The Jesus Year/Notes & Dispatches: Essays

May 18, 2015

The Jesus Year,
by Jani Krulc
London, ON: Insomniac, 2013
144 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Prepare to be quickly immersed as you read seven short stories by Calgary-based author, Jani Krulc. “The Jesus Year,” after which the collection is entitled, features 32-year-old Erica and covers a painful year in her life. Each brief and precisely worded scene provides clues to the story’s finale—Erica’s 33rd birthday dinner party. During Erica’s past year, her brother has died in an accident. The ensuing emotional disconnect Erica experiences with her spouse and friends widens, its destructive effect finally surfacing at her birthday dinner.

The collection’s central characters are typically young women navigating relationships, early marriage and family dynamics. Actions, not words, provide insights in to these protagonists’ emotional world, demanding the reader stay mindful of telling details. Sheila of “A Guide to Decorating” is dealing with her aging parents, for instance, and though her husband Hank is physically by her side, she dwells alone in the dark shadow of grief. Distractions—such as home decorating—provide respite but still can’t push back the darkness.

The reader will proceed with caution if holidaying on Canada’s “wild” Pacific coast after reading “The Evaluators.” Olivia and Henry are innocent travellers to Tofino on Vancouver Island’s isolated west coast for a romantic getaway. Yet another plot climax in this collection sneaks up on the reader.

Marcella is prepared to leave home and marry though still in her teens, as she deals with recurring anorexia in “Familia.” It’s a story line where the heroine’s feelings are central to whether she will live—or die. Flashbacks to Marcella’s childhood and a game-changing scene with her fiancé culminate in an ambiguous ending, providing a dash of hope.

“I didn’t have time to change,” Pastor Mike explains about his attire to Maya and Finn as they visit his rural church in Alberta to plan their wedding. In this story, “Going to Market,” the author sets the scene with a description of the Pastor: “He wore jeans ripped at the left thigh, black staining both knees.” The Pastor further explains: “It’s harvest” and Maya answers, “Oh, we love the market.” Therein lies the story’s tension—the gritty life of a rural man in contrast to Maya and her husband’s convenient—and thus naive— urban experiences.

The writing of all these stories is sharp and sparse and the author’s imagined worlds ultimately unsettling. Krulc provides the reader with glimpses of small shimmering truths through seemingly ordinary episodes experienced by ‘every day’ women.



Notes and Dispatches: Essays
by rob mclennan,
London, ON: Insomniac, 2014
317pp, $19.95 paperback

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

This collection of literary essays from prolific Ottawa-based poet and writer rob mclennan provides an appreciation of several authors, their work critiqued with enthusiasm and curiosity. mclennan’s own talents and biographic anecdotes also weave throughout the 36 pieces. Each have been previously published in diverse journals, including Maple Tree Literary Supplement.

In the first essay mclennan re-visits Don McKay’s poem, Long Sault (1975), revealing the impact of the post-war construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an almost-forgotten event occurring in central Canada and altering the natural surroundings and peoples’ lives. The reader learns “Long Sault” has been out of print for decades, though rescued from potential obscurity through publication in an anthology. mclennan admirably recovers the poem once again, for readers to consider and value. As a voracious reader, mclennan is in the habit of making such recoveries, as some of his other essays attest.

On a contemporary note, mclennan has followed, with a sense of awe, the writing of Sarah Manguso. Despite Manguso’s hardships while still in her twenties, mclennan observes “…what amazes is just how aware and clear-headed she is of her own situation, especially through the passages when she claims she is neither.” But suffering teaches us to pay attention, he learns from reading Manguso’s novel, “The Two Kinds of Decay.” She further suggests—and mclennan clearly agrees—that to pay attention is “to love everything.”
Douglas Barbour is admired as both a writer and critic of poetry but mclennan wonders if this modest prairie poet has been unfairly overlooked. mclennan never pronounces, but does conclude many of his essays with provocative questions for the reader to consider. David Thompson, the explorer who mapped Canada’s west centuries ago, is the subject of poems by Robert Kroetsch, another prairie writer mclennan praises. He comments on Kroetsch’s unconventional but convincing choice of ‘storyteller’ in his Thompson poems—the explorer’s wife.

In a playful essay about New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, mclennan riffs on how this particular building has fascinated Canadian writers over the years. He briefly describes his own pilgrimage to the Chelsea Hotel, inspiring a poem which he duly shares in the essay. mclennan also shares several enlightening teaching moments with students during his writing workshops. In fact, techniques, methods and ideas to nurture the writing practise appear throughout this collection. mclennan encourages the practise of writing poems in response to other writer’s poems, for instance, and in one piece, chronicles a student’s success using this exercise. In “Notes on writing, writing” mclennan poses questions about literature, draws from other writers’ thoughts and is self-reflective. One such question he asks is “how far away does culture and identity still hold, still compel?” mclennan’s sure sense of identity, with Scottish immigrant roots in rural Ontario, provides his own answer which he more fully explores in another essay, “….on ‘compiling genealogies on Stormant and Glengarry.’

mclennan in the interviewee in one piece, discussing his own writing. As well, mclennan as interviewer to writers John Lavery and Michael Blouin are also included. “Collaborating with Lea Graham” is an insightful essay on what happens when creative sparks fly between mclennan and an American poet.
mclennan’s richly varied essays serve both the aspiring writer and the discerning reader. While the Canadian poetry scene is a primary focus, literary and geographic boundaries are occasionally crossed. Much more frequently, mclennan pays attention to the diction, form and motivation of a distinct nation of writers and this inevitably includes his own valuable contributions.

Re-published from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, an on-line journal, May-June issue, (#19), 2015.

Lethbridge’s Galt Museum explores life of early artist

May 7, 2015


by Janet Nicol

“She sought adventure and she had courage,” says Wendy Aikens, who organized an exhibition about early English-Canadian watercolorist Edith Fanny Kirk at the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge, June 6 to October 12.  Watch for the full article in summer, 2015 issue of Galleries West magazine.

Watercolor painting above by Edith Fanny Kirk is entitled “Banff at November,” 1947.

Serpent Slayer – A Lawyer Without a Ticket

January 15, 2015


How a Squamish leader beat systemic discrimination to become one of Canada’s top legal experts on First Nations issues

by Janet Nicol

Despite his lack of a law degree, Squamish leader Andrew Paull (1892–1959) was remarkably successful in defending clients in British Columbia’s courts of law in the early part of the twentieth century.

Paull had received legal training but refused to be called to the bar because at the time it would have meant giving up his Aboriginal status.

So he worked as an unofficial lawyer, as well as a land claims lobbyist, longshoreman, community organizer, and lacrosse coach.

He was also the secretary of Mission Reserve No. 1 at Burrard Inlet, North Vancouver, and formed the North American Indian Brotherhood in the late 1940s.

It was Paull’s performance in the courtroom that impressed his contemporaries. He was able to cite chapter and verse and memorize long portions of documents.

According to his colleague Maisie Hurley, “He was considered the greatest authority on this continent on Indian aspects of the law. He would have been one of the country’s most brilliant criminal lawyers if he’d had a degree. He had dignity, drama. He was superb.”

When handling murder cases, Paull was often successful in getting the charges reduced. He also argued for Aboriginal land rights and opposed laws that were discriminatory towards Native people.

You can read my story on Andrew Paull in the February-March 2015 issue of Canada’s History magazine. See more on-line at

Picket line lessons

November 18, 2014

by Janet Nicol

BC teachers went on strike for five weeks in 2014. I interviewed four teachers and a parent. Find out more in Our Times.    ourtimes

After Pearl Harbour

November 18, 2014

by Janet Nicol

Jessie Hughes and Oiyo Uno lived in separate worlds during the war years, though their homes were in the same Vancouver neighbourhood. In the tense winter days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, these two women became known to each other through circumstances neither would have predicted or desired.

So begins a story centred on a hold up and murder and told from the perspective of two mothers.

Published in BC History, Winter, 2014


Social Justice 12 students take action against poverty at city-wide conference

October 11, 2014

by Janet Nicol

Last February 2014, Vancouver secondary students in Social Justice 12 courses around the city came together to learn more about local and global issues of concern. Participants agreed to continue to meet to plan a way to connect with people living in extreme poverty in Vancouver. Their action plan concluded a day of guest speakers and thoughtful discussions. See the full article at

Many thanks to the BC Teachers’ Federation for their support through an “Ed May Social Responsibility Education” grant.

Stand up for teachers

October 4, 2014

By Janet Nicol

“It was my mother’s idea for me to be a comedian,” Paul Bae says. But back in the 1990s, Bae had other ideas. He wanted to become a teacher. He says his parents tried to talk him out of it. Check out my interview with teacher and stand-up comedian Paul Bae, at Our Times magazine’s on-line “Between Times” feature, Fall 2014  at –

Short fiction reviews

October 3, 2014


How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?by Doretta Lau. Nightwood Editions, Gibsons, BC, 2014, 120 pp, softcover $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Lau takes risks in her lively collection of short stories, inviting the reader to imagine young Asian Canadians who are sassy, guilty, funny, angry and much more. The poetic title of the book is also the final story, previously short-listed for the Journey Prize. A character with the moniker ‘Sick Man of Asia’ narrates. He describes life hanging out with his “Chinger” pals who are “Slanty-eyed teenage disappointments with no better place to haunt but the schoolyard….” The writing sings with teen slang of an Asian bent, as the group taunt each other and scheme on “Lotusland” (Vancouver) streets.

In “Robot by the River” a character named Oliver Andrews provides the female narrator with a diversion when her Japanese boyfriend leaves Vancouver. When Andrews introduces himself, there is a “pause” between the two. He then explains he is a Korean adoptee, “…as if I had queried the dissonance between his surname and his appearance.” A story of love and separation follows.

A more humorous plot evolves in “Two-Part Invention” when a single woman decides to date dead men. She sets her sights on the late Toronto-based pianist, Glenn Gould. In the process the reader learns a fair amount of true information about the internationally acclaimed—and eccentric–musician.

Vancouver is the dominant setting for these stories. The Burnaby ghost at Deer Lake, the Sugar Refinery live music venue and the historic neighborhood of Strathcona are among familiar landmarks mentioned throughout, sometimes in detail. This gives place an importance, in contrast to characters grappling with belonging. Lau possesses an impressive talent and beneath her often playful writing there is much for the reader to consider.


Behaving This Way Is All I have Left, by Gonzalo Riedel, Insomniac Press, London, Ontario, 2013, 119 pp, $19.95

In his first collection of short stories, Winnipeg author Gonzalo Riedel provides concise, snappy situations with ordinary people who, more often than not, make bad decisions. They commit crimes, live outside the mainstream or have unworthy thoughts which lead to wrongful deeds. Riedel gets inside the head of these characters and as a result, readers gain insights in to their motives. The prose is spare, each narration leading to an end that jolts or twists.

Child acrobats from Russia appear in “The Trained Performers.” A sudden unscripted tightrope performance leaves the reader in suspense up to the final sentence. “Clubbers” tells the story of a man’s collapse after taking a recreational drug and the reaction of the drug dealer who is responsible. Male fantasies are played out in “A Matter of Degrees” as Adam provokes a brawl with his rival over a love interest at a “downtown dive that pulled in a crossover crowd of either punks or old prairie rednecks, depending on the night.”

In “The Escort Agency” Paul nervously sets up a paid encounter with a woman over the telephone. The voice of the man he calls to arrange the service is “deep, impatient, ambiguously accented.” Paul’s tentative feelings become out of control by story’s end. The content of each story is original and contains humor and truth.

Developing a stronger presence of place, such as Winnipeg, would give more dimension to this otherwise thoughtful and entertaining collection.

Republished from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept-Dec. 2014 – an on line journal at

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler – a review

October 3, 2014

The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, by Debra Komar. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2014. 346 pp, $19.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

Debra Komar, a former forensic anthropologist, illuminates Canada’s past once again in her second historical true crime narrative. Peter Wheeler was found guilty of murdering 14 year old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia in 1896. The story details the crime and aftermath, including the villagers’ participation in the rumors and lies leading to Wheeler’s hanging. Komar believes exploring “how and why” Wheeler was falsely accused and convicted is more compelling than attempting to figure out the actual killer. She also asserts in the preface “…this is the first factual public examination of the case since his trial and the first credible attempt to challenge his conviction.”

It was Wheeler’s misfortune to discover the murder victim. A well-travelled labourer born on an island off the African coast, Wheeler, aged 27, had settled in the Maritimes village, boarding at an unmarried woman’s home. When Nicholas Power, a Halifax-based detective assigned to the murder case, arrived to the scene, he immediately decided Wheeler was guilty. Power is depicted by the author as rigid and self-serving.

The newspapers played a shameful role as well, marking Wheeler as guilty from the start and even fabricating his jailhouse ‘confession.’ Journalists were not about to let the truth get in the way of a good story—even at the cost of a man’s life. The weaknesses within the judicial institutions are also exposed under Komar’s sharp gaze—from the inexperienced coroner to the court room professionals. A jury found Wheeler guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence. Wheeler claimed he was innocent to the very end, yet his sentence was upheld in a final appeal at the federal level. Komar also describes people who tried to bring reason and truth to the situation—but they were few in number and ultimately dismissed.

Komar meticulously traces the lives of key people involved, bringing the distant past to life through the smallest details. She deciphers technical reports and testimony in a way which is accessible to the reader and gives a rich dimension to the narrative. The prose is concise and fast-paced, with 46 short chapters—starting with setting the scene (And So It Begins) to Wheeler’s execution (“Lord, I Am Coming”). The last three chapters describe the aftermath of the execution and the author’s reflections. Photographs and newspaper illustrations are also included, as well as sources and an index.

Komar’s relish at digging for the truth comes through, though she sometimes loses impact when overstating a point, such as her contempt over the newspaper coverage. It’s a story that “runs the gamut of negative and painful emotions,” she observes in her summation, “fear, prejudice, lust, deceit, cowardice, indifference, insecurity and unfathomable rage.” In this gripping story aimed to clear a man’s good name, Komar succeeds in delivering timeless lessons for the reader to ponder.

Reprinted from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept – Dec 2014 – an on-line journal at

Discovering Deer Lake Park

September 20, 2014


by Janet Nicol

The sun is sparkling on the calm waters of Deer Lake as I set off from the parking lot along Burnaby’s Sperling Avenue. The lake is the centrepiece of the city’s unique 207-hectare Deer Lake Park and a walk around its 2.4-kilometre perimeter takes less than an hour. But Colleen Hale, a local volunteer who leads walks in the area and is my guide for the day, suggests we explore farther afield.

“It smells like fruit in the late spring,” she tells me as we veer off the north shoreline to a trail. I later learn that the Coast Salish gathered wild cranberries here, and farmers established strawberry fields and orchards in the late 1800s. While in operation, nearby Oakalla Prison Farm produced vegetables, along with dairy and livestock.

We pass the Townley Mansion; its all-white stucco exterior and “Colonial Revival style” harkens back to plantation life in the old American south. The house is one of a dozen city-owned heritage properties scattered around the lake. Visitors can wander the landscaped grounds and even step inside some of these former homes—including Ceperley Mansion, now the Burnaby Art Gallery, and Hart House, a finedining restaurant. Other trails lead to the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and the Burnaby Village Museum, a replica of a 1920s village complete with carousel, blacksmith shop, and ice cream parlour.

We arrive at Price Street and turn west down the road, looping back into the park’s expansive field of tall brown grass. “You don’t want to go off these trails,” Hale cautions. “You will sink to your knees in the bog.”

Eventually a sloping trail to the southwest takes us to higher ground along the park’s border. We reach the preserved concrete stairs of Oakalla prison, all that remains of the institution. Its meadows west of the lake were incorporated into the park and in 1991 the old brick Oakalla Prison Farm was torn down. We duly read the historic marker before continuing on.

We come to the “312 Stairs,” as they are named, adjacent to the Royal Oakland Park residential neighbourhood. Small plaques on some steps tell Aboriginal stories, including the legend of an underground stream connecting Deer Lake to False Creek in Vancouver. The story reminds us of the sacred web of waters beneath our feet.

A panoramic view of the mountains gives us a good reason for rest stops as we head down a trail back to Deer Lake. At the south shoreline, we peer through floor-to-ceiling windows of the Baldwin House, built in 1965 and designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson. Set further back is another city-owned property, the Eagles Estate.

A stack of rental boats catches my eye before we return to the parking lot. As we say our good-byes, I am already planning my next visit to this urban oasis— when I will eat strawberries and float in a canoe.

Re-published from British Columbia Magazine, Fall, 2014

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