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.