Monday, October 21, 2013

The Whiteness of the Whale by David Poyer

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Print Length: 333 pages
ISBN: 1250020565
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (April 2, 2013)

Yet again, I watched another news story on the evening news that matched almost exactly the story David Poyer tells in The Whiteness of the Whale. This may be a novel, but it is based on factual scenarios, happening all too often on the oceans. As in real life, the novel tells a story of activists in pursuit of a Japanese whaling fleet they’ve observed killing whales and processing the whales for meat. That has long been illegal for all but scientific research purposes, yet the Japanese still hunt and kill whale in the Antarctic waters, hiding behind the banner of “research.”

The activists in pursuit are a motley crew. A primate behaviorist, a Hollywood movie star, a double-amputee Afghanistan war veteran, and others, each adding their own storyline and colorful personality as they sail together on the Black Anemone.  

They are not the only ones in pursuit. After an altercation with the Japanese whaling fleet, described with unnerving detail that makes the suffering of the whales uncomfortably memorable, the Black Anemone picks up a castaway. More, they pick up a tail. At this point, the story takes on echoes of Moby Dick, as a whale turns on the boat and goes out of its way to destroy the ship and the crew.

Poyer writes from a base of experience. He has a 30-year sea career on which to base his many sea novels. That kind of first-hand knowledge adds all kinds of subtle layers of nuance that bring scene after scene alive, some terrifyingly so. There are sections of the book that, when read, leave what feels like an uncanny splash of seawater on the reader’s face.

The activists don’t always come off as heroes. They appear human. Characters show their weaknesses as well as their heroic moments. The whale recognizes none, in dogged pursuit, seemingly enraged by the slaughter those very activists tried to prevent.

Poyer’s strongest characterizations are, in fact, the whale and the primate behaviorist, Dr. Sara Pollard. It’s not often one reads such accurate and effective cross-gender writing, but Poyer captures her female voice precisely.

I enjoyed the book enough to want to know more, and asked the author to do an author interview in the Summer/Fall 2013 Issue of TheSmoking Poet. My hope is that such novels take on a life outside of the fiction world and enter into the movement to save whales from the kind of barbarous scenes of slaughter Poyer describes and evening news show all too often.

David Poyer’s naval career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific.  His thirty-plus books, including twenty sea novels, have been translated into Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and other languages. He’s also written sailing, diving, and nautical history articles for Chesapeake Bay, Southern Boating, Shipmate, Tidewater Virginian, and other periodicals. His work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.  He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his wife and daughter, with whom he explores the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast in their sloop, Water Spirit.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Psychiatrist, poetry by Mariela Griffor

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Eyewear Publishing (October 23, 2013)
Price: $24.00
ISBN-10: 1908998113
ISBN-13: 978-1908998118

I’ve had the privilege to read the galleys for Mariela Griffor’s third poetry collection, The Psychiatrist, which will be published in late October 2013. The experience is mesmerizing, even healing.

My introduction to Griffor’s work came through Exiliana, her first collection. Thirteen poems from that collection are included in this one, only two from her second, House, and twenty-one poems are new. In them all, Griffor allows us windows into her remarkable life.

Born in Chile, Griffor was a Chilean opponent to the military regimen of General Pinochet  in love with another such opponent. Their love story is a tragic one; he was assassinated, and Griffor, expecting their child, was exiled to Sweden. Eventually, she married an American and moved to the Detroit area in Michigan. Much of this life story appears in her work, in the tender ache of a lost love, in the fierce love of a mother for her child, in the love for her ancestral home left behind.

In these poems, we step into Chile, Sweden and, finally, the streets of Detroit. We visit Griffor’s broken and patched-again heart. We step into her life. Griffor exposes her vulnerability with courage, but then also lets us see her resilience, her street smarts, her determined survival.

“I should have died but the devil/did not want me,” she writes in the poem, “Code Names.”

Griffor does not write dense poetry. I say this as a compliment. To call her an accessible poet, too, is meant as a compliment. Her images are clear, in almost plain wrapping, and nothing stands between the poet, the poem, the reader.  It is as if the poet has unzipped her skin and put her core self on the page, the experience of her life, and allowed us entry. And not just us, but also a kind of alter ego, an invented friend: “I invent a friend to pour out/remembrances of the old country” (from “Prologue I”). She finishes that poem so: “As I invent you, I invent myself.” With that, Griffor states plainly and clearly the truth of all writers, that literature is an unveiling of self, and in so doing, a kind of therapy, an easing of loneliness, a word-balmed healing, an invitation to the reader to come inside and connect, if even for just an instant in time.

And we connect. Griffor holds up no barriers. There is a disarming sincerity to her poetry. She asks the questions we have all at some time in our well-lived lives asked. “What do we do with the love if you die?” (from “Love for a subversive”). She births grief like she births new life, and in that birthing of a grief, its slow laboring, it’s painful entry into the light, one realizes just how alike these two processes are, and the prizes for enduring both: new life.

“Maybe just poets can understand each other, /even bad poets have another language. It is like/the words are invented only for those who love them,” Griffor writes in the new poem, “Death in Argentina.” To some degree, that may be, but no one is left standing outside Griffor’s gate. If not all of us have experienced exile, most all of us have known rootlessness, being lost in the sea of life, and to that part of us that we keep hidden, protected, denied, unloved, shamed, wrapped in secrets and lies, to that part Griffor reaches out and gives a healing touch. Much like a psychiatrist.

Mariela Griffor is the author of Exiliana (Luna Publications) and House (Mayapple Press). She was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She is co-founder of The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University and Publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Griffor is Honorary Consul of Chile in Detroit, Michigan. 

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Booklover: A One-Year Journal of Reading, Reflecting and Remembering by Timothy James Bazzett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Rathole Books, 2010
Price: $18.00
ISBN-10 0977111946
ISBN-13 978-0977111947

I met Tim Bazzett—virtually but not yet in person—through an email exchange about books. Of course. We exchanged thoughts about the novel of a Michigan writer that he felt, by reading some of my reviews, that I perhaps understood better than he. That got my attention. How many people do you know who have approached you to say you may just get something better than they do?

Sharp guy. Actually, I’m not sure I did get that book better than Bazzett, but we got a good conversation going, and one book leading to another, he sent me one of his own books: Booklover. Is this going to be a very long, elaborate listing of all the books this book addict has ever read? I wondered. Well, something along those lines. Only Bazzett adds in plenty of his own lines, managing to tell his story while talking about the stories written and told by others.

Booklover is one of several memoirs Bazzett has written. He begins by expressing his disdain for the reading fare that kindergartners are given, if the children are given books to read at all, and with that introduction, he had me on board.  (I, too, am an admitted book addict.) From there, this memoir describes Bazzett's moves from Michigan to California and to Europe, part of that being his military service. It is also the story of his marriage and the family.

It's a down home story, and Bazzett tells it in a friendly, easy style that makes you feel like you are sitting on the front porch with him, making friends. He can be charmingly self-deprecating, willing to open his door to the reader in a frank manner, if sometimes perhaps a bit too frank. There are times that I don't want to know where his guy's mind wanders, moments that tingle on my feminist bone when he muses on the female gender, but in the next moment I've forgiven him, because, well, he just comes off as a genuinely nice guy.

I could also do without the repeated "but no matter" continuously inserted into the telling of Bazzett's story, but that's it, those are my only complaints. Bazzett is a classic. He excels at being himself, no pretenses, rather than trying to outdo someone else among the literati. He has a fun way of inserting his sense of humor, even while building up the reader's desire to go to the nearest library or book store and bring home a mountain of books to read that Bazzett has recommended. It is with his insights into literature and authors that we realize just how sharp-minded he is. I hope I do get to sit on his front porch, or mine, with him sometime.

Bazzett lives in Reed City, Michigan, with his wife and his books. He has published five memoirs and a biography. He is a book reviewer for The Smoking Poet.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Hogarth, 2012
Price: $25.00
ISBN-10: 0307955893
ISBN-13: 978-0307955890

I avoid war novels. Until I find a really, really good one. In recent weeks, The Watch is one of those that qualified. I have a difficult time reading about human cruelty, and that is, after all, what war is about, in excess and in extreme. I make exceptions, however, when the writing is exceptional and the subject matter can teach me something I don't yet know and should.

Even as the war in Afghanistan has been going on for too many years, I realize that I don't really have a strong understanding of it—and honestly, I'm not sure this novel has changed that. Let's face it: war is beyond understanding. It's madness. But author Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya has captured something of the essence of every war and revealed it to us in this novel, including the human spirit that survives it and even overcomes something of the madness. 

The Watch is the story of a Pashtun woman who has lost her legs during the war, approaching a U.S. Army base in Kandahar to demand the return of her brother's body. Weary from battle, the soldiers have no idea what to do. The woman, in part based on the myth of Antigone, positions herself in the desert outside the base and refuses to move. Maybe she's a terrorist, wired with a bomb the moment she is approached. Maybe she's lost her mind. Maybe she is in disguise, not a woman at all. The soldiers debate what to do, as the intensity of the situation escalates and reveals what war does to those on both sides of the battle.

After reading the book, I had the privilege of interviewing the author in the Spring 2013 issue of The Smoking Poet, and Roy-Bhattacharya spoke of the philosophy on which he built his novel, the ways in which he did research to paint a realistic scene without ever visiting Afghanistan himself, the role of women in war, and his feelings about passivity when encountering war. It makes for fascinating insight.

As a writer, though, it is the level of quality in writing that gets my attention most. Roy-Bhattacharya wields a skillful pen. His story drew me in instantly, his characterization brought these people alive to me, and his literary talent added beauty to what is the ugliest part of human nature—our lust to kill each other.

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was educated in politics and philosophy at Presidency College, Calcutta, and the University of Pennsylvania. His novels The Gabriel Club and The Storyteller of Marrakesh have been published in fourteen languages. He lives in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Atlanta: A Novella by Loreen Niewenhuis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback, 129 pages
Publisher: Main Street Rag Publishing, 2011
Price: $9.95
ISBN-10: 1599482916
ISBN-13: 978-1599482910

This is embarrassing. I'm about to confess to judging a book by its cover. And I knew better, I did! I knew the author, Loreen Niewenhuis, from her previous travelogue/memoir, A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I knew this author is a skilled writer … and  yet, and yet, I let this book sit on my table for a very, very long time. Unread. Because of the cover. Let's face it, it looks like a travel guide to Atlanta.

I've been to Atlanta, and perhaps it was the circumstances surrounding me at the time, but I didn't particularly enjoy the trip. I'd look at this cover and feel not one degree above lukewarm, and I would end up picking another book to read. You know, with a more enticing cover.

Well, enough already about the unexciting cover. I finally did get past it to the first page. And from then on, gasp, I kept paging until the very end, completely enthralled.

The scene opens with Bruce the janitor. He is preparing to buff the floor. While doing so, he lights up a joint. Soon, he gets off work to pick up a street walker, Janine, pays her $50 to hold his hand, nothing more, just hold his hand. What Bruce really wants, aside from having his hand held, is to buy a puppy.

And off we go, one interesting character of another, as if disconnected, yet all dotting Atlanta and bringing it to life, like one light going on after another throughout the city, until it is all aglow with the shimmer of humanity.

An intricate weaving forms the fabric of Atlanta. Mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors and people in passing, all expose their most vulnerable places to Niewenhuis's light—and to the reader. These are the residents of the city, different social and economic classes, races, backgrounds, and gradually their paths intersect, as they must.

Niewenhuis shapes her characters with such care and detail, that we do not doubt that they live. They do live. Long after the last page is turned, with only the regret at end that this is a novella instead of a novel.

Do me a favor. Just read. Suddenly you see the many lives living inside that city on the cover. These are lives that matter, if only because they live so true.

Loreen Niewenhuis is a scientist, adventurer and writer. She holds a MS degree from Wayne State University and a MFA from Spalding University. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals including The Antioch Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Smoking Poet and Bellevue Literary Review. Her short story collection, Scar Tissue, was a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. In 2009, she took on the challenge of walking all the way around Lake Michigan. A 1,000 Mile Walk on the Beach is the book about her adventure.

Rotary Phones and Facebook by Meg Eden

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Chapbook, 25 pgs.
Dancing Girl Press, 2012
Price: $7.00

First impressions count. When I took in hand the chapbook of poetry by Meg Eden, printed by Dancing Girl Press, I was underwhelmed. The pages were roughly cut and not numbered. No table of contents. The back cover had an edge not cut in line with the rest, leaving a paper tag. No ISBN number. Not the heavier stock of paper that might indicate quality …

… but it is what is inside a book, or chapbook, that counts, right?

The first typo I encountered was on the acknowledgement page. "Do I need to chose?" Really? If a publisher can't take the time to proof and do at least light editing, an author should. Or ask a literary friend to do so. I counted 15 such errors, misspellings and grammar glitches in the book, and then I stopped counting. Arguments that content counts more than presentation don’t move me. Take pride in your work, or I won't take any in putting your work on my bookshelf.
Just a few examples:

"make due with what you've got"

"there's books to read"

"there's more girls"

"I think of Sayori and I in Tenjin station"

The serious reader won't return to an author or a press that allows this sort of thing to slip by. It's ugly.

On to the poetry. Eden is not without talent. She's been published in a few literary mags and lists several honorable mentions and awards. That should mean something. And it does. Eden writes a good poem frequently enough that at moments I can lose myself in her images and well-formed lines and leave the warped wrapping behind. 

In many of the poems, as Eden is still a young woman, she writes about her mother, about growing up, about the discovery of love, and self, and first heartbreak. Mother paints her daughter's nails in the poem "ritual" as a subtle way of moving her daughter past a breakup with a boyfriend. She shares her vintage aprons. She chastises her daughter about brushing her hair. She gathers crowbars and hammers to bust through a wall to find the source of a terrible smell—dead rodents. Her influence is great upon the poet, and when the poet gives Mother her due, both are at their best.

Poems such as "the silk flower" show real promise, a poet taking root. This time, Father takes a prominent role.

There! father pointed to the scrawny bud,
like a fern, beginning its infestation.
pull it by the roots. do not let it spread its spores.
I point out their pink feather duster flowers,
the beauty they are capable of producing,
but he is not won over. these things, once they grow
old enough, their trunks get thick,
their cambium cumbersome, get them
while they're young. I think of young

girls and mothers armed with kitchen knives
and scissors. take the legs and peel the pleasure
like sap from bark. grow into a woman-
shape. we will take your feet and prune them
into little dolls. set root into the floor boards.

little mimosas shrink in the cover
of the woods.

I suspect that there should be an apostrophe in "dolls" to indicate "doll's feet," but perhaps not, perhaps just feet into dolls ... and I do wish that tired old gig of leaving out capitals (except for the word "I," as if ego was all that stands above the rest) would die already, but the poem itself touches me. It has weight, it carries a message, and the image is sharp.

And there you have it. With room for improvement, I still end up liking this poet.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flying Carpets by Hedy Habra

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 203 pages
Publisher: March Street Press, 2012
Price: $15.00
ISBN-10: 1596611685
ISBN-13: 978-1596611689

I grew up reading Latvian folk tales, and as an adult, I have often experienced that a-ha moment of realization that much of my value system, my work ethic, my life outlook, has been developed by those enchanting tales of my childhood. Oh, how I loved to read as a little girl! And still do. So when I opened up Flying Carpets, and immersed in the world on the page before me, I felt myself as if traveling back in time to that sweet world of long ago.

Initially, I couldn't quite understand why I was so drawn to these tales of exotic lands, magic and fantasy, but then I realized that childhood connection. That's it! We all love going back, back to our past of innocence and wonder—and Hedy Habra masterfully waves her writing wand and brings us there with this collection.

These are stories influenced by the author's Middle Eastern background in Egypt and Lebanon. From there fly and float these magic carpets, as we read about temples and mountain villages, gliding boats and fragrant kitchens, flaming fish and rich tapestries. Traditions surface to conflict with contemporary issues. The further into the book one reads, the more fantastical the stories become. 

Habra's language, which no doubt is only enriched by the fact that the author speaks several, lulls with a powerful magic of its own:

"Calm down, child. Fear is a gust of cold wind you must not allow in your mind or heart. The way torrential storms ruthlessly invade fragile houses, fear's whirling eddies will possess you, penetrating through the least fissures … Look closely and see how tightly woven is the braided wheat wreath framing her, protecting her from all winged creatures, stallions, falcons, lions, even from angels. Like her, retreat into your center." (Page 175)

Habra's language alone is enough to transport. These are fairy tales for the adults who still believe—and those who need awakening from forgetting how to believe. These stories tell tales of love and loss, of a longing to leave the known behind and enter something greater and more universal—and surely that is the echo of the universal human heart. Each story builds an intimate world around the reader, often, but not always, with strong women in leading roles, even when they are struggling against cultural constraints demanding conformity. Through magical realism, these characters reflect the inner voices many of us hold deep inside.

Flying Carpets is a story collection in the grand tradition of storytelling. For those who know Habra's poetry, discovering her equal expertise in prose will be a treat. 

Hedy Habra, born and raised in Egypt, is of Lebanese origin. She received her M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature from Western Michigan University where she currently teaches. Her poetry and fiction in French, Spanish, and English have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Smoking Poet, Puerto del Sol, The New York Quarterly, Cider Press Review, Nimrod, Poet Lore, and Dinarzad's Children Second Edition. Her critical essays have appeared in literary journals such as Chasqui and Latin American Literary Review. Her newest title is Tea in Heliopolis, a poetry collection published by Press 53.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games by Jeanne Hess

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 248 pages
Publisher: Balboa Press, 2012
Price: $17.99
ISBN-10: 145254381X
ISBN-13: 978-1452543819

I listened to the news sportscaster and thought of Jeanne Hess. I wondered, what would she think of this fierce language? "Our team will annihilate them," the newscaster swore, lifting a fist of victory in the air, referring to the local football team doing battle with the opposing team. The news anchor tossed her comments into the swirl, using phrases like: beat them into the ground … grind them to dust … smash them to smithereens … flatten and destroy.

One might think this was the language of war.

"When we peel words back to the original meaning, they provide us with an intent that often differs from current cultural thought and offer a level of understanding that enlightens the soul." (Page 32)

I read the pages of Sportuality with increasing interest. If I entered with doubts, I emerged with none. Mind you, I'm not what one would call a sports fan. I played center on a girls' basketball team in school, and I wasn't bad in track, and now and then I've tossed a ball with friends. But a fan? Not really. My remote control never stalls on ESPN. It's possible that the violent factor in sports has something to do with that.

Interestingly enough, even though I don't usually watch sports games (I enjoy being at the actual games, not watching them on television), it occurred to me that quite a few of my favorite movies were sports stories. How does that make sense? Reading Sportuality, I realized why. 

Sports movies are about a hero's quest. An athlete is on a quest to achieve his or her own personal best, against all odds, rising above all obstacles, enduring through all conflicts, fulfilling potential. All the elements of a great story are there—and I'm a writer. I love a good quest.

In fact, if I started reading Sportuality with skepticism, that was soon why I found myself immersed and enjoying the read. Hess isn't citing sports statistics here. She's talking about a hero's quest, and she writes about the roots of language. She tells great stories, memorable and inspiring ones, and she leaves "time-outs" for reader introspection, offering questions for exploration.

"Sportuality" is a concept of blending sports and spirituality. Dividing the book into sections that have the reader contemplate competition, community, communication, spirit, humor, enthusiasm, education, religion, holiness, sanctuary, sacrifice, and victory, Hess begins by examining the roots of the words. As it turns out, more times than not, contemporary sports-loving society has so mangled these common words and concepts that their original meaning has been, well, annihilated. Hess resurrects them to accuracy.

Sports, she writes, is actually a means of human communication. Sports "is a vehicle for life." As for the spiritual aspect, Hess states that God intended us to play and have fun in life—and thus, her mission to restore the fun in games. Hess discusses the spiritual, even religious, aspect of sports (from this comes the word, and the concept of sportuality), and anyone who does watch sports will attest to the constant call to prayer before games, references to team spirit, and the similarities in spiritual pilgrimages to an athlete's quest for excellence.

The parallel quests for the divine and for excellence in sports are not at all far-fetched, although some readers may chafe a little at the idea of worship as applied to sports. It is certainly something that has bothered me, and perhaps has something to do with why I have not become a sports fan—so many such fans really do seem to worship sports and athletes, taking it to a level that may belong more in a house of worship than a ball park. Hess gives us another look at these parallels.

Considering that God refers to the physical body as a "temple," Hess may just have a point here. We have taken sports too far into the physical realm alone, and Hess is calling us back to consider its spiritual side. Competition, she writes, is not a word that means to annihilate or grind to dust or beat to smithereens. When we take it to its roots, it is actually a concept that means playing with another in a manner that brings out the best in both.

That gave me pause. As did much of what Hess discusses in Sportuality. By book end, I understood my resistance to sports was a resistance to violence, not to the game. Hess had indeed restored the joy. More, she has a call to all of us to reconsider how we play the game. Not to "sissify" that game, because her call is to achieve excellence, overcome obstacles, learn endurance and persistence in the pursuit of our quest, but without taking it down to us vs. them, and debasing sports to the ugliness of violence. 

Sportuality is an important book. In a society immersed in sports, we must take a second look at our approach to the games. At a time when football, for one, is being reexamined as so violent that athletes are sustaining life-threatening damage to their bodies, we would be wise to step back to consider the part we left on the bench: true team spirit.

Jeanne Hess is a native of Detroit, Michigan, and was a varsity athlete at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. She has been a volleyball coach, professor of physical education, and college chaplain at Kalamazoo College for nearly 30 years, and is the wife of a coach and the mother of two professional athletes. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Jim, whom she met in a gym. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Devil in the North Woods by Walt Shiel

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 246 pages
Publisher: Slipdown Mountain Pubns, 2005
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 0974655317
ISBN-13: 978-0974655314

Like any wildfire, it begins with a spark. A small flame, and at first it is hard to tell if it will take off and blaze, or end in a whisper of smoke. Devil in the North Woods, a historical novel based on the 1908 fire that destroyed the town of Metz, Michigan, and left 43 dead and 4,600 residents suddenly homeless, begins just that way. A spark, a simmer, a lick of flame, and then, increasingly, the novel blazes with its storyline.

Author Walter Shiel based his novel on research that includes oral histories and various reports. He chose as his main character the real person of Henry Hardies, who at the time of the Metz fire was a 10-year-old boy who lost his mother and three sisters to the fire. Photos bring reality to the story, reminding the reader that fire destroys without mercy.

Aside from the Hardies boy, however, are intertwined the many stories of other Metz residents. A school teacher, a young and rattled woman looking for her fiancé, a husband and wife battling for their farm who are burned nearly to death, yet survive with a remarkable endurance and will to live. And others. Together, they bring the reader straight into the flames, sensing the rising heat of the steel walls of a train that Metz residents hope outruns the wall of flame, or into the woods where exhausted runners fall to the ground for a breath of less smoky air at earth level, going so far as to press their faces into holes they scratch into the soil that work like air filters.

Sometimes, all one can do is run, run for your life:

"Henry found himself in the lead, running furiously with his arms stretched out to knock the brush aside. The forest seemed to tilt and whirl around him. He crashed into a tree trunk, rolled away from it, and ran into the prickly needles of a small pine. He bounced off the pine, twisted around, and slammed face-first into another tree. Something sticky ran down his forehead and into his right eye. He wiped it with the back of his right hand and looked at it. Even in the uncertain, flickering firelight, he recognized it.

Blood. My blood." (Page 132)

Here is tragedy, families burned alive, homes held over generations turned to ash, but here also is a story of the human spirit that rises from that ash to build new lives. By end of the novel, the reader will be flipping pages quickly to find out who survives and who does not, and how. Some endings are predictable, no less interesting. Shiel does an excellent job of bringing history alive.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

25 Lessons I've Learned About (Photography) Life by Lorenzo Dominguez

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 146 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace, 2011
Price: $19.99
ISBN-10: 1456574485
ISBN-13: 978-1456574482

In the spring of 2005, writes Lorenzo Dominguez, he and his wife became separated, and he found himself looking for a roof to put over his head. He eventually found a small room in a Manhattan church sanctuary, and while living there, going through the introspection that most of us do when going through traumatic events in our lives, he took up photography.

His hobby soon became much more than just a hobby. Photography was in itself the vehicle of his life introspection. Through images taken throughout New York City, mostly at night, Lorenzo gets a new perspective on life and realizes that many of the lessons of photography apply to life. These 25 lessons begin with "everything is beautiful" and then go on to incorporate lessons of perseverance, learning to let go, telling the truth, experimenting, being yourself, striking a balance, and many more.

None of these lessons are earth-shatteringly original or surprising. Indeed, most if not all are cliché. Still, the way Lorenzo presents these lessons, and doing so through the lens of camera, does lend them some originality. His narrative voice is pleasant, even comforting, and his journey is one with which many can identify. The places he arrives are good ones, even if he does sometimes practice rather risky behavior to get his shot.

"…I knew only failures gave in after failing the first time. Too many people just quit after failing the first try because they immediately lose their self-confidence. Winners never concede to circumstance, they just keep on trying and continue to believe in themselves and in their aspirations. And ultimately, they become whatever it is they believe to be true. For faith in oneself is the first step toward truth." (Page 92)

What these lessons might look like in photography, however … well, that's the disappointing part. In my hands was the paperback version of the book, and in its pages were just a few, small photos, not particularly sharp in reproduction, none of which particularly corresponded to the text. It seems that to fully enjoy the author's artistry, the reader is required to visit various sites online to view his work. That's not particularly reasonable. As enjoyable as the author's story could be, had it been a real photo essay would have made a world of difference.

Lorenzo's photographic journey of introspection doesn't necessarily end up with a neat conclusion, or even a predictable one, but he does stay true to himself. By end of the slim book, it's been an enjoyable enough read (and he tells of commercial success as a photographer), albeit missing the view his lens might have provided.

Lorenzo Dominguez has been called an "Internet photography sensation" by Time Out New York and is considered a "Flickr star" by Rob Walker, Consumed columnist, for New York Times Magazine. His work is represented worldwide by Getty Images.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Don't Cry, Daddy's Here: One Woman's Journey to Recovery from Incest by Brinda Carey

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: White Bird Publications, 2011
Price: $14.95
ISBN-10: 0982802463
ISBN-13: 978-0982802465

The moment I opened Don't Cry, Daddy's Here, I knew this was going to be hard to read. It's difficult to think of any subject matter more difficult to stomach than incest, the sexual molestation of a child by a family member … let alone her own father.

Yet sometimes we need to plow ahead, read and bear witness to this now grown child's story. There is tremendous healing in storytelling, and there is great healing we who listen to that story can offer to the story teller, by hearing her out and acknowledging her life experience. So I read.

This is Brinda Carey's story of her growing up years, from the time she was hardly more than a toddler to the time that she was a young adult woman. No longer a victim, but now fully a survivor, Carey would later earn a degree in criminal justice and work as a probation officer, and she would marry and have children of her own. No doubt much of this was possible because she was able to share her horrendous experience, talk about it, and she also had her husband to lean on—the story of how they met and how he persisted in supporting her even when she resisted help is part of this story.

Not untypical in this kind of story is that Carey's mother knew what was happening, at least to some degree, but turned her back on her child and failed to protect her. Indeed, at times, she acted like a jealous wife angry at the threat of her husband's "affair" with his daughter. It is hard to read about this without having to swallow the bile coming up at the thought alone. The challenge here is to stretch the mind to encompass the thought that this woman, too, was to some degree an emotionally battered woman. With time, there was a divorce, and eventually, even a reconciliation between mother and daughter.

I will not repeat here the events of this story. Suffice it to say that a child is coerced, tricked, overpowered, overwhelmed by adult mind games, threatened, and, yes, repeatedly, over all of those years, raped. Again, again, again. Finally, to the point of being impregnated, sometimes to have her pregnancy end in miscarriage, but another time to result in the birth of a child who would eventually die due to genetic oddities caused by two so closely related people as parents. It boggles the mind and breaks the heart.

Tragedy piles upon tragedy, until Carey is finally able to mature and break free, once and for all, in spite of her father's threats to commit suicide, using this as emotional blackmail in his attempt to keep her in his life. It is at this point that it would have been powerful to read more about how this breaking free happens. The author might have shared more of her inner thought process and emotional processing, to the point where she finds the strength and wisdom to escape her abuser. It would also have been powerful to read more about how Carey achieves recovery—arguably much more powerful than the pages of quotes in the second half of the book that, I would guess, few will bother to read.

The book is, in fact, in great part comprised of biblical and other quotes, lists of resources. Carey's story, dotted with a few black and white photographs, comprises only about half of the book. Since this doesn't appear to be a part of the book's marketing or description on the cover, that can no doubt lead to disappointment for some readers expecting more of a full-length book.

Bottom line: this is not necessarily a gracefully written book, but it carries weight as an addition to the resources available for the too many children growing into damaged adults, trying to regain emotional health after being abused and molested by those they trust most. It is important for all of us to be aware that this is a problem in our society, and that the perpetrators can very well be the man next door, the one you wave hello to when outside mowing the lawn. I acknowledge the tremendous courage required of this author to speak up and go public with her own story.