own launch into retirement was one of “delirious enjoyment”. She viewed it as “a never-ending vacation from obligation.”

     Several in the book express a dislike of the word “retirement.” “Liz,” considers retirement “changing directions.” “Marnie,” a retired teacher, concurs: “I still don’t like the word retired at all because it makes me think of golf and funny hats and people my parents’ age when I was 30, whiling away the time with bridge and mah jongg and getting your hair done.” So what does “Marnie” do? She runs creative circles and mask-making workshops. She’s writing a book, and “travels to places that draw her spiritually.”

     What one has done pre-retirement can influence happiness in retirement. “Gail,” a former teacher, experienced much variety in her professional life, and had wonderful models for aging in her active parents and grandparents. No suffering from identity loss in her story! Now she now teaches yoga, belongs to the Academy for Lifelong Learning, and, at 71, is still playing tennis.

     “Katie” was a physiotherapist. She prefers to call retirement “a change in focus,” and says, “The day I die is the day you can call me retired.”

     Hoffer explains that this book is for those “who can afford to retire.” In some cases, her subjects went on trial retirements. Some realized they were just not enjoying themselves at work any longer. They’d become tired, or had health issues. Some retired when 65 was the mandatory age of retirement, others stayed longer, continued part-time work in another field, or retired very early, like “April,” who had fully retired by 52. She assessed her life and decided that “once you’ve paid off your debts … quality of life is more important than having a new something.”   

     We are an aging society, and thus Hoffer’s insightful, upbeat and highly-readable book is also a timely one. It’d make a great gift for women friends, retired or not. 



“The Invisible Library”

by Paul Wilson

Published by Hagios Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$17.95  ISBN 978-192671019-8
     There’s an image of a book on the handsome cover of Regina poet Paul Wilson’s The Invisible Library, and it couldn’t be more apt. This is a book about books, and one that word lovers should include in their libraries. It is my favourite book by this writer to date.  

     Wilson is a veteran poet, editor, and a winner of the City of Regina Book Award. He clearly reveres books, and possesses the imagination, craft, and intellect to enthrall readers with his own. Sometimes the narrator addresses his readers and offers gentle advice. In “The Invention of Paper: A Memoir,” he writes: “Please,\read these words like falling snowflakes: without aim or goal.\ See how they take the shape of what they silently settle on.”

     As good poets do, Wilson pays attention to the things most people probably miss, like the “moist breath” of rice, and the “hair pins and the pennies\found in the dryer, and the lint too, purple, from the red shirts\and blue towels…” He writes that “Our finger-prints are small saline lakes\that will outlast us.” I love all of this. Wilson’s range swings from philosophy to domesticity, and it never feels false.

     Many of the titles include the word “book.” In the section “The Typographer” we find “The Books of Repetitions,” “This Book is About You,” and “The Book That Swallowed Itself.” Paper, fonts, handwriting, librarians, prayer, a scroll, a menu, an almanac, a diary, a thesaurus, a compendium … this book is an extended ode, and it makes us consider books, writers, and even readers in fresh ways. It is also a cautionary tale, as books that one can hold and smell and don’t require a battery are disappearing in our “electronic universe”. Pity a world in which one can never again appreciate how books “unfold like tall animals waking.”

     There are also experiments in history and voice. There is surprise. We read the fictional considerations of Leonardo da Vinci (“I smear blood on the page to imagine whirlpools\inside the heart”) and Govard Bidloo, a Dutch physician, anatomist, poet, and playwright who appreciates “the beauty\of the human spine, with back flesh pinned back” over Amsterdam’s windmills and tulips. We find visceral images of the body, including physical oddities, in several of this collection’s pieces. Even fingernails hold fascination, as we read in the poem “The Gospel According to Touch: A Natural History of Fingers”: “Fingernails bring doubt.\We suck on them, paint them, and read their small\white moons for assurance.”  

     If I had the space, I would include Wilson’s poem “Unfinished Things” in its entirety here: it has earned a spot in my list of all-time favourites.  

     Readers, this is not a book to breeze through. Save it for an afternoon when you have the time to treasure each precisely-placed word-every “falling snowflake”-and can fully appreciate the singular beauty of a line like this (which describes the used books in a hospital’s sale): “Each of these books was once held — an adopted child\with perfect posture, wanting love.”

“Image In Me”

by Murray A. Logan

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 978-1-894431-98-9

     Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing (YNWP) is a terrific option for writers who wish to see their work in print, but perhaps don’t have the literary credentials (journal publications, broadcasts, awards and nominations) often required by traditional literary publishers. The company’s website explains that YNWP produces books with a “prairie flavour,” and it is “deeply committed to providing a publishing resource for those niche writers and illustrators whose stories might otherwise not be told.”

     Murray A. Logan, a Regina resident and ordained pastor with Mennonite Church Canada, is among the many writers who have taken advantage of YNWP’s fine self-publishing program. His poetry collection, Image In Me, consists of three sections and a final “Benediction,” and throughout the book Logan reveals his dedication to God, during good times and bad.

     The pieces in the first and longest section might be called prayer-poems. They give glory to God, as we read in the poem “Solitude”: “The sun comes up on this beautiful day in paradise\I’m thankful for all that I have\my testimony\lived out on this earthly plain\is nothing save in You.”

     Logan incorporates much rhyme in this book, which will please those who find contemporary poetry lacking in it. In his well-titled poem “The Rain We’ve Been Wanting All Along,” he begins: “The rain we’ve been wanting for ages\is falling on the land and on our faces\Whatever jaded mood pervades my personal space\the warm rain erases.”  

      There is much admission of vulnerability, which some believe is the secret key to a long-lasting relationship. In Logan’s book that mostly concerns his relationship with God. He appeals to his Creator as “an abandoned little boy” in the poem “Dewy Death”. In “Admitting to Admission” he boldly states: “I’m scared, Lord\I’m scared and nervous\to admit to my helplessness.”

     Some of these poems are like uplifting sermons. In “You Cannot Focus on the Things of this World,” Logan suggests readers stand naked before a mirror and appreciate that God made them beautiful. “Does He ever make anything ugly? (No)\Why would He start with you?”

      This is an incredibly revealing collection of poems. I credit Logan for not shying away from writing about doubt, grief (ie: over his father’s death), and dismay (“Today I feel close to being nothing”), and for demonstrating that sharing one’s darkest thoughts can be therapeutic for the writer and helpful for readers experiencing similar emotions. Logan balances these darker pieces against poems of romantic love and passion (“Passion rising slowly, steadily\like the sun dissolves shadows over a snow-covered lake”); cowboy poems; poems that read like proverbs; haiku (or haiku-like) poems; and even a concrete-or picture poem-about motherhood, with the lines shaped to resemble a pregnant woman.

     Clearly, Logan has much to share, and YNWP has given him a beautiful venue for expressing “God’s loving involvement all along the way.”


“Wildness Rushing In”

by dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Published by Hagios Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$17.95  ISBN 978-192671025-9

     Wildness Rushing In is the first book of poetry by Saskatchewan writer dee Hobsbawn-Smith, and, as with many inaugural books, she mines wide-ranging personal experience-from childhood to the present-for a collection that reveals her universe of passions, sorrows, and the reflective, in-between moments best expressed in poetry. 

     Among what impressed was Hobsbawn-Smith’s range of form (she incorporates prose poems, the villanelle, couplets, quatrains, a glosa, and less formally structured pieces), and her liberal use of personification. Snowflakes “swathe\the metal braces and rusty frames\of the tools in the farm field,” morning fog is described as “smoothing\the landscape,” and sun “rubs the ashes\from the forehead of the sky.” In her poem “The great divide,” a remembrance of a drive home with sleeping sons in the back seat of the car, she writes “a windshield full of stars\weeps for what can’t be said.” So lovely, and weighted with meaning.

     One way a writer adds music to poems is by using alliteration, and we see-and hear-numerous examples of this kind of music in this book. In a touching poem for a brother who died too soon, the Saskatoon-area poet writes: “We lived upon an uneasy tide,\our father’s temper an ocean trough\we rose from repeatedly to ride”.

     Anyone who can recall an old, small-town garage will appreciate the poem “Bennett’s garage,” in which you can almost smell the dust on the shelves, where there is an “abandoned typewriter ribbon uncoiling\like [a] snake”. Also on display: “A colour print, Victory Bond girls,” and “metal license plates, painted numbers cracked.”

      In the fourth and final section of the book, titled “late bloomer,” Heartbreak is dealt with in strong metaphors. The poem “Tsunami” includes “She sinks, anchor\leaden, tide at low ebb,” and in “Growing” we read: “She has burned old letters that have seared\her with their heat.” There are also poems that celebrate the hopefulness and joy of a new relationship.

     Perhaps the strongest metaphor, however, appears in the poem “Homesick.” The poet recalls “Gran’s arms\full of billowing shirts like cumulus fluttering\around her, tethered\by the clothespins in her hand.” I love the juxtaposition between the soft, ethereal clouds and the hard, practical clothespins. This poem also acts as an echo to the gorgeous cover image, “Red Sky at Evening” by painter Frances Werry.

     The fact that prairie people often deal with spring floods is addressed in several of Hobsbawn-Smith’s poems. The observant poet watches the landscape drown, and she smells “the funk\of algae bloom” from her studio. Consider the power in this: “You use your grandfather’s rusted\Model A as a gauge,\water now six inches from its roof — it floats\where last year, cattle grazed.” With typical prairie resolve, however, she contends that “What comes\comes.”

     Wildness Rushing In is a poetic account of the fluctuating seasons of one’s life: the good, the bad, the creatures (Hobsbawn-Smith gives birds and horses extra attention), the personalities, the landscapes, and the everyday occurrences that play out beneath the “high blue tent” that is the sky. Kudos to the author and publisher, Hagios Press.


“Wiseman’s Wager”

by Dave Margoshes

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95  ISBN 978-1-55050-601-3

    Winter’s an especially wonderful time to settle in with a thick and thought-provoking novel, and Coteau Books has just released one that fits the bill nicely. Wiseman’s Wager is by the prolific and award-winning Dave Margoshes, who has been entertaining readers with his novels, short story collections, poetry, and nonfiction (a biography of Tommy Douglas) for decades.

      The Saskatchewan-based writer has now spun a 382-page tale about two  Jewish-Canadian brothers, both in their 80s, and their often tumultuous lives. There’s a gun, and prison time. There are multiple marriages, Yiddish, and the Communist Party. There are counselling sessions with a desirable female psychologist, and there’s a wife in a 12-year coma. This dialogue-driven novel is less about plot, however, and more about the relationship between the brothers-and the family they’ve lost-and how memory kicks in and out, seemingly of its own volition, like a weak signal on an ancient radio.

     Zan, the intellectual protagonist, wrote a novel (“The Wise Men of Chelm”) that was a failure when published in 1932, but re-released 30 years later to great acclaim. Throughout the story feisty Zan mourns his inability to produce another novel, and he discusses this matter, plus his atheism-he is a “not-Jewish Jew”-the many woman who’ve been important to him, his childhood and family, and his work with the Communist Party: “… an endless cycle of leafleting, picketing, organizing, not that he was any good at that” with his psychologist, Zelda. He also frequently recollects his sessions with a previous psychologist, Jack-whom he began seeing after a breakdown-and compares the health professionals’ differing methodologies.

     These therapy sessions, plus the conversation “Duets” with his brother (Abe, who has a tailor shop), and Zan’s journal entries, are the devices that facilitate an intimate look into the unusual life and times of Zan Wiseman. Those familiar with Margoshes’ fiction will recognize these literary trademarks: a strong voice; superb writing laced with similes that reveal the writer’s poetic sensibilities; and funny, opinionated, politically Left-leaning characters of Jewish descent.           

     During Zan’s first session with Zelda, he describes his relationship with Abe: “I talk, he talks, is anybody listening? We’re like two freight trains roaring down the track toward each other in the middle of the night, lights blinking, whistles moaning … But it’s okay, [we’re] on parallel tracks.” And indeed they are, for all their “huffing and puffing,” the pair gently and fondly tease each other as they attempt to sort out their long lives, together and apart.

     Near the book’s beginning, Zan recalls catching his reflection in a window in Las Vegas, where he’d been living with his wife, Myrna: “ … bent, shuffling, white-haired, sallow-faced, slightly shabby clothes hanging off him scarecrow fashion”. Near the end, when he’s well into writing another novel, he sees a reflected image of Abe and himself: “…both bent, shrunken, limping along in a comic caricature of dance-nothing freakish about that.”

     This book, like a life, comes satisfyingly full circle, and Zan accepts his lot with grace.   










































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