Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 101 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press, 2005
Price: $16.00
ISBN-10: 0306814129
ISBN-13: 978-0306814129

Like a gentle warning, one we will not heed, Mary Oliver states in her foreword that she prefers writing poetry to prose, but each has its own pleasures and manner of expression - "different paces of heartbeat." Anyone who has dabbled in both types of word-art knows how true this is; and we are grateful that Oliver is willing to adjust her heart rhythm so that our appreciative hearts may beat a little differently, too.

Long Life: Essays and Other Writings is a slim collection of prose and those few poems Oliver could not resist interspersing, collected into a love letter from Oliver to the universe, "full of radiant suggestion." Whether walking the beach, ten feet from her home, or the town dump, her praise to the beauty of the world is undaunted and lavish. There is no detail she misses, no praise unwarranted, and Oliver relishes what is life, animate, inanimate, human, canine, reptile or insect. In "Flow," she notes how we already live in paradise, and to be fully aware of it is to "have such music in one's head and body," that one must, brimming with blessing and gratitude, ask: "what is the gift I should bring the world?" For Oliver, cleary, her literary art, adding to our paradise in books.

In various essays, none very long, Oliver writes tributes to favored authors Hawthorne and Emerson, but also to her lifelong partner, Molly, in appreciation of their many differences and habits, making relationships that much richer and more rewarding. She writes of perfect days, and surely all are, in their own way. She writes of childhood huts, little places she built with open doors, so that she might sit inside and watch the wonder of the world around her (I did exactly the same). There is no place where she is unable to find beauty, and whereas Poe claimed to be able to hear the night falling, Oliver listens for the morning as it "settles upward." In her series of poems called "Sand Dabs," she collects pithy and wise sayings, the sort one would scribble on a napkin corner and keep in a wallet so as not to forget. And, even while she strives to appreciate this worldly paradise in open faith, her intellect presses her, "... forgive me, Lord, how I still, sometimes, crave understanding."

Oliver walks in the world to love it. We read her books in order to walk alongside her, love it through her eyes, her words, her spirit "settling upward," and by end of book, bask in the afterglow, recipients of the gift Oliver has given back to the world, to us.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition, 2000
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 0312867131
ISBN-13: 978-0312867133

Usually, if I sense an alien coming, I run. In movies or books, anyway. Beasties with six legs and eyes on wands, flying saucers and such... not my thing. But good writing, in any genre, is always my thing. There is so much to learn and understand in solid reality that I wish no escapism, the latter wasting precious real time for matters of value and substance ... but when science fiction keeps enough of its six legs firmly planted in issues we face in substantiated reality, even as it waves its eye wands into the unknown ... then my interest is won.

Robert J. Sawyer is a familiar name to me, even without being a sci fi fan. The title, Calculating God, locked into my lifelong fascination with the spiritual realm. I was intrigued to know how a sci fi writer of acclaim would approach the concept of God, that is, faith, grounded in a world of science, however speculative: he does it well and convincingly.

Hollus, aforementioned six-legged alien with waving eye wands, comes to Earth to research, well, life itself. And all that the concept of life and living encompasses. She enters a museum to find a paleontologist, thus meeting Tom Jericho, scientist who is facing the afterlife, like it or not, as a newly diagnosed cancer patient. The two have an ongoing dialogue about God and faith, which pretty much sums up the entire premise of this story, with few sidelines. Surprise! For it is the alien who believes in God, the human being who so mightily resists, even as he contemplates his fast approaching mortality.

I could complain that various scenes and plot twists in this book leave me unconvinced. I have a hard time buying the idea that people would accept so quickly and easily, almost to the point of being oblivious, an alien moving so casually among them, even if mostly in hologram form. The vandalism in the museum by religious fundamentalists is on shaky ground, potentially unnecessary, but with more solid plotting, might have been developed into a fascinating tangent of exploring religious fervor when it goes too far. Sawyer missed his mark here for what might have added a fine nuance to the story.

