Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dear Zoe by Philip Beard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 208 pages

Publisher: Plume; Reprint edition (2006)

Price: $13.00

ISBN: 0452287405

"Maybe 'Z' is the shape of everyone's life," writes Philip Beard. "You're going along in what feels like a straight line, headed for one horizon, the only one as far as you know, and then something happens..."

But my zigs and zags were few in Philip Beard's slim novel, Dear Zoe. On this level of writing, it's smooth sailing. Beard is a skilled writer, and his style is seamless enough that he accomplishes the very difficult writer's task - not only of crossing genders in this first person narrative by a female, but with the voice of a very young female - all of 15 years old. And he does it convincingly.

So convincingly, in fact, that I felt myself as reader engage as I should, that is, to lose awareness of self and surroundings, soon immersed completely into the storyline and characters. Dear Zoe is a letter, written across time, from one sister to another. Zoe, however, will never read this letter. Zoe is gone, killed in a car accident, and this letter is, perhaps, how older sister Tess copes with her loss, her grief, even her guilt.

This extended letter is about Tess but also about her extended family. It is family like any: not without its dysfunctions, not without its baggage and broken places, with elaborate wounds and still healing scars. When a member of a family unexpectedly dies, everyone grieves, each in his or her own way and own pace, and it can at times meld a family together, at others rip apart. Beard portrays all of this messy and zigzagging process, but without any melodrama, always sensing when to draw the appropriate line.

Then comes the true test. Nearing end, the storyline veers into an event in American history that is almost impossible to mention without imploding into melodrama. When I realized the backdrop this author was setting up for his story, I nearly winced, but, wait, what's this? Oh, my. Beard makes it work. Work so well, in fact, that he accomplishes the individualizing of something nationally, even internationally shared, and brings it down to one heart, one life, one experience, felt by one person at a time. This personal tragedy is of a size, immense and miniscule at once, that each reader will be able to absorb and comprehend, and through comprehending the miniscule, the immense suddenly gains full impact. Just as numbers that trail off into endless zero's at some point become incomprehensible, so perhaps we as human beings cannot truly comprehend tragedy unless it happens one soul at a time, passed gently on from one hand into the next.

Having accomplished this feat, the author, and Dear Zoe, has earned my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Second Half of Life by Angeles Arrien

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Sounds True (April 2005)
  • Price: $21.95
  • ISBN: 1591792525

There is nothing new in Angeles Arrien's book about the second half of life. Indeed, there isn't meant to be. Our lives at midpoint are about putting aside newness and embracing the ancient, the everlasting, the always true.

We live in an age that worships youth. Alongside this naive, if not indeed tragic pursuit to resist aging in all its aspects, we find ourselves as a society becoming ever more superficial, ever more devoted to what is external only, short on endurance, shallow in meaning. Small wonder so many of us approach midlife in a state of "crisis."

Yet there is no crisis. Arrien reminds us, by assembling in this collection of eight chapters named for eight gates, that this is not a time in our lives to resist or fear, but that it is, in fact, a time of wonder and beauty -- of the deeper and more meaningful kind. To pass through each of these "gates" is to be opened and enriched by the enlightenment of the second half of our lives. In each chapter, Arrien has brought together age-old quotes and wisdom from many different cultures, tested by time and place. Each chapter describes the gate through which we must pass, the task we must undertake to do so, the challenge, the gift we receive if we meet the challenge, reflections that help us to understand more fully this threshold, a list of practices to make this gateway a discipline.

The gates: silver (facing the new and the unknown); white picket (discovering one's true face); clay (intimacy, sensuality, sexuality); black and white (relationships and the crucible of love); rustic (creativity and service); bone (authenticity, character, and wisdom); natural (happiness, satisfaction, and peace); gold (letting go).

Each chapter guides us, gently yet firmly, toward facing what is around us as well as what is in us. The overall effect is soothing, I find, to the degree that it has helped me, approaching my own midpoint in life, see the aging process for the beauty and freedom it brings. It is a time to free oneself of the cumbersome masks one has worn in a more naive youth, to embrace wisdom and meaning rather than that which passes quickly and leaving no lasting mark. It is a time to gather all that we have learned in the first half of our lives and bring it all to fruition, entering a time of unbounded creativity, love based on truth rather than illusion, and finding a peace that will make crossing that final gold gate a time of celebration for a life well lived.

If we have lost respect for aging in our society, it is time we take it back. Arrien reminds us, by bringing back the wisdom of the ages, that age in ourselves is something to be welcomed rather than resisted. To resist it is to rob ourselves of what may well be the best time of our lives.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Toward the Distant Islands by Hayden Carruth

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 150 pages
# Publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2006
# Price: $17.00
# ISBN: 1556592361

Over many years of reading poetry, I've come to trust that any poetry book published by Copper Canyon Press is going to be an adventure. This collection, hand-picked by Press founder, Sam Hill, is no exception. I'd read enough of Hayden Carruth's work that I expected to be impressed, and I was.

The poems are selected from 12 previous collections (oh, if all of us poets could boast of so many published books!) with an addition of new poems at finish to keep the appetite whetted for more yet to come. It is interesting to watch for change and growth in the whole of Carruth's work, but that his talent was richly showing early on - the first batch selected dates back to 1959's The Crow and the Heart - is clear:

Of all disquiets sorrow is most serene.
Its interval of soft humility
Are lenient; they intrude on our obscene
Debasements and our fury like a plea
For wisdom...

Sorrow can shape us better than dismay.

Carruth understands the peaks and valleys of a man's life. As Sam Hill notes in his introduction, this is a poet who has struggled with angels and demons alike, finding both in himself. So his work reflects such struggles, and we swing upwards with him to whisper with angels, just as we slide into shadows with him, to weep and gnash teeth with dark demons. If a poet creates often from the grit inside him, as an oyster its pearl, then this poet proves the old axiom. We must know the demon to recognize the angel; we must strive to be angelic to fully understand the power of the demonic.

Carruth writes glorious love poems to his wife, filled with appetite and relish and adoration. He writes love poems to his daughter, lost too early to cancer. He writes love poems to the natural world around him, and to the characters that are found in humanity. He writes love poems to sorrow.

This is a poet who lives his life seam to seam, depth to height, and journals it into his lyric work. To share in his journey, this is a collection not to be missed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 304 pages
# Publisher: Vintage, 2006
# Price: $14.00
# ISBN: 1400078776

Never really had me to let go of me... nevertheless, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go was an intriguing read, reeling me in ever so gradually, nearly losing me, never fully snagging me, but throwing me bait of disconcerting revelation just frequently enough to keep me turning pages. By end, I had to admit I had enjoyed reading the book more than, well, than I had realized while reading it.

Which is the kind of odd quality, odd hold, this novel has over the reader. Ishiguro writes in unassuming language. His story seems quite ordinary, initially nothing much more than a coming of age tale, and it runs over 80 pages before I got my first real jolt. Even that, more of a tug than a jolt. The reader begins to notice something strange going on, little weirdnesses tucked between the everyday routines. Once the reader realizes the scene unfolding is not quite as ordinary as first thought, interest grows.

This is a dark tale of human beings being treated as less than human beings, of human clones grown and nurtured for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs, and their less than humane treatment, even though in appearances humane, based on various societal biases or perhaps only less than clear thinking, or faulty value systems. Indeed, this is Ishiguro's mastery. He has given something very dark, some might say evil, a face so bland it goes almost unnoticed. And, isn't this how evil pervades society every day? Monsters are rarely big and green and warty. Strangers are often your favorite uncle, or the boy next door. The taking down of civilization is not done with a big bang, but with nibbles and bites, a gradual desensitization. Ishiguro's evil is seemingly meek and submissive, as if done for the wellbeing of the masses, and that may arguably be the tactic used most successfully. In novels as well as in life.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Red Weather by Pauls Toutonghi

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 256 pages
# Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books, 2006
# Price: $23.00
# ISBN: 0307336751

We Latvians are a small nation, but oh, we are a proud people! We are a nation beaten and battered by many wars over many hundreds, even thousands of years, but our culture and life sense still thrive: the Latvian language is one of the oldest in existence today, still actively used. Perhaps that is our greatest source of pride, then: we are survivors.

When Pauls Toutonghi's new novel, Red Weather, came upon the literary scene, I was greatly pleased. I've been an avid reader in both languages - Latvian and English - since earliest childhood, but however many good books I read about the war and later experiences of Latvians immigrating to other countries and cultures, it was rare to come across a worthy tome in English. History books, yes, but far more rare, a good attention-grabbing novel that I could proudly share with non-Latvian friends.

Now, here's Pauls. With one Latvian parent, it is my understanding he has grown up in the Milwaukee area, active in the Latvian community and, having visited Latvia, is well-acquainted, one would suppose, with the culture and something of the nation's history. For these reasons, I read the novel with high expectation and excitement.

Pauls' writing abilities do not disappoint. Still quite young, he has already accrued an impressive publishing history, and has won the Pushcart Prize. His descriptions are lively, his storyline pulls us along, his sense of humor is intact.

And yet. The further I read, the more I realized, no, this was not going to be the book that I would pass on to Latvians I know, or to non-Latvians I'd like to invite a little more intimately into my multi-cultural world. The novel works as an entertaining read for non-Latvians, perhaps, but for those who do know the history and culture, well, not so much. I think my sense of humor is healthy, but I can't help feeling, for instance, that describing Latvians visiting the United States as being so dense as to put ketchup on every possible food, even bananas, craving to taste the American life, is taking the joke into the much less fun realm of ridicule. Or the Latvian mother as so eye-rollingly lacking in self-awareness as to walk Milwaukee streets wearing a Pabst hardhat with a beer can on it as if she were wearing a Parisian fashion statement. Surely not. I cringed in embarrassment. Humor is often built on slapstick and exaggeration, but would those who have no other knowledge of Latvians, perhaps never will have any other exposure than this novel, think this is what it means to be a Latvian? Bumbling fools?

Perhaps even more worthy of remark are some historic inaccuracies. Although this is a fictional work, even fiction must keep its feet firmly on factually solid ground before branching into fantasy. One such example is the allusion to Latvia's president, Karlis Ulmanis, and his attempt to escape to Finland during the Soviet invasion of World War II (see page 166). In fact, President Ulmanis held his place, broadcasting over the radio waves to the nation even as the Soviet tanks crossed the Russian border, keeping down the panic and requesting all to remain in their places, thus saving many Latvian lives. He was taken by force from his office by the occupying army, and was never seen alive again. Educated guesses are that he was deported to Siberia, where he died in a Gulag (concentration camp), but his body has never been found.

Having finished the novel, wondering at how very different the author's experience of his Latvian roots and culture were from mine, indeed from anyone I have known with Latvian roots and having gone through the immigrant experience, I wanted to think - hey, there's always the exception to the rule. If by 1989, when this story is set, any Latvian immigrant I or my family knew had established themselves in relative financial security (the fictional Balodis family still lived in squalor), had attained some measure of their new country's education and achieved something of their own immigrant American dream, then the Balodis family was certainly a lone exception to the rule. Nor could I imagine my own father, or fathers of my friends, being so easygoing about the political lines the young man in this novel, Yuri (Juris), crossed in his lovelorn relationship with a socialist girl (my own, and dare I say any typical, Latvian father, would have gone through the roof, to put it very, very lightly).

As a reality check, I shared Red Weather with my parents, who shared it with several of their friends. Their reactions were the same. They expressed admiration for the author's skill, but also expressed a pained disappointment in the skewed image of Latvian immigrants to the U.S. The image the book leaves is of a people who are gullible, not particularly industrious, and rather dim-witted.

An opportunity lost. My subjective opinion, but I'm sure shared by more than a few of my countrymen and women.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 560 pages
# Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006
# Price: $16.95
# ISBN: 0375831002

How rare the times that we read something entirely new and unique! It has been said that there are no new stories to tell, and I will not argue that. There really are only a few novel plots, although it is in our endless variations that we set ourselves apart as writers and word-artists, perhaps also as readers, in the manner and voice in which we tell the story. This is true for Markus Zusak in his creative storytelling of The Book Thief.

The story is one of the oldest ones told: the narrator is mankind's friend/nemesis, Death, ancient as Time itself, and the scenes Death (not without compassion and not without wry humor) narrates for us are those of human suffering and endurance, an eventual overcoming of conflicts and obstacles, a story of love pitted against hate, of the victory of the best in all of us over the worst in any of us. Zusak's main characters are a 9-year old girl, Liesel Meminger, her companion and young partner in crime, Rudy, and a Jewish refugee hiding in the basement of the house where she lives, herself something of a refugee in Nazi Germany during WWII. A wide range of secondary characters fill in all gaps and keep us reading with fascination, e.g. Liesel's adoptive family, especially her cruel and ascerbic foster mother, Rosa, who on occasion cracks to show a bit of humanity; the major's deeply depressed wife, who quietly allows Liesel to "steal" her books; Liesel's young comrades, and many more.

It is hard to pinpoint what it is, precisely, that makes Zusak's work so unique. But I knew it, felt it, instantly. Voice, yes. Style. A few experimental approaches in his storytelling, such as illustrations inserted in the novel with all errors present, just as Max wrote the text and drew the pictures for his young friend, Liesel. Death's narration is unique. There are many such details that all come together to form a story worth reading, worth hearing, worth understanding. It is the story of Liesel, a spunky little book thief, who does far more than steal good books. In our smallest, we often find our greatest heroes.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back by Norah Vincent

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 304 pages
# Publisher: Viking, 2006
# Price: $24.95
# ISBN: 0670034665

Few things fascinate us, all of us, more than the opposite gender. Surely that is the main draw of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, the nonfictional story about this gay female journalist who spends extended time disguised as a man in order to learn more about that gender. To see the world from and through a man's eyes, or at least as closely to his view as possible.

I expected to be fascinated. I was. Vincent begins with a chapter that describes how she accomplished this feat, then adds chapters on friendship (she joins a bowling league), sex (she delves into the baser side of the male psyche and visits strip clubs), love (she dates a long string of very varied women with surprising results), life (she joins a Catholic monastery), work (pounding the pavement as an aggressive salesman), and, finally, self (she joins a men's therapy group and accompanies them on a retreat to get more in touch with their emotions). Her conclusion, if we are not to give too much away, is that she is most happy being a woman, thank you.

Vincent's journey of discovery begins with a revelation that made me almost gasp YES! that's exactly how it is! the very first time she dresses as a man and walks the same street she has so many times walked as a woman:

"As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty...

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares."

I have no doubt most any woman can relate to this. It is nearly impossible to describe to our brothers in humanity just how this feels. Vincent, switching places from one side of the gender fence to the other in this manner, does it beautifully.

Perhaps most difficult to read is the chapter on Vincent making the strip club rounds with her male pals. I have often pondered why men seem so mesmerized with the images seen in porn, on street corners, and the glossy, airbrushed and objectified images presented in media, even while beautiful real women stand available beside them. Vincent gives insight:

"But as I began to understand more about the shame that arose in men from the need to visit places like this, and the undoubted shame that arose in the dancers for having to work in them, I thought I began to understand something more about the kind of woman that becomes a sex object in the eyes of men. A lot of women have asked themselves why so many men are so fond of modern porn stars and centerfolds, women who aren't real women, whose breasts are fake, whose hair is bleached into straw or perversely depilated, whose faces are painted thick, and whose bodies have been otherwise altered by surgery or diet to conform with doll-like exactitude to something that isn't found in nature. Why, I had so often wondered, didn't men want real women?..."

Vincent describes what these men really want, and I will not quote here because of the language used (appropriately), but the conclusion is that men do not want witnesses to their basest behavior. And so, writes Vincent:

"A real woman is a mind, and a mind is a witness, and a witness is the last thing you need when you're ashamed. So f--ng a fake, mindless hole is what you need. The faker the better."

Crude, but apt. When I checked this section with a male friend, he reluctantly agreed.

But Vincent is not on a mission to degrade the male gender. Dare I say, the male gender does so well enough by themselves, certainly in these episodes. Yet there is another side, and Vincent equally well taps into the rest of the story, rounding it out. She writes of male bonding with a tenderness that never loses its masculinity (and continues on how real women love real, read imperfect, men -- agreed!). She exposes the suffering of men when they are denied their father's approval and warmth. She speaks of the injustices women sometimes throw on men at first encounter, judging them in as fully an objectified manner as men judge women. She chides women for often bringing on male hostility themselves when assuming an emotional superiority that closes down all communication. Finally, however, she states that both genders are hurting, lonely, longing to connect, and fault can be found, just like quality, in both sides.

This is not a journey to be missed. Perhaps I can't claim great surprise in reading any of Vincent's revelations. But I was given an insight into the opposite gender that was as open as any I've encountered. This author had no mission but to be a good journalist and see what she could see, record what she observed.

I recommend this book highly to both men and women. It is great and much needed fodder for discussion and learning. Agree or disagree with Vincent's conclusions (I didn't always agree), nevertheless it has tremendous value for open communication.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City - A Diary - by "Anonymous"

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 288 pages
# Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 2005
# Price: $23.00
# ISBN: 0805075402

When we speak of war fatalities, of those who have fallen, of those who have offered themselves up as sacrifices for the purpose of... but to what purpose? We think of fallen soldiers on the battlefield, yet far behind those front lines that so often are saluted in honor with parades and holidays -- are the women. Throughout the history of humankind, women of all ages have been treated as the prize of the conquerer. To the winner go the spoils, and the spoils are women.

