Monday, January 23, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Leilei Chen; Curtis Collins, Blair Fornwald, Wendy Peart - Editors: DAG Volumes: No 1 (2012); Lisa Driver

“Re-Orienting China: Travel Writing and Cross-Cultural Understanding”
By Leilei Chen
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$80.00  ISBN 9-780889-774407   

University of Alberta professor and writer Leilei Chen was born and raised in China, but admits she'd always held an idealized vision of Canada. When a doctoral scholarship brought her to Edmonton, that vision was shattered by Canada's social problems and historical racism – even the weather didn't measure up to her red-leafed dreams. Canadian realities made her consider her homeland and how the "seemingly antithetical" countries actually shared many similarities. She credits her travels for her "more nuanced and critical vision" of both countries. In Re-Orienting China, Chen examines books by six contemporary travel writers on post-1949 China, weighing in on their work and ways of understanding "otherness" with a critical eye, particularly when she senses an us vs. them divide.
Chen states a lack of scholarship re: travel literature about China, and she addresses the issue of subjectivity in the genre, concluding that travel writing is "ideologically loaded." In her exhaustive reading she found that "women writers who travelled in Communist China" were more inclined to "sensitivity, self-reflection, and comparative visions of home and abroad." Her focus is on "the process of cultural translation," and she maintains that one simultaneously learns about and transforms "self" while travelling. "I look for the connections and the commonalities … and examine the transformations that result from [travellers'] interactions with that foreign place."

Two of the six writers Chen studies are Canadian, and Jan Wong – readers may recognize her from the Globe and Mail – is among them. Wong's book Red China Blues (1996) examines her time as a Canadian student at Beijing University during China's Cultural Revolution. She thought the Communist system would bestow "freedom and equality on every member of the society," but in actuality she found her time in China difficult, overwhelming and "personally traumatic." Her university roommate, she learned, was "assigned to spy on her."

American Peter Hessler wrote about his two-year experiences in Fuling as a Peace Corps volunteer: he determined that it was important to learn Chinese if he was to understand the culture and make friendships. Canadian scientist Jock Tuzo Wilson had his stereotypes challenged in Peking, and says American mass media pre-shaped his opinions.

Based on Chen's commentary, the book I'd be most interested in reading is anthropologist Hill Gates' book, Looking for Chengdu: A Woman's Adventure in China. She writes authentically as an American woman who makes many mistakes along the way, and she even ponders abandoning her career focus on China.

Though much of Re-Orienting China concern's Chen's academic analyses, I also learned facts about Chinese culture, ie: eating all the food on your plate indicates to a host that you're still hungry, and you'll be served again, and that the Chinese only reluctantly identify themselves on the phone.   

This book's important because, as Chen says, travellers are the "translator[s] of culture," and if we want to have meaningful dialogues across cultures in this increasingly globalized society we live in, it's wise to understand, through various perspectives, how we're all in this world together.

 “DAG Volumes: No. 1 (2012)"
Editors Dr. Curtis Collins, Blair Fornwald, Wendy Peart
Published by Dunlop Art Gallery
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$60.00  ISSN: 1929-9214

The Dunlop Art Gallery is a department of the Regina Public Library, thus it's fitting that Library Director and CEO Jeff Barber provided the foreword to DAG Volumes: No. 1 (2012), a limited-edition hardcover celebrating seventeen insightful essays by eleven contributors, and 130 full-colour photographs that are the next best thing to visiting the DAG in person. The exhibition retrospective features work from DAG's Central Gallery, its Sherwood Village location, and in situ art.   

As this comprehensive volume of the gallery's 2012 exhibitions and events was released a handful of years ago, a little Googling enlightened me that then-director Dr. Curtis Collins now heads The Yukon School of Visual Arts (Dawson City), but I turn to his introduction for words on DAG's 50th anniversary – the reason for this first in a prospective series of books. "Such a feat of longevity in Canada, by any cultural institution, should be duly noted." Agreed!

Collins laments the fact that many show catalogues never get read and  "continue to pile up across the country," and thus he writes hopefully that each copy in the 350 print-run of this book will be sold at the end of 2013. Mission accomplished? I don't know, but I'm elated to have my hands on a copy of this glorious publication, as I find it incredibly interesting to discover the why and how of an individual's art-making, as well as viewing the finished products. Reading the essayists' thoughts on the work is like having my own personal guide walking around the gallery with me to enhance my experience.

The opening essay, written by Linda Jansma, concerns the retrospective of art by Shelagh Keeley, an accomplished Canadian who works on paper and produces wall drawings around the world. As with many of the other artists represented here, the photographs include gallery shots, so readers can contemplate the art as it was presented at DAG. "[Keeley's] drawings take the form of language," Jansma poetically writes, "spreading over the [steel] panels like words over a page."    

Dr. Curtis Collins' engaging essay on the multi-media exhibition Darwin's Nose, by artist Trevor Gould, includes movie (ie: Planet of the Apes) and American-Iraqi military conflict references to elucidate ideas around this Charles Darwin/orangutan-inspired show. Aside from watercolours and sculpture, Gould produced a video of Toronto Metro Zoo orangutans interacting (or not) with his sculptural elements. "The artist was able to elicit a range of emotions from visitors to the Darwin's Nose exhibition, in confirmation of the orangutans' role as an ideal stand-in for the emblematic joy and angst of humankind," Collins writes.

Art enriches us. From Susan Shantz's whimsical frog pots to Terrance Houle's landscape photography that "[reinforces] the notion of ongoing colonial possession." From Robin Lambert's relational art that explores "how we seek and create social connections" to Daryl Vocat's bold prints, often "liberated" from Boy Scout handbooks. From "uncanny" dance performances to botany-inspired watercolours, this beautiful book underscores what many already understand: creating art is a kind of genius. All hail the artists.  

“Leap!: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, And Grief & Choose The Path Of Joy"
By Lisa Driver
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-192757033-3

When I review a self-help book, I'm interested in knowing the author's story. Is he or she writing based on personal experience? If so, I'm immediately more invested. The combination of practical advice and personal revelation is precisely what writer Lisa Driver delivers in her second book, and its long subtitle provides  a summary of what readers are in for: advice on ways to "Overcome Doubt, Fear, And Grief [And] Choose The Path of Joy."  

Driver wears multiple hats. The Regina-born writer is a "certified Angel Therapist, Advanced Angel Tarot and oracle card reader, Medium, and Reiki Practitioner," and in 2016 she became a new mother. In this ninety-six page softcover she conversationally discusses her decision to leave the financial security of traditional employment and follow her dream to focus exclusively on her business, Above 540, which serves to inspire others "to the joy and wonder that exists around them, and [help] them step into their power" via readings and spiritually-based teaching and healing. Setting intentions, meditating, creating awareness, setting boundaries, practicing gratitude, journaling, and gaining clarity re: what one wants are all part of Driver's recipe for more joy.  

The book also balances two disparate events in the author's life: her sixty-one-year-old father's death, and the birth of her daughter. Advice on improving one's own happiness is woven through these stories, and several meditation-style exercises are included, ie: using deep breathing to "fill you up with energy," and then imagining a dazzling light filling your body. "With this shield of light surrounding you, you are always safe and connected to the Divine." 

The "Divine" here is also inclusively named "God" and "the Universe". Driver subscribes to "The Law of Attraction" ("like attracts like" and "what you focus on, expands"). She and her business partner, Carla, teach a vibrational scale that "associates numbers with certain emotions." Driver says "The Law of Attraction" responds to the "vibrations we emit every day" - the higher the vibrational number, "the more powerful and positive the emotion."

Resiliency is critical in this life, and when the author/healer learns that her beloved father has a "fist-sized" cancerous mass in his abdomen, her spiritual beliefs and coping skills help her navigate through the hell of his Stage IV colon cancer. His diagnosis "kicked me in the butt and helped move me forward," she writes. Sadly and ironically, the day she learns - via phone call in a Tim Horton's restaurant - that her father's cancer has spread is the same day her much-awaited pregnancy is confirmed. "Life goes on," her father sagely tells her.   

This book serves as a reminder that living well and joyfully is our own responsibility, and regardless of our circumstances, it's completely up to us to make the necessary changes that ensure we remain on a positive track. Readers will take away what they need to from Driver's story, but for me, it was the statement that "The only moment we know we have is this one." Yes. Better make it great. 


Monday, January 16, 2017

Four Book Reviews: Jordan, Kehler, McCrosky, Burton

“Been in the Storm So Long"
Written by Terry Jordan
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95  ISBN 9-781550-506877

I've long considered Terry Jordan to be a masterful writer, but if there's any justice in the literary universe, his latest novel - the epic and historical Been in the Storm So Long - should earn him national award nominations. This captivating story centres on the sometimes discordant rhythms of family and community, the restless and hungry Atlantic, and the music that scores and changes lives. The mesmerizing tale moves with lyricism and grace, transporting readers from a small Nova Scotia fishing village to New Orleans.

Protagonist John Healy is "just another sickly Irish infant begun in Sligo," whose father moves the family to Canada for a brighter future. Jordan's characters are imaginative storytellers and dreamers, some with peculiar gifts (ie: John has "the ability to listen to clouds"), and they've brought their superstitions across the pond. "There was sorcery everywhere on the water; be wary," a young John is warned, "and it was left at that." When a whale beaches on a shoal and the curious come to inspect (and slaughter) it, John's mother claims that "Pure grief'd be the cause of that," and wonders "How much sorrow does it take to fill the likes of a poor thing its size." From then on, John dreams of becoming a whaler.
Jordan deftly creates atmosphere. Odette, a gifted violinist from childhood (and John's future wife), plays her music from the hills above the village, competing with sea birds. "At times, on the hill, she walked in a fog so calm and thick she could turn and still see the path where the movement of her legs and body had made a cloudy stir." Odette's dream is to see the world and "experience music that was not her own." A third significant character, Daniel Burke, was tragically orphaned as a teen and thus moves in with Odette's family. Daniel dreams of Odette.

The text is rife with foreshadowing, though the story's so broad and rich, one would need to return to the beginning to thread all the clues together. On each page the author wields his pen like a poet who knows the secret to mesmerizing readers. Here Jordan describes the all-important weather: "It snowed the sad spring day they sailed, in Halifax, too, the hopeful first morning they arrived in Canada. The air was shaggy with it …"

The tale transports us across borders, generations and cultures. Here's a gem from a sweaty New Orleans' dance hall scene: "Shadow shapes – all alphabets of arms and legs – jumped to the music, every face dark-skinned except for his." Another fine line, concerning John and his precocious son, Gabriel, as they pull in their fish net: "Line upon layer of fish had spilled onto the sand, head to tail to head to tail all the same direction inland, lying there obedient as dogs and so uniformly configured they seemed like the scales on their own dying sides."

This is a storm-tossed and heart-swelling sea of a book. You should experience it.    

“Goodbye Stress, Hello Life!”
by Allan Kehler
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$15.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-53-9

Stress: every person deals with some amount of it. Some turn to vices (drugs, alcoholism, over-eating); some become angry, fearful, or depressed; many become physically ill; and fortunate others view stress as a challenge to be dealt with in positive ways (ie: changing routines, practicing mindfulness, exercising). If stress is threatening to sink you, reading Saskatonian Allan Kehler's latest book could be a swell start to swimming out of it.

Kehler is a public presenter with a wealth of experience, both professional (addictions counsellor, clinical case manager, and college instructor) and personal (mental health and addiction issues) that fuel his authority on stress and living a healthier life. The blurb on Goodbye Stress, Hello Life! is a strong motivator for any potential readers: [Kehler] empowers you to take an honest look at what lies beneath your stressors, and provides the tools to heal through a holistic approach. You will be inspired to stop existing and start living …"

What I appreciate most about this book is the great and diverse analogies Kehler employs, ie: he talks about the body's "sympathetic system" acting like a gas pedal during a stressful event. This is the "fight or flight" response: in times of stress, we tend to either jam the gas (flight) or hit the brake (fight). (Doing nothing is another option.) Among balanced individuals, a natural ebb and flow exists between these reactions, but one can become "stuck" on either response, and this is where addictions and other negative choices may kick in.

Another analogy concerns the teachings of a turtle … the turtle "teaches us the importance of going within" and, in this fast-paced and instant gratification-society, "to slow down." When we truly look inside ourselves, Kehler maintains we "will find all of [our] answers," and slowing allows us to be silent and listen to our "gut" for "strong and accurate information." Agreed. I took a Mindfulness class recently, and the instructor spoke of people having two brains: the gut brain and the intellectual brain, and said that the deepest thinkers think very little. Instead, they go still and wait for the "gut feeling," which is a much more reliable brain.
Kehler's text is peppered with interesting statistics, ie: "One study revealed that 75 to 90 percent of all doctors' office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints (Goldberg, 2007)." Learning to deal effectively with stress could be beneficial at so many levels, from reducing doctor's visits for ulcers and fatigue to extending lives that ended too early from stress-influenced diseases like cancer, diabetes and stroke.

The author discusses remedies for workplace stress, ie: time management and progressive muscle relaxation; the importance of not only talking about one's pain but also "feel[ing] your feelings; and the lessons we can learn from children. He says "A sense of child-like wonder manifests itself when you build a tree fort or engage in a game of tag." Again, I find myself agreeing: only yesterday, I went skating … and even tried a few spins.  

 “Lifting Weights”
by Judy McCrosky
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-105-1

Saskatoon's Judy McCrosky has a reputation for pushing the limits. As a multi-genre writer she's authored an eclectic repertoire of material, including literary short stories, sci-fi and fantasy, non-fiction, and even (under a pseudonym) a Silhouette Romance novel. In her latest short fiction collection, Lifting Weights, McCrosky asks us to step slightly outside the borders of reality and spend a few hours in unusual worlds that may be closer than we think.

This imaginative ten-story collection features a wide range of plots, from the moving "Shelter," about a distraught mother navigating both her brain-injured son's care and the return of her estranged husband, to a tale about a lonely pathologist, Andrea, who finds a "disgustingly cute" hamster in her home and soon has sixty-one furry new animal friends. This story makes parallel statements about the earth's ecology (the shrinking ozone layer), and men's inability to see beyond the surface of appearance when considering a partner. Andrea finds a warm community among her female, quilter friends, but when she goes to a party she has to "wear a dress of cute hamsters to be seen by men."
The crowning story is "Death TV". There's a strong science fiction trend in movies (and Netflix TV series) currently, and I could easily see "Death TV" produced as a "Black Mirror" episode. The story concerns Perry, a photojournalist who is the "acknowledged expert on anything to do with the Death TV Network," which is every iota as grim as it sounds. As the story opens, Perry's sitting in a bar with a friend watching a TV screen: "… a man, wrinkled face peaceful, rolled his eyes toward the camera, and breathed his last. Perry reached for another handful of potato chips and munched on them, watching as the show switched to another deadbed scene." The more gruesome the death scene - ie: motorcycle accidents, deaths on the series Gladiators - the more potential TV viewers. Sadly, this does not seem far-fetched.

Perry stays tuned to accident calls and races on his motorcycle to be first to photograph the deaths. In this future world – again, it seems frighteningly nearby – he breathes fresh air through an "Airomatic" (oxygen tank connected to his motorcycle). "Darwin laws" have made mandatory helmet-wearing a thing of the past: "New laws left people free to make their own choices, and that was the sign of a civilized society." How brutal has civilization become? When a train-car collision call comes in, Perry considers what he may find. "Maybe the vehicle hit by the train would be more than just a single car. Maybe it would be a school bus." Dying children, he thinks "would be good TV."

Symbolism and contrast are major features in McCrosky's unique work, and in "Death TV" the public's hunger for death scenes is balanced against the life of a gentle mortician whose passion is caring for monarch butterflies. What happens when an associate producer from Death TV arrives at his door? Oh, you should really find out.     

 “Road Allowance Kitten”
Written by Wilfred Burton, Illustrated by Christina Johns, Translated by Norman Fleury
Published by Gabriel Dumont Institute
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$15.00  ISBN 978-1-926795-72-0

This bilingual children's picture book - with the green-and-yellow-eyed, plot-important kitten on the cover – gently tells a true and unpleasant story in prairie history: the poverty, hardship and displacement of the Road Allowance Métis. Like it sounds - and as explained in the back-notes - a road allowance is "a strip of [government-owned] land adjoining a parcel of surveyed land … set aside in case roads will be built in the future."

One need not know the historical truth to appreciate this well-delivered story about family and friendship, sharing, and both the joys and hardships of living a basic lifestyle, but it bears a reminder. After the 1885 Resistance, numerous Métis displaced from their traditional homes and land used scrap materials to build new, often uninsulated and tar paper-roofed shacks on road allowances. They worked for local farmers (ie: clearing fields of rocks and trees), and picked Seneca root and berries, grew gardens, trapped and hunted (though a 1939 law made year-round and unlicensed trapping and hunting illegal, and expensive fines resulted). "Squatters" don't pay tax, and their children, therefore, were not allowed to attend school. The government began relocating (aka "evicting") the Road Allowance people in the 1930s, and Burton's story concerns the 1949 displacement of Métis from the Lestock area to Green Lake. It's a story he'd heard told, in slightly different form, by three women.        

The author does a lovely job of unobtrusively painting a realistic picture of the lives of the Métis characters, complete with jigging, sashes, and bannock in the grub box. Cousins and best friends Rosie and Madeline crack ice in the ditches, play a game called Canny Can, and chase "flittering butterflies and nectar-seeking bumblebees." The girls discover a calico kitten "in a dusty Christmas orange box under a pile of rubble," and proceed to share the beloved pet.

It's a happy, if simple, existence for the children, but when "strange men in suits from town" arrive, their families are given just a few days' notice that they'll have to move "way up north in the bush". Rosie's father tries to put a positive spin on it: "'They promised us our own land. There are lots of trees to build a log house. There'll be good fishing in the lakes and good hunting in the bush. Maybe even a school for you!'" Will the kitten go with them?

The colourful illustrations tell their own stories, ie: clothes drying over a barbed wire fence; beaded moccasins and a homemade quilt; a wagon transporting families' entire, boxed-up lives to the train station. The softcover comes with its own soundtrack - the story's read in English by Wilfred Burton; Michif narration's by Norman Fleury- and includes a glossary, map, and even instructions for Canny Can.

Road Allowance Kitten tells an important story that prairie children may not learn in school, but should. "This was their home. The only home they knew. The home they loved." How tragic that it should all go up, literally, in smoke.