Monday, September 03, 2007

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live with Purpose and Passion by Robin McGraw

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 2006
  • Price: $24.99
  • ISBN-10: 078521836X

There are times that I enjoy reading a book, and I read it quickly, and still, I cannot give it top marks. Inside My Heart by Robin McGraw, perhaps better known as wife to Dr. Phil, is one of those books. It is an easy read, one chapter leading into another, as we grow warm with empathy and curious about the life of this woman, arguably successful via her marriage more than for any particular accomplishment of her own. I've come to respect her husband's work (and I didn't initially, feeling he was riding on Oprah's coattails and reducing psychiatry to sound bites, yet after watching some of his shows and reading his columns in O Magazine, realized this man has pretty sound judgment about the quirks of human nature), and so, rather vicariously, became interested in what his wife had to say...

Robin has nothing new to say that we haven't already read in other women's inspirational and empowerment type of books. Nor am I clear on why a religious-based publisher like Nelson would have chosen to market her book in Christian circles and bookstores; there is very little mention in it about Robin's spiritual beliefs or influences on her life. And yet, I must admit, by the end of the book, I'd grown sympathetic to this woman, could imagine enjoying a personal friendship with someone like her, and give her my nod of respect for the life decisions she has made, and for her courageous value system. Ah yes, values. Something of which we are so achingly devoid in modern society. Robin makes sense of having them again. She writes about her approach to being a woman, a wife, a mother, a businesswoman, all based on well-defined and usually very traditional values. Husband Phil comes out pretty shiny and admirable, too, subscribing to the same values, as any good husband and father would and should. Even if we already know these values, we certainly can use reminders such as this. They work.

Nothing literary about this writing, reading more like a protracted magazine article than a soul-baring deep-diving personal expose. And the pull quotes are rather annoying every few pages, serving no purpose that I can see other than getting in the way of a smooth flow. But you know? I liked it. It's a nice book, with nice things to say, and perhaps it is time to fly the flag for the value of niceness again. I dare say we all secretly long for it.

The Beautiful Miscellaneous by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 329 pages
  • Publisher: Atria, 2007
  • Price: $24.00
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743271233

I've had my eye on the rising literary star of Dominic Smith since he debuted with The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre in 2006, and when his new novel appeared on the bookshelf, I didn't walk to the bookstore... I ran. The star shines still.

The Beautiful Miscellaneous is the story of a boy whose father is a physicist, a genius of science, forever frustrated with his sharp but not quite genius son. Can a car accident and a coma make a father happy? Well, in this case, it gives him hope of having that prodigy child he's wanted all along. When young Nathan comes out of his coma, he finds his brain injury has actually caused a condition called synesthesia, the ability to perceive words with several senses at once, not only hearing them, but also tasting and seeing them in varied colors. Alongside this interesting linguistic ability, Nathan has also developed a prodigious memory. Newly hopeful, his father sends him to the Brook-Mills Institute for Talent Development, where he meets a collection of off-the-wall young characters, each with their own area of talent or skill.

A sense of tension weaves throughout the story, as Nathan is caught between his desire to be accepted as he is, a mostly average kid, and wanting to please his father, surely the smartest man he's ever known. Yet technical intelligence is one thing, and an emotional and social intelligence quite another. A scene of father taking his son for a "special treat" on his birthday, ending in a trip to an accelerator, perhaps heaven for a physicist, but a sore disappointment for a kid who can't help daydreaming about the normalcy of an amusement park is almost unbearable in its disconnect between these two. Such are father-son relationships, too often, a balance between expectations and acceptance, the wish to impress, the falling short, and the final moment of truth, when one learns to love another human being in all their varied quirks and skill sets and idiosyncrasies, a blend of light and shadow, strengths and weaknesses.

An example of Smith's rich writing and storytelling appears in the developing not-quite relationship between Nathan and Teresa, another resident of the school for the oddly talented. Not quite a love story, it is more the hormonal rush of two adolescents who perhaps find a wary, somewhat bored acceptance in each other they cannot find in the world of the "normals" outside. Neither is mature enough for love, but their hormones drive them to explore the cautious boundaries of first lust, careful to never show each other the vulnerability that leads to a more mature intimacy until much later in the book, when Teresa asks older Nathan, "Do you ever still think about kissing me?"

Writes Smith: "I sat close to her on the floor, our knees touching. She took my hand and placed it on the top of her stomach; my wrist brushed her bra support, a plastic rib that later I would tell Toby was the 'the edge of the known world.' For a moment I was lost, dislocated. Oddly I thought about my father and Whit, about men. Why had no one mentioned this? Surely they had experienced this one moment of confined bliss, been forced into a submissive silence--sinners now in church. Whit spinning in space, my father peering into an electron microscope the way an astronomer stares at distant planets and hydrous stars, men continuing their lives but surely living for this unbridled moment... a genius or prodigy in love or lust laid himself bare, like a castle in ruins."

From such ruins rise new and wonderful connections, the intimacy of two persons baring skin and souls as much of a miracle, or more, than a physicist exploding electrons. The mind stretches often in the most daily human activities. When the ruins are the walls that keep two apart, their dust is the nutrient on which new relationships are built. Smith's mastery in capturing such miracles is what gives his writing, too, color, taste, and a scent for more such great stories to come.

~ Zinta Aistars, managing editor of The Smoking Poet literary ezine

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Marcus Aurelius The Dialogues by Alan Stedall

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2006
List Price: $17.95
ISBN-13: 978-0856832369

It was that kind of Sunday. Slow and easy, just warm enough spring breeze, dappled sun between first pale green leaves across my deck, and hours of quiet solitude stretching ahead of me. Perfection. The kind of day that begs a good read. I settled into a deck chair with Alan Stedall's Marcus Aurelius – The Dialogues, a slender volume with an eye-appealing cover: a drop of water just before it enters a pool of clear blue, sending off ripples. I wondered, as I opened the book, would the text, too, send off ripples?

I knew within a few lines this was going to be treasure. The kind of book that demands a pencil in one hand, checking off this, underlining that. These are words I want to remember. Yes, Stedall is a word master, and without any cheap tricks or somersaults, he had me instantly intrigued. Outlining his personal search in the Introduction for that eternal question we all surely ask (or should) about the meaning of life, Stedall ponders what Marcus Aurelius might have said on the matter. Called "one of five good Roman Emperors" (AD 121-180), Marcus Aurelius was known for his philosophical Meditations, a treatise he had written about his own search for meaning, for the definition of right and wrong without religious constraint, and for the value of a good man. Centuries later, author Alan Stedall finds himself pondering these same questions, wishes the Roman emperor had written more about his own answers, then imagines what those answers might have been had he been overheard discussing such matters among his closest confidantes. This slender volume is the result of these imaginings.

My pencil tip checked off a line and I was still only in the Introduction: "The concept of a life and cosmos without purpose is one I find fundamentally obscene." And is that not what many of us say ails our society today? A lack of a value system? As if having values was in and of itself politically incorrect or, worse, unfashionable? I sensed I'd found a compatriot in philosophical arms here, and eagerly read on…

To have a value system means that first we must examine our lives with an unflinching inner eye. Stedall had been attracted to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations for their "vigorous engagement in life" rather than living a life by default, and by his reputation for being a good man, yet not made so by a faith outside of himself. Without a divine power handing down to us a series of commandments to follow, defining good and right, can these concepts still exist? If we have no fear of hell and no desire for heaven, only a wish to live a life of value, what might those values be? What makes a good man good?

My pencil was no longer making checks in the margins. I was underlining.

"Increasing the richness of the tapestry of one's understanding must inevitably increase the comfort (or discomfort) or our awareness of the material world. Knowledge, therefore, is not only power but, of its nature, it modifies action and behavior."

You cannot know and not respond to that knowing. Even to do "nothing" with one's newly acquired knowledge, or awareness, was, after all, a choice, a decision made and acted upon. But any knowledge adds richness to life, and so I read on, this engaging series of discussions of a somewhat fictionalized Roman emperor in friendly debate with his friends and military comrades. From chapters headed "On the Brevity of Life and the Need to Seek Meaning," "On the Pursuit of Purpose," "On the Supreme Good," and "On the Pursuit of the Virtuous Life," I was drawn deeper and deeper into the simple but solid reasoning. My pencil seemed by now to have a life of its own, drawing entire rectangles around paragraphs, marking dancing plus signs in margins, scribbling squiggly lines alongside already favorite passages. Stedall's imagined dialogue had me fully in the present, and, as he writes, it does not matter if life is brief or long, for all that any man truly has is the present.

On the pursuit of purpose, Aurelius contemplates if there is such to a man's life, and concludes, in clean forward-moving lines of reason, that there is. Without giving away candy for free – how he arrives at the conclusion that life is and must be purposeful, "… for a person to be a worthwhile member of society, he or she must have a contribution to make to it. It follows that a life led without social purpose is, from the perspective of one's fellow man, worthless." Based on reason alone, a man must do good, and not only please himself, but care for his cohabitants of the planet, and in caring for them, do most good for himself. It is a refreshing view in a modern time so often sunk in the throes of hedonism. With one generation referred to as the "Me" generation, another merely as "X," as if merely blind organisms bumping into each other in the dark, it is high time we think beyond our own immediate gratification, alas, so soon imploding on its own emptiness into dissatisfaction. The contented and happy need not read on. For the rest, there's delicious more:

What might that purpose be? Same for all? In equal proportion? But we are all wonderfully unique, in unique configuration of idiosyncrasies and talents, and in ignoring our own individuality, we only steer towards purposelessness. Aurelius argues that for a man to follow his own being is to follow his own purpose, identifying with that measured introspection just what it is that he does best – and then doing it. Therein lies satisfaction, not only for the individual, but for the society of which he is part.

So now I'm circling. Large loops. As we delve into supreme good, and what brings a man deep and lasting contentment, Aurelius tries on for size his friends' guesses. Perhaps good health? Or might it be great fortune? Does pleasure add real good to our lives? Would it be love that so often fades and is disappointed? It is a blessing, Aurelius teases, that cannot perish, not even in death. When at last we come upon it, I loop my pencil around the reply – and laugh out loud. Of course! "Once this treasure is our complete possession, no loss of fortune, wealth or health can trouble us. Death itself will not disturb us…" and I realize he is right. Reader, you may find this little book worth its price for this alone, and I will not give away the answer here.

But what of value? If we have purpose, and we have blessing, what do we value? As for those who value nothing, Aurelius remarks pointedly: "If nothing is valued, one does not risk losing anything of value. However, it seems to me that this philosophy promotes an unbecoming lack of engagement with life, a general retreat from life. Indeed, such a philosophy would perhaps hold it best not be born in the first place… engagement places us at risk of disappointment in our endeavors, and grief at our loss of persons and things we love, but this is the price we pay for being born with natural gifts and accompanying obligations."

A life well-lived is not measured by success in our endeavors, in fact, but in the endeavoring itself. It is the journey, and not the destination. It is the process, and not the end result. The blessing that does not perish is what comes from a life so lived, and is, finally, unscathed by success as modern society would measure it.

Now Aurelius sinks his teeth into the meat of the issue: values. And from those values – morals. He does so with no holds barred.

"The judgments of others are fickle. Today's acclaimed hero will soon be cast down by public opinion as yesterday's fool or villain. The only judgment we need to consider is that of our own conscience… If others conduct themselves badly, so be it. The condition of each man's soul is his own responsibility."

If any reader thinks that is letting you off easy – no burning hell fires to consume the wrongdoer – think again. There is no harsher master than one's own conscience, certainly not when one has a working mind. It sees all, and it forgives nothing. Aurelius (that is, Stedall) takes on the dissection of good and evil here, and it is fascinating to watch the concepts take shape without various religious laws to fall back upon. He does it skillfully, with reason as his tool of precision, and there are few things more beautiful than logic falling neatly into place like an intricate puzzle. There is room here for pain, and there is room for tragedy. That inevitable question of "why me?" is addressed as well. Joy has its place, and so does peace, as each sends out ripples to begin another ripple in neat succession.

By end of Epilogue, my pencil, worn down to the nub, could only scratch out: Bravo!

Sunday, being in the present, most well spent.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Little Children (Movie Review)

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Actors: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley
  • Directors: Todd Field
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, DVD-Video
  • Rating R
  • Studio: New Line Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: May 1, 2007
  • Run Time: 137 minutes

In spite of its three Academy Award nominations, I had not heard of this movie, came across it merely by browsing the shelves at my neighborhood video store. Since I've been seeing quite a few Kate Winslet movies of late, most of which have ranged from interesting to impressive, I rented the movie on the strength of her name. Good decision. Little Children at this point ranks, in my mind, as Winslet's best performance to date.

The various intertwining plots of this movie, narrated with wonderful lines from a Tom Perotta novel, would ordinarily have disturbed me if not inclined me to leave it on the shelf. And it was disturbing. Again and again, it made me cringe, and wince, and fidget, and roll my eyes, and sigh with exasperation. But keep watching. These are the "little children" (immature adults without control over their adolescent whims and whines) of a wealthier suburbia, including adulterous couples, cooling and troubled marriages, neglected but well adorned children, bored wives, fantasy-ridden husbands, porn-addicted executives, and the neighborhood pedophile living with Mommy, as he calls her, because who else would have him?

Opening on a gated playground scene with mothers seated on a bench, only Winslet's character, Sarah Pierce, on a separate bench, watching their children at play, a young father (Patrick Wilson) with stroller enters the grounds - and the heads of the wives turn en masse. Prom King, they call him, and the fantasies of the bored wives quickly surround the pleasant young father as he plays with his little son at a distance. Nothing more desirable than a man playing with his child... only Sarah can hardly bear the cheap chatter of the women, and more to break it up than out of interest in the Prom King, she approaches him, gets his phone number on a dare, goes in for a hug to scandalize, and then, caught up in the tease of the horrified other mothers, lands a sensual kiss on the stranger.

And onward and upward and hotter from there we go.

The trigger for Sarah to unleash an affair, however, is not the kiss (although he, the recipient, can't stop thinking about it, even as he contemplates the cold superiority of his businesswoman wife who treats him more like a child than a husband - an interesting reversal of roles), but the discovery of her husband at home heaving and panting in front of a computer screen filled with a virtual stripping woman. Sarah is filled with disgust, her respect for her husband disintegrates, and when she searches and finds a wastebasket beneath the computer filled with stiffened tissues, she realizes she has encountered an ongoing addiction. Rather than confront her husband, she represses her disgust and unhappiness, as too many women do in similar situations, and purchases instead a scarlet red bathing suit in order to feel desirable again and heads to the neighborhood pool where the Prom King hangs out every summer afternoon. What pretends to be a new friendship soon is a full-blown affair.

An interesting moment between the two takes place when Sarah asks her new lover if his wife is pretty. Oh yes, drop dead gorgeous, he tosses off his shrugging appraisal, but "beauty is highly overrated," he says, oblivious to the insult he has just paid his new lover, and as the narrator inserts - it takes a great kind of arrogance in one's own beauty to be so disparaging of another. But however tossed off, his comment reveals a deeper truth: the two are extraordinarily compatible and similar in their family torments and the beating each has sustained on their marital ego.

Throughout this development of an affair, other sideline stories and characters evolve. There is the story of a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) and his mother (Phyllis Somerville), his deep attachment and dependence on her, the only human being who still cares about him, even as his behavior continues, sending the neighborhood into gyrations of horror and fear. There is the story of the bully cop (Noah Emmerich), just this side of being a criminal himself, who deteriotes into a vigilante chasing the pedophile, causing far more harm than good. And there are many rich and memorable scenes, which include a gathering of elderly neighborhood women with a few younger ones for spice, discussing the novel, Gustave Flaubert's riotous "Madame Bovary." There is the neighborhood's men's football team, and the portrayal of their often clumsy male bonding and destructive competition. Another winning scene has the cheated-upon wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, who mostly blends into background for other characters, observing a conversation between her husband and neighbor Sarah. As perhaps only women can, she understands from the most casual exchange between the two that there is far more intimacy between them than a man and woman friend should share. There is no raucous fireworks revelation of the affair, simply a silent observation, and a woman's instinct. She knows. Nor does she tell him that she knows. Again, like most women, she holds her knowledge inside, to quietly observe and await his hitting his own wall.

For all its moments of discomfort, as so many of our hidden life stories and opened closet doors may cause, this entire story is exquisitely developed, with top level acting, nuanced dialogue, and meaning that unfolds upon even deeper meaning when the layers of masks humanity wears come off. The story concludes with a surprising twist that is also highly satisfying, yet no more "pretty" than life usually is. Not even in a wealthy corner of suburbia.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 400 pages
# Publisher: Three Rivers Press, 2002
# Price: $14.95
# ISBN-10: 0812932188
# ISBN-13: 978-0812932188

Martha Beck - life coach and monthly columnist for O: Oprah Magazine - adores turtles. The turtle, after all, embodies much to be admired: a hard, thick shell on the outside, to protect itself from the bumps and bruises of manuevering through life; a very soft and vulnerable inside beneath the resistant carapace; lacking in speed but has a plodding persistence that wins over the hare every time; and, while protecting its head when at rest, is required to stick its neck out in order to move forward. The turtle, Beck points out, is a role model for living successful lives.

Moving ahead in life, turtle-style, is an excellent way to reach our North Stars - that point of light to guide us home like a compass in even the darkest sky. In an easy-to-absorb and enjoyable, often humorous style, Beck explains how so many of us get lost, or get stuck, and fail to achieve our most cherished dreams or any measure of happiness. We are a division of two selves requiring balance: the essential self - our core being that is guided mostly by uninhibited instinct combined with an inner voice of wisdom - with the social self - the part of us that has learned how to play nice with others, function in a diverse society, and, alas, all too often wear masks to hide our more tender and true core selves.

Beck does not advocate turning to one or other self exclusively, both essential and social selves are necessary, but rather finding the healthy balance so that we can remain on the right path toward that North Star. Too much essential self and we become irresponsible members of a civilized society. Too much social self, and we lose touch with our core, sinking into superficiality, losing sight of our dreams, and wearing our masks so long that we forget our own true faces.

Beck illustrates how our physical bodies often are first to let us know, loud and clear, if we only pay attention, that we have veered off the path. A persistent unhappiness is our first clue. Easy enough to recognize. But sometimes our grief is more internalized, less obvious, and so signs of illness, fatigue, boredom, apathy, chronic irritability, all point to a need to check our internal maps. People behaving badly are not so much mean and evil, she says, as in pain. And pain of any kind is a clear signal that we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing, that we have lost touch with our essential, core selves. It's time to listen to the voice inside again, the one belonging to the essential self, for where we have gone wrong.

