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Rare Intellect - Recommended Readings



April

Inuit art, past & present

Inuit Art: An Introduction
By Ingo Hessel
Photography by Dieter Hessel
Douglas & McIntyre
198 pages (sc)
$45
Review by Cheryl Petten

From a tiny ivory maskette carved by the Arctic's ancient inhabitants, to contemporary works created using both traditional and non-traditional styles and mediums, Inuit Art: An Introduction uses a mix of text and photographs to bring to the reader thousands of years of art, blanketed in the historical, cultural and societal contexts that helped form it.

While many factors have influenced the art created by the people of the Arctic, the largest of these, it can be argued, was contact with European newcomers to the area-missionaries, explorers, and traders-beginning in the late 1700s.
The book looks at the effects of this contact, which brought about a shift from Inuit artists creating items for themselves to creating them for a new and growing southern market.

Production of Inuit art today is no longer so bound to the whims of the southern outsiders, but Inuit artists are still well aware that, while they have more creative freedom than the artists that went before them, they still have to create works that appeal to the southern market if they intend to make a living with their craft.

The book dedicates most of its attention to contemporary Inuit art, looking at the various mediums being used by today's artists, as well as the themes and subjects that dominate their work-animals, the supernatural, illustrating myths and legends, the family, or scenes from everyday life.

The predominant styles of sculpture in the different areas of the Arctic are also examined, as are the work of some of the new breed of Inuit sculptor, who are finding their own balance between Inuit tradition and southern influence.

While the main focus of the book is on sculpture, mainly because that is the format most often chosen by Inuit artists, both graphic arts (drawing, printmaking and painting) and textile arts (weaving and sewing) are also examined.

The book has something to offer anyone with an interest in Inuit art. Those already familiar with the subject will find in the book a wonderful collection of photographs and reproductions of Inuit art from a variety of regions and time periods, and in a number of medium, formats and styles. And for those with little or no knowledge about the subject of Inuit art? This book can definitely change that.


Joane Cardinal-Schubert
Multi-media artist, writer

Recommends:
Vagina Monoloques

By Eve Ensler
Random House-2000

"On Feb. 14 and 15, I was part of a community theatre collective with producer Tantoo Cardinal and actors Michelle Thrush, Wilma Pelly, and director Robin Melting Tallow, as well as local luminaries (as the rest of us were described), who participated in the reading of the Vagina Monologues at the University of Calgary. This year was a special focus on Aboriginal women and girls, calling for an end to violence. As such, Tantoo read a special monologue entitled Crooked Braid written by Eve Ensler for the Lakota women. The Calgary performance included a slide-show tribute to missing and murdered local Aboriginal women, and those who disappeared in Vancouver. The director asked me to include some images of my paintings as well. Although the book is not one I would have chosen without this community involvement, I was surprised, informed, and invigorated by the expansion of the text into a theatre event, which personally allowed me to pursue an old theatre interest, as well as to be part of an Aboriginal collective that was providing support and information for other women."

 


James K. Bartleman
Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

Recommends:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey

By Thornton Wilder
New York: Albert & Charles Boni-1927

Literature should serve purposes other than mere entertainment. At their best, books provide readers with insights into their own lives and those of others. Thus The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, published in 1927 and available in any library, is one of my great favorites. Set in colonial Peru, this short book tells the stories of five people who fell to their deaths when a bridge over a deep valley collapsed. Read it to bring a deeper meaning into your life.

 



May

We all sing together
The Master Butchers Singing Club
By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins
389 pages
$39.95 (hc)
Review by Suzanne Methot

Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich usually writes about Aboriginal people in her novels, which detail the interconnected lives of the Morrissey, Kashpaw, Lamartine, Lazarre, Nanapush, and Pillager families of North Dakota. In her eighth novel, using her own German-American ancestors as inspiration, Erdrich turns to non-Native characters.

The Master Butchers Singing Club begins with Fidelis Waldvogel, a sniper in the German Army who returns home after the First World War and marries Eva, the pregnant girlfriend of his best friend, who was killed in the war. Fidelis, trained as a master butcher, then sets off to find his fortune in America-and ends up in Argus, N.D. Fidelis, opens a butcher shop in the town, sends for Eva, and their lives eventually intersect with Delphine Watzka, a young woman who becomes Eva's confidante and a surrogate mother to her four sons. The novel follows Fidelis, Eva, Delphine, and the Waldvogel boys through the next 36 years, as they build their lives, face death, and learn to love.

Those familiar with Erdrich's other novels will recognize some of the settings in this book, but will meet entirely new characters. The good news is that Erdrich's non-Native characters are just as interesting as her Native ones. The Master Butchers Singing Club is filled with the usual cast of colorful Erdrichean individuals: an outcast garbage picker, an incorrigible alcoholic, a mean-spirited spinster, a traveling showman, and a feminist undertaker, among others. (The showman is Delphine's sometime lover, Cyprian Lazarre. He is one of two Native characters in the book, both of whom are important to the story but rather marginal in its telling.)

Like the previous novels, this book shifts back and forth among various narrative voices, but it features a much flatter and more linear timeline than any of Erdrich's other books. At one point, the author careens from a discussion of kids' toys to Fidelis's sausages to her school days with her undertaker friend in less than one page. But that accelerated pace also makes certain scenes- when one of the Waldvogel boys is trapped inside a mound of construction dirt, when Eva needs pain medicine for her cancer- stand out in sudden intensity. Their importance is highlighted by their incremental, concentrated sensibility.

Erdrich uses a blend of poetic language, surreal circumstances, and humor to convey the intricate connections of small towns: the debts, the secrets, the public and private faces, the assigned roles. As she reveals those connections, she shows the balance people must strike between happiness and misery, killing and living, and life and death.

Fidelis's cronies in the Argus singing club are of different nationalities. They sing together and share songs from their cultures.

All of the seemly disparate ideas in the book come together when Erdrich reveals the identity of the most accomplished master butcher, and the choir she conducts in the sky. The truth is, we sing alongside each other. In the spirit world, there are no sides. It is humans who choose sides.

A truly wonderful book.


Kim Ghostkeeper
Conference co-ordinator, Ghostkeeper Synergetics Inc.

Recommends:

A Fine Balance

By Rohinton Mistry
McClelland & Stewart-1995

For most of my life I haven't been much of a reader, so my selection of a book with 748 pages to read is rather amazing in itself. I've never really appreciated the gift of reading. Mostly reading has been a necessity, not something I did for pure enjoyment. When I started reading A Fine Balance I wasn't even sure I'd be able to finish it. In fact, the book had been originally purchased as a gift for a more prolific reader in my family, but since they hadn't picked it up, I decided to give it a go.

The book consumed me and called me to it each time I put it down. It was so engaging and such a compelling story that I decided to choose it as my book of choice for this assignment. A Fine Balance is a gritty story set in India in the 70s.

It's about four main characters drawn together under unusual circumstances. It paints a world of poverty so devastating that at times I had to set it aside. As I flipped pages describing a world so foreign to me with its caste system, religious fractions and politics, it proved that a great story can capture and keep even the slowest reader engaged while exposing them to a worldview that is hard and harsh and perhaps even beyond our own comprehension. And yet, within it, the telling of a story of how the smallest ray of hope can be the catalyst for enormous change.


John Bernard
President, Donna Cona
Recommends:

Out Of Muskoka

By James Bartleman
Punumbra Press-2002

For most of my adult life I have been attempting to explain what it was like growing up on a First Nation and having a Maliseet father and an American/Italian mother. After reading about James Bartleman's life in Out of Muskoka, I felt humbled and enlightened all at the same time. Out of Muskoka is truly a masterpiece and I often refer to it when talking about my own life growing up.

 

 



 

June

Build a better you

The Tiny Warrior: A Path to Personal Discovery
and Achievement
By D. J. Eagle Bear Vanas
Andrew McMeel Publishing (Kansas City)
63 pages, $9.95 US (s.c.)
Review by D. L. Webster

You've seen the child struggle through his teen years. You've tried in your own way to give him guidance, but some young people refuse to hear another point of view.

You've seen the choices he makes lead him down difficult, even dangerous, roads. Now, as a young adult, he's troubled, frustrated, down on himself and the world, angry about his past and pessimistic about the future.

One day he comes to you and says 'I need your help.' What magic words will you offer to ease his pain? What wisdom will you impart that will set him on a good path? How will you respond?

The answers to these questions are found in a slim little book called The Tiny Warrior by D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas, a motivational speaker of Odawa/Dutch descent. In just 60 or so pages, Vanas offers up a basketful of plain truth and deep wisdom with a charming story about Cricket, a young Indian boy, who desperately wants to be a warrior, but doesn't know how or even why.

Cricket's journey is set out in 10 easy-to-read chapters and recounted by Grandpa to Justin, his 27-year-old grandson whose choices in life have led him far away from his dream of becoming an engineer.

Justin, working in a dead-end construction job, comes home one day to find Grandpa sitting on the porch. A quiet visit turns into a series of powerful lessons that inspire a sea-change in Justin's life.

The beauty of this book is in its simplicity. According to Grandpa, "the simplest lessons in life are often the most powerful. Truth requires few words."

At first glance, this book seems to target the troubled youth who wants to make a change, or the concerned adult who wants to inspire change in a young person. In fact, this book will serve well every person who has a dream to be realized.

The book is sectioned off so that it can serve many purposes. Cricket's story can easily be taken and read as a bedtime story to very young children. Cricket's antics get him into a lot of trouble, but the lessons he learns from them lead him to discover the special place he holds in the hearts of his family and the community.

Take, for example, the time Cricket, who longs to be part of a group, decides to join a fun-loving pack of coyotes, tricksters who use him by pretending to be his friends.
He picks berries for them, hunts squirrels up trees for them, and even pulls rabbits from holes for the coyotes to eat, but when he finds himself in trouble, his friends don't come to Cricket's aid.

After each chapter about Cricket, Justin applies the lesson to his own life. He, too, had run with tricksters, who encouraged him to skip school, cut out of work early, and who let him down when he needed help. Justin's story helps older readers see how Cricket's experiences relate to them on a personal level.

At the end of each chapter there is a page that succinctly spells out the wisdom to be found in the story. In the case of the coyotes, there are six truths to be learned, paramount among them is that we must all choose our pack wisely.

This little book can be kept in a purse or coat pocket for quick reference or a daily dose of inspiration. According to Grandpa, "There is a tiny warrior that lives inside us all."

This little book will help you find that tiny warrior, develop his gifts, and feed his soul.


Rick Harp
Host, Contact,
APTN's national open-line program

Recommends:
Stolen From Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities

By Suzanne Fournier and Ernie Crey
Douglas & McIntyre-1997

With so many books out there worthy of attention, it is exceedingly difficult to pick just one. That said, I opted for a book that would offer something to both a long-time observer of Aboriginal affairs and someone who's brand new to our issues and concerns. Stolen From Our Embrace lays out in just 250 pages most of the immense, traumatic and unrelenting attacks Canada has inflicted on Indigenous peoples for the past 200 years. From residential schools to the ironically named 'child welfare' system, it documents how the impact of forced removal and relocation of Native people continues to play out today. Fournier and Crey do a masterful job of using personal testimony and thorough research to illustrate the personal toll of these criminal acts, such as sexual abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome. As you read through its pages, you realize what a miracle it is any of us are alive to tell the tale. Written in a straightforward, accessible manner, the book offers profound insight into how we got to where we are today, both good and bad. If you want a reminder or a record of how far we've come, and of how we have started to reclaim responsibility for our own wellness, this book is a must-read.

 

 


Duane Ghastant' Aucoin,
a.k.a.Cash Creek Charlie
First Nations cultural performer

Recommends:
Where the Wild Things Are

Stories and pictures by Maurice Sendak
HarperFestival-1992

OK, I know that this is a kids' book, but it had such a profound effect on me, even to this day. The reason being is that I can relate to its central theme. Inside of each of us is a place Where the Wild Things Are. Meaning, in a world of conformity and political correctness gone mad, the spirit of freedom and adventure can easily be lost. But all is not lost if we remember to, every now and then, put on our wolf suit and visit this place and let our spirits go wild.

 



July

Alexie's ordinary Indians

Did all those people in the World Trade Centre really die?
Or did some just walk away from miserable lives and start again...

Ten Little Indians
By Sherman Alexie
Grove Press
244 pages, $39.95 (hc)

Sherman Alexie is far from ordinary. The Spokane/Coeur d'Alene writer has written two novels, three books of short fiction, six books of poetry and one screenplay (for the film Smoke Signals). He is also a stand-up comedian, and recently wrote and directed his first film. But despite his extraordinary range, Alexie prefers to write stories about "ordinary" Indians.

His newest book, Ten Little Indians, is a collection of nine stories that, for the most part, describe ordinary Aboriginal people in the Pacific Northwest who face the ordinary pressures of work, school, home, and relationships.

The ordinary man in "Flight Patterns" has a house, a wife, a kid, and a sales job that has him on the road a lot. The ordinary woman in "The Search Engine" is a scholarship student with good grades and a nice mom.

