this is not a review: reading my shelves


My reading usually goes something like this:

See/hear about some new title and check library to see if they have it. If yes, then I put it on hold. If I fall in love with it after reading library copy I will order from bookshop. If not available at library but looks REALLY good, I will order from bookshop directly and hope to fall in love.

A good system but one can only read so many books so what happens is that the books who live on my shelves (or stacks on my floor) (including those from bookshop) get read last because all those books on hold come swooping in continually from the library.

Except during a pandemic when the library is closed.

One of the joys during this time of isolation has been the luxury (i.e. no other choice) of reading my own shelves. Some of which has included time with old favourites but the most fun has been had in reading books whose spines I’ve stared at for years but for whatever reason haven’t taken off the shelf.

A sampling mixture follows:

The Road Past Altamont is possibly my favourite recent long-on-the-shelves discovery. What absolute joy to be embraced for a few days by Gabrielle Roy’s gorgeous sentences evoking landscape in and around Manitoba, including Lake Winnipeg and the eponymous Altamont, which reminds one of the characters of her childhood home in Quebec and which serves as a metaphor for how everything is connected and how knowing that changes our perspective on, if not everything, then much.

In the preface to City Poems, by Joe Fiorito, A.F. Moritz describes the poems as “very short, shooting stars”. I like how the image ties these ultra urban scenes to something from the natural world, a subtle reminder that even in the darkest corners of street life, life IS nature. Human or otherwise. Fiorito is a pro at noticing the life that goes on in an environment where so much and so many are ignored. ‘Blink’ and the moment, the star, is gone.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is a mad romp in the company of a perfectly (enviably) eccentric ninety-two year old woman in a nursing home who eavesdrops and offers straight-up thoughts about the world and the people in it, which sounds simplistic and it’s possible to read it that way, but it also veers heavily into a tongue in cheek surrealism of commentary on age, gender, family, animal rights, as well as offering a loose blueprint for changes to the current sad state of earthly affairs via starting over on another planet “… peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity …” 

Sheila Burnford is best known for writing The Incredible Journey in 1961, which was later Disneyfied in a movie. I haven’t read that book but will put it on my list because this is now An Author I Like based on The Fields at Noon which I’ve had on my shelves for who knows how long. An absolute joy for its themes of outdoorsy pursuits such as mushroom hunting and walking and toads and general love of nature. I also like that Burnford, who (from her author pic) looks every bit a housefrau of the 1960’s but comes off as someone who would absolutely rather have a beer on the porch than vacuum.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, is one I like to re-read for the pleasure of the characters. Don’t you just love a book where you enjoy being the in the company of fictitious folk, where when you put the book down you hope they don’t get up to anything until you come back even though you already know what happens. In a nutshell, and without giving too much away, the story is about a small community where two women have disappeared. But it’s not what you think. It’s not about the mystery, it’s about relationships and family, how they are forged, what they are based on and how (and why) they develop and how they evolve or de-evolve. Told in two alternating voices: Lulu, who grows up in the community, leaves and then returns. And Doris, who never leaves. There are roosters, beehives, greenhouses and gardens, barns and ponds, donkeys, a goat, an Airstream trailer, home preserves and foraging and among all this honest (never sentimental) beauty, there’s sadness too, and the contrast of life on the road as a musician and singer… and the sense of something that feels like a slow unravelling of darkness, but you’re never quite sure.

A few years ago Saskatchewan poet and naturalist Brenda Schmidt put out a call for culvert memories and experiences, explaining that she was working on a new series of poems that would incorporate selected comments within the collection. Published in 2018, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road is now that collection, poetry and prose that feels like a collaborative Paean to the large round silver objects that transport the lifeblood of water across the country and which are mostly never thought about. Each piece is prefaced by an italicized line, a contribution from an anonymous someone (contributors are listed in the introduction but are not linked to their specific memories, which creates fabulous and mysterious connections in itself) and which has Schmidt tapping into her own memories and experiences from various and surprising portals. I love work that inspires story through unexpected means. Schmidt has done that beautifully.

How to Catch a Mole, by Marc Hamer, warns the reader that by the end of the book they will know more than they ever thought possible about moles. And he’s right. And it almost put me off reading the book because why would I want to know about moles? Well. Turns out that mole catching is a pretty interesting metaphor for life. But isn’t it cruel? Yes. And no. Like life. The book is a sort of casual memoir about this mole-catching-career slice of Hamer’s life, which had unhappy beginnings and which saw him homeless for many years. He made some money initially as an itinerant gardener, which turned to professional mole-catching, which in the UK is/was apparently A Big Thing. Also, there is a WAY of doing it that’s ethical, which I found hard to believe but by the time I’d finished this very slim volume of a book I saw the other side of what appears to be cruel and unnecessary work. Surprisingly, it’s not a book that makes you squirm. On the contrary, it’s filled with honesty and sensitivity. Not just about moles, but life. It’s really about life. Excellent.

All Roads Lead to Wells. I read a review about this a few years ago and it appealed to me because it’s the true account of a hippie community that moved into the teensy tiny town of Wells, BC in the late 60’s and 70’s and stayed off and on throughout the 90’s. One of the original members stayed forever and is now a member of the town council. Another, Susan Safyan, is the author of the book. Safyan’s own memories as well as those of many former hippies tell a great story about A Time. A time which really isn’t that different from This Time, when youth believes it alone can change the world. Then it was through returning to the land and forming a counter-culture by living simply, eschewing the establishment, and ‘not trusting anyone over 30’. Much of how they lived was admirable, much was questionable in terms of hypocrisy… some accepted pogey for instance. And they didn’t change the world exactly as they’d hoped, in fact many/most grew up to realize the difficulty of washing diapers by hand in cold water fetched from a stream beside your tumbling down shack and eventually sold out and accepted the gift of Pampers. But the hippies did make changes to the world, if not in diapers, they were instrumental in starting the organic and ethical food movement. Among a few other things. Lots of pictures and conversational material in the pages. A slice of history worth having.

Beth Powning’s Seeds of Another Summer about her move to the countryside many years ago. Full of gorgeous photos and a shoulder-dropping, deep breath inducing narrative of someone who misses nothing.

On a similar note, but entirely different, Catherine Owen’s Seeing Lessons about Mattie Gunterman, an 18th century “photographer and mining camp cookhouse worker”, written in poems and poetic prose about not only the times she lived but also the power of seeing and being able to retain something of what is seen.



The next batch stacked and ready:

Land to Light On, by Dionne Brand (because I love how she writes about the/her Canadian experience)

The Cat, by Marie-Louise von Franz (because it’s a tale of feminine redemption and because she was great pals with Carl Jung, so should be interesting)

Structures of Indifference, by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adelle Perry (because it examines one life, and death, which begins with the 34 hours an Indigenous man spent in a Winnipeg emergency room before dying, unseen and untreated)

A 1987 copy of the journal Fireweed, the ‘Class’ issue, because I think it will be interesting and because Kate Braid is one of the contributors and her bio reads that she is a “carpenter living in Vancouver who writes her poems on lunch breaks and at STOP signs”.

Autobiography of an Elderly Woman, published in 1911 under no author’s name but research shows that it was written by Mary Heaton Vorse, a 37 year old Greenwich Village bohemian, journalist, and editor, who wrote it in the voice of her mother, and which (in 1911) has lines like this: “Each generation permits a different type of young girl, but the older woman must not change; her outline is fixed and immovable. She must be like [anyone’s] grandmother, ‘always there’.”

Portraits of Earth, by Freeman Patterson, a book of extraordinary photographs and contemplation on things like icebergs, leaves, wet sand, sky, air, forests, fish, water, driftwood… and how we mere mortals fit in. Or might if we tried.

Birds, Art, Life, by Kyo Maclear (a re-read because more beauty).

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because I never have.






(at) eleven with tracy hamon: red curls

This (at) Eleven series of Q&A’s began as a place to celebrate books written by people I know, or have come to know even in a small way (and usually with a food connection). Very occasionally it includes people I don’t know at all.

Tracy Hamon is such an ‘occasion’. I only recently discovered her work through Brenda Schmidt, who mentioned something about Red Curls  on FB, and I value Ms. Schmidt’s literary taste. Also, I loved the subject matter: an Austrian painter and his mistress living the Bohemian life at the turn of the (last) century.

While a collection of poems is a wonderful thing, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that this is not a collection of poems. Instead, it’s a sort of  ‘discovery’ shared… of the artist, the times he lived in, his inspirations, his work. And his effect on Hamon, who travelled to Austria to gain a deeper perspective of Egon Schiele, on his turf. In poems, yes, but also in narrative pieces from various perspectives, and in voices other than the poet’s.

It’s also a tribute to the muse, an often overlooked element in an artist’s career. And often a woman. In this case the muse was Valerie Neuzil, known as ‘Wally’.

We begin in the washroom of an airport as Hamon arrives in Europe. The piece is called ‘Modernist Movement’ and describes the woman whose job it is to sell squares of toilet paper in a room where “soap hangs like scrotum from a plastic mesh bag”. And with it we’re immediately there with Hamon in the centre of what feels like a strange new dimension, unsettling and yet we recognize something about it, and so begins the journey…

The first section of the book is from Hamon’s perspective. On a train“the seat cripples my back with right angles.”  She looks at buildings, rooftops, landscapes, trying to see through Schiele’s eyes, to find the things he painted, to understand what drove him, inspired him, to imagine the power and mystery of the relationship with his red-headed muse and mistress.

“Egon, I arrive at your door as one/ who watches, one who knocks/ needing to be among the why/ of what you do…”

The second part of the book is from Schiele’s perspective as Hamon takes us back to his childhood and early life, touches on events that shaped him, the loss of his father, his work with Klimt, society’s perception of him as debauched, his marriage to Edith and the end of his affair with Wally.

What might be my favourite piece, ‘Interview with Egon Schiele’, opens with a question: “What were you doing when they came to take you away?” which is then answered in the perfection of simplicity; he was watching a fly, sipping wine, “I was studying the stem of a tulip I had bought at the market.”

The last section of the book, the last word almost, is given so fittingly to Wally. I suspect she would be pleased.

Also worth mentioning is the cover (a painting by Virgilio Neto).

So, with many thanks to Tracy Hamon for taking this time, may I present, the author of Red Curls…

1.   What literary character did you identify with as a kid?

TH—Pippy Longstocking.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces of writing?

TH—I remember writing something “Poe” like, it was slightly dark, maybe a little mysterious, though I can’t remember much more. I must’ve read the style in one of my mother’s many magazines and emulated it. I seem to have the faint recollection of the piece being chosen for some children’s writing magazine, but then again, my memory is faulty enough (and my ego large enough) these days that maybe I just imagine my first writing would get singled out.

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

TH—Probably Stephen King.

4.   I’m always curious about process. Where do you work best, do you have a writing routine, an ideal environment? And the all-important question: what about blocks… what’s your remedy for getting around/through them?

TH—I work best in my head. Getting the writing out of there and onto paper is sometimes hard. While I can write anywhere, I need quiet to do so. I can write on paper or on the computer, although if I start on paper, I’ll eventually have to type it in a Word program so that I can play with it. I take a lot of notes and I go back and use these a lot when writing.

I don’t believe in blocks—I either write or I don’t write and if I’m not writing I don’t worry about the not-writing. When I’m ready, I’ll write. I’ve been on a really long dry spell as of late, but I’m not worried. I’m doing more reading, but I’m also just too busy to write.

5.   Are there often themes in your work that surprise you?

TH—Not usually.

6.   How did Schiele enter your life in such an important way—was it the ‘red curls’ that drew you?

TH—My first encounter with Schiele resulted from a postcard sent by a friend. red-curls-cover3After I received the engaging card (Boy in Red Robe), I did some internet research and began thinking about his art work. As I read about Schiele and Neuzil, I grew curious about their relationship, and how and why their social situations and eccentricities (mostly Schiele’s as there isn’t much written about Wally) came to shape their relationship as a couple. The red hair connections were not the source of inspiration, but the bond that kept me writing—if that makes any sense.