A Woman in Berlin is a journal kept over a two-month period of time in 1945, when Berlin was overtaken by the Russian (Soviet) Army. The author, dubbed simply "Anonymous," is rumored to be a German woman named Marta, well educated, perhaps a journalist who has seen much of the world... but not in this way. For eight weeks she chronicles the battle of the woman in war. Over 100,000 women are raped over this 8-week period in Berlin. Not once, but over and over again. The diarist writes of this time in a way that perhaps only a journalist could, keeping emotions in check, remaining clear-eyed, intelligence evident, apparently using her writing as a tool of survival. If the horrors of war are indescribable, the horrors of what women have had to endure as the human spoils of wars over time has had little examination, little if any punishment (arguably this behavior has even been encouraged), and even less understanding. This book is important reading to anyone wishing to understand war. Any war.

Who will pin purple hearts on these women for their suffering and degradation? Who can measure the wounds that never heal and their lifelong consequences to invidividuals and to societies? These are the unsung heroes who are forced to submit, yet so often rise up first to rebuild what war has torn apart -- homes, families, lives.

The first time this diary was published, it was not received as the heroic work of a survivor. The diarist was ostracized, because so often people turn away from and deny what hurts most, what reminds us of the depravity in mankind. She gave instruction to not publish these pages again until after her death, which arrived in 2001. But this is a timeless book, because women are being used and abused as the spoils of wars today. Witness Bosnia and Kosovo, Darfur, Iraq, and the list goes on to include every battle in which man has raised a weapon, himself becoming a weapon of destruction.

Essential reading.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

North Country (DVD)

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

# Studio: Warner Home Video
# DVD Release Date: February 21, 2006
# Price: $19.98
# Director: Niki Caro
# Actors: Charlize Theron, Elle Peterson, Thomas Curtis, Frances McDormand, and more
# Rating: R

What a curious beast is the homo sapien -- of either gender. And yet at some point in our lives, if we are to be honest, haven't we all ducked behind some wall of safety, even when it means an increase to our own suffering? It is one of the more shadowy sides of human nature. We are hurt, and yet when our peers are equally hurt alongside us, we still side with an enemy rather than confront the unspeakable. History is filled to bursting with such cases.

North Country, directed by Niki Caro and starring Charlize Theron in the lead role of Josey Aimes (with a strong performance by Frances McDormand as her friend and coworker, later suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease) is based on a true story about a landmark sexual harrassment class action suit filed by a female mine worker in northern Minnesota in the late 1980s/early 90s. As the movie opens, Josey is the victim of repeated domestic violence, and at last she breaks free of a bad marriage and returns to her hometown in Minnesota with her two children to start a new life. As we put together bits and pieces of her past, we, the audience, realize this is a woman born into a mining family (her father, Hank Aimes as played by Richard Jenkins, still works in the mines and is angry when his daughter invades his territory, so to speak, and takes on work in "his" mine) and with a troubled youth. Her children have different fathers, and the community in which she grew up is not forgiving of what that implies about a young woman's choices. But she has spunk, we see that early on, because it takes courage to leave an abusive marriage, and it takes courage to stand up to a father whose approval she can't help craving, as all daughters surely do. And it takes a great deal of courage to take a job in a male-dominated field like mining.

Yet Josey doesn't necessarily strike us as being a "hero." She's not looking for a fight. She's not looking to make waves. She's a single mother trying to support her kids, buy a modest house, put food on the table. In this town, few jobs are available, but the most lucrative is mining. Why not. She's willing to work hard for a buck.

But Josey's coworkers are not so willing. The worst of human nature soon surfaces. Men at the mine resent women, citing few jobs as the cause, but it is apparent that is but an excuse for male posturing and sexual assault. One wonders how the male would behave without legal constraints to rein in his testosterone. Certainly this is a nightmare to watch. The few female miners are constantly tormented. Obscene gestures and drawings on walls are the least of their troubles. They must endure being groped and grabbed, they can't open their lockers or lunchboxes without finding, shall we say, reminders of male anatomy and its functions. At worst, they are threatened with rape. But the women endure it all, keeping brave faces to their tormentors, staying strong.

There's a different kind of strength, though, and perhaps it is the hardest to achieve. The strength required to stand up against such tormentors and say enough is enough, draw firm boundaries for acceptable behavior, and to stand alone against screaming masses -- few of us can reach that kind of heroism. North Country shows how a community works overtime to keep its ugliest secrets secret, how individuals sink into deep denial, how even friends will betray friends rather than risk sticking their necks out. Josey herself submits and submits and submits, until she can submit no more. To watch the progressing of the abuse these women must endure is painful, as it should be. To watch how the abused women themselves conspire to keep their torment hidden is most painful of all, yet that too appears in society today in various guises.

A court drama, thankfully not drawn out too long, with Woody Harrelson playing Josey's somewhat reluctant lawyer, brings the situation to a head. As another voice at long last joins Josey's in addressing the harrassment, one by one, more rise to join the chorus.

If this is not perhaps the most excellent movie I've seen in terms of script or scene or story, it is an important statement, an enlightening look at the shame of both genders when committing or enabling sexual harrassment, of a community quick to judge in order to protect one's sheltered little worlds. As the saying, paraphrased, goes, if one person anywhere must endure such abuse, we are all guilty. There are opportunities every day to speak up and speak out against the objectification of human beings, about the cruelties of one group against another. North Country is a reminder to do so. Every voice matters, if only because it gives courage to the next voice.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Catch--22 by Joseph Heller

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 464 pages
# Publisher: Simon & Schuster, reprint edition, 1996
# Price: $16.00
# ISBN: 0684833395

For so many of us growing up in the USA, our high school teachers assigned us Joseph Heller's Catch-22 as required reading, and I was among those assignees. I'm not sure why the requirement, other than perhaps some Catch-22 type of logic that everyone else was assigning it, so there, must be great, must read. I don't particularly remember liking the novel then, perhaps with no more substantial of a reason than -- just not my style. Reading the novel now, in midlife, my opinion (or my literary style) has changed little, but today, I can attempt to add to "not my style" perhaps a few deeper insights.

In this second read, I realize what so fails to appeal to me is Heller's slapstick, absurdist, repetitive and dizzyingly circular style of storytelling. At the same time, I fully realize this is also the appeal of the novel for many: it's absurdity. Indeed, time has tested Heller's topic of war having little logic or reason in the real world, mostly born of individual and governmental insanity, power plays and mere whim, male ego clashing and chest thumping. Few wars seem to have good reason for happening when one considers all the other possibilities of resolution. While leaders sit safely in secure offices on fortressed hilltops, the common soldier takes all the risks, offers up his/her body for battering, endures indescribable torments in battle, and often gives the ultimate sacrifice of life. Shall we debate the virtues of boxing rings for political leaders instead? Yes, war is absurd. And Heller captures this "crazy-making" truth in a crazy-making novel in which characters dance to illogical commands, spin in frustration, and dig themselves in ever deeper as they try harder and harder to dig themselves out. You know... as in war.

So I slogged through the pages like a good soldier. Characters leapt forward and backward in time, one event led to no other event, resolution rarely made a showing, and the dance of insanity kept the main lead. Even as I slogged, I could not deny what an excellent reflection of warring reality Heller's writing proved to be. Kudos for that. Redeeming factor.

And then, somewhere towards the final pages, I was somewhat won over. Without losing his voice of absurdity, the author had Yossarian, key player, say lines so absurd they rang true to the core, e.g. "but we don't want what we want!" and I could only shake my head and echo, oh indeed. We don't. When offered a bounty of temptations to sell out his soul, Yossarian denied them all, and in his crazy way, spoke utter sanity. How common is it to want something desperately much of our lives, only to realize we don't want it at all when fantasy turns into reality? A gold star for the author. Other episodes of Yossarian struggling to keep a fellow soldier alive even as his guts spill out, the sheer horror and despair and helplessness of the situation, hit target. Bravo.

This, and Heller's commentaries on man being little more than meat, fodder for the brutalities of war, resounded with such painful truth that today's reader can only look up at current events and current disasters and realize -- we are living in a world ruled by absurdities even today. History has taught us nothing.

