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.