6.  The love poem on page 48… for Wally, but for Klimt too? And the poem on the facing page: ‘Black and White Study for Transfiguration’, rising from the painting itself, yet the subject of the text is something else again. Can you talk a little about these two ‘shape’ poems?

TH—Part of the process in writing this book was to explore various ways of writing poems about Schiele’s (and in that one poem, Klimt’s) art, without each poem solely focusing on responding to the artwork. I was exploring perceptions (mainly mine) of how, why, and what I see in both poetry and art. So to do this, I started playing with form, using the shape of various poems such as the two you mention, to reflect the images within the artwork, but then utilizing the content of the poem to create another aspect of the story.

I was exploring the idea that images we perceive are often not necessarily the story behind the painting, and the juxtaposition of image and text can work with the historical drama inasmuch as the prose poems work to “frame” the poet and the model’s story. Klimt’s “The Kiss” frames a picture of Wally and Schiele meeting, and the two Schiele’s arising from the poem (albeit, slightly off kilter because it’s a poem and really hard to recreate those images with the space bar) mimic the paintings, but offer different stories than what is seen.

Of course, when writing about a painter and paintings, I needed to keep the writing fresh and this was also one way.

8.   What would have been different about this Schiele-inspired poetry, what would you not have known/felt/imagined had you not gone to Europe? And was there one moment when you thought: this is what I’ve come for.

TH—Without the trip to Vienna and Cesky Krumlov, the journey aspect into the book would never have been there, and I think the book would’ve simply ended up a collection of poems (not that there’s anything negative in that). The discovery element of research was vital to shaping my imagination to be able to create the poetry. Also it enabled me to write true to the era, and the locations, buildings, culture encompassed in seeing many of these places helped with the historical aspects and details.

I would have to say, it was when I arrived at Cesky Krumlov, I realized this is what I came for—much of that city, at least the old part, is exactly the same as almost 100 years ago. It was easy to spot locations of some of his paintings, the house he wanted to buy, etc. I could stand and stare at the same river he did, the same landscapes, and the same every day scenes. I can’t describe how it felt to walk in the world they lived in and the energy it gave to the writing—it was part surreal, but partly tangible.

9.   In the poem ‘Consent’, on meeting Schiele, we have the sense that Wally was in charge. “I tell him to invite me in.”  Her meagre belongings feel like simplicity, freedom, emblems of the Bohemian life. By ‘Death and the Maiden’ they’ve become tawdry… “I look down at my jagged pink dress, the bottom frayed from washing, my bare feet callused from months of walking the blunt edge of rumour.”  She has become the “pornographer’s muse”. So how does this vibrant, young woman slide from Bohemia to what feels like desperation and Shame? (Is there a touch of Elizabeth Smart about her, in that she was more in love with being in love, than with the man?)

(I notice also, in ‘Portraits of the Artist’s Wife’, that Edith goes from a “multihued, striped dress”  to a “light tinted skirt” . I like how you portray the emotional change in both women through clothing.)

TH—What I wanted to create in Wally was an inherent strength, which at first emanates from innocence in a bold bravado when she arrives at Schiele’s house, to a strength of self that comes from love, and from the experience of the era’s changing social and cultural morality. I wanted her to grow up in the poems, from a young fearless girl to a woman that wasn’t apologetic for her actions. I believed that she understood the consequences of her actions and Schiele’s behaviour enough that she could grow from her shame and come away with a strong sense of self. I felt she had the strength of character that she needed to move past the sense of betrayal she felt after the marriage of Schiele and Edith.

Edith I imagined to be quite the opposite of Wally. I saw her as a young woman with little bravado, yet someone excited by Schiele’s looks and talent, and I thought that being in love with a high energy artist would be electrifying in the beginning, but that somehow all those eccentricities and sexual exploits would begin to overwhelm her, making her more withdrawn after a few years. The hardest part was to write these emotional changes into the poems, and I must say, I’m glad you noticed.