In fifteen chapters, the author gives plenty of guidance and examples, many quizzes and questions to ponder, much sound advice and clear illustration. Whether the issue at hand is a relationship gone sour or a career gone dull (and one issue often goes hand in hand with another), her common sense guidelines encourage the reader to get back on track again and how to do so. Change, she acknowledges, is uncomfortable. But life IS change, and it is in fact change that keeps us young and vital and alert, much as flexing a muscle keeps it strong. The turtle never gets ahead without stretching its neck out from under that shell first. The bounty and joy of life, however, is always worth it. Dealing with change and the unknown is part of the hero's saga, or quest, in finding the North Star, and no one gets through without encountering their share of obstacles and hurdles and tests. It is the testing, in fact, that makes us into heroes and gives us the tools and know-how we need to go on.

"A willingness to make mistakes and recover from them is absolutely essential," she writes. As is doing a "terrible job" if it is on the path to learning and growth. To sustain oneself through the rough spots, her advice is to keep oneself in the positive, avoid the negative, and that includes the company one keeps (find people who support and encourage you), the kind of recreation one chooses (don't watch a violent movie and expect to feel positive about yourself or others), and how one treats others (don't just take the support, offer it in return to those who are worthy).

"Change hurts," she warns. "...for a person who's stuck in the wrong life, setting out on a North Star quest has all the combined attractions of suicide and childbirth. To complete it, you'll have to kill off the old You and give birth to a different You, someone nobody has ever seen before. Neither side of this process is painless, and they're both scary as hell. I've watched hundreds of folks make dramatic life transformations, and in every case, the person in question experienced alienation, confusion, frustration, and a thousand other forms of acute distress... the eventual payoff was tremendous - cheap at twice the price."

In the end, Beck states, we all manifest our own destinies. Whether we finally reach our personal North Star or not, it is entirely up to each and every one of us. Those of us who are eternal pessimists and live in a mire of negativity will always hone in like magnets on failure and disappointment. Those of us who maintain our North Star focus throughout the expected trials and tribulations of normal living, will claim what we were meant to have: our dreams. Turtles are created to cross the finish line.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Queen - Movie Review

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

Helen Mirren deservedly wins the award for best actress for her lead in The Queen, produced by Stephen Frears. The resemblence to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, is remarkable in her physical appearance, but also in Mirren's every mannerism, her gaze, her speech. Mirren manages to capture this cool and highly controlled living historical figure with the subtle nuances that indicate warm(ish) blood beneath. It would have been easy to portray Elizabeth II as stiff royalty of robotic sensibilities, but instead, Mirren manages to bring to her a sense of a woman imprisoned by her upbringing and the constraints of her position. There is just a glimmer, now and then, of feeling beneath the proper etiquette, a glimpse of humanity beneath the thick mask of tradition that allows for almost none.

The Queen is portrayed at a time when tradition is forced to crack under "modernization," a favorite term of Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen), new and somewhat awkward prime minister playing a respectful if challenging second fiddle to Her Majesty. Princess Diana has just died in a horrific car accident, and the royal family is not prepared for a nation in grief, a nation, perhaps even spreading to a global community, that has little tolerance left for British cool. There is a sense of blame that sends electric currents through the Palace, who had expected support for their restraint but found instead their centuries old status threatened. Pushed to the limits of her tightly bound comfort zone, Elizabeth II manages to maintain royal grace under fire. A scene in which the Queen is stranded in the country as her vehicle breaks down midstream, and Her Majesty sits in the grass indulging in a secret moment of tears, is exquisite. Another, as she strolls beside the gates outside the Palace to view the flowers and cards left for Diana, many of which are crassly critical of the royal family, but still manages to reconnect to her people is a tension brought beautifully to a resolution - with a glance, with the most minimal nod of acknowledgment, with the acceptance of flowers from an admiring child.

A truly incredible performance, and a refreshingly new perspective on a time when media showed us only one view, from the outside of Buckingham Palace looking in.

Friday, April 13, 2007

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1996
  • Price: $13.00
  • ISBN-10: 0060927569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060927561

Kingsolver holds reign neck and neck with Annie Dillard as two of my favorite naturalist writers and essayists. Kingsolver holds her own as a novelist. In this collection of essays, rewritten and expanded versions, in many cases, from what has been previously published in various magazines, Kingsolver's skill and talent as an essayist shimmers with brilliance and sheer entertainment. Even when she is teaching us a lesson and hammering it home.

Topics have wide range, covering nature, art, values and ethics, human nature and its foibles, politics, and travels. Whether she is pondering the biological clocks of hermit crabs or espousing her views on violence and objectification of women on the silver screen, or taking the reader along on the harsh realities of a not so glamorous book tour, her language is lush and poetic, flowing and vibrant, clever and memorable. I have been quoting her words to anyone who will listen ever since reading the book, and thinking back to it as a kind of measuring stick for my personal observations of daily life.

So what moved you to begin such a boycott of violence in movies? a friend asked me over lunch today. We had been talking about popular contemporary movies, and why I had made sometimes surprising - to others - choices. And it hit me. While my inclination had been moving in that direction for some time now, it was Kingsolver's essay, "Careful What You Let In the Door," that had pushed me into a conscious awareness of how my viewing choices affected every other part of my life, daily choices I make. The results of such choices have been almost immediately apparent to me. The desensitization I had experienced towards atrocities in the news, to the daily disrespect I witness in various human interactions and my regretful tolerance of it, hardly registering as a bump in my path, was lifting. Newly aware, I have been surfacing as if from a deep and dumb sleep.

Kingsolver writes in her essays about her literary art that writers may not write with politics in mind, yet "good art is political." As is hers. Words can and should move us, good art should change us, and a good writer is a person who wields a pen more powerful than any sword.

In this particular essay, Kingsolver explores the function of violence in art (or media in general), visual or literary. Too often, she notes, my lunch partner nodding in agreement, such violence is perpetrated against women. "It turns out," writes Kingsolver about an inadvertant movie choice, "I'd rented the convincing illusion of helpless, attractive women being jeopardized, tortured, or dead, for no good reason I could think of after it was over." Pondering this, she concludes that violence in movies or video games (or various other formats) too often appears merely for its sensationalist effect, while in literature a writer has the ability to expand upon a violent scene to fully show its consequences. Because violence always has consequences. It is the absence of those consequences in our daily media diet, separate from the realm of reality, that has led to a society that hardly blinks at its constant appearance upon the screens of our minds. All of which, she argues, with time turns us into hardened and numb creatures, willing to not only view violence, but to tolerate it, potentially even to participate in it.

So an essay moves us to change our viewing habits. Art creates positive change. But Kingsolver can just as easily write an essay that makes us laugh, as in her story of joining a literary rock band, allowing herself to look the fool for our sympathetic pleasure. Or her struggles as a parent. Although in "Somebody's Baby," her message again takes on a ponderous seriousness in considering how little we care for the youngest generations, even while we claim to be baby lovers. Her call to us in this essay is to consider that it is not just the parent's job to care for the child, but it is the obligation and heart-calling to the community at large, to the entire nation, to care for and nurture our young. We are, she writes, raising Presidents-in-training, yet our attitude is "every family for itself."

What I love about Kingsolver's essays is that they are beautifully written, literary works of art. Yet each and every one carries a deeper meaning, a message, a call to arms, even those written with the relish of humor. It is art with consequence.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Blood Diamond - Movie Review

by Zinta Aistars

I've made a point of passing by any movie with meaningless violence. The kind that is all about sensationalism, or worse, a more degrading kind of titillation for those who get off on scenes of women being objectified and thrashed to a bloody pulp. All too many of those on screen today. More on that topic elsewhere.

But I sat down for this movie, as filled with heartrending violence as it is. The difference? This violence has meaning. It is historically accurate, and this history has not yet been resolved. It educates, and it opens our hearts to compassion and, one might hope, moves us to make changes. If perhaps only in our purchasing habits. No small thing.

Blood Diamond is about the diamond trade in South Africa. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a one-time mercenary from Zimbabwe who now makes a killing (play on words intended) smuggling diamonds. Opposite him, although soon close beside him, is Solomon Vandy, played by Djimon Hounsou, an African fisherman caught in the trade and enslaved by rebels. Vandy finds a large pink diamond while enslaved, and Archer soon finds his way to get in on the lucky find. The two are reluctant partners, but eventually develop a bond of trust and deep caring - a bond that leads to heroism and sacrifice. The backdrop of their story is the genocide happening around them in Sierra Leone of the 1990s, a brutal world of a people turning against themselves in greed and lust for power. The massacre of innocents is horrific. The brainwashing of children to turn them into heartless miniature soldiers is heartbreaking. A father's love conquering all - restores hope.

There is an important lesson here about conflict-free diamonds, a phrase that was new to me, but important to understand. We vote with our dollars while others die.

DiCaprio's role is superbly played, but Hounsou is a stand up and roar performance. The two are deserving of every accolade.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction - Movie Review

by Zinta Aistars

  • Directors: Marc Forster
  • Format: AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
  • DVD Price: $28.95
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rating PG-13
  • Studio: Sony Pictures
  • DVD Release Date: February 27, 2007
  • Run Time: 113 minutes

I avoid Will Ferrell movies, always. Hate silly, stoopid humor. Love the clever stuff (and his humor isn't). But this movie promised to be less about humor, although it certainly had threads of the clever variety woven throughout, and more of a play on a very creative imagination. I heard Ferrell was making this a serious role. So okay, that passes with me. And how could I possibly resist a performance by Emma Thompson extraordinaire? She's up there in the top two of my favorite actor list, back and forth in slot one. Okay, and I was once married to an IRS man, and I've been involved with those uptight OCD types... and I am a baffled creative writer mind, too... so this became just too irresistable to pass up.

Not disappointed. Not one bit. Stranger Than Fiction was just too much fun. From grand opening line to grand twisted if not overly surprising finish, loved every screen shot, every line of literary dialogue. Or monologue (Thompson's voice narrates the life of her character, predicting his imminent death, all of which he hears as a voice coming out of nowhere). Emma Thompson (as blocked award-winning writer Karen Effiel) makes a terrific eccentric novelist, Ferrell (as Harold Crick, her main character) won points with me as a more serious, wacky, neurotic auditor, perhaps only the romantic side story got a sapped out wince out of me at moments. And Dustin Hoffman is always a treat. Even Queen Latifah and Helen Hunt add some sparkling moments.

Go ahead. Enjoy. Almost as good as a well-written book. Not quite. But almost.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers - Movie Review

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Directors: Clint Eastwood
  • Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rating R
  • Studio: Dreamworks Video
  • DVD Release Date: February 6, 2007
  • Run Time: 132 minutes
With every intention of yet reading the book (books are almost always better than movies, I've found) to delve deeper into this piece of international history, I viewed this one of two movies, directed by Clint Eastwood, dealing with the horrific battle at Iwo Jima in February, 1945, a bloody part of World War II. The companion movie to Flags of Our Fathers, also title of the book, is Letters From Iwo Jima, which by now I have also seen.

Few if any Americans have not at some point seen the famous, if not infamous, photo of American soldiers propping up the American flag as symbol of victory on the island of Iwo Jima. Many of us have seen, too, the immense memorial in Washington D.C., modeled from that photo. But few know the story behind the photograph. Few knew it at the time it first hit the media in 1945. What this movie illustrates as its foremost message is how the media machine operates, and how the sheep mentality of the masses almost instantly becomes a part of that machine, how politicians cheerily hop on board, and what ensues is a stomach-turning account of how war is conducted and financed - with little to no honor or integrity in its marketing. Most governments are only too ready to throw human lives into the churning wheels of the war machine. Only those closely tied to these individual lives, and the veterans themselves, truly understand the nightmare of war - even while perhaps none of us can comprehend it.

Eastwood's movie shows us that story behind the photograph, and the three men who are pushed into the fundraising limelight to raise good will and money for the war effort. No one cares to know the truth: that these men are no more heroes, indeed, they feel less like heroes, than the many, many soldiers who died around them in the battle. Each struggles with his exploitation in his own way; all are changed forever by it.

