Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Decent Ransom by Ivana Hruba

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1601641621
ISBN-13: 978-1601641625

In her first adult novel, author Ivana Hruba tells the story of a kidnapping gone awry. I suppose saying so beckons a definition of a successful kidnapping, which would depend on one's perspective -- as either the kidnapper or the kidnapped. We have in A Decent Ransom the perspectives of both. It is perhaps, then, up to the reader to determine if the unusual twists in this particular kidnapping end well or not (and I don't intend to give the twists away entirely).

This something of a roller coaster ride of perspectives is both the strength and weakness of Hruba's novel. Three cheers for the juggling it requires for an author to switch adeptly between one character to another, one perspective to another. That's a trick, and Hruba, mostly, carries it off with skill and gusto. Where she misses, and that juggled plate comes on occasion crashing to the floor, is by using first person ("I") for ALL perspectives, ALL characters. Since we are talking about a relatively large number of characters, this can lead to unnecessary confusion. The chapters are usually not too long, and each chapter tends to switch characters and perspectives. Maybe my mind is aging, but for me, this meant that I had to read sometimes as much as a full paragraph into the chapter before I could identify through which character's eyes I was now peering. More than once, this would force me to read to identify, then go back to the beginning again and read the same text a second time for context, now that I knew who was talking. That's just awkward. If the author really wants to write always in first person, then perhaps a chapter's heading might work as an identifier.

That gripe aside, we can get to the good news: A Decent Ransom is well written, fresh, fun, creative. Hruba knows what she's doing on a keyboard. Her characters have shape and color and voice. They are capable of pulling heart strings as well as tickling funny bones. It works. They work. And, that rare jewel too few writers wear? Hruba has it pinned front and center. She can tell a story and she can also tell it well (two markedly different skills). Sample this:

"The hundred-thousand-dollar question has the face of a sad clown balancing across a tightly stretched rope. One false step and ...

"The boy is no fool. He waits patiently. Slumped in the corner like a bag of wet clothes, he evokes the smell of familiar things. Chopped garlic. Cold pie. Lonely old men. Pool shop owners dissatisfied with marriage. Burnt oil and burgers. Hair grease. Jasmine tea. And somewhere in between, there's Bid. Steaming like a bucket of warm pee in the hot, dusty weather, he pumps petrol. Up and down, the old fashioned way he cleans the windscreens. Smiling at the tourists but watching me. Always watching. His eyes like a fish's. His cheeks like an old woman's ass. His hands like a turtle's claws. And always I said no."

See what I mean? Bravo! Hruba plays on all the reader's senses and that's what makes a story memorable. Add a quirky storyline of kidnapped young wife, straying husband, simple-minded kidnapper, the used (or is she the user?) mistress, the abusive partner in crime, the oriental stripper, stir it up with intrigue and revenge, and you are in for a fun ride. As long as you can keep them all straight -- enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Temporary People by Steven Gillis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 203 pages
· Publisher: Black Lawrence Press, 2008
· Price: $20.95
· ISBN-10: 0976899361
· ISBN-13: 978-0976899365

Years ago, I saw a Jim Carrey movie called The Truman Show. It was about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, played out on a movie stage while the rest of the world watched. Steven Gillis’s novel, Temporary People, reminded me of that movie … only with a much darker palette of colors. Much darker. Add a touch of the surreal, and you have Gillis, likened to Kurt Vonnegut by some (and I would agree with the comparison).

Temporary People is called a fable by the author, explaining the designation in the first pages of his unfolding story, in which the island of Bamerita, floating unattached some 2,000 miles south of Iceland, has become a movie set directed by a madman, called Teddy Lamb a.k.a the General:
“The scenes for Teddy’s movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film’s about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we’re not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie’s a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes, however, each time the rumor’s repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone’s uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always intended. Our fear isn’t artistic but rather a concern for our safety. In evaluating the scenes, Teddy’s impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. ‘That,’ Teddy says, ‘is show biz.’”

Under this guise of movie-making, Teddy rules as a slaughtering dictator would, even while doing so with a perverted sense of humor. Madness, if you will. The previous government officials are filmed as they are tied to logs, then pulled in two, set to float on the ocean waves. The population of Bamerita falls quietly into place after that. Until, of course, they rise to revolt. As any population, given time and wearing away of patience with brutality, will. A crew of “actors,” i.e. citizens, take the lead, with characters such as Andre Mafante, an insurance salesman who tries to promote non-violent means of revolt, and his friend, Emilo, whose rebelliousness culminates in sewing his own ears, eyes and mouth shut. One of Gillis’s most disturbing scenes is when Teddy torments Emilo into unwilling laughter and pained screams, effectively tearing up his stitched mouth into meaty shreds.

The satire is effective. Gillis is successful in painting the madness, the irrational behavior of an oppressive government, the mass fear in response, and the distortion of reality that taking away basic liberties must involve when one manipulates the many. If this echoes of current political scenarios, it should. In his characters, Gillis illustrates different forms of resistance and rebellion: indifference, self-serving cowardice, passive and active resistance, heroic if perhaps misguided protest and bloody coups. All done with a touch of Hollywood.

Steven Gillis is the author of two prior novels and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. He has also published a story collection and has a second one due out in 2009. Gillis is co-founder of Dzanc Books (in partnership with Dan Wickett), with all proceeds from his publications going to Dzanc.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-06-123953-3

It was long ago that I bought the book, on a long, lone roadtrip southwest, in a favorite bookstore alongside the Rockies. I held it, carried it, kept it on my coffeetable, my nightstand, prolonging the sweet anticipation, knowing the coming reward. I have been (no hyperbole) in awe of Annie Dillard from the first encounter, decades ago, with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (winning Dillard the Pulitzer Prize). Finally, oh finally, picking up what I expect may be her final novel (I heard her interview on NPR at the very beginning of my trip southwest, in which she spoke of the arthritis in her fingers, the agony of the mechanics of writing), now immersed in the solitude of a retreat, I read. I read throughout the day, into the night, until I was done.

Yet never done. Dillard's ability to evoke light from dark, to remind us in an age when books wane in entertainment value against modern technology, of the divine in artistic creation, is, still, without comparison. I remain in awe of her gift. For half a century of bookworming, I have yet to find an author who can stand beside her.

See, nothing much happens. That in itself enthralls me. The literary master can paint a scene with words, leave out the excess of action (how I tire of it in our current entertainment venues) and the bore of high drama, yet evoke in us the deepest emotion, eventual revelation. Consider these opening lines in the prologue of the novel, introducing us to the Maytrees, a couple living on the very hook of Cape Cod, in Provincetown, the bohemian town of charming misfits and artists:

"The Maytrees' lives, the Nausets', played out before the backdrop of fixed stars. The way of the world could be slight, then and now, but rarely, among individuals, vicious. The slow heavens marked hours. They lived often outside. They drew every breath from a wad of air just then crossing from saltwater to saltwater. Their sandspit was a naked strand between two immensities, both given to special effects."

And so we enter the lives of these two, from their meeting in their youth, to the unfolding of their love, to its unfolding (not breaking), as Toby Maytree leaves his wife, Lou (along with their small child, Petie), for her best friend, (flaky, flashy, and flirty) Deary Hightoe. Only to return again when both near the end of their lives, and not without Deary (who somehow manages to remain humorously oblivious to how she has affected these two in what for her seems to be on the level of a change in scenery). Because by then, when Toby needs, when his world wavers, when his second wife falls fatally ill, and he himself equally so, where should he go but to the woman he knew he could depend upon, always. All of this against fixed stars. All of this against the backdrop of slow heavens.

Dillard never falls into a trap, never gets sucked into making the common, common. Without once naming the pain in Lou's heart at this infidelity, she still conveys its shattering. Its enduring. Its opening again in the wisdom of women. We sense only how this feminine wisdom and patience and strength is what holds the slow heavens in place. Why foolish acts fail to make the stars fall from that fixed place. And she does it with the precision of a poet.

While Dillard's dialogue is spare and infrequent, when she does use it, she allows the Maytrees to convey all we need to know in a quick moment, then moves on. When the errant once-husband returns home, now an old man, asking Lou's help to care for his ill wife, Deary, and him, this potential land mine moment becomes an elegant ballet:

"Not going to slug me?"

"I considered it, when Petie was a baby and you wore earplugs."

