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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 288 pages

·         Publisher: Random House, 2009

·         Price: $17.00

·         ISBN-10: 0812980352

·         ISBN-13: 978-0812980356


As I began to read Lisa See’s meticulously researched novel based on 19th-century life in China, I was instantly transported to my girlhood days of reading Pearl S. Buck’s wonderful books about China (The Good Earth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; Peony; Pavilion of Women; A House Divided; and many others). I have always been very interested to learn about other cultures, especially those very different from mine, and Buck had early on introduced me to life in China, as seen through the eyes of women. Now, Lisa See reopened my eyes and brought me back to that adventure and all of its exotic intrigue.

Lily is the voice of the narrator, an 80-year-old Chinese woman recalling her life as a girl, then as a woman, in a culture that subjugated women and considered the female gender in general almost entirely worthless. The author shows us, helps us to feel and understand, what it meant to be a female in this particular time and place.

Lily is a child as the first scene opens, a little girl who is contemplating the cruel practice of foot binding that she is about to endure. This tradition, supposedly started by a Chinese empress who had a club foot and wanted other women to match her deformity (other variations on this tale include a Chinese ruler who thought the tiny feet of a dancer were so erotic that he wanted all Chinese women to have such feet, later called “lily feet”), was perpetrated for centuries, elevated to the erotic by Chinese men (one wonders why the male idea of eroticism so often seems to involve some form of forced control over women), and raised to the level of being a external sign of belonging to the upper class, of having grace and education. Indeed, lower classes were spared this horrendous practice.

Foot binding, as the author describes it, would begin as early as at the age of 3. Because it was the only way to have a marriageable daughter, mothers were often those who bound the feet of their daughters. The process began when the bones of the foot were still malleable, and the foot would be bound in ever tightening strips of cloth, and the little girls forced to walk back and forth, back and forth, on their bound feet throughout the day. Beneath that binding, toes were folded under the foot, so that walking would, usually over a period of a few days, effectively break the bones of the toes and curl them permanently under the foot. As the girl grew, the foot would become nearly folded in half, a deep cleft forming in its middle section. Since toenails continued to grow, often directly into the flesh of the foot, infection would result, sometimes leading to the girl’s death. Adult women with bound feet would hobble on these tiny stubs that were the size of a small child’s feet, but a few inches in length. The pain these girls and women had to endure from their crippled feet lasted a lifetime.

“Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you have peace,” writes See of the thinking of that time.

It is interesting to contemplate how women today suffer pain for beauty in comparison to these 19th-century Chinese women. If we read these historic accounts aghast at what women were subjected to and even themselves encouraged one upon another, accepting these deformities as “beautiful,” one wonders at the contemporary woman on stilettos, which any podiatrist will attest cause foot, leg and spinal injury over time, or the cosmetic and plastic surgery, liposuction, Botox injections, and a long list of modern-day torments, on into eating disorders, to which women today subject themselves, all in the name of “beauty.”When looked at that way, we can hardly read about these girls and women with a sense of superiority—we’ve come a long way, baby? Or perhaps not so very long at all. If there is a lesson for women throughout history, we may yet have to learn it.

The narrator Lily writes about the companionship between women, about the special relationship she has with another Chinese girl, Snow Flower, who is her “laotung,” or “old same,” an allusion to two kindred spirits. In a male dominated world, women live segregated from others, much of their lives lived out in women’s chambers, out of the sight of men and rarely seeing daylight—until the men need them to do their household chores or perform (and that would be the correct word here) their wifely duties. The women show a different face among themselves, but another face entirely to their men. To their men, they are ever flattering and complimentary, ever serving their needs and fluffing their egos, soft and gentle and kind and sweet. In their intimate moments with their husbands, which are usually not intimate at all (Lily refers to this as “bed business”), women will do anything to make their men feel special and to keep them loyal, even as they withdraw later to their own chambers to trade horror stories. Girls are trained from birth to treat men with this external face of honor, while they are never allowed to forget that they themselves are completely without value outside of what they bring to a man’s world.

“My education in the upstairs women’s chamber began in earnest, but I already knew a lot. I knew that men rarely entered the women’s chamber; it was for us alone, where we could do our work and share our thoughts. I knew I would spend almost my entire life in a room like that. I also knew the difference between nei—the inner realm of the home—and wai—the outer realm of men—lay at the very heart of Confucian society. Whether you are rich or poor, emperor or slave, the domestic sphere is for women and the outside sphere is for men. Women should not pass beyond the inner chambers in their thoughts or in their actions. I also understood that two Confucian ideals ruled our lives…’When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son’… the Four Virtues, which delineate women’s behavior, speech, carriage, and occupation: ‘Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery.’ If girls do not stray from these principles, they will grow into virtuous women.” (Page 24)

Set against this background, these women develop “nu shu,” a form of writing that is understood only by women. It is a secret code, and Lily and her laotung Snow Flower write messages to each other on a beautiful fan that they send back and forth to each other throughout their lifetimes. The author has researched here an actual secret code used a thousand years ago by Chinese women to communicate with one another. The messages were often poetic, artistically embroidered. Nu shu was often the only truth communicated in a women's world that otherwise was lived only behind masks.

As we watch the relationships of these women unfold—the mothers and daughters, the aunts and grandmothers, the female matchmakers, the sisters and laotung, it is clear that most of these women know real love only in their circles of women, while outside of these circles all is harshly enforced tradition and rule. As Lily grows into a young woman and marries, her mother-in-law advises her to “obey, obey, obey, and then do what you want.” The nu shu secret writing is one means of that quiet independent spirit that keeps these women alive in such a cruel world. Their bonds give them strength, companionship, courage to endure, shared wisdom. In one scene between Lily and Snow Flower as young girls first becoming aware of their own physical beauty, we see the only real eroticism among the many “bed business” scenes in the novel. Together, they discover their bodies and their sensuality, even though it is clear they are heterosexual women … the point taken is that this was the only way some of these women ever knew a truly intimate touch, one given out of mutual love. Most never knew a loving touch at all.

The novel traces the lives of Lily and Snow Flower as the two intersect, grow close, and then again grow apart. False pretenses come to light, “white lies” prove to have very dark consequences, real identities are revealed, and the differences between the upper and lower classes develop chasms between even the closest friends. The author examines the repercussions of violence between intimate partners, but also the occasional budding of true feeling between a woman and a man—yes, against all odds, that occasionally happens.

When all cultural differences and historical details are brushed aside, it can be sobering to realize how many of these human interactions and behaviors thrive even today. Women are still objectified, still suffer for beauty, and still wear masks to gain popularity with the opposite gender. Abusive behavior transcends generations, and painfully often—it is women themselves who break the spirit of the next generation. Domestic violence is at epidemic levels, as current statistics show that the least safe place for a woman to be today—is in her own home. Along with all that dark reality, however, other things still hold true, too—the unique communion of women, the power of redemption, the remarkable endurance of the human spirit, and the human need for intimacy no matter how many masks we wear to get through the day.

Lisa See has written a fascinating historical novel that shines a light on modern society even as she writes about ancient history. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is but one of many novels the author has written about the Chinese culture. The book is thought provoking, entertaining, moving, worthy of deeper discussion, expertly written and thoroughly researched, and, like any good book, entices the reader to want to learn more.




Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Anything by Geneen Roth

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Hardcover, 224 pages
Simon and Schuster
Price: $24.00
ISBN13: 9781416543077


The United States has become the poster nation for overweight people, and, quite possibly going hand in hand, we have also increasingly become a nation of obsessions and addictions. The reasons, I suspect, are varied and many, arguably from living in a society that has lost sense of its values, to living in a society bombarded with convenience everything, including poor quality foods with a long list of chemical additives and preservatives, many of which studies have shown can lead to increased appetite, to possibly so many pollutants in our air and earth and water that our bodies are becoming chemically out-of-whack in efficiency of using food, to a simple lack of physical activity or even sleep deprivation.

Geneen Roth lists an impressive publishing history on her book jacket, but no credentials in the fields of science or psychology. Indeed, this is the one notable lacking in this popular book, and one which is a major one. As much as I enjoyed reading this Oprah-blessed book, I kept wishing for something more solid, cited cases and studies, observed and noted results, tie-ins to scientific expertise, but found none.

There, we’ll get that out of the way—my one gripe. The author is otherwise an accomplished one, with eight prior books on similar topics, on which she has based many workshops and retreats. She has written for The Huffington Post, Good Housekeeping, and O, The Oprah Magazine. And she has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The View, NPR, and other much-watched shows. Roth knows how to market herself, and that's not a bad thing. Certainly the idea of this and her other books are very marketable. One might say, we are hungry for solutions to our national weight crisis.

Clearly there is an emotional factor (among other factors) to overeating among American women. Most anyone has experienced eating out of stress, nervous tension, anxiety, depression, or some other emotional upheaval. This is the area into which Roth delves, exploring how our eating habits correlate with our emotions. Of the connection to God (note the title of the book) or “everything,” I am not sure, but Roth makes the general point that how we eat is how we do everything. If we respect our bodies, perhaps therein lies our connection to God—disrespect for our bodies, or the objectification of women in general, as Roth points out, translates into disrespect toward God and the divine temple (our physical bodies) He created for us to inhabit. If we are unhappy or out of balance emotionally, she says, our bodies show it.

Roth’s book opens on a scene of one of her workshops, where women gather to understand how their emotional selves connect to their physical selves, food being the connecting thread between the two. Food, Roth writes, can become our tool of obsession, our means of self-denial, our manner of evading the emotions we cannot bear to face. Food is a way to deaden the pain.

“I’ve been abandoned and betrayed by who and what really matters and what I’ve got left is food.” (Page 6)

It’s an interesting theory. Food as drug, as crutch, as mask, as buffer against emotional pain. For women, food is often a means of coping with relationships gone bad. Reading the book, I recalled a wise woman in my own life telling me that I was “carrying the weight of my emotions” during a time when I was deeply unhappy in a dysfunctional relationship. For the first time in my life, I was struggling with weight, and I knew the truth in her words—I was using food to fill the void inside, to deaden pain, to build a buffer between myself and my partner, a man who had turned out to be a serial cheater with an addiction to pornography. I found myself in an emotionally battering nightmare. The hit to my self-respect, especially on such a physical and intimate level, was overwhelming. The more betrayed and rejected I felt, the more my appetite increased. While I had been the same weight for my entire adulthood since high school, for the first time, I saw the scale climb. I was indeed carrying the weight of my battered emotions. I was a walking, eating illustration of Roth's theory. It wasn't until after I left that sad scenario that I began to tip back into balance, with contentment returning also a normal appetite, even as my appetite for a good life returned.

It could be that women are especially prone to this. Roth, unless I missed it, does not explain why her book addresses only women, but the genders do seem to develop different types of bad habits when it comes to attempts to escape our emotions. Since American men are also often obese, however, one wishes Roth might have addressed this further. When Roth tells her readers to face the pain rather than eat through it, she cheerily writes that there are worse things than facing a broken heart. Hmm, I had to think about that. Is there? Hearts break over betrayal, abandonment, death or loss of a loved one (spouse, mate, child), loss of a cherished dream, or any number of reasons. I would say there really is nothing worse, but hey, that's me. Whatever Roth considers worse, I would be curious to hear it, but her point is taken. We must at some point enter the pain, the rage, the storm of emotion, if we are ever to get through to the other side to a healthier self.

Compartmentalizing pain, Roth says, leads to obsession—in this case, an obsession with food. We may think we are dealing with our emotions when we reach for the bag of chips or bar of chocolate, but we are not. One way or another, our emotions will be heard. Compartmentalization may work in the short run as a survival mechanism, but in the long run it inevitably backfires; it simply pushes our denied emotions into other unhealthy behaviors. “Obsessions are ways we leave before we are left because we believe that the pain of staying would kill us.” (Page 42)

Roth addresses the women in her workshops, and her readers, by encouraging them to look more closely at whatever it is they are not facing. Hunger comes in different forms. Hunger for acceptance, hunger for love, all too often become confused with hunger for food. Through various steps, she helps women separate different kinds of hunger. Most of us, she rightly states, don't even recognize physical hunger. She also encourages women to stop fighting their hunger for food. This may initially sound controversial—to be told in a diet-crazed society that we should never diet again. But if diets worked, we would be the thinnest nation in the world rather than the most overweight.

Roth invites us to eat. Eat when we are hungry. Not when we are hungry for love, or acceptance, or whatever else … but to eat when our bodies are truly in need of physical sustenance. Then, eat to our fill. No more, no less. Once that taboo is removed, she argues, our obsession ends. Desire is often fed by the elicit, by the wish to do what we are not supposed to do, the forbidden apple becoming too much of a temptation … and so, Roth invites us to take a bite. She teaches us, in fact, to bite with utmost respect. Bite the apple, and yes, the cookie, too. Move aside all distraction, set aside the time, create a kind of divine moment of eating. Food is good. Food is not the enemy. Once we stop treating it like one, we may well find that our bodies, our appetites, begin to regulate themselves.

Feel the feeling, Roth says. Deal with the emotions. Compartmentalized pain will not go away until we fully open that door. If initially we may tear through our pantry, our no longer forbidden fruit will eventually become less enticing once it is readily available. We may, in fact, find ourselves reaching for the apple rather than the cookie.

In a society in which women are so often judged by our bodies, valued or not valued in direct correlation with our physical appearance, Roth writes of the need for treating our physical, and so also our emotional, selves with reverence. Objectification, after all, is just another word for hatred, and Roth speaks of the magazine photos of emaciated and anorexic women, the airbrushed images in all forms of media, women transformed by plastic surgery and treated as objects in pornography so that men come to expect an ever more unrealistic and unattainable perfection, and children, especially girls, being taught from an early age that appearance is everything.

“…our objectification of matter—including women’s bodies—is a partial cause of the apocalyptic disaster in which we now find ourselves. Rather than treating our bodies (and the body of the earth) with reverence, we trash them, try to bend them to our wills.” (Page 123)

Connect mind, body, spirit with reverence, open one to the other, deny none, and obsessions and addictions will lose their power.

Roth’s statement that food can be our doorway to the divine may be a bit of a stretch, but I do think she is on the right path with this. Including some closely monitored case studies (rather than anecdotal stories) with women dealing with emotional and/or spiritual pain in connection with their weight would have added much to this book. Adding expertise from persons in hard sciences would also have elevated it from an interesting and thought-provoking read to a powerful theory to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, it is worth considering and testing in one’s own life, with our emotional state being at least one part of our consideration of returning to a wholistically healthy state in body, mind and spirit.

If Roth’s guidelines are sometimes not realistic in our hurried and harried lives (e.g., never have a meal while simultaneously doing something else), the general idea is good common sense. Raising our awareness about the food we are stuffing into our faces is always a good idea. Slowing us down to consider that the hunger we are feeding, the void we are trying to fill, the pain we are avoiding, should be fed in healthier ways, is sound wisdom. Our national problem with food goes beyond these behaviors, but this is as excellent a beginning as any for a nation that is dealing with an epidemic of obesity.




A Wayfarer in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Ellen Chivers Davies

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Publisher: Robert M. McBride and Company, New York, 1937

Pages: 280



Fitting, that to prepare for my return to my ancestral home of Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic States, I should find some of my more meaningful and pleasant reading in a book long out of print. Latvian is, after all, one of the oldest languages still spoken today, and our cultural roots go deep into history, back to the times of Roman trade routes for amber, Teutonic Knights, and the first colonization of the island of Tobago. While I am born in the United States, a newborn nation by comparison, these three small but culturally rich countries have been in existence for many, many centuries.

Perhaps that is my draw. Or anyone’s, really, to turn back time and return to what was so long ago. If we should learn from history, alas, we rarely do, with humankind repeating the same mistakes over and over again, like a worn argument never resolved. But I am a firm believer in tapping into one’s roots, because to understand one’s own inclinations, a look back into family history can reveal much. Beyond our own personal memories are the genetic memories woven deep into our own fiber. Too often, we have little or no understanding of why we do what we do, how our life sense was formed, and why we long so achingly for we know not what. It could very well be in our history. In our family treasure chest, a dowry passed from generation to generation.

So I return, soon, for the first time in nearly 17 years, a long absence after many trips, beginning at age 15 during the gray and wretched Soviet years. Little as she is, Latvia has been occupied by one great power or another, for almost her entire existence. The Livs, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans, and most recently, the Russians, have taken her by force and kept her people subjugated in often unspeakable cruelty. Yet on November 18, 1918, Latvia declared herself an independent nation, if under a benevolent dictator, and thrived by any measure for about two decades. Yes, only two decades, before the Red Army invaded from the east, clashing with the Nazis from below, and with the help of Roosevelt at the bargaining table, was tossed like a poker chip, up for sale, not even that, merely a bit of bargaining between the super powers. The Baltic States were handed over to Russia and its communist government, and the deportations to concentration camps, the executions, the waves of fleeing refugees began. My own parents, still in their teens, among them …

I visited my local libraries to seek out travel guides and histories, to refresh my mind for what I would wish to see and experience on my return trip. It is not that I have forgotten. If my mind has pushed away painful personal memories, my spirit has had its own demands. One cannot deny oneself. One’s true self. My eventual return, I believe, was a given, only a matter of time.

Yet the libraries held little on their shelves. As the global community expands, of what significance are these three tiny countries on the Baltic Sea? Even as I now see amber from their shores sold in most every jewelry store, grabbed up by customers who know or care little of their origin, the white sands where storms and angry waves wash up the golden nuggets, solidified pine resin from trees that grew on the shores ages ago.

I found this book, then, a travel essay written by E.C. Davies, from Great Britain, and published in 1937. Sixteen photographic plates are included. Oh, you can have your Kindles and new-fangled e-readers! I hold in my hands this old book, dating back to that time when these were free nations, prior to World War II when they were washed with blood. Would anything here make sense to me today, in 2010?

Ah, here is the beauty of countries so old that in some respects, time stands still there. Whereas I now live in a country where houses are considered old if they are built within half a century, where everything is changeable, where change itself seems to be a thing of worship, how refreshing and reassuring to turn these faintly yellowed pages, gaze into these black and white photos, and see what is still there—today.

It could be that I will see many changes on my journey back. I am sure I will. Some of those will no doubt be welcome, while others, equally without doubt, will make my heart ache. But when I read E.C. Davies’ almost tender account of her Baltic travels, I recognize what I know so well. I recognize streets, stores, buildings, villages and towns, natural landmarks, styles of living, characteristics, that I first observed in the late 1970s, when I first traveled there. And those, unchanged, on every trip after. I recognize places and stories that my parents told me as a child, or that were taught to me when I attended private Latvian schools in the States. There it was, and here it is, still and ever so.

I very nearly do not need a new travel guide at all. The wonder of traveling to much of Europe, in fact, is that much of it remains the same, century after century, and buildings survive, built for such centuries, even through so many wars.

Davies writes of her entry by train into Latvia’s capitol city, Riga: “There is an immediate sense of recognition, of acquaintance which rises up in you, even as you set foot for the first time upon the shores of these countries. For me the Baltic lands hold this spell… the thrill quickens, the night passes, and morning light brightens the spires and steeples of Riga, that seagirt city which has seen the argosies of so many  nations sail up to its walls. Perhaps the sea way to the Baltic lands is of all others the pleasantest and most fitting. No one can realize how lovely these Baltic cities are until he has seen the long skyline of Riga from the water.” (pg. 94)

“From the very onset Riga gives one the feeling of an Imperial city; her fine buildings, wide, tree-planted avenues, the stately squares and beautiful parks make a lovely picture… the charming façade of the National Theatre, the dignified Ministries and civic offices, the beautiful Opera House and the fine blocks of modern shops and apartment houses… but take only a few hundred steps away from the centre of the modern town, and you are in that very ancient Riga which lies in a compact block between the river and the wide boulevards: a maze of narrow, twisting, cobbled streets, pierced by the tall spires of its many churches; the alleys, darkened by the shadows of the tall Hansa houses…” (pg. 95)

I was not born in that time when Davies traveled there, yet I recall in every detail my own observations, so like hers, some 40 years later, and again over the coming years after. Indeed, even now, planning my return journey, I am browsing tickets to the opera at the very same Opera House she mentions in the center of Riga. Will I buy a ticket to see the opera, Anna Karenina? Or Carmen?

My rented apartment is within that ancient Riga she describes, and my previous photo albums are already filled with my own yellowing photos of those many church spires, those twisted and winding cobblestone streets where I skipped hand in hand with my beloved. My own stories are buried among those cobblestones …

Could anyone pick up a travel essay for the United States from 1937 and still find there the same places, the same attractions, the same life sense of a people still living there? Probably not. And perhaps not everyone would want that. But for me, this stability of the ages come through to the modern day is fiercely reassuring and warmly comforting. I have the sense, again, of returning home. Not only to mine, but the home of my parents, of my grandparents, and the many generations before them. I will find those ancient, mossy stones beneath which their bones have long ago turned to dust. My digital photos in bright color will stand beside Davies’ black and white plates, and if a hairstyle has changed, the makeup or some item of clothing, the Baltic features have not. The buildings neglected in the Soviet years will now show fresh faces, newly painted and renovated, yet standing where they stood so many centuries ago, and the same ones that my parents saw as children.

Davies is of British background, yet she has apparently spent great spans of time and taken great care to understand the local history and tradition of these three Baltic countries. I read her descriptions of known places—of Dobele, where my father was born; of Riga, where my mother was born; of Jelgava, where my father’s family last lived before the war; of Ventspils, port city near where several generations of my family lived and some live yet today; of Tukums, where I myself lived for a time in an old yellow house that had survived centuries—and I am warmed by her gift of time to understand a place and not just pass through it.

That’s what creates something that lasts through the ages. The care and the time taken today to create something of lasting value. Her travel essays of 1937 are quite relevant and informative still today. Arguably even more so than a more contemporary travel guide.




A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



·         Paperback: 256 pages

·         Publisher: Vintage, 1997

·         Price: $13.00

·         ISBN-10: 0375702709

·         ISBN-13: 978-0375702709



The older and, one hopes, wiser I grow, the more I admire and respect simplicity. Simplicity is not simple. Simplicity means clean lines, all that is unnecessary pared away. Simplicity means choosing that one golden word where ten would only confuse the issue. And, that one word can be clear and true.

Ernest J. Gaines is a master of simplicity. A Lesson Before Dying is clean and clear writing, descriptions that say just enough to evoke an entire scene with all senses engaged, all heart and mind present. His dialogue is bare bone, sparse as the dialogue I so admired as a young writer-in-training, enthralled with that other Ernest—Papa Hemingway, and his unique way of capturing the way that people actually speak rather than the stilted narrative voice of the author him or herself.

“It don’t matter,” I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.

“What don’t matter?”

He didn’t answer.

“What don’t matter, Jefferson?”

“Nothing don’t matter,” he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.

“It matter to me, Jefferson,” she said. “You matter to me.”

He looked up at the ceiling, not seeing it.


“Chicken, dirt, it don’t matter,” he said.

“Yeah, it do, Jefferson. Yeah, it do. Dirt?”

“All the same,” he said. “It don’t matter.” (Page 73)

Ah yes, there is that mastery, like a reincarnation of Hemingway, with an artist’s understanding of the way that life moves—not in straight lines, but in circles, ever circling on the same spot, trying out its parameters until it is known, only then shifting to the next circle, a slight distance this way, or that, or even back again. I admire this accuracy portrayed in the written word. The novel becomes life.

The life portrayed in this novel is based on two main characters, set in 1940s Louisiana, the deep south, when racism and segregation ran deep, and a black man was imprisoned just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, innocent that he might be. Jefferson is a simple-minded man who inadvertently ends up in the middle of an armed robbery, and although he has done nothing wrong, is sentenced to die by a legal system that has nothing to do with justice but everything to do with enforcing the status quo. Grant Wiggins seems, at first, Jefferson’s opposite—a black man who is educated and intelligent, a teacher at a church school. Both men, however, live in a prison, even as only one of those has tangible bars.

When Jefferson is called “same as a hog” by his own defense attorney, likening him to a dumb animal in the hopes that the jury will deem him innocent out of sheer lack of enough intelligence to commit a crime, his aunt, Grant’s grandmother, can accept the final verdict of death, but not the image of her nephew dying like an animal. She calls in a favor from Grant, who reluctantly agrees to visit Jefferson in prison and teach him to die like a man.

If this injustice, the death sentence of an innocent man, cannot be changed in a deeply racist society, then one’s attitude about it can be. Jefferson bitterly accepts being called a hog—“it don’t matter”—but the story unfolds in those gorgeously clean lines with the meetings between the two men, some of which are nothing more than sitting together in a prison cell for an hour and staring at the ceiling. There are no lectures, no fist-pounding diatribes, no soapbox rantings to vaguely disguise the views of the author in need of getting something off his chest. There is just this fly-on-the-wall observation of two men sharing space, different yet same, both locked into place, both suppressed by their life sentences to a destiny neither deserves but inflicted upon them because of their race.

So how does a man become a man? What differentiates a man from a dumb animal? Our teachers are not always those with the highest intelligence quotient. Our leaders are sometimes those who are silent, but walk to their destiny, however unfair, with clean conscience and straight spine. Whatever is done to a man matters little. What a man does to himself, and how he handles the circumstances of his life, is all that matters. Live or die, a man does so with honor. Just or unjust, a man answers to himself if he has lived with integrity. If he has, he can walk through any trial, toward any fate, with his head held high.

Edward J. Gaines was born on a plantation in Louisiana, where he is now writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Previous books include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and several others.




The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Hardcover: 464 pages

·         Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009

·         Price: $24.95

·         ISBN-10: 0399155341

·         ISBN-13: 978-0399155345


On recommendation by the book club to which I belong, I opened the cover of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel and one which has garnered a great deal of attention—including well over 2,000 reviews on Amazon and counting fast. Indeed, a second review appears on The Smoking Poet, written by Jeanette Lee, which pretty much sums up all that, to my mind, needs be said.

I add, then, my personal opinion. First impression: yikes. I read a few sentences and went to double check. Yes, the author is Caucasian. This is either daring, bounded by heavy research and editorial input on authenticity, or it’s downright risky and potentially offensive. Stockett, also from the south, is writing as a black woman. As several black women, in fact.

“Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out of bed in the morning.” (Page 1)

This is the voice of Aibileen, one of the main narrative voices in The Help, a black maid working in a southern white household. The time is 1962, the place is Jackson, Mississippi, and the civil rights movement is just gathering seedling strength. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, known simply as Skeeter because she is as thin as a mosquito, is a fledgling writer trying to break into the publishing world. Her first break is to become a local newspaper columnist, writing columns of household cleaning hints. Alas, she knows nothing about cleaning. The family maid does that. She gets her columns fed to her by Aibileen, but her writer’s eye is on a bigger prize—a book, and part by suggestion, part by lucky bumbling, she begins to gather stories told in the voices of “the help,” the black maids of Jackson. The stories, predictably, range from the cruel and demeaning to the benevolent racist, those who profess to “love” their help, almost as if they were favorite pets.

Even as I bit my lip reading the stereotypical speech of the black women, I, like so many, confess that I was drawn to the story. It’s a fast reader. Stockett has good instincts for what makes a reader turn pages. Her cast of characters is colorful, if leaning dangerously close to one-dimensional, and she adds comic relief with Celia, a white woman so completely out of her element in a rich white world that she doesn’t seem to have a clue why no one ever returns her calls. I caught myself laughing out loud several times. Celia plays the role of “white trash” to the fine southern rich women who are all about fashion and parties and charities, ironically enough, for the “poor, starving children of Africa.”Celia, too, however, is borderline stereotype so-called white trash, with her tight sweaters and bleached blonde hair and tipsy behavior. That she can’t cook at all is surprising, considering she comes from a poor background without maids and cooks in her childhood home.

That would sum it up, then. There is an element of Disneyland here. It’s a very interesting story to read. There is conflict, and risk, and bungled and recovered love stories, and villains and nasty neighbors. Beyond that, we see glimpses of domestic violence and a depraved white man who exposes himself. We see horrendous examples of racism, both from those who are well-meaning and those who enjoy their false sense of superiority all too much. That element of fantasy, however, squeaks in continually, with bad folk like Hilly, first to build a special bathroom for the help to avoid catching their dirty diseases, drawn in all dark shades, and Skeeter, painted in all bright colors, seems to miss her own occasional lapses into that more benevolent racism. Skeeter is likeable, and perhaps too many of us might recognize ourselves in her—a person with good intentions who still seems to have too simplistic a grasp on the risks she is asking these women to take by interviewing them for their frank stories. I suspect we saw too little realism here of just how much risk.

Personally, I’ve never dared to write across genders for my main voice. Daring to write across such deep divides as racial ones would certainly be beyond my own scope and, arguably, beyond most anyone’s. I had to search online to satisfy my curiosity about how the general African-American reader perceives this book. It didn’t take long to find some fascinating responses. The point is frequently brought up that the maids in this novel speak in dialect, while the white southerners do not. Why not? Interviews with the author have unearthed a lack of research, basing the novel only on personal memory from living in a white southern household with a black maid (Aibileen apparently is modeled on the author’s actual maid). Unfortunately, by the time Stockett started writing this novel, the family maid was long ago deceased and could not offer her perspective.

There is a place for books that help us, all of us, to understand the perspectives of those different than ourselves. There is always a place for literature that makes us think harder, look closer in the mirror, examine ourselves for where we may be in need of enlightenment. Stockett does accomplish this with her novel. By sheer popularity of the book, she is being read and discussed by many, and one would hope, those are valuable discussions. This book delves into hard and very serious themes, the aftereffects of which are still infused in contemporary society.

Stockett’s book debuts as popular literature, and her talent is evident, if her research lacking. It is a first novel, yes. I fully expect in this writer’s second, she will have learned to add more dimension to her characters and more research to her story. If The Help relies too heavily on stereotype, the author’s ability to tell an interesting story should win out with even better work to come. I’m betting this is an author to watch.


See Jeanette Reviews for another perspective on The Help.



The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Riverhead Trade, 2004

Price: $15.00

ISBN-10: 1594480001

ISBN-13: 978-1594480003


Being multicultural myself, I have always been drawn to books that tell me about other countries and cultures, life experiences that are very different than mine. With current events what they are, I felt especially drawn to this book, The Kite Runner, a first novel by Khaled Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but living in the United States since 1980. Like so many Americans, I know little of this country, even as we are deeply embroiled in its affairs. I wanted to learn, to see, to better understand.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve…” Hosseini begins, and I am already hooked. It is one of those opening lines that in simple and clear language speaks volumes. What could this profound and transformative experience be that it would change a man forever?

I ran breathlessly after Hosseini’s kite runner through all the following pages. With an uncomplicated literary style, but masterful in storytelling skills, Hosseini kept me entranced for the full 400 pages. The story unfolds with two Afghan boys, similar in so many ways, yet different in those ways that can be crucial in the direction one’s life takes and the opportunities and privileges one has. One of the boys, Amir, the narrator, lives a life of relative privilege, while the other, Hassan, is his servant. While through much of their play this class difference does not seem to affect them—indeed, in so many ways the servant boy seems superior in intellectual and emotional maturity, even if without the same level of education—their differences arise in situations that test a boy’s mettle.

The string that binds this story together is the string of a kite. Apparently, a much loved activity for Afghan boys is kite flying, and that alone brings forth interesting descriptions of this sport. I had no idea, having flown one only once or twice in my own life, that a kite could be so expertly maneuvered and even used aggressively against another. Amir is a good kite flyer, but Hassan is an extraordinary kite runner. Never even looking up at the sky, Amir says, but almost as if by some inner sense knowing where the kite will fly and land. He runs for Amir, and he does so with utmost joy and devotion. He is not merely a servant to Amir, after all, but a devoted and utterly loyal friend.

It is during one such kite running episode, when Amir has won a tournament and longs for his father’s reticent approval in doing so, that the reader sees what is in the heart of each boy,  and of what their spines are made.

Hassan has run for the kite, determined to bring it back to Amir as trophy, to be presented to his father. Unfortunately, the town bullies catch up with him first. And there is that moment that changes lives, and with its domino effects, as such moments do, one moment of weakness turning into a lifetime of coping with guilt and consequences, even, eventually, to the death of grown men and an orphaned boy.

“A havoc of scrap and rubble littered the alley. Worn bicycle tires, bottles with peeled labels, ripped up magazines, yellowed newspapers, all scattered amid a pile of bricks and slabs of cement. A rusted cast-iron stove with a gaping hole on its side tilted against a wall. But there were two things amid the garbage that I couldn’t stop looking at: One was the blue kite resting against the wall, close to the cast-iron stove … “ (page 75)

What brings greatness to this novel is that it finds those moments that reveal us, that change us, that direct our lives ever after. It could be argued that each and every moment that we draw a breath does so. Yet some moments do so more than others. Those difficult moments, those moments when we are faced with hard choices, those are the defining moments. We see in the next scene the crass difference between the hero and the coward. And because life is not drawn in black and white, we see also that cowards occasionally show heroic traits, and that guilt can weigh so heavily, that it, too, can become a force for good.

If there is escape in the more obvious ways, in place and distance and time, there is no escape from such defining moments. They follow us everywhere, they taint every day of our lives ever after. If they do not, then we belong to the group of human beings known as sociopaths and psychopaths—those without conscience. Those without hope. Amir, at least, burns with his shame and his guilt, and as life so often does, he comes to another difficult moment many years later when he can choose once again—hero or coward. He may have his redemption, perhaps, but the price is even higher.

Hosseini never releases his reader. Not one scene is unbelievable. Not one scene is out of place. Not one moment isn’t important in some manner for this story to proceed, and take the reader along with it in vivid experience. Moments of choice are known to us in all cultures, but by the end of Hosseini’s tale, we have learned something more about the Afghan culture, about the Taliban and the war and the cruelties of which man is capable, even as we see the true heroism of which, sometimes, the very same man can also be capable. We also witness the bad seed, the man with so much darkness in his soul that he is beyond redemption.

So often when we hear about a great book, our expectations are so high that we are bound to be disappointed. I had heard much. I was not disappointed. My only disappointment was in later watching the movie—even while true to the book, it lacked the author’s fine nuances that brought the story to immediate life. Skip the movie. Do not miss the book.  





Stitches, A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



·         Hardcover: 336 pages

·         Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009

·         Price: $24.95

·         ISBN-10: 0393068579

·         ISBN-13: 978-0393068573


Good thing I was on vacation when I received the news that my book club, the indomitable Book Mavens, was going to have a special luncheon with David Small and his writer wife, Sarah Stewart, in their hometown of Mendon, Michigan. Wonderful! I would have an opportunity to feature the author/illustrator in the Summer 2010 Issue of The Smoking Poet. First, however, I must get my hands on Stitches

Vacation, off the clock. I wandered into the first, eclectic little book store, locally owned, that I could find in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t even have to ask. There it was: Stitches, A Memoir, written and drawn by David Small, on the front shelf, eye level. I set a copy down on the counter next to the cashier, and she started paging through it and very nearly forgot me. Hello? Could I buy this book? Oh! Yes!

And that’s what I did when I got back to my cozy B&B. I, too, got lost in Stitches. Very much like the little David, six years old, spreading out the white page before him and diving into it, gone, gone, sunk into it. I was immersed for the remainder of the evening and late into the night. I dreamt Stitches. In the morning, over breakfast, I’d finished it.

Almost a guilty pleasure. Like reading comic books as a kid when I should be reading something serious, only this was serious, very serious, as serious as the topic of child abuse and deeply dysfunctional families. No caped wonder here, only a little boy growing up in Detroit, Michigan, with a physician father who seems to think radiation cures every possible ill, and a frustrated and angry lesbian mother, who isn’t doing such a hot job of keeping up the closeted façade. The memoir takes us from David at age six to David at age 16.

David Small, as I would learn at our book club luncheon back in Mendon, Michigan, is more illustrator than author. Drawing, he says, is his language. Images, after all, as we all know, speak a thousand words if skillfully formed. Small is known as an illustrator of many fine children’s books, many of which are stamped with prestigious medals in children’s literature. Some of these have been written by his wife, Sarah Stewart.

But Stitches was something that was swelling inside of him, something that cried for release. Small's childhood was a strange and dark time, a time of being caught between adult dynamics, the scapegoat for adult idiosyncrasies and adult mental illness. Small was compelled to mold his own suppressed rage into drawings, pages and pages of drawings, three years' worth of drawings—and this book was the final result.

Pages of this memoir are nothing but drawings. Words are sparse, and often, there is no need for them. Small’s artwork is the sort that speaks volumes in but a few freely expressed lines. A boy’s wide-eyed expression of stunned confusion. Or, the perspective from the boy’s eyes, looking out at the odd and often frightening world around him.

Images: Immense radiation equipment, a father holding him down on the cold, tiled floor for a forced enema. A mother who ignores the swelling on his throat until a glamorous woman attending a party at the Small house points out the growth on the child’s neck and embarrasses his mother into doing something about it. Waking up in a dark hospital room to find a long, ragged wound down his throat, cancerous vocal cord removed, voiceless. A maniacal grandmother who drags the boy upstairs and forces his hands under boiling water. A teen being arrested for driving the stolen family car without a license, long shadows falling from the block building of the police station. A large rabbit with immense eyes, offering therapy to the growing boy. The beginning of an answer to a stitched-up life …

This is no comic book. This is more like the experience of being drawn into a movie—indeed, in meeting the author/artist, he spoke of thinking as a movie director might, coming in for close-ups, withdrawing into the distance to evoke isolation, clipping scene after scene. Reading, or viewing, something like this was a new experience for me, and if I had picked up Stitches expecting something like a comic book, I was stunned at how profound pages of gray-washed images could be. For while Small’s language is in art, mine is in words, and I was taken aback by how moving his language, his ability to express a full spectrum of emotion, his artistic power, could be in the format of a book.

Stitches was a finalist in the 2009 National Book Awards, and has garnered much praise and acclaim among artists and book lovers of all kinds. I count myself among them.


Read the account of a book club luncheon with David Small.





The Imposter? How a Juvenile Criminal Succeeded in Business and Life by Kip Kreiling

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 312 pages

·         Publisher: Transformation Help Press, 2009

·         Price: $17.77

·         ISBN-10: 0615320554

·         ISBN-13: 978-0615320557


When the author contacted me about doing a review of his book, I very nearly said no. I get several review requests per week, so I have been forced to get choosier about the review copies I accept. But I took a closer look at the book description and changed my mind. We don’t have nearly enough books that talk honestly about the shortcomings of our juvenile justice system. Perhaps Kreiling had something new and important to add?

I was a little put off by the large print of the book when my copy arrived. It makes the book bulkier than it need be, and implies a readership it probably doesn’t have—the elderly? The very young?

I started to read, and large print was forgotten, as I fell into the story. This was a heck of a story. One with which, unfortunately, I was all too familiar from my own experiences, raising my son as a single mother. Those preteen and teen years can be so very difficult for boys and young men growing up without good, strong male role models, and having a father present doesn’t in and of itself fill that gap. It depends on the type of father. But I could relate to young Kip’s mother painfully well, the heartbreak of watching a son struggle to find his place in a world that makes a molehill of a youthful mistake quickly turn into a mountain of trouble. What should be a “teaching moment” or a wake-up call often gets turned into a downward spiral by a juvenile justice system that is often predatory and punitive rather than caring and rehabilitative.

With Kreiling’s misadventures with drug use; gangs or kids simply gone wild; with the idiocy of the current juvenile justice system—“They were turning me into a harder criminal than I already was.” (page 35)—and an educational system that has been broken for a long time; with a society in general that treats our youth as second or even last priority; a foster system that started as a good idea but is now more infamous for abuse cases than rescue stories; we are all in trouble. This cannot go on.

I read with excitement, because Kreiling was telling a story that needs to be told. I’m glad to see he is an enthused marketer as well, doing everything he can to promote his book. Good. I have visions of this book being passed around juvenile delinquent homes and youth prisons, even adult prisons, with its basic message of hope: everyone can change. Indeed, perhaps that is the thought behind the large print, because those who languish in prison more often than not come from backgrounds of poverty and little to no education, so whatever can be done to make this easier to read is a good idea.

A better idea: another round of editing that goes deep with cuts and brings the writing, which is not bad but not yet up to par, to the level this memoir deserves. Personally, my suggestion would be to lose the eight principles of change and to simply write his story, tell it like it was and how it is now. Write the memoir, skip the rest. Let the story tell its own lessons, rather than inserting an artificial listing of principles, or morals, at the finish of most chapters. After all, none of the lessons are particularly memorable, and certainly nothing we haven’t heard before. Principles of change such as (paraphrased)—change your environment and you will change yourself; don’t plan for failure; choose your friends carefully because you will mimic their behavior; get disciplined in pursuing your dreams, and so on, appear in countless variations in a thousand self-help books and many are already a part of the commonly known 12-step programs that, frankly, do it better.

When Kreiling wrote about his own life, I was mesmerized. This was honest, raw, ugly, real. This was good and inspirational storytelling, with plenty of conflict and obstacles to be overcome, a hero that kept falling but still had something of integrity buried deep in him right from the start, keeping the reader interested and rooting for him to survive. One only had to look closely enough, and through caring eyes, to see the potential and root for it.

While some of Kreiling’s intellectual explorations are mildly interesting, they, too, tended to distract from the meat of a great story. I had to think of one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read: Monster : The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur, who today works to end gang violence. Had Kreiling stuck to his memoir, his good message would surely have more power and less of a didactic tone. Instead, Kreiling veers into side stories about Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin and Ayn Rand and young Gisela, a brainwashed Communist who sees the light by spending time with a tour group of boys (including Kreiling) from the free West. These tour group boys understand that they will not change Gisela by preaching to her. They instinctively understand that she will learn in a more meaningful way simply my observing what freedom looks like in her peers from the free world. Kreiling would do well to apply the same wisdom to his book.

Mind you, those side stories are interesting, and I could relate. I, too, traveled behind the Iron Curtain as a young woman. I, too, was drawn to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and I even went through some of the same internal debates as Kreiling, wondering how and if Rand’s objectivism could fit with Christianity. I suspect if I ever met Kreiling, we’d have a heck of a lot to talk about and a great deal of experiences on which to compare notes. Yet crowding all these tangents into one book is just that, overcrowding, and dilutes from the purity of his message.

This message is too important to miss. Kreiling has all the requirements to be the one to tell it. He has been to those darkest of places. He has hit despair, seen the insides of prisons, and he has known what it means to sink into and to beat an addiction and to relapse and have to beat it again. He knows what it means to betray and be betrayed. And there is no more powerful storyteller than he who knows and tells it from the heart.

Kreiling has lots of heart. Or call it conscience. It is his heart and his conscience—and a keen intelligence that makes itself known even when still uneducated—that save him and save this book. Kreiling has led a remarkable life. Today a successful businessman, husband and father, he has proven that change is possible. He has shown that any addiction can be overcome. These are the makings of a great story. Cleaning away the frill and the fuss, this great story could really touch many hungry hearts and minds, those like his, despairing to keep hope alive.


A product of our broken urban society, Kip Kreiling was arrested 3 times before he was 10 years old and 11 times before he was 14. When Kip was only 13 year old, he was taken out of 2 schools, a shopping mall, and a bank in handcuffs. Because of his criminal activity as a youth, and the resulting chaos he brought into his life, Kip moved 34 times from the young age of 11 to the age of 26. On average, he moved every 5 months for 15 years, in and out of jails, group homes, and street shelters, while his mother and father moved less than 4 times each. Today, Kip is a Fortune 15 executive who has had the opportunity to work with several of the world's most respected companies including Ford Motor, Hewlett Packard, Vodafone, and the UnitedHealth Group. As of 2009, Kip has provided transformation and business leadership services for over 40 companies in more than 20 industries. Between his corporate, consulting, educational, and speaking engagements, Kip has had the opportunity to travel to nearly 200 cities in 21 countries on 4 continents. Kip earned his Bachelor of Science degree at Brigham Young University and his MBA at Indiana University. Kip Kreiling is also the founder of the nonprofit foundation The foundation is focused on improving the human condition through personal and organizational transformation, with a focus on teaching transformation classes in prisons. Most important to him, Kip has been happily married for almost 20 years and has five healthy children. For fun, Kip enjoys multiple activities in the mountains including boating, water and snow skiing, camping, and hiking.




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