Saturday, July 20, 2019

Review of Milkman by Anna Burns


This book is why I read fiction. It's a challenging read but stick with it if you are interested in learning how individuals respond psychologically to an essentially insane environment like Belfast in the 1970's at the height of the 'Troubles'. The narrator escapes as best she can by reading only 17th, 18th and 19th century novels and is stubborn about doing her reading while walking to and from her courses and her job, head down, desperate to be oblivious and unnoticed. But this odd behaviour puts her "beyond the pale" which is the term applied not to Jewish farming settlements behind palings (fences) in Russia. Here it means she has joined other mentally ill suspects in the hard-scrabble Catholic neighbourhood who cannot be persuaded to stop their obsessive activities. And who decides what's normal when people (and family pets, erstwhile watch-dogs, which was particularly heart-rending to animal lovers like me) are being blown up and shot and otherwise murdered by the dozens every year?

The rosary-clacking under-educated pious women of course, colossal gossips, the lot of them, who watch everyone else, speculate as to motives and judge mightily, whose own pinched and constrained lives inevitably lead to malicious envy should another girl or woman shine (shining being the term for people who persist in believing in the beauty of sunsets, in being kind and helpful and brave as well in the face of the self-appointed renouncers and the paramilitary). Burns' great gift is to gabble away in that interior monologue which is so particularly Irish, with that over-the-top wonderful use of the English language, to reel us in and get us onside, fuming along with her about the curse of the gossips and then to show us these same women, fed-up with the deadly forays of the renouncers and the enemy paramilitary both murdering unarmed bystanders and taking to the streets beating the lids of pots and pans with kitchen spoons, shaming them outside their clubhouses or their guard posts.

The feeling of being trapped in this neighbourhood, of being watched and evaluated, of sibling rivalry and maternal disapproval, of being associated with your family for good and for ill, is exacerbated for our narrator when she attracts the unwelcome attentions of a man in a white van, the titular Milkman who is not the real milkman at all. This stalker is determined to make her, an 18 year old, his girlfriend. He knows almost everything about her daily activities and makes sure she knows he knows. The tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels. Her response to this additional insanity in her life is to numb herself, to become expressionless. She guards her facial expressions as much as she guards her private thoughts from the intrusive watchers in her world, but they have immediately noticed the Milkman and begin fabricating a whole new life for her. It never stops, the gossip, which changes how others treat her but she is desperate to keep this persistent suitor at bay.

The insights of this terrified teenager, her often humorous observations of people's behaviour (gift-wrapping potatoes for a beau), despite the bleak political situation, and the brilliant use of language, structure and pacing makes this book an incredibly rewarding reading experience. She takes big risks with her writing strategies, eg. to eschew names for all her characters except one near-mythic beautiful woman who joined the nunnery, and to assign them roles instead (almost-boyfriend, real milkman, the wee sisters, tablet girl) which will predictably trigger a chorus of wails from those readers whose heads hurt if things are too different, too unpredictable. But for everyone who loves truly original writing, with enough menace to keep the pages flapping, this book is hugely rewarding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review of The Cut-Out Girl (Random House: 2018) by Caroline Woodward


This book opened my eyes to the horrific experience of Jews, and especially Jewish children, in World War II Holland. We have all read The Diary of Anne Frank but this book puts the context of Occupied Holland into place, the big picture, the role of the churches, the police, informers, and the resistance.

The very fact that 80% of Holland's Jews were murdered, more than any other European country including Germany and Austria, is staggering. The vulnerability and loneliness of children whose parents had to do the hardest possible thing, give them away to save their lives because they knew they'd likely lose their own lives sooner than later, is in some ways, even worse than the stories of Barnardo children, many of whom were orphans living in poverty, not a loving extended and immediate family. Most of these children were ripped from loving homes and hidden in claustrophobic attics and cellars and rooms which were glorified cupboards. They were taken away by incredibly courageous Dutch people who relied on their trusted networks of fellow university students or Dutch Socialist Party (somewhat like the Labour Party in the UK or the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the New Democratic Party in Canada) members or their professional associations to help with transportation and hiding places. Informers were everywhere and were being paid the princely sum of 7.50 guilders per Jewish person to bring them to the attention of the Dutch police.

