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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2008

Price: $15.99

ISBN-10: 0060852569

ISBN-13: 978-0060852566


It might just be a matter of thinking about red cars and so suddenly seeing red cars everywhere one looks, but it seems to me that once I started researching organic foods for an article I am writing, I began to see books on sustainable farming, organic food markets, news stories about an organic food movement, and farmer’s markets everywhere I looked. Something is going on, and I’m pretty sure by this point in my research that it is a very good thing. Suddenly, I am seeing garden fresh red tomatoes everywhere.

Barbara Kingsolver’s book about living a year on locally grown and produced food had been on my shelf for some time already. She is an author of whom I take immediate notice, whenever she publishes a new title, whether fiction or nonfiction. My interest in eating a sustainable and healthy diet had been simmering for some time, but it took an assignment to get me digging into this particular garden of delights.

Kingsolver’s nonfiction is fully as rich and readable as her fiction. I was entertained, amused, engaged, even as I was educated, astounded, amazed. Daughter Camille Kingsolver, studying biology at Duke University, adds tasty tidbits of sidebars and recipes, many of which I checked off to try. Even husband Steven Hopp adds an occasional sidebar with his perspective. But Barbara Kingsolver is the word master you expect her to be. She makes me wince with pain for our planet as she recites facts and statistics and studies impossible to ignore: if we don’t reevaluate how we eat, what we eat, and how that food comes to our table, there is going to be a very sad ending to this tale. She also delights me with her personal stories of her family's food adventure.

The Kingsolver family is moving from Tucson, Arizona to live on a farm in southern Appalachia. When Barbara met Steven, he was living on this farm, but he was willing to move to Arizona, her home, when they decided to join forces. Now, it was his turn. Their turn. The family returned to live on the farm, and part of that return was a decision to live a sustainable lifestyle, eating only foods that were locally grown with but a few exceptions (coffee! chocolate!).

As the family begins their new farm life, the author realizes how disconnected Americans are from our food. We give no thought to its source, no thought to how it is produced or what route it travels to reach us. We praise sunny days and lament the rainy ones, giving no thought to the needs of the farmer who feeds us. Our children think of food as something that comes from a supermarket, conveniently packaged and shrink-wrapped. The very same consumer who craves a steak, make that rare, cringes at mere mention of a slaughterhouse. In the family’s yearlong venture, assuredly a challenge, the author is determined to connect to their food in a most intimate way. This means—knowing the farmer who produces what they eat, or producing it themselves.

“When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too—the processors, marketers, and transporters. And we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers: those actual humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn casting their shadows upon our sustenance… In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our cart.” (Page 13)

Today, however, that farmer casting his shadow across his or her harvest is becoming an ever rarer breed. Increasingly, the food we eat today comes from CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations, more factory than farm. Animals here are not treated like living things, but rather as machinery on an assembly line, producing edible product.

Is this a natural result of our ever burgeoning population? Are CAFOs necessary to feed our billions of mouths and bellies? As it turns out, no.

“Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980.” (Page 14)

 Unfortunately, all those extra calories are not making their way into the mouths of the hungry. The problem of hunger in the United States and across the globe continues to increase, even while the waistlines of most Americans continue to increase. Apparently, those 700 extra calories are ending up in those who least need them. “Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve,” Kingsolver writes, “with no acknowledgement of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme.” What Kingsolver reveals in these pages is what truly could be called a conspiracy: government subsidized CAFOs that leave individual farmers scrambling to compete (ever wonder why organic foods are more expensive? Look to those government subsidies, none of which go to your local farmer) and additions to processed foods such as corn syrup and artificial flavorings and non-animal fats that increase cravings rather than satisfy them. Americans are having a dysfunctional relationship to our food. Unlike most European cultures, who honor the culinary kitchen and family table, we treat food like a poison and a drug. Which, arguably, it is. We are constantly dieting, trying to control it, rather than appreciating it and its preparation. We are give it all up and indulge in gluttony and supersizing our meals, or we starve ourselves with eating disorders. It is an interesting argument and insight.

Food, Kingsolver writes, is a necessity to life. It is a comfort, it is nourishment, it is a sensual pleasure. (One wonders at the growing problem of obesity in connection with the dissolving tradition of sitting down as a family at the dinner table.)

“Our most celebrated models of beauty are starved people,” the author points out. “A food culture of anti-eating is worse than useless.” It is our lack of a healthy food culture that Kingsolver laments, arguing that we have replaced it with two extremes, starvation or gluttony.

“Humans don’t do everything we crave to do—that is arguably what makes us human. We’re genetically predisposed toward certain behaviors that we’ve collectively decided are unhelpful; adultery and racism are examples. With reasonable success, we mitigate those impulses through civil codes, religious rituals, maternal warnings—the whole bag of tricks we call culture… these are mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. And here we are, sure enough in trouble.” (Page 16)

We are the first generation of humankind to have children who are predicted to have shorter life spans than their parents. If that’s not a sign of trouble, I don’t know what is.

Industrial farming, the author writes, is the cause of much of our pollution problems and resulting climate change. While many of us mistakenly attribute pollution to automobiles, most pollution in this country can actually be traced to CAFOs. Nothing about a food factory is sustainable. Add to this sheer cruelty to animals and…

But let’s return to the farm. A local farm producing organic foods that end up on your dinner plate is no punishment. I can vouch for this. Since eating organic foods myself, everything I have so far tasted, from meat to vegetable, is incomparably more delicious than what is food factory produced. If you have ever eaten a greenhouse tomato and then sliced into a tomato sun-ripened in your garden, you get the idea. Eating organic foods is not giving something up; it is a rediscovery of food as it was meant to taste--expectionally good.

The year unfolds, and we are treated to the adventure—and it is that—of the family gardening and living from their garden, or eating what they buy from local markets, locally produced. There is seeding and weeding involved, sure, and lots of canning and preserving, but Kingsolver’s point is that doing all of this, getting involved in our own food production and preparation on so intimate a level, is in so many ways and on so many levels what we are missing. It gets a family involved and working together. It brings back to life a family dinner table. It cultivates more than the carrot and potato in the soil; it cultivates relationships. Knowing who grows your food is a true pleasure, and to this, too, I can attest with my own experience. Since “going organic” myself, I have gotten to know quite a few members of my community, and not just area farmers, from whom I now buy my fresh eggs, poultry, steaks, milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables. The anonymous CAFO has receded from my life and in its place—are new friends.

Kingsolver also writes a fascinating argument against mass vegetarianism. Because I, too, have considered that lifestyle and soon abandoned it, I was particularly interested in what the author had to say. Humans, she writes, are naturally adapted to an omnivorous diet, with our canine teeth for tearing meat and the enzymes in our digestive systems for breaking down animal proteins and fats. She describes a vegetarian world with livestock gone wild, and then describes the process of killing a farm animal for food. This is not a story of cruelty. This is, instead, a story of respect for all living creatures and the cycle of life and death, of sustainability. It is far more important, she states, to be concerned about the kind of life we provide to our livestock.

There is so much more to this book. Discussions about pesticides and genetically modified foods. More recipes. And all woven together with Kingsolver’s literary skills. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is going on my top shelf of favorite books, those that have contributed to transforming my own life in a positive way. It’s a delicious and highly informative and thoughtful read, a wonderful introduction for those wishing to learn more about the organic food movement and to simply be inspired.




Who Says I Can’t by Jothy Rosenberg

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


         Paperback: 239 pages

         Publisher: Bascom Hill Books (February 1, 2010)

         Price: $14.95

         ISBN-10: 193545613X

         ISBN-13: 978-1935456131


If you tell Jothy Rosenberg there is something you think he can’t do, chances are better than good that is just the thing he will do.  Chances are even greater he will leave you in the dust while doing it, too.  He’s like that. He’s probably always been like that, but what has really strengthened Jothy’s perseverance to take on life at full throttle, meet and beat every challenge he encounters, has been his experience of being a two-time cancer survivor.


Who Says I Can’t is Jothy’s memoir, published in 2010 by Bascom Hill Books. It is the story of “a two-time cancer surviving amputee and entrepreneur who fought back, survived and thrived.” Jothy is an above-the-knee amputee with two-fifths of his lung removed, both due to cancer while still in his teens. He considers “considering” a dirty word (as in, “You’re good, considering you are missing a leg!”). Jothy does what he does perhaps in some aspects because of his physical challenges, but he achieves excellence that can be measured against any able-bodied person. A math major at Kalamazoo College, he went on to earn a PhD in computer science at Duke University, authored two technical books, founded six high tech companies. He has also participated in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike-a-thon (supporting Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) seven times; has completed the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco as part of a fundraiser to support Boston Healthcare for the Homeless 16 times; and has participated in countless other fundraising sports activities. He now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife Carole, and is the father of three children, grandfather of one. Writing a book to inspire others with his story is just one more item added to his long list of achievements.


“The book is about hearing the words, ‘You have zero chance of survival,’ at the age of 19,” Jothy says. “After already having lost one leg and one lung to cancer, as well as an extensive course of chemotherapy, it is about what all of that does to you. More importantly, the book is about how one goes about fighting back, recovering and thriving in the face of all that adversity.”


Jothy lost his right leg to osteogenic sarcoma at age 16; his cancerous left lung was removed while he was a student at Kalamazoo College. Born in California, Jothy grew up in the Detroit area, the son of two physicians. His brother, Michael, was a Kalamazoo College graduate (1975), so he knew the college well.


“I wanted a school that was smaller than my high school and far enough away that I would not feel pressured to come home too often, yet I still wanted to be within a reasonable driving distance. I applied for early decision to Kalamazoo; I was not the slightest bit interested in any other school.” (Page 39, Who Says I Can’t.)


At the time of Jothy’s dark diagnosis, chemotherapy was a new and experimental treatment. For the 10 months that Jothy underwent the tortuous process of chemotherapy ( he still feels nauseous when he remembers it), his professors at Kalamazoo College worked with him to keep him up to date with his college assignments. Professor Thomas Jefferson Smith was especially influential in young Jothy’s life, and after jumping from one major to another, he settled on math in great part due to Professor Smith’s caring attention.


“You have to keep in mind that this was before we had the convenience of computers and e-mail,” Jothy says. “My professors brought my course work to my hospital bedside, often written out by hand.”


Jothy writes about his years at Kalamazoo College in his memoir—and all that came after. He says he was inspired to do so, in fact, because of an earlier article that appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of LuxEsto. It got him thinking that he had a story to tell and that there might be others who might benefit from reading it.


“As a 16-year-old lying in a hospital bed with one leg gone, with a mind on fire with anguish about how I might live a normal life, and then as a 19-year-old with one lung trying to recover from chemotherapy and deal with a death sentence, I felt on my own. I was looking for inspiration, guidance, motivation—anything. I wrote this book because I want to help anyone facing a disability or serious life trauma deal with it better and faster than I did. Considering it took me 30 years to figure it out well enough to be able to write it down, I hope my experiences can shorten the learning curve for someone in a similar situation. “(Page 229)


Writing meant reliving. Jothy grasped how much it would have meant to him to hear the story of someone who had dealt with a similar blow and done well. A large part of what he had struggled with in those years, after all, was the feeling of being alone. Who to ask questions about learning to walk again? How to date when you might trip and fall on your face in front of a pretty girl? Without a role model or experienced advice, he did his best, and often, his best meant overachieving. If a two-legged person could do something, Jothy was going to outdo it. Even when it came to dating.


“I went on 40 dates in ten weeks when I was at Kalamazoo College,” he laughs. “Each one with a different girl.”


Not exactly the best way to develop a satisfying relationship. That’s the kind of advice Jothy could have used. Summing up his advice from the book, he says: “You are tougher and more resilient than you could ever have imagined. Fight back just one little victory after another. Set a modest goal for something you can do to regain your balance and sense of normalcy. Achieve that and set the next goal. Before you know it, you are strong and inspiring others.”


Jothy’s “small” victories outsize those that most of us will ever achieve. Completing the circle of receiving healing and now giving back to others, he regularly participates in AIDS fundraising bike rides from Boston to New York—a ride of a mere 375 miles. His bike is specially fitted to him, so that he can ride with one leg.  Jothy has become something of a celebrity participant, and his memoir recounts his grueling training, frustrations, and eventual victories.


