Book Review — Ohio


Ohio by Stephen Markley is the story of a Rust Belt town and the people who live in it. Markley is the author of the memoir Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and the travelogue Tales of Iceland.

Growing up and living in Cleveland, I remember the tail end of the 1960s, 1970s, and the early 1980s, before leaving for the Marines.  I can recall the culture and impending doom that Ohio brings out. The industry-based economy had been stumbling for quite some time with several false starts towards recovery. My parents moved to the suburbs in the 1980s which seemed nice, basically major crime free, nice schools, park, and library. Today the opiates have replaced marijuana. Unemployment leaves a chronic shadow on the community.

I was drawn to the book not only by name and location, Northeast Ohio but also by the cover. I try not to be drawn in by the book covers but this one took me back. Although the convenient store on the cover displays the colors of the 7/11 chain, I was reminded of the Lawson’s store at the corner of my street. There were quite a lot of memories tied to the store from drinking Coke on the loading dock, buying lunch food at the deli, and playing pinball inside the store.

The writing in this novel is superb. There is a great effort in the setting and the characters that creates depth to the story moving it from just a novel into literature:

A vortex of blue light spilled across the pavement, the streets, the downtown buildings, swirling violet violence and a piercing hiss as the oxygen was sucked into another dimension.  It flew backwards into the hot cerulean spiral, gazing mad black eyes, and when it passed over the edge of existence, the puncture in the universe wheezed painfully and then zipped up like a wound stitching itself shut. 

Like the cover shot in the night, most of the book seems to take place in a darkness. The image of an eternal night is filled with things that are not seen by all or even most people. Night hides a variety of ills which the book slowly reveals.

The city itself is New Canaan which plays on Biblical Canaan. The Biblical Canaan was the promised land of the Israelites — the land of milk and honey. New Canaan, however, is the land of broken dreams and anguish.  Glory Days have turned to drugs, drinking, and self-mutilation.  Industry has left, the real estate market never recovered, homes are foreclosed, a few bars and a local restaurant is all that seems to remain.

The economic disaster that has come to define the region is brought out through the characters lives, four of which have come back to the city for various reasons.  Bill Ashcraft an activist and outspoken anti-war crusader, whose life has become a blur of alcohol and drugs, comes back as a courier for former classmate Kaylyn.  Stacey Moore a Ph.D. candidate in English returns to meet with the mother of her high school lover.  Dan Eaton a veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and balances his need to escape New Canaan and the girl he left behind.  Tina Ross the daughter of a minister struggles with popularity and her beliefs.   Also having a major role in the story, but only through flashbacks, are the football hero and Marine Corporal Rick Brinkland whose funeral opens the book.  Lisa Han, half Vietnamese, raised by a single caucasian mother plays a central role connecting the other characters together.  She remains a bit of the mystery as no one has seen her since high school but some have received emails and postcards.

The story introduces separate threads that weave together into a complete story.  Each bit of information revealed in the story is tied together wonderfully by the end of the novel.  Markley manages to introduce almost every key issue of that generation into the novel without forcing any issue into the story.  Crime, drugs, terrorism, war, anti-war, sexuality, murder, sex, abuse both physical and emotional, are all pieces that complete the picture.  Revealing the sins of the past brings little cheer to the reader. Instead, the reader will be rewarded with a dark story that is played over and over in may Rust Belt cities.  Those who live or lived there know it well and others will be introduced to the American nightmare.  Fiction mimics real life in Ohio.

Available: August 21st 2018


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Poetry Review — Acadiana

Black Lawrence Press is known for publishing cutting-edge poetry and fiction in a style that is all there own. Acadiana is a chapbook of poetry by Nancy Reddy. Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series. She teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

Growing up in the north the view I had of Acadiana which mostly came from popular music. “Amos Moses” and “The Legend of the Wooley Swamp” come to mind immediately. As an adult who migrated to Texas almost thirty years ago, I can say my most interesting travel stories are about Lousiana. Stories of Mr. Wilkes, trying to get a company car out of police impound,  hand pumping gasoline, and being deep enough in the state that I could not even get AM radio in my car. There is something a different under the surface that you can catch out of the corner of your eye, sometimes.

Although a chapbook Reddy speaks volumes to the reader. The poetry is fairly standard in format but it captures the deepest of the South in a very big way. Surface Catholicism, left over from the French, covers a deep near voodoo topsoil. The words will give a tingle to your spine by the eerieness of the words and phrasing. There is something more to the words than just the words themselves just as there is more to the region than just the land and people.

As the red dog’s fur sends smoke skyward
to whatever gods may still watch over us,

I sprinkle holy water along the fence posts, place
the blessed palms along the shuttered windows
and above the doorframes. I make of matches a cross

and light them quick to stop the rain.

from “Saint Catherine Takes the Auspices”

This is a remarkable collection poetry that is much bigger than its thirty pages. Highly recommended.

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Book Review— A Note of Explanation

Produced by Royal Collection Trust this child’s story was written by Vita Sackville-West in 1922 for Princess Marie Louise the first cousin of George V. Sackville-West was one of 171 authors invited to a book for Queen Mary’s dollhouse. The story until now had never been published. The miniature book was discovered in the dollhouse library and finally published nearly 100 years later.

The story centers on a female spirit that lives in the dollhouse unseen by adults although evidence of her presence mysteriously shows up. The adventures of the spirit, that does share some of Sackville-West’s life experience, is told in a fairytale form. The illustrations an extremely well done in art appropriate to the 1920s and compliment the story quite well.

The hardcover edition with color illustrations is printed on heavy stock and includes an afterword by Matthew Dennison. The book looks and feels like it is from the period. Very high-quality art and binding preserve the Sackville-West’s only children’s story.


The original miniature in the dollhouse library

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Book Review — Western Philosophy Made Easy: A Personal Search for Meaning

Western Philosophy Made Easy: A Personal Search for Meaning by Dennis Waite is a survey of Western thought. Waite has been a student of Advaita for over 25 years and lives in Bournemouth, England. He has authored several books on Advaita, most recently the revised edition of The Book of One, and he is a trustee of Advaita Academy, UK.

Waite is a student of Hindu philosophy and one of the classic Indian paths to spiritual realization which makes him an interesting choice to write a book on Western philosophy. Waite suggests that many people turn to philosophy when life is not going well for them. It is an attempt to find direction or redirection in one’s life. I studied political philosophy in college and graduate school so there is some crossover for me in Rousseau, Hegel, and even Plato and several missing in this work like Machiavelli. My own thoughts on philosophy are to find the why or how things are or should be than a personal direction. I tend to think there is a difference between philosophy and religion.

Waite does give a good summary of the history of philosophy and covers the major players in thought throughout European history. Although only briefly covered, Waite manages to give the high points of each philosopher. It may be a single idea or statement without much supporting material but it is done well enough for the reader to understand. The book offers a starting point for the novice and enough information for the reader to branch out on his own further reading.

What makes this book more than a survey course in philosophy is the second part of the book. This section covers Key Issues — Morality, Free Will, Belief, and Consciousness. Waite uses the previously discussed philosophers to try and find answers and meaning to key issues.  The conclusion covers happiness and what it really means.  I do find his prejudgement of the reader a bit irritating:

Since you ‘chose’ to read this book, I suggest that there is
a high probability that you are not happy! It is an undeniable
fact that the majority of people today are dissatisfied with what
they perceive as being a mediocre existence.

Perhaps most read philosophy because “an examined life is not worth living.” Some readers just want to know more, to see how man’s thinking of himself and the universe has changed.  Philosophy is a system of logical principles used to reach a conclusion  (I think, therefore, I am.). Waite seems to blur the lines between philosophy and religion is work, but that may be more of his personal philosophy.  A good primer on Western Philosophy.

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Book Review — Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography


Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich is an instructional guide to photography based on simple zen practices. Ulrich is currently co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii. He has taught for Pacific New Media, University of Hawaii Mānoa and was a Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. For fifteen years, he served as Associate Professor and Chair of the Photography Department of The Art Institute of Boston.

Early on Ulrich tells the reader that we have lost sight of the resonant language of metaphor and symbol. We are no longer creative. Poetry is dead. I review quite a bit of poetry so I will disagree with the last statement. But I do see the point. I live in the suburbs and people think it is a nice, well-maintained place to live. What do they base this on? Usually, it is driving through a neighborhood or looking on from a highway. I ride a bicycle and I see the cracks in walls and peeling paint on a suburb that is decomposing. Moving slower and observing things closer I see more. For a while I walked to work, cutting through a small park in the process. I became aware of the trees, the light, and the colors. It was something I didn’t notice before because even at bicycle speeds, I was still moving to fast. Slow down, relax, observe, become aware of your surroundings.

Ulrich says many of the things I recognized myself and adds to it. There is waiting for the right light, right day, and the right subject to appear. There is also a discovery of the photographer’s own eye. Ulrich suggests keeping a journal and taking one to two hundred pictures a day. The volume will help you discover your eye. Many of the basics of photography are covered in light detail as well as zen topics. There is more of a sharing of information rather than conforming to a dogma in his teaching. He also offers photography exercises and practices at the end of each chapter.