The story is beautifully written by a professor of English literature at Oxford, Dutch by birth, whose own family hid Jewish children and adults during the war, as many farmers did. Farmers could grow food and could manage to feed people even as their supplies were regularly ransacked by the German army. The structure of the book may challenge people who need a straightforward linear sort of book but for me, it greatly enriched the story. I learned about Lien, a beautiful and bright child, who was spirited away when she was eight years old. Her education is interrupted, her hiding places and friendships and personal growth stop and start and block and blossom. She learned to numb herself after crying many, many tears because she missed her mother and father so much. The book follows Lien's journey, from catching tadpoles in the stream with another little boy to being over-worked and underfed by an awful family and even worse. The ending is hard-won and happy, I can say without it being a spoiler, because this is not escapist fare. Keep reading!

Lien's chapters are interspersed with chapters about the author's method of conducting research, going to all the buildings and all the villages where Lien was hidden. Other chapters detail the role of the "blindly co-operative Jewish Council" who handed over their register of all Dutch Jews and their addresses to the Nazis and of the Dutch Reformed Church who sat on their hands and were utterly complicit with the Nazis whereas the Catholic Church made a public statement to all their church-goers decrying the rounding up and transportation of Dutch Jews including many who were actually among the congregations as they'd switched over a century earlier. So, history, research and Lien's story are woven together to create this book and it is hard reading (my mother was Dutch) but the humanity shines through. Lien becomes a wonderful human being, despite it all, a lesson to us all.

Mountain Blues (NeWest: 2018) by Sean Arthur Joyce

Mountain Blues by Sean Arthur Joyce

“Well, I’m a reporter just new in town. Looking for work.”

So begins Roy Breen’s introduction to life in a small village in the West Kootenays, to the love of his life, to witnessing inspired community resistance to centralized decision-making and, fortuitously for them all, his new employer. While covering stories of all descriptions for the Mountain Echo, Roy Breen recovers from a hectic fifteen years as a Vancouver reporter. He’d paid his journalistic dues there only to be shunted away from a City Hall beat promotion by a lesser-paid cub reporter, no thanks to a change in ownership in the leaner, meaner millennium. Fed-up with this corporate treatment, Breen quits and heads to the British Columbia Interior where he was born and raised.

He and his cat spend some quality camping time roaming through four of B.C.’s six mountain chains before ending up in an old silver-mining village beside a glacier-fed lake, remarkably resembling New Denver merged with Silverton. The lyrical valley and village descriptions will make many readers want to quit their own stuffy, city-trapped jobs and move there themselves.

The Mountain Echo, moreover, still pays its writers and actually employs a proofreader and fact checker, which along with reference librarians, have been dismissed by metro dailies in Vancouver and elsewhere. But then the odds of running into the main antagonists at the previous evening’s meeting en route to the village Post Office is much higher in El Dorado as well and the new reporter in town has to tread carefully and tactfully.

The first major issue is the shocking announcement that the El Dorado Hospital will be shut down within weeks. Vans arrive, in a startling display of efficiency from the centralized health authority, to remove vital X-ray equipment. But the villagers are resourceful veterans of blockade lines and have organized a telephone tree which loops around the communities dependent on the emergency ward, the doctors, the extended care wing for bedridden elders and volunteers arrive by the dozens and stay there round the clock.

We are introduced to the many and varied forms of peaceful resistance from individual hunger strikes to protest “crawls”, yes, not walks but crawls which are more commonplace in religious approaches by supplicants near cathedrals in South America, on their knees as they cross stony plazas. We go behind the scenes to understand how difficult it is for a level-headed co-ordinator to deal with highly individualistic types who threaten violence and sabotage and would thereby threaten the credibility of the entire protest. We also understand more about the conflict and ethical considerations of our reporter-narrator who has always tilted to the side of the underdogs and been reprimanded for it in the big city daily. But here he puts a writerly foot wrong once and is hollered at most profanely by the normally level-headed organizer herself, a statuesque beauty who is a natural leader in the community. We also get to meet the public relations bureaucrat from the regional health authority who must deliver the bad news about the hospital closure and he, as you might suspect, gets his comeuppance soon enough.

Throughout it all, Sean Arthur Joyce uses a light, deft touch for topics that could be heavily righteous slogging. His characters are completely 3-D and his dialogue is a delight to ‘hear’ as it is so realistic in its rhythms, which sets each distinct character apart from the next, no easy feat. The humour is gentle and tolerant and reminds us that when we live in a small community, the most sound advice would be: Let your words be gentle in case they come back to bite you. For a journalist, this means striving for fairness, depth and objectivity and not ‘piling on’ the blame in this era of rushing to often-violent judgement, propelled by self-serving, vindictive and ultimately irresponsible tweets.

The love story which unfolds is also a delight and we readers cheer on the middle-aged lonely hearts who are instantly attracted and find each other to be excellent company in the midst of the strife afflicting the villagers. The cafes in El Dorado serve great coffee, even if the wait-staff tend to editorialize the hapless new reporter’s latest efforts, and the mountain water is sublimely pure, the basis for all great coffee, lest we forget. Pack your bags and head for the West Kootenay mountains, especially the Valhalla Range, a copy of the big-hearted Mountain Blues nearby, best read aloud by kindred spirits en route, especially those in need of that special blend of glorious wilderness and resolutely alive, no-nonsense, ‘stand up to protect it or lose it forever’, community that beckons within its pages.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

On Gratitude: a Thanksgiving blog

Dahlias, Lennard Island Lightstation, October 2018. Truth & Beauty...
Seamus Woodward-George explains a finer point of physics to mystified parents
Molly Brown, sea-dog and CEO of Lennard Island Lightstation
Jeff George, photographer and principal lightkeeper documenting the Big Storm of 2018 which tossed logs onto our helipad

A wonderful collaboration with artist Carol Evans resulted in this book, published by the great folks at Harbour Publishing, September 2018
Carol Evans and I,  aka long-lost sisters, enjoy morning coffee in Salt Spring Island mugs! Photo by the good-natured Bryn King, book tour driver, feedback provider, all-round roadie, computer whiz and paparazzi!
On Gratitude                                                                                        By Caroline Woodward

When your doctor beams at you before saying a word and you know she is relieved not to be the bearer of bad news. And that my world will not be turned upside down. Some day it will be but today will not be that day. I feel every healthy cell instantly flooded with some internal bath of sweet relief. My always reliable blood pressure is even better than usual. More kudos, more mutual smiles. I float down the clinic hallway and rejoin the colour and noise and glowing lights of the world outside, stepping lightly off a low-lying cloud, a suspended fogbound world of my most dire imaginings.

Gratitude, a word derived from the French, first used in written English in the 15th century, meaning thankfulness and a warm sense of appreciation for kindness received and a desire to do something in return. OED

I am also proud, happy and grateful for perseverance all around when our child, who is no longer a boy but a grown man and a genuinely good soul, flies to a Norwegian island near the Arctic Circle for a physics course. It’s an eight day blitz but Map Boy aka Mister 3-D is flying with this rare opportunity. He’s like us and loves to travel. Unlike his math-challenged parents, he is also keen on robots which he designs with a team of brilliant students at the University of Saskatchewan and this year as well, they will be making a small satellite to fulfill a Canada Space Agency contract, one of five awarded to Canadian universities. If you’d asked me twenty years ago what this little boy might create, might become, I cannot imagine what I’d have said. A carpenter or a chef maybe? Even before he went to kindergarten, he loved making things, from stirring big batches of muffins with me to inventing elaborate castles and moats with sand and water with his dad. Entirely on his own, he enjoyed making series of vertical tunnels using empty toilet paper rolls which he’d tape to my office door. Then he’d climb up on a chair and send a ping pong ball accurately zig-zagging from the top to the bottom of the door through all his ‘tunnels’ and out onto the carpet. He was three and a half years old then, I think. But I would have hoped he’d still be a good person most of all, no matter what, a good and kind person, and despite the usual, and more than usual, life challenges he’s faced. So I have intense gratitude for all our patience and perseverance and what Buddhists call metha or loving kindness as both parents and child problem-solved and supported each other in our best efforts. My gratitude also goes out to the teachers who understood and whose helpful awareness and professional skills made all the difference.

Our thoughtful son gave me a Tim Horton’s card with a $25 credit at the start of a book tour in 2010. I still had a car then and drove hundred of kilometres to the Kootenays and the Shuswap/Okanagan, Vancouver, Victoria and Vancouver Island giving public readings and signing my books in bookstores. I had not had a trade book published since 1993 and this was the re-start of my stalled writing career with a novel I’d laboured over for the better part of twelve years in-between motherhood, renovating a circa 1900 building, opening and operating The Motherlode with my husband, a village book and toy store, busily serving on local and provincial boards and councils, teaching creative writing classes and workshops, and singing in a wonderful choir. I loved all the things I was learning and working with all sorts of bright and talented people but I despaired of ever having enough time and focus to complete the novel satisfactorily.

On tour, I live on coffee and water and apples and almonds in my car, in-between actual meals once I reach my destination. I still have that Timmy’s card my son gave me and before every book tour I make sure I have it with me, topped up and ready to pay for my large double/singles to go. Other book tour rituals pertain as well. I am grateful for the cheerful nature, lively conversation and amazing hair styling skills of Jessica Taylor at Salty Dolls in Tofino who transforms my shaggy mop into a chic hairdo before I head out to meet the public, feeling much more well-groomed and therefore, perky! I used to buy new shoes whenever I published a new book but I’ve let that ritual celebration go by the wayside. My thriftier self advises me to wait until I actually earn royalties worth spending on nifty boots or red shoes. If I ever win a real prize (nine nominations and no joy yet but who’s counting?) I’ll buy extravagant flannelette sheets AND fabulous boots and shoes, guilt-free.

But here’s the wonderful part of getting a book published after years of rewriting and coming up with fictional characters and plots and all the rest of it: meeting old friends and new readers who come out to wish me well. Some of them bring flowers or home-grown tomatoes or home-made preserves. My favourite people in this world all have that twinkle, that sense of fun and Jessica possesses that twinkle. She plays banjo, sings harmony and writes songs for her bluegrass band, Little Saturday, among other adventures in music and travel.

It may sound odd, but it won’t to many readers who work at building all kinds of things, from organizations to buildings to books, but when a project is completed, nobody is more relieved and grateful than the builder. We feel we have earned hard-won integrity in our own eyes at last by actually finishing the project (our close relatives and those patient souls who share a life with us are mightily relieved as well) and we may even allow ourselves a rest after completing this complex and challenging task. But no, rest comes later because we have to hit the road to promote the project in the case of a book or keep scheduling meetings and including bright minds and energetic do-ers, if we are building an organization to improve lives in our communities like my good friend, writer Rita Moir does with her group, building beautiful homes for seniors in rural British Columbia.

The other wonderful thing that happens when a book goes out into the world is hearing from readers, those lovely people who send me emails thanks to finding me on Facebook or finding my website, designed by Doug Cook, web wizard at Digicom. I am a reader first, a writer second and I have written less than five letters to authors to say what I liked about their books and how they were important to me in some way. Every single author responded warmly as do I when I receive a personal letter. This is not to say there aren’t the usual trolls and poison pens out there but they are immature cowards who rely on anonymity or some form of protective camouflage to spew their toxic envy. As another friend says, if the haters are out to get you, you must be doing something right. So I’m grateful to have a few of those sad sacks waddling around as well to remind me of that fact!

Finally, since this is a Thanksgiving-inspired blog, I am thankful for my family, far away in Australia, Europe and the UK, and our son on Andoya, an island near the Arctic Circle in Norway and especially my husband, and our dog. Mustn’t forget the dog, who adores us on a daily basis, … and anyone else who arrives on our island as well, let’s be honest! My 93 year old mother is, thanks largely to my sister’s ongoing work, settled in a beautiful assisted living home now after a fairly hectic move but the outcome was worth all the bother and hard labour. I am also blessed with friends from all over the world and the only way to keep them is to communicate so I am grateful, hugely grateful, for the internet which allows me to stay in touch with them and to work with editors and send out my book reviews to BC Bookworld and articles to Harrowsmith and other publications. This was truly the deal-breaker for a modern lighthouse keeper and thanks to my clever and persistent husband, we have installed a satellite dish on this green rock in the North Pacific which allows me to work, to share what I think and hope and dream in print.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Review of Sustenance: Writers From BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food

A version of this review first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of the quarterly magazine, BC Bookworld and is reprinted here with permission. A great book to browse, graze or devour!

Book Review of Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food
Edited and with a Foreword by Rachel Rose
Published by Anvil Press
978-1-77214-101-6   $25 large trade paperback
Image result for "Sustenance Rachel Rose"
Let me begin by putting on my bookseller’s hat and asking the key question: who will reach for this book?

Gardeners who sigh happily over the new batch of seed catalogues arriving in late January, cooks who read cookbooks like other people immerse themselves in books of short stories, amateur and professional chefs, readers and writers of compressed, powerful poetry and prose, those who appreciate photography and will discover Derek Fu’s gorgeous work…and that’s just for starters.

There are 151 tidbits to savour from writers who live in Vancouver, where Poet Laureate Rachel Rose envisioned this highly collaborative book, and from elsewhere around the world. There are contributions from nationally renowned poets like Lorna Crozier, John Pass and Susan Musgrave, nearly-anonymous librarians who write like angels, celebrated chefs like Karen Barnaby, Meeru Dhalwala, Vikram Vij and Frank Pabst, thoughtful children and wise elders, some speaking Arabic and Cree. There are farmers, beekeepers, fishers and backyard gardeners, First Nations, Metis, refugees and members of their welcome committees.

As Poet Laureate for the City of Vancouver from 2014-2017, Rachel Rose wanted a community project which offered another world view than the muttering and braying about walls to keep out the Other, meaning Muslims, Mexicans, and desperate refugees the world over. Rose had already spent years volunteering with Burmese families in Surrey, shopping for food, shampooing hair, attending graduations, weddings and funerals. Her genuine Canadian hospitality imbues this book project too because the money raised by sales, as well as every single writer’s honorarium, is donated to the BC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Coupon Program so that low-income families will have access to fresh, locally-grown food.

So as well as bringing so many wonderful writers together at the ‘table’ of Sustenance,  the book itself is a gift that keeps on giving, the Poet Laureate’s inspired “love letter to the city.”

The selected writings, as you’d expect from an editor and writer of her stature with award-winning work published internationally and an abiding focus on human rights, is unfailingly eloquent. This is not a book written by or for people scampering off to find the trending mustard de jour. As well as thoughtful, we have hilarious (Jane Silcott’s ‘Cooking Class & Marriage Lessons’ and Karen Barnaby’s ‘Blackberry Fever’), heart-breaking (Sophia Karasouli-Milobar’s ‘Fava Bean Stew’ and Elizabeth Ross’ ‘Milky Way’), sensual (Jeff Steudel’s ‘Recipe’), life-affirming (Brian Brett’s ‘I Want to Serve Food to Strangers’) and carnivorous, although I would also cross-file it under hilarious (kjmunro’s ‘hungry in Tofino’).

The voices are as diverse as the forms— interviews, memoirs, recipes, both literal and figurative, prose and poems of all kinds, some as paeans to moose meat, bees, bread, beer, tomatoes, rice, beloved grandmothers, salmon, maple syrup, elk heart and fresh berries. The writers tackle subjects as difficult as anorexia, obesity, starvation, sugar, animal deaths, and allergies, real and possibly, imposed (see the delightful, plaintive essay, ‘Check the Ingredients!’ by Charles Dickens Grade 6 student, Ayla Maxwell).

What makes this book important and substantial to me begins with the obvious, universal fact: we all must eat to survive. Secondly, food is served on a platter of emotional connections to people, place and experience, the things that really matter to each of us therefore,  the writing packs a visceral wallop. To sum up, food, sustenance, is intensely personal as well as political (read Billeh Nickerson’s smart, incisive poem ‘A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Vancouver Food (In)Securities’).

The final words, amid the cornucopia of offerings at this banquet for humanity, goes to ten year old collaborators, Bodhi Cutler and Gus Jackson, who both attend Charles Dickens Elementary School in Vancouver. ‘Every Dish is Unique’ is their short, sweet and perfectly apt essay which sums up Sustenance.

‘Every dish is unique because every Vancouverite makes it a tiny bit different. We all have our styles and our ingredients, our suppliers and our equipment. There are restaurants who will probably make great pasta with the best calamari. Your mom can make a great homemade meal she invented herself. No two meals taste the same because they are like humans, unique and great.’


Saturday, February 24, 2018

An Appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin & Lorna Obermayr

By sheer coincidence, I read Le Guin's last novel, Lavinia, in January, inspired by all things Etruscan and Roman after a long-overdue return trip to Italy in the fall of 2017. Then I read her amazing book of tips for writers, from beginners to tired old writers with many books under our figurative belts, Steering the Craft, which is also wise and brilliant. I was building up to writing a fan letter, which I've only done about three times in my long'ish life, when Ursula K. Le Guin passed away a few weeks ago. I was bereft, somehow, and filled with regret.

All that humming and hawing and thinking about the right thing to write to such a great writer and then boom, the moment is lost forever. Well, one more book arrived from within our green linen remote library services bag of books last week and I devoured it and felt, just a little, forgiven in absentia for my dithering. No Time To Spare is a book of Le Guin's blogs, edited with loving care and with an introduction by writer Karen Joy Fowler, a delight to read itself.

Blogs were a discovery for Le Guin, who came across Nobel Prize-winning Jose Saramago's blogs and as a fan of his, she was inspired to become a blogger, which her impish sense of humour had fun with first, as a word nerd will appreciate. The book tackles many subjects-from not having enough time left in her life to write, to the antics of her cat and the views and wildlife she appreciated from a desert cabin retreat. This book was just awarded the PEN/Diamonstein-Speilvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes about anger, diminishing physical stamina, children, music concerts, letters from children and from adults, American politics, and a declawed and defanged lynx in a conservation rescue facility. It is the kind of book aging writers will comprehend most keenly, I think. I remember an artist friend of mine, Lorna Obermayr, exhorting me to do as much work as I could while I was young and strong because the fire in the belly simmers down for some and the physical stamina to stand and paint or to sit and write wanes as we age. Good, sound advice. Thank you, Lorna, gone far too soon. At least I managed to write a short eulogy which another friend read at the celebration of your life.

There are people I meet in this life whom I want, essentially, to live forever or at least, selfishly, as long as me. I adore them, plain and simple. They are brilliant at what they do so they are a source of inspiration just because they are who they are, they work hard and rarely whine about anything, they have integrity, they are big-hearted and they usually have a wicked sense of humour as well. Lorna Obermayr was such a force and so, I sense from her literary legacy and especially this book of essays, her blogs, was Ursula K. Le Guin.

May Ursula Le Guin's fangs and claws last for the rest of the earth's existence! Long live Le Guin! Thank the stars we have writers like her to make us sit up straight, to make us dream, to observe more closely, to think more critically, to love the humans and creatures, wild and domestic, we share the planet with. Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Book Review of The Talking Spade, Laughter in the Shadows & The Power of Pulses

The Talking Spade: Garden Lore from North Slocan Elders by Anne Champagne 978-0-9950700-0-4 (Healthy Community Society of the North Slocan Valley, New Denver, B.C.) 2016

Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women by Marianne Stamm 978-0-9867821-5-2 (Marerob Press, Calgary/Switzerland) 2015
                                          Laughter in the Shadows: Stories of Courage from 11 Zambian Women
  The Power of Pulses by Dan Jason, Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne 978-1-77162-102-1(Douglas & McIntyre (2013) Ltd., Madeira Park, B.C.) 2016
                                           Image result for "The Power of Pulses Jason"                                      

November. Sigh. Possibly the grimmest month of the year, predominantly grey and dull brown with a skimpy bit of snow if you’re lucky. Nothing for gardeners to do except finish cleaning up soggy leaves and other debris and sharpening and oiling tools, or waiting, in my case, for a West Coast cold snap to dash out and prune the David Austen rose outside my kitchen window so the poor thing will not lose any more bark-skin being thrashed around by the storms coming at us.

January. Yay! The garden catalogues begin to show up in our mailboxes. Life! Greenery! Glorious colour! Hope!

Meanwhile, what to do with November and December? Hang on to your dreams by reading interesting and beautiful books about gardening, is what I’d advise. From the early spring greenhouse starts of old faithfuls and new plant adventures to late fall harvests, I tend to head directly to my garden problem-solving, bugs and mildew I.D. sorts of books but to get me through the gloom prior to those extra minutes of sunlight commencing with the December Solstice, I need the wisdom, truth and beauty of good garden books like these three. What a treat, each and every one of them, and they underline how deeply ingrained the word ‘culture’ is in agriculture, whether it is practiced by elders from diverse backgrounds in a green mountain valley in British Columbia’s southeastern corner, by stalwart no-nonsense women in Zambia, Africa, or by a pioneering heritage seed company founder from Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, ably assisted by two fabulous young foodie sisters.

The Talking Spade began with one inspired teacher and an enthusiastic parent aka project manager, shepherding a combined class of Grade 4, 5 & 6 students from New Denver’s K-12 Lucerne Elementary Secondary School. New Denver is a village of less than six hundred souls but it has a community school, a hospital and extended care facility on the shores of Slocan Lake, lovely public garden spaces including the Japanese-inspired aesthetics of the Kohan Friendship Garden beside the sweet little village campground and much, much more. It is one of those magical places in the West Kootenay region which is, as long-time resident and writer Anne Champagne describes, “known for its profusion of artists, self-sufficient progressives, organic growers and yes, colourful personalities.”

The children went out to learn about gardening from twenty-nine elders, to ask questions during and after their tours of compost tea barrels and bins which exemplify “Gardener’s alchemy: turning dross into  gold”. They examined a range of endeavours during two years, from companion planting to backyard chicken flocks to harvesting wild plants. They swooned over lilacs and dozens of rose varieties, wandered into root cellars and around greenhouses, admired stupendous vegetable patches and sampled luscious fruit from vines, shrubs and trees.

There is an abundance of choice garden advice and philosophy throughout which applies to gardeners anywhere in the world as well as stunningly beautiful and inspiring photographs by Valley-born and raised artist Chillia Zoll, with several guest contributions, on every page, and a simply gorgeous book design by Theresa Tremaine. Saving seeds, savoury, sour and sweet recipes, paying daily attention to what is going on with plants, watering methods and devices, seasonal tips for planting, not to mention planting for climate change, and dancing with deer…all this in an eloquent tribute to the sharing between old and new cultures (Doukhobor, Japanese, European, Canadian and American back-to-the-landers) and between the generations. It is truly an eloquent and lovely gem of garden lore and a primer for other energetic teachers and involved parents to emulate in schools elsewhere. Most of all, it is beautifully written in a self-effacing manner so that the personalities of each of the gardeners shines through in their own speech patterns with lovingly portrayed descriptions of the lined faces and hands of the elders. The gentle humour is absolutely charming, as with the scene of the children returning from a garden visit who “parade up main street with massive leaves (of rhubarb) bobbing overhead like umbrellas”.

This book is available in New Denver at Raven’s Nest (, 250 358-2178), the Valley Voice office (, 250 358-7218), and through Anne Champagne (, and in Nakusp at Spiritwood (, 250-265-0083). It costs $25 plus shipping.

Another take on agriculture ten thousand miles away from the north Slocan Valley is provided by Marianne Stamm, herself the daughter of Swiss homesteaders in northern B.C., and, with her husband, agricultural specialists in Zambia. Marianne’s first book, Laughter in the Shadows, came to being after eight years of work, volunteering and friendship with eleven amazing women. 85% of Zambians work in some form of agriculture and the rest are directly or indirectly involved in copper mining.

As a mzungu, or white foreigner, she had misgivings about writing about something as overwhelming as Africa but her friends themselves asked her to tell their stories so other women in Zambia as well as women in Europe and North America would know the truth of their struggles and the rewards of their knowledge and hard work. This the author has done in a respectful, open-minded yet intimate way and likewise, there are pensive, sombre or joyful photographic portraits of each woman featured which add immense appeal to the book.

In a country where the relatives of a recently-deceased husband can and do descend on his household to strip it of every pot and pan and table-cloth, leaving the wife or wives, destitute along with their children, this is no small thing, to bravely speak up. But these are stories of women with great courage and hard-won wisdom.  One woman wants her story to help others who are HIV-positive. Yet another wants to share the information about agriculture she is learning with others, to help improve their lives as well. Another is very interested in learning more about nutrition and keeps trying new crops, like soybeans. Bonus, unlike the tall stalks of maize (corn), thieves cannot hide in the short bean crop and steal from it. Most of the women want food security and better educations for their children, to be able to provide enough food to survive no matter what befalls them. The advice of one wise woman is always to start small. “Plant a small amount of something new. Do it well. Then increase the acreage only when you know you can manage.” 3000 tomato plants later she has a thriving market business.

One widow worked full-time as a nurse, which does not pay well but which comes with a small house. She travelled on the jam-packed public buses after her work shift to buy beans near the Tanzania border, where they were cheaper, and brought them back to the market at home to sell them there. She cultivated a large garden and raised chickens, bringing them into the house every night so they would not be stolen. Another walks miles to a separate plot to cultivate food crops to sell. The sheer amount of tenacity and labour and extra hours these determined women work is staggering.

The kindness and helpfulness of Marianne is rarely in the forefront but it is obvious to me that she is beloved and trusted for her support and friendship as she manoeuvred through bureaucracies in order to send women to an agriculture course, for example. Her lively descriptions are as vivid as the head scarves and smiles in the portraits and we feel, much like the author, invited into the living rooms to listen to the life stories of these remarkable women. The perfect gift for that special young or retired person in your family who wants to put their own education and life experience to good use in the bigger world where the need is greatest. That too, takes courage and this well-written book will inspire them.

A handy glossary of African and agricultural words and cultural terms is provided. This book is available on Kindle ($9.99 approx) and online at Amazon and in Canada at the Cecil Lake Store in BC (250-785-4001)  and in select Alberta locations as well as by contacting the author at for more information.

If you want to try growing food to cope with rising costs and climate change, you would do well to consult The Power of Pulses: Saving the World with Peas, Beans, Chickpeas, Favas & Lentils. This is another gorgeous full-colour book to savour in November and to earmark garden beds and begin seed ordering in January too. This book has it all from veteran seed grower Dan Jason, and by all I mean, information on why pulses are better for our own and the planet’s health (high protein, low carbon footprint, heart healthy for starters), growing your own and harvesting, fresh or dried. To top it all off, there are fifty scrumptious recipes for breakfast, appetizers, spreads, pickles, salads, main and side dishes and desserts from Hilary Malone and Alison Malone Eathorne who have already won me over with their superb cookbook, Sea Salt: Recipes from the West Coast Galley.

Here are some pertinent facts:
-Canada is the world’s largest exporter of dried peas and beans et al, known as pulses, but we consume less than 10% of them at home
-pulses are gluten-free, high in Vitamin B and fibre and very low on the glycemic index for those with diabetes or heart disease
-pulses use half the non-renewable (fossil fuel) energy of other crops like grains to cultivate and are so, so easy to grow, even for amateur gardeners
-pulses need no refrigeration, can be bought in bulk and are easy to grow organically unlike soybeans which are grown in mono-crops and with heavy pesticides unless you seek out organic beans
-lentils and other bulk beans grown in Canada are not expensive to buy
-the delicious recipes in this beautifully designed book will inspire you to go far beyond Meatless Monday. Another tip from me, check out Saskatchewan lentil and pulse growers where you might also enjoy subscribing to their free online newsletter for extra motivation to incorporate pulses into your family menus by visiting and signing up at and .

Did I mention that this book is beautiful to look at as well with amazing photographs of things like pea flowers and dishes like Crispy Chickpea Power Bowl with Tahini Dressing? It’s enough to make me charge out into the rain and plant something. Or head for the kitchen to make a better lunch than usual!

The book is available in paperback in the US and Canada ($24.95) from full service bookstores and from the usual suspects online where it is also available as an e-book. A terrific gift for the keen gardener with more than a roof-top or a balcony to work with and for the home cook who wants to jazz up a healthy menu.