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.

Friday, January 28, 2005

An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 160 pages
# Publisher: Vintage, 1995
# ISBN: 0679752560
# $11.00

As the title of one of Terry Tempest Williams' essays states... this collection of immersions into spirit and place are "The Erotics of Place." That is, not just a bodily immersion into her subject, but one of totality. Williams accomplishes that sinking into her well-worded ideas that leaves only the tips of her hair floating on the surface, a faint rippling of the water where she stepped in, and nothing more - she is submerged. And that is a thing of quality.

The essays in this short collection touch on lives of people as well as life force of place. Williams writes about Georgia O'Keefe in "In Cahoots with Coyote" with evident love for the woman, the artist, the landscape: "What O'Keefe saw was what O'Keefe felt - in her own bones. Her brush strokes remind us again and again, nothing is as it appears: roads that seem to stand in the air like charmed snakes; a pelvis bone that becomes a gateway to the sky; another that is rendered like an angel; and 'music translated into something for the eye.'" The essay concludes with Williams, O'Keefe, and coyotes in the canyons of southern Utah howling in harmony.

Williams writes a eulogy for Edward Abbey, another spirit polished by desert sand. She sees Abbey as the leader of a growing Clan, a clan of human coyotes reclaiming their land, "...individuals who are quietly subversive on behalf of the land. And they are infiltrating our neighborhoods in the most respectable ways, with their long, bushy tails tucked discreetly inside their pants or beneath their skirts... not easily identified, but there are clues. You can see it in their eyes. They are joyful and they are fierce. They can cry louder and laugh harder than anyone on the planet..."

This is that total immersion Williams renders so well. Her people essays blend seamlessly with her place essays; they are the same, as they should be, she reminds us, the same. "We call its name," she writes of the earth around her, "and the land calls back."

Williams makes political statements in her work. It is her coyote howl to call together an awareness of the destruction of land all around us. She addresses nuclear testing not only as a naturalist, but as a woman born in a family riddled with breast and ovarian cancer. She addresses conservation as a necessity for continued life on earth, not merely as a question of quality of life. Her call is not militant - it is one of lyrical love for the preservation of the gift we have been given, the natural world that sustains us.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Illuminata: A Return to Prayer by Marianne Williamson

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 300 pages
# Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition, 1995
# ISBN: 1573225207
# $12.00

She writes: "Ultimately, the choice to love each other is the only choice for a survivable future... every time we open our hearts, we create the space for a global alternative. The opening of the heart is an awesome personal politic, providing us with an internal strength greater than any worldly power. As we receive God's love and impart it to others, we are given the power to repair the world... Personal transformation can and does have global effects. As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us. The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one..."

It is as if Williamson understands, and I suspect she does, how tired my own heart grows at times as it travels its lifelong spiritual journey. Is striving to better oneself really worth it? Is it a good thing to be a good person in a dog-eat-dog society? Or is the harsh reality that the one who plays in mud, who is willing to step on another's back, who plays hard to get, who is a master of manipulation, who never blinks at putting oneself first, is inevitably the one who wins the prize? Perhaps. More times than I care to know. And still.... the lifelong struggle to better oneself is, yes, worth it. If only for that final moment when one faces one's own image in the mirror of self-judgement.

"Illuminata" is a book of prayers. There are prayers to begin the new day - and to end it. There are prayers for strength, for health, for happiness, for the renewal of faith, for forgiveness. There are prayers for friends, for family, for lovers. There are prayers to heal nations. There are prayers to overcome addictions, betrayal, emptiness, obsession, loss, greed. There are prayers to mark moments of routine, of tradition, of ritual, of ceremony. The prayers are separated by Williamson's simple, but insightful meditations.

Like many of us, I don't pray nearly as often as I should. Many of my prayers are spoken not in words, but in the way that I touch someone I love, in the manner with which I greet my morning, in the silence I keep when my heart requires healing. But sometimes we need the words to pray. Although I have rarely used her exact words, Williamson's prayers have taught me... that to speak to God is to simultaneously speak to our deeper and higher selves. It is an exchange that is necessary. It is a part of that lifelong journey that we cannot, must not avoid. And, as Williamson writes, we do indeed change the world... one heart at a time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

Perhaps of all types of courage required in the human condition, none surpasses the courage required to be stripped down to the spiritual bone of one's ego. In Wit, both the character, Vivian Bearing, and the actress, Emma Thompson, have this rare brand of courage. In an age when our female stars in the entertainment industry tend more and more towards cosmetic fluff, Thompson restores my faith in the woman of quality. She has... wit. She has intelligence, she has class, she has style. Her dedication to her art is supreme; in this film she abandons ego so completely in her portrayal of a woman dying, that I had to bow my head in admiration and respect. Cued by her character's devotion to a life of the mind, I followed the greater part of the movie in a state of intellectual fascination... until at last, as she wore down, so did I. Just as she would have me. As wit alone could not save her, nor could it save me, the viewer, from the sheer, naked terror and pain of the process of dying, of death. By finish, I felt ripped open, exposed, brutalized into feeling, into understanding how secluded we become from ourselves and from others when we isolate any part of our humanness. We are not to be intellect alone, however superior. We are not to be spirit alone, not body alone, but we are to be whole, even as we are in the process, no, most of all when we are in the process... of being broken down.

Wit is filmed sparingly and beautifully. There is no excess. The focus is clear and it is never anywhere but where it should be; every detail is in place for a purpose. John Donne's poetry is the perfect encasement to this story of life and death - and the metaphor of life as a comma, a pause, a mere breath away from death, is sharp and true. No less perfect - Margaret Wise Brown's "The Runaway Bunny." Run, if you will, but your humanity will finally find you.

The best movie I have ever viewed? Can it be? To date - it is. And Thompson's performance, even as I wince to downgrade it by calling it a "performance," even as I wince at such superlatives, is the most impressive I have ever seen. Bravo.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Believers: A Novella and Stories by Charles Baxter

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

This collection of seven stories and one novella landed in my hands as a gift, knowing that I have an interest in authors residing in my geographical area (lower Michigan)... but after reading the collection, I plan to read more Baxter, regardless of where he lives, regardless whether the books arrive in my hands as gifts or as my own purchases. I will plunk down my hard-earned dollars for a bit more Baxter, because he knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to write one.

No, that is not one and the same thing. I have found that some authors can weave a yarn very well, peaking suspense, captivating intrigue, taking the reader from beginning to middle to climactic conclusion, but not necessarily with words that are breathtakingly new. These are the storytellers. Others, I find, may not be the best at keeping the varied and many strings of a storyline teasingly tangled yet taut, but they are wonderful writers. They are word artists. They have a talent for choosing fresh phrases that amaze, painting colorful images, bringing about those special a-ha moments for the reader by framing something in words never quite framed that way before. I love that. Maybe even more than a taut storyline.

But oh, the pleasure when finding a word-artist who can also tell a good story! Baxter can do this. Granted, not always in equal measure. "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor" leaves me unconvinced, even wincing a bit. In theory, I believe it is possible for a male writer to write as if with the voice of a woman, for a female writer to write as if with the voice of a man - and convincingly so. But it's hard, it is tricky. For a male writer to write as if a pregnant woman.... well, let's just say, it didn't break my water. The story lost me, a female reader, in its first pages of Patsy feeling as if she were "reeking with reproduction." Um, no. "Cures For Love" perhaps has a similar problem, again with a female as main character, suffering the pangs of a broken relationship by wearing her ex's cap backwards as she bathes, as she cooks. Instead of feeling her anguish in these images, I end up grinning. The image was amusing more than painful. I did not feel her pain. This woman just doesn't hurt like a woman to me. I wish, instead, Baxter had enlightened me on the male perspective of this break-up. Surely men feel pain worthy of a storyline, too, and I suspect it would have been more authentic.

In this very same story, however, I can point to what makes me now officially a Baxter fan:

"She was not a romantic and did not like the word romance. They hadn't had a romance, the two of them. Nothing soft or tender, like that. They had just, well, driven into each other like reckless drivers at an intersection, neither one wanting to yield the right-of-way."

Now, that I like! Baxter writes often (too often?) about the ups and downs, ins and outs, of love in its many forms, always a difficult topic to address in fresh words, and this is just one of many examples of how well he accomplishes just that. Love can indeed be at times like a head-on collision, all parties injured and whiplashed, tires left spinning, engines smoking. Hurrah! I have my a-ha moment.