The photograph of the flag raising was a moment caught in time that even the photographer did not realize would carry such impact when published back home in the papers. Six men had raised the flag up on Mount Suribachi, three of them later died in battle. The three remaining are subjected to the exploitation of the government and the public, hungry to believe that we are in the right, that war somehow makes sense. What results is a tragedy that in some respects nauseates more than the war. A bullet is a clean hit. To exploit a man and his horrific war experience to perpetuate a lie is in some ways, one might think, even more destructive - at very least, inhumane treatment of a war veteran. And there is nothing clean about this kind of war wound.

After seeing the movie, learning the story behind the story, I will never look at that photograph or the monument of Iwo Jima the same way. It does no honor to those who sacrificed and suffered. It glorifies war, when war can never be glorious. It is a mockery of true heroism, and a shameful reminder of how little we care for those who risk all. We build monuments while letting veterans rot away in vet hospitals; we cheer at parades while vets wander homeless in our streets, suffering still from post traumatic stress syndrome. We raise money for weaponry, but cut back on benefits for those who fought on the front lines. Eastwood has delivered a powerful message to us. We should learn from it. But have we?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Substance Hoped For: A Journey of Faith by Jeffrey H. King

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: Authorhouse, 2006

Price: $30.99 (paperback: $15.99)

ISBN-10: 1425925960

ISBN-13: 978-1425925963

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the essence of things not seen.”

— Hebrews 11:1

Every time a reader opens a book to begin reading its pages, it is an act of faith. Somewhere tucked inside those lines of print on page after page will be a message, we hope, that moves us. Perhaps the message will teach us something we need to know to live better and fuller lives. Perhaps we will close the book at its end more enlightened than when we began it. In a good book, or at least in one that resonates for us, the readers, there is something that mirrors what lives inside of us, a part of our human condition: a mixed bag of wonder, hope, doubts, curiosity, and faith. Whether any conflicts arising from this mixed bag are resolved is usually far less important than an accurate reflection. Faith moves mountains, says the Bible, and so does common wisdom. Without faith, we sink into despair. Without faith, all hope fades, and our tomorrows stretch out bleak and without promise. Without faith, we become a self-fulfilling prophecy of an empty life.

Jeffrey H. King, a first time novelist from Toledo, Ohio, knows something about faith — and his novel is his expression of faith in sharing it with us, his readers. King’s background is in theatre, but his heart, it seems, belongs to his church. He serves as usher, church elder, and Sunday school superintendent at Trinity Lutheran Church in Toledo. With The Substance Hoped For—A Journey of Faith, King examines the path of an agnostic, Tom Snyder, to a sustaining Christian faith.

When first opening the covers of this novel, my own faith was perhaps tainted with cynicism. That is, I recognized the book as being self-published, and my past experience with most self-published books has been less than inspiring. Let’s face it, if a book is truly worthy of print, usually a traditional publishing house will pick it up. Why this Christian-based book would not have been picked up by traditional Christian publishing houses like Zondervan or Tyndale, I wondered. My wonderment only increased as I read the first pages, the first chapters. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing, the sound structure of the unfolding storyline, and the author’s ability to draw me in.

The novel opens with a mysterious “they” undertaking a journey to an as yet unknown destination. We soon realize “they” are the biblical Wise Men, seeking the newborn Christ. But we also soon realize that “they” are, or can be, each and every one of us, all seekers of wisdom and grace.

“They were wealthy men. And wise. These were qualities which they knew set them above other men. However, they did not allow their knowledge to warp them with pride… They used their wisdom to learn more of the world and its workings. They brought organization and planning to their country, and it grew. In this way they worked with the world as it is seen by men.

“But they also knew that there was more. There was an unseen world which overlaid the one they saw and understood. It was a world of god and spirits… Worldly fortunes grew, but those paled to the growing thirst to know what the ancients knew… They hoped there was a god. Otherwise, the knowledge they held, the riches they enjoyed, the civilization they called home was all without meaning. There would only be the rule of might. There would be no right or wrong, only opinions.”

As the story unfolds, the familiar one of the birth of the Christ child, alongside it develops the contemporary story of Tom Snyder, a good man who is not sure about the basis for his goodness. His goodness seems more of an opinion than an absolute, yet his longing and curiosity for the absolute that gives meaning to goodness leaves him restless enough that he mixes with those whose faith is strong. Like many of us, he has his doubts, but he also has that pull, part heart, part intellectual, that makes him wonder: is there or is there not a God? Tom is something of a modern day Wise Man, on his own journey to find faith.

On an evening when Tom is invited to share in the Christmas festivities at a church, which he attends not without a degree of reluctance, interesting exchanges take place between the faithful and the faithless, the self-righteous and the agnostic. The conversations the reader is allowed to overhear are similar to the ones we often overhear, and share in, in our own lives. The author maneuvers us through them skillfully. If there is a premonition of a factor that may just sway our hero agnostic to the faithful, it may just be through the warm interest expressed — and returned — with a romantic interest he develops at the church party. After all, our hearts are often opened to the divine via the human heart, when the love between two is an expression of what God wants us most to learn: to love others as we love ourselves. But then, tragedy hits. Or at least, it seems to be a tragedy. Tom Snyder is killed in a car accident after leaving the party.

Or is he?

A trick of time travel takes place, or perhaps it is a stroke of otherworldliness, as a guardian angel scoops up Tom Snyder, that fence-sitter who now faces the afterlife not having made a commitment to God, and transports him back across the centuries to the time of Christ’s birth. What better way to challenge a man’s faith than to have him meet the Holy Family? If at first disoriented and uncomfortable, which surely anyone would be, Tom finds himself working for Joseph the Carpenter and befriending his wife, Mary. He even becomes the favorite “Unca” of the Christ toddler.

Somewhere around this point in the storyline, I start to understand why this novel may have had to go the self-published route. My own faith in the solidity of this storyline begins to waver. To write convincingly about time travel is a difficult feat. To write about a time so many of us have read so much about it, and to infuse it with divine personalities, is even more difficult. That requires mastery, surely, and a theological knowledge few have. It’s been done and done again, in print and in film, but we have seen more failures than successes. When King takes on scenes of Tom Snyder feeling homesick on his birthday, and the Holy Family and friends decide to throw him a birthday surprise party that may remind him more of his own traditions, the suspension of disbelief required to carry this off is broken, never to be fully repaired. While I admire the author’s daring to try to pull it off, he may have been wiser to not have tried. Traveling over time as well as over such disparate cultures can’t be so easily overlapped. It’s not just a matter of time and place. Language and expression must be altered. A thousand cultural mores must blend. Customs cannot be ignored. Sensibilities may not be able to absorb what is normal in one time when transferred to another. The overall effect is one of losing the reader’s faith in the author, and that is costly in any novel.

By novel’s end, I had gone from pleasure at finding self-published treasure to a bit of a let down that a strong beginning did not lead to an equally strong finish. But King is not an author without talent, if perhaps too daring in his plots than, at this point in his skill level, he should have undertaken. If his message of faith is a strong basis for a Christian novel, he must not forget to also sustain the reader’s faith in a storyline, to know and remain within his own reach. When King writes of our contemporary world and contemporary people in various stages of their search for meaning in life, he does best, and one might hope his second novel will deal less with journeys over time and more with journeys into our own hearts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Woman on The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Fawcett; Reissue edition, 1985
  • Price: $7.99
  • ISBN-10: 0449210820
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449210826

I am a great fan of Marge Piercy's poetry - her skill at using simple and everyday language to capture everyday scenes and sensibilities in the inner and outer lives of strong women, and to shine upon them a sublime literary light - and so it was not difficult to convince me to break out of my usual reading, decidedly not science fiction, to spend time with this "time-traveling novel." That play on words, mind you, is quite intentional. I soon sensed, within the first pages, that this is the kind of story plotline (and the writing skill to make it succeed convincingly) that traverses time and retains meaning and interest, no matter the year. Some things change, some things never do.

Being familiar with Piercy's poetry and something of her own biography, I expected a feminist approach to the plot. Indeed, it was there, and this is why I was soon confident in my enjoyment of the novel, even if it did veer from my more typical reading choices. Whatever the genre, I like to read about strong and unique women. Woman on the Edge of Time has plenty, in the now and in the to be.

Consuelo (Connie) in the 1970s lives a life of poverty and abuse, when domestic violence is as common as air, and women survive all too often by selling themselves out as objectified beings, bodies without minds, without souls. A pimp beats up "his" women to maintain order, in this case, to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, and a scene of violence ensues, in which Connie is made the villain rather than the victim. She can say nothing to prevent herself from being institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, called mad, whereas the male's voice, that of the pimp's, holds unquestioned weight. He has her out of his way to create more victims.

I couldn't help but draw parallels here with another literary classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey, and even some undertones of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but Piercy succeeds in making this story her own. Connie strives to maintain her sanity by traveling in time to another life in 2137, assisted by future person (Piercy uses "per" as pronoun, thus avoiding gender designation of she or he in this future), Luciente, a kind of almost andrygenous being. In that future, she explores a life much more pleasing, if not utopian, and in series of trips, explores this future world in its treatment of relationships, the interchange of genders and generations, the workings of community and government, the balance between work and play, spiritual evolvement, and even the occasional war. For it is not utopia, but a constant work in progress, however more evolved than our current day, with humankind in an ongoing mode of self-improvement.

No less fascinating is a shorter description of a darker parallel of life in the future, when Connie misses her usual destination and lands instead in a future that could just as easily, one fears, evolve from our current time. In this future, women are even more objectified than they are today, creatures resembling comic book and Barbie doll fantasy proportions, created by plastic surgery, produced specifically and only for the erotic pleasures of men, becoming sexual slaves. Mind reading allows for no privacy, no chance of escape. A woman might only think of the possibility of escape, and already she is reined in and punished. It is a world of callousness and cruelty, domination of gender over gender, power and greed ruling all, happiness for none.

In the hospital, woven through the story, Connie struggles for her sanity, as the doctors in power rule out any possibility of what they cannot understand, puzzled by her episodes of "unconsciousness," and many in the ward are forced to undergo brain-altering surgery. Connie, too, undergoes repeated surgeries. Her attempts at escape, sometimes in mind but sometimes also in body, can be heartrending, as she comes so close, so close...

This is a story worth reading, if not for intriguing storyline, than as a philosophical treatise on what could be, what might be, what a future for humankind might hold if we approach it with understanding. Whether Connie truly travels in time or only in fantasy is perhaps least important of all. Those who pick it up as science fiction fans might be disappointed if seeking high tech descriptions and complex alien worlds; this is not Piercy's intent. She is far more interested in exploring the evolvement of humankind if all are allowed to pursue their best, towards a world of harmony and a caring community that works on all practical levels.

While I still prefer Piercy's poetry to this sampling of her prose (my first, but probably not my last), her skill and imagination to produce worlds that intrigue as well as enlighten is worthwhile reading.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin, 2005
  • Price: $14.00
  • ISBN-10: 0143035452
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035459

If I have for some time now been reading books to illuminate the meaning of life, here was a break to turn that coin on its other side and ask of its value. To ponder meaning, after all, assumes life has value. And if it does, are all of our lives to be valued equally?

When 2 1/2-year-old Ursula falls into an old mine shaft in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, media and curiosity seekers swarm the scene, and not one alone asks about the mixed race child born of poor parents - is she worth saving? How much investment and effort is one such child worth?

Ingrid Hill, in this debut novel, explores the question of one life's value by going back into history, traveling the long and complex limbs of a family tree, to an ancestry of two thousand years and a genealogy that contains within it royalty and peasants, slaves and alchemists, immigrants and miners. Little Ursula's ethnic roots wind through China, Sweden, Finland, Poland, traveling over land and oceans, passing through the courts of royalty with as much intrigue as through the tents and barracks of immigrants, until the two branches of her parents' families, the Wongs and the Makis, finally meet to create this child. In one tiny child: the spans of millenia and the bloodlines of countless generations. Such is the value of one human life, that it contains the lives of many, and these many are intertwined by all who have ever lived, all across the globe, a concentration of all humanity and all the characteristics and traits, good and evil, therein. Every life, we soon see, is a vessel holding all that has been and all that will be.

To hold so many threads in the plotting of a novel such as this, author Ingrid Hill has accomplished a no less than amazing feat, her writing skill already at such a level of artistry that it is nearly impossible to imagine how she might top this stellar debut. Yet, realizing what value, what hidden treasure and untold promise our bloodlines may contain, why not? Indeed, every stop along the way in this novel beckons a novel of its own.

I first picked up this book for the very simple reason that its story frame was out of the Keweenaw, a place I too once lived, my own storyline weaving through the area, holding now my own personal bits and pieces of hidden treasure. But if my expectations were simple enough, seeking but a pleasurable revisiting to the warming of nostalgia, Ingrid Hill astounded me with her range and reach, her skill and her sense of beauty combined with deeper meaning, winning me over with a standing ovation by the turning of the final page. Ursula, Under proved to be not only an excellent story well told, but a masterpiece of literary artistry that now tops my list of all-time favorite books.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Signet Classics; Reissue edition (September 6, 1983)
  • Price: $6.95
  • ISBN-10: 0451523482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451523488

If there is one test that tries all equally, it is the test of time. What is merely a statement of a fad, or a passing whim, quickly fades away. What lasts, thick and thin, good times and bad, passing through fashion and invention and change, proves itself worthy. So has Nathanael West's short novel, The Day of the Locust, passed its test of time. Written in and about the 1930s, it is a portrait of the most superficial of places: Hollywood. And, aside from progress in computerized special effects and the ever quickening turnaround of superstar marriages and divorces, what has changed about this town and its culture? Ah, nothing. The superficial reigns.

West calls to stage a most colorful array of, some might say, "freaks." But perhaps that is too harsh. These are misfits and fantasizers and wildly hopefuls. There is the actress part-timing as a prostitute, the cowboy without a ranch, the drunken dwarf, the lonely and geekish hotel bookkeeper in stupid devotion to the actress who never quite knows what to do with his immense hands, the screenwriter with a rubber horse in his swimming pool, the obnoxious and precocious child star, and a string of other unusuals that, in Hollywood, are all too usual. Their backdrops and scenarios are no less so: cockfights and porn flick screenings, questionable deaths, business schemes based on anatomy overthinking brain. It's all here. And West handles it all like a fine juggling act, never dropping the ball.

His grand finale is indeed grand. It is what brings to mind the locust. This seething insect that acts en masse and without thinking, following just to follow, stampeding and destroying all in its ravenous path, yet not without eruptions of the grotesque.

Perhaps what makes this all so moving is that Hollywood brings to spotlight what, after all, exists everywhere. Only here it is the stuff of which movies are made. Or, in this case, a masterly piece of fine literature.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan (October 1, 2002)
  • Price: $19.99
  • ISBN-10: 0310205719
  • ISBN-13: 978-0310205715

I bypassed this book for a long time, naturally resistant to anything that smacks of "fad," however well-intentioned. My thinking tends to be that anything with such mass appeal tends to be watered down in order to appeal to the greatest number. Then again, Christianity and its manual for life, the Bible, have had more mass appeal than just about anything one could name in human history. And so, at last, I made this book a part of my personal spiritual journey and exploration.

Rick Warren, a pastor and Christian writer, has organized his book into six parts, each into short sections numbering 40, meant to be read one section per day. That is how I read it. Makes sense, because each section is just enough to offer a daily meditation that, if rushed, would fail to properly be "tried on for size" in daily life. Warren's purpose in this book is, after all, to transform the reader's life - via a point-by-point analysis of understanding of why we are here, living beings on earth, in a life that often seems painfully meaningless and chaotic. If there is one main underlying purpose to remember, then, it is that we are not here for our own individual purposes, but for the purpose of serving God. All else if off the mark.

Warren's writing style is clear and easy to read in layman's terms. He uses many different biblical translations to bolster his point, and he chooses well. Each of the 40 days ends with a "point to ponder," a "verse to remember," and, finally, a "question to consider," that urges the reader to apply what has just been read to practical, everyday living. His topics addressed range from understanding worship and its purpose, cultivating relationships and community, transformation through truth and temptation (resisting it, suffering from it, being brought down by it), restoring our broken fellowships, being servants not only to God but to each other, finding balance, respecting our commitments, even learning acceptance of the shape and form of the physical bodies God has given us to inhabit. He covers pretty much everything.

Was I transformed by reading this book? Perhaps not entirely. Although something in me is surely transformed to some degree by all that I take in and consider, all that I give out to others, even in the writing of such a review as this. Warren gave me pause to ponder, and surely I am at least a little better for it. I've read various theologians in their criticisms of this book, and it could be I simply lack the theological background to give much heed to their criticisms, but in general, I see much good in this book, and its mission of giving pause to its readers to consider the meaning of their lives - successful. If I haven't given it an entirely standing ovation, it may be that I might have wanted a few more specific and practical suggestions, but I would freely recommend it to anyone who is grappling with this age-old question of: "What on earth am I here for?" It could provide some much needed guidelines.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Handmaid and The Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Random House, 2006
  • Price: $17.95
  • ISBN-10: 1400065380
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400065387

I was pleased to come across an Elizabeth Berg novel in a Christian bookstore, shopping for gifts appropriate to the holiday season. Prior to spotting this novel, I had thought of Berg only as a "secular" novelist, albeit a good one, and to find this familiar name among Christian literature seemed a bonus.

The topic is, of course, as old as Christianity. How to write it new and fresh? I chose the novel as a gift for a young niece who enjoys reading and is currently in a place of spiritual seeking - and how refreshing to find such literary treasure at this season increasingly becoming known for anything but the spiritual. Would Berg succeed? I had time enough before wrapping to read the book myself, and I did so in a day, intrigued.

It is not about the child born to Mary, not nearly as much as it is the tender love story between Mary and Joseph. Woven into the well known spiritual tale was a pleasing human element: the vulnerability of love, the flush of romance, the fears and insecurities of opening a very human heart to another, along with the very understandable doubts and questioning when faced with events only a divine intervention could explain away. Berg succeeds on these fronts. The tale becomes a pleasing literary backdrop to the story we know in the gospels. Mary is the strong woman with independent spirit that we would expect her to be; Joseph is the devoted and loving husband he would have to be to stand beside her, quite human in his occasional wondering about the story he must accept if he is to accept her as his wife - his doubts are ever so human, his overcoming those doubts ever so faithful.

Berg's novel won't stand alongside some of the great Christian-themed tomes such as the Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain or Exodus by Leon Uris. But for a young woman looking to relate to a love in pure heart and pure spirit, tender with inspiration, adding humanity to the divine, Berg's novel is just right, perhaps leading a reader towards deeper reads such as the aforementioned.