Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Four Book Reviews: Tim Lilburn, Edward Willett, Allan Kehler, Sara Williams and Bob Bors

“The House of Charlemagne”
by Tim Lilburn
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-0-88977-530-5

Years ago I lived a block from poet and essayist Tim Lilburn in Saskatoon's leafy City Park area, and it's been wonderful to watch his literary star rise. He's earned the Governor General's Award for Poetry, and is the first Canadian to win the European Medal of Poetry and Art. Like Lilburn, I also now live on Vancouver Island, and was excited to discover what my former nearly-neighbour has been (literarily) up to.

Not surprisingly, his latest title – a collaboration with Métis artist Ed Poitras - breaks new ground. Part poetry, part essay, part script, The House of Charlemagne is a brilliantly conceived and executed "performable poem," and an homage to Louis Riel's imagined "House of Charlemagne," named for the "polyglot Métis nation" Riel imagined rising centuries after his death. It was produced with male and female dancers by New Dance Horizons/Rouge-gorge in Regina (2015), and the book includes two black and white production photos.

The bizarre and poetic story unfolds via multiple voices and shapes, but the key player is Honoré Jaxon (aka William Henry Jackson), a University of Toronto-educated non-Métis and son of a Prince Albert shopkeeper. Jackson became Riel's final secretary, embraced the leader's metaphysical beliefs about "active essences," was sentenced to an insane asylum, and died old and living in a "small fort" made of empty ammunition boxes in New York, where he'd attempted to gather published material that celebrated the Métis. Lilburn takes these "bones" and, like an orthopedic surgeon, constructs a body that is political, intellectual, and philosophical, and it howls.

The books first part, Massinahican (Riel's text that "attempt[ed] to render old Rupert's Land …. into philosophy, interiority and politics") is an amalgam of history; quotations (in French) from Riel's work and from others, ie: Julian of Norwich and Plato; free verse poetry; and a description of the dance production. During the multi-art performance, Lilburn sat side-stage and symbolically "sent large sections of the poem skittering into the movement" while live music (by Jeff Bird of the Cowboy Junkies) and geese, wind, gunshot, and water sfx were played.

The second part is the three-act poetic performance script, including dialogue between Riel and Jaxson. The former says to the latter: "You and I are badger-mind/wasp-intuition". In the prison scene, a guard says: "You were Platonic fools we dismembered/to save you from the embarrassment your sky thought/would inevitably have brought you". In Act 3, when Jaxson maligns the fact that he's failed to gather the archives of "the Last Provisional Government at Batoche," he says of the blowing papers: "How strange this is the result/of such thousand horsepowered longing".           

Evidenced in the poetry: Lilburn's intrinsic sense of the natural world, an ear tuned to the song of the land, and multiple mentions of communities (Last Mountain Lake, Souris, Riding Mountain, etc.). Scents are featured, too, ie: "The damp, cool/blue smell of the Crowsnest Pass".      
Lilburn's latest looks at history through a different lens, and makes a sound like "the engine room of God's warm breath".


"Door into Faerie"
by Edward Willett
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 978-1-55050-654-9

Door into Faerie is the fifth and final title in Regina writer Edward Willett's "The Shards of Excalibur" series, and I read it without reading its predecessors, and also, admittedly, with a bit of a bias against the fantasy genre. Magic shmagic. I've oft said that what I really value in literature is contemporary realism: stories I can connect with via details from the here and now, geography and language I can relate to because I recognize it, I speak it. The old "holding a mirror to the world" thing. Well surprise, surprise: I loved this YA fantasy. Willett wields his well-honed writing chops from page one, and my interest was maintained until the final word.

In the opening we learn that teens Wally Knight (heir to King Arthur) and his girlfriend Ariane ("the fricking Lady of the Lake"), have been on a global quest to "reunite the scattered shards of the great sword Excalibur," and they're currently at a Bed and Breakfast in Cypress Hills. Cypress Hills! This ingenious juxtaposition of old and contemporary (ie: "fricking"), of information delivered in earlier books melded with new goings-on, and the inclusion of relatable issues like family dysfunction - Knight's sister's teamed with the Jaguar car-driving sorcerer Merlin, aka "Rex Major, billionaire computer magnate," and she's "living it up" in a Toronto condo, and Wally has no idea where his film-making mother is – had me immediately hooked. Wally wants to find his mother and celebrate Mother's Day together.

I'm impressed with Willett's ability to draw readers into the complex existing story, and can appreciate the authorial balancing act required in structuring this novel. The man knows how to write; he has, in fact, written over fifty books, and won the 2009 Prix Aurora Award.

And I'm learning that hey, I actually do like fantasy: it's fun to imagine "magic," ie: Ariane has the power to "transport them around the world via fresh water and clouds".  

The book's delightfully saturated with humour, as well as magic. Re: Ariane's magical prowess, "the whole dissolving-into-water-and materializing-somewhere else thing still freaked [Wally] out". And re: the family angle, at one point Ariane says, "Magical quests are easy; family is hard".

While the young pair search for the famous sword's hilt, they land in places ranging from a Weyburn swimming pool to a "dime-a-dozen" Scottish castle and the shoreline of Regina's Wascana Lake. 

There's romance too: Ariane notices that Wally's ears "even seemed to fit his head better than they used to". And broken romance: Wally's mom delivers a monologue re: her own marriage break-up, complete with the "blonde bimbo" who replaced her. There's a long history of inter-marrying and bloodshed here.

