Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: Jessica Willams(w/ illustrator Mateya Ark), and Paulette Dubé

“Mama's Cloud”
Written by Jessica Williams, Illustrations by Mateya Ark
Published by All Write Here Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$22.50  ISBN 978-1-7753456-1-9

There's no rule that says children's books must feature "feel good" stories, and I applaud those writers who do tackle the serious or sensitive subjects - like illness, bullying, or poverty - and find a way to create stories that children will find interesting and entertaining. Saskatchewan writer Jessica Williams has just done this. In Mama's Cloud she's teamed with Bulgarian illustrator Mateya Ark to deliver an engaging story about a woman who suffers from depression (or at least the blues), and the ways in which her imaginative young daughter attempts to cheer her.

Williams begins by presenting readers with an idyllic mother-daughter relationship. The child-narrator says "When Mama smiles, her eyes twinkle like a thousand fireflies. Her hair is soft and smells like purple lilacs in spring. Mama is Magical …" The pair play games of "Fairies and Wizards and Superheroes," and in both text and illustration "Mama" is portrayed as smiling and affectionate. But "Sometimes a dark cloud drifts into the room and settles over her". And thus begins the child's mission to restore "Mama's magic".

This book succeeds on several levels. Firstly, Williams maintains a light hand, using poetic language with each of the daughter's ideas, ie: "I will float into the room on a warm breeze smelling of sunshine and lemonade". Were she to stop at "sunshine," this would still be an effective line, but the addition of "lemonade" boosts it into the realm of delightful. Repetition is a major device used in books for young children, and Williams embraces it. On another page the girl says "I will build a machine with gadgets and levers and pulleys and springs. At the push of a button the machine will whirl into action and the spinning fan blades will blast Mamas cloud out of the house". As a unicorn (unicorns are currently a trendy birthday party theme, I've noticed), the child says she "will close [her] eyes and lay [her] white muzzle on Mama's lap". However, after presenting each of these ideas, the young narrator admits that she is not a unicorn or a wizard or anything else - she is just a concerned daughter, and maybe there's enough magic in just being her warm and regular self - in "sweatshirt and slippers" - to make a difference. It's a realistic and encouraging message for a wide audience.

Ark's full-bleed illustrations are note-worthy for their whimsy and limited pallet. Using mostly blues for the "cloud" pages, and shades of yellow for illustrations featuring the child and her ideas, these soft images and colours emulate the theme of being gentle with oneself, and with others.       
At, Williams says "Books with engaging stories and exceptional artwork can ignite a child's enthusiasm for reading, build imagination and encourage children to dream and become". Mama's Cloud is a prime example of this. While not all experience a recurring "cloud," like Mama, surely everyone has the occasional down day, and this empowering story could help lift hearts - of all sizes.  


Written by Paulette Dubé
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-156-3
Autant, the highly-original novel by Albertan Paulette Dubé, begins with a confession - in the Catholic sense - and a directory of the multiple characters who populate this 144-page tale set in small fictional Autant, Alberta. The inter-generational story unfolds between two years - 1952 and 2012 - and it's big on superstition, angels, sibling dynamics, and bees.

At the centre of the bustling "hive" is the Franco-Albertan Garance family, headed by Edgar and Lucille. The youngest of their daughters, perceptive Bella, is prone to bleeding and headaches, and as Lucille's offspring she comes by her superstitions honestly. Lucille paints her kitchen door blue "so that angels would recognize the house as a safe place," and as a child she found a stone that "gave her dreams of a tall ship, a beautiful woman with blue eyes, long red hair, and, then, a small boat on dark water". Young Bella also has an affinity for stones. She leaves them for her mother as gifts "inside shoes, beside the bed, under the pillow. It was her way of saying I love you, goodbye, and I took four biscuits." These quotes aptly demonstrate the way in which this novel moves between moments of magic realism and the every day (ie: "biscuits"). The book also paints a realistic picture of the laborious and sometimes bloody work that is a fact of rural life, ie: butchering livestock.   

Interspersed between the familial storylines are short comedic episodes in which God and the angel Ruel are in a bar "nursing warm beers," while discussing the latter's return to and mission in the mortal world. (Coyote and Lily, an otherworldy gal - who "blows a perfect square" with her cigarette - also feature here). Bella is nonplussed by her visits from Ruel, with the ever-changing eyes. He tells her an anecdote about God using His ear wax to create ten bees to gather stories about "the goings on of the world," and indeed, bees feature in this novel in myriad ways, from honey recipes and its medicinal uses to, naturally, stings. "Straight honey on a boil" is said to "[shrink] that ugly blot to nothing in about two days". Could honey be Autant's "gold mine," or might bees portend doom?

Dubé has previously published five poetry collections, and though this book is predominantly told in dialogue - and most people don't "speak" in poetry - the Westlock-born writer does occasionally sweeten her prose with honey-like phrases, ie: "Summer was buttoned with roses".