"Earplugs? I don't remember any earplugs. Actually, I ran off with Deary."

"I did notice that. You brute. Get some sleep."

"You're wonderfully ..."

She growled and he stopped. He was treating her like a stranger who was helping him change a tire.

Not that the fractures of a shattered heart were gone. Such wounds remain forever. Alone in her bed, her once-husband sleeping in the next room, Lou lies awake, tossed by the waves of twenty-year old ache. Such is love, however, if real. She remains loyal in the face of disloyalty, and so we witness what never wins medals, rarely receives acknowledgement or reward, but is the axis of a universe tossed by whim and impulse and sheer human stupidity.

A kind of loyalty in Toby returns, too, as if back on its compass needle to this, his north star. After Deary passes, Lou cares for Toby as he, too, grows ever more ill. Finally, he is bedridden, and because he had always so loved the ocean crashing against the spit of sand, there on the tip of the hook of Cape Cod, Lou moves his bed outside their graying, old house. They sleep together on the deck, under those same stars, to the sound of incoming and outgoing waves. She holds his hand. She reads to him. They trace together the patterns of constellations.

"Lou lay beside him, silent as bandages, her immense solitude so gloriously - he might say, for who will fault a dying man's diction? - broached. 'I wither slowly in thine arms, here at the quiet limit of the world.' She got up to stretch her long dress, and his body drooped to the low and midgey spot she left warm ... Around him her body, sawgrass, trash, seas, and skies altered, reeled, and gave way to dark..."

It is impossible to read Dillard without being changed. Moved. Transcended to a place where, for a too short moment, the stars reel around us, then move back into their rightful place, again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dog Years by Mark Doty

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher (2007)
ISBN-10: 0739490001
ISBN-13: 978-0739490006

Although I was well aware of this author's work, knew the name and the general bio, I had yet to ever actually dip into either the prose or poetry of Mark Doty. Being a dog owner, I decided to begin (and end, depending on what I would find here) with Dog Years. I understood soon enough on opening the book that this will most certainly not be the end of my new literary acquaintance. Doty is a master.

When one sees a book cover of a pretty, snowy street with two dogs on a stroll, the expectation might be for something sentimental, even maudlin. With a back blurb hinting at a story dealing with death, hmm, how easy it would be to sink into that muck. But Doty not only walks over this potential trap, he dances over it.

This memoir that captures an ending of a human life, the beginning of a new life for both humans and dogs, then the ending of dog lives, is exquisite in its light and intelligent, elegant touch. Rather than whining away into a cry of despair over a lover's death, Doty manages beautifully to convey the void, the suffering, even the despair without even once taking a nose-dive. In great part, he does so by keeping his focus on the dogs in his life. We see the human heart via the dog's heart. We see the love of relationship, the unfolding of intimacy, the balm of utter loyalty, the abyss of despair, and all the gradations between, by the interactions between man and dog, dog and man.

Between the chapters that move the story forward, Doty has interspersed short reflections he calls "entr'acte." These are a surfacing of the human voice in wondering, in meditation. For example, in reflection on the concept of time and loneliness, Doty writes in one of these short respites: "Sometimes I think the place where God is not is time; that is the particular character of the mortal adventure, to be bound in time, and thus to arrive, inevitably, at the desolation of limit ... Not trying to look outside of time (if such is even possible to us), but farther into it, pushing our faces up toward vanishing, to that vaporous line between here and not. Power that animates and erases: hello and yes, good-bye and no. To look right into the blank behind the eyes of the skull. To let yourself get used to that wind that blows there."

We've all thought about this countless times. Only Doty could have put it into these words.

So unfolds Doty's story of losing his long-time partner to HIV, the comfort the couple's black retriever, Arden, brings in this passage. A new dog coming into the household, Beau, a golden, is the vehicle for moving forward. The dogs bring comfort, understanding, companionship. They share the weight of sorrow and grief. They offer a silent strength when Doty despairs to the point of gazing too long into the abyss, considering the jump. The dogs also become an added bond between Doty and eventual new partner, writer Paul Lisicky, and in the changing routines of the dogs, we see also the changed routine a new love can bring.

Be sure this is not all sadness and woe. Doty's humor is often evident, but never overpowering. We taste it best in his recounting of the new couple's travels in a car with both dogs, and cats, too, cross-country to their new home in Provincetown, Cape Cod. (Doty marvels at the madness of such a journey, yet the delight it brings in remembering it.) We see the town and its cast of colorful characters more through the eyes (and noses) of the dogs than the owners, but in essence that becomes the point ... men and dogs are so intertwined, their lives so interdependent, that it is all one and the same. Finally, as time will require its pay, we read of the death of one dog, then the next. This, too, has no howl at the moon about it, no whine or self-pity or even dog-pity. All is dignity. All is a meditation. All is the spice of life: relationship.

"A good end, we tell ourselves, a fine end ..." And it is. But most certainly leading to the reading of more of Doty's work.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Five Books of Marriage by Harry Owen (poetry)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 108 pages
Publisher: AuthorHouse (June 6, 2008)
Price: $10.99
ISBN-10: 1434371077
ISBN-13: 978-1434371072

Almost enough to make you want to peel your heart again, open it up and toss it up to the bright sky and risk flame. Harry Owen puts the heart to poetry, peels it raw, exposes its hard pit, crushes it into dust, then from dust forms man again. These are his five books of marriage, and it is a marriage of one and one, two others, but also one and one, self to self.

There's that first, hot blush:

a tongue roving her moist-lubed helix

to a sudden hot

seizure, a two-stroked scream, a poem

where all metaphor dies.

There's that hitting of a flat place, when water goes flat as foil, and when a marriage grows inexplicably cool, even while one is left wondering at the loss and what could possibly come after:

But restored to the depths, will he dream of

the suns he has seen? Will he scavenge the dark silt

lusting for that terror of dazzling truth...

And will he live?

He does. And how. As raw and brave and as primal as ever, in memories alongside a rites of passage into new, traveling back and forth, because we all know time in love is never linear:

We shall rise, you and I, like a gloom

and feast.

And she? Is:

too old a habit to wear again,

too clamped a future to recollect,

too filled with emptiness to cry.

So one moves forward, because there really is no choice in the matter. Decision Time:

In the end it isn't hard -

you face the wall,

reach the bottom of the sand-slope,

stand at the water's edge.

Think about it, write it down:

Yes or no?


And so Book 5 is that new beginning, some poems of which are a reoccurence of those that appeared at the very beginning... Gen and also Levis, Owen's sensuality coming to life again, hope alive again, as beautiful, no, more beautiful still for all its imperfection:

...It's obverse,

negative, inside-out, this happiness,

not borrowed but felt, owned:

your plain reflection in clear glass,

every scar, every blemish

and it is good.

Owen is more than good. As I remarked when I first came across his work: achingly good. He has all the marks of a grand poet, and is one. His love of language is slick and fine and wonderful: alliteration, play, fresh metaphor, the stunning a-ha moment, the twist and surprise, the absolute courage of the true artist to go naked onto the printed page. One very nearly says a prayer of thanks by book end for its blessing of rebirthed ordinary language dipped into the sauce of extraordinary. One does.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 298 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (August 26, 2008)
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 1565124723
ISBN-13: 978-1565124721

“I’m the girl they found standing on the table. The girl who traced the cracks in the wall with her mother’s blood.”

How we hope little Ellie will come through the dark places of her 11 years of life whole again, as whole as one might expect from the insanity she has survived. We want to believe. Throughout the entire novel, Tomato Girl, author Jayne Pupek’s first, we have been holding our breath with that hope. A former social worker, Pupek has, after all, described this little girl and the wrenching abuse surrounding her at every turn to such effect that we feel almost as if we share that life.

It is a deeply uncomfortable place to be. But Pupek has not meant us to be comfortable. Far from it. We have only that shred of hope that in the very first page, we are invited to read the notebook in which Ellie writes as a form of therapy. That means—Ellie has survived long enough to even get to therapy. Even as she sits in the cellar writing among the glass jars of pickled tomatoes, some of which begin quite eerily to look like the face of a pickled fetus.

One of those pickled objects had been. Baby Tom, her stillborn brother, had been in one of those jars because his mother, Ellie’s mother, couldn’t bear to part with him. And if that was not unbearable enough, consider scenes of a mother gone mad with some inner torment, taunted by a husband who is not only sleeping with a teenage girl, not so very much older than Ellie, but has even brought that girl into their home. To live. With him. Moving out of his marital bed into the sewing room. One can feel the palpable madness swirling off the written page like an evil vapor. Oh, the torments we inflict one upon the other …

Ellie observes all of this with the hopeful heart and na├»ve eyes of a young girl. Since the book is written in first-person narrative, we sense far more quickly than Ellie does exactly what it is that she is seeing. There’s a Lolita thing going on here. A brewing pedophilia. A middle-aged man sinking into perversion and temptation, leaving despair and madness in his wake. Ellie can only wonder why Daddy talks so long at the hardware store, where he is a long-time clerk, with the “tomato girl,” who brings her crops of reddened, plump fruit to sell. Ellie sees the way Daddy’s eyes linger overlong. That he sometimes touches the girl. That the girl touches him, and then, Ellie glimpses a quick kiss, and she struggles to understand. Tess, the tomato girl, comes from an abusive home, too. Daddy later tries to explain away his growing obsession with the primping teen girl—a cute blonde with too much make-up and earrings that dangle to her bare shoulders, snapping gum and paging through women’s magazines, oh so teen—by telling Ellie he is taking Tess in to save her from her abusive father. As if he were somehow saving one girl from an abusive father while inflicting it upon his own daughter. Oh, the power of rationalization …

Tess has occasional epileptic seizures, and while she is so incapacitated, her father has indeed taken, shall we say, advantage. Pupek develops here with expertise the mind games men play when they want their piece of female flesh. Tess’s father manages to tell himself he has the right, she’s his girl. Ellie’s father manages to paint himself a hero in his own eyes, bringing the teen into his own bed, under his own roof, insisting upon the compassion of his wife and young daughter. While his wife spirals into a demented and suicidal state—she can’t be fooled—Ellie, like most any child, dotes on her father and works and works to please him, to remain in the circle of his wandering eye, daily forgiving him, even as her understanding grows. She needs to forgive him. For her own sanity. This is her Daddy. And he does, after all, keep telling her how he loves her. How he needs her to be good. To be kind to sweet Tess. And the boundaries continue to be pushed farther and farther.

As such scenarios must, they eventually end in a splash of unspeakable suffering and an explosion of violence. There is a murder, there is a suicide, there is more than one emotional breakdown, and there is, in the center of it all, little Ellie, trying desperately to hold an unraveling world together. No one survives intact. By conclusion, the reader is exhausted with emotion, sighing with relief at one’s own saner world, but the realization remains: such things happen. Every day. In more and more homes, and perhaps even in the one next door. As our family protective services agencies are near bursting with cases of abuse, too many still going unreported, and domestic violence is on the increase, and values fall by the wayside in how we treat those in our primary relationships in pursuit of baser pleasures … the story of Ellie and Tess, the tomato girl, may grow as common as tomatoes.

Pupek, also a published poet, has made a worthy contribution with her first novel. Not only as a literary accomplishment, but also a social one.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Exorcism by Larissa Shmailo

Poetry CD Review by Zinta Aistars

Audio CD (June 24, 2008)

Price: $18.99

"Skin is just sausage we call home."

It is lines such as this that make me a brand new Larissa Shmailo fan. And I am not usually a listen-to-poetry rather than read-poetry fan. Recordings of readings seem to be "the poetic thing" these days, and that is a trend that makes sense to me. People have less time and impetus to read a book in their busy lives, but popping a CD into your car stereo during a commute, well, that's another thing. (I still prefer a book in hand, but my daily commute is long ...)

So pop in this. Shmailo's voice immediately fills your space. Not every poet or writer can read their work to others. In fact, I think I am safe in saying ... most cannot. I have been frequenting readings all my life, and I can't say how often I have been disappointed to find that what I love on the written page bores me to tears spoken aloud. Not so with Shmailo. After listening to Exorcism several times, I can still say I am wishing for the written page, but unwilling to give up the sound. Shmailo reads with so much intensity, intonation, energy, in velvety and sensual voice, that to not hear this would be a missed experience.

Another point in Exorcism's favor: this is the first such spoken poetry CD in which I can say that music, where it is present, is seamlessly joined to spoken word. It does not distract. It does not overwhelm. It does not jar. It blends, accompanies, enriches. The mood is like that of entering a dark, smoky room, falling into pillows, and riding the silky, heady wave. Shmailo is intense. She can shock, she can tickle, she can entrance.

My favorite is "Dancing with the Devil." Because it is. A mini poem leading into "How to Meet and Dance with Your Death." You can only do it once, the poet warns you. Any more than once, and you become a cheap woman sleeping with common men. The recipe is bizarre and wonderful. You very nearly want to write it down and give it a blend. Die if you must.

Shmailo poetizes devils with the same skill as she weaves words around God and Magdalene. Her poetry is as lushly sensual as it is cutting to the bone. This is about love and pain, birth and rebirth, fields of magnolias, and surviving the Warsaw ghetto. She uses words I save for special occasion without wincing, and I forgive it, because it works. The slap of shock is appropriate. This is not merely strong performance, it is also strong in substance ... which is why I long to see the written word as well. I would suggest a written copy inserted into the CD cover as a booklet to complete the treasure.

If I list a favorite, then I will also list my least favorite: the title poem, "Exorcism." Found poem, apparently, although I don't think that is what holds this one back for me. It is a rather droning, chanting monotone (about the lie and crime of war) that can't be listened to for long without grating on a nerve or two, edging on annoying. But this is not reason enough, this one, for me not to recommend Exorcism in its totality to anyone who enjoys poetry, or just an enthralling listening experience.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Inside Out Girl by Tish Cohen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008
Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0061452955
ISBN-13: 978-0061452956

Olivia refuses to allow Georgia Boy to be buried. The gerbil is stiff, dead that long, but little Olivia Bean can't quite register the idea of death. She has a learning disorder known as NLD (nonverbal learning disability, causing her to operate on a very literal level), but come to think of it ... most of us have trouble understanding death.

And so we are introduced, beginning with Olivia, to the cast of characters in Tish Cohen's Inside Out Girl. They are not so very unlike the characters in our own lives, our own families or the families of our friends. The circumstances that tangle and untangle around them are a variation on many of today's typical families. Yes, there is the divorce. And the second chance. Two families patched together with two single parents at the helm, Rachel and Len, each with their own children, trying to make things work again.

Olivia, with a disability that translates into wearing her emotional "insides" on her outside - thus the title - is really the part of the iceberg that presses its tip above water level into bright exposure. She is the inside of all of us. Only Olivia isn't any good at wearing masks ... like most of us do. She is who she is, and so she is all of us in our most tender, tucked-away insides: vulnerable, open-hearted, eager to love and be loved, eager to belong. There is a wonderful innocence and naivete about this child that makes us ache to be more real. More like her. Hearts open to life again. Even as we can also identify (and wish we didn't) with the other children in this blended family who resist being associated with "the least popular girl in school," who hasn't a clue about how to be "cool."

Inside Out Girl is a story about two broken families taking a chance at being one family. Who says it has to be less than the original? The relationship that we see develop between the parents, Rachel and Len, is built on a learning from the past. Len, Rachel observes, is all that ex David was not. David was a bit obsessive-compulsive, too neat for comfort, a bit of a dandy. He "diddled" female colleagues while keeping the creases in his trousers straight. Len, perhaps by some influence from his daughter, Olivia, is more "inside out." He has compassion, he has heart, he is and understands imperfection. And Rachel, to him, is a new hope at making the broken places in him whole again.

The rest of the cast, a crew of lively teens and their school pals, with explorations of contemporary parenting issues (Rachel is an editor for Perfect Parenting magazine, which adds a note of irony and humor to her less than perfect parenting skills), brings the story neatly into our familiar living rooms. Those of us who are parents will have dealt with at least a handful of the issues Cohen explores in this family. Quite like home.

Which isn't to say this is an easy ride. Here we see the pain of social isolation (and not just among the children), of bullying (and not just between children), of giving in to peer pressure (and not just between children). Cohen deftly balances the common with the uncommon, plays on heartstrings without sounding a violin of melodrama. If the disability discussed here is less known, although not so very different from, autism, it serves to make the reader aware of how buried we can become in social norms, the pressures to not stand out from the crowd, or to stop taking the risks required to find a more lasting happiness. While this may not be a literary classic to withstand time, it does capture this moment in time, our contemporary everyday, and perhaps in that accomplishes a moment of warming sunlight. Yes, Olivia, we do all have hearts. Even if we tuck them safely away so much of the time. This little girl helps us see that we all struggle with some bit of disability in our life-worn hearts.