And so, I could be convinced that Heller's novel is a classic. Perhaps it is.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke by Dean Kuipers

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 304 pages
# Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, 2006
# Price: $24.95
# ISBN: 1596911425

Surrounded by forces in blue, and most every other color of uniform, Rainbow Farm blazed in a fury of flames while guns were trained on the two owners as they emerged: first, Tom Crosslin, 46, then his much younger lover, Rolland "Rollie" Rohm, 28. Crosslin was shot through the forehead by a FBI sharpshooter. Rohm emerged into the open field 12 hours later and, after setting fire to the farmhouse where he had lived with Crosslin since the early 90s, was hit by the bullet of a Michigan State Police sharpshooter. The bullet first split the butt of Rohm's rifle before entering his chest, splattering him with blood but leaving him on the ground still alive. Or so some say. After that, questions arise, still unanswered.

"The most intriguing stories take place under our very noses," says Dean Kuipers, author of Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stone Utopia Went Up in Smoke, when I spoke to him recently during his book tour, making a stop in Kalamazoo. Kuipers, deputy editor at LA City Beat in Los Angeles, California, but with deep roots in southwest Michigan, couldn't let go of the story since he first read about it in the Kalamazoo Gazette in September 2001. He is a well-trained journalist; good stories eat away at him until transformed into print.

"The news tends to focus on the crime and the alleged criminals," Kuipers says. "But a crime story involves an entire community. The Rainbow Farm story involved everyone: the gay and straight communities, the evangelical and the atheist, every spectrum of politics. Every community is a mixed bag, and I wanted to dig into the community in and around Rainbow Farm, go deeper than the media had, and explode it out like a flower."

Kuipers took four years to explode out this flower of every imaginable type and perspective on what some referred to as "our own little Waco." He returned to his home grounds and conducted several hundred interviews in and around Cass County, specifically Vandalia, Michigan, where the farm was located, and around Elkhart, Indiana, 30 miles south, from where Crosslin and Rohm had come.

"People were very reticent to talk to me," Kuipers says. "I had to work hard for this, knock on a lot of doors."

Eventually, trust in the reporter from Los Angeles grew and Kuipers started to piece together the story of "a hippie campground famous for peace, love and weed." As the story took shape, Kuipers wrote an article in 2003 that appeared in Playboy Magazine. He wrote: "On the day that he purchased Rainbow Farm, Tom Crosslin said destiny had led him to the place. By the late 1990s the farm would become a well-known stop on the hippie trail, a scenic overlook for the migratory flocks of travelers and Phish fans who crisscrossed the country. For thousands of blue-collar pilgrims who stopped there looking for a few days of fun and freedom in Michigan's vacation lands, it was a benevolent little campground. And on any other Labor Day they would have been there: thousands of happy stoners setting up tents for Crosslin's annual marijuana-legalization fest, a party he'd named Roach Roast."

Crosslin, Kuipers writes, "came from a world of muscle cars, factory work, girls and getting stoned." He'd quit school around 10th grade and had been working ever since — at a little bit of everything. He was a factory worker and a truck driver, he managed a car wash, worked in construction, started his own string of businesses, and purchased property as investments. He married, then divorced, coming to the realization that he was gay. He loved a good, raucous party, and he was known for his cookouts, well lubricated with cases of beer, serving vegetables he grew in his garden. Fun-loving and easygoing, Crosslin was known to be rather promiscuous… until he met Rollie Rohm. The two fast became something of an odd couple. While Crosslin was then 34, Rollie was all of 16 years old, a school dropout too, sporting a first moustache to match his long blonde hair. In spite of his youth, he had already fathered a son, Robert, married briefly, more out of a sense of responsibility than love. Rollie had grown up being bounced from foster home to foster home, and it was undeniable that Tom Crosslin was something of a father figure to him, taking him under his protective wing. They became inseparable.

Eventually, the two moved from Elkhart, Indiana, to Vandalia, Michigan, because Crosslin had found what seemed like his and Rollie's utopia — a farm that could be home to both of them and the little boy, Robert, as well as a place where all would be welcome. The party that would never have to end. A beer-swilling and pot-smoking good ol' boy, Crosslin saw this farm in the country as a place where they could gather with friends in peace while getting on a buzz, harmless fun, and keep it all legal because he had firm rules about no selling, no dealing, no hard drugs. The mission statement of Rainbow Farm, according to the Web site for the campground, reads: "Rainbow Farm supports the medical, spiritual, and responsible recreational uses of marijuana for a more sane and compassionate America. They also encourage the vast agricultural and industrial uses of the natural substance cannabis hemp as an environmentally safe alternative to thousands of synthetic products now being mass consumed in this country at a tremendous cost to our environment. Above all, [Rainbow Farm] supports freedom in America."

The two were well liked, for the most part, in their rural community. Crosslin was always ready to share his wealth, accumulated mostly from his real estate investments. He purchased toys for area children for Christmas when they had none. He invested in lunch programs in the area schools so that no one would ever go hungry when attending school. It was hard not to befriend him, although he did occasionally lose his temper in a bar brawl, having one too many.

The festivals the two men threw on the farm were for fun, sure, but they also had political purpose. It was this, no doubt, that most drew the ire of law enforcement. Crosslin set up booths during his fests that passed out brochures urging the decriminalization of marijuana use. Those manning the booths gathered signatures on petitions to get an amendment on the Michigan ballot.

Complaints about the festivals were mostly about noise and litter, not about drug use. Rainbow Farm had its own security system patrolling the grounds, including the Michigan militia, although without use of weapons, relying only on presence and the ever-watchful eye. Crosslin would not give in to use of hard drugs because he understood that this was crossing the line, not something of interest to him personally, and would endanger his property.

The Cass County prosecutor, Scott Teter, known to be a conservative Republican, (interestingly enough, Crosslin and Rohm shared this political party affiliation with Teter), was not amused. Teter was known to be law enforcement strictly by the book, and Rainbow Farm was all about testing the limits. More than one area resident referred to the tension between the two forces — the county prosecutor and Rainbow Farm — as the head-butting of the Dukes of Hazzard and Boss Hogg. It would only get worse.

Kuipers writes about the escalating tension between Rainbow Farm and law enforcement, specifically Teter, with a journalist's professionalism. He states the facts, quotes the witnesses, interviews all who are willing. He cites the war of lawsuits and filed complaints, contained to paper until it no longer was. Teter eventually filed documents threatening forfeiture of property if Crosslin and Rohm would not back down on their annual festivals, gathering many hundreds under the sweet stink of marijuana clouds. At one point, the young boy, Robert, Rohm's son, by then 12 years old, was taken from school into custody and placed with a foster family. It was surely, if not the last straw, one of the very last. Court orders were filed forbidding festivals on the farm property, and others that paved the way for seizing the property as a public nuisance. Charges were made after searches on the property turned up potted marijuana growing in the farmhouse basement and firearms were found in the house. Crosslin and Rohm were charged with a felony, and events were fast coming to a head.

Crosslin was defiant, he had made the war on drugs his own, and he was going down fighting. As law enforcement tightened their circle around the farm, he and Rohm drew up wills, passed out belongings, and loaded their guns. The day they were to show up in court to face the charges, they instead set fire to the farm. News helicopters circled overhead, smelling a messy story, and the FBI and state police were called in as reinforcements.

As the final day dawned, 120 law enforcement officers surrounded the farm. Friends tried to convince Crosslin and Rohm to surrender — themselves and the farm — even as the smoke rose from the various buildings, but Crosslin stood firm. He was in this for the long haul. When coffee ran out, he headed towards a neighbor's farmhouse on a path out back, brought the coffee back, then, deciding he needed the coffeepot, too, he headed back. It was on this second return trip that the FBI shot Crosslin; stories conflict on who shouldered their weapon first.

Rohm was alone at the house, and what exactly happened next varies even more than the stories woven around Crosslin's death. A miscommunication? Too quick a draw? Rohm had agreed over the phone to surrender after dawn. Just before he emerged, the farmhouse began to burn, smoke and flames rising, and Rohm came out carrying a firearm. Reports say he appeared frightened and confused. He wasn't used to making decisions without his partner. Running from the house, he seemed to stop in confusion, changed direction to run back to the house again. A state police vehicle appeared, and someone said Rohm shouldered his weapon, ready to fire, but never did. Instead, a bullet from a state trooper's firearm brought him down. He was handcuffed, still alive, maybe.

Kuipers writes: "The official version of events — that Crosslin and Rohm both raised their rifles — was soon disputed. Within days, investigations were launched by the families, the prosecutor, the state's attorney general, the state police, the FBI, even the Michigan militia. The lawyer handling a wrongful-death suit for Rohm's estate says the state police account of Rohm's death is seriously flawed… the police case is forensically baseless."

