Friday, January 28, 2011

Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel by Judith Fein

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 128 pages
• Publisher: Spirituality & Health Books, 2010
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0981870880
• ISBN-13: 978-0981870885

The reasons why we who are travelers do so are probably as varied as we are. Just as the places to which we travel and the ways in which we travel can differ widely, no doubt, so do the resulting experiences. I, too, am a traveler, and for me, the travel experience is always transformative. I have never gone on a journey that doesn’t simultaneously become an inner journey. As I cross physical terrain, so do I cross internal, that is, spiritual terrain in some way at the same time. I never come home the same person as when I left.

For this reason, I was fascinated to read Judith Fein’s Life is a Trip. The title alone clued me in to our similar approach to travel. I suspected these 14 stories would tell of the author’s trip, of course, but also how that trip changed her as a person.

One can travel in luxury, and plan far ahead and for most all possible and imaginable consequences. Travel agents can secure our accomodations, buy our tickets, insure our comfort, arrange most every moment of our traveling days … if we so choose. Or, we can travel wildly, with open mind and heart, ready to see whatever we can see and embrace whatever comes with open arms. This would be Judith Fein.

Fein is curious. She “lives to leave,” she says, and never does research on a place beforehand. The occasional discomfort of travel does not intimidate her; in fact, she seems to seek it out. These travel stories take her to North Vietnam, Turkey, Guatemala, New Zealand, Istanbul, Nova Scotia, Micronesia, Mexico, Israel, Spain, Newfoundland and San Diego. She travels not just to see place, but to delve deeply into local culture, acquaint herself with the residents, and involves herself in their lives as much as possible. A favorite thing to do is to get herself invited to weddings and funerals, since these are occasions that she feels show her best what a culture is all about.

“The difference between being a tourist and a traveler is that a traveler is open to unplanned experience and doesn’t have her nose stuck in a guidebook, tracking down famous sites. She ventures out from behind glass windows (in hotels and touring buses) and meets people. She connects. The difference between a traveler and a travel journalist is that the latter is always searching for stories. But it occurred to me that any traveler can travel like a journalist—looking for cues and clues, diving into new cultures, and coming home with great stories and new ways of responding to life.”

Being a spiritual seeker, Fein makes a point of connecting with healers, wise and holy persons, those who seem to have some deeper connection than most to enlightenment. If not in person, she finds the experience that is more intense than the every day. So, in one story, she attends a funeral in Micronesia, where she is stunned to witness one person after another speaking about the deceased not in flowery eulogy, selecting only positive memories, and if none are available, creating them—but quite the opposite. Funeral attendees express ill feelings, even anger, hurt caused them by the deceased. Intrigued, she pays close attention so as to learn the reasons.

“At first I was shocked. Can’t they just leave the dead in peace? I wondered. But I said nothing, sitting and listening to the wailing and the talk. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand. During a Mog Mog funeral, people are expected to air all of their feelings about the deceased person publicly, so the negative emotions don’t fester. The bad feelings are expressed, rather than repressed, and then they are buried along with the body. At a funeral, people unleash their true feelings, but speaking ill of the deceased outside of this context is taboo. And it is forbidden to bad-mouth the dead person once he is lying in his final resting place.” (pg. 28)

What a wonderful discovery! In this alone is summed up so much of the value of travel outside of our home territory. Suddenly, we see new and different ways to cope with global experiences. Whereas in our American culture, good people tend to have the most well attended funerals, one would guess that among the Mog Mog, those who have done most evil in their lives might have the most crowded funerals, as one after another get bad feelings off their chests. Such funerals may even be motive to live better lives, it seems, as who would want a parade of spitting and fuming funeral attendees. Either way, the day ends with all ill feelings buried. There is something to learn here …

In another story, Fein travels to a Mexican prison. She looks again beyond the surface, looking for the heart of the matter. Here, too, she learns something of value that could be shared with other cultures.

“Behind every criminal face is a human who was once a bouncing baby, gurgling with glee, and aching to be loved. Then, something happened. Each story is different, provocative, sad, and disturbing. Needs were denied or not met, the environment was violent or cruel or indifferent, and feelings with no healthy outlets were expressed in unspeakable acts … What interests me is getting a glimpse into a criminal’s heart and finding a place, however tiny, where there is authentic feeling and sensitivity. To my mind, this is where hope for healing, rehabilitation, and redemption lie.” (pg.46)

As any traveler sooner or later learns, understanding—of oneself and others, of persons and place—comes through stories. Fein goes deep into place to find the people, and goes deep among the people to find the story. She is willing to deal with whatever comes along her way in order to dig out that story. From that story, then, comes her own transformation. Or magic, if you wish. And from her sharing these stories in Life is a Trip comes connection with readers, letting the stories ripple out among all to spread that magic.

Adding visual delight to fine stories are the black and white photographs taken by photojournalist Paul Ross, who is Fein’s husband and frequent travel companion. His photography doesn’t just illustrate Fein’s stories. These photos add another dimension to the reading experience.

Judith Fein is a longtime columnist for Spirituality & Health magazine and a contributor to nearly 100 other publications over her writing career, in addition to acclaimed Hollywood screenplays.

An interview with the author, along with photos by Paul Ross, will appear in the upcoming Spring 2011 issue of The Smoking Poet.

I Want What She’s Got! The Secrets of Creating an Outrageous Life by Bette James Laughrun and Kathie Nelson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 130 pages
• Publisher: The People Builders, 2010
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN-10: 0982666586
• ISBN-13: 978-0982666586

I’m not keen on most self-help books, because most of them are too gimmicky, too passing-fad oriented, and have very little new to offer. When a review copy of this book was offered to me, however, I accepted it for one reason: it appeared to be aimed, at least in part, at women in later years of their lives. No spring chick myself, I wanted to see what advice or insights this book might offer that others have missed.

Still looking.

When I first began reading, I was intrigued—for the reason mentioned above. Author Bette James Laughrun is 62 when she begins her story (she is 73 now), and feeling then that her life was already over. What kind of dream chasing can someone at that age possibly do? She had put aside goals and was more or less just winding down toward death. Her thinking was based on the life spans of her parents, who had passed away relatively early in life. She had a moment of realization that she was not too old to dream, after all, and from there her story begins.

Co-author Kathie Nelson is Bette’s daughter, and her story is based on a dysfunctional childhood (no more than most, overall) and a traumatic accident that nearly killed her. Such near-death experiences can indeed bring powerful insights, so the premise for both authors to offer inspiring words is good.

As I read on, I began to realize this is not a mainstream self-help book. Wait a minute. This is a faith-based book. The overall message from these authors is to put your life in the hands of God and all will be well. Once it dawned on me that this book had a heavy religious undertext, I flipped to the front cover again, flipped to the back, looking for some clue about what I was getting into … and found no mention of its religious context. Not one mention had appeared in its marketing that this was a book with a religious message.

I have no problem whatsoever with such books. Faith works for many. Faith, religious or not, is a powerful tool for any change. I do have a problem, however, in false advertising. I felt duped. Had I wanted a faith-based book, I would have chosen one. The “blurbs” on this book and its covers need to be rewritten, and the book should be recategorized and given a new sales pitch.

Still, I had started in on it, so I was committed to finish the book. It’s a short one, so it took me only a little over a day to read it. My disappointment continued. Faith-based or not, there was nothing here that I hadn’t read in a thousand other places. Not one suggestion here went above the obvious. Consider the advice: have a positive attitude; life is a choice; give to others; be a kind and good person; nurture your relationships; get passionate about your life; spend some time in introspection about where you are and where you want to be; act on it. And so on. Does anyone really not know all this already?

I finished reading the book still wondering what was “outrageous” about any of its message. Both authors seem to have found new satisfaction in their lives, but they have done so with no new insights to offer their readers. More appropriate marketing of the book, as faith-based, would have been appreciated.

Bette James Laughrun is the founder of The People Builders, a leadership development group, and manages a nutritional cleansing business. Kathie Nelson is founder of Connectworks.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Island Farm by Arthur Versluis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 163 pages
• Publisher: East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000
• Price: $19.95
• ISBN-13: 9780870135453
• ISBN-10: 0870135457

A glorious experience, this “house sitting” on farmland in West Michigan, living in a 125-year-old Victorian house and walking the fields morning and evening. I was enjoying my stay in the country at a friend’s home while he was gone on extended travels and exploring not just the open acreage around the house, but the fields of books on his bookshelves—every room full. Ah, another book lover! What to pluck from his shelves to read on a country evening? And then I found Island Farm by Arthur Versluis.

Interestingly enough, the author’s name was the same my friend had given me as neighborly contact in case something came up at the country house for which I might need assistance. Versluis is a Grand Rapids, Michigan author, a professor at Michigan State University, a scholar and prolific writer. I was intrigued to learn about my new neighbor’s perspective on this beautiful land where I had taken residence, however temporary. Was that his house I spied through the wood and across the field? Just barely perceptible behind the line of evergreens? I sensed something of a kindred spirit, and settled in to read the book.

Little could rouse me from the book from that moment onward. An unfortunate duty to go in to the office, interrupting my reading, but I carried the book along for any spare moment between. My next two evenings were lost in its pages, and when done, I had that sense of grief one feels upon concluding a remarkable experience.

Island Farm is a mix of memoir and musing, a philosopher’s hoeing of fertile ground. Versluis has written the book about his family farm, although it might be most any family farm. It is an "island" because it is land surrounded by tamarack swamp, but also because it is a shrinking area in the midst of urban sprawl, the cancerous growth of suburbia and what we call “civilization.” It is an island in a stream of blind and blinding consumerism.

The farm that the author’s father has maintained has been in the family for many generations. Ancestors are noted in those solemn sepia-toned photographs where no one seems to smile, but stands very still for the slow capture of the camera. This is history—of land, of family, of a way of life we have very nearly lost. Versluis digs deep but expands wide, drawing from the farm in both literal and metaphorical tangents.

We begin my entering a coffee shop. Not Starbucks, mind you, with all faces taking on the bluish glow of reflected computer screen, not looking up even when blindly reaching out for paper cup and bringing it to lips. No, this is the country coffee shop, where farmers gather for their morning mug, fathers and sons, cousins and pals, community. Here, people are disconnected from wires and connected instead with each other. They speak to each other about the day ahead, about their work and about community concerns.

So goes the theme of this love story between man and his land. It is the story of the deepest, most rooted kind of connection—human and nature, the wild and the cultivated, the life cycle begun and completed, over and over again.

In the name of “progress,” we have nearly destroyed all family farms in America, substituting factory farms and industrialized, overproduced and often genetically manipulated foods. All in the name of speed, quantity and profit margin, however erroneously. But, the author warns, nature balances. The more we try to manipulate nature, the harder the backlash. Such backlash can come in environmental changes, obviously, but also cost us in spiritual and emotional health, too. One of the greatest losses of turning all farms into factories, Versluis writes, is the loss of our connection between generations.

“We are hastily building a world in which generations do not know their forebears, families have no roots, and children do not grow up but merely grow, like weeds that struggle to survive in the cracks of pavement. Little wonder that to them others’ lives are cheap, since their own, in dissociated urban or ex-urban squalor, are so barren. There is in America a profound rootlessness, even a kind of centrifugal force, driving people away from their forebears.” (pg. 17)

The paving over of America, the loss of our farms and the farmers who tilled them, is nothing less than a symbol of what it is that the American lifestyle has sacrificed. “Island Farm,” Versluis writes, “signifies an understanding of these truths.” What originally made this country so inspiring, so quick to rise, was our individuality, tethered to nothing. As we stand today on such shaky ground, this same truth shows its uglier underbelly. We are tethered to Nothing. We belong to nothing. We have cut away our own roots.

“Americans, I think, want to live as though they have no ancestors, no obligations, no responsibilities; it is part of the national character, and though this attitude generates that refreshing perpetual newness so entrancing to those who perceive themselves as entrapped by tradition, it has its consequences. We hear much talk about ecology and ‘saving the world’ nowadays, but frankly, it is only talk, for so long as people choose to live as if they are disconnected from one another and from the past—and is this not the genesis of the so-called ‘American dream?’—there is no such thing as an authentically ecologically balanced way of life, and there is no ‘saving the world.’” (pg. 18)

When we lose our connection both to our past ancestors and to our future generations, we can do nothing but indulge in self-aggrandizement and expect others to pay for it. None of us exist as if pulled out of thin air. We build upon what has come before us, with always an eye for how to improve on the world for those that come after us. When we forget this, we each end up living our lives inventing the wheel all over again, rather than improving on the wheel passed on to us. Or we leave it in ruins, giving no thought to our children’s children and that they will then have to invent the wheel all over again for themselves, along with having to clean up our mess.

Versluis sees our American fascination with mobility as our downfall. We are always leaving, always going somewhere else, with little regard for what we are leaving behind. We have created a disposable society. Everything we do can be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash, but the trash is piling up to the sky. We require connection to our past and our future, connection to our roots, if we are to build something enduring.

Another loss that has gone along with the loss of the family farm and its lifestyle, its lessons, is the value of work. The farmer’s children learned how to work, and that good, hard work produced results. They picked those berries even as the rains came on. They picked them even when they got tired. Perseverance mattered. One considers this as the suburban child whines that he is sooooo bored with that new video game … living in a country that has developed an attention span that doesn’t outlast the blink of an eye.

Gone, too, is our sense of community. The farmer knew when he needed help who to ask, and one never denied help. In the modern world, we live in a state of ultra connection, wired to everything yet out of tune with ourselves and others, missing true human connection.

We long, too, for the wild, even as we fear it. We dream of risk even as we are mired in meaningless routine.

Versluis writes of a time on the farm when a python got loose, and the delicious sense of danger as a result in the community. Something is unleashed in our imaginations when we consider living on the edge of danger, watching for the snake in the grass. Yet increasingly, we live in a world in which we are trying to eliminate every possibility of it—wrapping ourselves in a cocoon, isolating our children from taking even the smallest risk. We fear strangers, we fear germs, we fear boredom, we fear the unknown. And oh, we fear nature and we fear dirt. Instead, we have sold our very souls for control … control of a world that ever eludes us. Versluis' message is to, now and then, let the snake go free.

“We have lost something. Wildness means that there is also danger: there are creatures in the woods that we can’t control, that emerge from a sphere we can enter truly only when we leave behind our carefully defined squares and boxes.” (pg. 40)

Not that Versluis doesn’t understand the need to wander, to travel, to explore. All the more important, he writes, to know where is one’s home—that oasis, that safe place from where one can go outward with courage. Once we understand our rootedness, we can take wing. Once we lose our rootedness, we are blown away by every wind.

“Ultimately, a farm is sustained in the human community by its inward value; it subsists by our care, as on nature’s and God’s grace. A farm isn’t a factory, and it isn’t disposable … A farm is a place where people grow, each year, to understand more deeply who and where they are. A farm means connections: if soul is joined to the body by a silver cord, we are each joined to one another and to the land in countless intricate patterns of silvery sublunary strands, ties that join us to everyone else and to every living thing we are bound to care for. There are those who would say that freedom comes from the absence of responsibility, but in truth freedom comes in the fulfillment of responsibility, through which we become who we really are.” (pg. 42)

Versluis very nearly slides into writing prose poetry as he tells the stories of the characters who come to work on the family farm. The drunk who sobers up enough to pick a crop, or the woman who rants and raves yet gets the job done and then disappears again—these are the unforgettable people who bring color to life and true individuality. Farms build character, but characters can still find a place on a farm where they fall away everywhere else. Not that we want to encourage lives of suffering, as some of these are, but rather a tolerance for the misfit, an appreciation for difference. Even as modern society talks “diversity” like newfound religion, we in truth have built a world that rewards conformity—in thought, in physical appearance, in lifestyle. The farm, by its very nature, has no room for such silliness.

The author has nothing against progress. Indeed, his point is that we need this kind of connection if we want true progress. People need roots to grow just as plants do. He questions our understanding of civilization.

“Machinery and convenience are too often mistaken for civilization nowadays, but in fact civilization can be measured only by whether we live in harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine.” (pg. 71)

He questions our destruction of the wildness in nature, of wilderness, of a more organic and sustainable way of living. We have thrown away our own history, and in so doing, may well have thrown away our future.

Consumers clamor for perfect fruits and vegetables as if such things were manufactured rather than produced. We want every apple to look, taste, feel the same, with no understanding that with such demands, we are demanding a world of factory farms, food that can be grown perfect and uniform only by heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, even genetic mutation. We have lost the wide variety of flavors in heritage foods, choosing instead foods grown to endure long distance transportation.

How did we who like to think of ourselves as individualists become such conformists? Himself a teacher, Versluis points the finger also at American public education. Today’s teachers complain of unteachable students, bullies in the classroom, violence in schools, falling grades. Versluis observes:

“Little wonder that most of us became hellions—where else was there a challenge? When one is surrounded by a ‘system,’ the only recourse for the independent-minded is to violate it … Undoubtedly the public school system in America has its functions, but education is mostly not among them. One is being prepared to be an American consumer, left adrift in a sea of students who have as few clues about where to go or what to do in life as oneself. The overpopulated classes are far from intellectually challenging, and so one longs for escape from this morass of mediocrity, seeking it aimlessly in juvenile pranks and alcohol, in drugs and violence, in sex and whatever else one can concoct to do that would crack the shell.” (pg. 84)

Nor does this end with the juvenile. We grow into drones working in cubes, working at jobs rather than finding our work at which we excel. Versluis writes about the difference between an “occupation,” which implies merely occupying time so as to earn a paycheck, and doing our work, using our brain and muscle to create something enduring, of value and meaning, which gives back to us a sense of accomplishment. We want to see where we fit in the greater scheme of things, not to merely be a cog in the wheel that churns toward what we do not know and cannot tell.

Standing on that hallowed ground where he knows his roots, Versluis sees a herd mentality around him that is driving us over a cliff to our own destruction. The Nothing, he calls it. That vacuum where there is no culture, no context. Even much of our modern day literature, he writes, is a waste of paper. Even our writers have forgotten how to write words that last.

This slim volume belies the deep layers of meaning inside. Island Farm is much more than the loving story of one family’s farm. From this rich soil grows and expands a metaphor for all life, for all humankind. True to his word, Versluis has created a meaningful work that calls out to be read again and again. There are in these pages many truths that resonate deeply, offer important lessons, and quietly urge us to consider that in all our small and daily decisions in how we lead our lives—we are gradually creating a future that is bleak, a future of Nothing, devoid of all flavor and color and character.

Arthur Versluis is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Michigan State University. He is author of numerous books, including Magic and Mysticism, The New Inquisitions, Restoring Paradise, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance, Wisdom’s Children, and American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. He has published articles on topics ranging from comparative federalism to Christian esotericism. Editor of the journal Esoterica, he is also co-editor of JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Woodswoman IIII: Book Four of the Woodswoman’s Adventures by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 223 pages
• Publisher: West of Wind Publications, 2003
• Price: $18.00
• ISBN-10: 0963284630
• ISBN-13: 978-0963284631

And here we are, at the last book in the Woodswoman series, oddly enough numbered IIII rather than IV. Anne LaBastille has carried us, her readers, through nearly four decades of living in the Adirondacks, a decade per book, with this last one covering about half that.

The series begins with LaBastille building a log cabin in Adirondack wilderness shortly after a divorce in her mid 20s. Now, she is a much older woman, however sprite and spunky, still. Her wilderness living is not so wild anymore, as her property on Big Bear Lake (a fictional name) has been encroached upon by more residents, but more painfully, many more boaters on the lake. With each book, we witness increasing problems with all manner of pollution, climate change, and simple human lack of consideration for others and for the environment. LaBastille has taken an ever more involved role in fighting for ecological concerns, and an important part of her story is that fight, along with the resistance she meets. Some of that resistance is so fierce that it results in arson, cut brake and gas lines, and physical threats.

While the first two books in the series were more faithful to the Woodswoman title, the third (see my earlier review) became more of a story of self-publishing, a tad self-aggrandizing in the process. This fourth book returns to the theme of living with nature. It is not so much about LaBastille in her cabin and the surrounding woods (she seems to spend less and less time there), but it does go back to love of nature and love of animals. It’s also a pretty good read.

LaBastille is invited to teach at a southern college. She teaches nature writing, a favorite topic, and quite logically, wishes to take her students out into nature so as to make them better nature writers. A college administrator pulls her aside. Is this safe? he asks. She had planned to have the students camp solo for 24 hours, providing a list of needed camping gear and supplies, each 500 feet distant from the next. It hurts to laugh when reading the discussion between LaBastille and the college administrator, as they discuss legalities, issues of safety, and a weird fear of nature. One wonders where this fear goes when students walk city streets on a daily basis. It is also a sad commentary at how isolated we have become from the natural world around us.

Ironically, LaBastille does encounter danger when scoping out a state park for good camping sites. Not from wildlife, but from man. Several drunken gunmen fire weapons at her, her dog, Xandor, and Abe, a colleague who has come along for the hike. It very nearly reads like a thriller. Sound survival skills, however, learned from many previous wilderness treks, save the day.

Less interesting are more self-publishing adventures, and only mildly interesting a chapter about LaBastille’s adopted stray cat, Chunita. A little too cutesy, with a series of photos captioned in the cat’s voice.

LaBastille’s dog stories do better, and her devotion to her animals is clear in yet another aging pet story, as another German Shepherd (all her dogs are) ages and falls ill. Chekika is a particular favorite, and LaBastille fights valiantly to keep the dog alive through various afflictions, almost to the point of going too far. Each time she loses a dog, someone has to remind her it is time to let go. Not doing so becomes more selfish than loving. But LaBastille finally does let go, and the story will touch the heart of any dog lover.

The fourth Woodswoman book is an enjoyable addition to the series—not at the level of the first book, clearly the highest quality book of all four, not as pure to wilderness living theme as the second, but a pleasing move back up from the third in the series. We read more nature writing, more scenes such as one of a hummingbird seeking refuge from an aggressive male of its species, more scenes about loons living on the lake, more insights into the precarious tipping of the balance in human disregard for the earth. We are drawn into a thrilling adventure story in the field. We see civilization juxtaposed against nature. We are also introduced to a new friend, Albert, later revealed as Clarence Petty, a wilderness guide who really has been a woodsman all his life.

This is a fitting ending to LaBastille’s life story. If various sources hold true, she is now living under the care of health professionals, rumored to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Tragically, she warned of this in an earlier book, when testing water samples from the lake and finding dangerously high levels of mercury and other metals, which may cause Alzheimer’s in humans. We wish her well, and thank her for the window on the natural world that she has provided.

Anne LaBastille is the author of nine books, including the Woodswoman series, and approximately 180 articles on nature and similar topics. She has worked as a wilderness guide, and has led programs to introduce women to wilderness living. She has long been dedicated to preserving the Adirondack State Park, where her wilderness journey began.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Woodswoman III by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 250 pages
• Publisher: West of the Wind Pubns, 1997
• Price: $17.00
• ISBN-10: 0963284614
• ISBN-13: 978-0963284617

As much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series of four Woodswoman memoirs by Anne LaBastille, giving both high marks, there is a distinct dip in quality of copy in this third book. Woodswoman III is the first in the series that LaBastille has published herself, under the same name with which she refers to her wilderness cabin—West of the Wind. Indeed, a disproportionate part of this story is about her venture in self-publishing and very little about wilderness living.

The Woodswoman series is about, or described to be about, the wilderness life of Anne LaBastille, who more or less built her own log cabin in the Adirondacks after a divorce. She was in her 20s at that time, and each of the first three books spans a decade of her life, with the final installment covering five years.

For those who have read the first two, the third is hardly worth the bother. There are sections that are almost verbatim the same as in previous books. It is as if the author is running out of new things to say about living in wilderness … and, truthfully, it seems to be a bit of a stretch by now to call it wilderness. Black Bear Lake, the name the author has given the lake on which she built her cabin, is fictional in order to protect her exact location from overly curious fans. Once again, LaBastille complains about intrusions, yet on the other hand, she herself has become quite the social butterfly by this installment.

Woodswoman III is about her adventures in starting her self-publishing business, obstacles she must overcome in marketing, setting up shop in her garage—and, oh yes, she now has one! as LaBastille has purchased a second residence, a traditional farmhouse, where she seems to spend more and more of her time rather than at her wilderness cabin. It is also a story of a woman who truly loves her dogs.

Since LaBastille’s day, self-publishing has changed immensely, so her insights are no longer relevant today, if only as a kind of history as how such things were once done. So much of her time is spent making rounds of bookstores in the Adirondack and surrounding area that the reader who first read the Woodswoman books for a vicarious experience of living close to nature will have to look elsewhere for nature writing.

From an editorial standpoint, the story suffers as well. For all of the author’s complaining about difficult editors at big publishing houses, this installment could very much have used an objective editorial hand. There are typos, yes, and grammatical errors, but mostly, expert cuts would have much improved the storyline and perhaps even saved it. Like it or not, an author is one’s own worst editor. We lack the fresh eye on our own work, and we certainly lack objectivity. A persistent and committed writer might, over repeated readings, catch most errors, but those painful cuts—painful to the author only—often need to be done by another’s hand. There is a reason editors exist, and it is a good one.

Yet there are positives in this book, too. An occasional respite from her story of self-publishing reminds us of why we began reading this series in the first place. A refreshing occasional description of the wild woods, or the enchanting loons on the lake, never gets old. Her account of a camping trip with two rookie women campers is good fun. Survival of a fierce storm is exciting. And, LaBastille’s secondary storyline, about her ongoing battle to preserve the Adirondack environment, and to educate the reader about ecological matters, still shines.

Two reasons I would still recommend this book are LaBastille’s detailed descriptions of the effects of boating and other water craft on the ecological health of lakes and other bodies of water. No doubt most of us who enjoy being around water have little or no idea how much damage larger, faster boats can wreak on water and shorelines, including the wildlife that depend on that environment. Certainly I had little idea that the difference in speed and horsepower of a boat could be so detrimental. LaBastille writes about the pollution left behind by these inconsiderate boaters, but also the effects of ever larger wakes, eroding shorelines, drowning baby loons, even toppling over people in smaller boats such as canoes. There is room for compromise, as she makes clear, but her fight with big boaters on Black Bear Lake is valuable reading.

The second reason readers may enjoy this book is LaBastille’s writing about the aging woman, not just in wilderness, but in our society in general. She despises ageism, and encourages older women to embrace a healthy process of aging, rather than giving in to contemporary American society’s worshipping of youth. As a woman in my 50s, I can only applaud her views about women embracing our age, whatever it might be:

“There’s an excitement to aging. I wouldn’t go back a day. I like where I live, what I do, how I look, and what I know. The obsession with youth in our culture is sick. Over 50 and you’re ready for the ash heap. Baloney! Older women should tell people forthrightly, ‘This is what it looks like to be 57.’ (Or whatever your age is.) Let your hair go grey… Let your head be haloed with ‘silvery veils and white chiffon.’ It’s beautiful.” (page 221)

She goes on to encourage women to become environmental activists, because we are naturally nurturing, and then expands to our relationships, reminding us that we do just fine in solitude:

“Look at the facts. Older women command 60 percent of the wealth in this country. They’ve learned much and are free to study, travel, teach, and participate in anything they wish. Child-rearing is no longer a responsibility. Women live longer. Since we’re the natural care-takers in this world, I feel the greatest good that women can do is help the environmental movement. Women can save Earth’s creatures and the planet.

“To be effective, we must … stay persistent in our environmental concerns. We need to feminize ecology and bring on more grass-roots activism.

“… What about men in my life? I know and work with many. I have many close male friends. Yet the few I’ve truly loved are gone. I’m not the only woman in this situation. I scarcely know a woman over 50 who still has a man in her life. Indeed, half of all women in America over 40 live alone. Some keep looking for the right one; others don’t even want a relationship … Today, some men are angry at women and their independence. How else can we explain women being battered, gang-raped, victims of sexual harrassment in the armed forces, the workplace, everywhere? … My feeling is that every woman should have a position of power in her later years … Every woman should do something that makes her important in her eyes …” (pages 222-223)

Let the reader decide if there is reason enough to pick up this third LaBastille book. If your motives are to enjoy nature writing, it falls short. If you are seeking encouragement to be a woman who is self-reliant, in or out of a relationship, you may well find it here. If you are a diehard LaBastille fan, allow her these shortcomings and read the book anyway. Having come this far, I am reading the fourth book now. On the other hand, you may do just as well to read the first two books and hang it up there. You won’t have missed much.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Cabbage, Strudel and Trams by Ivana Hrubá

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback, 181 pages

ISBN: 978-0-646-54521-9

Hurts so much that all you can do is laugh, it seems. The Soviet Union, or Soviet Onion, as Ivana Hrubá writes, encompasses the occupation of many European countries, marked by human rights abuses and atrocities. Laughing yet? With clever wit and satire, Hrubá finds a way to make it all tickle until you do.

In this something like an autobiography, but not quite, the author writes about a Czech family living under communism—the girl Vendula, who is the novel’s heroine, her brother Pavel, her parents, and grandparents babka Zlatka and Deda Anton. The story is told in the narrative voice of invisible Franta, a kind of wise, imaginary friend who lives in Vendula’s head. The family escapes to West Germany and later resettles in Australia.

Opening on a scene of the family discussing the unexpected defection of Uncle Stan from communist Czechoslovakia to West Germany, the reader comes to understand what it was like to live in a world based on a daily diet of propoganda. Standing in long queues outside empty shops in hopes of buying something, anything, cutting newspapers into squares to use as toilet paper, navigating adolescence through poverty and depravity, falling in love with the boy who dares to be an individual—it is all great fodder for the author to create a side-splitting circus of oppressed humanity coping in whatever way they can to live as normal lives as possible.

Between laughs, Hruba manages to insert pointedly serious scenarios without ever slipping into soapbox mode. Vendula’s adolescent friends include Marcela, the pretty Czech girl that is seduced into performing for pornography. The venture seems to start as something exciting and rewarding—all that money in a world of poverty—but ends with the young girl’s drowned and naked corpse floating up in a river, hands tied behind her back.

The point seems to be that human beings are ever so human, regardless of where we live and under what government, all of us trying to get ahead, chase a dream, find love, live in a world where we can feel some pride in achievement and hope for a little more. Wrapped in comedy, the author manages to expose human frailty and weakness while maintaining a compassionate sympathy for every character. We may all respond a little differently when pushed to the wall, but our common dreams are not so dissimilar.

When Deda calls out in a family discussion comparing communists to capitalists, black humor blooms while Babka Zlatka, cutting squares of newspaper for toilet paper, finds it easier to try to defend the madness of the world in which she lives:

“Do you have any idea what impact we’ve had on the Americans?” he called to Dad just as Vendula opened the door.

“None,” Dad answered without looking up from his pile.

“Precisely!” deda thundered. “None! No impact whatsoever.”

“And why? Why, I ask you?” he cried theatrically, pushing his deerstalker off of his forehead with his crooked finger. He looked pointedly at babka, expecting a response.

... She didn’t need it, didn’t want it and was happy to go with the official propoganda which stated that all capitalists were losers, regardless of their gross national income.

Deda Anton was not discouraged.

“We’ve had no impact on them because they don’t care! They got that much wheat they don’t know what to do with it! You think the Americans worry about our f—king five-year agricultural plan? …”

… Babka took. “Buy low, sell high,” she retorted contemptuously, waving a hand in deda’s face. “Any old fool can do that. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

Deda, delighted with the direction the conversation was taking, laid his crooked paw over babka’s scissors in a gesture of bravado. “Isn’t it? I beg to differ. The Americans know how to do business. They’ve got no housing crisis over there, darling, they don’t live eight to a room like your Soviet friends.”

… “Who walked on the moon first, Anton?” she fired at deda, confident she had him by the short and curlies… “I tell you who walked on the Moon, you silly man! The Soviets did! They landed there first!”

… To this deda eventually replied with a resigned sigh… “Who knows?” he sarcastically intoned. “This might be just the thing to end the housing crisis.” (page 72-73)

Right or wrong, good or bad, we all get attached to the places and people where we spend most of our time, and this point comes through, too, as we escape across the border with Vendula’s family. Suddenly, they enter a world of plenty. And still, they must struggle, and young Vendula longs for the friends she left behind, even if that was in a mad, mad world. Only gradually does the family readjust, and comic moments abound as Vendula learns a new language and the family finally moves into a house of their own in the land down under, Australia.

It is a story of many poignant Moments:

Things happen.

Things you would never have dreamed of.

Things you might have thought about just maybe happening on the other side of the galaxy but you’d never imagine them happening in your own life.

But they do.

There is always the Moment. (Page 92)

Hruba’s novel teaches important lessons without being obvious, subtle pointers to what matters and doesn’t matter in life. This is a window on Soviet life few Americans understand (deda Anton is right—Americans weren’t even paying attention) because it was a life nearly incomprehensible to those in the west. With quaint pencil drawings that appear to be the scribblings of a bored adolescent, the novel is rich with, as Vendula would say, Moments.

The format of the book can be off-putting, as the novel is printed on 8" x 11" pages in a fine type that fills the page from margin to margin. It can be difficult to read and uncomfortable to hold. Typos and errors are too frequent, calling out for another proofing. Yet with all that, I found myself so enjoying a good story wrapped in a good laugh, that I read the novel more quickly than I had anticipated. It is the second work I’ve read by this author, and her vivid imagination and wit come through as well in this as in her first adult novel, A Decent Ransom: A Story of a Kidnapping Gone Right.

As did her character Vendula, Ivana Hrubá was born in the Czech Republic, lived under communist rule, and then walked across the Alps with her family to escape to the free world in 1983. After living in West German refugee camps, her family resettled in Australia, where she lives now with her own family.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Looks Easy Enough: A Joyful Memoir of Overcoming Disease, Divorce, and Disaster by Scott Stevenson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 451 pages
• Publisher: Deadora Press (March 8, 2010)
• Price: $18.00
• ISBN-10: 0984281002
• ISBN-13: 978-0984281008

What a difference attitude makes. Author Scott Stevenson, in his narrative memoir Looks Easy Enough, tells the story of four years in his life with new wife Susan. These four years begin with the 46-year-old architect’s first marriage, preparing for an early retirement and building a dream home in Cuyamaca Woods in California—but instead of a bright and shiny dream, it all ends up something more like a nightmare. Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer; a forest fire threatens their new house; a sister requires financial and moral support through a messy divorce from an abusive husband; and the Stevenson retirement fund takes a serious hit in a stock market decline that overshadows the Great Depression.

Stevenson is anything but depressed, however. For him, this is not a nightmare as long as he steps back enough to see it as a part of the Big Picture. He calls it The Magic. He defines this as taking a positive perspective on all that happens to us in our lives as being experiences that we have chosen. We choose our experiences in order to learn lessons, all pushing us toward becoming better human beings.

New Age stuff, yes. To a degree, I follow that line of thought. We do choose a good deal of what happens to us, but I would stop at saying we choose it all. Somewhere in there, someone else’s choice overlaps. And I also believe, and have witnessed, in myself and others, that positive attitude can indeed affect outcomes and put us on a better track. Still, that’s all a little too neat and tidy for me. Positive thinkers tend to miss that so-called “negative” thinking and emotion have their place, too. Recent studies state that anger can actually work positive changes on our lives, motivate us to do better, and we all know repressed anger causes all kinds of health and emotional problems.

Personally, I believe there is time and place for the full range of emotions built into the human being, each in its own time and place, and I enjoy that people around me come in different shades of mood. Out of time and out of place, hanging out with outrageously positive people can, well, make you want to slap somebody … and yet more studies have shown that too many positive platitudes can actually undermine our making positive changes, making us feel bad about feeling bad. Sometimes feeling bad is the way to feel. At least for a while.

My little diatribe here aside, I will add only that finally learning how to express my anger after years of nice, nice, nice, can be one heck of a cleansing and growing and healing experience. It also sweeps a lot of dirt out of one’s life. It can make for powerful and positive change.

One has to admit, though, that Stevenson and his memoir, his perspective on things, is pretty irresistable. The guy really is nice. Even more, he is downright funny. Very much the kind of person you’d like to hang around, at least up until the moment you want to slap him. Lightly. Not only is he a very positive guy, but he’s a terrific writer, telling a story that is hard to put down, skillfully weaving in adventure with th suspense of a cliff hanger (that forest fire creeping ever closer to the house) and a good share of relatively pain-free moral lessons that go down with a spoonful of Stevenson sugar.

When Stevenson's wife Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer, she responds by screaming and sobbing.  Susan is an emotional woman, and she responds to all the twists and turns of her journey through breast cancer with great emotional upheaval. Her husband is the perfect antidote, as he soothes and calms her, humors and comforts her, or sometimes just serves as a loving punching bag. I’ve experienced breast and other cancers in my own family circle, and some of that has touched my personal life, too. I, too, have had that phone call from the doctor. We don’t all respond with screams and sobs, and sometimes I had to work not to lose patience with these scenes of Susan's emotional drama … but I respect that the author, her ever loving husband, does not. We all handle life differently, and perhaps that’s why I balk at all that positive thinking—it can be a narrow range of emotional response, when our bodies, our selves, sometimes do need to scream and sob. Go for it, Susan. We do what we need and must to heal ourselves.

The overall lesson here is a valuable one. Quibbles with New Age-ism aside, this memoir is uplifting and enlightening, and many of the storylines worthy of contemplation. There is the story of trust—of being able to trust one’s partner implicitly to stand alongside through the worst of the worst. There is the lesson of being open minded, always a good thing. There is the idea of alternative medicine, other ways of approaching disease in our bodies, and that it is crucial to remember that when our bodies get sick, our hearts and minds need healing, too. Sickness in one more often than not results in sickness in the other. We are all of one piece. Susan's journey through cancer illustrates how one heals best when taking the whole-self approach.

Perhaps most valuable (and fun) of all is Stevenson’s lesson that it “looks easy enough.” So often we are stopped dead in our tracks before even attempting something new because we don’t yet understand it. The unknown can be so debilitating. But Stevenson doesn’t overanalyze. He just plows ahead, taking a big thing apart into many small things, and then taking on one small thing after another, ends up building a house … and a life. Because he takes this approach to life, nothing really defeats him. Not disease, not loss of money, not a fire burning hard work down to ash. He takes the lesson each experience offers and applies it to the next life task, one little bite at a time.

With Stevenson’s story, he also manages to tell stories about family members, and not only about his wife Susan. Sister Beth has to find the courage to leave an abusive husband. Once a strong and independent woman, she has succumbed to a man who, as she puts it, “has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.” In the privacy of their home, her husband is cold and brutal, emotionally cruel to her and their children. The instant he is around others, he transforms to someone much more socially pleasing. Even her brother is fooled. Eyes opened, he helps her find the strength to fight for an independent life, taking on divorce proceedings that stretch across four years until she has finally won her freedom. Important to note what a difference it can make to someone so beaten down to have such family support as Stevenson—we should all reach out to give courage to the abused. Think of it as a matter of paying it forward.

In the end, as positive as any of us can be, we all need someone now and then to help us along when we are feeling less positive. Again and again, Stevenson lets his wife know that he can’t go it alone, and that’s important, too. Partnerships and relationships thrive when we take turns helping each other through tough times, or when we stand shoulder to shoulder to celebrate the highs even as we stand together to be a team against the lows. Looks Easy Enough is a story built on family love, and a love for life.

“Looking into Susan’s eyes, I say, ‘Babe-O, I couldn’t have built this house without you. You drove the Beast of a bulldozer, very professionally I might add, and you’ve become an expert trackhoe operator. You’ve learned how to build concrete forms, tie rebar, pour concrete, frame walls, set ceramic tile, and install a septic tank system. You’ve endured blisters, sore muscles, splinters, cold feet, poison oak, sunburn, and mosquito bites. You’ve worked when the temperature was above one hundred and in the snow and in the rain and in the wind and in the fog. And, through it all, you perservered without complaining—well, at least without too many complaints. During the process, we’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve shouted in anger, we’ve worked in silence, we’ve been frustrated, and we’ve been exceedingly happy. Together we built this house, and together there isn’t anything we can’t do.” (pg. 400)

Ah yes, there it is, the full range of emotion. What matters, finally, is how one bounces back. And that one does bounce back. To do so with patience, honesty to self and others, and always integrity is key, and Stevenson’s story proves it possible. He almost makes it look easy (enough).