10.  I was initially amused and puzzled, then a little shaken by the opening line in ‘Tourist’: “We were thankful for Starbucks.”  Talk about bringing the reader back to earth! The piece returns to the Schiele story but there’s a sense of requiring this abrupt ‘departure’ also, that to linger or allow sentimentality would be too difficult. The way it is sometimes when leaving a loved one, better to make the goodbye quick, clean and as painless as possible. Is this how you felt on leaving Vienna?

TH—No, not really. The first part of the research trip had been spent in Vienna and the second had been in Cesky Krumlov; however, we returned to Vienna before leaving as it was our departure point. I wasn’t really sentimental about leaving Vienna, although I think I was overstimulated by the end of the trip, and so we were happy for some comforts of home, which is what Starbucks did for us. Those small things that keep us sane!

To me the focus was on the relationship between two people, and my relationship with them. Sentimentality would’ve been over the top at the end of the book. I’m a romantic, but I’m not very sentimental. I wanted a little sanity at the end of the book. A small sip of reality to keep the reader sane.

11.  Choices:

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Summer or winter? Summer

Landscape or portrait? Portrait

Canoe or bike? Canoe

Tulips or Lilac? Lilac

Pen or Keyboard? Pen

Chocolate or Cheese? Cheese


Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer my idea of food that the book inspires. The ideal menu for reading…
For Red Curls, I would suggest:

bratwurst and freshly made bread

linzer torte

at least one bottle of red wine

(and tulips on an oil cloth covered table)


Tracy-Aug-2013---high-res-(3-of-18)Tracy Hamon was born in Regina, SK and grew up traveling between Regina and her parents’ farm near Edenwold, Saskatchewan. Her first book of poetry This Is Not Eden was released in April 2005 and was a finalist for two Saskatchewan Book Awards. A portion of her second book Interruptions in Glass won the 2005 City of Regina Writing Award and was also shortlisted for two book awards in the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Red Curls was published by Thistledown Press in fall of 2014.

Shelley Banks photo credit.

My webpage is

this is not a review: ‘a crowbar in the buddhist garden’, by stephen reid


I’m mystified at how, collectively, and for a very long time, society has had the idea that to lock someone up and treat them like garbage, will help them blossom. From what I understand, there’s little within the prison system designed to achieve that outcome. Nor do the stats support the theory.

Yet we continue this charade of ‘punishment’ which we prefer to call rehabilitation even though there are fewer and fewer funds to make it so.
I wonder at the why of it and can only come up with Because we’re idiots. And lazy and what’s tucked away out of our sight is someone else’s problem. The problem is that the people whose problem it is have too many problems to fix the real problem.

So we console ourselves with being better than other countries at this prison thing as if that’s the only marker and in some camps the answer now lies in MORE prisons—and ever bigger—where inmates can be treated even less as individuals with individual needs and emerge even more isolated—emotionally or otherwise—to try and live within a society that stands on its moralistic pedestals clucking its giant tongue.

The anthropological side of this absurdity fascinates me.

It’s a big subject and I certainly don’t know what to do about it. I’m not even qualified to rattle on about it. All I know comes from what little I’ve read, a few conversations and a stunning tour through Kingston Penitentiary a mere week after the last inmate left, an eye-opener as to some of what’s wrong with our prison system. [all photos taken on said tour]
In his book, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, Stephen Reid talks about the lack of ‘prison literature’ while writing (from prison) one of the best of that genre I’ve read. Despite spending the better part of his sixty something years dealing with the effects of abuse, drugs, rehabilitation and incarceration, Reid is able to share his stories objectively and without sentiment. Also without gratuitous asides of the horrors of a system he knows too well. Reid doesn’t name any monsters or over-describe details or try to persuade you to feel this way or that; he’s wise enough to let us be all the more dumbfounded by the monster that emerges rather naturally.
Most surprising of all, he writes without a shred of anger or self-pity but with the wisdom of a seasoned prison sage when he says it would be a fine thing to be a ‘metaphysical butcher’ so that we could slice away the 1% of the personality that uses and offends, suggesting that the greater part of the most hardened criminal is decent and kind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, he says. “In criminal law, and much of life, we are our behaviour.”
In the essay ‘The Last Score’ he details the circumstances that landed him most recently in jail after thirteen years of living on the ‘outside’, drug free.

In ‘A Man they Loved’ he is remorseful beyond measure. “I’m forty-nine years old, married to one of the most interesting and beautiful women on the planet, and parent to two incredible pieces of magic… The forfeiture is unbearable. I see a clear plastic laundry bag lying in one corner of my cell. If I could only get it over my head, wind it tight, airtight, at the neck….

“I am determined to go where I have to go, to take it as deep as it is deep, to do whatever it is I have to do to become whole, to never commit another offence, to never again get addicted. To become finally and forever, the man my many friends and family described…”
‘The Last Jesus I Know Of’ is about the Intensive Therapy Violent Offender Program… “a gruelling horror show in which sixteen of the most dangerous offenders are culled from seven regional prisons and forced to endure a year of masochistic and humiliating psychodynamic therapy.” He does this because it will at least break the monotony.

“No one has to be Sigmund Freud to figure out these were men who grew so tired of being wounded, they went out and wounded something else.”

They write autobiography for therapy. And read aloud during sessions. And discover the humanity inside those broken shells.

“… I have learned… that for a lot of people in this room, their first bad choice was their parents.”
“Christmas Eve [a guard] shows up with his crew for a surprise shakedown on the tier. They toss our cells, making a mess, then depart going, ‘Ho Ho Ho.’ The rest of the holiday season passes with Sally Ann Sunshine Bags, attempted suicides, and dark chocolate.”
“Prisons are about addictions. Most prisoners are casualties of their own habits. They have all created victims—some in cruel and callous ways—but almost to a man they have first practised that cruelty on themselves. Prison provides the loneliness that fuels addiction. It is the slaughterhouse for addicts, and all are eventually delivered to its gates.”
“Perhaps the days of prison literature have passed… our culture doesn’t encourage those locked up as criminals to learn to engage with their experience on any intellectual level…. We are a society impatient with its misfits.”

He then offers a list of books worth reading.
In ‘The Zen of the Chain’ he writes about being transferred from one prison to another. He breaks down the indignities, the realities, the heartbreak and fear like a 12 step program. By #11 you are holding your breath and by #12 you realize you’ve just read pure poetry.

 “…To survive you must find the zen of the chain. For instance, if you’re unfortunate enough to have a black box designation and you have to wear that uncomfortable contraption over your handcuffs all day, don’t dwell on the cramps and pain it causes, flow with it, become your black box. Don’t be a new wave crack baby criminal, don’t go sissy on yourself. Suck up them fumes, concentrate on your breathing, find your mantra. Diesel in, diesel out. Let that which doesn’t kill you make you stranger. Transform yourself and your busload of fellow maniacs into an edgy version of Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters. Be patient in all things, let the seasons come and go, and one day fortune will smile. The bus will rumble to a stop at some front gate and you will walk in, passing by enough piles of coiled razor wire to make a knife, fork, and spoon for every man, woman and child on the subcontinent of India. You will step into the induction area, they’ll take off the chains and do the strip fan. You’ll get dressed again but this time the bulls will direct you to the right. And just like that you’re walking down a corridor towards a mainline. You feel weightless. You have survived. Life is grand. Until next time.”
IMG_3866 - Copy

About native justice, healing circles and the sweat lodge [versus incarceration], he writes: “A hundred years ago [an offender] would have faced his victim and his village in a longhouse. Restitution would have been part of the determination. [The offender] would have been punished and the circle would have been damaged but it would not have been broken.”

“Prison is, simply put, the bottom rung of the welfare ladder.”

“…if a native prisoner recovers his culture, he recovers himself.”
Whether he intended it or not, Reid’s opinion of what prison literature should be, describes his own work perfectly:images

“…writing from an experience, not about it.”

Should be required reading in high schools.


Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is available online at Blue Heron Bookssupport indies!!