Monday, December 19, 2005

The Conscious Heart by Gay Hendricks

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 320 pages
# Publisher: Bantam, 1999
# Price: $16.00
# ISBN: 0553374915

While I rated both Conscious Living and Conscious Loving by the same authors, the Hendricks's, with a very enthused 5 star rating, subsequently ordering several of their books, I have stepped back with my endorsement after reading Conscious Heart. This particular book does not detract from the basic message of their work in general with a "conscious approach," so to speak, to life and our various relationships, romantic or otherwise. I still hold to that. The premise is sound. But Conscious Heart has little new to offer; indeed, what is new is a section that rather made me wince.

I am all flags and hurrah banners for a commitment to honesty - to self and to others. Speaking one's feelings aloud, bringing them into the light for full understanding, using that understanding to build intimacy in a romantic relationship but increased efficiency in a work relationship, yes, all of that makes solid good sense to me. But I am also a believer in balance. Often, too much of a good thing becomes, well, not so good. It is possible to exaggerate this idea to the point of being obnoxious and unnecessarily cruel.

Example: The Hendricks couple recount an incident in their marriage that tested their commitment and their honesty. Gay Hendricks, in his own retelling, goes through a scene of seduction that is handled with, to me, absurdity. While I agree with their commitment to tell each other when they might be in danger of serious straying, teetering on the boundaries of infidelity, so that they might work it out together -- I am not at all convinced that this incident, as it is described in the book, is handled in a way that even a reasonably committed couple could, or should, endure. Gay spots a younger woman across a dance floor, someone both he and wife Kathlyn know and trust, but suddenly he sees this woman in a different light. How this temporary desire for another woman is handled between the three of them tests my limits of understanding. The marriage endures -- but my patience and empathy do not. Not only is the disclosure unnecessary, but the concept of commitment seems to get lost in this threesome as they find their proper paths. The Hendricks are, after all, a married couple. Surely that stands for something. This "exploration" of Gay's temptation should have been cut off at the starting line, period.

I still recommend the Hendricks first two books with enthusiasm. Honesty is indeed the best policy. Being conscious of one's own motives and feelings is powerful. But I see no benefit to being subjected to my partner's ongoing stream of consciousness every time he feels a tingle in his tenders, not if it's a passing and momentary thought. Nor do I intend to subject him to same. That kind of banter is wearing, and I see no benefit from it. Not to be confused with open and full disclosure when infidelity, or danger of it, does indeed threaten a relationship. That is always necessary, no exceptions.

My recommendation is to read the Hendricks' first books, Conscious Living and Conscious Loving. The basic idea of this kind of living, after all, is not complicated. I can't help feeling this newer addition was written merely as padding.

Monday, October 31, 2005

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 369 pages
# Publisher: Knopf; 1972
# Language: English
# ISBN: 0394461371

Every one of us has something holding us back to our past, to our roots. Whatever that might be (family; traditions, some of which have perhaps lost relevence; religious constraints; the pacing of our daily lives; unsupportive mates and colleagues; or a myriad of other possible constraints), it is for each of us a life struggle to free ourselves of whatever keeps us from fully developing our authentic selves.

This is the story told in "My Name is Asher Lev." A Hasidic Jewish boy is born into a family that puts a great strain on his artistic talent, not the least of which is the doting love of his parents. It is with love that they try again and again to deny their son's great gift, believing they are doing what is best for him, but the power of that gift is greater than any man to deny it expression.

Young Asher is a prodigy. Art is his lifeblood, and his gift develops early and with breathtaking leaps and bounds into his young adulthood. He follows his instinct and his bliss, and as he develops his gift, his family, his father especially, draw further and further away from him. Asher has broken with tradition. He has gone beyond religious beliefs in his family if not with outright courage than at least with respect for what so shines within him. He redefines his own boundaries, even when they must go against those drawn by his parents and religious authority figures.

Is this a sin?

The reader may decide for him or herself, but for Asher, art is what he holds most divine, and it is hard to believe a supreme and loving being would deny the gift He, after all, has bestowed. We feel the agony of his mother, pulled between her husband and her son. Asher is not unaware. His greatest painting eventually is of his mother being so pulled apart - as if on a crucifix, an image that horrifies his father. His father is a good man, working hard for others in need and under religious persecution, and so it is nearly impossible for him to understand why his son would choose to pursue art forms that appear, on the surface, to disrespect what he holds in such high esteem. Each, after all, is following their own heart and remaining true to their individual values. It makes for fascinating conflict.

Author Chaim Potok writes with his own evident gift. His passion becomes the passion of his characters. Perhaps the main message the author has meant to convey is that we are all to be true to who and what we are, and in so doing, we have done right. We have followed the path that is ours to walk. His story uplifts without making light of the struggles involved.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Gay Hendricks

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 304 pages
# Publisher: Bantam, 1992
# Price: $16.00
# ISBN: 0553354116

No, nothing new. Which is precisely what makes this so good. This is the stuff of time-tested common sense, the stuff of that inner voice of wisdom, the one that is always trying to steer you in the right direction, even as you kick and scream and resist, intent on remaining on the old path of repeated and repeated and repeated cycles. We repeat them until we learn the lesson. Resolve the dilemma. Solve the puzzle.

If the Hendricks message is to be boiled down to one catch-phrase, it would simply be: "wake up." It is not so much about change, as it is about living with our eyes open, fully aware (conscious) of why we do what we do, how we feel while we are doing it, and which way we will go next. Instead of moving through a fog, we instead make conscious choices.

If we can add one concept to that catch-phrase, it would be the concept of accountability. Relationships, and not just romantic ones, tend to bog down most when we get busy issuing blame and pointing fingers. Hendricks proposes that we are all, each and every one of us, to be held accountable for our own lives. No victims, no martyrs. And co-dependents, out with you. A satisfying relationship is one that takes place between two people who make a 100 percent (each) commitment (nothing less will do or failure has room to enter) to themselves and to each other. It begins with a promise to be authentic to ourselves and to always tell what Hendricks calls "the microscopic truth." Our lives are what we make them. And if we don't like our lives, well, it is up to each of us to make the necessary changes. We must be honest with ourselves above all, but we must respect our mates with utmost honesty as well. It is the only solid building block that holds up a strong and satisfying relationship.

One might balk at the wrongs done us, and oh the pity parties we do enjoy, when we are lied to and cheated on and our backs wear the footprints of others. But consider how far one gets in improving that situation when busy whining "I'm a victim! poor sap me!" and when one instead takes a moment to consider: how did I manifest this? How have I taught others to treat me? Have I made my personal boundaries clear? Have I offered and insisted upon honesty? Have I rescued my mate from the natural outcome of his or her bad behavior, thus robbing them of a learning experience? Have I been true to myself and expressed how I feel? It is not about letting our mates off the hook for bad behavior; that's dishonest, too. We hold our partners fully accountable, too. But it is a realization that we are not merely innocent bystanders in the soap operas of our lives. The sooner we understand our own part in the drama, the sooner we can enjoy true intimacy and equality with a mate we value and who values us.

I read this Hendricks' book as I recently read Conscious Living -- with relish. I like the idea of being accountable for my life; it keeps the reins for my happiness in my own hands, after all. And there is so much more to see and enjoy when I make a decision to live my life with eyes wide open. My beloved is sharing this book with me. We are each reading it with a highlighter in hand, noting what resonates. Much has been learned already. I look forward to what new levels we might reach in this most basic if not highest human longing -- to walk shoulder to shoulder with our best life friend, empowering ourselves and each other to be the best we can be.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 496 pages
# Publisher: Penguin, 2005
# Price: $15.00
# ISBN: 0143034901

I was drawn to Shadow of the Wind by its cornerstone premise of a love for books, a love so encompassing that one becomes nearly so immersed in a good story, richly told, that life and art blur boundaries. What a magical process that is! And so I opened the cover and began turning the pages...

A boy wanders through the dusky corridors of a cemetery of forgotten books, brought there by his father. He is allowed to choose one. The reader thrills to the possibilities, just as the character thrills, searching for that most special book. He chooses "The Shadow of the Wind" by a mysterious author, Julian Carax. The author's books seem to disappear from bookshelves everywhere, no one knows why or who is stealing them, later burning them to total destruction. The boy, Daniel, becomes enmeshed in the book, its author, and the mystery surrounding both.

The story about the story unfolds with an array of colorful, well developed, unforgettable characters. Love stories in Daniel's life, as he reaches adulthood, appear to run parallel to the tragic love stories of author Carax's life. Secrets tunnel into further secrets, and the human suffering as a result of all these hidden places in hearts and homes, spanning generations, escalates to an almost unbearable level. But we bear along. For Zafon's writing is lush and rich and enticing. He brings a fictional world built around a fictional work as alive as our own reality, so that we are lost in the story, in the way that wonderful books invite us to lose ourselves for a moment in time, to emerge covered with the fine golden dust of literary art.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Director: Lars von Trier
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby
# Rated: R
# Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2004
# Price: $19.98

I tend to pick through new releases in movies much as I do books in bookstores: I avoid the ones in great, showy piles with titles we've all heard ad nauseum and take a more careful look at those with single copies, perhaps at the back of the shelf, perhaps to find buried treasure. That was how I found "Dogville."

