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.


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