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Cabbage, Strudel and Trams by Ivana Hrubá

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



Paperback, 181 pages

ISBN: 978-0-646-54521-9

Hurts so much that all you can do is laugh, it seems. The Soviet Union, or Soviet Onion, as
Ivana Hrubá writes, encompasses the occupation of many European countries, marked by human rights abuses and atrocities. Laughing yet? With clever wit and satire, Hrubá finds a way to make it all tickle until you do.

In this something like an autobiography, but not quite, the author writes about a Czech family living under communism—the girl Vendula, who is the novel’s heroine, her brother Pavel, her parents, and grandparents babka Zlatka and Deda Anton. The story is told in the narrative voice of invisible Franta, a kind of wise, imaginary friend who lives in Vendula’s head. The family escapes to West Germany and later resettles in Australia.

Opening on a scene of the family discussing the unexpected defection of Uncle Stan from communist Czechoslovakia to West Germany, the reader comes to understand what it was like to live in a world based on a daily diet of propoganda. Standing in long queues outside empty shops in hopes of buying something, anything, cutting newspapers into squares to use as toilet paper, navigating adolescence through poverty and depravity, falling in love with the boy who dares to be an individual—it is all great fodder for the author to create a side-splitting circus of oppressed humanity coping in whatever way they can to live as normal lives as possible.

Between laughs, Hruba manages to insert pointedly serious scenarios without ever slipping into soapbox mode. Vendula’s adolescent friends include Marcela, the pretty Czech girl that is seduced into performing for pornography. The venture seems to start as something exciting and rewarding—all that money in a world of poverty—but ends with the young girl’s drowned and naked corpse floating up in a river, hands tied behind her back.

The point seems to be that human beings are ever so human, regardless of where we live and under what government, all of us trying to get ahead, chase a dream, find love, live in a world where we can feel some pride in achievement and hope for a little more. Wrapped in comedy, the author manages to expose human frailty and weakness while maintaining a compassionate sympathy for every character. We may all respond a little differently when pushed to the wall, but our common dreams are not so dissimilar.

When Deda calls out in a family discussion comparing communists to capitalists, black humor blooms while Babka Zlatka, cutting squares of newspaper for toilet paper, finds it easier to try to defend the madness of the world in which she lives:

“Do you have any idea what impact we’ve had on the Americans?” he called to Dad just as Vendula opened the door.

“None,” Dad answered without looking up from his pile.

“Precisely!” deda thundered. “None! No impact whatsoever.”

“And why? Why, I ask you?” he cried theatrically, pushing his deerstalker off of his forehead with his crooked finger. He looked pointedly at babka, expecting a response.

... She didn’t need it, didn’t want it and was happy to go with the official propoganda which stated that all capitalists were losers, regardless of their gross national income.

Deda Anton was not discouraged.

“We’ve had no impact on them because they don’t care! They got that much wheat they don’t know what to do with it! You think the Americans worry about our f—king five-year agricultural plan? …”

… Babka took. “Buy low, sell high,” she retorted contemptuously, waving a hand in deda’s face. “Any old fool can do that. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

Deda, delighted with the direction the conversation was taking, laid his crooked paw over babka’s scissors in a gesture of bravado. “Isn’t it? I beg to differ. The Americans know how to do business. They’ve got no housing crisis over there, darling, they don’t live eight to a room like your Soviet friends.”

… “Who walked on the moon first, Anton?” she fired at deda, confident she had him by the short and curlies… “I tell you who walked on the Moon, you silly man! The Soviets did! They landed there first!”

… To this deda eventually replied with a resigned sigh… “Who knows?” he sarcastically intoned. “This might be just the thing to end the housing crisis.” (page 72-73)

Right or wrong, good or bad, we all get attached to the places and people where we spend most of our time, and this point comes through, too, as we escape across the border with Vendula’s family. Suddenly, they enter a world of plenty. And still, they must struggle, and young Vendula longs for the friends she left behind, even if that was in a mad, mad world. Only gradually does the family readjust, and comic moments abound as Vendula learns a new language and the family finally moves into a house of their own in the land down under, Australia.

It is a story of many poignant Moments:

Things happen.

Things you would never have dreamed of.

Things you might have thought about just maybe happening on the other side of the galaxy but you’d never imagine them happening in your own life.

But they do.

There is always the Moment. (Page 92)

Hruba’s novel teaches important lessons without being obvious, subtle pointers to what matters and doesn’t matter in life. This is a window on Soviet life few Americans understand (deda Anton is right—Americans weren’t even paying attention) because it was a life nearly incomprehensible to those in the west. With quaint pencil drawings that appear to be the scribblings of a bored adolescent, the novel is rich with, as Vendula would say, Moments.

The format of the book can be off-putting, as the novel is printed on 8" x 11" pages in a fine type that fills the page from margin to margin. It can be difficult to read and uncomfortable to hold. Typos and errors are too frequent, calling out for another proofing. Yet with all that, I found myself so enjoying a good story wrapped in a good laugh, that I read the novel more quickly than I had anticipated. It is the second work I’ve read by this author, and her vivid imagination and wit come through as well in this as in her first adult novel, A Decent Ransom: A Story of a Kidnapping Gone Right.

As did her character Vendula, Ivana Hrubá was born in the Czech Republic, lived under communist rule, and then walked across the Alps with her family to escape to the free world in 1983. After living in West German refugee camps, her family resettled in Australia, where she lives now with her own family.




Woodswoman IIII: Book Four of the Woodswoman’s Adventures by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

ˇ         Paperback: 223 pages

ˇ         Publisher: West of Wind Publications, 2003

ˇ         Price: $18.00

ˇ         ISBN-10: 0963284630

ˇ         ISBN-13: 978-0963284631


And here we are, at the last book in the Woodswoman series, oddly enough numbered IIII rather than IV. Anne LaBastille has carried us, her readers, through nearly four decades of living in the Adirondacks, a decade per book, with this last one covering about half that.

The series begins with LaBastille building a log cabin in Adirondack wilderness shortly after a divorce in her mid 20s. Now, she is a much older woman, however sprite and spunky, still. Her wilderness living is not so wild anymore, as her property on Big Bear Lake (a fictional name) has been encroached upon by more residents, but more painfully, many more boaters on the lake. With each book, we witness increasing problems with all manner of pollution, climate change, and simple human lack of consideration for others and for the environment. LaBastille has taken an ever more involved role in fighting for ecological concerns, and an important part of her story is that fight, along with the resistance she meets. Some of that resistance is so fierce that it results in arson, cut brake and gas lines, and physical threats.

While the first two books in the series were more faithful to the Woodswoman title, the third (see my earlier review) became more of a story of self-publishing, a tad self-aggrandizing in the process. This fourth book returns to the theme of living with nature. It is not so much about LaBastille in her cabin and the surrounding woods (she seems to spend less and less time there), but it does go back to love of nature and love of animals. It’s also a pretty good read.

LaBastille is invited to teach at a southern college. She teaches nature writing, a favorite topic, and quite logically, wishes to take her students out into nature so as to make them better nature writers. A college administrator pulls her aside. Is this safe? he asks. She had planned to have the students camp solo for 24 hours, providing a list of needed camping gear and supplies, each 500 feet distant from the next. It hurts to laugh when reading the discussion between LaBastille and the college administrator, as they discuss legalities, issues of safety, and a weird fear of nature. One wonders where this fear goes when students walk city streets on a daily basis. It is also a sad commentary at how isolated we have become from the natural world around us.

Ironically, LaBastille does encounter danger when scoping out a state park for good camping sites. Not from wildlife, but from man. Several drunken gunmen fire weapons at her, her dog, Xandor, and Abe, a colleague who has come along for the hike. It very nearly reads like a thriller. Sound survival skills, however, learned from many previous wilderness treks, save the day.

Less interesting are more self-publishing adventures, and only mildly interesting a chapter about LaBastille’s adopted stray cat, Chunita. A little too cutesy, with a series of photos captioned in the cat’s voice.

LaBastille’s dog stories do better, and her devotion to her animals is clear in yet another aging pet story, as another German Sheppard (all her dogs are) ages and falls ill. Chekika is a particular favorite, and LaBastille fights valiantly to keep the dog alive through various afflictions, almost to the point of going too far. Each time she loses a dog, someone has to remind her it is time to let go. Not doing so becomes more selfish than loving. But LaBastille finally does let go, and the story will touch the heart of any dog lover.

The fourth Woodswoman book is an enjoyable addition to the series—not at the level of the first book, clearly the highest quality book of all four, not as pure to wilderness living theme as the second, but a pleasing move back up from the third in the series. We read more nature writing, more scenes such as one of a hummingbird seeking refuge from an aggressive male of its species, more scenes about loons living on the lake, more insights into the precarious tipping of the balance in human disregard for the earth. We are drawn into a thrilling adventure story in the field. We see civilization juxtaposed against nature. We are also introduced to a new friend, Albert, later revealed as Clarence Petty, a wilderness guide who really has been a woodsman all his life.

This is a fitting ending to LaBastille’s life story. If various sources hold true, she is now living under the care of health professionals, rumored to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. Tragically, she warned of this in an earlier book, when testing water samples from the lake and finding dangerously high levels of mercury and other metals, which may cause Alzheimer’s in humans. We wish her well, and thank her for the window on the natural world that she has provided.

Anne LaBastille is the author of nine books, including the Woodswoman series, and approximately 180 articles on nature and similar topics. She has worked as a wilderness guide, and has led programs to introduce women to wilderness living. She has long been dedicated to preserving the Adirondack State Park, where her wilderness journey began.




Looks Easy Enough:  A Joyful Memoir of Overcoming Disease, Divorce, and Disaster by Scott Stevenson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

ˇ         Paperback: 451 pages

ˇ         Publisher: Deadora Press (March 8, 2010)

ˇ         Price: $18.00

ˇ         ISBN-10: 0984281002

ˇ         ISBN-13: 978-0984281008



What a difference attitude makes. Author Scott Stevenson, in his narrative memoir Looks Easy Enough, tells the story of four years in his life with new wife Susan. These four years begin with the 46-year-old architect’s first marriage, preparing for an early retirement and building a dream home in Cuyamaca Woods in California—but instead of a bright and shiny dream, it all ends up something more like a nightmare. Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer; a forest fire threatens their new house; a sister requires financial and moral support through a messy divorce from an abusive husband; and the Stevenson retirement fund takes a serious hit in a stock market decline that overshadows the Great Depression.

Stevenson is anything but depressed, however. For him, this is not a nightmare as long as he steps back enough to see it as a part of the Big Picture. He calls it The Magic. He defines this as taking a positive perspective on all that happens to us in our lives as being experiences that we have chosen. We choose our experiences in order to learn lessons, all pushing us toward becoming better human beings.

New Age stuff, yes. To a degree, I follow that line of thought. We do choose a good deal of what happens to us, but I would stop at saying we choose it all. Somewhere in there, someone else’s choice overlaps. And I also believe, and have witnessed, in myself and others, that positive attitude can indeed affect outcomes and put us on a better track. Still, that’s all a little too neat and tidy for me. Positive thinkers tend to miss that so-called “negative” thinking and emotion have their place, too. Recent studies state that anger can actually work positive changes on our lives, motivate us to do better, and we all know repressed anger causes all kinds of health and emotional problems.

Personally, I believe there is time and place for the full range of emotions built into the human being, each in its own time and place, and I enjoy that people around me come in different shades of mood. Out of time and out of place, hanging out with outrageously positive people can, well, make you want to slap somebody … and yet more studies have shown that too many positive platitudes can actually undermine our making positive changes, making us feel bad about feeling bad. Sometimes feeling bad is the way to feel. At least for a while.

My little diatribe here aside, I will add only that finally learning how to express my anger after years of nice, nice, nice, can be one heck of a cleansing and growing and healing experience. It also sweeps a lot of dirt out of one’s life. It can make for powerful and positive change.

One has to admit, though, that Stevenson and his memoir, his perspective on things, is pretty irresistable. The guy really is nice. Even more, he is downright funny. Very much the kind of person you’d like to hang around, at least up until the moment you want to slap him. Lightly. Not only is he a very positive guy, but he’s a terrific writer, telling a story that is hard to put down, skillfully weaving in adventure with th suspense of a cliff hanger (that forest fire creeping ever closer to the house) and a good share of relatively pain-free moral lessons that go down with a spoonful of Stevenson sugar.

When Stevenson's wife Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer, she responds by screaming and sobbing.  Susan is an emotional woman, and she responds to all the twists and turns of her journey through breast cancer with great emotional upheaval. Her husband is the perfect antidote, as he soothes and calms her, humors and comforts her, or sometimes just serves as a loving punching bag. I’ve experienced breast and other cancers in my own family circle, and some of that has touched my personal life, too. I, too, have had that phone call from the doctor. We don’t all respond with screams and sobs, and sometimes I had to work not to lose patience with these scenes of Susan's emotional drama … but I respect that the author, her ever loving husband, does not. We all handle life differently, and perhaps that’s why I balk at all that positive thinking—it can be a narrow range of emotional response, when our bodies, our selves, sometimes do need to scream and sob. Go for it, Susan. We do what we need and must to heal ourselves.

The overall lesson here is a valuable one. Quibbles with New Age-ism aside, this memoir is uplifting and enlightening, and many of the storylines worthy of contemplation. There is the story of trust—of being able to trust one’s partner implicitly to stand alongside through the worst of the worst. There is the lesson of being open minded, always a good thing. There is the idea of alternative medicine, other ways of approaching disease in our bodies, and that it is crucial to remember that when our bodies get sick, our hearts and minds need healing, too. Sickness in one more often than not results in sickness in the other. We are all of one piece. Susan's journey through cancer illustrates how one heals best when taking the whole-self approach.

Perhaps most valuable (and fun) of all is Stevenson’s lesson that it “looks easy enough.” So often we are stopped dead in our tracks before even attempting something new because we don’t yet understand it. The unknown can be so debilitating. But Stevenson doesn’t overanalyze. He just plows ahead, taking a big thing apart into many small things, and then taking on one small thing after another, ends up building a house … and a life. Because he takes this approach to life, nothing really defeats him. Not disease, not loss of money, not a fire burning hard work down to ash. He takes the lesson each experience offers and applies it to the next life task, one little bite at a time.

With Stevenson’s story, he also manages to tell stories about family members, and not only about his wife Susan. Sister Beth has to find the courage to leave an abusive husband. Once a strong and independent woman, she has succumbed to a man who, as she puts it, “has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.” In the privacy of their home, her husband is cold and brutal, emotionally cruel to her and their children. The instant he is around others, he transforms to someone much more socially pleasing. Even her brother is fooled. Eyes opened, he helps her find the strength to fight for an independent life, taking on divorce proceedings that stretch across four years until she has finally won her freedom. Important to note what a difference it can make to someone so beaten down to have such family support as Stevenson—we should all reach out to give courage to the abused. Think of it as a matter of paying it forward.

In the end, as positive as any of us can be, we all need someone now and then to help us along when we are feeling less positive. Again and again, Stevenson lets his wife know that he can’t go it alone, and that’s important, too. Partnerships and relationships thrive when we take turns helping each other through tough times, or when we stand shoulder to shoulder to celebrate the highs even as we stand together to be a team against the lows. Looks Easy Enough is a story built on family love, and a love for life.

“Looking into Susan’s eyes, I say, ‘Babe-O, I couldn’t have built this house without you. You drove the Beast of a bulldozer, very professionally I might add, and you’ve become an expert trackhoe operator. You’ve learned how to build concrete forms, tie rebar, pour concrete, frame walls, set ceramic tile, and install a septic tank system. You’ve endured blisters, sore muscles, splinters, cold feet, poison oak, sunburn, and mosquito bites. You’ve worked when the temperature was above one hundred and in the snow and in the rain and in the wind and in the fog. And, through it all, you perservered without complaining—well, at least without too many complaints. During the process, we’ve cried, we’ve laughed, we’ve shouted in anger, we’ve worked in silence, we’ve been frustrated, and we’ve been exceedingly happy. Together we built this house, and together there isn’t anything we can’t do.” (pg. 400)

Ah yes, there it is, the full range of emotion. What matters, finally, is how one bounces back. And that one does bounce back. To do so with patience, honesty to self and others, and always integrity is key, and Stevenson’s story proves it possible. He almost makes it look easy (enough).


Woodswoman III by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


• Paperback: 250 pages
• Publisher: West of the Wind Pubns, 1997
• Price: $17.00
• ISBN-10: 0963284614
• ISBN-13: 978-0963284617

As much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series of four Woodswoman memoirs by Anne LaBastille, giving both high marks, there is a distinct dip in quality of copy in this third book. Woodswoman III is the first in the series that LaBastille has published herself, under the same name with which she refers to her wilderness cabin—West of the Wind. Indeed, a disproportionate part of this story is about her venture in self-publishing and very little about wilderness living.

