Thursday 23 June 2016


By Tracey Lindberg

Everything I read about Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie told me to expect humour.  So naturally, I thought I’d be reading a fairly lighthearted novel.  Not so.  In fact, Birdie was not what I expected at all. 

Birdie, or Bernice Meetoos, is a young Cree woman from Loon Lake, Alberta.  Raised by her mother Maggie and Auntie Val, and close to her sistercousin Skinny Freda, Birdie has a small but tight-knit group of women to support her.  In fact, Birdie trusts only women.  Having suffered for many years at the hands of her uncles, it’s easy to see why.  The men in her life are serious abusers of both alcohol and women.  One uncle in particular preys on Birdie sexually from the time she is very young.

The lifestyle in her home is so detrimental, in fact, that Birdie is eventually taken into foster care.  The Ingelsons are a white couple who do everything that caring parents should do.  But Birdie doesn’t believe she deserves a stable home.  She soon ends up in the “San” (aka Sanitorium), and then on the streets of Edmonton.

She finally travels to Gibsons, B.C., ostensibly in search of Pat John, the only First Nations character in The Beachcombers.  Bernice regards him as “a healthy, working Indian man” and, truth be told, she is somewhat obsessed with him.  (Her TV obsession also extends to watching The Frugal Gourmet.)

In Gibsons Bernice meets Lola, a bakery owner who gives her a job and a place to stay.  But rather than flourishing, Birdie turns inward. She takes to her bed and stays there.  She doesn’t eat or talk.  Her spirit leaves her body at times and she begins to scrutinize her life, both present and past.

Fearing the worst, Lola calls Birdie’s family.  The women gather.  They rally.  They care for Birdie, attempting to bring her back to life, to herself.  Birdie begins to shut down, willing her life to be over.  But these persistent women have endured, and Birdie can too.

Birdie examines the pain of sexual abuse and the tragic upbringing of so many First Nations women.  Several times we are reminded that a Native woman can so easily go missing.  But beyond the pain there is renewal.  There is the strength of women’s character and the power of female friendship and family.  There is the ability to laugh, to feast, to enjoy The Frugal Gourmet.  There is life.

Saturday 11 June 2016


Eruptionby Steve Olson

I was just a baby when Mount St. Helens blew up.  I remember my parents telling me about the ash fall, but I always wondered how that could be: the mountain is 500 km away.  After reading Eruption: the Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson, now I get it.  It was a very big explosion, certainly largest seen in North America in any of our lifetimes.
Just like the mountain’s explosion, Eruption starts off slowly: if you were ever interested in the history of the forestry company Weyerhaeuser, the whole first half of this book is a good place to start.  We learn the long, detailed story of how Weyerhaeuser was established in the American Midwest, how the owner went through several business ventures, how Weyerhaeuser expanded to set the pattern of settlement and land ownership throughout Washington State and the immediate areas surrounding Mount St. Helens.
Eventually Eruption gets to the meat of the story:  Mount St. Helens starts to stir; the concerns that loggers had through the years about the little earthquakes, steam jets, mini-spouts of ash; and how the company refused to put much thought into the potential dangers of having a volcano in their backyard.  However, even with these details we’re halfway through the book. I wanted to know what really happened and what the consequences of such a huge explosion were. 
We do get there, but it’s a surprisingly short part of the story. As soon as the description of events finishes (and they were exciting events), the story moves to conservation and preservation.  It is a little disappointing.  With a title like “Eruption” I was expecting something much more exciting.
Having said all that, another volcanic event in the Pacific Northwest is pretty likely. As dry as the first part of this book was there are lessons to learn about how government and companies, as well as individual landowners, dealt with the Mount St. Helens eruption.  It’s worth a read just for that information alone.  Just don’t expect it to blow your mind.

Saturday 4 June 2016

How to Be Both

by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is not an easy read, but it is a clever and engaging one. Split into two separate sections, one set in the Renaissance and one set in the modern era, the stream-of-consciousness style of writing can make it a challenge to grasp the two separate stories and their connection. George (full name Georgia) is a teenage girl who has suddenly lost her beloved artist mother. The last trip they took together was to Italy, where they viewed art by Francesco del Cossa, a real-life renaissance artist. The second half of the book is the story of del Cossa, and while it is beautifully written I would have preferred to have read George’s story throughout.

Smith is my favourite fiction author, and I’ve read every novel and short story she’s written. Her novel Hotel World is similarly experimental, though it isn’t as difficult to focus on. In all of Smith’s writing, she plays with the concepts of storytelling and art, and this book is no exception. Fragmented and poetic, it is an exploration of love, language, family, gender and genre.  Smith’s turns-of-phrase are beautiful as ever, and the writing contains a wit that cuts open and exposes the depth of life’s grief. Books about loss can be overwhelming if not tempered with gentleness about those left behind, and George is simultaneously self-aware and completely, vulnerably lost. del Cossa’s section exposes the truth of the artist’s life- born a woman but raised as a man by a father who wanted to encourage his talented daughter’s success. It is a story about the pursuit of art- del Cossa’s friends and lovers come and go as fragmented blips in time.

This novel, nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize, was released in two versions. In one, George’s section (“Camera”) comes first and del Cossa’s (“Eyes”) comes after. That is the version I read, and I tore through the first half much more quickly than I did the second. The alternate editions of the book are reversed, with “Eyes” at the beginning. I do recommend this book, but I think that I might have preferred to read the alternate version instead- if I’d known more about del Cossa it might have made George’s experience of the art a bit more meaningful.