Monday, May 31, 2021

Three Reviews: Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide, by Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman; The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago, by Lyndon Penner; The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II” By Chantal Stehwien and Barbara Stehwien

“Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide: A Complete Guide to Year-round Bird Feeding in Saskatchewan”

Written by Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman

Published by Nature Saskatchewan

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-780921-104353

  

It’s apropos that a Blue Jay graces the cover of Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide: A Complete Guide to Year-round Bird Feeding in Saskatchewan. The Blue Jay is my home province’s provincial bird, and Blue Jay is also the name of Nature Saskatchewan’s quarterly publication. And did you know that these handsome birds also have such incredible memories, they hide seeds and nuts in trees or in the ground and return later to enjoy them? I can’t even remember where I left my glasses a minute ago.

The seven chapters in this photograph-full softcover provide a compendium of information for those who, like bird-experts Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman, admire—and are inspired by—“the remarkable lives of wild birds,” and understand how it’s beneficial to birds and humans when we study, support and discuss them. “To feed birds in a mid-continental temperate place like Saskatchewan is to reach out a hand toward the untamed dramas outside our windows,” the co-authors write.

This easy-to-read, school notebook-sized guide begins with a history of bird feeding, and asserts that while it’s an age-old activity, its popularity rocketed with the development of conservation groups, and Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 field guide secured wide interest in our “wild-winged neighbours”. In post-WWII suburbia, both gardening and bird feeding greatly increased and nature centres sprung up. Bird feeding was forever changed in the 60s with the importation of nyger seed, and scientific research, the bird-feeding benefits of black oil seeds, and the use of seed feeders fed the passion for bird feeding in the 70s. Today, “8.4 million Canadian households (61.5 percent) buy wild bird feed”. And why not? Aside from being fun, educational, and aiding science (ie: bird counts), evidence indicates that watching birds at feeders even lowers blood pressure.    

While bird-feeding naysayers point to dependency, disease spreading, cat and predatory bird attacks, window strikes, and potential migration delays—among other issues—the writers assert that bird-feeding benefits highly outweigh potential harms, and healthy birds will always also find their own natural food sources.

This info-packed guidebook teaches the diverse variety of what (seeds, fruit, corn, pet food, vermicelli … and expect recipes for suet!), how (see the many feeder designs), and where to feed and water our feathered friends. I learned so much, ie: “photoperiodism” means hours of daylight, birds have a third eyelid called a “nictitating membrane,” and it’s a myth that if you touch a baby bird its parents will abandon it. Did you know Eurasian Collared-Doves are in North America thanks to a mid-1970s pet shop burglary in the Bahamas? That birds have dialects? What a “keystone” species is, and that sapsuckers are among them?

Birds have learned to live through Saskatchewan’s harsh winters via “a variety of physical, physiological, and behavioural strategies,” including shivering, going into “nightly hypothermia by dropping their body temperature,” and huddling.

Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide is a brilliant resource for beginner and veteran bird-feeding aficionados. As such, it should fly off the shelves.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago”

By Lyndon Penner

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$25.95  ISBN 9-780889-778061

   

I’ve long wanted to experience “The Camino”. The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) is a weeks-long, thousand-year-old, on-foot pilgrimage that often begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the disciple St. James’ remains are entombed in the cathedral named for him. Many people undertake the arduous expedition for religious reasons, while others wish to physically challenge themselves, enjoy the Basque-country landscape, or learn more about themselves and humanity.

Camino Francés, described above, is the 800-kilometre route writer and environmentalist Lyndon Penner undertook. In his wonderfully entertaining The Way of the Gardener: Lost in the Weeds along the Camino de Santiago, the Saskatoon-based author hadn’t even heard of the trek before he’d agreed to embark on it, and the gardener/plant tour guide walked up to three hours a day with “a heavy backpack” to train.

There’s much literature about the Camino, and it’s been the setting for movies (ie: “The Way”), but Penner’s memoir examines it via a unique lens. “I happen to see the world through plants and trees and flowers,” he writes, and his book is indeed an engaging commentary on the flora and fauna experienced on his six-week journey, but it’s also punctuated with delightful anecdotes about albergues (hostels) and fellow pilgrims, meal commentary, and legends, plus spiritual and philosophical introspection. It’s often hilarious. I brought this book along on a kayak-camping weekend and read it aloud with friends: hysterical laughter ensued.

Penner’s an introvert, and the Camino swarms with people. Raised “in a very Christian household,” he no longer identifies as “religious,” and says that on the Camino he experienced “ancient forests of oak and chestnut that were more beautiful than any of the cathedrals meant to house the presence of God.” Unlike other peregrinos, he wasn’t moved by the “Cruz de Fierro” (“the iron cross”), and found the “gold-drenched cathedral at Burgos” frightening, but he adored and writes both eloquently and conversationally about Spain’s diverse trees, omnipresent flowers (“I couldn’t live in a world without lilacs”), vegetables (“Pumpkins in particular incite in me a kind of rapturous, profound joy that I cannot explain”), vines, moss, birds (“What a terrible world it would be without them”), and stone bridges. One can almost smell the flowers, hear the “gentle ringing” of cowbells, and taste the figs and almonds as he eats and describes them. When he stops to consume grapes that had fallen onto a dusty road, I also sampled the “grape-flavoured dirt”.

There’s much poetry: “In the azure sky above us, great dark birds swirled and circled like immense black snowflakes,” he writes. There’s comedy galore. Imagine trying to sleep in an albergue where a clutch of French women were “moving in and out like apparitions,” and an Australian pastor “sat up in bed, reached into what was evidently the loudest and crinkliest plastic bag ever made, and began eating peanuts”. Dang.

This book’s a gem, every step of the way. Please read it.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II”

By Chantal Stehwien and Barbara Stehwien

Published by Landscape Art Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95 ISBN 9-780991-964963

 

I was familiar with the moving story of German-born artist, pacifist, and prisoner-of-war survivor Fritz Stehwien via the book Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective. That earlier, softcover title included black and white and colour images of the prolific artist’s work, including landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes. Now Stehwien’s family has collaborated again to release a hardcover that celebrates the man (1914-2008), his art, and his story.

