Sunday, October 23, 2016

Four Book Reviews: Pamela Roth, Deana J. Driver, Janice Howden, Trina Markusson/James Hearne

“Deadmonton: Crime Stories from Canada's Murder City”
by Pamela Roth
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-774261
In 2011 I lived in a notorious Edmonton neighbourhood where I wouldn't walk the length of a block alone at night. That same year Edmonton was deemed the "Murder Capital of Canada." Journalist Pamela Roth was also living in the city at that time, and the court and crime reporter has now published a collection of true stories about several of the cops, the criminals, the victims and their families who made headlines in "Deadmonton," both in 2011 and across the decades.

The book's title, shadowy cover image, and back cover copy all prepare readers for the disturbing content inside. "These stories are not for the faint of heart," Roth writes in her introduction, and adds that what the murdered and/or missing victims' families have in common is "the need for closure, no matter how much time has passed."

There's been no closure for eleven-year-old victim Karen Ewanciw's friend, Shelley Campbell, who was ten when she and her best friend were exploring the river valley by Edmonton's McNally High School, and, after finding an upside down cross, Ewanciw "walked off in a trance." Within two days the girl's body was discovered in the ravine: she'd been sexually assaulted and killed by blunt force trauma. "The blow was so fierce that an imprint of Karen's face was left in the soft earth where she came to a final rest." The killer was never found, and in the aftermath, Campbell's suffered decades of grief and survivor guilt. "It would have been a lot easier to have died with Karen," she said. Ewanciw's father-who claims to know who the now-deceased killer was-"regrets not taking care of the killer himself while he had the chance."

A desire for vigilante justice was also expressed by Michelle Shegelski's widower. Shegelski was one of three murdered in the University of Alberta's HUB mall case (2012). All three were armoured car guards, as was their killer and coworker, Travis Baumgartner. "I think [Baumgartner] should just be taken out behind the shed and put down," Shegelski's widower said. Roth recounts the night's tragic events, victim biographies, and how the shooter-described by a former schoolmate as "a quiet kid who got bullied a lot"-was apprehended at the Canada/US border.

Several stories involve innocent victims, like six-year-old Corinne "Punky" Gustavson (1992), baby Robin Thorn (1997), the St. Albert seniors Lyle and Marie McCann (2010), and those who died during "robberies gone wrong." Other victims lived high-risk lifestyles. The police who investigate these crimes are victims as well: of anguish due to the horrors they encounter, and of frustration when murders go unsolved.            

Any light here comes via the organizations and support groups that've evolved from tragedy. Young Tania Murrell's disappearance (1983) "sparked the formation of the Missing Children Society of Canada." Cathy Greeve's 1988 death-she was murdered in an Edmonton LRT station-resulted in her father helping to found the Victims of Homicide Support Society.

Although definitely not for the faint of heart, Deadmonton tells compelling stories. Roth now lives in Victoria.



 “Fun on the Farm … True Tales of Farm Life"
Compiled and edited by Deana J. Driver
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-192757030-2

Even if they've never lived on a farm, I'm going to take the bull by the horns and suggest that most readers will get a chuckle (and perhaps a nostalgic lump in the throat) from Fun on the Farm … True Tales of Farm Life!, a light-hearted anthology concerning the trials, tribulations, and tricks (including many practical jokes) inherent in farm living. DriverWorks Ink publisher, editor, and writer, Deana J. Driver asked for submissions of "stories, poems, and memories," and two dozen folks responded-including published writers Bryce Burnett, Jean F. Fahlman, Mary Harelkin Bishop, Ed Olfert, and Marion Mutala-to recount the good old days back on the farm. Other writers I'm unfamiliar with also made generous contributions: Peter Foster (Craven, SK) has four accounts, Regina's Keith Foster's work is found six times, and Laurie Lynn Muirhead, from Shellbrook, appears seven times. 

Many of the writers shared shenanigans in which they did something foolish, innocently or otherwise. Jean Tiefenbach and her brother thought it a wise idea to tip the outhouse over and wash it for their mom on Mother's Day. Eleanor Sinclair was showing off her (underaged) pickup driving skills to a friend and sunk the truck up to its running boards in the mud of a slough bottom while a threshing crew looked on. Leo Moline was adept at playing practical jokes on the threshers who came to his farm, and they got even by nailing him to the granary. "They nailed my wristband through my shirt and stretched me out spread-eagle on the west side of the granary wall, in the sun and dust."

Cow pies, machinery mishaps, animal high-jinks, and outhouses are common threads, the latter I suppose because they are particularly unforgettable. In his poem, "Cat in the Can," Keith Foster admits that "We were terrible kids," but fortunately the cat in question survived the outhouse adventure. Muirhead shares an outhouse story via poetry: "we girls stuck it out together/through nightmares and thunderstorms," she writes. In her comical prose piece, "You Waved, My Lord," Fahlman also gets poetic: "One of the prettiest sights on earth is watching the sun go down in a red blaze, harvest dust hanging in the air, shimmering, as twilight settles over the field."

Clearly most of these stories concern decades-old experiences, and that's one of the values of a book like this. We're reminded of the hard work, large families, and the ingenious thriftiness of our rural friends, ie: manure banking around a home's foundation to help keep drafts out. And then there are the characters, like Mrs. Anderson, an independent elderly woman who lived in a refurbished granary. She "canned" her pony after he'd done the summer work of hauling firewood out of the grove.

The book's contributors seem to agree with Marlene Hunter, who writes that the farm "was a wonderful place to grow up." As one who grew up in town, it's also pretty wonderful to read about how the kids who took the bus made their fun.

by Janice Howden
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$13.95  ISBN 978-192757031-9

Before reading Rescued-Saskatoon writer Janice Howden's touching story for young readers about a dog's journey from a puppy mill into the arms of a loving "forever home" family-I'd never heard of Tibetan Terriers. As their name implies, these shaggy-coated dogs originated in the Himalayas, and their "big round feet act like snowshoes in the deep snow." They're intelligent, determined, and affectionate, and, as Howden proves in this hybrid story-part non-fiction, part fancy (as told by the canine protagonist)-they can be inspirational.

