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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Notes From Refuge by Lana Maht Wiggins

Book review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 88 pages
Publisher: Plain View Press (April 30, 2008)
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 1891386344
ISBN-13: 978-1891386343

"Poems aren't free and they sure don't come easy," writes the poet, Lana Maht Wiggins, in her poem, "Nine Days Before the Storm." As a poet and poetry editor myself, I can only sigh and agree, having paid many a high price in gold and flesh and heart pieces. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Which brings me to the conclusion that if terrible storms and their heavy, overhanging clouds still have silver linings, Katrina, the now legendary killer storm of New Orleans, has produced not only silver, but words of gold in its aftermath from resident, Lana Maht Wiggins.

When I accepted several of Wiggins' poems for the Fall 2007 issue of The Smoking Poet, a literary ezine I manage, I had only a hint of this shimmering and stormy talent. Now, with whole collection in hand, Notes From Refuge, I see my instinct couldn't have been more precise. This collection is the sort that makes an editor want to run through the streets and shout a declaration: talent found! You must read this! And grab the innocent or not so innocent passersby, shove them into seated position in the very spot where they stand, and hold the book open before them. Must. Read. This.

Or not.

This is also the sort of collection that a woman holds greedily to bruised heart and seeps in silence, absorbing the moment of knowing herself understood. Not alone. Yet alone. Here echoes the voice of all women, here is mirrored the image of all women, weathered by whatever storm. The echo heard and reheard and reechoed causes the breath to stop, be held, so that nothing might disturb its perfection. And the next passing moment be forestalled so as not to break the sacred silence.

I experienced this, too, in reading Wiggin's work. Again.

One moment a cry to battle. Another moment a call to meditate. Wiggins' poetry is all things, all cries, takes all angles and never misses a turn. Her title poem, "Notes from Refuge," is a bare bone list of "things to do after disaster:"

Count cash
Call mother
Smoke cheap cigarettes
Contact FEMA
Stand in line
Drink free coffee
Mingle with refugees
Attend funerals
Eat free food
Contact FEMA

and on and on the list goes, hammering in the state of disciplined despair mingled with the state of hardened survival, the metronome of "Contact FEMA" sounded at a regular interval, unanswered.

Wiggins addresses with a glorious courage what too many fear to address. In "Detour of Destiny," she dares:

Being tap-wired into submission will make us
what we fear most and we will die as our own enemy.

They will censor me if I say there is no
democracy in oil rigs and other weapons -
if I say there is no democracy at all
except on parched documents in heavy glass.

...I long for long-lost purple mountain grit,
honesty among thieves, and gentlefolk side-by-side
defending honor and home.

The poet then takes on yet another battle cry, and this one in the tone of a feminism that holds both genders accountable. In "Things Mina Loy Couldn't Say," Wiggins takes her stand:

Get out of my way.
You and your nine inch identity
don't know who you're dealing with.
I've made grown men cry
by the edge of my tongue.

Then proceeds to take on the other half with the same dose of medicine:

Woman, you're a fool.
A mere fragment of a whole
cumulation of falsehoods...

You conserve your energy for desire
to be loved by that which does not.

...Your exchange of flesh
goes against laws of reciprocity.
You receive nothing
but a skin-sack of potential perpetuation.

Wiggins brings back Mina Loy and gives her more say in the prose poem, "The Other Side:"

So here it ends ... another opportunity to bridge the gap of a centuries old war. Mina Loy said it best ... we are to blame for our own subjugation ... it was the division between our sisters and our selves that kept us from reforming legislation, but even worse ... from revising the myths of the feminine as a lesser being ... wives, witches, or whores - those were the choices given to us and still we stand here today ... divided by petty temper tantrums and an unwillingness to forgive ...

Yet for all her fierceness, Wiggins is equally capable of capturing the most tender moments, of love, of union, of disunion, of separation, of aloneness, of madness, of grief. "Reflection of Fear" offers but one such example in sparse words, haiku-like, that singe to the bone of truth:

it's always nights
unwarped by sleep
that we try to remember

where the heart is hidden
how water holds
the body afloat
when to breathe
if it lets you fall ...

If we fall, then it is through a vortex of words that nail us to the wall, to the floor, to the ceiling, and demand our attention, our action, our hearts.

~ Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008

Notes From the Waiting Room: Managing a Loved One's End-of-Life Hospitalization by Bart Windrum

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Axiom Action (February 1, 2008)
Price: $25.00
ISBN-10: 0980109000
ISBN-13: 978-0980109009

Perhaps no one statement that author Bart Windrum makes in his examination of how the United States health care system approaches end-of-life hospitalization is more important to understand than, simply, "death is a part of life." Yes, and he continues, in his Notes From the Waiting Room: Managing a Loved One's End-of-Life Hospitalization, that all doctors should be trained for it.

Overly simplistic? Think about it. Think about the Hippocratic oath our physicians take upon themselves as they enter their medical careers, "do no harm." If our definition in American society is of death as a state that is to be avoided at all costs, and life as a state that is to be prolonged at all costs, then doing no harm becomes a tricky proposition. Harm by whose definition?

Windrum explores how our health care system treats death and the dying, and those who care about the dying, first and foremost as an adult child of two parents whose death he has experienced in every excruciating step. These were not peaceful steps. In his Notes, Windrum shares with us how often and how, to his view, unnecessarily these final steps were made painful, confusing, alienating, and undignified. All because our typical approach to death is one of avoidance. Within a culture that is obsessed with staying young forever (i.e., never dying), to over-the-top violence in our various forms of entertainment that gives us a very false and unrealistic concept of death, to an overall cultural avoidance of facing death at all - we treat death as unnatural. We either avoid it completely or we see it as something other than what it is. Windrum consistently makes the valid point throughout his book: death is natural. It is how we treat death, how we approach it, that too often becomes unnatural.

So that others may not have to experience the indignities and sometimes black comedy of errors that the author experienced with his own family members and their hospitalization, Windrum has written this well researched and thought out book. It begins with establishing his own experience with the death of loved ones. From that, the author goes on to recommendations on how to become an effective personal representative, what essential legal documents must be in place (and often championed and reviewed) when death becomes an unavoidable reality, how to effectively manage hospitalization, the role of family involvement, the importance of "forecasting" (presenting all possible outcomes to those involved in the dying of a loved one so as to make timely and reasonable, informed decisions) and ethical support, the too often avoided descriptions of what death is really like (forget the movies), and, finally, his proposals for change. This includes PEACE, or the Patient Ethical Alternative Care Elective. Windrum also makes proposals and suggestions for the health care industry (by which time, the word "industry" in this usage seems wincingly apt) and for you and me - every day people who at one time or another will have to face death, whether that of a loved one or one's own.

In this journey of an adult son's witnessing the deaths of his mother, soon followed by that of his father, Windrum brings valuable insight. At a time when this country's health care system (to whom it is provided and how it is provided) is in such great need for reassessment and improvement, one can only hope that enough of us will make our voices heard both in the political arena as well as in our own doctors' offices, that we might accomplish and insist upon change. Change, as Windrum reminds us, occurs when continuing to do the same thing becomes more painful than change itself is perceived to be. And it is increasingly painful to see, or to be victim of, health care that is evolving in terms of medical technology, while too often ignoring the simple dignity of the human condition and the validity of one's own choices over how to live and how to die.

Our medical technology and expertise is keeping us alive longer and longer, yet is that always the best option? Even when legal documentation is in place for "do not resuscitate," Windrum shows how this may not always be enough to prevent unnecessary procedures and painful outcomes. He reminds us of the importance of every patient having his or her champion at their bedside, without which an endless stream of indignities if not medical errors might take place, in spite of legal documentation.

A better approach, beginning with the acceptance of death being a natural part of life, may be to take a closer look at how we understand hospice and palliative care. And, how we protect an individual's choice in how to die. Once a diagnosis of terminal illness has been made, Windrum argues, to make the choice to die with dignity, at a point in time when one is ready, should not be considered suicide but a choice in the manner of how one wishes to conclude a life.

If there were moments in reading this book that I felt the author may be too harsh and cynical about modern health care, that is, the health care professionals that care for us (my own career path often crosses with those in this industry, most all of whom strike me as persons who have chosen their careers driven by their caring hearts and deeply held motives to ease human suffering), then I couldn't help but think he brings to surface many very important suggestions for improvement. And improve we must. Our population is fast aging. Our medical technology is fast advancing, keeping many of us alive longer and longer by various artificial means.

We must have a new and better understanding about how we approach death and dying. If Windrum accomplishes nothing more than to encourage us to get our own legal documentation in place(and there are five such documents that we should have completed) to ensure our personal choices are taken into consideration when that inevitable moment arrives, this book is worth its price.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Broadway, 2007
Price: $14.00
ISBN-10: 0767924711
ISBN-13: 978-0767924719

I was handed this book by a colleague, saying, "Hey, you're Latvian, too, aren't you?" Indeed, I am, and if perhaps my first spark of interest in this book came from that - Ed Viesturs' father, Elmars Viesturs, came to the U.S. very much by the same route as my own parents, refugees from the Soviet occupation of Latvia - then it soon enough veered far more to his achievements in mountainclimbing. I'd heard of Viesturs before. I'd seen a few film clips of his remarkable feat in summiting the world's 14 highest mountains over a span of 18 years. If his Latvian name caught my attention (my own father's name is Viestarts, a variation of the same, and the name is, in fact, rooted fittingly in folklore based on a Latvian warrior), it was his life and how he lived it that sustained my attention.

Yes, his life and how he lived it, because the story of Ed Viesturs is not just about climbing mountains. It is very much about HOW he climbs those mountains, and not only how he climbs them, but also how he descends. Viesturs continually reminds his readers that his secret to his mountainclimbing success - "Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory." - is to never allow ego to get in the way of reaching the summit, to keep passion for one's pursuit aligned equally with sound sense, and that even the most desired outcome for a personal dream must sometimes be put on hold, perhaps numerous times, when the wisdom of experience-honed instinct dictates: this is not your time.

Viesturs tells his story (with the help of writer, David Roberts) from its logical beginning. The boy reads a book. It is a book about a mountainclimber who is doing battle with one of the most difficult, if not quite the highest, mountains: Annapurna. Although his childhood unfolds in the flattest parts of the Midwest, his imagination soars with his reading. (Do books still so inspire our youth? one has to wonder ... ) To climb all of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in the world (8,000 meters above sea level) becomes his life's pursuit.

Dreams are often not practical. Viesturs realizes he must pursue also some more practical career, and so he earns a degree in veterinary science. Alongside the practical, however, he never stops pushing the dream. He eventually ends up abandoning the "sensible" career, subsists on a meager salary as a climbing guide, takes on odd jobs to allow for the needed time off to travel across the world and climb. We can already see the needed fiber and hardy character of the man in these early climbing days, in how he approaches his goal with just the right mix of sensible and dream-crazy. He has the discipline to train, he has the persistance to continue when others fall away, he has the character to not give in to numerous rejections or obstacles that would close the door on so many others. He has what it takes to be a winner in whatever arena.

This is a gripping adventure story. It even has its element of mature romance, as Viesturs eventually meets his wife, Paula, who is his source of support and encouragment, his best friend, his companion dreamer. There is also history alongside his accomplishments to give the reader perspective. Many die. Very many. What Viesturs accomplishes only five others can claim to have done. And while Mount Everest is the mountain most know, it is not at all the most dangerous. Viesturs' story nears grand conclusion as he ends where he begins, with his last climb, the same mountain that inspired him as a boy: Annapurna. As the circle closes, the reader, too, feels a deep satisfaction.

If we ever wonder, as Viesturs does at one point, if living such a life makes sense, he ties it up nicely as he talks about how he was able to become a professional mountainclimber, financed by sponsors. He has a debate with a reporter about the statistics he faces, life or death. While the reporter uses the metaphor of Russian roullette, Viesturs argues that his odds actually improve with each summit, even as his experience accumulates. What he does, he says in his speaking tours, can be an approach well transposed to any pursuit in life. Know when and how to chase your dream; know when to turn back; know what should be sacrificed along the way and what should never be left behind; know when to trust your instincts; know how to celebrate an accomplishment without letting it get overmuch to your head; know how not to give up on what truly matters; know how to go home again and appreciate the source of your strength.

Indeed, there are no shortcuts to the top. And that, perhaps, in this time of instant gratification, of superficial and short-lived pleasures, of quick and easy fixes that somehow never last, of climbing on the backs of others to reach a higher level, is the best part of this grand adventure story. Viesturs never forgets his values. He never loses a solid sense of personal integrity. He never loses sight of his motivation. He does what he does because he wishes to know what his personal best can be. And yet, when he summits, he never quite forgets he is not alone. Family at home, fellow climbers, the ghosts of climbers that didn't make it ... the reader realizes by end of this story that mountain peaks were not his only, or even his greatest accomplishments. This is much more about the journey than the destination, and it is a journey taken with a rare kind of wisdom and integrity.

To learn more about Ed Viesturs and his summits and current journeys to explore the effects of global warming at the earth's poles, I encourage a long visit to his stunning Web site at

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

And Baby Makes Five by Gail Gaymer Martin

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Mass Market Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Barbour Publishing, Inc, 2007
Price: $4.95
ISBN: 978-1-59789-638-2

And Baby Makes Five was the second of two Christian romances sent to me by the author, Gail Gaymer Martin, for review. I had already read Garlic and Roses, so came to this book with a certain expectation in place. As stated in my review for Garlic and Roses, I am by no measure a "romance" reader.

And yet, I do try to keep an open mind whenever opening the cover of a yet unread book, doing my best not to judge by cover or even by genre. That said, certain stereotypical assumptions for the genre of romance held. The main characters were attractive, young people, pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, but driven by their growing passion one for the other. What differentiates this book, however, from the usual expectation for a romance paperback, is that the passion is more one of faith than heaving bosom. Indeed, this is what saved the book for me. Are we not all weary of cliche by now? Perhaps not. Perhaps there are those readers who like their literary diet predictable, like to know exactly what they are getting, like the comfort and reassurance of routine. I am not one of them. I enjoy a surprise. A sudden twist. An a-ha moment. Looking for that? I would suggest passing up this genre entirely.

Still here? Okay. If you are still interested, this little paperback isn't bad. While I have extremely slim pickings for comparison, I found the opening scene intriguing. Felisa Carrilo is doubled over with pain while working in the fields in the hot southern sun. Chad, young and wealthy owner of these fields, happens by and notices. The young woman seems to be hiding something ... and then he realizes it is her belly. The pretty young Mexican woman is pregnant, and he is horrified at her predicament, convinces her to let him help her (no easy feat, but as a migrant worker, she has grown to distrust her employers if not men in general) and takes her to the hospital.

What follows is, let's face it, something of a Cinderella story. Prince Charming saves the poor, downtrodden woman. He brings her and her baby to live in his mansion, exposes her to the life of the wealthy, the two fall in love and, yes, there is that happily ever after part coming. This is, I would suspect, the general outline of most romance novels. What makes this one different is that, as mentioned earlier, it is based more on passion of faith than passion of flesh. There are prejudices to overcome, not the least of which is the slow pace of their cautious courtship in a society that has all but forgotten the art of courtship. There are also racial and ethnic prejudices, class prejudices, and not only from the upper class looking down. The lower class looking up has its own set of stereotypes and expectations to overcome. All of this does add an element of interest to the storyline.

For all its lack of surprise or plot twist, I have to say I enjoyed the quick and easy read. Much as one does a quick, sweet snack between gourmet meals. While I was eager to return to my usual more literary choices in reading material, a bite of chocolate now and then isn't all bad. I was reminded, in reading both of Martin's books, of what a tragedy it is that modern society has indeed forgotten the art of courtship. The glance from afar. The shy first conversation. The touch of fingertips. The longing and wondering. The waiting. With our modern life pressures to skip the wait and go immediately to instant gratification ... the sad truth is that the gratification is made empty. Passion of the flesh when separated from passion of the heart is cotton candy. It melts in a moment, leaving nothing behind but empty calories and an unsatisfied hunger.