Tish Cohen was interviewed in the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, fall issue 2008, in which she talks about this novel as well as her other work, wearing a little of her own inside out. The interview gives further insight into both author and novel.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Monday, September 29, 2008

Courage in Patience by Beth Fehlbaum

Book review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1601641567
ISBN-13: 978-1601641564

It is apparent author Beth Fehlbaum knows her subject matter - sexual and emotional abuse - beyond study in a textbook (her bio at end of the book confirms this). I applaud her, and applaud her again, for her own courage in tackling such a difficult and painful topic. But it must be tackled. It must. Because abuse such as this is a constant in our society, and it is becoming ever more prevalent. Blame the Internet with all that it makes so readily available (and I am referring to adults here, far more than children, although the latter will someday become those same addicted adults). Blame a society that seems to steadily be veering away from family-based values (e.g. careers and materialism being given higher priority than raising our children, and a general trend toward pleasure-seeking and narcissism). Blame a trend in contemporary society of increasingly objectifying women and girls. Blame ageism and its counterpart of youth-obsession that forces children to be sexualized. Blame an attitude of head-in-the-sand avoidance to domestic abuse in general. Blame what you will, but this problem is not going away. Children are being abused, and domestic violence (and I include emotional abuse in this category) is on the rise at an alarming pace.

Courage in Patience raises the issue of child abuse to the forefront. In the character of Ashley Asher, a girl who suffers the most brutal treatment at the hands of her mother's new husband, Charlie, over a period of six years (age 9 to 15), Fehlbaum explores the inner workings of an abuse victim. With excruciating accuracy, the reader becomes witness to what begins as a water pistol spray to a child's t-shirt, to a rape so violent that it leaves the 15-year old child a ravaged and bloody mess.

We witness Ashley's emotional shutdown. Ashley withdraws into herself. She blames herself. She tries harder and harder to please and appease her abuser. She goes deep into denial, compartmentalizing her emotions and behavior. Until she breaks. In a moment of courage, despite her stepfather's threats, she tells her mother. Unfortunately, as is all too common, her mother minimalizes her daughter's confession, even worries that her daughter may be stealing her man's attention away from her. Surely it is not as bad as all that... surely, Ashley can forgive her stepfather for a few inappropriate touches... and Ashley withers in despair as someone she loves and trusts - her mother - betrays her with her emotional abandonment as cruelly as the rapist.

As the abuse escalates, beside the mother's denial (and the author quite reasonably later brings up the possibility that the mother, too, may well have been abused in her childhood, thus perpetuating the cycle with her own denial), Ashley confides in a girlfriend who will not remain quiet. When the truth begins to surface at last, we move through the frustrating process of legalities, of a crippling law enforcement system that has its own denial issues, of child protective services that threaten to worsen the problem rather than assist the victim. Ashley's savior turns out to be her long-lost father, David, and even more, his sympathetic wife, Bev. Reunited with her father, we at last begin to see the slow and difficult process of recovery.

In part, here begins the one fault line of the novel. Along with the story of Ashley's recovery, a new story emerges of Bev's classroom life as a teacher who takes on controversial books. While the additional topics of censorship and book banning, religious fervor that becomes a gateway to racism, homophobia, teen sexuality, and other issues are inarguably worthy of discussion, it is regrettable that these side issues take up so much space in a book that should have remained on one worthy topic alone. One would have hoped the author would save these other subjects for future novels. As it stands, interesting as they may be, these issues mostly detract and distract from the one of child abuse.

That aside, this is a book that one might hope would be passed out in women's shelters, in family protective services, in churches, in schools, and other places and venues where it might reach out and comfort and give courage to others faced with the same nightmare. No one feels more alone than the one who is so victimized. Abuse of any kind is a very isolating experience. Courage in Patience can serve well to extend a hand to those who would read it and know that recovery is possible.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Hyperion; 1st edition, 2008
Price: $21.95
ISBN-10: 1401323251
ISBN-13: 978-1401323257

The passing of a good man is never an easy thing to witness. And yet, I think modern American society seems to resist death, that is, death as a natural part of life. We are a youth-obsessed culture, ageism is rampant, and given a choice between youth and wisdom, far too many choose the former. At great loss to all of us.

And so it is a good thing, this gathering around a man dying, and lauding his accomplishments, receiving the simple wisdoms he imparts as he considers his own passage. His situation is hardly unique - people with yet unlived (fully) lives, with growing families, with still unrealized dreams, fall ill and die around us all the time, all the time. Allow, then, that Randy Pausch, dying in midlife with pancreatic cancer, speaks for many of these who surround us everyday and everywhere. A professor in computer science, but perhaps more in the basic lessons of living, he offers this "last lecture" that is usually given at retirement of a career, not retirement from life.

The book is that lecture with a few extra stories to tell us about his family, his love story with his wife, Jai, his children, his various dreams, most realized, his philosophy and sense of life. You won't find any earth-shattering, peeling-back-of-the-universe revelations here. You have heard them all before: dream and persist in pursuing your dream, live in the moment, listen to the wisdom of your parents, risk and risk big when it is for the right reasons and the right goal, show gratitude, love with all your heart, live with authenticity and utmost honesty, apologize for your mistakes and make it right. It is all here. But it occurred to me as I read more of this communal wisdom that even if we all know it ... so many of us sorely need reminding of it. If we were living by these simple, basic wisdoms, after all, surely more of us would be living far more fulfilled and happy lives than we do.

Be reminded, then. As Randy Pausch observes, those cliches and platitudes we hear so often exist because, chances are, they hold within them more than a seed of truth. And so, even though I already knew it, I made a mental note to repeat his good advice, given to his very young daughter, Chloe, to my own daughter: when it comes to men, do not listen to a single word they say. Do watch with utmost care everything they do. Indeed, actions speak far, far louder, and more truthfully, than words; actions will show the true character of a man.

When asked for life advice in three words, Pausch says: "Tell The Truth." And if he were given three more? "All The Time." Why? He says, "Because it is so efficient."

Yes, that simple. Pausch admits he is a man with two favorite crayons, black and white, and while he admires and enjoys the rainbow of colors, most times, life really can be reduced to black and white. Gray can be all about rationalization and wiggling out of accountability. And you know? I think he's right.

In a society where taking accountability is so rarely done, it could be Pausch's bit on making apologies could well be worth the entire book in weight of its wisdom-gold. No if's, and's or but's. No "sorry you feel that way." None of that which only pours salt into open wounds. Asking forgiveness is a process of three steps, and all three are necessary - perhaps most especially the final one of ... "this is how I will make it right." Hmm ... wouldn't the world be a much better place ...

For the other steps, all the other dwelled-upon (and worthy) cliches built on time worn wisdom and truth, go ahead, consider the last lecture. It is later than you think.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Must Be in Heaven, A Promise Kept by Valerie Anne Faulkner

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 218 pages
Publisher: F.E.I., 2008

Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0615199518
ISBN-13: 978-0615199511

Sirens scream, and Valerie watches helplessly as her husband, Bill, is swept away from their home by emergency medical technicians to the hospital, where she finds out that he has experienced a brain aneurysm. This is Valerie's story of that mad ride that begins with an ambulance, dragging them suddenly out of their quite blissful everyday.

No matter that these two have been married well over three decades; they are still, indeed, more in love than ever. Best friends, lovers, business partners. Along with their shared romance, their bond is much strengthened by their mutual faith, and this is the theme running through the entire account.

And so, as Bill sinks into a comma, Val remains by his side, striving to keep her faith strong - in God and in her husband. Her family gathers around her, her adult children, her sister, and her friends. Val shares here her personal story of the difficult and seemingly endless waiting, the frustration of dealing with hospitalization and not always attentive (or even competent) staff, the many faces that quite randomly seem to float in and out of one's life when dealing with a medical crisis. Some bring relief, others bring another test to be endured.