The solid cast hinted at quality: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, and many others. Director Lars Von Trier has put together this innovative and unusual, if challenging, movie about a woman named Grace (Kidman), running from gangsters, who takes refuge in a small town called Dogville sometime during the 1930s.

Acting, as it turns out, is what this film relies upon exclusively. The scene unfolds on a basic black stage--black floor with chalk lines designating streets, squares and rectangles that serve as houses and shops and town halls. Nothing, but nothing, detracts from the actors and their exchanges with each other, their movements across this black expanse.

Grace slips into town, hiding where she can, as gangsters pursue her for not quite explained reasons. We are not meant to know... yet. She is found by Tom Edison, a young man with a pale, wincing, if philosophical manner. He takes her and her cause to the town hall meeting, where her dilemma is discussed. She needs a place to hide from her pursuers, and the town inhabitants decide, with some misgivings, to offer it to her.

What unfolds next is our increasingly uncomfortable watch over the gradual ethical and moral decay of this (any?) town. Grace seeks work to earn her keep. Initially, no one seems to have any for her. There is an unspoken, but polite resistance to her presence. Little by little, however, people open their homes and businesses to her, and as they learn how well she works, they give her ever more to do. Since she does not resist increased labor, she is given more. And more. And more to do. A sped up sequence in the film has us watching from above, rather God-like, as Grace zips through town, from one house to the next, from one store to the next, doing her duties and accepting more duties, and this at decreasing pay.

It appears the lesson here is that excellence never goes unpunished, and when we do nothing to express our personal boundaries of what kind of treatment we will accept, we are inevitably, eventually, taken for granted, inviting our own abuse.

But the lesson grows far more harsh. Grace is an attractive woman. She is sweet. She is pleasant and eager to please. She is helpful, kind, forgiving, accepting, nice nice nice. Men in Dogville take notice. Their hunger begins to show. Their hunger turns into the ugliest forms of lust, and Grace is raped by the keeper of the town apple orchard. We feel a mix of horror and sympathy for the ever suffering Grace at this scene of violence.

And still, this woman has no boundaries. Still, she does nothing to stop the downslide of the town's morals, allowing herself to become also the town prostitute, the town slave, the town joke. Even the children turn against her. Only Tom Edison declares in a simpering voice that, oh, he loves her. Yet he quietly stands by as she is debased to the point of having an iron collar bolted around her neck and then to an iron chain, fastened to a heavy wheel that she must then drag behind her. Indeed, he expects gratitude from her. Even... reciprocated love.

The movie ends with a fascinating twist that asks a question each viewer must then answer for him or herself: is it saintliness or is it arrogance to accept and forgive the transgressions of others endlessly, without limit? Is it a kindness to play the victim and the martyr? Or is it nothing other than giving permission, even invitation, for those around us to debase us as far as we allow it? In short, did God really mean for us to be doormats?

Suffice it to say, I was completely nailed by this movie. To the spot. It has me feeling, thinking, wondering, questioning and understanding. What more can a good movie do?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Conscious Living by Gay Hendricks

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 288 pages
# Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco; 1st edition, 2001
# Price: $14.00
# ISBN: 0062514873

Life is an ongoing, neverending process of self-improvement and enlightenment. While we can be given the best advice and offered the most valuable lessons over and over again, it takes a readiness in ourselves, an open heart and mind and a willing spirit, to be receptive to those lessons. And, to be truly effective, we need be not only ready... but conscious of the lesson learned and applied.

A good friend who has earned my respect with her ability to maneuver through her life with serenity and acceptance, even while learning the toughest lessons, recently recommended Hendricks' books to me. I value her advice, and so I approached the Hendricks' bookshelf with high expectations. I found many books on the shelf, written by both Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, and with this volume as my introduction, I expect to be reading several more.

Hendricks has probably not told me anything in this book I don't already know. We must love ourselves before we can truly love another. Anger denied does not go away. Moving through life and its choices by default rather than thoughtful and considered decision is guaranteed to end in disaster. Choosing love partners by chemistry alone can only mean heartbreak. We get what we expect. Negativity in attitude and expectations magnetically draws to us more negativity. If your life is not what you want it to be, guess what, it's you who is at the wheel. Yes, I knew all of this.

I knew it, but I have too often failed to apply these sound, common sense lessons to my own life. I suppose there is something in all of us that feels the irresistible impulse to put our hand in the fire even when we have been told, over and over again, it will burn. Unfortunately, nothing is so effective a teacher as pain.

But by the time I picked up this book, I was ready to listen. I was, you might say, fully conscious of these wisdoms and ready and willing to apply them at last. I almost feel a little silly stating how my mood and attitude improved by just reading this book. It sounds rather simplistic, doesn't it? Then again, we humans do tend to overcomplicate our lives, don't we?

I feel confident in recommending this book to anyone... but only with this note: if you are ready to steer through your life with conscious intent, you'll love this book and its sensible advice. If you are not, if you are still looking for someone else to do the work for you, or if you prefer your old comfort zone, or if you want to shirk your responsibility for the course of your own life a while longer, well, read a comic book instead. Up to you.

As for me, I loved it. Ready and awake! I like that the responsibility for this adventure is all mine.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Gilead by Marilyn Robinson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 256 pages
# Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
# ISBN: 0374153892
# Price: $23.00

What a luxury, what a fine wine on the literary palate this book has been to read. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson is all that I seek in literature that achieves artistic form. The author's language is mesmerizing, frequently breathtaking, and her ability to develop her few but well chosen characters without relying on plot and action as crutch is worthy of respect.

Gilead is something of a journal, or letter, written by an elderly priest, John Ames, to his still very young son as he feels the approach of death. It is his attempt to pass something of himself and their family history on to his son, long after he will be gone. His story is a meditation on faith and the bonds of father and son, of husband and wife, of family and friends, of priest and his congregation, of man and nature. It is not, however, a religious story (those who are not drawn to Christian literature need not fear this novel might wax preachy or hit a didactic note -- it does not).

I was magnetically drawn to the character of John Ames because Robinson so ably created him as a man with the greatest courage possible -- the courage to be vulnerable to the world around him. He has achieved grace, because we see him address his own shortcomings and weaknesses without looking away. He works to love, even those he on some level fears, even when he feels tinges of jealousy, regret, suspicion, as any man might.

"This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don't know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That's clearer to me every day. Each morning I'm like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes--old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable..." (page 67)

Ames is filled with gratitude for all that his simple life has bestowed on him: the love of a devoted wife, the adoration of a young son, the warranted attention of a congregation, but just as fully, for the beauty of each day gifted to him.

"I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word 'good' so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment 'when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,' but for all I know the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view..." (page 246)

Perhaps one must be facing one's own death to see life and the world so richly, and to express it with such eloquence and love. Readers may feel blessed to have found an author who accomplishes this level of eloquence. The Pulitzer Prize awarded this work of literary art is well deserved.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Lake, the River & the Other Lake : A Novel by Steve Amick

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 384 pages
# Publisher: Pantheon, 2005
# ISBN: 0375423508
# Price: $25.00

One of the ways many readers judge a good book is by the degree of reluctance we feel in leaving it once the last page has been turned. I felt no reluctance at turning the last page of Amick's first novel, The Lake, The River & The Other Lake. Indeed, I couldn't wait to leave this fictional little Michigan town and all its inhabitants far behind.

I recently came across a quote by author Alice Walker: "If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for." I do believe art, in any medium, is to bring to our greater awareness and understanding both the light and the shadow side of human nature. Indeed, anything less, anything focusing too heavily on either the light or the dark side, and a story sinks to something maudlin, loses touch with reality, and does little to enlighten us. Balance is key.

Amick's novel opens with skillful writing, soon capturing my interest with one, then another promisingly quirky character. I turned the first pages with enthusiasm and a sense of discovery. It didn't take too many pages, however, before my expectations were disappointed. As the long line of characters came on stage, each one seemed darker (if not more depraved) than his predecessor. Light playing with the shadows of the human psyche seemed to fast become increasingly shadows only, with now and then only a wan, stray beam of light, barely enough to keep me reading. Had I not received an invitation to attend an upcoming author's reading for this book, I am quite sure I would have given up without finishing it. How depressing to read about characters who seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, not even enough to give them a believable struggle with their dark side. That Amick's skill as a writer was evident only increased my frustration at potential so unfulfilled.

The cast of characters includes: an Ojibwa man, Roger Drinkwater, who blows up jet skis and freaks out their noisy and inconsiderate owners (okay, on occasion, I actually liked this guy) by popping up out of the waves with war paint on his face; a 16-year-old boy, Mark, who, although he is otherwise presented as an appealingly sensitive and thoughtful young man, seems to have nothing but nothing on his mind other than having sex with 17-year-old Courtney and will put up with the most outrageous abuse from the girl; Courtney, who seems to have nothing but nothing on her mind but humiliating and debasing her young suitor in any manner possible, to ever increasing excess, just because she can; an Archie Bunker type bigot without Archie's charm who resents the marital choices of his children from other ethnic backgrounds but makes an unconvincing turnabout later; a 69-year-old minister, newly widowed from a marriage he cherished, suddenly lost in lust for a 16-year-old girl and in the throes of that lust, becoming addicted to Internet porn that focuses on teenage girls and within a two month span becoming a pedophile; a female cop who never quite develops much of a personality other than wanting to write comedy for David Letterman and developing a crush on Roger Drinkwater, and who looks the other way when his destruction of jet skis turns ever more explosive; and too many others. It was difficult at times to keep track of who is who, as the chapters often have little or no connection.