The Woodswoman series is about, or described to be about, the wilderness life of Anne LaBastille, who more or less built her own log cabin in the Adirondacks after a divorce. She was in her 20s at that time, and each of the first three books spans a decade of her life, with the final installment covering five years.

For those who have read the first two, the third is hardly worth the bother. There are sections that are almost verbatim the same as in previous books. It is as if the author is running out of new things to say about living in wilderness … and, truthfully, it seems to be a bit of a stretch by now to call it wilderness. Black Bear Lake, the name the author has given the lake on which she built her cabin, is fictional in order to protect her exact location from overly curious fans. Once again, LaBastille complains about intrusions, yet on the other hand, she herself has become quite the social butterfly by this installment.

Woodswoman III is about her adventures in starting her self-publishing business, obstacles she must overcome in marketing, setting up shop in her garage—and, oh yes, she now has one! as LaBastille has purchased a second residence, a traditional farmhouse, where she seems to spend more and more of her time rather than at her wilderness cabin. It is also a story of a woman who truly loves her dogs.

Since LaBastille’s day, self-publishing has changed immensely, so her insights are no longer relevant today, if only as a kind of history as how such things were once done. So much of her time is spent making rounds of bookstores in the Adirondack and surrounding area that the reader who first read the Woodswoman books for a vicarious experience of living close to nature will have to look elsewhere for nature writing.

From an editorial standpoint, the story suffers as well. For all of the author’s complaining about difficult editors at big publishing houses, this installment could very much have used an objective editorial hand. There are typos, yes, and grammatical errors, but mostly, expert cuts would have much improved the storyline and perhaps even saved it. Like it or not, an author is one’s own worst editor. We lack the fresh eye on our own work, and we certainly lack objectivity. A persistent and committed writer might, over repeated readings, catch most errors, but those painful cuts—painful to the author only—often need to be done by another’s hand. There is a reason editors exist, and it is a good one.

Yet there are positives in this book, too. An occasional respite from her story of self-publishing reminds us of why we began reading this series in the first place. A refreshing occasional description of the wild woods, or the enchanting loons on the lake, never gets old. Her account of a camping trip with two rookie women campers is good fun. Survival of a fierce storm is exciting. And, LaBastille’s secondary storyline, about her ongoing battle to preserve the Adirondack environment, and to educate the reader about ecological matters, still shines.

Two reasons I would still recommend this book are LaBastille’s detailed descriptions of the effects of boating and other water craft on the ecological health of lakes and other bodies of water. No doubt most of us who enjoy being around water have little or no idea how much damage larger, faster boats can wreak on water and shorelines, including the wildlife that depend on that environment. Certainly I had little idea that the difference in speed and horsepower of a boat could be so detrimental. LaBastille writes about the pollution left behind by these inconsiderate boaters, but also the effects of ever larger wakes, eroding shorelines, drowning baby loons, even toppling over people in smaller boats such as canoes. There is room for compromise, as she makes clear, but her fight with big boaters on Black Bear Lake is valuable reading.

The second reason readers may enjoy this book is LaBastille’s writing about the aging woman, not just in wilderness, but in our society in general. She despises ageism, and encourages older women to embrace a healthy process of aging, rather than giving in to contemporary American society’s worshipping of youth. As a woman in my 50s, I can only applaud her views about women embracing our age, whatever it might be:

“There’s an excitement to aging. I wouldn’t go back a day. I like where I live, what I do, how I look, and what I know. The obsession with youth in our culture is sick. Over 50 and you’re ready for the ash heap. Baloney! Older women should tell people forthrightly, ‘This is what it looks like to be 57.’ (Or whatever your age is.) Let your hair go grey… Let your head be haloed with ‘silvery veils and white chiffon.’ It’s beautiful.” (page 221)

She goes on to encourage women to become environmental activists, because we are naturally nurturing, and then expands to our relationships, reminding us that we do just fine in solitude:

“Look at the facts. Older women command 60 percent of the wealth in this country. They’ve learned much and are free to study, travel, teach, and participate in anything they wish. Child-rearing is no longer a responsibility. Women live longer. Since we’re the natural care-takers in this world, I feel the greatest good that women can do is help the environmental movement. Women can save Earth’s creatures and the planet.

“To be effective, we must … stay persistent in our environmental concerns. We need to feminize ecology and bring on more grass-roots activism.

“… What about men in my life? I know and work with many. I have many close male friends. Yet the few I’ve truly loved are gone. I’m not the only woman in this situation. I scarcely know a woman over 50 who still has a man in her life. Indeed, half of all women in America over 40 live alone. Some keep looking for the right one; others don’t even want a relationship … Today, some men are angry at women and their independence. How else can we explain women being battered, gang-raped, victims of sexual harrassment in the armed forces, the workplace, everywhere? … My feeling is that every woman should have a position of power in her later years … Every woman should do something that makes her important in her eyes …” (pages 222-223)

Let the reader decide if there is reason enough to pick up this third LaBastille book. If your motives are to enjoy nature writing, it falls short. If you are seeking encouragement to be a woman who is self-reliant, in or out of a relationship, you may well find it here. If you are a diehard LaBastille fan, allow her these shortcomings and read the book anyway. Having come this far, I am reading the fourth book now. On the other hand, you may do just as well to read the first two books and hang it up there. You won’t have missed much.



Woodswoman II by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


• Paperback: 256 pages
• Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 0393320596
• ISBN-13: 978-0393320596

My last page read in Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness, I immediately picked up Woodswoman II: Beyond Black Bear Lake. This hasn’t been a story I’ve wanted to put down. Anne LaBastille’s ongoing autobiography has followed lines too closely to my “retirement” plans north to upper Michigan for me to miss, and I have found inspiration, motivation, and quite a bit of education, and not a little forewarning in reading about her experiences as a woman living alone in the woods.

This second in a series does a quick recap of how LaBastille’s adventure began. After a divorce, LaBastille decided to build her own cabin in the Adirondack wilderness, making her living as a freelance writer and ecologist. This book begins with her growing problem with intruders and overly ardent fans. With several books by now published, many articles, and an increasing number of academic lectures and speaking tours, her need for solitude and seclusion is coming under (mostly) friendly attack. Fan mail comes by the bag full, phone calls await at a neighboring camp (LaBastille’s cabin has no electricity and no phone line), and a stunning number of fans search her out in the woods, even though she has carefully avoided naming her exact location, using fictional names for landmarks and lakes. Some pursue her for years until tracking her down. LaBastille is horrified, and eventually forced into building a second, more remote cabin that she calls Thoreau II, crediting Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond.

“What do such visitors and callers hope to find when they search out the Woodswoman? I still don’t know exactly, but I’m sure America is lonely. Americans are looking for identities. They want to attach themselves to authors, singers, actors, and TV stars. These searchers have fantasies. They need to sublimate to enrich their lives. They want to talk. Many are under the impression that I have nothing to do … They don’t know about the grueling self-discipline and constant juggling of time that being a freelance writer and ecological consultant entails … As I see it, the problem is one of boundaries—the delicate line between social contact and solitude. Some people respect privacy; others don’t. Europeans seem much more courteous about such matters than Americans. By my willingness to write about my life, I’ve created a two-edged sword. My readers nourish me through sales, yet they threaten to devour me with overattention.”

LaBastille struggles to be kind and accommodating, while preserving her lifestyle and juggling her work. Finally, she must retreat. Duplicating Thoreau’s cabin, she finds a spot much deeper into the woods, much more difficult to reach, requiring treks across land as well as water, and over a couple year’s time, builds a second, much smaller cabin. This one is only about 100 square feet (the original, called West of the Wind, is around 400 square feet), the size of a walk-in closet for some, but all that she requires. She still balances time between her two cabins, depending on obligations and needs.

Another natural outgrowth of LaBastille’s life in the wilderness is her role in protecting it. Her education is in ecology (a PhD from Cornell University), and she becomes a board member of the Adirondack Park Agency, helping to regulate the goings on in the area. She watches with horror as the population around the lake grows, and with it, pollution, including noise pollution. Vehicles abound, on land and on water, and they all make a roar. Large boats toss her canoe in their wake. And all that pollution ends up in the air, too, where it becomes acid rain, coming back down to raise the pH-levels of the water and the soil. A valuable section of this book is devoted to explaining acid rain and its devastation. Lakes that appear pure are actually dead, as fish die out and plants no longer thrive. Not all of the book’s adventures take place in the Adirondacks, as LaBastille writes about trips abroad to expand her research, including a visit to the Baltic Sea. There, she learns what the Scandinavians understood long ago: acid rain is destroying even the most pristine areas, seemingly wilderness, but far from immune to the pollution produced by humankind.

Whereas this memoir begins as a love story between woman and wilderness, it now also becomes a wakeup call to its readers to be aware of what our more “civilized” lifestyles are doing to the earth that sustains us. As the author fights the good fight, she gains enemies around the lake among those who come for recreation and care little about the consequences. She finds the gas lines cut on her boat, and others threaten her. On the other hand, her efforts to protect the park from becoming a deposit area for nuclear waste are successful. One woman can indeed make a difference.

Career rising and gathering speed, LaBastille increasingly needs her time at the more remote of her two cabins. Her dog, Pitzi, is always beside her. Alas, life cycles conclude, and the death of her loyal friend is  a moving chapter. Back to fun is her introduction to a new German Sheppard pup, Condor, and later, Condor’s offspring, Chekika.

Other risks of wilderness living arise, too. No more, possibly less, than they do living anywhere else. LaBastille must deal with chemical burns to her eyes when she drops a bag of cement down too hard and raises a cloud of cement dust (this, however, leads to a pleasing and enduring romance with Doctor Mike, another independent type who is just as devoted to his medical work as she is to her ecological work). Or falling into a lake with a running chainsaw. Or new batteries, sold by mistake as the wrong size, giving out in the middle of a very dark forest, very far from home.

Along with the risks come human stories that are the same no matter where one lives: of relationships taking shape, of progressing age, and of the moment one has to say a final farewell to a dear old friend. Whether intending to or not, LaBastille makes a good argument for the individual’s right to determine one’s own death with dignity, rather than being kept indefinitely on life support. She cites her own worst nightmare as being afflicted by some progressive disease of mental deterioration, and one reads this wincing, as latest news seems to be that the author has succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.

So much more reason to live the life one chooses, fully, with gusto, holding nothing back. We only have this one, and to live it with courage, as this woodswoman does, surely makes sense in an ever more senseless world. When considering the roads not taken—of a life more conventional and traditional for contemporary women, of marriage, office career, and broods of children, LaBastille writes:

“Why do I continue to bumble through the woods at night on mushy snow? Carry impossible loads by backpack and canoe? Go for backcountry saunters rather than shopping mall sprees? Cut and split firewood instead of turning up a thermostat? Build a little cabin to write at instead of buying a condo to relax in?

Perhaps it’s because the world around me seems to be so complex and materialistic. It’s my small rebellion to keep myself in pioneerlike fitness, to promote creativity, and to maintain a sense of adventure in my life. It’s also my desire to exist in tune with sound ecological and ethical principles—that is, ‘small is beautiful,’ and ‘simplicity is best.’”


“Actually, I believe it would be much harder for a small-town woman to go to a city to pursue a career as a surgeon, TV anchorwoman, or stock analyst than to become a woodswoman. For me, the urban habitat and atmosphere would be far harder to deal with emotionally and much more dangerous physically than the wilderness … as for marriage, I don’t think it would work for me now. I’ve gradually had a 180-degree change of attitude toward matrimony. Much as I adore Mike, I enjoy being single. It feels right."

LaBastille seems to have found her niche. As long as she has her pocket of privacy and peace, she writes, she can handle whatever life hands her. I look forward eagerly to reading Woodswoman III.




Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: E.P Dutton, 1976
• Price: $16.00
• ISBN-10: 0140153349
• ISBN-13: 978-0140153347


What a comfort, as I contemplate my lifelong dream to move to a cabin in the northern woods in coming years, that another woman has done something similar in her life some decades ago, and made it work for her so well. Even as Anne LaBastille was troubled by the very same concerns and questions as I am, she found ways to overcome, do without, cope, embrace, and handle the challenges that came her way. A woman alone in the woods … how safe is she? What if she gets sick or injured? How to handle wildlife or rough weather or fire? How to handle trespassers on her property who may be inclined to hurt her? Will she be able to pay her bills as a freelance writer?

When Anne LaBastille was still a relatively young woman, her marriage ended in divorce. She had to find a place to live—quick. In two months’ time, she found a remote plot of land in the Adirondacks, and she set to work building her own log cabin. With only a bit of help in the heaviest or trickiest part of the labor, LaBastille designed and built the cabin herself in short order.

Mind you, this is no burly Amazon woman. The photos in LaBastille’s autobiography show a slender, pretty woman, deeply tanned, flannel shirt sleeves rolled up on her sinewy arms, comfortable in her jeans, hair in long braids or ponytails, chainsaw in hand. Nor is she even particularly assertive or bold. At times, she’s downright shy. She’s just a woman who is comfortable alone, knows how to take care of herself, and loves nature.

LaBastille has had a loyal following of readers ever since her series of Woodswoman books first came out, beginning in the mid 1970s. It seems while few do what she has done, many hold a dream in common about a cabin in the woods. Her cabin in the woods is quite primitive, in fact, with no electricity—she powers anything that requires power by generator or propane gas—and no running water—her baths are mostly taken skinny-dipping in the lake each morning or by heating water in a small tub on her outdoor deck—and without a flushing toilet—she uses an outhouse with a view.

The author’s style is easy and friendly, even while she makes it clear her door is not open to just anyone. She does not appreciate intruders, is wary of her fans, and has no qualms about tossing hunters off her land with a loaded shotgun. Indeed, she encourages a reputation of being called, as one of the hunters snarled at her, bitch. It helps enforce her privacy.

This is a love story of the first order. Sure, there is the romance, initially between her and her husband, who taught her to be a better camper and how to use a chainsaw, and later, there is a romance between her and a man who visits her on weekends from his life in the city. She chooses her cabin and solitude first and foremost, however, when he invites her to accompany him to Alaska, and that’s the end of that. No, the real love story here is between Anne LaBastille and the Adirondacks, between the author and a woman’s closest friend—her dog, Pitzi. No matter what conflict or friction, hurdle or challenge, or test of endurance the wilderness tosses her way, LaBastille finds a way to deal with it and emerge victorious. Mind you, she isn’t trying to beat nature at her game. LaBastille is nature’s ally, woman to woman, and her approach to the challenges of living this kind of lifestyle are respectful. She works with nature rather than against it.

The stories of her life enchant. Descriptions of the changing of seasons are beautiful, as are moments of sitting on her dock on the lake to watch a loon or an otter swim by, or hiking through mountains with her faithful canine friend alongside her. She shows the reader the beauty of her home without whitewashing the mistakes and miscalculations she makes with it. Living as she does is a constant learning process. Nor does she do entirely without the help of friends. When accidents happen, and they do happen, help finds its way to her. She knows when to accept help, and when to be stubborn and stand her ground.

About one unexpected effect of living as a woman alone in the wilderness, she writes:

“The process of learning how to cope as a woman alone had backfired to an extent. I had noticed that the more competent I became, the more insecure certain men acted, or the more aggressive others behaved toward me. It was as if their inferiority complexes were showing, as if they couldn’t stand to have a female be better at anything than they.”

To some, LaBastille may be an enigma. How can a woman be so feminine and strong at the same time? So tender in some things yet so harsh and sturdy in others? Perhaps these are questions some may ask, but I took comfort in reading about this woman who was, simply, a woman—competent, intelligent (she has a PhD), self-sufficient, strong, spirited, yet open-hearted to those who brought added meaning to her life and respect to her wild corner of the world. Her comparison between living in the wild and living in the wild city is really quite hilarious, and makes the point: choose your risks. The wilderness may be far from the scariest place a woman can live.

Added notes on ecology are a major bonus of this memoir. By living in the woods, the author learns how deeply pollution of various kinds has affected our earth. Acid rain kills off lakes until they can no longer be fished. Development efforts seem to be a constant threat. Noise pollution proves a daunting enemy. The greatest challenge LaBastille faces in her wilderness is to preserve it. This isn't just one woman's story; it's a wakeup call.

“Still the cabin is the wellspring, the source, the hub of my existence. It gives me tranquility, a closeness to nature and wildlife, good health and fitness, a sense of security, the opportunity for resourcefulness, reflection, and creative thinking. Yet my existence here has not been, and never will be, idyllic. Nature is too demanding for that. It requires a constant response to the environment. I must adapt to its changes—the seasons, the vagaries of weather, wear and tear on house and land, the physical demands of my body, the sensuous pulls on my senses. Despite these demands, I share a feeling of continuity, contentment, and oneness with the natural world, with life itself, in my surroundings of tall pines, clear lakes, flying squirrels, trailless peaks, shy deer, clean air, bullfrogs, black flies, and trilliums.”

As for me, reading LaBastille’s honest perspective on her life alone in the woods is refreshing and inspiring. I moved quickly from this book to the next one in the series, reading that one just as quickly. I can understand why she has such a following of admirers. She has lived the dream of many that very few will ever realize. She has been true to herself, and that takes courage too many lack.




The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Hardcover: 96 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 28, 2011)
  • Price: $24.95
  • ISBN-10: 0393079554
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393079555


Mushrooms and stamens and pollinating bees, all bursting from a man’s briefs … this new collection of poetry by Dorianne Laux, The Book of Men, coming out in February 2011, is as seductive and enticing a literary treat as one has come to expect from one of America’s most delicious poets. If a treatise on boys and men, men on their own, men in the poet’s life, men observed at a distance, men in the moon, then it is also very much a collection for women and by one.

Enter Sergeant Metz, first poem, and we can smell the testosterone in the air, even if it is in a coffee shop.

Metz is alive for now, standing in line
at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear
and buzz cut, his beautiful new
camel-colored suede boots. His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.

Yet for all those male hormones sweating the walls, this is a collection tender and kind, intimate and admiring. Laux discards sentimentality for the value of the true—I don’t believe in anything anymore:/god, country, money or love./All that matters to me now/is his life, the body so perfectly made—and while leaving behind the idealism of youth, of larger-than-life heroes, caresses the real person found in the detail. She values one life at a time, and perhaps that was all we were ever meant to do. Her poems sing the power of symbol, of myth, of legend and quest, of story. Her poems are the minutiae of every day, every man, every woman, every common thing, coming together to create the poetry of a life.

Life is a series of bumbling and random choices, many unknowingly made and without awareness, but all determining the entirety of what life we live. In “Late-Night TV,” Laux wonders about an infomercial, the man who is selling his wares to insomniacs, and surely he, too, is somebody to someone. She hits that raw and tender place we all have, our common wondering, why we do what we do, how it is that we end up where we are.

We know nothing of how it all works
how we end up in one bed or another,
speak one language instead of the others,
what heat draws us to our life’s work
or keeps us from a dream until it’s nothing
but a blister we scratch in our sleep.

Yet somehow it all works. Lives are lived. Some pretty glorious ones. A miracle. And that is how Laux’s poetry works: finding the glory, the miracle, in all our common little-big lives.

Among her boys and men are young rebels, misfits, imperfect heroes (are there any other kind?), the aging, with a specially moving poem written about her elderly mother, “Mother’s Day,” and tributes to poet Phillip Levine, and the moon, too, dog howling at it. She writes, too, about the question that faces men in a woman’s moment of vulnerability, in “Second Chances,” will he help her? Or will he take advantage? In our world today, the poet says in an interview with The Smoking Poet (Winter 2010-2011 Issue), it is goodness that surprises her. There is that miracle, that there are still so many who are good and do the right thing.

In that same interview, Laux says about her art, recalling a conversation with her husband, poet Joseph Millar: “We … talk of the purpose of art and poetry, and how when we read a poem or look at a painting we are led into the true intensity of life, the one right here as we walk down the street and are struck again, as if for the first time, by the changing of the leaves from green to gold, that brief glimpse into the final hallway. Maybe the purpose of art is to help us apprehend the loud silences, the shimmering depths, the small intensities of ants going about their business, tunneling out whole cities beneath our sidewalks, and awake us to the absolute mystery that is life. Art asks us to contemplate death rather than to simply imagine it or even press ourselves up against it as we do in our youth. It’s coming, no matter how fast we run from it or toward it, and art asks us to stop and confront death rather than being merely tolerant of, tempted or titillated by it.”

In “Fall,” she laments the burden of the body, this aging vehicle in which we live, and how she tires of always hearing about it … then gives it that credit due, that we need it, and glory in it, too. Her poems about Mick Jagger and Cher, those aging icons of American culture, near perfection with their mix of hero and anti-hero, beauty and deformity, the would-be and just-ain’t, accomplish the same love this, wince at that, and that's something like how it should be.

A poet is that artist who finds the voice we all keep hoping to find, framing the question we all whisper inside, touching on that nerve where we all feel raw, embracing that fear that makes us all tremble, and upholds the courage that, in our very best moments, we all hope to find. Dorianne Laux is that kind of voice—one voice that speaks into a canyon of echoes, coming back to her out of the dark, speaking for all of us.

Dorianne Laux is the author of five collections of poetry: Facts About the Moon, What We Carry, Smoke, Awake, and The Book of Men. She has been the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches at North Carolina State University and lives in Raleigh.



The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood

Edited by James Houghton, Larry Bean and Tom Matlack

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: Good Men Foundation; 1st Edition (September 8, 2009)
  • Price: $14.99
  • ISBN-10: 0615316743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0615316741


Ask most any single woman in her second half of life and she will tell you: a good man is exceedingly hard to find. So, why is that? And just what is a good man? Bad boys are for adolescent girls, for those who are yet too emotionally immature to recognize the lasting value of goodness, and yes, that goodness is about as sexy as it comes. If the good guy finishes last, it is only because once a woman meets one, she holds on. There is no need for anyone to come after him.

This collection of essays isn’t about what women think about good men, however, or how women define goodness in a man. It is about what men think about being a good man. And rightly so, because being a good man begins with the man himself, with his taking more than a moment of introspection to consider what this means. Editor James Houghton, in fact, writes that just asking the question is the seed of being a good man.

As one of the editors, Tom Matlack, states in the prologue—“manhood is at a crossroads in America.” Companion editor James Houghton writes in his prologue: “Might there be something meaningful in gathering a diverse group of men to write essays about difficult or challenging times in their lives and what they had learned from those experiences? Though I had nothing but anecdotal evidence to draw upon, it seemed that the men of our generation spend a lot of time struggling to balance the competing interests of achieving professional success and being good husbands and partners and fathers and sons. And unlike women, who are much better socialized to talk about how these same pressures affect them, we tend to keep those burdens to ourselves. While the stereotype of men retreating to their cave is not new, perhaps if a group of men wrote compelling, well-crafted stories about their lives, other men might recognize a little of themselves in those stories and take comfort in their shared humanity.”

Houghton goes on to say that the book was turned down by some 50 publishers, mainly for the reason that none of them believed men were interested in reading a book written by other men. Sad. One does wonder what the readership demographic might be, male or female, but in the end, it probably matters little. Asking the question seems an excellent beginning, and that these three editors have started this ball rolling can only be commended. It begins with a thought.

The book is divided into four sections. Essays are grouped under Fathers, Sons, Husbands, and Workers. It is a grouping as good as any, I suppose, although Husbands might have been widened to include mates of all kinds and not just spouses. Heck, there are times that a woman’s best friend is an ex-spouse. Indeed, a section simply entitled Friends might have opened up an interesting door. Personally, I can vouch for finding the most good men under this category.

Reading through this collection of essays, the level of quality in story and style is as changeable as one might expect with so many different authors. Some stories will engage more than others. In many, the concept of goodness is self-evident, while others can leave the reader wondering … where was the goodness in this dude? Out of the four sections, Husbands seems the weakest, while Fathers and Sons dig the deepest into male emotion. These appear to be the roles that touch men the most, and at opposing arcs of the same cycle, being sons and becoming fathers. One suspects that for many men, becoming a father is the one time that society accepts softness, even tears, and a gentle touch without questioning masculinity. Becoming a father does seem to bring out the very best in many men, and society sanctions this, making it easier to be a good man in this category.

Notable are several essays that explore the equation we seem to almost force on boys and men—that of aggression going hand-in-hand with masculinity. Authors Steve Almond and Kent George explore the expectation of aggression in boys and men, and what’s a gentler soul to do? A good man surely asks if there is a better way to solve problems or to succeed in life than by the use of fists (and warfare).

Author John Sheehy writes about being able to say and mean the words “I love you,” and writes convincingly about how difficult it is for a man to do so, in this case, to his father. It is a moving piece.

Then, there are some essays that leave one wondering, huh? How is this relevant? Jesse Kornbluth’s “Sex and Drugs Made Me a Man” is a puzzling essay about sex and drugs that fit more of the male stereotype than not, and what any of his sex and drug experience, wounding more than healing, has to do with being a good man, well, who knows. Essays by Cary Wong and Regie O’Hare Gibson also leave one shrugging. Well enough written, but seem to be more padding for space than about good men.

Yet there are those golden stars in the collection, too. “Blood-Spattered” by Julio Medina is worth the price of the book—which, by the way, is donating proceeds from book sales to organizations helping at-risk boys. Medina writes with raw honesty about his life in prison. He is as hard as men get, tough and gritty-hearted, afraid of nothing, if perhaps only the brutality of fellow convicts. But then, not even that. Watching a fellow convict go down in a prison fight, instead of walking by to preserve his own safety under that code of prisoners, Medina stops to help. The result of that moment is a metamorphosis of a bad man into a good man, of a heart that had its goodness hidden under many layers of scarring into the heart of a hero. One moment became a life cause, and Julio Medina today leads an organization, Exodus Transitional Community, helping inmates transition back into good men.  I spent some time exploring his site, and thought that the next book I would like to read on this topic of good men might very well be an autobiography of Julio Medina.

All in all, this is a good book asking a good question and written by more than a few good men. It’s a good start, and we can only hope that good men will find themselves ever more appreciated in a society that, as Matlack observes, is at a crossroads for men seeking guidelines for how to live lives that matter.


To learn more about The Good Men Project, read The Smoking Poet's A Good Cause.



Cērt Zibens Marmalē (Lightning Strikes the Sea) by Laimdota Sēle


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


ˇ         Hardcover: 304 pages

ˇ         Language: Latvian

ˇ         Publisher: Vara Vīksna

ˇ         Price: 5-8 Ls (approx. $16 USD)

ˇ         ISBN: 978-9984-9959-7-7



I will declare my bias right here, right now, as much as it stands—I adore the author of this Latvian novel. Laimdota Sēle and I may not be blood sisters, and yet, we are, by another measure, just that—sisters in blood, sharing a common ancestral line, and also kindred spirits, bonded by shared experience and common perspectives on life. We are both Latvian, only Laimdota Sēle was born and still lives in Ventspils, Latvia, while my family has deep roots in this Baltic Sea port city, even while no longer living there. It is a place where I feel at home, and nowhere more so than when I have visited Laimdota in her home there. Some of my happiest memories …


My confession on record, I can now address her newest novel, written in the Latvian language, Cērt Zibens Marmalē, or Lightning Strikes the Sea. Alas, not yet translated into English, and may not be, due to its historic nature and usage of historic language that is impossible to translate accurately. That said, a good book is a good book is a good book. And since this is far from this author’s only work, others being far more translatable (and who knows, I may take on one of them myself!), I felt she deserves a larger and brighter stage, one that goes beyond the borders of this small Baltic country.


Sēle is a historian by training, a journalist by experience, and an accomplished poet and novelist.  In my interview with her in the Winter 2010-2011 Issue of The Smoking Poet, she speaks about her transition from journalism to creative writing, first with poetry, then increasingly into historic novels, occasionally even taking on time travel themes with a taste of science fiction. Indeed, she is currently at work on the second part of her first novel, Spoguļa Pārbaude (A Test of Mirrors).


Lightning Strikes the Sea is a historical novel, blending 14th century history with a love story that transcends time. The setting is the author’s hometown of Ventspils, and to reconstruct it with meticulous accuracy for that time period, she first spent years in research, even participating in archaeological digs, studying artifacts as well as language, culture, lifestyle, cultural norms. Dialogue in the book is from the 14th century, yet clear enough to the contemporary reader to read with ease (glossary included), and earned the author accolades from linguists for its precision.


The scene opens with a youth named Tomass traveling to Wyndow (modern day Ventspils) to seek adventure. He is stunned to see a young woman, typical enough for the time and place, but otherwise extraordinary. Nothing coy about her, she rides a horse with the skill of a man, her lush locks flying freely about her shoulders, her beautiful dress, shorter than most for ease of riding, hung heavy with silver jewelry and nuggets of amber. He is stunned, because most women that he has seen are much more subdued in appearance. Women were considered little short of evil, vehicles of seduction and leading only to a man’s downfall, and so limbs were carefully hidden, hair braided or covered, and certainly they did not bound about freely on horseback. Tomass is stricken … with awe that soon turns into love.


No good story is without its conflict and plot twists, and Sēle tosses in plenty as the romance unfolds. There is the fear of being ostracized as a man from foreign lands, of course, and Tomass worries about his reception among his beloved Ralda’s family, especially her stern and powerful father, and her village folk. Other plot twists complicate the story, too, as a jealous old knight eyes the young maiden with lust in his eye. There is thievery, murder, deception, and in place of modern day car chases for high adventure—high speed horse races, capes flying in the wind and armor rattling against sword blade.   


This is a history lesson at its best; one learns about a country and town more ancient than most in existence today, and does so without sweating the classroom grade. This story is sheer fun, yet a stroll through time, where the eye can hardly take in all the beauty of a period when much was simpler, cleaner, and a man’s honor was still his most prized possession.


Sēle is known in her country as someone who weaves irresistible tales, publishing novels in chapters in her local paper that entice readers to ring her up on her telephone, begging for previews of what happens next. God forbid they miss a paper. This novel, however, is one to treasure for history buffs as well as lovers of lush stories, for those who enjoy rich language and those who swoon at blushing romance. It is rare to combine all these elements into one work, but Sēle has done so with success.


Adding to the enjoyment of the book are fine illustrations by the author’s son, Ansis Sēlis-Sviriŋš, also a history buff. Each illustration precedes a chapter, a Gothic window opening to the scene about to be revealed in the following lines … each one is worthy of its own frame.


The entire effect is enough to make one want to learn to read Latvian if one doesn't already. For me, the effect was that I found myself wanting to learn more about the history of my ancestors in this same area, one I recently visited and long to visit again. The future opens brightest when we have a sound understanding of that place from whence we came …


Read about Laimdota Sēle as she talks to our editor-in-chief.                    




Well Deserved by Michael Loyd Gray

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

ˇ         Paperback: 246 pages

ˇ         Publisher: Sol Books (June 30, 2009)

ˇ         Price: $14.95

ˇ         ISBN-10: 0979308178

ˇ         ISBN-13: 978-0979308178



There are four of them, four characters with four separate voices telling the story of the fifth character that is the place itself—the fictional small town of Argus, Illinois. In slow circles, author Michael Loyd Gray closes in on his tale of Jessie, the small-time dealer living on the outskirts of town in his trailer; Raul, who calls himself that, but is really Dominick, a vet recently returned from Vietnam and not quite fitting in as yet; Nicole, the young clerk in the grocery store, fresh out of high school and looking a little like Cher and not particularly appreciative of the attention that earns her; and Art, the town sheriff, keeping an alert eye on all of them, sizing them up.

Gray maintains an easy pace throughout, somehow managing to make the reader feel that even when all culminates in a short gun battle, that we are watching slow-motion action. It’s an interesting feat. It is what makes the town of Argus come alive with its own presence, its own pace, its own turning axis. Argus is a town removed, the sort of place where everyone seems to hanker to leave, yet few do. And some come back.

A Pabst beer can pops open, a campfire crackles beside a lake, a trailer lights up in the night like a lone beacon, a sheriff leans against his patrol car and watches, watches. It’s like that. That slow, but never dull. Gray tosses in just enough spice, with perfect timing, to keep interest at a slow simmer. He dabs in color for one character and then moves to the next, but the switch is always smooth. Gradually, the characters intertwine, bump a little off each other, develop bonds, share a dream or two, pass a toke, become partners in crime. Something is about to happen, but we almost don’t care, much, when or how or what. We are just along for that smooth and entertaining ride, sitting by that same campfire and taking a swig.

All that easiness doesn’t mean these characters don’t go deep. Each has his or her own scars and frustrations, a few old ghosts and fears to overcome. As the moment of culmination arrives, the reader will wonder if we will have one or two fewer characters left alive. No spoilers here. But the bit of a twist, the almost gentle surprise, is pleasing and feels just right.

Gray lets us see deeper into the fiber of sheriff Art this way:

“The memory of that night in the Chicago alley came back to him again and in his head he again saw the muzzle flash and felt the sting of the grazing bullet. It came to him in slow motion. He sweated and his forehead itched. He scratched it with the back of a hand and peeked again across the creek. Nothing moved in the grove. There wasn’t even a breeze to stir the bushes. He wondered what the man was thinking. What was his plan? He hadn’t fired a shot yet. Maybe that was good. Something to build on. Art was thankful there had been no wild gunplay when he pulled into the lot. The man seemed more interested in just getting away. .. Art didn’t know the circumstances. He didn’t know shit about the man or anything about why it happened. He was working blind in the bush. He had a stray thought of Raul in Vietnam, working the bush and trying not to get shot, but looking for someone to shoot—to kill. He wondered if Raul had killed anyone. The Viet Cong. Was that the tick under his skin fueling his drift, his barely-concealed confusion? Or maybe he had killed but didn’t know it. Those fire fights could be distant, men dying without their killers ever knowing.

If Art killed today he would know it.”

Michael Loyd Gray is the winner of the 2005 Alligator Juniper Fiction Prize, the 2005 The Writers Place Award for Fiction, and his novel December’s Children was a finalist for the Sol Books Prose Series Prize. Gray is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Western Michigan University. He worked as a newspaper staff writer in Arizona and Illinois, taught in colleges and universities in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and Georgia. He now lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Gray talks to The Smoking Poet about his work on Well Deserved as well as his other novels. Don’t miss it. It’s slow and easy and simmers all the way to the end.




Stains, poetry by Lori A. May

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

(Reprinted from The Smoking Poet, Fall 2009)

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

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

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

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

ribbons choke
my throat
sucking me into
pink taffeta

polished shoes
reflecting up my skirt

stockings laced
with innocent flowers
halting personality
with itchy fabric

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

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

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

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

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

The Smoking Poet talks to Lori A. May in this issue.



Musical Chairs by Jen Knox

Book Review by Zinta Aistars




ˇ         Paperback: 184 pages

ˇ         Publisher: All Things That Matter Press, 2009

ˇ         Price: $16.99

ˇ         ISBN-10: 0984259422

ˇ         ISBN-13: 978-0984259427


Musical Chairs is the gritty memoir of a smart young woman, Jen Knox, who fell into the life of a stripper. This is not polished writing, but it is what it tells—stripped down to the bone and honest. The author has not tried to present herself in the best light or to make excuses. She looks in the mirror long and hard.

It may be that there is nothing very new here that we haven’t heard before. A girl grows up in a rather unorthodox family, deeply dysfunctional, ending with divorce. There is alcohol and there are drugs, and there is also a family history of mental illness. But young Jen is sharp, and she has a strong independent streak. In a fight with her father, still a teenager, she takes up his dare and walks out into the streets with no place to go. A junkie boyfriend takes her in with his father in the background, a porn fiend and alcoholic, who tries to rape Jen when the son is out of the house. What you have here is the perfect recipe for disaster. Indeed, that is what this scenario produces.

Knox stumbles onto an ad for a job—dancers wanted, no experience needed—and all seems too easy. Big money for almost nothing. All she has to do is move her body around on a stage in a sleazy night club and take her clothes off. If there is anything new in this story for which probably most readers already see the ending, it is that this is Knox’s story. As much as we are all unique individuals, we clearly hear the voice of the author throughout—and every story honestly told is worth telling. Indeed, at a time when the use of pornography in the United States is at an all-time high, it is a story that should be told, and heard, and understood, many times over—until it registers.

Knox describes her experience on the stage, never done sober, as none of the women who strip ever do their job sober. She describes the discomfort, the fear, the exploitation of both the women and the men, one of the other. She describes the lies told and accepted, the masks worn, the hidden agendas, the false fantasies. She describes the pimps, the rivalries between strippers, the crime, the escalating addictions. She describes her own alcoholism, encouraged by her boss as he pours hard liquor down her throat to get her to dance. It’s an ugly world and Knox puts it straight into the spotlight, unwrapping the truth from the center pole. On the stage, Knox looks down at the drooling faces and begins to understand her degree of control:

“Take it off, sexy lady!”

These words hit me like a slap to the face. I looked down into the man’s eyes, his eyes on my chest. I wondered why. I took my hand and followed his gaze with my fingers. I touched the buttons on my shirt; I undid them one at a time until my pretty black bra was exposed… I looked at him, realizing that I controlled his eyes now.”(Page 81)

As her career as a stripper progresses, Knox, already lying about her age, continues to feel more and more disconnected. She collects her cash and closes the door in her mind against what it took from her to earn it. In her personal life, the degree to which she allows herself to be abused seems to rise in unison with the abuse in her work, including brutal beatings, sometimes at the hands of other strippers.

“Each day, girls arrived at all times in the late afternoon, making their way, one by one, into the dressing room for our ritualistic transformation. Glitter and powder designed to lighten or color, conceal or contour, was shared and traded, becoming community property in our dressing room. We took such care to exhibit our faces; girls, women: our faces were the focus of that dressing room yet they only ever earned a passing glance from customers as our bodies shifted and twisted onstage.

“We knew that sexuality was expressed through the eyes and mouth, but our variety of salesmanship was less nuanced; our product was vulnerability, nakedness, false promise of sexual conquest. Yet, we spent hours in front of the mirrors smoking, doing lines, gossiping, speculating, all while constructing our masks with care and precision.” (Page 84)

In retrospect as a more mature woman, Jen Knox contemplates her reasoning, realizing there was little when she was so young and vulnerable. She cites curiosity and confusion. Not the low self-esteem or daddy issues or too much television, but a need to be seen. Her writing now, the author says, is a continuation of that need to be seen, heard, defined, even criticized, as long as she is not invisible.

“I felt empowered, and I got lost in the mystery of the dance: its freedom of movement and rhythm; its ability to maintain attention, to communicate to the audience. I expressed myself on stage and felt my femininity rise from a stifled place inside me. My dancing became almost a form of meditation. Until, that is, I looked down at the equally meditative glances from below. The audiences sickened me.” (Page 86)

The other strippers warn her that she, like them, will grow to hate men. Hatred and fear seem to be constant companions on the stage. The disconnect between the person and the actions becomes wider and wider. The disconnect between Knox from herself seems to widen as well. This is a world in which human beings can function only with compartmentalized hearts and minds.

To preserve the mask and keep the walls in place, Knox talks about the rules of that dark world. Strippers never date customers, never give out phone numbers, and when asked for their real names, apparently some use several, none of which are real. Many of the customers, Knox writes, have the ultimate male fantasy of making a stripper a “community service project,” saving the stripper from herself, making her into a girlfriend and getting her on track to a better life. To the strippers, Knox states, these misguided men are the “creepier, disillusioned type,” craving to become heroes.

When a boyfriend later tells Knox, upon learning about her past, that she is his “dream girl with a sultry, sexy side,” Knox responds:

“Stripping isn’t sexy, it’s a business. It’s dirty, gritty, capitalist exploitation.” (Page 152)

Eventually, Knox ends her career. Maturity is a factor, family rebonding, even if with dysfunctional members, rehab centers, treatment for increasing panic attacks that she experiences, all push her out of the business. While her life as a stripper takes center stage in this memoir, there are other storylines here that are also worthy of note. Courage in one area of her life opens up connections to other areas of her life.

Just as she increasingly shut down before, Knox gradually opens up again to herself and others. She eventually is able to establish a good relationship with a young man, whom she later marries, and she finds ways to cope with her family. One can’t help but admire that kind of courage. There may be no greater feat in life to accomplish than looking into a mirror without a mask on, and Knox finally does just this. She finds that courage when women try to exploit her just as men have, trying to make her into their personal good deed, a misconstrued altruism, infuriated when she has no wish to accept it. Knox is perfectly capable of being her own hero, to save herself. She reconciles with family, she goes to college and earns a degree. She is well on her way to developing herself as a writer, and indeed, by end of book, the writing has achieved a higher polish, as if in line with the stripper reentering the light.

Knox’s story is raw, and the writing, too, at times, is raw, but her talent to tell a story is evident. Today, Knox is an editor for a literary magazine and is working on a novel. Unsurprisingly, she is excellent at marketing herself, turning her early skills into positive ones. If her need is to be seen and acknowledged, may she be seen and acknowledged, for the story she is willing to tell is worth hearing.




Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

ˇ         Paperback: 256 pages

ˇ         Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (May 30, 2006)

ˇ         Price: $15.99

ˇ         ISBN-10: 0061120065

ˇ         ISBN-13: 978-0061120060


From time to time, I come across a book that makes me moan for all the good reviews I’ve written, rows of stars and high marks I’ve given, because now I need more and they’ve all been used up for lesser work. More stars, more high marks, needed here. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is such a book. And I knew it the moment I opened it to the first page, the first line, that I had come across an author of extraordinary mastery of her art.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

That much, and my rear is planted firmly in favorite reading seat, and I am wide-eyed and ready for the reading long haul. I am intrigued, too, by the history of the author, a black woman (1891-1960) who received very little recognition in her day, but only much later, around the 50th anniversary of this work that was originally published in 1937, receiving the recognition she so richly deserved. Alas, post mortem. That she is a woman and that she is black no doubt contributed to this lack of recognition (although I understand some of her greatest critics came from her own race), and it seems only right that she was brought into the light, rediscovered in 1975, by another black woman, Alice Walker. The novel is now considered a classic in black literature, and I can attest to my years of working in academia, that this book was a regular in literature classes. Too often, substandard books are presented in the classroom as worthy reading (even as educational achievement levels continue to drop), but with Hurston, any student will find much to learn—about literature, about life.

One of the criticisms of Hurston in her day was that she wrote about blacks as a separate people in a separate world, and in this novel, too, we are introduced to a black cast in a black town, and there are very nearly no white faces on this stage anywhere. Unrealistic? Perhaps. Yet I come from a small ethnic group, too, and even while surrounded by masses of others, I can agree that we in our group can become at least temporarily blind to others around us, creating our own world, our own dynamics, relating in our own manner. I had no trouble accepting her all black town, her all black world.

Hurston’s literary style is, no better way to put it, feminine. I mean that in its very best measure: beautiful, highly sensitive, deeply emotional, bolstered with a quiet strength and steely endurance. She notes the detail in everything, and holding that detail up to light, her writing comes alive and off the page. She doesn’t just tell her story. She points out lessons of life, goes deep with introspection, and with a few deft strokes, paints a picture that moves the reader to become someone else than before reading the book.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford, a memorable young black woman who is somehow always a little apart from what is going on around her. She accepts what she must, but is quickly convinced to break rules and shake taboos to move toward something better. Her story is one of ostracism even among her own, because she isn’t willing to roll over and give in, and because she is striking in appearance. Jealousy brings out the uglier traits in lesser sorts. She is not only a dreamer, but a thinker, and so she rolls ideas around in her head until she comes up with answers, or is at least ready to hunt them down.

Idealists like that will get their hearts knocked up and broken, and so does Janie hers. She assumes the best, and is married, as women then had no other choice. She expects to be loved, and for a short while, she seems to be. Turns out something less than love, however, and she submits to humiliation, to verbal abuse, even the occasional beating, but with spirit remaining strong if hidden inside. This is no weak woman. A strong woman is sometimes silent. A strong woman sometimes submits to abuse, bows her head to it, hopes for the best, works to keep love alive, but when it does not, she still walks away whole, if bruised and wiser.

Burying one husband, a man who seemed good and honest at first, but turned out to be abusive with the passage of time, Janie “irons her face” to show the proper emotion, suitable for public viewing. Hurston describes her heroine’s vow to remain alone now that she is free, yet over time, knowing an occasional longing again for good company. Janie contemplates the nature of love, and that most people don't really love at all, but emote something else that is more about control, jealousy, projection of one's own ills and hidden fears. A grandmother that was overprotective, for instance, didn't really love her at all, because love would have encouraged Janie to see a broader horizon for herself. It is a strong example of Hurston’s skill at bringing her character to life:

“Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there at the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. She asked if she wanted to leave and go back where she had come from and try to find her mother. Maybe tend her grandmother’s grave. Sort of look over the old stomping ground generally. Digging around inside herself like that she found that she had no interest in that seldom-seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.  But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way behind you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time. She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into a million pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

For Janie, there is more than one love story, but only one real love. When she meets a man called Tea Cake, something of a rule breaker himself, the best in her surfaces for good. She finds a reflected shine. He may not suit the ideas of others of a good man—he’s something of a gambler, a wanderer, a dreamer, too—but he’s a mirror reflection of Janie. Their story is a thing of beauty, right to a heartbreaking ending, with the right measure of grit, not one grain too sweet.

Enriching the story are portraits of others, those who share the same skin color yet are racists against their own race, and portraits of gossips, cheaters, thieves, and generally broken souls. Yet it is those that shine and hum that become most memorable to the reader—the true friends, the quiet heroes who choose integrity over ease, and the hearts that know mercy.

Hurston is a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful observer of human nature. Intertwining the two, her work becomes art. Sidenote, that I saw the movie years ago, quickly forgot it, and was generally unmoved by it. This story is meant to be read, not viewed, because it is Hurston's use of language that creates the masterpiece.




The Merry Baker of Rīga: An American Entrepreneur Ventures into Eastern Europe by Boris Zemtzov

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford Oak Press (March 10, 2004)
  • Price: $14.95
  • ISBN-10: 0974711608
  • ISBN-13: 978-0974711607


Scanning my bookshelves for a good book to take along on my recent trip overseas to Latvia, I came across Zemtzov’s The Merry Baker of Rīga. Perfect! I’d been meaning to read the book for some time, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Reading it while on the long plane ride over the ocean, to land in the Rīga airport, seemed a propos.

Settling into my seat on the jet after takeoff, I reread the book cover for the setting: “Mix one American expatriate, ‘inherited’ managers, Soviet-trained bakers, and a Danish baking instructor with an Irish accent. Blend in the collapse of the Soviet legal system, derelicts that heave bricks through windows for sport, and mafiya racketeers. Put them all together into a decrepit bakery plant, and you’ll have just a taste of what lies between the pages of Boris Zemtzov’s charming new travelogue…”

I had spent some time in the Soviet Union, and my ethnic roots are Latvian—I’d been to Rīga, and to other parts of Latvia, too many times to count. I began to read with great interest. Would this Russian-American businessman’s perspective be accurate? Or was this just going to be a parody of Soviet Latvia in its first couple years of shaking off its Soviet yoke?

Well, both. Zemtzov drew me in quickly and easily. He has a comic flair, and he does not spare himself in his memoir of starting up a bakery in Latvia. As in any comedy, there is the occasional exaggeration, coloring a little past the lines, but Zemtzov usually resists going too far. I admit to wincing from time to time in my reading. After all, not all that he had to say about Latvia and Latvians was especially kind. But it was (sigh), accurate enough for life in Riga just after Soviet rule (and not just the legal system) ended. I couldn’t argue with him nearly as often as I wished I could. He was painfully on target. I winced, and then, l had to laugh.

One can drive the oppressors from one’s land, but some 51 years of occupation had undeniably affected the Latvian mindset, societal values or lack of, and general social behavior. When Zemtzov jumps through hoops to open up a business in Riga, he hires several Latvians to work for him. Others come with the package deal, something that is a part of the negotiations in the almost surrealistic Soviet-style world of business dealings, based more on bribes and under-the-table dealings than the more westernized style of “may the best man/woman win.” Yet that is also what gives Zemtzov’s account its frequent hilarity. It hurts to laugh, but the laughs are real.

Zemtzov is bound and determined to succeed with his bakery business, prompted in great part by the fact that he has fallen in love with a Latvian woman named Inge, whom he eventually marries. When the story is not about the antics in the bakery, it is about the new family, for Inge has two children from a previous marriage, Markus and Eliza. Two cultures clash in family interactions and everyday chores of taking out the garbage and dealing with juvenile discipline, or attempting to celebrate their first Christmas after living under Soviet rule, when celebrating Christmas was forbidden. Not the least interesting part of the book is how the family finds, negotiates, and finally moves into an apartment.

A moment of red-faced embarrassment for the western cultures in this story is when American businessmen come to Latvia’s famed Dziesmu Svētki, the national song festival, to sell their wares. There is a lesson here for anyone crossing from one culture to another: never assume. The western businessmen want to treat the event like a sports game, setting up booths and marketing their goods in every aisle, like calling out Hot dogs! Peanuts! at a baseball game. But the song festival, as Zemtzov points out, is no sports event or rave concert to the Latvian nation. It has a sacred air to it, and woe to the businessman who does not respect it as such. In this, Zemtzov’s book is a strong reminder of the need to take the time to understand cultural differences when doing business in another country.

The book takes the reader through endless adventure—the circus of doing business within the echoes of Soviet-style thinking; dealing with employee theft; handling Russian mafia extortion attempts and becoming part of a failed sting operation; trying out new recipes with a comic series of failures; eradicating rats in the bakery when a good old tomcat would do; an electrician gone haywire; buying black market gas for deliveries on the side of the highway, and many, many more. Zemtzov turns all into black comedy. Black and white photos add visual interest. Footnotes to explain the vastly un-American are helpful. And, as I continued to read the book during my stay in Latvia, the occasional interesting factoid or bit of trivia was fun, too.

I found myself recommending the book to several others who are familiar with both American and Latvian cultures. I always did so, however, with a firm addendum: this is NOT how Latvia is today. Had I not been familiar with Latvia, and a Latvian myself, I might have been frightened off from taking a trip to Rīga. Funny as some of Zemtzov’s story is, it can also be an intimidating if not downright horrific illustration of that time period. I wanted everyone to know to whom I suggested the book that it was to be read as a story of Latvia when still in the leftover dregs of Soviet occupation. Let’s just say … we’ve come a long, long way since then. Thank goodness.



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