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.