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.