In general, the cast of characters all remained two-dimensional to me. They failed to involve me in their lives, failed to win my compassion, failed to make me believe they could be real. They remained caricatures rather than characters with counterparts in reality. Amick invites us to look through a peephole, offering a peephole-size insight into the scene before us, hints at what may or may not lie underneath, and moves on again to another character. The result is shock value with graphic descriptions and perverse scenarios with no real purpose other than, well, shock value. The author struck me as a wannabe Philip Roth (certainly not a Garrison Keillor, whose small town stories have often amused me with their well targeted mirroring of our society), offering explicit scenes of human depravity without yet the artistry to make us care what happens to these poor twits. He skims across surfaces, something of a jet ski that makes noise, rattling what lies beneath, but never submerging to find the treasure buried below.

My greatest value in reading this first novel was in the discussion it brought about with various writer friends about what it is that we seek in our fictional characters to infuse them with life and what it is that makes a book memorable. This first novel falls into the examples of writing that achieves neither. A chance to address and explore important themes with meaning was lost in these pages, remaining only at the level of sensationalism.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Woman's Path: Women's Best Spiritual Travel Writing

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 288 pages
# Publisher: Travelers' Tales Guides; 2nd edition, 2003
# Price: $16.95
# ISBN: 1932361006

Appropriately, A Woman's Path, a collection of women's spiritual travel writing, was a Mother's Day gift from my daughter. I am a writer, too, frequently writing about my journeys across physical geography but equally spiritual terrain. Nothing explores us as much as our exploring of the world around us. Travel means a stretching of our personal comfort zones, as we leave our homes and our routines far behind.

In the more than 30 essays in this collection, women of a wide array of backgrounds perceive the world around them with uniquely feminine perspectives. Authors as known and respected as Anne Lammott, Maya Angelou, Natalie Goldberg, Diane Ackerman, and many others tell of their journeys, inner and outer ones, as they deal with joy, grief, discomfort, sickness, achievement, healing, and enlightenment. Destinations are as varied as Peru, India, France, Ireland, Greece, New York City, Niger, Poland, the Appalachian Trail, and others. These are women undergoing a spiritual transformation, and their travel essays take us along, to be transformed by their accounts. They take on their journeys as women and only women do, coping with societal expectations and prejudices, dealing with the fears of being a woman in the wild, finding courage when all falls down around them. As women do.

I have always believed the best training for life is to travel. Travel teaches us to stretch ourselves. Travel reveals the differences between us and everybody else, instilling understanding of the cultures varied from our own, and then again, travel soothes with the discovery of how alike we all are in our bonds of humanity, crossing all boundaries of class, culture, religion, ethnicity. Travel builds courage, as we are inevitably faced with our fears, only to overcome them. Travel connects - the traveler with the world and its inhabitants, with nature and spirit, with the divine in ourselves and outside of ourselves. The world is surely the best classroom.

If I have only one "wince" about this collection, it is the sidebar boxes interspersed throughout the essays. Each box has a clip by some other author than the one of the essay, the themes often disconnected from the main story. They drew my eye away just when I was immersed in someone's journey. I would suggest deleting them, or transforming them into epigrams prior to each essay.

A Woman's Path, edited by Lucy McCauley, Amy G. Carlson, and Jennifer Leo, is a pilgrimage to be enjoyed by every woman who reads it, whether on the road herself, or from her armchair, traveling in spirit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Killing Babies and Taking Flight

by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 320 pages
# Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2005
# Price: $24.00
# ISBN: 0743266846

(Published in the Fall 2005 issue of LuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.)

"You have to be able to kill your babies," says Ginger Strand. But the look in this author's eyes is anything but murderous. Ginger Strand's baby, debut novel Flight, published by Simon and Schuster and released May 2005, has taken its first steps into the literary world, and Ginger is one proud mama.

Flight is a story about family. Real family. The kind with dysfunctions in every closet. Set in a fictional rural Michigan town, the Gruen family gathers on the family farm to celebrate the wedding of youngest daughter, Leanne.

Will Gruen, the father, is a pilot who is feeling his age and the fast approach of what may be his last opportunity as a commercial airline pilot. He has received an offer that would mean relocating to Hong Kong, and he has yet to gather the courage to broach the subject with wife, Carol. He wonders if he might accept the transfer even if Carol does not agree to go with him.

And she might not. On Carol's mind is a bed and breakfast, and as she moves about the farmhouse in wedding preparations, her mind is filled with ideas of transformation for the farmhouse into a business, and with it, the giddy seduction of independence.

Eldest daughter Margaret has secrets of her own. She arrives making excuses for an absentee husband, but over the span of the three days of wedding preparation, it is revealed that divorce, complete with messy custody battles, is impending.

But surely the bride is happy? No. The bride is sneaking drinks from a silver flask, and not only does she suffer cold feet the night before the wedding—she takes flight.

Ginger Strand's first novel takes on family drama with openhearted courage. The reader is allowed to feel a part of the wedding hustle and madness, and to be one of the family, without fanfare, roll up your sleeves and help shell the shrimp.

Strand's literary style is straightforward with just the right spice of wit. She tells an everyday story with flair and humor. A subtle parallel image throughout the drama is a pair of caged doves being kept for dramatic release at the wedding ceremony. Throughout the movement of the story, now and then, here and there, the characters check the doves: are they perhaps feeling ill from being caged too long and kept in the garage? Will they take flight on cue?

Ginger Strand

I met Ginger Strand during her reading at Athena Book Shop in Kalamazoo (she returned home to unveil her Flight, but currently resides in New York City). A short time later, I attended a book fair in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Strand discussed her book, the process of becoming a published author, and how Kalamazoo College prepared her to take wing.

LuxEsto: Give us a background snapshot of who you are, your roots, your life today, and what it is that drives you.

Ginger: I grew up in a lot of places, but spent most of my high school years in Allegan, a small town about 30 miles north of Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo College was the only college I applied to, because once I visited I knew it was the right place for me. After Kalamazoo, on the advice of some of my professors, I went on to Princeton for a Ph.D. in English. However, it became apparent to me that I didn't want to be a scholar of literature; I wanted to write. So I finished the degree, but left academia and took a job as a copywriter for a branding and marketing firm. I signed up for night classes in fiction at the Writers' Voice in New York. Now I do freelance copywriting--you have to make money, after all!--teach writing occasionally, and devote most of my time to my own work.

LuxEsto: And your connection to Kalamazoo College? What was your experience at Kalamazoo?

Ginger: I majored in English at Kalamazoo College, doing a ten-week foreign study in Hanover, Germany, so that I could spend two quarters on the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) New York Arts Program in my junior year. That program was fantastic. I worked as an intern at The Paris Review, which gave me some real insight into the literary world and how it worked. (Incredibly, I decided to brave it anyway!) It also made me realize New York was where I wanted to live. The city energizes me.

My student individual project in the English department was a comparison of Chaucer's and Shakespeare's version of the Troilus and Cressida story. I loved immersing myself in Middle English for a semester. Howard Roercke was my advisor—a man as courtly and erudite and refined as a medieval lyric himself. He died the year I graduated, and was much missed.

LuxEsto: How did your Kalamazoo College education lead you to where you are today? Did your experience here help you as a writer?

Ginger: Kalamazoo was a great place to be in love with books. Writers always visited, and we went to their readings, because at Kalamazoo College the world of books was important. My classes taught me to be a better reader, as well as shaping me as a writer. I took poetry with Conrad Hilberry, a great inspiration, and writer-in-residence Colette Inez. Both are still friends. I also took a fiction class with Erin McGraw. All my seminars taught me how to commit to writing, and helped me start building a voice. In addition, there were inspiring people and writers like Gail Griffin who showed me how writing and life could help shape each other.

Most importantly, Kalamazoo College taught me a level of independence I think is critical to writing and to other pursuits too. Often I hear news of classmates who are doing self-motivated, creative, inspiration-driven things, whether it's writing, or bell ringing or starting an independent press. All of these things require you to dive into a project, follow an obsession with both seriousness and wonder, and put it all together in a coherent way at the end. Some people might be born with that ability, but I learned it at Kalamazoo College, through things like my SIP, doing an independent study, even just class projects. Kalamazoo College always held me to high standards, not just of execution, but of self-direction. That served me well in grad school, and it's served me well as a writer.

LuxEsto: Tell us something about Flight when it was still grounded. What was the creative seed to this story? The story behind the story?

Ginger: Flight centers on a commercial pilot trying to hold himself and his family together in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to his retirement. My father was a commercial pilot while I was growing up, and at some point I began to think of his career--from the heyday of the sixties through the era of deregulation and airline bankruptcies--as representative of an era of sweeping change in American life. The story, however, is made up and the characters are fictional, though I did borrow a number of my father's tales. My dad never went to Vietnam, as my character Will does, so I had to do a fair bit of research for that section.

LuxEsto: Perhaps there are budding writers and creative artists among our readership, and those of us in the creative arts know pursuing a career in that direction can be harsh on even the thickest hide. Can you tell us something about your own path to publication? How did you fit writing into your schedule?

Ginger: I probably shouldn't admit this, but my first published story was written entirely on company time! I used to write a lot on the subway, too, on my way to and from work. My earliest published stories were really short, because I wrote at night, on weekends, on business trips--whenever I could squeeze it in. You have to love doing it enough to want to do it in your free time.

I started to take myself seriously as a writer when I took two weeks off my copywriting job to take a seminar with Michael Cunningham at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He encouraged me to start sending things out. I then spent a couple of years writing and publishing short stories and essays in obscure but meritorious literary journals. Finally, I had what I thought was a collection, and sent it to an agent recommended by a journal editor. The agent took me on--but asked me to rewrite the book as a novel. Boy was it hard to hear that! But he was right. I did it and he sold it.

Telling the story like that, it sounds pretty straightforward. But of course, it's not. It's a long, hard slog full of doubt and rejection. If I didn't love the actual process of writing--if I didn't give a sigh of pleasure every time I sit down at my keyboard--I wouldn't do it. I'd go get a well-paying job that was easier, and offered perks like free office supplies, a 401-K, and respectability.

LuxEsto: Ever get (God forbid and knock on wood) writer's block?

Ginger: Don't even speak of it! No, what I get is "writer's schlock." You have to be willing to write what I call schlock before you get to the good stuff. To stop writing is death. I learned this at Kalamazoo College, too: Con Hilberry taught us that 90 percent of what we write is practice for the other ten percent. I find that to be true for my work, too. You have to be willing to kill your babies. A writer gets deeply attached to her work, but you must be able to let go of what does not fall into that ten percent.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at Kalamazoo as a young writer was not to fear failure. We were taught to try, fail, try again, fail better. We weren't coddled in our creative writing classes at Kalamazoo. I learned not to be crushed by a "bad" critique, but that the occasional production of bad writing is part of the process. Writing is about process. In our classes, it was never about the best grade, but about learning.

LuxEsto: Other published works?

Ginger: In addition to fiction, I write essays on topics that obsess me. Last year it was public aquariums: I published a long essay on them in the February issue of The Believer, very cool magazine put out by the people who publish McSweeney's. It has been reprinted since in Harper’s magazine. Currently I have an essay in Swink ( called "Against Connoisseurship." My website, , has links to these and other things.

LuxEsto: What are you working on now? Goals?

Ginger: I have a number of essays and short stories in the cooker, as well as a new novel I started last summer. They are all competing for my attention right now, but I can feel that one of them is going to rise to the top and begin to obsess me very soon. That's a great feeling when it happens. Although it means you run out of underwear because you don't do laundry for months.


For more information about Ginger Strand and her work, see


Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Rookie

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Starring: Dennis Quaid, Angus T. Jones
# Director: John Lee Hancock
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby
# Rated: G
# Studio: Buena Vista Home Vid
# DVD Release Date: January 25, 2005
# $14.99

Straight Pitch:

I'm not much of a sports fan, and yet, quite a few of my favorite movies, interestingly enough, are sports movies. It was in watching Rookie that I realized why, as I listened to Jim Morris, played by Dennis Quaid, talk about his dreams. Sports movies are often less about sports and more about beating the odds to capture a dream held close to the heart. These are stories of hope, courage, determination, persistence, and a passion for doing what one is meant to do.

In line with this, sports movies are fequently devoid of special effects. No glitz. No flashy distraction. Just good down to earth stories with a lot of heart.

Rookie ranks with perhaps the top ten, if not top five, of my favorite movies. All the elements of a good plot are here. It doesn't hurt that the story is a true one, based on Jim Morris, as told in his own words, about how he came to play for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an "old man."

The story begins with the boy, whose military, emotionally distant father is completely insensitive to his son's need for his attention and support. Boy loves baseball, with a passion, but father moves the family from town to town in pursuit of his military career, and he runs his family in a similarly military manner: cold, commanding, no arguments. From time to time, Jim makes an effort to solicit his father's approval, but it is not forthcoming.

The final military post brings the family to a small town in Texas, and it seems no one there cares about baseball. What the boy hasn't found in his father, he appears to find in the warm heart of a store owner who may not carry "baseball stuff" among his merchandise, but, seeing the crestfallen and lonely boy's face at this news, immediately brings out a catalog with promises of ordering all things baseball.

The story jumps to the adult Morris. He has a family, a wife who is the good woman behind the good man, two small children. His young son, Hunter, played by Angus T. Jones (today of "Two and a Half Men" fame), is something of a star in this movie, too, tugging at the heartstrings as he portrays how a son looks to his father to be his hero. Morris has become a high school science teacher who coaches the school baseball team, the Owls. His dreams, it seems, are long over. He had been on the brink of playing professional baseball, but injuries kept him on the sidelines, and he quit his dream before it was his. Morris's bitterness with his father's lack of support is still very much alive in the adult son, and there are great scenes between the man and his elderly father (played by Brian Cox), who with age has mellowed, has been divorced by his wife, lives alone, and still has no understanding about the sport, but at last senses he has not been much of a dad.

When the Owls do poorly on the field, coach Morris chides them on not playing with enough passion. He talks to them about not giving up. I cheered out loud, yes!, when his team called him on his own hypocrisy. They have seen him pitch, they know their coach not only still has his good arm, they know he still aches to follow his dream, even if he has lost courage. A deal is struck. They will win their tournament, but then their coach must go to the try-outs.

They win the tournament.

It's an absolutely wonderful scene as Morris struggles with his children while going to the try-outs. He hasn't had the guts to tell his wife about this "foolish" settling of a deal, and he ends up with a crying baby in a stroller, his small son cheering from the back of a pickup truck, while other athletes chuckle at the "old man" trying to pitch. Until he throws the pitch. He clocks 98 miles per hour.

And it's a beautiful thing, how Morris continues to struggle with doubts and is torn between following his old dream and being with the family he so loves. He goes back and forth more than once. He even asks his father for advice--who gives him advice he doesn't want to hear. At one point, his wife withholds her support. This is madness, and the family can't live on $600 a month while daddy plays ball. But when she realizes how much her son Hunter looks up to his father, how important it is to not only hear the good advice of a father, but to see that father as a role model who shows the courage and determination to face his fears and give his dream a try, well, she gives in. She not only gives in, she becomes her husband's biggest fan, except perhaps Hunter.

Morris ends up playing major league baseball. The hard pursuit comes to its most satisfying end. Yes, Hunter, your daddy is a hero. And Morris, pitching his first major league game, finally makes peace with his father. Who still may not understand baseball. But who is finally starting to understand about being a father.

Six stars. Do not miss.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... Spring

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

* Director: Ki-Duk Kim (II)
* $29.95
* Studio: Columbia Tristar Hom
* DVD Release Date: September 7, 2004

In an age of computer enhanced, if not entirely generated, special effects, high adventure, action upon action scenes, what an enjoyable respite it is to view this Korean film of aesthetic simplicity.

Korean director Kim Ki-Duk has created a film centered around the seasons of a man's life beautifully framed against the seasons of nature. An elder Buddhist monk raises a younger monk with a quiet and unobtrusive wisdom. The scene is set in a small floating monastery where the two live alone but for one animal companion, the choice of animal changing with each season, adding layers of intriguing symbolic meaning. Surrounding the floating monastery is a lake set among mountains.

Beginning in the spring of the boy's life, when he is a child learning about the world around him and within him, the wise older man watches the naive young boy engage in lessons proffered by nature. He lets the boy learn on his own, watching from a distance, and only steps in when it is time to do so. In perhaps the film's most profound statement, he watches as the boy, chuckling to himself, ties string around a fish he catches in the lake, and attaches it to a stone. The child takes joy in the struggling of the fish when he releases it back into the water, where the fish is unable to swim freely. The boy repeats this with a frog, with a snake, gleefully tormenting his fellow creatures. From the woods above the shore of the water, the elder monk watches. He is a silent observer, allowing the boy to engage in his mischief. It is only at night, when the boy sleeps, that the monk ties a rock to the boy's back, precisely as the boy did with the tiny creatures. When the boy wakes upon morning, he finds himself weighed down with the rock, and when he questions the elder man, is told that the rock will not be removed until the boy removes the stones he tied to the creatures the day before. Should he not have rescued the creatures in time, the stone will then be a weight the boy must carry in his heart ever after.

The boy seeks out the creatures he has tormented. He finds the little fish dead in the water, still tied to its stone. Teary eyed, he buries it. The frog, though exhausted from its added weight, survives. The snake, however, the boy finds bloodied and dead, attacked by other creatures while unable to escape, and the boy sobs with regret for what he has done.

