Friday, July 31, 2009

The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 192 pages
· Publisher: Picador; 1 edition, 2004
· Price: $14.00
· ISBN-10: 0312424256
· ISBN-13: 978-0312424251

I’ve experienced that rare pleasure of hearing Stuart Dybek read his work—in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he is a sometime adjunct professor at Western Michigan University, and so sometimes, not at all often, has read to a large and hungry Kalamazoo audience, myself among them. That was poetry. Good stuff. Really good stuff. And so picking up this collection of stories about my favorite city, Chicago, and Dybek’s hometown, too, I knew I would be in for a street wise treat. Oh yeah.

Fourteen stories, and if you know anything about Dybek at all, you will know he is surrounded by awards and an otherwise impressive publishing history, so no need to go there. He’s proven goods. I’ll offer simply my personal perspective and experience on reading this collection. And so, indeed, it resonated with me. Dybek, like me, comes from a richly ethnic background. In his case, he is a second-generation Polish-American, growing up in Chicago neighborhoods, southern side of that great city. Whereas I have a father who is a visual artist, so influencing me to be visual in my own writing, Dybek’s second art love is music—jazz, specifically—and so for him, that second art comes through in obvious and less obvious ways. Here, too. Quite a few of these stories intertwine music. Music becomes something of a character itself (“Chopin in Winter”), or else it serves as background, or it is fabric of the words, adding a jazzy rhythm to his sentence structure, a bop and a bounce to his choice of expression. Nice.

The collection is an interesting mix of traditional sandwiched with flash fiction. The flash pieces reminded me of Dybek’s poetry. Poetry in prose, nearly. Because Dybek’s style (see note above on musical influence) is very lyrical. There’s something improvisational about his writing, yet carefully so. A great jazz artist doesn’t really improvise at all; he or she dips into that vastness of musical experience and freely lifts from it and into light. What is surprise to others is old blood to the maestro.

“A kiss crosses the city. It rides a glass streetcar that showers blue, electric sparks along the ghost of a track—a track paved over in childhood—the line that she and her mother used to take downtown.

“A kiss crosses the city, revolves through a lobby door into a rainy night, catches a cab along a boulevard of black glass, and, running red lights, dissolves behind the open fans of wiper blades.

“Rain spirals colorlessly out of the dark, darkens all it touches and makes it gleam.

“Her kiss crosses the city, enters a subway tunnel that descends at this deserted hour like a channel through an underground world. It’s timeless there, always night, as if the planet doesn’t turn below the street. At the mouth of the station stands a kid who’s gone AWOL and now has nowhere to go, a young conga drummer, a congacero, wearing a fatigue jacket and beating his drum. He has the pigeons up past their bedtime doing the mambo.”
(page 105)

These are stories that put you into the unprettified ethnic neighborhoods that were, are, Chicago. The smells are here, the tastes, the mix of languages, the music, the blend of humanity. Here the city kids and the first generation immigrants, the junkies and winos and ex-cons and their corrupt cops. Here, too, are stories about nothing, just the sense of being there, and so, stories about everything you need to know to share the experience.

Dybek is a master of language, whatever medium he chooses—poetry or prose. He blends his arts, as all art should be a blend, all from the same fountainhead. He is visual artist, too, with one paint stroke:

“The blue, absorbing shadow would deepen to azure, and a fiery orange sun would dip behind the glittering buildings. The crowded beach would gradually empty, and a pitted moon would hover over sand scalloped with a million footprints. It would be time to go.” (page 45)

Just don’t go before acquainting yourself fully with the work of Stuart Dybek, and this collection is an excellent starting point.

The House on the Shore by Victoria Howard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 360 pages
· Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2009
· Price: $15.95
· ISBN-10: 1935407244
· ISBN-13: 978-1935407249

I was looking forward to reading my copy of The House on the Shore for a couple of reasons: the main character is a female writer, and she happens to live in a remote cabin, or croft, set back in something of a European wilderness. I could relate, and we all enjoy reading about characters to whom we can relate.

That was where my pleasure in this read ended. Before I’d reached the bottom of the first page, I knew this wasn’t going to be the literary style I much prefer. Well, okay. Still hope for a good storyline. Quickly enough, however, I sensed this was a book more in the romance genre… and those who follow my reviews will know how I feel about the romance genre. Cold. Very cold. In a lifetime of avid reading, I have yet to read a single romance that impresses me with its quality and literary value (and a good love scene is one of the most difficult types of scenes for a writer to write well—very few succeed). Why that is, I don’t know. Maybe there is just something about the audience for this genre that I simply don’t understand. Or, maybe it is unfair to expect gourmet food when you have just walked into what is obviously a fast food joint. Maybe I simply need to revise my expectations to something more realistic and fitting the genre. I’m not entirely sure, though, that the author intended this to be a true romance, perhaps also a suspense thriller or mystery.

Mustering up my efforts to remain open minded, my enthusiasm flagged again within the first chapters. I am not acquainted with the publisher, Vanilla Heart Publishing, but they seem to have no proofreaders or editors in their employ. The pages of this book are so riddled with errors, typos, missing words and scene glitches (in one scene, the main character is driving the very same Land Rover that she is searching for after a mysterious car crash), that it soon becomes distracting from the story itself. A good editor might also have made revisions to such implausible inaccuracies such as having the character wonder if an overheard language might be Polish or Estonian. Sensibly, one might wonder between two similar languages. These two languages couldn’t possibly sound more different; there is no mistaking one for the other.

Let’s move to the storyline, then. The author creates a romance-mystery with a main character, Anna, who has discovered her boyfriend cheating on her, angrily dumps him, her job and her apartment, finds herself without income as result, and so moves to Scotland, where she has recently inherited a small house called a croft, tucked away on a Highland loch. It seems the perfect time to write a book that she’s been thinking about for some time and test her ability to make it as an author. A beautiful and remote place, by all description, and the nearest town has its own cast of characters. Soon enough, however, we veer into cliché.

Want to guess? Tall, dark, achingly handsome stranger (named Luke, a predictable romance name, I would guess) comes loping across her land to knock on her door. He is also obviously achingly rich, as seen from the wonderful yacht that has become stranded in the loch with some broken part that, conveniently, is not available for many weeks.

“He stopped a foot from her door, close enough for her to smell the lemon spice of his cologne. Now that she could see him more clearly, she noticed the laughter lines around his eyes and mouth, hinting at a softer side to his character. His body was lean, the outline of his muscles visible through the shirt he wore. A faint white scar creased his right cheek, and she thought it gave his face a handsome rugged look. He gazed at her with dark brown eyes and smiled, slow and warm, and for some reason her breathing quickened.” (page 21)

We then witness an inexplicably rude and grumpy conversation. I have no idea why they must be rude to each other, but they are, and I suspect because this, too, is part of that cliché romantic encounter—two people who bristle with conflict and anger that then turns into bodice-ripping passion later. Which, of course, it does. I only wish there were some plausible reason for the rude exchanges and behavior. Nearest phone is 12 miles away, and Anna gives him one heck of a hard time about giving him a ride. He’s done nothing but come to her to ask for use of her phone (apparently, expensive yachts have no communication systems on board). Shrug.

So the story continues. On one hand, Anna is portrayed to be a strong, independent, smart woman. Then, with Luke around, she turns into a wincing little girl, annoyingly helpless, prone to tears and screams and faint spells. Disturbingly, he at times turns into a bully, borderline abusive, physically grabbing her and chiding her for her behavior, becomes overly possessive, and so on… behavior that I would think would have any self-respecting woman head for the door rather than skip a heart beat. Flip side, he can be overly protective, and on very first meeting with Anna’s best friend, Morag, who doesn’t know him at that point from Adam, tells him to “take care of Anna.” Sorry, but the feminist in me by now is rolling my eyes. I would think a woman living in the wilderness alone, by profession something of an adjunct professor back in the States, can take pretty good care of herself. There’s a dichotomy here that perhaps says something about why the women’s movement has shown serious signs of failing these days…

I’m sure I don’t need to fill in anymore. There are bad guys who are bad through and through, dripping evil so that our loyalties are clear, and Luke is brilliant and gorgeous as he protects his little woman, who manages to scream at sometimes the most absurd moments. And often. And loud. Oh, come on.


I try to find something positive in all that I read, and I’ll try hard here. I’m sure there is a place for this type of story. Romances, after all, sell, as the cliché goes, like hotcakes. There are obviously readers who don’t long for the finer turn of a phrase, the deeper exploration of a character’s psyche, and even look for the predictable outcome (you’ll find it here, too). For such, this is maybe better than most. Just not for my taste.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Understory by Pamela Erens

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 143 pages
· Publisher: Ironweed Pr Inc, 2007
· Price: $11.95
· ISBN-10: 1931336040
· ISBN-13: 978-1931336048

Many, many years have passed since I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I read it in its Latvian translation, a young writer eager to learn from the masters—and the Danish writer Hamsun was that. It was a novel about nothing, really. No car chases, no maddening mysteries, no ravishing love stories, no epiphanies. It was a simple story of survival—a homeless man coping with hunger—but it has remained with me all these decades later while so many other books I’ve read have faded into oblivion. It was a book touched with greatness.

I recall Hamsun’s Hunger now because in reading the slim novel called The Understory by Pamela Erens, winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize, I sensed the same effect. Yes, the same touch of literary greatness. This, too, was a story about nothing. It is simplicity itself; not even a story, but an “understory.” The story behind the story, you might say, the diving deep into the mind and heart and soul of a man. There is little action, almost all the recording of observation, the gradual coiling and tightening of a spring, and all leading up to a stunning conclusion—that one moment of action—that is the perfection coming together of all that we have read to that point.

As in Hamsun’s masterpiece, we experience truth, as a human being experiences truth that is found in the minutiae of the every day. Life is like this, after all. The earth shattering upheavals and volcanic happenings are remarkable enough, easy to nail down on paper, memorable (or not) without even trying, but genius enters when one can create reality sharper almost than reality itself. Erens follows this haggard, lonely man in his unremarkable every day without missing a detail, and so brings him into the room where we sit, brings us into his room where he lives his solitary life, and lets us taste of it. He is poor, he is alone, he is a child abandoned by his parents through a car accident that took their lives, and so has learned to live in this quiet, unobtrusive way. He lives a life that happens mostly inside his mind. He reads and mulls over what he has read as a gourmet savors every bite of an exquisite meal. Indeed, when he is evicted from his home—an apartment where he has lived for 15 years as something of an imposter of his deceased uncle of similar name on a $500 monthly stipend left to him in a will—he wonders how is it that we do not value the thinkers in our society? Only the doers. Someone has to read all the books? Someone has to think all the thoughts? He is that someone.

Even when something does happen in this man’s days, it moves in a kind of slow motion, giving us time to note all the details of the scene, evoke the emotions one might have living the moment in real time rather than sound bite. We watch the building burn. We watch him resist leaving the ashen shell of his home, living among that ash when all others have moved elsewhere. We see him creep into odd emotions of need and want, not falling in love, but more a kind of cell by cell transforming into a man who wants another man. His presence in the room, just that. We settle into the cramped corners of his brain as he becomes obsessed.

So there it is, all of it, after all, but without the distraction of special effects. There the story of survival, the story of loss, and grief, the love story, too. Distilled into effervescent purity. A moment in the abbey, where he takes refuge for a while, is fully as remarkable as a moment of encountering human need at its most base.

“Night is the worst time. After the long regimentation of the day, the enforced silences, the men want to talk. At first it doesn’t matter what about: TV, movies, travel, jobs. I lie on my side on my mattress as the words pool around me, reciting to myself the botanical classifications for peach, cherry, apple. Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Rosales, Rosaceae… I smell the smell of other bodies: stale skin, flatulence, cologne. I long to open the windows and let the fresh air sweep the smells away, sweep the bodies away, too. Gradually one man drops out of the conversation, then another. Soon there will be only two men left speaking. And these two—they are not the same two every night—will drop their voices, speak in an intimate murmur. Perhaps they are only gossiping about one of the monks. Perhaps they are complaining about the food. But no, there is a reticence that lets me know that they are trying, clumsily, to reach each other.” (page 27)

He is obsessed with two. Two in connection, twins, kindred souls, brothers, lovers, even as he himself is profoundly one. This solitary man who cannot connect even in a crowd, eventually implodes, and explodes, and the sense of following him through this process is a literary meditation I will long not forget. It is for this kind of fine literature that I hunger all my reading life, and find all too rarely.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit by Michael Zadoorian

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 216 pages
· Publisher: Wayne State University Press, 2009
· Price: $18.95
· ISBN-10: 0814334172
· ISBN-13: 978-0814334171

The Made in Michigan Writers Series showcases some of the state’s best new, or not so new, writers. Michael Zadoorian is one of these writers, not so new, with two novels (The Leisure Seeker and Second Hand) already on the shelf. While the country struggles and just begins to show signs of emerging from economic muck, and more often than not, the national finger is pointed at Detroit as the example of the worst anywhere, dying and in parts already dead… Zadoorian rises from those ashes and finds the grit and pearl of story to tell.

No mistake, these are pearls. Found among junk piles and old photographs, abandoned houses and euthanasia rooms, marriages ravaged by adultery, homeless men turned into exhibitionists—these stories of Detroit, separated into west side, east side and downtown, record a city turning back into dust but with heart stubbornly beating on.

“To Sleep” introduces us to Zadoorian’s talent with a grand entrance on the entire collection. The story’s narrator works in the Euthanasia Room for animals, and if the metaphor of city in its death throes holds, we witness that handling death of the innocent on a daily basis cannot leave one unmoved. Watch the life go out of the eyes of a living creature often enough, and madness seeps into the mind. The executioner becomes ever more eccentric, finally building altars to the dead creatures, performing elaborate ceremonies and dances (Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk apparently create jazz that is perfect for felines) to see them off into the other world. Zadoorian’s writing remains in ours, sharp and haunting:

“That flicker in their eyes just a second after the Pentothal reaches the viscera, that moment, that last hundredth of a second of being as it folds into what comes after. The look in their eyes, during the wiping away of life, burns in on your soul like a klieg light on the retina. You can shift your vision elsewhere, but you still see the shape of the light, an after-image, superimposed on everything you look at—on a stop sign, on the page of the book late at night when you can’t sleep, on your own guilty hand when you hold it before your face.

“But unlike the after-image from a bright light, this one doesn’t go away in a few moments. It’s there for keeps. And after you eradicate a few thousand of God’s living, breathing, sentient creatures like I have, you begin to believe that there’s nothing left to burn. But you’re wrong. There’s always more work to be done, more animals to be put down. Before long, you’re thinking that part of you, the part your parents told you was what made you special, the good girl part, the part that would remain even after you died, is not yours anymore. It’s just a charred, scarred accretion of the ghosted eyes of thousands of animals, the kind of scabby hard stone-cinder that we as children used to call a clinker.”(page 9)

Science has shown with brain scans that certain images, viewed long enough and often enough, do indeed create a chemical burn on our brains and can never be erased. These images change our view of the world around us forever. Zadoorian sends shivers of subtle horror through us as we eye this image of those who must compartmentalize to survive what they do to other living beings. They do not survive intact.

Other stories play in similar fashion with the gradual breakdown in human beings, in relationships, in a city. “Dyskinesia” is the story of a younger man who befriends an older woman who is deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease, but learns to, more or less, manage it by painting wild and colorful canvases through her tremors. The younger man is not necessarily in any better health, although his ills are less physical. The story opens with him standing in a grocery check-out line with his wife. He points out to her a woman’s magazine on the rack with a headline about women who love too much and co-dependency. “That’s you,” he says. She buys the magazine. Reads the article. “You’re right,” she says, and without another word, packs her bags and leaves him, co-dependent no more. So he fails at other attempts at other relationships, finally able to connect only to this ailing older woman, spending ever more time with her to escape his own void. Yet even she, finally, escapes him—into a world where he cannot follow.

“War Marks” is a story of healing and forgiveness, possible only when one human being looks deeply into the eyes of another. War is the ultimate objectifier, and political powers have always understood that to enable one human being to treat another with hatred and disrespect, he must first objectify. This story touches with the meeting of two “enemies” of an old war who cannot but know respect for each other’s humanity when they meet one-on-one.

“Listening Room” is yet another exploration of how the mind and spirit deteriorate over time when the emotional abuse is a constant drip-drip-dripping presence. A boy must listen in the night to the sounds of copulation in the bedroom next door that his parents “loan” to other couples who have come to believe it is a lucky room for getting pregnant. They think nothing of what their son must listen to night after night through a thin wall, how it erodes him and changes him forever.

In “Noise of the Heart” we are almost reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart,” as a man is driven mad by the sound of his own beating heart. It is, of course, not really his physical heart, but his metaphorically symbolic heart that drives him to attempt suicide, as he finds out about his wife’s affair with another man. He hears her tell her lover with glee about what an innocent he is, has no clue, when it is she who can’t see past her own lust—and a lover who is more interested in the competitive edge of stealing someone else’s mate than he is in her—while the cuckolded husband silently absorbs the disrespect of her actions and struggles with that ever beating and louder heart.

“Traffic Reports” explores road rage, as everyday people burst at the seams from stress and randomly shoot each other on Detroit roads. “Spelunkers” brings us into the seedier buildings of downtown Detroit, as if on an archeological dig into another time, recording it all, as Zadoorian himself does in these stories, as an art form of the dead and dying of an American city. Finally, his title story, “The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit,” pulls the collection together with a homeless man on a city bus who insists he will no longer be invisible. The only way he can seem to get other people to see him is by an act of indecency. He drops his pants and exposes himself to everyone’s stunned and immediate attention. One hopes the city itself won’t have to go quite that far.

If Detroit can produce such literary talent as Zadoorian, however, it may just thrive again. These stories awaken, alarm, grieve, giggle a bit, but mostly observe what we may wish to toss away, yet should first look directly in the eye—so that we can understand something more of our own condition.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 294 pages

Publisher: Soho Press, 2003

Price: $24.00

ISBN-10: 1569473307

ISBN-13: 978-1569473306

Because I could get my hands initially on a Maisie Dobbs book further in the series (Birds of a Feather), I came back to read the first book, simply titled Maisie Dobbs, second. Two did it. I am now a dyed-in-the-wool Maisie fan, and vow not to miss any more in this series of, so far, six, with the most recent out just this past February 2009. Jacqueline Winspear, you have made a convert out of me! If I was borderline with my introductory Birds, I have officially crossed that line now.

I couldn’t be more surprised.

See, I was (am) anything but a mystery and detective novel fan. Anything but. Well, almost anything. Only thing worse in my mind than a detective novel is a romance novel. All that gushing, stereotypical female at her weakest worst. All that machismo and bravado male at his weakest worst (it takes courage to have and express real emotion). And the writing in these genres tends to be some of the most formulaic and predictable, cheap and easy stuff found on a bookshelf. And so, I was a tad surprised when my book club literati suggested we read at least a couple Maisie Dobbs books. Heck, I wasn’t even sure where the mystery section in my public library is located. But I have always vowed to try to be open minded about such things, and I do respect the literary minds in this book club, so …

So, I am now this fervent fan. I’ll tell you why. It is interesting to me that in this day and age of women supposedly having all kinds of opportunity open to us, we have sunk to the lowest levels of objectification ever seen. Not only do we allow it, too many of us even greet it, readily playing along, eager to please. Never mind that we may well be snickering behind the backs of the opposite gender, salivating over this objectified woman-type. No one ends up looking good in that scenario. Fools, all.

And so it would seem logical that Maisie Dobbs would be a character in modern day, this time for women to excel, nothing holding us back but ourselves. Instead, Maisie lives in the early to mid 1900s, in post World War I London. She is the strong and liberated, financially and otherwise independent woman we should all strive to be—today. You might even say … a true heroine.

Yet if yesterday the hero figure was popular, this is the day of the anti-hero. Whatever that means. I puzzle over the term. “Anti” means not, or against, or opposing, right? How did we come to elevate the not-hero, in short, the villain, the dark and shady and cowardly type, over the good guy, or, in this case, the good gal? I don’t get it. I don’t want to get it. I, for one, long for the hero to rise again, or perhaps even for the first time, because the hero of yesterday, wearing his white hat, was always male, and was anything but real. The classic old movies made him a figure of impossibility, equating perfection with goodness and courage. Yesterday’s hero was nothing more than fantasy, and clearly unattainable by mortal man or woman. It is knowing one’s imperfection, and not giving into it, however, that makes the hero—and heroine. Not being fearless, but being indeed afraid (only fools know no fear), fully aware of one’s weakness, and doing the right thing just the same.

Maisie Dobbs is one terrific heroine. She is strong, yet soft. Wise, yet willing to learn at every opportunity given her. Great hearted, but with discrimination. She uses her clever mind rather than trickery. She takes no shortcuts. She never has any need for any weapon other than her keen mind. She always keeps her promises. Most importantly, she is realistic and attainable. There is no reason whatsoever that a girl or a woman today couldn’t emulate this character and hold her up as role model. And oh, we could use a few…

Rather reminded me of the books I read as a girl. I read eagerly, learned something, saw the world expand, felt inspired. But the Maisie Dobbs series is not Nancy Drew; these are sophisticated novels, very well written, complex and intelligent. They contain the best of this age—one in which I firmly believe we are seeing the best written fiction we have ever seen (and the worst, but that’s to be expected as the flip side of the same coin). That is, we witness a strong, leading female character in a book, even if it perhaps requires a background setting spanning 1912 to 1929 to encompass her. One wonders… would she find it possible to be so strong and true today? One hopes.

There, then, you have the character. The storyline of Maisie Dobbs in this introductory novel is a masterly balance of the young detective-psychologist solving her first cases while dealing also with a traumatic and war-torn past. The current mysteries unfold around chapters that look into her past. We see her formative years, her family roots, the difficulties of a hardworking childhood when her mother died young and her father struggled against poverty. Young Maisie learns a work ethic that will suit her lifelong. She expects no favors, but earns them. She lives by the Golden Rule, treating others as she would be treated, even when she is not.

Breaking class lines, young Maisie earns her way into university in a time when women were allowed to attend but were not allowed to receive diplomas, even when completing all the same class requirements as their male counterparts. Outside of the classroom, her education is enriched by tutors who work with her to sharpen not just her intellectual abilities, but her intuition, her understanding of the psychology of the human mind and nature. This is the most fascinating aspect of the Maisie Dobbs character, and so refreshing from the gun-toting tough guys in the genre—she does not fight, but indeed embraces, her feminine strengths, and develops a woman’s intuition based on keenest observation. She learns to use and read body language to detect the false. She emulates and mirrors movement and expression, not only to put another at ease, but also to fully feel what the other is feeling. As she questions her suspect, she eases into his posture, tries on his expression, matches his stride and breathing pattern … until she herself can feel what the other feels. When she does this—these quickly became my favorite sections of the book. I know of no other female character, in literature or cinema, that doesn’t try to outdo being a man in feminine guise. Maisie Dobbs remains fully feminine, and uses her feminine wisdom and strengths to her advantage, and without ever taking advantage. Her strength is in her mind, in her heart, in her ability to fully feel compassion for another. She does not beat her enemy as much as she brings him over to her side, earning respect, trust, and opening even the toughest and iciest hearts. Because even a bully has one.

In this first book, we also come to understand Maisie’s great love, Simon. Her background was as a war nurse, his, as a doctor. A shell hits the Red Cross tent where the two work, and while Maisie survives with scars, inside and out, Simon survives, but only in a vegetative state. We see this struggle in Maisie, too, as she continues her work—her own recovery, while grieving for the dream lost. In the mystery case she solves in this book, we read of veterans forgotten by society, or who are repellent to society because of their great physical wounds. It is an opportunity for us all to look in the mirror, to contemplate all wars. It is an exploration of the many kinds of wounds a human being can take, and not take, and what healing requires.

All great stuff. A character that is memorable and inspiring; a storyline that is evocative and thoughtful; writing that is highly skilled and moving. I am clearing a bookshelf at home for mysteries, at least those solved by one remarkable woman detective-psychologist.