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Influencer: The Power to Change Anything

By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Hardcover: 288 pages

·         Publisher: McGraw-Hill, 2007

·         Price: $26.95

·         ISBN-10: 007148499X

·         ISBN-13: 978-0071484992



I watched David Maxfield, one of the authors of Influencer, present at a health care conference at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan not long ago—he was animated and enthused and quite fascinating. His presentation was based on this book, a New York Times bestseller, from the same authors that brought readers the concepts of “crucial conversations,” “crucial behaviors” and VitalSmarts. The latter is today a company that offers consultations on how to motivate positive change, not only on an individual basis, but companywide.


I was fascinated enough by the presentation that I purchased the book to learn more. Indeed, the organization for which I work has held it up to its employees as a source of wisdom. As an organization, we, too, have now developed our own vital behaviors. From what I am witnessing, there are some positive changes going on—and that’s no small trick for a large corporation.


So why not take this down to the individual? I read with great interest, initially amused by the admonishment to “stop seeking serenity” unless we are willing to stop growing. The new age advice is forever urging us to settle, and while serenity is nice, it can also become a trap, holding us in place rather than moving toward positive growth and change.


As Maxfield pointed out in his presentation, human nature resists change. We tend to take the route most worn in, the easiest, the tried if not quite true. Even when we know a certain behavior isn’t getting us anyplace good, may even be hurting us, we still resist change. Consider the addict who is destroying his or her life with bad behavior, yet will continue that behavior even when all that matters is lost—family, friends, health, wealth, home, self-respect. Even on pain of death, we won’t change. Why? What’s missing?


Influencer is a study of what breaks through our natural resistance to change. It is based on examination of success. What are the differences between those who succeed in life and those who fail? Those who change in order to move in a better direction, and those who stagnate in their bad behaviors for a life of failure? To improve a situation, what must people do? Find your vital behaviors, the authors advise. Study the behavior, not the outcome.


The starting point is to see oneself as an influencer. If you don’t believe in your ability to change, you won’t. If you don’t want to change, you won’t. The authors debunk the idea of therapy as being helpful in changing especially addictive behaviors if the focus is on examining childhood experiences or any kind of dallying in the past. Rather, we should expand the self-image to include the ability to influence—ourselves and others—and learn the vital behaviors that cause positive change. (It is also important to consider the company we keep. Hang out with losers, and you’ll be one. Hang out with the best, and you’ll be challenged to improve yourself.)


With various examples, the authors illustrate how their suggestions play out in real life. Rather than being someone who only worries about keeping his own corner of the world clean, an influencer must abide by two rules—be accountable and hold everyone else accountable. The person who looks the other way whenever he or she sees a colleague at work shirk responsibility is as guilty of bringing the company down as is the colleague. To be an effective team is as much about doing good work as ensuring that others do good work, too. What’s the saying? The chain is as only as good as its weakest link? You get the idea. If a “crucial conversation” is then needed, so be it (see previous works by these authors).


Success is not about avoiding mistakes or risks. Quite the opposite. But it doesn’t mean being reckless, either. The authors encourage an intense study of success in one’s area of interest. What works? Not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of the behaviors leading to success. To learn how to overcome an addiction, study recovery behaviors and emulate them. Everyone makes mistakes; those who succeed make plenty, but they also continually remain aware and make constant corrections each and every time they slip off the path. Each mistake produces a correction of one’s compass.


What doesn’t work? With rare exception, punishment doesn’t work. It may force a behavior change in the short run, but almost guarantee rebellion at first opportunity. The battering husband may have achieved a wife who never moves from his side in seeming devotion, but she will leave when the time is right, and by then, he will lose any respect or love she may have had for him. Similarly, the battering boss may force discipline in his office, but turn his back once, and everyone is off to the water cooler. Or the employment office.


Praise always works better than punishment. Allowing people to make their own mistakes is also crucial. Rather than micro-management, a good leader allows the team to misstep now and then, finding their own way, praising when they get back on track. More importantly, a good leader is a good role model. Adults are not so very different from children when it comes to how we learn. We watch and emulate our leaders more than we follow rules and regulations.


That is not to say we don’t listen. If outright persuasion is rarely an effective form of influence, think of it as the hard sell versus the soft sell. Tell a great story, and the same lesson comes through dipped in honey. The reason media and entertainment are such effective influencers, the authors argue, is because they are venues for storytelling. Great storytelling can cause great change where all else fails because it produces a vicarious experience.


“Entertainment education helps people change how they view the world through the telling of vibrant and credible stories. Told well, these vicariously created events approximate the gold standard of change—real experiences… We can use words to persuade others to come around to our way of thinking by telling a story rather than firing off a lecture. Stories can create touching moments that help people view the world in new ways.” (pg. 57)


The dark side of this tool for change, however, is that the wrong story can also cause negative change. The authors illustrate the concept of garbage in, garbage out, and so children who grow up watching violent television and video games are increasingly exhibiting behavior to match the stories on which they have been nurtured. Where your eyes are focused, so follow your thoughts, and where your thoughts go, so go your actions.


Once that valuable moment of inspiration happens, however, it will not stand alone to cause change. The next question that comes to mind is, “will it be worth it?” and then, “can I do it?”


Without hope for something better, no one strives to change. There’s no point. To understand fully the goal of what one is trying to achieve, making the determination that it is indeed worth the struggle, paves the road to change. Hope and value—these are the mental maps one follows to reach for success.


Most people do have values, and yet so many bypass them when behaving badly. What happens to our moral codes when we chose the wrong path in life? There is a frequent disconnect between our behavior and our personal standards. People do wrong almost always knowing they are doing wrong. Yet they do it anyway. Worse, they despise anyone else who behaves in similar manner.


“Often humans react to their immediate environments as if they were on autopilot. They don’t pause to consider how their immediate choices reflect their ideals, values, or moral codes… when we make horrific and costly mistakes, more often than not we’re not choosing at all. It’s the lack of thought, not the presence of thought, that enables our bad behavior.” (pg. 95)


 The solution here is to reconnect. Turn off the autopilot. Stop, think, be aware. Instead of acting on emotion or even instinct, stop long enough to consider if what you are about to do aligns with your moral code. If a moral action doesn’t always seem to be a “natural” one, the authors remind us, consider that brushing our teeth everyday is not natural either. We do it because it aligns with our standards of health and hygiene. It is the right thing to do.


Common tactics of enabling our bad behavior, making it possible, are:

  • moral justification
  • dehumanization or objectifying
  • minimizing
  • displacing responsibility


Doing the wrong thing is virtually impossible without indulging in one or all of these tactics to disconnect ourselves from our own values. We must morally disengage before we can do wrong. Stop the disengagement and you will  have stopped the wrong behavior.


“The only way out of the nasty practice of disconnecting ourselves from our moral grounding is to reconnect. This means that we must take our eyes off the demands of the moment and cast our view on the larger moral issues by reframing reality in moral terms… If we don’t reconnect possible behavior to the larger moral issues, we’ll continue to allow the emotional demands of the moment to drive our actions, and, in so doing, we’ll make short-term, myopic choices…. Individuals who learn how to reconnect their distant but real values to their current behavior can overcome the most addictive of habits—cocaine, heroine, pornography, gambling, you name it.” (pg. 98-99)


With abuse of all kinds escalating in modern society, it seems absolutely crucial to understand this simple truth—that, unless we are sociopaths without any conscience whatsoever, our minds and hearts force us to dehumanize before we can abuse. We must objectify before we can disrespect. We must erase a person in our minds before we can betray them. Reconnect the disconnect and the rest will follow.


So what are the common traits of those who succeed? The authors cite studies which observe the commonalities in those who do well in life. If one personality trait stands out above all others, it is this: the ability to delay gratification. The best in life is almost never the most easy to attain. Success is hard won. To not get lost along the way, or distracted by temptation, “succeeders” are those who know how to distract themselves from that which gives pleasure or ease in the short term. Delaying gratification, those who succeed at the highest level display all sorts of interesting tricks and quirks to keep their awareness on the goal at end rather than the easy win at hand. Children offered candy but told that if they waited a while longer might have the cake were observed to work at moving their gaze away from the candy, playing little games to get their minds off the candy, counting, singing, anything to distract their own attention. Inevitably, if the initial moment of temptation is won, it will quickly lose its luster. Those who gave in quickly, however, even when having to lie about their taking the candy, did not make any attempt at distraction. They kept their eyes on the sweet until they gave in and so lost the real prize. The ability to withstand temptation is a learned skill. Like any skill, practice makes perfect. The more you practice a discipline, the more natural it becomes to you.


Finally, the authors point out that it is not reward that motivates us to greatness. Doing the right thing—that is the reward. Human nature is more inclined toward goodness than one might think. Doing right makes our self esteem rise. Doing right causes our social standing to climb. Doing right earns us respect, our own and that of others. Doing good feels good.


All this wisdom offered, however, won’t do a thing … unless there is a real desire to change. All our actions come back to us. We decide. We are accountable. Change is always possible.






Borderline by Nevada Barr

(Anna Pigeon series)


Book Review by Zinta Aistars







  • Hardcover: 399 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult, 2009
  • Price: $25.95
  • ISBN-10: 0399155694
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399155697




Tucked away on a wilderness retreat for a weekend, cozied up in a rocking chair by the fireplace, I opened the cover of the review copy I had received of Nevada Barr’s newest novel in the Anna Pigeon series, Borderline. One of the best things about receiving review copies of books in the mail, frequently unrequested, is that I end up reading books I would never consider on a bookstore wander. This would be one of those. The cover illustration is a little too cheesy for me (rushing river rapids between high blue cliffs), a series of any kind is a bit of a turnoff (note to series authors: get over it and move on to your next character), and a detective story by any measure (beyond cliché) would have had me at a quick trot past this one. But retreats are a time for escapism from our usual reality, so I cracked open the cover to read.


From the book jacket I learned that Anna Pigeon, the park ranger of this now 15-book series, is apparently quite a popular read. You don’t reach 15 without fans. Must be something to this, I thought. Either sheep mentality, or, one would hope, something of value. And, admittedly, I was finding curb appeal here. Anna is no gumshoe. She is, after all, a park ranger, and my wilderness-loving self warmed to the idea of each book having a backdrop of a national park rather than the cops-and-robbers’ inner city. I am also interested in strong female characters, as much of my dislike for detective novels is that too many are based on Bogie-like womanizers, forever saving (and subsequently “doing”) “damsels in distress.” Look, there wouldn’t be so many damsels in distress if there were fewer womanizers wandering the landscape. I was ready to give Anna a chance.


The cool and sharp Anna, independent to the bone, found favor with me in the first few pages. Independent, sure, but she also knew how to be soft for that one special man—her husband, Paul. Her vulnerability showed in a recent diagnosis of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), an after-effect of the novel preceding this one … a story about a killing in which Anna had been involved (without regret) on Isle Royale in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Anna and her husband head south to Texas for a much-needed rest, planning on rafting the rapids of the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park Also on the raft trip are four teenagers and the raft guide.


To no one’s surprise but maybe Anna’s, the trip is far from soothing. Instead, we are quickly pulled into another mystery, replete with half-drowned bodies and illegal border crossings, a corrupt politician and her philandering husband, a sassy and savvy journalist sniffing out a good story, snipers on mountaintops and falling dead bodies, suspect security guards, whiny teens, a sacred cow, and even a C-section performed with a pocketknife on a drowned corpse. Rapids, indeed. Yet among all this chilling, fast-paced, page-turning stuff, I also found snippets of delicious humor that had me laugh out loud, or else simply snicker in female comrade recognition.


“Paul kissed her gently. He was the best kisser of any man she had ever met. Most men thought they were good kissers, just like they all thought they were good drivers. Most were wrong on both counts.”


And I thought I was the only one with that observation, ha!


Barr could also slip in a political statement while addressing border laws and drug wars:


“America no longer wanted anybody to give her their tired, their poor, and their huddled masses made people’s blood run cold.”       


Or the occasional jibe at religious views: “Should there be a heaven it would probably have a border patrol that put Homeland Security to shame.”


Mostly, Barr just did what she apparently does best: she kept me turning pages, putting another log on the fire, turning more pages, then reading late into the night. I like this Anna. I get the way her mind works and how her nerves settle. And I enjoyed, rather than the damsel-chasing for which this genre is known, having a warm, caring marriage as the backdrop for our heroine. Goodness, Paul even touches her on occasion simply to show love, with no demand for the night to end in more. What a guy. He gets that his wife mostly just needs him to be there. There is plenty of passion and mutual physical admiration, but placed strategically to tell us more about the characters than for cheap and gratuitous thrills. Nice.


The mystery is solved satisfactorily, if not exactly with unpredictable results. Anna’s devotion to the orphan child she saves from the river turns very quickly to the aloofness of a woman who is not maternally inclined—too suddenly not to be a bit jarring. Overall, Barr has a snappy, sharp style, not particularly literary, but with moments of wit and sparks of humor; she knows what she is doing with this genre. The main character is engaging enough that the reader quickly and easily grows fond, and so, to my own surprise, I added a couple more Barr books on my wish list. Anna Pigeon is the kind of main character women readers enjoy: the right and realistic mix of strength, intellect, softness, introspection, independence, with an ability to lean on, and be leaned upon by, one trustworthy man.







In Love with Jerzy Kosinski by Agate Nesaule

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·                     Hardcover: 218 pages

·                     Publisher: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2009

·                     Price: $24.95

·                     ISBN-10: 0299231305

·                     ISBN-13: 978-0299231309



Whatever the form of abuse, wounds take a long time to heal, if ever they do, and the scars remain forever. The work of novelist Agate Nesaule often handles the theme of abuse and its long-term repercussions. In her acclaimed first book, Woman in Amber, Nesaule examines her own experiences of living through World War II and losing her home, Latvia, then becoming an immigrant—a stranger in a new land (the United States), coping with exile.

All wars are the epitome of abuse, but for women, this abuse extends to deeper levels yet, as women historically have been viewed as a kind of “prize” in war—too often, even by their own countrymen. War in all its chaos unleashes the predator in Man, no holds barred, and women as war bounty up for grabs. And so, long after the war has ended, it continues in its aftereffects, leaving women as the walking wounded, susceptible to other forms of abuse—domestic, for instance.

If Woman in Amber revealed to the reader the emotional and psychological devastation of war and exile for a woman, then Nesaule’s new novel, In Love with Jerzy Kosinski, delves deeper into the psychology of a woman in her life after war.  The opening scenes in both books resemble each other, only whereas Woman in Amber opened on a bedroom scene in which an older couple has made love in true companionship and intimacy, leading to pillow talk of unfolding memories … In Love with Jerzy Kosinski opens on a bedroom scene in which Anna Duja is faking orgasm to please (or appease) her abusive husband. She goes through the motions, makes the obligatory sweet moans, assures her man how “great” he is in bed. He doesn’t have a clue. His ego eats it all up, while she has learned to protect herself in fakery, preserving her own peace. Women, after all, have been taught in a man’s world that she is here to serve, here to please, and should he ever stray—it is her fault.

And so the scene unfolds upon a life of wearing masks in self-protection, even while it is the mask, paradoxically, that holds Anna back from true healing and connection with others. Dishonesty of any kind, even when in self-protection, can never lead to any good. Certainly not to a good relationship. Stanley, Anna’s husband, is portrayed as the typical abusive husband. He is no wife-beater; his abuse comes in more subtle forms—hints of humiliation (she won’t leave if he keeps her feeling unworthy), control over car keys (he maintains control over her ability to move freely), schedules (his needs always come first), friends the couple keeps (his), patronizing insults that eat away at Anna’s self-esteem (his control depends on her submission).  It is precisely this type of emotional abuse that can be most poisonous, because outsiders see only a polite and caring, even charming, if somewhat overbearing Stanley. Her friends tell her how lucky she is.

Anna lives in a world of lies, and because she comes from an abusive past, not only the war, but also a father (the original role model for all men) whom she could never please, she allows the degradation to continue while going out of her way to preserve and protect the public image of Stanley as a “great guy.” Anna is the classic enabler. She has connected her own self identity to his. If people knew how Stanley really treated her, in her mind, it was not his shame, not his failure, but hers. Anna represses her feelings in whatever way she can, to survive, but those feelings emerge in other ways, as in, for example, obsessive compulsive housecleaning. It is as if she could clean up the mess that her life has become, but for all the cleanliness and order on the outside, the dirt and chaos on the inside of this relationship cannot be swept away.

Dignity is so important to a man, Anna reminds herself. She does all that she can to suppress her own dignity while protecting the dignity of her man. She sweeps away his copies of Playboy, ignores the evidence of an escalating problem, even as she finds her husband is posting single ads and personals (he waves this away as mere flirtation and tells her she is being “too sensitive”). When for all her efforts, he cheats on her anyway, more than once, she blames herself. She is “not enough.” Even so, her plans to leave Stanley begin to take shape, tugging her away, then back again, tossed about by doubt and guilt.

“How could she go back like that to certain humiliation? …Did she fear or love the man who tormented her, or did guilt and pity keep her chained to him? Why did she not pull herself together and start taking care of herself?”(p. 61)

Meeting other women with similar refugee-immigrant backgrounds, Anna recognizes herself in their “exile eyes.” These are women who are exquisitely polite and kind, even flirtatious with the men around them, as if to prove that life is nothing more than a fun game. Their giggles mask their fear and pain.

“They all had exile eyes: eyes that had lost everything and seen the unspeakable but were determined nevertheless to keep looking, eyes that remained wary and disillusioned even during shy smiles and suppressed giggles. Anna had seen those eyes before: in photographs of Latvian women and men who survived Siberia, and on TV as Rwandan girls were being questioned by a journalist. A Hmong woman passing on a Greyhound bus, the Chilean woman doctor who used to clean Marge’s house, and Anna’s father—they all had eyes like that.” (pg. 73)

Ironically, it takes the attention of another man to help Anna ultimately break free from her abusive husband. While being around Stanley had always made her feel “not enough,” even ugly, being around the attractive Andrejs wakes Anna up to the lies she’s been told, the lies she had accepted as truth. The way he looks at her, the way he treats her, the way he romances her, all work a small miracle on the beaten psyche of the battered woman, until she too sees: she is an attractive woman with much to offer.

Alas, as is so often the case with the emotionally battered woman, she loses the ability to detect truth from lies. No one charms like the man who wishes to seduce and control. Andrejs turns out to be just another version of Stanley, and Anna finds herself in yet another cycle of abusive behavior. Anna swears to herself, she will not “lie with her words or her body again,” and when at last she recognizes that her new lover is a narcissist, initially attentive, but then increasingly cruel, she struggles yet again to loose herself. He plays mind games with her, telling her one thing one day, the opposite the next day, until she cannot tell what is real and what is imagined. In a poignant scene in a public women’s bathroom stall, she overhears two women talking and recognizes herself in their exchange. “He’s a liar,” one woman says in frustration to the other. Bipolar, dysfunctional childhood, addicted to his vices, a jerk, a bum … but the other woman in meek voice responds only that her man needs more time. Time, patience, love, these will be her cures for what ails him. Listening, Anna has an epiphany of the part she has played in this all too common scenario of domestic violence.

No one can save us from ourselves, but ourselves. Anna has looked for answers and healing in other women, but she finds the man-bashers repugnant, her own ethnic community too stuck in their own denial and bitterness, the feminists too disinterested in getting along with men at all, her women friends to be mostly guilty partners in enabling society’s mistreatment of women.

What does this all have to do with Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski? one might ask. Kosinski, a literary hero of Anna Duja’s, is the thread that weaves through this story as a kind of mascot for the damaged soul of those spit out by war. Neither dead nor fully alive, living lives of quiet agony, sometimes producing great art, imperfect and battling various vices to escape their isolation and pain—these are the children of war. The framework for Anna’s own story, Kosinski is rumored to be an abusive man if brilliant writer, and Anna remains doggedly devoted to his image as it is constructed in her mind. Deep inside her are words. She, too, wishes to write. And while much of her life she has looked to Kosinski to write the story of those damaged by war, having survived time and again her own personal war as an emotionally battered woman, she now realizes … she must tell her own story. When news reports come to light that her literary hero has committed suicide, beaten by his own demons, she suddenly realizes that she is free.

“She would have done anything for him … But even as she formed the words, she knew they were not true. She was finally beyond doing everything he or another man might demand. She would not lie for Jerzy. She would not collude with him … to uphold a false version of his childhood. She would not write his books. She would not give him her story. She would write it herself.

“She knew now she was not powerful enough to save another person … Only he could have received the miraculous grace that helped some survivors to open their hearts, to forgive, and to find peace … she knew the real reason he had killed himself: he was a child during the war; he was one of the hunted; he was one of the millions marked for death.

“He would never write the book she had wanted him to write that would explain why wartime lies continued for years afterward.”(pg. 199)

Anna will write that book herself. No one can tell her story but Anna herself. She hears rumors of her ex-lover Andrejs telling other women she was “no raving beauty” but an intelligent companion to him, eventually "a disappointment." When friends ask her if she misses him, she says, honestly, no. She does on occasion miss the companionship of a man in her life. A man as he should have been, might have been. But she has now chosen her “final solitude.” Within this solitude, she plans to write her book.

“But maybe stories can help. Maybe those who have suffered more will listen to those only on the margins of the great horrors. Maybe all will be able to rest in the compassion of others. Maybe instead of clashing and competing, all the stories will weave together into a great tapestry, each thread part of an intricate, somber pattern. Maybe tenderness will prevail.” (pg. 210)

One after another, Anna has been disappointed in the men in her life—her father, her husband, her lover, and finally, even her literary idol. She will always be the child of war. She will always be a survivor.

Nesaule’s book is a heartbreaking story of women everywhere, fighting their own silent wars. Whether combat on the battlefield, or combat behind the closed doors of many homes, women suffer the wounds, and men with them, of a lack of dignity and compassion for the human condition. Her stories may seem simple enough, but they accomplish what Anna dreams about: a linking of people, both genders, in a better understanding of what we all need—forgiveness.


Learn more about this issue's feature author, Agate Nesaule, and her new novel.





A Woman in Amber by Agate Nesaule


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 288 pages

·         Publisher: Penguin, 1997

·         Price: $15.00

·         ISBN-10: 0140261907

·         ISBN-13: 978-0140261905




Being of Latvian heritage myself, perhaps it is impossible for me to read Nesaule's book as anyone else of a different heritage might. I have grown up on stories that are but variations on a theme to this one. My first language was Latvian, my first book was Latvian, my own first efforts in creative writing were in the Latvian language. Indeed, I have participated in a literary reading of Latvian authors at the 11th Latvian Song Festival in Chicago, Illinois, where I had the honor of sharing the podium with Agate Nesaule. Is it possible for me to turn the pages of "Woman in Amber" without a deeply ingrained bias? Perhaps not. But I can say that these pages, these words, these memories, resonated profoundly with me. The war experience in many ways, however, is a suffering and a horror that crosses all lines of ethnicity, all borders of nationality. For this reason, I believe this is an important account for a far larger audience than just the Latvian reader; I am thrilled that this book was written first in English, then translated into, I believe, seven other languages.


Latvia is a tiny but beautiful country on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The Latvian language is one of the oldest still in existence. The country's history is one of the most war-torn and ravaged of any country anywhere - although it has existed for many, many centuries, Latvia has been independent, free of occupation by other armies, for only a wink in time. If this nation can be proud of anything, it can be proud of its ability to survive even the cruelest and most oppressive conditions. This memoir, "Woman in Amber," opens a small window of light shed on how such a people survive. Even more precisely, it gives an account of how a very young girl can survive - losing her home, losing her family, conditions of hunger, rape, pillage, exile, and the terrifying experience of being a stranger in an immense and completely alien country where the culture and language are all new and strange. Most memoirs of war and battlefields are written by men. It is particularly interesting to read a different kind of account, from the perspective of a woman. If soldiers on a battlefield suffer, there is a quieter, less evident suffering that happens behind the front lines, and this memoir reveals, painfully and movingly, the no less violent and scarring battles that happen there.

Agate Nesaule's memoir is a courageous sharing of the experiences she endured - not just during World War II, but for many years following the war. Long after the sounds of war have died down, the wounds are still bloodied and pulsating with pain. Healing can often take a lifetime. My respect to this author for sharing her experience, and my hope that it has offered her healing. This is a book I am proud to recommend to both my Latvian friends as well as my non-Latvian friends.




More reviews coming soon ...

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