Adding fuel to the Rainbow Farm fire is a finding later in an autopsy done on Rollie Rohm. His testicles were missing, recently, it seemed, cut off. Why? By whom? For what purpose? The wrongful-death case is still pending, and readers of Dean Kuipers's book, Burning Rainbow Farm, will find themselves intrigued, perhaps even rethinking the war on drugs and how far we are willing to take it.

Kuipers says his purpose in writing the book was not out of wanting to push a political agenda — he doesn't smoke marijuana himself — as much as to show "that your neighbors are all right. This is a book about neighbors. About tolerance in a community. And how intolerance that often comes from outside the community can bring it to ruin."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay In or Get Out of Your Relationship by Mira Kirshenbaum

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 304 pages
# Publisher: Plume, 1997
# Price: $15
# ISBN: 0452275350

I imagine most readers of Mira Kirshenbaum's Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay are leaning towards the going. Most of us tend not to mess with the good, or spend time analyzing why we feel bliss; rather we seek out deeper understanding only when something hurts. Human nature, I suppose. Take notice only when life becomes a pain. But as I read Kirshenbaum's easy to absorb guide on fencesitting relationships, I realized this is a good read even for the best of relationships. Even for those currently between relationships. Why not gain understanding as a preventative measure and avoid the iffy relationship entirely?

Kirshenbaum's book uses a series of diagnostic questions to ascertain if a relationship weighs more heavily on the side of staying or leaving. Yet, even as she encourages insights, Kirshenbaum, a trained psychotherapist who offers relationship counseling in Boston, is careful to remain in neutral territory, making no hard and fast judgments. A good therapist, after all, doesn't make decisions for you, or even give advice, as much as she offers guidelines and helps you find the answers for yourself, the right ones for you. Kirshenbaum stays on the up and up throughout. Even when a diagnostic appears to point to a major GO! she gently states: your situation may be different. Fencesitting? Nah. While we are all the same, as human beings, we are also all unique, and our relationships especially so. Take with grain of salt, then, and a recommendation to talk to a therapist one on one if truly stuck.

That said, I enjoyed this book and found myself recommending it to several others, regardless of their relationship status quo. The diagnostic questions are good ones. They lead to a good, long look in the mirror, a reassessing of one's own emotional well being, and gauging that one is in, or out, of a relationship for all the right and healthy reasons. And, if you are in a good relationship, the many yes's to Kirshenbaum's questions can rejuvenate any fencesitter, giving new appreciation for maybe what was pretty darn good all along. It's always nice to know you're doing just fine.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 162 pages
# Publisher: Coffee House Press, 2006
# Price: $14.95
# ISBN: 1566891817

Who would have thought a rodent might be so entertaining? Yet we've grown up on such tales of humanized mice and rats. Why not a highly literate one? Even while the ever clever and articulate Firmin declares: "The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature, including mouse literature. I despise good-natured old Ratty in 'The Wind in the Willows.' I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute, they stick in my craw like fish bones."

Peppery vermin, isn't he? Such is Firmin's charm. Born the runt in a litter of 13 rats to poor, ignorant, inebriated mother rat Flo, he resorts to eating the tasty paper of book pages that Flo has used to make their nest, tucked away in the back shelves of a Boston bookstore. His siblings, who nurse first, have only disdain for him, and Firmin soon finds his own way in the world, maneuvering by story. From eating books, he evolves to insatiable consumer of books, reading through all the classics, all the sciences, current and historical events, children's stories, romances, plays. He reads it all.

To be a literate rat makes Firmin painfully aware of his odd place in the world. He calls it his "vast canyon of loneliness." He suffers at his inability to fit into the world about which he reads, at his inability to express himself in spoken language. Author Sam Savage writes some of his most poignant lines in describing for us that vast canyon of loneliness in Firmin due to his inability to communicate:

"Despite my intelligence, my tact, the delicacy and refinement of my feelings, my growing erudition, I remained a creature of great disabilities. Reading is one thing, speaking is another... Loquacious to the point of chatter, I was condemned to silence. The fact is, I had no voice. All the beautiful sentences flying around in my head like butterflies were in fact flying in a cage they could never get out of. All the lovely words that I mulled and mouthed in the strangled silence of my thought were as useless as the thousands, perhaps millions, of words that I had torn from books and swallowed, the incohesive fragments of entire novels, plays, epic poems, intimate diaries, and scandalous confessions--all down the tube, mute, useless, and wasted... I laugh, in order not to weep--which, of course, I also cannot do. Or laugh either, for that matter, except in my head, where it is more painful than tears."

Savage has created in such memorable passages for us a rodent that is so human that we relate as one life form to another, for all creatures, surely, have suffered such isolation at some point in our lives, unable to express what weighs most on our hearts.

The story of Firmin takes us by the paw through the bookstore and out into the streets of Boston, into the lives of various misfit humans, including the lonely science fiction writer Jerry Magoon who keeps the rat as adored pet without ever discovering Firmin's secret. If perhaps there is any part of this truly unique and engaging tale lacking, otherwise exquisitely written, then it is the episodes of Firmin's "lowlife" penchant to hang out at the old theatre, Rialto, into the wee hours of the night, sitting amongst drooling old lechers, even while openly acknowledging his own "perversions," and watching what he refers to as his "Lovelies." It is perhaps a bit too much for my sensibilities and suspended disbelief to imagine a rat so craving the human female species the way that he does... oh, shudder... but then, I suppose, that is what makes Firmin a rat, after all, and the men in the dark theatre gaping alongside him, eyes aglow, rather rat-like, too.

Regardless, this is a tale not to be missed. It is a gem: unique, literary, smart, and surprisingly moving.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bare by Annie Lennox (CD)

Music Review by Zinta Aistars

# Audio CD, Price $18.98
# Original Release Date: 2003
# Number of Discs: 1
# Label: J-Records

Annie, you really do something to me...

I've long been a fan of this truly awe-inspiring musical talent: Annie Lennox. In an age when female "musicians" (and there's a reason I put that word in quotes) dress and dance to distract (because they must) the audience from their lack of musical talent, we have Annie. An artist. The woman is beautiful in the only way that matters: outside, sure, but without degrading herself, and inside, yes, most of all, with a honed talent and upper level passion that have produced a CD that instantly ranked top slot in my collection. I knew it would the moment the first track flooded into my room. Oh yeah...

Bare shows off a voice that is strong and sure, rich in range, and unmistakeable Annie. Her lyrics have the courage to reveal a hurting heart, the kind that hurts so good, yet has you believing in healing again. The music itself is the kind that lingers in the mind long after play is over, pure and clean, soulfully haunting. The combined effect -- woman, musician, music, lyrics -- is unforgettable. I'm a first row fan.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Simple Truths: Clear and Gentle Guidance on the Big Issues in Life by Kent Nerburn

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 112 pages
# Publisher: New World Library, 1996
# Price: $16.00
# ISBN: 1880032929

"Life is a creative experience," begins author Kent Nerburn in his slim little volume of basic truths on which to build a life of value for oneself and others. They are, as the title states, basic and simple truths, but it is these simple truths that have been lost in the muddle and busyness and confusion of modern life marked by an embarrassment at claiming a value system. Nerburn continues in explanation of why we must reconnect to these simple truths: "We are shaping ourselves at every moment by every decision we make."

And so we are. A moment taken to consider carefully the meanings and values of topics Nerburn has chosen here are moments well spent. To ponder these truths and to absorb them clears the path ahead and moves us forward with peace and conviction.

Short chapters illustrate in clean prose the values of education and learning ("without knowledge I could not play the violin. Without wisdom, I could not play the music"); work ("we are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it"); money ("be a giver and a sharer... in some unexpected and unforeseeable fashion, all else will take care of itself"); possessions ("possessions are as likely to make you unhappy as they are to make you happy, because they define the limits of your life and keep you from the freedom of choice that comes with traveling light"); giving ("you have the power to create joy and happiness by your simplest gestures of caring and compassion"); travel ("if we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder"); loneliness and solitude (the first is a void, the second a sense of self-fulfillment); love ("treat what love brings you with kindness"); marriage ("if you believe in your heart that you have found someone with whom you are able to grow, if you have sufficient faith that you can resist the endless attraction of the road not taken and the partner not chosen, if you have the strength to embrace the cycles and seasons that your love will experience..."); parenthood ("in the bondage to a child you will find a freedom you never imagined, but neither should you seek parenthood as a way to fill an emptiness in your life. A child will hold a mirror to your life..."); strength ("true strength does not require an adversary and does not see itself as noble or heroic. It simply does what it must without praise or need of recognition... strength based in love is strength people crave"); tragedy and suffering ("they are the fire that burns you pure"); the spiritual journey ("spiritual understanding never becomes deep unless you subject yourself to the spiritual discipline of practicing your belief"); elders ("they were you and you will be them"); death ("it brings us to a judgment, so it is ours to control by the kind of life we live"); and concludes with an epilogue on embracing the mystery.

"If we have played our part well - offering love where it was needed, strength and caring where it was lacking; if we have tended the earth and its creatures with a sense of humble stewardship - we will have done enough."

Simple, yes, and shining with a timeless truth.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Women & Other Animals by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 208 pages
# Publisher: Scribner, 2002
# Price: $12.00
# ISBN: 0743203070

Utterly impressed with Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel, Q Road, I eagerly picked up her story collection, Women and Other Animals. I do realize that most every writer has strengths that fall into one genre, usually, more than another, and after reading Campbell's stories, I believe this author's strength is long prose such as in novel form. These stories, however, do show the master stroke as well.

In 16 stories, Campbell writes about a memorable array of girls and women. I understand the collection title to signify that in each of these characters there is something of the basic survivor, the animal that we all are in the sense of seeking out what we need to live and, hopefully, to thrive: sustenance, companionship, the occasional adventure. These are not women who live easy lives. Dealing with hardships, whether poverty, abuse, or abandonment, or simply cruel strokes of misunderstanding, these are women who do what they must to make it through the day. Each has a kind of eccentricity to her that has, perhaps, been born of her ability to survive, the way a tree grows around the wire fence that cuts into its bark. Each story seems to have a common thread connecting all with some form of abuse, or hint of, that drives the character forward and gives them each a voice uniquely her own.

Campbell's writing style is skilled, and she allows for just enough local flavor to make the stories come alive but not so localized that they don't resonate with the common experience against all kinds of backdrops. Every woman has had to survive her tests and perhaps even every woman has had to endure some type of abuse at some point in her life, and so the stories resonate. But then, they have just enough humor, just enough "oddness," that we can sit back and read and chuckle and shake our heads, roll our eyes, and sigh with wonder that we did not join the circus, after all. Life is circus enough.

A strong collection, worthwhile reading. But don't miss this author's longer works, either. It gets even better.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Before We Get Started by Bret Lott

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 224 pages
# Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2005
# Price: $13.95
# ISBN: 0345478177

When Bret Lott writes "I don't know" or "I know nothing" about the feel-your-way-as-you-go approach to the literary arts, he does it so eloquently that one can only say he "doesn't know" so very well. But he's right. Writing, art in general--there's no manual for it. And if there was, it would no longer be art. It would be reduced to a technical skill. And while skills can be learned, the extra mile beyond that gives life to a work of art can only be accomplished by the attitude Lott describes in his "practical memoir of the writer's life:" approaching the blank page, the blank screen, with an openness and acceptance for the wonder to come.

"What knowing nothing means, finally, is that one must strip himself of all notions of what he believes he knows about the world and the way it works," writes Lott. " it's new terrain, undiscovered, left to this new explorer, the one who knows nothing and who now, armed with this ignorance, stupidity, and tendency to stare, sees things newly... what this explorer will ultimately discover is his own heart, who he is in the midst of all the know-it-alls of the world."

Finding one's own way is the only way. From the beginning, Lott expresses his reverence for the written word. As a small child, he holds his first book--Book of Psalms, puzzling over how the words "somms" could be spelled so strangely. He writes his name, several times, for the first time, on the title page of this book, and in that moment of writing, making claim, and connecting with the written page, the writer is born.

Lott warns, even while reminding us that writing must be done in solitude, that crawling too deep into one's cave of solitude has its own dangers. We must know the world, and explore it fully, to write about it well. We must be a part of it. There is a balance to be achieved, with involvement, acceptance, immersion, and then withdrawal again. In short, one must live fully in a world with others, but one must write about it alone.

Chapters included in this book are each one crucial to the writer, a light in the dark to the beginner, but a healthy reminder to the well practiced and established, too. Lott's chapter on remembering the reasons for writing is priceless. One enters the horrors of writer's block only when one forgets the purpose for writing--and mistakenly gets caught up in the false pursuit of publication. While acknowledging that it is quite human to wish to share one's story once it is written, wanting that connection between writer and reader, if the writer becomes too obsessed with it, too caught up with it while writing, then the art quickly becomes bogged down and stalls hopelessly. The cause of writer's block, he says, is the writer him or herself. Writing is its own reward. The rest is another story.

The importance of simple words, character detail, narrative and passage of time, pitfalls of technique, risking failure, accepting rejection, these are all topics Lott addresses. Perhaps the best chapter is on rejection. Lott has published 9 books, one of them rescued from oblivion by American icon, Oprah, but even so, he keeps counting up rejections (he's up to 597 at the writing of this book) and he keeps each and every one (except one, that he threw away in a temper tantrum, but later admitted, he learned from this one, too, as he did from all of them). Rejection, he reminds us, is inescapable in the arts. No use fighting it. All the more reason not to become obsessed with it. The writer must be, he says, "moved to write not by a will toward fame or fortune or even posterity, but because the work of writing is good work, and the reward inherent to writing is the writing itself." Lott writes candidly and honestly about how much he feels the hurt of the pink slip, and in some ways it never gets easier, but he also presents a system that works for him. Basically, to keep submitting. He keeps a careful log of where his work has been, is being, will be submitted, and makes a point of sending out his submission the very day it lands back in his mailbox rejected. There is always reason to hope.

Lott's memoir of his own writing life is one of the most practical, yet most beautifully and honestly written books on writing I've read in many, many years. He writes with wisdom even when he is being most humble (and therein lies his charm). He writes with a down to earth voice on a level with all of us, no matter what our level, and in doing so, inspires.

Sleeping Woman (Poems) by Herbert Scott

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 88 pages
# Publisher: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2005
# Price: $13.95
# ISBN: 0887484301

I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing Herb Scott in 2001 for a story I was writing for a local magazine about the Third Coast Anthologies and New Issues Press, of which he was founder and lifeblood. I had the renewed pleasure of hearing him read from Sleeping Woman in the past year, on his return to Kalamazoo in what, alas, turned out to be a farewell. Scott passed away not long after.

Sleeping Woman, as I reread it now, still hearing his voice in my mind, lives on to pass the joy of words well framed in meaning and rhythm for poets and those who love poetry long after the poet himself is gone. Scott's work is immersed in the wonder of the everyday and the everyman, shining upon it that precise angle of light that reveals its quiet magic. He writes of bread and how it breaks in the hands, a neighbor he nods and waves to every day but will never know, a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk in Kalamazoo, November rain.

If I were to reach my hand
into the rich, wet leaves
and lift them to my face, I would smell
the season's blood, animal, insect,
the evidence of earthly living.
Each thing has left its mark, its scent,
all the ravelled fragments of birth
and death fallen into place.

In another poem, called "The Unforgiven," Scott writes about an observation he's made--that often when we transgress once, that is what marks our lives, although we have otherwise lived them well.

It is strange
how sometimes
no matter
if we live for years
a good and loving life
we are never forgiven
our smallest transgressions...

But we remember Herb Scott for his poetry, for his many, many good works, for his legacy of so many other fine poets that he has brought to light, and to the printed page with New Issues Press.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Letters to a Young Artist by Julia Cameron

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 176 pages
# Publisher: Tarcher, 2005
# Price: $19.95
# ISBN: 1585424099

I can hardly see the author (or her letter-writing character), perched on so high a post, talking down to the lowly young artist. Letters to a Young Artist may serve well to discourage if not batter the fledgling artist before he or she has even had a chance to find their own voice and style. Those less fledgling may simply toss it with some degree of disgust at the arrogance and cliche treatment of the artistic process. It's not so much that there isn't the occasional grain of truth in the advice given, as that the occasional grain is lost in its tone and cavalier treatment.

This collection of letters is too obviously constructed for a book and is not an authentic exchange with an authentic questioner. Indeed, author Julia Cameron makes it clear these letters are a hodge podge of those she says she receives from fans, a conglomerate of questions and wonderings, seeking guidance and inspiration.

"Dear X" is the salutation heading up this collection of fabricated letters. That alone rather puts one off as lacking in authenticity (or semblence of), abundant only in added chill. How much better to give a letter writer a name, a voice, a persona that would come alive for the book reader. More often than not, the letters begin with a weakly disguised "you write that..." as segue for the missing letter in the exchange. It would have been far more fascinating to have been able to read both sides to this conversation.

Cameron's style (she takes on the voice of an elderly male writer, which in itself lacks authenticity and leaves me wondering - why?) is brash and bullying. Her advice, what there is of it, is so obvious that it offers little value. Mostly, it reads like one long brag perhaps constructed only of hot air (only the dissatisfied are bullies?). Here and there, inexplicably interspersed with literary advice, is advice for the lovelorn. Again, why?

This effort pales in comparison to similar efforts to offer beginning writers a hand up, done brilliantly, and I suggest those searching for such will find much more satisfaction, advice, and encouragement in Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Rainer Marie Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Joyce Carol Oates' The Faith of a Writer, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Stephen King's On Writing, or a long list of others.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rowing to Alaska by Wayne McLennan

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 239 pages
# Publisher: Granta Books, 2005
# Price: $14.00
# ISBN: 1862077878

During those inbetween times when I am unable to travel myself (woe is me), then I travel on a vehicle of words - and oh, how satisfactory is this one! McLennan is new to writing, or so he claims at the opening of this book, but I struggle to believe it. He tells of moving to Estonia with his Dutch wife (she surely has courage to marry such a wanderlusting man), a writer, and when he struggles with boredom, she encourages him to put his snappy stories to the written page - and this is the result.

If he's not practiced, he certainly is gifted. A comparison made by a Granta reviewer (under the publisher's umbrella, but I'm not arguing) to Hemingway is not unwarranted. McLennan's travel stories are filled to bursting with male bravado, much like Papa's, and he knows how to write spare when needed, spiced when it serves, lavish when the story requires it. Rowing is nearly impossible to put down, if only to eye the road oneself.

McLennan comes from Australia, but calls the world, the road, his home. The title story is probably my personal favorite, if only because good-sized chunks of my own wanderlusting heart still reside in Alaska, haunted by my own memories which he so well brought to life again. It is a tale of two men rowing 1,000 miles from Seattle to Alaska, and if the author wasn't sworn to lifelong adventure seeking before then, he was by the time he completed this journey.

McLennan writes (in no particular order, in 15 travel essays) about a long list of improbable jobs (bank clerk, gold panner, boat skipper, bartender, wild pig hunter) and places he has experienced by full immersion: Australia, Costa Rica, Pacific Northwest, Nicarauga, London, France, Spain, Estonia. His rich language brings to life great adventure without arrogance (well, maybe a little, in his belt notching adventures with the opposite gender), not sparing himself or anyone else in his path an honest and colorful appraisal. He takes on dangerous expeditions as if it never occurred to him not to do so, not a question or hesitancy in his mind, and travel becomes his rites of passage into finding purpose outside the routine everyday too many rest of us accept.

Rowing to Alaska itches beneath the skin and hammers in the heart for anyone who wants something more out of life - in either the living of it or even just the reading about it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 320 pages
# Publisher: Atria (February 7, 2006)
# Price: $24.00
# ISBN: 0743271149

I read this book on the long road from Michigan to Austin, Texas, where the author resides. I was on a journey to meet Dominic Smith, to interview him for the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine, LuxEsto. Smith had made a short stop in Kalamazoo years ago, but he had left an impression. Now, as I read his debut novel, I soon understood -- this young author will be leaving an indelible impression on every reader to come across his work.

Brilliance rises like a mercury vapor from the very first lines, making giddy with the magic of characters rising up, taking form, and coming alive on the page:

"When the vision came, he was in the bathtub. After a decade of using mercury vapors to cure his photographic images, Louis Daguerre's mind had faltered - a pewter plate left too long in the sun. But during his final lucid minutes on this cold evening of 1846, he felt a strange calm..."

Smith has lifted moments of history and wrapped them in vapors of imagination. How might this visionary, the founding father of photography, Louis Daguerre, have seen the world? What is the lens of his eye on life and might we, for a moment in time, look through it and see as he might have seen? He created his art at a time when he thought the world was coming to an end. Perhaps for that reason alone, his photographic images had a mystical aura about them, and his subject matter approached with such evident passion.

Daguerre makes a list of subjects he must capture in his photographs before it is too late:

1. a beautiful woman (naked)
2. the sun
3. the moon
4. the perfect Paris boulevard
5. a pastoral scene
6. galloping horses
7. a perfect apple
8. a flower
9. the king of France
10. Isobel Le Fournier

And it is Isobel who becomes the embodiment, perhaps even the lens, through which Daguerre sees all. She is his first love. She is his last. And the thread that weaves through all between.

"He could imagine kissing her and was appalled by that - it seemed like a desire to lie facedown in an icy stream, to burrow inside the very marrow of her youth and beauty and somehow indemnify himself against Armageddon. He looked down at his shaking hands, at the cordage of vein and tendon, at the sun's chemical blackening. He felt impossibly old..."

'The light is changing,' he said.

'Is it?'

'Dusk is a kiss between night and day.'

'You have an eye for romance, but perhaps no heart for it.'"

I as reader might argue - Daguerre would not have been willing to play with the madness of mercury vapors if he had not the heart for love. And it is clear, this new author, Dominic Smith, has the heart necessary for his own medium of art.

By the time I drove into Austin, I was enthralled with this find of a new star rising. "The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre" is a book not to be missed. Not to be forgotten. I await Smith's own list of 10 to be captured in his own medium.

With highest recommendations.

Photo: Dominic Smith at Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas.

For more about Dominic Smith and his debut novel, visit:

Ghosts in the Garden: Reflections on Endings, Beginnings, and the Unearthing of Self by Beth Kephart

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover, 144 pages
* Publisher: New World Library, 2005
* ISBN: 1577314980
* Price: $17.00

The author of this small book, that would so easily fit the hands while walking a garden, ready to open while perhaps sitting on a fallen log or stump or among flowerbeds, is a poet in prose. Kephart has written an ongoing essay, covering the seasons of a garden as she covers the changing seasons of her own life. On her 41st birthday, she has a sobering moment of realization. She is about to enter midlife with all its reassessments and transformation and growth, all the realizations of changing roles as wife, mother, woman, writer. Discovering the garden called Chanticleer near her Philadelphia home gives her contemplations a beautiful backdrop, if not a solid grounding to view herself as she views the natural world around her.

Kephart walks the paths of the public garden and observes, then translates poetically to us, her readers, how she gradually learns to accept the changes inevitable in life. She observes nature as she observes the gardeners themselves. On occasion, she takes with her on her walks her young son, other times her husband, who captures Chanticleer in his own art medium - photography - adding his black and white images to Kephart's text.

Perhaps one moment so captured that might sum up Kephart's process of midlife transformation is a short essay about the garden after a storm:

"The garden had been put in its place by weather, and so had the rest of us; we are so entirely miniscule in comparison to wind and rain and hail. We were aware of how everything was angled newly. Made jagged or raw. Thinned out. We were reminded of other storms that had blown in, then turned and vanished.

"On that day only the gardeners seem brave - hauling broken branches and clumps of errant leaves from wherever they had gotten to, straightening the stakes and invisible ties, suggesting, by the way they carried things, that the world would be made right again. The gardeners were muddy and burdened and resilient because love is the only chance a garden's got. For the moment, and in the moment. Now because of then."

The walk through Kephart's garden of words is a path well worth taking.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 234 pages
# Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition, 1988
# Price: $12.95
# ISBN: 0394758285

I'm no fan of mysteries, except perhaps the general mystery surrounding life, and I see crime enough in the every day without feeling the need to return to it for entertainment, and I'm not at all a fan of the hard-boiled detective with his hard-to-stomach arrogance (and what an apt adjective, this "hard-boiled," the golden yolk turned gray and flavorless when held over the flame too long). But I'm always a fan of a well written book, no matter what the genre. And Chandler's book qualifies.

It intrigued me to read this, one of the classic firsts, literary birthing grounds for the nearly, by now, cliche persona (Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade being perhaps the very first, followed closely by Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, then variations on a theme with Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, and a long string of others, the most recent contemporary rendering of which I've come across being the character of Joe January in J. Conrad Guest's January's Paradigm.). Humphrey Bogart brought several of these to the silver screen, and the character, by whatever name, is now so well known that we can all imitate him at a drop of a fedora, cigarette hanging loose in the corner of our mouths, gal Friday awaiting our command.

As usual, the persona is done arguably best by its inventors. And, as usual, the book has added linguistic pleasures surpassing the cheapened Hollywood screen versions (for example, I noted that the book version of Marlowe isn't nearly the womanizer that Bogart's film version is as he romances Lauren Bacall, a romance that never really happens on the written page, and in his literary version, he even exhibits ethics in the bedroom that any woman can cheer). We get the language -- hard, crisp, fresh, even today. Chandler's spare style might even at moments find comparison in Hemingway. His metaphors delight.

"Dead men are heavier than broken hearts."

"The minutes passed on tiptoe... The light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them."

"He had tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked hard as oysters on the half shell."

"The gentle-eyed, horse-faced maid let me into the long gray and white upstairs sitting room with the ivory drapes tumbled extravagantly on the floor and the white carpet from wall to wall. A screen star's boudoir, a place of charm and seduction, artificial as a wooden leg."

Hey, now that's fine writing. It hits the mark with no side trips. I may change my mind about the hard-boiled detective, especially in his softer-boiled moments.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover, 144 pages
* Publisher: Harcourt, 1990
* ISBN: 0151072558
* Price: $18.00

(Original publication, 1946)

It wasn't my first stay on the farm. I'd read Orwell as a girl, one with ethnic roots reaching back to the Baltic States (Latvia) then occupied by the Soviet Union, and so having grown up on stories of human cruelty and betrayal, of human nature gone corrupt when faced with the seduction of power -- all of that rather than the common, soothing fairy tale. For that reason, I surely understood it on a deeper level than most of my peers. I was fifteen the first of many times I visited the Soviet Union. And even though I had been born in the then freedom of the United States, I understood well enough that what I was witnessing was the essence of evil.

George Orwell was a socialist. With leanings towards Trotsky, perhaps an idealism that would be tested by the ugly reality of human nature, he did not stand where I stood in terms of ideology. I leaned more towards a laissez faire capitalism, a system never tested on this planet to this very day, but that did not detract from my enthusiasm for Animal Farm. On this barnyard, we saw eye to eye and snout to snout.

Animal Farm is a story as if written for a child, and yet, not. Its language is simple. But the adult aware of history and politics, of the ways of government out of control, fully recognizes the parallels Orwell intended with the Russian Revolution. His animal characters had human counterparts. Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, all find their form here among pigs become men, or is it men become pigs. Guard dogs mimic KGB, hard working horses (Boxer) mimic the hardworking proletarians, tragically deluded. A farm of abused and overworked animals, often slaughtered when they have passed their prime as work animals, revolt against the farmer - mankind - surely the epitome of cruel animal. Alas, given such power as to run the farm themselves, the animals quickly shift into social classes delineated by power. Pigs rule, and with their rule comes privilege. To sustain privilege, the pigs change laws to their convenience and pleasure. The basic tenet of "All animals are equal" becomes "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

Orwell wrote about the Russian Revolution. And well he should, because it can be argued that the cruelty of that government has as yet not been fully understood by the "free world" even today. Yet the power and timelessness of this tale is that it can be applied to all governments when not held firmly within their checks and balances -- and frightening parallels can be witnessed in the current administration of the United States. I reread the book today with growing dis-ease. With all of our talk of superiority, our Patriot Acts and our eavesdropping, our acts of aggression and our collective amnesia surrounding the Geneva Act, there but for the grace of God go we...

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 198 pages
# Publisher: Hyperion, 2003
# Price: $19.95
# ISBN: 0786868716

I had read Tuesdays with Morrie some years ago, and liked it so much that I bought several copies as gifts. This time, I had decided to bypass Albom's newest, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. My reasons? The book was getting so much hype, and, well, something about that process, perhaps my personal bias, but I go into avoidance when I smell "sheep mentality." Unfair, no doubt, and no doubt with such a bias I do miss a good book now and then. But this time I had also caught a portion of the movie based on this book (Jon Voight is an excellent actor, and so I let the remote cool during my channel surfing), and while Voight still impressed me, the storyline did not. Man dies in accident via doing good deed, feels generally discontent with his life, but meeting 5 key people in heaven whose lives he had touched in either good or not so good way, he learns key lessons and finds the value he had missed in life. (If this seems a reminder of the much meatier classic, It's a Wonderful Life, you're right, it is, and I prefer the former classic.)


Then it was Christmas. In my household, books are a traditional gift. My niece, a reader and writer in her own right, gifted me "Five People." (A few years prior, I had gifted her Tuesdays.) Okay. It was meant to be. I cracked open the cover and tried to keep an open mind. So, yeah, not bad. Simple if not at times simplistic writing. Predictable plot. No new message or moral of the story. But on occasion Albom did manage to please my sensibility for good writing, and now and then, I admit, the story moved me.

Five People is not high on my list of favorite books. Not even the high range of middling. But that it was a gift from my niece makes it a treasure, and it is a pleasant read if one is looking for a moment's escapism.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide by Maureen Dowd

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 352 pages
# Publisher: Putnam, 2005
# Price: $25.95
# ISBN: 0399153322

Is this the bashing of a gender? I picked up the book with curiosity piqued by a controversial title, "Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide" by Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times op-ed columnist, who has long been a favorite of mine because of her biting and inciteful (and insightful) commentary. The noir cover incites nearly as much as the title, with a redhead in a bright red clingy dress and red stilettos, surrounded by a busload of leering men. One might think this tome will give the male gender a sound whipping.

It doesn't.

Indeed, the more I read, the more I realized Dowd, once again, will not disappoint. This book is, as she clearly states in her introduction, all about asking questions and offering a selection of informed and educated opinions on gender issues in contemporary American society. No answers, and that should not surprise, for these are issues as old as time, as old as humankind, that will undoubtedly occupy the minds of both genders as long as we cohabit the same planet. There are no firm and fast answers. But the questions, oh, how they intrigue!

Who better to ask them, in a social commentary format, than Maureen Dowd? She offers her observations side by side with many authorities-scientists, professors, editors, journalists, politicians, business people, and many others-giving us a sometimes stunning, often humorous, always fascinating perspective on gender differences, and, more importantly, gender responsibility for how we interact and how we co-exist. Truth be told, by the time I reached the final page, if any one gender had taken a bashing, I figured it was women who came through the muck looking the saddest.

But it isn't a bashing. Rather, Dowd's book is more of a call to awareness. A pause to take a long, searching, honest look into the mirror to see what we have become. The final look for men seems to be one of little change over time. Still hyper-focused on the superficial and the external when they are, well, leering at women. The younger, the bustier, the flirtier, the better. Intelligence weighs in hardly at all, if at all, and later, it seems, it becomes a disadvantage for the independent woman. No, indeed, men do not come through this examination well. The overall perspective is that the Y chromosome carriers in our society have come very little distance since the days of the caveman who thought mostly with his, um, gonads.

Women do not fare better, though, and as one who carries the X chromosome, I intend to hold myself fully accountable for our shortcomings. Dowd writes of the American woman's obsession with youth and her futile resistance to aging, unhealthy diets, plastic and cosmetic surgery to make herself into ever more superficial, if not downright cartoon character (think Jessica Rabbit) proportions impossible for the human body without surgical assistance. And all to please men. Who, chances are, will be pursuing our much younger sisters with lesser brain power anyway. Sad.

What happened to feminism? Dowd asks. And it is an important question to ask. It lasted, she says, a nanosecond. An ill-defined movement that quickly ended up zigzagging into nonexistence, and who can argue that today, when women still lag well behind in earning power, even while we continue to sell ourselves out in objectifying poses. We've come a long way, baby? It seems not. If liberation has led us to plastic surgery to deform ourselves and accepting the objectification men have pushed upon us in every venue, then from what exactly have we been liberated?

Perhaps it is a good thing that feminism is dead. From Dowd's observations, which often match my own, it seems we need a new movement, a new term that encompasses BOTH genders, liberating us all from bad behavior and stifling cookie cutter models of beauty. A consensus of liberating both genders from stereotypes, and a balancing of the wonderful differences in both to balance each other in work and romantic relationships. If the Y chromosome has weakened, then it seems men can learn from women how to be more emotionally courageous, while women can learn from men to loosen up now and then. Brute strength is not the only kind of strength, and it carries less importance (if any) today. It seems a valid guess, that the man of tomorrow, if he is to survive, will turn away from objectifying women (leading nowhere, after all, in evolutionary terms) and develop his EQ and not just his IQ. He will be the sought after mate, he will be the long-term survivor.

Ladies, our lesson is to accept aging more gracefully. Love the woman in the mirror, and embrace her idiosyncrasies. There is no future in being a mannequin without personality or character. No man is worth that kind of self-sacrifice.

Surely, there is an important message for both genders in this book. I read it first on my own, then read it a second time with the man in my life, and we both agreed: this is not gender bashing, this is a solid tap on the noggin to wake up, see the path we have chosen, and change its direction while we still have time.

Dowd's willingness to show herself and her own life in this "collision" of genders, sometimes with her own gender, is refreshingly honest. Known for her penchant for privacy, I respect her openness about moments when she did not shine. One can imagine how much criticism she invites by writing this book; credit given for willingness to subject herself to it. Score one for feminine courage.

Viva la difference. We are the yin and the yang, and Dowd's final line shows her own opinion, or at least strong leaning, on the matter. For balance, for enlightenment about ourselves and each other, we do need to take this path hand in hand.

Highly recommended, and best read with your partner near by for discussion.