Author Archives: Andrea

Editor reminds us of forgotten journalist

Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West
Edited and with an Introduction by Patricia Demers (pictured left)
University of Alberta Press, 215 pages, $39.95

Reviewed by Myrna Kostash

Very few readers of newspapers and magazines notice or remember journalists’ by-lines.  Even those journalists–think of Doris Anderson or Barbara Moon or June Callwood–who once were memorable soon fade from public memory as a new generation of readers arrives. Such oblivion has doubly been the fate of women journalists in the early twentieth century who never wrote a book and who laboured under the heavy hand of paternalism in newsrooms. Journalists such as the all-but-forgotten Miriam Green Ellis (1879-1964) wrote over a period of four decades in such publications as the Edmonton Bulletin, Grain Growers’ Guide or the Family Herald and Weekly Star, but managed to stay away from the dreaded Women’s Pages. Ellis was an agricultural reporter when this was undreamed, of until E. Cora Hind came along in 1901 at the Manitoba Free Press where she became a noted journalist famed for the accuracy of her crop estimates. Ellis and Hind liked to scandalize Toronto high society by showing up in breeches at the Royal Winter Fair.

Ellis also kept diaries and gave public lectures, to horticultural societies, University Women’s Clubs and the Canadian Women’s Press Club. She had a life-long commitment to the press club’s ideals as cited in its Constitution: “To improve and maintain the status of journalism as a profession for women and to provide counsel and promote understanding and assistance among press women.”

University of Alberta professor Patricia Demers has recovered Ellis for new readers by delving into the twenty-two boxes of Ellis’s archives bequeathed to the Special Collections of the U of A Library.  Demers has edited this representative selection of her writings and photographs as well as providing the book’s Preface and Introduction.  She makes the case that, in reconsidering the life and work of Ellis, we encounter “reflections of a past and culture that continue to inform our understanding.”  In the manner of academic scholarship, Demers’ own reflections turn to what philosopher Jacques Derrida had to say about archives, to a defense of Ellis the travelogue-journalist as one who “enacts the drama of departure and return, without overlooking experiences of frustration and disjuncture,” and to a characterization of her as a “liminal figure.”

But the point of this edition of Ellis’s work is the work itself, and here the reader is in for a real treat. Demers has chosen a judicious selection of travel writing (the lively 1922 account of Ellis’s trip from Edmonton to Aklavik which she took on her own, her editor at the Bulletin refusing to assign the story);  unpublished fiction based on reported events; agricultural reports in the 1930s full of human interest as she travelled the drought-stricken prairies: “By July the water holes had all dried up . . . stories were told of farmers shooting their animals.” Included are such miscellanea as an observation of a Sun Dance at Hobbema–“I felt saddened  that I was to witness what would, in all probability, be the last Sun Dance ever to be seen in the West,” and an account of a visit to the Banff Fine Arts School, as it was known then in 1947.

Demers sizes up Ellis as “a self-sufficient woman eager to tell a story, by turns candid and sharp-tongued, intuitive and curious.” In other words, the compleat journalist.

Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash is author of Prodigal Daughter:  A journey to Byzantium.

Author protests Haiti’s latest labels

The World Is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake
By Dany Laferriere (pictured left)
Translated by David Homel
Arsenal Pulp Press, 183 pages

Reviewed by Arno Kopecky

“The minute” began at 4:53 in the afternoon of January 12, 2010, just as Dany Laferriere was biting into a piece of bread. The Haitian-born, Montreal-dwelling author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and 19 other novels) happened to be in one of the few concrete buildings in Port-au-Prince that didn’t implode—the Hotel Karibe—when the 7.3 magnitude quake struck. Some 300,000 others didn’t have the same luck.

“Very rare were those who got a good start,” he writes, recalling his own belated rush to the roofless safety of the hotel’s courtyard. “Even the quickest wasted three or four precious seconds before they understood what was happening.”

We all know what came next, and yet Laferriere’s account of the subsequent hours, days and weeks is anything but predictable. This is thanks largely to the astonishing lyricism of his writing.  The World Is Moving Around Me reads more like an extended prose poem than a memoir, broken into titled sections that range in length from a single paragraph to three pages. One of them, The Revolution, reads as follows:

“The radio announced that the Presidential Palace has been destroyed. The taxation and pension office, destroyed. The courthouse, destroyed. Stores, crumbled. The communication network, destroyed. Prisoners on the streets. For one night, the revolution had come.”

And yet, the mass looting that the international press half-hoped would ensue, never did. Order prevailed. The instincts of the collective trumped those of the individual, yielding miracles great and small. The day after the minute, Laferriere walked past a mango lady sitting in front of her small pile of fruit, calling out her sales pitch just like any other day. “These people are so used to finding life in difficult conditions that they could bring hope to hell,” he concludes.

Laferriere started his career as a journalist, fleeing Haiti in 1978 after a colleague with whom he’d been working on a story was murdered by the regime. His reportage merges seamlessly with a novelist’s grasp of the zeitgeist. But the thing that impressed me most about this book was the way he captured the disaster-sensation of being dazed and hyper-lucid all at once. A dream-like quality pervades his prose that no camera could capture, suspending the reader between tears and laughter. We hear, for instance, about the woman who sat outside the building her family was buried alive in. She talked to them through the night. “First her husband stopped responding. Then one of their three three children. Later, another . . . More than a dozen hours later, people were finally able to rescue the baby, who had been crying the whole time. When he got out, he broke into a wide smile.”

Laferriere has done the work of sorting through the rubble for us, piling up impressions until some sort of sense emerges from the senselessness. In the process, he duplicates the city’s “stunned air of a child whose toy has just been accidentally stepped on by an adult.”

In documenting this tragedy and his country’s response to it, Laferriere vehemently protests the latest label heaped on Haiti: “All some commentator has to do is say the word “curse” on the airwaves and spreads like cancer,” he laments. “Before they can move on to voodoo, wild men, cannibalism and a nation of blood-drinkers, they’ll see that I have enough energy to fight them.”

Arno Kopecky’s next book, The Oil Man and the Sea, is in its final stages.

Iconic Alt-Pop Vancouverite Captivates

Hannah Georgas
Hannah Georgas (Dine Alone Records, 2012)
Produced by Graham Walsh

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Yet again, Hannah Georgas gives us that middle ground between accessibility and originality in her songwriting. And although this is what initially earned her Vancouver’s love and respect, it only accounts for a mere fraction of the impeccable craftsmanship that her newest album embodies.

Hannah Georgas opens with a soft, pulsing synth. A distant electronic kick drum slowly creeps in and almost throws off the rhythm for a moment as she laments, “You’re off kilter with me.” The instrumental representation of the lyrics instantly establishes the long anticipated marriage between the electronic synth and the heartfelt singer. It reassures the listener that there is purpose to the supportive synthetic gems, and more importantly, to the words that Georgas sings. But while the assumption might be that an increasingly electronic influence will make an album more “upbeat,” this is not necessarily the case for Hannah Georgas.

The production of the album stays true to the dark lyrics that seem to reflect back on a past, all-consuming kind of love. It instrumentally mirrors that emotional place where we find ourselves distraught, frustrated, and yet determined to move forward with our lives. This is best represented in “Somebody,” where the punchy bass line and drum beat drive the song as Georgas sings, “I know you don’t know what you do / what you do to me / but it hurts like hell.” The album locks into that groove that makes it a suitable “car jam,” but it doesn’t fully dive into the alt-pop dance realm that might be comparable to MGMT.

While the temptation of over-producing and cluttering an electronic album of this nature might be challenging for some, Graham Walsh and Hannah Georgas make it seem like a walk in the park. The minimalist guitar work and synth support result in an incredibly tasteful album, which is at the same time simple and complex. And if this wasn’t already the main highlight for me, then it would have to be its song order and flow.

