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Forms of Intercession: Poems by Jayne Pupek


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·        Perfect Paperback: 102 pages

·        Publisher: Mayapple Press, 2008

·        Language: English

·        ISBN-10: 0932412599

·        ISBN-13: 978-0932412591



Sledgehammer or tissue, choose your weapon, but you’ll need one of these, and possibly both, when reading Jayne Pupek’s nearly one hundred poems in this debut collection. Most explore and reflect a woman’s survival in a battering world, poems that will make you ache and sometimes want to inflict ache. This is the poetry of rage and suffering, of a woman who has had all that a man’s world can thrust upon her and yet survive. Here is the abuse, the battering of both body and mind, the diseases that afflict flesh and spirit alike. Take it in small doses. You won’t be able to take more than that in one sitting.


But you should. Take more than one sitting, curl up on the floor in a fetal position if you must, but if I learned about a year ago from Jayne Pupek’s Tomato Girl, a novel about the horrific abuse of a child, that she knows, oh she knows, and her mission is to make you know—well, then, take your medicine. It will sting. It will burn all the way down. But not all in life is butterflies and smelly roses. Far too much of it is this: the cruelty to which children and women are subjected in a multitude of ways. And know this—that such things will not go away of their own accord. Silence only empowers abuse and protects the abuser. Pupek’s subject matter may be difficult to read and contemplate, but it is necessary and it is good.


And I do mean good. Not all novelists can be poets, but I would venture to say Pupek is even stronger in this medium. Each one is a therapy session, a rant that is horrific yet somehow astoundingly beautiful at once. She captures it all, the agony and the ability to overcome.  These girls and women may be ground to dust, but they do rise up again. They fight back (most if not all), claim their own ground, stronger than ever, independent and feisty to the core.


At forty-three, I’m too old to wait on a redeemer,

sometimes you must intercede on your own behalf.

I’m spreading tarot cards on the ground

and tossing out the ones that land upside down.




I crush bodies, shove my tongue into their mouths,

don’t let them go until they promise blue skies.


Or here, the woman with an unfaithful lover who has learned to pick her battles:


…My lover snoozes upstairs,

dreaming of red-eyed women with iridescent nipples


and thread-thin appendages kneading his oily back.

Why disturb him? I’m a woman who asks nothing,


a woman with a knack for surviving godless nights.


Even as she “asks nothing,” however, Pupek shames the woman for giving in to what’s given her, and observes in a museum of natural history with undisguised disdain:


Homo erectus, female,

bending on hands and knees

displays her species’ ineptitude.


Not all is forgivable. In these poems of suffering and survival, Pupek stretches the limits of endurance—incest, beatings, rape, emotional and psychological battering, suicide—and finds the boundaries.


You keep stepping on the cracks.

How much more can your mother take?

Already her spine is twenty times split,

one for each of your mistakes.


Sometimes there is no absolution.

Scrape the onions off the bread and keep going.

You do what comes next, no matter how ordinary.


What if? Pupek asks in the middle section of this collection. Here we find the occasional moment of loving tenderness, although often it is found between women and not with the opposite gender. These are moments when one comes up above water, gasps for air, and goes down deep again.


What if stars aren’t real,

but another of God’s parlor tricks,

a handful of jacks pulled from black pockets

and tossed into random skies?


What if your hand on her thigh

means you never loved me…


So simply, so simply Pupek captures the torment of the betrayed woman, who then questions life itself, and God, having to endure as he did.


And here’s my Christ-walk on water

stepping over your sea of dirty pictures

where oily stains and bent pages

mark the ones you doggy-fuck in dreams.


She meant nothing is the declaration of a man

born with weak knees and no story.

I can’t be distracted. Are you paying attention?

Let me hold your dim eyes and hollow ear

until I cross the threshold and close the door.


Pupek follows the path of the woman who leaves and the initial fall into loneliness and apathy. Her words knife and nail these feelings with accuracy.


Apathy is dried mustard on last night’s dinner plate.


Loneliness is a fever, igniting the hands and loins.

A woman can get scorched that way.


Dive deeper still, and you find poems about beaten women birthing stillborn children, or women who fall into such despair that they kill their own babes as if in this way alone can they be saved from such a world.


No, this was not easy reading. This was a slim book from which I had to walk away many times. Put it aside so that I could read another. Each time it drew me back, however, haunted me, because too, too many of my gender carry these scars on our own hides and in our own hearts.


Pupek will not leave you without hope. Through this all, this beautifully described ugliness, is truth, and in truth is always something golden: hope for change. Once understood, we can also see the ability to change and live otherwise. In her final poem, she offers this sliver of endurance, even if only on a cellular level:


Still we go on,

because it is in us, the need for continuance,

that sliver of persistence inside every cell.


This is undeniably a collection of poetry that requires courage to read. The poet’s artistry exposes what we do not want to see, yet must. There is no other way out but through the fire of understanding. 




Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 384 pages

·         Publisher: Counterpoint; First Trade Paper Edition, 2009

·         Price: $14.95

·         ISBN-10: 1582434808

·         ISBN-13: 978-1582434803


You’ve heard it said, “hurts so good.” About the writing style of Elizabeth Hay, I can say: cuts so soft. Her words, her turn of phrase, her sweet sentence construction, it is as precise and expertly sculpted as with a sculptor’s chisel or a surgeon’s scalpel. Yet soft. The sharpest knife enters your flesh with hardly more than a red line—and finds its target. The heart. The reader’s mind. There are no ragged edges here.


The setting for this novel intrigued me right away. The book was a choice in my book club, recently joined, and I thrilled to the story description of northern wild, a small group of misfits who broadcast from a radio station in a town called Yellowknife, where there is nothing but radio.


I was suddenly back in my days of traveling northern Canada and Alaska, and listening to a voice on the radio, passing messages from friend to friend, husband telling wife he would be home late, George telling Harry that the part he needs for his truck has arrived, and hello! Shirley’s baby is born!