This short novel's most interesting characters, like Lucille, tread between devout Christianity and superstition. The woman who tells her daughter that she needs to "Pray [her] braid" as she plaits her daughter's locks - "Each twist of hair, each over-under connection, was blessed" - is also the woman who transfers stories to bees through her skin. Dubé's assuredly created a world where one might confuse ash, "so delicate silver-white," with moth wings. Complex, daring, imaginative, and beautifully-produced, this new Thistledown Press release hums with energy.   


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Three New Book Reviews: A.B. Dillon, Leila J. Olfert, and Sharon Butala


by A.B. Dillon
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-153-2 

"Life had not taught you that you were a girl yet."

" … my brain crawled with biting ants of recrimination."

"I am many diaries, and I know where all my keys are, except a few."


Rarely does a first book make me question: what is this magic? I need to know the who and how. When done exceptionally well, poetry, especially, can stir a cell-and-bone dance like no other genre.

It's just happened. Calgary poet A.B. Dillon's Matronalia slices into the depths of what it is to mother a daughter, and to be mothered by a woman whose ideologies differ greatly from her own. Dillon illuminates what most keep hidden: the fear, the disasters, the terrible responsibility, the drowning in overwhelmedness, the non-understanding, the guilt (on page 78, "Forgive me" is the sole text). "You have wandered into my ward/and infected me" she writes of a young daughter. She later admits that "it becomes impossible to breathe".

While alternating between poems addressed to "you" (presumably the daughter to whom the book's dedicated) and poems about being quite differently daughtered herself, Dillon weaves a frequently relatable I-can't-believe-she-said-that story. Lives unfold chronologically, the plot deepening with each fresh revelation. Ah, a lost baby. Ah, a broken partnership. And so it goes. Connected but not-like the generations of women revealed in these pieces-these untitled poems are deeply-affecting and honest.  

Interspersed: atypical advice (from "Be a spear" to "sleep in the middle of/your bed") and confessions from a non-conformist mother ("I never organized a mommy's group or participated in one. I/never discussed potty training or time-outs or brand names" and "I don't recall what your first word was;/I didn't chronicle your every victory").

Interspersed: words that draw a dictionary near ("exsanguinated," "mendicant"), and creative language-making ("fadedly," "heavingly").

Interspersed, cryptic lines … they just drop off. What daring.      

Interspersed: realism, madness, depression, Catholic fall-out ("We had to tell the priests, or risk/being unclean") and great love: "When you were very little, I pulled your hair through my/fingers/to make French braids/as if doing calligraphy".

One gorgeous poem pays homage to simplicity, paying attention to "a single pink/peony in a brown glass jar," while another advises a daughter to "Remember who you are,/especially while standing at the bus stop,/or in a bar, near a church/or in the line up at Walmart". With extraordinary skill, Dillon spins the prosaic into the profound.  

As a writer and a mother, I'll savour this thoughtful and intelligent book. It gets the sentiment just right, like this: "Maybe I was looking out/the window in that way that mothers do, wondering how it/was I came to be standing there at all". There are so many quotable lines in Matronalia my note-taking hand tired from recording them.

This is motherhood, as true and valid as the victories and all the little joys, and this new Thistledown Press title is as welcome to the poetry scene as a much-longed-for daughter. If you're a mother: read this. If you're not a mother: read this.

"You Can Count on the Prairies!"
Text and photos by Leila J. Olfert

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-11-6

I've been reviewing books in various genres for the last few decades, and I can say without reservation that You Can Count on the Prairies, the hot-off-the-press illustrated, children's counting book by Leila J. Olfert, has been my quickest read yet. What can one say about a twenty-nine page book that contains only seventeen words, and sixteen numbers? Well, as it turns out, rather a lot.

Olfert, a former preschool teacher and avid textile artist and photographer, has taken a prairie icon - the grain storage bin - and used it as the central image in this finely-produced SK-based book for youngsters. Beginning with zero, the first page features a close-up photograph of golden grain stalks against a blurred field and sky backdrop. The next page reveals a single grain bin, as perfectly round and centred on the page as the field surrounding it is flat. Four birds are perched at the top, where an auger would pour the grain in.

As the numbers on each page climb, so do the number of grain bins in each of the photographic illustrations. Winter scenes reveal sculptured snow, the pale blue sky almost mirrored in the snow. While grain bins - across the seasons - are the vocal point on each page, we see how each image also tells a little story. On the page for number four, tall Westeel bins behind a barbed-wire fence are reflected in a spring ditch. Another image reveals wooden bins painted with colourful Pacman-like images (or big-eyed ghosts). Westor, Twister, Westeel-Rosco - there's a wide representation of bins here, including some that have seen better days!

This book feels like an homage to grain bins yes, but also to Saskatchewan's rural landscape where field and sky loom large, and one can see, as the song goes, for miles and miles. Fence posts, telephone poles and lines, stately grain bins, leafless winter trees … there's a haunting beauty to these people-less images which adults, especially, may appreciate.

But this is also a counting book, meant for the youngest of children. I can imagine  a small finger pointing to the shining fifteen bins featured on page fifteen, and even hear a little voice: "One … two … three …" as that finger moves across the page.

Many children's books I've read contain a surprise on the final page, and You Can Count on the Prairies follows that tradition. I won't specifically reveal it - you'll have to read the book yourself - but I will say that whenever I pass a scene like that on the prairie, I say "That is a big operation!" to whomever I'm with.

On the bio page we learn that Olfert, a Saskatoon resident, previously "handmade several copies of this book for the children of friends". Obviously her efforts were well-received, as the story's been "diversified" into this beautifully-bound Your Nickel's Worth Publishing edition - and you can pick up a fresh copy for the price of a few good loaves of bread.   



“Zara's Dead”
Written by Sharon Butala
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-509472

She's penned multiple novels, short fiction collections, plays, and non-fiction, including the highly popular The Perfection of the Morning (a Governor General's Award finalist), and Sharon Butala's showing no signs of slowing down. If anything, the longtime Saskatchewan author (who now lives in Calgary) is, in fact, stretching her literary chops: her latest title, Zara's Dead, is a mystery.

A new genre for this household-name writer, but the subject-the unsolved rape and murder of a beautiful young woman in the 1960s-is one the talented author's previously explored. Butala's readers will recall her non-fiction book The Girl in Saskatoon-about the murder of her high school friend, Alexandra Wiwcharuk- and there are several parallels between that real-life tragedy and the compelling plot of Zara's Dead. Like Wiwcharuk, fictional Zara is a lovely and vivacious young woman enjoying life in a prairie city, and when she's murdered the killer's never found. 

The narrator in Butala's mystery-Fiona Lychenko, a newspaper columnist who published a book about Zara's decades-old death and the clouds of mystery still surrounding it-was friends with the victim. Now seventy, widowed, and living restlessly in a Calgary condo after years of country living, Fiona's still bothered by the inconclusive investigation. " … she would pause in whatever she was doing, and ask herself how she could live knowing what she now knew about evil". Was there a cover-up? Were the police involved? Perhaps high-ranking government officials? Possibly, even, Fiona's husband?

When an envelope is slipped beneath her condo door (with what appears to be a file number pasted in magazine-cutout figures inside), Fiona delves back into the murky past. Once she starts stirring up dirt in the upper echelons of prairie society, she must watch her own back, too, but the dangerous investigation gives the recently melancholic, self-doubting, and childless widow a renewed raison d'être. "I have zero currency: "I'm old, neither beautiful nor rich, I don't have an important position" she thinks at an event where her best friend's receiving an award. Ah, but Fiona has a sharp mind, always "tacking back and forth". The unlikely sleuth decides to write a new book on Zara's death. "I've been trying for years to save Zara, maybe now she will save me".

Zara "came from some backwater, her family were nobodies". In short, she was easily disposable. A strong feminist current runs through this book: "only men had been involved in the investigation," Fiona recalls. She was fired from her newspaper for writing a column titled "Farm Women are Still Second Class Citizens". Female friendship is cherished. Deep into the story, when Fiona's recalling her second investigation, she muses "I did it for women".   

This page-turner has much to say about wealth, corruption, malaise, aging, beauty (narrator Fiona is hyper-aware of physical appearance), relationships that are not what they seem to be, grief, and loneliness. Likewise, it ably demonstrates Fiona's fierce determination, pluck, wisdom, intuition, and bravery in her quest for justice for Zara, the ghost who would not let her rest.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Beth Goobie, Randy Lundy, and Dave Margoshes

“breathing at dusk”
Written by Beth Goobie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95 ISBN 9-781550-509151

Beth Goobie, poet and fiction writer, is her own hard act to follow. With twenty-five books - including the Governor General-nominated young adult novel Mission Impossible - preceding her latest title, readers have come to expect work that sets the bar high in terms of both content and technique. In breathing at dusk, Goobie's 2017 poetry collection with Coteau Books, the Saskatoon writer again addresses some difficult themes - chiefly childhood sexual abuse - and delivers work that pours light on the darkness of her own Ontario childhood, while reconciling - often through music and nature - that it's possible to heal from the unthinkable.

I scan the Contents page and note three titles which might be considered taglines for Goobie's work, present and past: "the other face," "living with what remained," and "the mind coming home to itself".  In this and previous books she reveals that her Christian father - a piano teacher - prostituted her from an early age, and that incest, violence, being drugged, and participating in religious cult-like activities were her childhood norm. As with "talk therapy," writing about one's trauma is considered an emotionally health-making activity, and what Goobie manages to do is share just enough: she makes the unimaginable horrors imaginable - without gratuitous details or melodrama - and writing is, I expect, her process of "living with what remain(s)".

What remains are piecemeal memories, "like a child's puzzle," and a recognition that in order to survive, the author existed in different planes. In the poem "waking," we read "what i remember most/is waking on the edge of myself,/uncertain of what i was/and what i was not". The small "i" here is significant in these autobiographical poems.    

To understand just how good Goobie is, one must study her language. A bridge is described as a "concrete overture of one shore greeting its opposite". In the same poem, "your skin again feels spoken alive,/quilted with the sensation of come-and-go wind". At age fourteen Goobie was "watching/unfamiliar faces form like window frost/under [her] sketch pencil". And a terrific line like "the sun's warm footprint tracked the story of itself," deserves its own meditation. 

Though unthinkable evil existed in the drugged-and-passed-around nights of her youth, Goobie recalls some of the good magic of her childhood home and community, too, ie: "the scent of cut grass and lilac murmuring along the hall" and cicadas - "tiny prophets announcing the beginning/of their sun-winged world,/proclaiming their territory of light".

But the father, the father. With drugs and a kind of malevolent hypnosis - "when i call little turtle,'/you come out and do what i say," Goobie's father manipulated his eldest child "while the camera filmed all of it".

This writer's voice, whenever and however it is heard - whether through novels, short stories, or poetry - straddles the fine line between horror and hope. Although "sorrow is a fundamental luggage/that refuses to be left behind," Goobie is "a lark throating a delicate sky". A survivor. Long may she be heard.    

“Blackbird Song”

Written by Randy Lundy
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-775572

It's been a fair while since the poetry-reading public's heard from writer and University of Regina (Campion College) professor Randy Lundy, but the outstanding blurbs on his third poetry collection, Blackbird Song, will definitely whet the appetites of his fans, and they should draw several new readers to these spare, contemplative poems scored with birds, prairie memories, and the moon in many different incarnations. Top Canadian poets like Lorna Crozier ("Wow, I say again and again"), Patrick Lane (he includes Lundy among "the masters"), and Don McKay ("visionary") sing sweet praises, and Linda Hogan writes that these poems "are grounded constellations created of fire and ice". When senior poets' blurbs are poetry in and of themselves, you know you're doing something right.

And Lundy is certainly doing something right. Firstly, he's turning inward, and asking questions both of himself and the universe that may be unanswerable, ie: "are you waiting for the appearance of that something whose appearance/would be its own vanishing?". He's creating unique images and juxtaposing words in fresh ways. Some of these poems are brief and reminiscent of haiku. Many are odes: to lovers; to "bread fresh from the oven" and the hands that prepared it; to trees across the seasons, and to ancestors. The poet recalls the strong women in his family, including grandmothers "who skinned trapped animals, tanned hides; and cut the/throats of sheep to let them bleed out".

The book's divided into three sections, and as the title and elegant line art cover- image of a blackbird suggest, birds predominate. In the opening piece, "January," we read that the author's mother, "exists for me/the way the owl/perches/on black spruce". We find birds in similes ("Night comes swiftly like the wing of a blackbird") and metaphors, ie: a great grey owl is a "low-winter-snowcloud" - this is the kind of writing that's earned Lundy such brilliant kudos. I love his north-returning geese, "dragging their shadows".

These are also poems of place: the Cypress Hills, Buffalo Pound Lake, and the moon - yes, the moon, or "night sun," is perhaps Lundy's best-described domain. He treats us to a "hand-drum-full-moon," and the "Birchbark-silver peel of a waning/almost-gone-now moon". 

Reading these quiet (and sometimes self-deprecating) mediations is akin to hearing the poet think out loud - indeed, the words think or thinking appear in several of these poems; even the mountains are "thinking themselves into being./Thinking magma-flow, thinking/the liquid fire at the core of/everything," and a winter elm tree's engaged in "Deep thinking at the core". Readers should also engage in the thinking these poems inspire: read the pieces slowly, perhaps sit with them individually. Savour the images. Like the red-winged blackbird on the cover, these poems are most effective when given adequate space.

But take the poet's sage advice, too: "Try not to think. Try the meditation of heart-mind. If you listen/closely, you will hear the oxidized hinges on the doors of perception/squeak, opening and closing, swinging an inch or two, in the just-now rise of wind".

“A Calendar of Reckoning”
by Dave Margoshes
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95.95  ISBN 9-781550-509373

Readers can sometimes glean the foci of a book even before reading the first page. With A Calendar of Reckoning, the new poetry collection by multi-genre and widely-published writer Dave Margoshes, clues rise from the cover image - a dog facing a window (surely symbolic) and the opaqueness (clouds? Heaven?) beyond - and the title. Reckoning is a strong, old-fashioned word with Biblical overtones. It implies a measuring up ­­­- to God, perhaps, or to one's self. I expect time will be addressed ("Calendar"); the seasons, and possibly aging. And the dog? If I know Dave - and I do - there'll be at least one homage to a dog.

The Saskatoon-area writer's organized this latest impressive collection into four sections, and indeed the poems in each section are distinct. In the first, Margoshes delivers a chronological retrospective of his life from birth to "The Heart in its Dotage". Here we meet the thin, daydreaming boy: "Gradually, with the passage of time, the world I imagined/narrowed, and I put on weight, grew into myself". He includes several poems about family members and their ghosts; and other ghosts, like poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn "strolling on the beach, hands clasped".

Aging and illness are addressed, but more than specific infirmaries it is the unknown that preoccupies this attentive poet. In "The Terrible Hour," he addresses it thus: "This is the hour of the uncertainties,/the vague distance. You are standing/on a corner in cold rain waiting for a streetcar,/a cigarette in your lips, the match too wet/to strike". So effective. And this is why Margoshes wins awards. Check out "Still Life".

