Book Review: Finding the Bones by Nikki Kallio

[Note: Kallio’s book is being released in February 2023, by Cornerstone Press.]

Open Finding the Bones by Nikki Kallio and buckle up because you’re in for a spellbinding, scary, stomach-dropping, heart-in-your-throat roller coaster ride through nine short stories and a novella, some written in the genres of science fiction, gothic, and speculative. I read Kallio’s page-turning collection in one day.

But ride that roller coaster in slow motion because Kallio’s stories are written with a wonderful literary flare, breaking the boundaries of genre labels. So read deeply and slowly, savor Kallio’s use of language. Study her characters, listen to their conversations, and read their thoughts. Look around at the worlds her characters inhabit, yet find yourself reminded of your own familiar world.

Some of Kallio’s stories launch us into other worlds: outer space, a haunted house, and an Earth where the sun is dangerous. Others are set in the ordinary homes of ordinary people who face extraordinary events. Her stories explore themes of death, isolation, aging, belonging, trauma, and displacement. And while Kallio’s stories transported me far away from my living room couch, they also connected me to what it means to be human during times of tragedy, mental health issues, or environmental devastation.

For example, “Shadow” and “Disappearing” explore grief and loss from different angles, helping readers understand that grief is a deep and complex emotion. “Disappearing,” one of my favorite stories, explores loss from a child’s viewpoint after his mother has gone missing, disrupting the notion that children don’t experience grief like adults do.

In “Geography Lessons” a father and daughter are traveling through space to another planet because Earth has been destroyed, but only a fraction of the population is chosen for the trip. As the former earthlings hurtled through space, I thought about migrants in our world who leave their homes because they are no longer safe, bringing with them only memories and perhaps a few trinkets. Family ties are broken, cultural heritage is fractured, and children drift between two worlds.

Kallio’s collection of short stories ends with The Fledgling, an eighty-three-page novella. It’s a powerful, tightly woven dystopian story with richly drawn characters navigating life on Earth after exposure to the sun becomes dangerous. Her novella is the pitch-perfect crescendo to the end of an amazing collection of stories.

Kallio’s stories entertain, but she also creates empathy for characters and in turn her characters enhance our ability to understand our fellow human beings. Years ago I was told that short stories are meant to be read more than once, and Kallio’s collection invites us to visit again.

Publication Date: February 2023, Cornerstone Press, Stevens Point, WI

[This book review written by me was originally published on the Wisconsin Writers Association Book Review page.]

Book Review: The Net Beneath Us by Carol Dunbar

Why did I read this book?

Carol Dunbar lives in northwest Wisconsin like I do. We live in separate towns, but they are close enough for me to be excited because an author near me has been published by a New York publisher. Also, in May 2022, Dunbar spoke at our local writers’ association. She was a warm-hearted and engaging speaker. After the meeting, I preordered her novel, The Net Beneath Us. And while you should never judge a book by its cover, the artwork on Dunbar’s book is stunning, and I have to admit that also influenced me.

What’s this book about?

Elsa lives with her husband, Silas Arnasson, and their two children, Hester, a first grader, and Finn, a toddler, in rural northern Wisconsin. They live in the basement of their future house, which they continue to build as time and money allow. Life in the woods is challenging. Weather and wildlife present difficulties as they build, haul water, and maintain a generator for electricity. But Elsa and Silas are partners, working together to achieve their dreams. They are happy and very much in love. Then everything changes.

Silas has a devastating logging accident. Elsa is determined to keep her family warm and safe during the approaching winter in a home without running water, central heat, or electricity, a home without Silas to help. Shrouded in grief, she isolates herself and her children from family and friends. She rebuffs help from Silas’s family, believing they already see her as incompetent and because they had envisioned another type of woman for Silas.

What makes this book memorable?

People experience loss uniquely, making it hard to understand each other’s grief. Family members overwhelmed by their own sorrow, struggle to comfort each other. Dunbar’s use of multiple points of view allows us to experience, firsthand, the heartache of Elsa, Hester, and Ethan and Luvera, Silas’s uncle and aunt. Additionally, Dunbar’s novel explores our need for self-acceptance and acceptance by others; and our wish to belong to a place, the land, a community.