For this reason, I commend the author for the two books I've read, and the many others she has written that I have not read. Light reading, yes, but it serves a need, it is a valuable reminder that romance is often the last thing secular "romance" novels address. If at all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Garlic and Roses by Gail Gaymer Martin

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Mass Market Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2008
Price: $4.95
ISBN-10: 1597899313
ISBN-13: 978-1597899314

When Michigan author, Gail Gaymer Martin, approached me about writing reviews for a couple of her books, I looked her up online to see what kind of literature I might expect. That it was Christian based was just dandy -- I've been exploring this genre recently to see how it fares in comparison to secular fiction -- but the romance leaning to it, well, I have to admit, made me wince. I don't read romances. That is, I like a good love story as much as anyone else, but the romance genre has a tendency to make my eyes roll back in their sockets. Last time I opened a romance was when I came across a tattered stack of these little paperbacks with garish covers in a bed and breakfast, and I grabbed one up at random, read it to my travel partner, and was soon laughing so hard at the cliche and inept writing that tears quite literally streamed down my face.

Ah yes, the heaving bosoms and the muscled heroes in long, blonde tresses. Spare me. Reality is far more fascinating to me. But I pride myself on working hard to keep an open mind when I venture into literary areas I don't usually frequent. I received the package of two Christian romances from the author for review, and settled in to read.

She did spare me. No heaving bosoms, although the passion was present. The muscled heroes? Weeellll. I did find myself wondering why a Christian writer, coming from a faith that values substance over external beauty, would still make a point of writing (in both books that I read) about such "pretty people." Everyone was good looking. To be fair, when we fall in love, even the less good looking naturally become more pleasing to the beholder's eye, but the author did seem to make all of her main characters very attractive. Too bad.

And yes, many of the elements of the romance genre seemed to hold true for this story, too. The storyline was very predictable. Endings are satisfying and sweetly happy ones. Things fall neatly into place, and we can see that coming far more than a mile away. Yet I had to admit something else to myself ... even if I might not pick up another such romance again, I can't say I didn't get some enjoyment out of this little book. I did. I realized that it soothed some frayed nerves and battle wounds. We've all had our hearts broken at one time or another. Usually, for the worst kind of reasons. Many of us have gotten to question a sex-drenched society in which "love" is equated to physical copulation only, and in which a value system, ethics, morals, are all abandoned as so much unnecessary baggage if not obstacle.

There is something distinctly nice about reading a love story between two people who aren't rushing to the bedroom, but instead taking the time to have an actual courtship. Yes, I said nice. Another word that seems to have lost all respect in modern society. The bad boy has been popularized, while many women actually, quietly, almost with some odd sense of secret shame, still and ever long for ... a truly nice guy. Sure, nice looking. But also someone who is nice to you. Kind, thoughtful, sensitive and honest.

Martin's story is about two young people who have long kept to themselves and apart from the world: a young woman who is heiress to a garlic empire but has dreams of leaving the family business, and a young man who hides his accomplishment of becoming a physician so he will not be judged by certain stereotypes. The two meet at a soup kitchen where they volunteer to feed the homeless. Their value (faith) systems are tested as they deal with their own secrets as well as the much faster paced "romances" of friends and colleagues alongside theirs.

I won't argue if the author's characters are realistic to modern society or not. If they are not, perhaps we should question why not. These are not stories of high literary caliber, but they are a respite from a daily onslaught of obscenity in the form of flesh, violence, and a general absence of, okay, niceness. You know what? I miss nice. Thanks for the pause, Gail. I needed that.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 350 pages
· Publisher: Algonquin Books, 2007
· Price: $13.95
· ISBN-10: 1565125606
· ISBN-13: 978-1565125605

I’ve been to the circus only once in my life, as a small child, towed along by my parents for what they surely thought would be a treat. It wasn’t. We never went again. Even as a small child, I seemed to instinctively pick up on the abuse required to get wild animals to do what they do in the three rings of a circus. If nothing else, the sight of such wonderful creatures as elephants, lions, tigers, bears and various others, forced to do what they would not normally do but for cheap human entertainment, galled me. I loved animals. I loved them at a distance, to view them in either their natural habitat or through some telescopic lens that would keep the disruption of their lives in the wild at a minimum. For that reason, out of my respect for their wildness, I have avoided both the circus and zoos.

Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants, reinforced my decision. It is the story of Jacob Jankowski, both at age 23 and at age 90-something (he can’t clearly recall, as he narrates the story in a series of flashbacks from the nursing home where he is at present wasting away his final days). He does not run away to the circus for the usual romantic reasons of seeking adventure and freedom, as it is commonly viewed. His parents have died in a car crash, and he finds himself without any inheritance, a veterinary student who must suddenly face the need to become financially self-sufficient. He can no longer afford to remain in school. Instead, he hops a train that carries all that is the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Through his eyes we come to see the behind-the-scenes reality of the circus.

The star of this show, this book, is Rosie the elephant. She is the center point, and around her tangle the many eccentric characters: Uncle Al, the sadistic circus boss; August, the equally sadistic animal trainer, and his wife, Marlena, entrapped in the marriage, but quickly returning the love Jacob shows her and hoping for escape; and many others, circus hands and assorted circus characters, midgets and clowns and fat ladies and circus prostitutes, each with their own sad story.

The story moves quickly, interspersed with fascinating black and white photos illustrating typical circus scenes of the day and adding historical credence. Gruen’s writing skill is evident in keeping the pages turning and involving the reader, educating and tugging at heart strings as we witness scenes of cruelty against both human and animal. It is a not a literarily honed writing style, but an involving and entertaining one. We are moved, and we wish to know what happens to this array of colorful characters, even if the ending is quite predictable in its revelation of who murdered August and what action the aging Jacob will take at first opportunity to escape the nursing home.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Selma by Jutta Bauer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 51 pages
Publisher: Kane/Miller Book Pub, 2003
Price: $7.95

ISBN-10: 1929132506
ISBN-13: 978-1929132508

After having dinner with a new friend and venting a bit of our commonalities in various daily life (not untypical) frustrations, my pal dropped by my office this morning with a small, not so small, gift: Selma by Jutta Bauer. Oh, how we waxed philosophical over dinner! Solving world problems, defining the meaning of life, discussing the pursuit of happiness! But I took a coffee break at my desk upon receiving this gift and in a few minutes, read the 51 pages of this children’s book (of all ages) by a prolific German author in juvenile literature. And there—all problems solved. Wasn’t that easy? Selma the sheep in a few, simple words, with a bit of repetition for those of us who can be a little dense, conveys how to live a happy life. No, I will not convey her sheepish secret here.

With some online searching to discover more about this wise sheep and her wise creator, I discovered that another version of this book is titled, Ewe Too Can Be Happy, with apparently no difference in storyline from this title. Selma’s lesson, overall, however, is one of simplicity, so I opt for the original, less cutesy title.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time by David Oliver Relin

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin, 2007
Price: $15.00
ISBN-10: 0143038257
ISBN-13: 978-0143038252

Sometimes the only way to find what you are looking for is by getting lost. Often, the only way to achieve victory is first to fail. If Greg Mortenson had not yet learned these two lessons when attempting to reach the summit of K2 in 1993—the second highest mountain in the world but, it is said, the toughest to climb—then he learned these lessons on the way down. He would never forget.

Greg Mortenson is a three-cup tea drinker. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the tradition is that with the first cup, one is a stranger; with the second cup, one is a friend; but with the third cup, one has become family. For family, one is prepared to do anything, even to sacrifice one's life.

As a young man, Mortenson was a mountain climber and a military man, so he understood hard work and discipline. He had learned how to set a goal, keep his eyes on the summit, and go for it--with everything in him. Climbing K2 was a special challenge he had set for himself, a kind of tribute to his sister who had died young. He failed the climb, however, and when he turned around, short of the summit, and headed back down, Mortenson realized that he had gotten lost. He had intended to meet his guide in a town in the foothills, but instead had kept going down the road and ended up in a village in the Karakoram mountains. Exhausted, hungry, filthy, he was greeted with three cups of wretched tasting tea and the warm embrace of family.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson's decade of building 55 schools across Pakistan and Afghanistan in gratitude for that moment of welcome for a lost man. Many of them are schools for girls, the often forgotten ones who find a new chance at life through education. While for much of his first years in this role, Mortenson himself toes the edge of poverty, working on a bare bone salary, funding much of the school building through the kindness of a rich mentor and various other donations, he is finally recognized for the work that he does after the events of 9/11. No, not right away. Initially, he receives bags of hate mail for "helping the enemy." But there comes a fascinating turning point in the story when wiser minds begin to realize that the answer to terrorism, perpetrated, after all, by a few, is not the violence of war against many, but through the expression of human kindness—and education.

This is truly a remarkable story. If anyone deserves the Nobel Peace Prize (and there is such talk), then it is Greg Mortenson. This story is about the world-altering change one man can create. Let no one ever again say that one person cannot make a difference.

Written by David Oliver Relin, who travels all of Mortenson's paths to record this story, it is far more fascinating than any novel. Mortenson climbed his mountain. Not K2, but a mountain that no one believed he could climb, and he took 55 schools full of eager children, and the villages that surrounded them, to the highest summit.

Not only highly recommended. This book is a must, must, must read, and no less so with the elections of leaders now looming.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Working Stiff by Tori Carrington

Book Review (Advance Uncorrected Proof) by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Forge Books (September 2, 2008)
Price: $24.95
ISBN-10: 0765317443
ISBN-13: 978-0765317445

As soon as I opened the covers of my advanced review copy of Working Stiff, fourth in the Sofie Metropolis detective series by husband and wife writing team, Lori and Tony Karayianni as the combo name Tori Carrington, I was reminded of those long ago days of reading Nancy Drew mysteries by Carolyne Keene. I was, fair to say, obsessed with sharp and sassy girl-detective Nancy Drew as a young girl. Gee, that was long ago. I'm not sure why, but I have steered clear of mysteries ever since. Go figure. Why avoid a genre that I liked so much as an avid adolescent reader?

Because I am no longer an adolescent? I'd be hard pressed to explain why there are two genres of writing that I avoid in the bookstore: mysteries and science fiction. If I have read a spotty few in either genre over my adult years, it is usually because there is some overriding personal reason to do so. Perhaps I know the author. Perhaps a fellow reader whose literary opinions I respect has given a particular title a high recommendation. Those few times that I have crossed the line and dipped a reluctant toe into the detective and/or science fiction waters, well, it wasn't too bad a dip. Sometimes even enjoyable. And yet. Next time I am in a bookstore? You got it. I avoid those sections.

I could be very wrong, but I would guess that women, who dominate today's book buying clientele, tend away from the hard-boiled detective tome, and may not be the keenest sci fi fans, either. (That said, I have met some women who would argue that they love these types of books, so consider this my personal observation only, completely unscientific.)

Okay, so what all that means is that when I sat down to read my first Sofie Metropolis book, the decks were stacked against the authors. And it stayed that way through several of the first few chapters. Sofie's voice, in my mind, was too distinctly male. She spoke, moved, behaved, thought, too much like those by now cliche Bogey types, the Mike Hammer PIs, the fedora-wearing, minus the hat, cool dudes who were tough and cool and impossibly (annoyingly) sauve. Yeah, now I remember why I bypass the mysteries. The main characters make me cringe. Sofie even has a version of her own girl Friday, the sidekick who is ever faithful and efficient, voluptuously shaped, with seemingly little to no life outside of the PI office. And, Sofie even expressed what smacked of a male perspective of sleeping habits. The nice guy in one bed, the bad cowboy in the other, meenie minie mo. Huh. Not working for me.

But then, page by page, a metamorphosis started to happen. I realized a few hours had gone by and I had yet to put the book down. Each chapter tended to end on a teaser, and it worked to keep me reading. And, I had to admit, Sofie was kind of growing on me. She could be fun. She could have a bit of that wacky Bridget Jones quality that made chic lit big. A little goofy. More than somewhat confused about her bed partners. Vulnerable and a little bruised. Even her cranky pup, Muffy, was winning me over.

Two days later, I had finished the book. I read through it like I used to read through those Nancy Drew mysteries. Couple of big bites and done. Not exactly the literary tomes I love, the type of writing that moves me to tears or shakes up the ground I stand on, but a bit of good, lighthanded fun. I liked her ethnic background (and the Greek recipes at book's end are a nice touch). The dialogue between characters was strong and convincing.

Yeah, so the murder mystery was a bit weak in its construction, and the revelation of what happened to the stolen corpse made me wince aloud. (The adolescent reader in me would say, eeuuww! gross!) And I had to wonder, with this duo of authors writing, which author set up the scene where Sofie lingers too long to watch her girl Friday getting ready to shower, admiring her perfect nude breasts ... and which author remarked with disdain, "Dogs, I was coming to understand, were a lot like men. In the heat of the moment, they didn't have two brain cells to rub together." Who knows. I might be surprised.

But here's the thing. I had a lot of fun spending a couple days with Sofie Metro. Not a bad break between my more serious reading. I realized I'd kind of missed ol' Nancy Drew and the fun of watching her solve another light mystery. I could even be convinced to read the previous three Sofie books ...

~ for The Smoking Poet, summer 2008 issue

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Belly of the Whale by Linda Merlino

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
Price: $19.95

ISBN-10: 1601640188
ISBN-13: 978-1601640185

If you are a lover of fine literature, you know that sweet moment of discovery. This is why you read. This is why you open book cover after book cover, anticipating that golden moment. It happens when a newly opened book reaches from the printed page and into your mind, into your heart, and captures cleanly both imagination and resonant emotion. Opening Belly of the Whale, by first-time author, Linda Merlino, is such a golden moment.

I may never have picked this book up in any of my bookstore wanderings and treasure hunts. The dark cover with flashes of neon light, a tiny gunman, and a teary bald woman may have had me turn away. Don't judge. Not like that. For this book, arriving instead in my mailbox awaiting review in The Smoking Poet literary e-zine, may have begun as something of an editorial job ... but concluded with a new fan for writer Linda Merlino.

The story begins at the end.

"I fear that the dead are gathered here in this corner of Whales Market, that the sums of several lives are laid out on gurneys like me, and that yesterday I thought the worst thing happening was my breast cancer."

Hudson Catalina—"Hudson like the car, Catalina like the island, Hudson Catalina, I love you," her husband Jack whispers to her in their marriage-long game—is on the brink of giving up. Her mother has died of cancer, as has her grandmother. Now, after a double mastectomy, as she battles for life, or is it that she battles against the torments of medicine, chemo and radiation, 38-year-old Hudson wishes only to be done. Done. With all of this. Despite her four lovely babies, her ever patient and devoted husband, Hudson is beyond tired of the fight. It is Tuesday, and she throws some delicate treasure against the mirror, breaks all, feels broken herself, and has no patience left. Not even for the love of her family and closest friend. What's the point?

You know how that happens. You reach the end, what feels like the end, and when you think you have encountered the worst life can shovel on you, you encounter something even darker. Here is the belly of the whale, and Hudson is swallowed into it. Dragging herself out into a storm to go to a small grocery for a few items in preparation for her daughter's birthday, surely the last one she will share, Hudson becomes hostage to a young man gone mad with his own devastated heart and broken spirit. Here begins a nightmarish night of being held hostage, handcuffed to the dead and dying, hope threaded to another boy who is mentally incapacitated. Pressed that hard and so harshly against yet another wall in her waning life, Hudson Catalina makes some discoveries about herself and about where hope begins ... somewhere beyond the point where you think you lost it.

I am keeping my eye closely trained on this new author. Learning that Merlino wrote much of this book in longhand, scribbling notes throughout a busy mom's day, I understand the drive and motivation that could produce such a worthwhile read. In a day and age of a struggling publishing industry, just when you are about to lose hope in the literati, this kind of writing makes you find new hope yet again.