Thursday, December 23, 2010

Simpler Living: A Back to Basics Guide to Cleaning, Furnishing, Storing, Decluttering, Streamlining, Organizing, and More by Jeff Davidson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 456 pages
• Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (June 30, 2010)
• Price: $24.95
• ISBN-10: 160239976X
• ISBN-13: 978-1602399761

One of my first tests of a book is when the review copy arrives in my mail box: just how eager am I to read it? When I received my copy of Simpler Living (for the full title, see above, as it is far too long and complicated to repeat!), I winced. Hoo boy, some real heft here, with 456 pages and heavy hard covers and glossy pages filled with stock photos.

The book appears to address those of us who have busy lives and are forever on the run, trying to find a way to organize and simplify. Well, a book of this kind of heft and size isn’t going to be simple to carry with me for the kind of reading I have to do on my schedule. As one of those too-busy people, I tend to grab a page when I can, on the run. I put a book in my purse or briefcase, I read a few pages before sleep and then put it on my nightstand, or I take it along on whatever errand I have to run, just in case I find a spare moment. This is impossible with a book this size. And so, it stayed on a desk in my spare bedroom. And it stayed. And it stayed. No, it doesn’t belong on my coffee table. That space is reserved for my favorites, art books and travel books, a book of poetry or a magazine. More than that and we begin to look at clutter—just the thing this book is trying to tell us to avoid.

Out of sight, out of mind, but eventually I picked the book up again—and yes, was forced to tote it along in my briefcase so that I could do some lunch hour reading. The author warns us up front that this is not the kind of book one reads cover to cover, which I had already figured out. But as I started to skim through, reading a page here and a page there, I had to consider just how would I use such a book? And is it formatted for that kind of best use? After all, I am all for simplifying. Indeed, I have been steadily doing so in all areas of my life. My plan is to eventually retire to a one- or two-room cabin, so extra stuff will definitely have to go and simplifying my life is actually one of my highest priorities these days.

This book would have to go. Not only because it is so large and so heavy, but because it attempts to cover far too much—some 1,500 hints on how to simplify one’s life. Perhaps the author should have considered his own advice and simplified in order to be more relevant, timely and accessible. The book is a clutter of far too much information. Less really is more. In this day and age of easy access to the Internet, I'm not sure I see the purpose of this book at all.

The idea of Simpler Living seems to be that when I am contemplating what to do about a cluttered closet, or a broken-down appliance, or out of control debt, or a lackluster relationship, or redecorating that spare bedroom, or entertaining a group of friends, or preparing to go grocery shopping, or … I would go looking for this book for advice?

Um, no.

If my car has stalled, I will go to my most trusted mechanic for advice. When I am redecorating, I will check my local handyperson stores and talk to a contractor or browse through some books and magazines specifically about home decor. When I am getting ready to throw a party, I will page through my best cookbook. When I am considering my financial options, I will set up an appointment with my financial advisor, who knows my resources and my goals for my future.

Photos (stock) unfortunately are at odds with content. For instance, we read advice about keeping one's nightstand no higher than one's bed for ease of access and view of clock (that's sensible), even while some pages later is a large photograph of a child's bed with the nightstand a good 10 inches higher than the bed.

Simpler Living certainly has some good, general advice within its many pages. Although geared for a middle-class to relatively wealthy family in its advice, it tosses out a few nuggets of wisdom some of us could use. Yet these nuggets are too hard to find. In fact, at first blush, I can’t recall any. Most everything in the book is very general and painfully obvious. Throw out what you don’t really need. Pay off the highest interest credit card first. Backup your files on your computer.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

There is also some questionable and odd advice. For example, the author suggests attaching one’s bedside lamp to the wall rather than on one's nightstand, as that way there should be more room on the nightstand (for more stuff??). This, the author asserts, can eliminate the need to dust. Huh, wait a minute. Why would I not need to dust a lamp just because it is affixed to the wall instead of standing directly on my nightstand?

Another painfully obvious example: “When you send a fax, remember to indicate whom it is for and who is sending it. Keep a supply of transmittal forms near your fax machine.”

I had to just blink at that one. Most of us in 2010 no longer use fax machines, but if we do, surely we know this basic information about sending a fax. If we don’t, somehow I would guess this book won’t help. Has America really sunk to such dumbing down levels? Reminds me of the label I recently read on a jar of peanut butter: “Warning: contains peanuts.”

And then there is this: “Instead of spending your money on books … pick up the New York Times Book Review.” The advice goes on to state that once you’ve read the review of the book in this publication, you will no longer have to read the book at all in order to discuss it “intelligently” at the office water cooler.

See previous paragraph about the dumbing down of America.

And then keep your money for paying off debt and pass on buying this one.

Author Jeff Davidson is founder and director of, an organization devoted to helping people live and work at a more comfortable pace. He is the author of 56 books, including 60-Second Organizer, 60-Second Self-Starter, and 60-Second Innovator, and the iPhone App "Making Life Simpler." He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Woodswoman II: Beyond Black Bear Lake by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 0393320596
• ISBN-13: 978-0393320596

My last page read in Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness, I immediately picked up Woodswoman II: Beyond Black Bear Lake. This hasn’t been a story I’ve wanted to put down. Anne LaBastille’s ongoing autobiography has followed lines too closely to my “retirement” plans north to upper Michigan for me to miss, and I have found inspiration, motivation, and quite a bit of education, and not a little forewarning in reading about her experiences as a woman living alone in the woods.

This second in a series does a quick recap of how LaBastille’s adventure began. After a divorce, LaBastille decided to build her own cabin in the Adirondack wilderness, making her living as a freelance writer and ecologist. This book begins with her growing problem with intruders and overly ardent fans. With several books by now published, many articles, and an increasing number of academic lectures and speaking tours, her need for solitude and seclusion is coming under (mostly) friendly attack. Fan mail comes by the bag full, phone calls await at a neighboring camp (LaBastille’s cabin has no electricity and no phone line), and a stunning number of fans search her out in the woods, even though she has carefully avoided naming her exact location, using fictional names for landmarks and lakes. Some pursue her for years until tracking her down. LaBastille is horrified, and eventually forced into building a second, more remote cabin that she calls Thoreau II, crediting Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond.

“What do such visitors and callers hope to find when they search out the Woodswoman? I still don’t know exactly, but I’m sure America is lonely. Americans are looking for identities. They want to attach themselves to authors, singers, actors, and TV stars. These searchers have fantasies. They need to sublimate to enrich their lives. They want to talk. Many are under the impression that I have nothing to do … They don’t know about the grueling self-discipline and constant juggling of time that being a freelance writer and ecological consultant entails … As I see it, the problem is one of boundaries—the delicate line between social contact and solitude. Some people respect privacy; others don’t. Europeans seem much more courteous about such matters than Americans. By my willingness to write about my life, I’ve created a two-edged sword. My readers nourish me through sales, yet they threaten to devour me with overattention.”

LaBastille struggles to be kind and accommodating, while preserving her lifestyle and juggling her work. Finally, she must retreat. Duplicating Thoreau’s cabin, she finds a spot much deeper into the woods, much more difficult to reach, requiring treks across land as well as water, and over a couple year’s time, builds a second, much smaller cabin. This one is only about 100 square feet (the original, called West of the Wind, is around 400 square feet), the size of a walk-in closet for some, but all that she requires. She still balances time between her two cabins, depending on obligations and needs.

Another natural outgrowth of LaBastille’s life in the wilderness is her role in protecting it. Her education is in ecology (a PhD from Cornell University), and she becomes a board member of the Adirondack Park Agency, helping to regulate the goings on in the area. She watches with horror as the population around the lake grows, and with it, pollution, including noise pollution. Vehicles abound, on land and on water, and they all make a roar. Large boats toss her canoe in their wake. And all that pollution ends up in the air, too, where it becomes acid rain, coming back down to raise the pH-levels of the water and the soil. A valuable section of this book is devoted to explaining acid rain and its devastation. Lakes that appear pure are actually dead, as fish die out and plants no longer thrive. Not all of the book’s adventures take place in the Adirondacks, as LaBastille writes about trips abroad to expand her research, including a visit to the Baltic Sea. There, she learns what the Scandinavians understood long ago: acid rain is destroying even the most pristine areas, seemingly wilderness, but far from immune to the pollution produced by humankind.