It is an honest, if not always literary account (like all but the rarest of self-published books, this one, too, cries out for an editor's defining touch)of an enduring love and an equally enduring faith. Most all of us have been through one or another experience of having a loved one hospitalized and of dealing with medical emergencies, and so we find ourselves caring for Valerie's emotional ride and occasional frustrations, because in some way we've all been there. We cheer with her when progress is made, feel her sadness when there is a regression again. We relate: the uncomfortable nights by a loved one's bedside, the anxious dealing with ever changing shifts of caregivers, the rollercoaster ride of rising hopes and deflating disappointments, the blessing of a much needed night of sleep after the first hot shower in several days. It is what we do for those we love. We feel, too, for Val as her husband wakes and is not quite what he used to be, because by then - Val has become a friend.

Recovery is a slow and clumsy process. Those closest to us become people we can hardly recognize. But again and again, just when Val's strength begins to fade, she is blessed by some human angel, some parting of the waves of traffic to get her to the hospital on time, some random kindness of a stranger, that restores her once again.

I Must Be in Heaven is the kind of story you share over a pot of coffee with a favorite neighbor or a good friend. Reading it is that kind of encounter: not so much a great book, but a great chat with someone who has become another warm and very human heart you're glad to have known for a while. There are many satisfying morals to this true story, and we can close the cover when the story is done, happy there are such good marriages in the world, still.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2004
Price: $11.95
ISBN-10: 0060565543
ISBN-13: 978-0060565541

"Art," writes Joyce Carol Oates, "is the highest expression of the human spirit." And while humankind has often struggled to express why it is that art is so very necessary to our spirits (why is art the first course cut in public education when budgets require constraint?), we cannot exist without it. Art is, in great part, our communication with each other, our attempt as social animals to connect, but first and foremost, as Oates goes on to describe, it is our solitary striving to go deep - into ourselves, connecting with our innermost and hidden hearts.

In this collection of essays, Oates, known perhaps more for her amazing ability to be one of the most prolific writers of all time (something she says in one of her essays that she does not quite understand, that is, why she is seen as prolific ... to which point, I urge the author to check out her own list of published works, in and of itself a short book), examines the art and craft of writing. These are not necessarily essays written one to build upon another, but separate and independent pieces, including an interview done with Oates to discuss her fictionalized history of Marilyn Monroe, Blonde.

Included in this collection are biographical essays on how Oates grew up, her childhood and one-room school days, a time of discovery that reading books was entering a new world beyond this one. Fittingly, Alice in Wonderland was the first book that so mesmerized her and has kept its hold on her lifelong. Dropping down the rabbit hole into a world that was a surprise at every turn, where all things were open to re-creation, where one is never quite sure one will be able to return fully to that other reality, is not unlike the life of a writer.

Also, essays on honing the craft prior to the art - and that would always begin, and never end, with reading. Reading and reading, endlessly reading, and she puts an almost equal importance on reading the classics, but no less the not quite classics, such as comic books. All can teach the writer - something about language, something about storyline, something about plot movement and suspense and conflict and resolution. It is not so much what one reads as that one reads.

There are also essays on a writer's space, what it might and should contain, the art of self criticism, the squishy business of inspiration, surely important notes on failure, and others along that vein. Even a piece on running and writing, how Oates finds that much of her writing happens first in her head, long before it reaches paper (she writes her first drafts always in long-hand), and so running seems to be an activity especially conducive to unstringing such creative and transportive trains of thought.

Above all, Oates states, immerse yourself. If writing is about craft first, the learning of grammar and sentence structure (and she is one of those writers who revises as she writes) and other such primary tools, then it enters that ephemeral world of Art - like dropping through the rabbit hole - when one dares to leave this world and fully enter into that one. Immersion. Nothing less.

"I believe that we yearn to transcend the merely finite and ephemeral; to participate in something mysterious and communal called 'culture' - and that this yearning is as strong in our species as the yearning to reproduce the species."

Perhaps because fine art, in any medium, is itself a kind of reproducing the species. And giving it new life.

While this is not my favorite book of writer writing about writing - that spot is reserved for Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Bret Lott's Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of a Writer's Life, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life - it was satisfying. I found in some ways a kindred spirit, for I, too, prefer a first draft in longhand, revise along the way, feel that writing is like entering a trance not unlike madness, and wrote my first "masterpieces," just as Oates did, even prior to knowing HOW to write. I saw my parents writing, and although I had no idea what those scribbles meant, I was well amused to sit for hours doing the same. Rows and rows of looping and connected lines, containing magic. With a writer's faith that someday, somehow, someone will read my scribbles and sense the magic, too. As did Oates, today as mesmerized by that process as she was as a child. Therein, one suspects, lies the explanation to her ability to be that prolific.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: HarperOne, 2001
Price: $12.95

ISBN-10: 0060652950
ISBN-13: 978-0060652951

With each and every book I read by C.S. Lewis, I become an ever more admiring fan. While I cannot say this is my favorite of his works (for that spot, I reserve Mere Christianity, followed by A Grief Observed), it is as fascinating and insightful a ride as any of his. C. S. Lewis is exceptional in his ability to take the most complicated human issues and make them understandable.

Blending into a queu awaiting a bus ride without fully understanding to where or why (how many of us blend sheepishly with the masses this way?), the narrator, George, takes a fantastical ride through heaven and hell. Just two possible end points on this trip, and with that, Lewis makes it clear: as much as we try to rationalize and wiggle, there is no gray area in life, or, in this case, the after life. You choose. Black or white, good or evil.

With a cast of colorful characters, ghostly figures and helpful angels who only wish to give the undecided one final chance to decide, we ride along with those who, we soon realize, resemble everyone we know. Including you and me. The whiner and the complainer, the cheater and the liar, the rationalizer, the egotist, the shortchanger. Even the overly devoted mother, who, upon closer examination, clings to her son more to serve her own selfish needs than to let him go in a loving manner for his wellbeing is not the marytr she believes herself to be.

It is not in the big falls that we lose our way to heaven. It is, more often than not, in the petty details of our lives, all those grand intentions come to nothing, all those shortcomings and shortcuts taken, all those more challenging routes avoided, where we take wrong turns that will land us only in hell. A stern Father reminds us, "Your will be done," rather than His. And so, for all who did not trust in Him, but stubbornly held to their own willful ways, the bus has only one last stop.

As amusing as this little tale (novella) is to read, the message is heavy duty. If you don't recognize yourself in at least a few of these lost souls, look harder. And then give your future bus stop some careful thought...

Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters by Phillip C. McGraw

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Hyperion, 2000
Price: $13.95
ISBN-10: 0786884592
ISBN-13: 978-0786884599

Life Strategies is a quick, very basic reminder of sound - just as the title states - life strategies. Nothing profound here. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing you probably haven't heard in most contemporary self-help books, in fact. Or from your favorite neighborhood therapist, I imagine. The book may be a good addition to your bookshelf if that is what you seek - something of a reference book, or checklist, to turn to now and then to jog your memory about how to stay on track toward achieving your personal measure of success in life, or just to give yourself a pep talk.

Dr. Phil uses almost annoyingly simple (but precise) language, so I would think it would be difficult to misunderstand anything in these pages unless one is bound and determined to remain deluded and avoid life in general. No doubt, there are many such. Last I heard, the "happiness quotient" in modern society has been slipping, so I won't argue that point, just put it out there ... some people truly are more comfortable being unhappy and avoiding life. But, supposing you are one of those who really would like to stay focused and have a desire to fulfill your potential, this is a nice little starter kit. Basic and on target.

The main message of these life strategies is that a person should take full and conscious ownership of one's own life. The rest is detail. Dr. P. reminds you that no matter what the circumstances, it really is what you make of it and in what direction you decide to take your next step. Sure, that may be much easier for some than many others, depending on your circumstances. But hard or easy is not the issue. Hard or easy, it is still your life, your circumstances, and your choice, and yours alone - where you take it from here.