Howden's combined her passion for promoting pet adoptions from animal rescues, her love for the puppy Hawkeye (later renamed Rahj) she adopted from the Saskatoon SPCA, and her writing skills into a story that works well between the genres of fiction and nonfiction. After an italicized introduction into what lead to Hawkeye's adoption, she switches to storytelling mode. Here Hawkeye takes over the narration, and this little guy's feisty. He says the story thus far is "being told rather badly by the human," and he goes on to share how he and his meek brother, Freddie, were evicted from the kennel (aka puppy mill) they'd been born into because a new litter was coming and the owners had to make room for younger and more easily-adoptable dogs.

Hawkeye's the thinker of the siblings, and he resents it. As they scavenge for food and navigate through dangers that include a "huge, angry dog," alley cats, traffic, and cruel boys, Hawkeye says "Good grief … How come I have to do all the thinking?" They find temporary shelter in a park, but soon Freddie's caught by animal protection officers, and Hawkeye's capture follows shortly after.

Howden establishes a strong and humorous voice for the lead dog using tricks like understatement. While wandering free in the park, Hawkeye muses "So far, it had not been too bad-if you didn't mind sleeping in the cold, eating from garbage cans and being chased by mean boys." Later in the book, after another italicized, "human" section, the dog responds to his inability to play fetch by saying, "Really, who thinks fetching a sock sounds like fun?" He's also quite the dramatic dog. Three different times he says "This was the worst day of my life!" Fortunately, he also has the opportunity to later exclaim about "the happiest time" in his life.

Rescued is about acceptance (ie: Rahj must win over Howden's husband), generosity, and the bond between humans and pets. The book contains black and white illustrations and several photos (so you can see Rahj in the flesh, er, fur), and would be suitable for juvenile readers, or as a story read to younger children, but be warned: reading this might result in a trip to your local shelter and the addition of a four-legged family member.

Howden's on the board of the Saskatchewan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and promotes "compassion and respect for animals" through education. Buy her book, and a portion of the sale's donated to animal welfare organizations.

"Good Morning, Sunshine! (A Story of Mindfulness)"                                                          
by Trina Markusson, illustrated by James Hearne
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$15.95  ISBN 9-781927-756775
There's much talk these days about mindfulness, and truth be told, this reviewer has signed up for a class on that very topic. I'm also starting to hear that mindfulness-or "living in the moment"-is being taught in some schools, and I can only imagine how much this will benefit students who adopt the practice into their daily lives. Perhaps you remember some of the worries you had as a child, or you recall how stressful teenage years can be. Maybe you have a son or daughter who is fearful or anxious, and you don't know how to help them. Let me introduce you to Good Morning, Sunshine! (A Story of Mindfulness), a gently-told (and sweetly-illustrated) children's book by Regina teacher, speaker, and writer, Trina Markusson. 

Drawing from her youngest son's experience, as well as her own, Markusson, has penned a sensitive story about Zachary-a boy old enough to play football but young enough to enjoy the company of a teddy bear-that demonstrates how hanging on to the past or worrying about the future prevents us from enjoying the present, and can even manifest in physical ailments. Speaking of the "what-ifs" (future thoughts) her son's experiencing, ie: doing poorly on a spelling test, public speaking in class, missing his bus, his mother says "Most of the time, the what-ifs never come true, but we spend so much time worrying and it makes our bodies worry too! We might get a tummy-ache, feel panicky or even make our hearts beat faster."

Fortunately, the family keeps a shoebox with mindfulness tools (six simply- illustrated cards that symbolize keys to practicing mindfulness) on hand to help Zachary focus. As the worrying boy goes through each of the cards, he practices the steps, ie: when he draws the Five Senses card, he feels his pillow, listens to the chirping birds, and smells "the coffee Dad was making in the kitchen." The Gratitude card reminds him to name three things he's grateful for, including his brothers and "the blue-sky day!"

The book ends with an encouraging note to caregivers and teachers re: the benefits of practising mindfulness, and encourages these adults to "model the use of these tools," as children learn most via observation. Child-geared language, ie: "His eyebrows squinched together" and "His tummy flippity-flopped" help keep the message fun, and the repetition of the phrase "Everything was all right in this moment" helps underscore the story's upbeat message.

Calgary illustrator James Hearne has created a series of colourful and darling images for the story. The little bear appears on each illustrated page, and his expressions match the child's: nice visual touch. And even big people (like yours truly) will appreciate the six, punch-out-able cards at the back of the book … to help keep us peacefully present.        

This book would fit well into the library of any child, and any adult who cares about a child's lifelong well-being and happiness … parents and grandparents, counsellors, teachers, etc. For more information about the author, see


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Line Dance: An Anthology of Poetry, selected and edited by Gerald Hill

“Line Dance”
An anthology of poetry, selected and edited by Gerald Hill
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866912

Before I say anything else about Line Dance - the cool new poetry anthology driven by SK Poet Laureate Gerald Hill's "First Lines" project - a disclaimer: two lines from one of my poems appear within it. Apart from that, I had zilch to do with this book that handily demonstrates the wealth of poetic voices in the homeland, the range of human imagination, and how art inspires art.

Each weekday during Poetry Month in April, Hill e-mailed SK Writers' Guild members a pair of first lines he'd selected from SK poetry books and invited folks to respond with poems of their own. Some, like professionals Brenda Schmidt and Ed Willett, sent poems every day. In the end, almost 500 pieces were submitted, and SK writing veteran-turned publisher, Byrna Barclay, bound what editor Hill deemed the best into a handsome package, featuring Saskatchewanian David Thauberger's art on the cover. 

If you already read homegrown poetry, you'll recognize several names here. The quoted include Dave Margoshes, Judith Krause, Paul Wilson, Gary Hyland, Elizabeth Philips, Bruce Rice, Louise Halfe, and Robert Currie. Their quotes spawned poems by the likes of Katherine Lawrence, dee Hobsbawn-Smith, Lynda Monahan, Sharon MacFarlane, and Jim McLean. The book also introduces newer writers, like Lumsden's Karen Nye, who incorporated something from all the selected quotes for the book's opening act.   