Whereas this memoir begins as a love story between woman and wilderness, it now also becomes a wakeup call to its readers to be aware of what our more “civilized” lifestyles are doing to the earth that sustains us. As the author fights the good fight, she gains enemies around the lake among those who come for recreation and care little about the consequences. She finds the gas lines cut on her boat, and others threaten her. On the other hand, her efforts to protect the park from becoming a deposit area for nuclear waste are successful. One woman can indeed make a difference.

Career rising and gathering speed, LaBastille increasingly needs her time at the more remote of her two cabins. Her dog, Pitzi, is always beside her. Alas, life cycles conclude, and the death of her loyal friend is  a moving chapter. Back to fun is her introduction to a new German Sheppard pup, Condor, and later, Condor’s offspring, Chekika.

Other risks of wilderness living arise, too. No more, possibly less, than they do living anywhere else. LaBastille must deal with chemical burns to her eyes when she drops a bag of cement down too hard and raises a cloud of cement dust (this, however, leads to a pleasing and enduring romance with Doctor Mike, another independent type who is just as devoted to his medical work as she is to her ecological work). Or falling into a lake with a running chainsaw. Or new batteries, sold by mistake as the wrong size, giving out in the middle of a very dark forest, very far from home.

Along with the risks come human stories that are the same no matter where one lives: of relationships taking shape, of progressing age, and of the moment one has to say a final farewell to a dear old friend. Whether intending to or not, LaBastille makes a good argument for the individual’s right to determine one’s own death with dignity, rather than being kept indefinitely on life support. She cites her own worst nightmare as being afflicted by some progressive disease of mental deterioration, and one reads this wincing, as latest news seems to be that the author has succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.

So much more reason to live the life one chooses, fully, with gusto, holding nothing back. We only have this one, and to live it with courage, as this woodswoman does, surely makes sense in an ever more senseless world. When considering the roads not taken—of a life more conventional and traditional for contemporary women, of marriage, office career, and broods of children, LaBastille writes:

“Why do I continue to bumble through the woods at night on mushy snow? Carry impossible loads by backpack and canoe? Go for backcountry saunters rather than shopping mall sprees? Cut and split firewood instead of turning up a thermostat? Build a little cabin to write at instead of buying a condo to relax in?

Perhaps it’s because the world around me seems to be so complex and materialistic. It’s my small rebellion to keep myself in pioneerlike fitness, to promote creativity, and to maintain a sense of adventure in my life. It’s also my desire to exist in tune with sound ecological and ethical principles—that is, ‘small is beautiful,’ and ‘simplicity is best.’”


“Actually, I believe it would be much harder for a small-town woman to go to a city to pursue a career as a surgeon, TV anchorwoman, or stock analyst than to become a woodswoman. For me, the urban habitat and atmosphere would be far harder to deal with emotionally and much more dangerous physically than the wilderness … as for marriage, I don’t think it would work for me now. I’ve gradually had a 180-degree change of attitude toward matrimony. Much as I adore Mike, I enjoy being single. It feels right."

LaBastille seems to have found her niche. As long as she has her pocket of privacy and peace, she writes, she can handle whatever life hands her. I look forward eagerly to reading Woodswoman III.

Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: E.P Dutton, 1976
• Price: $16.00
• ISBN-10: 0140153349
• ISBN-13: 978-0140153347

What a comfort, as I contemplate my lifelong dream to move to a cabin in the northern woods in coming years, that another woman has done something similar in her life some decades ago, and made it work for her so well. Even as Anne LaBastille was troubled by the very same concerns and questions as I am, she found ways to overcome, do without, cope, embrace, and handle the challenges that came her way. A woman alone in the woods … how safe is she? What if she gets sick or injured? How to handle wildlife or rough weather or fire? How to handle trespassers on her property who may be inclined to hurt her? Will she be able to pay her bills as a freelance writer?

When Anne LaBastille was still a relatively young woman, her marriage ended in divorce. She had to find a place to live—quick. In two months’ time, she found a remote plot of land in the Adirondacks, and she set to work building her own log cabin. With only a bit of help in the heaviest or trickiest part of the labor, LaBastille designed and built the cabin herself in short order.

Mind you, this is no burly Amazon woman. The photos in LaBastille’s autobiography show a slender, pretty woman, deeply tanned, flannel shirt sleeves rolled up on her sinewy arms, comfortable in her jeans, hair in long braids or ponytails, chainsaw in hand. Nor is she even particularly assertive or bold. At times, she’s downright shy. She’s just a woman who is comfortable alone, knows how to take care of herself, and loves nature.

LaBastille has had a loyal following of readers ever since her series of Woodswoman books first came out, beginning in the mid 1970s. It seems while few do what she has done, many hold a dream in common about a cabin in the woods. Her cabin in the woods is quite primitive, in fact, with no electricity—she powers anything that requires power by generator or propane gas—and no running water—her baths are mostly taken skinny-dipping in the lake each morning or by heating water in a small tub on her outdoor deck—and without a flushing toilet—she uses an outhouse with a view.

The author’s style is easy and friendly, even while she makes it clear her door is not open to just anyone. She does not appreciate intruders, is wary of her fans, and has no qualms about tossing hunters off her land with a loaded shotgun. Indeed, she encourages a reputation of being called, as one of the hunters snarled at her, bitch. It helps enforce her privacy.

This is a love story of the first order. Sure, there is the romance, initially between her and her husband, who taught her to be a better camper and how to use a chainsaw, and later, there is a romance between her and a man who visits her on weekends from his life in the city. She chooses her cabin and solitude first and foremost, however, when he invites her to accompany him to Alaska, and that’s the end of that. No, the real love story here is between Anne LaBastille and the Adirondacks, between the author and a woman’s closest friend—her dog, Pitzi. No matter what conflict or friction, hurdle or challenge, or test of endurance the wilderness tosses her way, LaBastille finds a way to deal with it and emerge victorious. Mind you, she isn’t trying to beat nature at her game. LaBastille is nature’s ally, woman to woman, and her approach to the challenges of living this kind of lifestyle are respectful. She works with nature rather than against it.

The stories of her life enchant. Descriptions of the changing of seasons are beautiful, as are moments of sitting on her dock on the lake to watch a loon or an otter swim by, or hiking through mountains with her faithful canine friend alongside her. She shows the reader the beauty of her home without whitewashing the mistakes and miscalculations she makes with it. Living as she does is a constant learning process. Nor does she do entirely without the help of friends. When accidents happen, and they do happen, help finds its way to her. She knows when to accept help, and when to be stubborn and stand her ground.

About one unexpected effect of living as a woman alone in the wilderness, she writes:

“The process of learning how to cope as a woman alone had backfired to an extent. I had noticed that the more competent I became, the more insecure certain men acted, or the more aggressive others behaved toward me. It was as if their inferiority complexes were showing, as if they couldn’t stand to have a female be better at anything than they.”

To some, LaBastille may be an enigma. How can a woman be so feminine and strong at the same time? So tender in some things yet so harsh and sturdy in others? Perhaps these are questions some may ask, but I took comfort in reading about this woman who was, simply, a woman—competent, intelligent (she has a PhD), self-sufficient, strong, spirited, yet open-hearted to those who brought added meaning to her life and respect to her wild corner of the world. Her comparison between living in the wild and living in the wild city is really quite hilarious, and makes the point: choose your risks. The wilderness may be far from the scariest place a woman can live.

Added notes on ecology are a major bonus of this memoir. By living in the woods, the author learns how deeply pollution of various kinds has affected our earth. Acid rain kills off lakes until they can no longer be fished. Development efforts seem to be a constant threat. Noise pollution proves a daunting enemy. The greatest challenge LaBastille faces in her wilderness is to preserve it. This isn't just one woman's story; it's a wakeup call.

“Still the cabin is the wellspring, the source, the hub of my existence. It gives me tranquility, a closeness to nature and wildlife, good health and fitness, a sense of security, the opportunity for resourcefulness, reflection, and creative thinking. Yet my existence here has not been, and never will be, idyllic. Nature is too demanding for that. It requires a constant response to the environment. I must adapt to its changes—the seasons, the vagaries of weather, wear and tear on house and land, the physical demands of my body, the sensuous pulls on my senses. Despite these demands, I share a feeling of continuity, contentment, and oneness with the natural world, with life itself, in my surroundings of tall pines, clear lakes, flying squirrels, trailless peaks, shy deer, clean air, bullfrogs, black flies, and trilliums.”

As for me, reading LaBastille’s honest perspective on her life alone in the woods is refreshing and inspiring. I moved quickly from this book to the next one in the series, reading that one just as quickly. I can understand why she has such a following of admirers. She has lived the dream of many that very few will ever realize. She has been true to herself, and that takes courage too many lack.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 256 pages
· Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2006)
· Price: $15.99
· ISBN-10: 0061120065
· ISBN-13: 978-0061120060

From time to time, I come across a book that makes me moan for all the good reviews I’ve written, rows of stars and high marks I’ve given, because now I need more and they’ve all been used up for lesser work. More stars, more high marks, needed here. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is such a book. And I knew it the moment I opened it to the first page, the first line, that I had come across an author of extraordinary mastery of her art.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

"Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

That much, and my rear is planted firmly in favorite reading seat, and I am wide-eyed and ready for the reading long haul. I am intrigued, too, by the history of the author, a black woman (1891-1960) who received very little recognition in her day, but only much later, around the 50th anniversary of this work that was originally published in 1937, receiving the recognition she so richly deserved. Alas, post mortem. That she is a woman and that she is black no doubt contributed to this lack of recognition (although I understand some of her greatest critics came from her own race), and it seems only right that she was brought into the light, rediscovered in 1975, by another black woman, Alice Walker. The novel is now considered a classic in black literature, and I can attest to my years of working in academia, that this book was a regular in literature classes. Too often, substandard books are presented in the classroom as worthy reading (even as educational achievement levels continue to drop), but with Hurston, any student will find much to learn—about literature, about life.

One of the criticisms of Hurston in her day was that she wrote about blacks as a separate people in a separate world, and in this novel, too, we are introduced to a black cast in a black town, and there are very nearly no white faces on this stage anywhere. Unrealistic? Perhaps. Yet I come from a small ethnic group, too, and even while surrounded by masses of others, I can agree that we in our group can become at least temporarily blind to others around us, creating our own world, our own dynamics, relating in our own manner. I had no trouble accepting her all black town, her all black world.

Hurston’s literary style is, no better way to put it, feminine. I mean that in its very best measure: beautiful, highly sensitive, deeply emotional, bolstered with a quiet strength and steely endurance. She notes the detail in everything, and holding that detail up to light, her writing comes alive and off the page. She doesn’t just tell her story. She points out lessons of life, goes deep with introspection, and with a few deft strokes, paints a picture that moves the reader to become someone else than before reading the book.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford, a memorable young black woman who is somehow always a little apart from what is going on around her. She accepts what she must, but is quickly convinced to break rules and shake taboos to move toward something better. Her story is one of ostracism even among her own, because she isn’t willing to roll over and give in, and because she is striking in appearance. Jealousy brings out the uglier traits in lesser sorts. She is not only a dreamer, but a thinker, and so she rolls ideas around in her head until she comes up with answers, or is at least ready to hunt them down.

Idealists like that will get their hearts knocked up and broken, and so does Janie hers. She assumes the best, and is married, as women then had no other choice. She expects to be loved, and for a short while, she seems to be. Turns out something less than love, however, and she submits to humiliation, to verbal abuse, even the occasional beating, but with spirit remaining strong if hidden inside. This is no weak woman. A strong woman is sometimes silent. A strong woman sometimes submits to abuse, bows her head to it, hopes for the best, works to keep love alive, but when it does not, she still walks away whole, if bruised and wiser.

Burying one husband, a man who seemed good and honest at first, but turned out to be abusive with the passage of time, Janie “irons her face” to show the proper emotion, suitable for public viewing. Hurston describes her heroine’s vow to remain alone now that she is free, yet over time, knowing an occasional longing again for good company. Janie contemplates the nature of love, and that most people don't really love at all, but emote something else that is more about control, jealousy, projection of one's own ills and hidden fears. A grandmother that was overprotective, for instance, didn't really love her at all, because love would have encouraged Janie to see a broader horizon for herself. It is a strong example of Hurston’s skill at bringing her character to life:

“Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there at the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. She asked if she wanted to leave and go back where she had come from and try to find her mother. Maybe tend her grandmother’s grave. Sort of look over the old stomping ground generally. Digging around inside herself like that she found that she had no interest in that seldom-seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way behind you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into a million pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

For Janie, there is more than one love story, but only one real love. When she meets a man called Tea Cake, something of a rule breaker himself, the best in her surfaces for good. She finds a reflected shine. He may not suit the ideas of others of a good man—he’s something of a gambler, a wanderer, a dreamer, too—but he’s a mirror reflection of Janie. Their story is a thing of beauty, right to a heartbreaking ending, with the right measure of grit, not one grain too sweet.

Enriching the story are portraits of others, those who share the same skin color yet are racists against their own race, and portraits of gossips, cheaters, thieves, and generally broken souls. Yet it is those that shine and hum that become most memorable to the reader—the true friends, the quiet heroes who choose integrity over ease, and the hearts that know mercy.

Hurston is a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful observer of human nature. Intertwining the two, her work becomes art. Sidenote, that I saw the movie years ago, quickly forgot it, and was generally unmoved by it. This story is meant to be read, not viewed, because it is Hurston's use of language that creates the masterpiece.

~from The Smoking Poet, Winter 2010-2011 Issue

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood

Edited by James Houghton, Larry Bean and Tom Matlack

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Good Men Foundation; 1St Edition
    (September 8, 2009)
  • Price: $14.99
  • ISBN-10: 0615316743
  • ISBN-13:

Ask most any single woman in her second half of life and she will tell you: a good man is exceedingly hard to find. So, why is that? And just what is a good man? Bad boys are for adolescent girls, for those who are yet too emotionally immature to recognize the lasting value of goodness, and yes, that goodness is about as sexy as it comes. If the good guy finishes last, it is only because once a woman meets one, she holds on. There is no need for anyone to come after him.

This collection of essays isn’t about what women think about good men, however, or how women define goodness in a man. It is about what men think about being a good man. And rightly so, because being a good man begins with the man himself, with his taking more than a moment of introspection to consider what this means. Editor James Houghton, in fact, writes that just asking the question is the seed of being a good man.

As one of the editors, Tom Matlack, states in the prologue—“manhood is at a crossroads in America.” Companion editor James Houghton writes in his prologue: “Might there be something meaningful in gathering a diverse group of men to write essays about difficult or challenging times in their lives and what they had learned from those experiences? Though I had nothing but anecdotal evidence to draw upon, it seemed that the men of our generation spend a lot of time struggling to balance the competing interests of achieving professional success and being good husbands and partners and fathers and sons. And unlike women, who are much better socialized to talk about how these same pressures affect them, we tend to keep those burdens to ourselves. While the stereotype of men retreating to their cave is not new, perhaps if a group of men wrote compelling, well-crafted stories about their lives, other men might recognize a little of themselves in those stories and take comfort in their shared humanity.”

Houghton goes on to say that the book was turned down by some 50 publishers, mainly for the reason that none of them believed men were interested in reading a book written by other men. Sad. One does wonder what the readership demographic might be, male or female, but in the end, it probably matters little. Asking the question seems an excellent beginning, and that these three editors have started this ball rollilng can only be commended. It begins with a thought.

The book is divided into four sections. Essays are grouped under Fathers, Sons, Husbands, and Workers. It is a grouping as good as any, I suppose, although Husbands might have been widened to include mates of all kinds and not just spouses. Heck, there are times that a woman’s best friend is an ex-spouse. Indeed, a section simply entitled Friends might have opened up an interesting door. Personally, I can vouch for finding the most good men under this category.

Reading through this collection of essays, the level of quality in story and style is as changeable as one might expect with so many different authors. Some stories will engage more than others. In many, the concept of goodness is self-evident, while others can leave the reader wondering … where was the goodness in this dude? Out of the four sections, Husbands seems the weakest, while Fathers and Sons dig the deepest into male emotion. These appear to be the roles that touch men the most, and at opposing arcs of the same cycle, being sons and becoming fathers. One suspects that for many men, becoming a father is the one time that society accepts softness, even tears, and a gentle touch without questioning masculinity. Becoming a father does seem to bring out the very best in many men, and society sanctions this, making it easier to be a good man in this category.