This is but the first of many lessons the boy must learn as he grows into a man over the course of the seasons of his life and the life around him. There are lessons of love and lust as the manchild, and then the adult man, confuses the two; there are lessons of violence and retribution; lessons of penitence and forgiveness; lessons on dealing with one's own emotions and inner turbulence; lessons of honor and death and rebirth. There is a repetition of the stone tied to the man as he reaches a higher level of understanding, once the elder monk has died, and this time the man has tied the stone to himself as he presses to reach for a higher level of endurance, wisdom, and reverence.

While seemingly simple, this wonderful film is in actuality complex and rich with beauty and symbolism, cutting to the core of a man's nature and the nature of life. It can be watched many times over to enjoy fully its intricacies. It is subtitled, yet one can watch it, and perhaps even should--at least once--without the words, for there are few, and the images convey all that must be understood.

Perhaps the greatest skill in movie-making is not the amount of special effects incorporated in its making, as to what level of beauty and wisdom one can bring to the screen without anything other than a director's fine eye and profoundly simple yet wise insights.

Highly recommended.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Unless - by Carol Shields

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 224 pages
# Publisher: Fourth Estate; 1st edition (April, 2002)
# ISBN: 0007141076
# $29.95

As a writer and a mother, it wasn't but a few words into this novel by Shields that I found myself holding my breath, holding it in compassion and wonder, in acknowledgement of the artistry witnessed, of the beauty of words used with such mastery. Shields writes about a writer, and she writes about a writer who is a mother. In so many ways, one is the other, the other is the same. The character in her acts of creation sends her own goodness into the world, and while her novels seem to take unpredictable paths in the world of publishing and then in the hands of her reading public, so does her daughter veer off her expected path in life to seemingly abandon it all and sit on the street as a homeless soul, sign hung around her neck: "Goodness."

What can drive a young woman to such despair? How can a mother survive her own despair in seeing it? Scenes unfold of a woman who ponders her own writing, a kind of novel inside a novel, and her dealings with a new editor who appears to have her best interests at heart, yet has one soon gritting teeth with just barely suppressed annoyance. A scene of lovemaking between husband and wife, a guilty pleasure and comfort when their child is out on the chill of the streets, is one of the most uniquely written I have ever come across in modern fiction. A topic so overwritten and cliched, Shields manages even this one as if it had been the first, and wholly hers to invent. A scene between mother-in-law and abandoned editor using his salesmanship ploys for public relations over the dinner table they find themselves sharing by chance is another jewel. The treasure keeps on surfacing page after page.

Shields writes with rare magnificence. Her story is an achingly simple but important one, as the best stories are, and she once again proves herself worthy of the Pulitzer she has won.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Finding Neverland

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet
# Director: Marc Forster
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned
# Rated: PG
# Studio: Miramax
# DVD Release Date: March 22, 2005
# $29.99

Movies are just one means of enjoying flights into fancy, escaping from the everyday into a world of fantasy, where all things are possible. Imagination rules the day, and with imagination, there are no rules.

The on-screen story of J. M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) as the author/playwright of Peter Pan is a delightful flight into another world, if not always one that is removed from the pains and bruisings of reality. Inspired by (if on occasion departing from) true events, the story about the writing of the story shows the evolving friendship between Barrie and the widow Davies (played by Kate Winslet) and her four young sons.

Barrie meets the family while sitting on a park bench writing ideas for a play. I was charmed from the moment Depp seamlessly left his creative work to give in to a moment of play with the boy curled up below the park bench. While in reality I have watched such attempts from adults to come down to the level of children in relating to them as playmates appear a mix of patronizing at worst, clumsy at best, Depp, as Barrie, suffers no such stumbling. Surely, neither did Barrie, or he would not have created such a work of playfulness, even inspiring a psychological term of "the Peter Pan syndrome" to refer to adult men who refuse to grow up.

But there is a child in all of us, isn't there? There should be. Just as there is the wisdom of the ancients, and perhaps the two go hand in hand, as playmates. Barrie soon spends his days, when he is not writing, playing with the four boys. Games of cowboys and Indians, heroes and villains, pirates and kings. Play unlocks Barrie's creativity to eventually become the groundbreaking play, Peter Pan (with Dustin Hoffman as curmudgeonly theatre producer who goes along with a begrudging trust in Barrie's talent, even while spouting doubt after doubt). Somewhat in the background to all of this play is the widow Davies, and one never quite understands whether there is a romantic bond forming or simply one of deeply felt friendship. We never see the relationship between the two adults develop beyond the latter, although love is evident. Barrie already has a wife, and we see her pain, too, as she loses her husband to the widow's family and her own marriage unravels. Neglected, she finds another companion, and the Barrie marriage is over.

These are the pangs of reality. They, too, show up in Peter Pan on the stage. There is death, there is loss, there is grief. But there is also the magic of taking flight, "real" and of the spirit. The on stage story parallels the story off stage.

We know already that the play, Peter Pan, becomes a classic, and rightfully so. But I found myself often watching the story behind the story unfold with the bittersweetness of nostalgia and longing. I watched the magic of creativity, of art. I saw the human connections made and unmade, fragile and tender, between adult and adult, adult and child. I saw a world, real and imaginary, that has so often become lost to us, as we increasingly replace imagination with a crass and ugly reality, or, perhaps more accurately referred to as--indulgence.

Depp is exquisite. I've come to expect that from this actor. Winslet is convincing, offering not too much, not too little, with excellent timing. The four boys, especially young Peter, are wonderful. Were there more such children today! Were there more such adults who knew how to play.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

American History X

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong
# Director: Tony Kaye
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby, NTSC
# Rated: R
# Studio: New Line Home Entertainment
# Video Release Date: September 2, 2003

On the recommendations of several friends combined with Edward Norton being in the lead role for "American History X", I settled in for what I suspected would be a disturbing if quality movie for the evening. It was -- both quality and disturbing. I have never seen Norton anything but excellent in any role, my expectations of him were high, and he fully met and surpassed those expectations. Indeed, this is one of his best, and I can understand why he was nominated for an Oscar based on his performance in AHX.

"American History X" portrays a young man turned into a neo-Nazi when his father, a man he unquestioningly idolizes as so many young sons do their fathers, is murdered. His father, a racist police officer, plants a seed of racism in his son's mind shortly before his death, and with the bloody fertilization of a brutal murder, the seed produces a young man filled with hatred and rage, seeking to spill blame on those different than himself. What makes Norton's character of Derek Vinyard so horrifying and plausible is his intelligence. This is not a person who swallows a prejudice whole. He turns it into a philosophy of life, and it is only when his rage flames out of control that we can see how dangerous his views are, how far reaching the hatred. Culminating in two murders that chill to the bone, Derek Vinyard is imprisoned. Outside of those prison walls, his younger brother, played also with exceptional skill by Edward Furlong, yet another boy who idolizes his older sibling, continues on the path Derek has blazed. Inside the prison walls, Derek Vinyard undergoes a harsh lesson of humility coupled with the kindness of an expected enemy that he finally realizes has saved him. Few things teach better than pain. Most lessons in life are learned best when we hit bottom. Derek Vinyard hits bottom hard, but it is the kindness of those he had seen as enemies that provides now the balm of human compassion that helps him complete his inner growth. He emerges from prison a changed man. Life is not so neat, however, and the seeds of hatred he has sown in prior years must yet travel their full course.

To change a man's heart is a difficult feat. To transform hatred and rage into wisdom and compassion happens rarely, too rarely. But Norton makes this transformation of a man's heart ring true. The movie stands as a powerful statement of the possibilities of changing evil into good, of waking a spirit seemingly lost to hatred to the grace of love in what becomes a true hero: the man who was once fallen, who grows through his pain, and becomes a man able to stand up for what takes true courage - doing the right thing.

The only flat performance in AHX is by Stacy Keach, who plays the guru of the Nazi movement. He is unable to pop out of his one dimensional character. But all other performances in this movie, notably also Beverly D'Angelo's potrayal of Derek's mother, are first class. However uncomfortable some of the graphic scenes in this movie, it is a must see.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Wolves by Candace Savage

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 159 pages
# Publisher: Random House, Inc., 1989
# ISBN: 0871566893
# $29.95

Few creatures have been so misunderstood, so shrouded in myth... and such inaccurate myth... as canis lupus, the wolf. Wild and beautiful, in my mind the most beautiful of all creatures still walking our earth today (although in painfully diminishing and harrassed numbers), the wolf inspires fear in many. But then, ignorance often inspires fear. We need books such as this one - with text and photographic selection by Candace Savage, foreword by L. David Mech - to banish such ignorance and reveal to us something of this wild and wonderful animal. For not only is he beautiful, but he is also highly intelligent, and, yes, highly "civilized" in his ways.

