Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This 7 Year Old Walks Into a Bar, poetry by Gill O'Halloran

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 52 pages

• Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2009

• ISBN-10: 0956199151

• ISBN-13: 978-0956199157

You know how it is when you walk into a bar. Dark, dusky, a bit sour-smelling. But you throw back that first golden scotch, and it sears all the way down, and suddenly, the world takes on a golden hue, too. It’s a type of gold that is touched with the enlightenment of experience, of living life all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, and make no mistake—seven year olds that walk into bars have plenty of life experience.

Gill O’Halloran came to me from across the ocean, from London, England, floating on a recommendation of a trusted literary friend. It was the recommendation that assured me this would be a worthy read. It was the poetry I found inside this slim volume that assured me this is the kind of dusky place where I would hang out, too. I sidled up to the poet at the bar and took it all in.

And I stood dry-eyed, grief baked
into the empty pot of skin around
my wasted heart…

Oh yeah. This was going to be good, and go deep. These are the poems of a poet who has not shied away from shadows, and seeing those, being inside of those, recognizes light. There are both in these poems. There is the suffering and loss of a betrayed love, of a beaten woman, of a mother without child. There is the shaft of light that is epiphany. There is surrender, and submission, and the murkiness of absorption into a lesser soul when self-respect is stripped away. There is new hope. There is understanding, revenge, forgiveness, and healing. There is the remembering, the salt in the wound, the stitching into stiffened and enduring scars.

No doubt in part because of the poet’s work in a hospice (there are poignant descriptions of caring for the helpless and dying), also with knowledge about addiction and co-dependency (she is the author of Introduction to Co-dependency for Counselors, published under the name Gill Reeve), many of her poems expose the underbelly of abuse in relationships.

I’ve built houses from straw with the wolf’s consent,
electric song of settlers’ psalms ring-fencing my land.
Skated on cents while dollars fluttered in the wind,
trigger-weary hands mending mainsprings,
pendulums, clocks long stopped.

She writes knowingly of the emergence back into an unaccustomed light:

But you called me out to the fields beyond,
where your open arms welcome
the punishing sky.
You told me off
for clinging to the undergrowth …

And I crept sheepish from the woods,
felt the pitiless sun warm my trepid face
and began to tread the fields with you.
Unbrave, oh so unbrave.

O’Halloran is a strong poet with a strong heart, willing to risk, and where in many poems she succeeds with gorgeous turn of phrase, with expert finishing lines that leave the reader breathless, in others she flops, misses her cue, and vanishes with a whimper where there should have been a cry. And still, this can be forgiven. This collection is, overall, like fine aged scotch, and any hangover the next morning is well worth the evening spent in its company.

He collapses under questioning. He is only hearsay,
only a wistful lie he hears himself say; a mugged memory. He knows
his father’s eye was eclipsed by the dark moon of jealous women.
Maybe once he did something good, but his father did not see it.

And still the memory swims against his knowledge,
swims without choice or hope of progress, like a tethered fish, a reed.

Listen, for that kind of poetry, I’ll venture even into the dankest corner bar. This is worth the price, at any price. And the kid at the corner of the bar? That seven year old? That’s the kid in each of us, drunk with life, emerging from our adult shadows and still knowing how to play.

~for The Smoking Poet, Winter 2009-2010 Issue

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 336 pages
· Publisher: William Morrow, 2009
· Price: $23.99
· ISBN-10: 0061466492
· ISBN-13: 978-0061466496

For many years, I thought I had been doing the right thing, eating the right foods and watching out for my health. I thought I was an environmentalist, caring about the preservation and good stewardship of the natural world we live in.

Holy cow, was I wrong.

Some time ago, I was reading another good book about human behavior, and what is required for us to behave against our own values. Compartmentalization was a concept I came to understand is absolutely necessary for most of us to act in ways that are not in accordance to our own values. To do wrong, we must push out of our awareness the realization of consequences to our actions. We must stuff things into a locked away place and live in denial.

Picture the mind as a house with many rooms, each with a door. Well, there was this room in my mind … and it had a door, and I had firmly closed it. Inside that room was a vague realization that animal abuse was happening in order to put food on my plate. Gee, I love that steak, that juicy burger, that slab of bacon! Did I really want to know how it got there?

Now I know. The door to that room is wide open, and I have no intention of closing it again. Once most of us are aware, most of us do change our behavior. Most of us, when you get down to it, are pretty nice people. Most of us want to do the right thing and we love our pets, we love the natural world around us, and we care to preserve it.

So how is it that our supermarkets are filled with food produced in food factories, by an industrialized form of agriculture that is fast ruining our environment and obliterating a type of lifestyle many of us find admirable? How is it that we tolerate the cruelest forms of animal abuse imaginable? And consider this: we don’t have to. We can still enjoy that steak, sizzle that bacon, and chow down on that juicy burger. Yes, we can have our delicious porkchop and eat it, too.

The person breaking down my denial door is author Nicolette Hahn Niman. Assigned to write a story about food production and food activism for the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine, I introduced myself to Nicolette when she (an alumnae) visited the college campus. She was talking to a rapt audience about her new book, Righteous Porkchop. Slides illustrating her experiences as a food activist working for Bobby Kennedy, Jr. added images to her words, and I’m pretty sure I could hear doors flying open throughout that room.

Niman had grown up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, majored in biology at Kalamazoo College, and had been raised in a family that shopped for local foods before it was something of a fad (a good one) to do so. By the time she was an adult, she was a vegetarian, and she considered herself pretty safe in thinking she was not participating in livestock abuse. But wait. She was still enjoying dairy products. She was still eating eggs and cheese. She still had an occasional meal of fish.

And me? I’ve been eating skinless chicken breasts that I purchased at the supermarket in frozen bags, along with salmon fillets, and only the occasional chunk of red meat. That’s good, right?


Niman’s wake up call was when she heard Bobby Kennedy, Jr. speak in Kalamazoo. That talk led to a meeting that led to a job offer. Nicolette was offered a job to work for Kennedy as a food activist. She would have to know a lot about pigs and a lot about, well, pig poop. Dream job? Turns out, it was. Nicolette had some political savvy already, having served as a city commissioner in Kalamazoo, but now she was traveling the country investigating industrialized food production.

In his foreword to Niman’s book, Kennedy writes: “The waste from hog factories is prodigious. A hog facility with 100,000 animals can produce the same amount of fecal waste as a city of one million people… Waste from these factories can contain a witch’s brew of nearly 400 dangerous substances—including heavy metals, antibiotics, biocides, chemical disinfectants, pesticides and disease-causing viruses and microbes.”

A necessary evil? You may be thinking … jobs in a lousy economy, maybe?

Kennedy writes: “Each pig factory puts family farmers out of business, replacing high-quality agricultural jobs with hourly-wage workers in degrading positions that are among the lowest paid and most dangerous in the United States. Because the animals are fed and watered by computer and are given almost no husbandry, as few as two workers may tend an operation with ten thousand pigs. Conditions are so miserable that employees seldom endure these jobs for more than a few months. Major slaughterhouses, including those owned by Smithfield, typically have a 100 percent annual employee turnover rate.”

But surely that nagging global problem of hunger?

Niman writes: “Global food production has actually outpaced population growth. Every year the world produces enough wheat, rice, and other grains to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person per day (including two and a half pounds of grain, beans, and nuts, a pound of fruits and vegetables, and nearly a pound of meat, milk, and eggs.) Moreover, in the last four decades, per capita food production has grown 16 percent faster than the world’s population, meaning there is now more food per person available on the planet than ever before in history. Clearly, abundance is not an issue.”

I’m hearing a chorus of belches at the buffet table by now, but it is coming from only one side of the table. Niman is right. We have only to look around at our epidemic of obesity to realize the table has a shorter leg on one side, all the food sliding into one set of mouths at one end of the table, while the other end is left high and dry. It is not about abundance; it is about distribution. Hunger is about poverty. If people have the resources and the means with which to purchase or grow their own food, they will not go hungry. This call is to focus our efforts where they belong—on eliminating poverty.

So let’s get back to what are the real issues at hand: the ills of industrialized food production. And I choose the word “ill” with multiple purpose. To read Niman’s account, the results of her nationwide research, in-person visits to food factories and feedlots and slaughterhouses is enough to make you ill. And it should. And it does. Because the abusive conditions of these great numbers of confined animals, purposefully (and don’t doubt that purpose, just think “out of sight, out of mind”) kept behind closed doors where most of us will never see what is really going on, is also making the animals ill. Living creatures, no matter what kind, need a few basics to survive and thrive: fresh air, exercise, good food. Subtract all of these, as industrialized food production does, and you have to substitute growth hormones, antibiotics, tranquilizers, steroids, and a host of other drugs just to keep these animals alive.

I stopped eating veal decades ago. All it took was seeing one photograph. That photograph appeared in Time magazine, and I can see it vividly in my mind still. It is a black and white photograph of a tiny newborn calf, standing wobbly and great-eyed in a wooden crate which prevented any and all movement. That crate prevents movement because people like tender meat. That is, meat without muscle. Get the picture? To prevent any movement that might develop muscle, that baby animal is crated for all its living days so that you can eat a tender piece of veal.

I was an easy convert. I already had one foot in the crate, or out of it. But Niman’s book led me into the immense metal barracks that hold battery cages of thousands upon thousands of chickens, the cages that hold pigs until they start to wave their heads back and forth and chew the air in what are visible signs of an animal going mad. Niman took me into the feedlot and the slaughterhouse, to realize that a disturbing number of animals are actually dismembered and gutted while still alive and fully conscious. Niman made me understand that we so little value the life of the chicken that after one year of holding these hens, their beaks cut off to prevent pecking each other out of stress, in cages so small that they cannot even turn around, that once they are considered “layed out,” they are sucked up into immense vacuums and dumped into bins with rotor blades to chop them up into mincemeat. Mind you, still alive. It's enough to make me put that drumstick down.

And this is necessary …. why?

Which is Niman’s point. It is not only not necessary, it is, in fact, detrimental. This kind of food production is detrimental to animals, detrimental to human beings, detrimental to the environment. Wastes from confined animals end up in lagoons of liquefied manure that are often pumped into our water sources or allowed to seep into soil (the author writes about her helicopter adventures flying over these lagoons as food factory workers illegaly flush them into nearby rivers).

If you thought manure was a terrific fertilizer, you are right. But not in these incredible quantities. On traditional farms—those that we still try to sell to our children while singing ditties about Ol’ MacDonald had a farm—manure happens naturally, in quantities that can be used in soil to grow crops, and with the addition of sunshine, killing harmful bacteria. There’s a whole process there that works beautifully before we start super-sizing it and messing with it.

Instead, we have Mad Cow disease, and microbes flowing into streams and rivers and lakes. We have salmonella. We have noxious gasses that have been increasingly connected to a long list of ailments in anyone unlucky enough to live anywhere in the vicinity of modern agriculture. We have a growing mountain of evidence that industrialized farming is responsible for more climate-changing pollution than the auto industry and the cars we drive. Add to that statistics showing that Americans are throwing away more than half the food we produce in this country, and you can see that this is a recipe for disaster.

Just when I want to go screaming down that hall of suddenly open doors that have revealed to me the horrors of food factories, however, Niman lets some sunshine in the window. Yes, there is a better way. And we begin to understand that “progress” is not always foreword movement. Sometimes it is regression. Sometimes we have to go back to that place in the road where we took the wrong fork.

Traditional farming had it right all along. While there is always room for improvement, farming in a manner that raises animals in a humane and healthy manner produces better quality food. In other words, if you don’t give a hoot about the pig, consider all that flavor and nutrition you and your family are missing. Niman takes us from the feedlot into the gourmet kitchen, where chefs across the country are discovering—or rediscovering, if you will—that foods coming from traditional farms taste a lot better.

Our palettes have become desensitized, but once you taste the difference between meat that comes from an animal that has been grazing on grass and eating healthy foods (you don’t even want to know how much animal poop is being used as feed for other animals, but you should know, because you are the next animal in line), you won’t want to go back. Ever tasted a greenhouse tomato and then taken a bite out of vine-ripened tomato? Then you have an idea what this food adventure is all about. It’s a flavor explosion. (Yes, I've been on a food adventure of my own since reading this book, and it's been truly delicious. I had no idea what I was missing.)

Niman’s book is unnerving. It pounds sense into our compartmentalized brains. Every lie we have come to believe about food is gutted. The author shows us what is going on behind all those closed doors and hidden-away buildings. She gives practical advice about how to shop organic, and what the labels mean and don’t mean. "Natural" is often anything but. "Organic," well, usually. "Open-range" can mean the door is left open for a while on the food factory, or that a chicken foot may have touched cement for a moment, but not earth. This is an exposé, and she encourages voting with your fork.

Personally, I don’t think I have ever encountered an easier crusade to join. It just tastes so darn good. The laws are mostly already in place, Niman writes. It is just a matter of insisting our legislators enforce them. Government subsidies are supporting food factories and helping to destroy traditional farms. Get the government out of the way, and organic food will be a lot more reasonable in price. It’s a movement to reclaim our good health, live in a sustainable manner on our good earth, and simply to do the right thing with respect to all living beings.

Still not enough for you? Okay, fine. Niman also tells a terrific love story. Ever heard of a vegetarian who falls in love with a cattle rancher? Nicolette Hahn Niman is the wife of nationally respected cattle rancher Bill Niman, formerly of Niman Ranch (you may see that on your menu at quality restaurants). The two (plus young son Miles) are now living on a cattle ranch in California, raising beef cattle and heritage turkeys.

There you have it. A delicious cause that will make you feel good, and right with the world, when you sit down to dinner. A love story with a happy ending. A well-written and interesting read that has just enough facts and figures to put it on solid ground, but not so dry that you won’t want to turn the page. My pages kept zipping by. A horror story that will keep you up nights, too, and should … but it is one you can change. Start with this important book—and start voting with your fork.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet Winter 2009-2010 Issue

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Little Black Lies by Tish Cohen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Reading level: Young Adult

• Hardcover: 320 pages

• Publisher: EgmontUSA, 2009

• Price: $16.99

• ISBN-10: 1606840339

• ISBN-13: 978-1606840337

Tish Cohen’s books may be labeled young adult, but I find her work to be easily sophisticated enough for adult reading—certainly for those of us who are parents and may want to delve deeper into the minds of our youth. Cohen’s understanding of those young minds is uncanny. I’ve been a fan since my introduction to Cohen about a year ago, reading Inside Out Girl, and in fact, was inspired to learn more and so interviewed her as feature author for The Smoking Poet at that time. Reading Little Black Lies, impossible to do slowly, I remember why.

Like that previous novel, this one, too, examines a broken and painfully dysfunctional family from the perspective of a teenager. Little Black Lies is the story of Sara Black in her freshman year at Anton High School, a school for the smart and the privileged. Sara is indeed very smart in terms of school work, but she is anything but privileged. She is able to attend the school mostly because her father is employed as janitor there, although her grades qualify her, too. As is so often true, however, book learning doesn’t equal emotional intelligence or social skills, and Sara maneuvers her way through Anton, slangishly known as “Ant,” by an ever deepening layer of lies. It’s all about acceptance and fitting in. Something any honest teen will tell you: high school is a test of emotional and social intelligence far more than the measure of a sharp mind.

These are not white lies. I love Cohen’s word play here, in title and in calling the school Ant, bringing up an image of insects slavishly following other insects, mindless and obedient to even the most irrational social rules. Sara’s father, to whom on one hand she seems utterly devoted, while on the other hand whom she betrays completely, suffers from OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. Carrying wounds deep inside him that he has yet to resolve, Sara’s father Charlie tries helplessly to clean away all that is dirt in his life: the betrayal of his wife (Sara’s mother), who had an affair with a high school science teacher and left him and Sara, and other wounds going back to his own youth. The more stressed he becomes, the more he cleans and orders his life, attempting to bring order to chaos. Sara has learned to pick up on the symptoms, and her own attempts at soothing her father back into rational behavior become something of her own dysfunction, turning into almost pathological lying.

Of course, once you tell one lie, the lies multiply like rabbits, and the liar must work ever harder and harder to sustain the masking of truth. Every lie becomes uglier than the one before. Cohen resists any attempt to portray her characters as entirely black or white, but paints them in many shades of gray. Sara has many good attributes, exhibits many moments of goodness, and Cohen shows us the source of Sara’s own wounds. Like every child, she longs for a stable home, loving parents, trustworthy and logical. Like so many children, she does not get that wish. Her mother chose her affair over her daughter, and her father, although truly a good man, has too loose a hold on his own sanity to fully be present for his young daughter. And so we come to understand and sympathize. To a point. As Sara’s lies become ever blacker, there are also moments we lose all sympathy.

No one gets through life without telling some lies, but Sara repeatedly betrays her most faithful and true friend, Mandy, even when her friend is on the brink with her own troubles. Sara denies her father repeatedly, like a young Judas, pretending he is not her father when he smiles at her in school, standing by silently when the “in group” makes fun of him. Her motives are shallow, yet the same for too many teens. She craves acceptance from her peers and popularity with the boys. For this, no lie seems to be too big or too black. It seems she will do anything, anything at all, to keep that in crowd believing that she is a sophisticated and rich young woman whose roots are in London, England, rather than Lundon, Massachusetts. She concocts an elaborate history of fake parents with fake professions, even while her father passes her in the school halls, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning away the dirt that keeps coming back.

The book portrays an accurate portrait of the pressures at that age—pressure to be hyper-sexualized as a female and put out for popularity, not only by the opposite gender but almost especially from one’s own; pressure to be rich with all the superficial attributes and accessories; pressure to be with the “right” friends, the pretty girls who wear high fashion labels and are more about the next party than any deeper value. Sara works hard to belong with her female peers, is much less concerned with the opposite sex in terms of acceptance, until Leo catches her eye. For this crush, she falls even deeper into lies, and becomes willing to risk her life rather than be found out.

A climactic scene unfolds when Charlie, her father, finally breaks down and spins out of control with his OCD. A human being can take only so much stress before the cracks finally begin to show. Sooner or later, one way or another, all lies surface. Sara watches in horror as her father loses it in school, this place that has become her theatre stage, and can’t stop scrubbing invisible water stains from a school sink.

“That’s not it!” I want to shout. He’s not scrubbing to rid the sink of stains. He’s got it in his head that this spot is wicked with danger. It doesn’t matter that his opponent doesn’t exist, it just matters that he feels he has won. That’s the enigma of OCD.

At the doorway, more teachers have gathered and are herding the students down the hall. I slip past them into the laboratory…. The thought of paramedics racing in here and shooting Dad up with tranquilizers like some gorilla that’s escaped from the zoo, only to strap him to a stretcher and whisk him off… is more than I can take… The kids are gone, along with many of the teachers. I pluck the bottle of bleach solution, Charlie’s liquid solace, his pacifier, from the cleaning bucket… Knowing full well it’s like giving the alcoholic a beer, I hand the bleach to my father. “Try this.”

His wild eyes focus on me but he says nothing. Just removes the cap, douses his cloth in fluid, and wipes the sink with it. He stands back and watches the sink go from shiny and silver with wetness, back to mottled and dusty-looking silver. The sound of the microbes screaming, dying, is nearly audible, and right away I see his jaw slacken and relax.

Predictably, Sara gets found out. After her ever more extreme and desperate manipulations, the mask falls and reveals the vulnerable and hurting and deeply insecure girl inside. By the time that it does, some readers may have lost all ability to forgive. Wounded as she herself is, she has left a trail of victims: a good father denied, a loyal friend abandoned in her moment of greatest need, while stooping ever lower to be liked by popular girls who show no redemptive values whatsoever (only their own deeply hidden insecurities).

By end of book, it occurs to me that girls especially are today going to greater and greater lengths to please not boys, but other girls, trying to find love and acceptance that broken families have denied them. Teen females are dressing and behaving in a manner that makes it impossible not to objectify them—and Cohen does a great job of showing us what most parents are probably trying hard not to realize about their own children: our children are growing up in a promiscuous and dangerous world that cannot end well. They are seeking “love” in all the wrong places and from all the wrong people. All of which is a silent scream for help, yet another societal dysfunction, that adults must heed if we are to guide our youth into a healthy adulthood.

Important issues, and Cohen does not shy away from any of them. Like it or not, these are the realities of our contemporary world. Being young has never been more complicated, more obstacle-ridden, more testing, than it is today. And many teens are navigating this complicated and confused world on their own, their parents often too obsessed with careers or their own affairs to notice. With this, Cohen does a great service with her young adult novels. She writes books that show young adults they are not alone in their struggles. She reveals to adults the world they may not have realized exists. These are the black lies of a society that has too often lost track of values and lost sight of priorities. We can only be grateful for authors such as Cohen to remind us: the mask will eventually come off and we will have to face the painful consequences.

Tish Cohen is the author of several books for adults and young readers. Her adult novel Town House was a 2008 finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and Caribbean region) and is in development as a feature film. Cohen’s middle-grade novels, The Invisible Rule of the Zöe Lama and The One and Only Zöe Lama, were published in Canada and the United States. She has contributed articles to some of Canada’s largest newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post. Having grown up in Los Angeles and Orange County in California, and Montreal, Cohen now calls Toronto home.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Diet and Exercise Fail: How Current Research Contradicts Conventional Wisdom about Weight Loss by Daniel Matthew Korn

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 182 pages

• Publisher: Daniel Korn Books, 2009 (First Edition)

• Price: $19.95

• ISBN-10: 0615290086

• ISBN-13: 978-0615290089

What better time to review a diet book than on the fatty tail end of a Thanksgiving holiday? The author had sent me a review copy of his book, which I accepted only after expressing resistance. I don’t read diet books. No more than I listen to ads for diet pills or pay attention to talk of various miracle diets and fads. In my mind, they are all balderdash.

Daniel Korn convinced me that this slim book, almost symbolically slim, had something different to say. I accepted the review copy, then let it languish. Picked it up, read a bit, let it languish again. My initial turn-off in reading it was that it has an approach of dissecting all the diet angles that don’t work. You must read right to the end to find out where the author is taking you, as if constructing a page-turner thriller. Well, for me, that doesn’t work well. I want to know what works, then build the case for me.

Korn begins by observing and comparing different cultures, different eating and lifestyle habits and how these reflect on body size. Some cultures include foods rich in fats, include sugar, include carbohydrates, yet people eating these diets are much slimmer than the increasingly overweight and obese Americans. Other cultures are sedentary, show little inclination for exercise, yet remain slim. Some eat and stay slim while others exercise themselves sore and silly and still tote the fat. One by one, Korn attempts to disarm all the common theories by finding examples where they don't work.

What to do?

Korn eliminates various accepted diet ideas, including counting calories, exercising regularly, and various diets many Americans have accepted as standbys. He cites various studies, while perhaps too carelessly ignoring others. It seems easy enough to dig up a few studies that show bizarre and unexpected results, but it would seem to hold merit to take into consideration an entire body of work in studying certain habits. While I did find some of Korn’s conclusions interesting and worthy of consideration, all in all, I have to stay with what I have found in my own life and observations to be true. That is, that age matters when slowing down our metabolisms. Exercise does make a difference. I refuse to be a slave to counting calories, but being aware of what one puts into one’s body—and choosing more fruits and vegetables, less meat, and going organic, seem to be smart and just good common sense.

The danger of picking on a few culprits—diet sodas and sodas in general along with whatever else contains caffeine—seems too simplistic to me. It is almost impossible to control all the variables that do or might affect the typical American diet, and do so in countless variations. While Korn states that caffeine may have something to do with our lardish size, I have only to look at my daughter, 29 years old, who thrives on caffeine (including diet sodas), but does a great deal of walking and biking, shops otherwise organic, and remains quite thin. I myself was at my thinnest when I drank the most caffeine. To my mind, the variables only begin with genetics, eating habits, exercise, environment, stress levels, sleep habits, and countless others and in countless variations and combinations. Personally, I think it makes good sense to stick as close to nature as possible, eliminating pollutants in our foods and environment, using the muscles we were given for surely some purpose, and listening to our bodies when they cry out for sleep, relaxation, or whatever it is we need to survive and thrive. My guess is the culprits, surely more than one, lie within our lifestyles in general, too far removed from where we should be in many ways.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Bridge, Stories by Jeff Vande Zande

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 28 pages

• Publisher: March Street Pr, 2004

• Price: $9.00

• ISBN-10: 1596610018

• ISBN-13: 978-1596610019

Driving north for a week’s retreat in one of the places I love most—the Keweenaw Peninsula, a peninsula on a peninsula, in the U.P. of Michigan—I packed a bag of books as travel companions. I’ve had an insatiable love of traveling since earliest childhood, and for me, taking books along that in some way reflect on the new world to explore, in some way deepen my experience and help me to understand a place and its inhabitants, is a part of the adventure. I once lived in the Keweenaw, so this is not a trip to discover something entirely new. This is, however, a journey to understand a place, and my place in it, on a deeper level.

And so, among my companion books is this slim-as-an-envelope-stuffed-with-a-love-letter book of stories by ex-Yooper, Jeff Vande Zande. Can one be an ex-Yooper? Yooper is a term Upper Peninsula people use to affectionately describe themselves and indicate their close ties to this northern land. Someone who lives in the Lower Peninsula, that great mitten-shaped part of the state of Michigan that most people think about when considering Michigan, is known as a Troll. You know, someone who lives below the bridge. And the bridge—that would be the five-mile long expanse of steel that connects the two peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge. Vande Zande is now a “troll,” as am I (sigh). But that he knows and keeps his Yooper roots, I quickly find, is evident in The Bridge.

Settled into my Keweenaw cabin, fireplace stoked, I open up this collection of three stories. The first story is flash fiction, not even two full pages, titled, “Have You Seen Us?” It is a quick glimpse of father and adult child, crossing the bridge, considering a camping spot, but more, considering the connection a bridge provides. A bridge connects two pieces of land, but a bridge is also that connecting thread between people.

Next, a longer story that is the title piece for this threesome, “The Bridge.” Once again, we are looking at steel bridge juxtaposed against the bridges built and sometimes broken between family members: Mitch and Susan and alienated son, Jimmy. Mom Susan urges Dad Mitch to try harder to connect with his son, and Mitch can think of only one way that he knows how to reach out across this generational gap—by taking his son to see the Mackinac Bridge.

“The long stretch of the bridge sent a charge up his spine. He followed it with his eyes from the shore. The south causeway worked its way up the gradually rising piers until it came to the first anchorage pier. Pier 17. It had been years since he’d read seriously about the bridge. From pier 17 his eyes followed the steady arc of the deck and the cables shot back down toward the deck and the center of the bridge. Here the structure looked as though it rested against a mirror, as the cables rose skyward again toward the second tower and the deck began its descent toward the north side causeway and eventually into the bright lighting of the tollbooths. After that it was nothing but the darkness of the Upper Peninsula. He looked underneath the bridge, where the rough water of the straits broke high and ghostly white against the pilings of the piers.”

Awed by this great and powerful structure, cognizant of its history, Mitch presents it to young Jimmy. “What do you think?” he asks. “Big,” replies Jimmy. And with such masterly use of dialogue, almost painfully realistic (who of us have not had such conversations in which one tries to convey depth of feeling while the other remains bland and bored?), Vande Zande manages to tell a story of missed connection. He balances both sides so expertly, that at one moment the reader feels the ache of the father, the very next, the ache of the son. Both, after all, long for connection, but simply do not know how to create it.

The third story is “White Out,” and with this grand finale, Vande Zande accomplishes the rare feat of being able to write cross-gender, that is, a male writer writing with a female voice. Few pull it off; Vande Zande makes it work. The main character of this story is Jackie, a young woman who lives in the Upper Peninsula and, yes, longs for connection. Her family scattered and broken apart, some still living in the U.P., some elsewhere, she has created a life for herself that leaves her longing for substance. Night after night, she sleeps with men with whom she makes a casual, physical connection, but comes up empty on intimacy, or true connection.

“In the smoky light of the bar, leaning against a table, shouting over the music, different men reminded Jackie of her father, big and unafraid. With some she would start relationships, but they never lasted more than a couple of months. She would soon reason that the man was not really a man, not what she imagined a man should be. Many of the men had drinking problems and spent most of their nights in the bar. Others were unemployed. Some lived with their parents. Others cheated on her. One had proposed to her after only two weeks of dating, but girlfriends told her that kind of desperation could only mean bad news.”

Finally, Jackie wakes up one morning too many to an empty bed, last night’s aimless lover gone, and she feels empty and used. Unable to bear her own company any longer, she decides to drive into the winter night to visit one family member after another. Back and forth she goes, at one moment thinking about connecting with her sister in Marquette, then her mother, remarried and now living in Ohio. She thinks about running away from her life and going to Detroit, that great metropolis in lower Michigan, but realizes Detroit has nothing to offer—it’s just “someplace else.”

The winter night has its own say, and as so often happens in the Upper Peninsula, she is forced to stop driving during a white out. Jackie has to wait out the storm at a gas station and convenience store, where she passes the time with the woman running the place with her husband, who also longs to be somewhere else. Once again, Vande Zande shows his mastery of dialogue, choosing just the right words to convey two personalities, very much U.P., very much female, very much lost within their own lives.

One evening of reading by the fire in my U.P cabin, and it was time well spent. I put the little book down on the coffee table and watched the flames, thinking about life that is unique to this place apart, yet in other ways the same as everywhere: people longing for connection, looking for bridges that will help them to know themselves less alone in the world.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 320 pages

• Publisher: Knopf (September 8, 2009)

• Price: $27.95

• ISBN-10: 0307267148

• ISBN-13: 978-0307267146

This book is important. So important, in fact, that first reviews from reputable sources are calling it the most important book of the year, some even calling it the most important book of our time. Yes. It is.

Now and then we must pick up a book that awakens in us all the compassion, all the indignation, all the heart we need to make a difference in the world. And that’s the best part: each and everyone one of us can.

Nicholas Kristof may be a name you already recognize as a New York Times op-ed columnist. Both he and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes, WuDunn shares one with Kristof for the work they have done together. WuDunn worked as business editor for the Times and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. The two of them have already collaborated on two previous books. I dare say, none yet of such global reach as this one.

Half the Sky is a very readable collection of individual stories, interspersed with narrative by the authors for appropriate background. Very readable, yet simultaneously shattering. And, simultaneously, deeply inspiring. “Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb that pulls these stories of women throughout the world together into one great call for the emancipation of women in 21st-century slavery.

“When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than one percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.”

Kristof and WuDunn pick up the dropped ball in Half the Sky and toss it at the reader—at you. The stories here are about girls and women in Cambodia, in the Congo, in Thailand, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Senegal, and many other parts of the world. Yes, wherever you may be, from your part of the world, too. If not always directly, then not as indirectly as you may think, because the sex trade and human trafficking has spread to the United States in alarming numbers and with alarming effect. Eastern Europe suffers from human trafficking, too, as it struggles with poverty. Witness the efforts of the pornography industry to make pornography mainstream. Humans have become wares up for sale, slavery today far outnumbering anything yet seen in human history.

The authors state: “107 million females are missing from the globe today… Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

“The global statistics on the abuse of girls is numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”

But Kristof and WuDunn understand that it does little good to toss out numbers and statistics. Not like this just began yesterday. The horror of gender discrimination, of human trafficking and sex slavery, across the world has been ignored for a very, very long time. The way to bring this horror home to move hearts and begin the process of change is by giving these stories a face, a name, someone with whom we can identify. This could have been me. This might have been my daughter. And even with that false comfort, that it may not be you, or your daughter, the authors make sure by end of the book that we all understand that these women touch all our lives. “Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized,” they remind us. “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”

We read the stories of girls stolen from families who live in poverty. The lies told to unwitting parents are that their little girls, as young as eight years old, will be brought into the city and cared for, put to work there selling food or flowers or other such. Instead, these children and young women are thrown into brothels, were they are beaten, over and over again, into submission. Usually, they are also forced into drug addiction, effectively making them slaves of these addictions, so that even when they might have a chance to run, the agony of withdrawal keeps them coming back. And still they run. Corrupt police capture them, gang rape them (yes, police), and bring them back again. Or, an increasingly common tactic of revenge against women who escape is to toss acid into their faces until their living flesh melts away. A gouged eye will do just fine, too. Little girls, once beaten into submission, are locked into rooms with paying male customers (young virgins bring the highest price), to come out later, bloodied and raped. How many American tourists and business men have bragged about their trips to Thailand to enjoy all that “open” sex trade?

I, too, have at times wondered if one way of combating the abuse of girls and women into forced prostitution (an interesting phrase, implying that any woman in her right mind would willingly prostitute herself if she had other options available) by legalizing and so offering certain protections to women, might be at least a partial answer. The authors write:

“What policy should we pursue to try to eliminate that slavery? Originally, we sympathized with the view that a prohibition won’t work any better against prostitution today than it did against alcohol in America in the 1920s. Instead of trying fruitlessly to ban prostitution, we believed it would be preferable to legalize and regulate it.

“Over time, we’ve changed our minds. That legalize-and-regulate model simply hasn’t worked very well in countries where prostitution is often coerced… legal brothels ten to attract a parallel illegal business in young girls and forced prostitution. In contrast, there’s empirical evidence that crackdowns can succeed, when combined with social services such as job retraining and drug rehabilitation, and that’s the approach we’ve come to favor.”

People often point to the Netherlands as an example of a place where the sex trade has been legalized, but the authors peel back that rationalization and make an interesting comparison with Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 1999. Men caught paying for sex are fined, imprisoned for up to six months. The prostitute, however, is not punished. In effect, this approach reflects the view, far more accurate, that the prostitute is not the criminal, but a victim of a crime. The “john,” however, is a victimizer, taking advantage of someone’s dire situation in life. Keeping in mind that studies show more than 90 percent of women engaging in prostitution or in pornography have been sexually molested prior to doing so, it is only logical to seek protection for those women and putting the crime on the shoulders where it belongs: on the man buying the service or buying or using pornography.

“A decade later, Sweden’s crackdown seems to have been more successful [than the Netherlands] in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years… and the price of sex dropped, too—a pretty good indication that demand was down… traffickers believe that trafficking girls into Sweden is no longer profitable and that girls should be taken to Holland instead… 81 percent of Swedes approved of the law.”

Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of the women in these situations to bring reality to the numbers and theories, but the overall message is one of empowerment for women. Their advice is not only to the girls and women directly in the line of fire, however. This message is for women everywhere. Empowerment and drawing the line of here and no further against any kind of gender discrimination, built upon the cornerstone of objectification of girls and women, begins with any female reading these lines. And, with any male who respects the opposite gender—and himself, enough to demand that women and girls be treated as human beings and not as objects for his pleasure.

“One of the reasons that so many women and girls are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it. Stoic docility—in particular, acceptance of any decree by a man—is drilled into girls in much of the world from the time they are babies, and so they often do as they are instructed, even when the instruction is to smile while being raped twenty times a day.

“This is not to blame the victims. There are good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed. But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.”

This empowerment begins with education. There is good reason why in so many parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women. Thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empowerment. Empowerment leads to change. “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”

Here, the reader begins to understand, too. When these girls and women do stand up and demand justice, when they shout against their abusers to stop, it is imperative that we who live in more privilege echo their cries and add our own in support. “Easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we must also nurture institutions to protect such people. Sometimes we may even need to provide asylum for those whose lives are in danger. More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education, and we can do far more to promote universal education in poor countries… There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”

The stories of individual women who have done just that, mustering up more courage than most of us can even imagine, have made dramatic changes not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those living in their villages, towns, cities, even countries. The domino effect of this kind of empowerment cannot be overstated. These women are true heroes who inspire us all. Against unimaginable odds, some against their own families, against husbands who declared them untouchable after gang rapes, mothers who shunned them in favor of their sons, corrupt police who not only ignored their cries for help but alarmingly often gang raped these same women all over again, still these women rebelled and would not allow their spirits to be broken.

As the world is ripped apart by terrorism and war, women continue to become a weapon of war. When wars die down, domestic violence continues a silent war in many homes—and this is a growing epidemic in American homes, too.

“Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and warm combined. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”

The authors ask little, really, of their readers. Letter-writing campaigns, for instance, empower those whose voices are drowned out by their abusers. Petitions get noticed. Even, I like to think, writing a book review such as this one can help in raising awareness (I have suggested reading Half the Sky to my women’s book club, and I look forward to our group discussions). While monetary donations can make a dramatic difference—and there is list of verified charities in the back of the book—the authors point out that the American penchant to change unjust laws is too often only a beginning to creating change. Changing a culture is far more important, because traditions over many generations can hold very firm, even when they are made illegal. Sexism and misogyny is rampant worldwide, and when such attitudes are deeply ingrained in a culture, even the women participate. Infanticide of female babies is often at the hands of mothers, and women who have been abused themselves often become the abusers of the next generation of girls. Knowing nothing else, minds washed of rational thinking, accepting a view of themselves as less than human out of ignorance, such victims become victimizers, and the only way to stop this vicious cycle is stop wrong thinking—by education. And not just in other places. Education at home, too.

“One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world.”

A current effort by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is to raise awareness and fight mass rape of girls and women as a weapon of war. In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, in addressing rape being used as a war tactic, said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”

“The world capital of rape is eastern Congo. Militias consider it risky to engage in firefights with other gunmen, so instead they assault civilians. They discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of stunning brutality. Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives of bayonets, or else they fire their guns into women’s vaginas… soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then fired their guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl’s grief-stricken father then committed suicide.”

According to various counts done by the United Nations, about three quarters of the women in the Congo have been raped. By “women,” it should be made clear, the authors include girls as young as six years old, and sometimes even younger. Considering that many of the Congolese troops are young boys, one can only imagine the damage done on a cultural level in terms of how such males will forever after view females, their own future wives and daughters.

One of the physical ailments these raped girls and women suffer is called a fistula. This is a condition of internal organ damage that can lead to waste freely spilling out, or problems in childbirth that often lead to death. The authors describe this common result of rape, and they also discuss female genital mutilation, the latter often being a result of long held tradition in some cultures. In short, this is a process of cutting genitals of girls, usually with unsanitary knives, always without anesthesia of any kind. The cultural basis of this cruel practice is to control a woman’s sexuality. The idea is basically that if a woman cannot feel sexual pleasure, she is more likely not to stray from her future husband. The result of this practice is often lifelong injury and scarring. Complications can be fistulas, infections, and other medical conditions that can be crippling if not fatal. Simply getting laws on the books to make such practices illegal, however, do little to change tradition held through many generations. Once again, the answer can be in raising awareness, educating women that such barbaric practices are not acceptable, are not a “cultural tradition” to uphold, but a monstrous practice that falls into human rights abuse.

Kristof and WuDunn remind us as we read through these stories and their surrounding narrative: “We’re wary of taking the American women’s movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issue than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.”

Solutions to these problems begin with viewing women fully as human beings. Not a gender to be used and abused, overpowered and beaten down, but as human beings with full rights to be treated as such. The authors write about the changes that can, and have, come about where women are given equal rights, including the right to own property, the right to have determination over their own bodies, the right to basic health care, the right to have a voice over their own lives. The reason they give for empowering women as a means to ease, or even eliminate world poverty, is an illustration of how men have used donated funds. According to studies, the top three expenditures for money donated to men in developing countries have been alcohol, prostitutes, and candy. Whereas when women have been given money, they have used it for medical care, for food to feed their families, and for education. Uplifting stories include those of women who were once beaten by their husbands, but were given loans of sometimes no more than fifty dollars, enabling them to completely transform their lives. The results have been thriving new family businesses that would employ others, helping not only one family, but the entire town in which that family lives.

The book concludes with chapters titled, “What You Can Do,” and the answers are stunningly simple. A little can have ripple effects that go a long, long way. I personally decided, after exploring online various charities the authors recommend, to sign up with Women Helping Women International, donating $27 on a monthly basis to a woman who has survived multiple gang rapes and been ostracized by her family and village. But the authors remind us that money isn’t always necessary. Voicing support, volunteering, your own education on these matters, can all add up a transformative movement with global outreach.

“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete—and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”

See to learn more, to do more.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Thursday, October 15, 2009

13 1/2 by Nevada Barr

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 320 pages

• Publisher: Vanguard Press (October 6, 2009)

• Price: $25.95

• ISBN-10: 1593155530

• ISBN-13: 978-1593155537

I am holding Nevada Barr responsible: since picking up her newest novel, 13 ½, I have been losing sleep. Until the very last page had been read, sleep continued to evade me.

In all my lifelong voracious reading habits, I continue to find that writers can generally be classified in one of two groups: fine literary writers or terrific storytellers. Because the skill set and high level of artistry required is quite different for each group, rarely do the two groups meet and mesh. But Nevada Barr stands neatly balanced, with one foot inside each of these two groups. She is a fine writer, with literary finesse, and she is one heck of a storyteller.

Barr kept me awake with her storytelling, but not before messing with my head a bit, along with my sleep patterns. When I first opened the cover of 13 ½, I was thrown into a horrific scene of sexual molestation. Polly, a girl not yet nine years old, is being raped by her mother’s whiskey-chugging boyfriend. Rather than protect and defend her daughter, Polly’s alcoholic mother gets jealous and angry with her. Too frequently, this scenario is all too real. Victims become victimizers, and Polly’s mother, her own self-esteem nonexistent, allows her daughter to become victimized. At such a very tender age, this child understands the male psyche far beyond what she should: “Though Polly’s birthday wasn’t for a couple weeks, she already knew what it meant when men’s eyes went gooey and nasty.”

The message of this scene, however, is not so much victimization as survival skills. Polly grows up to be a smart woman, one who has fortunately been strong enough to break the cycle of abuse and instead is a loving and protective mother of her own children.

Stage left, enter another main character: Butcher Boy. This child, Dylan, wakes into a family massacre, his parents murdered with an axe, his baby sister dead, his older brother badly wounded. He alone is whole, however dazed. Eleven years old, he is dragged to court and prosecuted for the vicious murder of his family. The boy hardly seems able to function as his mind and emotions shut down under the weight of something so immense, so incomprehensible. Only his surviving brother stands by him.

Barr does a wonderful job of describing a juvenile justice system that is highly dysfunctional. Children who end up in juvenile delinquent homes, more often than not already coming from abusive homes, are often subjected to more abuse by the very staff who is supposed to help them rehabilitate. Reality, alas, matches fiction, and Barr has shone an important spotlight on a growing problem in our society. Dylan is thrown away, with no one caring enough to deal with his problems, and he spends years in a world where guards beat and rape little boys, psychologists and social workers conduct unethical experiments on their young prey, and wardens look the other way. The only person left who seems to care that Dylan is even alive is his brother Rich.

Back and forth. The novel is written in scenes that move from Polly to Dylan and his brother Rich, then suddenly switching to Marshall Marchand and his brother, Danny, a couple of stand-up guys. Between chapters are blood-curdling little inserts, written in first person, of child murderers, mothers who kill their babies, and other psychopaths. A bit disorienting, and I was a little annoyed at being jarred back and forth between all these characters … until it started to fall into place. The Marchand brothers enter into the adult Polly’s world, and by now, also her two young daughters.

Suspense growing, tension tightening, the reader is led along, then pulled into a vortex of escalating horror. Polly and her girls are in danger, and as a mother, my heart pounded with hers, knowing all that she does to protect her own, I would do, too. Yet how clear is the mind of one who has been so badly abused as a child? Does Polly still have the skills to know who to trust and who is just another victimizer? The sad truth is that many who are molested as children, grow up to be attracted like magnets to more molesters, not knowing anything else. Is Polly protecting her daughters from the right man? Does her love for one of the Marchand brothers cloud her judgment?

The clock on my nightstand screaming at me that I should be sound asleep on a work night, I keep reading. And reading. Must know.

Another character to whom we are introduced is the Woman in Red. She reads Tarot-cards and is big, and loud, and impossible to miss. Almost no one notices that inside this woman is complete emotional devastation—another victim of abuse. Barr excels in her literary descriptions when Polly and this woman meet.

“The Woman in Red it shall be,” Polly said and smiled as ghosts of her past walked away giggling. She’d noticed the reader on previous pilgrimages to the square in search of her future. It was hard not to. Shades of shrieking sunset, roses, and hearts of fire, cherries, apples, blood, and wine were thrown together. If one shade of red was loud, this woman’s ensemble was cacophonous.

“Before time and sunlight had taken its toll, her khaki-colored setup had evidently been as red as the rest of her. As she shifted her considerable weight, her chair’s wooden frame moved and flashed thin ribbons of the canvas’s original color, that of freshly butchered meat. Polly descended the cathedral steps and the fortune-teller leaned forward, reaching out with a beggar’s aspect—or that of a drowning woman bent on pulling her rescuer down. ‘For zee lady, zee reading eez free,’ she said in a voice both ruined and childlike, the worn-out voice tape of a Chatty Cathy doll with a fake French accent. Hucksters and harlots never honestly meant anything was free. Having been a little of both in her time, Polly knew ‘free’ just opened the bargaining.”

An especially masterly scene in Barr’s psychological thriller is one in which a Tarot-card reader is murdered—by the man she loves. With expertise, Barr describes the psychological devastation that is necessary for a woman to become emotionally battered, becoming utterly helpless to defend herself, even against her own murderer. She loves this villain, and despises herself, right up to her last breath, even as the ax comes down.

Then, when Polly finds the dead woman’s body, the villain comes after her.

“Scrabbling on sliding magazines, Polly was losing ground. The man’s fingers were wire cables, his strength enough to drag her backwards. Far stronger than she, he could have hammered her kidneys with balled fists; he could have thrown himself upon her and snapped her neck or slammed her head into the floor. He did none of these things; slowly, as if he savored the process, he was pulling her into himself, swallowing her as a snake would swallow a mouse. Garbage piled up under Polly’s chin, drowning her. Scrabbling on the glossy magazines, her hands found no purchase…”

Although I do have to confess here that I had the mystery solved long before the conclusion of the novel, it did not slow my eager reading by one half of a page turn. I did not want to miss any of Barr’s pulsing-with-life descriptions, deep dives into the most shadowy parts of human nature, and the intricacies of dance between victim and victimizer. I wanted to see justice done. And I wanted to read exactly how Barr would put it into words. The images she created are lasting long beyond the final page. The important messages she illustrates remain even longer: abuse of any kind causes unspeakable damage, and those of us who do nothing about a broken juvenile justice system, or the increase of domestic violence, or look past the suffering of the battered, make such crime possible. This novel is more than a thriller. This is no time to sleep. This is a wake-up call.

Nevada Barr is an award-winning novelist and New York Times bestselling author. Among other works, she is also well known as the author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries (see my earlier review of Borderline).

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2009

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 480 pages

• Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

• Price: $21.95

• ISBN-10: 0393327418

• ISBN-13: 978-0393327410

In meticulous, even painstaking detail, biographer and art critic, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp has recorded the near century of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and art. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is known even by those who know next to nothing about art—her paintings of gargantuan flowers and bleached white bones are well-known by the general public, even those who may never step inside an art museum or gallery. Being able to identify an O’Keeffe painting, however, has no relation to understanding the artist and the influences upon her life and creativity.

Coming from a family of artists, I am far more inclined to step inside an art gallery than, say, a sports stadium, and so I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s work well. Or, at least … I thought I did. What I knew was actually more the myth than the woman, the sales pitch rather than the art.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was traveling alone, and the experience of a woman alone in the world and on the road was very much on my mind. Wandering around Santa Fe, a unique town of adobe buildings that is deeply immersed in the arts, and the arts of this area deeply immersed in the surrounding physical geography of the land, I came face to face with Georgia. Granted, by 2007, Georgia herself was long gone. Yet her presence was very real in this area where she lived the last third or so of her life, and where she seemed to have found her true identity and free spirit—a woman supremely alone. Center of town was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I went inside … and stayed for a very long time. Indeed, I lost all track of time. And by the time I did emerge, I had an entirely new perception of this woman artist, and an expanding curiosity to learn more. I headed out to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, her two homes nearby, searching for Georgia’s spirit. I believe I found it.

And so back to this biography, Full Bloom, to learn more. As with any celebrity, and Georgia certainly became that, biographies abound. One has only to determine which one might offer more truth than imagination, and in this case, I imagine the autobiography Georgia herself authored may not be the most truthful. It can be difficult to be objective about oneself, and when a woman has suffered some of the indignities that this woman suffered, the reaction can often be to sweep under the carpet some of the ugliness of life, and leave on exhibit only the beauty and the recovery from that ugly suffering.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was not all roses. More thorn, perhaps. More a cutting down to the bone. Born in a small rural town near Madison, Wisconsin, she grew up without material advantage, making her own way in the world. Her art education began at the Art Institute of Chicago, continued in New York at the Art Students League. The discovery and subsequent exposure to the art world of her work is attributed to Alfred Stieglitz, art dealer and owner of Gallery 291 in New York. The gallery was known for being edgy and innovative, bringing to light new and abstract, groundbreaking art. Stieglitz was also a photographer, one of the firsts, breaking ground of his own. A friend of Georgia’s had brought samples of her work to Stieglitz and he was thrilled at the find, remarking that at last, here was a woman who could paint, and who painted as a woman.

At that point, an important door opens in Georgia’s life. Doors are an important theme in her artwork, an important metaphor—one that appears often in her paintings in synchronicity with the opening and closing of doors in her own life—and this door opened onto a relationship that affected her life and psyche deeply for a long time to come. Stieglitz, without her permission, put her artwork on exhibit in his gallery. When she stopped in and saw her work on his walls, she indignantly insisted he take it down. This exchange seemed to set a certain tone for their partnership: he was a controller; she was a young woman just finding her way, not yet in control, but struggling to find it. As the story unfolds, we see how the older man, then married, seduces Georgia into an affair, as much because he falls in love with her art as he does with her. Alas, Stieglitz, we soon learn, is a womanizer. Today, we call his sort sex addicts. Indeed, he and pal Auguste Rodin, also known as a womanizer, and whose sculptures (“The Thinker”) and drawings he is first on American soil to put on exhibit, exchange pornographic drawings and photos over the years, feeding each other’s seedier appetites.

The years to follow this meeting at Gallery 291 are the years of a tormented marriage. Stieglitz divorces his wife to marry Georgia, who had no interest whatsoever in marriage, but finally agrees to it—insisting she still keep her own name—more to save his reputation than her own. Stieglitz’s first wife and daughter both end up handling nervous breakdowns and mental illness brought on by his treatment of his first family. Cheat once, cheat again. And again. And yet again. The marriage of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe is riddled with affairs (his), and O’Keeffe finds her time away from him of ever greater solace. Yet there it is: for all his womanizing, Stieglitz adores his wife, loves her and will not leave her. He, in fact, is the one to deal with increasing anxiety that someday she will leave him. The affairs continue, nonetheless, with most any woman he photographs in the nude (and there are many). Finally, there is the more longstanding affair with Dorothy Norman, a young woman who takes great pleasure in tormenting the older woman and wife with her victories over Stieglitz, using and manipulating his weakness against him every chance she gets. His blatant and open involvement with this mistress eventually causes Georgia to suffer a complete nervous breakdown, requiring hospitalization, while he seems to remain weirdly oblivious to how much pain he is causing her.

Projecting perhaps more what is on his mind than on Georgia’s, Stieglitz promotes her work to the public as heavily sexualized. These aren’t just flowers she is painting … these are the damp petals of a woman’s genitalia. A white bone standing out against the sky? He saw phallic symbols. Georgia abhorred Stieglitz’s marketing of her work, yet she had to admit: it worked. It’s hard to say if her paintings would have reached such a tremendous audience if it hadn’t been for the manner of Stieglitz’s promotions. Adding to that effect, he took hundreds of photographs of his wife, many of which were in the nude. He exhibited these, too, and without her permission. She was horrified. She had agreed to the photos as a gift of intimacy to her husband alone, in part to try to regain his wandering eye and attention. This did not work, but his photos of her did have measurable affect on her growing popularity.

Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is seen as one of the first feminists, certainly in the field of art. Increasingly leaving her husband to his ways in New York, she developed her own home and life in New Mexico, in the desert she so grew to love. From a distance, she was able to continue to love him in her own way. She learned to detach herself enough that his affairs would no longer break her. She learned to find her own style, her own artistic expression on the opposite side of the country. When Stieglitz died of a heart attack, she grieved him even while embracing her solitude, her independence, her freedom. Ghost Ranch became her permanent home, and her work had sold so well, not only in the United States, but internationally, that she had become one of the wealthiest women of her time. Her personality, molded no doubt in part by an emotionally abusive relationship, hardened into a determined control over her own world and her image. Whereas Stieglitz had taken control of her image in her beginning years, now she was free to move in a direction true to her. Dropping the Freudian allusions, she focused on vibrant color, on paintings that were an expression of emotion rather than subject. She searched for simplicity, for clean lines, for the shapes she found in nature. Her work is definitely feminine, a combination of power and grace, the soft and the hard, the straight line and the gentle curve.

In her later years, the artist was known to be eccentric at times, even prickly, not allowing just anyone into her life, even while she would later grow to trust again when she should not (a portion of the book is about a younger man, John Hamilton, who takes advantage of her in her aging years, when Georgia again needs assistance in basic daily chores, and he convinces her to leave much of her estate to him).

As detailed as this biography is, and perhaps it is too much so, it did give me a much better understanding of the woman and her art. Too long, I had bought into the marketing of Stieglitz, not realizing the artist herself resented this view of her paintings, of those great, lush flowers, beautiful for their own sake, without the attachment of metaphor. If for no other reason, I am grateful to this book’s author for separating the sales pitch from the true intent of a remarkable artist. Georgia O’Keeffe accomplished the opening of a path to women artists. She stood up, and survived, and thrived, becoming an inspiration for women in abusive and stifling relationships. She showed the ability to love, if at a safe distance, even under the most callous treatment. She exhibited a woman’s ability to create out of personal suffering, and from something ugly, to develop a lasting beauty. If an oyster creates pearls out of painful grit caught in its tender flesh, so, too, does Georgia O’Keeffe create her pearls, too immense to miss, too vibrant to ignore, too unique to mistake for any other.

Monday, September 28, 2009

stains: early poems by Lori A. May

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 88 pages

• Publisher: Bohemian Steel Press, 2009

• Price: $15.95

• ISBN-10: 0973582405

• ISBN-13: 978-0973582406

Brave and confident soul, who is willing to put into lasting print—however lasting print is these days—her early poems. Lori A. May titles this collection, interestingly enough, stains. It is a slim collection of mostly haiku-like verses, short, sweet but with bite, quick images and passing sensibilities of a woman’s (sometimes, a girl’s) life.

May is known more for her fiction writing, suspense and crime fiction, including Moving Target and the Walden Books bestseller, The Profiler. She is editor at Marick Press, a high-quality small press in Michigan, and founding editor of The Ambassador Poetry Project. With stains, May is letting her already established fans join with new fans by opening a window on a new facet of her writing talent—as a poet.

New, that is, by about a decade. The poems track back over years, and indeed, the opening poem, “Portrait,” seems to be just that, but of a girl. A very uncomfortable one, in pink taffeta:

ribbons choke
my throat
sucking me into
pink taffeta

polished shoes
reflecting up my skirt

stockings laced
with innocent flowers
halting personality
with itchy fabric

Having grown up as something of a tomboy myself, I sympathize. I continue to sympathize through the next poem, titled “Brat,” as the portrait of a girl evolves into a young woman ready to test her limits: “…determined/to push free.” May expresses a fun spirit in her early poetry, and more often than occasionally hits the mark, too, with sophistication that shows the evolvement of the writer. I find myself underlining fresh phrasing and lines such as “the winter of my skin” in the poem, “Summer,” and “the kinks/rocked hard/while he sucked my youth/through parted lips” in “Mustang,” a poem of adolescence and hot hormones.

In the poem “Sleep,” May captures what most women want when we speak of intimacy. While the heat of a youthful kiss, leaning against a Mustang and sneaker skidding across a bumper has its allure, in this poem we see the girl growing into a woman who longs for her mate to sleep with her. “I said sleep,” the poet emphasizes, and the poem describes the intimacy of two bodies in utmost comfort, curled one into the other, resting.

May then captures the intimacy of writing, poet and page in seduction: “Blank page spread before me/Like legs, limber and longing/Looking for identity./Painted words lick up the white/Resting in their newfound home./You are a work in progress.”

As the reader nears the end of the collection, there is a subtle change in style. Words become that much more spare, more carefully chosen, closer to target. We sense the expanding wisdom of a growing poet, an evolving woman. “The lack/of expectation/does not/guarantee/protection from/disappointment.” Titles hint at deepening experience and understanding. “War” tells of difficulties in a relationship: “you deny/confrontation/and ignore/response/act in silence/to mask/insecurity.” Love has grown more complex, with baggage and history. In “DNA,” May writes: “I want to find the one place/No one else has touched you/One place no one has left prints/Or memories,” and with these simple, bare bone words, nails the longing we all have as adults to find new territory—in ourselves, in each other, the still sacred.

Stains is a pleasing collection of poetic moments that have stained the poet with lasting memory. It is worth reading while leaving a coffee stain of one’s own, lingering, rereading, remembering … and anticipating the next phase of May’s poetic evolution.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forms of Intercession: Poems by Jayne Pupek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Perfect Paperback: 102 pages

Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2008

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0932412599

ISBN-13: 978-0932412591

Sledgehammer or tissue, choose your weapon, but you’ll need one of these, and possibly both, when reading Jayne Pupek’s nearly one hundred poems in this debut collection. Most explore and reflect a woman’s survival in a battering world, poems that will make you ache and sometimes want to inflict ache. This is the poetry of rage and suffering, of a woman who has had all that a man’s world can thrust upon her and yet survive. Here is the abuse, the battering of both body and mind, the diseases that afflict flesh and spirit alike. Take it in small doses. You won’t be able to take more than that in one sitting.

But you should. Take more than one sitting, curl up on the floor in a fetal position if you must, but if I learned about a year ago from Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, a novel about the horrific abuse of a child, that she knows, oh she knows, and her mission is to make you know—well, then, take your medicine. It will sting. It will burn all the way down. But not all in life is butterflies and smelly roses. Far too much of it is this: the cruelty to which children and women are subjected in a multitude of ways. And know this—that such things will not go away of their own accord. Silence only empowers abuse and protects the abuser. Pupek’s subject matter may be difficult to read and contemplate, but it is necessary and it is good.

And I do mean good. Not all novelists can be poets, but I would venture to say Pupek is even stronger in this medium. Each one is a therapy session, a rant that is horrific yet somehow astoundingly beautiful at once. She captures it all, the agony and the ability to overcome. These girls and women may be ground to dust, but they do rise up again. They fight back (most if not all), claim their own ground, stronger than ever, independent and feisty to the core.

At forty-three, I’m too old to wait on a redeemer,

sometimes you must intercede on your own behalf.

I’m spreading tarot cards on the ground

and tossing out the ones that land upside down.


I crush bodies, shove my tongue into their mouths,

don’t let them go until they promise blue skies.

Or here, the woman with an unfaithful lover who has learned to pick her battles:

…My lover snoozes upstairs,

dreaming of red-eyed women with iridescent nipples

and thread-thin appendages kneading his oily back.

Why disturb him? I’m a woman who asks nothing,

a woman with a knack for surviving godless nights.

Even as she “asks nothing,” however, Pupek shames the woman for giving in to what’s given her, and observes in a museum of natural history with undisguised disdain:

Homo erectus, female,

bending on hands and knees

displays her species’ ineptitude.

Not all is forgivable. In these poems of suffering and survival, Pupek stretches the limits of endurance—incest, beatings, rape, emotional and psychological battering, suicide—and finds the boundaries.

You keep stepping on the cracks.

How much more can your mother take?

Already her spine is twenty times split,

one for each of your mistakes.

Sometimes there is no absolution.

Scrape the onions off the bread and keep going.

You do what comes next, no matter how ordinary.

What if? Pupek asks in the middle section of this collection. Here we find the occasional moment of loving tenderness, although often it is found between women and not with the opposite gender. These are moments when one comes up above water, gasps for air, and goes down deep again.

What if stars aren’t real,

but another of God’s parlor tricks,

a handful of jacks pulled from black pockets

and tossed into random skies?

What if your hand on her thigh

means you never loved me…

So simply, so simply Pupek captures the torment of the betrayed woman, who then questions life itself, and God, having to endure as he did.

And here’s my Christ-walk on water

stepping over your sea of dirty pictures

where oily stains and bent pages

mark the ones you doggy-fuck in dreams.

She meant nothing is the declaration of a man

born with weak knees and no story.

I can’t be distracted. Are you paying attention?

Let me hold your dim eyes and hollow ear

until I cross the threshold and close the door.

Pupek follows the path of the woman who leaves and the initial fall into loneliness and apathy. Her words knife and nail these feelings with accuracy.

Apathy is dried mustard on last night’s dinner plate.

Loneliness is a fever, igniting the hands and loins.

A woman can get scorched that way.

Dive deeper still, and you find poems about beaten women birthing stillborn children, or women who fall into such despair that they kill their own babes as if in this way alone can they be saved from such a world.

No, this was not easy reading. This was a slim book from which I had to walk away many times. Put it aside so that I could read another. Each time it drew me back, however, haunted me, because too, too many of my gender carry these scars on our own hides and in our own hearts.

Pupek will not leave you without hope. Through this all, this beautifully described ugliness, is truth, and in truth is always something golden: hope for change. Once understood, we can also see the ability to change and live otherwise. In her final poem, she offers this sliver of endurance, even if only on a cellular level:

Still we go on,

because it is in us, the need for continuance,

that sliver of persistence inside every cell.

This is undeniably a collection of poetry that requires courage to read. The poet’s artistry exposes what we do not want to see, yet must. There is no other way out but through the fire of understanding.