Indeed, I have moments that Baxter reminds me of other authors whose work in the short story genre I admire very much: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike. He can evoke a certain mystery, even eeriness, tinge of evil intention, as Oates does. He can amuse with human antics as Updike does. In this collection, he does it best in the novella, "Believers."

"We cannot imagine the soul without its clothing of flesh," he writes in his novella. Simple words, written with artistry.

By the time I had finished reading this introduction to Baxter, I had already visited the bookstore to purchase his "Feast of Love." I'll be back for more.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Scent of a Woman

A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

* Starring: Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell
* Director: Martin Brest
* Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby, NTSC
* Rated: R Not for sale to persons under age 18.
* Studio: Universal Studios
* Video Release Date: July 23, 1993
* $9.98

To what vinegar and bile a man's heart turns when he travels through his life without love. As sweet as the scent of a woman, it is the woman beneath the scent the retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, has longed for all his life, and this is the final message of this remarkable film. Tough as nails, the blind military man rankles and spits and curses, making it impossible for the young college man, Charlie, played by Chris O'Donnell, to get along with him, let alone be weekend companion to him. Who, then, is the tougher one? Do as he might, Slade cannot rid himself of the college boy watching over his safety in an impromptu visit to New York City. Comes a time, he no longer wishes to; it is the boy who outlasts him in steely determination.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade has given up on life. He has lost his military career, once promising. He has lost his sight through machismo pranks of tossing grenades. He has lost the affection and support of his family through his impossible manner, save a daughter who loves him through clenched teeth. He has never been able to hold onto a woman, except for a woman's paid services. For his pleasure, indeed, he has only ever had the scent of a woman. The woman herself, her body purchased, her heart and spirit forever elusive to the man, requires far more courage to hold than that what is required in the escort services Slade relies upon. But Slade's courage is limited to military and machismo realms; he has none when it comes to the challenge of emotional courage.

To his young and idealistic companion Charlie, everything Slade is not, or perhaps was, but long ago, Slade says in a critical moment: when in my life I have done the right thing, I did it to feel important. You do it because you are a man of integrity. Charlie tells Slade, you are not a bad man. You are hiding behind your fear.

The impossible becomes possible when Charlie's idealism wins over Slade's moment of despair. Something heroic resides in Slade after all. When Charlie must make a difficult choice that involves a harsh test of his personal honor, Slade comes to his side. The resulting speech alone is worth the price of this film.

Once Slade allows his integrity (and, yes, it was in him, beneath the fear) to surface, the scent of the woman at long last embodies the woman herself. A breakthrough always has that kind of dominoe effect, even in reality.

Pacino's performance in this film is exemplary. O'Donnell, too, is first class, convincing in his portrayal of youth in all its bumbling innocence, as yet uncorrupted ideals.


Friday, January 21, 2005

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 385 pages
* Publisher: Everyman's Library, 1998
* ISBN: 0375400478
* $20.00

Now and then, we must leave the literature of our day and delve deeper--in time and in literary style. Joseph Conrad has survived time as a classic, because his work is of classic quality. I submerged into Victory as into cool, deep water, to emerge refreshed and moved by the literary experience.

Woe, yes, to the man whose heart has not learned to hope or love (and is love without hope possible?) or trust in life. Without hope, without love, without trust, life is but a living death. Axel Heyst, Conrad's hero of Victory, is a complex man we are deeply drawn to--for he has the heart and he has the high ideals, if not the hope or trust. In his vulnerable youth, Heyst's father stripped him of these tools without which living a meaningful life is a barren if not futile prospect. Yet a man's heart is a stubborn thing in its will to beat with red blood. Even in his willful isolation, a woman's love finds the hermit. Conrad indulges in a little formula damsel-in-distress rescue, and Heyst brings Lena to his solitary island of Samburan, where they slowly develop a kind of haven.

Life has a way of being messy and intrusive, Conrad knows, and so he brings the conflict of the story to the island, undeservedly bad reputation following Heyst there in the often comic and villanous figures of Ricardo and Jones. This showcases the figures of Heyst and Lena. If Heyst's heart does indeed love, and passionately so, then Lena's heart has within it the unconditional devotion perhaps only a woman can fully express. And so woman gives life. The tragedy of Heyst is that he so rarely knows how to express his love. Perhaps the story ends, then, in the only way it can, in sacrifice.

The true victory of this novel is the gift of Conrad's writing. Characters have depth and motion; plot is not overwhelming, but enough to hold suspense; dialogue is real and revealing. Conrad does plenty of tell, not show, which writers are today admonished not to do, but I loved every moment of the skillful telling. He is a master, taking on themes and characters that have lasting value. I plan to read and reread his other works.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt

A book review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 640 pages
# Publisher: Modern Library; 2001 Modern Library ed edition (July, 2002)
# ISBN: 0679642382
# $17.95

Possession is a gourmet feast of subtle flavors and delicate spice. When it was first placed in my hands by a fellow writer in anticipation of my delight... I recognized the classically beautiful cover. I had picked this book up several times in a bookstore, several times put it down again. A romance? Not tonight, honey. Too often that label turns to something sickly sweet, nothing but indigestible corn. Mmm, but not this dish. This time I bit in. The more I tasted, the more I wanted. Byatt's prose is rich. Her attention to detail brings her created world alive to all senses. It is nearly impossible to write a fresh love story... haven't they all been told? And this one, a Victorian tale superimposed over a modern day tale of hearts, holds no new revelations on the theme. All the more impressive that Byatt so entices. Her scenes of intimacy perhaps impressed me most of all. Not the graphic slop so often appearing on the bestseller table, so cheaply won -- hers are subtle and fine, elegant and true, exquisite.

"They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed. One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud's bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase."

Perhaps the finish of the book is a bit predictable... but no less rings true and satisfying. One closes the cover with regret at the leaving behind of this lavish language, this world of lovers in two such different times who have connected both in body and mind. I am inspired to reach with a real hunger for the next Byatt treasure.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time by Sven Birkerts

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 288 pages
* Publisher: Viking Books, 2002
* ISBN: 0670031097
* $24.95

Having grown up in much the same time period and with much the same ethnic background (my family, too, came to the United States from Latvia during WW2), even in the same approximate area (lower Michigan), I picked up Birkerts' book (and, as chance would have it, I found it in the bookstore in Ann Arbor he describes as his place of employment) with immense curiosity. Just how similar would his experience be to mine? Initially, it was rather exhilirating to read this memoir that spoke of so much that I, too, knew so well, down to the ethnic bone. As I read of his discomforts and anxieties about learning a new language other than the one spoken in his home, his sense of being something of a misfit in both the Latvian and the American communities, I identified in most every detail. Ah, yes, this too I felt on my adolescent thin hide... Mine, I felt simultaneously as blessing and curse, as perhaps, in conclusion, did Birkerts.

In later years, of course, Birkerts' experiences forked away very much from my own... but no matter. I didn't need to look into a mirror to sustain my interest. Indeed, that is the whole appeal of this book - it is not only for the multicultural reader. The writing is excellent, and my exhiliration at sharing in a similar experience soon veered to an exhiliration simply in reading a book so well written. Perhaps that is one of the blessings of being bilingual, this ability to approach a second language with greater awareness. Birkerts' use of language is vibrant and lush and frequently stunning. His insights and perspective on his work, his relationships, the inner workings of his developing self.... all are richly portrayed. No matter from what backgrounds we come, we all question ourselves and our life choices, we all struggle with similar demons at one time or another. Family dynamics are not so different, I'm sure, no matter what the ethnic background.

Birkerts' `My Sky Blue Trades' is a valuable portrayal of the immigrant experience for more than one generation, but is also of value simply as a well written book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 464 pages
* Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st ed edition (November 1, 2000)
* ISBN: 0060199652
* $26.00

I have a hunger for words, and for nature writing, that only Kingsolver knows how to feed. In non-fiction, that hunger often moves me to pluck an Annie Dillard volume from the shelves... in fiction, it frequently moves me to open a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. She always satisfies.

With her background as a biologist, Kingsolver always teaches me something I did not know about the natural world around us - and in us. As her characters in "Prodigal Summer" know so well, we are one with this planet we live on. Abuse it, and we abuse ourselves. Nurture it, and we nurture ourselves. Her message of respect for the intricate and wonderful plan of nature is strong, but not overpowering. It is neither didactic nor preachy. That's important. The kind of rebel spirit required today to resist both physical and spiritual pollution would resist preaching. But her passion for the beauty of earth and her fascination with how involved a chain of life we are woven into blends easily and cleanly with her skill as a fiction writer. We read a good story and we learn a bit about natural biology - and the learning is painless. The knit of the two is tight and effective.

As a woman reader, I also commend this woman author's presentation of such strong female characters. Hurrah! These are sensual women, the older ones fully as much as the younger ones, and they buckle to no one. Yet strength does not mean an inability to love. Women have known this... well, forever. To allow emotion to blossom with this kind of lushness is something women have always understood as the epitome of strength. These strong women understand sacrifice. They understand, and give in with gusto and abandon to, the most sensual pleasures. This, too, is our biology, and Kingsolver writes these scenes with mastery and appetite. Her women have spunk and fire. They have tenderness in their touch as well as hard muscle. They may not be able to save the earth... but they will certainly try.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Innamorati by Midori Snyder

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 381 pages
* Publisher: Tor Books, 1998
* ISBN: 0312861974
* $24.95

Instantly - I'm there.

"The morning sun rose above the edge of a quiet green sea. Bright rays of light speared the waters of the laguna and transformed the canals of Venice into ribbons of flame. Burnished water splashed over the mossy walls of the canals, scattering droplets the size of sequins..."

This kind of writing gets me everytime, and Midori Snyder has got it. She tantalizes the reader with each word, with every lush phrase, she seduces and entangles into the fantasy world of her labyrinth, and she engrosses mercilessly, leaving the world outside of her written page pale and distant for the time it takes to disentangle oneself from her story and close the book again.

Snyder's fantasy is one of many players, all varied in lifestyle and enchantment, but all alike in that they are somehow cursed. The young actor stutters and cannot speak his lines clearly, though his words ring out when he is feeling unthreatened by other males who remind him of an abusive father figure. The mask-maker suffers torments of thorns inside her belly that tear also at her heart with regret, keeping her masks from taking on their usual aura of life. A swordsman wins battle upon battle, grown calloused to the act of killing, yet finally longs to be free of such a destiny. A siren is cursed to leave the sea and live ten years on the dry earth in utter silence, covered with a leathery skin of ugliness. The poet fails to win the love and loyalty of his philandering wife with his verses and finally loses her. The priest repeatedly falls into a gluttony of sexual pleasures forbidden to him, unable to abstain from such temptation. And there are more. The fantasy is peopled with rich characters, each one more colorful than the next. All travel to Labirinto to enter the magical maze to be freed - somehow, they do not know how - of their curses.

Curses are not always what we think they are. In some cases, it is indeed "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it..." In others, freeing oneself of a curse is perhaps not so much wrapped in a magical spell as facing a fear and confronting it. In many, they find wisdom when they understand the reason for their own emptiness. In most, going beyond the superficial and delving into the depths of the human soul and its nature is the maze leading to a deeper love.

"A true hero is the one who knows that often as not the dragon is in the damsel and not the other way around," says one character. "Could you love your damsel, even if she showed you her fangs? Could you embrace what is terrifying in her as well as what is lovely? True love, Signore, must be willing to lift the mask and kiss whatever hides beneath."

Indeed, the characters find, each in their own way, that many of their curses, if not in fact all, are lifted by the "magic" of a freeing love, whether for one self, for one another, or for one's art. Even the poet who could not hold on to his wife's heart by mere verse alone at last understood that a woman does not so much wish to be loved through the lofty words of high poetry... as she wishes to be loved for the flesh and blood and spirit of woman, good and bad, found beneath the lifting of that mask, her lover being willing to kiss whatever hides beneath. She might be pleased and flattered by the pretty words, but she needs the man behind the words to be a real husband. The siren, too, finds her own return to the waters of her home even as she leads her love, a man from the land, to a heart freed to love fully only when he is able to remove himself from his past, his earthly miseries and worries and concerns. To gain love, he must let go, and he must risk.

"You must follow me as empty of experience as a newborn infant," says the siren to her lover. "Leave behind all memory, all thoughts of anger, of jealousy, of desire and longing. Leave behind, too, the fear of death. These are stones that will plunge you below the waves. Forget them, forget yourself, and surrender to my voice. That is how you will lose your curse and be reborn... it's up to you."

The journey to the center of Labirinto is a magical one, but no more magical than everyday life and our own everyday curses. Only Snyder transforms them, us, into willing travelers along the path her words lead us along for a literary adventure we are reluctant to leave. Curses. Because, but for several annoying typos missed by editors, "Innamorati" is a masterpiece of imagination and literary skill.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 144 pages
* Publisher: Harmony, 2001
* ISBN: 0609609017
* $15.00

I need no convincing to read poetry. It is second nature to me... if not first in line. There is this quick, pointed injection of life that poetry offers that lengthier prose cannot. An image. A snap of sound. A gut punch. A sudden miracle. A flash of light. A surprise. Housden has recognized this and, with this book, presents his own miracle of found poetry to the general reader. He has chosen ten poems by ten very different authors out of ten different planes of existence (time, space, culture) and presented them here to - more than not, I think - the mostly uninitiated. Certainly these are not complex poems. No argument on their quality. They are definitely not the ten that I would choose (although one or two of them might indeed make it onto my list also)... but they don't have to be! Poetry is, after all, as personal and intimate as making love. Indeed, it is making love... the mind in the most intimate relationship with life in all its juices and flavors.

Housden's choices range from Whitman's enthused "Song of Myself" (this one would make it onto my list also)... to the simple pleasures of "Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda... to the inspirational "The Journey" by Mary Oliver... to the old age reborn to new age "Zero Circle" by Rumi... to the deliciously sensual "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell... to the always impressive "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W.S. Merwin... and more. Each poem is followed by Housden's essay elaborating his choice, the poem's effect on him, it's life-changing (at least for him) message. He kindles the poetry flame, and that is a wonderful thing.

For those who are reasonably well acquainted with poetry, there is little new here. The authors should all be familiar ones, several by now considered classics. There are Pulitzer Prize winners along with those appearing in smaller literary presses. None of that, I suspect, was part of Housden's criteria in his choices. He appears to have chosen poems for their ability to stop time, for just a moment, and cause some kind of metamorphosis, an epiphany, a momentary trembling of the earth beneath his reading feet. While a few of these choices left me unmoved, as a whole, I enjoyed the book and sharing in his perspective while keeping my own. Revisiting Whitman was a nostalgia of youthful enthusiasm, for instance. Whitman showed us that poetry need not be stodgy or stiff with rhyme and iambic pentameter. While both Neruda and Rumi left me cool, and Machado had only a mild effect... the encounter of "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell... mm, left me purring. Never underestimate the power of the written word, indeed. Not only is it more powerful than the sword, but nothing can compete... no trash magazine, no cheap celluloid... with the eroticism of such well chosen words. Kinnell's poem evokes ripples of sensation, sweet sweet, savory, leaving all the senses tingling... but also stimulates the most erogenous zone of all: the mind. It is not shy. It is not embarrassed to be precise in its description. Yet here is a most wonderful example of the difference between erotic art... and pornography. One being of beauty, uplifting, lasting... while the other is ugly and base. One enriches while the other degrades. In his essay following the poem, Housden writes:

"...pornography divorces body from soul and turns body into a thing, which can be used like any other thing for profit in the marketplace. Pornography is a caricature of the erotic; it can only exist by demanding anonymity, and substituting fantasy for relationship. Without relationship, there is no soul. There is only sensation, for its own sake; and sensation is no more than skin deep. Sensation on its own - however orgasmic - fails to deliver the goods. To skim the surface of life ultimately leaves us on our own, and predictably, lonely. One reason we seem to be such a pleasure-hungry society is that we are habitually looking for it in all the wrong places."

As Housden says of Kinnell (and oh yes, I am looking up this poet on my next trip to the library), this slim volume of applause to poetry, its word-play and its word-ecstasy and its word-power, is one of immersion into the experience. "Great poetry," Housden says, "can alter the way we see ourselves. It can change the way we see the world... suddenly you see your own original face there; suddenly find yourself blown into a world full of awe, dread, wonder, marvel, deep sorrow, and joy.... poetry bids us... to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind; it calls to us, like the wild geese, from an open sky."

Whether these ten poems call to us, some of these ten, or another ten of our own choosing... poetry is an experience worthy of immersion. Housden's enthusiasm for the literary form is contagious. That enthusiasm, taken to be one's own, that understanding of the power of the word, is what can change lives.

Friday, January 07, 2005

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 672 pages
* Publisher: Modern Library, 2002
* ISBN: 0679642595
* $23.95

It's not often my son--a well read young man in his early 20's--recommends a book to me with such effusive enthusiasm. How could I not read "A Prayer for Owen Meany" with that kind of encouragement? Granted, son and I have very different tastes in tomes. But Irving is actually an author more my style, and the novel I just finished prior to this one, "Da Vinci's Code," was more his style. I'm always willing to stretch. We traded books.

Ah, what a refreshing pause! I had been somewhat disappointed in Dan Brown's literary style (or lack of) and so John Irving's much more complex, much more nuanced, much more intellectual approach to storytelling was renewed pleasure in words. I gave a nod of approval to my offspring even as I turned the first pages.

Alas, I turned them more slowly as chapters wore on...

Irving has indeed created an odd couple of characters: Owen Meany, the dwarfish youth with high-pitched voice of stunning self-importance that wavers between arrogance one moment and self-sacrificial lamb of God the next, and his sidekick Johnny Wheelwright, illegitimate child of a striking, freespirited woman soon killed off by a baseball Owen accidentally slams across the baseball field during a Little League game to hit its killing blow against her temple. Not that this would destroy the odd friendship of these two. Indeed, it bonds them for life. As for Owen, he doesn't believe in accidents, especially not this one. What transpires through the remainder of the story, tracing the lives of these two from children into adulthood, is a complex weave of seeming circumstance into eventual climactic conclusion that rather neatly ties many loose threads together into a tight knot. Owen has foreseen his own death by a visionary dream, and he never doubts, at least not until the final days of his life, that this dream is the beacon guiding him home (home being, for Owen, heaven for those who would enter through the gates of martyrdom).

In the process of these two strange lives, topics of destiny and fate, religion, American politics and foreign policy, various rites of passage from childhood into adulthood, and other miscellaneous lighter and deeper issues are undertaken. These, too, all come together into the neat knot at the book's end.

I won out in the book exchange with my son, no argument there. Irving is a quality writer. But, although I have yet to read his other works, I suspect this one is not his best. The ideas he undertakes are fascinating enough, yet I found myself unmoved by either Owen's fate or Johnny's somewhat victimized standing by. Perhaps we all need more of a mirroring of our own experiences to truly lose ourselves in a book, and while I did not have those experiences that might bond, my son obviously did. One vote this way, one vote that.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Saving Milly by Morton Kondracke

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 320 pages
* Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1st edition, 2001
* ISBN: 1586480375
* $25.00

In order to learn more about a disease that has affected several family members, I read Saving Milly with great interest. I was quickly pulled in. Kondracke writes with honesty about a strong and vital woman, his wife, as well as what it means to be caregiver and spouse to one afflicted with Parkinson's Disease. He has much to say in praise of his Milly, while often taking an unglorious view of himself. He admits to insecurities and vanities and weaknesses few of us would admit to in public, let alone to ourselves. Most admirable, perhaps, is the love story intertwined with the story of how both Mort and Milly, each in their own way, cope with PD. In a time when so few relationships survive the minor bumps and bruises of everyday life, this one has survived a major crisis, grown even stronger for the testing. When these two married for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and with a promise of fidelity... they meant it. Wonderful.

While much of what Kondracke writes about the symptoms and treatments of Milly's disease were, in basic outlines, already known to me, I was intrigued to read his insights into the politics of a disease. I was not surprised... yet nonetheless dismayed. Money rules. Connections count. Nothing like celebrity to shine a spotlight on a particular illness. Hrmph. But so be it, this is reality. And to see it in sharper light of realistic approaches and political power can only help us play the game more effectively. None of us should be unaware of the lies we are too often fed by politicians, but all of us should hold those we vote into office accountable. In the end, it is most important to understand that causes close to our heart must be championed if they are to be cured.

Kondracke has given us a window onto a disease that has or will touch many of our lives, a disease that has gotten too little attention, especially prior to exposure gained by Michael J. Fox (who also makes an appearance in this book). It may not be the most typical experience with PD, especially in terms of the kind of care he could provide Milly because of his own celebrity and his own higher income bracket, but that is of less importance than the story of survival achieved with love, grace, compassion, and insight.