“I have two main causes at this point,” he says. “I direct a lot of my fundraising efforts for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. They were on the forefront of chemotherapy work in the mid-70s, and I am convinced it played a major role in my survival. I give them proceeds from the sale of this book and from the 192-mile Pan-Mass Challenge bike ride in which I participate every summer.”


Yet when Jothy is asked about his proudest achievement, it is not the physical challenges he has met, not the bike riding, long-distance swimming, or being an expert skier. It is not even the many business startups with which he has been involved over the years. “Without question, it is the fact that my kids like me and are proud of me. Like any father, I am insanely proud of them, too. We are truly good friends, and that is not something I take for granted.”


If the memoir is meant to give comfort and advice to those undergoing adversity or physical challenges, Jothy also hopes it gives those of us with limbs intact a better perspective on how to treat those who are different from ourselves. What he wants people to understand: “Don’t stare, and teach your kids not to stare,” he says. “But don’t ignore such people either. Feel free to ask a question. Just remember, we get lots of attention for being different, and that can be tiresome. “


Jothy wouldn’t call his early brush with death a blessing, challenging him to become a better man—although he believes it has in fact done that. “But I never sit around wishing it hadn’t happened. I can’t wish it away. It happened. So I make the very best of what I do have.”


“Everything becomes difficult with a bad leg. I can’t carry things. I can’t walk any distance for lunch with colleagues or to catch a cab. I walk very slowly and laboriously through airports. I worry about just walking down the hall to my boss’s office. It eats away at job effectiveness. It can affect how well I do my job, how likely a job promotion is, and therefore how much money I make. It affects my self-confidence in social relationships … Dealing with the superficiality of the disability is important for self-confidence. Dealing with the anatomic, physical, structural, mechanical aspects of the disability is just as important for success. With these daily challenges to self-confidence and self-esteem, the disabled person needs a constant outlet where they can excel, where they can overcompensate, where they can leave the temporarily able-bodied people in the dust.” (Page 228)


Along with insights into dealing with physical challenges, the book also provides an inside look at business startups. Jothy has been involved in starting, running or funding half a dozen startups. His memoir tells about the excitement of a new idea, the frustrations and danger zones of obtaining venture capital, the hard work of building a dream on a good idea, and then, at times, the heartbreak of having it swept out from under you.


Approaching his book promotion as he does everything else in life, Jothy is promoting it with everything in him. He has a Web site,, a fan page on the social networking site, Facebook, and he “tweets” regularly on Twitter as @jothmeister. He is currently on tour, giving talks and readings, signing books, and even trying to get a spot on Oprah’s talk show. Someone should tell him he can’t do it. And then stand back and watch what happens.






This 7 Year Old Walks Into a Bar, poetry by Gill O’Halloran


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


         Paperback: 52 pages

         Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2009

         ISBN-10: 0956199151

         ISBN-13: 978-0956199157


You know how it is when you walk into a bar. Dark, dusky, a bit sour-smelling. But you throw back that first golden scotch, and it sears all the way down, and suddenly, the world takes on a golden hue, too. It’s a type of gold that is touched with the enlightenment of experience, of living life all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, and make no mistake—seven year olds that walk into bars have plenty of life experience.


Gill O’Halloran came to me from across the ocean, from London, England, floating on a recommendation of a trusted literary friend. It was the recommendation that assured me this would be a worthy read. It was the poetry I found inside this slim volume that assured me this is the kind of dusky place where I would hang out, too. I sidled up to the poet at the bar and took it all in.


And I stood dry-eyed, grief baked

into the empty pot of skin around

my wasted heart…


Oh yeah. This was going to be good, and go deep. These are the poems of a poet who has not shied away from shadows, and seeing those, being inside of those, recognizes light. There are both in these poems. There is the suffering and loss of a betrayed love, of a beaten woman, of a mother without child. There is the shaft of light that is epiphany. There is surrender, and submission, and the murkiness of absorption into a lesser soul when self-respect is stripped away. There is new hope. There is understanding, revenge, forgiveness, and healing. There is the remembering, the salt in the wound, the stitching into stiffened and enduring scars.


No doubt in part because of the poet’s work in a hospice (there are poignant descriptions of caring for the helpless and dying), also with knowledge about addiction and co-dependency (she is the author of Introduction to Co-dependency for Counselors, published under the name Gill Reeve), many of her poems expose the underbelly of abuse in relationships.


I’ve built houses from straw with the wolf’s consent,

electric song of settlers’ psalms ring-fencing my land.

Skated on cents while dollars fluttered in the wind,

trigger-weary hands mending mainsprings,

pendulums, clocks long stopped.


She writes knowingly of the emergence back into an unaccustomed light:


But you called me out to the fields beyond,

where your open arms welcome

the punishing sky.

You told me off

for clinging to the undergrowth …


And I crept sheepish from the woods,

felt the pitiless sun warm my trepid face

and began to tread the fields with you.

Unbrave, oh so unbrave.


O’Halloran is a strong poet with a strong heart, willing to risk, and where in many poems she succeeds with gorgeous turn of phrase, with expert finishing lines that leave the reader breathless, in others she flops, misses her cue, and vanishes with a whimper where there should have been a cry. And still, this can be forgiven. This collection is, overall, like fine aged scotch, and any hangover the next morning is well worth the evening spent in its company.


He collapses under questioning. He is only hearsay,

only a wistful lie he hears himself say; a mugged memory. He knows

his father’s eye was eclipsed by the dark moon of jealous women.

Maybe once he did something good, but his father did not see it.


And still the memory swims against his knowledge,

swims without choice or hope of progress, like a tethered fish, a reed.


Listen, for that kind of poetry, I’ll venture even into the dankest corner bar. This is worth the price, at any price. And the kid at the corner of the bar? That seven year old? That’s the kid in each of us, drunk with life, emerging from our adult shadows and still knowing how to play.




Little Black Lies by Tish Cohen

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

         Reading level: Young Adult

         Hardcover: 320 pages

         Publisher: EgmontUSA, 2009

         Price: $16.99

         ISBN-10: 1606840339

         ISBN-13: 978-1606840337


Tish Cohen’s books may be labeled young adult, but I find her work to be easily sophisticated enough for adult reading—certainly for those of us who are parents and may want to delve deeper into the minds of our youth. Cohen’s understanding of those young minds is uncanny. I’ve been a fan since my introduction to Cohen about a year ago, reading Inside Out Girl, and in fact, was inspired to learn more and so interviewed her as feature author for The Smoking Poet at that time. Reading Little Black Lies, impossible to do slowly, I remember why.

Like that previous novel, this one, too, examines a broken and painfully dysfunctional family from the perspective of a teenager. Little Black Lies is the story of Sara Black in her freshman year at Anton High School, a school for the smart and the privileged. Sara is indeed very smart in terms of school work, but she is anything but privileged. She is able to attend the school mostly because her father is employed as janitor there, although her grades qualify her, too. As is so often true, however, book learning doesn’t equal emotional intelligence or social skills, and Sara maneuvers her way through Anton, slangishly known as “Ant,” by an ever deepening layer of lies. It’s all about acceptance and fitting in. Something any honest teen will tell you: high school is a test of emotional and social intelligence far more than the measure of a sharp mind.

These are not white lies. I love Cohen’s word play here, in title and in calling the school Ant, bringing up an image of insects slavishly following other insects, mindless and obedient to even the most irrational social rules. Sara’s father, to whom on one hand she seems utterly devoted, while on the other hand she betrays completely, suffers from OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. Carrying wounds deep inside him that he has yet to resolve, Sara’s father Charlie tries helplessly to clean away all that is dirt in his life: the betrayal of his wife (Sara’s mother), who had an affair with a high school science teacher and left him and Sara, and other wounds going back to his own youth. The more stressed he becomes, the more he cleans and orders his life, attempting to bring order to chaos. Sara has learned to pick up on the symptoms, and her own attempts at soothing her father back into rational behavior become something of her own dysfunction, turning into almost pathological lying.

Of course, once you tell one lie, the lies multiply like rabbits, and the liar must work ever harder and harder to sustain the masking of truth. Every lie becomes uglier than the one before. Cohen resists any attempt to portray her characters as entirely black or white, but paints them in many shades of gray. Sara has many good attributes, exhibits many moments of goodness, and Cohen shows us the source of Sara’s own wounds. Like every child, she longs for a stable home, loving parents, trustworthy and logical. Like so many children, she does not get that wish. Her mother chose her affair over her daughter, and her father, although truly a good man, has too loose a hold on his own sanity to fully be present for his young daughter. And so we come to understand and sympathize. To a point. As Sara’s lies become ever blacker, there are also moments we lose all sympathy.

No one gets through life without telling some lies, but Sara repeatedly betrays her most faithful and true friend, Mandy, even when her friend is on the brink with her own troubles. Sara denies her father repeatedly, like a young Judas, pretending he is not her father when he smiles at her in school, standing by silently when the “in group” makes fun of him. Her motives are shallow, yet the same for too many teens. She craves acceptance from her peers and popularity with the boys. For this, no lie seems to be too big or too black. It seems she will do anything, anything at all, to keep that in crowd believing that she is a sophisticated and rich young woman whose roots are in London, England, rather than Lundon, Massachusetts. She concocts an elaborate history of fake parents with fake professions, even while her father passes her in the school halls, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning away the dirt that keeps coming back.

The book portrays an accurate portrait of the pressures at that age—pressure to be hyper-sexualized as a female and put out for popularity, not only by the opposite gender but almost especially from one’s own; pressure to be rich with all the superficial attributes and accessories; pressure to be with the “right” friends, the pretty girls who wear high fashion labels and are more about the next party than any deeper value. Sara works hard to belong with her female peers, is much less concerned with the opposite sex in terms of acceptance, until Leo catches her eye. For this crush, she falls even deeper into lies, and becomes willing to risk her life rather than be found out.

A climactic scene unfolds when Charlie, her father, finally breaks down and spins out of control with his OCD. A human being can take only so much stress before the cracks finally begin to show. Sooner or later, one way or another, all lies surface. Sara watches in horror as her father loses it in school, this place that has become her theatre stage, and can’t stop scrubbing invisible water stains from a school sink.

“That’s not it!” I want to shout. He’s not scrubbing to rid the sink of stains. He’s got it in his head that this spot is wicked with danger. It doesn’t matter that his opponent doesn’t exist, it just matters that he feels he has won. That’s the enigma of OCD.

At the doorway, more teachers have gathered and are herding the students down the hall. I slip past them into the laboratory…. The thought of paramedics racing in here and shooting Dad up with tranquilizers like some gorilla that’s escaped from the zoo, only to strap him to a stretcher and whisk him off… is more than I can take… The kids are gone, along with many of the teachers. I pluck the bottle of bleach solution, Charlie’s liquid solace, his pacifier, from the cleaning bucket… Knowing full well it’s like giving the alcoholic a beer, I hand the bleach to my father. “Try this.”

His wild eyes focus on me but he says nothing. Just removes the cap, douses his cloth in fluid, and wipes the sink with it. He stands back and watches the sink go from shiny and silver with wetness, back to mottled and dusty-looking silver. The sound of the microbes screaming, dying, is nearly audible, and right away I see his jaw slacken and relax.

Predictably, Sara gets found out. After her ever more extreme and desperate manipulations, the mask falls and reveals the vulnerable and hurting and deeply insecure girl inside. By the time that it does, some readers may have lost all ability to forgive. Wounded as she herself is, she has left a trail of victims: a good father denied, a loyal friend abandoned in her moment of greatest need, while stooping ever lower to be liked by popular girls who show no redemptive values whatsoever (only their own deeply hidden insecurities).

By end of book, it occurs to me that girls especially are today going to greater and greater lengths to please not boys, but other girls, trying to find love and acceptance that broken families have denied them. Teen females are dressing and behaving in a manner that makes it impossible not to objectify them—and Cohen does a great job of showing us what most parents are probably trying hard not to realize about their own children: our children are growing up in a promiscuous and dangerous world that cannot end well. They are seeking “love” in all the wrong places and from all the wrong people. All of which is a silent scream for help, yet another societal dysfunction, that adults must heed if we are to guide our youth into a healthy adulthood.

Important issues, and Cohen does not shy away from any of them. Like it or not, these are the realities of our contemporary world. Being young has never been more complicated, more obstacle-ridden, more testing, than it is today. And many teens are navigating this complicated and confused world on their own, their parents often too obsessed with careers or their own affairs to notice. With this, Cohen does a great service with her young adult novels. She writes books that show young adults they are not alone in their struggles. She reveals to adults the world they may not have realized exists. These are the black lies of a society that has too often lost track of values and lost sight of priorities. We can only be grateful for authors such as Cohen to remind us: the mask will eventually come off and we will have to face the painful consequences.

Tish Cohen is the author of several books for adults and young readers. Her adult novel Town House was a 2008 finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and Caribbean region) and is in development as a feature film. Cohen’s middle-grade novels, The Invisible Rule of the Ze Lama and The One and Only Ze Lama, were published in Canada and the United States. She has contributed articles to some of Canada’s largest newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post. Having grown up in Los Angeles and Orange County in California, and Montreal, Cohen now calls Toronto home. 




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

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


         Hardcover: 320 pages

         Publisher: Knopf (September 8, 2009)

         Price: $27.95

         ISBN-10: 0307267148

         ISBN-13: 978-0307267146


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See to learn more, to do more.




Why Diet and Exercise Fail: How Current Research Contradicts Conventional Wisdom about Weight Loss by Daniel Matthew Korn

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


         Paperback: 182 pages

         Publisher: Daniel Korn Books, 2009 (First Edition)

         Price: $19.95

         ISBN-10: 0615290086

         ISBN-13: 978-0615290089


What better time to review a diet book than on the fatty tail end of a Thanksgiving holiday? The author had sent me a review copy of his book, which I accepted only after expressing resistance. I don’t read diet books. No more than I listen to ads for diet pills or pay attention to talk of various miracle diets and fads. In my mind, they are all balderdash.

Daniel Korn convinced me that this slim book, almost symbolically slim, had something different to say. I accepted the review copy, then let it languish. Picked it up, read a bit, let it languish again. My initial turn-off in reading it was that it has an approach of dissecting all the diet angles that don’t work. You must read right to the end to find out where the author is taking you, as if constructing a page-turner thriller. Well, for me, that doesn’t work well. I want to know what works, then build the case for me.

Korn begins by observing and comparing different cultures, different eating and lifestyle habits and how these reflect on body size. Some cultures include foods rich in fats, include sugar, include carbohydrates, yet people eating these diets are much slimmer than the increasingly overweight and obese Americans. Other cultures are sedentary, show little inclination for exercise, yet remain slim. Some eat and stay slim while others exercise themselves sore and silly and still tote the fat.

What to do?

Korn eliminates various accepted diet ideas, including counting calories, exercising regularly, and various diets many Americans have accepted as standbys. He cites various studies, while perhaps too carelessly ignoring others. It seems easy enough to dig up a few studies that show bizarre and unexpected results, but it would seem to hold merit to take into consideration an entire body of work in studying certain habits. While I did find some of Korn’s conclusions interesting and worthy of consideration, all in all, I have to stay what I have found in my own life and observations to be true. That is, that age matters when slowing down our metabolisms. Exercise does make a difference. I refuse to be a slave to counting calories, but being aware of what one puts into one’s body—and choosing more fruits and vegetables, less meat, and going organic, seem to be smart and just good common sense.

The danger of picking on a few culprits—diet sodas and sodas in general along with whatever else contains caffeine—seems too simplistic to me. It is almost impossible to control all the variables that do or might affect the typical American diet, and do so in countless variations. While Korn states that caffeine may have something to do with our lardish size, I have only to look at my daughter, 29 years old, who thrives on caffeine (including diet sodas), but does a great deal of walking and biking, shops otherwise organic, and remains quite thin. To my mind, the variables only begin with genetics, eating habits, exercise, environment, stress levels, sleep habits, and countless others. Personally, I think it makes good sense to stick as close to nature as possible, eliminating pollutants, using the muscles we were given for surely some purpose, and listening to our bodies when they cry out for sleep, relaxation, or whatever it is we need to survive and thrive. My guess is the culprits, surely more than one, lie within our lifestyles in general, too far removed from where we should be in many ways.



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