Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Mind Like This, poetry by Susan Blackwell Ramsey

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press (September 1, 2012)
Price: $17.95
ISBN-10: 0803243383
ISBN-13: 978-0803243385

Susan Blackwell Ramsey's first poetry collection, A Mind Like This, is rich with humor. Read it and weep, probably with laughter, sometimes with a wince, but never because she missed the mark. It is humor knit with wit, laced with the outrageous, intertwined with the meticulous and wonderful detail that makes up life. Because we all know life is in the details. 

First collection, sure, but Ramsey is already well known in her community, and in the literary community far beyond the geographical one, for her poetic skill. This collection, after all, has been some 20 years in the making, revised so many times, the poet says, that she's not sure anymore what's in it and what's not. 

I bet she knows. Ramsey's mind is crammed with detail, dates, places, odd but fascinating tangents, one branching off into another, and another, and another. She likens her mind to a junk drawer, but don't be fooled. These aren't the scraps; these are the poems that matter. Between the lines of seducing Jimmy Stewart, and pickling heads because we want to make things last, third wedding receptions and scarlet bird houses and useless beads that indicate an equally useless civilization, thawing turkeys and picking apart names like Kalamazoo, children in church and Pablo Neruda at Water Street Coffee Joint, Ramsey weaves pure and complex ideas, the deeper understandings of, yes, life. She gets it.

Her mind is like that. It's like this poetry. Witty, clever, sharp, precise. The poets among her readers will recognize the forms she uses as skeletons to build upon, layering muscle, flesh, skin. Sestinas, pantoums, sonnets, villanelles, iambic pentameter, yet nowhere does the poetry bog down with form. The flow is easy, even between chortles. 

And honest. She writes about Bell's Palsy, her own coping with it, and bladders that are forever too small to bear the hour-long wait. It's the honesty that makes the humor work. Yet for all the grins, this lacing of words is never without beauty. It's all in there, all of it. "Joy, daughter of the difficult," Ramsey writes in a poem called "Washing My Husband's Kilt Hose: A 32-Bar Reel." Light requires dark, and such keen humor requires a knowledge of suffering. 

Ramsey's mind, never missing a thing, is just as likely to make a quiet observation that haunts long after the reading (from "Why I Hate Storytellers"):

Good stories sneak up, they're glimpsed, overheard
from the booth behind you at the diner,
from the back seat, six hours into the trip,
on the radio, half over when you tune in.

Real storytellers are quiet, even reluctant.
Casual is their camouflage. After a long
march, supper cooked, night coming down,
the conversation passed around like a pipe,

one voice starts ambling down a path that forks
in unexpected directions and you feel
the great beast purring next to you in the dark,
its bristly chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear.

Ramsey's voice of poetry is the one with its chin on your shoulder, its breath in your ear, and it is a voice you will want to listen to, again and again.

Susan Blackwell Ramsey is the winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry for 2011. Ramsey earned her bachelor of arts at Kalamazoo College, and her MFA at the University of Notre Dame's Creative Writing Program, where she received the department's Mitchell Award. She has taught high school, gardened for hire, worked as a horticultural transparencies librarian, and for many years as a bookseller. She is now an instructor of spinning, knitting and creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Ramsey lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Wayne, with whom she raised three children, her knitting, her garden, and with her Kalamazoo College writers' group closely circled in around her.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nothing More to Tell, stories by George Dila

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 100 pages
Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2011
Price: $15.95
ISBN-10: 193641905X
ISBN-13: 978-1936419050

Nothing more? After reading the nine stories in this story collection by Michigan author George Dila, I'm betting he has plenty more to tell! At least, one hopes. Each story has a satisfying twist, an unflinching turn, and more times than not, an element of surprise. Good reading.

Then again, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. After all, Dila's stories are good reading because they are all so … real. These aren't the quests of heroes. These are stories of the average Joe, the middle-class guy with middling experiences and views, the guy next door with the door closed—until Dila opens that door for us to get a closer look. Unflinchingly authentic, even as one hopes that there are more heroes out there between these men that can often be difficult to like.

Each of the nine stories is set in a Michigan city, large or small, and they do have Michigan flavor, but could just as well be set anywhere. Main characters are all men, with the exception of "Four Letters to Angelie Jolie," which is just that, letters, written by a female maid who is trying to pull a fast one on a celebrity in an attempt to get adopted along with her children. Letters get nastier and baser as the only response received is a photograph signed by Jolie, apparently no longer adopting.

First up in the collection is "Lessons My Father Taught Me." The lead is a winner, instant hook:

"During the summer I was fifteen, on a muggy July night with nothing much else to do, my father and I began working together, stealing from our neighbors."