Henry Thoreau, author of another of my favorite books, "Walden", said: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." I believe this with all the healthy wildness in my heart. On a journey some years ago to Alaska, I brought along little luggage, but many books... and many of these were about wolves. I realized how little I knew about this incredible animal. Like so many, I knew more the myth reaching back to my own childhood... the nasty child-eating beast of Red Riding Hood, the ravaging monster harrassing three little pigs.... and, later, Jack London's Call of the Wild. I saw movies that portrayed the wolf as a fearsome monster who freely stalked and killed human beings. I visited museums where the taxidermist had so positioned the wolf as to fully expose bloodied fangs in a nightmarish snarl, dear little bunnies lying gutted in the red snow before him. The wolf kills, as all animals must to survive and eat and feed their young, but the more I read and researched this animal, the more I was impressed with his intelligence and integrity. The first myth to go was the one that wolves will hunt down and attack a human being. That is simply false. They are intelligent enough to avoid if at all possible every encounter with man, but will defend themselves and their young with respectable ferocity. Rarely have I known of any species that has such a strong sense of family as does the wolf. If only we cared and nurtured our young as does a pack of wolves... Faithful for life to his mate, the wolf not only provides nourishment for his young, but fosters a sense of family that we can only envy in our society of broken families and latch-key children.

This book provides not only fascinating information about wolves, but is filled with a breathtaking selection of photography that allows the reader a glimpse into the lives of these magnificent animals. I would follow this book up with an evening in a log cabin, fireplace roaring, wolves on the snowy horizon singing, with my favorite movie, "Never Cry Wolf," based on Farley Mowfat's book by the same name.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Ausekliesi - Biruta Abule, Editor

Foreword by Zinta Aistars

Cover illustration by Viestarts Aistars

When a book compiling the memories of alumni and alumnae of a high school for displaced persons, or refugees, of Latvia during World War II was ready for the presses, the editor, Biruta Abuls, came to Zinta requesting an "Afterword." Although the compilation itself is in the Latvian language, the Afterword was to be in English, so that the audience for the book might be even greater. As Latvians were scattered across the globe after the war, some of the new generations, born in "exile," have lost touch with the language of their ancestors. But memories have special value, surpassing all languages...

The following is the Afterword for a book called Ausekliesi--No Pazobelem Pasaules Tales, editor, Biruta Abule, published in late 2004. The director of the school was my grandfather, Ernests Aistars, who was also the author of twelve published novels. Three of his four sons, including the eldest, my father, attended the school.

At the time of this writing, as I page through the galleys of Ausekliesi, I come across excerpts about my grandfather, Ernests Aistars, the director of the Ausekliesi school from 1945 to 1950. I read that he died July 22, 1998. I look up at my calendar. It is July 22, 2004. The years of his absence have flown by, filled with events, changes, moves, discoveries, the daily comings and goings of family and friends, of the world around me. He is gone, but my memories of this tall, lean, wise man remain. My own children are grown. It saddens me that they have few memories of their great-grandfather to cherish.

And then it occurs to me: they will have this book. In it is one of the greatest treasures one generation can bequeath another—its memories. When the visage of a loved one passes away from our presence, we may still find them in family albums, in journals, in photographs, in the stories one person tells another who tells yet another, in various fragments that we share with each other. Even when there is no one to pass along the story, something in our very souls sings that ancient song of our ancestors. Perhaps their memory shows in a gesture we make, one that is exactly as they once gestured. Perhaps our laughter rings out in the same note and gives a similar twinkle to our eye. Perhaps we unknowingly find ourselves picking up a hobby only to later learn that it brought someone in our past lineage similar pleasure. We can’t quite explain it, but there it is. A common memory that lives in our spirits and in our genes, like a thread running invisibly through time, connecting us all.

Of what value is memory? Memory is a way of giving us the stability and nourishment of roots, and for our Latvian nation, who have so often throughout our history struggled to keep and maintain our roots, we have learned the necessity and value of having them. It may well be that those who, for a while, must lose something know its value best. If we have at times been ripped away from our physical homes, we may find our homes in each other.

In these pages, I read of my grandfather’s love of language and learning. I read how my grandmother read aloud to him and to her four sons, as the Aistars family shared this passion for words. I read of my father, Viestarts Aistars, and of his love of art and nature. Here is my heritage. I, too, read aloud to my loved ones. I, too, find my serenity in communion with nature. I, too, look through literature as my prism onto the universe. Even had I never met these people with whom I share common blood, I believe these traits would beat with the same vitality and fire within me. How much richer I am to know this.

To understand our heritage, our common bonds with those who came before us, is to understand ourselves. When we touch their memories, we touch our own hearts, we look upon our own faces. In looking to our past, we are looking at our own future, our children and their children yet to be born. From our heritage, we take our tools with which to build a life for future generations. No matter that fashions have changed, that technology has transformed the world as they once knew it. No matter that some of us do not even speak the same language (and yet, reading this book, some may find inspiration to learn the language of their ancestors). There is a deeper kind of language, the language of hearts, the language of shared blood, that remains the same, understood by all.

With this compilation of memories—as submitted by the alumni and alumnae of the Auseklis school, each in their own words and in their own personal styles—Biruta Abule, the editor, has gathered together a treasure of such memories for all of us to enjoy and cherish. As one of those who will cherish and be enriched by them, I offer my gratitude for all of Biruta’s hard work in putting these puzzle pieces together and creating out of them a book to preserve some small but precious glimpse into our common treasure—our ancestry.


This book is a collection of bittersweet memoirs about a time and place in the distant past, forgotten by many, but lovingly remembered by former students of the Latvian High School Auseklis in Augsburg, Germany. The time is 1945-1950, the place Camps in Hochfeld and Haunstetten, created near the city of Augsburg in Bavaria for war refugees. The stories talk about the camps, the school activities and accomplishments of its students. From interviews and diaries, as well as from general sources, we learned facts, and sometimes fiction, about Latvians in Augsburg. Included in the book is information about all of the teachers, as well as memories of friends who have died. In their own words the participating authors remember their youth and years spent in camp school, the good and the bad times, the trips and the many extracurricular activities. Photos and drawings of long forgotten classmates and places complement the stories. After the liquidation of the Allied supported camps all of the authors of this collection eventually emigrated to the United States or Australia, and some have returned to their native Latvia. The collection was created in order to preserve the memories of life and war as experienced by young Latvian people immediately post Second World War in Germany.

Book is available for a $25 US donation to recover publishing expenses.

Order from:
Biruta Abuls,
140 Country Club Blvd.
Plainwell, MI 49080

Friday, March 04, 2005

Bel Canto by Anne Patchett

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 336 pages
# Publisher: Perennial; 1st Perenn edition, 2002
# ISBN: 0060934417
# $13.95

When Ann Patchett came to the college where I work on staff to give a reading to our students, I attended. The room was packed and bursting to the seams. Her book had been assigned as part of a summer reading program for incoming freshman, discussed in groups, now discussed with the author herself, and all concluding with her reading. It was a delight. Many authors who write well do not read well, but Patchett does both - and very well.

Bel Canto is a simple enough story (and those are always the best) contained in a house, specifically at a dinner for dignitaries gathered to celebrate the birthday of a prominent Japanese businessman. His gift - an opera singer. Roxanne sings for him, and her voice captures the hearts of all who are present. This, however, does not just include the dignitaries. When the lights go out, the terrorists arrive. This is not the scene of violence one might expect. The story unfolds on a stage of seeming opposites, the terrorists in their misguided ideals and poverty, the dignitaries in their wealth and isolation. Hostages and terrorists unite and interweave in beautiful song, literally and figuratively. A terrorist falls in love with a hostage. A hostage teaches an illiterate terrorist how to read. A terrorist reveals his own musical talent, and then, his own flagging self esteem, hidden behind his ever present weapon. Such a drama cannot end well, tragedy must break in on this unlikely community of souls, but this clash of reality is appropriate.

Patchett is a writer deserving of her many awards. Her storytelling ability is keen, and her writing talent is often breathtaking. She has an eye for the kind of detail that makes a story become life. Her expression is fresh and her own. Her readings, if available (I understand she now does very few), are also a literary treat.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 176 pages
# Publisher: Penguin USA (Paper); Revised edition (1988)
# ISBN: 0525463461
# $15.99

Dare I admit how many years ago I was but a girl, nose buried in this book? Decades, oh, decades ago. Yet even now it stands out as one of the beacon lights of my childhood, leading me to an adulthood that focuses around a love of wilderness.

When young Sam ran away from home (and this is something I routinely did as a girl, tying red bandana to a stick containing crackers, kitchen knife, and toothbrush, and rather long to do again, now as I spend too many of my days in an office) and headed into the Catskill Mountains, my heart went with him. No dream house could match the home he created inside the hollow of a big tree. No gourmet dinner could match the wilderness fare Sam put together, smacking his lips. No pet could match that fine falcon.

