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."