The "Topsy-Turvy" section features poems that stretch logic and demonstrate a strong sense of play, including post-modern knocks at the act of writing, ie: "The poem mutters/under its breath, whines, sits on its haunches;" humour: "An egg/can't be too careful;" prayers: "This is a prayer made of dry leaves;" inspiration drawn from other writers; and square-dancing trees. Favourite: "Thirty-Nine Kinds of Light". Brilliant.
In the third section the story-telling Margoshes really kicks in, with different personas (including Adam) and narratives - one concerns a grammatically-challenged plant worker who sets out to write a book, and instead contemplates "what I done, what I didn't do". Reckoning, I reckon, as so many of the narrators here do, and often at windows: seven poems mention windows. (And yes, dogs appear throughout, most movingly in "After the Death of the Dog".)

Aside from "Three Songs of Dementia" (even Dracula succumbs) and a four-part personification piece ("The River"), section four's populated with philosophical one-stanza poems, which brings me round to this earlier gem: "There comes a time, finally,/when you see the world/for what it is: a memory". A thought to meditate on - perhaps by a window - and a sound reason to make our ride here worthwhile.

I'm grateful for the many books - including this latest - that Margoshes has ingeniously brought into this world, and made us all the richer for reading.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Three Book Reviews: Brenda Schmidt, Edward Willett, and Boris W. Kishchuk

“Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road”
Written by Brenda Schmidt
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-154-9

How interesting to watch a poet's repertoire grow and change over the years, and learn what's freshly inspiring him or her. For some it's nature, a new relationship, travel, or a loved one's passing. Trust Creighton, SK poet, visual artist, and naturalist Brenda Schmidt to eschew the usual … this former SK Poet Laureate has turned to the lowly culvert for inspiration in her latest title, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road, and it's a romp.

This handsome collection begins with a short essay that introduces us to the kind of writer Schmidt's become. While she and her husband are driving down the Saskatchewan map, the poet blurts out questions some may consider inane. But, she writes: "Nothing I say surprises him anymore. He knows better than anyone how difficult writers can be to travel with, due in part, perhaps, to sensory overload, all these places flying by, all these junctions, private roads and keep-out signs, the mind filtering the 100 km/hr stream of information for connections …".

Indeed, connections are key in this book. Always fascinated with culverts, Schmidt's mined her own memory and discussed culverts with a variety of folks, incorporating their experiences into poems (written in various forms) that illuminate, surprise, and entertain. We learn that culverts are used for more than controlling water flow; they're also places to make love, drink wine, and play guitar (a culvert's "got great acoustics"). Cliff swallows nest in culverts, and thieves store stolen goods in them. Children, of course, race makeshift boats toward them in spring. Who doesn't remember "the official footwear" … rubber boots with "the top two inches/folded down"? Italicized quotes throughout the poems give the collection a story-telling flow.

All the good stuff of poetry is here. There's sound, ie: "The hazard lights click like heels," and a culvert "glugged like anything". The similes include "your hair falls/like a prayer plant". I admire the liberal use of personification, ie: "The Big Dipper handles breath/gently, turns and washes it," and "The stiff-lipped/culvert is the only one/whistling here". One of the many stand-out images: "your fists wet/commas at the end of your sleeves".

Schmidt's highly attuned to nature. These poems are alive with birds and bears, and they lead us across fields and ditches. Being Saskatchewan, there's also wind. And I love the clever play on former premier Lorne Calvert's name ("There's a little Lorne Culvert in all of us!").    

There's much more going on in most of these poems than the casual reader might notice. Internal rhymes, multi-purpose line breaks, and, in the longish four-sectioned poem "A Culvert Blown into Four Pieces," one story's told via the italicized first line of each tercet, and another - with more detail - when one reads each line chronologically.

In the superb piece "Elegy," Schmidt writes: "I'm not good at this./I'm not good at anything/that involves looking back/at the meltwater slowly/filling in my boot prints". Bull. This is a skilled poet having good fun, and inviting us all to join the party.   
"I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust"
Written by Edward Willett, Illustrated by Wendi Nordell
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783178

Prolific Regina writer Edward Willett took a great idea and ran with it, and the result is his first collection of poems, I Tumble Through the Diamond Dust, a collection of twenty-one fantastical poems with illustrations by his niece, Albertan Wendi Nordell. That initial great idea? It began with former SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill's 2016 "first lines" project, in which he e-mailed the first two lines from poems by two SK writers each week day in April and invited all Saskatchewan Writers' Guild members to use them as springboards for new poems. Willett embraced the challenge, and the result is this creative, entertaining, and occasionally spine-tingling collection of poems that no one but Willett – well-known for authoring sixty books, including twenty science fiction and fantasy novels – could pull off.

Willett claims a life-long love affair with poetry, but admits he's not known as a poet. The man is a story-teller, through and through, thus it's not surprising that each of these poems tells a miniature story, many with an apocalyptic or space-based bent. The black and white illustrations contain figures or creatures that accentuate the often haunting work, which includes titles like "This is the Way the World Ends" and "The Labyrinth of Regret".

Despair and loneliness are major players here. Take the poem "Virtuality," partly inspired by Barbara Langhorst's line: "It wasn't the flu/the sad stones in my heart simply ran out of room". Willett takes this and gives us a melancholy character who "exchange[s]/the real life for the virtual" - hopefully his "second life" will be happier. In the piece "Facing the Silence," "Hope crumbles to dust" as a "tsunami of night" blackens out the world, and a couple, waiting for certain extinction, sit in a cabin "where normal still reigns:/the steam from our tea mugs,/the crackle of fire". This well-wrought poem and the accompanying illustration make a highly effective pairing.  

But it's not all darkness and foreboding: the book ends with a rollicking poem inspired in part by the lines - and cowboy poetry rhythm - of Ken Mitchell. In Willett's poem people live in "colonies out 'mongst the stars," and the protagonist, Old Bill, "was born in a starship" and rides a robotic horse. Willett's turned to lines from Stephen Scriver and Joanne Weber to inspire "Saint Billy," about a man whom God wants to saint so "he can talk to all them sinners" about things like "their drivin' after/drinkin' and their gamblin' and their/droppin' of the final g's on words".

The poet's written several of his own quotable lines, ie: "Now, please don't think we're prejudiced/against vampires," and I loved the small stanza he's made using the first two lines from a Sheri Benning Poem: "In the near dark,/when she's almost asleep/there are stories".

I've read about 90% of the books the quotes were drawn from – Willett's also used one of my lines in this collection – and it's fascinating to see how he's spun these lines into something fresh … and most unexpected. 


"Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death"
by Boris W. Kishchuk
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-42-5

I love games: card, word, trivia, etc., and I've usually been fortunate to have someone in my circle who also enjoys a friendly but spirited competition. Why share that in a review of Saskatoon writer Boris W. Kishchuk's latest nonfiction title, Possessions: Their Role in Anger, Greed, Envy, Jealousy, and Death? Read on.

In the preface to this exquisitely-researched book Kishchuk writes that he's wondered "why people kill each other," and he wins my attention. This text examines "the psychology of possession". The author investigates our desire to possess from myriad angles, including religious and economic reasons, and presents numerous diverse examples of how the human penchant for possessing has led to crime, brutality, murder and war. At the end of this page-turner Kishchuk reveals that his original title idea was The Curse of Possessions. He could have called it Read This and Never Lose at "Jeopardy" Again!

Kishchuk's previous titles demonstrate his eclectic range of interests: Long Term Care in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Crown Corporations, and Connecting with Ukraine. Possessions is "more reflective in nature," and I greatly appreciate the way this author reflects and how he's organized his fascinating stories/examples. The breadth of information presented is humbling, from religious beliefs regarding possession to biographies of those who used what they possessed – ie: wealth, knowledge, generosity, or power - for good, ie: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, and Alexander Fleming.

Chapter 2 considers "Greed and Possessions," with examples of both personal and corporate greed. Regarding the former, the author includes stories about Bernard Madoff and Imelda Marcos – see what I mean about range? – and corporate avarice is represented by the likes of Bre-X and Nortel. 

You know those news-makers and historical Canadian or international events that you feel you should know more about, but never take the time to research? I have several on my list, and reading Possessions has filled many of those gaps. In succinct, interesting, and easy-to-read stories – rather like sound-bytes - I learned (or-relearned) about everything from the Columbine High School shootings to ethnic cleansing and genocide in Cambodia.  

Chapters 5 and 6 are phenomenal: the Crusades … The Troubles … the Islamic State … the Roman Empire … the Vikings … the Mongol Invasion of Europe … the British Empire … World Wars … The Aga Khan … Jim Crow … Putin … Ghandi … Mandela … Louis Pasteur … Robbie Burns, etc. Who knew that the Viking era only lasted for 300 years (780-1080), or that at one time the British Empire occupied or controlled "over 90 of the world's 203 countries," or that during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the southern US, "it was understood that white motorists always had the right of way at street intersections"? Boris W. Kishchuk. That's who.  

Possessions is a concise, fast-paced education. I feel enlightened. Now if I could commit all this information to memory, Wally - my partner in life and opponent in TV "Jeopardy" - would never beat me in a game again.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Four Book Reviews: Tim Lilburn, Edward Willett, Allan Kehler, Sara Williams and Bob Bors

“The House of Charlemagne”
by Tim Lilburn
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-0-88977-530-5

Years ago I lived a block from poet and essayist Tim Lilburn in Saskatoon's leafy City Park area, and it's been wonderful to watch his literary star rise. He's earned the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and is the first Canadian to win the European Medal of Poetry and Art. Like Lilburn, I also now live on Vancouver Island, and was excited to discover what my former nearly-neighbour has been (literarily) up to.

Not surprisingly, his latest title – a collaboration with Métis artist Ed Poitras - breaks new ground. Part poetry, part essay, part script, The House of Charlemagne is a brilliantly conceived and executed "performable poem," and an homage to Louis Riel's imagined "House of Charlemagne," named for the "polyglot Métis nation" Riel imagined rising centuries after his death. It was produced with male and female dancers by New Dance Horizons/Rouge-gorge in Regina (2015), and the book includes two black and white production photos.

The bizarre and poetic story unfolds via multiple voices and shapes, but the key player is Honoré Jaxon (aka William Henry Jackson), a University of Toronto-educated non-Métis and son of a Prince Albert shopkeeper. Jackson became Riel's final secretary, embraced the leader's metaphysical beliefs about "active essences," was sentenced to an insane asylum, and died old and living in a "small fort" made of empty ammunition boxes in New York, where he'd attempted to gather published material that celebrated the Métis. Lilburn takes these "bones" and, like an orthopedic surgeon, constructs a body that is political, intellectual, and philosophical, and it howls.

The books first part, Massinahican (Riel's text that "attempt[ed] to render old Rupert's Land …. into philosophy, interiority and politics") is an amalgam of history; quotations (in French) from Riel's work and from others, ie: Julian of Norwich and Plato; free verse poetry; and a description of the dance production. During the multi-art performance, Lilburn sat side-stage and symbolically "sent large sections of the poem skittering into the movement" while live music (by Jeff Bird of the Cowboy Junkies) and geese, wind, gunshot, and water sfx were played.

The second part is the three-act poetic performance script, including dialogue between Riel and Jaxson. The former says to the latter: "You and I are badger-mind/wasp-intuition". In the prison scene, a guard says: "You were Platonic fools we dismembered/to save you from the embarrassment your sky thought/would inevitably have brought you". In Act 3, when Jaxson maligns the fact that he's failed to gather the archives of "the Last Provisional Government at Batoche," he says of the blowing papers: "How strange this is the result/of such thousand horsepowered longing".           

Evidenced in the poetry: Lilburn's intrinsic sense of the natural world, an ear tuned to the song of the land, and multiple mentions of communities (Last Mountain Lake, Souris, Riding Mountain, etc.). Scents are featured, too, ie: "The damp, cool/blue smell of the Crowsnest Pass".      
Lilburn's latest looks at history through a different lens, and makes a sound like "the engine room of God's warm breath".


"Door into Faerie"
by Edward Willett
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 978-1-55050-654-9

Door into Faerie is the fifth and final title in Regina writer Edward Willett's "The Shards of Excalibur" series, and I read it without reading its predecessors, and also, admittedly, with a bit of a bias against the fantasy genre. Magic shmagic. I've oft said that what I really value in literature is contemporary realism: stories I can connect with via details from the here and now, geography and language I can relate to because I recognize it, I speak it. The old "holding a mirror to the world" thing. Well surprise, surprise: I loved this YA fantasy. Willett wields his well-honed writing chops from page one, and my interest was maintained until the final word.

In the opening we learn that teens Wally Knight (heir to King Arthur) and his girlfriend Ariane ("the fricking Lady of the Lake"), have been on a global quest to "reunite the scattered shards of the great sword Excalibur," and they're currently at a Bed and Breakfast in Cypress Hills. Cypress Hills! This ingenious juxtaposition of old and contemporary (ie: "fricking"), of information delivered in earlier books melded with new goings-on, and the inclusion of relatable issues like family dysfunction - Knight's sister's teamed with the Jaguar car-driving sorcerer Merlin, aka "Rex Major, billionaire computer magnate," and she's "living it up" in a Toronto condo, and Wally has no idea where his film-making mother is – had me immediately hooked. Wally wants to find his mother and celebrate Mother's Day together.

I'm impressed with Willett's ability to draw readers into the complex existing story, and can appreciate the authorial balancing act required in structuring this novel. The man knows how to write; he has, in fact, written over fifty books, and won the 2009 Prix Aurora Award.

And I'm learning that hey, I actually do like fantasy: it's fun to imagine "magic," ie: Ariane has the power to "transport them around the world via fresh water and clouds".  

The book's delightfully saturated with humour, as well as magic. Re: Ariane's magical prowess, "the whole dissolving-into-water-and materializing-somewhere else thing still freaked [Wally] out". And re: the family angle, at one point Ariane says, "Magical quests are easy; family is hard".

While the young pair search for the famous sword's hilt, they land in places ranging from a Weyburn swimming pool to a "dime-a-dozen" Scottish castle and the shoreline of Regina's Wascana Lake. 

There's romance too: Ariane notices that Wally's ears "even seemed to fit his head better than they used to". And broken romance: Wally's mom delivers a monologue re: her own marriage break-up, complete with the "blonde bimbo" who replaced her. There's a long history of inter-marrying and bloodshed here.

The story's told through different perspectives. Merlin maligns the fact that King Arthur had been reduced even beyond legend "to a fit subject for musical theatre". Hilarious.

I can't imagine teens not enjoying this entertaining story, perhaps especially if they've read the books that've preceded it. This adult enjoyed it, too … magic and all.    
 “Born Resilient: True Stories of Life's Greatest Challenges”

by Allan Kehler
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-02-4

Born Resilient: True Stories of Life's Greatest Challenges is the third book I've reviewed by Saskatoon writer, counsellor, and motivational speaker Allan Kehler, and it's my favourite. In this non-fiction book about suffering, hope, and resilience, Kehler introduces each chapter then allows some of the people he's met on his own journey to take the stage. We hear from men and women who've each hit rock bottom in some way, and learn how, in their own words, they climbed out of their individual valleys. Perhaps nothing's more powerful than candid personal testimonies. In sharing theirs, the writers lend others hope that they, too, can turn their lives around.  

The book opens with a foreward from an ex-NHL goalie who, like the author, confesses that he's "seen the dark side" (addiction, mental illness) and has "risen above". In his usual clear writing style, Kehler explains that his motivation for writing this book came from a young woman who'd suffered an abusive childhood. She silently revealed the scars on her forearms, and Kehler's response was "Scars are a sign of survival. You are clearly a fighter … and you have my utmost respect." An inspired response, and the girl left the meeting with "her head held high".

It's Kehler's belief that "nothing is more sacred than having someone share their story with you". Readers may or may not personally relate to the hardships contributors relay – from debilitating accidents and illness to abuse of all kinds – but they'll no doubt applaud the courage demonstrated here, and learn how even when one's life is truly a living hell, there is hope.

In Chapter One Kehler advises that people pay attention to their emotional pain, which he says has more impact on lives than physical pain. He directs readers to acknowledge emotional pain, "sit" with it, and "identify its source," for if "toxic emotions" aren't released, the sufferer may turn to unhealthy behaviours like abusing drugs, problem gambling, or sex addiction. Having a spiritual connection greatly helps.

Sometimes it takes a book like this to realize how some people survive the near-impossible every day, like the woman who was sexually abused as a toddler and began drinking at age six. She writes: "Without drugs or alcohol, I was unable to live in my own skin," and today she's a mental health and addictions counsellor. We meet a man who lost his three beloved children in a car accident: he describes undealt-with emotional pain as a sliver that, left untreated, gets infected. One woman writes of being gang-raped at age 14, another was brought up in a cult, and we hear from the mother of a fentanyl addict who admits that resilience also includes "having the courage to know when to hang on and when to let go".

And imagine being the woman who wrote: "On November 25, 1990, my ex-husband, Tom, shot and murdered my sons as they slept". Resilience.

We all know someone who'd benefit from reading this sincere book. I'm glad it's available.     

 "Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens"
by Sara Williams and Bob Bors
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-781550-509137

For those who desire to grow fruit in their own northern gardens, the comprehensive and visually-inviting new reference book by horticultural experts Sara Williams and Bob Bors would be the logical place to begin. This learned duo – Williams has penned numerous books on prairie gardening and leads workshops on diverse gardening topics; Bors is the Head of the Fruit Breeding Program and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan (he's also globally-known for his work with haskaps, dwarf sour cherries, and Under-the Sea® coleus). These Saskatchewanians possess a plethora of knowledge and experience, and they share it, along with up-to-date research, in Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens: a veritable encyclopedia (but far more fun) that instructs gardeners on everything from the basics - like soil preparation and pruning - to specifics on how to grow and maintain healthy tree, shrub cane, groundcover, and vine fruits, and make the most of your hazelnuts.    

Aside from the wealth of information on more than 20 species and over 170 fruit varieties, this glossy-covered book is a joy to behold, with a proliferation of colour photographs (especially helpful when diagnosing plant disease and identifying insects), interesting sidebars, thoughtful organization, and easy-to-read text.

The first key to fruit-growing-in-northern-climes game is hardiness. Winters in Zones 1 to 4 are often long and cold, so winter survival's critical. The authors explain that growing at northern latitudes also provides some benefits, ie: "fewer disease and insect problems" and "better colour and sweetness". There are also more antioxidants within northern grown fruits. "What might be considered a superfood grown elsewhere becomes a super-duper food when grown in the north!". The advantages of growing your own fruit include enjoying just-off-the-vine freshness, the meditative state one might experience while pruning ("both a science and an art" … think Buddhist monks and bonsai), and improving yard aesthetics. 

Readers learn about insect vs. wind pollination, that most fruit does best with "full sun for at least half the day," and mulch must be at least 10 cm (4 in.) to be effective. I appreciated the numerous "fun facts," ie: how many of what we now consider weeds were "Old World plants that were deliberately introduced to the new World by immigrants for their culinary or medicinal value," and Canada Thistle is not Canadian: it's from Eurasia, as are dandelions, which were "once used as a coffee substitute". One of my major adversaries – portulaca (aka purslane) – was at one time "eaten as a vegetable".   

I found the photos – like the root development images – instructive, and the authors' personal anecdotes (ie: Williams' battle with deer) add a human touch. A large section's devoted to apples, which are from the rose family. Apples once held top spot re: Canada's most important fruit, but that changed in the 1990s when blueberries were christened a "superfruit".

I was going to gift this book after reviewing it, but even living in Zone 7b/8a, I find it highly relevant: it's staying with me.