Monday, August 26, 2019

Three New Reviews: Sadie McCarney's "Live Ones," J.C. Paulson's "Broken Through," and Helen Knott's "In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience"

“Live Ones”
by Sadie McCarney
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-780889-776500
I've reviewed hundreds of books over the decades, and have developed a kind of ritual before I read a single word of the text proper. Today Charlottetown poet Sadie McCarney's first book, Live Ones, is under inspection.

A book is a reverent thing. Firstly, I turn it in my hands, and study the front and back covers. McCarney's slim cream-coloured volume is adorned with a small purple graphic, Winged Skull / Memento Mori, by artist Susan Crawford. What does this image suggest about the poems? There will be sorrow - quite possibly death - addressed within these pages. I flip to the back, read the publisher's blurb, any other blurbs (usually provided by accomplished writers), and biographical notes about the author. Here I learn that McCarney's book "grapples with mourning, coming of age, and queer identity against the backdrop of rural and small-town Atlantic Canada." First books often cast a wide net.

Next I check the author's birth year (just curious), if available; her Acknowledgments (where these poems previously appeared - impressive); and finally, I scan the individual titles in the Contents. Titles interest me. They can provide insight into general themes, style, and mood. Three titles leap out: "Answer and Be Entered to Win," (first poem); "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is;" and "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket." But I don't leap to these pages: writers and editors specifically order the poems, and I respect that they should be read as presented.

The opening poem is a "found poem culled from dating site questionnaires," and it's a lark in couplets. Each line asks a ridiculous question, ie: "Do you ever/
masturbate to spelling mistakes?" and "In the right light, wouldn't primates be/sexy?" I expect that this (hopefully) hyperbolic take on online dating questionnaires is making a statement on modern day relationships, and the title, "Answer and Be Entered to Win," comments on the gamble - and ridiculousness - inherent in online dating. It's a fun piece.

"Early Adopters," imagines female partners queueing for a baby at a "Black Friday sale," after "the once-fertile town's life-sap/dried up and took the yearly/births along with it." Clever!

Some of the slice-of-life poems, like a cancer-riddled aunt's trip to a beach with family, are the strongest: "By now her innards are carved up/by the cancer, metastasized every/way like the night's last firework." "Steeltown Songs," is a longer poem about adolescence and growing up where "Sometimes we skipped our chalked-in court/our tire swing's welt of spit-out gum".     

The book's saturated with fabulous images, ie: "the shimmer of smashed beer bottles/like low-rent stardust," "her hair a Celtic knot of grease" (from "$90K Victorian, Sold As Is"), and Costa Rican dogs who "luxuriated in their harems/of flies."  In "Fairy Tale in the Supermarket," lobsters "wear rubber bands/as funeral corsages."

Houses, families, small towns, youth, illness, "A teacup of ticks" and "A foundered rowboat full of rain." The 1992-born author of these unflinching poems - varied in style and content - should be proud of her first book.

“Broken Through”

by J.C. Paulson
Published by Joanne Paulson
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00ftenace and her feisty  loving  ISBN 9-780995-975620

Broken Through is former Saskatoon journalist J.C. Paulson's follow-up to her first genre-blending novel, Adam's Witness, and the author's only getting better. In the new book, heroine Grace Rampling - a Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter - digs into another gritty story after a friend's neighbour's dog is shot on the same day there's been a fatal hit-and-run in Saskatoon. Then: the neighbor, a young dental hygienist who recently kicked a drinking problem, is found brutally murdered in her home. And - spoiler alert - she was pregnant. The father? The philandering dentist she worked for.

That's hardly all: Rampling's romantic partner, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis (from the earlier book), is investigating the murder, and the handsome and capable cop quickly connects this crime with others committed against petite, long-haired brunettes in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Can you say serial killer?

The novel definitely earns the moniker of a mystery, but one could also call it a romance. New lovers Rampling and Davis are extremely passionate about one another, but both are also being careful. Davis suffers from PTSD, which manifests in violent nightmares. "I feel like a piece of glass, sometimes; the tiniest chip makes me shatter," he tells Rampling. With their complementary careers, the lines between personal and professional sometimes get blurred for this love-struck couple.

This isn't literary fiction, so you won't find overly poetic passages that would slow the racing plot, except, on occasion, when the lovers are regarding one another. Here's Adam, upon seeing Grace after he's been in California for a conference: "His body was paralyzed, but his eyes couldn't look at her hard enough. With her tumbled, wild dark-auburn hair, her magnolia skin, and in her flowing dress, she reminded him of a crazy, beautiful, windblown wildflower." You will find taut and believable dialogue, cliffhangers that'll have you flipping pages as fast as you can, and a story that has more bends than the South Saskatchewan River.  

Davis and Police Chief McIvor are culturally-sensitive characters, and as three of the five victims are Métis or First Nations women, deep into the novel Davis consults Elder Eileen Bear at the women's low-security prison for "a clearer understanding of what women, particularly Indigenous women, are facing, in terms of violence, domestically and otherwise." There's a reference to BC's "Highway of Tears," and Bear says the prairie assaults are "our River of Tears". Later, during a police press conference, Davis explains that the Saskatoon police force is "going to find and train and hire more Indigenous police officers as detectives, who will bring cultural understanding to our investigations." They will also "meet with Elders, particularly women Elders, on a regular basis."

In her notes, Paulson writes that whether one reads this "as a murder mystery, a love story, a morality tale or a fury, [she supposes] it was intended to be all of those." Mission accomplished.

