Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Robin Langford, Elaine Scharfe/Karen Sim, and Marilyn Lachambre

“The Cowboy in Me”
by Robin Langford
Published by LM Publication Services Ltd.
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$28.00  ISBN 9-780995-819009

"These stories are one hundred percent factual, no yarns or embellishments." This is an enticing entry into septuagenarian cowboy Robin Langford's memoir, The Cowboy in Me. The Maple Creek-born author candidly shares his life's journey between 1947 and 2016, and readers are advised to hang on for a ride that delivers more ups and downs than a bucking bronco.  

"Cowboy up" is a term that defines what Langford and his hard-working second wife, Penny, often had to do while they tended both cattle and kids on ranches between Williams Lake, BC and the Prince Albert region of SK. The work was physically arduous and eminently dangerous, and the culmination of poor weather, aggressive bears, pack rats, raging bulls, moody cows, temperamental horses, frequent job changes, province-hopping, bad deals, disharmonious neighbours, disagreeable bank managers, and health issues would be enough to make anyone raise the white flag, but the Langfords stuck it out, even when it was often difficult to "put groceries on the table".

In one entertaining anecdote Langford explains that when he and Penny "finally" got married in 1984-Penny'd stepped in to help him raise his two boys, and she and Langford later had two more children together-the cowboy/trapper/ranch owner/author borrowed a suit and Penny borrowed a dress, and they married "in front of a Justice of the Peace on the front lawn of John Mador's house in Prince George" with their children in attendance.    

The stories begin with Langford's birth to a violent, alcoholic father and his hard-suffering but "feisty" mother. "They had a strange relationship that was somehow a cross between love and resentment," he writes. After a physical fight with his father at age thirteen, and with just a grade six education, Langford moved out and stayed with other family members. By fourteen he was hitchhiking to Medicine Hat, where a cousin soon hooked him up with a Taber beet farmer who needed help with chores that ranged from breaking ponies for merry-go-rounds to collecting eggs. Langford's first real cowboy job was in the Cypress Hills, and "It was here that [Langford] found a love for the cowboy way of life that's stayed with [him] to this day".

In this easy-to-read memoir the language is in the cowboy vernacular, and the author's lively character is apparent, ie: at eighteen he suggested a dalliance with the mid-forties cook, Mrs. Campbell, on the bear-plagued Circle S Ranch. "Within two days the whole goddamned valley had heard about the incident". The book's filled with respect for "real top cowboys," many of whom were inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame. The numerous photographs of people, camps, animals, and activities contribute much, and the full-colour photo of the Langford Ranch in Shellbrook, SK-with a rainbow behind it-seems a fitting metaphor for a life that, in its later years, has included the joy of grandparenting.

Langford asserts, "with hard work and true grit, you can overcome most everything"–bears, hernias, bar fights, and all. Terrific read for a wide audience.         

"Little Bear"
Written by Elaine Scharfe, Illustrated by Karen Sim
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$9.95  ISBN 9-781988-783086

Do you remember being a child and wishing you were a teenager? I sure do. I was particularly envious of a teenager named Cindy, who carried Wrigley's Spearmint Gum in her handbag, and whose long, blonde hair swished when she walked. I wanted to grow up and have a handbag, a purse, and hair that reached to my waist, too!

Saskatoon writer Elaine Scharfe's growing collection of illustrated children's books now includes a story about a cute bear cub who can't wait to grow up and really ROAR! Scharfe's figured out the formula for creating stories that the youngest children will want to read–or have read to them–time and again, and Karen Sim's illustrations–full bleeds on every other page–are a perfect complement to the text of Little Bear.

Using the Rule of Threes re: repetition, we journey along with Little Bear, the book's impatient star, as he wakes up each day and asks his mother "Am I Big Bear yet?" Little Bear encounters three friends–each a different species–and, as it's taking too long to become Big Bear, he asks "Can I be like you instead?" When he learns what it takes to be an owl, a rabbit, and a fish–and realizes he can't manage it–he feels defeated. "Just then Little Bear heard his mother calling."

"Little Bear, Little Bear. It's time for our winter sleep."

Older readers will understand what's happening as the bears crawl into their cozy cave and cuddle up. Upon waking, Little Bear learns he's changed over the passing months, and he returns to visit each of his friends, delightedly asking each of them, "Did you hear that?"

This is a story a child could easily memorize. It could also become a first (and treasured) reader. In the book's endnotes we learn that Scharfe's children's books are actually "refined versions of stories she told her children and grandchildren when they were young". The glossy softcover should hold up well in little hands, and the large black type centered on a white background is easy on older eyes.

Sim's artistic talent shines on every page. The Vancouver Island-based artist and designer works in various media, including digital media, oil pastel, and graphite and ink. She manages to evoke curiosity, fear, excitement and love through the endearing expressions of these animal characters. To view her fine and varied work, see

Scharfe previously impressed me with her book My Good Friend, Grandpa. She has also written There's a Dinosaur in My Room. The lesson in her latest book is that age-old one: All good things come to those who wait. Who can't relate? As the mother of two now-adults, I can remember when they too looked forward to the next birthday, and the next … each birthday cake a milestone affording them greater liberties and more independence.

As for this once impatient child, I did get the handbag, the hair, and the gum, though Juicy Fruit was my flavour of choice.

"Angel Blessings"
Written and Illustrated by Marilyn Lachambre
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783093

Quite coincidentally, I read the illustrated children's book, Angel Blessings, the first title by Kamsack, SK writer and illustrator Marilyn Lachambre, on the one-year anniversary of my younger brother's passing; at the end of this review, you'll read why this is significant. 

In this attractive hardcover released in November 2017 by Regina's Your Nickel's Worth Publishing, Lachambre rhymes her way through All Things Angel: who and what they are, and the many ways they bring us comfort, protection, and inspiration. The rhyming text will be appealing to young ears, as will the soothing sentiments, ie: "Angels are with you day and night …. keeping you in their loving sight," and "They're always with you, through joy and sorrow—protecting and guiding, today and tomorrow".

