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.