Yet, regardless, I found myself recommending this book to others even before I had finished it. Several times, the author brings out points in this dialogue on faith that made me "a-ha!" aloud in my reading, wondering, why had I never thought of that? He makes arguments, via Hollus, favoring the idea of intelligent design, that for all the proven evolution of one species over time in a myriad of ways and forms, never has science shown one species evolving into another species. A dog can, over time, become a great many other breeds of dog, but he will never become a bird. And this, after all, is the premise on which the idea of evolution is, must be, built. Cell becomes fish becomes reptile becomes primate becomes man ... you know the lineage. Science has gaps in this area, requiring faith.

What Sawyer so masterfully brings to light in this story is that it is science that requires many leaps of faith ... not believing in God. Perhaps, in fact, much more so. With his alien voice, in various examinations of one scientific premise after another, he argues that God is rooted in science, that is, well substantiated in many forms of solid evidence, while the [godless] science we accept in the contemporary world is actually standing on the clay feet of irrational faith.


The literary value of this book, in terms of style and form, for me, is on the weak side. Its value as invitation for lively discussion, its courageous groundbreaking of the usual storylines of more typical sci fi fare, deserves high praise. Science fiction fan or not -- recommended reading.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Nurse in the Delivery Room Slapped Me... Once by D Anthony

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Beckham Publications Group, 2007
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 0931761255
ISBN-13: 978-0931761256

Whenever I receive a review copy of a book with the request to write a critical overview, my first thought, especially with non-fiction such as this, is to ask what new insight does this book bring?

I've read a great many positive attitude and manifest-your-own-destiny books by now (one of the most popular today in this vein is "The Secret," although I am not a fan of this one either for its over-simplification). My personal favorite in the general area of improving one's attitude toward life is Martha Beck's "Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live," and I highly recommend it.

Holding Beck's work as something of a standard to meet or beat, D Anthony's oddly titled "The Nurse in the Delivery Room Slapped Me ... Once" slips several levels lower. Quite simply, the author brings us nothing we haven't heard already ad nauseum in any positive outlook seminar or infomercial or documentary on turning your life around and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. To make a quality contribution, he must either add something new or at very least say it in a new way. Alas, he does neither.

Glass is half full, got it. Count your blessings, check. Life is what you make of it, of course. Appreciate your loved ones while they are still living, indeed. Watch the handicapped and otherwise challenged for clues of why you are so lucky, oh dear. All of this, sound rationale as it might be, gets old fast. The latter (check out the challenged to feel blessed) teeters on patronizing. The several doting-on-mother chapters are several too many. One story on how much the author misses his deceased mother is enough to honor her ... and us. We have many fine books on the market today that state the same message and do it in fresher style, more organized manner, more lively language.

That would be my glass a bit more than half empty on this 219-page (too many) book. No, wait. The interspersed poetry. Bad. Really bad. The book would do much better to cut these entirely.

"Have you ever wished you could begin anew
To experience the things you always wanted to
To make sure each day in someway [sic] you grew
To accomplish big things, and small ones too"

Anything left in my glass after sloshing that down? On the positive side, D Anthony is, well, seemingly a really nice guy. Lots of heart, lots of positive outlook, surely makes a great friend if not a great writer. I'm betting if I met him, I'd really like him. But most of what I liked in this book was all readily available and compact within the first few pages; perhaps this should have been one essay rather than a drawn-out collection. In the "Born to Lead" section he sums it all up:

"When we consistently focus on the best, expect the best, strive for the best, are our best, and combine that expectation with appropriate effort, the odds are good that the best outcomes will befall us. Conversely, if we focus, expect, or strive for anything less, regardless of the extent of our associated effort, the odds are almost certain that the resulting opportunities and outcomes will duly reflect those limited expectations." (pg. 19)

It's a good message. I will not argue its validity. I am convinced of its truth from my own experience, adding only that bad things sometimes happen to very positive people, but positive people refuse to be stopped by bad things and go on to find their glory. Their eyes rarely drop from the horizon they seek, and so their steering in life remains true, regardless of circumstance.

All the positive thinking in the world, however, does not an excellent book create. Excellent writing and editing will accomplish that. D Anthony has a good message, but it has been delivered many times already and far better by others. His task, I would think, would be to find the message only he can tell, in a way that is only his, and write that.