Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Book for My Sister by Pamela Winterbourne

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Laughing Elephant, 2003
Price: $19.95
ISBN-10: 188321145X
ISBN-13: 978-1883211455

It was on a summer weekend that my sister came to visit me that we soon realized this was an occasion to celebrate our sisterhood. Our lives had gone in two such very different directions that we sometimes struggled to find common interest or even common experience. We were more a case of opposites attract, in this case, sibling bond. For the bond between sisters is a real one, and strong, and enduring. Despite all.

By weekend's end, my sister surprised me with a gift: the breathtakingly beautiful book, "A Book for My Sister," by Pamela Winterbourne, published by Laughing Elephant Books. Here were the words, along with the visual representation, of our sibling ties. Part of a series (there are similar books for daughters, mothers, fathers, husbands, friends), it appears at first much like a picture book for children. The words are few, the pictures large and colorful. But then, why not? Some things are said best in few words, and we all know how many words a picture contains. A thousand and more ...

Pamela Winterbourne is a portrait photographer by trade, and it was during a photo session with her young daughter that she recalled herself at a young age, along with her sister. From this flash of memory came this book, a kind of letter to her sister about how important she was to her. The art images are selected by Wellerna Poltarnees, and they capture what perhaps the words only hint at, bringing to show such classic artists as Mary Cassatt, Frederick Bosley, Robert Reid, William Adolphe Bouguereau, John Singer Sargent, and a long and lustrous list of others.

"You know me, in some ways, better than I know myself," Winterbourne writes. "And we have both been enriched by our various interests and experiences... I feel safe in your esteem, which allows me to share my dreams and aspirations..."

And so I embraced warm and long - my sister. Who gave me this book so that I might remember not only a special weekend of renewing our bond across time and space and varied life experience, but also to remind me that in all the world, regardless of how diverting our paths, I will always find in her, my sister's heart, a safe and lasting oasis.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bird's Horn & Other Poems by Kevin Rabas

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 51 pages
· Publisher: Coal City Review Press, 2007
· Price: $10.00
· ISBN-10: 0979584418
· ISBN-13: 978-0979584411

As Dan Jaffe writes in his introduction to Kevin Rabas’ poetry, “There is no art that does not in some way reflect the character and personality of the artist.” The more willing the writer to look unflinchingly into his or her own reflection, the more powerful the resulting work. Anything less remains in the realm of technical skill. The art comes when the artist has the courage to face demons … and an angel now and then.

Kevin Rabas has looked keenly into that mirror. It’s not always a pretty thing to see. This collection is marked by inconsistency, one poem a sound masterpiece, the next a flat note. But the scales weigh heavily in favor of word-music, and most of this collection is just that: words that convey rhythm and sound, an interpretation of music into verse and back again. The poet is, in fact, a jazz musician, and the transition between word and musical note is, all in all, seamless … or shall we say, rarely misses a beat?

Perhaps the highest note of the collection comes early on, in “Night Shirts That Shimmer to Dinner.” Rabas combines jazz with the heart-searing pain of divorce, the stunning realization that a lost partner has actually lived a full life after a shared path has long forked in two. One feels the thrum of the music while reading. One feels the ache. The shock.

And when the annulment papers came in the mail,
no word from her in years, I knew she must’ve lived and lived and lived

on the blocks I once wandered and walked and knew, danced with the men
in the clubs, or danced while they played in the background, floated

dollar bills across bars to other friends, had talks with musicians…

…where music moves in the building as blood moves in the body,
and women can dance however they damn well please, and a man can
stand up and know

any damn thing his spirit can muster, can know the chord changes with
his heart,
can know the bar top and the saxophone face, and the drumhead, and the
cymbal dish,

and the touch of brushes when they are new, cat paw on Spanish tile quick,
delicate as the teardrops the sensitive get on the heart finger, the ring
finger, mine.

Take a deep breath here, savor. I had to. When you come across a poem that resonant, you almost don’t want to read anymore. Just linger in the fine pitch of that moment and let it rock you.

But do. Read on. Rabas has much more to say. He brings us into the world of a jazz musician, but he also brings us into the heartaches and heartbreaks of life as all of us who dare to live know it. He lets us witness the small joys that make up a greater happiness in a life well lived, capturing greater meanings in such simple scenes as of a new father playing catch with his small son, learning how to lob a ball soft and easy so the little guy can catch it—and in that act showing that love is all about releasing oneself as center of the universe and putting the other at center. Rabas has achieved as much in his poetry. In his best works, he has had the courage to reveal his innermost self, yet made us, his readers, feel that it is our core that he has recognized and acknowledged.

Kevin Rabas teaches creative writing and literature at Emporia State University. He co-edits Flint Hills Review and writes for Jazz Ambassador Magazine (JAM). He is winner of a Langston Hughes Award for Poetry and other awards.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 448 pages
· Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 2008
· Price: $24.99
· ISBN-10: 0446402389
· ISBN-13: 978-0446402385

If it weren't for the Soviet Union and the blood lust of the Russian communists, I would not exist. My parents were World War II refugees, on the run for their lives from Soviet-occupied Latvia. They arrived in the United States at about the same time, immigrants with nothing but what they wore on their backs, with the most skeletal English language skills. Had they not spotted each other across the room of immigrants and felt drawn one to the other, well, that would have been an entirely different story, and without me in it.

Even so, you won't hear gratitude from me. My existence does not by any measure outweigh the brutalities of Soviet power. A large percentage of the Latvian population was deported, tortured and executed under the communist regime. My life cannot measure up to such suffering of the multitudes. In later years, I traveled several times to the Soviet Union to see for myself this world that had so often been described to me, yet nonetheless remained and remains nearly incomprehensible. The experience of my travels behind the Iron Curtain is a memory that will never leave me. These are the memories and impressions returned to me with the reading of Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44.

