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