Loss and grief are somber themes and make for heavy reading. But Dunbar’s use of beautiful imagery, sustained metaphor, and lyrical prose gives us hope as she guides us through a heartbreaking story, transporting us with her exquisite writing through darkness to a place of better understanding of both her characters and ourselves.

Sinclair Lewis said, “People read fiction for emotion—not information.” With The Net Beneath Us, Dunbar underscores the power of fiction as she draws us into an emotional story of loss, grief, forgiveness, and understanding, immersing us in a world of human nature that nonfiction cannot match. And, even though Dunbar’s story is fiction, it rings with truth.

Book Review: Meander North by Marie Zhuikov

[Meander North can be preordered through Itasca Books. It’s currently available at Zenith Bookstore, and will be available in other bookstores November 21.]

Marie Zhuikov’s newest book, Meander North, is a collection of essays, many from her blog Marie’s Meanderings, which she started writing in 2013. I look forward to each new post by Zhuikov, so when I had a chance to read Meander North, I was excited. Zhuikov selected some of her favorite blogs, then added essays, some of which have appeared in other publications.

Many of Zhuikov’s selections are about getting outdoors and enjoying nature. In her humorous essay “How X-C Ski Starvation Can Lead to Impaired Judgment,” she writes about one of her first cross-country skiing adventures of the season: “I . . . desperately needed to do something to break out of my winter slothfulness and raise my heart rate above seventy beats per minute.” Even though a mist turns into raindrops, Zhuikov slips on her skis and heads out on the icy trails. With caution and strategic moves, she completes her first cross-country ski of the season, and while she does, we hold our breath, admire her tenacity, and think about some of our own foolish escapades.

Zhuikov’s essays about her adventures are so enjoyable because they’re relatable. Her love of the outdoors and her ability to maneuver through nature shines through in her writing. But she is with us, inviting us along, never making us feel left behind. She makes us believe we can get out in nature and be adventurous too. That we can lower ourselves into a canoe or a whitewater raft, or that we can stand along a river and learn to fly fish.

Zhuikov’s essays connect with us because she is not afraid to let us peek at the moments when her life doesn’t go smoothly. Sometimes the outcomes are humorous, like in her story “Just Your Average Winter’s Day Walk and Squirrel Attack” about a walk with her wonderful eighty-pound dog, Buddy, that turns into a comedy of misadventures. Other times the outcomes are poignant, like in “An Evening Dog Walk” about a romance that didn’t work out. Occasionally, she shares heartbreak, like in “The Lake, It Is Said, Never Gives Up Her Dead.”

Zhuikov rounds out her collection of nature essays with an eclectic selection of entertaining and informative writings that cover a wide range of topics. Some cover Zhuikov’s adventures as a citizen of Duluth, such as, “Marie Versus the Post Office” and “My Neighborhood Rezoning Zombie Apocalypse Saga.” Other heart-warming essays like “I Saw Three Ships on Christmas Day” or “Kissing in the Coat Room in First Grade” are about her family or youth. She wraps up her book with a section titled Bookish Adventures where we get a taste of Zhuikov’s life as a writer and a reader, and where she introduces us to the wonderful poet Louis Jenkins.

Winter is coming so grab a copy of Marie Zhuikov’s Meander North, curl up in a cozy chair with a glass or mug filled with your favorite beverage, and start by reading “Cold as a Cage,” the first essay in her collection. And for those of you who live through winter every year, nod in agreement and laugh hopelessly as you read: “The cold defines our movements. Northern Minnesotans walk with shoulders hunched and hands in pockets, limiting our time outside to the bare minimum for the task at hand.” But know that you are a survivor because you are inside where it’s warm, ready to smile and laugh and shed a few tears as you join Zhuikov on her meanders through life.

[Follow Marie Zhuikov’s blog at Marie’s Meanderings. Check out her author’s page and learn about her other books and writing. Attend the Meander North book launch at Zenith Bookstore on Thursday, November 17, 2022, at 7:00 pm CST. Preorder Meander North at Itasca Books.]

Book Review: Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

Why did I read this book?

