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.       


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