The problem with Alexie's "ordinary" Indians is that they are not so ordinary, at least not to a young person on a remote reserve or a single mother in Winnipeg. Alexie's ho-hum attitude toward these characters' privileged circumstances is on the one hand admirable. (As the student in "The Search Engine" says, it may help "white folks finally [understand] that Indians are just as relentlessly boring, selfish, and smelly as they are.") On the other hand, however, any author who deliberately writes about "relentlessly boring" characters should expect some readers to be less than enthralled by these people and their pampered lives on the middle-class side of the tracks.

Although these characters inhabit a privileged world, the life-changing events they experience and the insights they share convey universal lessons. When the young lawyer responds to a racist incident with violence (in "Lawyer's League"), it stands to restrict his future choices, which might be just what he wants. When the man in "Flight Patterns" gets a taxi ride from an Ethiopian refugee, he realizes there are many ways people can leave behind the ones they love. These are simple tales, but Alexie doesn't tell them simplistically. In fact, he takes chances that other writers do not.

In one story, for example, he says the unsayable (at least in America) about 9/11: Did all those people in the World Trade Centre really die? Or did some just walk away from miserable lives and start again somewhere else? (Since the character in "Can I Get a Witness?" is Spokane, Alexie could also be asking whether or not Aboriginal people understand better the transformative aspects of disaster.)

Alexie has a wry sense of humor, and he uses that humor to criticize both Native and non-Native society. Sometimes he uses a soft touch (as when he mentions "highly sacred and traditional Indian bars"), and sometimes he lectures ("Let me tell you a dirty secret: Quite a few of the state's most powerful Indian men and women are functionally illiterate. There are tribal councilmen who cannot spell the word 'sovereignty.'").

Alexie is a smart guy, and he exposes the hypocrisies and failings of pretty much everyone, from white liberals to homeless Indians.

The problem with Ten Little Indians is that the characters' inner voices all sound alike. A character in one story uses a noun as a verb ("suicided"), and so does a character in the very next story ("earthquaked"). The author has characters in two stories talk about "Mr. Grief." "Mr. Death" is mentioned in another. All the characters are ironically self-reflective, and they express themselves in remarkably similar ways. Their personalities are also the same: most of these Indians are left-leaning, anti-capitalists who read lots of books. In fact, Alexie often seems to be writing about himself. Like many of his characters, he was a scholarship student and basketball champ.

All writers use their characters to put forward their own ideas, but Alexie is a lazy writer who changes only surface details (age, sex, job title) instead of creating complex characters that stand out from one another. (The one character who is different-a homeless man-still sounds like all the others.) He also never writes from the point of view of the councilman who can't spell "sovereignty," preferring instead to write from the point of view of educated characters like himself.


Bernd Christmas
Membertou CEO

Recommends:
Blindness

By Jose Saramago.
Harvill-1997

It is a novel about an epidemic of blindness that strikes a city. The authorities begin to isolate those people and put them in camps. One of the main character's husband is afflicted, but rather than be separated from him, she pretends she is blind like all others.

Eventually, everyone in this city is blinded and has been left to fend for themselves. The woman becomes somewhat of a leader attempting to help the blind "see". Without giving away the plot, the main characters have to survive as a group. As the story progresses we see the author describe the horrors human beings can inflict upon other human beings for the sake of survival. It truly gets sickening, but the glimmer of hope begins to arise when the group of main characters work together. I liked reading this book for two reasons. One, the old adage, no matter how bad you think you have it, there is always someone who is worse off, rings loud and clear. It makes you realize that you must be grateful for what you have. The second reason is that the novel is about being blind, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes we are so blind to who we are, where we are, how we are, that we become hurtful, greedy, cold, and heartless. We need to open our eyes to the world and experience life to the fullest. By seeing our inner selves we can see others in a positive light.

 


Brenda Chambers
TV Producer, Brenco Media Inc.

Recommends:
Leadership From Within

By Peter Urs Bender
The Achievement Group (republished 2002)

I am enjoying this book because it helps me to identify what I need to do for myself in my life and my work. I am very results-oriented, and I need to ensure that I can communicate my own desires personally and professionally. I think Windspeaker readers will enjoy this book because it helps to identify what personal traits they have and what they will need to do to make themselves happy. A lot of times in our community we blame other people for our sadness or situation, when in fact it is our own doing. I think this book a great tool to help us to take responsibility for ourselves and our communities.

