Thursday, December 22, 2011

Prelude: A Novel about Secrets, Treachery and the Arrival of Peak Oil by Kurt Cobb

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Paperback: 272 pages
· Publisher: Public Interest Communications, 2010
· Price: $14.95
· ISBN-10: 0983108900
· ISBN-13: 978-0983108900
Before I’d even opened the cover of Prelude, the novel about peak oil by Kurt Cobb, I knew this was going to be a good read—and an unnerving one. After all, I had heard the author speak before; we live in the same Michigan city of Kalamazoo. I knew him to be a mesmerizing speaker about all things energy and global resources, something of our local Al Gore, and I also knew that every time I heard him speak, I went home feeling shaky about our planet’s future. Shaky, but also resigned to do my part to make things better.
I’ve also been a long time reader of Cobb’s intelligent and meticulously researched blog, Resource Insights. Every time I log on, I learn something new and find myself yet again rethinking how I use energy. Now, Cobb has put his research and insights into a novel, calling it fiction, yet this story of intrigue and espionage is based on what he has learned about how we use energy.
Prelude is a story about Cassie Young during 2008, employed at an important Washington D.C. energy consulting firm. Her firm is forever making announcements about how deep go our energy reserves, but then Cassie discovers a report hidden from public scrutiny. The report reveals a looming energy crisis based on manipulated figures by major world oil exporters, and the crisis is not at all at a comfortable distance. Peak oil is a reality to which society is turning a willfully blind eye. After all, we live in a world where oil is our lifeblood, and if we should run out of this limited resource, the world as we know it would come to a screeching halt.
The fast-paced story takes Cassie to Canada to take a closer look at tar sands, about which we are hearing today as another resource for oil. She meets Victor Chernov, a former oil trader, who reveals yet more damaging data to her. Forget about Cassie’s career … she is soon running for her life. This kind of information is too big for one person to carry.
Who will listen? What does this mean for civilization as we know it? Consider this excerpt:
“Suddenly for Cassie the whole world had now become one big manifestation of energy, much of it in the form of oil. Humans were not builders any more. They were just the guiding hands for the flow of petroleum that came from deep underground and then went deep into the life of society. Petroleum, she knew, was doing the lion’s share of work for the world.
“Cassie had understood all this intellectually before. She even knew the energy industry was the key industry in society. Nothing got done without energy. But she had never before understood it so concretely as she did today. She wondered if she could ever go back to looking at the fountain in Dupont Circle and not think of the energy needed to pump the water, or see a farm field and not think of the oil that goes into the tractors and the combines, or even enjoy simply reading a book without thinking about the energy used to cut the logs that were moved to the mill and made into pulp and then into paper that was then shipped to the printer and bound into books that were shipped to the bookstore.” (Pgs. 153-154)
I’ve passed Prelude along to others interested in doing something about ecology and especially those who aren’t, and recently sent it to my son as a gift … even as I considered the energy expended to do so. The novel is well written, packed with fascinating information, and concludes with a glossary and questions answered by the author for those who wish to learn more.
Kurt Cobb is an author and columnist who speaks and writes frequently on energy and the environment. His column appears on the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Le Monde Diplomatique, Common Dreams, EV World, and many other sites. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.
An author interview appears in the Winter 2011-2012 Issue of The Smoking Poet.

Cache of Corpses, A Steve Martinez Mystery by Henry Kisor

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Format: Kindle Edition
· File Size: 1054 KB
· Price: $2.99 (book format also available)
· Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
· Language: English
When I recently remarked to a writer-friend who writes a mystery series based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “But you’re the only one who writes about the U.P., right?,” he gave me a long, meaningful gaze. You know, the kind of gaze that makes you realize you’ve just said something really stoopid. So I did some online researching. Yeah. I did say something stoopid.
I got a list of U.P. authors, a very long list, I might add, and among them was Henry Kisor. My writer-friend had recommended Kisor, so I browsed through some electronic versions of his books, and chose this one, Cache of Corpses. It is one of a series about a detective named Steve Martinez, a Lakota Sioux by birth, now living in the very small town called Porcupine City, in the area near the Porcupine Mountains of the U.P.
The story opens like this:
“It’s in the Dying Room,” Jenny Benson said, voice strained, ample chest heaving. “And it has no head.”
Oh boy, I thought, coming in with a slam, and didn’t wait a moment to add that stereotypical detective mystery bit with a heaving ample chest. Suppressing an eye roll (hard to read that way), I settled in for the read to see where it would take me.
After a bit of a clumsy start, I became genuinely interested in the story. Not my genre, even as I am a fan of most all things U.P., and it didn’t have the delicious tang of humor I’d found in the Woods Cop series by Joe Heywood, but I appreciated the cast of northern wilderness characters and the mix of woods politics—detective Martinez is running for deputy sheriff at the time that a string of murders takes place, leaving a cache of headless, handless corpses wrapped in plastic and hidden as if on scavenger hunt for a group of weird, sociopathic geocaching game-players.
Kisor does a good job of painting his characters in bright and memorable colors. The detective himself is a likeable person, as is his three-year woman friend Ginny, a tough but warm-hearted woman living in a log cabin and keeping her wealth quiet—northern folk don’t necessarily respect monetary wealth.
Townspeople each enrich the portrait of the northern town and its history, as does the incumbent sheriff running against Martinez in the campaign. Perhaps Tommy, the young boy with a tragic childhood that Ginny wishes to adopt, comes off a bit flat and unbelievable, a little too perfect for a child emerging from a mess of alcoholic and now dead parents and a tangled foster system. But the mystery itself unfolds with increasing interest, winding through odd Internet chat rooms and big city brutes that think the tucked away northern wilderness is just the place to hide corpses. It’s a fun if stomach-churning tale, and I’d pick up another book by this author to see how he solves the next one.
Henry Kisor is a retired Chicago Sun Times book editor and an author of several fiction and nonfiction books, spending his winters in Chicago and his summers in Ontonagon County, where the Porcupine Mountains are located.

Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories by Vic Foerster

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Paperback: 288 pages
· Publisher: Arbutus Press, 2010
· Price: $19.95
· ISBN-10: 1933926228
· ISBN-13: 978-1933926223
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the U.P., is easily one of my favorite areas around, and within that, the Keweenaw Peninsula. On a clear day, standing on the Keweenaw and looking across the sparkling mirror of Lake Superior, one can just see the outline of Isle Royale on the horizon. Somehow, getting there has long evaded me, even as I have lived on and now often travel to the Keweenaw to rejuvenate my spirit. That must change, and soon—and so, in that effort to at last make that wilderness adventure happen, I decided to pick up a book about Isle Royale written by someone who really knows the island.
Vic Foerster, arborist by trade, is a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Lower Peninsula, but has been making annual trips to Isle Royale for nearly 40 years. So many wonderful and wild places to go, but there is no place as pristine, he says, as Isle Royale for the true wilderness experience. (I had the pleasure of interviewing Vic Foerster in December 2011 for a local radio station, and got to ask questions that go even beyond what he shares with readers in this collection of 18 stories.)
Naked in the Stream is reading pleasure. Foerster’s writing style is clean and clear, flowing as a river, and his stories educate and enchant, inspire and amuse. He is not afraid to look a tad foolish, as he writes about his initial lack of expertise in the wild, unable to sleep in his flimsy tent as two randy moose do a boisterous mating dance just outside. He often lets Ken, his frequent travel companion and fishing buddy, take the limelight and outshine him in ability to catch the bigger fish sooner, or withstand the obstacles and challenges of the trail.
There are some great fish stories in this collection, but also insights into the differences between camping in solitude, camping with a best buddy, or camping with one’s child. Since the stories cover such an extended time span, there are interesting differences to observe in the experience (such as few if any female campers to later become predominantly female campers), although these usually pertain to the traveler and, happily, not to the island itself, which has more or less remained the same—wild and beautiful.
My favorites among the stories were about the man who crosses the watery distance between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula (anyone who is at all acquainted with Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, will know this is a dangerous proposition) alone in a kayak, and the story of how Foerster’s enchantment with the Keweenaw began. This beginning is actually the very last story in the collection, and once read, it feels right just there.
Worthy of note is the cover artist and illustrator, Joyce Koskenmaki. The cover is being sold as a poster, and it is beautiful with its midnight blue, dotted with stars, empty boat on the mirror of the lake below. Her illustrations also lead into each of the stories.
Vic Foerster writes that Isle Royale is the least visited of all our national parks. Difficulty in reaching it seems to be the reason why, but a part of me cheers for that—one wants at least a few parts of the earth to remain as they are, untamed. His book lets others enjoy it vicariously, but for some of us, inspire an itinerary …

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile by Katie Alvord

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Paperback: 320 pages
· Publisher: New Society Publishers, 2000
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 0865714088
· ISBN-13: 978-0865714083
If you can find a copy, get this book. Published in 2000, copies are becoming limited, yet the book has never been more relevant than today (Note to publishers: second printing, please!). Approaching this book as someone who is very concerned about the mess we are making of our environment, yet blushingly guilty of making a horrid daily commute in my car from one city to another, I was fascinated with the story Katie Alvord related.
That Americans are deep in a love affair with the automobile is not news to me. Reading Alvord’s very readable and well researched background on how that auto affair began (we tend to think of cars as coming out of Detroit, yet they were actually invented and first driven in Europe), how it was consummated, how it is sustained and encouraged, and how it is leading us (quite purposefully by those who have something monetary to gain) into increasingly dire straits, held my attention to the very end.
Alvord, after all, doesn’t just appropriately horrify us with the damage done and being done. She also offers ways to extricate ourselves, divorce ourselves, if you will, from this toxic relationship. One after another, she takes apart every argument and point of resistance. A resident of Houghton, Michigan, in the state’s Upper Peninsula, she walks the talk and shares how that’s working out for her. It’s inspiring. Freedom really can be delightful …
In sections entitled “Love’s Been Blind: How We Ended Up Married to Cars,” “Grounds for Divorce: Why Our Automotive Marriage is on the Rocks,” and “How to Divorce Your Car: Let Me Count the Ways …,” Alvord discusses the proliferation of roads and suburbs, the role of marketing and advertising (ever notice how much of automobile marketing is about seduction and romance?), oil spills and other damage done to our environment, the real cost of cars (eye opening), the toll of car crashes and road rage, and finally moves into alternative lifestyles—walking, biking, public transportation, ride sharing, telecommunications, alternative fuels (not as grand as you might think), and breaking free of auto dominance.
If you think this might make for dry reading, I promise you it is anything but. If at first glance, I thought yikes, lot of graphs and charts! sidebars and lists! glossaries and notes! then at second glance, I was so fascinated by the story that I found myself carrying the book along as I walked, generally running into walls and forgetting to eat. Second glance took me through to the end, emerging with a newfound resolution to become “car lite” if not eventually free of those tires beneath me.
“If enough environmentally concerned North Americans responded to the finding that car driving is their most environmentally harmful activity and decided to divorce their cars, going either car-lite or car-free, we might move a long way toward ... a shift like this could make the world look quite different in 20 or 30 years. It could give us a world of compact, convivial communities, with distinct boundaries, surrounded by green space, connected more often by rail. It could contribute to a more relaxed pace of life, clean the air and water, and restore a blessed quietude that has otherwise all but disappeared behind engine noise. We would be healthier, walking and cycling down streets in the shade of trees planted where asphalt used to be. Children and the elderly would feel safer on the streets and have more independence without having to rely on others to drive them places. We’d have billions of dollars worth of infrastructure that could be reallocated to other uses … we would save money, and we would save lives.” (Pg. 241)

Freelance writer Katie Alvord is best known as the author of Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile. Her non-fiction work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, E Magazine, Orion Afield, The Progressive, Utne Reader, and more. She also writes fiction and poetry. A former librarian, she has worked with non-profit groups and served on local environmental and bicycle advisory committees. In 1993, she was recognized as a San Francisco Bay Area Clean Air Champion for "making a difference" by going car-free and writing about the experience. More recently, her series on climate change in the Lake Superior basin won the 2007 Science Journalism Award for Online Reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She has lectured frequently on environmental topics in the U.S. and Canada. Born and raised in northern California, she now lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
See my interview with Katie Alvord in the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Issue of The Smoking Poet.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How to Build Your Dream Cabin in the Woods by J. Wayne Fears

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
· Format: Kindle Edition
· File Size: 14576 KB
· Print Length: 240 pages
· Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010
· Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
· Price: $9.39
· ASIN: B0056GXI8E
So many of us have a dream cabin in the woods envisioned in our minds—I do, too. Most of us never do get to realize it, but it can still be fun to dream. Actually, as I write this, I seem to be nearing the realization of my dream, and so I picked up the Kindle version of How to Build Your Dream Cabin in the Woods to learn more.
There is much to learn. This is not the first such book I’ve read, but it would be a great choice as an introduction to learning about log cabins. J. Wayne Fears writes in a manner that is easy to follow and understood by anyone, not just someone practiced in construction. But then, the book isn’t really about the actual construction (a glossary does list log cabin builders and kits). It is more of an introduction to the dream, familiarizing the reader with all the considerations to be made going into such a project.
Not least among such considerations, the author notes, is thinking through if one truly appreciates a life of solitude and seclusion. Log cabins tend to be built in secluded areas of wilderness, and that does not mean a life of convenience transported from the suburbs. He suggests trying out such a lifestyle if even for a short vacation, to be sure that one is comfortable with it. There are trade-offs to be made, but the benefits can be tremendous. He recounts the story of a couple who longed for a log home in the woods, built one, moved in, only to find they couldn’t bear the disconnect from the life of convenience and social connection to which they were accustomed.
Fears also makes it clear that this book is not about log homes. It is about log cabins. Anyone who has started to even scratch at the surface of learning about log cabins knows that it is difficult to find anything about actual cabins, that is, 1,000 square feet and less. Paging through contemporary magazines about log homes, one finds log McMansions, not cabins.
If, however, one does want a cabin, and a true wilderness lifestyle, Fears goes over many important considerations. He writes about choosing a good site and how to go about buying it, what inspections to get first. He writes about different kinds of building materials, pros and cons, from logs to roofing materials. He writes about the benefits of wood stoves over fireplaces, and encourages not installing electricity at all, but gives advice if one does want to plug in from time to time.
And more: how to split wood, how to install good lighting and not cause cabin fires, how to create a shooting range that is safe. He also writes about how to have a good water system, but once again, staying with the wilderness experience, he leans toward the outhouse, explaining how to keep it relatively maintenance free and always clean with a few simple moves. Composting toilets got their coverage, too. The author even covers cabin cooking, more times than not done outdoors on a fire ring, and he includes plans for building the perfect bench by the fire. Not to be missed are rules for visitors and preventing vandalism when you are back in the city.
Photographs are beautiful and helpful, often showing cabins the author himself has built, and quite a few simple blueprints are included, mostly for cabins 400 to 800 square feet in size. Links are embedded in the text, especially convenient in a Kindle version, and I followed up on several of them, learning even more.
Smart, clearly written, sensible—this is a book to take the dream into reality. Enjoy.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Base Ten by Maryann Lesert

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 304 pages
• Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2009
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 1558615814
• ISBN-13: 978-1558615816

According to publishing industry research, women make up the majority of readers. I’m not going to argue the popularity of romance for female readers, as I have worked in libraries before and seen the bags of romance novels some women carry out of the library with weekly return trips for more. But there are a great many of us who, like me, wince and roll our eyes at the mere sight of that genre. We want something else, something more, something beyond, something deeper, something richer, and yes, something far more honest and real.

When author and playwright Maryann Lesert wrote her debut novel and sought a publisher, she was surprised and dismayed at the response. Publishers were not turning her away for lack of literary quality of her manuscript. Indeed, she received praise for her writing ability. They were turning her work away because, they claimed, women don’t want to read such stuff. After all, Lesert’s main character, Jillian Greer, is an astrophysicist. If there is a romance in this story—and there is—it is not the bodice-ripping lust of Harlequin, but rather the hunger for a relationship that allows both partners to achieve their dreams. This includes love, sure, and children, yes, but also achievement in one’s intellectual pursuits. For Jillian, that means hard science.

Jillian has been married for ten years to Jack. They have two bright and endearing children. Jack has a great career, and Jillian works, too, if at a held-back level that many women find themselves choosing in order to have time and energy left over to raise a family as well. Jack is not painted as a glaring chauvinist or some kind of bad guy. That’s too easy, and Lesert’s writing is far more subtle and nuanced than that. This is a man who is obviously attracted to his wife for all the right reasons of true intimacy, inside and out, the whole person. He is supportive, or at least, he tries to be. Yet Jillian finds that we live in a society that encourages one gender over the other in a myriad of ways that still end up, at the end of the day, requiring the sacrifice of self—and usually it is the woman making that sacrifice.

One of my favorite scenes in the book shows Jillian moving through her house at the beginning of the day, husband and children scooted off to work and school, and seeing for the umpteenth time open drawers with clothes spilling out in the bedrooms. If asked, husband and children will bring about order in their rooms. If asked, all will do their part. But here’s what gets Jillian’s goat: it is always, but always, on her shoulders to do the asking. Bottom line, it remains her responsibility to manage the household. And that makes her feel crazy. Silent, suppressed-scream crazy. Exactly the way that so, so many women have felt in so, so many households across the world for eons.

After ten years of marriage, at age 40, realizing that she is fast approaching the cut-off age to take part in a space program that has been her dream since completing her degree in astrophysics at Michigan Tech University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Jillian takes ten days to go off into the wild and contemplate in solitude her predicament. She camps in Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, pondering the stars in the sky that she loves so much, and how to bring balance into her life. She loves her family very much, and she struggles with guilt at leaving them even for this short period of time—but she feels like she is dying a slow death inside.

Gazing at the starry sky, Jillian notes:

“In the beginning, the fracturing of light looks like life: bold, brilliant, unhampered. In the end, colors smolder with sadness, retreat. But in truth, the progression from bold to brilliant to pale is more about fracturing and reuniting. Colors separated yearn for wholeness. Colors of light, gases in the atmosphere, shards of yourself, yearn for wholeness.” (Page 37)

Base Ten is a story about an intelligent and accomplished woman scientist struggling with her unresolved dreams, her human longing for love, companionship and family, alongside her equally human longing to fulfill the hunger of a bright mind to expand its reach and fulfill its potential. It is a complex and wonderfully honest story about a struggle women face in finding life balance every day. Is it really possible to have it all? Or does trying to have it all merely make us into exhausted jugglers, desperately trying not to drop something of great importance.

I’m grateful to the Feminist Press of CUNY for recognizing that there is indeed a market for a book about women and science, and that very many women readers can relate to the struggles of Jillian Greer, as written so honestly and beautifully by Maryann Lesert. Although Jillian’s choice of career is astrophysics, Lesert manages to make her research understandable to any reader, showing a woman’s unique approach to scientific thinking and discovery, and interspersing short chapters of very nearly poetic scientific explanation of astronomy.

We need more books like this—for women and for men.

Lesert earned a BA in Art and English from Western Michigan University and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. She has worked as a graphic designer; medical writer, editor, and video producer; educational technology coordinator; and creator of a playwriting program funded by the Michigan Council for the Arts. Currently, Lesert teaches writing at Grand Rapids Community College.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Grip, A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamberg

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Route One Press, 2011
• Price: $12.50
• ISBN-10: 0982754701
• ISBN-13: 978-0982754702

When I received an advanced reader copy of Grip for review, I anticipated a memoir about a woman’s survival of abuse. With so many women experiencing abusive relationships (one out of three is the last statistic I’ve heard, and I expect that is on the low side), we sorely need many more such stories of how girls and women cope and, hopefully, survive and thrive later in their lives.

Grip has such moments to set the background. There is the abuse from two very self-centered parents, the father being physically abusive by shoving and hitting, the mother being emotionally withdrawn (as many women are who have abusive partners), a brother who just seems cold. And, there is an attempted rape by a “peeping tom,” leaving the narrator scarred physically by the man’s knife, but emotionally by the violation of her privacy, her body, her trust. Law enforcement officers add to that abuse when they can’t be bothered to take such violence against women seriously. They shrug off the incident in a gratingly insulting manner. The would-be rapist is never caught. The setting is rich with potential to tell this story.

A very long string of abusive relationships follows in the narrator’s life. She chooses one partner after another that treats her badly, cheats on her, uses her and generally treats her with utmost disrespect.

I should be feeling pretty sympathetic by now, right? After all, I myself fall into the statistic of the one out of three, and I know what it means to undergo variations of at least some of the narrator’s experiences. I also understand that many of those who are abused become the next generation of abusers, as inexplicable as that seems on the surface. Women who are abused have a way of being drawn to abusive men, as if following a pattern until they have whatever is roiling inside them worked out, allowing them to break free at last.

The narrator does show many of these typical behaviors. She can be emotionally stunted at moments, at others tosses her heart out with such abandon and stunning trust that it is bound to end badly. Indeed, the book as a whole tends more toward being a story of her sexual conquests and misadventures, giving credence to the theory that those who suffer abuse lose so much self-esteem that they then allow themselves to be treated like crap by anyone who crosses their path, and nowhere more than in the bedroom.

Yet I felt no empathy. The narrator’s actions were often outrageous, but what left me cold was her seeming lack of introspection, making any connection to the events of her childhood to her present actions or drawing any conclusions from them in retrospect. I saw no growth. Her fantasies center on being utterly submissive, even repeatedly releasing her would-be rapist to keep on doing what he did to her. In college, she calls herself a feminist, yet seems oblivious to her requirement of the validation of a man at every turn.

All of which could be typical behavior for a survivor, yet the narrator never quite seems to make that vital connection. When she enrolls in a class for filmmaking, she is angered by the pornographic and demeaning films of her male peers, sanctioned and even encouraged by the male professor. Yet the film she produces is equally outrageous, with women pondering the violent deaths of men. Rather than embracing the power of a woman, she becomes one of those so-called feminists who merely emulate men and try to one-up them in their bad behavior. Never is that connection made that she is behaving no differently than the boys.

Her sexual escapades are no different. She claims to be a free and modern woman, enjoying meaningless romps with men she does not know—even as she wears romantic clothing, admittedly “plays the part of an actor” in bed, and wonders why she can’t seem to find her “soul mate.” Her response is to become submissive as soon as she does catch a partner, anything to please, to allow herself to be used, even her wallet to be depleted—to the point of bailing out a boyfriend from jail that had been arrested for attempting rape. She seems to realize her betrayal against her gender in doing so, calling it “massive,” yet bails him out and continues to support him anyway.

As I read, I kept waiting for the narrator to have her a-ha moment. She mistreats her dogs, ending in the neglect and sometimes painful deaths of her pets. She allows herself to get screwed in the back of a car in daylight on a residential street with a little boy watching in amazement. She gets a job as a counselor for at-risk youth, telling lies about her qualifications to get the job, and treats the job with absolute disregard for the vulnerability of such youth, at that moment when they might yet be rehabilitated before becoming career criminals. She hits one of the boys across the face, “open handed, hard,” and doesn’t seem at all to care about the tremendous responsibility she has been given. No wonder our juvenile system is falling apart …

No a-ha moment. No process of evolvement. The narrator just seems to be telling her story of being blatantly abusive herself without ever connecting the dots. There is almost a light tone of bragging when it comes to her conquests and betrayals—of herself, of her gender, of humanity.

When the story finally ends with a happy second marriage, I am all out of empathy. Let’s see …. she has mistreated animals, children, men, women, herself. If there was a reason for all of this, by the end of the memoir, it is very nearly lost. If one has abundant reason for behaving badly at first, at some point it is time to take responsibility, take a hard look in the mirror, and understand why one does what one does—and stop it. The risk otherwise is to become one’s own enemy, a mirror image. Without that lesson learned, the memoir hardly has purpose or message.

One other thing puzzled me as I read this memoir. Brand names of various products were often so blatantly inserted into scenes, without any relevance, that I wondered if I wasn’t reading one of those examples when an author takes payment to work advertisements into copy. I understand this is a new trend, as technology has allowed people to blip out ads on their phones and televisions, and so marketers are looking for new ways to publicize their brand. On page 18, the narrator as a young girl is brushing her teeth with Crest. On page 37, she drinks Lipton tea. On page 38, a Librium gets popped. On page 41, absolutely everyone in the neighborhood is driving an Oldsmobile. On page 42, there are Bungalow Bars and Good Humor ice cream, and on page 46, one washes with Irish Spring. Really? Either the narrator has a remarkable memory, or the reader is left wondering how much of this copy is manufactured.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Diary of a Wilderness Dweller by Chris Czajkowski

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 207 pages
• Publisher: Harbour Pub Co, 2006
• Price: $19.95
• ISBN-10: 155017357X
• ISBN-13: 978-1550173574

When people read and heard about what Chris Czajkowski, a woman in her early 40s, had achieved in the wilderness, they exclaimed: How brave! How courageous! Ridiculous, Czajkowski would respond. To her understanding, she had achieved nothing more than many of us might, had we the mind to do so. “Skills will always find a way of arriving, it is the attitude that is important,” she writes in Diary of a Wilderness Dweller. “If you think you can do something, it will happen.” (Page 170)

What Czajkowski especially shook off were the comments that began with “especially for a woman.” And that is the end of that discussion. She’ll have none of it.

Yet what Czajkowski describes in her book, one of a series she has written about making her life in the northern wilderness (British Columbia, Canada) befits the unrealized dreams of many. She has left “civilized” society far in the distance, making her way into the mountains and woods, where she builds not one, but two log cabins entirely on her own.

For those who have been drawn to the books of Anne LaBastille, another woman who lived in a log cabin in the Adirondacks, I would say that Czajkowski’s are far superior. LaBastille had help building her cabin, and her books veer into personal essays on self-publishing rather than wilderness living. Czajkowski truly is a solitary traveler into the woods, and she stays entirely on task.

Then again, when I crave literary beauty in nature writing, I reach for Annie Dillard. Czajkowski certainly has her moments of artful and literary description, but her tone is mostly one of telling how to get the work done, what obstacles get in the way, how she endures and overcomes them. At times, that made me as a reader feel like I didn’t really know the writer of the diary as a person, even as I knew the world around her in detail.

Czajkowski begins her adventure with a moment of considering her “madness.” She has left her truck at the end of a logging road twenty miles away. She has hiked through unmarked forest and over a mountain to a piece of land beside an unnamed lake. She is going to build a log cabin very nearly with her bare hands, using just a few tools she has carried in or that a small airplane later delivers on the lake. So is she crazy? By end of the book, in retrospect, she writes that this adventure may have seemed mad and risked all, but had she not done it, she would have missed … everything. This is the kind of living that gives her life its value and its meaning.

Much can be explained by her musings midway through the book (pages 88 and 89): “People are always asking me why I live the way I do … I am not ‘sacrificing’ the outside world … I do have the enormous satisfaction of choosing what I want from it. The material things like television and washing machines, which most people take for granted and which, for some perverse reason, are used to measure our ‘standard of living,’ have never been as important to me as my surroundings.”

She explains that it is not that she is so very unsocial—she likes people and eventually creates a business out of her wilderness living by guiding wilderness tours—and she is not averse to tapping into some convenience if it is readily available, but when it is not, and she has the wilderness in trade, that is what she chooses.

“The words ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’ to describe my way of life are city conceits. ‘Remote’ means ‘apart from’ and I am indeed apart from the city and other people. But I am very close to nature and the way the world functions; in this respect it is city folk who are remote.” (Page 89)

Silence is one of her draws. She relishes the sounds of nature rather than the sounds of civilization, and muses that most people never experience it in the cacophony of machinery, automobiles, industry, stereos and conversation.

All ways and styles of life, Czajkowski writes, have their price to pay. Whatever one chooses is to choose against something else, and so we must choose what it is that we value and what we are willing to do without. Although at times she is “terrified” of her choices, facing extreme weather, predatory wildlife and other challenges and obstacles, she overcomes her fear to obtain a life that she can value.

In addition to writing her story, Czajkowski is also a visual artist, and her diary entries are here and there enhanced by skillful drawings. On art, she writes: “We live in what must be the only society in the world to separate art from life and condemn it as an unnecessary frill or, even worse, a hobby.” Yet everyone is an artist, she insists, and we shouldn’t try to subdue that natural part of ourselves. We use our sense of art when we decorate our homes or choose what clothes to wear. Why not relish our creativity and give it full rein?

Even if the author eschews it, the reader can’t help but admire her tenacity and skill at making do with what she has around her. She not only fells tall trees for the logs to construct her cabins, but hauls them over great distance, cuts them into boards for her floors, and fashions all parts of her cabins from them. She installs a reconstructed stove for cooking and heating, moving that, too, over long trails by herself. She hikes many miles through the most blustery cold and survives the night in spite of only partial shelter and one very curious and powerful bear. I wouldn’t say “even for a woman” when I read this diary—I would instead say “what a woman!” in respect for her willingness to follow her wilderness dream.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Murder in the Keweenaw by Harley L. Sachs

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Format: Kindle Edition
• File Size: 265 KB
• Sold by: Amazon Digital Services
• Price: $4.99
• ASIN: B003Z4K530

This Kindle reading is still pretty new to me, but when I browsed for e-books recently, I was intrigued to find one that took place in my favorite northern haunt and one-time residence—the Keweenaw Peninsula, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For a few bucks, it was mine.

The story of Murder in Keweenaw opens with a view into the life of a semi-retired CIA agent, written as a first person narrative, having a midlife crisis and retreating to a camp in the Keweenaw to regain his bearings. Eino, or E. J. Carlson, fits the Keweenaw demographic well. He comes of a Finnish heritage, although was born locally, in the small town of Lake Linden, on the Keweenaw Bay.

E. J. is recently divorced; his ex-wife Sonja has returned to her native Finland and taken their son, Jan Erik, with her. E. J. is brooding over the loss of his family and now lives in this small camp (what U.P. residents, or Yoopers, call cabins and cottages) in Jacobsville, spending quiet days coping with nightmares, the aftermath of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of his work as an agent, and fishing. His boat is a 22-foot sloop named SISU, Finnish for courage and an expression of Finnish pride.

While on one of his fishing trips, E. J. snags not a big fish—but a corpse. He fishes out of Lake Superior what turns out to be the dead body of a girl with a bullet hole in her back. He calls in the Coast Guard for help, reports to the local police, but can’t resist the pull of his own curiosity and tries to find out the girl’s identity and the reason for her death.

What follows is some fun background description of the area. At least for me, as a former resident and now frequent traveler in the area, I recognized most all the places and establishments named, including Lindell’s ice cream parlor in Lake Linden, where I once was hired for my first waitressing job and, happily, was fired two days later because I couldn’t stomach the boss’s directive to just dunk the dishes in a greasy sinkful of water rather than actually wash them. I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I transgress …

One thing leads to another, one clue to the next, and E. J. notes what he calls a “McMansion” that has been built near the Keweenaw Bay as an oddity. Yoopers don’t build mansions. One of the draws of the area is its return to a simpler life, a respect for wilderness. The McMansion exudes wealth, and in the U.P., wealth sticks out like a sore thumb. On closer inspection, and in line with a meeting on the water with the sexy inhabitant of a yacht, Roxy, E. J. discovers a porn business flourishing inside. Pretending to be a local offering his help, which in fact he is, E. J. ends up with an invitation to a party, where he observes porn videos being shot, and two Moldavian girls looking lost and afraid—they turn out to be a part of the sex slave trade now so epidemic in the United States.

“If these two women were illegal imports for the sex trade, no wonder they were nervous … I know now that the international sex trade traffics in thousands of women, twenty thousand to the United States alone, and even more to countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Girls looking for work respond to newspaper ads for waitresses and housekeepers, jobs in foreign countries that turn out to be brothels. The destitute are exploited in this gruesome slavery and in countries like Indonesia desperate families even sell their children to brothels that cater to pedophiles.”

E. J. pretends interest in the goings-on of the mansion on the bay in order to solve the mystery of the dead girl. When the rich men who run the operation offer him a free taste of more than just what’s on the barbeque grill, asking him if he is familiar with Hugh Hefner parties, he responds:

“'I saw it once on television,’ I said. I didn’t add that it was a lot of old men in their sixties and seventies surrounded by pneumatic groupies young enough to be their daughters or even granddaughters. The television broadcast was ostensibly a biography of Hugh Hefner, but the absence of women his own age made the scene ludicrous. It was the fantasy of adolescents who never grow up and think they are god’s gift to women. Did the men think they were attractive to those girls? The girls were all playmates or wannabes who would do anything to be the next magazine centerfold. Did they have any talent, I wondered? Or were they simply exposing themselves for profit? … the girls with their t*ts on page three had eyes reminding me of sheep. Dumb.”

And then, E. J., while solving the mystery, accepts the favors of Roxy with her implants. Perhaps more than one sheep in this pasture.

So the author and his character delve into the dark recesses of a dark industry—of girls and women coerced into work that can kill their spirit, their self-esteem, and perhaps even take their lives. The topic is timely and deserving of coverage. The book is reasonably well written and reads quickly, if with the occasional annoyance of the name “Erik” being inserted into “AmErika” and wherever else it might fit. I don’t know what the author’s idea is by doing that—a secret nod to someone named Erik?—but for my editor’s eye, it was each and every time a jarring distraction from the storyline.

The author, Harley Sachs, is a former resident of Houghton, at the base of the Keweenaw. He is the author of many books, most of which are mysteries, and most if not all of which appear to be self-published. He is also the creator of a board game named Police State.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Force of Blood: A Woods Cop Mystery by Joseph Heywood

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 384 pages
• Publisher: Lyons Press (September 1, 2011)
• Price: $24.95
• ISBN-10: 0762772840
• ISBN-13: 978-0762772841

Couple days prior to writing this review, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing on air the author, Joe Heywood, at Kalamazoo, Michigan’s WMUK radio station, the local NPR affiliate. Am I now too star-struck to write an unbiased review? Nah. I’m convinced the author is fully as tough (and as entertaining, and with the same spicy sense of humor) as his main character, DNR detective Grady Service, the woods cop of Heywood’s now eight-book mystery series. He can take it.

Z and author Joseph Heywood at WMUK studios
My bias is of a different kind. I was born with a compass embedded inside me, I’m sure of it by now. It always points north and that’s increasingly the only direction I seem to comfortably travel. Heywood’s series is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the woods cops in the books solve their mysteries in the thick woods and breathtakingly beautiful wilderness of the U.P. That’s why I picked up the first in the series, Ice Hunter (2001), in the first place. I don’t read mysteries. I do read all things U.P.

That bias could have worked against Heywood, actually. I expect the author of stories set in my beloved U.P. to do them right. Describe those surroundings accurately, capture the life sense of the “Yooper” truthfully, bring vividly alive that unique northern territory I have known since childhood. He did.

And in the newest of the series, Force of Blood, he has—again. The story opens in the Mackinac area, that point between Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas, in 2007. It’s a time when the economy is running thin, and funding for state jobs such as those of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is no exception. As jobs are cut, those dedicated to their work sometimes find themselves working without pay—and so Grady Service takes on a favor for a friend, checking out the unethical handling of Native American artifacts on the shores of Lake Superior.

From there, the story takes off at top speed. As he does throughout the series, Heywood keeps the reader turning pages (or clicking forward furiously on their Kindles) as fast as possible, no turning back. It’s the kind of book you read standing in line, waiting in the waiting room (irritated when it’s finally your turn), on your lunch break, propped against your plate.

Grady Service is a sharp, by now slightly aging, cop who loves walking his woodsy beat, no matter how high he rises in the ranks. He’s tough but fair, a man of integrity. His ongoing relationship with his arch enemy, Limpy Allerdyce, Yooper savvy criminal and delightfully colorful character, is a treat. Once again, Limpy helps him solve the mystery, along with a long list of other memorable characters. As usual, their names are hilarious (Heywood told me he gets many of these gems out of U.P. telephone books): Jane Rain, Belphoebe Cheke, Tuesday Friday, Lacey Lucey, Delmure Arcton Toliver, Flin Yardley, Odetta Trevillyan, Karylanne Pengelly, Ladania Wingel, Luticious Treebone, Persia Hunger, Crispin Franti, Marldeane Youvonne Brannigan, Godfroi Delongshamp, Summer Rose Genova, Honeypat, Zhenya Leukonovich, Ozzien Shotwiff, a cat called Cat, and on it goes.

Yet for all the laughs—oddball names, witty Grady Service lines, hilarious scenarios (a woods cop partner who paints her own WHAT?)—the topics can also get serious. The title, Force of Blood, alludes to the call in our blood to be who we really are. Call it genetics, call it cultural upbringing, call it being in touch with our innermost selves, but no matter what you do to a person to bury their personal reality, it will still win out in the end. In this case, the force of blood refers to Native Americans, who have historically been repressed and mistreated by the white man, sometimes forced to abandon their own language and traditions, yet will always bounce back in accordance to their truth. This particular story is about how to protect and handle the artifacts of an ancient culture.

Also of note in the storyline is how the DNR handles a 20,000-acre-wide sudden forest fire. It’s fascinating to read how such an emergency is handled, how quickly fire spreads, how people respond each in their own way.

My only gripe about the entire series is the usual love interest Service entertains. There’s always one—or several. This is where the well-researched reality of the woods cop adventures takes a detour, as these women tend to be, well, what one unfortunately expects from too many mystery/detective series—the stereotypical hot female with only one thing on her mind. Indeed, it almost seems that Grady Service has only one conversation with any of his women, even though they are said to be educated and smart and could surely enjoy relationships of broader scope. Each one seems identical to the others. At least Service’s relationship with his granddaughter has greater range.

Watch for other fun moments in this book, such as a surprise appearance of the author himself crossing paths with Grady Service. Drool-worthy pages appear again when Service enters the kitchen. He’s quite the cook. But it’s Service’s honing in on his target that will keep us coming back for more, and more, and more. If there are hints in this book that the woods cop is thinking about retirement, we hope it’s not too soon. Not for at least several more books …

Joseph Heywood is a resident of Portage, Michigan, but regularly spends many months of the year in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, riding along with woods cops as research for his books. He also writes poetry and nonfiction, and paints.

A short story by Joseph Heywood will appear in the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 Issue of The Smoking Poet.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Until I Smile at You: A Family Story of Love, Tragedy and the Depths of Human Forbearance by Roseann Lombardi

Book Review by Zinta Aistars
·         Paperback: 348 pages
·         Publisher: Two Harbors Press, 2010
·         Price: $16.95
·         ISBN-10: 1935097164
·         ISBN-13: 978-1935097167
With a title taken from Frank Sinatra’s song, “Until I Smile at You,” the daughter of Anna Lauro and Tony Lombardi, Roseann Lombardi, has written the story of her parents, set in Long Island, New York, in the 1940s. It unfolds as the young couple, Anna and Tony, are on their way to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to gain answers to Anna’s ever-increasing health problems.
 Anna and Tony meet just prior to World War II. Both are Italian-Americans, although Anna’s family is presented as distant at best, cruel and uncaring at worst. Tony’s family is presented as quite the opposite—warm, gregarious, loving. This is the family that raised the author.
It begins as a passionate love story. When Tony spots Anna on the beach, he is struck by one of those fairy tale moments of “love at first sight.” Anna works as a model at Lord & Taylor, a dark beauty, and it doesn’t take long for Tony to win her over with his flirtatious, funny, charming manner. He can hardly think of anything else but his beautiful Anna, and as he is drafted into the war, Anna is heartbroken to lose her new love to the military. When he comes back home on leave a short while later, the two decide to elope.
Granted, these are the 1940s. Women were treated much different back then, or at least, the chauvinism was much more blatant than it is in today’s more subtle objectification. Not knowing any different, most women acquiesced to being treated as secondary citizens, if that, and more commonly as their husbands’ property, under his rule. As Anna Lauro’s health begins to show ominous symptoms that eventually lead to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), her health, her body, her future, her life is increasingly taken up by others and out of her own hands.
It is infuriating to read the exchange between the doctor at Mayo Clinic and Tony. It is the husband who is called in and told the diagnosis, not the patient herself. No one bothers to discuss her condition with her. It is the husband who makes the determination that she not be told for as long as he can pull off this cruel ruse. From this moment onward, it seems that Anna increasingly loses control over herself, her own health and her own future. What control she does have is stolen away by MS.
Bringing her back to the family, eagerly awaiting the diagnosis, Tony whitewashes everything.
“All the tests were inconclusive and it’ll be just a matter of time before she’s feeling like her old self again. Isn’t that right, Hon?” Tony smiled at her. (Page 196)
And Anna smiled back, even as her body was falling apart, her mind gradually unraveling. There’s an uncomfortable edge of abuse here, with the codependent woman (as most all women were in that time period) being submissive, never losing her smile or her positive attitude, never allowing her man to look bad, painfully faithful to the end.
“In a whisper, Rose [Tony’s mother] asked, ‘Does Anna know?’
“’No!’ he angrily answered. ‘And that’s the way it stays!’
“’But … but, Tony,’ she hesitated. ‘Is that fair to her?’
“’Probably not, maybe not, but that’s the way it’s going to be for now.’” (Page 199)
At last, unable to avoid the knowledge of her worsening condition, Anna does demand answers, declaring that it is better to know so that she can understand what is happening to her. While rationalizing that he is protecting her, Tony is, in reality, only protecting himself and avoiding his own discomfort.
The author presents this story of the young couple, her parents, with glowing fairy tale perfection. Right down to the blissful, simultaneously satisfying consummation of the wedding night, these two can do no wrong.
For perhaps the first two-thirds of the story, the sweetness of the story can be overly saccharin. The good guys are so very good; the bad guys are so very bad, and love is pure and true. The story between the lines, however, is that the romantic charmer can have a shadowy underside. Doing everything for the lady can later translate into an overly controlling husband. The man, who so dearly loves his wife for her physical beauty, may not love her enough when she falls ill. And the danger in writing a memoir so black and white, so pretty, is that the author fails to earn the reader’s trust.
What keeps the reader going through all that sugar is the storyline of the medical diagnosis, wanting to know what happens to Anna as she physically deteriorates and how she will (or won’t) come through.
At long last, in its final pages, the story takes on more range, more color, more moments of truth. As her body fails her and Anna ends up in a wheelchair, Tony begins to step out on his wife. He spends more and more hours at a bar, where he meets another woman and again falls irresistibly in love. He makes excuses for keeping long hours, rarely comes home when he promises, and increasingly forgets not only his wife, but also their daughter, Roseann.
Being the caregiver of an invalid partner is no doubt grueling and takes an immense toll on a person. Anna appears to forgive, even play dumb, as Tony divorces her to marry his mistress. Her care is initially taken over by other family members, but they, too, find it too much for them, and she is institutionalized. The betrayal isn’t Tony’s alone. Almost no one from the family visits Anna at the institution, where abuse escalates (the epilogue of the book explains that this institution is cited for its conditions and eventually closed).
The book draws to a climactic close as Tony visits Anna again, and the two families come head to head. If there’s a message in this story, it is to consider carefully our commitments—illness can happen to any of us, and no one deserves what happens to Anna Lauro. As cruel as some of the human behavior is in this story, the cruelest of all is the disease.
This has the potential to be a powerful and important story with several important life lessons, but the author, no doubt through her understandable desire to create in it a lasting and loving tribute to her mother, has not been able to gain the distance from the story needed to give it full rein of the complexities in human character.  One wishes a more objective editor might have helped her achieve more distance.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories by Melinda Moustakis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Hardcover: 144 pages
·         Publisher: University of Georgia Press (September 15, 2011)
·         Price: $24.95
·         ISBN-10: 0820338931
·         ISBN-13: 978-0820338934

It’s been many years, too many, since I set foot in Alaska, but opening the pages of Melinda Moustakis’ debut collection of character-linked Alaskan stories brought me back instantly into that stunningly wild and beautiful landscape. Bear Down, Bear North is a series of vignettes about life in Alaska, some as short as a few sentences, written in resonant and poetic language. Poetic, yet not flowery. This is the poetry of northern wilderness, sparse, even cruel in its precision, yet breathtaking.
Consider the opening lines of the vignette titled “Trigger”:
“You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.
“Which means: We had no other place.
“The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case.
“You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin.
“Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.”
And so, before you’ve even properly stepped over the threshold to enter this world Moustakis has word-painted, you are already catching your breath, spanning the horizon, perhaps looking for an exit in case of sudden danger, but more likely, a shadowy corner so you can stay as long as possible, surveying the scene of these hardened and colorful characters. Your eye lands on one wonder after another, and from these, you draw your story.
Moustakis writes in second person. She addresses you, wrapping you inside her main character so that lines blur, so that the effect of the surroundings is that much more immediate. Not many can pull that off. Second person is a literary least favorite stance, left for the highly skilled, and Moustakis is that.
With each vignette, both place and person is brought to harsh life. You begin as a little girl, but already schooled in survival. We’re not talking pigtails. This is a family, three generations, of Alaskan homesteaders, of fishermen and fisherwomen, trappers and hunters. Your mother smokes a Big-Z cigar to keep the mosquitoes away while fishing. Your brother stabs himself in the chest after too many swigs on the vodka bottle. Your daughter has perfect aim. Even the fish in these vignettes speak to you, so alive, so red, so struggling against the elements.
“The days are long and thin. The salmon keep to the shallows near rotting trees. With reaching fingers, the Kenai tugs at their tails, drawing them to the channel. The salmon wrestle the water, tap their last beats of blood and when the river wins, they drift and fodder downstream. Their bodies are carried, broken, and fed to the currents.”
Which, above, is an entire vignette, titled “Run.” The beauty of these short pieces is beyond argument; the danger, which may indeed add to the beauty, is that Moustakis has dared to write by using words and lines and language in almost equal leverage to the space between. The space between leaves room for the reader to consider the story, and there are times that this technique can leave one feeling a bit stranded, disconnected, carried away by the current. At times, I lost my thread, wondering even if I was reading about animal or human—who was this? In what role? Yet that same current would pull me irresistibly forward, and I very nearly didn’t care if I knew or not. Just wanted more.
It is such literary artistry that will put Moustakis quickly on the literary map, outline her name in stars, bullet it as a name to be watched closely. It may also keep her from bestselling tables for the mainstream reader who seeks a more traditional storyline. I would hope that particular seduction will fall flat for the author. She is a trailblazer, a unique voice, a literary leader. I suspect she writes as she writes because all else, anything less daring, would be impossible to her.
For those who hold fine literature in high esteem, Melinda Moustakis is indeed a name to watch. She’s not just going places. She is already there.
Bear Down, Bear North won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Moustakis was also recently named in the “5 Under 35” authors of 2011 by the National Book Foundation. She is a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

~for The Smoking Poet

Visit Melinda Moustakis blog to learn more.