Monday, January 22, 2018

Four Book Reviews: Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo van Hove and The Art of Resistance; My Health in Hand (Healthcare Organizer); Behind the Moon; and To Trust Again: Finding Hope After Loss

“Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo van Hove and the Art of Resistance”
by Will Aitken
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-775213

Great art can pick you up by the heels and shake the daylights out of you, and that's what happened to novelist, travel journalist and film critic Will Aitken after he was invited to Luxembourg by Canadian literary phenom Anne Carson to sit in on rehearsals for (and the premier of) Sophokles's tragic Greek play, Antigone, which Carson'd translated. The experience undid Montreal's Aitken, and in his book Antigone Undone, he unpacks this "ambush" and explores why the 2500-year-old play's been profoundly affecting audiences since first produced.

Antigone Undone packs quite a punch itself. The hardcover's organized into three distinct parts, and Aitken's sassy style, subject knowledge and humanity illuminate each page. Antigone concerns an unhappy family (naturally). The title character's a teen princess who insists that her battle-killed brother be buried, but her uncle, the king, insists he was a traitor and "his body must rot in the sun for all to see". When Antigone - played by my favourite, Juliette Binoche – throws dirt on the body, Kreon walls her in a tomb. But Antigone's no doormat: she doesn't go down without a roar.

There's a whack of gender politics happening here, and it's easy to find parallels between the princess's struggles and what's centre stage in the world today (#MeToo). Of the play's immediacy, Aitken says "Antigone opened my eyes to the constancy of human suffering and said to me, 'Nothing changes, nothing ever will'". Thus, he spiraled.

The book's first section, in diary form, gives us a ringside seat to the rehearsals, plus insights into the book's living cast: the play's director (Ivo van Hove), Binoche, Carson (and husband Robert Currie) and Aitken. The section includes zippy candid emails between the author and Carson, his longtime friend. The latter writes "Currie loves Sondheim. it's pretty fun although sondheim's songs all sound the same to me and Meryl Streep's teeth are depressing." In short, this isn't small talk, folks. These intellectuals use words like "belvedere," "tenebrous," and "humis;" hobnob with Juliette Binoche; and use "Feist," "Strauss," and "Judy Garland singing 'The Man That Got Away'" in the same sentence.

But the suffering author also keeps it real, ie: after observing one rehearsal: "I find myself thinking how little I know about acting, despite having watched and written about it for much of my life." He considers Binoche's acting prowess: "I see a fearless woman on a ledge high above the sea, ready to hurl herself into the void, again and again if necessary".

In Part II Aitken juxtaposes interviews with Binoche, Carson and van Hove re: their collaboration, and the final section's more academic, with Aitken examining other writers' (ie: Woolf, Kierkegaard, Hegel) responses to Antigone.      

Aitken's real-world drama makes this book sing, especially the frank writing about his haunting post-Antigone time in Amsterdam, and his return to Canada, when "suicidal ideation arrive[d] like a hearse pulled up on the living room rug". Curtains rise and curtains fall, but the action on stage over centuries seemingly changes little.



"My Health in Hand" (Healthcare Organizer)"
by Debbie Cancade-Schmidt, Shauna Baumann, and Sheila Warner-Johanson
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-781927-756812

Do you envy those who seem ultra-organized? They can find whatever they need immediately, because they've taken the time to establish a system. We all know how easy it is to lose track of important information – you know, appointments scribbled on scraps of paper, or receipts from the drugstore. Wouldn't it be great to have one handy place to store all this critical healthcare material? I believe it would, and thus I'm pleased to hold in my hands my brand new system: My Health in Hand, a practical and user-friendly healthcare organizer.  

The trio of women who thought up the idea for My Health In Hand, a sturdy, coil-bound record-keeping book that would fit in a purse or glove compartment, must have had quite the brainstorming sessions, for they seem to have considered everything one needs to manage healthcare details. Users begin by completing the "My Profile" pages, with spaces for critical details like hospitalization number, next of kin, and your doctor's phone number. Beyond the usual information, the authors provide useful tips, ie: "It may be helpful to note down your license plate number for emergency parking." Yes, for those of us who can't recall this number when needed, that's an excellent, time-saving tip! There's even a spot in which to record piercings: evidence that the creators are contemporary-minded.

The next two sections are dedicated to an individual's comprehensive medical and family histories, with pages of space to record surgeries, hospitalizations, and immunizations/vaccines. This may be particularly useful when one needs to update travel vaccinations. There's room for providing the health history of one's parents and up to six family members - information which could be invaluable re: genetic conditions.      

With My Health in Hand you can quickly and easily record your medication details, keep track of appointments with specialists, and even include your advanced care plan ("living wills, medical power of attorney, healthcare proxy, and do not resuscitate orders") in the back-page envelope. Documenting end-of-life wishes in your all-inclusive heathcare organizer makes wise sense.    
This 96-page publication, produced by Your Nickel's Worth Publishing (and with the support of Creative Saskatchewan), is also a visual pleasure, and its designed to "stand up" to frequent use. The attractive front cover image – a robust woman leaping on a beach with the ocean and an expansive blue sky behind her – is on thick, glossy paper that neatly folds over and hides the sturdy coils that bind the pages.

We're an aging society, and while it's easy to dismiss conversations about end-of-life choices due to emotional discomfort, these are important discussions we need to have with our families. This booklet would make a thoughtful gift for aging parents, and a side benefit would be time spent with family members while helping fill their information out.

Debbie Cancade-Schmidt, Shauna Baumann, and Sheila Warner-Johanson, thank you. Owning My Health in Hand ensures that even the most disorganized among us have at least one integral part of our lives – our comprehensive healthcare information – at easy reach.   

 "Behind the Moon"
Written and Illustrated by Elsie Archer
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783079

I'm highly impressed when a creator can effectively write and illustrate his or her books, thus my metaphorical hat is tipped to Elsie Archer, author and illustrator of Behind the Moon, an inspirational children's picture book that delivers the autobiographical story of two sisters – Marjorie and Elsie - who were children during the terrifying time we know as the Second World War.

An illustrated book only truly succeeds when both text and images are on par. The story must also convey original ideas. I'll begin with Archer's imaginative writing. Hand in hand, the sisters stand beneath the night sky and the elder sister, Marjorie, explains to Elsie that the moon is "the door to heaven," and the stars "are actually holes that God poked through the sky with His fingers". A few days later, during the full moon, Elsie exclaims that the "door to heaven is wide open". As only a child might, Elsie thinks this is wonderful because now "the angels can go back and forth without getting squished!"

The sisters demonstrate a strong faith in God. They also exude a credible, spiritual innocence. Their quests to find a way to travel to heaven (Marjorie throws a rope down from the hayloft to "pull [Elsie] up into heaven") are realistically juxtaposed beside a game of Hide and Seek. 

Now, the illustrations: these are not images to skim over, for the more one studies them the more she sees, which increases the story's impact. The northern lights, for example, are not just multi-colour swatches in the sky, they actually appear – unobtrusively – as angel shapes. A few symbolic details clearly place this story in time: a period radio sits on a table with spindled legs, and coal oil lamps brighten rooms. In my favourite page, a Raggedy Ann doll sits on a trunk beside the girls' bed, which features a homemade quilt and a metal headboard typical of the era. The sisters are on their knees in prayer beside the bed, Marjorie's love and protection evident in the arm she has slung around her sister.
Again, Archer's excellent notion of a child's thoughts are evident in the text. After saying her own prayer – "We know that we can't get to heaven all by ourselves. We were only pretending. Amen." - Marjorie "poked" Elsie to say her own prayer. The younger girl says "You are always with us, and we don't have to be afraid of bombs or anything …"

The book includes a page of actual family photos, and a brief author bio: we learn that Archer was born in Didsbury, Alberta, worked as a nurse, and now runs EMA Designs, an art studio and classroom in Didsbury.

Everything's working for Behind the Moon: original ideas, authentic voices, and glorious art. How marvelous to be able to share one's gifts and passion – "art through teaching" – in this "star" of a book. To learn more about this talented Albertan, see

My hat's more than just tipped for Archer, it's completely off.    

“To Trust Again: Finding Hope After Loss”
Text and Illustration by Colleen Kehler
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-783062

It's amazing, really, how many folks - upon learning that I'm a writer - assert that they have a great idea for a book they are going to write … someday. I know most of these books are never written, but they could be. And they could be published, too. Companies like Your Nickel's Worth Publishing, in Regina, are turning the dream of publishing one's own stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, into reality for scores of writers.

YNWP is a quality "hybrid" publisher. Its website explains that it offers: "an inexpensive means for storytellers to publish their works, producing books with a prairie flavour—either in creative source (author/illustrator) or in subject matter". Established in 1998 by Heather Nickel, YNWP provides editing and production services for creators "whose stories might otherwise not be told". Thanks to YNWP, scores of professionally produced books have now found their way into the world to delight and illuminate readers. 

Saskatoon's Colleen Kehler's an ideal example of one who's recognized the value of publishing with YNWP. The writer/artist is a longtime educator who now uses her art and experience to inspire others via her stories - like the recently published To Trust Again: Finding Hope After Loss - and motivational presentations.

Kehler's encouraging and beautifully-illustrated book tells the tale of a girl who's plagued by pain, shame and "crippling fears". During an autumn walk she meets a fascinating bird who gives her a box that contains the letters T R U S T, which spell "a word she no longer believed in". She doesn't want the gift, as she's convinced herself that life will never improve. The wise bird explains that it understands, and ensures the girl that "a divine power … lives deep within [her]".

Seasons turn across the pages, and we witness the girl's climb from a place of darkness and self-doubt to one of acceptance, thanks to her new companion, the bird, who shares "warmth, empathy, and deep compassion". Now "Life was good. Life was enjoyable". But winter arrives, and with it "a routine test" and "news no one wants to hear" - the girl's heart breaks open. How can she trust now? I advise reading this story - which some may view as a spiritual parable - to learn the answer.

There's a powerful message conveyed here, and it's eminently enriched by original and thoughtful art. Kehler takes chances, ie: her protagonist, never named beyond "The girl," is featured throughout as a faceless black figure, almost like a shadow, but there's a vibrant energy to every page, thanks to the author/artist's brilliant command of design via colour, variety, and scale. At she explains how her art journal – "I use mixed media such as stencils, stamps, ink, paint, paper collage and loads of glue" – transformed into To Trust Again.

Need motivation to tell your own story? Start here. Kehler's book is commendable for its art, its positive and well-told message, and its high production value. It's a superlative example of how you, too, can make your  book dreams come true.