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.