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

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Random House, 2009
• Price: $17.00
• ISBN-10: 0812980352
• ISBN-13: 978-0812980356

As I began to read Lisa See’s meticulously researched novel based on 19th-century life in China, I was instantly transported to my girlhood days of reading Pearl S. Buck’s wonderful books about China (The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; Peony; Pavilion of Women; A House Divided; and many others). I have always been very interested to learn about other cultures, especially those very different from mine, and Buck had early on introduced me to life in China, as seen through the eyes of women. Now, Lisa See reopened my eyes and brought me back to that adventure and all of its exotic intrigue.

Lily is the voice of the narrator, an 80-year-old Chinese woman recalling her life as a girl, then as a woman, in a culture that subjugated women and considered the female gender in general almost entirely worthless. The author shows us, helps us to feel and understand, what it meant to be a female in this particular time and place.

Lily is a child as the first scene opens, a little girl who is contemplating the cruel practice of foot binding that she is about to endure. This tradition, supposedly started by a Chinese empress who had a club foot and wanted other women to match her deformity (other variations on this tale include a Chinese ruler who thought the tiny feet of a dancer were so erotic that he wanted all Chinese women to have such feet, later called “lily feet”), was perpetrated for centuries, elevated to the erotic by Chinese men (one wonders why the male idea of eroticism so often seems to involve some form of forced control over women), and raised to the level of being a external sign of belonging to the upper class, of having grace and education. Indeed, lower classes were spared this horrendous practice.

Foot binding, as the author describes it, would begin as early as at the age of 3. Because it was the only way to have a marriageable daughter, mothers were often those who bound the feet of their daughters. The process began when the bones of the foot were still malleable, and the foot would be bound in ever tightening strips of cloth, and the little girls forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, on their bound feet throughout the day. Beneath that binding, toes were folded under the foot, so that walking would, usually over a period of a few days, effectively break the bones of the toes and curl them permanently under the foot. As the girl grew, the foot would become nearly folded in half, a deep cleft forming in its middle section. Since toenails continued to grow, often directly into the flesh of the foot, infection would result, sometimes leading to the girl’s death. Adult women with bound feet would hobble on these tiny stubs that were the size of a small child’s feet, but a few inches in length. The pain these girls and women had to endure from their crippled feet lasted a lifetime.

“Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace,” writes See of the thinking of that time.

It is interesting to contemplate how women today suffer pain for beauty in comparison to these 19th-century Chinese women. If we read these historic accounts aghast at what women were subjected to and even themselves encouraged one upon another, accepting these deformities as “beautiful,” one wonders at the contemporary woman on stilettos, which any podiatrist will attest cause foot, leg and spinal injury over time, or the cosmetic and plastic surgery, liposuction, Botox injections, and a long list of modern-day torments, on into eating disorders, to which women today subject themselves, all in the name of “beauty.”When looked at that way, we can hardly read about these girls and women with a sense of superiority—we’ve come a long way, baby? Or perhaps not so very long at all. If there is a lesson for women throughout history, we may yet have to learn it.

The narrator Lily writes about the companionship between women, about the special relationship she has with another Chinese girl, Snow Flower, who is her “laotung,” or “old same,” an allusion to two kindred spirits. In a male dominated world, women live segregated from others, much of their lives lived out in women’s chambers, out of the sight of men and rarely seeing daylight—until the men need them to do their household chores or perform (and that would be the correct word here) their wifely duties. The women show a different face among themselves, but another face entirely to their men. To their men, they are ever flattering and complimentary, ever serving their needs and fluffing their egos, soft and gentle and kind and sweet. In their intimate moments with their husbands, which are usually not intimate at all (Lily refers to this as “bed business”), women will do anything to make their men feel special and to keep them loyal, even as they withdraw later to their own chambers to trade horror stories. Girls are trained from birth to treat men with this external face of honor, while they are never allowed to forget that they themselves are completely without value outside of what they bring to a man’s world.

“My education in the upstairs women’s chamber began in earnest, but I already knew a lot. I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei—the inner realm of the home—and wai—the outer realm of men—lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. I also understood that two Confucian ideals ruled our lives…’When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son’… the Four Virtues, which delineate women’s behavior, speech, carriage, and occupation: ‘Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.’ If girls do not stray from these principles, they will grow into virtuous women.” (Page 24)

Set against this background, these women develop “nu shu,” a form of writing that is understood only by women. It is a secret code, and Lily and her laotung Snow Flower write messages to each other on a beautiful fan that they send back and forth to each other throughout their lifetimes. The author has researched here an actual secret code used a thousand years ago by Chinese women to communicate with one another. The messages were often poetic, artistically embroidered. Nu shu was often the only truth communicated in a women's world that otherwise was lived only behind masks.

As we watch the relationships of these women unfold—the mothers and daughters, the aunts and grandmothers, the female matchmakers, the sisters and laotung, it is clear that most of these women know real love only in their circles of women, while outside of these circles all is harshly enforced tradition and rule. As Lily grows into a young woman and marries, her mother-in-law advises her to “obey, obey, obey, and then do what you want.” The nu shu secret writing is one means of that quiet independent spirit that keeps these women alive in such a cruel world. Their bonds give them strength, companionship, courage to endure, shared wisdom. In one scene between Lily and Snow Flower as young girls first becoming aware of their own physical beauty, we see the only real eroticism among the many “bed business” scenes in the novel. Together, they discover their bodies and their sensuality, even though it is clear they are heterosexual women … the point taken is that this was the only way some of these women ever knew a truly intimate touch, one given out of mutual love. Most never knew a loving touch at all.

The novel traces the lives of Lily and Snow Flower as the two intersect, grow close, and then again grow apart. False pretenses come to light, “white lies” prove to have very dark consequences, real identities are revealed, and the differences between the upper and lower classes develop chasms between even the closest friends. The author examines the repercussions of violence between intimate partners, but also the occasional budding of true feeling between a woman and a man—yes, against all odds, that occasionally happens.

When all cultural differences and historical details are brushed aside, it can be sobering to realize how many of these human interactions and behaviors thrive even today. Women are still objectified, still suffer for beauty, and still wear masks to gain popularity with the opposite gender. Abusive behavior transcends generations, and painfully often—it is women themselves who break the spirit of the next generation. Domestic violence is at epidemic levels, as current statistics show that the least safe place for a woman to be today—is in her own home. Along with all that dark reality, however, other things still hold true, too—the unique communion of women, the power of redemption, the remarkable endurance of the human spirit, and the human need for intimacy no matter how many masks we wear to get through the day.

Lisa See has written a fascinating historical novel that shines a light on modern society even as she writes about ancient history. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is but one of many novels the author has written about the Chinese culture. The book is thought provoking, entertaining, moving, worthy of deeper discussion, expertly written and thoroughly researched, and, like any good book, entices the reader to want to learn more.

~for The Smoking Poet, Summer 2010 Issue

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Anything by Geneen Roth

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover, 224 pages
Simon and Schuster
Price: $24.00
ISBN13: 9781416543077

The United States has become the poster nation for overweight people, and, quite possibly going hand in hand, we have also increasingly become a nation of obsessions and addictions. The reasons, I suspect, are varied and many, arguably from living in a society that has lost sense of its values, to living in a society bombarded with convenience everything, including poor quality foods with a long list of chemical additives and preservatives, many of which studies have shown can lead to increased appetite, to possibly so many pollutants in our air and earth and water that our bodies are becoming chemically out-of-whack in efficiency of using food, to a simple lack of physical activity or even sleep deprivation.

Geneen Roth lists an impressive publishing history on her book jacket, but no credentials in the fields of science or psychology. Indeed, this is the one notable lacking in this popular book, and one which is a major one. As much as I enjoyed reading this Oprah-blessed book, I kept wishing for something more solid, cited cases and studies, observed and noted results, tie-ins to scientific expertise, but found none.

There, we’ll get that out of the way—my one gripe. The author is otherwise an accomplished one, with eight prior books on similar topics, on which she has based many workshops and retreats. She has written for The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, and O, The Oprah Magazine. And she has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The View, NPR, and other much-watched shows. Roth knows how to market herself, and that's not a bad thing. Certainly the idea of this and her other books are very marketable. One might say, we are hungry for solutions to our national weight crisis.

Clearly there is an emotional factor (among other factors) to overeating among American women. Most anyone has experienced eating out of stress, nervous tension, anxiety, depression, or some other emotional upheaval. This is the area into which Roth delves, exploring how our eating habits correlate with our emotions. Of the connection to God (note the title of the book) or “everything,” I am not sure, but Roth makes the general point that how we eat is how we do everything. If we respect our bodies, perhaps therein lies our connection to God—disrespect for our bodies, or the objectification of women in general, as Roth points out, translates into disrespect toward God and the divine temple (our physical bodies) He created for us to inhabit. If we are unhappy or out of balance emotionally, she says, our bodies show it.

Roth’s book opens on a scene of one of her workshops, where women gather to understand how their emotional selves connect to their physical selves, food being the connecting thread between the two. Food, Roth writes, can become our tool of obsession, our means of self-denial, our manner of evading the emotions we cannot bear to face. Food is a way to deaden the pain.

“I’ve been abandoned and betrayed by who and what really matters and what I’ve got left is food.” (Page 6)

It’s an interesting theory. Food as drug, as crutch, as mask, as buffer against emotional pain. For women, food is often a means of coping with relationships gone bad. Reading the book, I recalled a wise woman in my own life telling me that I was “carrying the weight of my emotions” during a time when I was deeply unhappy in a dysfunctional relationship. For the first time in my life, I was struggling with weight, and I knew the truth in her words—I was using food to fill the void inside, to deaden pain, to build a buffer between myself and my partner, a man who had turned out to be a serial cheater with an addiction to pornography. I found myself in an emotionally battering nightmare. The hit to my self-respect, especially on such a physical and intimate level, was overwhelming. The more betrayed and rejected I felt, the more my appetite increased. While I had been the same weight for my entire adulthood since high school, for the first time, I saw the scale climb. I was indeed carrying the weight of my battered emotions. I was a walking, eating illustration of Roth's theory. It wasn't until after I left that sad scenario that I began to tip back into balance, with contentment returning also a normal appetite, even as my appetite for a good life returned.

It could be that women are especially prone to this. Roth, unless I missed it, does not explain why her book addresses only women, but the genders do seem to develop different types of bad habits when it comes to attempts to escape our emotions. Since American men are also often obese, however, one wishes Roth might have addressed this further. When Roth tells her readers to face the pain rather than eat through it, she cheerily writes that there are worse things than facing a broken heart. Hmm, I had to think about that. Is there? Hearts break over betrayal, abandonment, death or loss of a loved one (spouse, mate, child), loss of a cherished dream, or any number of reasons. I would say there really is nothing worse, but hey, that's me. Whatever Roth considers worse, I would be curious to hear it, but her point is taken. We must at some point enter the pain, the rage, the storm of emotion, if we are ever to get through to the other side to a healthier self.

Compartmentalizing pain, Roth says, leads to obsession—in this case, an obsession with food. We may think we are dealing with our emotions when we reach for the bag of chips or bar of chocolate, but we are not. One way or another, our emotions will be heard. Compartmentalization may work in the short run as a survival mechanism, but in the long run it inevitably backfires; it simply pushes our denied emotions into other unhealthy behaviors. “Obsessions are ways we leave before we are left because we believe that the pain of staying would kill us.” (Page 42)

Roth addresses the women in her workshops, and her readers, by encouraging them to look more closely at whatever it is they are not facing. Hunger comes in different forms. Hunger for acceptance, hunger for love, all too often become confused with hunger for food. Through various steps, she helps women separate different kinds of hunger. Most of us, she rightly states, don't even recognize physical hunger. She also encourages women to stop fighting their hunger for food. This may initially sound controversial—to be told in a diet-crazed society that we should never diet again. But if diets worked, we would be the thinnest nation in the world rather than the most overweight.

Roth invites us to eat. Eat when we are hungry. Not when we are hungry for love, or acceptance, or whatever else … but to eat when our bodies are truly in need of physical sustenance. Then, eat to our fill. No more, no less. Once that taboo is removed, she argues, our obsession ends. Desire is often fed by the elicit, by the wish to do what we are not supposed to do, the forbidden apple becoming too much of a temptation … and so, Roth invites us to take a bite. She teaches us, in fact, to bite with utmost respect. Bite the apple, and yes, the cookie, too. Move aside all distraction, set aside the time, create a kind of divine moment of eating. Food is good. Food is not the enemy. Once we stop treating it like one, we may well find that our bodies, our appetites, begin to regulate themselves.

Feel the feeling, Roth says. Deal with the emotions. Compartmentalized pain will not go away until we fully open that door. If initially we may tear through our pantry, our no longer forbidden fruit will eventually become less enticing once it is readily available. We may, in fact, find ourselves reaching for the apple rather than the cookie.

In a society in which women are so often judged by our bodies, valued or not valued in direct correlation with our physical appearance, Roth writes of the need for treating our physical, and so also our emotional, selves with reverence. Objectification, after all, is just another word for hatred, and Roth speaks of the magazine photos of emaciated and anorexic women, the airbrushed images in all forms of media, women transformed by plastic surgery and treated as objects in pornography so that men come to expect an ever more unrealistic and unattainable perfection, and children, especially girls, being taught from an early age that appearance is everything.

“…our objectification of matter—including women’s bodies—is a partial cause of the apocalyptic disaster in which we now find ourselves. Rather than treating our bodies (and the body of the earth) with reverence, we trash them, try to bend them to our wills.” (Page 123)

Connect mind, body, spirit with reverence, open one to the other, deny none, and obsessions and addictions will lose their power.

Roth’s statement that food can be our doorway to the divine may be a bit of a stretch, but I do think she is on the right path with this. Including some closely monitored case studies (rather than anecdotal stories) with women dealing with emotional and/or spiritual pain in connection with their weight would have added much to this book. Adding expertise from persons in hard sciences would also have elevated it from an interesting and thought-provoking read to a powerful theory to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, it is worth considering and testing in one’s own life, with our emotional state being at least one part of our consideration of returning to a wholistically healthy state in body, mind and spirit.

If Roth’s guidelines are sometimes not realistic in our hurried and harried lives (e.g., never have a meal while simultaneously doing something else), the general idea is good common sense. Raising our awareness about the food we are stuffing into our faces is always a good idea. Slowing us down to consider that the hunger we are feeding, the void we are trying to fill, the pain we are avoiding, should be fed in healthier ways, is sound wisdom. Our national problem with food goes beyond these behaviors, but this is as excellent a beginning as any for a nation that is dealing with an epidemic of obesity.