While returning home from running errands, I listened to only ten minutes of Kerri Miller’s fifty-minute interview with Oscar Hokeah on Minnesota Public Radio, but that was long enough to be intrigued by Hokeah and his novel Calling for a Blanket Dance. When I arrived home, I ordered the book from my library through the inter-library loan program. Because a library book has a “use by date,” Hokeah’s novel landed on the pinnacle of my reading pile; and its rising to the top–like delicious cream–was richly deserved.

What is this book about?

The story focuses on Ever Geimausaddle, who is Native American and Mexican. Each chapter in the book is narrated by one of his relatives, and the last chapter is narrated by Ever. Through these family members, we watch Ever struggle as a child and an adult, and we learn about his extended family and their place in his life.

In the first chapter, Ever’s grandmother Lena Stoop introduces us to him when he is six months old. Ever and his parents, Everardo and Turtle, are returning to the United States from Mexico when they are stopped by three Mexican policemen who severely beat his father and rob his parents. Throughout the attack, Ever’s mother tries to keep him from waking. She doesn’t want him to witness the violence, but he wakes up and sees the brutality and rage.

Lena travels to a border town in Texas to pick up her daughter, son-in-law, and Ever, returning them to Oklahoma. Lena tells her daughter that she is concerned about what Ever saw. Even though he won’t remember the episode, their Native American culture teaches that babies and young children shouldn’t be exposed to violence: “They could be witched. Their spirit forever altered. A witching was almost incurable.” Lena’s daughter snaps at her mother, calling her superstitious, but then she falls silent because she, too, is worried about what her baby boy saw.

Ever’s father suffers permanent physical and emotional damage from the beating, but Ever’s mother, with the help of relatives, strives to keep her family intact. However, the memory of violence that Ever’s family experienced can’t seem to be conquered or at least forced to retreat.

What makes this book memorable?

Every time I had to put Hokeah’s novel down, I looked forward to the moment I could pick it up again. Through his masterful prose and skillful use of twelve different narrators, the reader comes to understand Ever and his family: their pain and disappointments, their hopes and dreams, their failures and successes, and their capacity for love and forgiveness.

Hokeah incorporates themes of poverty, inter-generational trauma, discrimination, marginalization, and redemption throughout the story the way an artist uses exquisite but understated brush strokes to make a painting come alive–strokes so subtle, yet so integral to the work of art, that without them, the picture would be flat and lifeless. Hokeah’s landscape of story, theme, and narration make Calling for a Blanket Dance a richly constructed novel, drawing readers in and holding them until the last page.

Book Review: Meet Me on the Midway: A History of Wisconsin Fairs by Jerry Apps

Published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press, Nonfiction history, 264 pages

Reviewed by Victoria Lynn Smith

Meet Me on the Midway: A History of Wisconsin Fairs by Jerry Apps presents an engaging and informative history of Wisconsin’s state and county fairs. His book focuses on the stories of agricultural societies, county extension agents, fair organizers, judges, volunteers, exhibitors, workers, and 4-H and Future Farmers of America members. Because Apps never forgets that history is the story of people, he pulls readers into the fascinating behind-the-scenes world of state and county fairs. Readers will also appreciate the generous servings of photographs, which are as delectable as fair food and as eye catching as the midway.

To read the rest of this book review click here: Wisconsin Writers Association–Book Reviews.

Book Review: The Audacity of Goats (Book Two) by J. F. Riordan

Why Did I Read This Book?

I read The Audacity of Goats because I read North of the Tension Line, the first book in J. F. Riordan’s series, and loved it. If you want to read my review of the first book, click here. If you think you might like to read the first book in Riordan’s series, you may want to stop reading this because some of the information will be spoilers for the first book.

What’s this book about?

Audacity, defined as boldness, daring, courage, bravery, and fearlessness. All the characteristics people need for every day life, like how to manage a long-distance romance, how to get along with a spouse, how to fit in, how to stand your ground, how to deal with unreasonable neighbors, how to win a local election, how to tell a lie if it’s for the greater good, how to let your child grow into adulthood, how to takedown a corrupt politician, how to master a difficult pose in yoga.

In addition to its share of fog and snow, Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin, becomes shrouded in mystery. Blood-curdling screams shred the night. At first, Islanders who hear the shrieks worry someone is being hurt, but no bleeding bodies, alive or dead, are found. Some Islanders think it’s bored youth having fun, some think it’s ghosts, others think a crazed person is hiding on the Island. Curious but rather unfazed, the Islanders carry on. They’re more concerned about long winters and the upcoming local election.

