Wanderlust Reviews

Herizons, Fall 2017

Wanderlust is a delightful compilation of stories retelling humankind's adventures throughout our planet Earth in time and in space ... and, sometimes, in the land of pure imagination. The six women and one man who created these often joyous, sometimes sad tales achieved what they set out to do: to show how "the story of journey is the story of evolution."

"Pirates of the Heart," by Brenda Niskala, is a believable description of how people really lived during the decline of the Viking age. Linda Biasotto's "The Virgin in the Grotto" is told from the perspective of a traditional unmarried woman whose menopause makes her believe that her life is slipping by. In "Women from Snow," Byrna Barclay recreates the magic of France's Lascaux caves and the wondrous animals painted by their inhabitants. "Mombachu," by Brenda Niskala, is set in Nicaragua, where some tourists discover that volcanoes and rain forests can be disappointing if you are not in the right frame of mind.

James Trettwer, in "Godsend," provides a change of pace when he ever so realistically describes the horrors of life as an alcoholic. "The Jigger," by Byrna Barclay, is a heartbreaking rendition of the 1935 Regina Riots, and it made me realize how little I knew about the pains and privations Canadians suffered during the Depression. "As the Crow Flies," by Shelley Banks, is the story of a young mother torn between her desire to be free, and the call of her baby's talcum-powder scent. "Beating the Devil," by Annette Bower, is a chilling account of old age in the face of inevitable death. And "Bus Ride," by Kelly-Anne Riess, is a coming-of-age story, set against the background of Jasper, Alberta.

At first, I saw Wanderlust as just a motley collection of stories with no running thread. But I was wrong. They all share an originality, freshness and imaginative style tempered with verisimilitude. Highly recommended read.

— Maya Khankhoje, Herizons

Saskatoon Starphoenix, September 16, 2017

Regina poet Anne Campbell’s latest collection features poems selected from five previous books reaching back to 1983, as well as a healthy ration of new work. Besides a refresher on Campbell’s work, this collection affords a look into the development of the poet’s thought and poetic strategy.

In terms of poetics, Campbell prefers mostly the short — almost enigmatic — lyric, with lots of space engineered between words, though the spaces are more a visual cue than a breath cue. You can read straight through the spaces and still receive the meaning of the poem.

The early poems focus on memory, particularly those of childhood and of various prairie locales. By her third collection a major thematic concern that carries on through the rest of her work becomes desire, a longing for a companion — romantic, sexual, emotional, spiritual — to fill the lonely rooms, hours, and arms. See, for instance, Dark Mystery and A Friend I Can Touch. By the time of her second-last collection, Soul to Touch, Campbell leans heavily on seeing herself as a writer, as someone whose occupation is taking the time to record what it is she does, thinks, and understands.

This meta-poetry, the poet watching the poet write, is a post-modern impulse that can become a little tiresome — like rock stars singing about being rock stars. Campbell is at her best, and there are many such moments, when she simply gives “this pleasure … its own small praise,” as she does in the charming Bacon Lover Prayer. Other such gems include Time Away and How I Almost Married Leonard Cohen, from the new poems, and Shopping, Get it Right, and the short and amazing Giving Up the House. That poem, with its eschatological shadow, prefigures much of Campbell’s new poems where she tries, “one way or another,” to locate herself in time and space, sensing her end coming all too soon.

Two other people who understand the precious nature of life are New Mexico poet Jim Harris and his Saskatoon pal and longtime poet Glen Sorestad. In Water and Rock these men return to a loving channel of their desire, Jan Lake and its environs. Sorestad has been here in verse before, with his Jan Lake Poems (1984), but unlike that visit, in his half of Water and Rock, Sorestad keeps his poems on the minimalist edge, some poems no longer than six or seven lines.

He offers nothing but unqualified praise for the chance to fish, his close friends, and the wild creatures that surround them on their excursions. In Awareness he speaks of his contentment and in Around the Table looks closely at his friends at hand, being sure to “Hold them close” because “nothing lasts.”

Sorestad’s friend Jim Harris employs a much more rigid structure, going with 16-line poems of four quatrains in all but one in his group. Where Sorestad lets his obvious love of nature do his philosophizing for him, Harris spells things out, addressing himself directly to time and its passing, the white men’s fishing camp in time and space — particularly that of First Nations’ peoples — the balance of fishing fun and the seriousness of possibly dying by drowning or hypothermia, and the changes wrought by the cellphone and the Internet on the men’s so-called wilderness excursion.

Occasionally, Harris’s syntax goes verb-less too long, or his quatrains are more for show than meaning, but all in all both men’s work conveys their devotion to a piece of country that has nourished their souls and how tender in their later years they are with one another.

Byrna Barclay has assembled a collection of stories from fellow Regina writers about the human need to move, to travel, to get away in some sense or another. In Wanderlust, we move from Brenda Niskala’s look at the original Viking cruise, with red-haired brutes from Scandinavia killing people and taking slaves, to the way some people feel about travelling, in another from Niskala, where the main character asks, “How the hell had she let Helen talk her into this?”

In Kelly-Anne Riess’s Bus Ride a mother tells her daughter, “You’ve been to one place you’ve been to them all,” but that doesn’t stop the young woman from leaving home at last and taking some chances. That’s exactly what Barclay’s main character does in Jigger, in which a young woman is seduced in every way by a union organizer on his way to the Regina General Strike. And in Redwing, a daughter takes her mother on a pilgrimage to the old hometown, so much of it falling to pieces. The very impulse that set the Vikings loose on the high seas is sadly reversed in Shelley Banks’s story.

And in Annette Bower’s powerful Beating the Devil an elderly woman manages a trip by herself into her own psyche and cleverly eludes the financial grasp of an evangelical predator. So, too, does James Trettwer send his main characters, both alcoholic men, on journeys inward, one worried about being sent “to rehab again.” And in Linda Biasotto’s lovely little Flying, a young girl takes a trip across class lines.

The collection is somewhat uneven, both in distribution of space to the contributors and in some editing decisions around syntax and sentence length, but these seven writers manage to get to a lot of places, in time, space, and those most mysterious parts of the mind.

— Bill Robertson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

 SaskBooks Review, August 24, 2017

How does a book idea begin? Wanderlust: Stories on the Move started when seven reputable Saskatchewan writers enjoyed a barbeque together. In her introduction, editor Byrna Barclay explains that the idea for this anthology was spawned when Shelley Banks expressed a desire to tour and read with her fellow prose-writing diners at a Regina barbecue. Barclay compiled and edited the work, and though no theme was suggested, she found that “in every story a person embarks on a journey of discovery”. Along with Banks and Barclay, Brenda Niskala, Linda Biasotto, James Trettwer, Kelly-Anne Riess, and Annette Bower share imaginative journeys, and the result’s a literary road trip that takes readers to places near and far, real and imagined.

Niskala transports readers to a Norse trading voyage in 1065 in her exciting novel-in-progress, “Pirates of the Heart,” and Biasotto to favoured Italian locales. Trettwer takes us to a fictitious potash company, and Riess has contributed a moving novel chapter about a twenty-one-year-old who’s never been kissed, and is leaving Saskatchewan for the first time. “Tara had never seen a moose before or a bear, let alone any mountains, except, of course, on TV.” Will Jasper deliver the joy she’s been missing? Will the attractive stranger who’s taken the bus seat beside her?

Each story or novel excerpt possesses its own charms. I give the Menacing Mood Award to Biasotto, for “The Virgin in the Grotto,” with its eerie tone and flirtation with matricide: “The only sound from her mother’s room is the fan dragging the air in one sustained breath”. Niskala wins Best Action-Adventure Award, for her sterling sword-fight scenes. Barclay’s gem is the long story “Jigger,” which melds Saskatchewan history – the Depression, the Regina Riot, a train-riding hobo, and the Weyburn Psychiatric Hospital – and a tender tale about first love: she receives the Most Effective Storytelling Award. I quickly warmed to Trettwer’s downwardly-mobile character, Miller – who drinks himself into oblivion and forgets his daughter’s birthday: Realistic Characterization Of A Contemporary Character Award. Banks easily takes the Local Colour Award, with her excellent descriptions of smalltown Saskatchewan, ie: “We drive past the lot where the hardware store once stood, and the rows of Manitoba maples that shaded the long-demolished school and playground, now covered in thistles.” (Big points, too, for her “rusted advertising sign for a forgotten brand of engine oil”.) Riess’s single contribution, “Bus Ride,” earns the Reader Empathy For A Character Award, and Bower, in her piece about aging women looking out for each other, secures the Dark Humour Award.

Linda Biasotto hosted the barbeque where it all began, and she deserves mention for one of the finest images. In “Flying,” her teen protagonist describes a veranda at a rich friend’s home as “a white barge ready to detach and float across the new lawn”. I love it when a writer helps me to see the ordinary in a brand new way, and when a group of writers brainstorm an idea and it comes – beautifully, deliciously – to fruition.

— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks