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.