Fiona Campbell reluctantly decides to run for town chairman against her conniving, nasty neighbor, Stella DeRosiers. Inhabitants who were born on the Island mostly admire Fiona but consider her an outsider. Conversely, Islanders detest Stella, but she’s one of them. Jim, the local DNR officer, is crazy about Fiona, but she’s in a relationship with Pete, whose work takes him to dangerous parts of the world.

Roger and Elizabeth return from their Italian honeymoon, and Roger worries about how to be a good husband. The Angel Joshua, advises Roger to join his yoga class, so he can get in touch with his feminine side and improve his relationship with Elizabeth. Never one to do things halfway, Roger embraces the whole downward-dog-savasana-namaste yoga scene.

Pali, full-time ferry captain and part-time poet, thinks his writing muse had departed. Not being able to write steeps him in moodiness. He contemplates giving up poetry so he can be a good husband, father, and captain, instead of a melancholy shadow in his own life.

Ten-year-old Ben, Pali and Nika’s son, has a secret he can’t share with adults because he knows they won’t understand. Ben has been taught that lying, breaking rules, and shirking one’s honor are wrong. But he’s facing circumstances that aren’t colored in black and white, so he bends his moral code.

What makes this book memorable?

Book Two is a second date that goes as well or better than an exciting first date. Riordan’s cast of memorable characters are back along with a few new ones, and their daily walks through the pages of life provide plenty of laughs, groans, gasps, and an occasional misty eye.

Riordan deftly portrays ten-year-old Ben’s coming-of-age dilemma. His predicament takes me back to my childhood and the struggle between the clarity youth and the murkiness of growing up. When Emily Martin, a new character, shows up on the page, I have fun rolling my eyes and thinking, “Oh, please, Emily, do you hear yourself?” right along with the Islanders.

The stakes for the characters in this book are small when compared to a thriller where the hero is striving to save the world, but Riordan’s use of structure and point of view create suspense around the ordinary, making The Audacity of Goats both a page turner and a meditation at the same time, all while making us smile and laugh.

What’s next?

I’ll read Book Three, Robert’s Rules of Order, followed by Book Four, A Small Earnest Question. I’m savoring these books, sipping them like a rare wine. When I finish them, I’ll miss Riordan’s captivating characters, finely woven stories, and lilting humor. However, I’m cheered because I recently learned that Book Five, Throwing Bears for George will be released on July 25, 2022.

Book Review: North of the Tension Line (Book One) by J. F. Riordan

Why did I read this book?

I listened to J. F. Riordan speak about her North of the Tension Line series via Zoom. A Small Ernest Question, the fourth book in the series, came out in August 2020, so like many authors who had books coming out during the pandemic lockdown, Riordan needed to promote her book in a new way. Instead of visiting bookstores to meet potential readers, she used Zoom to speak to them.

By the end of her talk, I had three good reasons for buying all four books in the series. One: She has a German Shepherd. I grew up with a German Shepherd—he was the smartest dog I have ever known. Two: Her stories are set in Door County, with much of the action occurring on Washington Island. When I was twelve, my father, who was a private pilot, flew our family to Washington Island for their annual Fly-In Fish Boil. And I love a good fish boil. Three: Someone in the Zoom audience said to Riordan, “You must love all this extra time to write during the lockdown.” Riordan replied, “It’s much harder to write.” She explained that being out in the world among people inspired her writing. I felt a kinship with her because I was having a hard time writing too. Her words comforted me. So, without dipping a big toe in the water to test it, I dove in and bought her books.

What is this book about?

In North of the Tension Line, Fiona Campbell, a freelance writer, has moved from Chicago to Ephraim, Wisconsin, on the Door County peninsula. Her best friend Elisabeth Wright owns an art gallery there and a lovable German Shepherd named Rocco. Roger Mason, a former physicist, owns the coffee shop in Ephraim. His lack of social finesse and his disinterest in fancy coffee drinks makes him an unlikely coffee shop owner. Elisabeth and Roger seem to like one another, but his inability to show romantic feelings makes him an unlikely partner. Fiona meets an interesting man at a wedding in Chicago, but their encounter is only a brief conversation. At least Fiona and Elisabeth have Rocco.