The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II, revisits how Stehwien “relied on his artistry to survive [a] devastating time of war,” and the 30-page book includes a generous selection of high-resolution images of his original art, including oils, watercolours, and both pencil and charcoal sketches.  

“Fritz was always an artist,” and when the Second World War began, he was an art student at the Hamburg Art Academy. “He was drafted and forced to serve in the German army,” his family writes, first in France, then he was sent to the Russian front. Fortunately, his artistic talent was recognized by superiors and he was commissioned “to illustrate news reports to be distributed for propagandist purposes.” His unit leader, General Theodor Scherer, not only kept the gifted soldier off the battlefront, Scherer also oversaw the publication of a book of Stehwien’s documentary drawings, and the artist was moved to Warsaw, “where the Panzerkompanie printing press was located during German occupation”.

Scherer’s respect for Stehwien’s work and the older man’s kindness was the beginning of what would become a fortunate theme: supposed enemies showing compassion during wartime. While in Poland, Stehwien met another stranger—the “dark-haired and very beautiful *Zofia [not her real name],”—who’s a subject of one of his images in this book, and who risked her own safety to help him escape a POW camp.

Stehwien wasn’t the only POW artist at the camp: another young soldier, Wolfgang Niesner, was also there, and the two became lifelong friends. There’s a sketched portrait of Niesner in the book, and, likewise, one of Niesner’s portraits of “Comrade Stehwien,” both dated 1945.

Stehwien was transferred to a “specialist” camp at Ilawa, “where Soviet forces gathered those prisoners who had special skills, ranging from radio technicians to doctors, and indeed, artists”. Stehwien’s artistic prowess and “experience in church and mural painting” soon saw him commissioned to work on “a large-scale public propaganda mural … painted on bedsheets due to the scarcity of conventional materials”. He also created portraits of several prison officials, and this “endeared him to his captors”. When Stehwien became ill, he helped a camp-connected Russian doctor with medical drawings, and in return was given “better food portions”. The artist also put his talent to use by creating portraits of Russian officers.

Do read the book to learn how Stehwien’s art eventually led to his escape from the Stalag and his safe return to Miltern, Germany. His art saved him and he eventually emigrated to Canada, but “the horrors of war-battle” were always with him.      

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Book Review: Red Obsidian, by Stephan Torre, published by University of Regina Press

“Red Obsidian”

By Stephan Torre

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-777750

  

Effective poetry is difficult to write. That’s the bottomline, and it’s why I’m so excited about the polished and effectual work inside BC poet Stephan Torre’s Red Obsidian, a recent collection of “New and Selected Poems” (selected from Man Living on a Side Creek and Iron Fever). Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that this latest book was edited by Randy Lundy, who’s also published in the press’s Oksana Poetry & Poetics Book Series, and whose work I greatly admire: both writers construct poems that radiate with energy.

Torre’s poems straddle the contentious fence between industry and environmentalism. They’re filled with the vernacular of tree-felling and farming; of the beautiful, raw and disappearing landscapes he’s called home along the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; and with the birds, fish and animals he’s shared these wild rural and coastal locales with. He laments the capitalistic fervour that reduces shorelines to realtors’ signs, and though he’s lived mostly off-grid, he ponders his own part in it, ie: how he “drove deeper, and drove away/antelope and eagles from their spring nesting,/eager to rip up sage and greasewood, hack out a spread/like western books I’d read.” The powerful “Those Mornings, Big Sur” describes an idealistic – if naive - lifestyle, where “we climbed up through coyote bush/to raise our kids in a blaze of redtails” but in the next stanza he speaks of “factory ships flushing their bilges,/the old-growth forest piled high/on the barge decks” and “our dream coast hacked and hauled off for sushi/while folk music played/in our cabins, and we believed/our muddy roads would keep out the world.”

These poems are populated with saws, chains, oil, acid, dust, smoke, shadows, ruts and barbwire, but also reverence for trees and birds, like the raven who “hauls/morning’s smoky hide” and the marsh hawk “carving the hour.” There’s the gem of a raven “splitting the air with its sarcastic laugh/mocking the fever of our need.” Torre’s fine ear obliges us to hear the destruction of the land and resources, but he’s equally adept at conveying the other senses, too, ie: “Cool odour of crushed fruit, sawdust/like a blast of wheat/through my ribs;” “Our eyes burned like gasoline;” and “We could taste the river on our lips”.

This skilled poet utilizes a terrific variety of structures for his poems, including quatrains and tercets. When he writes in couplets his work occasionally resembles ghazals, ie: “Cattle scratch their lice under the eaves/until the grey house collapses.” Some poems cross several pages – like the veritable anti-greed anthem, “We Went Out to Make Hay” - while the shortest are merely five lines. Torre’s also included love poems, but don’t expect the Hallmark variety: for him, love is “tasting mountains/for the first time”.

These new and re-introduced poems are highly visual, political, and empathetic: “We went out to set chokers around the great spruce/while red squirrels yelled down/through the hail of cones”. Hail to the squirrels, the glaciers, “migrating tundra swans” and the “sweet and bitter berries” Torre effectively employs.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Four Reviews: Spirit Sight: Last of the Gifted by Marie Powell; A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene, edited by Heesoon Bai, David Chang, and Charles Scott; If It Wasn't for the Money: A Sam Anderson Mystery by JA Martine; and Baba's Babushka, by Marion Mutala with illustrators Amber Rees, Wendy Siemens, and Olha Tkachenko

“Spirit Sight: Last of the Gifted, Book One”

By Marie Powell

Published by Wood Dragon Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$18.99   ISBN 9-781989-078280

 

I’m grateful that Regina writer Marie Powell provided a map (Wales, 1282), glossary, and character list with her galloping new young adult fantasy, Spirit Sight: Last of the Gifted, Book One, because as one who doesn’t naturally gravitate toward the oft complex fantasy genre, these guideposts were helpful. Powell’s a veteran writer – see her complete library of books at mariepowell.ca – with more than forty books published, and she’s clearly not lacking one iota in inspiration.

