Archive for the ‘Recently Reviewed’ Category

How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on September 6, 2021 at 3:55 pm
Is there a special person who’s had a tremendous impact on your life? Someone who played a defining role in shaping who you are, who you’ve become? In How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) we meet several key influencers, none of whom are human. 
Credit: “Wild animals and pets,” by Color_life, iStock.

Montgomery explores the natural world with a moving sensitivity. Decades of travelling the globe researching, writing about and living with a variety of species has shifted her perspective. As these animals reveal their truths to her, they provide important lessons, which profoundly affect her:

“The world, I realized, brimmed even fuller with life than I had suspected, rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.”

The idea for this memoir sprang to life after a TV interview with author and animal issues reporter Vicki Croke. She asked Montgomery: what had animals taught her about her life? Immediately she replied: “How to be a Good Creature.” Encouraged by her editor to write this book, Montgomery realized she had many life lessons to share. Divided into 10 chapters, these loving portraits introduce the reader to 13 cherished creatures: Some are pet companions, others she meets during her travels. 

Montgomery lives with her husband, Howard Mansfield, in New Hampshire with a border collie named Thurber and a flock of hens. The bestselling author of 21 books is known for her dedicated research. For her books, articles and films, Montgomery has trekked through jungles, natural habitats and aquariums to meet all types of creatures from gorillas, tigers, piranhas, electric eels and pink dolphins to snow leopards and great white sharks. Beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Green, the memoir includes personal photos and a reading list of inspiring books.

Those who have experienced the joy of having an animal companion, will relate to Montgomery: 

“To me, one of the most heartbreaking conditions of life on Earth is that most of the animals we love, with the exception of some parrots and tortoises, die so long before we do.”

Sy Montomery

In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. During a difficult year, Montgomery becomes submerged in loss: Her rented home is for sale, her publisher pulls out of her book contract and her father is dying of cancer. To cheer her, her husband surprises her by adopting a tiny sickly piglet. The runt, named Christopher Hogwood, grows famous and in size to about 700 pounds. His loving nature attracts admirers and international supporters. Montgomery finds solace:

“Studying at the cloven feet of the porcine Buddha every day, I could not help but learn from a master how to revel in and savor this world’s abundance: the glow of warm sun on skin, the joy of playing with children. Also, his big heart, and huge body, made my sorrows feel smaller.”

The sparse but lyrical writing is a lesson in brevity. Often we only learn of specific details at the end of a chapter or through sudden pivots in the writing. For example, her career choices strain her relationship with her wealthy conservative parents. They disown her when she marries a liberal Jewish man: 

“. . . my husband was never welcome in their home–not even for my father’s funeral. Though I was with him when he died, my father never told me he forgave me, and my mother could not accept my living a life so different from their own.”

Skilled at meting out information, Montgomery uses these creature portraits to provide a window into her troubled upbringing. One Christmas morning a white ermine breaks into their hen house and murders one of their hand-raised chickens. Instead of feeling wrath, Montgomery is enthralled with the small killer and likens it to an angel. The fearless ermine resembles her mother’s determined spirit. In a seamless and unexpected transition, Montgomery recollects her mother’s rise from hard-scrabble living to upper-class elite. Earlier that year, her emotionally distant mother died from painful pancreatic cancer, but:

“. . . had not once whined or wept. As I looked into the piercing black eyes of that white weasel, I realized how much I had admired my mother, and how much I missed her. . . Like a struck match chases away darkness, this creature’s incandescent presence left no room for anger in my heart–for it had been stretched wide with awe, and flooded with the balm of forgiveness.”

When Montgomery spirals into a suicidal depression, a work trip to remote mountains intervenes. Capturing, studying and releasing wild tree kangaroos proves to be therapeutic and suddenly freeing. Though some animal circles may dismiss projecting feelings onto animals, anyone who has shared a connection understands Montgomery’s assertion: 

“. . . emotions aren’t confined to humans. A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.”

The last chapter introduces us to her latest instructor, a puppy named Thurber:

“When the student is ready, the adage goes, the teacher will appear. This time, the student wasn’t ready. The teacher came anyway. I was fifty-eight when Thurber appeared in my life, and I soon saw that I still had more lessons to learn on my journey of trying to be a good creature. . . You never know, even when life looks hopeless, what might happen next. It could be that something wonderful is right around the corner.”

Sy Montomery

These candid chronicles show us there’s more to this world than we know; illuminating the critical need to respect and advocate for our fellow sentient beings. Montgomery’s deep insights are not just for animal lovers, but provide a valuable glimpse beyond our limited realm and speak to the core of our humanity. 


In Recently Reviewed on August 20, 2021 at 3:08 pm

This year’s annual Powell Street Festival in Vancouver included the launch of ReturnPublished by Mata Ashita: The Japanese Canadian Writers’ Circle, the premier issue of this special e-zine features attractive design by Sen Canute and works by JC artists and writers. 

Thanks so much to Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Sen Canute and Nicola Koyanagi for moderating the group and including a chapter excerpt from my MFA project, The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered In. I’m honoured to be part of this collection. Congratulations to the organizers and all contributors.

Summer Reading: My 10 Essential Books of Creative Nonfiction

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on July 20, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Take a look around these days and you’ll see just about everyone has a list of must-read books. There’s no shortage of material – the selection of topics encompasses every possible genre and category. With this vast range of subjects competing for our time and attention, where does one start?

Reading in the field – scanned 1881 engraving

This personal list of essential creative nonfiction books is specifically for writers. It incorporates key examples on how to craft creative nonfiction (CNF) plus stellar illustrations where writers used form and structure in unique ways throughout their memorable works. If writing CNF is an art, these manuals demonstrate the tricks of the trade or simply inspire because of their artistry.

  1. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Miller and Paola are both English professors and present the nitty-gritty of writing and research basics. Different CNF forms are detailed and explained, from personal, lyrical, braided and hermit-crab essays to sketch portraits, collage and graphic memoirs, to mixed media and digital works. It’s no surprise this resource has become a standard reference in many CNF courses and programs.
  2. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. If you’re looking for succinct advice on how to craft narrative nonfiction, Hart clearly dissects and defines each element, from story, structure and point of view, to action and dialogue. He explains these principles in a no-nonsense, easy-to-follow style you would expect from an award-winning journalist and teacher. Hart’s helpful tips can immediately be applied to writing both shorter magazine pieces and longer book-length narratives.
  3. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. After attending a funeral and hearing many tributes, one struck Gornick as particularly memorable. The difference, she realized later, is that it had been composed, organized and structured. It raised the question: How do we tell our stories? Utilizing her years of teaching MFA programs, Gornick decided to tackle this question by showing readers how to recognize truth in writing, which she believes is the essence of what makes good writing.
  4. The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks by Susan Shapiro. Writers who yearn to be published take note – Shapiro promises fast results and cites five weeks or less. With more than 20 years of experience as a writing professor, she has tutored thousands of students using her popular “instant gratification takes too long” technique. For both emerging and experienced writers aiming to get past the slush pile, Shapiro’s results-driven approach is the how-to guide.
  5. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Another highly touted and often quoted tome by an award-winning author, Dillard uses this memoir as a vehicle to impart sage advice and motivation. She encourages writers to establish positive working routines, and to include activities such as regular reading and ongoing writing. She also cautions students not to save or hoard what they deem “good” passages for later use but to continue pushing ahead with the writing.
  6. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott. Elliott excels at using highly personal braided essays to explore complex issues within the Indigenous community. Within this construct, the Tuscarora writer examines how the trauma of colonialism has resulted in generational cycles of poverty, obesity and disease. In easy-to-understand prose, she outlines how this cause-and-effect sequence continues to shape her community’s experiences and environment today. Any writer unfamiliar (as I was) or contemplating utilizing a braided essay format, this instructive work provides tremendous insight on the design and assembly.
  7. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear. In describing a difficult year, Maclear takes the reader on a month-by-month bird-watching adventure. Sparely written, she masterfully combines minimalist prose, expressive metaphors and philosophical musings to express her grief and anxiety over her father’s illness and resulting artistic slump. The writer and children’s book author contrasts this presentation with unusual stylistic conventions such as including lists and drawings. Filled with an ample array of writing methods and strokes of innovation, Maclear is sure to provide any CNF writer with imaginative ideas to consider.
  8. Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto. This memoir recounts the hardships of the Second World War from the different perspectives of Sakamoto’s interned Japanese Canadian grandmother and his Scottish grandfather who became a prisoner of war. These traumatic events provide the backdrop to the biracial writer’s own upbringing while skillfully interweaving Canadian history with themes of culture, ethnicity and identity.
  9. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. The idea for this beautifully illustrated memoir sprang to life after a TV interview. Montgomery, who has travelled the world and spent decades researching, writing about and living with animals, realized she had many life lessons to share. In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. Through these creature portraits, she provides a window into her own troubled upbringing.
  10. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Scan any number of essential book lists and you’re likely to stumble upon this title. Thoreau’s account of his time spent in the solitude of nature, living in semi-isolation and near self-sufficiency, is viewed both directly and indirectly as a vast contribution to CNF. With his skill for prose, Thoreau is regarded as one of the greatest American writers, and is credited for his enormous influence on scores of seasoned writers in the areas of social reform, philosophy and the environment.

When it comes to not-to-be-missed recommendations, this list of essential craft and inspirational CNF works is only the tip of the iceberg. All writers can reap their benefits. Whether it’s a specific process to glean or an inventive example to emulate, there’s much we can all learn from these fellow writers and the wisdom they impart. Happy reading! – S.H.

Celebrating Asian Heritage Month

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on May 16, 2021 at 5:34 pm

For our Saturday evening movie night, the family watched Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 version of The Ballad of Narayama. Based on the novel by Shichirō Fukazawa, the Japanese folk tale explores the practice of abandoning our elders. Resembling a kabuki stage production, it features incredible music and dramatic pre-CG scene changes. I had seen Shōhei Imamura’s 1982 remake of the film, but that was so many years ago, and I only had vague recollections of this story of sacrifice and honour.

Photo by Photography Maghradze PH on Pexels.com

In celebration of Asian Heritage month, I’m sharing reviews of works by three Japanese Canadian writers and encourage you to delve deeper into their writing.

Rediscovering Japanese Canadian Identity: A Journey Through Creative Nonfiction

Who am I? Where do I belong? We’ve all asked these fundamental questions of existence and identity at some point in our lives. From the earliest days of civilized living, philosophers have been trying to provide answers: From Descartes, Cogito, ergo sum–“I think, therefore I am,” to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Even if we feel secure in our identity, challenges or milestones can cause that sense of self to shift or change. And when faced with unexpected events that unhinge us or reopen old wounds, we may find ourselves questioning the very essence of our being. As Psychology Today reports, “…major life upheavals, such as divorce, retirement, or the death of a loved one, often lead people to explore and redefine their identities.”

Examining three Japanese Canadian (JC) memoirs, we meet Kyo Maclear, Joy Kogawa and Mark Sakamoto during difficult periods in their lives. Each author is on a metaphorical journey to regain their identity. Informing the writing are repeated themes: duty and responsibility; the complex child/parent relationship; and inherited traits. Questions arise, throughout their struggles, regarding ethnicity and its influence. While Maclear and Sakamoto are of mixed race, all authors share Japanese heritage, which creates an underlying thread of experience. Despite these commonalities, the structure and style of each memoir is completely different – and each writer follows their own unique path to resolution.

Flight of Fancy: A Whimsical Journey

If you wanted a summary of Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear, the subtitles: “A Field Guide to the Small and Insignificant” or “A Year of Observation,” provide telling clues to the content although depending upon the edition, they’re not always included. On some covers, the title Birds Art Life is listed in three separate lines, and one wonders if it’s meant to be a loose reference to haiku since it succinctly summarizes the work and sets the tone with its sparsely written but explanatory text. 

The memoir introduces Maclear in a state of grief and anxiety after her British father suffers two strokes. She’s feeling lost and unnerved by her father’s illness, and has fallen into an artistic slump. Looking for inspiration, the writer and artist undertakes outside distractions and immersive hobbies, which allow the creative to take flight. Birdwatching provides a calming activity­­–a walking meditation punctuated by long periods of quiet watching and waiting. Maclear mirrors this in her deeply introspective compositions. Peppered with insightful observations, it’s an opportunity for Maclear to pose esoteric questions on identity and reflect upon the human condition. 

This whimsical and nature-inspired excursion through quirky lists, side notes and hand-drawn illustrations benefits from its heavily structured format. Divided into sections: first by seasons and then by month, she covers the period of an entire year beginning with a Winter prologue and moves full circle with the epilogue. The book is neatly organized by the London (UK)-born writer who grew up in Toronto where most of the story is set. Each season is afforded a double-page photograph, and each month begins with an artfully presented title page and succinct summary–an effective method for creating separation and grounding the occasionally flighty content. 

Maclear visits an aviary in “January / Cages,” inspiring discussions on freedom and responsibility. As an only child, she often longed to run away, “I was running away from a story about dutiful daughters. I returned because I didn’t know where I would go or who I would be without these ideas. ”Strained relationships emerge beginning with her Japanese mother: “My mother is a mystery to me. Between us is a barrier of language and disposition. She does not divulge or publicly introspect.” Reflecting on this relationship, Maclear realizes she created the imagined narrative: As a failed artist, her mother chose to tolerate an unhappy marriage and to maintain family responsibilities instead of pursuing a creative life. Years later, her mother finally leaves her father, and he soon becomes ill. Her mother, in regaining her independence, becomes what Maclear terms “defiantly unnurturing.” But through fresh insight gained from birding, Maclear acknowledges she had imposed her own expectations upon her mother. Forced to assume a new identify as caregiver to her father, she embraces her role reversal, “I stepped in to fill the breach and discovered I had a talent for it.” A caged bird continues to sing.

Although Maclear doesn’t make large references to her Japanese heritage, in “February / Smallness,” she defends her preference for safety in the small: 

“Good girls are taught to make ourselves small until there is very little of ourselves left in the world, even as our hunger expands. If we are also ‘minorities,’ embracing smallness is a less mutinous and more predictable route. Little, petite, modest, delicate, submissive, soft-spoken, docile, cute, feminine, tidy…Asian women are not assumed to be particularly magisterial, with the exception of Yoko Ono, who is frequently and predictably belittled for her artistic hubris and over-the-top voice.”

The writing style has a Zen-like quality with its ability to poetically convey meaning through minimal details. Like many Japanese Canadians (JC), who grew up with systemic racism and distanced themselves from their community and culture, Maclear similarly keeps an arms-length distance from the reader: most characters remain anonymous, only known by their personas such as “the Musician” or “the Doctor.”

She also masterfully employs parallels to seemingly unrelated topics. In “August / Roaming” she credits the writers and poets who were her early influences. This inspires a shift to her mother the artist and her father the writer, where she concedes: “From my mother, I inherited my sometimes crooked humour and independence. From my father, curiosity about the world, a desire for seclusion.”

In her quest to find meaning again in her life, Maclear winds up her thoughtful expedition with many lessons learned: 

“There are no big reasons to live. Just little reasons. Make leeway for chance. Sometimes you don’t want to be driven to a point. Sometimes it is exactly when we lose our bearings or take a detour that life really gets going.”

Journey into Darkness: Return to Light

The idea for Joy Kogawa’s memoir was sparked by a physical place: “The title arrived as Gently to Nagasaki, and I had no idea what that meant. But what I know now, is that it’s my own personal hell.” This guidepost, as the title alludes, points her towards uncharted territory, a direction to follow as she embarks upon this spiritual pilgrimage.

Kogawa confesses it was extremely difficult for her to write this powerful chronicle: “My story is from the belly of the dark. I am forbidden to tell it and commanded to tell it. I am told that to speak is to slay and not to speak is to slay.” The first section takes us to Nagasaki, cataloguing the many effects of radiation and health consequences suffered by atomic bomb survivors. It’s a long preamble before Kogawa’s crushing revelation: 

“The truth was that the person I loved and admired more than anyone in the world, the one with whom I most identified with, the one who told stories and made life fun, who was tender and generous and wept and laughed and sang, who was good and did not give up, the one in whom I could see no wrong and who saw no wrong in me, my father, a visionary and charismatic priest in the Anglican Church, a man who had served his scattered flock and his people without letup: my adored father was a paedophile.”

Through the depths of her grief, Kogawa becomes physically ill and is filled with a displaced sense of guilt. In the wake of coming to terms with these harsh realities, she travels through the decades tackling other serious issues: her fight to preserve her family home in Vancouver that was seized during World War Two, the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanking and meeting some of her father’s victims. Stories she needed to recount, telling Image magazine, “Writing Gently to Nagasaki was a scream for mercy.” 

Divided into five parts, there is no table of contents or titles, only numbered chapters. It begins with a quote from the bible on healing, and ends with a poem of forgiveness, giving thanks for homecoming waters. Some chapters flow effortlessly into the next, others end suddenly. The Endnotes section requires careful study to decipher as there are no clear indications within the text and no footnotes included at the bottom of the pages. To contrast the weighty content, the book’s liberal use of white space acts as a momentary pause and breath of fresh air.

Kogawa’s writing style is as intense as the subject matter it covers yet the lyrical language reflects her background as a poet. Her straightforward approach of naming names and providing specifics is juxtaposed by cloaked references, which include a multitude of scripture citations, biblical stories, and Buddhist mythology. This density infuses the work with layer upon layer of meaning–some cryptic and others obvious, which might make some passages difficult to navigate for readers without a Christian upbringing or understanding of religion.

“Do we write to be free of our ghosts or to welcome them?” Kogawa asks us. Faced with criticism from the JC community for preserving her family home and coupled with her need to apologize for her father’s wrongdoings, she reclaims a sense of self in her absolute tenets: truth, love and trust. As her trek nears its completion, she visits her father’s ancestral home in Japan and wonders if she can symbolically leave behind the burden of guilt she’s carried throughout the years. Once there, the gentle culture returns her to her origins: 

“I was flung back to earliest childhood and Japanese motherhood: the solicitude, the quiet matter-of-factness, the way of knowing needs, the non-judgment, the slight indirection in the angle of the head. The deep trust established between mother and child is, I think, the foundation for the extraordinary trust in one another that exists in Japanese society.”

By exploring larger abstract questions, Kogawa pushes past narrow definitions of identity and embraces a higher perspective of oneness:

“We need to share our vulnerabilities — all humans are vulnerable — and come to our common humanity . . . . I think we need healing circles, like those of indigenous people. We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.”

Journey Through the Ages: Injustice Revisited 

For anyone seeking an epic odyssey, Mark Sakamoto is waiting to take you there in Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents. Beautifully told with the easy-going narrative of a seasoned storyteller, Sakamoto weaves the story of his grandparents: from their early beginnings, to how they survived the trials and tribulations of war and hard-scrabble living. It unfolds as an incredible drama that one could easily see portrayed on the big screen.

When his alcoholic mother dies after years of addiction Sakamoto, overcome with guilt and shame, falls into a state of depression. “I told friends and family I had found solace. I lied: I felt neither grace nor solace. I felt fear. I felt a mighty undercurrent and I was petrified it would sweep me under.” He finds his way back by returning to the history of his grandparents, remembering how they endured great suffering and injustices, and the forgiveness that followed. 

Sakamoto begins with a modern-day visit to his grandmother’s house, setting the scene in the prologue. From there he launches us back in history where the voyage starts afresh. Methodically divided into four parts with subchapters within them, he then skips back and forth between the lives of his Scottish grandfather and Japanese grandmother. This rising action skillfully leads us to Sakamoto’s crisis. He returns to the current time, and quickly summarizes his own role and involvement in the story. The epilogue provides the conclusion and consists of a personal thank you note to his grandparents for sharing their stories.

Filled with gripping reports and evocative scenes vividly told, other voices emerge, and Sakamoto successfully transports us into another time and era steeped in culture: 

“Yosuke tried to make life easier for his community and Mitsue tried to make life easier for him. The focus of family life was to assist and to be obedient, to make their parents proud. The sense of duty was constant.”

Towards the end of the novel, Sakamoto switches back to his own narrative and abruptly ties up all loose ends in what feels like a sprint to the finish. Three months after his mother dies, Sakamoto remains in what he calls a dull fog, not sleeping and paralyzed by fear, acknowledging he’s hit rock bottom. His partner tells him, “‘Remember what you’re made of,’ she said. I cried tears of gratitude. For her. For Grandma Mitsue and Grandpa Ralph–for showing me a way out.” And after that, he simply bounces back. Compared to the earlier accounts, it’s less emotionally charged and lacks the same depth of reflection found in previous chapters – almost too quick and tidy a summation to the events so movingly portrayed before. Writer Jack Hart would term this classic falling action or denouement, “Intensity faces. The pace slows. Things wind down.” Yet one wonders if Sakamoto has run out of steam by the time we get to his story or whether he’s using this approach to distance himself. 

In the final chapter, aptly titled “Journey’s End,” Sakamoto spreads his mother’s ashes in a symbolic act of closure signally he’s ready to move on. He resurfaces from the punishing ordeal with new-found philosophical insight: 

“Life happens one decision at a time. You have no idea where each will take you. Maybe it is fate. Maybe it is God’s will. Maybe everything does happen for a reason. All I know is you have to find a reason in it. The reason is usually the future.”

Grappling with life’s existential questions of identity is never easy, even during the best state of mind. How do I deal with trauma? Do these events define who I am? Am I the sum of my parent’s lives? Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto all faced similar questions on the road travelled back to self. Triggered by crisis, they all sought to rediscover their identity and using CNF were rewarded with rich metaphors for exploration. Each found resolution by taking a different route.

Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto may have gone in completely opposite directions in terms of style and structure, but managed to cover some of the same ground. We walked with them as they survived their parents’ broken marriages and experienced their role reversal when the child became caregiver to the parent. With both pride and ambivalence, they revealed how ethnicity had influenced their lives and in their shared Japanese heritage, all experienced feelings of displacement; an internal and external journey through diaspora and resettlement. They found themselves in the little things, the big things, the meaningful gestures. 

For those who have never experienced tragedy or loss, the incomprehensibility of grief and mourning, and the forms they take can be unrecognizable; the depths unfathomable. Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto are deeply reflective as they emerge from their dark nights and impart lasting words of wisdom to the reader. In regaining a semblance of order again in their lives, each author finds profound redemption – a triumph over adversity as a resilient identity emerges forged from fragments of the past.

Works Cited

Alexander, Daryl Royster, New York Times Word for Word/90-Second Philosophy; In Bite-Size Portions, The Wise Men Made Easy,” May 14, 2000,

Boers, Arthur and Braun, Connie T., Image magazine, Issue 95, “A Conversation with Joy Kogawa.”

Hart, Jack, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

“Interview with Joy Kogawa,” George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, CBC, July 12, 2013.

Kogawa, Joy, Gently to Nagasaki, Caitlin Press, August 2016.

Maclear, Kyo, Birds Art Life, Doubleday Canada, January 2017

NAJC and Province of British Columbia, “BC Redress Community Consultations” paper, 2019.

Psychology Today website, “Identity,” accessed Oct. 31, 2019,

Sakamoto, Mark, Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents, HarperCollins Canada, 2014.

Savage, Candace, Literary Review of Canada, Beauty and the Accidental: In watching birds, a writer finds solace, and lessons for the creative life.” 

What is Cupping?

In Body Fantastic on September 16, 2018 at 2:04 pm

A Cup Above

By now, most people have heard about acupuncture. If you haven’t, it’s an alternative treatment practised in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), whereby thin needles (more like very small pins) are inserted into the body at specific meridians of the body to treat various conditions. For those of you with needle phobia, these are not the traditional needles they use at the doctor’s office to take your blood. For many physiotherapists and people who treat sports injuries, acupuncture has become somewhat mainstream as it has been known to help ease arthritis as well as joint pain.

A few decades ago, I injured my lower back in a slip-and-fall accident, and every now and again my back decides to seize up. While normal rest and some exercises helped my back, it was the debilitating pain of migraines that finally drove me to discover acupuncture. If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know what I’m talking about. Fortunately, many family members recommended a physiotherapist who I was more than happy to meet, and over the years she has relieved my back pain and aging body aches with a combination of acupuncture and physio. Since her office is on the other side of town, when a local TCM clinic opened within walking distance from my home and a colleague highly recommended one of the doctors, I decided to give it a try. Once there, I discovered their TCM acupuncture methods were more effective than the physio.

Fast forward, a year later and my back and neck were clenched – I need acupuncture badly. My TCM doctor assessed the situation as I laid face down and agreed. “I think you need cupping today to loosen your tight muscles…” she says. I’d heard of the practice but had never had the procedure done before – since I’m already in pain I think, how bad can it be? “OK…” I say.

No Pain, No Gain

Within a few moments, I hear the clinking of glass containers on a cart rattle in. The flick of a lighter is followed by a puff of incense-scented smoke and suddenly I feel a cold circle of suction on my back. As I endure the first few cups with only mild discomfort,   I think to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” But as she gets to my lower back and attaches the next two cups, I gasp out loud to which she responds, “if you can manage the pain, it is better if you try and hang on…”

FullSizeRenderWincing, my mind now conjures visions of booster cables pinching off nerve endings. “Remember why you went in the first place,” I try and tell myself. If you’ve endured crushing migraine or screaming lower back pain, then you can easily breathe through a few moments of this stinging. Memories of childbirth drift back into my thoughts although this time, it feels like I’ve got 20 pounds of glass pressing down on my back.

Mercifully, the time passes quickly. As the suction cups are removed they release a whoosh of air, and I simultaneously experience a sign of relief! That night, I fall into a deep sleep and am drenched in sweat when I awake feeling light and nimble, able-bodied and healed! And those angry red lesions that cover my back and worry my family gradually subside over the next few days.

Sitting Pretty at Sorelle

In Good Eats, Recently Reviewed on July 22, 2018 at 6:38 pm

In the ever-changing Toronto landscape, it seems like there’s a new vegan restaurant or café popping up at regular intervals no matter what neighbourhood you find yourself in.

Sorelle.pgIf you happen to have a sweet tooth – rush down to Sorelle and Co., and be prepared to be amazed by the confection selection. Feast your eyes on the prettiest non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, vegan, nut-free and preservative-free food you’ve ever seen.

Mind you, if you like to people watch in upscale Yorkville, it’s a great place to simply soak in the swanky decor. Be warned – unless you’re there to grab and go, be prepared to wait for a table.

Clearly it’s never been more trendy to be vegan, which to me is good news all around. Marie Antoinette would approve of the lush setting, elegant dishware and decadent desserts. It’s always a cause for celebration when vegans can have our cake and eat it, too!

Made It By A Nose

In Book Reviews, Food For Thought on August 3, 2017 at 10:51 pm

BookCoverImageIt’s here! Yes, it took me another year to complete but the paperback version of My Father’s Nose has just been released on CreateSpace.com. It should be widely available on Amazon.ca by the end of the week.

Thanks to everyone for their encouraging words with this ongoing endeavour. It’s certainly been a labour of love – as all creative projects are – with the added bonus of learning new computer programs. Fingers crossed, the next book won’t take as long!

Happy Birthday Dad – didn’t think I’d get it together on time, but here it is. Hope all is well with you in the great beyond.

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Best Baba-ghanouj By Far

In Good Eats, Recently Reviewed on June 7, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Move over hummus. If you eat a lot of dips, like we do, then I highly recommend Sunflower Kitchen’s classic eggplant dip. Fresh, non-GMO, kosher – this company makes some of the best-quality dips you’ll ever taste. This all-time favourite makes a perfect appetizer or snack with veggies and crackers. Try it as a spread on wraps or in sandwiches. We also love it as part of a meal with flatbread or naan.


Sunflower Kitchen Baba-Ghanouj (www.sunflowerkitchen.com). However you spell it: baba ghanoush, baba ganoush, or Sunflower’s preferred baba-ghanouj  – this is one delicious dip. Almost as good as homemade, perhaps even better since there’s no prep time or cleanup – it’s already made and ready to serve! PRODUCT NOTES Wonderful, smooth texture with real eggplant pieces, skin and all. Has just the right flavouring that comes from roasting the eggplant. BOTTOM LINE Look for the large container, as the small one won’t last! I normally buy two large containers each time I’m out shopping, as it seems to disappear overnight in my house. Plus, I’ve noticed it sells out fast, so clearly I’m not the only one who has discovered it. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll never go back to any other brand. (And if you do find a better one, I’d like to know about it!)


Fur-rific Fable is Fetching Fun!

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on May 3, 2017 at 9:25 pm

MissMoonCoverIf you’re a cat person, the mere mention of dogs may conjure up images of simple, scruffy ruffians. But before you go and get your hackles raised, fear not – Miss Moon is here to lead the pack on raising well-mannered dogs (and their people, too). Miss Moon: Wise Words from a Dog Governess by Janet Hill (Tundra Books, 2016) is a beautifully illustrated picture book filled with valuable life lessons. Perhaps even a cat, or two, might learn some new tricks. Readers with a keen eye, no doubt, will be certain to spot the few cat cameos.

Based in Stratford, Ont., author Janet Hill is also the book illustrator and known for her elegant and whimsical artwork, which has been featured in various magazines as well as both private and corporate collections.

The story begins on an island off the coast of France, where Miss Moon began her career minding 67 dogs. Instead of running for the hills, she realized her lifelong calling was to become a dog governess. Refined dog owners everywhere will certainly agree that there is a terrible shortage, as it is extremely difficult to find anyone who specializes in imparting good manners to pampered pooches – let alone someone as experienced and dedicated as Miss Moon. Now before you go barking up the wrong tree, a simple visit to your neighbourhood park will prove how sorely these services are needed. Be sure to watch where you step, and don’t be surprised to find yourself overrun with common dog walkers and their motley crew of wild, canine charges.

Easy to read and broken into 20 life lessons, Miss Moon’s terrific tips and gorgeous artwork will have you grinning like a Cheshire cat. Lesson Eighteen, for example, will appeal to eco-warriors and homesteaders alike – “Nurture the environment and you’ll never be hungry.” A delightful tale for young and old.

Disclosure Notice: We participate in the Amazon Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program, which earns fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites. Our participation does not influence our content decisions but helps to offset the costs involved in maintaining this website.

Coffee: The Life-Saving Beverage

In Good Eats, Recently Reviewed on March 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

Not a day goes by when I don’t drink coffee. Although there may be small blips of time – like during pregnancy with my daughter, or the odd illness here and there over the years that keep me from eating. That said, we’re not talking Timmy’s here. It’s only premium whole bean, dark roasted, organic, fair trade coffee that makes the grade in our house. Yes, we refer to this black, liquid gold as our “life-saving beverage” of choice. While “please” and “thank you” have their place in our home, the real magic words uttered are, “the coffee light’s on!”

So when I became vegan, I wondered how coffee would fit into this plan since I drink my coffee regular (cream and sugar). Sure, I tried every type of non-dairy milk from hemp to almond, rice and soy milk but these watery additions only led to a sad, sludge-like end product. If you’ve ever put skim or one per cent milk into your coffee, then you know what that’s like. One glorious day, I happened on the soy creamer that dreams are made of…and once again, the day was saved – by coffee!



Sad note: As of 2019 the company has stopped making this amazing product. When I reached out to them, they mentioned a new oat-based creamer would take it’s place. Haven’t tried it yet, but will let you know when I do.