Monday, August 21, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Byrna Barclay (Editor), Pat Krause, and Jim McLean

"Wanderlust: Stories on the Move"
Anthology edited by Byrna Barclay
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-135-8
How does a book idea begin? Wanderlust: Stories on the Move started when seven reputable Saskatchewan writers enjoyed a barbeque together. In her introduction, editor Byrna Barclay explains that the idea for this anthology was spawned when Shelley Banks expressed a desire to tour and read with her fellow prose-writing diners at a Regina barbecue. Barclay compiled and edited the work, and though no theme was suggested, she found that "in every story a person embarks on a journey of discovery". Along with Banks and Barclay, Brenda Niskala, Linda Biasotto, James Trettwer, Kelly-Anne Riess, and Annette Bower share imaginative journeys, and the result's a literary road trip that takes readers to places near and far, real and imagined.

Niskala transports readers to a Norse trading voyage in 1065 in her exciting novel-in-progress, "Pirates of the Heart," and Biasotto's favoured Italian locales. Trettwer takes us to a fictitious potash company, and Riess has contributed a moving novel chapter about a twenty-one-year-old who's never been kissed, and is leaving Saskatchewan for the first time. "Tara had never seen a moose before or a bear, let alone any mountains, except, of course, on TV." Will Jasper deliver the joy she's been missing? Will the attractive stranger who's taken the bus seat beside her?

Each story or novel excerpt possesses its own charms. I give the Menacing Mood Award to Biasotto, for "The Virgin in the Grotto," with its eerie tone and flirtation with matricide: "The only sound from her mother's room is the fan dragging the air in one sustained breath". Niskala wins Best Action-Adventure Award, for her sterling sword-fight scenes. Barclay's gem is the long story "Jigger," which melds Saskatchewan history – the Depression, the Regina Riot, a train-riding hobo, and the Weyburn Psychiatric Hospital – and a tender tale about first love: she receives the Most Effective Storytelling Award. I quickly warmed to Trettwer's downwardly-mobile character, Miller - who drinks himself into oblivion and forgets his daughter's birthday: Realistic Characterization Of A Contemporary Character Award. Banks easily takes the Local Colour Award, with her excellent descriptions of smalltown Saskatchewan, ie: "We drive past the lot where the hardware store once stood, and the rows of Manitoba maples that shaded the long-demolished school and playground, now covered in thistles." (Big points, too, for her "rusted advertising sign for a forgotten brand of engine oil".) Riess's single contribution, "Bus Ride," earns the Reader Empathy For A Character Award, and Bower, in her piece about aging women looking out for each other, secures the Dark Humour Award.             

Linda Biasotto hosted the barbeque where it all began, and she deserves mention for one of the finest images. In "Flying," her teen protagonist describes a veranda at a rich friend's home as "a white barge ready to detach and float across the new lawn". I love it when a writer helps me to see the ordinary in a brand new way, and when a group of writers brainstorm an idea and it comes – beautifully, deliciously - to fruition.


“Double Exposure”
by Pat Krause
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866936

Pat Krause was a founding member of the venerable Saskatchewan Writers Guild, a short story writer and memoirist, and a longtime resident of Regina. Krause died in 2015 but her literary legacy continues with Double Exposure, a novella and new short stories, recently published by Burton House Books.

Double Exposure is a family affair, in more ways than one. Pat Krause penned the stories, Barbara Krause was responsible for the cover and interior artwork, and the book opens with a quote from a poem by Pat's daughter, Judith Krause. Titled "The Women in the Family," the poetic excerpt's a fitting introduction to this work that explores the dynamics between generations of female family members and between the north (Saskatchewan) and the south (Alabama, where the characters and the author both lived), and both realistically and rompishly documents the vagaries of aging and the grief that accompanies the final tolling of the bell.