She explains that this particular novel series – the characters return in Last of the Gifted: Water Sight, Book Two – was inspired by her “adventures in castle-hopping across North Wales to explore her family roots” in 2006. The amount of research required to write a book of this complexity is impressive, and the writing’s made even more interesting as Powell fused fact and fiction: she based the story on the real-life Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (d. 1282), his French wife Elinor – who was held captive by England’s King Edward for three years – and the fictional characters of supernaturally-gifted siblings Catrin and Hyw. The teenaged brother and sister are close to each other and their “mam” and “da,” who also play major roles in the tale: their mother, Adara, is a host at the royal family’s Garth Celyn castle, and their father, Bran, is a warrior and Llywelyn’s steward, ie: number one bodyguard.

We know that Elinor died while giving birth before the novel begins, and it’s critical that her child – baby Gwenllian – be kept safe during this fractious time in history: the Welsh are under attack by the “devil-spawned” English. Cat and Hyw are both just learning how to use the clandestine special gifts they’ve inherited from their mother’s ancestors: Catrin can see the future in drops of water, and Hyw – who’s spent four years in the borderlands, “[learning] the ways and customs of their English enemy” by “[fostering] at the court of Lord Shrewsbury” - has the ability to inhabit the minds and bodies of birds and animals, and, as it happens, share a consciousness with slain Prince Llywelyn, which really comes in handy.

As one might guess of a fantasy set in this particular time and place, there’s a goodly amount of gore: “the English knight held the prince’s head high in the air, roaring with triumph. Blood gushed from the prince’s headless body, still kneeling in the field, impaled by the spear …”. Local colour is painted through Welsh words, credible descriptions of landscape and battles (“the Welsh had leather jerkins and lances, and bright war paint on their faces”), customs (ie: castle bards provide merriment through riddles and hijinks), and food ... many a flagon of ale is enjoyed, and “laverbread” (“tasty seaweed rolled with oats”) is eaten.  

The novel’s women are mostly portrayed in traditional roles (ie: childcare, kitchen duties, embroidering crests), but Cat also “trains” to prepare herself for hand-to-hand combat by throwing javelins and knives. Aye, I believe readers can expect plenty from Cat in Powell’s next book.   

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“A Book of Ecological Virtues: Living Well in the Anthropocene”

Edited by Heesoon Bai, David Chang, and Charles Scott

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$39.95  ISBN 9-780889-777569

   

made several “notes to self” while reading this anthology. Although not a critical marker re: the book’s literary or academic merit, it does indicate that the text spoke to me on a personal level. Read Canticle to the Creatures (St. Francis), I scribbled. Try editor/contributor David Chang’s awareness practice on Pg. 226/227. Google Peter H. Kahn, Jr. Share the quotes on grief with ____.  

This heartening anthology of well-constructed essays addresses how one can live both ethically and full-heartedly during this epoch’s “sombre reality of ecological degradation.” The trio of editors – all professors at Simon Fraser University - asked diverse contributors to consider not only what living well looks like in these times, but also what “suffering well” means. “No one discipline, tradition, or orientation has privilege over another,” the editors explain. Indeed, they have forged a “textual garden” in which scholars, educators, and poets from various disciplines and traditions – Buddhism, Christianity, psychology, ecology, ethics, traditional knowledge systems, etc. – present their interesting, individual responses, each “marked by … incisive scholarship and experiences of lived struggle.”

In their co-written piece, Nancy J. Turner and Darcy Matthews ask us to consider “animals, plants … mountains and rivers” as “our kin, ‘our relations,’” as do Indigenous Peoples, and they suggest the “use of ancient stories and ceremonies as conservation tools.” Straits Salish reef netters believe the sockeye salmon “was once a human”.

Having empathy for all living things is a common thread here, and each writer’s contributed valuable material, but the essays that begin with personal anecdotes have extra impact. I closely related to Peter H. Kahn Jr.’s essay on “Ecological Presence,” which he says is “an experience of perceptions that can emerge through interaction with nature.” In his case, this happened while bivouacking on a mountain plateau. He writes eloquently of the experience of awe: “I felt that I was a small part of it, with it … yet but a speck in that vast white landscape”. Writers David Greenwood and Margaret McKee concur: “If we give ourselves permission to slow down and find a quiet place where the animal body of our emotional selves can reconnect to the earth, and our capacity for awe and wonder can awaken, we will learn to hear the earth again.”

Douglas E. Christie’s exemplary “Never Weary of Gazing” begins with a description of building a “little house by the sea” from beach detritus with his young daughter, and he maintains that we must “learn to see the world more deeply” in order to “[renew] our ethical relationship to the living world.”

Another highlight was David Chang’s bold essay in which he discloses his ethical decision not to have children, and how this decision often results in “moral distress” because it “upsets an underlying cultural order”.

Whether through contemplative practice, writing poetry, or building a house from twigs, practicing the “art of attention” is a first step toward ecological virtue and living well in the Anthropocene. With humans currently “consuming 60 percent over what the global ecosystem [can] sustainably provide,” this book’s time has come.  

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“If It Wasn’t for the Money: A Sam Anderson Mystery”

By J.A. Martine

Published by Wood Dragon Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.99   ISBN 9-781989-078341

 

If It Wasn’t for the Money: A Sam Anderson Mystery, by Saskatchewan author J.A. Martine – aka business writer Jeanne Martinson – is a rather delectable novel, in more ways than one. The story concerns twin sisters who’d inherited “bloody millions,” their down-on-their-financial-luck husbands, the adventurous magazine writer Sam Anderson (who possesses an interesting, lottery-related back story), and an initially clownish retired Regina cop, all of whom we meet on an Alaska-bound cruise ship. Smooth sailing? Oh no … this is a mystery, after all. 

The characters are well-drawn – especially Sam, who leads photography workshops on the ship and rappel’s down a rockface for a travel story - and plausible, and as the author employs multiple points of view, readers are able to enter into each of the major character’s concerned minds.