The first and last tracks give the album a cinematic feel because of how well they portray the carefully plotted introduction and ending, through the use of plush instrumentation paired with artistically adept songwriting. You can practically see the rolling credits as the final track, “Waiting Game,” begins to play, renewing that familiar feeling of Hollywood-movie hopefulness.

Hannah Georgas performs Saturday, August 31 at Whistler Olympic Plaza, Whistler BC.

Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Author’s prose elegant but avoids risk

The Eliot Girls
By Krista Bridge
Douglas and McIntyre, 336 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk

There are books you pick up and, after reading a few chapters, they begin to feel achingly familiar.

Krista Bridge has created the fictional-based-on-fact George Eliot Academy, an all-girls private school in Toronto. The school sits regally atop a hill, surrounded by iron gates; the wood floors are always polished, the soft orange glow of hanging lights reflecting off of them. The walls are lined with historic and influential women leaders. Ruth Brindle has taught in the Junior School since Eliot was founded by its strict, feminist principal, Larissa McAllister. Ruth dreamed of the day her daughter, Audrey, would be accepted into Eliot; but, after many tries at the entrance exams, it isn’t until Audrey is about to begin Grade 10 that she is finally admitted.

Ruth delights in seeing Audrey in her uniform for the first time, but Audrey is not so excitable—she is shy and uncertain of this image her mother has wished for her.

“Now, she required something more than imagination to help her effect this transfiguration, and here in the dimness, it was easier to impose on her image a quality that was not otherwise there.  The sensation was romantic, a fleeting escape, and she lingered before the mirror, letting her gaze drift in and out. Then she glanced down and remembered herself.”

As the story progresses, we learn that the integrity and morals Eliot was built upon act as mere scaffolding, and what the school holds inside is much more sinister and dark than Audrey could have imagined. It does not take long for a particular clique of pretty, mean girls to manipulate Audrey into doing their dirty work—though this still doesn’t make her accepted, it still doesn’t protect her from peer-pressure and bullying. It only buys her a little more time to be left alone in the shadow of her well-liked, beautiful mother.

“Female cattiness was a knowledge into which women were born, like the formation of language, the thousands of words saturating infant brains, lodging there with growing meaning until they are ready to emerge, allusive and unquestioning labels on an already known world. The surprise lay in how much it thrilled her, how its heat enfolded her: the unifying sensation of scorn, the closeness of it almost indistinguishable from love. Even more intimate, perhaps, than love.”

Ruth’s integrity is also tested by the handsome and intelligent Henry Winter, Eliot’s new English teacher. She finds herself questioning her marriage, and what exactly it is she had wanted in a life.

“She knew how it was supposed to go. You think of the fact that you shouldn’t be doing this. You think of what can go wrong. You think of the minutes, the seconds that remain for you to change your mind.”

In the end, both Audrey and Ruth are given the chance to own up to their mistakes. One will; one will not.

Bridge is successful in fleshing out the politics of private schools and rendering the image of the teenage girl trying to fit in. It is an accurate comment on the real-life issues our society is facing with bullying, how backwards teenage logic is: it doesn’t matter if you’re talented, if you’re friendly, if you’re pretty—no one is safe. The novel explores what it means to fit in and how we stretch ourselves to fit the lives we think we ought to have, how mothers mold their children into the people they think they ought to be, and how they try to mold themselves from the ideals of their own mothers.

Bridge’s sentences are elegant and well strung, as though each description is trimmed with fine lace—almost acting as a mask to the ugly occurrences within the school. The third person point of view is effective in acting as a study, an examination as it switches between Ruth and Audrey, and the transitions are seamless.

I wish Bridge had taken more risks with the book. It is a story we’ve seen before, many times, and there is potential for it to be something other than the well-known story of teenage acceptance. So the reader must look past the beauty, past the smiling teenage girls who spend their lunch hours rating their classmates’ looks out of ten on small scraps of paper—for even the prose is keeping up appearances.

Jenny Boychuk is an avid reader and recent BFA graduate. 

Poet sees prairie clearly

Seldom Seen Road
By Jenna Butler
NeWest Press, 76 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Karen Enns

The title poem of Jenna Butler’s Seldom Seen Road, the Edmonton author’s third book, opens with the line “what is true about this land” and goes on to list these truths: that “ prairie is scant / but wears it well,” that “all signs last,” and “against earth / everything is transitory.” The final image of a sun that “catches your eye like a backward glance / alights  moves on” gives us a sense of the tone of these prairie poems and a glimpse, too, of Butler’s subtle exploration of fragility and strength: how they coexist and at what cost.

Throughout, Butler’s eyes and ears are committed to fine observation–“frantic counterpoint of orioles”, for instance, and  “pinwheels of hummingbirds”–but it is her use of the tough language of farm labour and life that really charges the poetry. Axes and mattocks pack a consonantal punch, as do words like scythes and balers, feeder roots, the east quarter, back forty, a pickup “shunting like a heifer,” fescue and gumbo. Some of the most striking lines combine this aural muscularity with a delicately framed lyricism:

from the hill    you watch
the back forty gone to muskeg
& tamarack     the shifting dance of
slough birds    white pelican lifts
a pleated wing
to steer out over dark water
navigating the skin of things

these still     black places
this accidental light

The central section, Lepidopterists, is a collection of epitaphs to prairie women interspersed with poems named after butterflies like “Riding’s Satyr,” “Gray Copper,” and “Jutta Arctic.”  Images of women like Mary Norton, who starved to death in 1728 near Churchill at the age of twenty, become bold points of focus, like eye spots, against understated poems such as “Afranius Duskywing”:

she rests amongst
the buffalo bean

what is slight
goes unnoticed

hush of two generations
finding flight
lapis wings
bluing the air

The poems are filled with abandoned towns and farmhouses, deserted railway tracks, the many signs of human interaction with the land that last: a “bell tower gone to pigeons,” and a church “down to staves”. There is haunting and grief in “the way heat eases & / pummels a town / when the elevators fall  when / we are faced with / the rubble of their passing”. Fragility and strength are sometimes interchangeable, and solitude is simply part of it, the toll: “Look back all you want / one cart track ambling / mercurial skyline.”

But there remains a deep commitment to the prairie that “knows the right of it / where you are is where you stand”. That place, it seems, is not necessarily static. Butler chooses a quote from Alberta Wriiter George Melnyk to introduce her collection: “On the prairie, one twists around and around until the straight horizon line turns into a circle, and the visual turns visionary.” That gradual shift, that process, according to the poet, has much to do with the gaze of the seer. And tough love. In “Called Back,” a husband returns with his elderly wife to the place they know so well. Her weathered focus on what matters most is clear:

she scours the porch
at the seniors’ residence
thinks forty years of northern spruce
slimwillow loon-call

nothing to fasten on here but
claretcup     paintbrush
sunbruised petals she spots & loves hard.

Karen Enns is a Victoria poet and musician.

Girls’ stories linger in mind

Girl Rising
Directed by Richard E. Robbins
Vancouver Island premiere, The Caprice, Langford

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Canada Day is all but over as I write this, but I’m still saying a heartfelt thank you to the Canadians who joined forces to bring Girl Rising to a theatre near me.

I first heard about this movie from a friend in Los Angeles. One of the benefits, I thought gloomily, of living in a metropolis is having access to unique documentaries that never quite make it into the commercial theatre circuit.

But—guess what! My friend in Los Angeles has still not succeeded in seeing this film, while I have had that pleasure, thanks to two women associated with Dwight School Canada, an independent boarding school for local and international students. Danielle Donovan, a teacher, and Christine Bader, communications and outreach coordinator, joined forces to gain the school’s sponsorship for the film and arrange a one-night-only showing.

Proceeds went to Because I am a Girl, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to empowering women and girls worldwide by promoting gender equality and girls rights, but Donovan stressed that “getting the word out” was more important than fundraising, so admission was by donation.

In this case, the “word” was about the struggles of nine girls from as many underdeveloped countries to rise above poverty and the limited opportunities for women in their countries. Each girl’s story was unique, but also stood for the stories of many others.