I could see this uplifting book being used as a nighttime prayer for young children. Its Christian emphasis and calming words would be a wonderful way for children to fall asleep, ie: "Even at bedtime when it's time to sleep, they will stay with you while you slumber deep. As you lie quietly in bed tonight, know that Angel wings are holding you tight". In fact, any one, of any age, might well be comforted by these assertions.
Lachambre has refrained from using facial details on the angels and people in her almost full-page illustrations, and this may help children imagine their own features and/or the features of those they love on these characters. I enjoyed the splashes of colour on every page, and the diverse representations of the angels, ie: some have scalloped, yellow wings, while others have gold, feathery wings, rainbow-coloured wings, or insect-like wings. The angels are featured in the air, on clouds, and in trees, and many pages also show them interacting with characters in their daily lives on the ground, ie: overlooking a baby in a cradle, or playing a game with a child in a field.

There's a long dedication to this beautifully-produced book, and I'm guessing that the author's two children and four grandchildren are incredibly proud of their mother/grandmother for publishing such a fine first book. Lachambre even thanks "the Angels, for nudging me along and guiding me". 

I haven't given a lot of thought to angels of late, thus it was sweet to be reminded how some believe that our own angels (which I interpreted as dearly departed family members and friends) sometimes make themselves present to us with special signs, like "a cloud-shaped Angel," or coins, or feathers, or butterflies.

After reading this book I went to the gym, as I do most mornings, and started my treadmill run. The treadmills at the Frank Jameson Community Centre in Ladysmith face a bank of windows and overlook a small skateboard park, backed by a row of towering evergreens. I was thinking about my brother, one year gone, when suddenly a single white flower delicately danced down from the sky right before me. Coincidence? Ah, perhaps. But I choose to believe that it was no coincidence at all.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Two Book Reviews: Trevor Herriot/Branimir Gjetvaj's Islands of Grass and Susan Harris's An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book

“Islands of Grass”
Text by Trevor Herriot, Photos by Branimir Gjetvaj
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-781550-509311

Saskatchewan naturalist, activist, and Governor-General's Award-nominee Trevor Herriot has penned another title that should be on every bookshelf, and particularly on the shelves of those who love our precarious prairie grasslands and the threatened creatures who inhabit them. In Islands of Grass, Herriot has teamed with environmental photographer Branimir Gjetvaj to create a coffee table-esque hardcover that's part call to action, part celebration, and part Ecology 101. The pair's mutual passion for our disappearing grasslands – the term "islands" deftly illustrates their fate – is evident on every page of this important and beautiful must-read.

Herriot's erudite essays are personal, political, and urgent. Filled with first-person anecdotes (ie: his father's memories of dust storms), plus stories from ranchers, ecologists, and agency professionals, they also explain the history of grass and reveal how pioneers were encouraged to plow in order to prosper. There's much plant, bird, and animal information, including statistical numbers re: their endangerment and recovery.

The book's five chapters are written in the engaging conversational/informational style Herriot's faithful readers have come to expect, ie: the opening line: "It was along the northern edge of Old Wives Lake—a vast inland sea that year—where I am pretty sure I had the briefest glimpse of a swift fox."  Lines later he explains that these once seriously endangered "cat-sized canines" are now "the most successful recovery story on the northern Great Plains," a fact backed-up by promising numbers from a 2005-2006 census. (Those unfamiliar with the Regina author's writing may recognize his distinct "voice" from his regular contributions to CBC Radio's "Blue Sky" program.)

Gjetvaj's photographs present a dramatic gallery of landscapes that underscore the cinema of Saskatchewan's skies and how cultivation (evident in patchwork crops) has dominated the prairies. Images of lush grass, buffalo bean and moss phlox, wetlands, valleys, rolling hills, livestock, insects, feathered wonders, hard-working folks, and that inimitable prairie sunlight illustrate how each are part and parcel of this unique - and rancher vs. conservationist-conflicted - region, where Herriot measures the weight of a bobolink at "about a $1.25 in quarters".

I learned that there are 10,000 grass-types, and they act as a kind of ecological gate-keeper. I learned how the government's 2012 cutting of the PFRA community pastures program has put grasslands (and their ecologies) at much greater risk, and native grasses are "increasingly susceptible to the dollars and dreams of people who want to build a McMansion with twenty acres out back where they keep a horse no one rides". I was reminded about heroes like Peter and Sharon Butala, who donated their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada; and Wallace Stegner, whose 1960 letter to the Outdoor Recreation Review Commission formed the basis of the The Wilderness Act in the U.S. – public land legislation Herriot envies.  

"All of life is grass," he writes, and while "Saskatchewan is among the worst on the planet for grassland protection," Herriot asserts that "nature specializes in miracles," and we all share in the responsibility of maintaining our critical grasslands.  


“An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book”
by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.00  ISBN 978-0-9949869-2-4

Author Susan Harris has added another alphabet book to her growing list of titles: An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book, will be specifically welcome to those who wish to teach (or learn!) the alphabet from a Christmas-themed and a Christian perspective. Like her book, Christmas A to Z, this softcover leads young readers through a colourful array of images, and it uses some "big" words to represent certain letters. For example, "B" is for Bethlehem, "E" is for "Emmanuel," "F" is "Frankincense," and "Y" is for "Yeshua," "the Hebrew name for Jesus," meaning saviour. I applaud Harris for using both simple words and these more difficult ones: I can almost hear a little child carefully pronouncing "Frankincense" after he or she hears it, and enjoying both the challenge and the sound of the word. 

Several of the illustrations reminded me of traditional Christmas card images, while others featured cartoon-like characters. The book is perfect for Christmas gift-giving, as it even includes a handy "To" and "From" page at the beginning.

To learn more about Harris, I consulted her website at Born and raised in Trinidad and now a resident of Melville, Harris – a writer, speaker, and former teacher – credits her disparate homes for making her adaptive. "Susan can adapt to audiences and geographic conditions, and she attributes this to the exposure of city living, island living and rural living. Winter seasons have seen her interchange a briefcase and a shovel, as she tosses snow in high heeled boots and executive suit."

Christianity, leadership, and public speaking have been a huge part of Harris's life since childhood. "Since age 9, she has been standing in front of audiences, and has inspired thousands in schools, churches, conferences and youth groups to find fulfilment in life. Her beliefs and experiences have helped women in particular to discover practical ways of leading positive and intentional lives. Her messages have been presented with clarity, conviction and humour."

As with Harris's other Christmas alphabet book, this title includes a "Letter from the Author," which begins "Dear Little Friend of Jesus". Harris explains that "There are many books which teach about the alphabet, but [she] wanted to write a special one about Jesus and Christmas. Not everyone believes in the Christian faith, but they can still learn about what we believe because education is about learning different things."

In her letter to young readers, Harris suggests that they "name the pictures and sound out the words." For further learning, she writes that they "can also talk about where these words are found in the Bible." The book concludes with "A Prayer to Invite Jesus into Your Heart," and "A Prayer for My Little Friends' Success".

If you have a child, grandchild, or another little one on your gift-giving list and you'd like them to know more about the "Christ" in Christmas, you may want to include this educational and celebratory book - published by White Lily Press in Yorkton – under the tree.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Robert Calder, Marie Elyse St. George, and Susan Harris

“A Hero for the Americas: The Legend of Gonzalo Guerrero”
by Robert Calder
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-775091   

Robert Calder's A Hero for the Americas: The Legend of Gonzalo Guerrero is an impeccably-researched and compelling nonfiction title offering much to ingest, enjoy, and learn from. The GG award-winning author and Emeritus Professor (U of S) came to his subject as a frequent traveler to the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Spanish-born sailor Gonzalo Guerrero and numerous other conquistadors believed they'd find their fortunes.  

A sculpture of Guerrero, "a powerful figure dressed as a Mayan warrior," first piqued Calder's interest in the enigmatic 16th Century hero, and indeed, Guerrero's relatively unsung story (as compared to that of fellow conquistador, Hernán Cortés) has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: adventure, battles, romance, and legacy.

The robust Andalusian sailor defied his country and Catholic religion after being shipwrecked (of nineteen, only Guerrero and fellow Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar survived) off the Yucatán Peninsula in 1512. Guerrero was enslaved by a Mayan chief; earned the tribe's respect; married the chief's daughter; became a Chactemal military captain; and fathered the first mestizaje children in Mexican history.

There's more. Both Aguilar and Guerrero lived in Mayan captivity for seven years before the former happily reunited with the eventual Aztec-conquering Cortés, on Cozumel. Aguilar told an incredulous Cortés about their countryman who'd embraced Mayan culture, adopting everything from their language to unique tribal piercings and tattoos. Through Aguilar, Cortés compelled the "Spaniard-turned-Maya" to rejoin his countrymen, and Guerrero politely but definitively refused.

Calder writes that Guerrero's legend as both a warrior and a father are integral. He explains that he hopes to help readers "trace [Guerrero's] path through the tumultuous and quickly changing life of fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Spain and of the New World," while allowing that the hero's story straddles "the unstable border between history and fiction, between fact and folklore," as Guerrero left no written account of his experience. Little's even known of his death, though it's suspected he died in Honduras, and his family likely "melted into the jungle".

While Guerrero's definitely the star of this story, the book's also ripe with information on myriad subjects, including the history of maize; Queen Isabella's admission that "she only had two baths in her life;" the historical Mayan practice of flattening a newborn's head between two boards for several months "to [produce] a permanent sloping forehead and elongated skull … considered a mark of the ruling class;" and the Cortés-Malinche story. Malinche was the Nahua slave with the "aristocratic bearing" who was "given" to Cortés, acted as his interpreter, bore his son, and greatly aided in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. In contrast, Guerrero was "recast as the heroic opponent of Spanish hegemony".

Calder illuminates a part of Mexican history that's long lived in the shadows: the history of the mestizos, who make up 60% of Mexico's population. This book ably demonstrates why a "plurality of perspectives" is critical, and while it should almost be required reading for all beach tourists in Mexico, it's a lesson we can also take to heart in Canada.      

 "An Assortment: Darkly Delicious Literary & Visual Oddments"
by Marie Elyse St. George
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-83-6

The enticing title of Marie Elyse St. George's latest book says it all. Delve into this tickle trunk of poems, stories (both fictions and truths), drawings, paintings, and cartoons, plus a tribute to now long-passed writer Anne Szumigalski, and you'll indeed find something darkly delicious to make you smile, laugh, and think.

Saskatoon's St. George has earned an esteemed reputation as both a visual artist and a writer, and a career highlight's been her 1995 poetry and art collaboration (with close friend Szumigalski) Voice, which resulted in both an exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery and a book which garnered the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1995. She's also collaborated with poet Patrick Lane, provided art for the covers of numerous literary journals and books, and published an award-winning memoir.

While reading An Assortment: Darkly Delicious Literary & Visual Oddments, I procured an image of a young girl skipping through a field of wildflowers, plucking blossoms here and there for an atypical bouquet. This image was no doubt hastened by the book's cover image–a photo of the author as a girl beneath what I'm guessing's a rose arbour–and by the tantalizing whimsy of both the artwork (ie: the full-colour "Origin of Angels") and the clever humour in the text.

To read St. George is to leap into worlds that include opinionated silver fox stoles who malign the fact that "Times have changed," and art openings and fashion are not what they once were: "The pretty young ladies in the formal gowns you so admire are art students wearing '40s and '50s clothes as a comment on continuing sexism."  In the story "Who Was That Masked Dog?" a precocious child converses with a guard dog who speaks in the "hearty, courteous manner of Teddy Roosevelt," and in "Feeding Amelia" we learn that a talking shark has eaten Amelia Earhart: "I absorbed her spirit and courage, but I must say, her leather coat and boots were quite indigestible".    

In her poetry, as well, St. George gifts inanimate objects with life. Words themselves can be "rude    they elbow their way/in front of the correct ones and make you look a fool" or they can "spread their shimmering skirts/fold their hands and smile fondly". In her poem "Some Secondhand Clothes" we read that the subjects in the title "resent being bundled from their cozy closets".

I particularly enjoyed hilarious "Hazel," in the opening story, who endures her husband's loathsome wilderness expeditions and has learned a plethora of strange skills, including "how to use wild herbs to season a ragout of grasshoppers".
The fleeting nature of inspiration, a stillborn fraternal twin, soldiers, the challenges associated with aging, and the influence of animals-from mice to grey foxes to "elephants listening to lies they tell themselves"-are all subjects that walk through the wildflower fields with that imaginative little girl, who grew to be a talented writer and artist. This entertaining "amalgam of fantasy and reality" is well worth the read.        
 “Christmas A to Z”
by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.00  ISBN 978-0-9949869-1-7

Christmas. Even the very youngest children get caught up in the excitement–the gifts, the tree, and of course, Santa Claus–and to help celebrate and explain some of the season's symbols, celebrations, and emotions, Saskatchewan writer Susan Harris has added to her shelf of children's books with a new title, the brightly illustrated Christmas A to Z. It's important to note that this is a secular Christmas alphabet book; Harris previously published An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book, as well as several other titles for young children.

The book begins with a broad dedication: "For boys and girls who love Christmas," and ends with a sweet letter from Harris to her young readers. The author uses a gentle tone to address her "Little Friend[s]," and her experience as a former teacher comes across in the letter's engaging text. "Did you know that it does not snow in some countries? I grew up in the country of Trinidad, which is an island, and it does not snow there," she writes. "Do you have a favourite present you received for Christmas, Little Friend? Mine was a little doll whom I named Jane."  

This is not a busy book, which will be appealing for those just learning to read, and for the adults who may be sharing this story with youngsters. The twenty-six alphabet pages contain little text, the letters and definitions appears in a large black font, and there is much white space surrounding the pictures.  

As a writer myself, I'm always interested in what alphabet book authors choose to represent each letter. In Harris's book, A is for Antlers. They "look like sticks on the heads of deer but they are really bony growths," we read and learn. On this page–and several others–Harris includes information that helps readers better understand the word selected to represent the letter. Bells are significant because "churches used to ring their big bells on Christmas Day," she writes. The word for V is Village: "A village is a small group of houses in the countryside. 'Christmas Villages' are decorations which started off as nativity scenes but now include many different kinds of ornaments".

It's easy to bemoan how commercialized Christmas has become, thus it's refreshing to read–on the G page–that "A gift is something a person gives to someone else without expecting anything in return." Q is always a challenging letter, and Harris wisely addresses it with the word Quaint: "Quaint means nice in an old-fashioned way". And what of Z? "Zzzz is the sound of snoring while asleep. Happy, tired boys and girls fall asleep quickly after the excitement of Christmas Day." Indeed they do.

The last page features an image of an undecorated tree, and here little ones are invited to use their own imaginations with crayons or markers.  

Sharing this book with youngsters will merrily elucidate some of the symbols and practices surrounding Christmas. It may even increase excitement for The Big Day. Enjoy!


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review: William Robertson's Decoys

Written by William Robertson
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-150-1

In Decoys, the new poetry collection by William Robertson, the long-time Saskatoon scribe plumbs his own history and threads personal anecdotes into a textured fabric that reflects the prairie from what might be considered a bird's eye view. In the country, kids push a puck around on ice "rippled/frozen by the wind," and at Gull Lake we see "the grass in all its greens,/that bull, sequestered from the rest". Birds are carefully considered and rendered poetic in myriad unique ways, ie: "Ruffled grouse leads its perfect/rusty brown and black fan/out of the spruce, through the ditch," and in "Raven on Frozen River," the poet beautifully writes "I could spend all day/watching you divide/snowy silence/from itself". The author's urgency to "hold onto things beautiful" is apparent, page after page.

There's a reverence for the rural, here, including lakes, and the Muenster area, with its amicable chickadees at St. Peter's Abbey, where Robertson penned some of these poems at Saskatchewan Writers Guild artist retreats, but the city is also carefully considered - and sometimes found lacking - "Outside the rickety/red fence, unpainted for years, the weeds/and long grasses try their best/to hide the garbage". Workmen noisily improve houses, "tapping back into shape/these failing organisms".

Poems feature both the innocence and the bravado of the young, and expose a life not measuring up to the advertisements, ie: a scene from a duck hunter's calendar is contrasted against an unproductive father-son hunting trip; children sculpting snow into forts, as shown in schoolbooks and on TV, is measured against the futility of trying to do the same with "the dry prairie stuff/that crumbled in our hands;" and the fish in Turtle Lake don't measure up to the flashy American magazine and TV fishing-show fish a son dreams about.   

Small things breathe through these poems: flies, wasps, mice, wildflowers, and an August dragonfly, whom, Robertson writes, "gathers its memories/of mid-summer air, rises/on invisible wings, leaving me/heavy and human on the sidewalk". Again, as with many of these reflections, there's a hint of melancholy, of not measuring up, but also a recognition that perfection's found in the ordinary.

Stylistically, as both a poet and a writing instructor, Robertson clearly knows what he's doing. Several poems feature rhyming words on the last and third last lines, which adds a musical lilt. A couple of prose poems are nestled among the free verse poems. Sound is cleverly used in "Dead Clown," which features a bird in a "black/and white gown," (magpie, I assume). The cawing bird's "gaudy yak/yak" is echoed in Robertson's rhyming – or cawing – words" "call," "all," and "fall". This collection makes a good case for listening closely to poems to hear the small songs within them.
Fish and fishing are other favoured subjects here, and in reading these thoughtful poems in particular, I'm reminded of how writing poetry requires a kind of faith not unlike that of an angler: you sit quietly, you wait, and sometimes, you land a good one. This book is filled with keepers.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Byrna Barclay (Editor), Pat Krause, and Jim McLean

"Wanderlust: Stories on the Move"
Anthology edited by Byrna Barclay
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-135-8
How does a book idea begin? Wanderlust: Stories on the Move started when seven reputable Saskatchewan writers enjoyed a barbeque together. In her introduction, editor Byrna Barclay explains that the idea for this anthology was spawned when Shelley Banks expressed a desire to tour and read with her fellow prose-writing diners at a Regina barbecue. Barclay compiled and edited the work, and though no theme was suggested, she found that "in every story a person embarks on a journey of discovery". Along with Banks and Barclay, Brenda Niskala, Linda Biasotto, James Trettwer, Kelly-Anne Riess, and Annette Bower share imaginative journeys, and the result's a literary road trip that takes readers to places near and far, real and imagined.

Niskala transports readers to a Norse trading voyage in 1065 in her exciting novel-in-progress, "Pirates of the Heart," and Biasotto's favoured Italian locales. Trettwer takes us to a fictitious potash company, and Riess has contributed a moving novel chapter about a twenty-one-year-old who's never been kissed, and is leaving Saskatchewan for the first time. "Tara had never seen a moose before or a bear, let alone any mountains, except, of course, on TV." Will Jasper deliver the joy she's been missing? Will the attractive stranger who's taken the bus seat beside her?

Each story or novel excerpt possesses its own charms. I give the Menacing Mood Award to Biasotto, for "The Virgin in the Grotto," with its eerie tone and flirtation with matricide: "The only sound from her mother's room is the fan dragging the air in one sustained breath". Niskala wins Best Action-Adventure Award, for her sterling sword-fight scenes. Barclay's gem is the long story "Jigger," which melds Saskatchewan history – the Depression, the Regina Riot, a train-riding hobo, and the Weyburn Psychiatric Hospital – and a tender tale about first love: she receives the Most Effective Storytelling Award. I quickly warmed to Trettwer's downwardly-mobile character, Miller - who drinks himself into oblivion and forgets his daughter's birthday: Realistic Characterization Of A Contemporary Character Award. Banks easily takes the Local Colour Award, with her excellent descriptions of smalltown Saskatchewan, ie: "We drive past the lot where the hardware store once stood, and the rows of Manitoba maples that shaded the long-demolished school and playground, now covered in thistles." (Big points, too, for her "rusted advertising sign for a forgotten brand of engine oil".) Riess's single contribution, "Bus Ride," earns the Reader Empathy For A Character Award, and Bower, in her piece about aging women looking out for each other, secures the Dark Humour Award.             

Linda Biasotto hosted the barbeque where it all began, and she deserves mention for one of the finest images. In "Flying," her teen protagonist describes a veranda at a rich friend's home as "a white barge ready to detach and float across the new lawn". I love it when a writer helps me to see the ordinary in a brand new way, and when a group of writers brainstorm an idea and it comes – beautifully, deliciously - to fruition.


“Double Exposure”
by Pat Krause
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866936

Pat Krause was a founding member of the venerable Saskatchewan Writers Guild, a short story writer and memoirist, and a longtime resident of Regina. Krause died in 2015 but her literary legacy continues with Double Exposure, a novella and new short stories, recently published by Burton House Books.

Double Exposure is a family affair, in more ways than one. Pat Krause penned the stories, Barbara Krause was responsible for the cover and interior artwork, and the book opens with a quote from a poem by Pat's daughter, Judith Krause. Titled "The Women in the Family," the poetic excerpt's a fitting introduction to this work that explores the dynamics between generations of female family members and between the north (Saskatchewan) and the south (Alabama, where the characters and the author both lived), and both realistically and rompishly documents the vagaries of aging and the grief that accompanies the final tolling of the bell.

The book's eccentric and outspoken characters include outrageous Gran Tiss, who had the nerve to up and die on the eve of her 100th birthday; her daughter Vee, who's horrified that the night she passed her mother was kicking her heels up at the January Jubilee in the Odd Fellows Hall; her granddaughter (and novella narrator) Prentice, a self-professed hypochondriac in Indian Head; and the omnipresent Lusa – Tiss's superstitious nursemaid and the family's longtime nanny, who came north with them from Tuscaloosa. Lusa describes a scene from the dance: "[Gran Tiss] done took up the vegetable tray. Plopped a heap of carrot sticks and celery and broccoli and cauliflower on top of it and rhumba-ed round the hall like the Brazilian Bombshell!" This quote illustrates both Tiss's personality and Lusa's voice, and indeed, strong voices are what Krause excels at in her rich-in-dialogue novella, "Southern Relations," which makes up more than half the book.

In a tragi-comedy of errors, guests from near and far arrive for the birthday party only to learn that they've arrived to a wake rather than a fiesta, and the birthday gal is "laid out on the living room right there on the chesterfield!" A pair of wig-adorned senior twins, "The Ladybugs," provide entertainment in the form of sitting and tap-dancing (with shoes on their hands), and afterward everyone physically able to "boogied up to the attic" to take home Gran Tiss souvenirs, including a sugar cane knife, and "The complete set of Sherlock Homes".    

Krause's writing chops also make their appearance in wintery descriptions. "Hoarfrost turned the spruce trees into herringbone designs raked into the sky," she writes in the novella, and in the final story, "Last Dance," the narrator remembers when she was a child and "scratched a poem in frost on [her] bedroom window, with the end of a bobby-pin".

In an afterword, Burton House's Byrna Barclay writes that during Krause's final days she was living in the Gardner Park Care Home, and "she slept in a geri-chair, using her bed to sort new stories". That's dedication. And that was Pat Krause.  

by Jim McLean
published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-780994-866929

Moose Jaw's Jim McLean is all over the place - in a good way. He wrote about the CPR in his first book, Secret Life of Railroaders; about growing up in Saskatchewan in Nineteen Fifty-Seven; and he co-authored Wildflowers Across the Prairies. Now he's turned his poetic attention to that singular composer, Beethoven. Indeed, Beethoven is the title of McLean's third solo publication in an over thirty-year span; surely a distinguished career with Canadian Pacific Railway and Transport Canada had much to do with the lapses between books.

Beethoven is a lively collection of poems presented in several invented voices, including the composer's, the voices of the women in his life - though he's a "poor incompetent/Don Juan"- and that of Beethoven's tyrannical father, but one of the strongest pieces, "On His Deafness," concerns an anecdote about McLean's own aging father, whom the poet is trying to impress with garden "Brussels sprouts/big as fists  tenderly/coaxed from the hard/prairie earth" and a well-heeled garage. Silent and apparently nonplussed, the elder man walks away, "humming softly to himself/off key …" This clever merging of disparate elements - ie: nature - with musical references is maintained throughout the book.

In "Scene by the Brook (Symphony No. 6 in F (Pastorale)), the poet provides the music of a prairie afternoon, including "scolding sparrows  the meadowlark's song always new," and grasshoppers that "chew through the afternoon" beside the rest of the insect "orchestra". McLean brilliantly writes of "frogs singing from the sloughs/a thousand melancholy cellos".        

There's much variety here, including a poem in German (translated by the book's editor, Harold Rhenisch); a sestina; and a humorous long poem in which the poet talks directly to Beethoven, who appears to him in an attic room in Calgary's Palliser Hotel. The book's also scored with McLean's simple but impressive illustrations.

Kudos to the poet for his daring, self-deprecating poem "Alfred Brendel at the Clavier," in which the poet questions his own ability, and, meta-fiction style, inserts "I tried to get that into a poem/but it never fit" and "Tonight  while writing this  I learned/the plural of opus is opera."

McLean claims that he "had the audacity" to write about Beethoven because of his ability – and anyone else's – to appreciate "beautiful, powerful music". He internalizes and translates the music, convincing the reader that he does share an intimate connection with Beethoven. McLean writes "the reason I mention Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto/is that he wrote it for me/one cold homesick night/in Winnipeg." 

Clearly much research went into this book, but research aside, the poet again wrestles with his nerve in writing about Beethoven, and perhaps the finest poem-within-a-poem (it's also William Carlos Williams-esque) is this imagistic shorty:

     All I know
     is that the Fifth Symphony is playing
     smoke rising from chimneys
     under a full moon
     at thirty below

The egotistical composer's great repertoire provided all the inspiration the prairie poet (and railwayman) required to wield his pen, and, as happens with talented conductors, fine songs are the result.       


Friday, June 30, 2017

Three Book Reviews: John Early, William Wardill, and Wes Funk

"Tales of the Modern Nomad: Monks, Mushrooms & Other Misadventures"
by John Early
Published by Early Byrd Productions
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$26.99  ISBN 978-0-9952666-0-5
Rarely do I read a book that takes the top of my head off (in the best way), but Tales of the Modern Nomad-a candid travelogue and first book by Saskatoon backpacker John Early-did just that. Well-written, entertaining, illuminating, original, cheeky, and real-in that it features both positive and negative experiences-I read chapters of this book aloud to two visiting backpackers in their twenties and thirties, and they were relating and laughing right along. To quote the author's father: "You couldn't make this shit up if you tried."

Early's young, and many of the experiences described in this hefty, full-colour hardcover-with maps, photographs, anecdotes, trivia, poems, art, doodles, and quotes ranging from Eckhart Tolle to Charles Bukowski-may have special appeal for those who possess the desire to surf in Sayulita; zip-line between Laos' tropical rain forest treehouses; or, as Early recounts in the section titled "Down The Rabbit Hole," eat "Mystery Mushrooms from an Indonesian Road Stand," but as one who's backpacked and been to many of the locales he writes about (ie: Bali, Zürich, Bangkok, Čzesky Krumlov)-and I've blown out decades more candles than Early-I can vouch for the veracity and sentiment of the author's accounts (ie: nefarious taxi drivers in foreign countries; being astounded in Paris by those who approach Notre Dame just long enough to get a selfie, then carry on to the next Facebook-able landmark; or defaulting to Spanish whenever someone speaks to me in another language), and appreciated both reliving some of my own travels and vicariously experiencing ones I may never dare to take. Boating down the Amazon to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony deep in the jungle? Hitchhiking with a gypsy caravan in Central America? "The caravan crew consists of Goat, from Northern Oregon; his girlfriend Dancing Water, from Montreal, Blas, a dreadlocked backpacker from Argentina; Max, a Californian non-conformist Goat met at a Rainbow Gathering in Panama; and Chico, Goat's loyal dog he picked up in Mexico." (Oh, all right. Sure!)

As with all great travel writing, Early's tales-gleaned directly from his travel journals-feature the people he randomly meets along the way in hostels, jungles, on beaches, and, uncharacteristically for a backpacker, on a cruise ship (Early worked on one for six months).

The book's format, with its delightful mix of information-including both the extremely personal (receiving a questionable massage from a Thai monk) and hilarious trivia ("10 Ways to Say Poop in Japanese")-is one of its major charms. And this title contains far more than just backpacking smarts; it's saturated with life wisdom, ie: "traveling is in your head/as much as it's under your feet/Never stop being a traveler./And always life a life worth journaling."

I agree with Early that travelling is a great educator. We learn so much about others when we immerse ourselves in another culture-and perhaps put that camera or margarita down for a bit, and really get to know the locals-but moreover, we also learn invaluable lessons about ourselves. What a read, John Early. What a life! 

"Muskrat Ramble"
by William Wardill
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.99  ISBN 978-1-927570-34-0 

Eatonia, SK's William Wardill has been writing stories and poems for decades, and now the veteran historian, writer, diviner, and small-town Saskatchewan aficionado has penned his "swan song" collection of poetry, Muskrat Ramble, which includes previously published work, photographs, and, interestingly, brief, conversational-style introductions to many of the poems. The "almost autobiographical" and fictional poems (with "roots in reality") are straightforward narrative tributes to people, places, and pre-Facebook ways of life long behind us now. Readers will appreciate the poems' preambles: reading them is akin to hearing a writer present his or her work at a public reading. Many readers (including yours truly) will also appreciate the larger-than-usual print.  

Wardill has lived a rich life across his nine decades. He stretches back to his boyhood re: acknowledgement of an Alsask teacher for helping him to realize "that a little boy who liked to arrange words in patterns, paint pictures, and sing songs could he as useful in the world as the little boy who excelled in athletic competitions." At the other end of his life, in a poem titled "Homo Emeritus," he reflects that "Now there is time for peaceful nights/and waking dreams and building airy mansions/out of moonbeams."

The collection includes Wardill's first published poem: it appeared in Western People, a now long-gone supplement to The Western Producer, and is a tribute to a father and his trunk full of "Perfumed pipes and shaving soap/and polish for his patent leather shoes." The sense of longing is almost palpable. The poet writes of a wish to stand with the man "to watch the stout, black steamships eating blacker coal,/and lesser craft with sea-rimed sails, and, all around, the white gulls wheeling." A beautiful tribute to a man whose "span was over long ago." Other tribute poems include "Consolidation No. 2165, 1913-1961," about a steam locomotive, which stands out both for its details and for its touching personification of the train: "And they say as she passes a fallen-down village/where the station is missing and the people are gone,/her chime whistle wails in a loud, sobbing torment,/like the voice of a soul that can never go home." 
Many of the poems contain rhyming and repeated phrases, like song lyrics, and a few poems, ie: "By the River in the Winter, 1881" and "By the River in the Winter, 1885"), are dialogue poems. I felt the strongest piece was "In the Dugout, 1917," which is presented as a letter from a Canadian soldier to "My dearest Clara." In this visceral poem we read "Over the top is the sickly sweet smell of unburied/bodies. Over the top are the screams."

A fine example of the poet's range appears in "Nice Feed o' Nice Cockles," in which the poet emulates the working class vernacular of folks in County Durham: "You're yammerin' o' war. Will. Now the war's/done./Our folks are all safe now at 'ome, everyone one."       

This diverse, reflective "swan song" would be lovely to read beneath a summer sky, back "against a sun-warmed boulder." 

by Wes Funk
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781927-756980

When Saskatoon's Wes Funk died in 2015 at age forty-six, he was well-known and admired in the local writing community. He'd self-published novels and a chapbook of poetry and short stories, hosted a weekly series, "Lit Happens," on Shaw TV, and mentored beginning writers. YNWP's posthumously released Funk's final book, Frostbite, which contains the novel of the same name, plus a novella-"Rocket of the Starship"-in one handsome package.  

Funk's set both stories in Saskatoon and there are no shortages of landmarks to help locate the worlds in which his protagonists-both with cool names: "Deck" from the novel; the novella features "Dare"-roam. Deck Hall, a recently fired accountant and recently separated forty-year-old, lives in City Park, and his estranged wife is a nurse at Saskatoon City Hospital. The Bessborough Hotel, Midtown Plaza, Broadway Bridge, the Senator, Amigo's Cantina and Diefenbaker Hill are locations that help set the stage for the aptly-named "Frostbite."

As the book opens, Deck has just finished his fourth bartending shift in a week, and he returns, wearily, to the Star Wars memorabilia and the companionship of his bulldog, Muffin, at his high-rise. Both the literal and metaphorical forecasts are grim: "Cold, cold and more cold!" Funk wrote of the prairie cold as one who knew it well. "Outside, the snowfall was turning into an all-out blizzard. In another hour, plows and snow-blowers would start to rumble down on the streets below. The machinery would probably wake him up."

Deck meets the character Blue in Kinsmen Park, a known night-time pick-up spot, and the pair form an unlikely friendship. Deck tells Blue: "I think this is what they call a midlife crisis, Blue. My wife booted me out, I'm unemployed again, and the other day I nailed some chick have my age. All I need is a red convertible and I'm set." Deck's other friend is neighbor Halo, a romance writer who lives across the hall in their shared apartment building … and appears ready for some romance of her own.

Clearly there was some overlapping between fact and fiction here. Funk's author photo shows him in a Star Wars jersey, so the "Luke Skywalker action figure," on Deck's nightstand, "Stormtroopers standing guard on the toilet tank," and the "life-sized Yoda" may indeed have belonged to the author, and these details help characterize the slightly eccentric protagonist. Both Deck and Dare share a love of well-organized comic shops.

What I valued most in these two slice-of-life stories is the "realness" they portray: from bartending details to the "wooden cut-outs of frolicking children" in Kinsmen park; from Deck's rural Saskatchewan parents' never-changing home (with its dusty-rose couch) and distinctive culture-"supper" at 5:30, news at 6:00, a "Kaiser club"-everything bears the distinct ring of truth. Deck and Dare, in their separate stories, face hardships and recover, as most of us do.  

I got wrapped up in both of Funk's bittersweet tales, and wish they hadn't ended, like their popular author's time here, so quickly.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Four Book Reviews: Karen Enns, Anne Campbell, Mika Lafond, and Dawn Dumont

"Cloud Physics"
by Karen Enns
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-774612
She had me at "peonies of sound". She is Karen Enns, and the opening piece -and title poem - of her new poetry collection Cloud Physics, is refined and thoughtful, and it makes me ravenous for more.

A few poems in the first section have a dystopian edge, ie: in "Epilogue," "Nothing was questioned/after the last polar flares broke through,/and silence finally took over." Enns, however, never slips into melodrama, and often her pieces conclude quietly (yet profoundly). The aforementioned poem ends thus: "It was warm for a while/after the birds migrated east/in a single line." Yes!

I love the poet's use of understatement throughout the book, and her use of what I'll call "imaginings". She (or her subjects) ponder interesting "What if?" questions, ie: What if time worked in the opposite direction, "so we could live our lives from death to birth"? What would it be like to "bi-selve"? What if "middle syllables/were lost," and what if we are "made of what [we've] heard"? This last quote is from the list poem, "Ad Libitum," which concerns the diverse sounds that fill a life, from "barking dogs" to "blankets shifting, footsteps on the stairs,/a tractor coming down the tree row."

My sense is that Enns is hyper-attuned, particularly to sound - the sound of words, and the sounds of the world - and though there are no author bio notes in the book, it wouldn't surprise me to learn she's a musician as well as a poet. I'm also guessing she's a birder, for there's a veritable aviary of birds featured here, from owls to meadowlarks, and I'm particularly struck by her poetic facility with crows, "with their dark-knife forms," and their eyes that are "bright metal bits of judgement". The author also really looks, ie: into the back of the mailbox, "where a spider manages its web until a frost one night/leaves it curled and dried".      

Two poems in this collection are well worth the price of admission: "A Son's Story," about a father who wished to hear meadowlarks again before his passing, and "Solstice," about a group experience on a beach, and the moment when all realize that poetry's happening: they're living it. It's challenging to get this kind of piece right but Enns handles it like a master, and the "truth" uncovered echoes what the poet explores throughout the book: "We wouldn't live forever." ("We" reverberates because naturally we all own this truth.)  

I could say that the primary subject of these lyric poems is time and its passing. I could also say it is sound, or light, and that trains and flora feature often, but perhaps these are merely the elements that made the most impact on me. What I know with certainty is that this poet's marriage of language and intellect make for a most satisfying read, and I'll be turning to these provocative poems again and again for the singular beauty of lines like this: "All we can do is surrender to the bright complicity of birds". Karen Enns? More, please.  


"The Fabric of Day: New and Selected Poems"
by Anne Campbell
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-130-3

I do love "New and Selected" poetry collections, and so it was with delight that I opened The Fabric of Day: New and Selected Poems by Regina's Anne Campbell, who has been making poetry and sharing it with appreciative readers since her first book, No Memory of a Move, was released in 1983. In a retrospective such as this readers can track a poet's evolution, and I was interested to read the new work: what's in Campbell's poetic gaze now?

In the book's introduction Campbell explains that the prairies and "time" have been her major concentrations across the decades. In the newest poems I see that the trials of aging - the poet was born in 1938 - are also receiving attention on the page, and always, there is the undertone of love that's missed, or love that might have been.

In the poem "Retiring, Gone Missing," she writes "It's a puzzle at this late stage, a nuisance,/really, feeling the self, one used to be/      gone" and later in this poem, "it's odd/being with the stranger   I am/                  becoming". Certainly aging is a hard business, but juxtaposed against poems with titles including "Anxiety," "Ennui" and "The Dark Side, Redux," we see the poet celebrating life's lighter moments. One piece begins with the great line "I'm considering getting to know Walter Matthau," and in another, Campbell recounts visiting her mother's seniors' complex and, noting the resident women doing jigsaw puzzles, the poet says to her sister: "'Shoot me if you see me doing that.'" Then, after a minor surgery, she finds herself doing a jigsaw puzzle.