Late Nights on Air has more sophistication than that, and this group of radio broadcasters and technicians and managers bring with them more than just the drama that flies over the air. There is also the air between them. And their love of the clean air about them. But at the same time, there is that intimacy of community, of strangers connecting by bond of shared humanity. Late Nights on Air is love story of the misfit, love story of the northern wild, love story of life, lived however we manage.  And like all love stories, these loves, too, die, except, perhaps, the one for the open wild.


A proposed gasline runs through the story like a guideline of place to cut. Hay makes the incision cleanly, and from this opened place emerge the voices of the town, those who have come to it because they found they did not belong anywhere else, and those who belong there root and soul and have so through ancestry. What we see in that opened place is the wilderness inside a man’s, a woman’s heart, and also the stunning wilderness of northern Canada, in this town called Yellowknife and far beyond. It is a cruel yet beautiful world, and we are spared neither cruelty or beauty.


Such fine lines Hay writes:


“…her voice sounded like a tarnished silver spoon…”


“…in the free and easy woods of herself…”


“…constant light was like endless caffeine…”


“…she seems to want to erase herself…”


“At stake was something immense, all the forms of life that lay in the path of a natural gas pipeline corridor that would rip open the Arctic, according to critics, like a razor slashing the face of Mona Lisa.”


“The girl had laced up the soft shoe of her voice.”


“Dido had a vibrancy about her, like a watered plant after a drought.”


“Such a lot to unpack from that slender gift of a sentence.”


“…in the wind their voices tore like fabric…”


“And the thought came to him that it wasn’t just one person who had died, but all the filaments of life connecting that person to everyone he’d ever known and to every place he’d ever been.”


“The sight of her did something to his heart. He felt its exact location and entire size inside his chest.”


And there, she’s done it, Hay has done it: thrown away all the excess, trimmed away all the fat, and left the words that describe a moment, a sensation, an image, a life exactly. She has even done the remarkable, passed my personal test of expert word artist, and written both one of the best love scenes I’ve read in many years (and not one thing graphic or crude about it), and later, one of the most profound breaking up scenes I have ever read (and not one thing graphic or crude about it, either). Add for frosting on this Arctic ice cake one of the most memorable death scenes I’ve encountered on written page, without a single note of melodrama about it. These are typically the scenes where even the best writers fall into muck. Where even the best writers die, impaled on a cliché. Hay shines.


These human lives tangle and untangle, and they tangle, too, into the wild around them, and there is great sacrifice, yet also great humanity. Not in the deeds marked by medals and honors, but moments marked by one human being alleviating, for but a passing instant quickly moved into memory, the loneliness of another before both go on their way again. These are the imperfect, caught lovingly in their fascinating imperfections, and made perfect by the artist who captures them so on paper for our witness.


Late Nights on Air is winner of the 2007 Giller Prize. Elizabeth Hay is a former radio journalist, author of six other books, all of which I intend to read, and winner also of the Marian Engel Award. She lives in Canada.






The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybek


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·        Paperback: 192 pages

·        Publisher: Picador; 1 edition, 2004

·        Price: $14.00

·        ISBN-10: 0312424256

·        ISBN-13: 978-0312424251


I’ve experienced that rare pleasure of hearing Stuart Dybek read his work—in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he is a sometime adjunct professor at Western Michigan University, and so sometimes, not at all often, has read to a large and hungry Kalamazoo audience, myself among them. That was poetry. Good stuff. Really good stuff. And so picking up this collection of stories about my favorite city, Chicago, and Dybek’s hometown, too, I knew I would be in for a street wise treat. Oh yeah.


Fourteen stories, and if you know anything about Dybek at all, you will know he is surrounded by awards and an otherwise impressive publishing history, so no need to go there. He’s proven goods. I’ll offer simply my personal perspective and experience on reading this collection. And so, indeed, it resonated with me. Dybek, like me, comes from a richly ethnic background. In his case, he is a second-generation Polish-American, growing up in Chicago neighborhoods, southern side of that great city. Whereas I have a father who is a visual artist, so influencing me to be visual in my own writing, Dybek’s second art love is music—jazz, specifically—and so for him, that second art comes through in obvious and less obvious ways. Here, too. Quite a few of these stories intertwine music. Music becomes something of a character itself (“Chopin in Winter”), or else it serves as background, or it is fabric of the words, adding a jazzy rhythm to his sentence structure, a bop and a bounce to his choice of expression. Nice.


The collection is an interesting mix of traditional sandwiched with flash fiction. The flash pieces reminded me of Dybek’s poetry. Poetry in prose, nearly. Because Dybek’s style (see note above on musical influence) is very lyrical. There’s something improvisational about his writing, yet carefully so. A great jazz artist doesn’t really improvise at all; he or she dips into that vastness of musical experience and freely lifts from it and into light. What is surprise to others is old blood to the maestro.


“A kiss crosses the city. It rides a glass streetcar that showers blue, electric sparks along the ghost of a track—a track paved over in childhood—the line that she and her mother used to take downtown.


“A kiss crosses the city, revolves through a lobby door into a rainy night, catches a cab along a boulevard of black glass, and, running red lights, dissolves behind the open fans of wiper blades.


“Rain spirals colorlessly out of the dark, darkens all it touches and makes it gleam.


“Her kiss crosses the city, enters a subway tunnel that descends at this deserted hour like a channel through an underground world. It’s timeless there, always night, as if the planet doesn’t turn below the street. At the mouth of the station stands a kid who’s gone AWOL and now has nowhere to go, a young conga drummer, a congacero, wearing a fatigue jacket and beating his drum. He has the pigeons up past their bedtime doing the mambo.” (page 105)


These are stories that put you into the unprettified ethnic neighborhoods that were, are, Chicago. The smells are here, the tastes, the mix of languages, the music, the blend of humanity. Here the city kids and the first generation immigrants, the junkies and winos and ex-cons and their corrupt cops. Here, too, are stories about nothing, just the sense of being there, and so, stories about everything you need to know to share the experience.


Dybek is a master of language, whatever medium he chooses—poetry or prose. He blends his arts, as all art should be a blend, all from the same fountainhead. He is visual artist, too, with one paint stroke:


“The blue, absorbing shadow would deepen to azure, and a fiery orange sun would dip behind the glittering buildings. The crowded beach would gradually empty, and a pitted moon would hover over sand scalloped with a million footprints. It would be time to go.” (page 45)


Just don’t go before acquainting yourself fully with the work of Stuart Dybek, and this collection is an excellent starting point.





The House on the Shore by Victoria Howard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·        Paperback: 360 pages

·        Publisher: Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2009

·        Price: $15.95

·        ISBN-10: 1935407244

·        ISBN-13: 978-1935407249



I was looking forward to reading my review copy of The House on the Shore for a couple of reasons: the main character is a female writer, and she happens to live in a remote cabin, or croft, set back in something of a European wilderness. I could relate, and we all enjoy reading about characters to whom we can relate.


That was where my pleasure in this read ended. Before I’d reached the bottom of the first page, I knew this wasn’t going to be the literary style I much prefer. Well, okay. Still hope for a good storyline. Quickly enough, however, I sensed this was a book more in the romance genre… and those who follow my reviews will know how I feel about the romance genre. Cold. Very cold. In a lifetime of avid reading, I have yet to read a single romance that impresses me with its quality and literary value (and a good love scene is one of the most difficult types of scenes for a writer to write well—very few succeed). Why that is, I don’t know. Maybe there is just something about the audience for this genre that I simply don’t understand. Or, maybe it is unfair to expect gourmet food when you have just walked into what is obviously a fast food joint. Maybe I simply need to revise my expectations to something more realistic and fitting the genre. I’m not entirely sure, though, that the author intended this to be a true romance, perhaps also a suspense thriller or mystery.


Mustering up my efforts to remain open minded, my enthusiasm flagged again within the first chapters. I am not acquainted with the publisher, Vanilla Heart Publishing, but they seem to have no proofreaders or editors in their employ. The pages of this book are so riddled with errors, typos, missing words and scene glitches (in one scene, the main character is driving the very same Land Rover that she is searching for after a mysterious car crash), that it soon becomes distracting from the story itself. A good editor might also have made revisions to such implausible inaccuracies such as having the character wonder if an overheard language might be Polish or Estonian. Sensibly, one might wonder between two similar languages. These two languages couldn’t possibly sound more different; there is no mistaking one for the other.


Let’s move to the storyline, then. The author creates a romance-mystery with a main character, Anna, who has discovered her boyfriend cheating on her, angrily dumps him, her job and her apartment, finds herself without income as result, and so moves to Scotland, where she has recently inherited a small house called a croft, tucked away on a Highland loch. It seems the perfect time to write a book that she’s been thinking about for some time and test her ability to make it as an author. A beautiful and remote place, by all description, and the nearest town has its own cast of characters. Soon enough, however, we veer into cliché.


Want to guess? Tall, dark, achingly handsome stranger (named Luke, a predictable romance name, I would guess) comes loping across her land to knock on her door. He is also obviously achingly rich, as seen from the wonderful yacht that has become stranded in the loch with some broken part that, conveniently, is not available for many weeks.


“He stopped a foot from her door, close enough for her to smell the lemon spice of his cologne. Now that she could see him more clearly, she noticed the laughter lines around his eyes and mouth, hinting at a softer side to his character. His body was lean, the outline of his muscles visible through the shirt he wore. A faint white scar creased his right cheek, and she thought it gave his face a handsome rugged look. He gazed at her with dark brown eyes and smiled, slow and warm, and for some reason her breathing quickened.” (page 21)


We then witness an inexplicably rude and grumpy conversation. I have no idea why they must be rude to each other, but they are, and I suspect because this, too, is part of that cliché romantic encounter—two people who bristle with conflict and anger that then turns into bodice-ripping passion later. Which, of course, it does. I only wish there were some plausible reason for the rude exchanges and behavior. Nearest phone is 12 miles away, and Anna gives him one heck of a hard time about giving him a ride. He’s done nothing but come to her to ask for use of her phone (apparently, expensive yachts have no communication systems on board). Shrug.


So the story continues. On one hand, Anna is portrayed to be a strong, independent, smart woman. Then, with Luke around, she turns into a wincing little girl, annoyingly helpless, prone to tears and screams and faint spells. Disturbingly, he at times turns into a bully, borderline abusive, physically grabbing her and chiding her for her behavior, becomes overly possessive, and so on… behavior that I would think would have any self-respecting woman head for the door rather than skip a heart beat. Flip side, he can be overly protective, and on very first meeting with Anna’s best friend, Morag, who doesn’t know him at that point from Adam, tells him to “take care of Anna.” Sorry, but the feminist in me by now is rolling my eyes. I would think a woman living in the wilderness alone, by profession something of an adjunct professor back in the States, can take pretty good care of herself. There’s a dichotomy here that perhaps says something about why the women’s movement has shown serious signs of failing these days…


I’m sure I don’t need to fill in anymore. There are bad guys who are bad through and through, dripping evil so that our loyalties are clear, and Luke is brilliant and gorgeous as he protects his little woman, who manages to scream at sometimes the most absurd moments. And often. And loud. Oh, come on.




I try to find something positive in all that I read, and I’ll try hard here. I’m sure there is a place for this type of story. Romances, after all, sell, as the cliché goes, like hotcakes. There are obviously readers who don’t long for the finer turn of a phrase, the deeper exploration of a character’s psyche, and even look for the predictable outcome (you’ll find it here, too). For such, this is maybe better than most. Just not for my taste.





The Understory by Pamela Erens


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·        Paperback: 143 pages

·        Publisher: Ironweed Pr Inc, 2007

·        Price: $11.95

·        ISBN-10: 1931336040

·        ISBN-13: 978-1931336048




Many, many years have passed since I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. I read it in its Latvian translation, a young writer eager to learn from the masters—and the Danish writer Hamsun was that. It was a novel about nothing, really. No car chases, no maddening mysteries, no ravishing love stories, no epiphanies. It was a simple story of survival—a homeless man coping with hunger—but it has remained with me all these decades later while so many other books I’ve read have faded into oblivion. It was a book touched with greatness.


I recall Hamsun’s Hunger now because in reading the slim novel called The Understory by Pamela Erens, winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize, I sensed the same effect. Yes, the same touch of literary greatness. This, too, was a story about nothing. It is simplicity itself; not even a story, but an “understory.” The story behind the story, you might say, the diving deep into the mind and heart and soul of a man. There is little action, almost all the recording of observation, the gradual coiling and tightening of a spring, and all leading up to a stunning conclusion—that one moment of action—that is the perfection coming together of all that we have read to that point.


As in Hamsun’s masterpiece, we experience truth, as a human being experiences truth that is found in the minutiae of the every day. Life is like this, after all. The earth shattering upheavals and volcanic happenings are remarkable enough, easy to nail down on paper, memorable (or not) without even trying, but genius enters when one can create reality sharper almost than reality itself. Erens follows this haggard, lonely man in his unremarkable every day without missing a detail, and so brings him into the room where we sit, brings us into his room where he lives his solitary life, and lets us taste of it. He is poor, he is alone, he is a child abandoned by his parents through a car accident that took their lives, and so has learned to live in this quiet, unobtrusive way. He lives a life that happens mostly inside his mind. He reads and mulls over what he has read as a gourmet savors every bite of an exquisite meal. Indeed, when he is evicted from his home—an apartment where he has lived for 15 years as something of an imposter of his deceased uncle of similar name on a $500 monthly stipend left to him in a will—he wonders how is it that we do not value the thinkers in our society? Only the doers. Someone has to read all the books? Someone has to think all the thoughts? He is that someone.


Even when something does happen in this man’s days, it moves in a kind of slow motion, giving us time to note all the details of the scene, evoke the emotions one might have living the moment in real time rather than sound bite. We watch the building burn. We watch him resist leaving the ashen shell of his home, living among that ash when all others have moved elsewhere. We see him creep into odd emotions of need and want, not falling in love, but more a kind of cell by cell transforming into a man who wants another man. His presence in the room, just that. We settle into the cramped corners of his brain as he becomes obsessed.


So there it is, all of it, after all, but without the distraction of special effects. There the story of survival, the story of loss, and grief, the love story, too. Distilled into effervescent purity. A moment in the abbey, where he takes refuge for a while, is fully as remarkable as a moment of encountering human need at its most base.


“Night is the worst time. After the long regimentation of the day, the enforced silences, the men want to talk. At first it doesn’t matter what about: TV, movies, travel, jobs. I lie on my side on my mattress as the words pool around me, reciting to myself the botanical classifications for peach, cherry, apple. Magnoliophyta, Magnoliopsida, Rosales, Rosaceae… I smell the smell of other bodies: stale skin, flatulence, cologne. I long to open the windows and let the fresh air sweep the smells away, sweep the bodies away, too. Gradually one man drops out of the conversation, then another. Soon there will be only two men left speaking. And these two—they are not the same two every night—will drop their voices, speak in an intimate murmur. Perhaps they are only gossiping about one of the monks. Perhaps they are complaining about the food. But no, there is a reticence that lets me know that they are trying, clumsily, to reach each other.” (page 27)


He is obsessed with two. Two in connection, twins, kindred souls, brothers, lovers, even as he himself is profoundly one. This solitary man who cannot connect even in a crowd, eventually implodes, and explodes, and the sense of following him through this process is a literary meditation I will long not forget. It is for this kind of fine literature that I hunger all my reading life, and find all too rarely. 





The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit

Stories by Michael Zadoorian


Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 216 pages

·         Publisher: Wayne State University Press, 2009

·         Price: $18.95

·         ISBN-10: 0814334172

·         ISBN-13: 978-0814334171



The Made in Michigan Writers Series showcases some of the state’s best new, or not so new, writers. Michael Zadoorian is one of these writers, not so new, with two novels (The Leisure Seeker and Second Hand) already on the shelf. While the country struggles and just begins to show signs of emerging from economic muck, and more often than not, the national finger is pointed at Detroit as the example of the worst anywhere, dying and in parts already dead… Zadoorian rises from those ashes and finds the grit and pearl of story to tell.


No mistake, these are pearls. Found among junk piles and old photographs, abandoned houses and euthanasia rooms, marriages ravaged by adultery, homeless men turned into exhibitionists—these stories of Detroit, separated into west side, east side and downtown, record a city turning back into dust but with heart stubbornly beating on.


“To Sleep” introduces us to Zadoorian’s talent with a grand entrance on the entire collection. The story’s narrator works in the Euthanasia Room for animals, and if the metaphor of city in its death throes holds, we witness that handling death of the innocent on a daily basis cannot leave one unmoved. Watch the life go out of the eyes of a living creature often enough, and madness seeps into the mind. The executioner becomes ever more eccentric, finally building altars to the dead creatures, performing elaborate ceremonies and dances (Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk apparently create jazz that is perfect for felines) to see them off into the other world. Zadoorian’s writing remains in ours, sharp and haunting:


“That flicker in their eyes just a second after the Pentothal reaches the viscera, that moment, that last hundredth of a second of being as it folds into what comes after. The look in their eyes, during the wiping away of life, burns in on your soul like a klieg light on the retina. You can shift your vision elsewhere, but you still see the shape of the light, an after-image, superimposed on everything you look at—on a stop sign, on the page of the book late at night when you can’t sleep, on your own guilty hand when you hold it before your face.


