Sunday, December 13, 2015

Four Book Reviews: Loewen, Bonny, Hart, Gereaux

“Sons and Mothers: Stories from Mennonite Men”
Edited by Mary Ann Loewen
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-774032

I’m a fourth generation Canadian, and unfortunately haven’t been privy to conversations about ancestors’ “old country” lives, which, in my case, would have included several European counties. I’ve always felt a kind of longing for such tales, for knowing where we come from helps make sense of who we are today. After reading Sons and Mothers, Stories from Mennonite Men - a collection of a dozen essays commissioned by Winnipeg writer and educator Mary Ann Loewen - I recognize that the disparate contributors’ common heritage bonds them in an almost familial way. Yes, these Mennonite men have shared so many similar experiences they’re like one large family: a family that sings, reads, tells stories, and worships together; values hard work; practices altruism; and celebrates one other - even when individual beliefs don’t align.

Two of the most obvious threads in this affecting anthology are the prominent role that music’s played – for the mothers and for their sons – and how several offspring strayed from the church’s traditional doctrines. What distinguishes the essays are the ways in which they are told, plus specific anecdotes that give us a real sense of who these devout women were\are.

Certain essays possess an academic tone, while others are more conversational. Two writers chose poetry to express their thoughts. Humour and light-heartedness permeate some of the mother-son relationships (writer Patrick Friesen refers to his mother’s “trickster” character, and even the title of his essay – “I Give a Rip” – is funny, as it’s what his 87-year-old mother sarcastically uttered while she and her son were discussing her move into a “home”).

Byron Rempel’s mother was image-obsessed; he recalls a photo of himself in a sailor’s outfit, the cap “tipped at a jaunty, seafaring angle.” He must’ve been “on shore leave.” Lloyd Ratzlaff’s essay about his mother’s decline is particularly eloquent and heartfelt. He doesn’t sugarcoat the toll it takes on those being left: “We all need palliation,” he writes.

There’s also remorse. Regarding his vibrant, storytelling mother, Paul Tiessen regrets being “too dull, too inexperienced, too seduced by the attractions of the immediate present to be interested in what she had to offer”. When he abandoned his notion of heaven and hell, Nathan Klippenstein also felt he was “not only abandoning the religion of [his] youth, but that [he] was also abandoning [his] mother”. 
Song is everywhere – choirs, family harmonies, even mother’s singing goodbyes – and gratitude’s paramount. Lukas Thiessen shares that his mother was the kind who “loves you even when you’re an aggravating, drugged-up sex fiend vagabond atheist raising a son born out of wedlock.” 

It’s difficult to write honestly about one’s mother. Howard Dyck says: “To analyze such a relationship is to venture into treacherous shoals.” Kudos to Loewen for pulling these essays together, and for choosing exactly the right end-note in Patrick Friesen’s resonant lines: “Mother says sometimes that she is shocked when she hears how old she is. As far as she knows she was ten or eleven just yesterday. And she was.”


“Yes, and Back Again”
by Sandy Marie Bonny
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-052-8

I didn’t know Yes, and Back Again was going to be that kind of book. I picked it up in the evening, intending to read only the first ten pages or so, then planned to devote the following day to it. Well, I finally put it down on page 110, and only because it was hours past my bedtime. This novel swept me up like the roaring South Saskatchewan River snatches debris off banks in the springtime.  

Saskatoon writer, artist, and educator, Sandy Marie Bonny, has crafted an ambitious story that melds history and the present, addresses cultures
(specifically the Métis), and makes friends of wildly disparate people. There’s also a strong Tim Horton’s presence, text messaging, online police bulletins, and Facebook: talk about keeping it real

Bonny unrolls two parallel stories: one concerns a young high school math and Life Skills teacher, Neil, and his writer\researcher wife, Tanis. They’re tired but excited. They’ve just purchased an old home on Saskatoon’s west side (Avenue L), and their daily life includes making the former rental house livable (ie: removing the wheelchair ramp, “odour-busting” the basement with a product called “Piss-off Pet Stain Remover,” using a borrowed Shop-Vac to suck up mouse droppings), and meeting the neighbours in the apartment building next door.

The other story centers on the Métis family who built and first lived in the character house. This story, presented in italics between the present-day chapters, includes a dangerous river crossing in a single-axel cart; premature deaths (TB, scarlet fever, Spanish flu); trapping; and a mysterious, blood-like stain in the attic.      

The contemporary story heats up when two students – friends Melissa Arthur and Jody Bear – go missing from the high school (which might be modelled upon Bedford Road Collegiate, if I’ve guessed the geography correctly). Both are Neil’s students, and he takes some major and unconventional risks in helping to locate them. Were they abducted? Are they runaways? Is it all a hoax? While Neil’s busy being both suspected by and working with police, Tanis dives head-long into a research project and a relationship with a descendant from the home’s original family.

This could all become quite convoluted, but Bonny’s got it under control. She keeps the plot moving forward, the pacing tight, and it doesn’t hurt at all that she has both a keen ear for teenaged diction and understands the dynamics of married life. Plus, she includes several west side “landmarks” that ground this story, ie: the Farmers’ Market, the skate park by the river, the highway Esso. This compelling novel works so well because it pits mundane every-day-ness against a very real and topical danger (“Six in ten years is a lot of murdered women [mostly First Nations] for a city their size”).

Deep into the book there’s an interesting husband\wife discussion concerning
teenaged boys and where the line’s drawn between respect for \ objectification of women. Although not specifically billed as YA, this well-written novel would make a smart addition to high school reading lists.


“Queen of the Godforsaken”
by Mix Hart
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-063-4
I took a plethora of notes while reading Mix Hart’s SK-based young adult novel, Queen of the Godforsaken, because there’s a lot going on across the 293 pages it encompasses. The fictional driver of this story, Lydia, is a veritable storm-cloud of teenage hormones – part girl who still plays with Barbies, part woman who feels responsible for her entire family’s welfare – and she might do or say just about anything.  

Feisty Lydia; her year-younger and equally sarcastic sister, Victoria (Lydia alternately considers Victoria her best and only friend and also gives her the moniker “Prissy Tits”); their pot-smoking and under-employed professor father; and their dangerously-depressed mother move from Vancouver to the paternal homestead on the Carlton Trail near Batoche, and the adjustment’s hard on everyone.

First, there’s the weather. Hart ably details the brutal prairie winters, where eyelids have to be pried apart, snowstorms make prisons of homes, and even the family dog tries to avoid being outdoors. The physical cold parallels Lydia’s temperament as she navigates trials at home and school in nearby “Hicksville”. Lydia, the “ice queen,” warms to few people. Case in point: both she and Victoria refer to their parents by their first names, and teachers – when the girls do go to school - are ridiculed.  

The cold and imprisonment are prominent themes. Lydia’s father keeps the house at ridiculously low temperatures, and the characters are constantly trying to warm via toques, dressing in layers, and building wood fires in the basement furnace, where six mummified woodpeckers explain the home’s “smell of death”. Through Lydia’s lens we see “urine-coloured walls,” and easily imagine the lingering smell in her bedroom - formerly used as a chicken coop.

Lydia feels school “is a prison encased in barbed wire”. The sky is “prison grey”. Back-to-school shopping is done at Saskatoon’s Army and Navy – an iconic store, now closed - where the girls select their “prison uniforms”. A smoke ring “hovers, like a noose,” over her father’s head.
The sisters are both outsiders and originals: they collect bottled shrew and mouse skeletons, Victoria veritably lives in an old pink housecoat, and the pair often hide out in their frigid home’s unfinished basement. But despite herself, Lydia also starts to appreciate things about the prairie: she learns that the first coyote yip “means it’s almost eleven,” and her iciness begins to melt when she connects with a local hockey player. Love, however, also proves another storm front: “If this is love, I hate it,” she says.  

There’s plenty of humour here to help balance the tone, ie: when Lydia’s nominated as a school Snow Queen finalist, she says “… it is sort of flattering, I guess – like winning best pig at the country fair.”

The novel and its mercurial central character are best summed up by Lydia herself. “No one could possibly understand what I am going through,” she thinks. Any teenager who has felt the same – and show me one who hasn’t! - might be well served by reading this.


“Size of a Fist”
by Tara Gereaux
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-059-7
I recognized the anonymous town in first-time author Tara Gereaux’s teen novella, Size of a Fist. The mill’s closed, there are “many boarded-up shops,” and abandoned homes. I know this town because I was raised in a number of small towns that echo it and I’m familiar with many more, and because I could relate not only to the physical aspects of the town’s decline, but also to the disreputable activities of the youth who inhabit it - including Addy, the protagonist of this New Leaf Editions’ book – and the tangible desire to get away.

Drinking, drugs, driving while impaired, “colourful” language, bullying, adolescent sex, and generations of familial dysfunction: this is no Disney story, but Gereaux does shed light on the underbelly of small-town life that some might argue is the norm, rather than the exception. There’s value in holding up that mirror: it presents a truth. The Regina writer portrays a community where the only chance of upward mobility is to be outward bound.

This book is more documentary than commentary, and I like that, too: there’s no sense of authorial judgement here, and if after a near fatality Addy utters “Everything is always so hard,” her life is proof that she’s earned that pronouncement.    

The night before Addy and her boyfriend, Craig, are about to “escape” for “the city,” they go on a final bender with friends. There’s much alcohol, and roughhousing, and because Craig’s inebriated, Addy has to drive. Imagine seven people squashed into a vehicle. Imagine a party in a cemetery (same place Addy’s mother used to party). Imagine one couple partying with a baby in tow.

It’s the reality of the scenes that struck the strongest chord with me, ie: Craig, anxious to exit, tells Addy: “Look, the tank’s full, I downloaded tons of music. I called my cousin this morning, too, and he said they just got a fridge and stove for the basement. For us.’”

There’s a heartbreaking image concerning Jonas – a bullied boy who lives with his abusive and alcoholic father. The boy’s mother is dead, and at one point he smooths her long dress on the floor, “crawls on top of it,” and curls into a fetal position. Jonas plays a major role in the novella, and I encourage you to read it to learn how the plot surprisingly twists.  

Addy’s mother is another mean character: she says things like “Get outta my face,” drinks too much, and is having an affair with the local RCMP officer. It’s abundantly clear that Addy never really had a chance.

It’s a sorrow that this is real life for some people. Like those I know who refuse to watch the news (because it’s “depressing”), some folks would scan the back cover text and put Size of a Fist back on the shelf. Then there’s the rest of us, who prefer not to go through life wearing blinders. If you’re in the latter camp, good on you: you’ll appreciate what Gereaux has accomplished here.   


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Three New Book Reviews: Fawcett, Haensel, MacIntyre

“The Little Washer of Sorrows”
by Katherine Fawcett
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-049-8
This fall I heard a new writer present at the Whistler Writers Festival and I was so enchanted by her story I requested the book (The Little Washer of Sorrows) for review. I expected I’d be in for an entertaining read, but I couldn’t have guessed what a veritable fun house this short story collection would prove to be. You dive in and at first things seem normal. Characters are realistically portrayed, their situations fathomable, then metaphorical distorting mirrors kick in. Sometimes you laugh out loud, sometimes you recoil as the lines between fantasy and reality are cleverly blurred. 

Welcome to the estimable fictional world of Pemberton BC writer Katherine Fawcett. She’s an original, beginning with her comic dedication to her parents, who “did not ruin [her] life after all”. And here’s the first line of the book (from “Captcha”): “The day I discovered my true nature began like any other day: I woke up, gave Pete a blowjob, and went downstairs to fry up a pan of bacon.” Who is not going to want to continue?    

It’s Fawcett’s playful combination that both jolts and delights: real-world relationship situations, familiar settings, and pop culture references (from Starbucks and Storage Wars to YouTube and the Kardashians) share the page with mythical creatures (ie: banshees, mermaids, sirens, Father Time) and sleight-of-hand plot twists, and she controls it all with cracking-fine language, powerful doses of humour and irony, and spot-on pacing.

Several of the nineteen stories - told from a variety of perspectives, including precocious children and Mother Earth herself - are stylistically innovative. “Dire Consequences” is only four pages long but it packs a Poe-like punch while sporting contemporary references (“Tiger-Tiger in a waffle cone,” “Japanese manga characters”) and credible teen dialogue (“I feel like we can totally read each other’s minds”). The hilarious “Representing Literature in Music for You,” about an eager teacher who takes his lackluster high school students to Tim Horton’s for class, is all written in dialogue, sans quotation marks. One truly feels for how desperately the teacher tries to engage the youths. The title story, about a couple filing for bankruptcy, is told in Second Person, and illustrates how our imaginations can get the best of us. In the MNP office – where his wife’s making conversation with Fiona, Assistant Estate Manager “as if to a friend at Curves” - Greg fears Fiona is a banshee (from Irish folklore). Despite himself he stares at her legs and “feel[s] an erection coming on.” He “look[s] at the ceiling and think[s] of golf so it will go away.”

Numerous stories contain a sexual element. When “a stout old farm lady from the Ottawa Valley” approaches a young woman at a Mexican resort, the latter thinks the former may need help “adjusting her hearing aid or putting on her circulation socks or something”. She does not expect a startling erotic proposition, and nor does the reader.

These tales are unpredictable, daring, and often out-bloody-rageous. Read them. And tell your friends.


“A Rain of Dragonflies”
Written by Regine Haensel
Published by Serimuse Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.25 ISBN 978-0-99390-320-5

Before reading a book, I wonder what new landscapes (internal and external) I’ll explore, what characters and situations I’ll be introduced to. With short stories, I’ve often found that those furthest from what I believe to be the writer’s personal experience are the most successful.

So it was with A Rain of Dragonflies, by Saskatoon’s Regine Haensel, a collection of fourteen short stories. The two that most captivated were “The Cage,” about a dumpster-diving recluse who cages a canary that’s flown into her two-room rooftop suite, and “Winter,” about a flowerchild-turned-teacher who picks up an elderly female hitchhiker during a “near blizzard,” and has her perceptions challenged. Many (if not most) writers do use “seeds” from their lives as inspiration, even when writing fiction. I don’t know how much of these particular stories was fabricated - Haensel did work as a teacher and lived in remote communities like the ones described in the book - but I do know that they really work.

Several characters are unsettled re: the way their lives have turned out, but unlike the rest, Aggie (from “The Cage”) doesn’t question her lot. “She had always accepted everything that went on around her, accepted it as the way of the world” and she “found ways to live within its limitations”. This story succeeds because Haensel never allows it to get sentimental. She portrays loneliness by having Aggie spend most of her days “listening to the cracked radio that only got local stations or looking at pictures in the tattered magazines that she collected.”
Aggie’s home decoration consists of magazine photos, her own drawings, and newspaper-clipped images of birds. She has a cracked plate and label-less tins in the cupboard, collects beer bottles, and is familiar with back alleys, where “garbage cans [spill] over with crumpled paper and old rags, boxes [smell] of rotting vegetables or wilted flowers”. These visceral details make the story credible, and the objective reportage of events allows readers to emotionally connect: we’re not being told what to feel, we’re allowed to experience it ourselves.

“Winter” succeeds because the writer first establishes how challenging Saskatchewan winters truly can be, ie “one snowfall leads to another and has to be shoveled out in the morning and sometimes again when you get home at night.” It also lasts “six months if you’re lucky, closer to seven if you’re not.” There’s a quilt in the truck because its heater doesn’t work well. (Been there).The teacher\narrator is begrudging winter and “the settled life” she’s fallen into when the hitchhiking woman appears. The teacher remembers her own days of hitchhiking – and freedom – and experiences a rainbow of emotions, including pity, and incredulity that her aged guest is bound for Winnipeg, five hundred miles hence. Where do both women belong? Suddenly, the teacher’s life doesn’t seem so glum.

Parents … spouses … a werewolf. Many characters in these fine stories have their eyes opened in one way or another; my bet is that most readers will experience the same.  

“Mahihkan Lake”
by Rod MacIntyre
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-053-5

Veteran writer Rod MacIntyre has combined his talents in scoring authentic and witty dialogue, evoking place to the point where you can actually smell it, and building both personal and physical drama in his seventh book, Mahihkan Lake. Well-known for his YA novels and story collections, now MacIntyre’s characters are all grown up and about to collide – with dark secrets and personal demons in tow – at a mouse-infested cabin beside a northern Saskatchewan lake. Cue gun shots, “a Jesus big storm,” and the cremains of a brother in a “strawberry-faced” cookie jar. Cue wolf (“‘Mahihkan’ - or a word like it - is Cree for wolf”), a gravel truck driver named Harold (with a man’s “boot in his brake hose”), and a mysterious letter. Cue a 1968 Martin guitar, a Road King motorcycle, and chaos.

Drama aside, this novel’s an existential story about self and an intimate exploration of family composed via equal shots of humour and pathos. If the book had a subtitle, it could be How Did We Get Here? MacIntyre’s also a playwright and screenwriter, and there’s a lot of talking in this tale as the characters both literally and figuratively warm. Several chapters are almost entirely dialogue between the underachieving and self-deprecating alcoholic musician Denny and his successful (her new Saab is “The colour of good dental work”) but haunted sister, Dianne. They contemplate talent, happiness, and familial history while tending to practical matters, ie: how to get the cabin’s ancient pump to work.

Denny describes himself as a “complete slob” who is drinking himself into “blissful oblivion”. He lives alone above a paint store. At the story’s inception Dianne retrieves him from his month at a rehab centre, and his fervent drinking is like a through-thread in this novel. At one point Dianne says, “You don’t have a heart, Dennis, you have an enlarged liver”. The three sections of the book - Blue, Sepia and Red - refer to his progressive states of drunkenness. In the “Red Zone,” he says he “start[s] hallucinating dead people”.

Denny co-wrote and toured two mildly successive albums back in the day. His “behemoth mega-hit” was “recorded in eighteen languages” and – in fine MacIntyre-esque comic style – “There’s a yodelling version from Switzerland that is playing on YouTube as we speak.”   

The author, who’s called both Saskatoon and La Ronge home, succinctly captures secondary characters with telling details, ie: the siblings’ father, who built the cabin, was a “terrible carpenter”: “His motto was ‘if it’s close, it’s good.’” Dianne’s husband, whom Denny refers to as “The Doink,” is allergic to leather and the colour black, and niece Kirsten is dating a guy with “Eat Shit” tattooed on his forehead.

Harold’s just plain unlucky. After the accident he sets out on his own journey across Mahihkan Lake and a) capsizes his canoe b) learns his tent’s missing a pole and sports a huge, mosquito-welcoming tear, and c) accidentally sets his tent on fire. 

Saskatchewan-style tragi-comedy anyone? Mahihkan Lake deftly fills the bill.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Four Book Reviews: Smith, Banks, Buffie, Wood

“Time After Time”
by Gaye Smith
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-49-2

Before I even opened Time After Time, a colouring book (for mature colourers) by Lipton SK artist and all-round creative powerhouse Gaye Smith, I did some internet research. That may seem strange, for here I was about to review a book without text …shouldn’t it be, like, easy-peasy? I was vaguely aware that adult colouring books had become a hot new phenomenon, and I wanted to know why.

Turns out it’s about de-stressing. What I learned is that like reading, or doing jigsaw puzzles, or knitting, when we focus on the activity of colouring it calms the mind and takes our focus away from worries, while simultaneously stimulating motor skills, senses, and creativity. There’s a crossover with mindfulness and mantras: “Activities in which the brain is engaged just enough to stop it whirring, but not so much that the concentration is draining.” (The Guardian)

The writer of a June 2015 article (in The Guardian) reported that “Five of Amazon’s top 10 last week were adult colouring-in books, as were six of Brazil’s top 10 non-fiction list. Last year in France, the combined colouring-in industry sold 3.5m books.” Apparently it’s a universal phenomenon, captivating folks from all walks of life. Psychologists are studying it. An Algerian doctor stated that colouring books helped him lick severe depression. They’re huge in China. There are Facebook sites dedicated to this. Apps. And there are intricately-designed books galore.

Would Smith’s Time After Time meet the unspoken promise to keep me in a calm, focused zone? I opened the softcover (approximately 9 x 12”) and was bedazzled. Many of the images, including the cover image, depict a fantastical landscape with water; hills; ringed cones (trees); flowers; insects; hobbit-type homes; all-sorts-ish candy; and creatures, all graphically designed with swirls, stripes, dots, circles, checks, and squiggles (this sounds like a children’s poem). I can imagine the fun she had creating these images, and wonder if she imagined the adults who might take felt pen to paper and fill in the blanks while the prescient concerns of their worlds melted away like ice cream.

There are twenty-four images (not counting covers, inside and out) to play with, and each graphic faces a blank page. My favourites are the full-bleed candy page-perhaps because it brings back memories of when my parents hosted card games in their smalltown SK homes and served all-sorts candy-and the dragonfly page.

I can certainly admire the art, but now it’s time to put the efficacy of “colouring as a means to lessening stress” to work. Will I feel calmer? Like a child again? I search my desk, my junk drawer: no markers or pencil crayons! And the work is too fine to attempt with wax crayons. Well, I’m all out of Big Girl things like butter and eggs, so a trip to the store is called for. While there, I’m going to swing down the stationary aisle, grab a full pack of fine-tipped markers, because to be honest, I can’t wait to try this out.   


“Exile on a Grid Road”
by Shelley Banks
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-057-3
Robins, grackles, gulls, airport snow geese, a Great Horned Owl, iconic chick-a-dees that eat peanuts from the palm of a hand, pigeons, Ruby-throated hummingbirds in bougainvillea. Birds flutter in and out of Exile on a Grid Road by longtime Regina writer and photographer Shelley Banks. In her inaugural poetry collection, the multi-genre scribe demonstrates that she’s also paid attention to dogs and cats, insects, rain, the myriad plants (“natives and exotics”) that grow alongside gravel roads, and, of course, to the human heart.

Why is this all important? Because life whizzes by, and most of us don’t take the time to stop and consider how a grasshopper resembles a twig on a patio gate, or how-on a grave or anywhere else in a certain season-“lumps of clay jut\through the snow”. This is the very stuff of life; it counterbalances the tedium of work-a-day lives, the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy, the shadows that deaths leave behind. It’s good and necessary to celebrate what goes on beneath the glossy surface of life, and that’s what poets like Banks do so well.

The finely-tuned poems in this book are mostly short, and Banks has employed various styles: free verse, quatrains, couplets, haiku, a prose poem, a pantoum, concrete poetry, and even a found poem, “Swordfish,” “from text describing complex patterns in number puzzles from an online Sudoku Guide.” This diversity might signal that some of these pieces were written while the writer was in a poetry class, or perhaps she just enjoys the freedom of experimentation. The variety is aesthetically appealing, as is the range in subject matter.   

“Greed” is among the poet’s many considerations. An octogenarian is greedy for “dregs of wine, the last peanut skins,” and Banks examines the greediness of the photographer who’s compelled to “capture” the image of an owl and satisfy her “need not to believe\but prove this presence”. She continues:

     and the memory of the great
     owl’s soaring grace
     flounders in desire,

     to just another checklist photo

Banks is competent in the mechanics of poetry. Note that in the above excerpt (from “Raw Desire”) she’s placed “reduced” and “lost” on their own. This gives these words more weight, so they reverberate and meaning is heightened. Great care’s also taken with line breaks in this collection: end-line words “swing” backward and forward, giving lines double meaning and impact. Phrases like “the clouds slate\submarines patrolling the horizon” and “a galaxy of farms” demonstrate originality and grace.

The “bird-stained window” in “The Strike Drags On” is, for this reader, an ideal metaphor for this accomplished collection. The poet is an acute observer (the window), who records and shares personal observations and experiences in poems that sometimes whisper, sometimes sing, and sometimes howl. Yes, there are “stains,” and that’s the reality of anyone’s flight through this world, but there is also joy, and praise .. for the moments, for oranges, for snow melt, and “one light\far off\along the wingtip”.

These are poems to let steep, and read again.  

“Let Us Be True”
by Erna Buffie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781550-506358

The unceasing mystery of “family” is at the heart of many a novel, and in Let Us Be True, Manitoba-based Erna Buffie employs a variety of characters to explore this complex subject across generations. When one considers how we often hurt those closest to us-including our kin-it’s easy to question whether blood is indeed thicker than water.

Buffie kicks this novel off on a WW2 battlefield. Henry’s a young soldier who doesn’t regret the death of his hometown comrade, as it frees up that soldier’s girl. He knows that Pearl “won’t be an easy woman to love, but he can’t think of anything else he would rather do.” In the chapters that follow-and through the voices of her two adult daughters and others-we learn that Henry pegged it: foul-mouthed, sour, and seemingly heartless, Pearl’s a difficult woman to like, let alone love.

In chapter two we meet the force that is Pearl Calder. Now seventy-four, she’s clearing out anything extraneous after Henry’s death, including items others might keep for sentimental reasons. Good details here help us understand these characters, ie: Henry kept a Tony the Tiger glass collection. “He’d collected with every refill at the Esso station, the one where he’d worked for more than thirty-five years.” And how about this for Pearl’s telephone answering machine message: “Is this thing working, Henry? Henry! Oh, hell, just leave us a message and I’ll try to figure it out.” Hilarious.

Early on, Pearl’s discarding her dresses: “They didn’t fit any more. Size twelve. When was the last time she’d seen a size twelve? The last time one of the girls got married, and it had taken her twelve months of dieting to get there. And for what? Two divorces, one right after the other, and two mother-of-the-bride dresses she’d never wear again.” I love the realism in this.   

Clearly, Pearl’s not close to her girls, and they’re not close to each other. Darlene’s a university professor in a relationship with Athena. Pearl believes this “silly ass” elder daughter “could use a bit of lightening up”. (Pearl’s especially fond of describing people and things as “silly”). The crotchety protagonist attacks her other daughter, Carol, for her pride in her fancy house, where she lives “with her two spoiled sons and that bland, blond-haired milquetoast she’d married.”    

Pearl mostly communicates via rant, whereas Henry, the daughters’ favourite, was much softer. She admits that she had “spent quite a bit of their married life shouting nasty things at Henry ....” Her place was for “bitching and scolding,” while Henry was for “fun and play.”

There are several twists and turns, shadows and secrets in Buffie’s debut book. Does Pearl’s dark history justify her coldness? Does she have any redeeming qualities? And how much do our parents’ experiences impact upon the adults we become?  

In life there are always more questions than answers. Let Us Be True is a book that lays it all out, and leaves it up to readers to make their own judgements.       

“Love is Not Anonymous”
by Jan Wood
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-056-6
It’s a happy coincidence when a poet’s name reflects one of his or her subjects. As I read Love is Not Anonymous, one of four books released as part of Thistledown Press’s 12th New Leaf Editions Series, I discovered that Jan Wood is an example of this synergy. Wood calls Big River SK home–anyone who knows this heavily-treed area will understand the name\leitmotif connection-and while the book’s back cover blurb addresses the poet’s handling of love, relationships and spirituality, I keep returning to the poems that indirectly honour the natural world.

Among these is “Awakening,” where the narrator’s night-driving on a rain-slick road, and “at the edge of the swamp-spruce” a bull moose appears. Though the poet tries to capture a decent photograph where “the Northern Saskatchewan forest\intertwines with moose, muskeg and sky,” her “Details of the night are\a thousand apertures and nothing”. She becomes philosophical in the final stanza, and it’s this layering-the real world of a bridge and rain and headlights juxtaposed against what it may all mean in the big picture-that marks this poem a success.

