Book Reviews

Jack Knox:  Opportunity Knox                                                                         reviewed by Danni Crenna

I was first entertained by a humour columnist back in my teens when I lived in Toronto and regularly read Richard Needham’s columns which were also collected and turned into books – “Needham’s Inferno”, I recall.  So I was ready for Jack Knox and his style and was not disappointed.  He has an amazing imagination as well as a droll outlook on life which serve him well.

Imagine a fifty-year old Barbie wandering sadly into a bar because kids are now busy with their devices and she is no longer who she was for them, even though she has meticulously maintained her amazing figure….

Look under the couch pillows for a remote and find a cowering penny trying not to be cast out when she is no longer legal tender (or at least being recalled and no longer produced)….

Cheer for the Canadian hockey team during the winter Olympics even though you don’t care about hockey or the Olympics and acknowledge that you just want to beat the Americans….

Admit you can relate when a blushing Canada is overjoyed because Obama says he loves her ….

Come out and be entertained when Jack Knox shares his wacko humour on the stage at Readers and Writers Festival.  Laughter is good for the soul and the belly.

 

Darrel J. McLeod:  Mamaskatch                                                                     reviewed by Jane Guest

The author of this book quotes Jean-Paul Sartre:  Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.  It is the story of the author’s chaotic childhood, his mother’s slow descent into alcoholism and death, and his education leading to becoming chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, with two degrees from UBC.  Darrel McLeod is a Cree from northern Alberta.  His father was of Scottish descent, and died in a car crash before he was born, leaving his mother Bertha with two small children and a baby, and no money. 

The book begins when Darrel is thirteen, and they are living in a small town called Smith.  His mother wakes him up at 2:00 a.m. to come downstairs and talk to her while she drinks beer and listens to country music.  Darrel only longs to go back to bed, but he realises later that she was teaching him about his Cree people, their beliefs and way of life, and stories about encounters with white authorities.  Her first story is about the social worker, Mr. Jones, who found out where they were living and came to inspect.  Terrified that he was planning to take the children away and put them in foster homes, she told them to climb out of the back window, taking baby Darrel in a cardboard box, and hide in the woodshed.  She stood outside the door and held Mr. Jones at bay until her grandfather Mosom returned and scared him off with a rifle.

The next story is about life in the residential school, where they were punished for speaking the Cree language and many other minor infractions of the rules.  She had several cousins and aunts at the school, and one of the older ones led a rebellion.  She knocked down a nun, and the group ran away.  Bertha gradually became an alcoholic and ended up on skid row.  One time when she was drunk someone cut off her finger to steal a gold ring.  When she died some of her children did not attend the funeral, but many relatives and people who had known her came and filled the church.  Darrel managed to fight back against oppression, discrimination and alcohol, but his mother could not.

David Chariandy:  Brother and I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You     reviewed by Cindy Critchley

 

David Chariandy’s novel, Brother, tells the story of Michael and Francis, sons of Trinidadian immigrants being raised by their hardworking mother in a tough neighbourhood in Scarborough.  As their mother tries desperately to prepare her boys to find the promise of their new land, the boys find mostly prejudice and closed doors.  Told in the voice of the younger brother, Michael, this is a finely crafted story of the love between brothers and of a heartbreaking, senseless loss set in the simmering violence of the summer of 1991.  I could not put this book down!

 

 

I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You:  A Letter To My Daughter is a powerful little book that resulted from this father wondering how to discuss the politics of race with his cherished children, particularly his 13 year old daughter.  David Chariandy, the son of Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad, shares stories from his ancestral past as well as his own experiences of growing up.

From the inside cover of the book:  “In sharing with his daughter his own story, he hopes to help cultivate within her a sense of identity and responsibility that balances the painful truths of the past and present with hopeful possibilities for the future.”  A beautiful little book that packs quite a punch.

 

Lindsay Wong:  The Woo-Woo:  How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons & My Crazy Chinese Family                                                                                                   reviewed by Sussan Thomson

Woo Woo is a wow of a book!
Some of us are familiar with some woo-woo here on Denman Island, but our woo-woo can’t hold a candle to the woo-woo in Lindsay Wong’s memoir.  She is a remarkable writer; she is honest, dark and humorous and her strong voice grabbed me from the get-go.  She takes us into the Vancouver immigrant Chinese culture which is most often closed to us.  The vocabulary she uses to describe people and situations is really funny.  But the book is tragic, as it centres around Wong’s troubled childhood in a highly superstitious, neglectful and abusive family.  Her mother and others in her family suffer from serious undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses and Wong is taught by them to fear possession by ghosts – or the woo-woo – at every turn.  She is repeatedly demeaned as ‘retarded’ and ‘fat’ by both her parents and worse expletives are frequently hurled at her.  Her mom’s paranoia includes her fear that it is dangerous to go to the bathroom alone or to cry, as ghosts are lurking everywhere, waiting to possess those who show any vulnerability.  Wong is forced to do many abnormal things, like spend hours, for days, in the food court in the shopping mall which is brightly lit and crowded, as her mom believes that is the only safe place.  Wong has a hard time at school and is sent home because of awful hygiene and she is fed a diet of junk food.  It is quite the horror story, but Wong keeps us steady as she is an intelligent, perceptive and resilient guide.  How Lindsay Wong survived to become the brilliant writer that she is, is incredible.

 

Paula Wild:  Return of the Wolf:  Conflict & Coexistence             reviewed by Jenny Balke

A story of wolves and humans, Return of the Wolf tells a tale that will shock, inform and console.  Not for the faint of heart, the wolf-human story is not a pretty one!  Ms Wild documents the long saga of human survival in wolf territory describing the range of human actions based on fear, revenge and hatred as well as scientific interest, ecological compassion, respect, admiration and awe.

Paula Wild details wolf facts and stories from ancient history, myth, science and the reality of living in wolf country.  The author’s sources have contributed a wealth of information and stunning photographs.  Ms Wild weaves the material to portray a large predator that looks like its cuddly domestic cousin “man’s best friend”, and that symbolizes the “wilderness” for many.  She shows the reader a wild animal that can be curious, fearful, threatening and predatory towards humans.

Towards the end of the book Ms Wild discusses present day approaches to large predator management.  While hating wolves and seeking revenge particularly for livestock predation is still widespread, she also documents methods for coexisting with predatory wildlife.  She sums up with three key suggestions crucial to reducing wolf-human conflict.  The first is to cease the conflict among humans with their various views on predators and to have humans agree to work on solutions.  The second is to engage the political will to protect large carnivores and to provide humans with “the knowledge and tools they need to understand predatory behaviour and act accordingly”.  The third is to educate the”general public about the importance of establishing clear boundaries as to what is human habitat and what is wolf habitat”.

Ms Wild points out the importance of this idea of boundaries between humans and wildlife.  She notes how humans need to appreciate wolves at a distance, to deter them from interacting with humans, “to scare not stare”.  She documents that wolves can coexist in the landscape while making an effort to avoid humans.  The problems often come when humans stop taking actions to avoid any contact with wolves.  Ms Wild lives in Courtenay and many of her stories both positive and negative are close to home and on islands.  This book is for those who wish to understand the wolf-human conflict while hoping that the future will include large carnivores in the world.  As the author says at the end, “I want to hear the wolves but I don’t want them to come too close.  For their safety.”

 

Billeh Nickerson:  Artificial Cherry                          reviewed by Stewart Goodings

Asking a retired straight former civil servant to review a gay poet’s latest book is both risky for the Festival organizers, and unnerving for this ex-bureaucrat.  Artificial Cherry, Billeh Nickerson’s most recent collection of published writing is, however, an unexpected pleasure.

Some of the poems might not suit the pages of Readers Digest, and a few titles might even disturb the more staid Denmanite, e.g. ‘The Ghost of Blowjobs Past’.  But what struck me was Nickerson’s ability in a few sentences to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, to see an everyday incident or object and make the readers see it in a different light.

His verse is not of the “moon-June-swoon” variety.  It’s in normal conversational language, no rhyming, just thoughts and memories, past and present talking to the reader of the writer’s experiences and emotions.  He’s playful too.  Here’s one short poem called ‘Voting for Dr Hedy Fry’:
I’m voting for Dr Hedy Fry
because she’s seen my vagina,
my friend tells me at a party
just before the federal election.
She’s seen it many times.
And I trust her.

One whole section is called ‘Shelagh Rogers Called Me a Slut and Other Stories’ and relates experience Nickerson has had giving talks in various locations, including Shelagh’s radio show, across the country.

Feisty, funny, and occasionally ferocious, and rooted in real life, Nickerson’s writing is both accessible to read, and I imagine – since he dedicates this volume to Sheri-D Wilson – intriguing to listen to.

 

Kathy Page:  Dear Evelyn                                              reviewed by Danni Crenna

This story grabbed me from the first page and never let go, though at times I would like to have been released!  Each character is well-defined and stays true to type throughout their long marriage and long lives.  It was interesting to have characters arrive as they were being born and live out their lives to advanced old age by the last pages.  At times frustrating, because Evelyn was an unlikable woman and Harry was such a devoted mate, it was nevertheless completely believable and moving.  Interesting to have a female author portray the man as being the more admirable of the pair ….

Each era felt very authentic and there was a certain bittersweet tang reliving some of these times.  Life in the trenches was portrayed as being incredibly brutal and miserable.  The Fifties radiated the glow of success and big spending; the Sixties reflected the new sexual freedom and parents’ outrage with this.  There is a wry sly wit underlying much of the revealed thoughts of our main leads and we laugh at them as well as grieving for them in their life struggles.  You cannot but believe in the reality of their lives.

I am thrilled that a writer of such caliber will be coming to Denman’s Readers and Writers Festival.

 

Ryan Knighton:  Cockeyed:  A Memoir                                     reviewed by Louise Bell

How could a book about the onset of blindness be engaging, informative and highly amusing?  Well, this one is!  One would expect the idea of a fourteen-year-old showing signs of losing his vision to be depressing.  That’s the subject of the first chapter in this rollicking memoir by Ryan Knighton and it’s perhaps the funniest, describing his adventures in his first job learning to drive a forklift in a warehouse.  The guys there called him a “bumbler” but really, he was experiencing early loss of peripheral vision and the onset of night blindness.  In the ensuing chapters, Knighton entertains the reader with humorous stories about motor vehicle accidents in his teen years, none of which was serious; his decision to move out of the Langley family home and live on his own; his diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that leads to total blindness; his capitulation and subsequent lesson in ‘caning’ at the CNIB; his adventures teaching English to school kids in Korea; and his double disorientation trying to navigate the Richmond IKEA store.  During this time, he meets his loyal and perceptive partner Tracy and is hired to teach literature and creative writing at Capilano College, where he is to this day.  As well, in a poignant chapter, he loses his beloved younger brother, who was probably a victim of bipolar disease, but untreated, and who dies in a heart-wrenchingly sad suicide resulting from a drug mix-up.  Woven throughout all of this are Knighton’s philosophical musings on the costs of denial and the rewards of acceptance, the narcissism of blindness, the relationship among our senses, the ambiguity of language, and the pain of being referred to in third person (e.g. “Does he need some help?”)  As with the rest of the book, his remarks on these sober topics are coloured by his rich sense of humour.  I most certainly won’t miss hearing this award-winning writer at our festival this summer.  I gather a movie of Cockeyed is in the works.  I won’t miss it either.

 

Andrew MacLeod:  All Together Healthy: A Canadian Wellness Revolution                                                     reviewed by David Scruton

All Together Healthy is primarily about the social and environmental determinants to health.  MacLeod notes that Canada ranks 24th of 30 countries in its spending on public expenditures and in comparing 11 developed countries on health care The Commonwealth Fund ranked Canada at 9th place overall.  The fact that Canada is the only developed country not to have a privately funded alternative to the publicly funded health care system was barely mentioned.

The author discusses the impairment of health outcomes that occurs with reduced socio-economic status, with its increased burden of chronic diseases and shortened life expectancy, and that the members of the lowest quintile of income smoke more tobacco and drink more alcohol.  The common theme throughout the book is that reduced income is associated with poorer outcomes and that the solution is to increase the incomes of those at the bottom of the social strata.  He mentioned a study that showed that increasing the income of the lowest economic quintile was associated with a reduction in their use of tobacco and alcohol.  One of the factors associated with poor adult health was physical, sexual and emotional abuse during childhood.  This contributed to reduced educational achievements and reduced income and can then affect future generations.  The proposed solution is improved early childhood education and more family supports which in turn is dependent upon increased societal funding.  Targeting the funding can be difficult.  There has been a lot of money spent on a program to reduce smoking rates.  Although it is the poorest groups in society who smoke the most, it was the wealthy groups whose smoking rates declined the most.  There are early trials of communities having guaranteed minimum incomes, to see what changes that would induce, but that is subject to political interference, as has recently occurred in Ontario.  Without such trials we cannot learn what works and what does not.  There was discussion of First Nations reduced health outcomes compared to the rest of Canadian population, attributed to reduced income, childhood traumas and rural and remote homes.  The solution is for increased funding in terms of incomes, education, local health care and child care amongst others.

I thought the book interesting but daunting in the complexity of the issues and the logistical and economic difficulty of trying to address them all.  I think a more apposite sub-title would be “A Canadian Fiscal Revolution”.

 

Beverley McLachlin:  Full Disclosure                                              reviewed by DD Fuchs

Beverley McLachlin says that she gave serious thought to writing fiction many years ago, but put the idea aside when she was called to the bench.  In 2018, shortly after her retirement, her first novel Full Disclosure was released.  Full Disclosure is the story of Jilly Truitt, a criminal defence lawyer, living and working in Vancouver.  Jilly is an ambitious 34-year-old who has a complicated backstory.  She was abandoned as a child and raised in foster care; she has a boyfriend from a “prominent” Vancouver family who lives alone in a Shaughnessy mansion; and she’s a risk taker who is willing to take on her legal mentor in court.

Jilly decides to defend a wealthy businessman who is accused of murdering his wife.  While the plot has lots of twists and turns, the story is slightly predictable but still enjoyable.  There are plenty of references to Vancouver’s high-end neighborhoods, to Toni Onley prints and Aboriginal Art, and glimpses of Vancouver’s darker side with references to murdered and missing Indigenous women, drug abuse and Robert Picton.

Full Disclosure is an entertaining legal thriller which suggests some of the issues McLachlin faced in her career.  Jilly struggles with the conflict between her personal beliefs and her role as a lawyer with a duty to represent.  For more of this weighty stuff, we have McLachlin’s memoir to look forward to.  She promises it will explore, “some of the issues I have grappled with over the last 40 years, like diversity in our society, like Indigenous rights, like the Charter”.  After that, perhaps another Jilly Truitt thriller.

 

Heather O’Neill:  Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father (non fiction) and The Lonely Hearts Hotel  (fiction)                                                      reviewed by Annette Reinhart

There is no mystery where Heather O’Neill gets her fantastical and subversive ideas once you read Wisdom in Nonsense – Invaluable Lessons from my Father.  This slim publication contains a list of advice her unconventional father gave her such as “Never Tell Anyone What Your Parents Do For a Living”.  The reason for that advisory becomes clear as Heather O’Neill describes how her dad grew up in 1930s Montreal amidst the heyday of bars, prostitution and corrupt gangsters.  As a poor, scrappy Irish kid, her dad assisted petty criminals for money and goods and became streetwise in the ways of the underworld.  As a single dad, he worked as a janitor while raising Heather; he regaled her daily with tall tales and brash lies from his youthful days, and surrounded her with a community of misfits and homemade adventures – occasionally shoplifting for luxury goods to please her.

Based on the period of her father’s wild youth, Heather O’Neill’s most recent novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel spins a carnivalesque narrative set in those raucous times.  1930s Catholic Montreal was a time when unwed mothers were sent to institutions where they waited out their pregnancies then, after birthing, most were severed from any contact with their child.  The Lonely Hearts Hotel begins with two such orphans, Pierrot and Rose, neither of whom has any idea of their heritage but come to bond together during their orphanage upbringing.  Both had lucrative talents which were discovered and farmed out as entertainment in salons of the wealthy.  After leaving the institution, each has a twisted journey of dramatic ups and downs before reuniting again.

The surprising thing about this novel is how the author takes a playful, whimsical approach to some very brutal realities her vulnerable characters encounter.  This switch between fairy-tale mode and gritty street life gives a fable-like quality to her story that runs the gamut of enthralling spectacles, dark humanity, and unexpected gender roles.  These children grow up with much more to deal with than they should.  They are survivors restructuring the conventional definition of family much like Heather O’Neill’s own experience, “My dad had all sorts of ideas about what family was and none had to do with biology.  A family was a group of trusted associates.”

This is a both magical and grim tale that tackles escape from class and gender expectations as well as traumatic abuse.  This isn’t really a combination that should work, being simultaneously life affirming and heartbreaking – but it certainly does in Heather O’Neill’s very creative handling.