There were a few surprises for me in this book. First, use any camera. Even your cellphone camera is allowed. Ulrich is not a purist and pixels are just as good as silver nitrate and paper. Second digital photography allows the photographer to adjust the picture through editing. How often have we taken a picture that that looked so good to our eye but the camera recorded something much blander? Editing software allows the user to fix this without changing the nature of the photographed subject.

Zen Camera is a well written and informative guide to taking better pictures. Ulrich’s own photographs and others are used as supporting material throughout the text. Recommended for those wanting to improve their photographic eye.


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Poetry Review — Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr by Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj and translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst is a collection of 117 poems by the Persian mystic poet. Al-Hallja lived from 853 to 922 AD. He was executed for proclaiming, “I am the Truth.” The phrase was interpreted in two ways. The first as a mystic who annihilated his ego which allows God to speak through him. Others say this as a claim that he was divine. The later having the power had him executed.

The poems are translated by Carl W. Ernst who is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ernest provides both a detailed introduction, which covers more than enough ground to allow a novice to understand the poet and a very detailed section of notes, cited sources, and break down of the poems. The poems are categorized by subject allowing for an easy grouping in English. The groupings include conventional love poems, mystic love poems, martyrdom, riddles, and, perhaps the most interesting, metaphysics among other titles. Each poem is prefaced by a few sentences or more to put the poem into proper context. A lone couplet needs some background to understand its importance. Other introductions explain the cultural or religious importance of the poems.  For example:

55. Temple and Light

This poem presents an anthropology describing, first, the elemental and
material human body, then the luminous spark that is divine.
Body like a temple, luminous of heart,
        spirit that’s eternal, devout, wise,
he returns with the spirit to its lords,
        but the temple remains rotting in the dust.

The work of al-Hallja opens the world of early Islamic culture to the West.  He predates the popular Rumi by three centuries and can be used to see the evolution of Islamic culture.  The Sufi search inward for God.  They believe that in destroying one’s ego one can talk through God.  It seems to be a compliment to Buddhism in practice but not dogma. Perhaps translations of Islamic poets can help others see that Islam is a religion of peace.  Al- Hallja is an enlightened writer and poet who practiced and wrote inside of his faith.  The use of God by the poet seems to fit many religions view of God and peaceful existence. A great collection for those interested in not only poetry but culture.


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Book Review — The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment

Leary’s influence in art, culture, and politics throughout the 1960s was
wide-ranging. While President Nixon accused him of being out to corrupt
the nation’s youth into drug taking, many within the counterculture saw
him as a visionary, who presented an alternative path to human fulfillment
and harmony through consciousness expansion and the rejection
of game-playing. However, for Leary himself the close of the decade
was to see the limits of his vision decidedly challenged by the system.

The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment is a biography put together by the phycologist’s notes, letters, and other documents. Jennifer Ulrich is the curator of the documents as well as editor and author of this book. Leary’s son, Zach, provides the forward.

Leary was ultimately known for the use of psychedelic drugs to increase human consciousness and experience. This work shows the transformation of a middle-class phycologist into the counterculture guru. Early correspondence is with Allen Ginsberg but is not limited to the Beat culture although it did offer a starting point for experiments and documentation. Leary conversed with others too like Carl Sagan.

Documents include “trip reports” from various volunteers. Leary turned to Albert Hofman, the first person to synthesize LSD and take it. Hofmann is also known for writing his experience of riding a bicycle while on LSD. Aldous Huxley is also a source of letters and information until his death in 1963.

Some space is given to Leary as a fugitive.  His 1965 Laredo arrest under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 lead to a conviction and a thirty-year sentence.  The Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Although Leary was free, it did lead to the creation the DEA and federal controlled substance laws under Nixon.  Leary was arrested again in California in 1970 and sent to a low-security prison.  He promptly escaped and moved to Algiers, then Switzerland.  Returning back to Switzerland from Afghanistan he was taken into custody by US agents.  Governor Brown would later pardon him in 1976.  In an interesting change of events, Leary took to personal computers as his new savior.  In fact, one of Leary’s last acts was posting a recipe for an edible marijuana bud on a Ritz cracker.

An interesting look at Leary through his personal documents.  It’s not quite a biography in a traditional sense but an examination of personal papers.  A book for the reader with knowledge of Leary’s life and work but wants to see more of the original documents.


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