Friday, July 29, 2011

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 528 pages
• Publisher: Harper, 2009
• Price: $26.99
• ISBN-10: 0060852577

With each book that I’ve read by Barbara Kingsolver, whether fiction or nonfiction, it becomes increasingly established that I am a standing-ovation fan. She ranks up among my top three most admired. This is an author who has the skill to combine excellent storytelling with excellent literary artistry.

The Lacuna is an intricate blend of history and fiction. Kingsolver incorporates historical fact, drops in actual newspaper and magazine clippings from the time period of 1929 to 1951. It is a time when World War II breaks wide open, and a dark and shameful period of McCarthyism—nationwide paranoia of seeing red(s) everywhere—sweeps across the United States, destroying innocent lives in its wake.

Harrison William Shepherd is a fictional character, but he lives among those whose names we know from history: Leon Trotsky, an exiled socialist leader, and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, husband and wife artists. The story opens in Mexico, where the exiled political leader is in hiding from Soviet assassins in the residence of the Mexican artists, but Harrison is yet a boy, born in the States of an American father and a Mexican mother but now living in something of a Mexican jungle. So begins his life story, written in the form of journals and letters:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

And with that, we understand we are now in the hands of a literary master, falling as if through a lacuna—an opening or portal, a missing part, a vacuum—into her imagination, the world she creates for us and into which she now invites us to enter. The most important story, her character tells us, is told in what is missing.

It begins and ends with the howling of monkeys. Animals or humans, it’s all the same, as one howl invites another, and none of it makes much sense. Harrison Shepherd begins his journey as a boy who works whatever task is asked of him, a housekeeper, a cook, an errand runner, a mixer of plaster, but his life becomes twisted in danger caused by the occasional human howl born of paranoia. Assassins kill Trotsky, newspapers filing false reports and failing to check facts, or not caring torumors are spread and death can, and does, result.

If Harrison returns to the States to eventually become a famous author, writing potboilers based on Aztec history, the human howlers follow him, surfacing as the monkeys of McCarthyism. Through Harrison’s wondrously articulate letters and journals, alongside eyebrow-raising actual clippings, we see how a nation hits bottom, allowing irrational fears to spread like disease. The common mind of the masses can indeed be a mucky thing to behold, and if there is reason left anywhere, fear keeps it silenced.

Living a quiet, if not reclusive, life in Asheville, North Carolina, Harrison would seem to be one who can escape that madness. He stays out of the public eye as much as any bestselling author can, his most intimate confidante a hired stenographer, Violet Brown. Yet to achieve greatness in any field invites lesser minds to a desire to destroy. False rumors are lifted to accusations, accusations to persecution, and there is no rational defense when one’s opponent refuses to deal with rationality.

Kingsolver has written a powerful statement in this blend of story and life. She never preaches, yet her message is clear, clear enough to make the reader want to howl, yet gracious and beautiful enough, that the last page is turned in silence and awe.

The author has published seven novels, as well as collections of poetry, essays and creative nonfiction. She has been translated into more than 20 languages and has earned many literary awards. Kingsolver lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 640 pages
• Publisher: Random House, 2010
• Price: $30.00
• ISBN-10: 0679444327
• ISBN-13: 978-0679444329

The older we get, the more we read, the more we realize that the history textbooks given to us in public schools when we were children left gaping holes where the shadow side of this nation’s history should have been. It is only as an adult, independent reader, that I have learned most (if not all) of what I know about American history. And while I had a general idea about the Great Migration—the exodus of about 6 million black Southerners moving north from 1915 to 1970—it was only by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns that I have gotten a more thorough grasp of this massive movement.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has done impressive and thorough research to write this book. For that alone, she has earned my respect: 1,200 interviews and 15 years of research. The book is narrative nonfiction pinned on three individuals who, in their intertwining stories, represent those great migrating masses. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney is a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi; George Swanson Starling is a citrus picker from Florida; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is an aspiring young doctor from Louisiana. Their journeys take them to New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

This is not an easy book to read and could not have been easy to write. Which is not to say that it isn’t a page-turner. More than 600 pages, but these stories quickly draw a reader in, touching on every emotion and sometimes hammering the heart to a pulp. One has to marvel at the human endurance and determination in these black migrants. Who of us does not know about those shameful years of slavery in the United States, but to read the intimate details, to see into these individual hearts and minds, can break the heart of the reader. There is irony in being a nation that so often has gone to battle to save the downtrodden across the globe, to wave the flag of democracy and individual freedom, yet within our own borders has perpetrated such inhumanity and cruelty.

The stories of these three have common threads but also differ in direction. How each one escapes differs—by education, by physical momentum, by barely contained rage or by a quiet but enduring gentility. They head north, or west, to escape Jim Crow, but find new prejudices and racial biases no matter where they go. Fascinating excerpts are woven in about the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the growth of Harlem, the demographics of the migrants. Ray Charles makes a prominent appearance. Stunning, too, are the moments of racial bias among the blacks themselves, for instance, when a black woman, recently migrated, refuses the medical services of the young black Doctor Foster because she believes the medical care from a white doctor is superior based on his whiteness alone.

Being of Latvian ethnic background and the first generation offspring of immigrants myself, I was taken aback (page 417) when the author seemed to feel the need to differentiate between the difficulties faced by European immigrants in comparison to the black migrants. She presents the European immigrants as being embraced by American society, encouraged to assimilate, naming those from Latvia and Poland in particular. We should all by now understand that we must be careful to judge others in whose shoes we have not walked. These immigrants came to America to escape Soviet occupation, suffering torture, deportation, rape, executions and genocide, and did not arrive on these shores seeking to join the “melting pot,” but to retain their culture as much as possible while being stripped of their homes. Immigrants often lived in poverty, took menial jobs, picked fruit and cotton in the South, and suffered through barriers of different kinds of prejudice. It helps no one to make such comparisons or to foster competitions of who had it worse. Stalin and Lenin were no walk in the park.

That aside, Wilkerson’s writing is excellent. She has the skill to take facts and add to them the drama of a mesmerizing story. It is easy to understand why this book won the National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) in the nonfiction category; it is well told and offers invaluable documentation of a history we should all know and understand.

The Warmth of Other Suns was also awarded the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the 2011 Hillman Book Prize and the 2011 Lynton History Prize. It was named on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year and many other similar lists.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Publisher: Marick Press, 2009
• Paperback, 88 pages
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN: 978-1-9348511-2-8

How that is that we tend to shy away from that which sees too deeply into us, I don’t know, I can’t say. I have carried Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s debut poetry collection, Water the Moon, along with me for weeks, no, even months. Carried it, set it aside, forgotten it, picked it up again. Drawn to it and drawn away from it.

And why? It is poetry of juxtapositions and paradoxes, of being and not being, of being home and longing for home, and then of losing home and finding home elsewhere. Of being homesick. Of longing for home and never quite having it. I know these things, too. Sze-Lorrain speaks the poetry of immigrants and emigrants and the homeless—and for those who are at home everywhere.

See how I spin. I grow a little dizzy and put the book down again. Only to return later, thinking I must not have been so very drawn to it and next moment underlining, underlining, putting little stars in the margin alongside her lines because they sing so.

Her bio states: “Fiona Sze-Lorrain was born in Singapore, and grew up in a hybrid of cultures. After receiving a British education, she moved to the States, and graduated from Columbia University and New York University before pursuing a Paris IV-Sorbonne. A zheng (ancient Chinese harp) concertist, she has performed worldwide. One of the editors at Cerise Press, she writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. She lives in both New York City and Paris, France.”

With that background of the poet understood, it makes sense that her poems combine so many pushes and pulls. She is able to see the world with the eyes of one who can see as more than one person, one of the benefits of being multi-cultural and fluent in more than one language. The disadvantage is to live within swirl, somewhat as she describes in a poem about Van Gogh, alluding to the swirls of stars like madness in his dark painted skies.

Perhaps that is why, too, she so often mentions the moon throughout this collection—because these multiple ways of being and experiencing the world are like the coming and going of tides. Relentless, infinite and eternal. Cyclical.

In “A Talk With Mao Tse-Tung,” the poet is milling about a cocktail party in Paris, when a Swedish journalist recites Mao Tse-Tung’s poetry, and she is instantly transported back to China. It is as if she never left. Old wounds, ancestral history, surface, and emotion that is now, here, now and not only back in the fatherland, fills that room.

In “Reading Grandmother,” home in Paris and home in China again come together, and the effect is intimate and tender, a little sad, a little tragic, more than a little wonderful.

So the poet sees into layers most miss. “Par Avion” beautifully puts into words what is missed in the words written into a letter that has traveled a very long distance and across a great space, from father to daughter and from one culture to another.

The real message was drowned
on the way, washed by tears
from the sky that blurred
address and date. I could not finish
reading everything because those words,
so measured, so judiciously rendered,
contained no plain voice
that could speak to me in an unflowered
language. Only silence –
ailing with loneliness, a palpitating
heart, sitting between
a window and a door, waiting for more
than a paper response.

The poet’s language is never plain. With her ability to be all things and all places, Sze-Lorrain knows how to speak in simplicity yet express complexity. In one simple sentence she can contain all the noise and confusion and anguish and worry, ad infinitum, of someone who is waiting for a letter that refuses to arrive.

But my mind is like a tree of monkeys.

Really, do you even need to say anything more? Bull's eye, and a vivid and noisy image enters the reader’s mind that conveys it all.

Because a culture is also contained in a nation’s cuisine, Sze-Lorrain writes many food poems. They are luscious:

Eating Grilled Langoustines

for the first time was like chasing
wilderness—simmered with white wine
and garlic dashes, they slipped
through the teeth of my fork like blind
horses running through a gate.

Is this food or is this a whole body experience? Both. As is Sze-Lorrain’s poetry—whole body experience, and a sense of being disembodied at once. Disconcerting as jet lag, but then you find you are there and never left, on that spot, just where you want to be—in the whirling center of luscious poetry.


Friday, July 08, 2011

Radiance by Rick Chambers

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 264 pages
• Publisher:, 2010
• Price: $16.95
• ISBN-10: 1450253105
• ISBN-13: 978-1450253109

Oh, admit it. Spot the imprint of a well-known self-publishing outfit on a book, and immediately you think: this is going to be sub-standard. Copy in need of editing, writing that no traditional publisher would touch with a ten-foot typesetting machine.

But it’s a new day, isn’t it? Certainly that was my personal bias. Yet today, self-publishing is on the up and up. More and more quality authors are choosing this option to see their way to the bookshelf quicker than a matter of years, keeping tighter control on royalties, doing the promotional and marketing work themselves. There’s still a lot of bad writing out there … but among the chaff, there are also books that are golden.

When I picked up Rick Chambers’ book after hearing him at an author’s reading, I was pretty sure it would rise above the level of chaff. After all, full disclosure, I’d published his work in a past issue of the literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet. When the magazine celebrated its fifth anniversary of publication, Chambers was our first author up at the podium. I’d crossed paths with Chambers at several community literary awards events, and it was him walking to the front to receive first prize and more than once. We live in the same city, and around here, his reputation preceded him: Chambers can write.

And still, an old bias dies a slow death, and when I opened the slick covers of Radiance, and started to read … I was taken aback. Hey. This is good. The copy is clean, hardly an error in it (okay, I spotted one or two, but I spot them in bestsellers, too), nice. More to the point: the storyline, the telling and the writing of it, were very good. A few pages in, I was lost in the story, and all thoughts of copy and publisher were faded to mist.

Radiance is a mix of science fiction and faith genres. Think C.S. Lewis with some hard metal of futuristic technology tossed in. Indeed, perhaps this is why Chambers decided to publish the book himself. This kind of premise might be hard to sell to a mass market, and I imagine traditional publishers may have resisted. If so, their loss. I am not a fan of either genre (although I do enjoy C.S. Lewis), but a good story is a good story.

The premise of Radiance is that two mysterious strangers are traveling the galaxy of the future (conclusion of the 21st century), seeking 10 people who have “Radiance.” Not an easy task, if not impossible, for humanity by that time has deteriorated to most shallow levels, fueled by greed. The few and the powerful, ruthless in their pursuit of material wealth and control—namely, one Eris Lateinos—are about to take control of both humans and cyborgs. Lateinos rules with a cruel hand. He promises happiness and riches to all, but his promises are false and laced with trickery. He enforces his law with an army of cyborgs, part human, part machine.

Tristan West is seemingly a nobody, once a Lateinos PR man, but now he manages to stand in Lateinos’ way at every turn. He has a way of speaking the truth, even when it earns him a pummeling from a cyborg. The two mysterious strangers have connected with him as being one of those who have Radiance, which takes him by surprise. Certainly, he hadn’t seen himself as a Christian in a long time …

What unfolds is a fast-paced intergalactic adventure, a thriller, yes, but also a story of enduring faith when there no longer seems any reason to believe. This is not a story that preaches, but that touches lightly on faith-based ideas that survive time and fashion. Intriguing is the question of whether Christianity might have touched on other planets and not just on Earth. How might it be known among other life forms?

Chambers may touch on a bit of cliché now and then, and scenes of alien meeting hooker can be amusing if predictable, but he will surprise the open-minded reader with a fresh take on some very old questions, and manage to entertain while he does so.

Rick Chambers is a communications professional and a former journalist. In addition to Radiance, he is the author of three novelettes, numerous short stories, and a writer for Chronicles, a direct-to-video/online series. He lives in Portage, Michigan.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 480 pages
• Publisher: Washington Square Press, September 13, 2011
• Price: $15.00
• ISBN-10: 1439198861
• ISBN-13: 978-1439198865

Since I met the author, Dominic Smith, in 2006 for an interview in Austin, Texas, to talk about his then newly published first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre—I was working on an article for the alumni magazine of a Michigan liberal arts college—I have been enthralled with his work. Not a chance that I would miss any of his books. And by now, there are three.

Bright and Distant Shores is Smith’s third novel, and it will be available September 2011. I rocked on my heels in glee when my advance reading copy arrived. Would it meet my high expectations? His first two novels (The Beautiful Miscellaneous was his second) received bountiful critical acclaim.

Smith’s awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great News Writers Program. It also received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Smith's second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was optioned for a film by Southpaw Entertainment and was a pick for Booklist Editors' Choice.

I settled in to be immersed, and I quickly would be. Bright and Distant Shores has depth and length and breadth in all senses of these concepts. The story unfolds to rise high on the skyscrapers of Chicago in 1897 and sails far on the high seas to land on South Pacific islands, from one kind of exotica to another, from that which is thought of as “civilized” to that which has been called “savage,” even as the two mix and meld.

Hale Gray, president of Chicago First Equitable, yearns to thump his chest atop his skyscraper, the tallest building at that time on the Chicago skyline. To bring customers to his insurance business and to gain notoriety in the city, he bankrolls a ship to take Owen Graves and a colorful crew, including his son Jethro, on a voyage to bring back artifacts from faraway places—along with “savages.” This is Gray’s scheme to attract crowds to his business. He plans to set up a display of sorts on the top of his skyscraper where the natives will live in full view of the hoped-for crowds.

Smith has said that the idea for his novel came from a press clipping about a similar scheme in 1897, when a group of Inuit were brought to the American Museum of National History in New York to create a living public display. The Inuit soon became ill of diseases to which their systems were not accustomed, and all of them eventually, tragically, died. The scenario haunted Smith enough to become the seed of the idea for Bright and Distant Shores.

From that seed grew what so well thrives under Smith’s pen: the finest of literary storytelling. The book tells the story of the voyage of richly colored characters, so real we can smell their stink rise from the pages, see their spit on the rims of their beer glasses, rock in our armchairs along with the gales that fill their ship sails, and blush with shame at their treatment of “savages” who, in fact, speak a scholarly English and are far more civilized than the men who lure them overseas for gaping crowds.

“Owen and Jethro stood on the balcony where Baz Terrapin slouched against the railing, big-knuckled and half naked, a white towel around his flaccid middle. He was drinking beer before noon and staring into the mire of his glass. ‘I prefer bottom-fermented beers, like to taste the yeast and hops …’ He took a swig from his jug of fizzing ale, still dripping from his daily plunge in the frigid bay. ‘Constitutional swim is what it is. Testicles like a pair of clams winking shut from the cold. Ah, the heart expands and pumps … gets as big as a Christmas ham. Ticker of a racehorse in here.’ He tapped at his rib cage, grinned. His enormous girth, coupled with the constellation of scars and moles spread across his torso, reminded Owen of the barnacled hull of an ancient, waterlogged ketch. He hunkered across the balcony, a hand spread against his paunch, thumb tucked into the edge of the wrapped towel.” (Page 115-116)

Turn the page open in whatever place in the book and the lines will all be this lush. If on occasion my affections for the characters waned, Smith’s artistry reined me in again. It was that artistry that kept me reading through the first half or so, words like plump fruit, irresistible, but he truly hit his stride in the second half, when rich writing combined fully with rich characterizations, so that I cared, too, about the people in the story and not just the unweaving of the tale.

If there is any small weakness to Smith’s writing, it is that—he can be so caught up in the literary artistry that his characters sometimes pale in comparison. I’m almost glad. One shouldn’t reach perfection so early in the run, after all. And Smith very nearly has.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Paperback: 576 pages
·         Publisher: Washington Square Press, 2011
·         Price: $15.00
·         ISBN-10: 1439152799
·         ISBN-13: 978-1439152799

Oh no. One look at that cover and I winced. A gloomy castle on the side of a mountain, overlooking a lake below, and overhead a rather dusky and stormy sky … so not my type of book. The immediate impression is of something Gothic and hopelessly romantic. But it was a suggestion by my book club, and I do adore my book club, those wise and bookish Mavens, and even when I wince at a club choice, they very nearly always bring me to a conclusion that I have been missing out on something, some book, some author, I would otherwise not have read.
Yes, yes, I know—don’t judge a book by its cover. But, really, I wasn’t wrong. I was not wrong that this is not the sort of book I’d choose on my own, and I wasn’t wrong that I ended up enjoying a book I would otherwise no doubt have never read.
As I have often shared with my book club, I tend to classify good writers and good books into one of three groups (and the not good, well, we’ll just leave them alone). One—the storyteller. The storyteller weaves a great yarn, draws children as well as the elderly close around the evening fire and tells a story that makes the audience lose all track of time. Two—the literary master. Sometimes dense, sometimes overly artsy, the literary master is more concerned with the art form than the story, but constructs such a fine and gorgeous sentence that all is forgiven.
I tend to choose the literary master over the storyteller, because the art form is what fascinates me most. This type of writer is distinctly unique, with a style his or her own.
But oh, when I find a Three! Three—the literary storyteller. This artist who can tell an engaging story even while creating a literary art form is most rare, and when I find such a book, I am lost to the world, immersed in the created world within, and a fan for life. These are my top shelf books.  
Kate Morton easily falls within the group I call the storytellers, and she does indeed weave a fine tale. I easily fell into hours of reading, drawn into the story, enjoying the mystery. Yet the instances that a particular sentence or description took my breath away were few. She is a skilled writer. No unnecessary flourishes, nothing without purpose, no showing off, no spare lines just for the sheer fun of it.
“I followed Percy Blythe along corridors and down sets of stairs into the increasingly dim depths of the castle. Never chatty, that morning she was resolutely stony. Stony and coated with stale cigarette smoke; the smell was so strong I had to leave a pace between us as we walked. The silence suited me, at any rate; after my conversation with Saffy, I was in no mood for awkward chatter. Something in her story, or perhaps not in the story itself so much as the fact that she’d told it to me, was disquieting.” (Page 456)
Morton’s tale is about three sisters who live in a castle—Percy, Saffy and Juniper—and a young woman, Edith, who unfolds their various intertwining mysteries of lost loves, a rather tyrannical father, a fairy tale creature in the moat, and a withdrawn mother who is keeping too much to herself. It all centers around a story written by the father of the sisters, Raymond Blythe, called The True History of the Mud Man.
There is plenty of tale to be told, perhaps too much, and so the reader doesn’t go particularly deep into any one character so much as span a wide horizon of events and dark intrigues. There are also quite a few stormy nights. For this reason, I doubt that anyone might put down the book and feel haunted long after by any particular character in it. They are imminently forgettable. The tale, however, might linger for a while, and for those so inclined, who do enjoy stormy nights and monsters in moats and old women in castle towers gone mad with longing for that one lost love, I think this may suit the bill very well. After all, this type of story has a strong following, as Morton’s quick popularity has shown, and fans of these types of novels can be fervent and loyal. I suspect she has a terrific writing career ahead of her.
Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia, and is writing her third novel.