Tom Rob Smith has taken his premise for Child 44 from the true story of Russian serial murderer, Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered over 50 women and children in Russia during the 1980s. Although Smith has set his story in an earlier time period, the 1950s, he has not lost, but only gained levels of intrigue and suspense by choosing the worst years of Soviet oppression. The difference, the author explains, is that in the latter years, someone in open rebellion against the political system might lose an apartment, while in earlier years, it would have meant the loss of life.

The story of Child 44 has the chill of historical and political accuracy. The author is still in his twenties at this writing, yet the combination of his research and already rich life and travel experience have given him the depth of insight required to bring this tale of Soviet horror vividly to life. I had to wonder, in fact, and quite often during my reading, how many readers less aware of Soviet history might construe this as mere fantasy. In too many ways, it is not. The sense of unraveling sanity and logic threaded throughout daily Soviet life is all too real: Black is declared white and white, black. What you see, you are told, is not what you see. What you know is not to be known. Deny everything. And in saving your own life, choose who will die among your loved ones.

Leo Demidov is a key character, the communist detective pursuing the killer who cannot be named. The first insanity is that the Soviet government denies the existence of crime in its so-called utopian state. If life is perfection, why would anyone commit a crime? Crime, they claim, is an outgrowth of a capitalist society. And then, a crime so gruesome as to kill a child, ripping open his belly to expose his insides, stuffing his open mouth with bark and gravel. Yet such dead and tortured children's bodies appear throughout Soviet Russia, and despite the growing threat to his own safety, Demidov is determined to stop the child murderer. He cannot question witnesses, however, when there is no official crime to witness. He cannot conduct investigations when there is no official crime to investigate. To stop these murders, Demidov must become himself a criminal against the state. Such is Stalin's workers' paradise ...

The stakes grow ever higher, as Demidov's loyalty to the state is tested when his wife is accused of being a spy. In spite of her innocence, Demidov is faced with calling the authorities liars by defending his wife—or handing over his innocent wife to be executed but show his loyalty to the state that does no wrong.

A page-turner, indeed, but blood runs even colder when one knows this type of existence was all too real behind the Iron Curtain of the very real Soviet Union. Tom Rob Smith has my respect and admiration for putting into words what makes so little sense to the rational mind. I suggest supplemental reading in the form of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago for the true history of this nightmarish world.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Choices by Kate Buckley

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Reading level: Young Adult
· Paperback: 170 pages
· Publisher: iUniverse, Inc., 2006)
· Price: $13.95
· ISBN-10: 0595409261
· ISBN-13: 978-0595409266

In this novel for young adults—with something valuable to say to older adults, as well—Kate Buckley has had the courage to take on subject matter few will touch. As evidence: after a long search for a traditional publisher, Buckley had to self-publish for her story to see print. While none of the traditional publishers denied the quality and value of Buckley’s writing, all were squeamish at backing up a topic that continues to ignite a furor among those who are pro-life and those who defend a woman’s right to make choices about her pregnancy. Only after Buckley’s book saw quick success and critical acclaim (Kirkus, Ms. Magazine, and others) did traditional publishers consider her work, and Choices may yet see the imprint of one of these on its title page in a second printing.

The author comes to her writing with substantial experience. A Santa Fe, New Mexico resident, Buckley holds a master’s in human development with a concentration in women’s studies. She has facilitated support groups for girls in California and New Mexico. An activist for women’s rights, she has worked as a teen advocate in the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women’s Teen Abuse Prevention Project and has trained for the LA Commission’s Rape Crisis Hot Line team. Buckley has administered a three-year, science based drug and alcohol abuse prevention program in public middle schools of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

When Buckley wrote Choices, she meant it to be read and discussed not only by teen girls, but to open lines of communication between girls and their mothers, equally their fathers and brothers, even an entire community, for it takes a village to protect a young woman. Indeed, this is the line running through the novel. When 15 year old Kara MacNeill finds herself pregnant after being raped by a school jock at a party, she must confront her every fear in dealing with a moral and ethical dilemma. There is the rape itself. She must cope with the violation of body, mind and spirit that a person undergoes after a rape. To complicate matters, Kara’s mother is an impassioned pro-life activist who often has her daughter help in passing our flyers and joining in protests against abortion clinics. Surely, Kara will not find help in her dilemma at home. Time is of essence, however, as Kara searches for support in various places with varied results. The young rapist adds pressure to abort the fetus, for, as it turns out, she is not the first girl in school he has raped. The complicit and shamed silence in his female victims is something he has come to rely upon.

Choices addresses all variations and possible solutions to a problem too many adolescent girls and young women face. Is Kara in some manner responsible? Is a girl at a party who drinks too much accountable for what a boy does to her? Will a parent who has strong pro-life views feel the same way when a daughter has been raped? As simple as it can be to hold firm views when they apply to others, the insights Kara’s parents experience when the results of rape hit home are fascinating for the reader to witness.

This is a story about growing up, about being accountable and taking responsibility, about taking risks and being honest when honesty becomes a matter of life and death. This is a story about what it means to be a young not-yet-woman in a society that often puts the blame and the shame on the female (in no small part due to the views of women themselves about being “nice” and that “boys will be boys”) when sex becomes an act of force. Kudos to Buckley for speaking up.

To read an interview with Kate Buckley, visit this issue of The Smoking Poet's Feature YA Author Interview.