Martine explains that the lavish fictional ship, the “Sea Wanderer,” is an amalgamation of Alaskan cruise ships she’s obviously had experience with, as I could easily imagine “the grand lobby with its elegant multi-level staircase,” the “[buzzing] excitement of the first-time passengers,” and the 800-guest capacity “Olympus Restaurant,” where “servers, sommeliers, and busboys were streams of white ribbons in their formal uniforms.”      

The author’s structured the cruise portion of the novel into sections that begin with the dining room’s three menu options, and they are grand, ie: on Day 3, one might enjoy “Steak Diane with Pont Neuf Potatoes and Cognac Mushroom Sauce,” while on Day 5 “Roast Gressingham Duck, Apple and Cranberry Savory Stuffing” is being served. She continues with these succulent menu listings as the characters eat, shop, sight-see, gamble, connive, and reconnect later in New Orleans – approximately the last third of the book takes place in the historic, music-filled city, and Martine brings it to life. In the “Spotted Cat Music Club,” with its “roughed-up bar running the length of the long and narrow room, mismatched bar stools” and “air conditioning [pumping] out barely cooled air into the packed room”, Sam warmly notes the sign above the piano: “No drinks or drunks on the pianee.” From a marketing perspective, it’s ingenious to use actual restaurants, bars, and hotels in a novel, as not only might readers seek out these cherished, specific establishments, but the businesses may also be amenable to selling the book onsite.

The plot kicks into high gear when twin Kathleen, the introvert with bruised arms, goes missing after a port-of-call in Juneau, and her greedy husband, Daniel, is suspect. He’s been involved in “pump and dump” deals: “He invests in penny stock junior resource companies that are being aggressively promoted. Once the share prices rise 10 or so cents, he dumps them. He plays with other investors who do the same thing.” Daniel’s brokerage firm is close to bankruptcy, and if – just for starters - he can get his hands on half of his wife’s insurance police, it would placate “the boys” he’s indebted to.

It was a pleasure to meet Sam Anderson et al. Readers will meet her again – perhaps in Banff? – soon.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Baba’s Babushka”

Written by Marion Mutala, Illustrated by Amber Rees, Wendy Siemens, Olha Tkachenko

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$39.95  ISBN 9-781988-783611

  

Before one reads a single word of Baba’s Babushka, it’s evident that this  illustrated children’s book is far beyond the ordinary. The 175-page hardcover emanates quality, from the phenomenal production – including colourful, full-page illustrations opposite the text pages, each bordered in a Ukrainian embroidery design – to the heft of the paper used, the contributions of three skilled illustrators, the inclusion of Ukrainian recipes, and a glossary for the numerous Ukrainian words used in the text. The package is highly impressive … and then there are the four heartwarming, connected tales Mutala spins within the book.

 Saskatchewan’s Mutala is already known for her award-winning, Ukrainian-themed children’s books, including More Baba’s, Please! and My Dearest Dido: A Holodomor Story, but this latest publication – essentially four books in one – is her tour de force. In each magical story, young Natalia – who lives on a farm hear Hafford, SK - is whisked into her ancestral past when her recently-departed and much-loved grandmother’s (Baba’s) colourful babushka (head scarf) materializes – via flowers, swirling leaves, or “a few white feathers” - on the girl’s own head. Nature-loving Natalia is lifted into the sky and further – “she burst through clouds and rushed past stars, nearly touching the moon as she sped through the heavens” – before she finds herself transported into her Baba’s life in the “old country,” Ukraine.

Readers first travel with the blonde-haired girl to “A Magical Ukrainian Christmas,” where she joins a loving and devout family traditionally attired in blue (females) or black (males) vests over white blouses or shirts decorated with red embroidery at their twelve-dish Christmas Eve meal. The interloping girl – she’s invisible to her ancestors – is familiar with the numerous traditions, ie: “three loaves of round, braided kolach bread had been stacked on top of each other and placed specially in the centre of the table, each shaped in the circle of God’s unending love” and feels at home. On the wall she spies her grandparents’ wedding photo – I assume this is an actual photo of the author’s grandparents – and makes the connection that the girl at the table beside her is, in fact, her Baba. In the remaining stories – “A Magical Ukrainian Easter,” “A Magical Ukrainian Wedding,” and “A Magical Ukrainian Journey” - Mutala includes descriptions of and explanations for the various traditions, and we witness Baba’s life unfold. 

Each story follows a similar pattern and demonstrates the Ukrainian family’s warmth, faith, customs, and fun-loving nature. I learned about the relevance of symbols (candles, honey); about cultural superstitions, ie: a spider and web are “placed on the Christmas tree for luck,” and a “high, beautifully golden loaf of paska [means] a year of blessings;” and about the Easter pysanky (colourfully decorated eggs) legend, where “a chained-up dragon keeps track of how many eggs are made, and if one year there aren’t enough, the dragon will be released and destroy everything.”

This thoughtful, imaginative and beautifully-crafted collection of culturally- significant stories is a blessing in itself. May Baba’s Babushka be enjoyed far and wide.           

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 

 

 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Three Reviews: Conspiracy, by Ruth Chorney; Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity, by Felix Veloso, M.D.; and The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills, written by M Larson and illustrated by K Brahmachari

“Conspiracy”

Written by Ruth Chorney

Published by 7SpringsBooks

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$20.00  ISBN 978-0-9939757-7-6

 

At just 170 pages, Ruth Chorney’s Conspiracy is on the slim side for a novel, but let me assure you that there’s loads of tantalizing literary meat in the Kelvington, SK writer’s latest book, and I devoured the convincing story in one pleasant sitting.    

Chorney’s already got four children’s books and one other “Deer Creek” novel under her belt, as well as anthology and magazine publications, so she comes to this story with plenty of publishing experience and it shows in the streamlined writing. She’s got a strong handle on pacing, plot (it zooms), physical descriptions – she’s especially good at describing northeastern Saskatchewan’s rural landscapes and the seasonal business of farming – and dialogue. What’s more, she truly captures the culture of rural life in “The Land of Living Skies,” through word, deed, and community activities.  

The story revolves around the musician, dreamer, and former world traveler, Joel Weston. Five years earlier he’d married Krissy, a Saskatchewan farmer’s spoiled daughter and agronomist with Nu-Ag,” and Joel’s now running Krissy’s aged father’s cattle (“forty head of Simmentals”) and grain operation. “What Krissy wants, Krissy gets” is a recurring statement in the story; even her own cousins prefer Joel’s company to hers. The divide in the couple’s relationship can be explained via dogs: Krissy owns a yappy Shih Tzu, Mitzy; Joel longs for a proper cattle dog.

The other important and well-drawn character is Grace Matthews, a small and spritely farm woman dealing with her husband’s dementia. Joel and Grace’s friendship begins in the forest, where both are foraging for mushrooms.   

I’m guessing the author’s own love of the land played heavily in her rural descriptions: “Although the pasture was fenced for cattle, it was changeable and wild, a place where deer, elk and moose wintered, where black bears foraged for grubs and berries in the summer, where coyotes and sometimes wolves howled their freedom …”. Saskatchewan’s underscored via discussions about “snow along the fence lines,” farm chemicals and machinery repairs; through food including perogies, and “jellied salad” at the “Community Fall Supper;” mentions of The Western Producer, and the Co-op that provides “fuel, farm supplies and groceries;” and even through “the provincial government’s [privatization of] the bus line,” which forces many seniors to rely on “family and friends for a trip to the city”. (The bus issue hit a note with me: my parents live in Watrous, and must indeed rely on others for frequent medical appointments in Saskatoon.)     

I enjoyed this page-turner for the writer’s clear reverence for the prairie and farm living; the interesting dynamics between the multi-generational characters; and how easily I was transported to – and happy to remain in – a world that rings true. Joel “had tasted the air beside oceans, on mountain tops and in pine forests; nowhere in the world did it smell as good as in Saskatchewan”.

Yes, “Feeding the world [is] complicated”. This gripping novel spotlights the people who dedicate their lives to it, and it does so with grace. Thank you, Ruth Chorney.   

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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"Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity”

Written by Felix Veloso, M.D.

Published by YNWP

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$18.88  ISBN 9-781988-783604

 

The 2019 UN World Population Prospect report suggested that by 2050, 25% of the North American and European populations may be 65 or older. Clearly, now’s the time to address what an aging population will mean for society, and how those of us approaching our “golden years” can live happier and healthier lives as we age.

University of Saskatchewan professor, author, and neurologist, Dr. Felix Veloso, brings more than 40 years of expertise to the subject, and I found his well-researched book, Healthy Aging Naturally: Proven Strategies for Disability-free Longevity, full of vital information and interesting statistics. Furthermore, he’s wisely structured his book with a conversational through-thread – between “Dr. Ferurojo” and patient “Anita Tykinlee” – so readers feel they are actually part of a story. Tykinlee asks the questions we might ask if we were in a doctor’s office, concerned about our own or an aging loved one’s health, and Ferurojo/Veloso does an exceptional job of answering her questions in an easy-to-understand, conversational style while also organically inserting the scientific facts – and quoting numerous studies from around the globe – to support the answers. There’s a lengthy Notes section crediting original sources, a helpful Glossary, and even “Suggestions for Additional Reading”. It's an altogether brilliant package.

Dr. Veloso covers wide-ranging subjects, including diet and the many benefits of tea, exercise (special attention’s given to Tai Chi, of which he’s a strong proponent), sleep, immunization, elder abuse, and falls. As my own father, in his late 80s, is falling frequently, it was noteworthy to read that this is in fact normal: “Nearly one in three Canadians aged 65 or older fall every year”. In the chapter “FallSafe,” Dr. Veloso discusses risk factors – including “Fall anxiety” - and prevention.

I enjoyed learning about the world’s five “Blue Zones,” where “people live statistically longest” and many follow a Mediterranean-style diet. I didn’t know that a study’s proven that consuming “hot-spicy foods promote[s] healthy longevity;” that drinking tea “reduces death after a heart attack by up to 44%;” or that several studies have determined that there’s a correlation between regular exercise and cancer prevention, progression, and recurrence.

Lack of sleep is an issue many experience, and Dr. Veloso breaks down how “Sleep Slows Senescence”. He shares an anecdote about an otherwise healthy young Chinese man who “died after going 11 days without sleep as he attempted to watch every game in the 2012 European Soccer Championship”. Every living organism sleeps, from “microscopic cyanobacteria to gigantic blue whales to massive sequoia trees”.    

This 2020-published book also address COVID-19, and delivers advice on how best to protect oneself from the global virus. As well, it addresses the efficacy of vaccination, “one of the greatest advances in public health in the history of mankind,” and puts vaccination risk into dramatic perspective: There’s a “1 in 1,000,000 risk of death for all types of vaccinations” compared to “1 in 6,250” for driving, and “1 in 100,000” for dancing!   

Dr. Veloso’s remarkable handbook for healthy living is a tremendously enjoyable resource.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills: Adventures of the Barnyard Boys”

Written by M Larson, Illustrated by Kaustuv Brahmachari

Published by M Larson Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$13.99  ISBN 978-1-7753218-5-9

 

Melanie Larson’s children’s book, The Day I Lost My Bear in Cypress Hills (Adventures of the Barnyard Boys), is a simply told and colourfully illustrated day-in-the-life story of five-year-old Finn and his family. Finn wakes at his grandparents’ log cabin in Cypress Hills, raring to begin an adventurous day with activities that range from swimming lessons to rock climbing. As the title reveals, the enthusiastic boy loses his treasured “stuffie” during the day, and he “[needs] his bear to sleep!”

The book features large-font text and bright images – the illustrator nailed Cypress Hills, with its distinctive evergreens (including Lodgepole pines) featured on nearly every image. I suggest that this upbeat story be read to and by youngsters for its vibrant celebration of the great outdoors, and its display of how much fun can be had doing things that don’t require anything but an imagination. Particularly now, during a global pandemic, it’s so beneficial for children of all ages to discover how it’s the little things - like going for a walk with one’s family, hot dog roasts, or stargazing - that often provide the most joy and remain in memory.