Notable are several essays that explore the equation we seem to almost force on boys and men—that of aggression going hand-in-hand with masculinity. Authors Steve Almond and Kent George explore the expectation of aggression in boys and men, and what’s a gentler soul to do? A good man surely asks if there is a better way to solve problems or to succeed in life than by the use of fists (and warfare).

Author John Sheehy writes about being able to say and mean the words “I love you,” and writes convincingly about how difficult it is for a man to do so, in this case, to his father. It is a moving piece.

Then, there are some essays that leave one wondering, huh? How is this relevant? Jesse Kornbluth’s “Sex and Drugs Made Me a Man” is a puzzling essay about sex and drugs that fit more of the male stereotype than not, and what any of his sex and drug experience, wounding more than healing, has to do with being a good man, well, who knows. Essays by Cary Wong and Regie O’Hare Gibson also leave one shrugging. Well enough written, but seem to be more padding for space than about good men.

Yet there are those golden stars in the collection, too. “Blood-Spattered” by Julio Medina is worth the price of the book—which, by the way, is donating proceeds from book sales to organizations helping at-risk boys. Medina writes with raw honesty about his life in prison. He is as hard as men get, tough and gritty-hearted, afraid of nothing, if perhaps only the brutality of fellow convicts. But then, not even that. Watching a fellow convict go down in a prison fight, instead of walking by to preserve his own safety under that code of prisoners, Medina stops to help. The result of that moment is a metamorphosis of a bad man into a good man, of a heart that had its goodness hidden under many layers of scarring into the heart of a hero. One moment became a life cause, and Julio Medina today leads an organization, Exodus Transitional Community, helping inmates transition back into good men.  I spent some time exploring his site, and thought that the next book I would like to read on this topic of good men might very well be an autobiography of Julio Medina.

All in all, this is a good book asking a good question and written by more than a few good men. It’s a good start, and we can only hope that good men will find themselves ever more appreciated in a society that, as Matlack observes, is at a crossroads for men seeking guidelines for how to live lives that matter.

To learn more about The Good Men Project, read The Smoking Poet's A Good Cause.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Well Deserved by Michael Loyd Gray

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 246 pages
• Publisher: Sol Books (June 30, 2009)
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN-10: 0979308178
• ISBN-13: 978-0979308178

There are four of them, four characters with four separate voices telling the story of the fifth character that is the place itself—the fictional small town of Argus, Illinois. In slow circles, author Michael Loyd Gray closes in on his tale of Jessie, the small-time dealer living on the outskirts of town in his trailer; Raul, who calls himself that, but is really Dominick, a vet recently returned from Vietnam and not quite fitting in as yet; Nicole, the young clerk in the grocery store, fresh out of high school and looking a little like Cher and not particularly appreciative of the attention that earns her; and Art, the town sheriff, keeping an alert eye on all of them, sizing them up.

Gray maintains an easy pace throughout, somehow managing to make the reader feel that even when all culminates in a short gun battle, that we are watching slow-motion action. It’s an interesting feat. It is what makes the town of Argus come alive with its own presence, its own pace, its own turning axis. Argus is a town removed, the sort of place where everyone seems to hanker to leave, yet few do. And some come back.

A Pabst beer can pops open, a campfire crackles beside a lake, a trailer lights up in the night like a lone beacon, a sheriff leans against his patrol car and watches, watches. It’s like that. That slow, but never dull. Gray tosses in just enough spice, with perfect timing, to keep interest at a slow simmer. He dabs in color for one character and then moves to the next, but the switch is always smooth. Gradually, the characters intertwine, bump a little off each other, develop bonds, share a dream or two, pass a toke, become partners in crime. Something is about to happen, but we almost don’t care, much, when or how or what. We are just along for that smooth and entertaining ride, sitting by that same campfire and taking a swig.

All that easiness doesn’t mean these characters don’t go deep. Each has his or her own scars and frustrations, a few old ghosts and fears to overcome. As the moment of culmination arrives, the reader will wonder if we will have one or two fewer characters left alive. No spoilers here. But the bit of a twist, the almost gentle surprise, is pleasing and feels just right.

Gray lets us see deeper into the fiber of sheriff Art this way:

“The memory of that night in the Chicago alley came back to him again and in his head he again saw the muzzle flash and felt the sting of the grazing bullet. It came to him in slow motion. He sweated and his forehead itched. He scratched it with the back of a hand and peeked again across the creek. Nothing moved in the grove. There wasn’t even a breeze to stir the bushes. He wondered what the man was thinking. What was his plan? He hadn’t fired a shot yet. Maybe that was good. Something to build on. Art was thankful there had been no wild gunplay when he pulled into the lot. The man seemed more interested in just getting away ... Art didn’t know the circumstances. He didn’t know shit about the man or anything about why it happened. He was working blind in the bush. He had a stray thought of Raul in Vietnam, working the bush and trying not to get shot, but looking for someone to shoot—to kill. He wondered if Raul had killed anyone. The Viet Cong. Was that the tick under his skin fueling his drift, his barely-concealed confusion? Or maybe he had killed but didn’t know it. Those fire fights could be distant, men dying without their killers ever knowing.

If Art killed today he would know it.”

Michael Loyd Gray is the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize, the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction, and his novel December’s Children was a finalist for the Sol Books Prose Series Prize. Gray is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Western Michigan University. He worked as a newspaper staff writer in Arizona and Illinois, taught in colleges and universities in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and Georgia. He now lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Gray talks to The Smoking Poet about his work on Well Deserved as well as his other novels. The interview will appear in the Winter 2010-2011 Issue, online later in December 2010. Don't miss it. It's slow and easy and simmers all the way to the end.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 96 pages
• Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 28, 2011)
• Price: $24.95
• ISBN-10: 0393079554
• ISBN-13: 978-0393079555

Mushrooms and stamens and pollinating bees, all bursting from a man’s briefs … this new collection of poetry by Dorianne Laux, The Book of Men, coming out in February 2011, is as seductive and enticing a literary treat as one has come to expect from one of America’s most delicious poets. If a treatise on boys and men, men on their own, men in the poet’s life, men observed at a distance, men in the moon, then it is also very much a collection for women and by one.

Enter Sergeant Metz, first poem, and we can smell the testosterone in the air, even if it is in a coffee shop.

Metz is alive for now, standing in line
at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear
and buzz cut, his beautiful new
camel-colored suede boots. His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.

Yet for all those male hormones sweating the walls, this is a collection tender and kind, intimate and admiring. Laux discards sentimentality for the value of the true—I don’t believe in anything anymore:/god, country, money or love./All that matters to me now/is his life, the body so perfectly made—and while leaving behind the idealism of youth, of larger-than-life heroes, caresses the real person found in the detail. She values one life at a time, and perhaps that was all we were ever meant to do. Her poems sing the power of symbol, of myth, of legend and quest, of story. Her poems are the minutiae of every day, every man, every woman, every common thing, coming together to create the poetry of a life.

Life is a series of bumbling and random choices, many unknowingly made and without awareness, but all determining the entirety of what life we live. In “Late-Night TV,” Laux wonders about an infomercial, the man who is selling his wares to insomniacs, and surely he, too, is somebody to someone. She hits that raw and tender place we all have, our common wondering, why we do what we do, how it is that we end up where we are.

We know nothing of how it all works
how we end up in one bed or another,
speak one language instead of the others,
what heat draws us to our life’s work
or keeps us from a dream until it’s nothing
but a blister we scratch in our sleep.

Yet somehow it all works. Lives are lived. Some pretty glorious ones. A miracle. And that is how Laux’s poetry works: finding the glory, the miracle, in all our common little-big lives.

Among her boys and men are young rebels, misfits, imperfect heroes (are there any other kind?), the aging, with a specially moving poem written about her elderly mother, “Mother’s Day,” and tributes to poet Phillip Levine, and the moon, too, dog howling at it. She writes, too, about the question that faces men in a woman’s moment of vulnerability, in “Second Chances,” will he help her? Or will he take advantage? In our world today, the poet says in an interview with The Smoking Poet (Winter 2010-2011 Issue), it is goodness that surprises her. There is that miracle, that there are still so many who are good and do the right thing.

