Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Imposter? How a Juvenile Criminal Succeeded in Business and Life by Kip Kreiling

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Transformation Help Press, 2009
Price: $17.77
ISBN-10: 0615320554
ISBN-13: 978-0615320557

When the author contacted me about doing a review of his book, I very nearly said no. I get several review requests per week, so I have been forced to get choosier about the review copies I accept. But I took a closer look at the book description and changed my mind. We don’t have nearly enough books that talk honestly about the shortcomings of our juvenile justice system. Perhaps Kip Kreiling had something new and important to add?

I was a little put off by the large print of the book when my copy arrived. It makes the book bulkier than it need be, and implies a readership it probably doesn’t have—the elderly? The very young?

I started to read, and large print was forgotten, as I fell into the story. This was a heck of a story. One with which, unfortunately, I was all too familiar from my own experiences, raising my son as a single mother. Those preteen and teen years can be so very difficult for boys and young men growing up without good, strong male role models, and having a father present doesn’t in and of itself fill that gap. It depends on the type of father. But I could relate to young Kip’s mother painfully well, the heartbreak of watching a son struggle to find his place in a world that makes a molehill of a youthful mistake quickly turn into a mountain of trouble. What should be a “teaching moment” or a wake-up call often gets turned into a downward spiral by a juvenile justice system that is often predatory and punitive rather than caring and rehabilitative.

With Kreiling’s misadventures with drug use; gangs or kids simply gone wild; with the idiocy of the current juvenile justice system—“They were turning me into a harder criminal than I already was.” (page 35)—and an educational system that has been broken for a long time; with a society in general that treats our youth as second or even last priority; a foster system that started as a good idea but is now more infamous for abuse cases than rescue stories; we are all in trouble. This cannot go on.

I read with excitement, because Kreiling was telling a story that needs to be told. I’m glad to see he is an enthused marketer as well, doing everything he can to promote his book. Good. I have visions of this book being passed around juvenile delinquent homes and youth prisons, even adult prisons, with its basic message of hope: everyone can change. Indeed, perhaps that is the thought behind the large print, because those who languish in prison more often than not come from backgrounds of poverty and little to no education, so whatever can be done to make this easier to read is a good idea.

A better idea: another round of editing that goes deep with cuts and brings the writing, which is not bad but not yet up to par, to the level this memoir deserves. Personally, my suggestion would be to lose the eight principles of change and to simply write his story, tell it like it was and how it is now. Write the memoir, skip the rest. Let the story tell its own lessons, rather than inserting an artificial listing of principles, or morals, at the finish of most chapters. After all, none of the lessons are particularly memorable, and certainly nothing we haven’t heard before. Principles of change such as (paraphrased)—change your environment and you will change yourself; don’t plan for failure; choose your friends carefully because you will mimic their behavior; get disciplined in pursuing your dreams, and so on, appear in countless variations in a thousand self-help books and many are already a part of the commonly known 12-step programs that, frankly, do it better.

When Kreiling wrote about his own life, I was mesmerized. This was honest, raw, ugly, real. This was good and inspirational storytelling, with plenty of conflict and obstacles to be overcome, a hero that kept falling but still had something of integrity buried deep in him right from the start, keeping the reader interested and rooting for him to survive. One only had to look closely enough, and through caring eyes, to see the potential and root for it to rise.

While some of Kreiling’s intellectual explorations are mildly interesting, they, too, tended to distract from the meat of a great story. I had to think of one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read: Monster : The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur, who today works to end gang violence. Had Kreiling stuck to his memoir, his good message would surely have more power and less of a didactic tone. Instead, Kreiling veers into side stories about Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin and Ayn Rand and young Gisela, a brainwashed Communist who sees the light by spending time with a tour group of boys (including Kreiling) from the free West. These tour group boys understand that they will not change Gisela by preaching to her. They instinctively understand that she will learn in a more meaningful way simply my observing what freedom looks like in her peers from the free world. Kreiling would do well to apply the same wisdom to his book.

Mind you, those side stories are interesting, and I could relate. I, too, traveled behind the Iron Curtain as a young woman. I, too, was drawn to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and I even went through some of the same internal debates as Kreiling, wondering how and if Rand’s objectivism could fit with Christianity. I suspect if I ever met Kreiling, we’d have a heck of a lot to talk about and a great deal of experiences on which to compare notes. Yet crowding all these tangents into one book is just that, overcrowding, and dilutes from the purity of his message.

This message is too important to miss. Kreiling has all the requirements to be the one to tell it. He has been to those darkest of places. He has hit despair, seen the insides of prisons, and he has known what it means to sink into and to beat an addiction and to relapse and have to beat it again. He knows what it means to betray and be betrayed. And there is no more powerful storyteller than he who knows and tells it from the heart.

Kreiling has lots of heart. Or call it conscience. It is his heart and his conscience—and a keen intelligence that makes itself known even when still uneducated—that save him and save this book. Kreiling has led a remarkable life. Today a successful businessman, husband and father, he has proven that change is possible. He has shown that any addiction can be overcome. These are the makings of a great story. Cleaning away the frill and the fuss, this great story could really touch many hungry hearts and minds, those like his, despairing to keep hope alive.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue

"A product of our broken urban society, Kip Kreiling was arrested 3 times before he was 10 years old and 11 times before he was 14. When Kip was only 13 year old, he was taken out of 2 schools, a shopping mall, and a bank in handcuffs. Because of his criminal activity as a youth, and the resulting chaos he brought into his life, Kip moved 34 times from the young age of 11 to the age of 26. On average, he moved every 5 months for 15 years, in and out of jails, group homes, and street shelters, while his mother and father moved less than 4 times each. Today, Kip is a Fortune 15 executive who has had the opportunity to work with several of the world's most respected companies including Ford Motor, Hewlett Packard, Vodafone, and the UnitedHealth Group. As of 2009, Kip has provided transformation and business leadership services for over 40 companies in more than 20 industries. Between his corporate, consulting, educational, and speaking engagements, Kip has had the opportunity to travel to nearly 200 cities in 21 countries on 4 continents. Kip earned his Bachelor of Science degree at Brigham Young University and his MBA at Indiana University. Kip Kreiling is also the founder of the nonprofit foundation The foundation is focused on improving the human condition through personal and organizational transformation, with a focus on teaching transformation classes in prisons. Most important to him, Kip has been happily married for almost 20 years and has five healthy children. For fun, Kip enjoys multiple activities in the mountains including boating, water and snow skiing, camping, and hiking."

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story by Monica Holloway

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 Hardcover: 288 pages
 Publisher: Simon Spotlight Entertainment (October 6, 2009)
 Price: $24.00
 ISBN-10: 1416595031
 ISBN-13: 978-1416595038

To set the parameters of my review: I know next to nothing about autism. My knowledge of this disorder is limited to the anecdotal, the various news items and studies that pass across our daily consciousness, this and that about autism being over diagnosed, that it may be caused by something in our food, or by various childhood vaccinations, and other such. I won’t claim to hold strong opinions on any of this, as it has not been an area of research or particular interest to me. I have a couple of casual acquaintances with autistic children, both highly functional, and that’s it—that’s all I’ve got.

For this very reason—because I know so little about this diagnosis which children today alarmingly often seem to have attached to them—I took on reading Monica Holloway’s Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story with particular interest. I wondered if autism might be something like ADHD, another diagnosis that seems difficult to make. Indeed, my own son was diagnosed with it at one point in his childhood and early teen years, only to have the next doctor cry “balderdash!” and the next one reverse that and the next one reverse that again. I eventually agreed with the balderdash opinion. He does not, never did, have ADHD. Nor did he have any other number of diagnoses that various doctors with an alphabet soup of credentials behind their names make. He was a teenager growing up without a father in a single-parent home, and so he acted out his anger and confusion and fear of abandonment. He grew up, gained maturity and understanding, and stopped acting out. End of story. So is this epidemic of autism anything like that? I don’t know, don’t claim to know, but my curiosity was piqued.

I was quickly drawn into Monica’s story about her young son, Wills.

“Wills Price is exceptional.

“If you happen to meet him walking down our street, you’d see a lanky boy in red baggy sweatpants. His thick black eyelashes frame enormous, cornflower blue eyes and he has freckles that march across the top of his tiny turned-up nose. When he lets loose with a belly laugh, his dimples deepen and he throws his head back while twisting the front of his shirt. He prefers wearing stripes—T-shirts, and turtlenecks mostly. He’s very particular about this. There have to be stripes.”

As a mother, I was already smiling. My son is a big man now, with great heart and great shoulders, carrying his own world upon them, but how well I remember that sweet little face then, those moments of shining brightness, the up-turned nose and freckles, the childish chortle that would remind me, in my adult world, how to laugh.

So Monica Holloway quickly became my friend. My distant alter ego, struggling with parenting and its myriad challenges. The particulars didn’t matter. What mattered to me as a reader was that I recognized a mother who loves her child with every fiber of her being, and would do anything but anything for him, even the toughest task of all—step back and let him occasionally take a fall on his own. I won’t say that all her parenting skills were perfect. Who am I to know? There is no manual, only heart required, lots of it and always open. Holloway has that. And in her self-effacing style of telling the story of Wills and his golden retriever pup, Cowboy, she was touchingly willing to put her own shortcomings out there for public scrutiny. Her writing style reminded me a little of the popular author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), juxtaposing serious medical concerns (in Gilbert’s case, the seriousness of the pain of a marital breakup) with delicious moments of humor. After all, sometimes life hurts so much all you can do is laugh and get on with it.

Using animals as therapy may not have initially been Holloway’s intent, but as most mothers do, she operates by instinct. When Wills has a particularly bad day—sobbing when his classroom of peers are too loud, too fast, too bustling with a confusion of activity, for instance—Holloway makes a detour to the pet store. She brings home guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, rabbits, hermit crabs, turtles, in short, a menagerie of critters to soothe and amuse her son. And it works. Any pet owner will tell you, and the medical profession, too, that our pets can relax rattled nerves, lower blood pressure, and alleviate a sense of isolation. It is not unusual to hear about animals opening up humans to functionality when other humans fail to do so. Buying the boy a puppy seems a natural progression on the animal chain of pets.

While I may question Holloway’s decision to be very close-mouthed with others about her son’s autistic spectrum disorder, and by doing so isolating herself and her family from social support and no doubt other avenues of help and advice, I will not judge her for it. I have not raised her son; she has not raised mine. Every individual is different, and if I have learned to trust anything, it is a mother’s loving instinct on raising her child. I trust that instinct even over medical professionals. I have had reason to do so. Perhaps she does, too. Wills, after all, is highly functioning, and really quite bright. The words that come out of this babe’s mouth gave me quite a few occasions for my own belly laugh in reading about his young life. There is no quibble with the boy’s high level of intelligence and wit!

So there is Cowboy, the other great personality in this story, the furry charmer. Cowboy is actually a girl dog, and she arrives with a medical issue of her own—canine lupus. Another thing I did not know: dogs, too, can get lupus. When Holloway first brought the puppy home from a pet store, even as she knew that buying dogs from pet stores isn’t always a good idea (puppy mill sources), she did not know about the lupus, only that the pup seemed infected with something. Cowboy did live about two and a half years, and charmed years they were. The Holloway family falls in love with her and she with them, but no one more so than Wills. The photographs alone in the book are enough to make one’s heart toasty warm: the boy and the dog curled up together in deep sleep, romping in play, snuggling. Where humans have fallen short in easing the boy’s discomfort in adjusting to the world around him, the dog nudges him beyond his comfort zone and inspires him to go beyond his earlier limits.

The Holloways spend a great deal of time and money on their son, and it is a blessing that they apparently are able to do so—maxing out credit cards, dipping into and emptying accounts, while taking Wills to a laundry list of specialists and therapists, even hiring someone to “shadow” him in school while he adjusts, a school they actually hired a headhunter to locate after Wills was rejected at a dozen others because of his disability. Not all parents have such means, but lucky are those who have them to use. We all do whatever we can for our children, and then some. Nothing can carry us through like the unconditional love of a good mother.

Love carries us through even when we have to deal with a very painful loss: Cowboy eventually succumbs to his lupus. Still a young dog, she dies, and having gone through that, too—the loss of a much loved pet that stayed true when not all humans would or do—I understand the grief the entire Holloway family feels. Yet the wonders Cowboy was able to accomplish for Wills live on. He is much more social, much more comfortable in his daily routine, because of those two plus years with Cowboy as constant companion.

This is a tender love story—between mother and son, between boy and dog. It tugs at the heart in all the right ways and by all the right strings, with laughter and tears, surprise and delight, frustration and grief. Whatever the particulars of how any one family chooses to deal with their problems, one thing rings true. Everyone needs a safe place in life in order to thrive. A place where we know ourselves loved for who we are, and are always encouraged to be more.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Never Night: Poems by Derick Burleson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 64 pages

• Publisher: Marick Press (May 2, 2008)

• Price: $14.95

• ISBN-10: 0971267650

• ISBN-13: 978-0971267657

I’m not sure anymore, I can’t quite remember: have I read poetry before? Have I? This feels like a first love, after all, a discovery, a loss of guarded chastity, to wade deep into something as yet unseen and unknown and even now, somehow, unknowable. And yet I recognize this voice as almost my own, that is, not the words, but the voice that we all keep inside, deep inside, and allow others to hear perhaps only once in a lifetime. Derick Burleson stands like a dot on the satellite screen, nearly too tiny to see, but the satellite lens zooms in, and we see, we see, for the first time, we see what we have been trying to see all along.

Such strange juxtapositions, Burleson writes. His poetry is all contrast and light against shadow, miniscule against gargantuan, silence against thunderous noise. So much of the effect is like looking through an immense telescope, from either end—at one moment spotting that tiny dot of a man, standing on a cliff, and then moving to the other end of the telescope, to gaze out into the infinite, the eternal, the ever and ever. It is almost dizzying, yet we recognize it as the gaze of an open-eyed man. Burleson sees what we all see, or are willingly blind to, or cannot bear to see: that we are here for only a moment, that we are meaningless in the very same instant that we are nearly godlike with meaning.

Remembering the wild beauty of Alaska when I was too long ago there, I wonder if it is this kind of wild beauty that can produce such a poet, such poetry. Even the title poem, “Never Night,” captures what can’t be held:

You’d like it here where
it’s never night, where the sun
circles, rather, until it ends
up where it started from,
east or west, rises, sinks
but doesn’t ever set,
where in the summer
you never need to sleep
and all day and all night
the sky is a series of blues
you’ve seen only once before,
blues van Gogh painted
at the end.

Burleson’s poems dig into loam and earth, beginning as a child just learning to separate from his mother, on all fours in the garden, even as he sinks into earth and joins his other mother—Mother Earth. He notes nature—“sand glittering alive with flecks of mica” and “the sun wanted to eat us all with joy”—but he also observes the daily grit of construction crews and Main Street as it floats away in a surreal flood, his father still seated at the floating kitchen table and watching the weather on the television set. He notes that “glass is a slow liquid” and how our own nature calls us to often break things down in order to see them built up again, or at least to see what’s inside, to understand a core value, even if it means destruction, or death, in the process. How precarious is life, yes, but how intense is our ability to love and live and survive and go on yet again.

In the poem “Late Valentines,” Burleson writes of such a profound and yet everyday love (and I dare anyone to find a woman who would not lay down all to receive such a Valentine):

If this were the last rhyme I ever write,
what should my hands choose to fabricate?
They’d spin straw into gold to bribe the fates,
stitch a bright charm against the sprain of night,

and weave one last tapestry of our tears,
so we can ache another ten thousand years.

And more:

…heaven is whatever we dream
when we sleep in the house, which has and will
continue to settle into what we become.

With uncanny ability, Burleson orders everyday words that in that particular order become an intoxicant. To pick it apart, we find only letter, alphabet, a grocery list, a car, a television set, a tree, a house, a blue window seen from space, a life, a death, yet when put just so, it becomes:

And when our talk fades, when music

is only music again, we will slowly dim,
just our eyes and the teeth of our shy smiles
still showing. We’ll go back

to our own places and finally sleep,
smug with the fierce pleasure
of knowing that soul is the particular

song we learn to sing, that our lovers
will always be gardens beside us,
blooming the colors we dream best,

graceful as the glittering waves,
bursting on a moonlit beach
beyond the foot of our beds.

Yes, I’m sure I have read poetry before this, and even written it, but after a time spent reading the poetry of Never Night, and I’m not sure if that was a morning or a week or half my lifetime, or read in a dream half-waking, I somehow think I have never quite read poetry, not like this, so simple and complex and true, so tiny and so big, and I want to go out into the street, or topple off my particular cliff, and stop the first person walking by to press this slender, pretty book into their hands. Or yours. Read this. This, see, is poetry.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue

Sleeping With Cats: A Memoir by Marge Piercy

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 368 pages

· Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2002

· Price: $14.95

· ISBN-10: 0060936045

· ISBN-13: 978-0060936044

An honest writer will admit that everything that he or she writes, down to a grocery list, is in some form autobiography, revealing the author's sense of life, core values, interests. The art of literary expression, like any art, is a self-portrait, and the higher the level of quality, the truer we have been to ourselves. When a book reads flat or false, suspect a lie.

When Marge Piercy writes—and she writes like nobody’s business, having to date published 17 novels and 17 collections of poetry—she comes to life on the page. Piercy is the perfect illustration of a writer’s words shaping the self-portrait, because it makes no difference what genre or style she chooses, she rings true. Poetry or prose, fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, no doubt even that grocery list, show facets of the author. Reading this memoir, Sleeping with Cats, confirms that accuracy, adding layers of understanding to her creative work, for here we see her characters at their birthing place, in the lifelines of Piercy herself.

Piercy was born in the mid 1930s in Detroit, Michigan. Her ethnic background is Jewish and Lithuanian, but it is the former that roots most deeply in her. Her father was a hard-hearted man, an often abusive husband and father, never letting her forget he would have much preferred a son. Their relationship moved between cool and cold, their most successful conversations “about the Tigers and the weather.” In his entire lifetime, Piercy's father never read any of his daughter's books.

Her mother was a submissive woman who made a career of repressing dreams while trying, as emotionally battered women do, to please the husband that would not be pleased. Yet she knew her feminine powers and used them like weapons or tools of survival, while they were not enough to save her own dwindling spirit (and perhaps contributed to its brokenness). She seemed to resent the unbreakable spirit in her daughter, who observed as a girl her mother around other men:

“Half the men we dealt with were convinced she was crazy about them, but she mostly felt contempt. They were marks. She had a job to do and she did it. She was obsessed with my father, not with any of these men about whom she had a rich vocabulary of Yiddish insults which she muttered to me after each encounter.”

It was a tough childhood of gangs and early sex, with boys as well as other girls, of a pregnancy at age 17 that Piercy had to abort herself, nearly bleeding to death in the process. She never would have children, never wanted them. She learned about life through the hardest knocks, losing a young girlfriend turned prostitute to a heroin overdose (“I understood why she had let her pimp get her hooked: it numbed her.”), and having her fingers broken by her angry father, and always knowing herself different, an outsider—yet somehow never really doubting her own worth. She made being different work for her. These were the makings of a young woman who would become one of America’s strongest feminist voices.

Piercy is educated at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She wins scholarships. She earns top grades. She is self-sufficient in all things. Piercy is smart and she knows it, and she uses her mind with equal prowess to using her sexuality, enjoying both, lavishing easily in the pleasures each provide. Swearing to never marry (“Marriage… seemed to me a kind of death for a woman, in which she lost not only her will and her power but even her name. I was determined never to marry…”), she marries early, and marries three times. Piercy makes no saint of herself here, nor does she demonize her husbands or lovers. They come to one another with faults, give love best they know how, leave with a few scars left behind but also gifts and valuable lessons.

Piercy’s second marriage is open, like it or not, at her husband’s insistence. She comes to accept her husband’s affairs, focusing on her own interests and literary pursuits. Eventually, she takes a lover of her own. It is the 60s, a time of hippies and communal living and making love not war, and Piercy embraces this period of exploration. It works for her. Never becoming a mother, she becomes instead something of a communal mother, the woman at the center of the group, cooking and caring and cleaning for all, maintaining a kind of sanity and order to things. There is something about Piercy that is both rule breaker and order maker, the center of the storm and the anchor in chaos. Her husband’s affairs work only when the other women show her due respect and, preferably, friendship—often a closer one with Piercy than with her husband, the shared lover.

Writing and cats are the thread that binds a life that moves from Detroit to Chicago to New York to San Francisco to Paris to Cape Cod, with a few detours between. Piercy is determined to succeed at her art, and she maintains a disciplined pace at creating novels and other works even when nothing sells, or when it does and gets no notice. Piercy has a steely will and the persistence to carry it through. Her marriages succeed, it seems, when they give her the solid ground on which to set up her writing desk. Her second husband gives her five years to succeed, and she sets to work with determination. If it takes her longer than that, no matter, she shrugs off rejection and keeps writing.

Piercy meets her third husband while married to her second, and while one relationship unravels, the third takes on strength. Ira Wood is also a writer, and the two in some ways seem very different, including their 14 year difference (he is the younger), but are soul mates in the ways that matter. Of her relationship choices, Piercy writes: “I do not love primarily with my eyes. I have had lovers who were gorgeous and lovers who were plain, who were skinny and neurasthenic, who were bulky and overweight. I have cared far more for how each of them treated me than for my eyes’ pleasure.” Piercy speaks for most women in this, with women choosing partners who bring substance to a relationship as of primary importance, and she finds this in her third marriage, a partner with whom she can talk and talk and talk endlessly, argue and debate and discuss, and enjoy a companionship rich in all aspects of intimacy.

Memory is faulty and relative, Piercy writes in her memoir, but hers always rings sound with a story that does not show its heroine in always the kindest light. What gives her voice such strength, after all, is that she is honest in her portrayal of self, and so, of all her characters, admitting to faults and mistakes, not shying away from moments of truth. We see the outsider, we see the survivor, we see the woman who will never be ashamed or apologetic of her appetite for life.

At the conclusion of each chapter is one of Piercy’s poems, adding another layer of insight to her experience. Many times, these poetic interludes are our chance to look the deepest into Piercy’s psyche and heart. And if we ever doubt that this woman of determination and smarts and steely survival skills lacks a more conventional feminine softness, we can be assured it is there. We see it for those allowed into her closest circle—her cats. She loves fully her felines, her heart breaks at their loss, and she nurtures and nourishes and pampers like a true earth mother. Her observations of their personality quirks and antics and changing moods are often the most delightful sections of her writing. She loves and is loved unconditionally by her cats, and as living things do, here is where she comes most alive.

Concluding her memoir, for those who have already read some of Piercy’s works, and understanding her background gives a reader much greater understanding of the characters in her many, many books. We see the faces of Piercy, of her husbands and lovers, her parents, her friends, and yes, her cats. They appear in all her books, and so we see, this memoir is only one of her many memoirs, each one a stunningly honest and open look at what makes a woman a woman, how she expresses herself in freedom, how she loves and lets go and lives to love again—her men, her cats, her work, her homes, her world.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue, featuring an interview with Marge Piercy and a page devoted to her poetry.