Finn and his brothers Owen and Dez ride bikes, play in the lake, build sandcastles, and hike: “We collected pine cones, sticks and bugs.” They visit the local museum and see a mounted “cougar, a moose and even a beaver dam”. The protagonist’s beloved bear appears in many of the illustrations, and as a bonus, Larson’s included a pictorial inventory of Cypress Hills’ creatures - both winged and land-based - at the end of the story, and invites readers to find the images in the book.  

Larson worked as an Environmental Consultant prior to writing children’s books, and the rural mother of three previously published Count Them! 50 Tractor Troubles, “to help her children learn to count and spell to 50 while learning farm safety”. Her illustrator, Brahmachari, is also an animator - with “many clients from all over the world” - and his large-eyed, expressive characters romp delightfully across the pages in their “fun-filled day!”

The writer and illustrator have teamed to create what any child might consider an ideal summer day, complete with Bubble Gum ice cream. When Finn’s ready to cuddle Bear and “look at the bright stars before bed,” he realizes the bear’s been misplaced somewhere along the way and the search begins. I love how we see bats swooping through the dark between trees, and Finn’s mom holds a protective arm over her head, just as this woman would do. Will the boy ever “hold Bear again”?

Though this well-produced book might be especially prized by anyone who’s visited Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills, it’s certainly also a story to be enjoyed by young children anywhere. I recommend it for its outdoors and family-positive themes, and the overall cheery tone. I expect that Finn and his brothers will get up to many more adventures in the unique and beautiful southwestern corner of the province. Here’s to that!

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

 

  

 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Four Reviews: Burden, by Douglas Burnet Smith; Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships, by Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling; Sleeping Brilliant, by Jessica Williams; and Serenity Unhinged: A Memoir, by Jim Duggleby

 

“Burden”

By Douglas Burnet Smith

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777729

   

In award-winning Canadian poet Douglas Burnet Smiths seventeenth collection, Burden – a sparely-written account of a distant cousin’s World War I experience – I often found myself wincing. This visceral reaction’s a testament to the efficacy of the Governor General-nominated poet’s precisely-chosen words; to the bone and spirit-shattering power of war; and to this harrowing, personal story that wields the force of a novel in just fifty-nine taut pages.

The title, Burden, eludes to the seventeen-year-old British soldier, Private Herbert Burden, whom the poet’s relative, Lance Corporal Reginald Smith, befriended and fought alongside with; to the permanent weight of war on one’s psyche; and to Reg Smith’s personal burden of being one of the ten soldiers who killed Burden - a deserter suffering from PTSD - upon firing squad order.  

The first four poems, written in couplets and each several pages long, are delivered from Reg Smith’s point of view from the war field or from a hospital in England or Scotland, while the final poem, “Herbert Burden,” is a one-pager told from the deserter’s perspective - almost one hundred years after his death - at the unveiling of a statue of himself in Staffordshire, England, in 2000.

What struck me from the initial poem was the poet’s spectacular ability to juxtapose the tragic and the beautiful. Section I reveals the narrator in the thick of battle in Pas-de-Calais, France (1915). Soldiers are poetically “showered in moonlight;” there are “Moths, white moths, thousands/flitting;” and dawn is “the colour of trampled grapes”. Existing within this same poem: “a clump/of mangled men;” rats in “brown waves, like the trench-/water they skirred over;” and “guts worming out of that man/cursing us from a stretcher”. These images, plus the scene of a German soldier “[pissing]/into an open mouth, a man I didn’t want to know,” underscore Burnet Smith’s literary perspicacity, and also highlight war’s inhumane nature. It’s no wonder so many of our ancestors refused to speak about their wartime experiences.   

Yet it would be remiss not to acknowledge the degradation and grief so many experienced. A century away from the “Great” War, readers may be unaware of the 666 “wiped out” by chlorine smoke in Wieltje, a town the narrator and his cohorts found “cindered with men”. The dead were members of the Second Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. And regarding the child beside the “waterless fountain” … “Pigeons made special use/of the eyes”.

Of the book’s namesake, Burnet Smith writes “We aimed our guns at him, this waif,/a schoolboy who should have been/bored to death in some dismal classroom”. Burden refused a blindfold, and after the death squad incident, Smith never stopped seeing the boy. The writer cleverly reinforces this haunting - and the injustice Burden suffered - in various ways, ie: viewing “how a single cloud/will desert the others, and float off./How the other clouds/don’t seem to care”.  

I’ve reviewed several books in the “Oksana Poetry & Poetics” series, and Burnet Smith’s Burden upholds the series’ tradition of greatness. Exceptional cover, too.   

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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“Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships”

By Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling

Published by Wood Dragon Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$19.99   ISBN 9-781989-078167

 

If you’ve been single and searching for a healthy new connection over the last decade or so, you’ll know that the dating and relationship landscape has changed significantly, in large part due to the popularity of online dating. With a few key strokes, finding “another fish” at the first sign of conflict or boredom is a mighty temptation for some, and short-term relationships are the new norm. Tragically, our throw-away society’s come to include people. But what about actually working on a relationship and allowing it to evolve? And why are people less likely to commit, fully and completely, today?

Professional couples’ therapists Barbara Morrison and Ed Risling address these topics and examine relationship issues like communication, curiosity, awareness, and libido differences in their book Fully Half Committed: Conversation Starters for Romantic Relationships. With sixty years of combined counselling experience, the pair – who met as students – have collaborated on “writing a book about the reoccurring themes” they see in their practices, and each short chapter addresses an issue. There are also numerous examples of how couples’ experience challenges, then progress. The oxymoronic titles refers to being “all-in – but only up to a certain point”.

The Saskatoon co-authors cite a major shift in romantic partnerships: “personal happiness now trumps relational longevity,” they write. They practice “an anxiety-tolerance approach,” rather than an “anxiety-reduction approach,” to therapy, as “tolerating anxiety is necessary for personal and relational growth”.