My personal favourite was Wadley from Haiti, whose thousand-watt smile remained undimmed in the aftermath of the earthquake that left her and her mother in a tent-camp with thousands of others. Wadley, a bright student, suddenly found she could no longer attend school because her mother’s source of income disappeared with the earthquake. In Haiti, as in many developing countries, school is not free, but Wadley wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “If you send me away,” she told the teacher, “I will come back every day until you let me stay.” Eventually, the teacher relented.

Each girl was paired with a writer from her own country who helped her tell her story.  Wadley was paired with writer Edwidge Denticat who emigrated from Haiti to New York as a child and whose novel, Brother, I’m Dying won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

More than one story exemplified the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls in their cultures. Yasmin (not her real name), from Egypt, was sexually assaulted but insisted on calling herself a “superhero” because she fought back against her attacker. The stories were supplemented by cleverly staged sound bites of facts, for example, in Yasmin’s case, the information that, in Egypt, 50 per cent of all sexual assaults are on girls under 15.

The film, however, provided a balanced presentation on men. I found it heartwarming that the girls were often aided in their struggles by brothers and fathers. Marriage often ends a girl’s education at an early age in many countries, but Azmera in Ethiopia found the courage to say “no” to an arranged marriage when her brother voiced his support.  And Senna in Peru was named after Xena, warrior princess, by her father, a miner, who insisted that she go to school.

The film asks the question: “What changes when these girls get an education?” The answer: “Everything!”

If you missed this film, don’t give up.  Get together with friends and bring it back. International Day of the Girl is coming in October. Check out the website:

Joy Fisher recently completed her BFA in Writing.


Hot August Nights at Russell Books

Russell’s Reading Series presents Hot August Nights
with Amanda Leduc, Yausko Thanh and Lee Henderson
August 20

On the hot evening of August 20th join Russell Books, Victoria BC, in a cool vintage area for an evening reading with visiting author Amanda Leduc, and local authors Yasuko Thanh and Lee Henderson.

In The Miracles of Ordinary Men Amanda Leduc weaves the stories of Sam who wakes up one day to find himself growing wings, and Lilah, who has lost her brother to the streets of Vancouver, and who seeks penance under the harsh hand of her boss.

Journey Prize-winner Yasuko Thanh’s collection of short stories Floating Like the Dead, a sharply observed and erotically charged debut collection, immerses us in the lives of people on the knife edge of desire and regret, hungry for change yet still yearning for a place to call home, if only for a little while.

The Man Game, Lee Henderson’s epic tale of love requited and not, begins on a recent Vancouver Sunday afternoon, when a young man stumbles upon a secret sport invented more than a century before, at the birth of his city.

RSVP to the event at:

Metric’s shimmery precision

Synthetica (Mom + Pop Music, 2012)
Produced by Gavin Brown, John O’Mahony, Liam O’Neil and James Shaw

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Metric’s slow rise to the top has been an inspiring sight for fans and musicians alike. Notably, their previous release, Fantasies, earned them Juno Alternative Album of the Year as well as Alternative Band of the Year. Now, having charted at number two on the Canadian albums for their latest single “Youth Without Youth,” they have once again been short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, this time for Synthetica.

Formed in 1998, Metric has had a long and prosperous life thus far. Touring on the heels of their fifth studio album, which has just as much to offer as the last one, they are showing no signs of slowing down. While many older bands often face the conundrum of continuously producing music that lives up to their previous releases, Metric has tactfully avoided this tragedy with style and glamour.

Standing by their signature guitar and keyboard hooks that are tightly synced with the meticulously produced rhythmic grids, the album is musically compatible with their previous albums, and yet still offers a fresh artistic vision. It’s that same stylish and classy indie rock-and-roll that their adoring fans were hoping for.

The album opens with a much darker and more experimental track than one might expect from the band, although it’s probably meant to showcase their ability to transcend the rock-pop vibe that they often abide by. But it isn’t long before it rolls perfectly into track two, “Youth Without Youth,” where they snap right back on to the tight rhythmic grid that encapsulates the pure precision and straight-ahead indie rock that is Metric.

And admittedly there’s some comfort in hearing that transition, although it doesn’t mean that the rest of the album continues to unfold exactly how you might expect. “Breathing Underwater” almost seems like the modern revamp of U2’s “With Or Without You,” with its similar bass line and tastefully delayed guitar. This is followed by a couple more curveballs, where Emily Haines feminizes her voice ironically in “Lost Kitten,” and then does a duet with Lou Reed (of all people) in “The Wanderlust.”

But whether the track in question is leaning toward the gloomy or the shimmery, Synethica as a whole pulls through as a manufactured masterpiece that is fully deserving of its Polaris Music Prize nomination.

Chris Ho is a UVic graduate and Victoria-based singer-songwriter.

Open Space hosts Exhibition and Workshops

Remembering Amelia: Exhibition and Workshops
with New Dance Horizons, Robin Poitras, Yvonne Chartrand, and Ashley Johnson
August 6-10
Open Space, Victoria
Registration $5

Remembering Amelia celebrats the conrtributions of dance maverick Amelia Itchush, one of the country’s finest somatic movement analysts. This event includes a series of special performances, workshops and conversations, and an exhibition/display featuring an array of medias documenting Amelia’s practice. Partnership with Dance Victoria.

Collection reveals largesse of Planet Earth

Poems from Planet Earth
Edited by Yvonne Blomer and Cynthia Woodman Kerkham
Leaf Press, 208 pages, $20

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Planet Earth Poetry is a reading series at the Moka House in Victoria, and over the years many poets have offered their work to an appreciative audience. Editors Yvonne Blomer (who runs the reading series) and occasional host Cynthia Woodman Kerkham have assembled a diverse collection from over one hundred poets who have read, showcasing the richness of Planet Earth.

Patrick Lane, a star not only in the local poetry scene, but also in the poetry world at large, contributes both a poem and the introduction to the book. He explains the genesis of the series’ name, which is taken from P.K. Page’s poem “Planet Earth,” and notes that Page “is one of the masters, the progenitors of the poems that live among these pages.” Lane eloquently shows poetry’s importance: “We reside forever in this one precious moment. Life seethes around us. It lives, it dies, it lives again. A poem is at times our only stay against all that assails us.” Poems from Planet Earth presents an exuberant cacophony of voices examining uncountable facets of life.

Blomer and Kerkham had a monumental task in creating the volume; choosing how to organize the book must have been a challenge. The editors have opted for seven broad categories into which they have placed the poems, with a short introduction to each section: Life and Loss, Nature, Place, Love, Death and Hope, Music and Art, and Family. Obviously, many poems could be slotted into numerous categories. The volume also includes acknowledgements and biographies, so it’s a handy tool for further investigation. Curiously, the alphabetical contents at the beginning are by poet’s first name, rendering the list less helpful than it could be, but that is a minor quibble as the biographies are alphabetized by last name.

The voices contained include the well-known, such as Lane, Lorna Crozier, Jan Zwicky, Pamela Porter, Patrick Friesen, Patricia Young, and Sheri-D Wilson. But with so many contributors, most readers are sure to discover a new voice. And as over half of the poems are published for the first time in this volume, every reader will encounter something unfamiliar.

The forms vary enormously, with most being free verse, but closed forms such as the pantoum can be found (John Barton’s “Les beaux-arts, Montréal”) or the sestina (Tanis MacDonald’s “Sestina: Whiskey Canyon”). This volume does good job of showing the vastness of poetic approaches.

I’d recommend dipping into this book at random. It doesn’t matter if the poems are read in the order as presented. The content is a bit uneven, but with so much included, readers will get much of value. Kudos to Planet Earth Poetry for its continued celebration of poetry, and kudos to Blomer and Kerkham for creating this engaging and eclectic collection.

Candace Fertile is  Coastal Spectator’s poetry editor.