Friday, October 30, 2015

Four Book Reviews: Smith, Banks, Buffie, Wood

“Time After Time”
by Gaye Smith
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-49-2

Before I even opened Time After Time, a colouring book (for mature colourers) by Lipton SK artist and all-round creative powerhouse Gaye Smith, I did some internet research. That may seem strange, for here I was about to review a book without text …shouldn’t it be, like, easy-peasy? I was vaguely aware that adult colouring books had become a hot new phenomenon, and I wanted to know why.

Turns out it’s about de-stressing. What I learned is that like reading, or doing jigsaw puzzles, or knitting, when we focus on the activity of colouring it calms the mind and takes our focus away from worries, while simultaneously stimulating motor skills, senses, and creativity. There’s a crossover with mindfulness and mantras: “Activities in which the brain is engaged just enough to stop it whirring, but not so much that the concentration is draining.” (The Guardian)

The writer of a June 2015 article (in The Guardian) reported that “Five of Amazon’s top 10 last week were adult colouring-in books, as were six of Brazil’s top 10 non-fiction list. Last year in France, the combined colouring-in industry sold 3.5m books.” Apparently it’s a universal phenomenon, captivating folks from all walks of life. Psychologists are studying it. An Algerian doctor stated that colouring books helped him lick severe depression. They’re huge in China. There are Facebook sites dedicated to this. Apps. And there are intricately-designed books galore.

Would Smith’s Time After Time meet the unspoken promise to keep me in a calm, focused zone? I opened the softcover (approximately 9 x 12”) and was bedazzled. Many of the images, including the cover image, depict a fantastical landscape with water; hills; ringed cones (trees); flowers; insects; hobbit-type homes; all-sorts-ish candy; and creatures, all graphically designed with swirls, stripes, dots, circles, checks, and squiggles (this sounds like a children’s poem). I can imagine the fun she had creating these images, and wonder if she imagined the adults who might take felt pen to paper and fill in the blanks while the prescient concerns of their worlds melted away like ice cream.

There are twenty-four images (not counting covers, inside and out) to play with, and each graphic faces a blank page. My favourites are the full-bleed candy page-perhaps because it brings back memories of when my parents hosted card games in their smalltown SK homes and served all-sorts candy-and the dragonfly page.

I can certainly admire the art, but now it’s time to put the efficacy of “colouring as a means to lessening stress” to work. Will I feel calmer? Like a child again? I search my desk, my junk drawer: no markers or pencil crayons! And the work is too fine to attempt with wax crayons. Well, I’m all out of Big Girl things like butter and eggs, so a trip to the store is called for. While there, I’m going to swing down the stationary aisle, grab a full pack of fine-tipped markers, because to be honest, I can’t wait to try this out.   


“Exile on a Grid Road”
by Shelley Banks
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-057-3
Robins, grackles, gulls, airport snow geese, a Great Horned Owl, iconic chick-a-dees that eat peanuts from the palm of a hand, pigeons, Ruby-throated hummingbirds in bougainvillea. Birds flutter in and out of Exile on a Grid Road by longtime Regina writer and photographer Shelley Banks. In her inaugural poetry collection, the multi-genre scribe demonstrates that she’s also paid attention to dogs and cats, insects, rain, the myriad plants (“natives and exotics”) that grow alongside gravel roads, and, of course, to the human heart.

Why is this all important? Because life whizzes by, and most of us don’t take the time to stop and consider how a grasshopper resembles a twig on a patio gate, or how-on a grave or anywhere else in a certain season-“lumps of clay jut\through the snow”. This is the very stuff of life; it counterbalances the tedium of work-a-day lives, the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy, the shadows that deaths leave behind. It’s good and necessary to celebrate what goes on beneath the glossy surface of life, and that’s what poets like Banks do so well.

The finely-tuned poems in this book are mostly short, and Banks has employed various styles: free verse, quatrains, couplets, haiku, a prose poem, a pantoum, concrete poetry, and even a found poem, “Swordfish,” “from text describing complex patterns in number puzzles from an online Sudoku Guide.” This diversity might signal that some of these pieces were written while the writer was in a poetry class, or perhaps she just enjoys the freedom of experimentation. The variety is aesthetically appealing, as is the range in subject matter.   

“Greed” is among the poet’s many considerations. An octogenarian is greedy for “dregs of wine, the last peanut skins,” and Banks examines the greediness of the photographer who’s compelled to “capture” the image of an owl and satisfy her “need not to believe\but prove this presence”. She continues:

     and the memory of the great
     owl’s soaring grace
     flounders in desire,

     to just another checklist photo

Banks is competent in the mechanics of poetry. Note that in the above excerpt (from “Raw Desire”) she’s placed “reduced” and “lost” on their own. This gives these words more weight, so they reverberate and meaning is heightened. Great care’s also taken with line breaks in this collection: end-line words “swing” backward and forward, giving lines double meaning and impact. Phrases like “the clouds slate\submarines patrolling the horizon” and “a galaxy of farms” demonstrate originality and grace.

The “bird-stained window” in “The Strike Drags On” is, for this reader, an ideal metaphor for this accomplished collection. The poet is an acute observer (the window), who records and shares personal observations and experiences in poems that sometimes whisper, sometimes sing, and sometimes howl. Yes, there are “stains,” and that’s the reality of anyone’s flight through this world, but there is also joy, and praise .. for the moments, for oranges, for snow melt, and “one light\far off\along the wingtip”.

These are poems to let steep, and read again.  

“Let Us Be True”
by Erna Buffie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781550-506358

The unceasing mystery of “family” is at the heart of many a novel, and in Let Us Be True, Manitoba-based Erna Buffie employs a variety of characters to explore this complex subject across generations. When one considers how we often hurt those closest to us-including our kin-it’s easy to question whether blood is indeed thicker than water.

Buffie kicks this novel off on a WW2 battlefield. Henry’s a young soldier who doesn’t regret the death of his hometown comrade, as it frees up that soldier’s girl. He knows that Pearl “won’t be an easy woman to love, but he can’t think of anything else he would rather do.” In the chapters that follow-and through the voices of her two adult daughters and others-we learn that Henry pegged it: foul-mouthed, sour, and seemingly heartless, Pearl’s a difficult woman to like, let alone love.

In chapter two we meet the force that is Pearl Calder. Now seventy-four, she’s clearing out anything extraneous after Henry’s death, including items others might keep for sentimental reasons. Good details here help us understand these characters, ie: Henry kept a Tony the Tiger glass collection. “He’d collected with every refill at the Esso station, the one where he’d worked for more than thirty-five years.” And how about this for Pearl’s telephone answering machine message: “Is this thing working, Henry? Henry! Oh, hell, just leave us a message and I’ll try to figure it out.” Hilarious.

Early on, Pearl’s discarding her dresses: “They didn’t fit any more. Size twelve. When was the last time she’d seen a size twelve? The last time one of the girls got married, and it had taken her twelve months of dieting to get there. And for what? Two divorces, one right after the other, and two mother-of-the-bride dresses she’d never wear again.” I love the realism in this.   

Clearly, Pearl’s not close to her girls, and they’re not close to each other. Darlene’s a university professor in a relationship with Athena. Pearl believes this “silly ass” elder daughter “could use a bit of lightening up”. (Pearl’s especially fond of describing people and things as “silly”). The crotchety protagonist attacks her other daughter, Carol, for her pride in her fancy house, where she lives “with her two spoiled sons and that bland, blond-haired milquetoast she’d married.”    

Pearl mostly communicates via rant, whereas Henry, the daughters’ favourite, was much softer. She admits that she had “spent quite a bit of their married life shouting nasty things at Henry ....” Her place was for “bitching and scolding,” while Henry was for “fun and play.”

There are several twists and turns, shadows and secrets in Buffie’s debut book. Does Pearl’s dark history justify her coldness? Does she have any redeeming qualities? And how much do our parents’ experiences impact upon the adults we become?  

In life there are always more questions than answers. Let Us Be True is a book that lays it all out, and leaves it up to readers to make their own judgements.       

“Love is Not Anonymous”
by Jan Wood
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-056-6
It’s a happy coincidence when a poet’s name reflects one of his or her subjects. As I read Love is Not Anonymous, one of four books released as part of Thistledown Press’s 12th New Leaf Editions Series, I discovered that Jan Wood is an example of this synergy. Wood calls Big River SK home–anyone who knows this heavily-treed area will understand the name\leitmotif connection-and while the book’s back cover blurb addresses the poet’s handling of love, relationships and spirituality, I keep returning to the poems that indirectly honour the natural world.

Among these is “Awakening,” where the narrator’s night-driving on a rain-slick road, and “at the edge of the swamp-spruce” a bull moose appears. Though the poet tries to capture a decent photograph where “the Northern Saskatchewan forest\intertwines with moose, muskeg and sky,” her “Details of the night are\a thousand apertures and nothing”. She becomes philosophical in the final stanza, and it’s this layering-the real world of a bridge and rain and headlights juxtaposed against what it may all mean in the big picture-that marks this poem a success.

     Clumsily human, I teeter
     on the edge of oneness
     slow my breath until
     the beauty I behold can bear my weight.

More evidence of Wood’s fine way with the natural world is revealed in metaphors and personification. “Ringed moon in a January sky\a pale tambourine,” she writes in “Elle”. In “Dangerous as Whiskey,” which I’m assuming to be a spring poem, “water has its hands all over\the morning” and “night drips with a language\that it dares not speak.” Sometimes there’s a confluence of natural and religious images, as in this dandy from  “communion”: “on Sundays a week’s supply of holy\melts on her tongue like a snowflake”. This, friends, is first-rate poetry.

I know the poet’s doing her job when she writes so evocatively of winter I find myself missing the snow and engaging in prairie-type activities, like skating. Wood’s poem “Skating in the Exit Light” features a twelve-year-old girl and a boy she’s interested in sneaking into the rink to steal some alone time-and figure eights-on the ice.

In several of these poems we’re given the poetic outline of an event and are called upon to use our imaginations to fill in the details. Some are more forthcoming, like “Duplex,” with its theme of domestic abuse. For those new to reading poetry, I advise reading the back cover copy and perhaps the publisher’s online notes (if available) about the work before beginning a book; poetry is often spare, and the aforementioned texts can provide helpful hints on the content.

Finally, a word about this book’s gorgeous cover. The photograph of a female statue (perhaps representative of the biblical Mary?) among red-berried conifers could be enough to make anyone grab this book off a shelf. I hope you do just that.