So why has this paradigm shift occurred? The 1960s had much to do with it, with “the wave of legal reforms” that ushered in no-fault divorces, and more financial autonomy for women. Morrison and Risling also reference the burgeoning self-help industry; the rise of syndicated TV talk shows (ie: Phil Donahue and Oprah), which shifted the focus “away from glamourous musicians and movie stars to ordinary people with everyday issues;” and our contemporary "happiness culture,” that’s reinforced by statements and beliefs like “‘I only live once’”.

Low times occur in every relationship, and this book offers readers strategies to overcome these periods. It aims to “encourage readers to decide what they want from a relationship and to consider the work they need to do, and the sacrifices they need to make, in order to achieve their goal”. Each chapter includes a tip or question readers might ask of themselves or their partners, ie: “Do I have a habit of reacting instead of reflecting?”

The writers are proponents of building fun into a relationship, and I love the idea of creating “treasure hunts, playful questionnaires, and day trips” for a partner. Another great idea was rewriting traditional – and “fundamentally impractical” - marriage vows for today’s realities, ie: “I will commit to nurturing my imagination so our life together can be interesting, alive, and have a strong heartbeat”.

The bottomline is that relationships require “constant effort” from both partners, but being intentional and doing the work “can pay huge dividends in happiness and emotional security”. Fully Half Committed covers several bases, and it’s bound to make you think.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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"Sleeping Brilliant"

Written and illustrated by Jessica Williams

Published by All Write Here Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$16.99  ISBN 978-1-9995397-7-1


Here’s what I know about Saskatchewan writer Jessica Williams: she’s originally from British Columbia; her first book, Mama’s Cloud, thoroughly impressed me with its gentle handling of depression; and she continues to prove herself as a prolific and talented writer of childrens’ books. Her latest offering, Sleeping Brilliant, delivers a delightful spin on a fairytale we all know – but may not all love, with its prince-as-saviour theme – and this time Williams has even illustrated her own clever story.

We learn from page one that Williams is going to have great fun turning this traditional tale on its crown. The “beloved” King and Queen longed for a child, and thus “adopted a charming baby girl from a nearby village”. The baby’s named Niamh – pronounced “Neev” or “Nee-iv,” which is Gaelic for “brilliant” – and the child lives up to her moniker. Upon Niamh’s arrival her parents throw a “great feast” and invite “the entire kingdom,” as one does, but of the thirteen forest fairies, only twelve receive their invitations, thanks to a “fierce wind” that magically lifts one invitation from the purple-caped messenger’s bag. Whoops.

Flying fairies dance above the smiling child’s cradle and gift the girl with unique qualities, ie: “No riddle will be too challenging for your clever thoughts” and “You shall build wonderful inventions”. (This ain’t your grandmother’s fairytale.) But what about that fairy who missed her invitation? Ah, she arrives at the feast “like a thunderstorm,” and curses the royal baby: “‘On your fifteenth birthday,’” she hissed, “‘you shall prick your finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die!’”

Fortunately, the twelfth fairy is able to temper that curse: at fifteen the princess will not die, she’ll just “‘fall into a deep sleep for one hundred years’”.

Without giving too much of this charming, contemporarized story away, I will say that when the prince arrives he’s greeted with a perfectly content young woman sipping hot cocoa with miniature marshmallows. She’s cosy on a window-side chair in her purple bunny slippers, and matter-of-factly asks the feather-bereted prince: “What are you doing here?” As for marriage, well the brilliant princess’s response is utterly uncharacteristic of any princess I’ve ever read about.

Will there be a happily ever after? That’s for you to learn. The surprises in this book are what make it such a joy to read, and the author-illustrator combination works so well. The playful, full-bleed illustrations of cast and castle scenes perfectly complement the upbeat tone of this story.

I hope Williams continues to create these welcome stories on a wide range of subjects. Perhaps she’ll delve into even more classic fairytales and spin them upside down to make them “fit for a generation of princesses and princes who don’t need to be rescued”. This story teaches – in a completely fun way – that one is responsible for his or her own happiness, that fate can indeed be altered,  and that you never know what you’ll find at a yard sale. I’ll enjoy sharing this well-produced book.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

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"Serenity Unhinged (a memoir)"

By Jim Duggleby

Published by YNWP

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783574


As a writer myself, I’m always curious about other writers’ inspiration for their books. In his memoir Serenity Unhinged, Regina writer, editor and journalist Jim Duggleby mines the landscape of his own history – family, childhood, career – and his bright imagination for material, but the essays and articles in this fun read really owe their existence to a Regina writers’ workshop that took place between 2017 and 2019. The workshop, which included “fewer than a dozen people” at Regina’s Lifelong Learning Centre, was facilitated by Bob Juby and Ivan Millard, and was “loosely themed ‘As I Remember’”.    

Duggleby has a long history with and passion for the written word. The former Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reporter professes that he “can’t recall a time when [he] didn’t love writing” in various genres, from history to futurism, and his joy and wit translate into 21 entertaining stories in this recently-released softcover with YNWP.

The author earns five stars for his captivating opening lines, ie: “Perhaps the most surprising thing about my mother’s death is that some people were saddened,” and “My father died twice.” (Interestingly, Duggleby’s pop was “the last doctor in Saskatoon to make house calls.”) Duggleby has a way of turning potentially dark recollections – and realities - into gleaming anecdotes, and this book is saturated with black humour. Of his own experience with both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, he writes: “The only blessing I can find is that Alzheimer’s will likely do a full system wipe on my memory before PD leaves me bedridden, incontinent, and unable to communicate with the people I can’t remember.”

Duggleby grew up with five brothers and the bustling household “took six quarts of milk daily, and five loaves of bread.” There were a few “serene moments as a family, though we didn’t trust them,” he writes. “We just don’t do serenity.”

In the story “The Mating of Chickens … or How I Became a Journalist,” the writer begins: “It’s not everyone who can land a summer job as a sex worker for a flock of a hundred or so chickens.” Humour’s also relayed in well-carved images, ie: of a fast-typing veteran reporter, who “attacked the typewriter like it was a mortal enemy” and filled the air “with the middles of the O’s, P’s and D’s, confetti cut by the smoking typewriter.”  