The story's told through different perspectives. Merlin maligns the fact that King Arthur had been reduced even beyond legend "to a fit subject for musical theatre". Hilarious.

I can't imagine teens not enjoying this entertaining story, perhaps especially if they've read the books that've preceded it. This adult enjoyed it, too … magic and all.    
 “Born Resilient: True Stories of Life's Greatest Challenges”

by Allan Kehler
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$17.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-02-4

Born Resilient: True Stories of Life's Greatest Challenges is the third book I've reviewed by Saskatoon writer, counsellor, and motivational speaker Allan Kehler, and it's my favourite. In this non-fiction book about suffering, hope, and resilience, Kehler introduces each chapter then allows some of the people he's met on his own journey to take the stage. We hear from men and women who've each hit rock bottom in some way, and learn how, in their own words, they climbed out of their individual valleys. Perhaps nothing's more powerful than candid personal testimonies. In sharing theirs, the writers lend others hope that they, too, can turn their lives around.  

The book opens with a foreward from an ex-NHL goalie who, like the author, confesses that he's "seen the dark side" (addiction, mental illness) and has "risen above". In his usual clear writing style, Kehler explains that his motivation for writing this book came from a young woman who'd suffered an abusive childhood. She silently revealed the scars on her forearms, and Kehler's response was "Scars are a sign of survival. You are clearly a fighter … and you have my utmost respect." An inspired response, and the girl left the meeting with "her head held high".

It's Kehler's belief that "nothing is more sacred than having someone share their story with you". Readers may or may not personally relate to the hardships contributors relay – from debilitating accidents and illness to abuse of all kinds – but they'll no doubt applaud the courage demonstrated here, and learn how even when one's life is truly a living hell, there is hope.

In Chapter One Kehler advises that people pay attention to their emotional pain, which he says has more impact on lives than physical pain. He directs readers to acknowledge emotional pain, "sit" with it, and "identify its source," for if "toxic emotions" aren't released, the sufferer may turn to unhealthy behaviours like abusing drugs, problem gambling, or sex addiction. Having a spiritual connection greatly helps.

Sometimes it takes a book like this to realize how some people survive the near-impossible every day, like the woman who was sexually abused as a toddler and began drinking at age six. She writes: "Without drugs or alcohol, I was unable to live in my own skin," and today she's a mental health and addictions counsellor. We meet a man who lost his three beloved children in a car accident: he describes undealt-with emotional pain as a sliver that, left untreated, gets infected. One woman writes of being gang-raped at age 14, another was brought up in a cult, and we hear from the mother of a fentanyl addict who admits that resilience also includes "having the courage to know when to hang on and when to let go".

And imagine being the woman who wrote: "On November 25, 1990, my ex-husband, Tom, shot and murdered my sons as they slept". Resilience.

We all know someone who'd benefit from reading this sincere book. I'm glad it's available.     

 "Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens"
by Sara Williams and Bob Bors
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-781550-509137

For those who desire to grow fruit in their own northern gardens, the comprehensive and visually-inviting new reference book by horticultural experts Sara Williams and Bob Bors would be the logical place to begin. This learned duo – Williams has penned numerous books on prairie gardening and leads workshops on diverse gardening topics; Bors is the Head of the Fruit Breeding Program and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan (he's also globally-known for his work with haskaps, dwarf sour cherries, and Under-the Sea® coleus). These Saskatchewanians possess a plethora of knowledge and experience, and they share it, along with up-to-date research, in Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens: a veritable encyclopedia (but far more fun) that instructs gardeners on everything from the basics - like soil preparation and pruning - to specifics on how to grow and maintain healthy tree, shrub cane, groundcover, and vine fruits, and make the most of your hazelnuts.    

Aside from the wealth of information on more than 20 species and over 170 fruit varieties, this glossy-covered book is a joy to behold, with a proliferation of colour photographs (especially helpful when diagnosing plant disease and identifying insects), interesting sidebars, thoughtful organization, and easy-to-read text.

The first key to fruit-growing-in-northern-climes game is hardiness. Winters in Zones 1 to 4 are often long and cold, so winter survival's critical. The authors explain that growing at northern latitudes also provides some benefits, ie: "fewer disease and insect problems" and "better colour and sweetness". There are also more antioxidants within northern grown fruits. "What might be considered a superfood grown elsewhere becomes a super-duper food when grown in the north!". The advantages of growing your own fruit include enjoying just-off-the-vine freshness, the meditative state one might experience while pruning ("both a science and an art" … think Buddhist monks and bonsai), and improving yard aesthetics. 

Readers learn about insect vs. wind pollination, that most fruit does best with "full sun for at least half the day," and mulch must be at least 10 cm (4 in.) to be effective. I appreciated the numerous "fun facts," ie: how many of what we now consider weeds were "Old World plants that were deliberately introduced to the new World by immigrants for their culinary or medicinal value," and Canada Thistle is not Canadian: it's from Eurasia, as are dandelions, which were "once used as a coffee substitute". One of my major adversaries – portulaca (aka purslane) – was at one time "eaten as a vegetable".   

I found the photos – like the root development images – instructive, and the authors' personal anecdotes (ie: Williams' battle with deer) add a human touch. A large section's devoted to apples, which are from the rose family. Apples once held top spot re: Canada's most important fruit, but that changed in the 1990s when blueberries were christened a "superfruit".

I was going to gift this book after reviewing it, but even living in Zone 7b/8a, I find it highly relevant: it's staying with me.       


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.


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!