No stroke of brilliance to hold us all accountable or that nailing down a goal firmly only helps strengthen our resolve to achieve it. The more detailed the battle plan, the better. Just common sense. Those who achieve most in life (and I agree with Dr. P, there is no such thing as luck) are those who keep a persistently positive attitude, have a clear goal in mind, are willing to work hard at it, are willing to take a risk now and then to pull away from the ordinary masses to become extraordinary. I'm not sure the final section that glorified his wife, Robin, was necessary (too saccharin for my taste), nor, perhaps, the stories about Oprah and Andy the cab driver. But the book achieves what no doubt was Dr. P's life strategy: outline the usual behaviors and attitudes that work. We all can use the occasional pep talk and reminder.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 227 pages
Publisher: HarperOne, 2001
Price: $12.95
ISBN-10: 0060652926
ISBN-13: 978-0060652920

Fitting, I think, to be reading what may arguably be one of C. S. Lewis’s most important books, on a retreat during which one of my personal goals was to find a spiritual, if not religious, inner peace. Aside from Lewis’s well known fantasy books (Chronicles of Narnia, and many others), my reading his Grief Observed a couple years ago when dealing with my own grief, a kind of emotional and spiritual death, convinced me that this man had an admirable and most unusual gift to bring the most complex human experiences into written form, sharing it with all of us, and transforming these experiences into something that one can grasp and then, to find healing. Reading the work of C. S. Lewis is to meet a friend who reflects us and understands us—and helps us to understand.

When I settled in to read Mere Christianity, I fully expected that it would take me the four days of my retreat, perhaps beyond, to finish. Instead, I finished the book in one day (and read yet a second Lewis book, The Great Divorce, in the very same day, apparently thrust into immediate withdrawal symptoms once the first Lewis book was finished). I truly was unable to put it down, but for the shortest moments, only to come rushing back to it for more. The book met a hunger. And fed it.

Who of us has not asked these questions? Who of us has not prayed these prayers, even those of us who are atheists (which group has at times included me, and has also included C. S. Lewis), even if only praying to our void? Lewis takes on several of these questions that have held me captive since youth, when I first began to wonder about a God: who He might be, if indeed He is, and what might my relationship be with Him.

Before he has even cleared the pages of the preface, Lewis nabs me cold: “It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise.” Then Lewis reminds us that this time of “waiting in the hall” is not a form of camping, but a time of rigorous seeking, questioning, praying even when we are not sure who we are praying to or if we are heard. “And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.” Here I am fully won. For one annoyance I have long had with fellow seekers and life philosophers (and aren’t we all), is that in approaching religion, so many of us do so with the requirement that the religion fit us rather than we fit it. Rather than a seeking for the truth, above and beyond our personal convenience and comfort zone, we lose ourselves in dogmas and doctrines created around us, as if we were the gods and God existing to serve us, not the created seeking the Creator and how we might serve Him.

Christianity, Lewis writes, is a way of life. An owner’s manual, if you will. It is not meant to constrain us, but to fully free us. Following its doctrines means to “transform our lives in such a way that evil diminishes and good prevails.” There is an innate law, he observes, that follows along the lines of human nature, a natural right and wrong, and in examining all religions, we find right and wrong, good and evil, are more or less defined along the same lines by all humanity, regardless of religious beliefs. This is our first clue that we have found an unchangeable truth. Even the atheist, Lewis says, has a sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and as soon as one realizes this, the next step is to understand the universal standard of morality. From where does this standard come if not from some higher ruling of the universe? It echoes inside each and every one of us. “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard …” which is what Lewis terms as “Real Morality.”

Step by step, Lewis leads us to look upon this standard and Him who put it in place, and ingrained into our beings. The God Lewis has us see is not a kindly and bearded man sitting on a throne in some distant and ethereal place. He calls him a great artist, for the universe is a very beautiful place, but also a Being that is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. Insofar as all that, one can think of God as “good.” But Lewis does not see Him as an easy master. “There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then He is not soft.”

But there you have it. If you truly wish to see God as good, good in the sense of fair and just, then you will have to admit that He must be someone who despises all that is not good with a searing and uncompromising hatred. “God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from.” And, when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t have Him any other way.

From here, Lewis proceeds to tackle those common questions: how can God exist in such a cruel and unjust world? If God knows how the story of mankind ends, why did he create us and our story at all? If the future already exists in His eyes, what does that say about free will? How can we know that Christ wasn’t simply a great moral teacher, but indeed the Son of God? And, why did Christ have to die, and so cruelly, for our sins to be forgiven? Why could we not just shake hands on it?

Many of our churches seem to take these as established truths without question, explaining nothing, only asking us to swallow these facts whole and without question. We repeat our mantras from childhood Sunday school classes without ever fully understanding them—and there is something sinful in such a blind faith, if it is faith at all. Questioning, Lewis points out, is exactly what God expects us to do. That is the knocking that we do on His door. It is an obligation, and one that we must meet and continue to meet for the entire length and number of our days.

No point trying to evade any of these issues as outdated. If it was Truth yesterday, it is Truth today and tomorrow. At its very core, human nature remains the same.

What humankind struggled with in the beginning of time is what we struggle with now, namely, the indulgent pursuit of various pleasures, which are not, Lewis firmly states, bad things at all. As a part of our nature, they are, in fact, good things. But as all that is good, there must be a discipline, a respect, for the gifts God has given us. “But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much … wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” He elaborates: “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.”

Shall we take on some of our most contemporary indulgences? With timeless accuracy, Lewis does. For example, as if he stood in 2008 rather than in 1945, he addresses sexuality and the virtue of chastity. He separates the rule of chastity from the rule of propriety, the first unchanging, the second changeable with culture, time and place. Arcing over all of this, however, he makes it clear what Christianity requires from humankind: “When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity.” God has meant for us to know sex as goodness, a divine pleasure, an appetite given to us that is meant to be nurtured and nourished, but not without discipline and not without emotional and intellectual bonding always in tandem. It is not about lust; it is about a complete union, based on love, between the male and the female as whole persons. (Sex was not, Lewis also explains, how the Garden of Eden was lost.)

As if able to see into our present day indulgences, Lewis writes, “Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humor. Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth … that sex itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy.’ The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal … Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health … for any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary.“

Lewis explores free will and how God understood, as we so often have not, that in giving us free will, He gave us the ability to love. It is only when we have to ability to choose, that we can love. Anything else would be forced bondage, slave bowing to master. If we have botched up our ability to choose, so very often throughout our history, then we cannot shake our fists at the heavens and blame God, but must look to ourselves and the choices we have made. Lewis urges us to return to the basics, the Law of Morality, for only in addressing that place where our mistakes were first made can we continue forward in a progressive manner. If we cannot ever achieve perfection, it does not mean we are ever off the hook in striving for it. That Christ became a man and in a man’s mind and man’s body resisted all temptation, does not mean it was any easier for Him, being Son of God. Indeed, Lewis writes, only a man who is utterly good can fully experience the temptation of being less than good. When one is bad, giving in to temptation is easy and thoughtless, with few if any ensuing pangs of conscience; but when one is good (and only God is truly good), then resisting temptation requires all our goodness, every ounce of our strength.

Time and what is beyond time, the concepts of heaven and hell, the need to be a part of an active Christian community, what was meant by being formed in the likeness of God (no, we are not his mirror images), the true meaning of charity (far more than the occasional giving of alms to the poor), the meaning of faith and why it should not be blind, what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (and this section made me laugh, perhaps in relief, as Lewis explains that to love our neighbors as ourselves does not mean we have to like our neighbors or even always to be kind to them, no more than we always like ourselves or are kind to ourselves), so Lewis covers all the basics.

There is a very real cost to being a Christian, Lewis teaches. Make no mistake, it is not a small pittance. But it is one that, if we do not pay it, will cost us far more in the long run, and not only after our lives on earth have ended. All that we do, all that we are, here on earth, already comes back to us, with our free will choices following their own natural law of returns.

“God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy,” Lewis writes. We are not talking about mere improvement, but transformation. One that we choose to either retreat from, and pay the resulting price, or embrace, and pay that price. To find our own true selves, however, Lewis sums up, can be done only by submitting fully. To let go, and let God.

“The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires … I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up … that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”

Lewis has invited us to enter into this transformation, and he helps us to do so in a manner that is far from blind.

Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade, 2005
Price: $15.00
ISBN-10: 1594481563
ISBN-13: 978-1594481567

The task of a translator, I think, has always been unappreciated. It is a demanding one, a task that can never be done to the perfection it begs. Language is a living, breathing thing, and it holds within it an entire culture, and in that culture, an entire people, and within these people, an entire world. It is not possible to withdraw one such world and make it fit into the shape of another.