In that same interview, Laux says about her art, recalling a conversation with her husband, poet Joseph Millar: “We … talk of the purpose of art and poetry, and how when we read a poem or look at a painting we are led into the true intensity of life, the one right here as we walk down the street and are struck again, as if for the first time, by the changing of the leaves from green to gold, that brief glimpse into the final hallway. Maybe the purpose of art is to help us apprehend the loud silences, the shimmering depths, the small intensities of ants going about their business, tunneling out whole cities beneath our sidewalks, and awake us to the absolute mystery that is life. Art asks us to contemplate death rather than to simply imagine it or even press ourselves up against it as we do in our youth. It’s coming, no matter how fast we run from it or toward it, and art asks us to stop and confront death rather than being merely tolerant of, tempted or titillated by it.”

In “Fall,” she laments the burden of the body, this aging vehicle in which we live, and how she tires of always hearing about it … then gives it that credit due, that we need it, and glory in it, too. Her poems about Mick Jagger and Cher, those aging icons of American culture, near perfection with their mix of hero and anti-hero, beauty and deformity, the would-be and just-ain’t, accomplish the same love this, wince at that, and that's something like how it should be.

A poet is that artist who finds the voice we all keep hoping to find, framing the question we all whisper inside, touching on that nerve where we all feel raw, embracing that fear that makes us all tremble, and upholds the courage that, in our very best moments, we all hope to find. Dorianne Laux is that kind of voice—one voice that speaks into a canyon of echoes, coming back to her out of the dark, speaking for all of us.

Dorianne Laux is the author of five collections of poetry: Facts About the Moon, What We Carry, Smoke, Awake, and The Book of Men. She has been the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches at North Carolina State University and lives in Raleigh.

THE SMOKING POET, Winter 2010-2011, will be online in mid December 2010, featuring an interview with Dorianne Laux talking about The Book of Men.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Merry Baker of Rīga: An American Entrepreneur Ventures into Eastern Europe by Boris Zemtzov

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 320 pages
• Publisher: Stanford Oak Press (March 10, 2004)
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN-10: 0974711608
• ISBN-13: 978-0974711607

Scanning my bookshelves for a good book to take along on my recent trip overseas to Latvia, I came across Zemtzov’s The Merry Baker of Rīga. Perfect! I’d been meaning to read the book for some time, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Reading it while on the long plane ride over the ocean, to land in the Rīga airport, seemed a propos.

Settling into my seat on the jet after takeoff, I reread the book cover for the setting: “Mix one American expatriate, ‘inherited’ managers, Soviet-trained bakers, and a Danish baking instructor with an Irish accent. Blend in the collapse of the Soviet legal system, derelicts that heave bricks through windows for sport, and mafiya racketeers. Put them all together into a decrepit bakery plant, and you’ll have just a taste of what lies between the pages of Boris Zemtzov’s charming new travelogue…”

I had spent some time in the Soviet Union, and my ethnic roots are Latvian—I’d been to Rīga, and to other parts of Latvia, too many times to count. I began to read with great interest. Would this Russian-American businessman’s perspective be accurate? Or was this just going to be a parody of Soviet Latvia in its first couple years of shaking off its Soviet yoke?

Well, both. Zemtzov drew me in quickly and easily. He has a comic flair, and he does not spare himself in his memoir of starting up a bakery in Latvia. As in any comedy, there is the occasional exaggeration, coloring a little past the lines, but Zemtzov usually resists going too far. I admit to wincing from time to time in my reading. After all, not all that he had to say about Latvia and Latvians was especially kind. But it was (sigh), accurate enough for life in Rīga just after Soviet rule (and not just the legal system) ended. I couldn’t argue with him nearly as often as I wished I could. He was painfully on target. I winced, and then, l had to laugh.

One can drive the oppressors from one’s land, but some 51 years of occupation had undeniably affected the Latvian mindset, societal values or lack of, and general social behavior. When Zemtzov jumps through hoops to open up a business in Riga, he hires several Latvians to work for him. Others come with the package deal, something that is a part of the negotiations in the almost surrealistic Soviet-style world of business dealings, based more on bribes and under-the-table dealings than the more westernized style of “may the best man/woman win.” Yet that is also what gives Zemtzov’s account its frequent hilarity. It hurts to laugh, but the laughs are real.

Zemtzov is bound and determined to succeed with his bakery business, prompted in great part by the fact that he has fallen in love with a Latvian woman named Inge, whom he eventually marries. When the story is not about the antics in the bakery, it is about the new family, for Inge has two children from a previous marriage, Markus and Eliza. Two cultures clash in family interactions and everyday chores of taking out the garbage and dealing with juvenile discipline, or attempting to celebrate their first Christmas after living under Soviet rule, when celebrating Christmas was forbidden. Not the least interesting part of the book is how the family finds, negotiates, and finally moves into an apartment.

A moment of red-faced embarrassment for the western cultures in this story is when American businessmen come to Latvia’s famed Dziesmu Svētki, the national song festival, to sell their wares. There is a lesson here for anyone crossing from one culture to another: never assume. The western businessmen want to treat the event like a sports game, setting up booths and marketing their goods in every aisle, like calling out Hot dogs! Peanuts! at a baseball game. But the song festival, as Zemtzov points out, is no sports event or rave concert to the Latvian nation. It has a sacred air to it, and woe to the businessman who does not respect it as such. In this, Zemtzov’s book is a strong reminder of the need to take the time to understand cultural differences when doing business in another country.

The book takes the reader through endless adventure—the circus of doing business within the echoes of Soviet-style thinking; dealing with employee theft; handling Russian mafia extortion attempts and becoming part of a failed sting operation; trying out new recipes with a comic series of failures; eradicating rats in the bakery when a good old tomcat would do; an electrician gone haywire; buying black market gas for deliveries on the side of the highway, and many, many more. Zemtzov turns all into black comedy. Black and white photos add visual interest. Footnotes to explain the vastly un-American are helpful. And, as I continued to read the book during my stay in Latvia, the occasional interesting factoid or bit of trivia was fun, too.

I found myself recommending the book to several others who are familiar with both American and Latvian cultures. I always did so, however, with a firm addendum: this is NOT how Latvia is today. Had I not been familiar with Latvia, and a Latvian myself, I might have been frightened off from taking a trip to Rīga. Funny as some of Zemtzov’s story is, it can also be an intimidating if not downright horrific illustration of that time period. I wanted everyone to know to whom I suggested the book that it was to be read as a story of Latvia when still in the leftover dregs of Soviet occupation. Let’s just say … we’ve come a long, long way since then. Thank goodness.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Musical Chairs by Jen Knox

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 184 pages
· Publisher: All Things That Matter Press, 2009
· Price: $16.99
· ISBN-10: 0984259422
· ISBN-13: 978-0984259427

Musical Chairs is the gritty memoir of a smart young woman, Jen Knox, who fell into the life of a stripper. This is not polished writing, but it is what it tells—stripped down to the bone and honest. The author has not tried to present herself in the best light or to make excuses. She looks in the mirror long and hard.

It may be that there is nothing very new here that we haven’t heard before. A girl grows up in a rather unorthodox family, deeply dysfunctional, ending with divorce. There is alcohol and there are drugs, and there is also a family history of mental illness. But young Jen is sharp, and she has a strong independent streak. In a fight with her father, still a teenager, she takes up his dare and walks out into the streets with no place to go. A junkie boyfriend takes her in with his father in the background, a porn fiend and alcoholic, who tries to rape Jen when the son is out of the house. What you have here is the perfect recipe for disaster. Indeed, that is what this scenario produces.

Knox stumbles onto an ad for a job—dancers wanted, no experience needed—and all seems too easy. Big money for almost nothing. All she has to do is move her body around on a stage in a sleazy night club and take her clothes off. If there is anything new in this story for which probably most readers already see the ending, it is that this is Knox’s story. As much as we are all unique individuals, we clearly hear the voice of the author throughout—and every story honestly told is worth telling. Indeed, at a time when the use of pornography in the United States is at an all-time high, it is a story that should be told, and heard, and understood, many times over—until it registers.

Knox describes her experience on the stage, never done sober, as none of the women who strip ever do their job sober. She describes the discomfort, the fear, the exploitation of both the women and the men, one of the other. She describes the lies told and accepted, the masks worn, the hidden agendas, the false fantasies. She describes the pimps, the rivalries between strippers, the crime, the escalating addictions. She describes her own alcoholism, encouraged by her boss as he pours hard liquor down her throat to get her to dance. It’s an ugly world and Knox puts it straight into the spotlight, unwrapping the truth from the center pole. On the stage, Knox looks down at the drooling faces and begins to understand her degree of control:

“Take it off, sexy lady!”

These words hit me like a slap to the face. I looked down into the man’s eyes, his eyes on my chest. I wondered why. I took my hand and followed his gaze with my fingers. I touched the buttons on my shirt; I undid them one at a time until my pretty black bra was exposed… I looked at him, realizing that I controlled his eyes now.”(Page 81)

As her career as a stripper progresses, Knox, already lying about her age, continues to feel more and more disconnected. She collects her cash and closes the door in her mind against what it took from her to earn it. In her personal life, the degree to which she allows herself to be abused seems to rise in unison with the abuse in her work, including brutal beatings, sometimes at the hands of other strippers.

“Each day, girls arrived at all times in the late afternoon, making their way, one by one, into the dressing room for our ritualistic transformation. Glitter and powder designed to lighten or color, conceal or contour, was shared and traded, becoming community property in our dressing room. We took such care to exhibit our faces; girls, women: our faces were the focus of that dressing room yet they only ever earned a passing glance from customers as our bodies shifted and twisted onstage.

“We knew that sexuality was expressed through the eyes and mouth, but our variety of salesmanship was less nuanced; our product was vulnerability, nakedness, false promise of sexual conquest. Yet, we spent hours in front of the mirrors smoking, doing lines, gossiping, speculating, all while constructing our masks with care and precision.” (Page 84)

In retrospect as a more mature woman, Jen Knox contemplates her reasoning, realizing there was little when she was so young and vulnerable. She cites curiosity and confusion. Not the low self-esteem or daddy issues or too much television, but a need to be seen. Her writing now, the author says, is a continuation of that need to be seen, heard, defined, even criticized, as long as she is not invisible.

“I felt empowered, and I got lost in the mystery of the dance: its freedom of movement and rhythm; its ability to maintain attention, to communicate to the audience. I expressed myself on stage and felt my femininity rise from a stifled place inside me. My dancing became almost a form of meditation. Until, that is, I looked down at the equally meditative glances from below. The audiences sickened me.” (Page 86)

The other strippers warn her that she, like them, will grow to hate men. Hatred and fear seem to be constant companions on the stage. The disconnect between the person and the actions becomes wider and wider. The disconnect between Knox from herself seems to widen as well. This is a world in which human beings can function only with compartmentalized hearts and minds.

To preserve the mask and keep the walls in place, Knox talks about the rules of that dark world. Strippers never date customers, never give out phone numbers, and when asked for their real names, apparently some use several, none of which are real. Many of the customers, Knox writes, have the ultimate male fantasy of making a stripper a “community service project,” saving the stripper from herself, making her into a girlfriend and getting her on track to a better life. To the strippers, Knox states, these misguided men are the “creepier, disillusioned type,” craving to become heroes.

When a boyfriend later tells Knox, upon learning about her past, that she is his “dream girl with a sultry, sexy side,” Knox responds:

“Stripping isn’t sexy, it’s a business. It’s dirty, gritty, capitalist exploitation.” (Page 152)

Eventually, Knox ends her career. Maturity is a factor, family rebonding, even if with dysfunctional members, rehab centers, treatment for increasing panic attacks that she experiences, all push her out of the business. While her life as a stripper takes center stage in this memoir, there are other storylines here that are also worthy of note. Courage in one area of her life opens up connections to other areas of her life.

Just as she increasingly shut down before, Knox gradually opens up again to herself and others. She eventually is able to establish a good relationship with a young man, whom she later marries, and she finds ways to cope with her family. One can’t help but admire that kind of courage. There may be no greater feat in life to accomplish than looking into a mirror without a mask on, and Knox finally does just this. She finds that courage when women try to exploit her just as men have, trying to make her into their personal good deed, a misconstrued altruism, infuriated when she has no wish to accept it. Knox is perfectly capable of being her own hero, to save herself. She reconciles with family, she goes to college and earns a degree. She is well on her way to developing herself as a writer, and indeed, by end of book, the writing has achieved a higher polish, as if in line with the stripper reentering the light.

Knox’s story is raw, and the writing, too, at times, is raw, but her talent to tell a story is evident. Today, Knox is an editor for a literary magazine and is working on a novel. Unsurprisingly, she is excellent at marketing herself, turning her early skills into positive ones. If her need is to be seen and acknowledged, may she be seen and acknowledged, for the story she is willing to tell is worth hearing.

~for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2010 (Watch for our Winter 2010-2011 Issue, out in December, for an interview with Jen Knox)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Marker & Parker, Jazz Poetry/Spoken Word by Marc Zegans with Don Parker on jazz piano

Review by Zinta Aistars
(From The Smoking Poet, Fall 2010 Issue)

Record Label: Tiny Mind, 2009
Price: $12.97

Let’s get that disclaimer out here right at the top: I don’t listen to too many spoken word CDs. Marc Zegans’ Marker & Parker is only the fifth such CD that I’ve been sent for review, so I consider myself a novice at tuning my ear to poetry coming out of my stereo system as I make my too-long daily commute to work down the interstate. Thing is, I don’t see that changing much. I adore the written word. I like my poetry on the page in front of me. I go to a great many poetry readings (which are worlds apart from going to slam poetry sessions), and at least in that venue I can say, with some expertise, painfully few poets can read their work well to an audience.

So there you have your scene set. Spoken word, or slam poetry, poetry on a stage, really isn’t my thing. It’s guzzling down something hard and fast that I prefer to sip and savor in solitude. And then there is this difference, too: when you see spoken word poetry written down on a page, it is nothing, but nothing, like poetry written to be seen on the page. I’ve listened to just enough spoken word that it is clear to me that it requires an entirely different approach to language. It is, after all, a performance. These are words meant for aural delivery. Not just words on a page here, but the poet him or herself, a physical presence, a voice, rich with inflection and tone and profound delivery.

I pop in Marc Zegans’ Marker & Parker and rev up my engine for the drive. Instantly, it works. Rack ‘Em. I hear a pool cue snap against a hard billiard ball, and Zegans’ voice snaps with it to bring me to attention. Jazz pianist Don Parker is playing in the background, at just the right level of enriching the reading, rather than overwhelming it. Okay, okay, I’m listening …

Shootin’ eight-ball at the I-beam
Wednesday nite tea-party.

Drag queen in a sheer silk dress
Gives me the eye.

Popper wiff hangin’ in the air.
I ignore him and break.

Smack, the cueball hits
The multichrome triangle

At the far end of the table.
Balls scatter.

He gives me the eye
Shows me some thigh.

Feel the mood? You may or may not. This, again, is not meant to be read, but heard. Imagine a deep, silky voice—one that, mind you, reminded me a little of a loosened-up Al Gore if we were to find him in a smoky pool hall. Zegans weaves his voice with the mood, making the mood happen, lets it bounce and sway with the jazzy blues, draws it out so that you feel that sheer silk dress swish across that bulky thigh. He purrs and slinks and pops and seduces.

Don Parker keeps tune in back. The master is always the musician who knows when to support, not to take center stage. It is improvised jazz, loose and easy, now and then nearly missing a note, but with a swift save and back again, nothing jarring. Unlike some of the other spoken poetry CDs I’ve heard, he knows his perfect place, and his style blends perfectly with Zegans’ style, one complementing the other. On Love that Waitress, Marc Zegans steps in himself with a jazz piano solo, to let us enjoy his dual talent.

By the end of my first listen to Marker & Parker, I was in that jazzy groove, and would rather have gone to some smoky lounge than my office. By the time I was driving home again, I was ready for a second listen. Which is saying something. One of my personal puzzles over spoken word CDs is wondering how many times might one want to listen to the same poems being read/spoken again and again. Some half dozen times later, I seem to be approaching an answer.

By now, my smile is ready as I ease into another listen. By now, I have asked Zegans to provide me the written lyrics, too, and to my pleased surprise, they work well on the written page, too.


High above the plunging hill, Jay sits
facing empty glass, his room spare
a music stand, a chair, a sigh, a sax
a silence, and curling sheets of noted


And by now, I can hear Zegans’ voice in my head as I read, the two becoming inseparable, word and voice. It turns out "Sunken Contents" may even be better on the page, as it is a shape poem, moving out like a wave and then sinking back again … yet Zegans accomplishes the same effect in reading it.

Sunken Contents

In the moment of fall
the slur, the cut, the jibe,
fast snapping, decapitating,
wind driven swing of the boom,
roll over—you dropping too fast,
too deep for them to touch, much
less bring you level. Proclaimed Mingus
you can't be brought low when you are beneath
the underdog, and falling fast from that subjugated
position, humiliation is an indulgent luxury, consumed
by those who imagine that loss of position carries meaning
to the death…

Zegans’ poetry is about the dark and seedy pool bar, yes, and the drag queen, but also moves into political themes, taking the “clown prince” to task (with allusions to philosopher Richard Rorty), with references to the Kennedys, delving into some 30 years of American political history. The author states it is his answer to “Howl,” with an encouragement to the listerner/reader to do more than just howl. There is also a sassy seduction of a waitress while mopping up gravy with slice after slice of white bread (“Mile High”), and a statement about the desensitized health care system that treats a human being like a body with its tickings recorded on a chart, rather than a man also of heart and mind (“Him”). Zegans even manages to make a statement about our over-processed food in “Too Fucked to Drink”: “…where health school lunch/is six french fries/and ketchup, not rotting,/is a vegetable.” In short, there isn't just mood here; there is also plenty of substance.

Another listen, and I have some walls and misperceptions about spoken word poetry broken down. It is indeed something that you can plug into your stereo more than once, each time gleaning something new and different. It can work, sometimes, on the written page just as well, or in addition. And there are voices, and performers, and pianists, such as this team of Zegans and Parker, who know how to work together to bring alive a performance that is a true pleasure to hear, to contemplate, to play again … just one more time.

To see this and many more reviews, visit Zinta Reviews on The Smoking Poet!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 400 pages
• Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009
• Price: $15.00
• ISBN-10: 0812973992
• ISBN-13: 978-0812973990

Now and then, and not so very often, a writer is more of a magician. Perhaps even a medium, channeling other voices, the medium between the reader and the world he creates before our very eyes--out of nothing, a great something. Such is Colum McCann. It wasn't long before I was reading this book with reverence, with realization that I was holding in my hands a work of art.

The opening of the novel is a view of the sky, a mile and some up into the sky, where a tiny dot sways gracefully on a thin wire, strung between those two well-known towers, now gone. Our eyes are drawn upward, as if we, too, stand there, on the New York City pavement, heads thrown back. This tightrope walker is a true event from 1974, and McCann has built his fictional world around him, below him, to catch him and that moment of impossible grace. From high in the air, the author brings our gaze down, down, to the very depths and darkest corners of this famous and infamous city.

We see pieces and shards of lives, seemingly disconnected, until by book's end we see--all things, all lives are connected, as if a by a thin wire. We step into the lives of an Irish priest, of a street corner peopled by hookers sharing heroin needles, of broken-hearted mothers with sons lost to war, of a Park Avenue judge with frustrated ambitions, and of colorful artists. These are not whole lives, nor whole images, but pieces, just the same way we glimpse the lives of those around us every day. As if we know them, yet we know no one, not really, not even ourselves. Yet their experiences are powerful in the way that our everyday lives are--living, dying, struggling with dilemmas, evaluating our values, getting by.

McCann's writing can be dense, but it is never out of tune. Never. Draw a finger along with each line, read it aloud, and you will never find one word out of place. He writes like life is lived, without pretension. He writes the way we think. Choppy sometimes, long and drawn out sometimes, disjointed sometimes, coming together again sometimes. His intuition of perfect rhythm is breathtaking. His ability to speak as others, as anyone else, is perhaps the most masterful I have seen in literature in many years, and perhaps even more, perhaps a lifetime of reading. I am dumbfounded by his ability to write cross-gender, a man who somehow is able to fit himself inside a woman, and not just any woman, but an African-American middle-aged grandmother who is a hooker, and the fit is... there's that word again... perfect. He has it. He has her voice. I forget him entirely when I read her, he is gone, she is all that is there, and she fills the room in our minds with her vivid and vibrant presence. He gets it, how she feels under her hundredth man of the day, and the next moment how she thinks of her daughter, her grandchild, and fights for her family. What author can possibly accomplish this? Colum McCann.

"The men were just bodies moving on me. Bits of color. They didn't matter none. Sometimes I just felt like a needle in a jukebox. I just fell on that groove and rode in awhile. Then I'd pick the dust off and drop again." (page 206)

She is an astounding character, embodying the shining best of a woman and the darkest and deepest kind of shadow. There is no judgment made about her, no lecture given, only a person presented, real and gritty and so close to you that you can see the blood pulsing in her temple and smell the sweat on her skin. Real. You can't just walk by her.

Another scene that stunned me with its mastery was one of a car accident, a moment in time captured as if outside of time. The author knows how time spins out in such a scene, and how our minds slow and speed again, replay the moment from a thousand different angles, spinning and spinning in a dizzying circle until all the colors blur together.

"The van spun farther. It was almost front-on. On the passenger side, all I could see was a pair of bare feet propped up on the dashboard. Untangling in slow motion. The bottoms of her feet were so white at the edges and so dark in their hollows that they could only have belonged to a black woman. She untucked at the ankles. The spin was slow enough. I could just see the top of her frame. She was calm. As if ready to accept. Her hair was pulled back tight off her face and bright baubles of jewelry bounced at her neck. If I hadn't seen her again, moments later, after she was thrown through the windshield, I might have thought she was naked, given the angle I was looking from. Younger than me, a beauty. Her eyes traveled across mine ... She was gone just as quickly. The van went into a wider spin and our car kept going straight.... The road opened like a split peach. I recall hearing the first crunch behind us, another car hitting the van, then the clatter of a grille ..." (page 116-117)

On and on it goes, that slow unweaving description, spinning us into its vortex, until the image of the spinning van and the woman flying through the windshield becomes a permanent burn on the brain.

McCann does it again when he describes how the trapeze artist practices for his masterpiece of a moment, walking the cable strung between the two towers. One would think the author once again peeled away his own skin, unzipped that of the high wire artist, and stepped inside. Not one detail is missed.

This is a novel that is nothing short of a ballet of words. Changing rhythms, changing lighting, never losing a step or missing a breath. McCann won the National Book Award for this book, but I would hold out for even higher awards. I am still trying to remember how to breathe as I come out of the spin, slowly, of his literary magic.

Colum McCann is the author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in 30 languages. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Keweenaw Puzzle: Busting Myths, Revealing the Truth, and Uncovering the Facts of Keweenaw Stories and Legends by Richard Buchko

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 44 pages
• Publisher: CreateSpace (May 6, 2009)
• Price: $9.99
• ISBN-10: 1441421483
• ISBN-13: 978-144142148

On one of my many trips to the Keweenaw, where I once lived and intend to live again, I had buried myself in the northern woods for a week to work on a novel inspired by my surroundings. I have been traveling to the Keweenaw Peninsula, a peninsula off a peninsula, the larger one being the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, since I was a little girl. I lived in Calumet in the early 1990s, left regretfully for greener financial pastures, but am now seeking my pathway back for my pending retirement years. My heart lives in the Keweenaw.

Anyone who has ever been there knows that the physical geography of the area is one of the most beautiful in the United States, perhaps anywhere. It is stunning. Rocky shores of Lake Superior, deep woods, mountains, lakes and rolling rivers, quiet streams, rich with wildlife. Nothing like it. But there is another aspect of the Keweenaw that tugs on me, too—its history.

Traveling through, I noted little of it. The little mining houses, all alike in structure, seemed, well, a tad ugly and plain. It was only when I lived in Calumet myself that I truly began to appreciate the story behind those houses, the legends that wove around that beautiful wilderness. I am not necessarily a history buff, but when I walked Calumet streets in early mornings and late evenings, after the work day was done, I could swear I felt the ghosts of centuries around me. I was told the apartment in which I lived on Fifth Street, the main street of the village of Calumet (population, approx. 1,000), was haunted, as were most of the buildings there, many built in the late 1800s. I sensed that spirit, and more than once, saw its passing shadow, heard its light step.

On those many walks, and in many conversations with those who had lived in the area all of their lifetimes, perhaps over several generations, I heard the legends. I heard the rumors and the myths. Before long, I found myself ransacking the Houghton library history shelves. I read them all, all the local publications, and when I got a job working at The Daily Mining Gazette, the Keweenaw newspaper, I always had my eye open for local history. A favorite part of my job at the paper was writing up a short piece on “This Day in History…” That brought me to the archives, and I spent many fascinating hours paging through yellowed, crackly newspapers.

Only natural that I would notice Richard Buchko’s slender book in Einerli, a little boutique in Chassell, another tiny town at the foot of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The store owner told me she had put it on the shelf just that day. Serendipity, I thought, to find a history on the area I had not yet read. I bought it.

In the introduction, the author tells us he is not a native “Yooper,” U.P. resident, but is now an adopted one, having moved to Calumet but a year prior. “I’m a troll—or I used to be, depending on how you look at it. A troll is someone who lives (or lived, or was born) under the bridge. Depending on your age and where you were brought up, that either means someone who lived below the Mackinac Bridge in the lower peninsula of Michigan, or for some it means living south of the lift bridge over Portage Lake. I moved here a little over a year ago, fulfilling a desire I’d had for almost three decades. What fueled that dream I couldn’t say, but I always felt that this was where I belonged…”

Gee, can I ever identify. Apparently, this author had felt the burn, too, and was equally, or more so, drawn to the local history as well. I settled in for the read. Fun facts dotted the pages, such as: “Keweenaw Fact: Lake Superior contains 10 percent of all the fresh surface water on Earth, and contains more water than the other Great Lakes combined.”

The book then takes up one popular myth after another, either validating or debunking each one. The first one up was about Calumet nearly becoming the capitol of Michigan. Yup, I’d heard that one many times. Debunked. Next myth: Portage Lake Pioneers, the Keweenaw ice hockey team—had they been the 1904 winners of the Stanley Cup? Debunked, but not without a terrific consolation prize. Hockey fans take note—the Keweenaw is indeed the birthplace of professional ice hockey, and the Portage Lake Pioneers were the first U. S. champions in the sport.

And so the author takes on one wonderful story after another, carefully citing his sources and aligning his evidence to support his claim, one way or the other. A few photographs entice with faces and buildings of long ago, many of the latter still standing. Had Houdini really performed at the Calumet Theater? Was there really a wall of pure silver in one of the many mines? Who was Big Annie, that 6 feet 2 inch tall woman whose smiling face appears in old Calumet photographs? What do we really know about the mysterious mound builders of Isle Royale? Was George Gipp (“win one for the Gipper”), star football player, really from Laurium? And what do we really know about the Italian Hall disaster on Christmas Eve 1913, resulting in the death of 73 people, burned to death—only the doorway arch remains, standing as a monument where the building had once stood? So many times, I had walked through that arch, back and forth, pressing my palm to the stone to feel the warmth, and wondered at the long ago tragic night.

What a delight is this little book for anyone smitten with U.P. history and beauty. I am pleased to have it. Based on the author’s recommendation, I plan to pick up a copy of Steve Lehto’s Death’s Door, to learn more about the Italian Hall Christmas Eve disaster. History gives us ground to stand on, deeper understanding, and great stories, true, and legends for the imagination.

Addendum: When searching the author on the Internet, one comes across some pretty ghastly and questionable stuff. One hopes Mr. Buchko will be as good about debunking myths about his own character as well as those in Keweenaw legend.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Secrets: You Tell Me Yours and I’ll Tell You Mine … Maybe by Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 128 pages
• Publisher: Enchanted Self Press (April 2, 2010)
• Price: $8.95
• ISBN-10: 0979895219
• ISBN-13: 978-0979895210

What little girl doesn’t love opening a diary, one of those puffy books with a little metal lock on it with a tiny key on a ribbon? Many of us had them. I did. I still have mine somewhere, I’m sure, filled with nonsense about what I ate that day, how much I hated the new dress Mama made me wear to school, and with long, deep, philosophical conversations between me and my cat carefully transcribed, complete with the feline’s responses. It’s a girl thing, I think, and psychologist Barbara Becker Holstein has done a fun job of quite accurately capturing that girlishness.

The slim book, written for girls age 9 to 12, with questions for discussion at back, is written with a font that resembles handwriting to add to the effect of reading a diary. Dear Diary, begins each entry, and the writer of the diary is a 13-year old girl who remains nameless as she narrates her life, filled with delicious secrets. None of these secrets are the sort to give parents shivers. They are the typical fare of many tweens, about first crushes on boys, shopping for training bras (I agree with the girl: I never understood this odd concept of “training” either), moving to a new house, making new friends and outgrowing old ones, coping with a new baby in the household, encountering a family death for the first time, and other such.

I wondered as I read, however … is this really the mind of a current-day average 13-year old girl? Oh, I hope it is, but it little resembles me at 13, nor my daughter at 13, nor my nieces at that age. It reminded me more of the 9- or 10-year old, because each year at that stage can be quite dramatic in its changes, physically and emotionally. One likes to think of such innocence at 13, but with today’s fast forward adolescence, I wonder if this book isn’t off by a couple years or so. Statistics show that the average age today of losing one’s virginity is 14 and falling. Puberty, perhaps sped up by various pollutants (I’ve read about toxic components in plastics, in lotions, in water, and so on, that wreak havoc on hormonal imbalances), is starting earlier than it used to. Scientists don’t seem to yet know exactly why, but articles abound on the topic. The average age of exposure to pornography online, according to some studies, is age 9 (parents: take note). Indeed, in Secrets, there is no mention of modern technology in this girl’s life, even while we look around us to see 13-year-olds with cell phones glued to their ears and iPods drumming the beat through earphones.

Realism aside, a possible miss of age group left up for debate, the book is fun. The girl’s mind travels in ways surely many of us recognize from our childhoods. Her moments of anxiety, quickly countered by her moments of sheer joy for seemingly trivial reasons, her attachments to sentimental objects such as her locket, which keeps getting lost and refound again, putting her through spasms of worry—all the stuff of American girlhood. We recognize the pleasure of connecting with an adult who will take the time to talk to you, really talk to you, and listen, as her aunt does. We recognize the warmth and comfort of young gal pals, sharing silly secrets, and the importance of those first bonds. We recognize, those of us who are so lucky, those connecting moments with our mothers, too, when we find ourselves on the same frequency perhaps for the first time as maturity begins to take hold.

There is, too, that teenage angst for American girls who wonder if they look right. Bombarded with false and heavily manipulated images in magazines, television and movies as we are in this society, one wonders how a young and growing girl cannot sink into despair at what is, actually, her normal self. The author does here a good service, surely, in giving a young reader comfort in knowing this angst is quite normal today:

“Why do I hate to look at myself in the mirror sometimes? I used to love to look at myself. I even played dress-up in front of it. Now I feel so rotten when I look at myself. I see everything. I see too many freckles on my face. I see my teeth looking back at me, not pearly white but slightly yellow with a space between the front teeth that looks larger every time I examine it. I see big ears even though my mother said I don’t have big ears. And I see fat on my body. Baby fat is not cute at 13.” (Page 60)

A first crush unfolds, and we read the girl gush about love, big and dramatic, one moment for one boy, the next for another, then back again. All part of growing up. The girl goes on and on to her mother about the boy named Rob as the two share regular dinners at a favorite restaurant. Each time she does so, the older male waiter stands by and waits and listens (eavesdrops?), which did leave me puzzled. What waiter does that? A lurking waiter will get nabbed in the tip, I would think, but I won’t go on to spoil the twist in the story with this waiter, only say that the twist left me even more puzzled. One hopes the author will make this seemingly pointless interlude become meaningful in the next book in this series (Secrets is the second book in what is called “A Truth Series Book”), because in this one it merely frustrates.

Secrets can be a valuable book for young girls, more 9 than 12, quickly read, quickly absorbed, sending its message of positivity. In a rough and tumble world, where it is not easy at all to be young, this “diary” can offer comfort and reassurance that change is normal, that discomfort can quickly enough turn into comfort, and that family bonds are always valuable for growing up with good grounding.

Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, internationally known Positive Psychologist, is the creator of The Enchanted Self, a systematic way of helping to bring more joy, meaning and purpose into our lives. Dr. Holstein has been a school psychologist for more than twenty five years. She has taught elementary school children and was an assistant professor of education at Boston University. She has been in private practice as a psychologist with her husband, Dr. Russell M. Holstein, in Long Branch, New Jersey, for over twenty five years.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet