Monday, October 31, 2005

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 369 pages
# Publisher: Knopf; 1972
# Language: English
# ISBN: 0394461371

Every one of us has something holding us back to our past, to our roots. Whatever that might be (family; traditions, some of which have perhaps lost relevence; religious constraints; the pacing of our daily lives; unsupportive mates and colleagues; or a myriad of other possible constraints), it is for each of us a life struggle to free ourselves of whatever keeps us from fully developing our authentic selves.

This is the story told in "My Name is Asher Lev." A Hasidic Jewish boy is born into a family that puts a great strain on his artistic talent, not the least of which is the doting love of his parents. It is with love that they try again and again to deny their son's great gift, believing they are doing what is best for him, but the power of that gift is greater than any man to deny it expression.

Young Asher is a prodigy. Art is his lifeblood, and his gift develops early and with breathtaking leaps and bounds into his young adulthood. He follows his instinct and his bliss, and as he develops his gift, his family, his father especially, draw further and further away from him. Asher has broken with tradition. He has gone beyond religious beliefs in his family if not with outright courage than at least with respect for what so shines within him. He redefines his own boundaries, even when they must go against those drawn by his parents and religious authority figures.

Is this a sin?

The reader may decide for him or herself, but for Asher, art is what he holds most divine, and it is hard to believe a supreme and loving being would deny the gift He, after all, has bestowed. We feel the agony of his mother, pulled between her husband and her son. Asher is not unaware. His greatest painting eventually is of his mother being so pulled apart - as if on a crucifix, an image that horrifies his father. His father is a good man, working hard for others in need and under religious persecution, and so it is nearly impossible for him to understand why his son would choose to pursue art forms that appear, on the surface, to disrespect what he holds in such high esteem. Each, after all, is following their own heart and remaining true to their individual values. It makes for fascinating conflict.

Author Chaim Potok writes with his own evident gift. His passion becomes the passion of his characters. Perhaps the main message the author has meant to convey is that we are all to be true to who and what we are, and in so doing, we have done right. We have followed the path that is ours to walk. His story uplifts without making light of the struggles involved.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Gay Hendricks

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 304 pages
# Publisher: Bantam, 1992
# Price: $16.00
# ISBN: 0553354116

No, nothing new. Which is precisely what makes this so good. This is the stuff of time-tested common sense, the stuff of that inner voice of wisdom, the one that is always trying to steer you in the right direction, even as you kick and scream and resist, intent on remaining on the old path of repeated and repeated and repeated cycles. We repeat them until we learn the lesson. Resolve the dilemma. Solve the puzzle.

If the Hendricks message is to be boiled down to one catch-phrase, it would simply be: "wake up." It is not so much about change, as it is about living with our eyes open, fully aware (conscious) of why we do what we do, how we feel while we are doing it, and which way we will go next. Instead of moving through a fog, we instead make conscious choices.

If we can add one concept to that catch-phrase, it would be the concept of accountability. Relationships, and not just romantic ones, tend to bog down most when we get busy issuing blame and pointing fingers. Hendricks proposes that we are all, each and every one of us, to be held accountable for our own lives. No victims, no martyrs. And co-dependents, out with you. A satisfying relationship is one that takes place between two people who make a 100 percent (each) commitment (nothing less will do or failure has room to enter) to themselves and to each other. It begins with a promise to be authentic to ourselves and to always tell what Hendricks calls "the microscopic truth." Our lives are what we make them. And if we don't like our lives, well, it is up to each of us to make the necessary changes. We must be honest with ourselves above all, but we must respect our mates with utmost honesty as well. It is the only solid building block that holds up a strong and satisfying relationship.

One might balk at the wrongs done us, and oh the pity parties we do enjoy, when we are lied to and cheated on and our backs wear the footprints of others. But consider how far one gets in improving that situation when busy whining "I'm a victim! poor sap me!" and when one instead takes a moment to consider: how did I manifest this? How have I taught others to treat me? Have I made my personal boundaries clear? Have I offered and insisted upon honesty? Have I rescued my mate from the natural outcome of his or her bad behavior, thus robbing them of a learning experience? Have I been true to myself and expressed how I feel? It is not about letting our mates off the hook for bad behavior; that's dishonest, too. We hold our partners fully accountable, too. But it is a realization that we are not merely innocent bystanders in the soap operas of our lives. The sooner we understand our own part in the drama, the sooner we can enjoy true intimacy and equality with a mate we value and who values us.

I read this Hendricks' book as I recently read Conscious Living -- with relish. I like the idea of being accountable for my life; it keeps the reins for my happiness in my own hands, after all. And there is so much more to see and enjoy when I make a decision to live my life with eyes wide open. My beloved is sharing this book with me. We are each reading it with a highlighter in hand, noting what resonates. Much has been learned already. I look forward to what new levels we might reach in this most basic if not highest human longing -- to walk shoulder to shoulder with our best life friend, empowering ourselves and each other to be the best we can be.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 496 pages
# Publisher: Penguin, 2005
# Price: $15.00
# ISBN: 0143034901

I was drawn to Shadow of the Wind by its cornerstone premise of a love for books, a love so encompassing that one becomes nearly so immersed in a good story, richly told, that life and art blur boundaries. What a magical process that is! And so I opened the cover and began turning the pages...

A boy wanders through the dusky corridors of a cemetery of forgotten books, brought there by his father. He is allowed to choose one. The reader thrills to the possibilities, just as the character thrills, searching for that most special book. He chooses "The Shadow of the Wind" by a mysterious author, Julian Carax. The author's books seem to disappear from bookshelves everywhere, no one knows why or who is stealing them, later burning them to total destruction. The boy, Daniel, becomes enmeshed in the book, its author, and the mystery surrounding both.

The story about the story unfolds with an array of colorful, well developed, unforgettable characters. Love stories in Daniel's life, as he reaches adulthood, appear to run parallel to the tragic love stories of author Carax's life. Secrets tunnel into further secrets, and the human suffering as a result of all these hidden places in hearts and homes, spanning generations, escalates to an almost unbearable level. But we bear along. For Zafon's writing is lush and rich and enticing. He brings a fictional world built around a fictional work as alive as our own reality, so that we are lost in the story, in the way that wonderful books invite us to lose ourselves for a moment in time, to emerge covered with the fine golden dust of literary art.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


A Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Director: Lars von Trier
# Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dolby
# Rated: R
# Studio: Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2004
# Price: $19.98

I tend to pick through new releases in movies much as I do books in bookstores: I avoid the ones in great, showy piles with titles we've all heard ad nauseum and take a more careful look at those with single copies, perhaps at the back of the shelf, perhaps to find buried treasure. That was how I found "Dogville."

The solid cast hinted at quality: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, and many others. Director Lars Von Trier has put together this innovative and unusual, if challenging, movie about a woman named Grace (Kidman), running from gangsters, who takes refuge in a small town called Dogville sometime during the 1930s.

Acting, as it turns out, is what this film relies upon exclusively. The scene unfolds on a basic black stage--black floor with chalk lines designating streets, squares and rectangles that serve as houses and shops and town halls. Nothing, but nothing, detracts from the actors and their exchanges with each other, their movements across this black expanse.

Grace slips into town, hiding where she can, as gangsters pursue her for not quite explained reasons. We are not meant to know... yet. She is found by Tom Edison, a young man with a pale, wincing, if philosophical manner. He takes her and her cause to the town hall meeting, where her dilemma is discussed. She needs a place to hide from her pursuers, and the town inhabitants decide, with some misgivings, to offer it to her.

What unfolds next is our increasingly uncomfortable watch over the gradual ethical and moral decay of this (any?) town. Grace seeks work to earn her keep. Initially, no one seems to have any for her. There is an unspoken, but polite resistance to her presence. Little by little, however, people open their homes and businesses to her, and as they learn how well she works, they give her ever more to do. Since she does not resist increased labor, she is given more. And more. And more to do. A sped up sequence in the film has us watching from above, rather God-like, as Grace zips through town, from one house to the next, from one store to the next, doing her duties and accepting more duties, and this at decreasing pay.

It appears the lesson here is that excellence never goes unpunished, and when we do nothing to express our personal boundaries of what kind of treatment we will accept, we are inevitably, eventually, taken for granted, inviting our own abuse.

But the lesson grows far more harsh. Grace is an attractive woman. She is sweet. She is pleasant and eager to please. She is helpful, kind, forgiving, accepting, nice nice nice. Men in Dogville take notice. Their hunger begins to show. Their hunger turns into the ugliest forms of lust, and Grace is raped by the keeper of the town apple orchard. We feel a mix of horror and sympathy for the ever suffering Grace at this scene of violence.

And still, this woman has no boundaries. Still, she does nothing to stop the downslide of the town's morals, allowing herself to become also the town prostitute, the town slave, the town joke. Even the children turn against her. Only Tom Edison declares in a simpering voice that, oh, he loves her. Yet he quietly stands by as she is debased to the point of having an iron collar bolted around her neck and then to an iron chain, fastened to a heavy wheel that she must then drag behind her. Indeed, he expects gratitude from her. Even... reciprocated love.

The movie ends with a fascinating twist that asks a question each viewer must then answer for him or herself: is it saintliness or is it arrogance to accept and forgive the transgressions of others endlessly, without limit? Is it a kindness to play the victim and the martyr? Or is it nothing other than giving permission, even invitation, for those around us to debase us as far as we allow it? In short, did God really mean for us to be doormats?

Suffice it to say, I was completely nailed by this movie. To the spot. It has me feeling, thinking, wondering, questioning and understanding. What more can a good movie do?