Yet if we are to even try to understand one another, the many of us on this earth and our ways, then translating the great works of any culture is a much needed task that some very brave soul must undertake. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy are such brave souls, and the two friends are bonded by their deep love for the work of German poet (but born in Prague), Rainer Maria Rilke. While I know a very little of German, I cannot by any measure judge their success in translation. I have read Rilke in two languages, German being neither of them, and only from that experience can I say, cautiously, that I believe them to be as successful as any translators may hope to be. And it may be enough that a translator love a work so deeply and with such devotion that this in itself carries through the spirit of what is intended.

How can one not fall in love with Rilke? The poet transcends time, expressing what humankind has tried to express, surely, since self-awareness first blushed at its own face. In this particular collection, Rilke’s poetry is a kind of love letter to God. As love letters do, his poems speak of longing, of devotion, of the desire to serve and please, of the fears of separation, of the joy of reunion. He wishes to present himself to God as he is, with open heart, in praise, one lonely being, perhaps, to another lonely being, both craving to love and be loved.

You, God, who live next door—

If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking—
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sigh!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble

it would barely make a sound.

For Rilke, God is most intimate, most personal. He speaks to Him as if they stand side by side, and indeed they do. The need for company is mutual. Rilke’s work is arguably a perfect blend of male and female sensibilities, with both the masculine in its demand and the feminine in its open heart. As Rilke was in his first years raised, oddly enough, as a daughter—his mother had longed for one, and in something weirdly like denial, dressed her long-locked boy as a girl in dresses and called him Rene—so in later years, his father sent him to military school, to toughen him up and teach him a very male discipline. Rilke would find his own good mix. He fit neither of their plans, nor the conventional of a working society.

Poetry was his love for as long as memory, and in whatever context his life, it was the one steady rock. He could and would not do any other work, forever seeking sponsors and mentors so that he may devote himself fully to his art. When he fell in love for the first time, the woman he loved urged him to use the more masculine version of his name, Rainer. And so ever after, he did. But all of this seems like sideline matters, mere tangents, including the love itself, as he had numerous relationships, holding none steady, including a marriage that produced a child. Nothing else came first. Nothing. Only the word in verse.

When Rilke worked alongside sculptor, Auguste Rodin, he watched the sculptor’s intensity and passion for his art, and was inspired. They were a match, if not in medium, then in devotion. This was how to live one’s life as an artist. With a singular vision, an undistracted dedication. If Rodin created in stone, Rilke created in language, and so he sculpted verse, and in verse, his ongoing and lifelong prayer:

Only in our doing can we grasp you.
Only with our hands can we illumine you.
The mind is but a visitor:
it thinks us out of our world.

Each mind fabricates itself.
We sense its limits, for we have made them.
And just when we would flee them, you come
and make of yourself an offering.

I don’t want to think a place for you.
Speak to me from everywhere.
Your Gospel can be comprehended
without looking for its source.

When I go toward you
it is with my whole life.

No doubt, God was listening and listens still. If most of us pray in stutters and whispers, Rilke prayed in lyrical poetry, from the heart to God’s ear. Through his, the rest of us feel that much closer to the divine, as well.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Inhabiting Wonder by Mark Nepo

Book review by Zinta Aistars


Publisher: Bread for the Journey
ISBN-10: 0976057506
ISBN-13: 978-0976057505

The older I become, the more I am drawn to simplicity. I do have my moments of enjoying complex verse, the challenge of peeling away the layers of poetry to find its heart, that process of unfolding mystery and discovery. But now and then, there is no greater refreshment, among all those musty vintage wine cellars, to take a drink of plain, cool water.

Each time you say your name to a stranger,
you begin a painting in which both of you
are colors.

So Nepo begins to paint his colors, the ones we all recognize, but try so hard, so often, to be brave and look away. Nepo reminds us that it is far braver to not look away. He writes of what concerns all of us, the loving, the losing, the grieving, the dying, the being reborn again. All the stuff of living our extraordinary, ordinary lives.

Each of us
a feast to be devoured
before the heart
rots like a fig.

He brings us to awareness, as every poet must, that time passes all too quickly, and the more we struggle against that, the more time we lose, the more of its gifts we miss.

All this scurrying of deep
serious purpose, all for
a little bench from which
to glimpse the unseeable
wave of everything.

When all along
it’s been God’s trick
to dissolve what we want
like rice in rain until
exhaustion is the prayer
against our will
that drops us
into peace.

Which, no doubt, the poet has come to understand through his own suffering, as all of us do, although each in our own way. Nepo is a cancer survivor, and that experience has no doubt added great richness and compassion to his roles as poet, spiritual teacher and philosopher. He is author of many books on spirituality, has received various prizes in that genre, and his latest books of poetry, including this one, are sold as fundraisers for an organization called Bread for the Journey. He has served also as poet-in-residence at the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a non-profit foundation devoted to fostering awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community.

Sometimes it takes a great raucous
cleansing to open the chambers
of the soul. And often, we mistake
such cleansing as crisis or betrayal.

But the truth is that God scours
our infidelities of conscience
the way floods rush ditches,

and we are forced to tremble
in aftermath, barely born.

Nepo is the voice already in us. The one we sometimes forget to listen to, but in these poems, reminds us—we must.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Freelance Success Book: Insider Secrets by David Taylor

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Peak Writing, 2003
Price: $19.95
ISBN-10: 097173304X
ISBN-13: 978-0971733046

Author David Taylor, who has worked as an executive editor and is himself a freelance writer, has created an excellent resource for writers who are contemplating a freelance career, or are wishing to transition from part-time to full-time freelancing.

The Freelance Success Book: Insider Sercrets For Selling Every Word You Write has all the essentials. Taylor asks the hard questions - do you have the passion for this kind of career? Because it won't be easy. From the capital needed to get started, the financial buffer zone in the initial phase, calculating the money side of the equation, to the materials and time and devotion required, he nails it down for you. Freelancing has much going for it, but being self-employed means you have no one else to rely upon but you. Be ready.

Taylor covers doing the research (and it shows when you don't do your homework); conducting an interview; writing the article, the proposal, the book; finding the right market or agent or publishers; copyrights; submitting and query letters; negotiating fees and contracts; meeting deadlines; invoicing; and everything else it takes to build a solid freelancing career. Sample forms are included, ready to be personalized, as are handy "writer's tools" sidebars, recommending Web sites, organizations and other resources.

This may not be the only book needed to enter a freelancing career, but it is an excellent first book, one to keep on your reference shelf and regularly take down to peruse again. Some of the Web links provided I found to be no longer in existence, but that is to be expected in a day and age when sites go up and come down on a daily basis. Most links were excellent and worthy of bookmarking, returning to again and again. I have been freelancing alongside a full-time career for many years, but Taylor still managed to cover some new territory for me, even as I work toward an eventual goal of going full-time. A writer's thumbs up.

For more on this book and sample forms, visit

Monday, September 01, 2008

Out of the Fog: Tragedy on Nantucket by Cindy Lou Young

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 162 pages
Publisher: Black Lab Publishing LLC; 1st edition, 2008
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 097428159X
ISBN-13: 978-0974281599

"There is some good to all that is painful," writes the author, Cindy Lou Young, in conclusion to her remarkable story. She is one of but a few survivors of a plane crash that happened 50 years ago in Nantucket, when Northeast Airlines Flight 258 took off from LaGuardia Airport for the island of Nantucket on August 15, 1958. On board is then 18-month-old author of this book, Cindy, along with her young mother, Jackie. Baby Cindy survived, mother Jackie did not.

It has taken a long time for the author to be able to tell her story, and in telling it, perhaps to fully face it. Indeed, in her foreward she writes: "I think to let something go, you need to fully understand it." When a story is filled with so much upheaval, disaster, addiction (that of her grandparents, who raised her, and subsequently her own), and a striving to connect with her parents (mother, of course, deceased, but young father disappeared for much of her life), understanding life fully can take at least half a lifetime.

Cindy begins with a background that sets the scene for her own life. Her grandparents are both alcoholics - a grandmother, Annie, who comes from Holland, and a grandfather, Arnold or Arnie, who comes from Latvia. The two immigrants have bonded with little else in common, it seems, but the disorienting state of being immigrants and falling into drink to handle the difficulties of their lives. They have a daughter, Jackie. At age 16, Jackie meets a brash young man, 20, falls into a first flush of romance, and becomes pregnant. In spite of his family's protestations, the young lovers marry. The odds are against such youth and inexperience, however, and as most such young pairings go, theirs, too, quickly heads for divorce. They were contemplating divorce, or whether still to make a go of it, when the plane crash happened and cast its own deciding vote.