While this may not be the story of the guy(s) next door (hopefully), it has the element of the average in these two characters, father and son. The tensions in that relationship, the occasional power play, the coming apart and coming together, the hidden skeletons that finally surface. As in reality, it can be hard to know for whom to cheer. Life is never black and white, good and bad. Those we think we know, including ourselves, are never completely knowable. Shadows streak everywhere.

Title story, "Nothing More to Tell," is arguably the most difficult to read yet deserves its title status. Middle-age men lusting after teen girls is an increasing problem aligned with and encouraged by the rise of Internet porn and the general objectification of women in ads and other media. This story's character, Vincent, can't keep his eyes off two scantily-clad teen girls walking along the road, and becomes so distracted while driving that he hits and kills a small boy who runs out into the street. The story follows the inner turmoil of Vincent, through to its stunning ending.

Other stories deal with aging, with family relationships including divorce, with the prejudices many claim to not hold but nevertheless have, and even—a janitor with a second life of being a hit man. "Pizza Pie" may have been one of my favorites, as the hit man who always insists on last words from his hits, to eventually have to say those words himself.

Dila hasn't reached bottom of this barrel. The ease of style in each story indicates the barrel is still full of more stories, and I look forward to their surfacing. While I couldn't like any of these main characters, hope not to meet any of them even as I am sure I have met at least some of them, I am intrigued by the author's sharp eye and willingness to tell that which makes us uncomfortable. There's truth in that.

George Dila's stories and personal essays have appeared in North American Review, Driftwood, Third Wednesday, Current, Traverse, Literal Latte, Christian Science Monitor and other publications. A native Detroiter and graduate of Wayne State University, George now lives with his wife Judith in the Lake Michigan coastal town of Ludington, where he directs the activities of Ludington Visiting Writers, a literary program he founded in 2001.

To hear my radio interview with George Dila, visit WMUK 102.1 FM, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate, for a listen. 


Friday, September 21, 2012

Red Jacket: A Lute Bapcat Mystery by Joseph Heywood

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Lyons Press (September 18, 2012)
Price: $24.95
ISBN-10: 0762782536
ISBN-13: 978-0762782536

Sure, I’ll admit it. I’m a Woods Cop groupie. You know, that gritty mystery series by Joseph Heywood about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Grady Service and his sharp wit and expert moves through the woods, catching up with the eccentric bad guy(s). So now there’s Lute Bapcat—and author Joe Heywood is still in good form picking odd names. There’s a story to this one, this odd name, but that’s in the book pages for your own reading.

Is Lute Bapcat a predecessor of Grady Service? Who knows where this new series will go, or if it might connect to the woods cops of today, but I rather hope so. Bapcat has his beginnings as one of Michigan’s first civil service game wardens. The story opens fast in 1898 with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt shouting for his sharpshooter. That would be President Teddy, and the man with the sharp eye and precise trigger finger—Lute Bapcat, Rough Rider, beaver trapper in the Keweenaw (the peninsula off the Upper Peninsula, stretching its crooked finger into Lake Superior) and cowboy.

In the early 1900s, the Keweenaw was a bustling industrial center with its fortune-making copper mines. Today, the area is quiet, drawing mostly only tourists and history buffs, and some of the mines are now open for tours. Having lived in the Keweenaw myself for a while, I have long been fascinated with the history, imagining the lives that were lived out in those old mining towns, and the lives that were lived out in the dark, far below the ground, in those mile-deep mines. Bapcat gives us a window to see into that time and brings Michigan U.P. history to vivid life.

Heywood’s trademark is always to bring a colorful cast of characters to the pages of his novels, and he does so again in Red Jacket. Along with Bapcat himself, a loner from Copper Harbor, now pushed back into a messy civilization of corrupt village leaders and mine owners, there is his love interest, Widow Frei, suspiciously something like a Madam in town and who requests regular payment on Bapcat’s “debt” by visits to her bedroom; the hilarious Pinkhus Sergeyevich Zakov, who becomes Bapcat’s sidekick and “wife”; George Gipp, the ballplayer from Laurium (you’ll recognize him from “one for the Gipper” fame); and Big Annie, a character based on history who played an important part in the bloody miner strikes, and many, many others.

The characters are placed within well researched historical events: labor strikes that escalate into horrific violence that finally conclude with the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, where 73 lives, mostly women and children, family members of striking miners, were lost. An arc and monument from the Italian Hall can still be found in Calumet (once called Red Jacket) today. And part of the mystery trail is traversed by one of the newest contraptions of the time—a Model T from a man named Henry Ford in Detroit.

Bapcat and his sidekick Zakov try to bring some order to the Keweenaw as countless deer are found decapitated and rotting in the woods, and water streams are poisoned, killing fish and making well water undrinkable. All of this is meant to force the miners to return to the mines or die of starvation, but survival in the mines means coping with inhumane conditions. The Michigan governor seems to be turning a blind eye, while the local law enforcement is riddled with corruption.

Heywood is as sharp as ever in his storytelling skills. His sense of humor is ever present, and his characters come alive in Technicolor, a movie playing out before the reader’s mind’s eye. The dialogue is always realistic and spare and often laugh-out-loud funny. Although there was a midpoint in the story where I thought it might be edited back a bit with a bog of historical detail, it didn’t take long before I realized I would be making the switch easily enough from a Grady Service groupie to Lute Bapcat fan. Heywood remains my favorite author when I crave a good mystery, set in northern wilderness. Just enough hints were laid out for future stories in this new series, and I am eager to follow the trail.

Joseph Heywood is the author of The Snowfly, Covered Waters, The Berkut, Taxi Dancer, The Domino Conspiracy—and the eight novels comprising the Woods Cop Mystery Series. Featuring Grady Service, a detective in the Upper Peninsula for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, this series has earned its author cult status among lovers of the outdoors, law enforcement officials, and mystery devotees. Heywood lives in Portage, Michigan, but spends much of his time riding with the real woods cops in the Upper Peninsula. For more on Joseph Heywood and the Woods Cop Mysteries, visit the author's web site at

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 312 pages
Publisher: T. S. Poetry Press (February 10, 2012)
Price: $32.00
ISBN-10: 0984553185
ISBN-13: 978-0984553181

Author Deborah Henry has said about the writing of her debut novel: “I wrote The Whipping Club because what I found hidden, I needed to uncover.”

An understatement, no doubt, as first novels of this scope aren’t written by merely turning over a rock. That had to be at very least a sizeable boulder, and the courage to write it equally so. The Whipping Club is a story about Marian McKeever, a teacher and a Catholic, and the man with whom she falls in love, a journalist and Jewish, in Dublin, Ireland, of 1957. It is about the child she carried at the time of their engagement, but felt she couldn’t keep. It is the story of an unforgiving society that would rather look the other way than to face its troubles, about churches corrupted by power, about the dark secrets of orphanages and homes for unwed mothers, and the abuse so prevalent in these institutions.

With that premise comes a great deal of suffering, and for no one more than the abandoned child. In 1957 Ireland, to marry out of one’s faith was unacceptable enough, but to carry a child as a young, still unwed mother was beyond forgiveness. The young Marian made the heart-wrenching decision (or perhaps, more accurately, was forced into this decision by the norms of that time) to give birth to her child, but then give it up to what she hoped would be a better life than the one she could offer. She entered a home for unwed mothers, keeping her secret even from her fiancĂ©. After all, his family was already up in arms about their inter-faith marriage.

Based on extensive research, including a trip to Ireland, Henry delves deep into the horrors behind closed doors of power and privilege. Henry is herself Irish-American and born of inter-faith parents, Jewish and Catholic. A seed for a novel may be born there, but Henry has created a story from that seed that touches all hearts that can still be touched, and shakes up even those who would rather be unshaken and remain asleep—The Whipping Club whips up emotion that is difficult and painful. Few things can be more painful than the loss of a child, let alone facing up to the abuse of that child.

The home for unwed mothers is a cruel place of forced penance on pregnant girls, no matter the circumstances of their condition. The girls are sent out to “mow” the lawn by pulling up sheaves of grass with their hands. They are taunted and punished and humiliated without and beyond reason, yet their suffering is shadowed by what happens to many of their children. Rather than being adopted by families, many of the children are placed instead in orphanages where sexual abuse is rampant, beatings are an everyday occurrence, and ever thicker and darker lies are told to maintain cover. Children die, and no one flinches.

When Marian and Ben come full circle to confront the reality of the child left behind, by then having a 10-year old daughter, any fantasies Marian may have held as comfort that her child was better off are shattered. Her unwavering search for her son is perhaps not nearly as mesmerizing as her struggles to connect with him once she finds him. A great many doors come bursting open, and a great many shadows are drawn into near-blinding light.

If ever the story becomes almost too heavy to bear, it is lightened again by the characters that do the right thing, overcoming fear and threats and societal pressure. Throwing lifelines to the reader are the resilience and will to survive of the children. Children are a powerful force, and in spite of the sins of the adults, enough of them survive to give a corrupt society hope for a more tolerant and compassionate future. Classic moments of reunited mother and child, even if only momentarily, brighten the storyline enough to keep the suffering from becoming overpowering—yet just weighty enough to stay with the reader long after the book is done.

Adrian. The child she had never forgotten stood there, in between Father Brennan and Nurse, and to Father Brennan’s left, the short and strapping Sister Agnes, but they could all disappear into thin air. Except for him. The yearning had never diminished. All these years, all she had ever wanted was to see him again in the flesh, and dreamed that he would be returned to her and their home where he could be safe and happy.

“Marian crouched down so that she could gaze into his eyes. She desperately wanted him to feel her love for him. She wanted him to know that she was sorry, wanted to tell him that she hoped they could make up for lost time. All this time. Still, she could have never found him. How many times had she secretly daydreamed about him since he was ripped from her life? How her da would have wanted him, too! She must remain calm in front of the fat Sister. He was a big boy, a beautiful boy. He had the map of a McKeever on his face. She reached toward him and brought him into her arms. She felt her body shaking, the heat of shame scouring her.”

Deborah Henry’s first short story was published by The Copperfield Review, was a historical fiction finalist for Solander Magazine of The Historical Novel Society and was long-listed in the 2009/10 Fish Short Story Prize. The Whipping Club is her first novel and was chosed for Oprah’s Summer 2012 reading list. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, with her husband and their three children. She is currently at work on her next book. Visit her at Henry’s work has also been published in The Smoking Poet, where an author interview will be featured in the Fall 2012 issue.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Somewhere Over the Pachyderm Rainbow: Living in an Elephant-Controlled 2010 Election Diorama

A Collection of Political Poetry Musings by Jennifer C. Wolfe

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 115 pages
• Publisher: BlazeVOX books, 2011
• Price: $16.00
• ISBN-10: 1609640578
• ISBN-13: 978-1609640576

Another election looms, and while this collection of political poetry musings by Jennifer C. Wolfe is dated for the 2010 elections, little has changed; they apply just as well today, if only with a few updated news headlines.

If you are a conservative in political leaning, duck. Wolfe doesn’t hold back, doesn’t mince words, isn’t shy about going for the Republican jugular. Her poetic musings take on not only the election that handed control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republican Party, but addresses many of the headline events of the past few years—the Arizona shooting of Congresswoman Gifford, the 9/11 responders’ battle to receive ground zero health care reimbursement, Sarah Palin’s hold on God’s ear, Rush Limbaugh’s tantrums over the airwaves, George W. Bush from every sorry angle, the election of America’s first African American president, and more. Much more. No elephant dropping is left unturned, and Wolfe comes in blazing, and turning, and blazing some more.

Ah, vitriol—the new Geritol.
Swallow two pills and bash your opponent’s head in, in the morning.

To be fair, bashing happens on both sides, and Wolfe bashes away with gusto herself. And that’s where I give her high marks. How refreshing! How rejuvenating to hear someone care so deeply, so hotly, about current events and all that goes on in our body politic. Apathy has been too long a national cancer, and if one thinks it doesn’t matter—vote or don’t vote, pay attention or don’t, follow current events or change the channel—oh, it does. We are where we are precisely because too many of us have had our blinders on and couldn’t be bothered.

If you lean right, even a little, this collection will rile you—and that’s good. Will it inspire you to toss out a bit of vitriol yourself? Good. The important thing is to care enough to blink an eye, because that’s when change really begins to happen. If government isn’t what it should be, look in the mirror. We the people, you know?

What earns my respect most is passion, and Wolfe brims with it. I’m not sure I would use the word “poetic” to describe this collection; I see little of poetry here. The closest we get to poetry is the occasional beat of a steady rhythm in line pairings. I would cross that word out of the title and leave in, simply, musings, because that is what these are, and Wolfe muses loud and clear. Vitriol alone, however, while crucial to get the fire burning, won’t be enough. Caring must inspire action, and there are plenty of ways to create change, become involved, do the work, build the dream you want to see. If this collection moves any reader to that, I thunder applause.

Jennifer C. Wolfe grew up in Maplewood, Minnesota, and studied fiction writing and poetry at Century College in White Bear Lake. Wolfe has been published in the Century College (White Bear Lake, MN) Spring 2008 Student Lounge literary magazine; Scrambler Magazine; and has had three e-books published by BlazeVOX: Kick the Stones: Everyday Hegemony, Empire, and Disillusionment; Yukon Rumination: Great Fun for All in the Land of Sarah Palin's Joe Sixpack Alaska; and Healing Optimism, and Polarization. Somewhere Over the Pachyderm Rainbow is Wolfe's first print published book.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sarabande by Malcolm R. Campbell

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·        Paperback: 238 pages
·        Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2011
·        Price: $13.95
·        ISBN-10: 1937227758
·        ISBN-13: 978-1937227753

Matter of taste, and mine has never led me, not easily, to fantasy or science fiction reading—yet Malcolm R. Campbell, with his fantasy novel Sarabande, easily pulled me in. The main character, our mythic heroine, is Sarabande, and she appeals in every way to the female reader. She is street smart at the same time that she is savvy, and even as she enters a world unknown to her, she is sharp and strong enough to find her way through challenge after challenge, disaster after nightmare.

Sarabande’s quest is to find her own peace—she has been haunted by her dead sister for years. Her quest takes her into the past to settle the unsettled with her sister Dryad, an anti-heroine, or to take her place in her sister's grave. She travels through Montana and Illinois and across time to accomplish her mission, but encounters a nightmare along the way in the shape of a man, Danny Jenks, a brutal truck driver without conscience.

Campbell describes a rape scene that is difficult to read, yet at the same time, earns my respect with his skill in describing this scene, and its aftermath on the woman. Indeed, I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the writing of a male author. It is rare to find this ability in an author to cross genders even in everyday basics such as conversation, mannerisms. To do so in describing the effect of rape on a woman’s body and psyche is nothing short of amazing. Campbell nails it: her anger, her pain, her humiliation, her ferocity that eventually takes her from victim to survivor to avenger.

Blending the fantasy world near seamlessly with reality, Campbell takes the reader from one world into the other and back again with such ease that the reader can easily enter the world of suspended disbelief required to read fantasy. Flying horses vanish and reappear. The dead rise from their graves. Magical beings intermingle with humans. And, not least magical, Campbell avoids cliché deftly, finding new ways to express scenes that could easily fall into the former category:

“Sarabande pushed the hood back and let the wind seize her hair and jumble it with the stuff of clouds.”

See? Dipping one toe into an image that could make one wince, he manages to dance away with fresh expression. It works.

Sarabande is a satisfying read. We are given a heroine we can understand and with whom we can sympathize. We travel alongside her through conflict and challenge, cheering her on. She suffers and endures, and finally rises above. How she does this … you’ll have to read for yourself.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two other fantasies, The Sun Singer (who returns in this novel) and Garden of Heaven: An Odyssey, also a comedy satire called Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire. He lives in Georgia.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Keepsake by Kristina Riggle

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 384 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (June 26, 2012)
• Price: $14.99
• ISBN-10: 0062003070
• ISBN-13: 978-0062003072

A mother’s fear: a knock on the door from family protective services talking about taking away your child. What good mother wouldn’t turn somersaults to keep her child home and her family intact? Any good mother would—but in Kristina Riggle’s novel, Keepsake, doing just that is especially demanding. The reason that social worker is standing at the door ties directly into her addiction—hoarding. Hoarding is the inability to throw anything out, to the point of filling one’s living space with items until there is no room to live within that space.

Trish really is a good mother. It’s a pleasure to read about her interactions with her little boy, Jack, contrasting against the twinge of reading about her disorder. Addicts can still love, but it’s their behavior that is out of control. Riggle does a wonderful job of showing the reader that an addiction does not define a person. It’s a symptom of something buried deep inside that the person has not yet confronted and resolved.

Adding another interesting element of contrast to this story about hoarding and families is another member of the family, Trish’s sister Mary. The two women are actually the daughters of a hoarder, but while one has followed in the cluttered steps of her mother, the other has veered to the other extreme. If not quite an obsessive compulsive disorder, Mary is a neat freak who can’t seem to stop cleaning, wiping, vacuuming, ordering everything in her spotless home.

Riggle’s novel handles these elements without any clutter on the author’s part. The story cleanly moves toward a suspenseful ending: will this family be torn apart or brought together by the damage done by hoarding? Ex-husbands return, therapists sneak in disguised as friends who somehow manage to add elements of romance, and family history is unearthed to reveal deep secrets held over generations.

Keepsake is a fascinating read about a growing affliction in modern American society, giving readers insight into how intelligent, competent people can fall into behavior patterns with the potential to ruin lives, break apart families and endanger not only themselves but those that are close to them. It also brings up the question of why we are seeing more hoarding in our society. Insight into this phenomenon of living in clutter, unable to throw out anything, let go of any object in one’s home, can only help us take a hard look at ourselves and how we live.

Kristina Riggle is a novelist and freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.