News / Reviews
Put Down Your Smartphone
By Jeremy Twigg
If you’ve ever wondered how to survive a crocodile attack, Jon Turk’s Crocodiles and Ice (Oolichan $23.95) is for you.
As described in the recounting of his solo kayak trip in the Solomon Islands, the trick is simple: determine whether you’re right-side-up or upside-down in the reptile’s jaws, and poke it in the eye.
That’s lesson one in this non-fiction odyssey that spans the themes of nature, religion, counter-culture, imperialism and global warming.
Dividing his time between Fernie, B.C. and Darby, Montana, Jon Turk has earned National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year status. The central portion of his memoir, Trial by Ice , chronicles his successful circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island in the North Pole, a world-first feat Turk accomplished at the ripe old age of 64.
That grueling Arctic expedition includes close encounters with wolves, polar bears and walruses (the latter are known to attack kayakers), and starts out rather pathetically… with Turk repeatedly falling down because he’d attached the climbing skins of his skis on backwards.
Turk’s polar adventure describes his awareness of global warming’s wide-reaching effects—illuminating this book’s overall message that human disassociation with nature is putting the survival of our species at risk.
Educated as a scientist, Turk accepts the benefits of modern technology and medicine, and argues that anyone who advocates ‘turning the clock back’ on these advancements belongs on the ‘dismissible delusional fringe.’ But he warns that a sustainable 21st Century won’t be possible if we continue to communicate solely with machines, shopping malls and electronic devices.
As a metaphor to reinforce his warning, Turk points out that no modern human could build an ocean-going canoe with stone tools, and sail across oceans to distant islands, “because our thoughts and behaviour patterns are too rooted in technology and too distant from the subtle, intangible, and inexplicable secrets of nature.”
To help us begin this shift in consciousness, Turk grants us the position of armchair voyeur so we can comfortably experience both the euphoric highs and requisite discomforts of outdoor adventure. He weaves lessons of history and science through each chapter. As the author of North America’s first environmental science textbook, he has the credentials to do so.
While the chapter "Bike Ride to the Dalai Lama’s Birthplace" informs the reader about China’s past and ongoing imperialism – a subject about which many people know precious little – the reader might miss some of the survivalist intensity of Turk’s North Pole conquest and the exotic imagery of the crocodile encounter. But I was surprised to find myself soaking up this information.
Turk is a rebel, and his big personality plays a big role in his story-telling. As a young lad hitch-hiking his way through the Middle East in the 1960s, he can’t hold his tongue when he overhears an Arab guide addressing a group of Christian pilgrims in East Jerusalem. “And what about the Jews?” he asks the guide. “Didn’t they have a historical presence in this city?”
For his brashness, Turk is surrounded by guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles, taken to a room with no windows, and roughed up. When he’s being accosted, he describes feeling a sense of ‘deep calm’ that he attributes to surviving subsequent life-threatening situations in the wild.
When he was the manager of a struggling rock band in 1966, Turk’s grades suffered during the heady days of the Grateful Dead and free love. He’s a poet when he wants to be, as evidenced in his description of a run-in with the Dean of Housing at college:
Didn’t he know that there was no confusion about smoking pot and dancing all night with my girlfriend, or lying flat on the gas tank of a stripped-down, souped up crotch-rocket, legs spread out behind like the tail feathers of a hawk, throttle full bore, watching the roadway blur by at 100 mph, until the pavement lost its identity as a horizontal structure of pebbles and tar, while spring pollen and urban air pollution packed into my nostrils like a ram-jet – until the cosmos became an emotion.
Beyond its entertainment value derived from vivid descriptions spanning six decades of adventures, Crocodiles and Ice stresses an urgent lesson about the environmental and technological misdirection in which mankind is heading. But Turk stresses you don’t need to endure a remote and dangerous expedition to communicate with nature and reconnect with your base humanity.
You just need to put down your smartphone, head out for a forest stroll, and experience the wild around you.
“I invite my readers to listen to our Stone-Age ancestors, the poets of the ’60s, a wolf that lingers, a Siberian shaman, a Chinese bicycle nomad, a lonely Tlingit warrior laying down to die in a storm, and the landscapes themselves,” he writes.
“Because beyond the wondrous and seductive opulence of our oil-soaked, internet-crazed, consumer-oriented society, there lies a glorious and sustainable lifestyle that is based on Deep Wild as a foundation of solace, sanity, compassion, and hope.”
You might not think The Silence of the Lambs and Little Red Riding Hood have much in common, but as Calgary poet Tyler B. Perry sees it, the works are indeed very similar. He explains that this is because the stories share many of the same sinister undertones. Perry, a high school english teacher at Bishop Grandin who moonlights as a poet, explores this dark and sadistic side of children’s fairy tales in his latest book, Belly Full of Rocks.
Father to a nine and seven-year-old Perry, 36, grew up listening to and reading the countless Grimm’s fairy tales that were littered throughout his father’s bookshelf. Revisiting those stories he once adored as a child as an adult with his own children, he was fascinated by the simplicity of the tales — a feature he found a hidden complexity in.
“You see these stories 20 years later, and you’ve lived so much more and you’ve lost some of your naivety, and you realize things maybe aren’t quite as simple as they came across to you as a kid, “ Perry explains, “Maybe the Wolf isn’t entirely evil? Maybe Red Riding Hood has her own sadistic side? Maybe that third pig didn’t have to treat the wolf so cruelly?”
Enthralled by the dark and iniquitous nature of literature since he was a high school student, Perry cites Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as one of his major influences, among other contemporary poets.
“[There’s] something about what it said about the way we live our lives and the purpose for art... and I always feel like literature has been a way for me to interpret the world, and my own life,” says Perry.
Dark and distorted literature continued to incite Perry’s imagination, discovering the infamous Charles Bukowski while sitting in coffee shops and hearing the song Bukowski by alternative-rock band Modest Mouse.
“It was poetry I had never seen before,” he recalls, “There was no regular form to it, no rhyme pattern. It was just free verse poetry, and it just seemed that he wrote the way he wanted to. [Bukowski] broke free from any conventions that other poets had. I wanted to do that.”
Although English literature was always Perry’s first love, he delayed a career in writing to become a Red Seal chef right out of high school. But after a couple of years in the cooking industry, Perry was moved to re-evaluate his situation, ultimately deciding to pursue an undergraduate degree in education at the University of Alberta.
Though he later completed a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, it wasn’t until Perry began teaching full-time that he decided to act on his passion for writing. Drawing on his initial experiences in the classroom, his first book of poetry was published in 2010, titled Lessons in Falling.
“You go into teaching with a lot of ideals, and then you realize it’s not as easy to be the teacher that you wanted to be. So I found that writing poetry was an area where I could basically just do whatever I wanted,” says Perry.
“That was a good place for me to sort of reflect and think about teaching in a way that I didn’t really feel as free to do in a work day. And that became a whole book.”
In an effort to fully engage his students in poetry, Perry also began competing in local poetry slam competitions, eventually joining the team which went on to compete at the National Spoken Word Festival in Ottawa. This new found recognition in the poetry community garnered him a nomination for the inaugural Calgary Poet Laureate in 2012.
With the recent launch of Belly Full of Rocks on Oct. 6, Perry says he has considered making poetry his full-time work. However, given the underground nature of his art form, he is skeptical of the financial prospects.
“Very few people are ever going to make a living off of being poets, just like how very few people make their livings from being musicians. Poetry is like jazz. There’s some people who just love it and are very passionate about it, while most people could probably take it or leave it.”
On the other hand, Perry adores teaching and believes his experiences in his day to day life directly coincide with his writing, though he would love more time to pursue what he is passionate about.
“I’ve stuck to poetry more than any other genre because it is the kind of writing that fits into my life the most. That’s not to say maybe I’d write a novel if I didn’t have to work. You've got to live and write; you can’t really just write.”
Rufus (Roof) Peters, 15, is one of four siblings, two sets of twins. While this may be exceptional, it is the only part of Roof’s life that is. He isn’t the eldest, as his minutes older sister is happy to point out. In fact, she outshines him at everything. Roof’s main goals are to escape the French language summer exchange and hopefully figure out these new feelings for his friend Zoe. When a mysterious stranger appears at the door, Roof finds that he does have a gift. He is able to negotiate the family dynamics, support the people he loves, and find his voice.
Odd One Out is a surprisingly gentle story. Surprising, because it is essentially a story of a young pregnancy that results in the father abandoning the mother and reneging on accepting responsibility and support of the baby. These are difficult topics to touch on in a young adult novel, and it is Hegerat’s writing of Roof that provides the opportunity for gentleness. The mysterious stranger from Mexico turns out to be Roof’s half-sister. She is his father’s daughter with his high school girlfriend. Roof seems to be the only one that can consider everyone’s perspective. His mother and sister are angry, his father is bewildered, and the younger twins are unaware. Roof is responsible, empathetic, and kind. He is a character that is an excellent role model for young boys.
While Roof is a strong and likable character, at some points of the story it is difficult not to ask, “really?” I’m not sure that the actual family issue would be worked out the way that the book describes. I would think that Roof and his twin sister, Josie, might have some real issues with the way that his parents handled Amelia. When Amelia’s mother died when Amelia was 10, Roof’s parents were asked to take in Amelia. For the second time in her life, Amelia was abandoned by her birth father. It is difficult to reconcile the loving, committed father of the two sets of twins, with the absolute lack of responsibility he takes for Amelia. There are also real trust issues between the parents as the mother was not aware of money that the father and aunt were sneaking to Amelia in birthday cards over the years. The mother is a very difficult character to like. She is clearly angry, but her actions are so selfish and hurtful to a young child that it is very hard to get past it. At one point, Rufus and Josie have a discussion that brings up these uncomfortable topics, but they seem to be easily forgiven and swept under the carpet.
Reading Odd One Out as Rufus’ story makes it a good read. As a book that deals with complex family issues, mistakes, and regrets, it doesn’t quite get there.
To me, it’s all about connection and compassion…Once we lose one or the other, or both, the world becomes a much less pleasant place, and a more dangerous place, to live in. – Jon Turk
After reading this book the first thing I thought was Wow. This book should be read.
Why? For one thing, it’s a really good read. But as I started to write this review I looked at my notes and then at the blurb on the back of the book. One word caught my eye: sanity.
I’ve thought I was crazy. I’ve thought the world was crazy and the only sane one was me. Crocodiles and Ice made me realize that yes, I’m crazy, and so are we all. But Nature, or the Universe if you will, is eminently sane, and if sanity is to be found anywhere it is in the few remaining wild places of the earth. When wilderness is gone, then we will truly be mad. There is nothing more insane than an entire species in collusion, destroying the very thing that gives it life.
Crocodiles and Ice is a sane book. It’s about what we can do to recapture our collective sanity. Crocodiles and Ice is the story of how Jon Turk came to understand what it is to be sane through travel and adventure, loss and healing, and the guides and sign posts along the way that pointed him toward the goal. Civilization is like a cocoon that protects us from the Outside. For Turk, it was necessary to strip off nearly everything about that cocoon in order to connect intimately with Deep Wild. Outside, about as far away from civilization as you can get these days, he received a gift. And that’s what this book is about.
In Crocodiles and Ice Turk talks about what happened when people started farming. I’ve always heard this was like the greatest moment in human history because agriculture allowed humans to build cities, protect themselves, and have leisure to develop art, music, and everything we think is good about civilization. But Turk quotes Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote an essay entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”. Modern hunter-gatherers don’t work that hard. For example, African Bushmen devote only 12 to 19 hours a week to gathering food. Compare that to the normal modern work week. Skeletal remains from Greece and Turkey show that people were taller, and healthier, before they started farming: “The combination of hard work, reliance on a few starchy crops, risk or starvation when these crops failed, and concentration of pathogens caused by the aggregation of people into crowded societies all combined to cause skyrocketing prevalence of tooth decay, malnutrition, iron-deficiency anemia, infectious disease and degenerative conditions of the spine” (p. 122). Even today, in those Mediterranean countries people have not regained their previous stature.
This is a paradox: though farming brought on all these bad things, the non-nomadic lifestyle was conducive to producing lots of babies. Sounds like a good thing, right? But it seems we can thank the development of agriculture for over-population, for plagues (remember the Bible?), and for war as farmers organized armies to conquer nomadic people in order to take their land. I think most people would agree that if anything is going to take us out as a species, overpopulation with its attendant plague, war, and starvation, will do it. We could avoid this madness if we reclaim our sanity and begin to live in harmony with our environment.
What does all this have to do with reptiles and frozen water? The crocodiles and the ice helped Jon Turk find sanity. This book is the story of one man’s awakening consciousness, of a scientist’s introduction to magic, of the ecstasy that can be found in the Deep Wild and how it can connect us with God, or Nature, or what you will – that which gave us birth and to which we return when we die. It’s a series of adventures as Turk travels to the Solomon Islands, to Ellesmere Island, to China and to British Colombia. It’s about a crocodile, a bear, a wolf, and a whole lot of ice, and the wildness and sanity they represent. It’s about the connection that’s possible between us and our environment when we drop our arrogance and our fear and see ourselves as one with instead of separate from Planet Earth. It’s about finding a place in our hearts where even death becomes harmonious and proper; where there is no fear, only the ecstasy of being alive.
We can’t return to our hunting-gathering past. We need farms to feed the burgeoning population. But we can heal our self-inflicted wounds and live with compassion for ourselves, for others, for our home planet and all the wild things, crocodiles, bears, wolves, and ice included, that form the web of Life. When we connect with Nature we connect with our deeper selves and thus find meaning and healing.
We all want happiness. What we are not told by our schools, our religions, or our governments is what Turk discovered: “the search for ecstasy is the only sane, valid, career choice” (p. 289). We seek happiness from the most ridiculous things: money, cars, clothes, houses, furniture, drugs, alcohol, relationships. Nothing lasts. But the happiness we gain from experiencing connection with the Universe comes from within, and is eternal. And it is in connection that we find sanity.
juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it - "The Fire Extinguisher" by Miranda Pearson
Cagliari - Miranda Pearson
In Cagliari we walked along alleys
through the thick, foreign air. Ate spaghetti
and clams, cheese and salami. Drank
a bottle of local wine. I was happy.
Everything was a mess, my luggage lost,
my father dying. At dinner the lights flickered
off, the waitress brought candles to the tables,
all around: warmth, darkness.
We walked to the fortress above the city;
the young girls were out in their short dresses,
parading their gold, smoking cigarettes.
It was a blessed night and in the morning
the kindness of the people, a group
cooing over a pram, the sweetness of the orange juice—
Early on in The Fire Extinguisher (Oolichan Books, 2015) Miranda Pearson writes: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be." (p. 16) Has a truer statement from a poet ever been said? I think League of Canadian Poets membership should include a button with that quote on it.
But in the world of Canadian poetry, such anonymity is not (or at least should not) be the case for Miranda. The Fire Extinguisher, her fourth poetry collection, was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (as was her third, Harbour). And, goodness, the nod was well earned. The Fire Extinguisher is a wide-ranging, moving, often harrowing book, which spans continents and repeatedly takes us to (if not beyond) the precipice of great losses, most notably the death of the poet's father, and her own diagnosis and treatment for cancer.
As the book goes along, then, that early statement: "Here I am no one, / which is how it should be" takes on deeper and deeper resonance. It deepens, too, as you come to see Miranda for the careful watcher that she is, on the edge of things (even while participating in them), looking in on foreign cities, family, love and decline - even in on herself on the operating table: "a runway. Bisected and branded" (p. 85).
All those carefully witnessed and considered scenes are presented in one striking stanza after another - reading the book, I began thinking about how different poets write with different "units" of primary (or default) consideration: some sound-driven poets (and all of us, ultimately) operate by the syllable or word, some experimental or narrative-driven poets think in terms of the book as a whole, while others work with a primary focus on the line, or the sentence, or the poem, or the chapbook-length section. In The Fire Extinguisher, Miranda is a master of the well-wrought, often ghazal-like stanza: couplet or tercet or (occasional) quatrain, standing at once independent and yet closely bound to the stanzas around it. Each stanza a someone, and at the same time nothing without those around it. As we are; as we should be.
Miranda and I exchanged emails over the summer - I was traveling throughout Europe at the time, and her poems felt particularly pertinent to me because of it. I finally settled back in Vancouver and we finished the interview earlier this month. I think it was worth the wait, and I hope you enjoy!
Rob: "Cagliari" is part of the opening section of poems in The Fire Extinguisher, which is made up of European travel poems. These poems feel stretched between two worlds - a Europe of both your past and your immediate moment, and your home here in Canada (one is even called "Five Postcards", and could very well have been five postcards you sent back to Canada). Could you speak a bit about that poem, and how it fits into the book as a whole?
Miranda: This poem comes near the beginning of the book; on one level it’s a straight forward poem of place, imagistic and descriptive. Poem as still-life, where familiar, domestic objects (food and jewelry for instance) are zoomed in on and become an arranged composition, perhaps allegorical or symbolic. I was thinking of John Steffler’s poem “I Didn’t Know This Would Happen”, a liminal moment on a plane where the line “my / broken marriage” is juggled casually in with the ordinary messy rest of it, which is more or less how life is. Cagliari is a coastal town in Sardinia; my partner and I had arranged to meet up there and travel across the island to Alghero. My father was very ill – I was torn as to whether to make the trip and in fact that first night he died at, we think, approximately the same time as the power cut mentioned in the poem. So the poem is a “momenti mori” where an imagistic tableau (the dinner, wine, candlelight etc.) illustrate both impermanence and comfort. I’m trying to capture a chaos-magic, where life and death are compressed, and the sensual beauty and richness of living is somehow magnified and made acute.
Much of the The Fire Extinguisher is concerned with this brink, the sometimes perilous balancing place between safety and disaster. The title itself contains both danger and antidote. When I was thinking about structuring the book I realized that fire imagery recurs, bodies ignite, overspill their boundaries, are radiated and cremated, volcanoes erupt, fire alarms go off and so on. I’m exploring meeting points, confluence. Adrienne Rich’s poem "Power" speaks of this: “her wounds came from the same source as her power”, and I call radiation treatment “this toxic cure” in my poem "Radiant".
Elemental themes have shown up in my previous books – water, air, earth… and the themes of thresholds and conflations appear repeatedly in my poetry too; both in terms of low/high cultural references that I find interesting and entertaining, but also more seriously as a sense that so much in life is contradictory. As you suggest, perhaps this sense of “between-ity” comes from spending my life in two different sides of the world – half in the UK and half in Canada, and that spanning and reaching across of place and cultures certainly occurs in all my books. But also I’ve worked for many years in mental health care and we have to hold dialectical contradictions in that work all the time in ways that are often difficult – impossible – to make much sense of, but can be apertures between people that lead to more compassion and understanding, or at least acceptance.
Rob: Well, that line "my father dying" certainly leaps out like Steffler's "broken marriage" - once it's read, the whole poem tips towards it. Continuing with what you were just touching on, how has working in Psychiatry affected your poetry?
Miranda: Having spent a long time working in that field does inform my poetry—not directly but in my abiding fascination with what makes us tick, what is said and un-said, what connects us and the spaces between people. Being a deep listener and an observer, often of sub-text. Participating in the writing life – teaching, editing, reviewing, attending readings and so on is another life again. I suppose to me it’s become normal to compartmentalize and live several lives simultaneously, though as I’ve got older I have begun to see these as less fragmented and more linked, with creative overlap and interplay.
I started writing late, after I moved to Canada from England when I was 29, and since then poetry and books have been my consistent home, a nest of words that I have built myself.
Rob: Could you talk a bit about how you chose to sequence the book, and how you hoped for the various sections to speak to one another?
Miranda: In terms of shaping this manuscript, my friend Aislinn Hunter helped me with the order, which was invaluable, as with this particular body of work I couldn’t see clearly how the poems could work together. I trusted her and hoped for the best, and often with a piece of art it only emerges after you’re done making it, and it turns out to be quite different from The Plan. It has its own life. Not to mention how the reader brings their own experience to the poem. I think now that the book’s too long; I wish I had cut about 20 pages.
Rob: I do like the idea of shorter books, but goodness, what would you have cut? I'm definitely glad you kept your section of cancer poems. Like few poems I've read in quite some time, they give off a visceral sense of having been not only lived, but "live-recorded" in those moments, transformed into metaphors and similes on the spot - as if the turning to metaphor were a way of remembering, and processing, what was happening. I'm thinking of lines like "Meticulous rummagers, miners or tailors" ("Surgery", p. 82) and "You are a runway. Bisected and branded you / keep still." ("Radiant", p. 85). Were you writing throughout your diagnosis and treatment? Taking notes? Or did the poems come later? What role, if any, did poetry play in helping you through that time?
Miranda: I see art and life as corresponding, interdependent. Aside from writing and my work in health care, I’m very interested in visual and material art. This is frequently referred to in The Fire Extinguisher. I draw, paint, knit, sew and have just started learning to throw pots. I love animals, especially dogs. Gardening, being outside, preferably by water, rivers, lakes, sea… walking and swimming. I think I’m more of a physical person than an intellectual, but these things serve each other. I write of the body quite often. I’ve also been a single parent for two decades, which obviously has shaped things massively.
My first book Prime started out as my Master’s thesis. It was mainly concerned with sex, pregnancy, birth and becoming a parent. It birthed the other books. Children still show up constantly – even in The Fire Extinguisher. The heart remains a child, and the poems are often written from a child’s perspective. “Blizzard” and “Short Flight” for example. And in the title poem of The Fire Extinguisher, where all the teenagers are lounging around and the mother fantasizes about lying unconscious in a glass casket like Snow White. Children use play and fantasy to cope and escape; as adults we use drugs, alcohol, and so on for similar reasons. I think writing poetry has served a function for me in that way, a way both of controlling and structuring experience but also distancing and disassociating from it. The cancer poems particularly. I often refer to Fairy Tales and nursery rhymes — Lewis Caroll, nonsense verse — they are the source for me, the building blocks. Along with the Bible – or more accurately, hymns (thanks to the School for Religious Maniacs I attended). And Shakespeare, unavoidably.
I really only started reading contemporary poetry after I came to Canada. Canadian and American poetry has influenced me far more than British. Phyllis Webb, Sharon Thesen, Daphne Marlatt, Don McKay, Robert Kroetsch, Erin Moure. Raymond Carver, Louise Gluck, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty. I don’t see myself as cool – I don’t try and copy anyone or follow poetry trends, I just follow whatever thread is showing up, and see where it goes. If people like the poems of course I’m pleased but I read and like all sorts so have never particularly attached myself to a “school” – aside from definitely having a feminist lens. I don’t think I would have become a poet if I’d stayed in the UK; the Canadian poetry tribe has been incredibly welcoming and supportive. And there’s space to breathe.
As to the question of my process, yes, I tend to write scraps and notes towards poems more or less constantly, as if catching fragments floating by in the air. Gradually ideas and lines cohere. Then every few years take myself off to a retreat setting and try and make something of them. I think all my books have come together this way. I have tended to write when going through something painful – it’s comforting, a way of calming myself. It provides witness, a sense of order, much as a child would enact trauma through play. But it doesn’t have to be through crisis; Too much crisis is just distracting and bad for your health! Political events, weather, a change in the light—anything can trigger a poem. Reading certain writers often does it, or finding a poet that I haven’t read before. I get ideas from other disciplines – science, history, architecture, anything. The element of surprise is important, something unplanned; but it can be a tiny thing, a shift or shadow just caught in the corner of your eye. Sometimes nothing happens for a long time, at least consciously. I’m ok with that – I just get on with something else and wait.
Rob: Speaking of being "cool", and poetry trends, it seems increasingly popular these days for poets to write poems in single stanzas - long, and often intimidatingly dense, blocks of text. The poems in The Fire Extinguisher were a refreshing change for me as a reader - most poems were written in couplets or tercets, with each poem giving the reader plenty of time to breathe ("Cagliari" - a loose sonnet - being one of the most "dense" in the collection). Could you speak a little to your attraction to shorter stanzas, especially couplets? When you're writing the first drafts of a poem, are you already thinking about spacing and shape? Do the thoughts come out as couplets, or do you let them wander the yard a while before you pair them up?
Miranda: Yes, many of the poems are short spare couplets, as in "Belvedere" or "Nil by Mouth". I like to see how a couplet or tercet can work on its own, like a ghazel, as well as part of a larger piece, and how space and pause effect meaning. How couplets can be linked or separated by tone and nuance. I like the openness on the page, the clarity and breath and the way the couplets create their own collage. In this book the poems employ various forms of rhyme, most frequently in internal or slant form, and sometimes end-rhyme – as in "Small Town" or "Tudeley Church". Using rhyme so extensively is new for me, but I like the musicality and look on the page, and it happened spontaneously in this work.
Rob: The fourth and fifth section of The Fire Extinguisher - the emotional heart (and, often, gut-punch) of the book - focus on your father's illness and death, and your own diagnosis and treatment for cancer, respectively. In many ways the spaces in which these poems take place - doctors’ offices, hospitals and operating rooms - seem as alien, or more so, than foreign countries. It's compelling to me, then, that the book opens and closes with poems very consciously set in Europe, which allowed a theme of "reporting from abroad" to weave its way through the entire book. I realise, of course, that as a native of England, what's "abroad" and what's "home" is very different for you, so I wonder if you had this in mind at all. Do you see it as a theme of the book?
Miranda: The Fire Extinguisher is structured by five sections: In the first, the poems ask questions of attachment; erotic desire and appetite — both destructive and creative. Painting and visual art are invoked, as well as food and the materials of travel. Animals and birds feature, both free and in captivity. In the second section the poems move from the exotic to the more interior and domestic: Children and office work, a circling back to an English childhood home — actual and remembered — foreshadowing those in the next section in their recognition of aging and loss: “How the body / is a new sort of friend, flawed / unreliable”. Sections 3 and 4 combine in their close-up examination of illness. Yes, my own and my father’s though I hope these resonate for anyone who’s felt held captive in the body, or witnessed this. How physical illness is both intimate and distancing.
I was consciously seeking an alternative, more honest discourse rather than the militaristic language of cancer usually available – that didn’t seem to fit with my experience which felt more like a careful navigation through danger, and feeling bewildered and rather embarrassed by it. “Winning” or “losing” isn’t all that relevant in a situation where we have so little control. And actually being a patient is to be quite passive. I suppose writing this book was a way of fighting back, wrestling back some control. Me holding a fire extinguisher of poems up against all that, saying “get back!”
In the final section of the book many of the poems are set in Scotland, particularly the land and sea of Shetland. I was introduced to this part of the world quite recently, so it’s been a homecoming to Britain but via a new direction. Scotland is so different from the South of England where I was brought up. Getting to know the North has been like finding a whole new country.
Rob: Touching on the Scotland poems, there's a powerful moment in that section where you write "I wanted to stay. Last year that's all I wanted, / to curl upon the straw and wait" ("Shetland Broch", p. 90). Then again, in "Year's End, Scotland" (p. 94) you write "Last year we walked out across ice, / not knowing if it would bear us or if we'd go through. // At the time we hardly cared." For me, both lines capture that feeling, which resonates throughout the book, of "coming through" great loss or difficulty. I'm wondering if that journey, and exploring that journey through poetry, changed or reaffirmed in some way your sense of poetry - why you write it, read it, its "function" in the world? Has it helped show you a path to what you might write next?
Miranda: Has this book changed my sense of poetry? It’s quite a dense, dramatic book, elaborate. It took a lot out of me. Next time I think I might move towards the more spare, the more minimal. I’m also thinking about a Selected. At the moment I’m writing notes about sea, and ice. And I’m looking at the work of a young poet I worked with who very tragically took his own life last year – Alex Winstanley. I would like to write in response to some of his poems. I think about short fiction or memoir – but for now poetry continues to be the medium I swim through, with its beautiful hocus-pocus and infinite possibility.
Now, poetry lovers, let's not go losing Miranda to fiction and memoir, ok? You can encourage her to stick to her beautiful hocus-pocus by picking up a copy of The Fire Extinguisher at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Oolichan website. Or, if you prefer your possibilities finite, from Amazon.
Four years ago, Jon Turk and Erik Boomer circumnavigated Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, using only kayaks and skis on skins. The story of that expedition is now detailed in a soon-to-be-released book that also covers some of Turk's other, lesser known voyages. In Crocodiles and Ice: A Journey into Deep Wild, available Sept. 15, Turk uses a collection of narratives to explore people's deep, reciprocal communication with the Earth.
An excerpt from the book is below. The scene opens in camp, on the first night of the Ellesmere Island expedition.
That night, in the safety of the tent, after Boomer borrowed my superior spoon so he wouldn’t melt the Chinese piece-of-s***, one-time-use, coffee-stirring device that he took from the counter at McDonalds, I had time to assess. Now that reality was staring me in the face, like a mother polar bear with bad breath and two cubs behind her, I concluded that this circumnavigation was a really dumb idea. It’s too far. We don’t have enough food. We’ll wear holes in the bottoms of our kayaks dragging them as far as the distance from New York City to McCook, Nebraska—as if anybody ever wanted to go to McCook. Our kayaks are too small. Too loaded down. Too much weight on the deck. We don’t have the foggiest idea what the ice will be like. My skins are screwed on backwards. Boomer’s spoon is going to break. He’s too young and inexperienced. I’m too old and feeble.
OK, I’m going to wake up in the morning and say, “Hey Boomer, buddy. Sorry about this. All the planning and anticipation and all. Don’t mean to disappoint you, but I’m going home.”
I slept fitfully, and in the morning, tried to hide the internal tension by bouncing out of my sleeping bag into the cold, to start the stove, priming it just right, with not too much or too little fuel. I slid into the familiar routine, repeated so often in my life on mountains and by tumultuous seas. I watched the oatmeal bubble and adjusted the flame carefully. Boomer was cheery, enthusiastic, and excited and I loved the guy, already, with his mix of boyish innocence and deadly focus. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was ready to surrender to anticipation of hardship before any hardship actualized. I didn’t have the heart to tell myself that I was prepared to quit, before the expedition began. We broke camp in silence. Boomer adjusted his harness, stepped into his skis, and took off while I was still fiddling with my gear.
I was rested, with only one day of travel behind me. It was going to be easy to put my left foot in front of my right on flat sea ice and proceed sixty centimeters, even though it would be inefficient because my skins were screwed on backwards. And the sixty centimeters after that was a no-brainer as well, and the step after that.
After less than a hundred meters, as I was rushing to catch up, Boomer stopped to inspect fresh polar bear tracks. The monstrous animal had passed close to our tent, during the night, on broad, flat, snowshoe-paws that were made to carry a heavy, deadly predator efficiently over soft surfaces.
In Faulkner’s classic novella, The Bear, the boy asks the old man, “You mean he (the bear) already knows me, that I ain’t never been to the big bottom before, ain’t had time to find out yet whether I…” Then after a moment, the boy continued, “It was me he was watching. I don’t reckon he did need to come but once.”
With my eyes, I followed the bear tracks across the ice and suddenly every block of pressure ridge appeared as a white bear, or a bear with cubs, or a piece of ice with a bear behind it. “It was me he was watching.”
Faulkner again: “So I will have to see him, [the boy] thought, without dread or even hope. I will have to look at him.” (The italics are Faulkner’s, not mine.)
And then I knew, with absolute certainty, that somewhere, out on this ice, or on the ocean after the ice melts, Boomer and I will meet him.
In this case the pronoun, “Him” was the living, breathing bear with one mangled foot, because he had already been wounded by civilization’s steel traps. But, more importantly, “Him” was the wilderness, also living and breathing, crippled but still powerful and primordial.
In my interpretation, when the boy says, “I will have to see him…I will have to look at him…” he is clearly talking about a much deeper interaction than mere vision, it is about feeling the environment at a deep visceral level. It is about smelling the polar bear’s stale-seal-meat-breath, and telling him to Bugger Off, even while you are honoring the Bear Spirit that has paid you a visit. Expeditions are about real and metaphorical passages over the ice, ducks skimming over the water, walrus attacks—embracing our own powerlessness—the cold, the sore toes, and swollen feet—passing into the zone beyond willpower—striving individually to survive, while at the same time revering the Bear Spirit and the Ice Spirit that might easily kill you in an instant. There is no turning back. No other way.
By James Paley
In her portrait of a patriotic bootlegger, researcher Adriana Davies prefers sobering reality to fanciful drama in The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello (Oolichan $19.95), a thorough investigation of the Sicilian-born British Columbian who had a reputation for being something of a Robin Hood figure.
His is a tragic tale that cries out for a Puccini. In Act One, the Italian immigrant works as an ice cream vendor in Fernie. In Act Two, he becomes a successful bootlegger. In Act Three, he descends to infamy in the gallows of Alberta.
Adriana Davies assiduously paints a clear portrait of the man who was widely known as Emperor Pick; and along the way she discusses the prejudices Italian immigrants had to overcome in B.C. during the early 20th century.
Our rags to riches tale begins when Emilio Picariello of Fernie began to collect bottles. He introduced a policy of allowing children to trade bottles for ice cream. While establishment figures viewed him as a “junk man,” the local breweries found it easier to buy back their bottles from Picariello than buy new ones.
The passage of Prohibition on October 1, 1917 in British Columbia—after it had been passed in Alberta on April 19, 1916—offered an opportunity for expansion that Pacariello could not pass up. As well as providing liquor to B.C. citizens high and low, Picariello and his cohorts began running alcohol into Alberta.
“Picariello’s extensive bootlegging business was an open secret,” writes Davies, “known among both the immigrant community and the British elite, who did not socialize with him but who, nevertheless, ordered liquor for weddings and other occasions.”
Along the way, Picariello took pride in community service and philanthropy. “Picariello also had a patriotic streak,” writes Davies, “and contributed to the war effort through the purchase of Victory Bonds. He lent money to needy individuals, as well as the local church and, at the time of the 1918-1919 General Strike, is said to have delivered groceries to those affected.”
In the aftermath of a failed sting operation set up by the Alberta Provincial Police in 1922, during which he learned his eldest shot had been wounded, Picariello got into a heated argument with Constable Stephen Lawson. They fought, shots were fired. Some say the gunmen were cops. The alleged shootout led to his 1923 execution for murder of a policeman. Also executed was his female employee, Florence Lassandro, who had been with him his car when the altercation occurred.
When Picariello and Lassandro were hanged in Fort Saskatchewan, convicted of murdering Lawson, she became the last woman executed in Alberta—by which time she was already notorious. The public was not averse to assuming the possibility that Lassandro could have been either the father’s mistress or the son’s sweetheart.
“Very little ink was given to Florence Lassandro, at the time,” writes Davies, “other than observations that she was a “waitress” before her marriage and that she was not Picariello’s “daughter” as some papers had reported. She would later be referred to as his mistress or that of his son Steve, who was five years’ her junior.”
Adriana Davies revisits the trial as a cold case, suggesting that bigotry had much to do with Picariello’s demise. Davies reports that Picariello’s family believe that authorities initially tried to get Picariello to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter, but he refused, insisting that he was innocent.
Davies has eschewed any romanticized notion that the two convicts were intimate. Instead we learn that twenty-two-year old Florence Lassandro became deeply depressed during her incarceration, on the verge of collapse. The Fernie Free Press described her as “a pale, weak little creature, the object of hundreds of curious eyes.” Ostensibly the promise of an afterlife and Christ’s forgiveness provided comfort.
During the trial she had recounted that there was a struggle between Picariello and Lawson for a gun. She saw the flash of a gunshot going past her leg and also of shots in the alley. She asserted that she only cared for Picariello’s son Steve as a brother—ie. there were no sexual entanglements—and that she had not had the gun in her hands. She was somehow convicted of murder nonetheless.
One theory for the bizarre conviction is that, on the morning of her arrest, Lassandro had agreed “that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off.”
Regardless of what really happened, the double execution of Picariello and Lassandro has made them into legendary fodder for art.
In Aritha van Herk’s feminist essay, “Driving Towards Death,” published in 1977, Lassandro first gained victim status. Sharon Pollock also wrote about bootlegging in the Crowsnest Pass in the play Whiskey Six Cadenza, performed in 1983 by Theatre Calgary.
“Both Pollock and van Herk,” writes Davies, “reinterpret the story of Picariello and Lassandro in the context of the 1980s and early 1990s academic criticism dealing with sexual politics and post-colonialism.”
John Estacio and John Murrell’s Filumena is an operatic recounting of the Picariello/Lassandro story developed as a collaboration between the Banff Centre, where Murrell worked, and the Calgary Opera Company, where Estacio was composer in residence. The opera was performed in February 2003 in Calgary and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2005.
“In literature,” Davies concludes, “women are frequently either madonnas or whores. This, sadly, is also true in life. Lassandro started as a whore in the media at the time of the trial and, in the more recent accounts, she is somehow sanctified.”
Prohibition in Canada started in Prince Edward Island in 1901. Manitoba and Ontario followed suit in 1916. Next came British Columbia and New Brunswick in 1917. Federal legislation was enacted by an Order-in-Council of April 1, 1918. It became a part of the War Measures Act. Thou Shalt Not Sell Booze. Quebec passed anti-booze laws in 1919; followed by Nova Scotia in 1921.
Quebec was the first province to repeal Prohibition in 1919 (yes, that’s the same year it was enacted), followed by B.C. and Manitoba in 1921, Ontario in 1923, Alberta in 1924, Saskatchewan in 1925, New Brunswick in 1927, and Nova Scotia in 1929. PEI, the first province with Prohibition, was the last province to revoke the legislation in 1948.
Betty Jane Hegerat's Odd One Out reviewed in Quill & Quire
By Andréa Schnell
Told from the perspective of 15-year-old Rufus (Roof) Peters, author Betty Jane Hegerat’s Odd One Out is the story of how his family weathers and survives the revelation of long-held secrets.
Life in the Peters household is realistically happy. Roof is immersed in the joys and trials of adolescence – a desire for independence, the experience of first love, affectionately bickering with his twin sister. The kids love and respect their parents and vice versa. At worst, Roof’s parents are mildly overprotective, which he tolerates with minimal eye rolling. Then a mysterious young woman appears at the Peters’ door. As her ties with the family are revealed, Roof is forced to renconcile his perception of his parents with what he learns of their past. Ultimately, he must rethink what it means to be a family.
The great strength of this story is its relatability. Hegerat has created a cast of characters with which one can easily identify, including the lovable teenaged protagonist. The narration blends realistic adolescent reactions with adult reflections, allowing each to better understand the other, and making it a good fit for readers on both sides of the age of majority.
However, while the descriptions of situations, emotions, and reactions are spot on, the complete absence of foul language in the teenagers’ conversations is harder to believe. This is a very minor shortcoming and doesn’t detract from the overall impact, but slightly grittier dialogue would have made the reader’s integration into Roof’s world even more seamless.
Odd One Out is highly recommended for parents and educators looking to find common ground with young people, as well as anyone looking for a satisfying story that reinforces the importance of family.
It’s hard to believe that Italians were once visible minorities.
But that was the reality for Adriana Davies.
At a book signing on Feb. 23, the Italian-born author and historian recalled being subject to taunts growing up in rural Alberta.
“You quickly learned you couldn’t bring smelly cheese, even provolone, in your sandwich to school,” she recalled. “I remember, my sister, brother and I, we only wanted Velveeta cheese with white bread.”
The Italian-Canadian immigration experience inspired Davies to write her latest book The Rise and Fall of Emilio Picariello.
“I was interested in the history of the Italian people and the issues they faced in the immigration experience,” said Davies. “For me the story of Picariello was really a part of this immigration history and I wanted to know more. Ultimately I wanted to see whether he was guilty or not.”
Davies was at the Crowsnest Museum signing copies of her new book and presiding over the opening of a new exhibit of the same name on loan from the Fernie Museum.
By interviewing his descendants, Davies said she’s come up with a more three-dimensional view of Picariello, a legendary bootlegger convicted of murder and hanged along with Florence Lassandro for the killing of Alberta Provincial Police Constable Steve Lawson. She said the the local media presented him as a “criminal kingpin,” “a nasty man,” and a “lecher.”
“It’s been documented that the various communities were discriminated against,” said Davies. “There was a pecking order and the favoured immigrants were from the British Isles and Northern Europe and anyone from Southern or Eastern Europe or Asia was viewed as less desirable.”
She also pointed out that many prominent Canadian families, not just Italain ones, made their fortunes during prohibition.
“It is a part of the Canadian story,” she said. “Picariello was a legitimate businessman until the passage of prohibition made it financially advantageous to run liquor. There were all sorts of people involved in bootlegging but he was a casualty and has become notorious as a result.”
The notion of Italians as criminals compounded by their internments as enemy aliens during the Second World War encouraged the assimilation of new immigrants who readily changed and Anglicized their names, said Davies.
The community regained some of their sense of being Italian post-World War Two, said Davies but for many years the Italian Canadian immigrant experience could be summed up in one word: aranjare, which loosely translates to making do.
Aqua-Gulf Islands Living profiles Oolichan poet Sandy Shreve
In this wonderful profile by Hans Tammemagi, Sandy Shreve shares her art and her poetry. The profile begins on page 25.
A Quill & Quire Q&A with Evelyn Lau
By David Chau
Tumour, Evelyn Lau’s seventh volume of verse, reflects on life’s chapters and the consequences of time. Introduced here is a wry wit that distinguishes it from her other works, which include the 1989 bestselling memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, and Living Under Plastic, the 2010 poetry collection that received the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.
Q&Q spoke to Lau about her new release from Oolichan Books and her remarkable career.
Lapsed chances and physical decline are primary motifs in Tumour. What else are you considering in these pieces? I thought of how the past can be like a tumour and about how sometimes in midlife, certain scenes from childhood become amplified and extremely detailed. You would think the closer you are to an event that’s happened, the more clearly you would be able to see it, but in fact that’s not true – it’s so muddled by your emotions around it. Sometimes it’s not until decades later that you see it with that kind of sharpness. That’s what I was discovering. Very slight scenes from childhood took on a photographic clarity and I wanted to explore that.
How did you compress a lifelong relationship into the title poem? I’d written individual, shorter poems about my aunt who had brain cancer, but I wanted to do something more ambitious. I set out to write a lengthy essay, which I wrestled with for many months, and I was never happy with it. I had 30 pages sitting on my desk, which I would periodically peek at and feel really disappointed by. Eventually what I ended up doing was taking some of the better lines from that essay and thinking about it as a poem.
Was writing Tumour different than your previous poetry collections? I had more fun with it in some ways, because of the poems that were about the body. I hope there are little glints of humour there, too. I don’t normally have fun with poems [laughs]. That was an exception.
You’ve also published fiction and non-fiction. Do you prefer writing poetry to prose? I think poetry suits me best in terms of the sparseness, the distillation of experience, the amount of time spent thinking and obsessing over every word, comma, line break. A lot of people would not have the patience for that or it doesn’t appeal to them, but that I find extraordinary appealing.
I think too you can go deeper in poetry and take more risks in terms of writing honestly about an experience, in part because there are so few readers. You’re putting yourself out there a lot more in prose, say, in memoir, and getting a lot of sometimes quite cruel responses from people just because you’re in the public eye. There are pros and cons for both.
A Governor General’s Literary Award nomination, a screen adaptation of your autobiography, and a post as Vancouver’s poet laureate are among your many successes. Has the writing life fulfilled your expectations? I’ve been lucky. To be nominated for awards or to win some as a poet is enormously gratifying. To know that your peers have read your work and thought about it seriously and consider it worthy, that’s really important to me. … I know how hard it is to even be published. And I know you can never take that for granted. At the same time, to make it your life never stops being challenging.
But it also never stops being the most amazing thing that you can do with your time. There’s nothing else I’ve done or given or created or anything that has remotely given me the same kind of joy as finishing a poem, or even finding an image that is as close to perfection as I can make it. There’s nothing like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
November’s Radio begins in the aftermath of a breakup. Wendy has gone to China, leaving her partner, Gary, in Victoria. Their separation established, the novel then proceeds to run on dual tracks, alternating between storylines that remain distinct.
Such an approach raises basic technical difficulties, chief among them how the two narratives connect. More problematic is that the two protagonists aren’t even in contact with one another throughout most of the novel, and their adventures seem totally unrelated. Wendy is involved in the creation of a next-generation form of holographic performance art with an odd Chinese couple, one of whom, Chen, is the son of one of China’s shady new plutocrats. Meanwhile, Gary works in B.C.’s Ministry of Wellness as a cubicle drone, doing research into pharmaceuticals.
What’s the connection? There is a bit of plot crossover at the very end, but until that point it’s hard work finding common ground. The reader may note, for example, that Gary and Wendy both run afoul of government corruption, with Chen undergoing a party trial and Gary pressured to provide support for a happy pill that has potentially dangerous side effects and little proven effectiveness.
More substantial is a thematic connection in the way both stories emphasize failures of language. The B.C. ministry buzzes with acronyms, doubletalk, bureaucratese, and therapy-speak. Reports are written but need interpretation. When something important needs to be communicated, it’s done in code.
Code is also a preferred mode of communication in China, being the way Chen’s father sends messages to him. Wendy does not know Chinese; her conversations are often awkward and at times collapse entirely into babble. Things breaking down is thus a connecting motif, from lovers to language.
Another typical difficulty with the split-narrative approach is that it runs into trouble when one of the two stories moves at a different pace, or is just more interesting than the other. The book then develops an awkward gait, as though proceeding with a limp.
November’s Radio isn’t entirely successful at avoiding this problem. Gary’s sections have a much clearer story to tell, as well as having a brisker pace and more conventional pattern of rising action and resolution. Wendy’s story, on the other hand, is both more complicated and less coherent, with individual episodes that don’t always feel connected to a larger narrative arc. Adding to the weakness of her sections is the fact that she is a stranger to China, doesn’t speak the language, and doesn’t always seem to know what’s going on. She is a mostly passive partner in her artistic collaboration, and less of a full protagonist than Gary.
Noyes’s novel is subtly comic, fragmented, understated, and dynamic, with episodes that often appear to be shifting about or forming different patterns. There may be no proper way for them to fit together, but interpreting their code is part of the challenge Noyes has set.
Steve Noyes's November's Radioreviewed in the Ottawa Citizen
By Robert Wiersema
Writers are often advised to write what they know. It’s not always the best advice, but it plays to the strengths of someone like Steve Noyes. The Victoria writer, who has worked as everything from a parking lot attendant to an editor, draws on his experiences as a contract English teacher in China and his decade as a policy analyst in the B.C. Ministry of Health to considerable effect for his new novel November’s Radio.
The story begins after the end of a relationship. Following her split with her boyfriend Gary, Wendy decamps to China, where she takes an English as a Second Language job while she waits for something remarkable, something transcendent, to happen. When she meets a pair of dissident artists, and becomes part of their work, it seems — at first — that perhaps she has found what she has been seeking. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.
Things aren’t simple for Gary, either. Reeling from Wendy’s departure, he trudges through his job at the Ministry of Wellness, blundering through the political quicksand of the rapidly privatizing public sector. When Gary is assigned to fast-track an anti-anxiety drug — which he himself is using — through approval for widespread coverage, he discovers a trail of suppressed research and casualties. The mostly numb Gary is faced with a moral dilemma — tell all and face ruin, or conceal the truth and move up in the ministry.
Noyes spins out these oddly complementary narratives in alternating chapters, allowing each character’s experiences and perceptions to colour the reader’s impressions of the other characters.
Neither Wendy nor Gary is particularly self-aware, but in their criticism of each other and their time together, a vivid portrait of the two characters begins to emerge.
Not that character is an especially significant aspect of November’s Radio; Noyes has something altogether different in mind. In both storylines, situations and events escalate quickly to the near-ridiculous, a keen-edged satire unfolding in each different world, and refracting off the other.
It is to Noyes’ considerable credit that he is able to vividly render a culture so convincingly — whether it is the world of contemporary Chinese dissidents or that of pharmaceutically numbed bureaucrats — as to allow such satire to develop so powerfully from early in the novel. The reader may not be entirely clear on the intricacies of contemporary Chinese culture, but they understand enough to appreciate the ridiculous extremes of the performance artists with whom Wendy has become affiliated.
It’s not just satire, though. No sooner is the reader comfortable in approaching the novel as a satire than Noyes throws another curve: a human moment, genuine peril, genuine emotion. It is this variation, the uneasiness which Noyes creates, which gives November’s Radio much of its power.
Readers should be warned, however: November’s Radio isn’t an easy read. Noyes doesn’t dumb anything down. Instead, he trusts in the reader to understand what is going on. For some, this may take longer.
The early chapters in China, in particular, are somewhat daunting, an alien world arrayed before the reader with little in the way of clarification or explication.
Reading these sections is akin to being dropped in a foreign city with neither maps nor a common language: it’s daunting, yes, but this makes the satisfaction of understanding — which, be assured, will come — all the sweeter. November’s Radio isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those willing to trust in Noyes as much as he seems to trust in the reader, it’s a powerful, varied, surprising read.
Robert J. Wiersema’s latest novel, Black Feathers, was published in August.
Sandy Shreve has produced a remarkable book of poetry by re-imagining her father's diary. Jack Shreve was a sailor on a freighter in 1936, when he was 21, and he kept a diary of his five month journey from Halifax to Australia and back.
This book is illustrated with photos from Jack Shreve's journey, along with various documents that fill in all the empty spaces in this marvellous story.
The poems speak a language a daughter invented for her father. Wondrous.
Waiting for the Albatross: 2
Couldn't see any albatross at all up on the poop
at breakfast time.
When we throw our garbage over the wall
the albatross usually make a mad scramble for it.
They're a funny sight, paddling for dear life
but I couldn't see any albatross at all at noon
today. Then bos'n came dashing in the foscle
hollering, "Look at the geezly big airplane"
long after I threw our garbage over the wall.
We all dashed out the door, then he hollered
"April Fool" and laughed heartily
when we saw an albatross with a wing spread
of at least ten feet. They very seldom move
their wings and when they bank, chasing
after the garbage we toss over the wall, I've seen
the tips slice the water. If a glider could be patterned
after them! And yet, they're so heavy they have to
go like a seaplane to get up. From the poop, I saw one
take off from the crest of a wave. This morning
I went up on the poop to take pictures -
but couldn't see any albatross at all; not even
at noon when I tossed our garbage over the wall.
It is easy to imagine the senior Shreve as a poet on his own, he knows what to look for in the world around him. These short narratives make history real.
Sandy Shreve has done her father a tremendous honour. Many men have sailed the ocean but Sandy Shreve has turned her father's voyage into art.
Waiting For The Albatross is an entirely rewarding collection. Two voices sing with one sound and create a harmony eighty years and tens of thousands of hard miles in the making.
I wonder what's going on in the world to-day.
The "storm petrels" I saw yesterday lived up to their name
and we're rolling all over the ocean.
We got that damned rice for desert, and stewed prunes
but the officers got apple dumplings and fancy biscuits.
I wonder what's going on in the world to-day.
In the water alongside us, a huge shark was rolling back
and forth and every once in a while turned belly up
as we rolled over the ocean.
Told steward about the maggots we found in our biscuits. "Fresh
meat" as they call it or no, I'd sooner starve than eat that filthy food.
I wonder what's going on in the world to-day.
We've been taking some pretty bad rolls, Got a snap
of the Bon Scot heeled right over and dipping her starboard rails
with her infernal tossing and rolling.
We've taken several seas and lots of spray; I got caught
in one and was washed to the side.
I wonder what's going on in the world to-day
while we're rolling all over the ocean.
Today's book of poetry discovered a very soft spot for Sandy Shreve as she navigates through her father's adventures.
At this mornings read Milo drew a big anchor on his forearm before he'd read a word. (There is something going on in our little office because every time Kathryn looks at Milo she looks lost at sea.)
Things look bad in Europe. Hitler re-militarizing
the Rhineland, France rushing reinforcements
to the border. Britain concerned. Italy's conquered
the Ethiopians. Things look bad in Europe.
I suppose we'll get home in time to be conscripted
for service in this war they seem to be hatching,
what with Hitler re-militarizing the Rhineland and
France reinforcing the border. Things look bad.
Waiting For The Albatross is an old black and white movie suddenly colourized and in the best possible way. Sandy Shreve has canonized her father with Ahab, with Hem's "old man", Lord Nelson and all those other cats who played their stories out on the sea.
These plain-spoken hard-working poems are worth your valuable time. They are Canadian and they sailed around the world just for you.
Sandy Shreve's Waiting for the Albatrossreviewed on BC Booklook
By Beverly Camp
Sandy Shreve had the fortune to be given the old diary shortly after her father died. It covers the time when Jack Shreve was an unmarried, 21 year-old on his first foray into the larger world outside his Maritimes home. The back drop was the Great Depression and the eve of World War II.
Amost 80 years later, Sandy Shreve has spun the diary’s ‘found words’ into a book of poems, Waiting for the Albatross (Oolichan Books $19.95). She re-arranges, twists, and repeats her father’s words to highlight their rhythm and descriptive beauty but always with a view to honouring his stories.
In the book’s Foreword, Sandy Shreve writes: “Although I’ve fiddled and tinkered with Dad’s diary, the poems I’ve written remain true to the experiences he described and retain his voice.”
She makes it clear that what she has composed is different from what her father jotted down. “While Dad wrote a diary, what I have created is more of a collage, using bits and pieces plucked from various days, weeks and months without regard to linear time… The book starts and ends where you’d expect, but in between, it skips around a bit.”
On the book’s jacket cover, author Rob Taylor says: “It’s a book of poetry and also a history. It’s formal and plain-spoken, contemplative and bloody-knuckled. It’s then and it’s now. It’s a father and daughter talking across great distances.”
Jack Shreve’s diary contains a wealth of sea-going jargon, historical references, and the thoughts of a young man making his way in the world. Leaving from Halifax, Jack Shreve spent five months sailing down the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and across the wide Pacific to New Zealand and Australia before returning home.
It wasn’t easy going. The opening poem, Cold, describes Jack Shreve’s first night onboard ‘Bon Scot’, the nickname the crew gave to the freighter, Canadian Scottish:
Cold as Blue Hades – thought I’d be
a frozen corpse before morning. Two
blankets aren’t nearly enough; not three
pairs of mittens, either, for Blue Hades.
Even with my heavy shirt, pull-over sweater,
leather jacket and my Mackinaw on – I still
damn near perished in Blue Hades
this morning. Thought I’d be a corpse.
It was a wake-up call to young Jack Shreve if his head was full of schoolboy notions of pure adventure on the high seas. He describes getting his face and neck covered in black dust from shovelling coal all morning – “About ten tons all told. Looked like a coal miner”. And, after working all day on his hands and knees painting with cement wash and something called “red lead”, a highly toxic rust inhibitor that contained lead tetroxide, he admits: “This life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”.
He does his turn at being ‘Peggy’, the crew’s euphemism for work shifts that involved washing dishes and taking coffee to the men. The eponymous poem tells us that Jack was up before 7 a.m. – “Brought down 7 bells breakfast” – and didn’t stop working until more than 12 hours later – “Brought the 8 bells dinner down”. In between Jack sees enough wasted food, “to make you sick”, and with a bruising tumble down a ship’s ladder while carrying refreshments to the other men, “the coffee spilled all over my right hand. I came aft with a ‘blue haze’ all around me”.
There are many joyful remembrances, such as writing letters home in the poem Letters, in which Jack tells of getting treats – apples, oranges, pears and scrambled eggs – for writing missives to the 2nd cook’s girlfriend.
Then, in An Orchestra in the Focsle Jack helps form a band:
Had a regular sing-song tonight – Jeff by the
focsle door, strumming; the rest of the sailors
and some of the firemen scattered
about the poop – ‘the ship’s orchestra’ is going
full blast now – harmonica, guitar, mandolin
and a tin pan trappist. They’re not bad! Not bad at all!
More than one of the poems features a white cat named Christine. In Luck: 1, the cat is chasing cockroaches – “good luck!” writes Jack. But most of the poem’s luck is tough, such as the accident when ‘Robbie’ smashes three teeth on of the funnel stays:
Went ashore to have the dentist yank them. Tough luck”. Or when ‘Len’ lost a little finger in the machinery: “What it didn’t cut off it crushed. Mate cut off the rest and sewed it up. Tough luck”. The poem ends with a near death: “Cameron was tight last night and fell overboard! Jackass. Lucky he didn’t drown.
The book finishes with Homesick, describing the last days before Jack Shreve returns home: “Homesick to-day. Rideout says we may reach home ahead of schedule. I hope he’s right. I may get some fishing in yet! Forests and streams are going to look good to me when I get home.”
In the Afterword, Sandy Shreve tells readers some of her dad’s life story back in Canada and how he loved hunting and fishing with his friends, a passion he held for the rest of his life. He had a dream one night, in which he came up with what he was sure would make a perfect motto for his Fish & Game Association.
“Worried that he might forget it, he got up and jotted it down,” writes Sandy Shreve. “The next morning, as soon as he woke, he eagerly reached for the scrap of paper, only to find he’d written: ‘A duck once shot will never fly again’.”
Jack Shreve died in February 1965 at the age of 50 of a pulmonary embolism during treatment for lung cancer.
I liked that this book was written by a local Oliver author.
When I put this book down I felt affirmed in my belief that being “different” can mean one is unique, that the way one “sees” the world may have value to others, that the trials in life (our disadvantages) do not always lead us into darkness but instead can lead us into the light. This book did that but not in a light way. There are underlying themes of mental illness and dysfunction, descriptions of prejudice and physical abuse but they do lead into dreams, change and hope.
The author’s writing style is very lyrical, not something I’m used to, but it took me only a few pages to become attuned and feeling the rightness of that rhythm to this story. Through the narrative voice of the main character, Calan, I was drawn through the chapters. Each chapter is headed by the names of trees, the trees that “talk” to Calan. Even the chapter headings are designed to solidify the connection and reverence for nature that makes this young boy so “different”.
Early on the events seemingly happen too quickly, out of the blue, but it is just as one would expect a child would perceive them. Then as the main character matures events slow and the overview of the world broadens.
There are incredible details of life in 1960’s and 1970’s Canada. Characters are sympathetically written and Calan has an attractive archetypal reverence for nature; and yet none of the events described or the characters distract one from the author’s narrative.
This author has a story that rings true and the writing is rich, detailed, effective and compellingly poetic: a book that resonates and stays with the reader long after it has been set down.
Cease by Albertan Lynette Loeppky is a memoir that slips back and forth through time and place; the main story of the sudden illness of Loeppky’s partner Cecile bridges the interwoven flashbacks of both the beginning and ending of a love affair, and the women’s purchase of a hobby farm.
Lynette is all but ready to leave her demanding and difficult partner when Cecile’s diagnosis comes down: ovarian cancer, stage four. The women’s lives are thrown into an acute crisis that overshadows the simmering threat of their breakup. There is no way Lynette can leave now.
Detailing Cecile’s time in the hospital, Loeppky’s story floats between two poles: good and bad, up and down. In gentle yet firm prose, she excoriates the kinks of the Alberta health care system all while celebrating the commitment of some of its best workers. Cecile is failed by doctor after doctor, and is left with little hope. Any options left for treatment would only draw out the inevitable. Her intense pain is managed by hard-working front line workers as best they can.
With strong descriptive passages and sharply written observations, Loeppky avoids falling into a jaded and maudlin retelling of the last weeks of her partner’s life. The difficult and emotional hospital scenes are played out against memories of the two women’s chance meeting over an accounting error, their courtship, and eventual ownership of a hobby farm outside Calgary.
Compounding her frustration and sadness over losing her partner, Loeppky examines her guilt over not loving Cecile enough, and tries to reconcile her anger toward the woman who loved her with both a fierce and critical heart. She writes, “The ring Cec had given me had fallen off my finger in the middle of a deepwater workout. I had felt the odd sensation of its release as a piece of the band broke, then confirmed its absence with my thumb. The band was gone.”
This need for release is a theme that returns again and again throughout Cease. Loeppky has crafted a story that anyone who has passed the final weeks with a terminally ill loved one will recognize, yet the monotony of those difficult days and the roller coaster of emotions are clearly and reverently evoked by Loeppky. She is unsparing in her observations, oftentimes most critical of herself. While unhappy with Cecile, Lynette is careful to shoulder some of the blame, always aware of the part she plays in the dynamics of their relationship.
By gently braiding past with present, Loeppky elevates Cease into a story that is more than a memoir of loss—it is a testament to the complexities of sharing life and love with another. The descriptions of their time on the farm extend these themes beyond hospital walls, allowing readers a glimpse of an honest account not only of death, but also of the difficult beauty of life.
Lynette Loeppky's Cease - a memoir of love, loss and desirenominated for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Award for Nonfiction!
"With unwavering honesty, Lynette Loeppky navigates labyrinths of hospital wards and the human heart – while asking hard questions about what we owe each other, what we owe ourselves. By turns poignant and poetic, brutal and reflective, Cease is a compelling character study and an unflinching look at the end of love. A remarkable debut by an assured and talented author, Cease will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page."
This situation is at the root of Albertan Lynette Loeppky's debut memoir Cease, written about her life with Cecile Kaysoe. Kaysoe (or "Cec" -- hence the book's title) and Loeppky own a hobby farm outside Calgary. When they first meet, Kaysoe is a hard-headed businesswoman, general manager of a freight-forwarding company. Loeppky, 15 years her junior, is impressed by Kaysoe's ability to handle any type of work, be it preparing dinner, shovelling manure or pitching bales.
"It was her quiet confidence that drew me to her. Her certainty. The way she made eye contact. She was comfortable in her body, at home in first class, accustomed to concierge service. But there was a weathered quality about her too. Fine lines fanned out around her eyes."
After living with Kaysoe for more than eight years, Loeppky feels trapped and unable to make a wholehearted commitment. Her ambivalence continues even when Kaysoe is hospitalized. "Cec said once that she had never loved anyone like she loved me. She said it with a shake of her head as though she hoped to snap herself out of it. I could tell that she wanted me to say the same back to her. I couldn't... I could have lied but she would have known."
This feeling partially arises from her suspicions that Kaysoe has embellished her past colourful exploits, including a relationship with a Danish photojournalist who took her with him to remote locations and war zones. There are also unexplained registered letters from the Canada Revenue Agency that Kaysoe places unopened in a drawer.
Loeppky is working out how she will break up with Kaysoe when she realizes Kaysoe is ill. Racked by back pain on New Year's Day, Kaysoe's toughness finally cracks and she reveals that she's sick.
"I should have packed my suitcase when I had the chance," Loeppky writes.
On Feb. 27, Loeppky rushes Kaysoe into emergency in a Calgary hospital. She details the passage of the next three weeks as she watches Kaysoe's rapid physical deterioration, caused by an aggressive form of ovarian cancer.
For anyone who has experienced the pain of watching a loved one coping with a devastating disease while hospitalized, some of what Loeppky writes will likely ring true. She describes the frustration she feels when Kaysoe isn't being treated quickly enough to ease her pain.
Medical staff avoid giving the women an honest diagnosis and estimate of how much time Kaysoe has left. Hardest to believe is how Kaysoe's appointment with an oncologist is rescheduled three times until she is so weak that she must be taken by stretcher to the doctor's office just days before her death.
Affected by severe pain and varying medications, Kaysoe often lashes out, making Loeppky further question their continuing relationship. But then there are the times Kaysoe reaches out for her hand, needing the comfort of the woman she loves.
Kaysoe tells Loeppky, "'I loved you immensely but not wisely... I loved you big, but not good.'"
"I squeezed her hand. 'I loved you too.' And I had. But not the way she had loved me. 'I'm sorry,' I said. And I was."
Loeppky also describes being torn between her need to spend time with Kaysoe and her need to attend to the farm. Neighbours help sell the farm's cattle and llamas, but Loeppky is devastated when two stray dogs kill chickens and a goat. She sees their life quickly disappearing as Kaysoe's body is yielding to cancer.
"I hadn't told Cec about the black dogs, or the dead chickens... I wanted her to remember the farm intact."
Loeppky doesn't steer away from the harsh reality of cancer's physical and mental toll. It comes as a relief when Kaysoe dies, although Loeppky continues to feel guilt over being the one who loved less in their relationship.
Ultimately, a marriage or long-term relationship ends when one partner dies and, as Loeppky comes to realize, who was right or wrong ceases to matter.
Cease presents an unusually intimate look inside a relationship. The author and her much older partner, Cec Kayso, had been together for more than eight years when Kayso learns she has terminal cancer, around the same time Loeppky is contemplating leaving her and the Alberta farm they worked together. This is a close-up look at Kayso’s brutal final three weeks, intercut with the story of the two women’s life together.
There is little idyllic about the rural Alberta farmstead where Lynette Loeppky lived with her partner Cecile Kaysoe. The farm was hard to work, with predatory wildlife threatening livestock and pets, bone-chilling winters and poorly insulated walls.
The narrative might have been less grim had the relationship been affectionate, but this was the grimmest part of all.
“The constant irritation in her voice — the growing certainty that nothing I did would ever be right — wore away at my confidence, my sense of capability. Her presence, or even her pending presence, could send me into a state of watchful apprehension,” Loeppky writes in a confessional, intimate and page-turning memoir of the last days of the relationship.
Kaysoe employed the silent treatment interposed with criticism, cruel barbs and insensitivity, Loeppky alleges in Cease: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Desire, now nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Throw in some internalized homophobia and verbal entrapment, jealousy over relationships from years earlier, constant second-guessing and generalized nastiness, and most readers will likely root for Loeppky as she plans her departure from the farm and relationship.
“I told her once that she was abusive. I braced myself for her fury but instead she sounded defeated. ‘How could you say that? Everything I do, all of it, is for you, for us.’” Loeppky writes. “In that moment, disarmed by what seemed like her genuine surprise and hurt at my unfair accusation, I believe her and felt bad."
And so the author vacillates until Kaysoe is diagnosed with the advanced, aggressive cancer that will lead to her excruciatingly painful last days and shockingly gruesome death. At this point, fleeing is not an option.
“It would be one thing for me to leave, another entirely for her to be taken away,” Loeppky writes.
The book, which flashes back from the medical odyssey to the couple’s earlier life, packs multiple powerful themes into an intense, gripping narrative. There is the infuriating wall of medical bureaucracy and duplication, the doctor who initially dismisses what must already have been advanced cancer as “a few aches and pains,” the couple’s realization of the severity of the cancer only when told that the palliative team would be taking over, the inability to control Kaysoe’s agony, the futile longing for assisted suicide.
There is also the reality of two women running a farm together in one of the most deeply conservative areas of the country. There are salt-of-the-earth Prairie folk coming to the aid of neighbours in need, regardless of differences. And there are family dynamics that shift movingly as Loeppky’s Mennonite family adjusts to the reality of her orientation.
Lyn and Cec tacitly understood that if anyone were to exit the relationship, it would be Lyn, and after 81/2 years with the dedicated but domineering Cec, Lyn is quietly but seriously considering exactly that. Then Cec falls seriously ill and suddenly Lyn becomes caregiver to the woman she was soon to leave. Many threads of interest run through this thoughtful and carefully woven memoir: Lyn and Cec’s discovery of their desire – Cec’s in midlife and Lyn’s in the midst of a Mennonite upbringing; their somewhat closeted relationship in “family-values” Alberta; the familiar story of how an illness can both change a person and make her more like herself. What sets this apart from other illness or caregiver memoirs, however, is the temporal coincidence – a relationship’s end and an individual’s demise – and the questions that arise from it: Chiefly, why do we stay?
A few decades back (well, more than three, to be slightly more precise) Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues in the newsroom at the Calgary Herald. I was a political reporter (and not a bad one, if I can toot my own former horn) — his brief was pretty much everything but politics, so our day-to-day reporting paths didn’t often cross.
Our journalistic paths did, if only in what I learned from one of the best news reporters with whom I ever worked. A reporter’s basic job is to collect all the information you can (not just the parts that serve your tilt on the story) — and Dave did that on every assignment. A far more important and difficult task is “selecting” the relevant bits that capture the story — I could do that with politics, but was in awe of the way that Dave could do it with almost any subject he was handed.
And then there was putting it all together for publication — in as few words as possible. In the news business in those days, there were lots of people who could write a “good” story in 2,000 words. A few talented ones could take the same data and produce an even better story in 1,000. Only the best could take all that “stuff” and make 500 words tell the story — I could not do that very often, but Dave sure could. “Rewrite” is a task that has disappeared in modern newsrooms but it was very alive then — and it seemed that every morning, Dave was called on to reduce 2,000 words of someone else’s work to 500 and not lose a thing. The 500 almost always said more than the 2,000 did (okay, he rewrote my work on occasion and, of course, I always felt something had been lost, hence the “almost always”).
I provide that lengthy introduction to say that those reporting/story-telling skills (I’d label them “observation” and “reduction”) are on full display in this new collection of 16 stories. We don’t get a lot of “big” plot events to help the author along here — we have human, humane incidents where observing, selecting and recounting show the writer’s craft. Anyone who has ever tried to write anything, be it a news story or fiction, would be well advised to get a copy and appreciate the result.
Consider as a starter the third story in the collection, “Bucket of Blood”, and the way that it is introduced:
The bar had no proper name but was known as the Bucket of Blood. The day that Archie Duggan dies there, two Wednesdays ago, and the following day, when his death was mentioned in the news, it was the first time that the place, which had stood at the corner of 11th Avenue and Osler Street for over a hundred years, had registered in the minds of most of the people of the city in decades.
The bar was located in the basement of a rundown hotel that had once been called the Earle. The hotel had been built be a man named Louis P. Earle, a flamboyant former railway worker who had washed up in what was then still a town, not yet a city, after the construction of the CPR. In its heyday, the Earle Hotel was a good dignified address at which to spend a night or two, or even longer, though there was always a confusion, among both guests and the residents of the town alike who had not had the occasion to ever meet Louis P. Earle, or hear his name said aloud, as to the pronunciation of the hotel’s name: was it sounded Earl or Early?
The second paragraph in that excerpt extends for almost another page, but I’m thinking that provides flavor enough. We know that Archie Duggan dies, but to understand that story we need more backstory. And, in good journalistic (and fiction) tradition, we get it. The bar has its aging regulars (Archie included) who show up everyday and its share of “other” trade, drug dealers included, but that has dropped off. Danny, the bartender and general manager, is a recovering alcoholic — and has sponsored a number of AA members from his customer base over the years, but Archie wasn’t one of them. Like Danny, Archie is also a recovering alcoholic who only drinks ginger ale — but they never discuss what brought both of them to this bar.
On that day [the day Archie died] — the 17th of August, a Wednesday — Archie came into the bar, smiling to himself over the reassuring creak of the heavy door, at his usual time, more or less fifteen minutes after three in the afternoon. Danny O’Hara, who had a railroad man’s eye for detail, had often wondered about the significance of that time — never 3 p.m., never 3:30, but always 3:15, give or take a minute or two in either direction. Early on in their relationship — hardly friends, but bartender to customer, warmed by their mutual knowledge of the past they shared, the past they had, for different reasons, put well behind them — Danny had glanced at his watch as Archie took his preferred seat at one end of the bar, and Archie commented without elaboration “School’s out.” That was intriguing: was the man a teacher? A parent — or grandparent — of a school-age child? A student himself? From the looks of him, his neat but shabby suit, the Blue Jays ballcap on top a full head of snow white hair, his well-used face and rough hands, Archie was more likely to be a school janitor than any of the other possibilities. But when he died, the small write-up in the paper, the same story that invoked the name and reputation of the Earle Hotel for the first time in the public prints in many years, identified him merely as “a pensioner”, so Danny would never know.
Margoshes is more fiction writer than reporter now, so “Bucket of Blood” does have a twist — I won’t be spoiling the story and we will move on to another one.
“Lightfoot and Goodbody” was another personal favorite in this collection. Bob Klebeck is 77 and his life in a Winnipeg senior citizens’ apartment is too much for him: a pathetic schedule of activites (“the Globe and Peter Gzowski in the morning over two cups of coffee — no more — plus doctors’ appointments, counsellor’s appointments, poker games, chess games visits to the library…”), children who are too busy to care, etc. etc.
So he decides it is time to become a modern-day tramp. First off, he adopts the name Lightfoot (yes, after the folk singer — we Canadians are devoid of imagination). Much as he would like to pack a bindlestiff, he opts for a knapsnack — underwear, socks, two knit shirts, a chunk of cheddar and a half loaf of Winnipeg-style rye, a bottle of water, reading glasses and a 95-cent used copy of The Grapes of Wrath — and decides to head west.
The romantic image, too, called for him to shuffle off into the sunset. Instead, leaving early in the morning, the sun was still at his back as he headed west along the Trans-Canada Highway (a brief bus ride brought him to the edge of town), his thumb stuck out in the most desultory of fashion. The mountains, where he imagined himself laying his head beside a free-flowing stream, beneath rain-fresh resin-smelling pine trees, were many hundreds of miles away — he still steadfastly refused to use the word “kilometre” or any of the other metric vocabulary. They were surely too far to reach in a day’s tramping, maybe two, even with good luck and many rides. Between them lay miles and miles of undulating fields of amber wheat, sky-blue flax, bright-yellow canola — his mouth paused in sour annoyance at the made-up name for the perfectly legitimate rape his grandfather had once planted, some people’s sensitivities be damned; miles of grain, then equal miles of undulating rangeland where, if he was lucky, he might see an antelope in the distance and a hawk observing his progress disdainfully from high above. Many, many miles, far too many for any man to walk, let alone a seventy-seven-year-old man with bad knees, a bad stomach, and a stroke, mild though it was, only two years behind him. Still, what lay ahead, he knew — thought he knew, at any rate — was do-able, weighted down merely be discomfort. And with all this in mind, and a hundred and seventy-seven dollars, in various denominations and combinations of change in his pockets, a VISA card in his wallet, a pair of poorly fitting sunglasses perched on his nose, and a jaunty porkpie hat set on an angle on his almost hairless head, Lightfoot set out.
He gets a couple of typical rides — a Mercedes-Benz salesman delivering a new car to Swift Current, a farmer on his way back to the homestead. And he stops for pie and coffee at the Pilgrim truck stop. And then he gets picked up by Doris Goodbody, a female version of Lightfoot himself, and the story really starts. Two finer people in fiction you cannot meet, I would say.
As much as I appreciate my old friend Dave and those stories, I suspect I have done him no favor by choosing those two to highlight in this review. Most of the 16 in this book have far more substance to them (imagine how long the review would be if I’d tried to describe them?) and the author is very good at applying the distinctive twist that often features in good short stories. And while the two I have highlighted are set in Western Canada, let me assure you that the 16 in this collection go much father afield (and beyond worldly field in the title story).
Whatever. This is a first-rate collection, from an old friend, that I would recommend to anyone. Margoshes last collection (A Book of Great Worth) was a novel-in-stories devoted to his father — this equally stunning collection is a series of observations and ruminations (and quite a few jokes) developed over a modern lifetime. It was a quiet joy to read — you won’t be disappointed.
4 of 5 stars
Once I started reading this splendid new collection of stories I could not put it down, one story led seamlessly and effortlessly into the next. Notwithstanding his 16 books of short fiction, novels, non-fiction and poetry and his many awards and citations, Dave Margoshes remains a relative unknown, which is perplexing for such a fine writer who has been producing consistently good writing for decades. This new collection is as good as anything he's ever written, graceful, moving, witty, polished stories filled with a diverse range of authentic memorable characters. Even better is the humour that runs through the book - which might be Dave's funniest - but I don't mean Jerry Seinfeld funny, I mean a rich resonant earned humour that is the product of a seasoned pro. This is a writer who's in it for the long haul, who understands that clever does not mean good, and that the journey is greater than the destination.
Jeff Beamish's Sneaker Wavereviewed on West Coast Editor
By Corrine Smith
They’re called sneaker waves because they appear without warning, running high up onto the beach with sometimes deadly force; they are an apt metaphor for the unpredictable ways in which the lives of the characters in this novel are affected by their choices.
Sneaker Wave, set in the Pacific Northwest, is a story about friendship, loss and regret. When we first meet them, the four main characters are just 17 and about to finish high school. One night they take over an abandoned house and invite their friends over to party. A neighbour comes to break it up and leaves in an ambulance, unconscious and in critical condition. Only Brady Joseph and his three friends know the horrible truth. Their code of silence keeps them out of jail and connected long after the incident, despite the divergent paths their lives take.
The police think Luke did it; he’s a bad apple with nothing to lose. Luke thinks Brady will cave, but then Luke isn’t used to anyone standing up for him because everyone in his life has failed him. Sam seems to be along for the ride, and any old ride will do. Sarah is Brady’s girlfriend and the daughter of a prominent doctor who doesn’t trust Brady, not that it matters to Sarah. She is a tough girl and a rebel without a cause. Brady seems like a good kid who has made some bad choices, including the company he keeps.
Are they credible characters? Mostly, yes. Are they likeable? Not so much. But maybe that’s part of what makes this story work, along with its tightly drawn plot.
Brady, our trusty narrator, tries to straighten up and fly right, but with the eyes of an entire town watching his every move he is overwhelmed with guilt (and paranoia) and ends up doing some pretty stupid stuff. And while I wanted to feel sorry for him (he’s our protagonist after all), by the end of the novel I was mostly annoyed with him and with his wife for being such a long-suffering fool. I don’t think this was the author’s intent, so either I’ve become an irascible old woman or Beamish should have worked a little harder on developing his characters.
Events don’t occur in chronological order in the story, and while I’m generally not a fan of the flashback, Beamish manages the transitions quite well. He uses the device just enough to keep the reader a little off balance.
If I had edited this book it would have been about 100 pages shorter and minus a few overwrought similes and a couple of unnecessary characters. But then I can be pretty ruthless sometimes.
Sneaker Wave, published in October 2013, is Jeff Beamish’s first novel. He works as a newspaper editor and reporter in Vancouver and lives in Surrey, B.C.
Corinne Smith spends her days editing engineering reports and has an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is working (very slowly) on a novel and divides her time between Jamaica and B.C.
Four mismatched teens. One act of violence. One nod by each of them to agree it never happened. This raucous yet poignant story of friendship, loss and long-denied regret springs to life in the dying days of high school in a seaside Pacific Northwest town. It’s a haunting journey into the gaps between right and wrong, between harmless half-truths and disastrous self-deception.
Sneaker Wave is the second book read in a set of four that Oolichan Books so wonderfully sent to us last year. The first one read was the (wonderfully excellent) short story collection, What Echo Heard by Gordon Sombrowski. My plan was to read Silent Inlet by Joanna Streetly next, but something kept nibbling away at the back of my head to pick up Sneaker Wave by Jeff Beamish instead. I cannot tell you how grateful I am now to that little voice that told me to reach for this book, and how sad in a way it felt that I had waited as long as I did to read it.
Jeff Beamish is a newspaper editor and reporter for a Vancouver newspaper, and you can really tell the experiences he comes across in that newsroom deeply affect his storytelling and shows very well in this fantastic and gripping story here. Bravo on this debut! Sneaker Wave was one of those books that I could not put down once I started, and shhhhh, please don’t tell anyone, but I spent one afternoon with my door closed to my office at work and finished reading this story. It has everything you could possibly ask for in a rollicking great read: both in the characters that are achingly flawed and rendered to perfection, and in the haunting storyline that tells of the consequences one action caused to alter so many lives for so many years and in such tragic ways. It was a stunning read.
This is a “review” that appeared for Sneaker Wave in the Vancouver Sun. Sorry though Jeff, I do not think this really does justice for your novel at all, and I was profoundly disappointed after reading it. You will have to trust me when I say that the story contained inside Sneaker Wave is an excellent one and one that comes fully alive due to the quality of Beamish’s writing, characters and storyline.
There were times when reading where the characters reminded me of those in “The Breakfast Club“. But please, do not take this as meaning they are clichéd set of teenagers. There is nothing at all clichéd about these people, about Brady, Sarah, Luke and Sam. It was just their characteristics and the unusual grouping of these teenagers coming together as friends and maintaining/respecting their vow of silence and secrecy.
Sarah: she is so perfectly rendered, she is the perfect encapsulation of a well-off teenage girl that fighting hard to resist her privileged upbringing. She works hard to always surround herself with people that will annoy her father the most. But as the story evolves following that one night of that tragic “accident”, the details of how Sarah spirals out of control and into this unfortunate life filled with sadness and desperation will take your breath away. Her downfall is heartbreaking.
Brady is the main character, or the narrator to this tale. There were so many times I was screaming at him to WALK/RUN AWAY Brady! Just leave this crew in the dust! Don’t stick around! This should be a fine indicator of how well these characters are drawn. It is Brady who struggles between what is right and wrong and how he emerges, however deeply scarred and marked, from this adolescent world to create a future for himself will keep you turning the pages well past your bedtime.
Sam is kind of like that tag along friend but is still no good influence for Brady. Following the “accident” or “incident” and as the secrecy these four kids maintain about it, Sam’s influence over Sarah takes a sad and disheartening turn. He’s just a no-good hanger on!
And then there is Luke. Luke is the thug, the criminal, the no-good presence and the boy that is very quick to anger. His hostile and criminal behaviour increases following that one fateful night. Because of Luke’s actions there are many times where Brady has stood back and considered his need to walk away from this group. But, for some reason gets pulled back in and every time is pulled down, culminating in that one tragic event during the party Sarah had organized.
It is this one tragic event where the four take a vow of silence and secrecy, and how hiding this truth works to unravel each of their lives and those involved in their lives in devastating ways. Beamish deftly describes the consequences of their behaviour and the lasting impact that one event holds for each of the four, most notably for Brady. Brady is never able to let go of the past and watching the unraveling of everyone’s lives around him proves extremely difficult for him.
"…that Luke’s early life, and mine and Sarah’s and Sam’s, were defined more by my weakness than anything else. Not just the one notorious thing…, but the many others I failed to do. We all paid immensely for that weakness, the others much more than me.” pg. 399 (Brady)
“Even if I wanted to leave, Luke and I were fettered by my failures, intertwined by whispers, by pain and loss.” pg. 401 (Brady)
“I had always thought I knew the exact moment everything had gone wrong. Now I wondered if anything had ever been right.” pg. 407 (Brady)
I’ve already passed this along to a (book club) friend, since after finishing I felt she would most enjoy this read, and hopefully does just as much as I did. Again, Sneaker Wave was a powerful and stunning read. Just loved it. 4.5 stars. And many thanks again Oolichan Books for sending it along. Very appreciated. (And sorry for stalking on Twitter Jeff. I truly am looking forward to what you have coming out next though!) That’s two fantastic books from Oolichan! Therefore, I cannot wait to revel in the beauty and greatness of the other two sent.
Jeff Beamish's Sneaker Wavereviewed in the Vancouver Sun
Teenage chaos crashes like wave on the shore
By Candace Fertile
In his debut novel, Sneaker Wave, Vancouver journalist Jeff Beamish peels back layers of teenage chaos to show the tragedy that ensues when young people make terrible decisions. Being 17 can be tough, and Beamish hurls a great deal at Brady Joseph, who lives in a small town on the Washington state coast.
The deck is stacked against Brady and his two friends Sam and Luke. When he is five, Brady witnesses his father’s suicide and tries to tell people that it was an accident.
Fast forward 12 years to an abandoned house full of drunk and stoned teenagers and another tragedy, which Brady again tries to say is an accident. The three boys and Sarah, Brady’s troubled and manipulative girlfriend, band together in an attempt to protect themselves after a neighbour, Tom Opal, who complains about the party ends up dead.
Beamish does a great job of showing how confused young people can be. Brady is a thoughtful guy who tries to see his way out of the mess, but his limited prospects and peer pressure don’t help. And none of the three boys has a parent he can confide in. Brady’s mother loves him, but isn’t the most responsible person. Sam’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and while he lives with them, he tends to steer clear of family life. Luke’s family situation is the worst, and he uses violence to cope.
One strength of the novel is that it doesn’t blame ineffectual parents or social class for the disasters of the children.
Obviously lousy parents don’t help, but Sarah comes from a prosperous family and her parents try to do whatever they can although nothing works.
Sex, drugs, and alcohol are feeble Band-Aids for the pain of these teenagers before the death of Opal. And after, nothing much works. So the novel shows how these four try to go on with their lives while living under a storm cloud of suspicion. For much of the novel, Beamish effectively maintains suspense about what really happened the night Opal is hurt, but as lives decay, the intense rot begun that night has to work its way to the surface.
The Sneaker Wave as a symbol works smoothly: the huge unexpected wave that crashes on the shore potentially dragging someone out to sea is like the moment of the bad choice. And it’s easy to see how teenagers get caught in their own web of deceit and then how they pay for it for years.
The beautiful landscape of the Pacific Northwest is central to the novel. Brady’s father jumps off a bridge and Brady likes to jump off a cliff. Brady’s playful jumps into the ocean not only mirror his father’s suicide, but also demonstrate his desire for purification. The guilt the four bear because of the burden of secrecy snakes through their lives relentlessly.
And how it all plays out makes sense. Beamish handles his material effectively and sensitively. And I imagine, realistically, as befits his profession.
Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria.
Maureen Brownlee's Loggers' Daughtersreviewed in BC Bookworld
A Woman Named Adare
By Alan Twigg
Imagine being born somewhere north of Quesnel, deep in the inland rainforest of the Rocky Mountain trench, back in the early 40s, back when BC Rail was still called the PGE and everyone called it Please Go Easy.
Everything you know about your parents comes from snippets of conversation you weren’t meant to hear. Your grandparents died in a collision with a train, and your mother inherited the farm that is your childhood home; your father was specifically excluded, a continuous source of acrimony between your parents. Then your father, injured in a bush accident, loses his source of income (and pride) and becomes a very heavy drinker.
You’ll never know for certain, but maybe it is the bar bills at the local hotel that one day persuade your parents to give you up to the local hotel owners, a German couple, or maybe they are Austrian, and so you never get past the tenth grade.
Essentially you are traded, like chattel, forced to work as a permanent, live-in employee, working in the kitchen and cleaning the hotel rooms. You don’t get paid. You wonder why your protective older brother Garth doesn’t come to your rescue but, of course, by this time he has finished his grade twelve and is off working in the bush. You hate it. You run away twice.
The only thing unusual about you is your name, Adare.
“She wanted to go to the city,” writes Maureen Brownlee, in her first novel, Loggers’ Daughters. “Get a job in a bank. Or an office. Type. Smoke cigarettes in an ebony holder. Cigarettes lit by a gentleman in a black fedora.”
Years go by. You marry a young construction worker, a decent guy who has been to university, who works in the lumber industry and you have two kids. You get to do all the traditional maternal stuff that goes along with being a mill wife in a mill town in the early '50s in one of those now abandoned logging
towns out along CNR’s east line. You are deeply enmeshed in a life of shared labour, brawls, dances that go on all night and then everyone decides to whip up pancakes. Nobody has much but there is enough to go around.
This all comes to a grinding halt when the mill that everyone relies on burns down one frosty night. Your country loving husband decides to gamble on an offer to take over your mother’s farm, long neglected and falling to ruin. Over your objections you move, you, your kids, your mill house rolled on logs onto a lumber truck. Into a life of unremitting
labour: cattle, haying, kids, and a nasty, bitter mother living just across the gully.
But you thrive here, save the family farm, improve it. You can remember when you got indoor
plumbing. While your husband, Dave, was off taking seasonal work for much of the year, you eke out a living on 160 acres of rock and pine and a triangle of sweet loam that touches upon the Fraser.
Then your mean-spirited mother goes squirrelly with dementia, and you get stuck with that too. Your brother Garth is a busy logging contractor, living well beyond his means. Your sister Nancy, who married early, and often, now lives safely distant in Kamloops.
When your cancer-ridden mother dies in 1983 – after three months in hospital – during which you take the brunt of enduring the dreary, pain-ridden, guilt-ridden vigil typical for so many families, nobody deeply acknowledges your sacrifice because, after all, by now, it is expected of you.
Then the worst thing happens. Even your wise and usually considerate brother Garth thinks the family farm should be sold four ways. There is no will. Your siblings need and want a share. Everyone has delayed talking about this while your mother was alive.
Then the best thing happens. Your smarty-pants daughter, Brianne, who left town when she graduated from high school in 1972, is held overnight in jail in Vancouver for participating in some demonstration against American missiles. So you visit her for a few days. You accompany her to an eye-opening conference at UBC called Women
and Words, June 30-July 3.
At this monumental gathering of a thousand women, you learn about the fire-bombings of pornographic video stories by a secret group called the Wimmins’
Brigade. You also visit a women’s shelter where Brianne volunteers, a refuge for countless women who invariably go back to violent and abusive households for the sake of their children.
More importantly, you learn about a Supreme Court decision made against a Canadian farmwife named Irene Murdoch in 1973 who tried to legally claim her fair share of the family ranch following a divorce. Listening to passionate women debating the inequity of the Murdoch case, decrying the court’s paternalist legal decision as “bourgeois bullshit,” it strengthens your resolve to stand up for what is owed to you.
That’s just a glimmering of the deep dignity of perseverance that permeates the text of Loggers’ Daughters. Anyone who sticks with the narration that bounces back and forth between past and
present will probably agree Maureen Brownlee’s long-in-gestation, fully-fledged first novel deserves to be heralded as a triumph.
Quite likely this manuscript has endured previous incarnations. No matter. It is now a mature work. For those old enough to remember a Canadian writer named Margaret Laurence, it can be likened to an old fashioned Margaret Laurence novel. If you are not thirsty for mere cleverness, if you can appreciate instead how each anecdote has been forged from experience, you will never forget the protagonist, Adare Wilkins, in much the same way you will always recall the likes of Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel or Rachel Cameron in A Jest of God.
The title Loggers' Daughters and a cover image of a choker cable around a tree are far from beguiling, and likely few readers beyond rural B.C are going to be comfortable with a novel that doesn’t explain what a skidder is, but Brownlee has wrangled and honed a family saga until it has finally emerged as a sublime testament to the strength of the women who maintain families within the timber, ranch and constructions industries of the province.
Maureen Brownlee grew up in Dunster and went to school in nearby McBride in the Robson Valley. She lived in Arrow Lakes and Prince George before moving to Valemount (also in the Robson Valley) where she founded and operated The Valley Sentinel from1985 to 1994.
So many books, so little time: you've got to choose wisely, and to do that, we've all got shortcuts that we'd like to pretend are more sophisticated than judging a book by its cover. One of mine, that I'd love to say was helpful at least once, has been simply to check whether the book's blurbers are named in the acknowledgements section. I haven't relied heavily on it for a little while now, but even if I still believed, Maureen Brownlee's wonderful Loggers' Daughters would have marked the end of this particular shortcut.
The theory was that the blurbs maybe shouldn't be trusted, if those writing them were close enough to the writing process to merit public acknowledgement. (Obviously this was only a small-press strategy. A blurb from Entertainment Weekly gets you an automatic DQ anyway, if that's consolation.)
The thing is, though, that all these terrific BC writers know each other's work, and even if at times they're reading each other's writing when it's still in process, they're blurbing each other's finished books carefully and thoughtfully: Theresa Kishkan, Tim Bowling, Terry Glavin, Angie Abdou, Brian Fawcett, Charlotte Gill, JB MacKinnon….
In the case of Maureen Brownlee's Loggers' Daughters, in other words, I was worried that the blurbs were from two writers named in the acknowledgements section, Globe-dubbed "godfather" Andreas Schroeder and #socmedia dynamo Angie Abdou. When it took me a little while to get comfortable with Adare Wilkins and her family, when there was just so damned much in the book that I thought should have been grabbing me, well, I started to worry.
I shouldn't have, because the book was just nestling me into Adare's world. Once I was embedded, events began to accelerate, and I was utterly hooked.
Loggers' Daughters is set in the interior of British Columbia, 1983, when mortgage rates were around 20%, when employment was even more volatile than usual for logging communities, and when the BC coast was wild with marches and protests of many kinds (cruise missiles, Red Hot Video fire-bombings, feminism, etc.). Adare Wilkins, the novel's main character, is 44 years old, painfully aware of being stuck between generations and of the world's changes since her youth, and yet unsure how and where to stand on her own. Well before the novel's narrated present, Adare found herself dragooned into moving with her husband back to her mother's farm, mostly to care for her but also to keep the farm alive. She poured a lot of energy and time (and money) into the property, only to have her mother die without a will, leaving her with no legal claim to the farm, and yet because her siblings are all struggling financially as well, there's just no good reason for them to give her more than her due.
This novel gives its readers a brilliant, small-scale representation of a woman claiming her place in the world, anchored in a version of small-town 1980s BC that feels awfully true to me. As I said about Frances Greenslade's Shelter and Matt Hooton's Deloume Road, I'm not sure anymore how I really feel about realist fiction, given how much time I'm seeming to spend with environmental nonfiction and speculative fiction of assorted kinds. With Loggers' Daughters, Maureen Brownlee has written the kind of novel that makes realist fiction world enough for so many readers: great, great read!
By Kim McCullough
In the opening pages of Loggers’ Daughters (Oolichan Books, 2013), Adare Wilkins faces a seismic shift in the world she’s known for so long. With the impending death of her mother, she must confront the possible loss of the interior B.C. farm she and her husband Dave have worked for years. Adare and Dave never concerned themselves with securing the land title before it was too late. Adare has three siblings, and as often is the case, there is no will. The inheritance isn’t cut and dried.
Loggers’ Daughters moves easily back between a 1980’s present, and earlier times that entwine the heady highs and desperate lows of British Columbia’s logging past with remembrances of Adare’s past that include the brutal history of living with her alcoholic father, and the calmer times of raising her children, Brianne and Tim.
With her mother’s death, Adare’s claim to the family farm becomes tenuous, as precarious as her role as mother to her own daughter, Brianne. Brianne, away in Vancouver, volunteers at a women’s shelter, which fans the flames of her disillusionment with the male-dominated world around her. When her daughter is arrested after a feminist protest, Adare leaves the safety of home to come to Brianne in the big city. The arrest shreds the remnants of Adare’s equilibrium and the gap between Adare and Brianne shows itself to be as wide as the one that once existed between Adare and her own mother.
Brownlee deftly re-creates the harshness of these eras, while at the same time imbuing the brutality with beauty and longing. The traditional, masculine worlds of logging and farming are used as backdrops for the relationships between the women in the book. They act as brilliant foils, too, for the burgeoning radicalism of the feminist movement. The reader is at once saddened by the loss of the traditions of the past, all while rooting for the success of the feminist fight.
There is a lovely, representative passage on page 156 where Brianne tells Adare of an experiment she came across in one of her psychology textbooks. A dog is caged and shocked over and over with electricity. When the dog can no longer take the pain, it lies down and gives up. The comparison between the dog and the women Brianne knows – possibly even her own mother – is clear, but when Brianne asks her mother what she thinks, Adare, unsure of her own convictions, never gives her opinion. Later, Brianne speaks eloquently of the protests, and the cracks that are forming across the country in the entrenched, traditional roles women have played for generations.
Loggers’ Daughters is a novel about mothers and daughters, of being bound by expectations, and breaking them. While Brownlee gently comments on the greater societal beliefs of women’s roles, the book really shines in its depiction of the specific – Adare’s relationships with her own family, and the expectations held by those she loves most.
Women’s libbers. Loggers. Farmers. Bombers. It’s 1983 in B.C. Loggers’ Daughters explores small, nearly insignificant, moments that accumulate to become catalysts of change in ordinary lives.
It’s a place not far from here. Inhabited by people living in the Rocky Mountain Trench. Farming and logging are the primary industries. The year is 1983.
While Valemount writer Maureen Brownlee studiously avoids the question of what her first novel is “about,” she drops a few hints. Loggers' Daughters will be on the shelves for sale in November.
One of the central themes in the 220-some page book is the complexity of family relationships – how we navigate these, despite our imperfect knowledge other people.
“What we don’t know about our family also complicates the relationship,” she says.
Another theme is the way knowledge is shared – not just from older to younger.
“One of the things I wanted to think about and talk about is the way knowledge is transmitted forward and backward,” she says. “Everybody has things to teach and things to learn. It’s more web-like than hierarchical.”
The daughter of the main character has gone off to University in Vancouver in the 1980s. It’s women’s liberation and there’s marching in the streets. The daughter brings home knowledge that is useful to the mom, and she takes forward knowledge that’s useful to herself, Brownlee says.
“It’s partly about a mother-daughter relationship. Also about the relationship between people and the land. Between brothers and sisters. Fathers and daughters. We all have a lot of relationships in our lives. We’re all more than one thing.”
It’s a place and a time and a people that’s underrepresented in Canadian literature, Brownlee says. The novel structure is traditional, however, written in third person with a single main character.
She says her hope is that the story will carry people from beginning to end.
The first-time novelist grew up in Dunster and went to school in McBride. After that she spent time in Arrow Lakes, Prince George and then Valemount, where she lives now. Brownlee worked in journalism for a decade before turning to fiction about 10 years ago. She says being a writer is what she always wanted to do.
In 2008 and 2009, Brownlee worked on a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in creative writing through the University of Northern BC and the Emily Carr Institute.
In 2011 a short story that later became a chapter of her novel won first place in a writing competition. She completed a draft of the novel in Dec. 2011 and it was accepted in spring 2012.
She says she is already working on her next book – but provides few clues to it yet.
Brownlee will launch her book at Maria’s Book Fair Nov. 9th in Valemount at the Caribou Grill. She will have another launch at the Dunster Hall Nov. 10th at 7pm, and at the McBride & District Library Nov. 12th at 7pm. The book will also be available online at major book sellers.
“Throughout the entire narrative, Fiona Tinwei Lam creates a world that is easy to relate to. Her choices of words are simple and straightforward, giving us a clear and honest picture of James’ experiences….[The] Rainbow Rocket is a beautifully illustrated and touchingly narrated story about a child who has to lose someone very dear to him. It addresses the sensitive issues of loss, grief and illness with delicate honesty, deftly avoiding melodrama, or over-simplication. It’s a wonderful read for both children and adults.” - Ricepaper Magazine (Winter 2013 18:3)
The Rainbow Rocket is an illustrated children's book by Fiona Tinwei Lam with gorgeous illustrations by Kristi Bridgeman. The story is a touching tale of a young boy and his grandmother who has Alzheimer's disease. His grandmother is a painter and shares her love of art and her knowledge of Chinese culture with her grandson. Lam has also written two books of poetry, while Bridgeman has illustrated 16 children's books. Lam is donating proceeds from The Rainbow Rocket to the Alzheimer's Society of B.C.
By Ellen Wu
The Rainbow Rocket follows James's relationship with his grandmother and traces a child's encounter with Alzheimer's, his experience of the death of a grandparent, and the commemoration of his grandmother through the art that they shared together when she was alive.
Told in the present tense, the story opens with James and his grandmother in her richly hued home where James not only observes his grandmother at her work, but he also joins in as an apprentice artist. James learns how to draw a rocket, an act which prompts him to follow in his grandmother’s footsteps to become an artist, himself. James also receives a name chop from his grandmother, a stamp that bears his Chinese name, carved on top with the figure of a horse, the same animal sign on the Chinese zodiac that they both share.
Time shifts onward a few months into a different season, and James notices his grandmother's tiredness and short attention span as she can no longer muster energy to paint with him. A few months later, James visits his Poh-Poh at the nursing home where she no longer talks, or she says things that make no sense, her thoughts and words 'jig-saw pieces' that don't fit together any more. These episodic glimpses into James's interactions with his grandmother detail the marked changes that Alzheimer's disease has wrought in her life. James' emotions, subdued, confused, and saddened by the change in his grandmother, are never over-dramatized or sentimentalized by Lam.
James visits his Poh-Poh in the hospital as she has days left to live, and he deals with his sorrow by drawing picture after picture, leaving behind his rainbow rocket, based upon the first rocket she helped him draw, in the hopes that it will be the first thing his grandmother sees when she wakes up. A particularly poignant interlude in the story takes place when, on the night of his grandmother's passing, James dreams of travelling on his rainbow rocket to the moon where his grandmother is alive and well again. The sequence is illustrated with the figures and objects outlined in glowing gold. Poh-Poh creates art from a paintbrush that brings to life everything it makes, from a horse to a bowl of peaches. James is delighted to find that his grandmother has 'found her words again', and he falls asleep in the dream in her arms.
The story ends with the renewal of spring, during April, as James and his family, along with many other families, honour their dead during Ching-Ming. Instead of burning the customary imitation paper money, James burns a picture of the rainbow rocket he saw in his dreams; he and his mother watch the smoke from the picture lift to the sky. I appreciate how James is never told how he should be responding to his grandmother's decline and passing--instead, Lam gives him room to come up with a meaningful tribute to his beloved grandparent, and he experiences a catharsis of sorts in honouring his grandmother in his own special way. His experiences are deeply personal as the bond of love and art with his beloved grandparent also links him to specific cultural practices, and yet this story is also universal and relatable for every child.
The Rainbow Rocket is a picture storybook best shared with older children as it is text-heavy. It invites discussion of similar stories of children and their experiences with death in the family as well as the different cultural practices associated with mourning and honouring the dead. A glossary of terms expands upon the cultural nuances of the story more fully rather than bogging down the narrative with explanations. Bridgeman’s illustrations, with their bright colours and softened edges, perfectly match the gentle lyricism of the text. The Rainbow Rocket is a touching, understated story, and deserves a place on the school and public library’s shelf for its sensitive portrayal of one young boy’s experience with a grandparent’s death which has a message for any child who reads it.
A much-anticipated tradition at Kingston WritersFest is the launch of something new from a Kingston writer. In 2009, it was Mark Sinnett’s The Carnivore; in 2010, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, by Merilyn Simonds and myself; in 2011, Sarah Tsiang’s picture book Dogs Don’t Eat Jam; and last year, The Library Chronicles, a debut theatrical prodution by a clutch of Kingston playwrights.
This year, Kingston poet Sadiqa de Meijer launches her first book of poetry, Leaving Howe Island, published by Oolichan Books.
On one of the walls in my house is a breath-stopping watercolour by the late BC artist Tony Only, called “Howe Sound.” It shows a series of receding headlands that gradually disappear into mist, an almost photographic image that is familiar to anyone taking a ferry from Vancouver to Victoria. As I was reading Sadiqa’s poem, “Leaving Howe Island,” I couldn’t get that haunting image out of my head. It has the same sense of landscape reduced to its essence:
Evening, a downpour blurring
river, sky — ferry a cradle of cold
metal, shelterless, crests washing
insect remains from our windshield — where
are we going? our daughter asks
and my voice says across
It was a surprise, then, although it shouldn’t have been, when Sadiqa told me that although people have asked her about Howe Sound, “the island meant here is the closer one, Howe Island, near Kingston.” Knowing the identity of the actual island caused me to return to the poem, always a rewarding experience with Sadiqa’s poetry, which is taut, spare, incredibly evocative (“ferry a cradle of cold metal”) and unerringly sharp. As the Oolichan editors have said of her work, “de Meijer has loved every syllable.”
Which is all the more remarkable given that English is Sadiqa’s second language. She was born in Amsterdam and lived there until she was 12 years old before coming to Canada. Her parents are a mixture of Dutch, Pakistani, Afghani and Kenyan, and her work reflects that rich cultural blend. “Both the Dutch language and landscape remain important in my writing,” she says. “My father’s mixed culture of South Asian and East African is a crucial presence, even though I have never lived there or learned the languages. One thing that recurs in the poems is those cultures examining each other from within each speaker’s experience.”
In the poem “Friesland,” for example, as she is driving with her mother to visit relatives who live on that remote Dutch island,
I saw her shrink
behind the steering wheel. A dandelion shuts for rain
like that. She spoke to me by accident
in the dialect, and blushed - not far now,
I guessed, a tinge
of bovine melancholy in the vowels.
Dutch culture abounds in her memory as well as in her art. “A few years ago,” she says, “I read about the artist Theo Jansen’s project, called Strandbeest, in which he builds large, creature-like structures out of PVC piping, and the wind allows them to walk as if they are alive.” What first drew her to the artwork, she says, was the setting: “the same Dutch beaches that I know well and write about in my poems.” Only later did she understand that what Jansen does is also analogous to how she thinks of her own poems. “Jansen says he is trying to make new forms of life, and I think with my poems I tinker with them until they have a element of life in them, some kind of ability to be autonomous in the world.”
“Tinkering” seems a self-deprecating word for the kind of precision work that obviously goes into Sadiqa’s poetry, but a tinker is, after all, someone who makes useful objects out of the stuff of everyday life, and that’s an accurate description of the poems in Leaving Howe Island. The book has two sections; the first, called “Great Aunt Unmarried,” is a series of connected poems that earned Sadiqa the prestigious CBC Poetry Prize. The second section, “Leaving Howe Island,” contains poems that bring the reader from the past of the great aunt series to the present, after Sadiqa and her family move to Canada.
“I didn’t plan to structure the book that way,” she says, “but when I started playing with the order of the poems, I realized that they almost sorted themselves into that divided form.”
She came to Kingston to attend Queen’s University in 2000, and since graduating, she has worked as a personal counselor and as an art therapist, and now teaches a course at Queen’s called “Medicine and Literature,” an elective for medical students, “which means,” she says, “that those who take it are always enthusiastic. I look forward to every class.”
She and her partner have a four-year-old daughter. Consequently, Sadiqa does her writing in the early morning, late evening, and on weekends. She writes rough drafts of her poems in a large sketchbook, “so I can work between and around the lines,” then revises them on a computer. She has a writing room in which she works on a table inherited from the grandmother figure, the family friend who inspired the “Great Aunt Unmarried” sequence of poems.
“I feel very lucky to have this piece of furniture,” she says of this connection to her life before coming to Canada. “I have the strange sense that writing at it holds me accountable to this person to whom I was very close. Not that I have to write about her, but that I have to take the work seriously.”
Many others take her work seriously. Her poems have been widely published in such well-known literary magazines as the Malahat Review, Geist, the Antigonish Review, and Poetry Magazine, as well as in the anthologies Glosas for P.K. Page and The Best of Canadian Poetry in English 2008.
As well as launching her first book tomorrow, Sadiqa will take part in tonight’s Saturday Night Speakeasy.
“I’m excited about the launch,” she says, which will take place Sunday, Sept. 29, at noon in the WritersFest Festival Cafe at the Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront. “And I am honoured to be part of this book-launch tradition. A first book feels like a kind of arrival.”
There is no doubt about it: Sadiqa de Meijer has arrived.
Sadiqa de Meijer's writing can be found in The Fiddlehead, Geist, Poetry Magazine, and other journals. Her poem "Night" appeared as an above/ground press broadside. A series of her poems won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. Her collection Leaving Howe Island appears this fall (Oolichan Books).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I'm not sure how it will change my life: it comes out in late September.
What I’ve tried for in recent work is clarity, lack of predictability, and also certain kinds of risk.
There’s an inclination I have – it’s like in that musical exercise when students are asked to ‘finish’ a melody or rhythm that the instructor starts – when I write, the words fall into line to meet a kind of aural expectation. Part of what I’ve wanted is to let that impulse be open to disruption. Phil Hall said to me that in jazz it’s called dirt – intended elements of dissonance. Probably what it takes first of all is a closer listening to the world.
The other kind of risk I’ve been interested in has to do with the speaker: risking the dignity or composure of the speaker.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think it's the effect that poetry has on me as a reader.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My first drafts do not much resemble the final poems. I write them in sketchbooks on large, unlined paper – I like the possibilities of writing between and around the initial text. Then I revise on the computer. And I work slowly.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems usually start with phrases for me – a few words that seem to have a force-field to them. Some overheard or read, others arising internally.
Leaving Howe Island wasn’t a book from the beginning – it’s an accumulation of poems from the last half-decade. But the first section of the book is a series united by subject – I’d written three or four poems and felt I could dwell on that material longer. At this stage I see internal resonances to the manuscript that I wasn't really aware of while working. I guess that’s inevitable when the writing is compiled.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys readings?
I do enjoy readings. They don’t factor into the writing process for me.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Theoretical concerns are present for me, but I wouldn't say that they dominate over other concerns. I don't think of my poems as answers to questions.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can’t conjure a single idea of ‘the writer’ that feels accurate – there’s such diversity under that term, and there should be.
Or it makes me think of a figure like Harry Mulisch, the late and brilliant Dutch writer who would say amazing things like: “At a fairly early age, fifteen or sixteen, I knew for certain that I was a great genius. Only I didn’t yet know in what.” He was conscious of creating a writerly persona – he even argued there was a cultural need for remythologization, after the holocaust and war.
As much as I like to listen to his interviews, I guess what I’m getting at is that being ‘the writer’ strikes me as a performance. Some people are really good at that. But it should be optional. The work should be enough.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It's essential to me. I have the good luck of close editing relationships with a few writer friends.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It's tough to give advice a ranking, when the relevance depends so much on circumstance. Currently on the wall at my desk – it's not advice, but I feel it’s worth holding on to: Whatever is misanthropic is false (the French philosopher Alaine, in a letter to Simone Weil).
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I schedule writing hours into my weeks – ideally daily – but the specifics shift all the time.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes it’s enough to pause and let some less striving part of the mind work it out. I tend to fill the gaps with domestic chores.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cumin frying in garlic and ginger.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Sure, all of those elements influence my work. To name a few of the influences on Leaving Howe Island: the work of artists Jamelie Hassan (http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=2340) and Theo Jansen (www.strandbeest.com), a treatise on squid, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, and a newspaper report on plastic pellets washing up on Lake Huron beaches (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/shores-of-lake-huron-awash-in-plastic-pellets/article1214900/).
There was one poem, a pantoum, that wasn’t working for a very long time. Then I saw the Jack Chambers exhibition at the AGO (http://www.ago.net/jack-chambers-light-spirit-time-place-and-life). Some of his paintings are of his family at home, and he was incredible at converying—and heightening—the sense of natural light in the room; I found that merger of light and domesticity very moving. I revised the poem with the spirit of those works in mind. Which I guess is also an alternate answer to question 11.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Maybe I’ll narrow it down to writers whose work surrounded me while I was writing Leaving Howe Island: Elizabeth Bishop, M. Vasalis, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Babstock, Paul Celan, Ida Gerhardt, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Anne-Marie Turza, Jason Heroux, Amanda Jernigan. I’m sure there were others, too.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Cracow, and Istanbul, and Newfoundland.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I probably would have been a doctor: I studied medicine before changing my mind.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing gives me a particular kind of experience that nothing else does: I don’t love it in the sense that it’s predictably enjoyable, but I do love it.
Like most writers, though, I’m generally doing something else as well.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
It was a re-read, but I love Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Especially the story Mrs. Sen’s. And in film: Goodbye Solo by Ramin Bahrani.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Some early drafts of poems, a series of short essays on the experience of learning English from Dutch as a child, and a novel.
By Jordan Berard
The title of British Columbia poet Steve Noyes's fifth collection of poetry, Rainbow Stage-Manchuria, serves as a remarkably astute textual emblem of the collection's contents. Divided into three distinct sections, the book is framed by two extraordinarily ambitious long poems: "Rainbow Stage" and "Manchuria." Both centre on around questions of youth and rebellion, regionalism and identity, and both are filled with wry social criticism, witty puns, and an extensive network of cultural and historical allusions. In between these two outstanding long works lies a series of fourteen shorter, fragmented poems collectively entitled "The Marais." Although there is much to praise in a handful of poems that make up the middle section of the book, these lyrical fragments lack the substance, energy and unity of the two book-ending poems. Indeed, like the hyphen in the collection's title, "The Marais" as a whole ultimately functions as little more than a short lyrical – and physical – bridge between the longer works.
"Rainbow Stage," the brilliantly inventive showpiece of the collection, consists of a series of vignettes that tell the story of a fictional prairie rock band called The Next. Noyes cleverly experiments with style and form throughout this section, combining passages of prose with free verse, interview transcripts with song lyrics. The result of this playful pastiche is an energetic textual rendering of the psychedelic experimentation (in all its varied forms) that one normally associates with "those goddamn hippies" of 1960s America. Of course, this is an unabashedly Canadian poem, and Noyes generates a great deal of satirical humour from the fact that, as a speaker explains in the first section of the poem, the sixties ultimately arrived "ten years late" in Canada. That the poem is set in the far from groovy landscape of Manitoba only enhances the poem's wit and charm.
In the opening section of the poem, Noyes presents the reader with a hilarious and (stereo)typically Canadian version of free-loving hippy culture. The conventional "bongs and hookahs," "wife swap[ping]," and "righteousness / Over Vietman," are cleverly (mis)matched with "road-hockey frustrations," and "hippies driving front-end loaders." Indeed, only a Canadian could sympathize with the speaker's unique brand of complaints:
You have no idea, you have no idea, how miserable
We were, how picked upon, how small and shoveling
The gritty snow away we were, how macramé and
Tie-died sick and tired we were.
When the psychedelic attraction of never-ending fields of "wheat electric in spun sun" reaches its limits, Manitoba's "unjustly imprisoned," "buffalo-board," and "deeply rural ... tripping in soy bean / Solidarity" hippy community turns to music for release, "so much so that the sixties culminated in North Winnipeg in 1973 with a concert by The Next in Kildonan Park."
The name of Noyes' fictional rock band – The Next – functions as a clever representation of the band's constantly deferred potential. As the poem's multiple voices inform the reader, The Next "were gods, / North Winnipeg their ambit." They are idolized by the community's "countless teenage boys, skinny and hormonal," and have the uncanny ability to both "summon swarms of sweet-sixteen" and make older women strip off their bikini-tops, "spilling, willing, jubliand in pulchritude." If all of this sounds familiar (and it should), the Noyes has certainly hit his mark. The poet's clear desire to celebrate the music of the era alongside his almost encyclopedic knowledge of rock 'n' roll history, is exhibited in fine form as the remarkable celebrity status that The Next has achieved (at least in Northern Winnipeg) is constantly, and ironically, compared to that of real bands, particularly The Beatles. This is a remarkably intertextual poem that plants both recognizable and obscure lyrics from may classic rock songs alongside the lyrics pf many of The Next's fictional hits. Similarly, the poem draws analogies between members of The Next and rock legends such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, "Robert Fucking Plant," and Paul McCartney. Indeed, the intertextual analogies that are scattered throughout the poem constantly invite the reader to complete the dangling modifier that is the band's rather open-ended names: are they The Next ... Rolling Stones? The Next ... Led Zeppelin? That Ransom Ryder, Raptor, and Raft are nicknamed "the Sad Four" suggests that their closest real-world counterparts are the members of The Beatles (aka The Fab Four), and Noyes develops this analogy in the way they dress ("in their striped bell-bottoms, Monkee hairdos, / Turtlenecks and Nehru jackets"), and in the way they make music and are adored by their fans. Of course, clichés abound and the eventual destruction of the band that the poem documents – brought about by drug use, conflicting personalities, and a descent into an unhip variety of cultural "passé" – itself a cliché. Thus in addition to its satire of a rather belated and weakened brand of Canadian hippyish, the poem also offers a (loving) wink towards the conventions of sixties rock 'n' roll culture.
The poem's satirical tone is not enitrely rooted in humour and loving parody. Indeed, the band's permanently incomplete name is a strong gesture towards the difficulty that many Canadian artists (writers, musicians, actors, poets, etc.) have had in obtaining international success and celebrity without having to sacrifice their regional connections. What prevents The Next from becoming The Next ... Beatles or The Next ... anything, really, is their desire to remain rooted in the Manitoban community that created them. In one of the interviews with the band that appears in the poem, frontman Terry Ransom confesses to a host from a local radio station that The Next decided to stay in Winnipeg because one of the band members, Greg Raptor, "is afraid of Toronto, and he's afraid of LA, and the States in general. Besides, we like it here." There is a paradox here, of course: the band's refusal to move to a big)ger) city, or to the States, as so many real Canadian artists have chosen to do, is what prevents them from obtaining international success and recognition – that is what ultimately prevents them from becoming "the next" anything. Yet at home in Manitoba, they have achieved a level of success that makes them akin to The Beatles. So what is the Canadian artist to do? The poem suggests that, perhaps, it is far more rewarding (at least at a personal level) to be a well-known regional and local success than it is to be a nobody on the international stage.
After the experimental energy and playful enthusiasm of "Rainbow Stage," the short, often personal lyrics that comprise the middle section of the book, collectively entitles "The Marais," come across as somewhat conservative, banal and lacking. To be clear, there are many moments of genuine poetic ingenuity and lyrical beauty in these poe,s; however, they are simply not given a chance to shine as a result of the physical location in the book. These poems would be better served in a collection of shorter poems where they could be appreciated amongst other works of similar length and scope. Similarly, with the help of a new cover, a few photographs, and some extended song lyrics, there is an argument to be made that "Rainbow Stage" could potentially excel as a book on its own. As it stands, however, the middle section of Rainbow Stage-Manchuria suffers and is easily under-appreciated, even though it contains a few of Noyes's best short poems.
The most memorable poems from this section are those that explore the indifference of death and question the rationality of of natural order. In "At the Raptor Centre," a group of fourth-graders is introduced to "the pretty killers" of the aviary world – vultures, falcons, and other birds of prey. The birds are perceived to be nothing more than "benign specks" in the sky – they're even given rather banal names like "Raymond" – until they "come rushing from the sun / To pierce a million running spines," and are subsequently redefined as "indifferent / Engines of death." Similarly, "Serifs," the fifth poem of the section, is a remarkably profound examination of memory, identity, trauma, and the Holocaust. Told from the point-of-view of a "callow census hack," the poem details a Holocaust survivor's refusal to complete a census form out of a poignant and tragic fear of being counted: "I know what happens when they know / about you, when they count / you up." What affects the mathematically inclined speaker even more than the man's refusal to be counted is his glance of "the numbers, Arabic, / on his wrist," and the orderly, "rational" nature and appearance of those numbers that, paradoxically, represent the irrational and disorderly conduct of mankind: "Precise, barbed serifs where the 7 / starts, and the 2 ends." Poems that explore the impact of the Holocaust on both the survivor and the outsider are few and far between in Canadian poetry, and "Serifs" is a welcome addition to this canon. It is a poem that, through its examination of an outsider's reaction to a survivor's tattoo, reminds the reader of a number of Irving Layton's Holocaust poems as well as the under-appreciated short stories of J.J. Steinfeld.
Like "Rainbow Stage," "Manchuria" is an ambitious long poem that experiments with style and form to create an Eliotesque web of intertextual allusion and cultural criticism. Indeed, there are many echoes of T.S. Eliot's works in the poem: from the incorporation of multiple languages and the use of partially ironic marginal glosses, to the main character's indentification as "one of a mass, and a gloss on loss." Not surprisingly, the complexity of the poem's experimental form and technique also occasionally prevent its meaning and purpose from being entirely apparent. The poem offers a fascinating portrayal of a young female political dissident, her sarcastic attitudes towards her oppressors, and the anxiety and alienation that are created by her transience and her refusal to conform to the dehumanizing forces of the world around her.
From her current status and position as a waitress in Manchuria, the speaker reflects upon her childhood and asks "what have I done?" She recalls her development from a "young girl / Looking out lecture-hall windows / Over colonnades of scholar-trees, / ...past the Wall ..." to becoming an "angry / Young political" running "like salmon thrusting upstream" to escape "the flashing badges / ... / Of angry faces." Interestingly, one of the questions the The Next ask in the lyrics to one of their songs in "Rainbow Stage" is "When does childhood end?" In "Manchuria," Noyes answers this question through his depiction of a growing radicalism that ultimately alienates the speaker from her family, and destroys her youthful innocence.
Despite the fact that the speaker tells the story of her revolutionary days with increasing nostalgic fondness ("we were so strong, you have no idea. / ... / We had one idea and a livid will"), she is haunted bu a growing awareness of "another feeling / More frightening than change– / Submission." A profound melancholy pervades the poem as the woman becomes increasingly aware of how much she has changed since her days of youthful activism: "I am no longer Min Qin, you know, / On the run." One of the bittersweet results of her movement away from her activist past is that she is reconnected with her family, and the poem ends with a profound image of the girl and her father burning paper money at her mother's tomb. For the first time, she finds herself able to understand and appreciate her father's love for her mother, and she also understands that her father's act of burning money is his act of defiance: "the face on the bill is gaped by flame, / The eyes, the background factories, a flare / Of printed numbers; he drops the ash."
The blurb on the back of the book summarizes the remarkably eclectic nature of Rainbow Stage-Manchuria quite succinctly when it calls the book "nothing short of a world." There is much truth to this. Indeed, if this book is "a world," then it is the kind of world that Noyes portrays in "Manchuria" – a world where people can paradoxically live in a city with billions of people in it yet still feel isolated and alone. To appreciate the world that Noyes has created in this book, then, one needs to resist the temptation to try to find connections between the poems. There are themes that link the poems together, certainly, and one gets a kick out of wondering whether the "random / Blast of rock and roll, old North America" that the speaker in "Manchuria" overhears might be coming from The Next, yet the poems are best appreciated if they are read on their own terms, particularly the shorter lyrics that make up "The Marais." Ultimately, it is a hindrance to the rest of the poems in the collection that they fall under the shadow of the excellent "Rainbow Stage" – a remarkable long poem that stands as a separate, unique, and immensely enjoyable world of its own.
By Stephanie Yamniuk
Long Legs Boy contains intensely emotional topics such as prostitution, abuse, hunger, and police brutality, but it is told from an innocent boy's point of view, an approach which endears the reader to want to know more about this resilient long legs boy, Modou. He is also known as Toofas because of his ability to outrun the police and other intruders. His charisma and never-give-up attitude open the door for him to meet people and find ways to help them to make a living by his own hard work and survival and cooperative strategies.
The book brings to light the inconsistencies between well-meaning social agency policies to help street children (closing the schools for orphans, making begging illegal) and the everyday fight to stay alive. At the end of each chapter, there is a news article that shows a strongly skewed perspective of what is happening to street children in the area, and how social policy is not working in their favor. This is a strong call to readers for advocacy and interventions to support street children in positive ways.
One of the most touching parts of the book is the relationship between Moudu and Umaru, the younger boy that he has taken under his wing. Together, they must find a way to survive living on the street, find food and shelter, and stay safe from predators, other boys who want to take their food or shelter, and from the police who are constantly looking to take them and punish them for making their town look bad in the eyes of the tourists. They, too, are just trying to survive.
Long Legs Boy is a great resource for ELA teachers, and students studying journalism, international development and world issues, regarding the issues of power in writing about developing countries,.
By Andrew Bennett
I've just returned from an incredible trip to Cuba, one that leaves me reeling at the improbability of the rebel island: its beauty, its tragedy, its generosity, its contradictions, and its success against damning odds.
Above all, I am reassured by Cuba's unreasonable hope for a better future, a future it genuinely pursues—if not always successfully—one characterized by the humanitarian, egalitarian, and sharing values that were the rallying cry of its revolution a half century ago.
The trip played out entirely in my mind's eye, abetted by compulsive page-turning through Rosa Jordan's anecdotes in Cuba Unspun, the culmination of the Rossland-based author's experiences over 15 years.
Rosa’s heart was won in the 1950s when, as a pre-teen growing up poor in the Florida Everglades, she fell head-over-heels in unrequited infatuation for a handsome Cuban sign painter. But that's another story. She first set foot in the country in 1996, and it's clear her love for it has only grown deeper and more complex with every visit she's made since.
There are stories of cycling the country's entire coast, joined by friends and hosted (often impromptu) by locals. There are stories of camping on beaches, desolate one minute and packed the next, seething expanses of colourful crabs, catching trains and picking up hitch-hikers, holding hands with Fidel himself, learning lessons from old revolutionaries, and facing her own assumptions and those of other tourists. Above all, time and time again, Jordan serves unpretentious real-life stories of the generosity and selflessness that seem second nature to so many Cubans.
Derek Choukalos, Jordan's partner and frequent cycling pal on her exploits, supplies two quotes to the book, both memorable. Here's one: "Cuba seems to have the lowest ratio of assholes to humans of any place I've been."...
By Liisa Hannus
Last night at the Roundhouse Community Centre the City of Vancouver Book Award was announced along with the presentation of the 2012 Mayor’s Arts Awards.
YVR (Oolichan Books) is W.H. New’s tenth book of poetry. A collection of imagery that conveys the past and the present of life in Vancouver, it covers the gamut of the Vancouver experience: running the Seawall through Stanley Park, trying to spy the Shaughnessy mansions through their impenetrable shrubs, the ubiquitousness of moss, the rain. Woven throughout the book are twelve poems each called “Main Street” and in these New takes us through the history and geography of this road that slices through our city, from north to south, past to present.
The independent jury of former People’s Co-op bookseller Jane Bouey, author and educator David Chariandy, and retired Vancouver Sun books editor Rebecca Wigod selected YVR for “its maturity of concept and language, its musicality, rhythm and poetry of Vancouver place names, and the many political, geographic and community voices.”
W.H. New was also the recipient last night of a 2012 Mayor’s Arts Awards for Literary Arts.
YVR is the first collection of poetry chosen since 1999, when Bud Osborn won for his book Keys to Kingdoms.
By Val Rossi
Putting the pen down was never an option for Rossland writer Rosa Jordan, especially once the Monashee Mountains further crept into her creativity over three decades ago.
“What Rossland did do was give me the stability of a place that finally felt like home and also felt free,” said Jordan. “It was that stability that allowed me to sit still (and enjoy it) enough to write books.”
The 71-year-old began her career as a journalist and travel writer before moving to Canada from Florida and finding her home in 1974. One drive through Rossland – a town she’d never heard of – and Jordan bought a house the next morning.
By Teri Vlassopoulos
A few weeks ago a copy of Lisa McGonigle’s Snowdrift came in the mail. It’s her memoir of trading a full scholarship to Oxford for the ski bum life in the Kootenays in British Columbia. While I was reading her descriptions of skiing and snowboarding, I got it. Even her descriptions of the injuries sustained on the hill sound purposeful or at least hilarious.
By Valerie Sklarvesky
Rosa Jordan, who for 20 years lived in an artists' colony on Malibu's Budwood Ranch, has recently seen her first novel, “Far From Botany Bay,” published in Canada. Based on the story of Mary Board, an Englishwoman sent to the penal colony in Australia in 1789, this is a compelling historical novel that, once begun, is hard to put down.
Lisa McGonigle's Snowdrift is reviewed in February's Fernie Fix. Angie Abdou has this to say about this humourous memoir about escaping it all to live as a ski-bum in the mountains of British Columbia.
"Whether you’re a ski bum who sees yourself in these pages or a 9-5 worker who gets a voyeuristic thrill from the inside peek at an alternative existence, Snowdrift is guaranteed to delight. Why? Because, miraculously, Lisa manages to be just as charming and engaging on the page as she is in person. You’re going to love this book."