From her first book we've seen Campbell control her poems' tempo via indentations, white space, one or two-line stanzas, and, often, one-word lines, and this has been a stylistic constant for her, though she also includes occasional prose poems, including "The Beginning," which starts with this lovely line: "I picked up a stone that day walking in the hills, it wasn't the first." This ability to slow the reader and give certain words or phrases extra attention complements the "zen" feeling of much of her work. The meditative quality is particularly apparent in short poems like "More Slowly Evolved," which begins with the image of the poet at her kitchen window, viewing birds "ferret    for the tiniest seeds" to "find    whatever's fallen". I also appreciate how Campbell writes about everyday subjects, like "reheated bacon on thin crisp toast," or tacking shelf-paper in a Lazy Susan.
I enjoyed these quiet, introspective poems, perhaps because, like me, Campbell lives in perpetual awe "at the mystery in which we find ourselves". Yes, it's all about the awe, whether it's the memory of pine scents, amber around one's neck, valley hills, "green and shining grasses," deer like ballerinas, philosophy, or the work of angels and artists. Time "gentles down" for all of us, but few have the talent or courage to effectively document how that feels in the heart. Campbell succinctly and eloquently delivers "the fabric" of these days.  



"nipê wânîn: my way back"
by Mika Lafond
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-129-7

In her first poetry collection, nipê wânîn: my way back, Saskatoon writer and U of S educator Mika Lafond pays homage to her Cree heritage, the landscape that nurtured her as a child, and various family members-with particular gratitude expressed for grandmothers and great grandmothers-in heartfelt and easy-to-read poems presented in both English and Cree. As the book's title suggests, the poems tell a story of a woman's "way back" to the lessons her ancestors taught to her in their quiet ways. Lafond writes: "Words are spoken in hushed voices/their sacredness not to be shouted."

Lafond's a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and, with a strong interest in education and the arts, Lafond and her cousin (Joi Arcand) initiated Kimiwan Zine as a venue for Indigenous visual artists and writers. A few of the poems in this book hint at some of the heart-breaking situations she's faced as a teacher and the difficult business of "[getting] through the walls" adolescent male students sometimes put up. One student is "always tired on cheque day" and though "winter is definitely here now-he still doesn't have a jacket".

The writer finds myriad connections between the natural and human worlds, ie: in the poem "elements," she writes that "teardrop/is the same shape as rain," and I was delighted to learn that in Cree, "fire" translates as "woman's heart". In "way back," I appreciated how stars are considered to be "the ones who have gone before," and this image (from that same poem) is terrific: "late at night they join hands-brilliant serpentine belt/in the northern sky/purple splashes on green-shawl upon skirt/great grandmothers". This is a unique way of seeing.

I enjoyed the poems in the second section, "niya/Me," where Lafond included more of the everyday details that make poetry come alive, ie: it's satisfying to know that the song spilling from the red truck's radio on a hot August day is "Big Yellow Taxi" – details like these make the work original and relatable – and I can hear the "constant patter against the plastic pail" while the poet and her family picked chokecherries with "pails belted to [their] waists".

We see the author's finesse with line breaks in "a letter to chief dan george": "it was a good day/to die." She turns back the hands of time and mixes things up, structure-wise, with the prose poem, "homebound," where the "loud claps of thunder applauded the passing storm". Personification-one of a writer's best tools-is at play again in "bird watching": "great bald eagle a tiny dot/weaving in the highest skies/blesses the day".

The poems in these 183-pages tell an interesting life story in snapshots, using colours, dialogue, images, and miniature poems-within-the-poems, like this: "nohkom smells of sage/and sweetgrass—/it may mean nothing now/but my heart will remember/the scent of smudge/in her braids". Poetry helps us remember those things that "may mean nothing now," but certainly will one day.  
Congratulations, Mika Lafond, and thank you for adding your voice to the collective music of Canadian poetry.

 "Glass Beads"
by Dawn Dumont
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-77187-126-6

The cover image on Dawn Dumont's short story collection, Glass Beads, is an ideal visual metaphor for its content. The high-heeled Chuck Taylor sneakers embroidered with flowers that look like beadwork and a (notably faceless) woman in a First Nations' jingle dress suggest a contemporary twist on traditional First Nations' culture, and that's exactly what Dumont delivers. The book's twenty-three stories are real, relevant, and riveting, and Saskatoon's Dumont - an actor, comedian, newspaper columnist, and three-book author - was a "shoe in" to write these often hilarious interconnected stories about urban-Indigenous friends in the '90s and early 2000s. The tales are so credible-from the diction to the romantic disasters-one can easily believe the author, who hails from Okanese First Nation, is writing exactly what she knows.

This book's overwhelming success lies in its structure, realism, and its characterizations of four friends whose lives crackle with energy, humour, and heartache. All but a few stories are dated by month and year, from 1993 to 2008, and it's interesting to watch these characters both grow but also stay true to who they always were.

Nellie Gordon is the responsible one, and the majority of the Saskatoon-based book is told through her perspective. Razor-witted and ambitious, at university she's on the Native Student Council and earns a law degree. Nellie becomes the brains behind her friend Taz Mosquito's political aspirations: he expects to become Grand Chief. Taz is a "northerner": he speaks Cree, is "totally bush," and has "black-black hair and pale skin like old-timey vampires and a cocky confidence that comes from isolation and not knowing any better." He also has a severe drinking problem. Pretty and outwardly tough Julie Papequash is an eight-year-old running away from on-reserve foster parents when we first meet her; naïve Julie and confident Nellie become childhood and lifetime friends, though "Envy" was invisible Nellie's "knee-jerk response to all things Julie". (When Nellie applies for a waitressing job she tries to curl her hair "to emulate Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct-but every second she stood [there], her hair went from sexy murderer to electrocuted hedgehog".) Julie hooks up with Taz, and Nellie suffers through the years with Everett Kaiswatim: lackabout, womanizer, and "probably the worst drug dealer the city had ever seen". Everett moves from the Salvation Army into the home of a man who, two days later, "went over to his ex-girlfriend's house and shot her". This information's revealed so matter-of-factly, it offers readers a sense of how inner city "normalcy" differs greatly from what goes on in the 'burbs. Nellie joins a group that volunteers in Mexico, and Everett had "always meant to check where Mexico was on the map but never got around to it".  Nellie hopes not to get kidnapped; apart from her Mom, "her family weren't really the foundation-setting-up type".

Dumont has an ear for the real. I could hear the characters "ch," just as I remembered from my youth in Meadow Lake. I howled. I winced. I recognized. Hey, Canada? Please read Dawn Dumont.