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.