Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine by R. J. Fox

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Fish Out of Water Books; 1 edition (October 29, 2015)
  • Price: $16.99
  • ISBN-10: 0989908704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0989908702

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart. 

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.   

Monday, June 09, 2014

One Oar: A Journey with Alzheimer’s, poetry by Marie Bahlke

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 38 pages
Publisher: Christmas Cove Press, 2004
Price: $11.95
ISBN-10: 0975383302
ISBN-13: 978-0975383308

Now in her 90s, writer and poet Marie Bahlke began her writing career when she was in her 70s. She is living proof that it is never too late to chase and catch a dream. Alas, her poetry collection One Oar was inspired by the painful and difficult experience of living through her husband Harold’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and eventual demise.

Writing is often likened to therapy for its healing powers, and that refers not only to the writer, surely, but to the attentive reader. Bahlke’s courage in sharing her and her husband’s journey allows us to enter their intimate world, the world of a caring marriage, where one partner must gradually learn to let go of the other. With her poetry, her skill, her open heart, she allows us to feel along with her the bewilderment, the frustration, the grief, the loneliness, the desire to go on.

In the poem “Balancing,” Bahlke writes:

Half there, half gone
one oar in the our boat
what do I do—crawl to the bow
and paddle from there?
Move my pillow
to the middle of the bed?

How do I deal with
faucets that weep,
too many potatoes,
the Christmas tree stand,
a stranger’s kiss,
that shoebox full of foreign coins?

Filling out medical forms, the poet hesitates before checking off: widow. She sleeps in a half empty bed. Her damaged heart spreads its pain through her chest and catches in her throat. As we read, we know these emotions and sensations, too, and we know them in direct transfusion from her clear and unsentimental, brutally yet beautifully honest writing. One poem leads into the other to tell the story of this journey, and it is done with the rich beauty of a successful marriage, wife to husband and poet to words.

Interspersed between the poems are the black and white photographs of Steve Bahlke, lending poignant images of nature that offer both metaphor and healing.

One Oar was the winner of Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards. Bahlke continues to write, currently at work on her memoir.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tea in Heliopolis, poetry by Hedy Habra

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 100 pages
Publisher: Press 53 (2013)
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1935708767
ISBN-13: 978-1935708766

I’ve met the delightful Hedy Habra at local poetry readings, and I have gotten to know her, and her work, through several submissions I was thrilled to publish in a literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet. Indeed, one of the poems there published makes an appearance in her new poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis, called “Adagio for a Forgotten Viola d’Amore.” I have also read and reviewed her short story collection, Flying Carpets. Every bit of this crossing of paths has been a pleasure. Call me a fan.

So I found myself in the first poem of the collection, “Bricolage,” expecting poetic pleasure—and I found it. Reading Habra’s lines, “Go every day a little deeper/into the woods, collect acorns,/twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,/pine needles, a fern’s curl,/a bird’s nest, a lost feather,/spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,/a touch of blue, a ripple,/and why not the hush/of your steps over moss,/the trembling of leaves/at dusk against black bark?/,” I found myself on a familiar path, knew myself at home in Habra’s world, and immediately settled into her pages like one does into a comfortable chair, molded already to one’s own shape. Poetry like an old friend, walking side by side into new discoveries.

Habra weaves her different homes into her poetry. Of Lebanese origin, she was born in Egypt, has traveled across the world and called other countries home before settling down in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she now teaches at Western Michigan University. It is helpful to know this about the poet, because her experiences of different cultures, different languages, different perspectives on the world around her, imbue her work on countless levels of lush nuance as well as vast life experience. Some would call it exotic, and it is, but it also as simple as a woman growing up anywhere.

Consider her opening poem, “Bricolage.”

Go every day a little deeper
into the woods, collect acorns,
twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,
pine needles, a fern’s curl,
a bird’s nest, a lost feather,
spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,
a touch of blue, a ripple,
and why not the hush
of your steps over moss …

She is the every woman that perhaps only a woman of international knowledge can be, finding the common in the uncommon that lives everywhere and in every heart and experience. The reader can feel at home, whatever Habra’s landscape, in communion with a close friend.

In “How the Song Turns into a Legend,” Habra shares her light as a poet, shining it on the importance, indeed the necessity, of telling our stories. Not in whispers to ourselves, but “in tongues, in parables, uttered in public squares,/whispered in corners/in sotto voce,/from mouth to mouth.” Engraved in stone or on paper, told or written, her gorgeous poem encourages all our many stories to be told and so made enduring. Her own need to tell her story comes through with a tender yet fiery passion.

Habra also crosses art forms, her poetry connecting with her painting (note the book cover by the poet) in a delicate blend—painting about her words, painting with words. In a tribute to her mother, “To Henriette,” also a painter, Habra writes: “You dream the painter painting his model,/merging dreams, erasing distances.”

Habra writes in various forms, and her poetry can take traditional form, to free verse, to haiku verses tucked into larger poems, to experimental and prose poems, such as “Amber Daum.” In whatever form, as a multi-lingual poet, she imbues language with a quiet power that seeps inside and blooms, at first almost imperceptibly, but then in breathtaking and near overwhelming beauty. If in “Vision” she mourns how a beautiful line can sometimes evaporate like water, this collection is as near perfection as any I’ve read, with not a drop evaporated. In her delicacy is her power, in her light touch she delivers great and powerful messages, in a whisper she produces longing, and with each poem a growing satisfaction in a body of work that can be read again and again, with each time new discovery.

Tea in Heliopolis is a finalist for the 2014 International Book Award and finalist or semi-finalist in a number of literary competitions.

Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of a short story collection, Flying Carpets, and a book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa. She has an MA and an MFA in English and an MA and PhD in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies.