Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Two New Book Reviews: See Me (by H.R. Hobbs) and Hear Me (by H.R. Hobbs). Two middle years' novels concerning school bullying.

“See Me” (Breaking the Rules Series)
by H.R. Hobbs
Published by H.R. Hobbs
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 9-780995-344808

Retired teacher Heather Hobbs has turned her lifelong passion for books into a new profession. In 2015 she picked up the pen and started writing realistic, contemporary page-turners for middle years' students, and rather than wait years for a publisher to consider, potentially accept her manuscript, and release her books, Assiniboia-based Hobbs took matters into her own hands and published her own work under the pen name H.R. Hobbs. With almost thirty years of classroom experience to her credit, the teacher-turned writer's depiction of middle grades' school culture results in an interesting and credible story.   

See Me, the first in her Breaking the Rules Series, looks just like a trade published book. The cover features a close-up of an eye, and the interior type is easy to read. The story's narrator is 13-year-old Hannah, an only child who was traumatized on her very first day of kindergarten after a classmate, Brady, noticed the "ugly" burn scars on her legs and called her "Scar-legs". The ostracizing and bullying that began that day has followed her all the way into Grade Seven, and her nemesis, Brady, is still a classmate. All Hannah wants is "to be invisible in school," and for the most part, she is.

Hannah, the quiet loner, also seems to hover beneath the radar at home, and that's exactly where she like to exist. After she'd angered her farther during an early childhood incident, she vowed to always follow the rules and never upset her father - "a man of few words, he would come home from work, grab a bottle from the cupboard over the fridge, and poor the golden liquid in a glass" - again. Hannah says that by age five "the need to please [her] parents had become an obsession". It doesn't sound like a very healthy childhood. Hannah's only outlet is her journal. Full of her private thoughts and poems, the journal is "the only place that [she] let [her] true self out". She never shares it with anyone. 
Enter new student, Chip, with his "Star Wars" T-shirts, his habit of engaging reticent Hannah in conversation, and his I-don't-care-what-anyone-else-thinks attitude. Hannah eventually warms to him. Unfortunately, Brady and his cohorts make Chip a target, too.

Young readers will relate to the contemporary language and references, ie: Chip says "Meh" and Hannah watches "The Hunger Games" - for the fourth time.

As I write this there's another national case of school bullying in the news. This issue is not going away, but books like "See Me" can help youth who suffer understand that they are not alone, and that speaking up, though difficult, is often the first step toward a solution.

As compelling as the school story is, it's the relationship between Hannah and her ambulance attendant father that I look forward to learning more about in Hobbs' sequel, Hear Me. What's going on there? 
A Kindle version of this book can be ordered via amazon.ca. For more about the writer and this series, see hrhobbsbooks.com.

 “Hear Me” (Breaking the Rules Series)

by H.R. Hobbs
Published by H.R. Hobbs
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 9-780995-344815

In Hear Me, Assiniboia, SK teacher-turned-writer H.R. Hobbs' follow-up to her middle years' novel See Me, Grade Eight protagonist Hannah evolves from a reclusive and bullied girl who tries to remain invisible into an assertive gal who leads the charge for justice when friends are victimized. Through realistic scenes that move between home and school settings in fictional "Acadia," Hobbs' readers witness the ins and outs of Hannah's troubled adolescent life, and learn how speaking up against bullying makes a tremendous difference, even if the-powers-that-be aren't eager to hear the message.    

Readers of the first in this series of novels know that journal-writing Hannah's set strict "rules" for herself: "1. Don't make anyone mad. 2. If I'm invisible, no one can hurt me. 3. Keep my problems to myself. 4. No one sees my writing!" In the past, Hannah's angered her father and been hurt by classmates. Unlike her easy-going - but also bullied - friend, Chip, Hannah's very sensitive to these attacks, and she's determined to do something about them.

In this new novel she acquires a few more friends, and, as in See Me, she experiences how powerful the written word can be, both as a therapeutic activity and as a way to find one's voice and use it for the greater good. It's satisfying to see a character grow like this, and it would be affirming for young readers who also struggle with bullying and poor self-confidence to read about Hannah's progress.

Hobbs has done an especially sound job of characterizing Hannah, whose desire to remain invisible extends to her clothing. She attends a Hallowe'en dance dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi from "Star Wars", with an "infinity scarf" covering her head. Even her friend, cheerleader Trudy, recognizes that the old, insecure Hannah sometimes lurks just beneath the surface. "Hannah, why are you still hiding?" she asks. I remembered my own junior high dances when Trudy says: "Why does the student council even bother with dances? This is basically just the lunchroom with costumes." And in descriptions of school hallways, ie: "I had to fight my way against the tide of students going to class," one can almost hear those locker doors being slammed and feel the body-jostling.

It was encouraging to read that Hannah's English teacher invited a spoken word poet into the classroom for a workshop; writers in schools are a win-win for both the students and the often severely economically-challenged writers. In this scene the poet shares a poetry slam video featuring Canadian Shane Koyczon's performance of "Troll," a piece about internet bullying. (As soon as I finish writing this, I'll be checking that out.) I also appreciated that the invited poet reminded Hannah and her classmates that "poetry is art for the listener" … " while it means something to the poet, once it has left the poet's mouth it belongs to the listeners to interpret for themselves". Superb advice.

Hannah's story feels far from over. See Me. Hear Me. Where will Hobbs take her next?  


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Three New Book Reviews: For the Changing Moon (Anna Marie Sewell), Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky), and The Musician's Compass: A 12-step Programme (by Del Suelo)

"For the Changing Moon"

by Anna Marie Sewell

Published by Thistledown Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-168-6

I'd been looking forward to multi-disciplinary artist Anna Marie Sewell's second poetry collection, For the Changing Moon. She'd impressed with her debut, Fifth World Drum, and in her capacity as Edmonton's poet laureate, I once observed her deliver an outstanding performance poem she'd created on the spot, based on a few words provided by the audience. It was a kind of magic few possess.  

In Sewell's newly-released collection of poems (and songs) we again find an assured and original voice, and the kind of literary abracadabra (ie: superb use of linebreaks) only a skilled writer can pull off. "We are in large part composed of slanting/sun" she writes in "The Mortal Summer". Sometimes playful, sometimes prayerful, sometimes angry, sometimes tinged with grief (particularly for lost family members and for injustices suffered by First Peoples and the impoverished) or inspired by legend, these eclectic pieces prove that Sewell knows her way around language, the map, and the moon.

Each of the book's five sections contains a kind of moon, ie: "Moon of Wolves," and among my favourite poems is "Kinds of Moon," in which Sewell introduces us to moons not usually (or ever?) considered, ie: "the moon of marching activists," the "moon of skin diseases," and the "insipid little moon of tailored grass". What fun to read.

Of the several poems honouring the memories of loved ones, including the poet's sister, this homage to a mother stands out: "She is tiny now, my mother/and jokes in the morning, when/her teeth aren't in, how she whistles/like a little bird". Inspiration also comes from disparate people and places, ie: Sewell's poem "Start Making Sense" provides a twist on David Byrne's "Stop Making Sense," and the gorgeous lines "so much turns on the breath of fog/falling over a broad green stream" - from her piece "One Moon, Many Faces" - echo William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow".

There's much clever internal rhyme and plays on words, ie: "Streets of Seoul, Sewell seule," and there's even a musicality in how these poems were ordered. For example, in "Bush-whacking," the riverside-hiking children "pipe and flutter, unconsciously magpie" and later they "shriek and whimper". The next poem is delectably quiet: it's based on how light falls upon six small cups on a windowsill. Holy dynamics. I also see this louder/quieter pairing in the neighbouring poems "She Sang" (about a wounded, musical sister) and "Light on the Wings," which, among other things, praises red ash berries.  

The multi-lingual inclusions (ie: Spanish and Anishinaabemowin) and named communities (ie: Edmonton, Lake Chapala, Kyoto) revere the places and people the Alberta poet's connected to, both spiritually and ancestrally.

This fine collection deserves close reading. It's a haven for all those who, like the poet, wander and wonder beneath the chameleon moon on "Turtle Island". There are no answers re: the big why-of-it-all, but the poet/lyricist has "built a room/safe for the moon/to come home to" and "it has to be enough". I say it is enough. It is very enough indeed.


“Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis"
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-775633

Not many writers get their books blurbed by Margaret Atwood, but BC writers and scholars Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky earned that honour with their small and powerful hat-trick of essays, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. These "Truth-filled mediations about grace in the face of mortality" (Atwood) are well-researched, highly educational, and eminently thought-provoking warnings about the fate of our world and species.

Bringhurst authored the first essay, "The Mind of the Wild". He maintains that there's much we should - but have not - learned from "the wild," which "is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination". What's this wild he speaks of? "Everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control," or, more succinctly, "earth living its life to the full". Bringhurst argues that humans are essentially committing suicide with our attempts to ""tame" the already "sane" natural world.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the combination of exceptional writing, science (ie: the role cyanobacteria played in changing earth's atmosphere) and statistics, and Bringhurst's ability to bring it all home with his use of concrete examples, ie: when the sun's diameter expands to epic proportions, a couple of billion years from now, "Your books, your bones, your lichen-covered headstones, and your dreams will be a plasma of broken atoms". He advocates "letting the facts form a poem in your mind" (a quote from physicist Michael Faraday, 1858) and getting into the wild, all on your lonesome, to "calibrate your mind". As one who regularly practices "forest breathing," this makes clear sense to me.

Zwicky's cerebral contribution, "A Ship from Delos," is dedicated to virtue and the good example set by Socrates. (Like that famous Athenian, Zwicky is a philosopher, and she believes that her hero - who was "condemned to death for crimes against the state," - was innocent, and has much to teach us.) On this eve of "Catastrophic global ecological collapse," she decries that politicians and policy-makers are not acting quickly enough. Nor are we regular humans of the first-world who "live comfortable air-conditioned lives, surrounded by a vast array of plastics and energy-consuming conveniences, who drive SUVS, have several children, eat a lot of meat, and travel frequently by air". Despite the grim ecological forecast, "industrialized humans are not destroying everything. Being will be here. Beauty will be here". She suggests that a cocktail of awareness, humility, courage, self-control, compassion, justice, contemplative practice, and a sense of humour is what the world needs now. Buying thrift-store clothing, eating locally, and walking rather than driving are just a few of the ways we can practice self-control in the 21st century.

The final piece, a collaboration between the authors, focuses on Harvard's Dr. Steven Pinker's overly sunny view and his habit of "[bending] the facts" re: Homo sapiens' fate.  

Bringhurst encourages us to "[think] like an ecosystem". Yes. Only then can we "go down singing". 
“The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme”
by Del Suelo
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783321

Regina writer and Juno Award-winning musician (with band The Dead South) Erik Mehlsen - who writes under the pseudonym "Del Suelo" - explains in the author's note for his second book, The Musician's Compass: A 12-Step Programme, that he wrote this text because "the music industry is an environment that fosters mental illness, and [he] had no idea how to talk about it". That said, and first person voice aside, he maintains that this isn't a memoir. What it is: 131 gritty fictional pages about a band.

For many in the arts, what begins as a passion can become terribly hard and unsexy work. Suelo presents a grueling day-in-the-life of a young (and at times extremely juvenile) four-piece Canadian rock band on tour in Germany. He peels back the lid on the rock and roll road trip, and it's a bleak, barely-holding-it-together experience, complete with a groupie who overdoses on cocaine, band in-fighting, severe sleep deprivation, excessive drinking and marijuana imbibing, reeking clothes, and a narrator (Dev) who’s almost ready to pack in his bass-playing days, yet when he steps on the stage he's "a god, creating thunder".

Suelo has a gift for physical description and turning out some strong and original similes. The admirable writing starts with this description of drummer Mikey's hair: "an unkempt lawn shrub the colour of a rusting El Camino". A nickname "spread like scabies in a hippie commune". An untuned guitar sounds like the musician's playing "a homemade cigar-box guitar inside a tin can". 

The band, "North By Choice" - named after a "particularly dank BC sativa strain" band member Rat's been "growing in his basement" - is in Berlin when the story begins. I sat up when I read that one young female fan "has curves like a freshly poured skatepark". Post-show, the protagonist connects with German fan Marleen and the band and their entourage go clubbing. There's non-stop beer and chaos, and after doing a line of coke with Marleen, Dev follows her "into a room of roaring black punctuated only by the blinding flash of a strobe light." Moments later the pair are "in the centre of a dense, moist, multi-human organism". 

The author's abilities with description extends to his detailing of rooms, cities, and even the interior of the band's rented van: "The aroma of rotting cheese and stale wine wafts out. There are cracker crumbs and gummy candies all over the floor". (And the driver, Dev, has scraped the hell out of the rental.) 

The band members say things like "Can I borrow your lightski?", but on occasion, disillusioned Dev comes up with something quite profound, ie: "Sundays only seem cozy if you live somewhere and know people".

If you've ever desired a microscopic look at the ins and outs of a rock and roll band - from sound checks to merch table to finding a band poster in which someone's "drawn a moustache and swastika" - on a face, read this. Über dark, screamingly loud, and scathingly real.