The first chapters of this slim book (I read it in one sitting of a little over a couple hours) are a retelling of the night of the crash. A few photos show parts of the debris and rescue workers. The story is gripping. A fog rolled in over Nantucket, as it so often does, and with flight regulations stating that a plane cannot land safely with less than half a mile of visibility, that range all too quickly disappeared into the thickening fog. Whether the final transmissions to the pilot were heard are not clear. They warned that visibility was in moments less than one-eighth of a mile, but perhaps by then it was too late. In tiny Nantucket, there wasn't even an air tower to talk the pilot in. The pilot missed the runway and ripped through pine trees, somersaulted and went up in flames.

A few survived, and at first, it seemed the young mother, Jackie, might be one of the survivors. When a rescue worker, climbing through the burning debris, heard her call from where she was trapped, she simply shouted to him, "Save the baby!" and asked nothing for herself. The baby was set under a pine tree, out of the range of danger, and very nearly forgotten in all that took place in the next hours, as rescue workers and community members worked frantically to save whomever was still living, and remove whomever was not. When Cindy was located again a bit later, her clothing had been singed off her, her charred teddy bear was gripped tightly in her hand, and she was covered with pine needles.

Later featured in various newspapers and Life magazine, the baby girl was too young to have any memory of the crash, and was termed a "miracle baby" as she had survived with only a scratch on her chin.

But this is hardly the end of the story. While news reporters go on to report other stories, and magazines feature other stories, lives can be affected deeply by such events, and Cindy's is no different. She is a child without a mother, and Jackie's parents, Annie and Arnie, quickly step in to parent her while dealing with the devastating blow of losing their own daughter. Alas, they are ill equipped. Both are steeped in their alcoholism. Losing their only child, Jackie, has made the angst of life only worsen. The next section of this story is about Cindy growing up in a home where addiction rules, albeit not without love.

Nor do most addictions come singly. Addictive behavior in one area often leads to other addictions, so for Annie, there is a struggle with alcoholism paired with obsessive-compulsive housecleaning, and for Arnie, bouts of alcoholism come with the cycles of manic-depression. Young Cindy responds as most do who are bound to addicts, initially blaming herself, trying to make things right and save those she loves:

"... if I could somehow be good enough, or say and do the right things, the problems with drinking would go away. The one thing that I have come to understand is that nobody has any control or responsibility for the actions of another. It took me a long time to learn and accept this ..."

Before she does fully learn this important lesson, however, Cindy herself adopts the behavior of her grandparents. As is often the case, addicts pass addictions on to the next generations. By age 10, she is already drinking and experimenting with drugs. She seems doomed to follow in this path of tragedy. Surely, the "miracle baby" has not survived only to continue the addictions that plague her family ...

Indeed, she is not. The final chapters of this book are about Cindy's coming out of her own fog. She tells of surviving a failed marriage as she finds she is time and again attracted to men with addictions, but later finding a new husband, although also an alcoholic, but this time a man who is willing to fight the battle alongside her. More, this is a conclusion of daughter finding her bearings, searching out her missing father, understanding various members of her family and community, and tracking down the stories of other survivors of the crash of Flight 258. Her recounting of crash survivor Lita Levine, a young artist who loses her hands, is a story in its own right.

Out of the Fog: Tragedy on Nantucket is by no means a literary book. If I can't give it two thumbs up, it is certainly not because it wasn't a gripping story. It really is hard to put down. But perhaps it should have been one of those books written "by Cindy as told to ..." and so written by a professional author who might have captured these dramatic scenes and storylines with even greater power and literary finesse, as they so richly deserve. As it is, one can only imagine what a blockbuster this story might have been, had it been given a more professional handling, delving even deeper into the various fascinating tangents here only touched upon. The editorial and grammatical mistakes (mostly missing and errant punctuation) were also a tad bothersome.

Nonetheless, my hat's off to Cindy Lou Young, now Houghton. She is, without argument, a quiet hero and still pulling off a miracle or two. As she shows in her own paths, life is to be lived, every moment appreciated, every loved one held dear, for one never knows when the next moment might be the last.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Back Bay Books, 2007
Price: $15.99
ISBN-10: 0316010669
ISBN-13: 978-0316010665

Where does it all go, after you are done experiencing the experience, thinking the thought, feeling the feeling? Nothing is ever lost. The subconscious is like a vast warehouse, limitless, in fact, and as Malcolm Gladwell illustrates in Blink, we access all that is stored in that warehouse with every blinking and waking moment.

Usually, we call this instant access - gut instinct. Or, the inner voice of wisdom. Instinct, however, is nothing magical or mysterious. It is simply our accumulated and stored knowledge over a lifetime. If there was ever an argument for listening to those who have some serious and well-lived years under their belts, this is it. Blink illustrates with numerous and widely varied examples how life experience, the more the better, contributes to our ability to make quick, yet sound decisions. In fact, the quicker, the better.

Blink is about what the author calls "thin slicing." He defines this process as the moment of time in which we all make snap judgments. Two seconds, two minutes ... and we make an assessment of a situation or a person or a circumstance. The fascinating thing is - these snap judgments are, more often than not, precise ones. It is when we begin to over analyze and rationalize that we tend to go awry. The trick is to allow the accumulated wisdom rise up and do its magic, trust in it.

Then again ...

Gladwell never does make a concluding statement in his book, and perhaps it is up to the reader to decide (do it quickly?), but his many fascinating examples and his reports on various studies can lead one to think these snap judgments are the way to go - or, then again, thinker beware. For all the many situations in which that moment of initial wisdom is uncannily precise, there are other times that our deeply ingrained biases muck up the clarity of that process. Gladwell cites data to illustrate how stereotypes, for instance, persist - no matter how gallant our conscious efforts to overcome them. Telling yourself you don't really think what you think simply won't work. Only exposure to experiences, or positive visualizations, will change the false ideas and images our subconscious has absorbed over time. All of which is a strong argument for "garbage in, garbage out." That is, be careful of what entertainment you choose (e.g. pornographic images, violent movies or games, etc.), because no matter how hard your conscious mind tries to guide you toward decisions and behavior that is more appropriate, your subconscious will always, but always win out.

The idea of what you present to your eye is what you will later project out to the world is a convincing one, as the author finds himself unable to beat the test on stereotypes when he has to react quickly. Only exposure to more positive images over time can change his test results and dislodge his prejudices.

Gladwell discusses this phenomena of instant response-true response in a manner of ways. How patients respond to their doctors (we sue the physician who has a lousy bedside manner, even if more skilled, but remain loyal to the physician who spends as little as three extra minutes talking with us); how facial expressions, when viewed on slowed down video, will without fail, always reveal deceit (there are facial movements that arise from our subconscious that we cannot control, and no matter how quickly we think we have our facial mask in place, there is always that instant that our faces tell the truth); the intricacies of marketing and advertisement and why the obvious ad, even when based on feedback of focus groups, may not be the effective choice; how military decisions by experienced military leaders are successful, but fail miserably when they are constrained by strategic analysis; how micro-managing in workplaces can only lead to mediocrity while suppressing creativity and innovation; how speed dating may be most effective in finding potential lifelong connections (we read about research that can pick out successful, longterm relationships in observing as little as two minutes of interaction between a couple - and no, it isn't the couple that argues that breaks apart); how our societal subconscious biases for certain physical characteristics, such as height or gender, often mislead us to make dangerously faulty snap judgments (Gladwell observes that most of our leaders are tall and male, and that our corporate world pays tall men higher salaries, factoring dollars down to the inch, regardless of intelligence or ability). On and on, in one fascinating example and study after another, Gladwell intrigues with his findings.

And you know he's right. You know it ... in your gut. But if the author doesn't make any overall conclusion from all of this fascinating data, then the reader is left to her own wiles. Experience counts more than credentials. What we expose ourselves to on a regular basis molds who we are, how we view others, what choices we make and how we behave. Biases and prejudices are far stronger than our conscious will to overcome them; we must align our environment to align our subconscious. Our deepest self forgets nothing. All we have ever done and been and seen and observed leads to who we are today and tomorrow.

All of which gives one pause. But don't pause too long. It is that initial millisecond that may matter most of all.