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.