 



 

August

Reality replaces romance

North Spirit: Travels Among The Cree And Ojibway Nations And Their Star Maps

By Paulette Jiles
Anchor Canada edition 2003
391 pages, $21(sc)
Review by Joan Taillon

In 1973, Paulette Jiles left behind a failed relationship in Toronto and accepted a CBC assignment to work in Big Trout Lake, where she helped establish a radio station that would be run by the local Aboriginal people. With a book of published poetry to her credit and work in progress on another, and a much greater body of publishing credits since, Jiles' precision with language comes through in a lyrical and evocative first-person account of her northern experience.

#She describes North Spirit as a book of creative non-fiction. Most of the book's characters are composites. So is the fictional community of North Spirit Lake, which is based on the real communities of Big Trout Lake and Sandy Lake. The events in the book are all true, the author says. North Spirit reads like a well-woven memoir, for that is what it is, selected accounts from a significant phase in an adventurous writer's life.

North Spirit is a lot more than that, however. Through Jiles' eyes, the reader gets to see the effect of the dawn of modern communications on remote communities and on Indian reserves in particular. A sense of nostalgia may come upon the reader for the traditional way of life that is vanishing in the sweep of technological change.

While the old values of sharing and caring remain, the compromises with the outsider culture are starkly evident. As television and VCRs creep in, consumerism gets a foothold, and the old gatherings for storytelling and family-centred entertainment decline. By the 1970s, the mythology that has underpinned both the stories and the beliefs of Indian peoples for eons is already fissured and split. Here and there, the old people remember and relate portions of their stories, and Jiles dutifully records them.

At the heart of Jiles' book, first published in hardcover in 1995, lies her fascination with the Star People and the night sky, and the Ojibway and Cree legends reflecting differing cultural beliefs about the constellations.

Anyone who has lived in the North will recognize that Jiles so often gets the details right: the culture shock on both sides, the daily interactions and interdependence of community life, the self-reliance and stoicism and humor of northern peoples, the seasonal transitions, the precarious balance of life and death.

Where Jiles falters a bit is in the first chapters, in places. There are a few too many speeches about the play she is writing, which struck me as self-absorbed and boring. I wondered if she had found it difficult to find a starting point for her tale. In addition, sometimes the dialogue by Native people just does not ring true-speeches there too-devices Jiles used to fold in the necessary exposition, when the likelihood is that a word or two, or a look, replaced a lot of the talk.

When Jiles describes something-a place, an incident-her voice is a waterfall cascading over little stones, eddying, carrying the reader deftly to a new experience, but the book would have benefited from stronger character development throughout.

The other weakness I found irritating for a book that has been reprinted several times is sloppy copyediting in the early pages, starting with page one of the preface. Either that improved after a few chapters, or my awareness of it was subsumed by a beautiful story told by a writer of great skill.


John Kim Bell
-Founder & President,
National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation

Recommends:
Barney's Version

By Mordecai Richler
Knopf Canada-1997

I recommend the book because it is exquisitely written by one of Canada's national treasures. It is a shame that due to Mr. Richler's untimely death, we will never again have the pleasure of reading another novel of such rich characters, wit and intellect. Not only does one laugh aloud while reading this opus, it is an experience that lasts well after the last page has been savored. It is a story about a man's three marriages, his friendships, children, business dealings and aging.

 

 


Dr. Cora Voyageur
Sociologist, University of Calgary

 

Recommends:
The Outlander series
by Diana Gabaldon
Dell Publishing-1991-2001

I am surrounded by books and must read as part of my job as a university professor. To me pleasure reading means escapism and using my imagination. I recommend the Outlander series. I came across these gems when my daughter Carly told me about this great historical fantasy she was reading. Trash I thought-looking down my academic nose. I purchased the entire series (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, and Fiery Cross) as her birthday gift-hiding the fact that Outlander was actually for me. Since then, these books have become my guilty pleasure and I cannot put them down. Diana Gabaldon tells the story of Clare Randall, a British Second World War nurse who accidentally steps through a standing stone and is transported back 200 years to rural Scotland where she meets Jamie Fraser. Gabaldon weaves a tale of historical adventure and romance that whisks the reader away to 18th century England, Scotland, and United States. These books are well-written, intriguing, and at times a bit racy. They are not for the faint of heart, each running about 750 pages. This is escapist, pleasure reading at its finest. Enjoy.