Jean Craighead George was then, and is now, at the top of the list of my favorite authors in children's and young adult literature. My own children are grown now, but as they grew, I read George's books to them, giving them not only a taste of fine writing, but also an education in science and wilderness survival, along with a healthy respect for environmental issues. George may write fiction, but her stories are all based on sound scientific data. How Sam survived on the mountain is based on good science. That he uses determination, intelligence, and discipline in living this way is good character. And that's something our kids don't see or read about nearly often enough today.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Spring Essence by Ho Xuan Huong, John Balaban (translator)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 120 pages
# Publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2000
# ISBN: 1556591489
# $15.00

Bilingual and a writer myself, I know painfully well the treacheries of translation. Especially poetic translations. The thought alone sends shivers of horror and dread down my writerly spine. Perhaps it is great fortune that I have absolutely no knowledge of Nom, or the Vietnamese language, from which the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong is translated. I cannot say whether Balaban has or has not succeeded in his translation of this 18th century concubine's poetry. What I can say: I attended a reading by John Balaban. He read Xuan Huong's poetry in both English and in Nom. I almost felt, listening to the music of the language alone, without comprehension of the language itself, that I loved listening to its musical quality even more than I loved listening to the English translations I understood. The blind see and the deaf hear? Sometimes it is so. It was music to my ears. When he read about the rain falling on banana leaves... Thanh thot tau tieu may hat mua... I could hear the rain plunk and patter on the leaves. Balaban had clearly approached his work with passion and pleasure, and this is exactly what he brought out of Xuan Huong's poetry - passion and pleasure, spiced with humor. I had to purchase the book after the reading, simply had to. I won't argue the authenticity of the poetry I read in this volume, but I will state that it gives me pleasure to read it. "My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems..."

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

It Blows You Hollow by Diane Seuss-Brakeman

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 64 pages
# Publisher: New Issues Poetry Press; 1st ed edition, 1998
# ISBN: 0932826652
# $12.00

There is no stopping the magic that comes from the wand - the pen - in Seuss's hand. It bursts forth like a bouquet of outrageously colored wildflowers from this first collection of her poems. It is not an easy magic. The sweat beads and trickles down the side of this magician's face. There is grit and suffering behind the art. The reader feels, must feel, her loss, her pain, and senses the strength that will carry her through to the next battle.

"You'll hear me coming," Seuss writes in her poem "Whole." And we do. We hear her with bells on, we hear her heavy breathing in the night, we hear her praying in the dark, we hear her roaring at the heavens, we hear her whispering a longing that will outlast all of us. The presence of Seuss in her poetry is not a mild or meek one.

Seuss's poetry returns repeatedly to themes of loss and grief, which provoke a fierce and stubborn survival response. She expresses a stubborn claim to her woman's strength - "Scars are erogenous zones" - even as she longs for the balm of a divine healing presence. For Seuss, God, usually female, is an approachable presence, found everywhere and in everyone, in the most everyday people and places, as likely to be wearing a blonde wig and green eye shadow as to be a lumbering bear with claws.

In other poems, Seuss talks of her father, who died when she was young, and, one suspects, has left her with a longing that intertwines with her longing for God, the sometimes father-figure. The longing is not for an afterlife, but a now-life, today, here, in the very instant that Seuss reveals herself in all her faulty and gorgeous humanity. With such intense living comes intense suffering. Loneliness is her lurking demon in the dark.

The slim volume is divided into three sections. The first focuses on autobiographical themes, and the second resounds with a philosophical timbre. The final section is written on Drummond Island, off the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula where Seuss sometimes goes to gather her thoughts and, perhaps, meet with God in the form of a black bear. The loneliness, the loss, the many farewells, in this section become a more prominent motif.

After Seuss has driven into her deepest need, beyond the loss, she wonders:

Could it be
that something still waits for me,
open-armed, on that other shore?

We await anxiously the next slim volume to find out.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Secondhand Lions

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

* Starring: Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment
* Director: Tim McCanlies
* Studio: New Line Home Entertainment, 2003
* $19.96

It occurs to me as I sit here pondering my review of "Secondhand Lions" that I must somehow cloak the first words that come to mind. Words, phrases, such as "a feel-good movie" or "good family fun" or "heart-warming." As if it were, well, "uncool" to label a movie such things these days, almost like a movie kiss of death. Isn't this a time of Hollywood special effects? Of hot babes and pyrotechnics? Of gratuitous violence and sensationalism? So it is. And so this movie is not. And oh, we are a glad audience for it!

Haley Joel Osment, to whom many of us in the movie audience were introduced in "Sixth Sense," plays Walter, a young boy whose mother (Kyra Sedgewick) pursues everything in life but motherhood. He finds himself dumped like excess baggage on the well weathered front stoop of his two uncles' country house. The uncles, played with wonderful eccentricity by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, resist but later embrace their young nephew. How the three bond into a true family is a tale that does indeed warm the heart, lighten the spirit, and perhaps even restore a faded belief in today's cynical world that goodness, yes, goodness, still has a place on the silver screen. Osment is absolutely first rate in this movie, and the two vintage stars, Caine and Duvall, still shine as brightly as ever, if not more so.

It may be that the popularity of movies such as this could send Hollywood a message. Good is still good on the movie screen.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Necessary Madness by Jenn Crowell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 212 pages
# Publisher: Putnam Pub Group, 1997
# ISBN: 0399142525
# $29.50

I admit it: I'm floored. Seventeen years old? But yes, the author of this very well-written novel was all of a ripe and vintage seventeen years of age when she wrote it. Nearly impossible to believe. I would give this novel highest marks even had this not been so, but that it is so - well, I'm floored.

I read Crowell's second novel, "Letting the Body Lead," before I read this one. It was good, and one would expect an author's second novel to be better than their first... but this is not the case. While her second novel is strong and her command of literary language impressive, it is the first novel, this one, that really astounds. Age of author aside, this is real talent. The story line begins with a young widow and mother who has just buried her much-loved husband, succumbed to leukemia. Crowell's language draws the reader into the bleeding soul of the young widow, makes the pain achingly real. The inner struggles to heal are more than convincing. Even the descriptions of the deceased husband's artwork, "painting for his life" as the character puts it, bring the paintings to life in the mind's eye of the reader. The child, a young boy, is forced to mature over early, as he is told he is now "man of the house." For a while, he is the stronger of the mother and child grieving their loss, but isn't it often so? The two exchange roles of who is the healer, who is the one most in need of healing, and so both begin their faltering steps to recovery from their grief. Loss of a loved one brings out the man in the boy and the child in the woman, but, gradually, they resume their stations in life of mother and son and are stronger one for the other. Dealing with death, for all three members of the family, is a necessary madness and Crowell expresses it just that way. "He coaxed the words onto my silent tongue," the widow says of her husband.

The least convincing thread weaving through this novel is the relationship between the young widow and her estranged mother. Something's missing. The young woman's anger at her mother is palpable, but the degree of it remains a puzzle. Mom tends to yell and be abrasive and unkind, but so many family dynamics are messy and imperfect, that the grown daughter's fierce hatred of her mother doesn't quite ring true. Her relationship with her father, however, described as something of an "emotional incest," the father worshiping his daughter as a replica of his own lost and youthful love, however strange, is more convincing. Minor flaws.

Upon turning the final page, the overall sense of the book remains that this is not only the vivid description of the death of a young artist and the heartache of those who love him, but that it is in itself - a work of art. At any age.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year by Anne Lamott

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 272 pages
# Publisher: Ballantine Books, 1994
# ISBN: 044990928X
# $12.95

I have long been a fan of Anne Lamott's work and I have been a mom even longer than that... and so I opened the cover of this book pregnant with expectations. Lamott came through again. My own brood has flown the nest by now, that first incredible year is but a memory... but oh, forever a vivid and undiminished one. I found mirror pieces throughout her account as I recalled those nights of unutterable exhaustion, those days smeared with baby food spatterings, charged with squeals and squalls, and my own speech turned to a weird kind of baby babble. More, I remembered searingly those moments of holding my own, holding them so that no whirlwind or storm might have torn them from my arms, breathing in the sweet fragrance of their baby skin, knowing for the first time in my previously self-centered life... I would die for these little beings. Gladly.

Lamott captures uniquely all of these motherly emotions and experiences, the good and the uproariously less saner ones. She nails down perfectly the doubts and the frustrations and the madness and the sheer amazement of it all.

"It's mind-boggling that my body knows how to churn out this milk that he is growing on. The thought of what my body would produce if my mind had anything to do with it gives me the chill. It's just too horrible to think about. It might be something frogs could spawn in, but it wouldn't be good for anything else. I've had the secret fear of all mothers that my milk is not good enough, that it is nothing more than sock water, water that socks have been soaking in, but Sam seems to be thriving even though he's a pretty skinny little guy. I'm going to have an awards banquet for my body when all of this is over."

Lamott's talent is to take the everyday and wrap it in a self-effacing humor that is refreshingly real. Mostly, I enjoyed this, if indeed didn't laugh out loud at it. But there were also a few reading moments... when I didn't care for the distraction of hearing about her boyfriend woes, or when her past substance abuse unnerved me... or that I didn't particularly want to read a treatise on politics (even if often I found myself in agreement with hers). Perhaps even the account of her best friend's battle with cancer seemed to belong in a book of its own and not necessarily in this one. I suppose it can be argued, however, that life is rarely, if ever, so neat. Messes coincide. Mothers are also women with boyfriends. And politics affect us all.

This is not my favorite Lamott book, but it is trademark Lamott nonetheless. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Subtlety & Passion - by Robert Lamm

A Music Review by Zinta Aistars

Unlike most who, I imagine, purchase "Subtlety & Passion," I am not much of a Chicago fan. Nor am I completely unbiased in my admiration of Robert Lamm's achievement with this CD, as it arrived on my doorstep a short while ago packaged as a Valentine. My heart for that reason alone was already feeling that first subtle warmth of passion even as I put it in my player.

But with all that put aside for a moment, and perhaps even increasing the twinkle of my five stars here assigned, I was duly impressed the moment Lamm's music flowed into my room. Ah yes, I could see why it served so well to convince me my Valentine was for me. I always respect an artist, in any genre or medium, who ignores the trends of the time. I respect one finding one's own unique voice and sound. I respect the courage to send that out to the world. I respect quality. Lamm has earned my respect.

Music, however, is not something a listener responds to through respect. Music is what we respond to on a purely emotional level. It is why it can so change our moods, near instantly, so uplift our spirits, so draw us into nostalgic dreams, so inspire us. Music communicates as words alone cannot. It does not require an expert ear or discerning taste. It requires only the honesty of the musician and the open heart of the listener.

As a writer, my medium being words, I responded to his lyrics, yes, which so often can be empty and meaningless and redundant in music, but not so on "Subtlety & Passion." The music surprised me, pleasantly so, with varying styles of jazz, reggae, rock. Vocals are excellent. Guitar solos were keenly enjoyable. Even the horns (I favor strings) were perfect in their seamless blend.

My Valentine, arriving soon after "Sublety & Passion," was most warmly received.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories by James Thomas et al

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992
# 224 pages
# $11.95
# ISBN 0393308839

Blink and you've missed it. Don't blink.

Here is what you will see while your eye remains open, in a quick instant of bright color and imagined sound, or sweet fragrance, just sensed before it is gone, or sudden stink, or a momentary sensation across your skin, like the tickle of a feather, or the flavor of something, something, you can't quite place what, on your tongue that reminds of you someplace, someplace, you've been a very long time ago:

"The Burlington Northern, Southbound" by Bruce Holland Rogers...who writes a poem to Christine about the exhiliration of catching a moving train, wind, banged up knee, rhythm, blood rush, and compares it to how he feels about her, and waits for her answer...

"Subtotals" by Gregory Burnham... list of totals that comprise a life, nothing but a list, nothing but totals...number of refrigerators I've lived with, 18... number of gray hairs, 4... number of times wished I was dead, 2... number of light bulbs changed, 273... number of times born again, 0... number of times I forgot what I was going to say, 631...

"Space" by Mark Strand... a beautiful woman stands at the roof-edge of a highrise building, teetering, readying... and a man on the roof of the next building calls out to her... he calls out hope, a dinner proposal, a promise of better days, a marriage proposal... to this woman he does not know, the wind blowing strands of her dark hair across her lovely face... as he contemplates that space, that space between, him, her, the pavement, life, death...

Don't blink. There are 72 of these instant technicolor visions before you can blink again.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 307 pages
# Publisher: Viking Books, 1997
# ISBN: 0670874787
# $24.95

It's been many years since I first read On the Road, but I wanted to reread it, refresh my memory, as Kerouac's name still comes up so often in the literary circles I respect and enjoy. That he left an impact with his work is undeniable. Any time that a writer breaks new ground in form or style, there is inevitably an uproar, as there was, still is, with Kerouac. He is either worthless ... or his work is a gift from the Literary God, a masterpiece like no other.

As I reread this book, and yes, as I enjoyed it, my final sense of it is this: Kerouac's work breaks literary ground. It is not worthless. Neither is it a 'masterpiece like no other'. But it is an important work, and Kerouac is an important writer. He is the voice of a time period, and he is an original one. His writing style reflects that time and that generation of 'beatniks' as no one else had before him and no one else has since, if only in imitation of Kerouac. The book should be read as such, appreciated even for its lack of the usual grammatical constraints or usual strict plotlines. These are not heroes. These are just men who travel across America in some dazed quest for something, perhaps nameless, perhaps unknown even to them. If they come off the written page as chauvinists, as druggies, or as aimless bums, well, yeah, they are. This is their story.

However 'free' Kerouac's style might seem at times (likening it to a stream of consciousness would not be unfair), it often shows literary brilliance. One of very many examples:

'We all jumped to the music and agreed. The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove. Dean hunched his muscular neck, T-shirted in the winter night, and blasted the car along. He insisted I drive through Baltimore for traffic practice; that was all right; except he and Marylou insisted on steering while they kissed and fooled around. It was crazy; the radio was on full blast. Dean beat drums on the dashboard till a great sag developed in it; I did too. The poor Hudson, the slow boat to China, was receiving her beating.'

Kerouac evokes what these characters (and their real life models, including himself) are in his style of wandering ease. His words have fullness and color. His expressions are rich and alive. There is purpose to his lack of purpose. There is reason to his madness. There is great value in any art form to be a groundbreaker, a trailblazer. And Kerouac is that.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Comfort Trap - Or, What If You're Riding a Dead Horse? by Judith Sills, Ph.D.

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 241 pages
* Publisher: Viking Books, 2004
* ISBN: 0670858471
* $23.95

We all get stuck. It's human nature to steer towards comfort, and when we find it, to stay. If I once thought--in my youthful verve and idealism--that we are driven first and foremost by the pursuit of happiness, with maturity has come the understanding and accumulated observation that it is often not happiness that drives us, but instead a sense of maintaining our security and safety (real or imagined). Of course, degrees vary with the individual. But it can often be astounding to see to what people cling in order to preserve what Judith Sills, Ph.D., in this book describes as "the comfort trap."

Change is crucial to life. Change is, after all, necessary to growth. While not all change is good, it must happen if we are to indeed find meaning (happiness) in our lives. Yet with change comes risk, and that's the place where we, sooner or later, become stuck. Change and the risk it entails by its very nature can feel like facing a very scary beast. To avoid doing battle with this "beast" (and make no mistake, it is a battle), some of us would do most anything... or do nothing at all, stagnating in place, dead weight floating on the river of life, pushed and pulled this way and that by default, rather than face it. But life does not tolerate stagnation. And so even when we choose not to do anything (and that, too, is a choice), life will make choices for us, force often painful change upon us.

How to deal with change in a more healthy manner? How to avoid getting stuck in a rut? Sills deals with this dilemma in her easily read book, lining out simple (not to be confused with simplistic) strategies. Magic formulas? Not at all. There will probably be nothing here to surprise the reader, but even if one needs nothing more than to bring what is already known to the forefront of awareness, this can be an inspiring and encouraging read. Sills discusses how to recognize when we are stuck in a comfort trap, how to deal with fear that keeps us there, how to begin actively making healthy decisions that will bring about positive changes, how to stop fence sitting, how to start living again. With sample situations from therapy sessions in her own practice involving comfort traps of toxic relationships, career dissatisfaction, family issues, and more, Sills gives a soothing, rational approach that, if one can reach down inside for that elusive courage, can work.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' by Gene Wolfe

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 416 pages
# Publisher: Orb Books, 1994
# ISBN: 0312890176
# $14.95

Science fiction and fantasy are literary genres that I doubt will ever rank among my favorites. However, I am always open to a stretch from my usual reading fare, so when a bookish colleague stated with impassioned conviction - "this is the best book I've ever read!" - I had to peer inside the covers of "Shadow & Claw".

Gene Wolfe is inarguably a highly skilled and richly talented author. I had already read Wolfe's "There Are Doors" and was decidedly underwhelmed. But this first half of a tetralogy was entirely on a different level of polish. Wolfe is a prolific writer, and when one produces as many books as he does, some are bound to be less, some more. I was willing to give him another look. I'm very pleased that I did. No, this is not my favorite book ever. Nor will it make the top ten on my top bookshelf. But it enthralled me instantly, pulled me in to its lush and intricate language, clouded my mind's eye to the reality around me to be reopened into the fantasy world of Severian the Torturer, and brought to life a brilliant array of characters, creatures, and settings. Wolfe has taken on an intriguing challenge in developing a central character, Severian, who tortures and kills for a living. How does one feel empathy for such a vile man? Ah, but one does. Wolfe succeeds, at least initially. Brought into the guild of Torturers as a child, Severian does what he has been taught to do, and, in spite of his gruesome work, he has a core spirit that has its sharper edges softened by compassion and tempered by a sense of honor. As the story weaves its highly imaginative path, however, my empathy for Severian does, admittedly, wane to some degree. As his understanding and, mostly, his free choice of occupation increase, he becomes less sympathetic. It's hard to feel for a man who takes such precise pleasure in his work of torment and death. His intelligence and his ability to discriminate also come under question as he falls in and out of love in the blink of a wandering eye with every female - prostitute, damsel in distress, prisoner, actress, or wandering waif - who crosses his path. Honestly, Sev. Tone down the testosterone, will you?

Yet I read this book to the end, and I read quickly. Whatever genre, Wolfe is a rare talent. I do understand why my bookish colleague so adores his work. I've already begun reading the second half of this tetralogy, "Sword & Citadel". Severian falls far short of being my hero, but the otherworldly world he inhabits will have my attention a while longer.