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. 


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