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.