     Clumsily human, I teeter
     on the edge of oneness
     slow my breath until
     the beauty I behold can bear my weight.

More evidence of Wood’s fine way with the natural world is revealed in metaphors and personification. “Ringed moon in a January sky\a pale tambourine,” she writes in “Elle”. In “Dangerous as Whiskey,” which I’m assuming to be a spring poem, “water has its hands all over\the morning” and “night drips with a language\that it dares not speak.” Sometimes there’s a confluence of natural and religious images, as in this dandy from  “communion”: “on Sundays a week’s supply of holy\melts on her tongue like a snowflake”. This, friends, is first-rate poetry.

I know the poet’s doing her job when she writes so evocatively of winter I find myself missing the snow and engaging in prairie-type activities, like skating. Wood’s poem “Skating in the Exit Light” features a twelve-year-old girl and a boy she’s interested in sneaking into the rink to steal some alone time-and figure eights-on the ice.

In several of these poems we’re given the poetic outline of an event and are called upon to use our imaginations to fill in the details. Some are more forthcoming, like “Duplex,” with its theme of domestic abuse. For those new to reading poetry, I advise reading the back cover copy and perhaps the publisher’s online notes (if available) about the work before beginning a book; poetry is often spare, and the aforementioned texts can provide helpful hints on the content.

Finally, a word about this book’s gorgeous cover. The photograph of a female statue (perhaps representative of the biblical Mary?) among red-berried conifers could be enough to make anyone grab this book off a shelf. I hope you do just that.     


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of Alix Hawley's All True Not A Lie In It (and woohoo! ... the novel's shortlisted for the Giller!)

All True Not a Lie in It

Written by Alix Hawley

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95  ISBN 978-0-345-80855-4





     Being of the slightly suspicious sort, I will refrain from making predictions about chief juries’ receptions of All True Not A Lie In It, and simply state that if the acutely-etched portrait Alix Hawley paints of American pioneer Daniel Boone even faintly resembles the real man, a stronger spirit has rarely roamed this earth.

     Here is quintessential Boone: “I thin down to sinew, I feel strung like a bow … I fashion myself a real bow and some arrows with saplings and gut … I shoot a wildcat with it just as it considers tensing to spring at me … It falls, shot clean. Killing it so, without touching it or hurting it, is a beauty to me, there is no other like it. I love that bow sending its quick arrow to the heart just as if it is stopping time.” The unlikely combination of fierce wanderlust and waxing poetic squarely hits the mark.

     In her foreword to this ambitious and mesmerizing first novel, Hawley writes that she knew little of this “slippery character, a peculiar mix of famous and forgotten” before she began scoring his tale. To that I say this: holy research, and readers: Take Notice Now. The frighteningly talented Kelowna writer (and Okanagan College professor) seized this reader like a rider on a fly-past horse; it is indeed difficult to reconcile that Hawley herself has only graced this earth since 1975.

      “Your sister is a whore,” the fictional story begins. These five words set both the book’s elegiac tone and introduce us to one of Boone’s three families—his childhood, Quaker family; his own wife and progeny; and the Shawnee family he is adopted into. All figure prominently. Central to Boone’s character is the early death of his elder brother, Israel. “Dan” drags a litany of dead with him, as if on a leash. He is similarly haunted by familial misdeeds (his grandfather built the Quaker Meeting House in Exeter, Pennsylvania “as a penance” for his “whoring” in England before arriving in America), and by the wild reputation that precedes him (his “woodman’s prowess” and “nobility of character” are propelled by Will, who tails him from childhood on and widely publishes accounts of Boone’s life), but Boone’s greatest ghost is his burning lust for settling paradisiacal Kentucky. Folks, there’s a lot going on.

     Hawley writes in First Person: “I watch for anything to shoot. Anything. I watch for signs, for tracks, for moving shadows, for twitches in the trees and grass”. From his earliest days, the larger-than-life protagonist possesses a hyper-aware ability to “follow the animals’ thoughts”. His own poetic and philosophical thoughts are often revealed in short bursts, which serve to emulate the bursting dramas that define his legendary life.

      Perhaps the author’s greatest talent lies in her cinematic ability to manipulate the focus and pacing. She handily moves between the everyday (ie: young Boone “suck[s] in the kitchen-garden smell of onions and graves” at his grandfather’s stone house) and between Boone’s rich interior life, and between the landscapes and brutal battles he experiences as he restlessly crisscrosses the early map of America. There is no peace for this man: he was fired up early on by Israel’s admonition to do as he likes. Our hero feels “Forting up is rotten,” and he “hate[s] wagoning down to the pit of [his] gut,” thus he repeatedly takes off in various configurations: alone, with his adventurous counterparts, or dragging his family and fellow pioneers along behind him in their “clanking parade” of carts, livestock, and “children always falling out of their baskets”.   

     The detailing is spectacular: “Under the splintery red face on the sign for The Indian Queen tavern, a man pukes neatly and then deposits a backgammon piece in the puddle.” Hawley’s not one to avert a graphic scene. There is a scalping “How To,” and she writes of Boone and company’s hazing-like torture—which includes running a gauntlet, being dunked in icy river water, and having fistfuls of hair wrenched from their skulls by Shawnee women—with such credibility one veritably experiences the pain.

     Although Boone’s cleverly portrayed in all of his man’s-manliness, Hawley equally reveals his flipside. The portrayals of this complex man as beguiled suitor (especially the slow-motion scene of Boone’s future wife sitting in a tree picking cherries) and loving father (particularly when he cuddles with his “far too old for this” son before a campfire) are well worth owning the book for.    

     Daniel Boone, as both history and Hawley attest, possessed an innate aptitude for not getting killed … by the Shawnee, Iroquois and Cherokee, by British and French soldiers, by cold, starvation, wild animals, and by his own omnipresent grief. “I am an empty house where sounds echo and have nothing to catch upon,” he confesses, after being separated from his true family for far too long. They have become “like a set of knives stuck in me and pulled out again, leaving holes.”

     Here is a prediction I do feel safe in making: All True Not A Lie In It will make an indelible mark.      


Shelley A. Leedahl is a multi-genre writer in Ladysmith, BC. Her latest book is the essay collection I Wasn’t Always Like This (Signature Editions, Winnipeg).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Four New Book Reviews: Butala, Besel, Haensel and Stehwien

“Wild Rose”

Written by Sharon Butala

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95 ISBN 9-781550-506365

     After completing Sharon Butala’s epic new novel Wild Rose, I closed the book and thought: This is why she’s on CanLit’s “A” list. If you’re in the mood for getting completely swept up in a female pioneer’s adventure–and this means fully empathizing with the young Québécois idealist, Sophie, as she sets out in 1884 for the West and the freedom it signifies–then buckle up, because Butala assuredly leads readers back in time to a landscape where “the sun [pours] itself over everything: horses, the hats of the men, the few women’s entangling skirts, the children’s round eager faces, the …already weathered false-fronted buildings, piles of all kinds of goods on the ground from walking plows to stained sacks … to the teams of horses, the train itself …”.

     Butala has a masterly way with landscape, making it, too, feel like a character you enjoy spending time with. Given her many years of living on the Prairies-plus the fine craft she’s already demonstrated with sixteen highly-revered titles, including GG-nominated fiction and nonfiction-she comes by this gift honestly. This is a writer who’s experienced “a yellow wildflower quivering under the weight of a bee” and looked out to see “only grass and more grass, hills and more low, softly sloping hills repeating themselves until they reached the far, light-filled, wavering horizon.” I assume there were winters when she, like her realistic protagonist, felt that people “were nothing out here in the West … barely human beings here, just helpless animals in thrall to the unimaginable, implacable force that nature was showing itself to be.”

     Yes, the three big players in effective fiction - character, plot and setting – each get full marks in this cinematic book, set in “tiny, unprosperous Bone Pile,” but it’s Sophie’s rich interior life – the questioning of her Roman Catholic faith, her family, and what it is to be a woman; the reckoning with her unimagined challenges (including the shame of having her husband leave her, penniless and with a child); and the self-actualization she achieves in the story’s conclusion–that elevate this novel and should have it earning awards.   


     Butala’s capture of how an immigrant might feel upon arriving in a new land and culture – without language skills – seems both topical and, again, experienced. Sophie has the added challenge of coming from a privileged family–she was raised with a cook and housekeeper in the home–and thus has much to prove on the unforgiving prairie homestead, desperately breaking clumps of soil and carrying pails of water a mile so she might grow vegetables; and later, devising how she’ll provide for herself and her son after her husband abandons them.


    The distinct chapters, reeled out between past and present, offer clues to how forward-thinking Sophie came to make the choices she did, and the last paragraph is so fittingly wrought I cannot imagine it any other way.

     Wild Rose is a fully-realized and gloriously wild ride of a novel. It is a triumph, in every way.  




“Lessons from a Nude Man”
Written by Donna Besel
Published by Hagios Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95 ISBN 9-781926-710303

     “I hadn’t seen a penis in ten years.” So begins the first and title story in Donna Besel’s diverse collection, deliciously titled Lessons from a Nude Man. The Manitoba author, who previously published many stories in the respected literary journal Prairie Fire, identifies as a “boreal writer,” and indeed several stories make reference to activities and items only those who’ve experienced boreal \ northern climes might be familiar with, ie: the danger of hitting moose on the highway, or slipping into Sorrel boots when the temperature drops into danger zones. My hometown is Meadow Lake, SK; I can relate, but I also recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-written and entertaining stories, regardless of where they call home.
     The crown jewel (pardon the pun) here is the title story. It had me laughing aloud, and I can imagine this tale being a huge crowd-pleaser at public readings. A 50-something woman supplements her widow’s pension by operating a B and B from her rural home, and in her online listing she’s included that she welcomes “alternatives.” She had “intended to solicit gays, artists, organic food-eaters, pagans,” and what she got was Roland, from Yorkton, who wants to inspect the property for a prospective week-long stay with his “group”. A few minutes after he arrives he says: “Can I take off my pants? So you can get a sense of it …” He then “shucked off his jeans and launched into an explanation of naturist philosophy.”
     The hilarity in this story-and others in the book, including “Hawksley Workman and the Worst Motel in Canada,” seems entirely natural, not forced. One would think that comedy is Besel’s oeuvre, but she’s equally adept at revealing life’s darker side. Stories concerning physical and sexual abuse in the nine-story collection are juxtaposed against stories about teaching Hutterite children, and a woman’s summer spent as a carpenter’s helper: “I remember the smell of marijuana, the echoing rumble of dynamite, the heavy Mennonite lunches, and the long hours we spent pounding on unyielding cement.”
     In “Fare Well,” where we find an abused woman crying in bed, her face buried in the sheets, the author writes: “Her head bobbed into the thin material-silent, but violent movements, like a swimmer breast-stroking into the waves.” This is strong writing. In the same story the protagonist is “booted face-down into half-frozen compost. By a stupid deer.”
     The first-time author takes readers on various road trips, and her evocations of a changing world are bang on. A character states how at one time Ontario resorts “might have catered to weekend anglers and families who liked dinky cabins or trailer villages. But these tourists had disappeared. The new ones wanted hot tubs, hot showers, hot bars, water slides and zip lines.” True thing.  
     This work is fresh and exciting, and I can’t wait to read the “Motel Hell” (my words) story to a friend; Besel’s account of a family staying in the “Worst Motel in Canada” are alone worth buying this book for.          

“The Other Place”

Written by Regine Haensel

Published by Serimuse Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$12.00 ISBN 978-603-8919-58-3

     Regine Haensel’s first collection of stories, The Other Place, is so easy to read, one need only invest a few hours, yet the compelling linked stories and their credible protagonist – Greta, a young German immigrant – remain with the reader in the way one can still feel the warmth after a good friend has been to visit.

     Firstly, the book is physically enjoyable to read. The double-spaced lines are literally easy to see, and the paper used is noticeably whiter than in most books, so the black print stands out. This is rare and especially welcome. The attractive cover features multi-coloured circles (slightly reminiscent of a Spirograph design) against a lime green background, and offers no clue – not a bad thing! – as to what’s inside: nine stories about introspective Greta’s often difficult assimilation into a small prairie community. In her words, she “Wanted to get good at forgetting sad things.” 

     I believe Saskatoon-based Haensel has drawn deeply from her own personal experience, as a quick internet search reveals that she was born in Germany and moved to Canada in the 1950’s. Her work’s been recognized with several Saskatchewan literary awards, magazine and anthology publications, and CBC broadcasts: in short, she writes exceedingly well. Indeed, it would seem that as a child the author was taking notes on her experience, for these stories deliver images and events so convincingly they ring of memory.

     In this excerpt from “Goldenrod,” eight-year-old Greta is discovering her new rural landscape: “Land rushed away to meet sky, blue and dusty green undulating together in the distance, surging back, wind whipping my dress, then gone. Stillness like listening, like waiting.” This smacks of poetry, and may seem beyond the “voice” of a child, but in Greta’s case I believe it; the author has done such a fine job of characterization, I’m assured that the observant and mature-for-her-age main character would respond to the land in this way.

     The stories, all told in First Person, shed light on cultural challenges, ie: Greta’s shame about her long, braided hair (her female classmates sport short styles); her clothing (“dirndl skirts and aprons”; the other girls wear pants); and even the torte her mother makes, which is so unlike the apple pie her friend Susie’s mother serves. Greta emulates her classmates: “I practiced Susie’s laugh and the way Janet tossed her head.” So realistic.

     Greta’s father is the hired man for Mr. Bradley, and the immigrant family is at the mercy of the Bradleys for everything from accommodation to fresh chicken and Greta’s ride to school. The girl dreams of having her own room, and short hair. Some wishes materialize: in this passage Greta considers her shorn braid, which her mother’s stored in a dresser: “Sometimes I would take it out and look at it by myself, this piece of hair that had once been a part of me. How strange, I thought, it doesn’t look like it belongs to anyone or anything now.”            

     Lovely writing, fresh insights. A book very much-enjoyed.      



“Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective”

Written by Barbara Stehwien

Published by Landscape Art Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$9.95 ISBN 9-780991-964918

      The softcover book Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective, originally published in 1993 and later released with an updated biography, was a family affair. The book-not unlike a gallery catalogue produced to accompany a major artist’s show-is prefaced by introductions to the German-born artist’s life and work by daughter Barbara Stehwien and daughter-in-law Nancy Robinson-Stehwien. What follows is 20 attractive pages of black and white and colour images of the prolific artist’s work, including landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes.

    First, the man. In the introductions we learn that Stehwien was the quintessential artist, always ready to capture the spirit of what was around him, and as such he lived a full and interesting life. “I have not known him to go anywhere without his materials,” his daughter writes, adding that if he didn’t have everything that was required, he would “improvise using the back of painted or printed matter, even restaurant napkins.” She says he would use “any old pen rather than lose an important moment.”

     The use of “moment” here lends a clue to the value the subject of this book saw in those brief snatches of time, when perhaps the sun was only momentarily striking the leaves of a tree and making them golden, or brightening a distant field in a prairie scene, like he illustrated in his painting “Old Farmyard, 1984”.    

       The author speaks of her father’s vocation as “an inherent part” of him. “Even at family get-togethers he will not rest.” This passion is reiterated by his daughter-in-law, Nancy, who writes of the artist’s “zest for life,” the “unerring perspective evident in his rendering of buildings and cityscapes,” and “his ability to see the subject of a painting in something most of us would pass by without a second glance.”

      Now, the work. Through his spontaneous charcoal and pastel sketches;

his oil portraits; his pencil, pen, and ink drawings; woodcuts; and his acrylics-indeed it seems he covered all the media-I agree with his daughter that her father was a “versatile” and highly-skilled artist. Apparently the “powers that be” at Saskatoon City Hall believe the same, as Stehwien’s name has been added to the list of those who will one day have a city park named after them.

     I was particularly moved by the book’s front and back cover images. On the front, “Autumn at the Lake,” an atmospheric acrylic painted in 1989; and on the back, a Saskatoon winter scene, revealing children playing on a riverside hill, the Bessborough Hotel rising proudly in the background. Lovely. I also much enjoyed his precise pen and ink renderings in “Russian Peasants” (1942), “Warsaw” (1944), and my favourite (perhaps because I know the subject so well), “White Pelicans in Saskatoon” (1993). The latter made me homesick.

     The book concludes with an impressive biography. Clearly Stehwien was as generous as he was gifted: in his final year, 2008, several paintings were donated to organizations, including the Saskatoon Symphony, Open Door Society, Boys & Girl Club in Saskatoon, and to St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation.