Monday, October 21, 2013

The Whiteness of the Whale by David Poyer


Book Review by Zinta Aistars



Print Length: 333 pages
ISBN: 1250020565
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (April 2, 2013)


Yet again, I watched another news story on the evening news that matched almost exactly the story David Poyer tells in The Whiteness of the Whale. This may be a novel, but it is based on factual scenarios, happening all too often on the oceans. As in real life, the novel tells a story of activists in pursuit of a Japanese whaling fleet they’ve observed killing whales and processing the whales for meat. That has long been illegal for all but scientific research purposes, yet the Japanese still hunt and kill whale in the Antarctic waters, hiding behind the banner of “research.”

The activists in pursuit are a motley crew. A primate behaviorist, a Hollywood movie star, a double-amputee Afghanistan war veteran, and others, each adding their own storyline and colorful personality as they sail together on the Black Anemone.  

They are not the only ones in pursuit. After an altercation with the Japanese whaling fleet, described with unnerving detail that makes the suffering of the whales uncomfortably memorable, the Black Anemone picks up a castaway. More, they pick up a tail. At this point, the story takes on echoes of Moby Dick, as a whale turns on the boat and goes out of its way to destroy the ship and the crew.

Poyer writes from a base of experience. He has a 30-year sea career on which to base his many sea novels. That kind of first-hand knowledge adds all kinds of subtle layers of nuance that bring scene after scene alive, some terrifyingly so. There are sections of the book that, when read, leave what feels like an uncanny splash of seawater on the reader’s face.

The activists don’t always come off as heroes. They appear human. Characters show their weaknesses as well as their heroic moments. The whale recognizes none, in dogged pursuit, seemingly enraged by the slaughter those very activists tried to prevent.

Poyer’s strongest characterizations are, in fact, the whale and the primate behaviorist, Dr. Sara Pollard. It’s not often one reads such accurate and effective cross-gender writing, but Poyer captures her female voice precisely.

I enjoyed the book enough to want to know more, and asked the author to do an author interview in the Summer/Fall 2013 Issue of TheSmoking Poet. My hope is that such novels take on a life outside of the fiction world and enter into the movement to save whales from the kind of barbarous scenes of slaughter Poyer describes and evening news show all too often.


David Poyer’s naval career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific.  His thirty-plus books, including twenty sea novels, have been translated into Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and other languages. He’s also written sailing, diving, and nautical history articles for Chesapeake Bay, Southern Boating, Shipmate, Tidewater Virginian, and other periodicals. His work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.  He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his wife and daughter, with whom he explores the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast in their sloop, Water Spirit.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Psychiatrist, poetry by Mariela Griffor

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Publisher: Eyewear Publishing (October 23, 2013)
Price: $24.00
ISBN-10: 1908998113
ISBN-13: 978-1908998118



I’ve had the privilege to read the galleys for Mariela Griffor’s third poetry collection, The Psychiatrist, which will be published in late October 2013. The experience is mesmerizing, even healing.

My introduction to Griffor’s work came through Exiliana, her first collection. Thirteen poems from that collection are included in this one, only two from her second, House, and twenty-one poems are new. In them all, Griffor allows us windows into her remarkable life.

Born in Chile, Griffor was a Chilean opponent to the military regimen of General Pinochet  in love with another such opponent. Their love story is a tragic one; he was assassinated, and Griffor, expecting their child, was exiled to Sweden. Eventually, she married an American and moved to the Detroit area in Michigan. Much of this life story appears in her work, in the tender ache of a lost love, in the fierce love of a mother for her child, in the love for her ancestral home left behind.

In these poems, we step into Chile, Sweden and, finally, the streets of Detroit. We visit Griffor’s broken and patched-again heart. We step into her life. Griffor exposes her vulnerability with courage, but then also lets us see her resilience, her street smarts, her determined survival.

“I should have died but the devil/did not want me,” she writes in the poem, “Code Names.”

Griffor does not write dense poetry. I say this as a compliment. To call her an accessible poet, too, is meant as a compliment. Her images are clear, in almost plain wrapping, and nothing stands between the poet, the poem, the reader.  It is as if the poet has unzipped her skin and put her core self on the page, the experience of her life, and allowed us entry. And not just us, but also a kind of alter ego, an invented friend: “I invent a friend to pour out/remembrances of the old country” (from “Prologue I”). She finishes that poem so: “As I invent you, I invent myself.” With that, Griffor states plainly and clearly the truth of all writers, that literature is an unveiling of self, and in so doing, a kind of therapy, an easing of loneliness, a word-balmed healing, an invitation to the reader to come inside and connect, if even for just an instant in time.

And we connect. Griffor holds up no barriers. There is a disarming sincerity to her poetry. She asks the questions we have all at some time in our well-lived lives asked. “What do we do with the love if you die?” (from “Love for a subversive”). She births grief like she births new life, and in that birthing of a grief, its slow laboring, it’s painful entry into the light, one realizes just how alike these two processes are, and the prizes for enduring both: new life.

“Maybe just poets can understand each other, /even bad poets have another language. It is like/the words are invented only for those who love them,” Griffor writes in the new poem, “Death in Argentina.” To some degree, that may be, but no one is left standing outside Griffor’s gate. If not all of us have experienced exile, most all of us have known rootlessness, being lost in the sea of life, and to that part of us that we keep hidden, protected, denied, unloved, shamed, wrapped in secrets and lies, to that part Griffor reaches out and gives a healing touch. Much like a psychiatrist.



Mariela Griffor is the author of Exiliana (Luna Publications) and House (Mayapple Press). She was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She is co-founder of The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University and Publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Griffor is Honorary Consul of Chile in Detroit, Michigan. 

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Booklover: A One-Year Journal of Reading, Reflecting and Remembering by Timothy James Bazzett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Publisher: Rathole Books, 2010
Price: $18.00
ISBN-10 0977111946
ISBN-13 978-0977111947



I met Tim Bazzett—virtually but not yet in person—through an email exchange about books. Of course. We exchanged thoughts about the novel of a Michigan writer that he felt, by reading some of my reviews, that I perhaps understood better than he. That got my attention. How many people do you know who have approached you to say you may just get something better than they do?

Sharp guy. Actually, I’m not sure I did get that book better than Bazzett, but we got a good conversation going, and one book leading to another, he sent me one of his own books: Booklover. Is this going to be a very long, elaborate listing of all the books this book addict has ever read? I wondered. Well, something along those lines. Only Bazzett adds in plenty of his own lines, managing to tell his story while talking about the stories written and told by others.

Booklover is one of several memoirs Bazzett has written. He begins by expressing his disdain for the reading fare that kindergartners are given, if the children are given books to read at all, and with that introduction, he had me on board.  (I, too, am an admitted book addict.) From there, this memoir describes Bazzett's moves from Michigan to California and to Europe, part of that being his military service. It is also the story of his marriage and the family.

It's a down home story, and Bazzett tells it in a friendly, easy style that makes you feel like you are sitting on the front porch with him, making friends. He can be charmingly self-deprecating, willing to open his door to the reader in a frank manner, if sometimes perhaps a bit too frank. There are times that I don't want to know where his guy's mind wanders, moments that tingle on my feminist bone when he muses on the female gender, but in the next moment I've forgiven him, because, well, he just comes off as a genuinely nice guy.

I could also do without the repeated "but no matter" continuously inserted into the telling of Bazzett's story, but that's it, those are my only complaints. Bazzett is a classic. He excels at being himself, no pretenses, rather than trying to outdo someone else among the literati. He has a fun way of inserting his sense of humor, even while building up the reader's desire to go to the nearest library or book store and bring home a mountain of books to read that Bazzett has recommended. It is with his insights into literature and authors that we realize just how sharp-minded he is. I hope I do get to sit on his front porch, or mine, with him sometime.

Bazzett lives in Reed City, Michigan, with his wife and his books. He has published five memoirs and a biography. He is a book reviewer for The Smoking Poet.