The women enjoy taking day trips with Rocco to Washington Island via the ferry. Fiona loves the Island but cannot imagine living there. Then she accepts a dare to spend the winter in a house that she buys on a whim. Winters are long and lonely after the tourists leave, but winter becomes the least of Fiona’s problems. Roger, worried she will be lonely, gives her a goat named Robert that is part Satan, part Einstein. Her neighbors on the Island mistakenly believe she is a hooker. A critter is living in the walls of her house. And Stella, her nearest neighbor, loathes her. But Fiona makes friends, takes care of her goat, writes articles, works on her home, and discovers the local DNR officer has feelings for her.

What makes this book memorable?

Riordan creates main characters who are charming, amusing, and intriguing. They hope and dream, taking small risks and big leaps of faith while life throws them small curves and the occasional hairpin turn. Riordan uses gentle humor, keen observation, and tightly woven story arcs to create a tale that captivates but never dips to the level of a soap opera. Her minor characters also delight. Pali, the ferryboat captain who is inspired by a ghost, writes poetry. Stella who is nasty to the insides of her bones, hates everyone. Piggy, a small dog, fiercely defends its stretch of road with a fierceness that would make Cujo shudder. Mike and Terry, regulars at Roger’s coffee shop, patiently bear witness to Roger’s shifts in behavior.

Riordan captures the flavor of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone, and people with quirks or infuriating habits cannot be avoided. People know what their neighbors are up to before the neighbors themselves even know. They know alliances will be strong and grudges will be nursed. And while they might tolerate an outsider, they will only humor a foolish outsider.

Who might like this book?

This book is about people, their individual stories, and how those stories intertwine with the stories of their friends and neighbors. If you like a book that pulls you down a gentle river with occasional rapids, a book that allows you to admire the unfolding scenery along the banks of the water without worrying about too many rough currents, climb into a canoe and travel through Riordan’s North of the Tension Line.

What’s next?

I’m currently reading The Audacity of Goats, the second book in Riordan’s series, and so far, I am loving the trip.

The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy: A Book Review

Why did I read this book?

I serve on the board of a local writing organization, and at the end of March, Brian Malloy was our featured author. I hosted the program, so I read The Year of Ice. I’m glad I volunteered to host because I loved Malloy’s book.

What is the book about?

The Year of Ice, published in 2002, is a coming-of-age story set in 1978. An arctic-like winter has descended on Minnesota’s Twin Cities where Kevin Doyle, a high school senior, is undecided about his future. He’s angry with his mother who died almost two years ago when her car slid off an ice-covered road and plunged into the Mississippi River. He and his father, Patrick, tiptoe around her death, but Kevin is his father’s protector. He foils widows and divorcées who show up at their door with casseroles and desserts for Patrick, who isn’t interested in dating. Then Kevin learns a secret about his parents’ marriage, and his threadbare relationship with his father unravels.

Kevin has his own secret. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, he’s good looking and muscular. Girls swoon over him, but he’s in love with Jon Thompson, a handsome classmate. Kevin can’t tell Jon how he feels; he can’t tell anyone he’s gay. He knows people like him, but they like him as the tall, handsome, charming Kevin, a straight young man with a sense of humor and a measure of kindness.

Kevin hides the fact he’s gay by embracing an “alpha dog” routine and kicking butt if any of his male peers challenge his alpha status. When Jon gets mouthy during a football game, Kevin slaps him on the side of the head, telling us, “[I]f I smack him, nobody will guess that I want to pick him up and kiss him really hard, right on the lips. And . . . he’s got to be reminded that I’m tougher than he is. Wolves do this all the time to keep order in the pack. I’m the alpha; he’s the beta.” Kevin attempts to keep order in his life, but everything is changing.

What is noteworthy about the story?

Malloy’s masterful use of present-tense, first-person narrative hooked me on the first page and held me until the end. I read the book in less than two days. Malloy creates a complex, engaging character who comes to life. Kevin reminds me of the teenagers I went to high school with—myself included. He’s moody and funny and a smart ass, and he hides his problems and feelings. He makes some mistakes, but I like him and empathize with him as he copes with his dysfunctional family, his unrequited love for Jon, and the girlfriend he doesn’t desire. Malloy’s supporting characters are unique and fully developed and, in addition to being part of Kevin’s world, have their own intriguing story arcs.

The Year of Ice won an Alex Award in 2003. Awarded by the American Library Association, this award is given every year to ten books that were written for adults but appeal to young adult audiences between twelve and eighteen years of age.

Why is this book important?

Malloy’s book is a classic coming of age story where the main character happens to be gay. Blatant discrimination and hateful behavior toward the LBGTQ community has increased the in last several years. Some people lobby to ban books like Malloy’s from school libraries, but the need to stand up for books like The Year of Ice is important. All young people need to see themselves in the world around them and to know that someone speaks to their experiences. It’s why coming of age stories are so important to us, often at any stage of our lives. Kevin Doyle shares his ups and downs and his hopes and disappointments with us, and we care about him. We want him to find his way, be true to who he is, and to have a good life.

Book Review: Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

In the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been reading about pandemics. How depressing, you think! Not really. It’s more comforting than you might imagine. Most of the pandemics I’ve read about were worse than COVID-19, and I don’t say that to make light of COVID. It’s killed many people, caused long-term health issues, and disrupted lives and the economy, but it can’t compare to the Black Death or the Great Influenza of 1918.

My great-grandfather Frank died of TB in 1910.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a well-written sampling of killer pandemics. Her book covers the Antonine, bubonic, and dancing plagues, plus smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera, leprosy, typhoid, the Spanish flu (Great Influenza of 1918), encephalitis lethargica, lobotomies, and polio. She describes the diseases and how they killed people, but doesn’t dwell on the grotesque. Instead, she focuses on the development of medical treatments and the people who worked to end plagues and pandemics. She writes with a gentle humor that helps readers digest what is a formidable list of population-depleting diseases. Fortunately, most of them have been mitigated by cures, treatments, or vaccines.

My great-grandfather Joseph, in the vest and tie, died of typhoid fever in 1922.

Wright’s book provides historical perspective. The bubonic plague killed quickly and painfully, wiping out tens of millions of people in the 14th Century. Worldwide death estimates from the Great Influenza of 1918 range between 25 million and 100 million (p. 197). It, too, killed quickly, especially people in their twenties. And horrifically, smallpox wiped out entire civilizations in the New World. Those statistics provide some comfort when compared to COVID statistics. Modern medicine is another comfort. Medical scientists have been able to develop working vaccines and helpful medicines in a short time to help combat COVID deaths.

Also, the historical details Wright’s book provides can—strangely enough—be a soothing balm. Some of what people are doing and saying about COVID seems tame in comparison to behavior during past pandemics. Some suggested “preventatives” against the bubonic plague were to eat crushed emeralds, live in a sewer, avoid bad smells, place chopped onions in your house, drink your urine, and don’t look at sick people (Wright p. 29-30). Among the many bizarre and useless cures for the bubonic plague were bloodletting and poultices made with feces (p. 40). Often prescribed treatments made people suffer more. In defense of people from the past, medical science wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and people were desperate during frightening times, like they sometimes are today.

Wright’s chapter on tuberculosis was scary. I was in the camp of people who thought that tuberculosis was mostly a disease of the past. It’s not. Tuberculosis kills 1.3 million (Wright, p. 125) to 1.5 million (CDC) lives a year. Most of the cases of TB occur in countries outside of wealthy nations like the United States. But mutations in the TB bacteria make it more resistant to drugs, and when people with TB travel, they spread the disease. “Recent models show that unless we scale up efforts to address this growing threat, the number of people dying from drug-resistant TB will nearly double every 5 years” (CDC). There’s also the wise adage: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We need to pay attention.

In her epilogue, Wright discusses the AIDS epidemic. She didn’t give AIDS its own chapter because she feels there are people who lived through the AIDS epidemic who could tell the story better than she can. However, she wrote eight pages about AIDS, explaining how the epidemic was mishandled and how prejudice against gays made the epidemic worse. I believe she could tell the story of AIDS and make it as engaging and enlightening as the other epidemics she wrote about. And if she did, I would read that book.

Kekekabic by Eric Chandler

Reviewed by Victoria Lynn Smith (This review was originally posted on Nov. 27, 2022.)

[To pre-order Chandler’s book click here: Finishing Line Press.]

Leo at Parent Lake in the BWCA

Kekekabic, Eric Chandler’s second book of poetry, will be released May 20, 2022. Prepublication sales for the book will run from January 18, 2022, through March 25, 2022. Chandler is the author of Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War (2017). He has won the Col. Darron L. Wright Award for poetry three times. His writing has been published in numerous journals and magazines.

Kekekabic combines prose and haiku in a poetry form called haibun. In 2018, Chandler wrote a poem after each of his workouts. His goal was “to pay attention to the world” during his workouts in the wilderness, in Duluth, and on the road as an airline pilot. In his introduction he states, “It’s a loss if skiing through the woods is just a workout. All these miles moving over the earth under my own power have meaning.” Chandler’s poems invite us to move over the world with him and share the meaning he finds as he runs, hikes, and cross-country skis.

On the cover of Kekekabic, Chandler’s dog, Leo, sits on the shore of Parent Lake in the serenity of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Leo invites us to open the cover, read the poems, and reflect along with his hiking companion about being outside in nature. Chandler shares his wisdom about the outdoors in a haiku:

I think more people

should go outside. I think they’d

be much happier.

This resonates with me because on a bad day if I go outside, my spirits lift. Reading Chandler’s poems lifts my spirits too. Nature is an important theme in Kekekabic, and Chandler poems nudge us to go outside.

Chandler’s imagery appeals to the senses. About one of his runs, he writes, “The wind stacked the pack ice up at the fond du lac. The yellow sun sends a yellow stripe across the open water and it hits the shelf of ice and disperses. Brilliant sparkles randomly dot the expanse as the shards reflect the sun.” After a day on the Kekekabic trail, he writes, “Tail-slapping beavers sounded like full-grown men jumping into the lake.” Chandler’s poetic imagery will linger in our minds long after we close his book.

Leo joined Chandler on the five-day hike in the BWCA along the Kekekabic Trail. Chandler wrote a haibun for each day of the hike. The haiku he wrote on the fifth day—

The sound of peace is

my dog snoring on a rock

on a wild lakeshore

—mixes the wonder of nature and the joy of sharing it with family, which includes his dog. He writes of his daughter’s first time on cross-country skis: “I felt like my heart would explode due to an overload of blue kick wax joy, gliding through the trees in silence.” In another haibun Chandler recounts a run along Lake Superior with his son. They find a teddy bear on the path, and his son turns around and races back to where they had just run from to return the teddy bear to a child. Chandler’s poems remind us that small, quiet moments spent in nature with family are special.

Chandler studied the Japanese poet, Bashō, to learn about haibun. He quotes Bashō: “People often say that the greatest pleasures of traveling are finding a sage hidden behind the weeds or treasures hidden in trash, gold among discarded pottery.” In haibun that reflect Chandler’s workouts in large cities, he has taken Bashō’s words to heart—finding the sage, the treasures, and the gold among the grittiness and complexities of urban settings.

Some of Chandler’s haibun explore the theme of urban settings and nature colliding. In Fort Lauderdale as he runs, he notes “That crisp thread between the light blue of the sky and the dark blue of the water” in the distance. But as he observes the sky and water, he runs “Past the cigarette smokers. Past the marijuana smokers. Past the guy lifting dumbbells while he stands at the seawall, looking at the ocean while his car speakers thump.” He continues running down to the water where he concludes, “I got a moment’s peace and then found my way back to my room through the noise.”

Chandler’s poems written after running in cities, combine the beauty of nature and cityscapes with a harsher reality of urban landscapes, a comparison that invites us to think about people and nature as “reaching toward” one another. He writes, “Downwind now, I was struck that the world of man and the world of nature kind of reach toward one another at the border. The palm trees grow out of the sidewalk and the beach chairs cover the sand.”

In his haibun poems, Chandler encourages us to move through life with meditation and awareness. He encourages us to take journeys with family, friends, and our dogs, but also to take some journeys by ourselves. His poems inspire us to go outside and move through our world.

[For more information about Eric Chandler and his writing, click HERE to view his website, SHMOTOWN. Kekekabic will be available for prepublication sales at Finishing Line Press starting January 18, 2022, through March 25, 2022.]