“But unlike the after-image from a bright light, this one doesn’t go away in a few moments. It’s there for keeps. And after you eradicate a few thousand of God’s living, breathing, sentient creatures like I have, you begin to believe that there’s nothing left to burn. But you’re wrong. There’s always more work to be done, more animals to be put down. Before long, you’re thinking that part of you, the part your parents told you was what made you special, the good girl part, the part that would remain even after you died, is not yours anymore. It’s just a charred, scarred accretion of the ghosted eyes of thousands of animals, the kind of scabby hard stone-cinder that we as children used to call a clinker.”(page 9)


Science has shown with brain scans that certain images, viewed long enough and often enough, do indeed create a chemical burn on our brains and can never be erased. These images change our view of the world around us forever. Zadoorian sends shivers of subtle horror through us as we eye this image of those who must compartmentalize to survive what they do to other living beings. They do not survive intact.


Other stories play in similar fashion with the gradual breakdown in human beings, in relationships, in a city. “Dyskinesia” is the story of a younger man who befriends an older woman who is deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease, but learns to, more or less, manage it by painting wild and colorful canvases through her tremors. The younger man is not necessarily in any better health, although his ills are less physical. The story opens with him standing in a grocery check-out line with his wife. He points out to her a woman’s magazine on the rack with a headline about women who love too much and co-dependency. “That’s you,” he says. She buys the magazine. Reads the article. “You’re right,” she says, and without another word, packs her bags and leaves him, co-dependent no more. So he fails at other attempts at other relationships, finally able to connect only to this ailing older woman, spending ever more time with her to escape his own void. Yet even she, finally, escapes him—into a world where he cannot follow.


“War Marks” is a story of healing and forgiveness, possible only when one human being looks deeply into the eyes of another. War is the ultimate objectifier, and political powers have always understood that to enable one human being to treat another with hatred and disrespect, he must first objectify. This story touches with the meeting of two “enemies” of an old war who cannot but know respect for each other’s humanity when they meet one-on-one.


“Listening Room” is yet another exploration of how the mind and spirit deteriorate over time when the emotional abuse is a constant drip-drip-dripping presence. A boy must listen in the night to the sounds of copulation in the bedroom next door that his parents “loan” to other couples who have come to believe it is a lucky room for getting pregnant. They think nothing of what their son must listen to night after night through a thin wall, how it erodes him and changes him forever.


In “Noise of the Heart” we are almost reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart,” as a man is driven mad by the sound of his own beating heart. It is, of course, not really his physical heart, but his metaphorically symbolic heart that drives him to attempt suicide, as he finds out about his wife’s affair with another man. He hears her tell her lover with glee about what an innocent he is, has no clue, when it is she who can’t see past her own lust—and a lover who is more interested in the competitive edge of stealing someone else’s mate than he is in her—while the cuckolded husband silently absorbs the disrespect of her actions and struggles with that ever beating and louder heart.


“Traffic Reports” explores road rage, as everyday people burst at the seams from stress and randomly shoot each other on Detroit roads. “Spelunkers” brings us into the seedier buildings of downtown Detroit, as if on an archeological dig into another time, recording it all, as Zadoorian himself does in these stories, as an art form of the dead and dying of an American city. Finally, his title story, “The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit,” pulls the collection together with a homeless man on a city bus who insists he will no longer be invisible. The only way he can seem to get other people to see him is by an act of indecency. He drops his pants and exposes himself to everyone’s stunned and immediate attention. One hopes the city itself won’t have to go quite that far.


If Detroit can produce such literary talent as Zadoorian, however, it may just thrive again. These stories awaken, alarm, grieve, giggle a bit, but mostly observe what we may wish to toss away, yet should first look directly in the eye—so that we can understand something more of our own condition.




Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear


Book Review by Zinta Aistars



·        Hardcover: 294 pages

·        Publisher: Soho Press, 2003

·        Price: $24.00

·        ISBN-10: 1569473307

·        ISBN-13: 978-1569473306



Because I could get my hands initially on a Maisie Dobbs book further in the series (Birds of a Feather), I came back to read the first book, simply titled Maisie Dobbs, second. Two did it. I am now a dyed-in-the-wool Maisie fan, and vow not to miss any more in this series of, so far, six, with the most recent out just this past February 2009. Jacqueline Winspear, you have made a convert out of me! If I was borderline with my introductory Birds, I have officially crossed that line now.


I couldn’t be more surprised.


See, I was (am) anything but a mystery and detective novel fan. Anything but. Well, almost anything. Only thing worse in my mind than a detective novel is a romance novel. All that gushing, stereotypical female at her weakest worst. All that machismo and bravado male at his weakest worst (it takes courage to have and express real emotion). And the writing in these genres tends to be some of the most formulaic and predictable, cheap and easy stuff found on a bookshelf. And so, I was a tad surprised when my book club literati suggested we read at least a couple Maisie Dobbs books. Heck, I wasn’t even sure where the mystery section in my public library is located. But I have always vowed to try to be open minded about such things, and I do respect the literary minds in this book club, so …


So, I am now this fervent fan. I’ll tell you why. It is interesting to me that in this day and age of women supposedly having all kinds of opportunity open to us, we have sunk to the lowest levels of objectification ever seen. Not only do we allow it, too many of us even greet it, readily playing along, eager to please. Never mind that we may well be snickering behind the backs of the opposite gender, salivating over this objectified woman-type. No one ends up looking good in that scenario. Fools, all.


And so it would seem logical that Maisie Dobbs would be a character in modern day, this time for women to excel, nothing holding us back but ourselves. Instead, Maisie lives in the early to mid 1900s, in post World War I London. She is the strong and liberated, financially and otherwise independent woman we should all strive to be—today. You might even say … a true heroine.


Yet if yesterday the hero figure was popular, this is the day of the anti-hero. Whatever that means. I puzzle over the term. “Anti” means not, or against, or opposing, right? How did we come to elevate the not-hero, in short, the villain, the dark and shady and cowardly type, over the good guy, or, in this case, the good gal? I don’t get it. I don’t want to get it. I, for one, long for the hero to rise again, or perhaps even for the first time, because the hero of yesterday, wearing his white hat, was always male, and was anything but real. The classic old movies made him a figure of impossibility, equating perfection with goodness and courage. Yesterday’s hero was nothing more than fantasy, and clearly unattainable by mortal man or woman. It is knowing one’s imperfection, and not giving into it, however, that makes the hero—and heroine. Not being fearless, but being indeed afraid (only fools know no fear), fully aware of one’s weakness, and doing the right thing just the same.


Maisie Dobbs is one terrific heroine. She is strong, yet soft. Wise, yet willing to learn at every opportunity given her. Great hearted, but with discrimination. She uses her clever mind rather than trickery. She takes no shortcuts. She never has any need for any weapon other than her keen mind. She always keeps her promises. Most importantly, she is realistic and attainable. There is no reason whatsoever that a girl or a woman today couldn’t emulate this character and hold her up as role model. And oh, we could use a few…


Rather reminded me of the books I read as a girl. I read eagerly, learned something, saw the world expand, felt inspired. But the Maisie Dobbs series is not Nancy Drew; these are sophisticated novels, very well written, complex and intelligent. They contain the best of this age—one in which I firmly believe we are seeing the best written fiction we have ever seen (and the worst, but that’s to be expected as the flip side of the same coin). That is, we witness a strong, leading female character in a book, even if it perhaps requires a background setting spanning 1912 to 1929 to encompass her. One wonders… would she find it possible to be so strong and true today? One hopes.


There, then, you have the character. The storyline of Maisie Dobbs in this introductory novel is a masterly balance of the young detective-psychologist solving her first cases while dealing also with a traumatic and war-torn past. The current mysteries unfold around chapters that look into her past. We see her formative years, her family roots, the difficulties of a hardworking childhood when her mother died young and her father struggled against poverty. Young Maisie learns a work ethic that will suit her lifelong. She expects no favors, but earns them. She lives by the Golden Rule, treating others as she would be treated, even when she is not.


Breaking class lines, young Maisie earns her way into university in a time when women were allowed to attend but were not allowed to receive diplomas, even when completing all the same class requirements as their male counterparts. Outside of the classroom, her education is enriched by tutors who work with her to sharpen not just her intellectual abilities, but her intuition, her understanding of the psychology of the human mind and nature. This is the most fascinating aspect of the Maisie Dobbs character, and so refreshing from the gun-toting tough guys in the genre—she does not fight, but indeed embraces, her feminine strengths, and develops a woman’s intuition based on keenest observation. She learns to use and read body language to detect the false. She emulates and mirrors movement and expression, not only to put another at ease, but also to fully feel what the other is feeling. As she questions her suspect, she eases into his posture, tries on his expression, matches his stride and breathing pattern … until she herself can feel what the other feels. When she does this—these quickly became my favorite sections of the book. I know of no other female character, in literature or cinema, that doesn’t try to outdo being a man in feminine guise. Maisie Dobbs remains fully feminine, and uses her feminine wisdom and strengths to her advantage, and without ever taking advantage. Her strength is in her mind, in her heart, in her ability to fully feel compassion for another. She does not beat her enemy as much as she brings him over to her side, earning respect, trust, and opening even the toughest and iciest hearts. Because even a bully has one.


In this first book, we also come to understand Maisie’s great love, Simon. Her background was as a war nurse, his, as a doctor. A shell hits the Red Cross tent where the two work, and while Maisie survives with scars, inside and out, Simon survives, but only in a vegetative state. We see this struggle in Maisie, too, as she continues her work—her own recovery, while grieving for the dream lost. In the mystery case she solves in this book, we read of veterans forgotten by society, or who are repellant to society because of their great physical wounds. It is an opportunity for us all to look in the mirror, to contemplate all wars. It is an exploration of the many kinds of wounds a human being can take, and not take, and what healing requires.


All great stuff. A character that is memorable and inspiring; a storyline that is evocative and thoughtful; writing that is highly skilled and moving. I am clearing a bookshelf at home for mysteries, at least those solved by one remarkable woman detective-psychologist.





Birds of a Feather (A Maisie Dobbs Novel) by Jacqueline Winspear

Book Review by Zinta Aistars



·        Paperback: 336 pages

·        Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (August 2, 2005)

·        Price: $14.00

·        ISBN-10: 0143035304

·        ISBN-13: 978-0143035305


When I was recently invited to join a small book club under the auspices of something of a celebrity librarian where I live--she organizes successful events and authors readings, many of which I have attended over the years--I couldn't resist accepting. What kind of books might this small and intimate grouping of admirers of fine literature read? A list of books covering the next few months to come was intriguingly diverse in style, genre, time period. This would be an interesting exploration, no doubt pushing me to read books I might never have otherwise read.

Including the first book on the list: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Two of this series, in fact. The first one, then a second of our own choosing. I headed for the library, but the first book was off the shelf. Perhaps another book club member. So I chose another in the series, skimming through several. I was not familiar with the author or the series, as mysteries, admittedly, are not a genre I favor. As soon as I opened the book to read, I was reminded why. They all seem painfully alike. The only difference here is that Maisie Dobbs, detective-psychologist, was female rather than the tiresome Bogey-type that seems to keep popping up in other detective novels. And you know that "Girl Friday"? The fawning, too-sexy-for-her-own-good type who is doggedly devoted to Bogey to the point of being codependent? In this book, Maisie's sidekick would be a cockney called Billy Beale, a retired vet with a bum leg. Yes, he's doggedly devoted if blessedly married. I rolled my eyes. I had to wonder, why do readers so enjoy these types of series, alike as a stack of pancakes, with characters all cast from the same mold, predictable as formula? I don't get it.

And then, of course, I got immersed in the book.

It took a while. And I did roll my eyes once more as I read an editorial miss, where a main character, Joseph Waite, a wealthy man who hires Maisie to find and bring home his missing daughter (32 years old! I'd be missing, too!) grinds out his cigar after enjoying his smoke. Grinds? Mind you, as editor-in-chief of a literary ezine called The Smoking Poet, featuring an extensive page on cigars called Cigar Lounge, I know a thing or three about cigars. You never grind out a cigar. Cigarettes, yes, but cigars give out toxic, bitter fumes when so ground. Any cigar smoker worth her ash knows this. Adding insult to cigar injury, Mr. Waite has the seemingly same cigar magically reappear in his fingers a page later as he and Maisie stroll the gardens. Oops.

Yet once the smoke had cleared, I found myself reading the book more and more often, each time for a longer sit. The British author, Jacqueline Winspear, knows her twists and turns. She also does her homework well, if not particularly on the grinding of a stogie, because the story is rich with historical detail and color. It is set in London, spring of 1930. There are scenes in city and outlying areas, flashbacks to The Great War, and doings and ongoings with coppers in Scotland Yard's Murder Squad. Keeping this time period in mind, the accomplishments of Maisie Dobbs are very respectable. Once a battlefield nurse, she has now made her place in a male-dominated field of private investigators, so not only does she need to solve her case, she must solve it with more finesse than any male counterpart.

I'm liking this.

Unlike most detective novels, this detective is also, happily, no womanizer. What a relief. A woman herself, she deals with the opposite sex respectfully, even while demanding respect. Yet, just like a woman, when she is dealing with a heartbroken victim, of whatever gender, she is compassionate and kind, gathering her information even while soothing the broken and setting things right. No damsel in distress she! Indeed, Maisie's great love is a soldier who is so wounded in war that she now visits him regularly in a home, even though he cannot any longer respond to her presence. An under story here is that Maisie is struggling to find the right place for her heart: to remain faithful to her love, a physically and mentally broken man, yet open it to a future possibility of happiness. She is not without her suitors, including a detective inspector at Scotland Yard, who is at times ego-wounded when Maisie solves cases that leave him floundering and accusing an innocent man. And Doctor Dene, a kinder and more considerate sort, who seems to be something of a kindred spirit. Yet these hinting-of-future-romance characters never become more than passing background to the story--a wise choice on the author's part, or this would move too far into another, cheaper genre. (Hurrah for books about women that aren't always centered around romance!)

Maisie pursues her clues with dogged determination yet light touch. Adding to that feminine approach, she seems to use intuition as much as logic to solve her case, and is quite comfortable doing so. Sidekick, Billy Beale, the limping veteran, is a good help to her, but she notices his quiet struggle with an addiction often seen in veterans at that time, too--cocaine. A history lesson woven into the story tells us soldiers were given morphine and other painkillers in unmeasured doses on the battlefield, often leading to addiction. Maisie helps Billy get back on the straight and narrow perhaps a little too easily, and without interrupting her pursuit of the missing heiress, now joined in a tightening circle of two other women, found murdered.

The book title comes from the link between all three women: white feathers. Another fascinating historical sidenote, but one I won't here reveal. Maisie notes this tiny detail and eventually catches the bird, so to speak. It is a pretty remarkable scene when she does. Masterful, even. One very much, I think, requiring a female author.

Judge for yourself. As for me, I'm pleased to have been nudged into reading this detective novel, even as I continue to be less than a fan of the genre, but a fan won over by Maisie Dobbs.




Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story

By Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars


·         Paperback: 296 pages

·         Publisher: Iaso Books, 2007

·         Price: $21.95

·         ISBN-10: 0979306191

·         ISBN-13: 978-0979306198


Not the kind of book you’d pick up at first glance? Take a second glance, and linger. No, perhaps not your typical summer read, but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was drawn in by this many-faceted story of a generation of women that I, too, have experienced. This begins a bit into my mother’s generation, and it very much crosses into mine. I was amazed as I read—how far women have come since World War II. And, much saddened to equally realize how much we have regressed. Only to have to travel this route again, this time, hopefully, learning our lesson better.

We’ve come so far. We’ve gotten nowhere at all. Matilda Butler, with the help of Kendra Bonnett, has put together a fascinating collage of interwoven stories. Frankly, if I have any complaint at all about this book, and it’s a minor one, it concerns the number of stories that appear on each page. There is the main body of the text, pull quotes to either side, and a running quote at top, sometimes trailing across several pages, so that one has to read ahead and then return again to pick up another thread. Gets a bit dizzy. But there, that’s it, my only whine, one on layout, and now that that is out there… we can get to the good and great part.

Rosie’s Daughters is the story of women born between 1940 and 1945, and their older and younger sisters. The primary author, Matilda Butler, interweaves her own story and perspective as a narrative net to hold the many other stories. Rosie, of course, is a fictional character that came to represent the women of this generation in the icon of “Rosie the Riveter.” She was “a woman portrayed in overalls and polka-dot bandana welding, riveting, and setting records for the speed she could produce ships and planes.” (pg. 13) During WWII, when so many men were called to duty overseas, it was up to the women to keep the country running. For the first time, women left their homes and families to take up physically demanding jobs, working in defense factories, shipyards, foundries, lumber mills and munitions plants. Surprise? But these women did well at these jobs—and in spite of the derision and gender bias and sexual harassment they too often had to experience. Women not only did well, they often excelled, shattered stereotypes, and even did better than their male counterparts.

“When a six-million strong army of Rosie the Riveters answered the call to work in factories and offices across the country, they overcame many expectations about women’s roles and capabilities, but age-old barriers didn’t come crashing down, nor did opportunities for women open up overnight.” (pg. 13)

Indeed, as I read through this book and its quilt of women’s stories, I was stunned to realize how much had changed even in my own lifespan of a little over half a century. Suddenly, I was immersed in rising memory, looking back at my childhood, remembering my mother as a dutiful housewife, my own lack of planning for financial independence when I chose my college degree. I was stunned to realize how deeply ingrained, still, our chauvinism against women stands, and that includes among women themselves. From unwilling housewife (by lack of choice rather than by having one) to presidential candidate, all in my own time. Remarkable. And yet, the glass ceiling is still to be properly broken and shattered forever.

“I have often said, we will know we have succeeded when there are no more stories about the first woman anything, when the stories are about the great performance of a company whose chief executive officer just happens to be a woman, not about the fact that she is a CEO.” (Kay Bailey Hutchinson, first female senator from Texas, pg. 16)

So we honor these women of so many firsts. They broke important ground, ground that we are still in the process of plowing and seeding for future generations. If these women went to work outside the home and did well, who could stuff them back into the home again when they had tasted independence, financial and intellectual and spiritual. “They outgrew unrealistic dreams of a Prince Charming who would make life perfect for them. They did become wives, mothers, and homemakers, but they also joined the Peace Corps, experimented with alternative lifestyles, earned professional degrees, and entered scores of occupations in which women had been virtually unknown. They were also the first generation to divorce in record numbers, raise children as single moms, struggle with addictions, come out as gay, and rebel and adapt as only rare women had done before.” (pg. 21)

Because all was not rosy in homemade paradise. Once those doors were opened, the secrets held so long inside came flooding out. For all their neat and tidy houses, smiling faces, nice so nice feminine manners, women of previous generations had been living in stifled misery. No, of course not all women. For some, that life was well-suited. But to finally have been given a chance to escape the constraints of next to no choices, women raced out to explore the world and their own potential. If life wasn’t good, at last these women could do something about it. Our mothers had too often stayed married for lack of an alternative. Choices were at last opening up.

Some women. That it is still a male-dominated world is clear. Old attitudes die exceedingly slowly, and nowhere with more of a hold than inside the psyches of women themselves. Even as I contemplated my own childhood and youth, I realized how much my environment—families, society, schools, churches, work places, media—enforce again and again the way that women should be. Nice. Giving. Caretakers and caregivers. Here to please, all but ourselves. We give until we are empty, we give even when we must wear false faces, and even now, it is too often the only way to survive, let alone thrive. As the author points out, women continue to be taught from all (male) directions to please and appease, and if today’s educated and successful career woman would be an ideal match for her male counterpart, too often our male counterparts pass us by to pursue instead the younger women—those who continue to please and appease. Even as older women mature to an ability to love on a deeper, more lasting level, they are finding themselves increasingly on their own, without suitable partners.

And then, of course, there are those ever greater numbers of women who no longer want those partners. Why bother? Paychecks have grown to equal or better, education is an open door that opens other doors, and while men frequently gain by marriage in terms of financial assistance and housework and family care, women often lose. In the majority of households, despite dual careers, women are still the primary housecleaners and family caretakers.

Even if we are now bringing home the bacon, sometimes even bigger slabs of it than our husbands or boyfriends, we have yet to understand how to handle the sexual revolution of the 60s, which seemed to allow more for the male fantasy than the female fantasy. Women today have yet to take ownership of their own sexuality, as equal partners rather than objectified embodiments of what the male wishes us to be—for his pleasure alone.

“I look at my daughter and her friends in their twenties and they are reveling in their sexuality. They don’t feel guilty, and why should they? But I would be happier if my daughter and her friends were crashing through the glass ceiling instead of the sexual ceiling… Being able to have an orgasm with a man you don’t love or having Sex and The City on television, that is not liberation… the problem is: You’re not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company. Let’s see the Senate fifty percent female; let’s see women in decision-making positions—that’s power. Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven’t come.” (Erica Jong, author, pg. 134-135)

Here, exactly here, is where women of today have regressed. We have yet to understand that to claim our own power is to be who we are—women—and not feminized versions of men. That means in terms of how we do business, how we love, how we make love. When we are fully comfortable being women at our full potential, rather than men with breasts, we will be liberated. Only then will we have shown our respect to Rosie the Riveter for all her hard work and courage. Only then can we say we are her deserving daughters.

Meanwhile, mental and physical abuse against girls and women is on the rise. Finding our Achilles’ heel (also, alas, our greatest strength) of wanting to nurture and preserve our relationships, our abusers wield a power over us that we ourselves must deny them. “Mental and physical abuses are especially cruel because the recipient feels it is her fault and that the abuse would stop if she would just behave differently. Eventually, her self-esteem is so depleted that she may be unable to take the actions needed to remove herself from the destructive situation.” (pg. 198)

It is the last frontier for women. First, to understand how we ourselves have contributed to this rise in abuse against females. To understand that we cannot condone our own objectification. To understand that men who treat us as less than equals, deserving of respect, are not worthy partners for any woman.

“Every dream requires investing in ourselves,” writes the author (pg. 233), and so we must. We must. For ourselves and for our daughters, and for the men who have enough self respect to want partners who stand on equal ground. The author describes in her concluding chapters the kinds of capital we must manage to complete ourselves as human beings. All falls apart if we ignore any of these areas, what she calls the seven life capitals: emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, social, financial, temporal.

We must recognize, too, that building relationships is what women do best, whether at home or at work or in our social lives. This is not something that we should abandon, but we need to embrace it as our feminine strength, even while demanding respect from those who would use it against us. “Relationships are our greatest gold, our food and nourishment. The only thing that we have at the end of our lives is the love of and for other people.” (pg. 249)

Author Matilda Butler is a psychologist and educator; co-author Kendra Bonnett is a marketing executive. The two run a Web site called and teach women how to write their memoirs on as a means of awakening, learning, empowering, healing the self. This book is highly recommended for all women who wish to understand the path that women behind us have traveled, where we are now, and where we wish our daughters to be—into a future that is rich with choices, free of abuse, and open to all possibilities.  




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