But it’s not all frivolity here: there are some more philosophical observations I found myself nodding in agreement with, ie: “It’s odd the way life picks a direction for you. You get settled into a version of yourself and then, for the hell of it, without so much as a pause for permission, a new version of yourself takes over.” Yes, indeed.

Mostly, however, this book is a romp, and I found myself chuckling at the occasionally grim but sometimes-you’ve-just-got-to-laugh situations, ie: this realistic portrayal of a nursing home: “Old people in motorized wheelchairs raced back and forth on missions known only to them.”  

Duggleby’s literary self-portrait is colourful. Serenity Unhinged is candid, satirical, and entertaining.


THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

 

Friday, June 12, 2020

Two Reviews: “The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind” by Mark Abley and "I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers" written by Sharon Gudereit, illustrated by Miranda Pringle


“The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind”
by Mark Abley
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95 (softcover) ISBN 9-780889-777613
   

Does anyone ever really know anyone else? In multi-genre writer Mark Abley’s absorbing memoir, The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, the Pointe Claire, QC writer contemplates the life of his perplexing father, Harry Abley - virtuoso organist, composer, and music teacher with a complex “range of identities” – and in doing so the author attempts to reconcile why this accomplished and restless man, more than twenty years gone, never seemed enough to his only child.

Abley has a dozen critically-acclaimed books behind him and I heartily recommend this title because the writing’s exceptional: I was hooked by the end of the short prologue. The work is also honest. Abley admits that “any picture I draw of [his father] becomes an exercise in self-portraiture.” I commend that clear-eyed confession: it helps me to trust the writer, and know there’ll be no subterfuge. I also applaud the book’s interesting structure, conversational tone, and the gentle pacing of its ending … despite their often tempestuous relationship, Abley seems in no hurry to kill his father off quickly on the page.    

As Abley sets out the details of his father’s life - from a stuttering child in Knighton (on the English/Welsh border) to organist, choirmaster, and composer at Saskatoon’s St. John’s Cathedral (and other churches) to celebrated concert organist in Germany, we learn about the musician’s “artistic temperament,” his social gaffes, and his passion for “the instrument of his life,” the commanding pipe organ. “Music showed him a way to God,” Abley writes, and he never doubts his father’s musical genius, but two pages later the author wonders: “Have I ever met a person so profoundly alone?” The elder Abley seemed “equally gifted at music and resentment.”

There’s much, too, about Abley’s mother within these pages, a woman “of profound religious faith, and blessed by hope.” While reading about her husband’s obstinacy and her patience and good cheer, one can’t help but see this woman as a minor saint. The writer recalls his mother telling him, as a boy of “nine or ten,” that he was “more of a man” then than his father would ever be. Her son became “the heart of [her] emotional life.”

Probably every human is a chameleon, some just more obviously than others. Abley senior’s mood could “darken like a thundercloud.” He was outspoken, “hideously inappropriate” at social gatherings and “suffered from depression.” The depression “was like ivy, twisting and curling around his mind, adding a perpetual weight, crowding out all other growth.” All that, yet students found him “tremendously encouraging,” and his music was exquisite. “It’s as if he poured a sweetness of spirit into his art, leaving the acid for daily life.”

Among Harry Abley’s peccadilloes was this: although he delivered “speeches,” “complaints,” and “rants,” he left his son no stories. Mark Abley, then, has mined his own memory; spoken to his father’s acquaintances, colleagues, and former students; and “advertise[d] [the writer’s own] scars.” In doing so, he’s fashioned an interesting and “open-hearted” story, impeccably told.


THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM
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"I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers"                                                                        
Written by Sharon Gudereit, Illustrated by Miranda Pringle

Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783536

The colourfully-illustrated softcover, I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers, is a grand example of creative collaboration, and a testament to the beauty of YNWP’s (Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing) titles. SK’s Sharon Gudereit and BC’s Miranda Pringle are teachers who exude artistic talent: Gudereit is a singer/songwriter and musician, and Pringle is the artist who brought what was originally Gudereit’s song to life on the page.

The book is “A heartfelt tribute to the nurturing women in our lives,” and the story pictorially follows the lives of an emotionally tightknit mother and daughter, from the latter’s birth to the former’s possible death; yes, the words “angel,” “far away,” and the illustration of the elder woman’s framed photo beside a glowing candle are open to interpretation, but even children of a certain age will clue-in to the gentle suggestion here.    

This feels like a personal story, but anyone who’s had the gift of a loving mother will certainly connect to it. The text – lyrics, really – contain some rhymes and off-rhymes, and the chorus is repeated. What’s so endearing to this reader is the original details the illustrator included … the “homey” images, like a succulent plant beside crystals on a window shelf; and torn jeans; and a paint chip pinned to the wall. Pringle’s done an exceptional job of aging both characters, particularly with the use of changing hairstyles.

Cats and insects – children will have fun locating the butterflies on each page – recur in the images, and one can easily create opportunities for older children throughout this book, ie: have them count all the sunflowers in the warm two-page spread, which shows the mother riding a white horse bareback through a flower field: “It’s hard to believe she was once a little girl, who used to dream of riding horses through the field.” Each image is cornered with the black triangles used in old photo albums to keep the photos in place; this gives the effect that one is indeed leafing through an album of pleasant memories, and SK is represented in the prairie lily and elevator images.  

After the daughter becomes a mother herself, we read “[The elder mother’s] got a shoulder that can handle any tears. She’s the one you always call to spill out all your fears.” There’s sweet visual repetition here: the new, ginger-haired baby is wrapped in the same blanket we see her mother wrapped in on page one, but now it’s used as a sling, the way contemporary mothers often support their wee ones.  
   
I resisted checking online for the song that inspired the text until after I’d read the book. It’s from Gudereit’s CD, Let It Go, and it can be accessed at youtube.com/watch?v=zg3_TitrjSM . Kids will enjoy the suggested art, interview, genealogy and writing activities at the end of the book, and flipping through the pages while listening to the author beautifully sing the text is an absolute bonus.  

I Know A Woman: A Song for Mothers is a delightfully touching package.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM