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.