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Grief Suite: Poems by Bobbi Lurie

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 80 pages

·         Publisher: WordTech Communications, 2010

·         Price: $18.00

·         ISBN-10: 1934999954

·         ISBN-13: 978-1934999950


I am one of those people who starts to hiss when I get too much positive attitude pushed at me. You know the kind: it’s storming outside, and they are dancing in the rain. You just lost your job, and they tell you a better one is waiting. Your spouse left you for another, and they tell you he didn’t deserve you anyway. Your foot got amputated, and they cheer that you won’t have to worry about all those socks that get eaten by the dryer.

Take your last sock and use it to slap those ever chipper and shiny faces silly.

The human being is blessed with a wide range of emotion in all shades of dark and light, and most recent studies have actually started to show—hurrah—that denying any of them does us no good. Indeed, overly positive people can start to suffer from repressed emotion and bouts of guilt when they aren’t feeling chipper and shiny. After all, happiness is a choice, right?

To feel emotions, all your emotions, is a healthier and richer choice. Grief may be our least favorite, but deny it, and it will, those studies say, keep you secretly depressed a heck of a lot longer than if you give full wail to the moon when your heart is aching.

So, we have here a collection of poems called Grief Suite by Bobbi Lurie. Brave and poetic soul. Lurie dives into grief in these poems, every last one, and she dives deep. She holds her breath and stays under as long as she can. I confess, by the end of this collection, I was ready to exhale. These poems hurt. They weep, they wail, they simmer in sadness, and they are heavy with a gray grief. But how grand that we have a poet who has the courage to speak in such a dark and poetic language about the exquisite suffering of the abused, the lonely, the left behind, the aging and the dying.

When they finally dragged me in, pinned with stars

and a promiscuous love

for the mentholated bushes,

I was willing to admit anything:

that my life was persistently frightening,

that my stone heart feasted on solitary meals

fed through a slot in the door,


That I am my own suffering.

(from “Soft Fibers Adorn the Diminishing Landscape”)

Lurie’s poems of grief touch on several different variations of the theme. The opening poem, “Traveling North,” appears to address the suffering of a woman in an abusive relationship. Her suffering continues even when the relationship is done, the man is dead, yet still she goes through her life wounded, flinching, expecting the blow. Just as she never knew then when to expect the next strike, or would it this time be a caress, so now she wanders a strip mall, unable to open herself to joy, changed forever, this sheep-like suffering a part of her always.

In “Codependent Nation,” Lurie uses a lowercase “i” to write in first person, so small is the woman in her self esteem who is “held back in my freedom” and then “i was freed to be/a spoke in the wheel but where/was the wheel twirling me.” The couple sees a therapist as their marriage disintegrates, but the therapist appears to be just another abusive husband, in some sense becoming codependent with hers, bringing the couple all the wrong solutions while the therapist’s “miserable wife” is a ghost in the background.

In “Your ‘I’ So Much Like Mine,” Lurie asks “how much forgiveness is sufficient? When you reveal what you/need from the person who hurt you … “ and expressed a fear of being erased.

Many of Lurie’s poems, in fact, refer to these common metaphors, fears, of being erased, of feeling invisible, of suffering amputation. These are threads that bind the poems.

The title poem, “Grief Suite,” is a lengthy prose poem that deals with a daughter’s suffering while watching her mother die, finally at her mother’s funeral. It is written in third person, as if to bring in the sense of distance. The daughter is haunted even as an adult woman by the neglect suffered from her mother: “Everything, even the weather, conspires to speak for the mother.” She is reminded everywhere and by everything of the void left inside her, when she lacked her mother’s attention, reassurance, nurturing.

With poignant lines, Lurie captures that stifling moment when health care providers assure us all is well, even as we lay dying.  We watch the scene of detached reality, everyone denying what is really happening, the unspoken grief thick between the lines. “The male nurse says your mother will not die./ She is fine. The mother’s white skin, white hair like silk, her/luminous body sick and shaking, arms tied down in restraints,/ her heart beats green on the black screen above her head,/blood pressure in red, oxygen in blue. They say she is doing/well.”

Finally, at the mother’s funeral, the son speaks a eulogy, those words of praise few seem to mean: “The son’s words, sanded to a fine finish, float above the mother.”

“Once My Heart Was Wide and Loved the World” describes that positive attitude that shrinks the struggling insides of a cancer patient, now wondering in guilt if grief and pain did not bring about the cancer. This is a poem that surely most such patients will find honest to the degree of shimmering truth: “I lay my life out like a beautiful fabric.”

And so are Lurie’s poems of grief, of suffering, of depression laid out like a beautiful fabric. There is a place for such beauty. Grief must be acknowledged in order to pass through it toward the light again. If this is at times a difficult collection of poetry to read, take it in smaller doses, but take it. It’s through this kind of fire that strength is born, and in chewing this kind of grit that pearls are created.

Bobbi Lurie is the author of three books of poetry.



A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach: One Woman’s Trek of the Perimeter of Lake Michigan by Loreen Niewenhuis


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 200 pages

·         Publisher: Crickhollow Books, 2010

·         Price: $16.95

·         ISBN-10: 1933987154

·         ISBN-13: 978-1933987156


Lake Michigan is a short drive from where I live, and I, too, like the author of A 1,000-Mile Walk on the Beach, have grown up on or near the beaches of Lake Michigan. Yet, inexplicably, I have never connected to it nearly the way Loreen Niewenhuis has or many others who live around me. For me, it’s another of Michigan’s Great Lakes—Lake Superior. Now that’s a lake!

Okay, but I do get it. I get the connection between woman and water, and I absolutely understand the drive to have the adventure. Niewenhuis has an itch to take a very long walk around the lake she loves, to get to know it intimately, and also to test herself in the process. She is a woman in midlife, a wife and mother of two teenage sons. Good for her!

Her 2009 journey begins in Chicago, at the bottom curve of Lake Michigan, and heading northeast and around. Niewenhuis accomplishes her walk in segments, so that the entire journey takes from March to September. Indeed, this may be a bit of a disappointment for those who would want to see her stay close to the lake day in and day out, night and day, from beginning to end. Nor is this a solitary venture. While she does most of the walk on her own, much of the story is about walking with others—friends, her sons (albeit these mother-son segments are often touching), her brother.

Admittedly, I was a tad disappointed when I learned that she would regularly sleep in motels and B&Bs, or be picked up in a car and brought home for a break between walks. At the same time, this is what makes the walk a concept that most anyone can embrace. Such a walk will get you in shape—and she does train for it—but you don’t have to be a world-class athlete to do it.

This momentary disappointment aside, Niewenhuis’s trek makes for a very readable and enjoyable adventure story. The author has a terrific sense of humor, and she makes her journey interesting to the reader, interspersing well-researched background about the lake’s history and geology, its flora and fauna. She frequently makes statements about ecology and the toll pollution is taking on her beloved lake, and that is as worthy as any part of her commentary on her walk:

“It made sense for industry to settle here, but the lake has suffered because of it. If after walking one day through this area I was covered in soot and grime, how much has the lake absorbed over the last century?

“The BP refinery processes over 400,000 barrels of crude oil per day. It is currently completely legal for the refinery to dump approximately 1,500 pounds of ammonia and 5,000 pounds of toxic sludge per day into Lake Michigan.” (Page 28-29)

Per day! Those are horrifying numbers. Throughout the book, Niewenhuis nudges us to consider what is happening to this lake, the world’s fifth largest. She describes the changes in plants, in fish and other wildlife. While the author’s fun sense of humor could make me smile, these wake-up calls to the damage caused by humans often made my eyes mist over. There are aspects of this lake that are lost forever.

When Niewenhuis delves into a bit of Native American culture on the shores of the lake, she reminds us of a lesson we have not learned from that culture, to our own loss:

“The culture of the Native Americans who lived in balance with the natural world is one the rest of us would do well to study and adopt … The question is not ‘How much will we make next quarter?’ but ‘How will this benefit my grandchildren?’” (Page 105)

Ah yes, the concept of thinking seven generations ahead …

The book drew me in enough that I went online to explore her blog,, for more detail, watched a series of YouTube videos she’d make along the way, and viewed photos from her journey. Adding some of those photos to the book would have greatly enhanced it.

Niewenhuis has made a valuable contribution to Michigan environmental books, to adventure stories by women, and simply to good reading.



Forest Song: Finding Home by Vila SpiderHawk

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Paperback: 360 pages

·         Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2008

·         Price: $15.95

·         ISBN-10: 0981473989

·         ISBN-13: 978-0981473987


As if inviting us into a warm and cozy room, the first page opens like a door, and we are greeted by an elderly woman who invites the reader in to tell the tale of her life. Somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Poland, around the year 1929, a little girl called Judy Baumann (now the elderly woman) lived in poverty with her mama, her papa and her brother Johann.

Little Judy longed for the woods. Not just longing to play among the trees, but more—she felt the forest call to her in the way that one senses the call of home, almost like a siren call. It wasn’t so much that her family didn’t love her, but her life with them is harsh and anything but nurturing. Judy wants something more … right.

When Herr Schuler, a brusque neighbor, molests her, her parents shrug it off. The man has influence; he shouldn’t be angered. Even her mother sends her the message that she must tolerate such things, that there are “man dangers” for women in life, and that is how it is.

Judy works hard, tries to please her parents, wants to bring a little brightness into their bleak and impoverished life, yet is forever misunderstood or brushed off. It is difficult for the reader not to feel some sympathy for Judy’s mother, who toils away as a seamstress and quietly supports the family, even while letting Judy’s father think that they survive due to his efforts. Yet she borders on, and sometimes crosses into, abusiveness with her daughter. No doubt it is all she knows, the best she knows, and thinks it wise to keep her daughter’s expectations of life to the absolute minimum or risk disappointment such as she knows. It’s parenting that kills the child’s spirit.

Judy’s spirit will not be quashed. She finds it ever more impossible to stay away from the woods surrounding their home. Her father builds an ugly iron fence around the house to keep her in after her repeated attempts to run to the woods. Her mother warns her of the dangers of the forest, telling horror stories in an attempt to instill fear. And still, the little girl cannot resist the call of the forest. Again and again, she tries to escape, and at last succeeds.

It is then that the true enchantment begins, with Judy finding a new family in the forest—of animals and other fairy creatures, of kind witches and beings that shape shift from animal to human and back again, and talking trees. The author paints this world with such vivid colors that it comes alive in the mind’s eye, and one feels as welcome there as if finding home as well, on the page. The contrast between Judy’s two worlds couldn’t be more stark.

Judy grows up in the forest, from girl into woman, and much unlike her human family, here she is raised with kindness, compassion and encouragement. She is raised without fear and without instilling fear. Woven throughout her lessons from the forest folk are an acceptance of the cycle of life and death, a woman’s role in society and in family, a kind of spiritual and equally physical liberation. Nature is shown utmost respect, understood as a living thing that sustains us, and plants and animals as having innate value. In short, many of those lessons we’ve lost in contemporary society.

On the cycle of life and death:

“Death is a natural part of life, little one. If candles burned eternally, you’d have to sleep in their light. And if people and creatures didn’t die, no one could have joy of a baby in the house. We have to make room for that which is new while honoring that which was … Mourn the loss of your friend. But understand that your tears are for yourself. “ (Page 250-251)

On the role of pain and how life is sustained by life:

“’Nobody gets through life without causing pain … We kill to survive.’ She gestured to her plate. ‘… the wheat in these pancakes was once a living thing. The apples were too. Life feeds upon life. That’s just the way it is … We have to do harm to stay alive, and so we do it with reverence for the sacrifice the plants agreed to make for us.

‘Doing what is needed to fulfill your destiny is another means of survival. You could try to deny the work you’re destined to do, but you’d be wretched for the whole of your life. And the person you worry about hurting now would suffer even more for your pain.” (Page 263)

On women’s subjugation to men when selling their bodies:

“The sin you committed was against yourself. You’ve damaged your body, but more importantly, you’ve done great harm to your soul … There’s nothing sinful in joyful, loving sex. But none of this has brought you anything even vaguely resembling joy … You’ve accepted the notion that a woman can be sold, or worse, rented by the hour, and so you insult and diminish yourself … you are not a commodity.” (Page 277)

Many of these life lessons come from Matka Lasu, a kind of grandmotherly elder witch with a kind heart. It is not only Judy who comes to her in the forest for healing, but an ever present parade of broken women and girls. Many of them are pregnant and have nowhere to go. Others are abused or driven by hunger and poverty. All are helped, all are healed, even if some must die—in the cycle of life.

Forest Song: Finding Home is one in a series of books by Vila SpiderHawk. It’s the second by this author I’ve read. SpiderHawk’s work has a haunting, soothing quality, like a warming balm, finding those aching places most all girls and women have and resonating with understanding. It’s a story that can be read by any age group, from preteen to elderly adult, and still find enjoyment and value. While life lessons abound, they are delivered gently, and interwoven seamlessly into the storyline, so that they do not read as preachy or didactic, but rather as the logical steps along a young girl’s hero quest to fulfill her potential.




Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (Book 7)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover, 784 pages

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009

Price: $34.99

ISBN: 0545139708, 978-0545010221


I’d read all six of the Harry Potter series long ago, and yet I held off longer still to finally open the covers of the massive final volume in this remarkable series. For young adults, it’s said, yet I wonder that just as many adults haven’t delved into this magical tale of wizardry and a hero’s quest. Who of us doesn’t enjoy such grand storytelling of adventure and challenge met? I’d put it off, no doubt, because I didn’t really want to be done with it, but curiosity finally reeled me in.

J.K. Rowling is a literary phenomenon, bringing readers of all ages back to the bookshelf. In a time when we hear that children no longer read for pleasure, and even adults today will rarely pick up a book without some career obligation driving them to it, Rowling has created a stampede of those newly hungry (or with renewed appetite) to read. To be drawn in by a good story, well told, is as ancient as gathering around the campfire among humankind. Since time, we have sat around our fires to listen to tales. If they are told today in different venues, in sensational movies or electronic games, the elements are still there—the journey of the hero, the quest, the driving conflict and the battle hard-won to its conclusion. Potter has it.

So it happened to me again. Slipping the book in between my many book review stacks, literary novels and books of poetry and nonfiction to enlighten, I was lost the moment I opened to the first page. Lost, I tell you. Just as when I was a girl in braids, lost in the magic of a book, racing alongside the hero in my imagination, transported. Suddenly, I was back in those summers of my childhood, when Mama would chide me for sitting inside all day reading, driving me outside to at least have some sunshine spill over me as I read. I’ve always adored books, always, and childhood games did not entice me nearly as much as a summer of losing myself in stack of books, uninterrupted by school and other trivialities.

Potter, no, Rowling had me reading in that same manner now. Every chance. First thing in the morning, holding the book open with my coffee cup in my other hand, wishing I didn’t have to leave the book to go to the office. Reading through my lunch. Reading while I prepared dinner, book propped open with a zucchini or a row of beefy tomatoes. Carrying it through the house with me as I did my chores. Bumping into walls. Sitting down in the middle of the room to finish the page.

For all its nearly 800 pages, I’d read it in little over three days. How does he, she, do that? Is it a literary spell? It is. (And for all those who have pummeled and pelted this series for some odd and misbegotten religious criticisms about wizardry and witches and dark magic, oh pshaw, all folklore in any culture is filled with such! Including that holiest of books.) Rowling has started with clear talent, then over the series, kept a steady climb in her level of expertise. Each book is better than the one before, and this final tome is storytelling epitome.

Is her writing on a high literary level? It’s for kids, and for the kid in all of us. Yet maybe there is something Hemingway, if you really want to go that route, with unadorned but straight to target writing, clear dialogue, and for all its fantasy, a most believable realism in character and circumstance. Her descriptions are alive and tantalizing, unfolding new worlds in our mind’s eye. All the elements of a classic are here. Life in all its beauty and brutality, yes, and love and the loss of it, birth and death, the great struggle against the enemy and with oneself.

Harry Potter, that little orphan boy we met seven books ago, with a slash of lightning scarring his forehead, the mark of the chosen one for this odyssey of saving the good from the greatest evil, has now grown to near adulthood. Boy now young man, he must deal with the grief of his past, but also make hard choices for the future, and consider the greatest sacrifice of all. Magical creatures abound to both help and hinder as he hunts down the Horcruxes, each containing a part of the soul of the most evil one. He must destroy or be destroyed, but more, potentially lose the world he knows, to be taken over by him who we will not name.

“What is right and what is easy,” these are the choices and lessons the old wizard Dumbledore has taught him. He must choose. These are, after all, the choices and lessons of all time, unchanging, and perhaps we’ve never been more in need of relearning them. To do what is right, even when no one is looking, and to be a person of honor, even when there is no reward in it. Either this, or be seduced by the Death Eaters, who so easily can lull one into a sleepy death state, giving up the fight and floating away into nothingness, our very spirit sucked out from our hearts.

Rowling never lets loose, not once. From first page to last, her story twists and twirls, surprising us when we think we’ve got it all, and keeping us always on the thinnest edge. My tallest witch’s hat is off to her for her grand tale, constructed by the magic of hard work and dedication. Well done. Now more …







Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole (Tales from Haunted Disney World) by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 156 pages

·         Publisher: Admit One Literary Theme Park Press, 2010

·         Price: $9.95

·         ISBN-10: 0615402801

·         ISBN-13: 978-0615402802


Maybe I should be a tad embarrassed about this, and it’s true I almost never read the horror and thriller genre … but for most of this book, I thought I was reading a story collection for young adults. Except for the occasional four-letter word, I had in my mind that this was meant for a younger audience. Not until I read the final story of these six, the title story, did it hit me: this is adult fare. Oh!

Going back to why I had this idea in my head, I realized it was in part because of the book’s appearance and format. It is quite slim, and the cover illustration rather child-suited, with a moonlit castle and a couple of skeletons having a midnight swim in a glowing pond. The print, too, is on the large size. Most of the stories involved children or teens. Add to all that Schoonover’s writing style—very accessible, in plain language without literary adornment, and … well, there you have it. Young adult.

Okay, but once I got that out of the way, almost feeling I had to reread it with an adult audience in mind,  I had to reconsider the stories and the style. As the cover indicates, these ghost and horror stories all have in common the Disney Park theme (another reason I assumed a younger audience). Since I’ve only been to Disneyland in California once (when my children were small), never to Disney World, and have no interest in these or other amusement parks, I was a little out of that zone where I can relate to the characters. I guess I’ve never understood the thrill. Clearly, I’m in the minority in American society, however, so if I struggled more to relate, then surely most readers will identify better than I did.

Misconceptions, assumptions and lack of identification aside, these are quick and fun reads, each with a twist. Schoonover is no Stephen King—what I’ve read of his work is much more dense, detailed, with a more literary finesse—but this author does have a talent for the quick thrill. Her stories are imaginative, and each one, in its own way, left me squirming a bit in discomfort as ghost stories should.

Each story ties to the Disney theme park in some manner, either returning to settle a score, making atonement for some past transgression, or sinking into crazed obsession. “All This Furniture and Nowhere to Sit” was one of my favorites, with a wife that is fast spending all her husband’s funds, buying up larger and ever more elaborate pieces of Disney memorabilia. Schoonover’s sense of humor comes through as movers bring larger and larger pieces to the house, including boats, monorail cabs, booths that transform the house into a spooky mini-Disneyworld without visitors (except the occasional ghost). While it tugged at my disbelief a tad too much at times—what husband wouldn’t put a stop to this?—it was fun to watch this obsession reach its twisted conclusion.

“Romancing the Goat” was maddening not-quite-sibling rivalry, with two girls competing for parental attention. One is a “rescue” from a foster home, the other is the biological daughter. It’s hard not to wince at the lack of sensitivity in the parents when they dote on the new family addition and seem to forget all about their first child, duplicating gifts, favoring one over the other. The foster child’s eccentricities, such as talking to invisible goats in her room, must be tolerated, because her parents are dead and so she should be pitied. In truth, “Angelina was meaner than a tipped cow” and knows just how to play the parents to get her way. Almost. Until her new sibling gives into the sweetness of revenge. The story ends with a hint of more horror to come.  

The title story, bringing up the end of the collection, deserves its title status. The complexity of this couple is believable and intriguing. He hears the last thoughts of dying animals—and she photographs dead animals. He falls into trances, hearing and feeling the final torments of dying pets, birds, raccoons, deer, but she is forced to hide her art to try to keep him from transferred suffering. Resenting the loss of her photography, she falls into an affair with someone who seems to admire and understand her work, but it is only then that true evil surfaces. There are always consequences. While I wasn’t entirely sure I understood the ending, I enjoyed the malevolency of this story, the buildup, the twists, the shivers.

I’ve published one of Schoonover’s dark stories in the literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet, and I would again. If horror isn’t exactly my favorite genre, certainly not my area of expertise, I respect the skill it requires to craft stories that have a haunting quality—whether of light or of shadow. Schoonover can play well with shadows.

Kristi Petersen Schoonover's short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Morpheus Tales, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, The Smoking Poet, The Battered Suitcase, and a host of others, including several anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, is the recipient of two Norman Mailer Writers Colony Winter Residencies, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction 



In the Palms of Angels by Terri Kirby Erickson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 132 pages

·         Publisher: Press 53 (April 1, 2011)

·         Language: English

·         ISBN-10: 1935708279

·         ISBN-13: 978-1935708278


In one of her poems, “Miller Street,” Terri Kirby Erickson writes: “You can’t be something you don’t understand.”

The poet follows her own rule well. As I read through her newest collection, In the Palms of Angels, I was struck by how Erickson’s words become poetry when she peels away the extraneous and targets the bone beneath. Life, death, birth, illness, love and isolation, family, friends and neighbors. Erickson’s language and style is right for these simple truths, yet so complex in their wrappings.

At first blush, these lines are spare. Now and then, a cliché creeps in. “My Daughter’s Hair” misses, with visions of sunlight and kites and gardens, a daughter gathering flowers and angels running their fingers through her hair. That’s Hallmark fare.

But then Erickson hits her stride, and the simple becomes a shimmer of truth. You know it when you read it—it sends a faint shiver along that bone beneath. She is one who observes, as a poet must, finding that needed place between distance and immersion to frame her poem.

“Depression” makes the reader ache, and if you’ve ever felt its grip, “even light is too heavy for her to carry now” rings true. The woman in the poem “sees nothing / but the dull, brown jar where she spends her days alone,” and with that word-image of jar, brown, days alone, the full message is delivered, and leaves one aching with empathy.

“Cling Peaches” is a tender love note to a husband in a hospital bed, nearly lost, now being fed peaches with a spoon. “With cancer ravaging your fine/ Mind like a plague of hungry locusts” and “Your / Gaze is as tender as a bruise,” Erickson proves that everyday words can turn everyday life into the remarkable.

Family comes up often in this collection, and for the most part, Erickson reveals herself best through the portraits she paints of these people she loves most. “To My Brother Who Died a Virgin” captures the loss of a brother who never experienced intimate love.

All you ever knew of naked women was that wet,

wadded up magazine you and your buddies

found in a drainpipe. Their heads were thrown


back from their bare breasts like somebody socked

them in the jaw just before he took the pictures.


With that, we know it all. We know that unlived life, that untouched heart, that barren place where intimacy does not enter. Here is the grief for a loved one who never spills tears of joy at the most tender human connection. “What you / got instead were the sounds of boys snickering—/sodden photographs of strangers who did not love you.”


 “Things We Should Learn in First Grade” gets right back to Dick and Jane and Sally, the primer from which so many of us were taught to read in public schools, only in Erickson’s version, “See Jane run because Dick is messing around with Sally.” Life will never be so plastic and perfect again as it is in kindergarten, and really, was it even then?


“Woman on the Phone” is another image that lingers on the mind long after it is read. That’s the entire meat of it, a young mother talking on the phone, and nearby her small son watching her  with the adoration of a toddler. When he matures and falls in love with a woman, that adoration will rightfully turn elsewhere, but in this moment … his little face watches his mama like a sunflower turned toward its only source of light.


“Mrs. Listner’s Chickens” proves the poet can handle humor, juxtaposing an image of clucking chickens scurrying about with the woman who feeds them, “wattles wobbling under her chin.” It’s delicious.


“Wedding Days,” and mind the plural, is perhaps one of the most moving poems in this collection. Don’t ever doubt that love can’t last, as this poem cannot but convince otherwise. From young man to older, the poet observes the aging of her husband, and now, with “crease and crevice,” likes him better this way. Intimacy of this kind only grows better with time.


A similar theme comes up in “The Gardener,” in a newer love that is just beginning to sprout from a distance. A young woman watches the gardener from afar, and loves him, “not because / he is young or handsome, which he/ is not. It is his gentleness with plants,/ the way he tends to them like newborns,/ how he talks to them, no matter/ who is listening.”


These are the basics, the simple pleasures, the truest loves, the lasting passions, the common suffering of all. Even in “Roy Rogers Rides Again,” Erickson captures beautifully the childhood thrill of riding the penny pony in the store, as if into the wind, free, when all things seemed possible. And so with many of these poems, she finds the common experience, the one we all know, and reminds us—this is how it was, how it is, how it will always be, at least in cherished memory.


If not a poet that stuns with word play, or complex structure, or new literary invention, or philosophical revelation, Erickson is the poet that remains accessible and open to any and all readers—and that has great importance. Hers is a quiet, even modest approach to the poetic that can momentarily fool the reader into thinking this can be missed. Don’t. This poetry shouldn’t be missed. Yes, I still prefer poetry that involves more discovery, more complex layers to relish on the hundredth reading. But Erickson will have a growing circle of fans when other poets gather dust for all their density. She will line up among those such as Maya Angelou, who are loved by the masses, who may never read poetry but for poetry like this—that resonates with a universal understanding of life and death and all that comes between, stripped bare.





The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Hardcover: 272 pages

·         Publisher: Ten Speed Press (May 24, 2011)

·         Price: $24.00

·         ISBN-10: 158008558X

·         ISBN-13: 978-1580085588


The subtitle of Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby is a mouthful (pun intended), but it sums the book up nicely: “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way to keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).”

Robin Mather is a seasoned food writer and editor, having written 30 years for papers such as Chicago Tribune and The Detroit News and now at Mother Earth News. The Feast Nearby is her second book; the first, published in 1995, Garden of Unearthly Delight: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, perhaps before its time, discussing the two sides of eating locally or eating genetically modified foods.

The book caught my attention for several reasons. I have been eating predominantly locally grown, organic foods for some years now, and find myself as enthused about this food adventure today as I was when I first started. More so. I still can’t believe what I’ve been missing most of my life in terms of culinary joy. But I was also intrigued because the cottage to which Mathers moved was in the neighborhood where I’d lived once—near Delton, in Michigan’s Barry County.

I was also curious about Mather's claim to eat local and organic foods on $40 a week. Not that I am not already a believer. I don’t spend much either, and I don’t even can and preserve, but I do hear that complaint more often than I can count—that eating organic is too expensive. I’m still baffled by that. I spend less on groceries today than I did when I bought my food at the supermarket, packaged and wrapped.

Cooking from scratch is almost always less expensive. Add to that the joys of cooking with friends and family in the kitchen and at the table and, well, you get the idea of real value for your food dollar.

One might say that people tend to compare apples to oranges when they talk about cost. As Mather so well illustrates in her book, eating this way doesn’t have to cost more. It tends to cost less. What does change, however, is one’s eating habits. For me, this happened quite naturally once I started buying more of my food at farmers markets or even directly from the farmer, right on the farm. It became a new lifestyle, one that I enjoy immensely. It involves community, friendships, the building of enjoyable relationships that revolve around food … and who doesn’t know that when you throw a good party, more times than not, everyone ends up in the kitchen?

Mather's lifestyle change and food adventure evolve from what must have surely been a week from hell. As so many journalists, she was laid off from her newspaper job. That’s bad enough, but this happened within days of hearing from her 12-year husband that he wanted a divorce. Ouch and ouch.

Whether Mather really is such a trooper or she just keeps it to a low simmer, but her book does not show much anguish or turmoil at such a double whammy. This isn’t a book about shedding tears or general introspection. She simply packs up her dog, Boon, and her bird, Pippin (later to be joined by cat, Guff), and moves to the summer cottage in southwest Michigan the married couple had owned but the now single woman makes a permanent residence.

Time to set up a budget. Mather does what she does best: she shops for good food on a smart dollar, getting to know the locals in the process. As those who eat organic food and shop locally know, you soon learn to change how you eat, planning your menus around what is available when, rather than buying the items to meet the menu. One eats in season, and science is beginning to show that this may prove to be best for our health—and our wallet.

Mather is a good cook, and the 150 or so recipes she intersperses between her seasonal essays are good recipes. That is, I haven’t tried them yet, but I plan to, and they were simple enough that I could read them with enjoyment, almost as if part of the preceding essay, a continuation of her story. They mostly use local foods, yet include a pinch of this or a dollop of that, bringing them a touch of the gourmet.

For those who live in the area described, as I do, I especially enjoyed reading about local markets. In fact, as I write this, my plan for the approaching weekend is to find the local butcher shop she describes, Geuke’s Market in Middleville, Michigan, and stock up my own freezer. Reading about it once again made me realize why so many are so enthused about local markets. When she described the food available there, she also described the owner, Don Geuke, and the first seed of a food relationship is sown. That’s something you never experience in the supermarket.

For those seeking a gritty story about a woman handling life upheaval, this isn’t it. Mather's style is gentle storytelling, and she doesn’t go deep. Her way is more to skim the fat off the surface and make a fine presentation, leave the rest up to you. The reader doesn’t develop an intimate relationship with this author, but that may not have been her intent. Save the intimate relationship for reader and dish. This is a blend of cozy essay and cookbook, a nurturing nudge toward considering a more sensible and more sustainable lifestyle—and leave the excuses about financial constraints behind.

If we are a society that has forgotten how to cook, or how to keep a kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, Mather will be just the spice you need. Pull your chair to the table, read and eat the many flavors you’ve been missing.  



The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 304 pages

·         Publisher: Scribner, 2011

·         Price: $15.00

·         ISBN-10: 1416551611

·         ISBN-13: 978-1416551614


Various factors are contributing to the renewed interest in family farms. To name only a few—there is the fast-growing interest in organic foods and the sustainable lifestyle that goes hand in hand with eating organic; the desire to leave the rat race behind for a simpler, if not necessarily easier life; a renewed movement to reconnect with one’s local community; and a rocky economy that is forcing some in the ranks of the unemployed to consider other ways to support themselves and their families.

For Manhattan journalist Kristin Kimball, the reason to immerse herself in the farming life was rooted in romance. Assigned to write a story about sustainable farming, she fell in the love with the young Pennsylvania farmer she interviewed. One muddy scenario leads to another, as Kimball takes up the hoe among rows of carrots as she awaits the interview, then joins Mark, the farmer, in slaughtering pigs—even though she, up until a taste of organic farm-raised bacon, had been a vegetarian. So beings their love story with each other and a farm.

From a tiny city apartment surrounded by shops, cafes and delis, traffic and rush and noise, Kimball doesn’t take long to move out to the country to begin working the farm alongside Mark. Her family is at very least mildly horrified. At best, when she announces wedding plans, they expect eventual divorce once the whim passes.

It’s not as if Kimball doesn’t have doubts of her own. She has plenty. The memoir is nothing if not honest. “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.” (Page 248) I’m not sure I agree with that statement entirely—one hopes a good marriage moves more toward self-expansion than self-denial—but clearly Kimball has had to leave behind life as she knows it.

The two young farmers are opposites in many ways, and some of their initial work on the farm seems more combative than the blending of teamwork. The two can be highly competitive, and sometimes must solve their differences by splitting the farm duties rather than working together. Overall, however, they show astounding determination, touched with a glimmer of dreamy ignorance (at least for Kimball if not for the more experienced Mark) about what they are getting into when staking claim on a run-down farm of 500 acres. Arguably, not quite knowing what you are getting into is often a requirement to accomplish something extraordinary.

The couple empties their savings as they work to repair Essex Farm and cultivate the fields with all manner of vegetables and fruits, as well as livestock. It is not a farm of specialty, but a farm that feeds most any appetite. Their goal is to develop a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm that supports its shareholders with every food need—providing plants as food but also meats and dairy.

Kimball’s deeper love, or perhaps more accurately, more encompassing love, is for the whole of her farm life which includes her partner. If there are moments that one thinks she may just yet throw up her arms, elbow deep in compost and manure, what holds her to her hoe is the entire lifestyle with every component within it. She grows to love farming. She loves waking up early in the morning for yet another long, hard day of work with her farmer beside her, even with the struggle and maybe even because of it. There is poetry in such hard work.

For anyone considering such a lifestyle and thinking it might be an easier one, Kimball issues a wakeup call. Farming is anything but easy. She quickly senses that it ages her in some ways, weathers her with the elements that she simultaneously grows to love. Nature is harsh, and farming is a means of trying to control nature, so that what ensues can be a kind of war. A war against weeds. A war against weather. A war against rats. A war against time.

“There is no such thing as escape after all, only an exchange of one set of difficulties for another,” (Page 257) she writes. This may well be the greatest lesson of all that she gleans from her fields.

That, and letting go of all that is superficial, unnecessary for survival, and in some manner connected to vanity. Kimball’s description of their barn wedding, with guests on hay stacks and a barn decorated with sunflowers and a groom gone out back to milk the cow during the wedding reception … are priceless. And lovely.

Yes, lovely, all this dirt and mud and earth caked beneath fingernails and in the fine lines of a woman’s skin. From all those smells and all that sweat and all that grueling labor rises the dream, proving that living a sustainable life that pays high dividends in more than just cash is still possible. It only requires utmost dedication and whole-hearted love, demanding all and giving all back.

When it comes down to it, for all the elegance and cleanliness that Kimball has left behind in the city, she has found real value. “I had always been attracted to the empty, sparkly grab bag of instant gratification, and I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.” (Page 158)

By end of her story (with a daughter joining their family and Essex Farm become a thriving CSA with more than 100 members), Kimball also acknowledges that she has learned to give up her combative competition with her farmer-husband. At long last, their rhythms have synchronized. They now work as a team. What she describes may well be what every woman, city or country, seeks:

“I wish every woman could have as a lover at some point in her life a man who never smoked or drank too much or became jaded from kissing too many girls or looking at porn, someone with the gracious muscles that come from honest work and not from the gym, someone unashamed of the animal side of human nature.” (Page 24)

I plowed through The Dirty Life in less than two days, hardly putting the book down and then only with reluctance. It was fascinating, it was enlightening, it was moving, it was raw, it was honest, it was adventure, it was digging into the dirt of a life many of us long to find—if not quite on a 500-acre farm, then at least in our suburban raised-bed gardens. We who grow our own vegetables and keep in touch with the nature that centers us in our own small way, we are glad for the farmer who feeds us without doing harm to the earth that sustains us.




The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Hardcover: 528 pages

·         Publisher: Harper, 2009

·         Price: $26.99

·         ISBN-10: 0060852577


With each book that I’ve read by Barbara Kingsolver, whether fiction or nonfiction, it becomes increasingly established that I am a standing-ovation fan. She ranks up in among my top three most admired. This is an author who has the skill to combine excellent storytelling with excellent literary artistry.

The Lacuna is an intricate blend of history and fiction. Kingsolver incorporates historical fact, drops in actual newspaper and magazine clippings from the time period of 1929 to 1951. It is a time when World War II breaks wide open, and a dark and shameful period of McCarthyism—nationwide paranoia of seeing red(s) everywhere—sweeps across the United States, destroying innocent lives in its wake.

Harrison William Shepherd is a fictional character, but he lives among those whose names we know from history: Leon Trotsky, an exiled socialist leader, and Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, husband and wife artists. The story opens in Mexico, where the exiled political leader is in hiding from Soviet assassins in the residence of the Mexican artists, but Harrison is yet a boy, born in the States of an American father and a Mexican mother but now living in something of a Mexican jungle. So begins his life story, written in the form of journals and letters:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

And with that, we understand we are now in the hands of a literary master, falling as if through a lacuna—an opening or portal, a missing part, a vacuum—into her imagination, the world she creates for us and into which she now invites us to enter. The most important story, her character tells us, is told in what is missing.

It begins and ends with the howling of monkeys. Animals or humans, it’s all the same, as one howl invites another, and none of it makes much sense. Harrison Shepherd begins his journey as a boy who works whatever task is asked of him, a housekeeper, a cook, an errand runner, a mixer of plaster, but his life becomes twisted in danger caused by the occasional howl born of paranoia. Assassins kill Trotsky, newspapers filing false reports and failing to check facts, or not caring to—rumors are spread and death can, and does, result.

If Harrison returns to the States to eventually become a famous author, writing potboilers based on Aztec history, the human howlers follow him, surfacing as the monkeys of McCarthyism. Through Harrison’s wondrously articulate letters and journals, alongside eyebrow-raising actual clippings, we see how a nation hits bottom, allowing irrational fears to spread like disease. The common mind of the masses can indeed be a mucky thing to behold, and if there is reason left anywhere, fear keeps it silenced.

Living a quiet, if not reclusive, life in Asheville, North Carolina, Harrison would seem to be one who can escape that madness. He stays out of the public eye as much as any bestselling author can, his most intimate confidante a hired stenographer, Violet Brown. Yet to achieve greatness in any field invites lesser minds to a desire to destroy. False rumors are lifted to accusations, accusations to persecution, and there is no rational defense when one’s opponent refuses to deal with rationality.

Kingsolver has written a powerful statement in this blend of story and life. She never preaches, yet her message is clear, clear enough to make the reader want to howl, yet gracious and beautiful enough, that the last page is turned in silence and awe.

The author has published seven novels, as well as collections of poetry, essays and creative nonfiction. She has been translated into more than 20 languages and has earned many literary awards. Kingsolver lives with her family on a farm in southern Appalachia.



The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Hardcover: 640 pages

·         Publisher: Random House, 2010

·         Price: $30.00

·         ISBN-10: 0679444327

·         ISBN-13: 978-0679444329


The older we get, the more we read, the more we realize that the history textbooks given to us in public schools  when we were children left gaping holes where the shadow side of this nation’s history should have been. It is only as an adult, independent reader, that I have learned most (if not all) of what I know about American history. And while I had a general idea about the Great Migration—the exodus of about 6 million black Southerners moving north from 1915 to 1970—it was only by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns that I have gotten a more thorough grasp of this massive movement.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has done impressive and thorough research to write this book. For that alone, she has earned my respect: 1,200 interviews and 15 years of research. The book is narrative nonfiction pinned on three individuals who, in their intertwining stories, represent those great migrating masses. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney is a sharecropper’s wife from Mississippi; George Swanson Starling is a citrus picker from Florida; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is an aspiring young doctor from Louisiana. Their journeys take them to New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

This is not an easy book to read and could not have been easy to write. Which is not to say that it isn’t a page-turner. More than 600 pages, but these stories quickly draw a reader in, touching on every emotion and sometimes hammering the heart to a pulp. One has to marvel at the human endurance and determination in these black migrants. Who of us does not know about those shameful years of slavery in the United States, but to read the intimate details, to see into these individual hearts and minds, can break the heart of the reader. There is irony in being a nation that so often has gone to battle to save the downtrodden across the globe, to wave the flag of democracy and individual freedom, yet within our own borders has perpetrated such inhumanity and cruelty.

The stories of these three have common threads but also differ in direction. How each one escapes differs—by education, by physical momentum, by barely contained rage or by a quiet but enduring gentility. They head north, or west, to escape Jim Crow, but find new prejudices and racial biases no matter where they go. Fascinating excerpts are woven in about the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the growth of Harlem, the demographics of the migrants. Ray Charles makes a prominent appearance. Stunning, too, are the moments of racial bias among the blacks themselves, for instance, when a black woman, recently migrated, refuses the medical services of the young black Doctor Foster because she believes the medical care from a white doctor is superior based on his whiteness alone.

Being of Latvian ethnic background and the first generation offspring of immigrants myself, I was taken aback (page 417) when the author seemed to feel the need to differentiate between the difficulties faced by European immigrants in comparison to the black migrants. She presents the European immigrants as being embraced by American society, encouraged to assimilate, naming those from Latvia and Poland in particular. We should all by now understand that we must be careful to judge others in whose shoes we have not walked. These immigrants came to America to escape Soviet occupation, suffering torture, deportation, rape, executions and genocide, and did not arrive on these shores seeking to join the “melting pot,” but to retain their culture as much as possible while being stripped of their homes. Immigrants often lived in poverty, took menial jobs, picked fruit and cotton in the South, and suffered through barriers of different kinds of prejudice. It helps no one to make such comparisons or to foster competitions of who had it worse. Stalin and Lenin were no walk in the park.

That aside, Wilkerson’s writing is excellent. She has the skill to take facts and add to them the drama of a mesmerizing story. It is easy to understand why this book won the National Book Critics Circle Award (2010) in the nonfiction category; it is well told and offers invaluable documentation of a history we should all know and understand.

The Warmth of Other Suns was also awarded the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the 2011 Hillman Book Prize and the 2011 Lynton History Prize. It was named on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year and many other similar lists.




Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Publisher: Marick Press, 2009

·         Paperback, 88 pages

·         Price: $14.95

·         ISBN: 978-1-9348511-2-8



How that is that we tend to shy away from that which sees too deeply into us, I don’t know, I can’t say. I have carried Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s debut poetry collection, Water the Moon, along with me for weeks, no, even months. Carried it, set it aside, forgotten it, picked it up again. Drawn to it and drawn away from it.

And why? It is poetry of juxtapositions and paradoxes, of being and not being, of being home and longing for home, and then of losing home and finding home elsewhere. Of being homesick. Of longing for home and never quite having it. I know these things, too. Sze-Lorrain speaks the poetry of immigrants and emigrants and the homeless—and for those who are at home everywhere.

See how I spin. I grow a little dizzy and put the book down again. Only to return later, thinking I must not have been so very drawn to it and next moment underlining, underlining, putting little stars in the margin alongside her lines because they sing so.

Her bio states: “Fiona Sze-Lorrain was born in Singapore, and grew up in a hybrid of cultures. After receiving a British education, she moved to the States, and graduated from Columbia University and New York University before pursuing a Paris IV-Sorbonne. A zheng (ancient Chinese harp) concertist, she has performed worldwide. One of the editors at Cerise Press, she writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. She lives in both New York City and Paris, France.”

With that background of the poet understood, it makes sense that her poems combine so many pushes and pulls. She is able to see the world with the eyes of one who can see as more than one person, one of the benefits of being multi-cultural and fluent in more than one language. The disadvantage is to live within swirl, somewhat as she describes in a poem about Van Gogh, alluding to the swirls of stars like madness in his dark painted skies.

Perhaps that is why, too, she so often mentions the moon throughout this collection—because these multiple ways of being and experiencing the world are like the coming and going of tides. Relentless, infinite and eternal. Cyclical.

In “A Talk With Mao Tse-Tung,” the poet is milling about a cocktail party in Paris, when a Swedish journalist recites Tse-Tung’s poetry, and she is instantly transported back to China. It is as if she never left. Old wounds, ancestral history, surface, and emotion that is now, here, now and not only back in the fatherland, fills that room.

In “Reading Grandmother,” home in Paris and home in China again come together, and the effect is intimate and tender, a little sad, a little tragic, more than a little wonderful.

So the poet sees into layers most miss. “Par Avion” beautifully puts into words what is missed in the words written into a letter that has traveled a very long distance and across a great space, from father to daughter and from one culture to another.

The real message was drowned

on the way, washed by tears

from the sky that blurred

address and date. I could not finish

reading everything because those words,

so measured, so judiciously rendered,

contained no plain voice

that could speak to me in an unflowered

language. Only silence –

ailing with loneliness, a palpitating

heart, sitting between

a window and a door, waiting for more

than a paper response.


The poet’s language is never plain. With her ability to be all things and all places, Sze-Lorrain knows how to speak in simplicity yet express complexity. In one simple sentence she can contain all the noise and confusion and anguish and worry, ad infinitum, of someone who is waiting for a letter that refuses to arrive.

But my mind is like a tree of monkeys.

Really, do you even need to say anything more? Bull’s eye, and a vivid and noisy image enters the reader’s mind that conveys it all.

Because a culture is also contained in a nation’s cuisine, Sze-Lorrain writes many food poems. They are luscious:

Eating Grilled Langoustines

for the first time was like chasing

wilderness—simmered with white wine

and garlic dashes, they slipped

through the teeth of my fork like blind

horses running through a gate.


Is this food or is this a whole body experience? Both. As is Sze-Lorrain’s poetry—whole body experience, and a sense of being disembodied at once. Disconcerting as jet lag, but then you find you are there and never left, on that spot, just where you want to be—in the whirling center of luscious poetry.



Radiance by Rick Chambers

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 264 pages

·         Publisher:, 2010

·         Price: $16.95

·         ISBN-10: 1450253105

·         ISBN-13: 978-1450253109



Oh, admit it. Spot the imprint of a well-known self-publishing outfit on a book, and immediately you think: this is going to be sub-standard. Copy in need of editing, writing that no traditional publisher would touch with a ten-foot typesetting machine.

But it’s a new day, isn’t it? Certainly that was my personal bias. Yet today, self-publishing is on the up and up. More and more quality authors are choosing this option to see their way to the bookshelf quicker than a matter of years, keeping tighter control on royalties, doing the promotional and marketing work themselves. There’s still a lot of bad writing out there … but among the chaff, there are also books that are golden.

When I picked up Rick Chambers’ book after hearing him at an author’s reading, I was pretty sure it would rise above the level of chaff. After all, full disclosure, I’d published his work in a past issue of the literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet. When the magazine celebrated its fifth anniversary of publication, Chambers was our first author up at the podium. I’d crossed paths with Chambers at several community literary awards events, and it was him walking to the front to receive first prize and more than once. We live in the same city, and around here, his reputation preceded him: Chambers can write.

And still, an old bias dies a slow death, and when I opened the slick covers of Radiance, and started to read … I was taken aback. Hey. This is good. The copy is clean, hardly an error in it (okay, I spotted one or two, but I spot them in bestsellers, too), nice. More to the point: the storyline, the telling and the writing of it, were very good. A few pages in, I was lost in the story, and all thoughts of copy and publisher were faded to mist.

Radiance is a mix of science fiction and faith genres. Think C.S. Lewis with some hard metal of futuristic technology tossed in. Indeed, perhaps this is why Chambers decided to publish the book himself. This kind of premise might be hard to sell to a mass market, and I imagine traditional publishers may have resisted. If so, their loss. I am not a fan of either genre (although I do enjoy C.S. Lewis), but a good story is a good story.

The premise of Radiance is that two mysterious strangers are traveling the galaxy of the future (conclusion of the 21st century), seeking 10 people who have “Radiance.” Not an easy task, if not impossible, for humanity by that time has deteriorated to most shallow levels, fueled by greed. The few and the powerful, ruthless in their pursuit of material wealth and control—namely, one Eris Lateinos—are about to take control of both humans and cyborgs. Lateinos rules with a cruel hand. He promises happiness and riches to all, but his promises are false and laced with trickery. He enforces his law with an army of cyborgs, part human, part machine.

Tristan West is seemingly a nobody, once a Lateinos PR man, but now he manages to stand in Lateinos’ way at every turn. He has a way of speaking the truth, even when it earns him a pummeling from a cyborg. The two mysterious strangers have connected with him as being one of those who has Radiance, which takes him by surprise. Certainly, he hadn’t seen himself as a Christian in a long time …

What unfolds is a fast-paced intergalactic adventure, a thriller, yes, but also a story of enduring faith when there no longer seems any reason to believe. This is not a story that preaches, but that touches lightly on faith-based ideas that survive time and fashion. Intriguing is the question of whether Christianity might have touched on other planets and not just on Earth. How might it be known among other life forms?

Chambers may touch on a bit of cliché now and then, and scenes of alien meeting hooker can be amusing if predictable, but he will surprise the open-minded reader with a fresh take on some very old questions, and manage to entertain while he does so.

Rick Chambers is a communications professional and a former journalist. In addition to Radiance, he is the author of three novelettes, numerous short stories, and a writer for Chronicles, a direct-to-video/online series. He lives in Portage, Michigan.


Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



·         Paperback: 480 pages

·         Publisher: Washington Square Press, September 13, 2011

·         Price: $15.00

·         ISBN-10: 1439198861

·         ISBN-13: 978-1439198865



Since I met the author, Dominic Smith, in 2006 for an interview in Austin, Texas, to talk about his then newly published first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre—I was working on an article for the alumni magazine of a Michigan liberal arts college—I have been enthralled with his work. Not a chance that I would miss any of his books. And by now, there are three.

Bright and Distant Shores is Smith’s third novel, and it will be available September 2011. I rocked on my heels in glee when my advance reading copy arrived. Would it meet my high expectations? His first two novels (The Beautiful Miscellaneous was his second) received bountiful critical acclaim.

Smith’s awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre was selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great News Writers Program. It also received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Smith's second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was optioned for a film by Southpaw Entertainment and was a pick for Booklist Editors' Choice.

I settled in to be immersed, and I quickly would be. Bright and Distant Shores has depth and length and breadth in all senses of these concepts. The story unfolds to rise high on the skyscrapers of Chicago in 1897 and sails far on the high seas to land on South Pacific islands, from one kind of exotica to another, from that which is thought of as “civilized” to that which has been called “savage,” even as the two mix and meld.  

Hale Gray, president of Chicago First Equitable, yearns to thump his chest atop his skyscraper, the tallest building at that time on the Chicago skyline. To bring customers to his insurance business and to gain notoriety in the city, he bankrolls a ship to take Owen Graves and a colorful crew, including his son Jethro,  on a voyage to bring back artifacts from faraway places—along with “savages.” This is Gray’s scheme to attract crowds to his business. He plans to set up a display of sorts on the top of his skyscraper where the natives will live in full view of the hoped-for crowds.

Smith has said that the idea for his novel came from a press clipping about a similar scheme in 1897, when a group of Inuit were brought to the American Museum of National History in New York to create a living public display. The Inuit soon became ill of diseases to which their systems were not accustomed, and all of them eventually, tragically, died. The scenario haunted Smith enough to become the seed of the idea for Bright and Distant Shores.

From that seed grew what so well thrives under Smith’s pen: the finest of literary storytelling. The book tells the story of the voyage of richly colored characters, so real we can smell their stink rise from the pages, see their spit on the rims of their beer glasses, rock in our armchairs along with the gales that fill their ship sails, and blush with shame at their treatment of “savages” who, in fact, speak a scholarly English and are far more civilized than the men who lure them overseas for gaping crowds.

“Owen and Jethro stood on the balcony where Baz Terrapin slouched against the railing, big-knuckled and half naked, a white towel around his flaccid middle. He was drinking beer before noon and staring into the mire of his glass. ‘I prefer bottom-fermented beers, like to taste the yeast and hops …’ He took a swig from his jug of fizzing ale, still dripping from his daily plunge in the frigid bay. ‘Constitutional swim is what it is. Testicles like a pair of clams winking shut from the cold. Ah, the heart expands and pumps … gets as big as a Christmas ham. Ticker of a racehorse in here.’ He tapped at his rib cage, grinned. His enormous girth, coupled with the constellation of scars and moles spread across his torso, reminded Owen of the barnacled hull of an ancient, waterlogged ketch. He hunkered across the balcony, a hand spread against his paunch, thumb tucked into the edge of the wrapped towel.” (Page 115-116)

Turn the page open in whatever place in the book and the lines will all be this lush. If on occasion my affections for the characters waned, Smith’s artistry reined me in again. It was that artistry that kept me reading through the first half or so, words like plump fruit, irresistible, but he truly hit his stride in the second half, when rich writing combined fully with rich characterizations, so that I cared, too, about the people in the story and not just the unweaving of the tale.

If there is any small weakness to Smith’s writing, it is that—he can be so caught up in the literary artistry that his characters sometimes pale in comparison. I’m almost glad. One shouldn’t reach perfection so early in the run, after all. And Smith very nearly has.  




The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 576 pages

·         Publisher: Washington Square Press, 2011

·         Price: $15.00

·         ISBN-10: 1439152799

·         ISBN-13: 978-1439152799


Oh no. One look at that cover and I winced. A gloomy castle on the side of a mountain, overlooking a lake below, and overhead a rather dusky and stormy sky … so not my type of book. The immediate impression is of something gothic and hopelessly romantic. But it was a suggestion by my book club, and I do adore my book club, those wise and bookish Mavens, and even when I wince at a club choice, they very nearly always bring me to a conclusion that I have been missing out on something, some book, some author, I would otherwise not have read.

Yes, yes, I know—don’t judge a book by its cover. But, really, I wasn’t wrong. I was not wrong that this is not the sort of book I’d choose on my own, and I wasn’t wrong that I ended up enjoying a book I would otherwise no doubt have never read.

As I have often shared with my book club, I tend to classify good writers and good books into one of three groups (and the not good, well, we’ll just leave them alone). One—the storyteller. The storyteller weaves a great yarn, draws children as well as the elderly close around the evening fire and tells a story that makes the audience lose all track of time. Two—the literary master. Sometimes dense, sometimes overly artsy, the literary master is more concerned with the art form than the story, but constructs such a fine and gorgeous sentence that all is forgiven.

I tend to choose the literary master over the storyteller, because the art form is what fascinates me most. This type of writer is distinctly unique, with a style his or her own.

But oh, when I find a Three! Three—the literary storyteller. This artist who can tell an engaging story even while creating a literary art form is most rare, and when I find such a book, I am lost to the world, immersed in the created world within, and a fan for life. These are my top shelf books.  

Kate Morton easily falls within the group I call the storytellers, and she does indeed weave a fine tale. I easily fell into hours of reading, drawn into the story, enjoying the mystery. Yet the instances that a particular sentence or description took my breath away were few. She is a skilled writer. No unnecessary flourishes, nothing without purpose, no showing off, no spare lines just for the sheer fun of it.

“I followed Percy Blythe along corridors and down sets of stairs into the increasingly dim depths of the castle. Never chatty, that morning she was resolutely stony. Stony and coated with stale cigarette smoke; the smell was so strong I had to leave a pace between us as we walked. The silence suited me, at any rate; after my conversation with Saffy, I was in no mood for awkward chatter. Something in her story, or perhaps not in the story itself so much as the fact that she’d told it to me, was disquieting.” (Page 456)

Morton’s tale is about three sisters who live in a castle—Percy, Saffy and Juniper—and a young woman, Edith, who unfolds their various intertwining mysteries of lost loves, a rather tyrannical father, a fairy tale creature in the moat, and a withdrawn mother who is keeping too much to herself. It all centers around a story written by the father of the sisters, Raymond Blythe, called The True History of the Mud Man.

There is plenty of tale to be told, perhaps too much, and so the reader doesn’t go particularly deep into any one character so much as span a wide horizon of events and dark intrigues. There are also quite a few stormy nights. For this reason, I doubt that anyone might put down the book and feel haunted long after by any particular character in it. They are imminently forgettable. The tale, however, might linger for a while, and for those so inclined, who do enjoy stormy nights and monsters in moats and old women in castle towers gone mad with longing for that one lost love, I think this may suit the bill very well. After all, this type of story has a strong following, as Morton’s quick popularity has shown, and fans of these types of novels can be fervent and loyal. I suspect she has a terrific writing career of sound storytelling ahead of her.

Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia, and is writing her third novel.



The Good Life: How to Create a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle by Sherry Ackerman

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Paperback: 220 pages

·         Publisher: Hermitage House, 2010

·         Price: $18.95

·         ISBN-10: 0984603204

·         ISBN-13: 978-0984603206


From the book description of Sherry Ackerman’s The Good Life:

“For many people, consumer culture has lost its appeal. So have debt accumulation, time poverty, exteriority and social alienation. The Good Life traces one woman's journey toward a deeply fulfilling lifestyle-and points toward a way of life that values freedom, interdependence, caring, community and our connectedness with nature. The Good Life offers a guide to finding personal freedom through a sustainable lifestyle. It invites readers to view the recent global market downturn as an opportunity to transform our dead consumer culture into a living post-consumer society. The book is packed with information on emerging alternatives, such as co-housing, slow money, vegetarian and raw foods, permaculture and organic gardening, voluntary simplicity, green building, and more.

The Good Life is a Guide to Finding Personal Freedom and a Blueprint for a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle. Each chapter ends with a very practical ‘Dozen Things That You Can Do’ to create a more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyle.”

I found Sherry Ackerman’s book on the bookshelf of a friend when house sitting for him. It was a 125-year-old wonderful farmhouse outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, surrounded by field and forest, and I was looking for a good read that fit my surroundings. Oh, and did this book ever fit the bill!

All my life I have been longing for …. well, to live. To live a nature-centered life that is built around real values, and not just consumerism. I’ve always wanted that log cabin in the woods, and Ackerman’s book is a guide of how to live such a life, that is, nature-centered, simple, in tune with our needs rather than in competition with the Jones’s next door for who can drive the biggest, fanciest car, build a McMansion, earn the highest salary, wear designer labels, and so on, ad nauseum.

Enough already.

Ackerman is a philosopher by background, a professor, and this book incorporates more than just notes on how to garden and be organic. It goes far beyond that, weaving a philosophy of life into why we live as we do, and why we feel so empty when we ignore our true needs. She is a modern day Thoreau, only her call is also a call back to community. Who of us has not noted that to live in the crowded city or in the sardine-packed suburbs does not equate to isolation?

Our lives are ever more empty, and the recent market crash and other economic woes have only sharpened our awareness that this path was the wrong path. How then to find our way?

Ackerman takes on our dissatisfaction with work. Work should not be a burden, but a blessing, an extension and expression of ourselves. Yet too many of us work merely for a paycheck, living to work rather working to live.

“For many, the workplace is a golden cage—a place they stay because of the paycheck, not because they feel adequately engaged or stimulated. American workers are forgetting how to fly.” (Page 53)

To clarify:

“Emphasis shifted from the pursuit of happiness to the accumulation of wealth. People were defined by their ‘stuff.’ Having a lot of ‘stuff’ indicated that one was successful. The only fly in the ointment was that people were not happy. There are currently approximately 19 million clinically depressed Americans, or 9.5 percent of the population in any given one-year period. Depression currently affects so many people that it is often referred to as the common cold of mental illness.” (Page 52)

Rather than the pursuit of stuff, Ackerman reminds us of the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, that a happy life “is a mix of health, wealth, friendship, knowledge, nature and virtue.” Wealth is defined as having everything one needs rather than everything one wants (which tends to lead only to more wants and so more dissatisfaction).

Ackerman describes guidelines and offers fascinating stories and descriptions of a life that brings back community, the exchange of work and goods, giving away what one no longer needs, and living within one’s means rather than accumulating debt. Live in this manner, she writes, and the boom and bust cycle of our current style of living in the United States would not affect you, indeed, wouldn’t happen at all.

She urges the reader to consider the European lifestyle and compares it to the American culture of making heroes out of those who work long hours in the office rather than spend time with friends and family. “Full time workers in most of Europe typically take seven to eight weeks of vacation and holidays each year … According to Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, Europeans are happier, and have less stress and insecurity, which is good for health and longevity … longer, mandated vacations haven’t undercut the competitiveness of other wealthy countries, and there’s even evidence to suggest that they have increased their productivity.” (Page 112-113)

What else are we missing? Time with family. Time in nature. Time enjoying art or reading a book. Americans, Ackerman writes, now read less than one book per year. (One hopes, then, that the one book will be The Good Life!) We are missing out on the quality of life.

We are losing our compassion, our kindness, focused on getting ahead in the rat race and getting the biggest sale on the newest piece of stuff. Our worth is now measured by what we own, which has come to own us. Ackerman has us consider, too, how we treat others around us, and not just other human beings, but other life forms. Here is our true worth.

“Americans’ love affair with cheap stuff—including education and airfares—has been one of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of sustainable relatedness. In the same way that consumer culture has moved toward valuing profit over people, it has put profit over nature. The U.S. agricultural industry, for example, can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans.” (Page 156)

To live in a sustainable and ethical manner, we have to think in terms of value rather than getting our stuff cheap. In the long run, there is always, without exception, a cost to be paid for pursuing cheap.

Is this the best that humans are capable of? asks Ackerman. And perhaps we have gone too far in that cheap and unsustainable direction, now watching the results in terms of a faltering economy, health, global climate conditions, wars, disease, environmental degradation. Yet one must hope for better, and regardless of how far and how long we have lived in this manner, there is reason and need to change.

The Good Life offers a story about those who have chosen to live otherwise, including the author herself and her family and friends. It’s not enough to envy them their wisdom. These are changes we should all emulate. It is the right thing to do, and it will return us to that pursuit of lasting happiness.



To read our interview with the author, visit Talking to Sherry Ackerman.



White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life by Daiva Markelis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


                    Hardcover: 216 pages

                    Publisher: University Of Chicago Press, 2010

                    Price: $22.50

                    ISBN-10: 0226505308

                    ISBN-13: 978-0226505305


Opening this autobiography of a woman born to immigrant Baltic parents and growing up in the United States was like looking into a mirror. Indeed, the similarities between the life of Daiva Markelis, a Lithuanian-American, and my own, a Latvian-American, are uncanny. I would more often than not feel as if I were reading my diary, or at very least, that of a twin soul.


Markelis was born in Chicago to parents who had fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania, growing up in Cicero. Chicago is home to the largest Lithuanian population outside of Lithuania. She was raised with Lithuanian as her first language:


“At home, my parents talked to my sister and me in Lithuanian. They watched for the intrusion of English words into our speech the way high school biology students look under a microscope for germs.” (Page 17)


Not only language, but Markelis was raised on the premise that this life, here, in the States, was a temporary if unfortunate condition, and that someday, some distant and fantastical day, the family would pack up and go back home.


“ … there was the chance, infinitesimal as it was, that the Russians would leave Lithuania, evicted by the superior force of the United States, whose leaders, realizing that their blind acceptance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been a mistake of the most horrible kind, would go to any length to rectify their error. And then we could go back—we could all go back.”


Substitute Latvia for Lithuania in any of this, and this is my story, too. Speaking English in the hallowed halls of Saturday Latvian School might earn one a swift reprimand (but I earned a swift slap from my American public school kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Johnson, when I could not pronounce the “th” sound in “thumb,” a sound that was non-existent in my Baltic tongue), and the idea of assimilation into our American surroundings was anathema. We were not in any melting pot. Not even in a mixed salad. We were as separate as water and oil, to be skimmed away at any given moment should the gates to home open.


Markelis writes of her childhood and youth in the 1960s and 1970s with an almost raw truthfulness that can’t help but earn the reader’s respect. She pokes fun at herself and her life even while maintaining an inherent dignity. To be the child of immigrants means to be set apart, not only from one’s surroundings, but even within one’s family. The child grows up in a world that will always remain, at least on some level, alien to the parents, and must learn to navigate both, belong to both, step seamlessly from one to the other and back again.


So Markelis can simultaneously show the reader the city streets of Chicago and the inner workings of an immigrant world. She does it effortlessly because she has grown up doing so. Yet there is a price to pay, too, and she speaks of this with the same honesty—her struggles with depression and alcoholism.


Unfortunately, in this we share an ethnic connection, too, in that both of our Baltic countries have a high rate of alcoholism (according to some studies, highest in the world), and I have always thought this was directly related to both nations being repeatedly and cruelly oppressed in countless wars throughout the centuries. It is the burden we carry in our genes, but along with it, the ability to cope, as both Baltic nations also show a remarkable history of endurance and determination to survive.


Markelis grows introspective at times in a personal search for meaning in her ethnic identity, even resisting it, even hating it, and I understand this, too. To be so closely identified with one’s ethnic background, so connected to one’s national history, means that it sometimes chafes and constricts—yet other times enriches in a way that others on the outside may not understand. I wouldn’t trade my ethnicity for anything, and I strongly suspect neither would Markelis. It is much like an extended family. One may on occasion blow off steam and slam doors and say unspeakable things among one’s own, but when push comes to shove, we defend our own against any and all, and love them, our family, to the bitter end.


This same complexity enters Markelis’ relationship with her father, also an alcoholic, and her mother, who is stricken by cancer. She struggles with them as any child does, but her devotion and love come through again and again. She opens a window for us to see into her world, where she wears a Lithuanian folk costume on special occasions and attends Lithuanian school on Saturdays while American friends watch cartoons and wear jeans. She parties like there’s no tomorrow, but tomorrow comes with its lessons. From these lessons, Markelis grows, and in her sustains and somehow resolves all the juxtapositions and paradoxes of her identity, and makes them into her own true identity.


In the end, it is hard for me to review a book that tells a story so closely aligned with mine. Can one truly be objective about a mirror image? I could only shake my head to realize that in thinking oneself so different from one’s surroundings, there were perhaps so many of us growing up in exactly the same way—and coming through just fine. In fact, much better than fine—wealthier for the added perspective on ourselves and the world around us with its endless diversity.



To read our interview with the author, visit Talking to Daiva Markelis.


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