Friday, June 30, 2017

Three Book Reviews: John Early, William Wardill, and Wes Funk

"Tales of the Modern Nomad: Monks, Mushrooms & Other Misadventures"
by John Early
Published by Early Byrd Productions
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$26.99  ISBN 978-0-9952666-0-5
Rarely do I read a book that takes the top of my head off (in the best way), but Tales of the Modern Nomad-a candid travelogue and first book by Saskatoon backpacker John Early-did just that. Well-written, entertaining, illuminating, original, cheeky, and real-in that it features both positive and negative experiences-I read chapters of this book aloud to two visiting backpackers in their twenties and thirties, and they were relating and laughing right along. To quote the author's father: "You couldn't make this shit up if you tried."

Early's young, and many of the experiences described in this hefty, full-colour hardcover-with maps, photographs, anecdotes, trivia, poems, art, doodles, and quotes ranging from Eckhart Tolle to Charles Bukowski-may have special appeal for those who possess the desire to surf in Sayulita; zip-line between Laos' tropical rain forest treehouses; or, as Early recounts in the section titled "Down The Rabbit Hole," eat "Mystery Mushrooms from an Indonesian Road Stand," but as one who's backpacked and been to many of the locales he writes about (ie: Bali, Zürich, Bangkok, Čzesky Krumlov)-and I've blown out decades more candles than Early-I can vouch for the veracity and sentiment of the author's accounts (ie: nefarious taxi drivers in foreign countries; being astounded in Paris by those who approach Notre Dame just long enough to get a selfie, then carry on to the next Facebook-able landmark; or defaulting to Spanish whenever someone speaks to me in another language), and appreciated both reliving some of my own travels and vicariously experiencing ones I may never dare to take. Boating down the Amazon to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony deep in the jungle? Hitchhiking with a gypsy caravan in Central America? "The caravan crew consists of Goat, from Northern Oregon; his girlfriend Dancing Water, from Montreal, Blas, a dreadlocked backpacker from Argentina; Max, a Californian non-conformist Goat met at a Rainbow Gathering in Panama; and Chico, Goat's loyal dog he picked up in Mexico." (Oh, all right. Sure!)

As with all great travel writing, Early's tales-gleaned directly from his travel journals-feature the people he randomly meets along the way in hostels, jungles, on beaches, and, uncharacteristically for a backpacker, on a cruise ship (Early worked on one for six months).

The book's format, with its delightful mix of information-including both the extremely personal (receiving a questionable massage from a Thai monk) and hilarious trivia ("10 Ways to Say Poop in Japanese")-is one of its major charms. And this title contains far more than just backpacking smarts; it's saturated with life wisdom, ie: "traveling is in your head/as much as it's under your feet/Never stop being a traveler./And always life a life worth journaling."

I agree with Early that travelling is a great educator. We learn so much about others when we immerse ourselves in another culture-and perhaps put that camera or margarita down for a bit, and really get to know the locals-but moreover, we also learn invaluable lessons about ourselves. What a read, John Early. What a life! 

"Muskrat Ramble"
by William Wardill
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.99  ISBN 978-1-927570-34-0 

Eatonia, SK's William Wardill has been writing stories and poems for decades, and now the veteran historian, writer, diviner, and small-town Saskatchewan aficionado has penned his "swan song" collection of poetry, Muskrat Ramble, which includes previously published work, photographs, and, interestingly, brief, conversational-style introductions to many of the poems. The "almost autobiographical" and fictional poems (with "roots in reality") are straightforward narrative tributes to people, places, and pre-Facebook ways of life long behind us now. Readers will appreciate the poems' preambles: reading them is akin to hearing a writer present his or her work at a public reading. Many readers (including yours truly) will also appreciate the larger-than-usual print.  

Wardill has lived a rich life across his nine decades. He stretches back to his boyhood re: acknowledgement of an Alsask teacher for helping him to realize "that a little boy who liked to arrange words in patterns, paint pictures, and sing songs could he as useful in the world as the little boy who excelled in athletic competitions." At the other end of his life, in a poem titled "Homo Emeritus," he reflects that "Now there is time for peaceful nights/and waking dreams and building airy mansions/out of moonbeams."

The collection includes Wardill's first published poem: it appeared in Western People, a now long-gone supplement to The Western Producer, and is a tribute to a father and his trunk full of "Perfumed pipes and shaving soap/and polish for his patent leather shoes." The sense of longing is almost palpable. The poet writes of a wish to stand with the man "to watch the stout, black steamships eating blacker coal,/and lesser craft with sea-rimed sails, and, all around, the white gulls wheeling." A beautiful tribute to a man whose "span was over long ago." Other tribute poems include "Consolidation No. 2165, 1913-1961," about a steam locomotive, which stands out both for its details and for its touching personification of the train: "And they say as she passes a fallen-down village/where the station is missing and the people are gone,/her chime whistle wails in a loud, sobbing torment,/like the voice of a soul that can never go home." 
Many of the poems contain rhyming and repeated phrases, like song lyrics, and a few poems, ie: "By the River in the Winter, 1881" and "By the River in the Winter, 1885"), are dialogue poems. I felt the strongest piece was "In the Dugout, 1917," which is presented as a letter from a Canadian soldier to "My dearest Clara." In this visceral poem we read "Over the top is the sickly sweet smell of unburied/bodies. Over the top are the screams."

A fine example of the poet's range appears in "Nice Feed o' Nice Cockles," in which the poet emulates the working class vernacular of folks in County Durham: "You're yammerin' o' war. Will. Now the war's/done./Our folks are all safe now at 'ome, everyone one."       

This diverse, reflective "swan song" would be lovely to read beneath a summer sky, back "against a sun-warmed boulder." 

by Wes Funk
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781927-756980

When Saskatoon's Wes Funk died in 2015 at age forty-six, he was well-known and admired in the local writing community. He'd self-published novels and a chapbook of poetry and short stories, hosted a weekly series, "Lit Happens," on Shaw TV, and mentored beginning writers. YNWP's posthumously released Funk's final book, Frostbite, which contains the novel of the same name, plus a novella-"Rocket of the Starship"-in one handsome package.  

Funk's set both stories in Saskatoon and there are no shortages of landmarks to help locate the worlds in which his protagonists-both with cool names: "Deck" from the novel; the novella features "Dare"-roam. Deck Hall, a recently fired accountant and recently separated forty-year-old, lives in City Park, and his estranged wife is a nurse at Saskatoon City Hospital. The Bessborough Hotel, Midtown Plaza, Broadway Bridge, the Senator, Amigo's Cantina and Diefenbaker Hill are locations that help set the stage for the aptly-named "Frostbite."

As the book opens, Deck has just finished his fourth bartending shift in a week, and he returns, wearily, to the Star Wars memorabilia and the companionship of his bulldog, Muffin, at his high-rise. Both the literal and metaphorical forecasts are grim: "Cold, cold and more cold!" Funk wrote of the prairie cold as one who knew it well. "Outside, the snowfall was turning into an all-out blizzard. In another hour, plows and snow-blowers would start to rumble down on the streets below. The machinery would probably wake him up."

Deck meets the character Blue in Kinsmen Park, a known night-time pick-up spot, and the pair form an unlikely friendship. Deck tells Blue: "I think this is what they call a midlife crisis, Blue. My wife booted me out, I'm unemployed again, and the other day I nailed some chick have my age. All I need is a red convertible and I'm set." Deck's other friend is neighbor Halo, a romance writer who lives across the hall in their shared apartment building … and appears ready for some romance of her own.

Clearly there was some overlapping between fact and fiction here. Funk's author photo shows him in a Star Wars jersey, so the "Luke Skywalker action figure," on Deck's nightstand, "Stormtroopers standing guard on the toilet tank," and the "life-sized Yoda" may indeed have belonged to the author, and these details help characterize the slightly eccentric protagonist. Both Deck and Dare share a love of well-organized comic shops.

What I valued most in these two slice-of-life stories is the "realness" they portray: from bartending details to the "wooden cut-outs of frolicking children" in Kinsmen park; from Deck's rural Saskatchewan parents' never-changing home (with its dusty-rose couch) and distinctive culture-"supper" at 5:30, news at 6:00, a "Kaiser club"-everything bears the distinct ring of truth. Deck and Dare, in their separate stories, face hardships and recover, as most of us do.  

I got wrapped up in both of Funk's bittersweet tales, and wish they hadn't ended, like their popular author's time here, so quickly.