Although the poems appear in the order the quotes were e-mailed, the book proper begins and ends with strong pieces – as books generally do - by multi-genre writer Dave Margoshes. A few pages later, in a poem that blooms with prairie imagery, Laurie Muirhead delivers the beautiful line "a mirage of tiger lilies". Dee Hobsbawn-Smith deserves a bow for her phrase "the mud of missing you," and for the emotional depth of her dog-related poems in this collection. (Five stars for the "November-coloured dog" in her graphic piece "Hunting".) Similarly, Lynda Monahan packs a punch with her powerful and heartfelt pieces. In "Saying the Unsayable Things" she writes of "the white heart of your suffering" and how "nothing I write anymore matters/in the face of it".    

Ed Willett's penned sci-fi/fantasy poems and showcases his sense of humour ("Please don’t think we're prejudiced/against vampires" and "my husband hasn’t held a steady job/since he became a werewolf"), as does the ever-clever and perceptive Brenda Schmidt, ie: "I've always known the backroad/is the road less graveled". Ruth Chorney wrote a terrific piece inspired by Brenda Niskala's humdinger line: "The man at the door with a gun is our son./We think he's after our money." Robert Currie puts his voice to fine use in story-poems.

This is Saskatchewan. From Fort Qu'Appelle to Prince Albert, SaskPower to the Co-op. From "little sandwiches and bowls of bitter pickles" (Schmidt) in halls to "the bellering heifer/helpless in the chute" (Bonnie Dunlop). Congratulations and thanks to the poets, to Gerry Hill, to the SWG (for their hand in the project), and to Byrna Barclay for making Line Dance Burton House Book's inaugural poetry title. Reading this book was like being in a room with several of my favourite Saskatchewan folks. In other words, great dance!


Saturday, September 3, 2016

Three Book Reviews: Silverthorne, Cripps,Shklanka

by Judith Silverthorne
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506525
I've now read enough of Judith Silverthorne's numerous books to know that anything she writes will be a worthy read, and my belief was confirmed again with her latest, the historical novel Convictions. This time the multi-award-winning Regina writer (and Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild) has penned an action-packed, fact-based tale about 14-year-old Jennie, a British lass sentenced to serve seven years in a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania, Australia) after she was ungenerously convicted of theft. First however, Jennie must survive the four or five months of sailing on a convict ship with 234 other women and children, and a crew that includes more than a few letches. It's cramped, filthy, and there's precious little food or medical aid. Before long Jennie finds herself stitching up a fellow convict, Lizzie, a "doxie" who's been flogged almost to death by the evil guard Red Bull. 

I'm in awe of how Silverthorne pulls it all together: the historical and sailing details, the adventures (including fistfights, a hurricane, and a shipwreck of Titanic proportions), and even the first sparks of a romance between Jennie and the ship's youngest guard, Nate. This is extremely competent writing, and what's more, it's a story that's hard to put down.

It's 1842. Jennie's doomed to the faraway penal colony because she stole "a mouldy sack of oats" from a garbage bin to feed her starving family. Silverthorne brings the story to life in paragraph one via sensory details, including "sun-baked cobblestones" that burn Jennie's bare feet, and the "sudden cloying stench of dead fish, rotting wood and slime." As with an establishing shot in cinema, the author immediately transports readers into the story's time and place. In the next paragraph she introduces conflict. A guard yanks Jennie, and she "winced as he cuffed her wrists behind her back. A second guard snapped shackles on her ankles". Soon after, the veteran writer includes a scene: we hear the rough voices of other convicts and guards, plus bystanders' comments, and this dialogue smartly provides background information while also increasing the story's plausibility.

The convicts get little time on deck, but when they do Jennie notes "no sign of a coastline in any direction; only the never-ending grey sea mirrored by the dreary mackerel sky. The desolate sounds of the wind, the water and the odd call of a seabird." Red Bull and other guards are constant threats, and the women's nights are spent "fending off vermin and nightmares." Prisoners are threatened with a flogging frame, and there are "punishment balls and torture irons strapped to the wheelhouse."

This is no pleasure cruise. Jennie's smart, resourceful, and strong, but when she finds herself having conversations with herself, she worries she'll end up like "Crazy Mary". Fortunately there are a few warm hearts on board, including matronly Sarah and young Alice, who become Jennie's closest friends during the life or death journey.

Will they survive? The answer's in the book. I highly recommend you discover it.   



“Sibling Shenanigans”
by Marjorie Cripps, illustrated by Val Lawton
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 9-781927-75706

I can't imagine a better title for first-time author Marjorie Cripps' collection of stories for young readers than what she's chosen, Sibling Shenanigans. This fun and ably-written series of short tales features likeable siblings Amanda and Mitchell, who get along exceptionally well with each other, their parents, and their beloved Grandma. The senior's a central character (and sometimes accomplice) in several of the ten pieces. Saskatchewan-born Cripps is a retired school librarian whose love of quilting is evident in many of the stories.

Using different styles - some stories are written in First Person, others in Third Person; some are realistic, others fantastic - and an upbeat tone, Cripps welcomes us into the active lives of young Amanda and Mitchell, beginning with the latter's spectacular adventure in a "runaway stroller". Cripps shares anecdotes about sleepovers, birthdays, Christmases, pet dogs, camping, and a family move from one side of Vancouver to the other.

I appreciated how easily the author's pen swung between real life and fantasy, making both feel credible. In "Barkley on Wheels," we learn that Grandma is living in a seniors' complex, Summitcrest Lodge. "'This new hip is not nearly as good as my old one,'" she says. Barkley is her dog, but the Jack Russell terrier has gone to live with Amanda and Mitchell's family now. When the family takes him to the cottage, the dog zips around as happy dogs do, and a few days later the leash-free dog is struck by a car. There's an interesting synchronicity between Grandma's use of a walker and the dog's new harness and two-wheeled cart that support its hindquarters. "'If Barkley can keep rolling, so can I!'" Grandma says.   

Anyone with a doll phobia might find the next story somewhat creepy. In "Magic Moonlight Dance," Amanda sleeps over at Gram's doll-filled house, and during the night the dolls – from Gram's favourite, Celeste (circa 1890s) to Barbie and Ken, Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, 1960s Chatty Cathy, and wooden Pinocchio  - come alive to dance and play with the unfrightened girl.  

Then it's back to reality, with Gram taking the kids tenting: the thin foam mattress gives her bones a devil of a time, and it's a three-store chore to find a better mattress in town. Rings true!

The final story concerns the imaginative children flying across Canada on Grandma's magic quilt. They touch various squares on the quilt and voila: away they zoom. They spy a humpback whale in the Pacific, and "… the quilt dropped low enough for them to salute the Mountie in front of the Parliament Buildings." At one point a lobster even attaches itself to the quilt.   

The book is minimally illustrated with black and white drawings by veteran book illustrator Val Lawton, from Calgary. Once a child has graduated from picture books, this would be a great early reader – with or without a parent or grandparent snuggled up to listen. The author can be proud of her first title. Hopefully there are more to come.

“Ceremony of Touching”
by Karen Shklanka
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95  ISBN 9-781550-506679

It's gratifying to possess some knowledge of where, both literally and metaphorically, a poet is writing from. The first piece in BC poet/doctor/dancer Karen Shklanka's second book of poetry – which originated as her master's thesis – is a touchstone. It introduces us to "the wounded soul of a doctor" who finds repose on Salt Spring Island among the "scent of salted forest, wrap of humidity/from logs returning to earth, and reassurance/from thickets of salal flowers cupped in prayer." It's a strong, unique, and elemental premise.

In many ways I feel this seven-sectioned book is not unlike one long prayer, or at least a meditation: upon one's profession, personal relationships, nature and human nature, how "everything is connected," and upon the atrocity of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The section that recounts the historical event (from a fictional tailgunner's perspective; I'm thankful for the poet's extensive notes on the poems) is titled "Flight Log," and it's no small deal that it was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. More interesting to me, however, are the numerous poems in which one can almost feel the poet's personal grappling about the here and now. 

Shklanka is an empathetic physician with many drug-addicted patients. Some of their sad lives, like that of patient S, are recounted in narratives that expose their desperation: "Hospitalization is a home away from homeless," the author writes. She recognizes that given the pressures on time, doctors sometimes "default to efficiency and having less compassion than a pig."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, hands often appear in the book. In a poem that nods toward the collection's gorgeous cover image – a bleeding pomegranate – Shklanka writes: "Hands are pale bloody parentheses."  In a poem about a self-harming patient, we read "There's too much on my hands. My hands are empty." 
In the poem "Indiferencia," she writes: "the doctor's fingers/march the cold bell of a stethoscope across/a chest," and in a Japanese-set poem, there are "Nervous fingers of rain/on the roof of the temple."

I applaud the poet's one-stanza poem that describes a hike up Mount Robson ("the summer before/our wedding") and does not overtly mention marital discord except via the title: "Neither of Us Wants to Keep the Photographs," and well-chosen, ambiguous words like "stumble," "hunger" and "sharp descent." Perhaps all readers also appreciate those lines in which they recognize their own innocuous folly, ie: "I've been looking into the wrong end/of the binoculars."  
Shklanka makes excellent poetry of her personal life and her profession, and she doesn't shirk from the stereotype of doctors as gods: "We have important things to do/and we will fit them into time's tight dresses." Wow.

I especially admire the last poem. Written in couplets, "Behind the Cabin at D'Arcy" melds natural details (ie: "rose hips left by the bears"), the calming rhythms of ceremony (achieved partly via word repetition), practical elements (ie: "the wood stove"), and a spectacular image of a love-making couple "superimposed, faintly, on the mountains." The poem leaves the reader with a sense of healing calm.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three New Reviews: Minevich and Waterman, Tracie, Sharfe

“Art of Immersive Soundscapes”
Edited by Pauline Minevich and Ellen Waterman
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-780889-772588

Music, laughter, the rustling wind: sound enriches our lives. Of course it can also work the other way, as anyone with belligerent neighbours can attest. Sound is an interesting field of study for scientists and artists. I'd never heard of "immersive soundscapes," and was curious to learn what they are, why they matter, and who's creating them.

Enter editors Pauline Minevich (associate professor in the Department of Music, University of Regina) and Ellen Waterman (dean of the School of Music and  professor of musicologies at Memorial University of Newfoundland), who collected the disparate papers presented at the 2007 international conference "Intersections: Music and Sound, Music and Identity," held in Regina, and published them and a DVD of the presenters' audio and video explorations with sound in the book Art of Immersive Soundscapes. Combining science and art, rural and urban, nature and technology, macro and micro, the featured composers in this book show us a fresh and interesting way to experience and understand our social and physical worlds.

The interdisciplinary "soundscape movement" began in the 1960s at BC's Simon Fraser University, when composer R. Murray Schafer (and grad students) wanted to spotlight the "critical lack of attention to our sound environment, and its effects on our well-being." They sought to increase public awareness of sound environments, including noise pollution, and how those environments impacted on people. Schafer differentiated "hi-fi" environments (harmonious sounds, ie: streams, with low ambient noise) and "lo-fi" environments ("the confusing 'noise' of modern life"). The composer felt that, like music, soundscapes had the ability to "enrich the inner lives of the creator and listener," and he and his students collected sound from Canadian cities and European villages. From this they created "aural images".

The "immersive" aspect is the "social life of sounds," ie: "the myriad reflections, refractions, and reverberations that depend on the configuration of a particular performing space."

Practical examples include John Wynne's work with sound at a hospital in London, England. Using recordings and photography, Wynne provides the experience of "lying in the next bed trying to interpret" what's going on with a neighbouring patient. The project stimulates imagination.

Contributor Andrea Polli discusses the history of music from natural processes, ie: Aeolian harps and wind chimes, Balinese bamboo organs, and the light whistles attaches to the tails of young pigeons in China that produce "an open air concert".

Gabriele Proy's Austrian project, Waldviertel: A Soundscape Composition, was one of the most accessible, and his recording among my favourite. He designed his soundscape to represent a "portrait of a day," using only nature sounds, church bells, and a fire siren (played Saturdays at noon) … things that represented his fond childhood memories of this forested rural region. He combined these "sound memories" and layered them with meanings.
Like reading poetry, engaged "listening" gives us pause, and opens us to deeper realms of perception. Sound like a great idea? If you agree, you'll gain much from this illuminating text (which includes photos and charts) and the accompanying DVD.   

“Shaping a World Already Made: Landscape and Poetry of the Canadian Prairies"
By Carl J. Tracie
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95  ISBN 9-780889-773936

The respectful and sweeping premise for this new book – the brainchild of author/cultural geographer Carl J. Tracie – is to "make meaningful observations about the interconnected themes of poetry, landscape, perception, paradox, and mystery on the [Canadian] prairies." In his examination of the poetry of place, Tracie seeks to view the prairie landscape "through the lens of poetry," and asks how the physical elements impact on poets and their work, and how their representation of the landscape influences readers' ("residents and outsiders") vision of this land.

A self-professed fan of poetry, rather than a poet himself, Tracie analyzed the work of nine "prairie" poets (they might not currently live on the prairies, but their work demonstrates "a long attachment" to it), including Di Brandt, Lorna Crozier, John Newlove, Tim Lilburn, and Eli Mandel, and found commonalities and differences in their subjects, sentiments, and styles. He also refers to the work of a number of Indigenous poets, including Louise Halfe and Marilyn Dumont.

Why would a cultural geographer use poetry to better explain a place? As John Warkentin states in the introduction, it's not uncommon for geographers to turn to the arts, as they offer "a more profound sense of region and the life of the people who live in it." Perception, imagination, memory, and myth all contribute to a sense of place and how one interacts with it. Tracie says poetry's concision and imagistic nature "gives us a sense of region defined by resonances."

The author starts with the obvious: the poets' treatments of land and sky - what he calls the "enduring elements." As a reader and a writer, I was interested in how the various poets portrayed similar features. Dennis Cooley writes of "an enormous sky far as you can see" and telephone posts that "[stipple] the prairie," whereas Lorna Crozier - whose work Tracie often found to include spiritual elements - writes "God had to stretch and stretch the sky to hold it." Patrick Friesen's sky is "a blue silk umbrella/arching over the city."

The text includes work that both venerates and laments elements of the prairie (ie: winter) and prairie life. Eli Mandel writes evocatively - if not fondly - of snow in his poem "Blizzard": "sluff of a dead god/in whose hair/like fleas/we are white entangled knots."

I appreciated the examples of philosophic poetry by Tim Lilburn, which Tracie says "suggest a mythical union of flesh and spirit," and demonstrate the "intimate connections that are possible between the landscape and its creatures," and Tracie's explication re: the differences between how Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals write about landscape – the former provide much less detail, as their culture matter-of-factly "embraces the land." The author also examines the prairie in terms of rural/urban, and it's no surprise that rural's the preferred terrain. John Newlove's strong declaration that cities are "concentration camps of the soul" underscores this sentiment better than any.

This book would be a great senior high or university resource. I'd call it "accessibly academic," and I enjoyed it.    

“My Good Friend, Grandpa”
Story by Elaine Sharfe, Illustrations by Karen Sim
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$9.95  ISBN 9-781927-756713

You don't have to be a grandparent to appreciate Saskatoon writer Elaine Sharfe's illustrated children's book, My Good Friend, Grandpa. Indeed, anyone with a heart will adore this beautifully-rendered tale about a boy's strong connection with his beloved grandfather, and, as in all the best writing, the author skillfully evokes emotion without regressing into sentimentality.

Want to write your own children's book? Reading and studying great books is the best way to learn, and I'd definitely recommend Sharfe's well-written story to anyone who has an emotional children's story to tell. The tenor is spot-on here. Sharfe starts and ends on just the right notes, immediately establishing the characters' close relationship by simply stating it: "Noah and Grandpa Ed had been good friends for as long as Noah could remember. Grandpa Ed said they had been friends forever."

Nanaimo illustrator Karen Sims ably demonstrates this tight bond via full-colour images that show the young, big-eyed boy and his loving grandfather involved in activities that range from watering plants at the family cottage to enjoying treats in the bleachers at a football game (and I don't think the green and white flag Noah's waving is a coincidence). In an e-mail, Sims explained that she used digital paintings to give the illustrations the "memory/dream-like look" the author desired. "Not too cartoonish."  

Noah and Grandpa Ed are each other's biggest fans. The images reveal a smiling, animated child until page 15, when the story turns: "Noah was nine when Grandpa Ed got sick." Again, no embellishment's necessary: stating the facts does the job perfectly; the reader's heart drops. (You'll have to read the book yourself to learn what follows). 

Sharfe admits in the bio notes that her inspiration stems from "childhood memories of her four children and the antics of her 14 grandchildren." It should not matter that the story is based on "real" people, but this fact does heighten the emotional impact for me personally. As someone who lived in Saskatoon and for a few years worked as a radio advertising copywriter there, I'm familiar with the Sharfe family's car dealership, Sherwood Chevrolet, and the author addresses this auto dynasty in her story. "Grandpa Ed sold cars," she writes, and the first illustration in the book shows the grandfather and grandson in a showroom car, where they are "[pretending] to drive away."

What I liked best is how Sharfe (and Sim) so effectively conveyed love. Imagine an esteemed businessman taking a day off work so he could walk his grandson to kindergarten, then calling him every day to ask how school went for his "good friend". Imagine a creative child who, when his grandfather's too ill to go fishing, suggests they "pretend" fish off the end of the sickbed.

Real, moving, consistent, gorgeous. This intergenerational story is one to be cherished and shared. Thank you, Elaine Sharfe and Karen Sim, for making me feel so much on a rainy afternoon in August. Where it matters most (the heart), your book's an overwhelming success.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Four New Reviews: Lamont, Edwards, Roy, Calder

“Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World”
Written by Laura Lamont, Designed by Jess Dixon
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
ISBN 978-1-927035-18-4

     In 2015, Saskatoon’s Jackpine Press published Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World, and the good news for the press and the book’s creators is bad news for you, readers: each of the 75 copies of this limited-edition, hardcover (millboard wrapped in craft paper, bound with fabric tape and snapped together with Chicago bolts) has already found a home. Usually one reviews books that are new and available, but it’s also worthwhile to examine a success story, and introduce readers to the writer so they can watch for future works.   
     Let’s begin with this book’s eclectic design. If it were a painting, I’d suggest it’s closet to collage. If it were music, it would be jazz. Inset location diagrams represent individual poems and appear as background to each poem’s text. Imprinted cotton paper; cascading, torn vellum; a post-it-style note (that protrudes outside the book’s neat and expected rectangle); apparent “scrap paper;” and pages that are coffee-cup ringed and wrinkled are all fair game for hosting poems in this little marvel of a book.
    Most of us probably read a back cover before we start a book proper. There’s no blurb here, nor an author bio, which can be either disconcerting for a reader or allow her the freedom to experience the work completely without context. And what is one to make of the disparate materials, fonts (ie: “radio silence” is printed in a typewriter font), and images? Usually a book’s title offers at least a small clue, so before I discuss the content, let’s examine that title: Lost + Found: Signposts for Steering Through the World. It suggests that the world requires maps\directions\signposts (perhaps because it’s physically\emotionally convoluted), that one can easily get lost, but just as easily, found. The poems, then, would be the “signposts”.
        The first piece (a few lines on each of four pages, printed on onionskin) is called “Cromniomancy,” and that title had me scrambling for a dictionary: “Divination by onions or onionsprouts.” Wow, didn’t expect that. This initial poem-and those that follow-trace a first-person narrator’s journey away from a troubled past, where “skin keeps a record, every\cut and bruise archived on vellum,” and through the tremulous territory that is a new relationship.
     Melancholy is clearly present in these poems. In “radio silence,” a poem first published in the esteemed journal Contemporary Verse 2, we read “No more lying\in bed, loneliness bleeding out\in silent waves beside someone\whose face was closed to me.” An inability to read others’ “signposts” is also present. The poet writes of “guessing at\other people’s ciphers and codes” (from “Diversions”), and says “can’t pin your face\on a wall, fit you to a scale\or give you a legend” (from “Mapping Your Body”).
     Though the terrain is rocky, ultimately the subjects in this gorgeous collection “fuse in heat and\flicker as one flame”. The poems and the story they collectively tell have me wondering: do we ever really know another person? Or even ourselves? Lamont’s poetry is a looking glass.  

 “The Sky Was 1950 Blue”
Written by Katherin Edwards, Design by Melissa Haney
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30.00  ISBN 978-1-927035-22-1

     Jackpine Press recently released The Sky Was 1950 Blue-a collaborative chapbook written by Katherin Edwards and designed by Melissa Haney-and I received #51 of a limited edition of 75 copies for review. Limited edition, handmade books are Jackpine’s foray, and each time I receive one I’m excited to see how the author and designer-often one and the same-have reconciled content and construct: concepts are such interesting animals.
     Edwards’ colourful title comes from an Ian Tyson lyric, and the 1950s are represented here not only in the saddle-stitched book’s hue and interior drawings, but also in the fact that each poem includes a year (between 1950 and 1959) in its title. I opened the chapbook to discover that it also possesses a subtitle, “Poems from the Clothesline,” and indeed a continuous drawn clothesline acts like a border, stretching across the top of each page and supporting simple drawings of the clothing and linens referenced in each of the thirteen poems. The books were printed via a three hundred year-old process called cyanotype, which involves both “sunning” a negative image and later hanging it to dry (like laundry) in the dark. It’s also notable that the covers sport a scalloped “lace” flap; fitting, as the poems reveal that the narrator exhibits a romantic image of her future.
     The opening piece, “1950, January Cotton,” introduces us to a girl as she removes clothes from her mother’s clothesline. This girl “fails to recognize in the bed sheets\a stiff-winged trapped angel, frozen\from the brittle night” and dreams of “striding\from this trapline of life,” as “Life’s picnic waits just\around the corner.” 
Just two poems–and two years later, symbolic birds (romance, freedom, liveliness) appear on marriage cards and linens. They “soared into the threads\and with embroidery promises\and French-knotted eyes” these birds observed the newlyweds.
    The chronological progression of these poems is interesting. Turn the page, add another year, and the tone takes a twist: “How to Hang Your Gabardine Husbands, 1953.” This poem, with its instructions for “good husband keeping,” actually reads like a found poem, ie: “Start with a clean taut line.\All pegs should be new and dry,” and then comes the darkly comic flip to “Be aware of what your neighbours may think.”          
      Poetry is subjective, but as I read it this collection represents a gradual disillusionment with marriage and 1950s gender roles (“Men stir martinis\ladies knit blankets”), and a quiet longing for the carefree days of childhood, with its “sheets snapping on clotheslines\sweet picnics and lemonade.” The finest poem is the subtle and lyrical “Chiffon Belief, 1957 ½ , which begins “All this falling.\Each year we greeted the autumn,\in love with leaves.”   
         “Simplicity Ball Gown Pattern, 1955” presents the promise of waltzes, the reality of “a greying housedress” and “Bare feet\ [shuffling] across the faded lino floor.” What we sign up for is often not the reality of our experience. This smartly-conceived little book hangs out the dirty laundry, including “the costumes we wear” as our lives blow and fade in the wind.    

Written by Zondra M. Roy
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30    ISBN 978-1-927035-20-7

     Sometimes the lines between genres blur. As I began reading Zondra M. Roy’s chapbook, homecoming, I thought: looks like poetry, feels like a first-person essay. This isn’t poetry filled with similes, metaphors, alliteration, and finely-crafted images, this is a straight-up story (with line breaks) that shouts This is how it’s been, I’ve made mistakes, and I’m grateful for the people and activities (like performing hip-hop) that’ve helped me along the way.
     The Dené/Cree/Métis writer left home at thirteen and she doesn’t hold back on her life’s gritty details as she writes of bouncing between various homes in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick (“for a few months”), and British Columbia. Actually, the word home is a misnomer here–no warm connotations of homemade bread and a family sitting around a fireplace exist when one’s stays include a juvenile detention centre in Saskatoon; jail; and that hardest of beds–the street.                                                         
     Roy begins her story with family history: “My parents were born into a society that was built to facilitate their failures.\well, fuck\they were native people in the northern prairies.” Strong language and a strong voice, legitimized by the vernacular, ie: “It wasn’t until I moved to Saskatoon that I seen Native MCs” and, ironically, by the lack of memory, ie: “I tried to get through grade eight\but I don’t think I got through grade eight.” After she “got jacked” on the street, she moved in with her seventeen-year-old sister, a single mother doing all she could to rise up from an abusive relationship, including “trying to push a 4x4 stroller across the\street in the snow.”
     The sheer honesty in this writing is impressive. “I never hurt anyone\until I did” Roy writes. On the streets “It was easier to give up,\to be a statistic,\to align with society’s desire for me”. Imagine a teenaged girl trying to straighten out her life: she returns to school on Saskatoon’s west side, and gets a job at a sandwich shop. “I remember chopping tomatoes,\And the guy next to me was weighing cocaine.”
     This is not usually the stuff of poetry. Again, the honesty-and the humility-to write about dyeing hair “with a red bingo dabber” and “learning to count with burnt streetlights on \15th Avenue East in Prince Albert” is admirable. This is a poetry of stealing clothes from apartment dryers and off clotheslines; of Christmas in jail; of being stabbed, and finding the hospital queue too long, so she “put a Kleenex on it, and taped it together.”
     Eventually the writer found hip-hop culture, and began seeking knowledge and setting both broad goals, ie: “At the very least I wanted to work with people” and some specific ones: “get to know Saskatchewan,\get to know Canada, different places around the world\get to know my community.
     The long poem\memoir spreads across most of this chapbook, but it concludes with four poems I can clearly hear delivered in a hip-hop beat.
      Does the speaker ever truly find home? Eventually, yes. “Home becomes where [her] heart is safe.”   



Written by Alison Calder
Published by Jackpine Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$30    ISBN 978-1-927035-21-4

     Into the laboratory we go: the fourteen poems in established writer and Winnipeger Alison Calder’s Connectomics are like little scientific explosions of light: things you didn’t know you’d want to know but are glad you know now. In her words, “The idea is\to render the brain\transparent enough to read through.” That’s heady stuff, but Calder takes this concept and renders it into thought-provoking poems that show she’s a master of metaphor, and prove that her literary experiments work.
     The brain as poetic fodder makes good sense. It’s complex, essential. Nerve central. And Calder, who teaches Canadian literature and creative writing at the University of Manitoba, explores it from interesting angles. In “Clarity2 she imagines the mind of a mouse that’s had firefly genes spliced into for Alzheimer’s research. “Inside his skull\the past incinerates” she writes, “fragments\of a film that’s not replayed.” On the page opposite this short poem there’s a white image (on black) of a brain: it looks like a medical image and it resembles art.
     The subject of the next poem, “C Elegans3,” is “a small, soil-dwelling nematode.” (The accompanying drawing reminds me of paramecium from high school biology class). “I’m useful because I die quickly:\your funding agencies approve.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Calder may be the only poet in history to appropriate the voice of C Elegans3. The barn owl-“a spirit with a heart-shaped face”-is also used in connectomics research.
     It’s the metaphors that really stand out in this smart chapbook. In the poem “Science6,” we read that consciousness is a “cable, a cord tying things down in a truck box\so they don’t fly out,” and the skull is “a box of books you move\from house to house to house.” In another poem, the brain is described as “a dense constellation\of carefully mapped drawers.” How original. I applaud and appreciate this use of everyday objects: it balances the potentially difficult-to- grasp scientific matter and brings it right down to earth where we can see and understand it.
     Not all of the poems are as cerebral as the opening pieces. Memories also worm their way into this collection, and here the poet fires up our senses with specific details on a prairie night when “the whole sky’s a theatre”: “rough boards scratch your sunburned legs\and catch the seat of your bathing suit” (“Functional Specialization7”). I feel that.
     The explanations at the bottom of each page are quite fascinating on their own, ie: in their controlled conditions’ studies of fear memories, “scientists subject patients to electric shocks while introducing unique scents like lemon or mint.” Then they see how their subjects react to these scents during sleep. Who knew? And have you heard of optogenetics? This is the use of “a burst of light to affect genetically sensitized neurons in the brain” so “researchers can manipulate a subject’s moods or behaviours.” Crikey.       
     Oh, the many things we humans don’t know. And the growing number of things we do. Connectomics is mind-opening.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Three reviews: Braidek, Maxwell, and Shepherd

“A Map in my Blood”
by Carla Braidek
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-096-2

Saskatchewan writer Carla Braidek’s most recent poetry demonstrates deep gratitude for the boreal forest in which she lives and the enviable life she’s made there, but, like anyone with the gift of imagination and the fancy of a dreamer, her emotional pendulum can’t help but swing toward “What if?”. Even the book’s title, A Map in my Blood, hints at the restlessness that currents beneath poems that celebrate the natural world and its creatures, family, food, the work of the land, childhood innocence, and rural living.

The opening poem, “Where Do I Begin,” sets the bar high. “Beginning” here can refer to the book itself or the spinning of a life’s tale. It’s also a phrase commonly used to express exasperation. I admire how the Big River poet begins with ordinary details-a broken ankle, helping fix a deck-then she takes an existential leap and asks: “how do we know where a moment begins?” This questioning ferries readers to a deeper level. A spark fires, we’re engaged, and committed to asking ourselves the same question about the details of our own lives. Making our own small worlds universally resonate is the key to successful poetry.

The poems swing between serenity and anxiousness, and at both extremes Braidek treats us to original images, ie: “anemones ghost the lane by the bridge\rain dapples stones until appaloosa blankets\rumple on hills beyond the pasture gate”. In “Fingers Like Wings,” she describes how work gloves that have fallen from pockets “trail on the path like bread crumbs marking, not the way back, but the place we fly forward from, fingers splayed into wind”. I love “a pot of daisies rises on the veranda\one small sun reluctant to let summer go,” and her gorgeous image honoring “a man who keeps the sun in his pocket”. He is a gardener and preserver whose “jars\glow on their shelves with the intensity\of a midsummer rainbow”. Easy to see this, and feel the quiet joy it transmits.

Braidek delivers glorious sensorial leaps, ie: “good wishes smell\faintly of oranges,” and a good deal of musicality, ie: “my neighbour’s corn is disappearing\ear by ear into the night”.

The restlessness is often indicated by hunger, ie: “one day I wake up ravenous,” and is voiced in lines like “she struggles with possibilities\flips pages in her mind,” and “a void wants to be filled”.

We all hunger, but what’s described in “The Rock,” a narrative told in one long paragraph, is as close to my idea of utopia as it comes: a day on one’s own property with time to sit on the deck and watch the children play, then move to the campfire where vegetables and “moose strips” are roasted. The “dogs skulk at the edge of the yard, half crazy with the smell of fresh meat,” and as evening arrives the guitars and fiddles comes out, and the children settle onto laps by the fire. If only that were the tune of “all our lives\being sung,” what a happier world this would be.       


“Wind Leaves Absence”
by Mary Maxwell
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-100-6

I read Saskatoon poet (and nurse) Mary Maxwell’s first book, Wind Leaves Absence, with interest and no small amount of admiration. Many first books of what’s often called confessional poetry-I prefer the word intimate-are a compendium of high\low events experienced over the writer’s lifetime, and what results is a wildly disparate package. While diversity can make for a lively read, we often see more seasoned writers tackle exclusive subjects, examining from multiple angles and probing more deeply to illuminate, better understand, and process. Maxwell daringly takes on the landscape of grief, specifically the pain experienced upon the deaths of her father, two brothers (who died in car accidents two years apart), friends, and patients. Religion–in particular the Catholicism she grew up with and appears to wrestle with (“miserable prayers”)–is also front and centre in this collection.

In the first few poems the writer establishes mood with phrases that emotionally thrum, like bells in a deserted monastery: “the wilderness between words,” “Trousers fall from hangers\collapse on the floor,” and “Pushing his walker through wet matted leaves.” She does a spot-on job of portraying the hopelessness of dementia, ie: her father must navigate “the daily maze of the kitchen”.

I found two memory-loss poems particularly moving. In “Line on Paper,” when her father tries to draw a beloved horse, Sandy, he manages the initial line to indicate the horse’s neck, then “He puts the pencil down, looks at me\doesn’t know\what the next line should be”. In the five-line poem “Birthday,” he is signing a card for his wife and pauses because he “[doesn’t] remember how to spell wonderful”. This is powerful because it objectively shows her father’s decline. I expect that Maxwell’s nursing background–those in the medical field cannot dwell on the inevitable losses–has had a positive influence on her poetry: there’s no melodrama here. This is just the way it is. But sometimes the medical frankness is rattling, ie: in “Old Man’s Friend,” after the poet’s father chokes and is admitted to hospital, the presiding doctor declares that pneumonia will move in. He “closes the chart,” and says “We call it the old man’s friend’”. 

These mostly quiet poems often reveal life’s disquieting ironies, ie: funeral orchids have “choked\fallen over\gone dry” while in another room “birthday flowers\loudly proclaim spring”. After a night of summer joy-riding a friend’s daughter remains unresponsive in hospital. When the poet walks home from this scene, “Cars roar past, music\blaring, girls laughing”. In “Sweet Old Lady,” the author\nurse finds a diabetic woman’s apartment filled with candy while her feet have “gone black,” the “sweetness eating [her] alive”.   

Maxwell does not obscure the raw realties of death, nor does she makes saints of her dead. In a poem titled “Fool,” she writes “I’m standing in line at The Bay to buy\a pair of pants for my brother’s corpse”. She shows us that just as winter “falters into spring,” so must we move on after unfathomable grief, and writing it all out is good medicine.  

by Kelly Shepherd
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-104-4

I was looking for “shifts” in Kelly Shepherd’s poetry collection, and I found them. Shepherd lives and teaches in Edmonton, and his gritty book, Shift, is testament to the fact that his hands have worked more than a pen. The author’s been part of the multitude that migrated to Fort McMurray for work, and he shows us many sides of that “orange-hardhat” dynamic, from workers “loading into buses before dawn, getting paid to build something\we don’t understand for someone we don’t know” to the “endless crumpled sky” and a “landscape\painting on the lunchroom wall” that is “of another place, not here”.  

Shift, then, refers in part to shift work, or a work-shift. I also found it in poems like “Honing,” about cement grinding\smoothing.The shift here comes when the narrator recognizes that the “ugly, utilitarian, dusty” cement “[opens] itself up and\the stones glimmer like stars”. There are dramatic shifts in weather during all-day drives, that moment “when the steering wheel started to bloom” and “the windshield blinked in the sun”. In the title poem, the shift concerns a diving grebe and a duck’s lift off a lake: “the shift from element to element”.
The poems differ in subject-from northern labour poems to meditations on spring, or an apple, and what a tire might sing if it could. Shepherd zooms from grit to romance and back again, fast as a bear. Some poems are short as haiku, others, like “Ed Rempel’s Dog,” (which tells the story of a farmer upset with his hogs for eating the chickens, so he threw his German shepherd into the pen “to teach those pigs a lesson,” and you might guess the outcome) read like postcard fiction. There are several found poems, and numerous pieces written in couplets, tercets or quatrains. The poem titled “Fort McMurray Acrostic (found: public washroom)” can be quoted in its entirety here:


This is a playful hat-tip to Syncrude, of course, but in other poems the author affects a more serious attitude toward the oil sands and the physical dangers incumbent in hard labour. In “The Straight Lines of Cities” he considers how “no one thinks about” the work that goes into making “the sidewalk under our feet.” How the cobblestones were fitted together. The “bent-axle\wheelbarrows and sweat-fogged safety glasses” behind the work. And no one knows about the lad who contributed his index finger, via a circular saw, to the project’s completion.

Birds, animals, and flora also frequently star, and I applaud how Shepherd compounds (via hyphenation) plants and animals in his work. He writes of “deer-coloured grass,” “coyote-coloured earth,” and “fish\-shaped leaves in the wind.” This is a writer who does the watching few have time for, then presents his observations to the world in fresh ways, ie: “With his tail the squirrel ratchets himself up the tree.” See how he’s taken a mechanical tool\action, and paired it with nature?

The excerpts above speak for themselves; this is damn fine work.