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Mackinac Bridge

The Bridge, Stories by Jeff Vande Zande

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

         Paperback: 28 pages

         Publisher: March Street Pr, 2004

         Price: $9.00

         ISBN-10: 1596610018

         ISBN-13: 978-1596610019

 

 

Driving north for a week’s retreat in one of the places I love most—the Keweenaw Peninsula, a peninsula on a peninsula, in the U.P. of Michigan—I packed a bag of books as travel companions. I’ve had an insatiable love of traveling since earliest childhood, and for me, taking books along that in some way reflect on the new world to explore, in some way deepen my experience and help me to understand a place and its inhabitants, is a part of the adventure. I once lived in the Keweenaw, so this is not a trip to discover something entirely new. This is, however, a journey to understand a place, and my place in it, on a deeper level.

And so, among my companion books is this slim-as-an-envelope-stuffed-with-a-love-letter book of stories by ex-Yooper, Jeff Vande Zande. Can one be an ex-Yooper? Yooper is a term Upper Peninsula people use to affectionately describe themselves and indicate their close ties to this northern land. Someone who lives in the Lower Peninsula, that great mitten-shaped part of the state of Michigan that most people think about when considering Michigan, is known as a Troll. You know, someone who lives below the bridge. And the bridge—that would be the five-mile long expanse of steel that connects the two peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge. Vande Zande is now a “troll,” as am I (sigh). But that he knows and keeps his Yooper roots, I quickly find, is evident in The Bridge.

Settled into my Keweenaw cabin, fireplace stoked, I open up this collection of three stories. The first story is flash fiction, not even two full pages, titled, “Have You Seen Us?” It is a quick glimpse of father and adult child, crossing the bridge, considering a camping spot, but more, considering the connection a bridge provides. A bridge connects two pieces of land, but a bridge is also that connecting thread between people.

Next, a longer story that is the title piece for this threesome, “The Bridge.” Once again, we are looking at steel bridge juxtaposed against the bridges built and sometimes broken between family members: Mitch and Susan and alienated son, Jimmy. Mom Susan urges Dad Mitch to try harder to connect with his son, and Mitch can think of only one way that he knows how to reach out across this generational gap—by taking his son to see the Mackinac Bridge.

“The long stretch of the bridge sent a charge up his spine. He followed it with his eyes from the shore. The south causeway worked its way up the gradually rising piers until it came to the first anchorage pier. Pier 17. It had been years since he’d read seriously about the bridge. From pier 17 his eyes followed the steady arc of the deck and the cables shot back down toward the deck and the center of the bridge. Here the structure looked as though it rested against a mirror, as the cables rose skyward again toward the second tower and the deck began its descent toward the north side causeway and eventually into the bright lighting of the tollbooths. After that it was nothing but the darkness of the Upper Peninsula. He looked underneath the bridge, where the rough water of the straits broke high and ghostly white against the pilings of the piers.”

Awed by this great and powerful structure, cognizant of its history, Mitch presents it to young Jimmy. “What do you think?” he asks. “Big,” replies Jimmy. And with such masterly use of dialogue, almost painfully realistic (who of us have not had such conversations in which one tries to convey depth of feeling while the other remains bland and bored?), Vande Zande manages to tell a story of missed connection. He balances both sides so expertly, that at one moment the reader feels the ache of the father, the very next, the ache of the son. Both, after all, long for connection, but simply do not know how to create it.

The third story is “White Out,” and with this grand finale, Vande Zande accomplishes the rare feat of being able to write cross-gender, that is, a male writer writing with a female voice. Few pull it off; Vande Zande makes it work. The main character of this story is Jackie, a young woman who lives in the Upper Peninsula and, yes, longs for connection. Her family scattered and broken apart, some still living in the U.P., some elsewhere, she has created a life for herself that leaves her longing for substance. Night after night, she sleeps with men with whom she makes a casual, physical connection, but comes up empty on intimacy, or true connection.  

“In the smoky light of the bar, leaning against a table, shouting over the music, different men reminded Jackie of her father, big and unafraid. With some she would start relationships, but they never lasted more than a couple of months. She would soon reason that the man was not really a man, not what she imagined a man should be. Many of the men had drinking problems and spent most of their nights in the bar. Others were unemployed. Some lived with their parents. Others cheated on her. One had proposed to her after only two weeks of dating, but girlfriends told her that kind of desperation could only mean bad news.”

Finally, Jackie wakes up one morning too many to an empty bed, last night’s aimless lover gone, and she feels empty and used. Unable to bear her own company any longer, she decides to drive into the winter night to visit one family member after another. Back and forth she goes, at one moment thinking about connecting with her sister in Marquette, then her mother, remarried and now living in Ohio. She thinks about running away from her life and going to Detroit, that great metropolis in lower Michigan, but realizes Detroit has nothing to offer—it’s just “someplace else.”

The winter night has its own say, and as so often happens in the Upper Peninsula, she is forced to stop driving during a white out. Jackie has to wait out the storm at a gas station and convenience store, where she passes the time with the woman running the place with her husband, who also longs to be somewhere else. Once again, Vande Zande shows his mastery of dialogue, choosing just the right words to convey two personalities, very much U.P., very much female, very much lost within their own lives.

One evening of reading by the fire in my U.P cabin, and it was time well spent. I put the little book down on the coffee table and watched the flames, thinking about life that is unique to this place apart, yet in other ways the same as everywhere: people longing for connection, looking for bridges that will help them to know themselves less alone in the world.  

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

         Hardcover: 320 pages

         Publisher: Knopf (September 8, 2009)

         Price: $27.95

         ISBN-10: 0307267148

         ISBN-13: 978-0307267146

 

This book is important. So important, in fact, that first reviews from reputable sources are calling it the most important book of the year, some even calling it the most important book of our time. Yes. It is.

Now and then we must pick up a book that awakens in us all the compassion, all the indignation, all the heart we need to make a difference in the world. And that’s the best part: each and everyone one of us can.

Nicholas Kristof may be a name you already recognize as a New York Times op-ed columnist. Both he and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes, WuDunn shares one with Kristof for the work they have done together. WuDunn worked as business editor for the Times and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. The two of them have already collaborated on two previous books. I dare say, none yet of such global reach as this one.

Half the Sky is a very readable collection of individual stories, interspersed with narrative by the authors for appropriate background. Very readable, yet simultaneously shattering. And, simultaneously, deeply inspiring. “Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb that pulls these stories of women throughout the world together into one great call for the emancipation of women in 21st-century slavery.

“When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than one percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.”

Kristof and WuDunn pick up the dropped ball in Half the Sky and toss it at the reader—at you. The stories here are about girls and women in Cambodia, in the Congo, in Thailand, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Senegal, and many other parts of the world. Yes, wherever you may be, from your part of the world, too. If not always directly, then not as indirectly as you may think, because the sex trade and human trafficking has spread to the United States in alarming numbers and with alarming effect. Eastern Europe suffers from human trafficking, too, as it struggles with poverty. Witness the efforts of the pornography industry to make pornography mainstream. Humans have become wares up for sale, slavery today far outnumbering anything yet seen in human history.

The authors state: “107 million females are missing from the globe today… Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

“The global statistics on the abuse of girls is numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”

But Kristof and WuDunn understand that it does little good to toss out numbers and statistics. Not like this just began yesterday. The horror of gender discrimination, of human trafficking and sex slavery, across the world has been ignored for a very, very long time. The way to bring this horror home to move hearts and begin the process of change is by giving these stories a face, a name, someone with whom we can identify. This could have been me. This might have been my daughter. And even with that false comfort, that it may not be you, or your daughter, the authors make sure by end of the book that we all understand that these women touch all our lives.  “Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized,” they remind us. “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”

We read the stories of girls stolen from families who live in poverty. The lies told to unwitting parents are that their little girls, as young as eight years old, will be brought into the city and cared for, put to work there selling food or flowers or other such. Instead, these children and young women are thrown into brothels, were they are beaten, over and over again, into submission. Usually, they are also forced into drug addiction, effectively making them slaves of these addictions, so that even when they might have a chance to run, the agony of withdrawal keeps them coming back. And still they run. Corrupt police capture them, gang rape them (yes, police), and bring them back again. Or, an increasingly common tactic of revenge against women who escape is to toss acid into their faces until their living flesh melts away. A gouged eye will do just fine, too. Little girls, once beaten into submission, are locked into rooms with paying male customers (young virgins bring the highest price), to come out later, bloodied and raped. How many American tourists and business men have bragged about their trips to Thailand to enjoy all that “open” sex trade?  

I, too, have at times wondered if one way of combating the abuse of girls and women into forced prostitution (an interesting phrase, implying that any woman in her right mind would willingly prostitute herself if she had other options available) by legalizing it and so offering certain protections to women, might be at least a partial answer. The authors write:

“What policy should we pursue to try to eliminate that slavery? Originally, we sympathized with the view that a prohibition won’t work any better against prostitution today than it did against alcohol in America in the 1920s. Instead of trying fruitlessly to ban prostitution, we believed it would be preferable to legalize and regulate it.

“Over time, we’ve changed our minds. That legalize-and-regulate model simply hasn’t worked very well in countries where prostitution is often coerced… legal brothels ten to attract a parallel illegal business in young girls and forced prostitution. In contrast, there’s empirical evidence that crackdowns can succeed, when combined with social services such as job retraining and drug rehabilitation, and that’s the approach we’ve come to favor.”

People often point to the Netherlands as an example of a place where the sex trade has been legalized, but the authors peel back that rationalization and make an interesting comparison with Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 1999. Men caught paying for sex are fined, imprisoned for up to six months. The prostitute, however, is not punished. In effect, this approach reflects the view, far more accurate, that the prostitute is not the criminal, but a victim of a crime. The “john,” however, is a victimizer, taking advantage of someone’s dire situation in life. Keeping in mind that studies show more than 90 percent of women engaging in prostitution or in pornography have been sexually molested prior to doing so, it is only logical to seek protection for those women and putting the crime on the shoulders where it belongs: on the man buying the service or buying or using pornography.

“A decade later, Sweden’s crackdown seems to have been more successful [than the Netherlands] in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years… and the price of sex dropped, too—a pretty good indication that demand was down… traffickers believe that trafficking girls into Sweden is no longer profitable and that girls should be taken to Holland instead… 81 percent of Swedes approved of the law.”

Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of the women in these situations to bring reality to the numbers and theories, but the overall message is one of empowerment for women. Their advice is not only to the girls and women directly in the line of fire, however. This message is for women everywhere. Empowerment and drawing the line of here and no further against any kind of gender discrimination, built upon the cornerstone of objectification of girls and women, begins with any female reading these lines. And, with any male who respects the opposite gender—and himself, enough to demand that women and girls be treated as human beings and not as objects for his pleasure.

“One of the reasons that so many women and girls are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it. Stoic docility—in particular, acceptance of any decree by a man—is drilled into girls in much of the world from the time they are babies, and so they often do as they are instructed, even when the instruction is to smile while being raped twenty times a day.

“This is not to blame the victims. There are good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed. But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.”

This empowerment begins with education. There is good reason why in so many parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women. Thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empowerment. Empowerment leads to change. “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”

Here, the reader begins to understand, too. When these girls and women do stand up and demand justice, when they shout against their abusers to stop, it is imperative that we who live in more privilege echo their cries and add our own in support. “Easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we must also nurture institutions to protect such people. Sometimes we may even need to provide asylum for those whose lives are in danger. More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education, and we can do far more to promote universal education in poor countries… There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”

The stories of individual women who have done just that, mustering up more courage than most of us can even imagine, have made dramatic changes not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those living in their villages, towns, cities, even countries. The domino effect of this kind of empowerment cannot be overstated. These women are true heroes who inspire us all. Against unimaginable odds, some against their own families, against husbands who declared them untouchable after gang rapes, mothers who shunned them in favor of their sons, corrupt police who not only ignored their cries for help but alarmingly often gang raped these same women all over again, still these women rebelled and would not allow their spirits to be broken.

As the world is ripped apart by terrorism and war, women continue to become a weapon of war. When wars die down, domestic violence continues a silent war in many homes—and this is a growing epidemic in American homes, too.

“Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and warm combined. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”

The authors ask little, really, of their readers. Letter-writing campaigns, for instance, empower those whose voices are drowned out by their abusers. Petitions get noticed. Even, I like to think, writing a book review such as this one can help in raising awareness (I have suggested reading Half the Sky to my women’s book club, and I look forward to our group discussions). While monetary donations can make a dramatic difference—and there is list of verified charities in the back of the book—the authors point out that the American penchant to change unjust laws is too often only a beginning to creating change. Changing a culture is far more important, because traditions over many generations can hold very firm, even when they are made illegal. Sexism and misogyny is rampant worldwide, and when such attitudes are deeply ingrained in a culture, even the women participate. Infanticide of female babies is often at the hands of mothers, and women who have been abused themselves often become the abusers of the next generation of girls. Knowing nothing else, minds washed of rational thinking, accepting a view of themselves as less than human out of ignorance, such victims become victimizers, and the only way to stop this vicious cycle is stop wrong thinking—by education. And not just in other places. Education at home, too.

“One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world.”

A current effort by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is to raise awareness and fight mass rape of girls and women as a weapon of war. In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, in addressing rape being used as a war tactic, said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”

“The world capital of rape is eastern Congo. Militias consider it risky to engage in firefights with other gunmen, so instead they assault civilians. They discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of stunning brutality. Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives of bayonets, or else they fire their guns into women’s vaginas… soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then fired their guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl’s grief-stricken father then committed suicide.”

According to various counts done by the United Nations, about three quarters of the women in the Congo have been raped. By “women,” it should be made clear, the authors include girls as young as six years old, and sometimes even younger. Considering that many of the Congolese troops are young boys, one can only imagine the damage done on a cultural level in terms of how such males will forever after view females, their own future wives and daughters.

One of the physical ailments these raped girls and women suffer is called a fistula. This is a condition of internal organ damage that can lead to waste freely spilling out, or problems in childbirth that often lead to death. The authors describe this common result of rape, and they also discuss female genital mutilation, the latter often being a result of long held tradition in some cultures. In short, this is a process of cutting genitals of girls, usually with unsanitary knives, always without anesthesia of any kind. The cultural basis of this cruel practice is to control a woman’s sexuality. The idea is basically that if a woman cannot feel sexual pleasure, she is more likely not to stray from her future husband. The result of this practice is often lifelong injury and scarring. Complications can be fistulas, infections, and other medical conditions that can be crippling if not fatal. Simply getting laws on the books to make such practices illegal, however, do little to change tradition held through many generations. Once again, the answer can be in raising awareness, educating women that such barbaric practices are not acceptable, are not a “cultural tradition” to uphold, but a monstrous practice that falls into human rights abuse.

Kristof and WuDunn remind us as we read through these stories and their surrounding narrative: “We’re wary of taking the American women’s movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issue than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.”

Solutions to these problems begin with viewing women fully as human beings. Not a gender to be used and abused, overpowered and beaten down, but as human beings with full rights to be treated as such. The authors write about the changes that can, and have, come about where women are given equal rights, including the right to own property, the right to have determination over their own bodies, the right to basic health care, the right to have a voice over their own lives. The reason they give for empowering women as a means to ease, or even eliminate world poverty, is an illustration of how men have used donated funds. According to studies, the top three expenditures for money donated to men in developing countries have been alcohol, prostitutes, and candy. Whereas when women have been given money, they have used it for medical care, for food to feed their families, and for education. Uplifting stories include those of women who were once beaten by their husbands, but were given loans of sometimes no more than fifty dollars, enabling them to completely transform their lives. The results have been thriving new family businesses that would employ others, helping not only one family, but the entire town in which that family lives.

The book concludes with chapters titled, “What You Can Do,” and the answers are stunningly simple. A little can have ripple effects that go a long, long way. I personally decided, after exploring online various charities the authors recommend, to sign up with Women Helping Women International, donating $27 on a monthly basis to a woman who has survived multiple gang rapes and been ostracized by her family and village. But the authors remind us that money isn’t always necessary. Voicing support, volunteering, your own education on these matters, can all add up a transformative movement with global outreach.

“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete—and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”

See http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ to learn more, to do more.

 

 

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13 by Nevada Barr

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

         Hardcover: 320 pages

         Publisher: Vanguard Press (October 6, 2009)

         Price: $25.95

         ISBN-10: 1593155530

         ISBN-13: 978-1593155537

 

 

 

I am holding Nevada Barr responsible: since picking up her newest novel, 13 , I have been losing sleep. Until the very last page had been read, sleep continued to evade me.

In all my lifelong voracious reading habits, I continue to find that writers can generally be classified in one of two groups: fine literary writers or terrific storytellers. Because the skill set and high level of artistry required is quite different for each group, rarely do the two groups meet and mesh. But Nevada Barr stands neatly balanced, with one foot inside each of these two groups. She is a fine writer, with literary finesse, and she is one heck of a storyteller.

Barr kept me awake with her storytelling, but not before messing with my head a bit, along with my sleep patterns. When I first opened the cover of 13 , I was thrown into a horrific scene of sexual molestation. Polly, a girl not yet nine years old, is being raped by her mother’s whiskey-chugging boyfriend. Rather than protect and defend her daughter, Polly’s alcoholic mother gets jealous and angry with her. Too frequently, this scenario is all too real. Victims become victimizers, and Polly’s mother, her own self-esteem nonexistent, allows her daughter to become victimized. At such a very tender age, this child understands the male psyche far beyond what she should: “Though Polly’s birthday wasn’t for a couple weeks, she already knew what it meant when men’s eyes went gooey and nasty.”

The message of this scene, however, is not so much victimization as survival skills. Polly grows up to be a smart woman, one who has fortunately been strong enough to break the cycle of abuse and instead is a loving and protective mother of her own children.

Stage left, enter another main character: Butcher Boy. This child, Dylan, wakes into a family massacre, his parents murdered with an axe, his baby sister dead, his older brother badly wounded. He alone is whole, however dazed. Eleven years old, he is dragged to court and prosecuted for the vicious murder of his family. The boy hardly seems able to function as his mind and emotions shut down under the weight of something so immense, so incomprehensible. Only his surviving brother stands by him.

Barr does a wonderful job of describing a juvenile justice system that is highly dysfunctional. Children who end up in juvenile delinquent homes, more often than not already coming from abusive homes, are often subjected to more abuse by the very staff who is supposed to help them rehabilitate. Reality, alas, matches fiction, and Barr has shone an important spotlight on a growing problem in our society. Dylan is thrown away, with no one caring enough to deal with his problems, and he spends years in a world where guards beat and rape little boys, psychologists and social workers conduct unethical experiments on their young prey, and wardens look the other way.  The only person left who seems to care that Dylan is even alive is his brother Rich.

Back and forth. The novel is written in scenes that move from Polly to Dylan and his brother Rich, then suddenly switching to Marshall Marchand and his brother, Danny, a couple of stand-up guys. Between chapters are blood-curdling little inserts, written in first person, of child murderers, mothers who kill their babies, and other psychopaths. A bit disorienting, and I was a little annoyed at being jarred back and forth between all these characters … until it started to fall into place. The Marchand brothers enter into the adult Polly’s world, and by now, also her two young daughters.

Suspense growing, tension tightening, the reader is led along, then pulled into a vortex of escalating horror. Polly and her girls are in danger, and as a mother, my heart pounded with hers, knowing all that she does to protect her own, I would do, too. Yet how clear is the mind of one who has been so badly abused as a child? Does Polly still have the skills to know who to trust and who is just another victimizer? The sad truth is that many who are molested as children, grow up to be attracted like magnets to more molesters, not knowing anything else. Is Polly protecting her daughters from the right man? Does her love for one of the Marchand brothers cloud her judgment?

The clock on my nightstand screaming at me that I should be sound asleep on a work night, I keep reading. And reading. Must know.

Another character to whom we are introduced is the Woman in Red. She reads Tarot-cards and is big, and loud, and impossible to miss. Almost no one notices that inside this woman is complete emotional devastation—another victim of abuse. Barr excels in her literary descriptions when Polly and this woman meet.

“The Woman in Red it shall be,” Polly said and smiled as ghosts of her past walked away giggling. She’d noticed the reader on previous pilgrimages to the square in search of her future. It was hard not to. Shades of shrieking sunset, roses, and hearts of fire, cherries, apples, blood, and wine were thrown together. If one shade of red was loud, this woman’s ensemble was cacophonous.

“Before time and sunlight had taken its toll, her khaki-colored setup had evidently been as red as the rest of her. As she shifted her considerable weight, her chair’s wooden frame moved and flashed thin ribbons of the canvas’s original color, that of freshly butchered meat. Polly descended the cathedral steps and the fortune-teller leaned forward, reaching out with a beggar’s aspect—or that of a drowning woman bent on pulling her rescuer down. ‘For zee lady, zee reading eez free,’ she said in a voice both ruined and childlike, the worn-out voice tape of a Chatty Cathy doll with a fake French accent. Hucksters and harlots never honestly meant anything was free. Having been a little of both in her time, Polly knew ‘free’ just opened the bargaining.”

An especially masterly scene in Barr’s psychological thriller is one in which a Tarot-card reader is murdered—by the man she loves. With expertise, Barr describes the psychological devastation that is necessary for a woman to become emotionally battered, becoming utterly helpless to defend herself, even against her own murderer. She loves this villain, and despises herself, right up to her last breath, even as the ax comes down.

Then, when Polly finds the dead woman’s body, the villain comes after her.

“Scrabbling on sliding magazines, Polly was losing ground. The man’s fingers were wire cables, his strength enough to drag her backwards. Far stronger than she, he could have hammered her kidneys with balled fists; he could have thrown himself upon her and snapped her neck or slammed her head into the floor. He did none of these things; slowly, as if he savored the process, he was pulling her into himself, swallowing her as a snake would swallow a mouse. Garbage piled up under Polly’s chin, drowning her. Scrabbling on the glossy magazines, her hands found no purchase…”

Although I do have to confess here that I had the mystery solved long before the conclusion of the novel, it did not slow my eager reading by one half of a page turn. I did not want to miss any of Barr’s pulsing-with-life descriptions, deep dives into the most shadowy parts of human nature, and the intricacies of dance between victim and victimizer. I wanted to see justice done. And I wanted to read exactly how Barr would put it into words. The images she created are lasting long beyond the final page. The important messages she illustrates remain even longer: abuse of any kind causes unspeakable damage, and those of us who do nothing about a broken juvenile justice system, or the increase of domestic violence, or look past the suffering of the battered, make such crime possible. This novel is more than a thriller. This is no time to sleep. This is a wake-up call.

Nevada Barr is an award-winning novelist and New York Times bestselling author. Among other works, she is also well known as the author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries (see my earlier review of Borderline).

 

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Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe

By Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

 

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

         Paperback: 480 pages

         Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005

         Price: $21.95

         ISBN-10: 0393327418

         ISBN-13: 978-0393327410

 

In meticulous, even painstaking detail, biographer and art critic, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp has recorded the near century of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and art. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is known even by those who know next to nothing about art—her paintings of gargantuan flowers and bleached white bones are well-known by the general public, even those who may never step inside an art museum or gallery. Being able to identify an O’Keeffe painting, however, has no relation to understanding the artist and the influences upon her life and creativity.

Coming from a family of artists, I am far more inclined to step inside an art gallery than, say, a sports stadium, and so I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s work well. Or, at least … I thought I did. What I knew was actually more the myth than the woman, the sales pitch rather than the art.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was traveling alone, and the experience of a woman alone in the world and on the road was very much on my mind. Wandering around Santa Fe, a unique town of adobe buildings that is deeply immersed in the arts, and the arts of this area deeply immersed in the surrounding physical geography of the land, I came face to face with Georgia. Granted, by 2007, Georgia herself was long gone. Yet her presence was very real in this area where she lived the last third or so of her life, and where she seemed to have found her true identity and free spirit—a woman supremely alone. Center of town was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I went inside … and stayed for a very long time. Indeed, I lost all track of time. And by the time I did emerge, I had an entirely new perception of this woman artist, and an expanding curiosity to learn more. I headed out to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, her two homes nearby, searching for Georgia’s spirit. I believe I found it.

And so back to this biography, Full Bloom, to learn more. As with any celebrity, and Georgia certainly became that, biographies abound. One has only to determine which one might offer more truth than imagination, and in this case, I imagine the autobiography Georgia herself authored may not be the most truthful. It can be difficult to be objective about oneself, and when a woman has suffered some of the indignities that this woman suffered, the reaction can often be to sweep under the carpet some of the ugliness of life, and leave on exhibit only the beauty and the recovery from that ugly suffering.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was not all roses. More thorn, perhaps. More a cutting down to the bone. Born in a small rural town near Madison, Wisconsin, she grew up without material advantage, making her own way in the world. Her art education began at the Art Institute of Chicago, continued in New York at the Art Students League. The discovery and subsequent exposure to the art world of her work is attributed to Alfred Stieglitz, art dealer and owner of Gallery 291 in New York. The gallery was known for being edgy and innovative, bringing to light new and abstract, groundbreaking art. Stieglitz was also a photographer, one of the firsts, breaking ground of his own. A friend of Georgia’s had brought samples of her work to Stieglitz and he was thrilled at the find, remarking that at last, here was a woman who could paint, and who painted as a woman.

At that point, an important door opens in Georgia’s life. Doors are an important theme in her artwork, an important metaphor—one that appears often in her paintings in synchronicity with the opening and closing of doors in her own life—and this door opened onto a relationship that affected her life and psyche deeply for a long time to come. Stieglitz, without her permission, put her artwork on exhibit in his gallery. When she stopped in and saw her work on his walls, she indignantly insisted he take it down. This exchange seemed to set a certain tone for their partnership: he was a controller; she was a young woman just finding her way, not yet in control, but struggling to find it. As the story unfolds, we see how the older man, then married, seduces Georgia into an affair, as much because he falls in love with her art as he does with her. Alas, Stieglitz, we soon learn, is a womanizer. Today, we call his sort sex addicts. Indeed, he and pal Auguste Rodin, also known as a womanizer, and whose sculptures (“The Thinker”) and drawings he is first on American soil to put on exhibit, exchange pornographic drawings and photos over the years, feeding each other’s seedier appetites.

The years to follow this meeting at Gallery 291 are the years of a tormented marriage. Stieglitz divorces his wife to marry Georgia, who had no interest whatsoever in marriage, but finally agrees to it—insisting she still keep her own name—more to save his reputation than her own. Stieglitz’s first wife and daughter both end up handling nervous breakdowns and mental illness brought on by his treatment of his first family. Cheat once, cheat again. And again. And yet again. The marriage of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe is riddled with affairs (his), and O’Keeffe finds her time away from him of ever greater solace. Yet there it is: for all his womanizing, Stieglitz adores his wife, loves her and will not leave her. He, in fact, is the one to deal with increasing anxiety that someday she will leave him. The affairs continue, nonetheless, with most any woman he photographs in the nude (and there are many). Finally, there is the more longstanding affair with Dorothy Norman, a young woman who takes great pleasure in tormenting the older woman and wife with her victories over Stieglitz, using and manipulating his weakness against him every chance she gets. His blatant and open involvement with this mistress eventually causes Georgia to suffer a complete nervous breakdown, requiring hospitalization, while he seems to remain weirdly oblivious to how much pain he is causing her.

Projecting perhaps more what is on his mind than on Georgia’s, Stieglitz promotes her work to the public as heavily sexualized. These aren’t just flowers she is painting … these are the damp petals of a woman’s genitalia. A white bone standing out against the sky? He saw phallic symbols. Georgia abhorred Stieglitz’s marketing of her work, yet she had to admit: it worked. It’s hard to say if her paintings would have reached such a tremendous audience if it hadn’t been for the manner of Stieglitz’s promotions. Adding to that effect, he took hundreds of photographs of his wife, many of which were in the nude. He exhibited these, too, and without her permission. She was horrified. She had agreed to the photos as a gift of intimacy to her husband alone, in part to try to regain his wandering eye and attention. This did not work, but his photos of her did have measurable affect on her growing popularity.

Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is seen as one of the first feminists, certainly in the field of art. Increasingly leaving her husband to his ways in New York, she developed her own home and life in New Mexico, in the desert she so grew to love. From a distance, she was able to continue to love him in her own way. She learned to detach herself enough that his affairs would no longer break her. She learned to find her own style, her own artistic expression on the opposite side of the country. When Stieglitz died of a heart attack, she grieved him even while embracing her solitude, her independence, her freedom. Ghost Ranch became her permanent home, and her work had sold so well, not only in the United States, but internationally, that she had become one of the wealthiest women of her time. Her personality, molded no doubt in part by an emotionally abusive relationship, hardened into a determined control over her own world and her image. Whereas Stieglitz had taken control of her image in her beginning years, now she was free to move in a direction true to her. Dropping the Freudian allusions, she focused on vibrant color, on paintings that were an expression of emotion rather than subject. She searched for simplicity, for clean lines, for the shapes she found in nature. Her work is definitely feminine, a combination of power and grace, the soft and the hard, the straight line and the gentle curve.

In her later years, the artist was known to be eccentric at times, even prickly, not allowing just anyone into her life, even while she would later grow to trust again when she should not (a portion of the book is about a younger man, John Hamilton, who takes advantage of her in her aging years, when Georgia again needs assistance in basic daily chores, and he convinces her to leave much of her estate to him).

As detailed as this biography is, and perhaps it is too much so, it did give me a much better understanding of the woman and her art. Too long, I had bought into the marketing of Stieglitz, not realizing the artist herself resented this view of her paintings, of those great, lush flowers, beautiful for their own sake, without the attachment of metaphor. If for no other reason, I am grateful to this book’s author for separating the sales pitch from the true intent of a remarkable artist. Georgia O’Keeffe accomplished the opening of a path to women artists. She stood up, and survived, and thrived, becoming an inspiration for women in abusive and stifling relationships. She showed the ability to love, if at a safe distance, even under the most callous treatment. She exhibited a woman’s ability to create out of personal suffering, and from something ugly, to develop a lasting beauty. If an oyster creates pearls out of painful grit caught in its tender flesh, so, too, does Georgia O’Keeffe create her pearls, too immense to miss, too vibrant to ignore, too unique to mistake for any other.

 

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The Understory by Pamela Erens

 

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

        Paperback: 143 pages

        Publisher: Ironweed Pr Inc, 2007

        Price: $11.95

        ISBN-10: 1931336040

        ISBN-13: 978-1931336048

 

 

 

Many, many years have passed since I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I read it in its Latvian translation, a young writer eager to learn from the masters—and the Norwegian writer Hamsun was that. It was a novel about nothing, really. No car chases, no maddening mysteries, no ravishing love stories, no epiphanies. It was a simple story of survival—a homeless man coping with hunger—but it has remained with me all these decades later while so many other books I’ve read have faded into oblivion. It was a book touched with greatness.

 

I recall Hamsun’s Hunger now because in reading the slim novel called The Understory by Pamela Erens, winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize, I sensed the same effect. Yes, the same touch of literary greatness. This, too, was a story about nothing. It is simplicity itself; not even a story, but an “understory.” The story behind the story, you might say, the diving deep into the mind and heart and soul of a man. There is little action, almost all the recording of observation, the gradual coiling and tightening of a spring, and all leading up to a stunning conclusion—that one moment of action—that is the perfection coming together of all that we have read to that point.

 

As in Hamsun’s masterpiece, we experience truth, as a human being experiences truth that is found in the minutiae of the every day. Life is like this, after all. The earth shattering upheavals and volcanic happenings are remarkable enough, easy to nail down on paper, memorable (or not) without even trying, but genius enters when one can create reality sharper almost than reality itself. Erens follows this haggard, lonely man in his unremarkable every day without missing a detail, and so brings him into the room where we sit, brings us into his room where he lives his solitary life, and lets us taste of it. He is poor, he is alone, he is a child abandoned by his parents through a car accident that took their lives, and so has learned to live in this quiet, unobtrusive way. He lives a life that happens mostly inside his mind. He reads and mulls over what he has read as a gourmet savors every bite of an exquisite meal. Indeed, when he is evicted from his home—an apartment where he has lived for 15 years as something of an imposter of his deceased uncle of similar name on a $500 monthly stipend left to him in a will—he wonders how is it that we do not value the thinkers in our society? Only the doers. Someone has to read all the books? Someone has to think all the thoughts? He is that someone.

 

Even when something does happen in this man’s days, it moves in a kind of slow motion, giving us time to note all the details of the scene, evoke the emotions one might have living the moment in real time rather than sound bite. We watch the building burn. We watch him resist leaving the ashen shell of his home, living among that ash when all others have moved elsewhere. We see him creep into odd emotions of need and want, not falling in love, but more a kind of cell by cell transforming into a man who wants another man. His presence in the room, just that. We settle into the cramped corners of his brain as he becomes obsessed.

 

So there it is, all of it, after all, but without the distraction of special effects. There the story of survival, the story of loss, and grief, the love story, too. Distilled into effervescent purity. A moment in the abbey, where he takes refuge for a while, is fully as remarkable as a moment of encountering human need at its most base.

 

“Night is the worst time. After the long regimentation of the day, the enforced silences, the men want to talk. At first it doesn’t matter what about: TV, movies, travel, jobs. I lie on my side on my mattress as the words pool around me, reciting to myself the botanical classifications for peach, cherry, apple. Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Rosales, Rosaceae… I smell the smell of other bodies: stale skin, flatulence, cologne. I long to open the windows and let the fresh air sweep the smells away, sweep the bodies away, too. Gradually one man drops out of the conversation, then another. Soon there will be only two men left speaking. And these two—they are not the same two every night—will drop their voices, speak in an intimate murmur. Perhaps they are only gossiping about one of the monks. Perhaps they are complaining about the food. But no, there is a reticence that lets me know that they are trying, clumsily, to reach each other.” (page 27)

 

He is obsessed with two. Two in connection, twins, kindred souls, brothers, lovers, even as he himself is profoundly one. This solitary man who cannot connect even in a crowd, eventually implodes, and explodes, and the sense of following him through this process is a literary meditation I will long not forget. It is for this kind of fine literature that I hunger all my reading life, and find all too rarely. 

 

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Stains, early poems by Lori A. May

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 88 pages
  • Publisher: Bohemian Steel Press, 2009
  • Price: $15.95
  • ISBN-10: 0973582405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0973582406

 

Brave and confident soul, who is willing to put into lasting print—however lasting print is these days—her early poems. Lori A. May titles this collection, interestingly enough, stains. It is a slim collection of mostly haiku-like verses, short, sweet but with bite, quick images and passing sensibilities of a woman’s (sometimes, a girl’s) life.

May is known more for her fiction writing, suspense and crime fiction, including Moving Target and the Walden Books bestseller, The Profiler. She is editor at Marick Press, a high-quality small press in Michigan, and founding editor of The Ambassador Poetry Project. With stains, May is letting her already established fans join with new fans by opening a window on a new facet of her writing talent—as a poet.

New, that is, by about a decade. The poems track back over years, and indeed, the opening poem, “Portrait,” seems to be just that, but of a girl. A very uncomfortable one, in pink taffeta:

ribbons choke

my throat

sucking me into

pink taffeta

 

polished shoes

reflecting up my skirt

 

stockings laced

with innocent flowers

halting personality

with itchy fabric

 

Having grown up as something of a tomboy myself, I sympathize. I continue to sympathize through the next poem, titled “Brat,” as the portrait of a girl evolves into a young woman ready to test her limits: “…determined/to push free.” May expresses a fun spirit in her early poetry, and more often than occasionally hits the mark, too, with sophistication that shows the evolvement of the writer. I find myself underlining fresh phrasing and lines such as “the winter of my skin” in the poem, “Summer,” and “the kinks/rocked hard/while he sucked my youth/through parted lips” in “Mustang,” a poem of adolescence and hot hormones.

 

In the poem “Sleep,” May captures what most women want when we speak of intimacy. While the heat of a youthful kiss, leaning against a Mustang and sneaker skidding across a bumper has its allure, in this poem we see the girl growing into a woman who longs for her mate to sleep with her. “I said sleep,” the poet emphasizes, and the poem describes the intimacy of two bodies in utmost comfort, curled one into the other, resting.

 

May then captures the intimacy of writing, poet and page in seduction: “Blank page spread before me/Like legs, limber and longing/Looking for identity./Painted words lick up the white/Resting in their newfound home./You are a work in progress.”

 

As the reader nears the end of the collection, there is a subtle change in style. Words become that much more spare, more carefully chosen, closer to target. We sense the expanding wisdom of a growing poet, an evolving woman. “The lack/of expectation/does not/guarantee/protection from/disappointment.” Titles hint at deepening experience and understanding. “War” tells of difficulties in a relationship: “you deny/confrontation/and ignore/response/act in silence/to mask/insecurity.” Love has grown more complex, with baggage and history. In “DNA,” May writes: “I want to find the one place/No one else has touched you/One place no one has left prints/Or memories,” and with these simple, bare bone words, nails the longing we all have as adults to find new territory—in ourselves, in each other, the still sacred.

 

Stains is a pleasing collection of poetic moments that have stained the poet with lasting memory. It is worth reading while leaving a coffee stain of one’s own, lingering, rereading, remembering … and anticipating the next phase of May’s poetic evolution.

 

 

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