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...