In the final two chapters of this satisfying story, Paulson opens the door for further adventures for her crime-fighting duo. I'll be waiting.  


“In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience”
by Helen Knott
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-776449

When a novice author earns the praise of writers like Maria Campbell and Richard Van Camp, it's like a promise: readers are in for a powerful experience. But Helen Knott's In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, also comes with a warning: the content is "related to addiction and sexual violence. It is sometimes graphic and can be triggering for readers." The author suggests that any readers who are triggered "be gentle with [themselves]." She opens her story by acknowledging other women's painful memories, and stating that she "gives this in hopes that [they] remember that [they] are worth a thousand horses." I am already wowed.

As suggested, I'm not alone. Eden Robinson's written the memoir's foreword, and says Knott - a Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw, and mixed Euro-descent writer in Northeastern BC - is "one of the most powerful voices of her generation." Knott's introduction to the compact hardcover reveals her raison d'être for the book: "I summoned these words and the healing that comes with them to lighten the loads of shame, addiction, and struggle" for Indigenous women.

Each of these curses - shame, addiction, struggle - is apparent from the book's outset. The author and mother to a son is detoxing from drugs and alcohol on a mattress (not a bed) in Edmonton. Home is Fort St. John. She's come to the city to "erase" herself. "My detoxing body had me contracting into a tight ball one minute and expanding like a starfish the next." So visual. Even poetic. Yet the author also speaks the vernacular, ie: a year after she, her grandmother ("Asu"), and young son move into her parents' "bitter cold" home, Knott writes that she "was fucking up six ways until Sunday and then skipped Sunday and added six more sins."

Via three dramatic sections, Knott ably demonstrates how "sideways shit went down" and her "adolescence was riddled with turmoil and shaky soil." Abused from an early age by an uncle with "pretty severe fetal alcohol syndrome and schizophrenia," Knott used cocaine (beginning at age thirteen), alcohol and other drugs to subdue the demons of perpetual sexual abuse, rape - including a gang rape in which her attackers cut her and she was found bleeding and naked in a ditch - colonialism, and racism. The brutal gang attack had the then Grade 9 student begging her mother to let her move. After six months in Prince George, Knott returned to find her "mom had disappeared" and "an angry drunken woman [was] living in her skin."

Disappearance is almost a theme in this riveting first book. Knott writes: "Us Native women know how to disappear. It's an art, really - we can disappear even when we are right in front of your face." Fortunately, through much hard work and disparate therapies - from reading and rehab to writing and embracing traditional healing practices - this admirable young writer, mother, presenter, and social worker "reappeared"/healed, and is using her experience to help others on difficult journeys.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

New Book Review: Rue Des Rosiers (Rhea Tregebov)

“Rue Des Rosiers”
by Rhea Tregebov
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-781550-506990

Rue Des Rosiers by Vancouverite Rhea Tregebov is not just an exemplary novel, it's also an important book that examines anti-Semitism and empathetically puts faces on the victims and aggressors, and my hope is that the novel receives the major attention it warrants. In this richly-layered story, multi-genre author Tregebov introduces us to 1980s Toronto and Paris, and the life of 25-year-old Jewish protagonist Sarah - intelligent, questioning, and floundering - who feels the aftershocks of the generations-earlier Holocaust and suffers nightmares she can't explain.

Readers can expect credibility and precise craft on every page as Sarah, the youngest of three daughters raised in Winnipeg, wrestles with a long-ago abortion, sibling dynamics, career choices, an emotionally-wrenching Holocaust history class, and her relationship with upwardly-mobile Michael, a lawyer who invites her to join him in Paris. Sarah despises the word "Jewess," and even dislikes the word "Jew": "I always hear the slur," she says. "Hear all this weight behind the world: history, the war." She makes almost every yes-no decision with the turn of a lucky penny.

This is also the story of Laila, who's come to Paris from war-battered Palestine with a man who lives for revenge against the Jews. Both Laila and Sarah are trying to ascertain their raison d'être, and attempting to learn - within very different circumstances - how one can live meaningfully in a world shadowed with fear, guilt, and expectation. Laila considers herself "a weed in the crack in the sidewalk" and desperately desires not "to be nothing."

Tregebov wields an uncanny knack for expressing much - whether about an individual's emotional state or the sad truth about what some social workers feel re: their efficacy - in just a line or two. "He was all she saw," for example, is a phrase used with great effect.

If an award for effective writing about sisterly connections was given, Tregebov could claim it for the scene in which Sarah's being soothed by her sister Rose, post-abortion. Rose is beside morose Sarah on her bed: "Rose's body was an edge to her own, a dam, so she wouldn't spill over. A container, so even if her body wasn't a solid, she wouldn't dissolve." Sarah's sister is "The only thing holding her on the earth."

Paris is exceptionally well-evoked; I felt I was exploring the lanes, patisseries, bridges, gardens, and metro stations right beside Sarah. She finds Luxembourg Gardens especially serene.

I believe Sarah when she's empathizing with Holocaust victims. I believe her when she's drunk with friends in Paris. I believe her when she's grief-stricken about her abortion and her sister Rose's suicide attempt; or examining Impressionist paintings at the Jeu de Paume gallery; or sitting alone in a Paris traiteur chinois ordering "honey garlic ribs and beef with broccoli in black bean sauce." (The book's saturated with delicious descriptions of food.) I believe Sarah, also, when in the midst of unspeakable horror, she does something "unequivocally good." You will believe her - and Laila - too.