The book's eccentric and outspoken characters include outrageous Gran Tiss, who had the nerve to up and die on the eve of her 100th birthday; her daughter Vee, who's horrified that the night she passed her mother was kicking her heels up at the January Jubilee in the Odd Fellows Hall; her granddaughter (and novella narrator) Prentice, a self-professed hypochondriac in Indian Head; and the omnipresent Lusa – Tiss's superstitious nursemaid and the family's longtime nanny, who came north with them from Tuscaloosa. Lusa describes a scene from the dance: "[Gran Tiss] done took up the vegetable tray. Plopped a heap of carrot sticks and celery and broccoli and cauliflower on top of it and rhumba-ed round the hall like the Brazilian Bombshell!" This quote illustrates both Tiss's personality and Lusa's voice, and indeed, strong voices are what Krause excels at in her rich-in-dialogue novella, "Southern Relations," which makes up more than half the book.

In a tragi-comedy of errors, guests from near and far arrive for the birthday party only to learn that they've arrived to a wake rather than a fiesta, and the birthday gal is "laid out on the living room right there on the chesterfield!" A pair of wig-adorned senior twins, "The Ladybugs," provide entertainment in the form of sitting and tap-dancing (with shoes on their hands), and afterward everyone physically able to "boogied up to the attic" to take home Gran Tiss souvenirs, including a sugar cane knife, and "The complete set of Sherlock Homes".    

Krause's writing chops also make their appearance in wintery descriptions. "Hoarfrost turned the spruce trees into herringbone designs raked into the sky," she writes in the novella, and in the final story, "Last Dance," the narrator remembers when she was a child and "scratched a poem in frost on [her] bedroom window, with the end of a bobby-pin".

In an afterword, Burton House's Byrna Barclay writes that during Krause's final days she was living in the Gardner Park Care Home, and "she slept in a geri-chair, using her bed to sort new stories". That's dedication. And that was Pat Krause.  

by Jim McLean
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866929

Moose Jaw's Jim McLean is all over the place - in a good way. He wrote about the CPR in his first book, Secret Life of Railroaders; about growing up in Saskatchewan in Nineteen Fifty-Seven; and he co-authored Wildflowers Across the Prairies. Now he's turned his poetic attention to that singular composer, Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven is the title of McLean's third solo publication in an over thirty-year span; surely a distinguished career with Canadian Pacific Railway and Transport Canada had much to do with the lapses between books.

Beethoven is a lively collection of poems presented in several invented voices, including the composer's, the voices of the women in his life - though he's a "poor incompetent/Don Juan"- and that of Beethoven's tyrannical father, but one of the strongest pieces, "On His Deafness," concerns an anecdote about McLean's own aging father, whom the poet is trying to impress with garden "Brussels sprouts/big as fists  tenderly/coaxed from the hard/prairie earth" and a well-heeled garage. Silent and apparently nonplussed, the elder man walks away, "humming softly to himself/off key …" This clever merging of disparate elements - ie: nature - with musical references is maintained throughout the book.

In "Scene by the Brook (Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastorale)), the poet provides the music of a prairie afternoon, including "scolding sparrows  the meadowlark's song always new," and grasshoppers that "chew through the afternoon" beside the rest of the insect "orchestra". McLean brilliantly writes of "frogs singing from the sloughs/a thousand melancholy cellos".        

There's much variety here, including a poem in German (translated by the book's editor, Harold Rhenisch); a sestina; and a humorous long poem in which the poet talks directly to Beethoven, who appears to him in an attic room in Calgary's Palliser Hotel. The book's also scored with McLean's simple but impressive illustrations.

Kudos to the poet for his daring, self-deprecating poem "Alfred Brendel at the Clavier," in which the poet questions his own ability, and, meta-fiction style, inserts "I tried to get that into a poem/but it never fit" and "Tonight  while writing this  I learned/the plural of opus is opera."

McLean claims that he "had the audacity" to write about Beethoven because of his ability – and anyone else's – to appreciate "beautiful, powerful music". He internalizes and translates the music, convincing the reader that he does share an intimate connection with Beethoven. McLean writes "the reason I mention Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto/is that he wrote it for me/one cold homesick night/in Winnipeg." 

Clearly much research went into this book, but research aside, the poet again wrestles with his nerve in writing about Beethoven, and perhaps the finest poem-within-a-poem (it's also William Carlos Williams-esque) is this imagistic shorty:

     All I know
     is that the Fifth Symphony is playing
     smoke rising from chimneys
     under a full moon
     at thirty below

The egotistical composer's great repertoire provided all the inspiration the prairie poet (and railwayman) required to wield his pen, and, as happens with talented conductors, fine songs are the result.