Book Review — American Hippo

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American Hippo presents an entertaining adventure of an alternative US where the lower Mississippi River has been blocked off in a plan to raise hippos for meat. As strange as this sounds, it almost really happened in the early 20th century. What evolves is a story of revenge, with some very colorful characters who travel on hippos. Its a western with a twist. There are the good guys, who aren’t necessarily all that good. The bad guy runs casinos on the river and feeds the rowdy and cheaters to the gators…or rather hippos. Slightly different kind of western that is thrilling and filled with colorful characters and fierce hippos.

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Book Review — Gambling on War: Confidence, Fear, and the Tragedy of the First World War

Gambling on War: Confidence, Fear, and the Tragedy of the First World War by Roger L. Ransom is a study of the First World War through the eyes of an economist. Ransom is a professor of history and economics at the University of California, Riverside. He is the coauthor of the groundbreaking work One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation.

Over the last few years piles of new books about World War I have been published. Since the 100th anniversary of the start of the war in 2014 to the coming anniversary of its end, this November, many books have reexamined the war that defined the 20th century. Perhaps one of the biggest advancements was in mobilization. Railroads changed the speed of the war. Industry (blood and steel according to Bismark) was modern warfare. Most wars of the previous period were those of colonization a power going against an undeveloped country. Although there was death, it was not on a grand scale. The American Civil War was a prelude of what was to come large-scale continued fighting and attrition.

World War I involved economic powers of Europe and nearly bankrupted them in the process. Ransom does something interesting in his thesis on the war. He looks at the war from an economic perspective. Bismark was a master of the “risk versus reward” in his early policies with Denmark and Austria-Hungary in unifying Germany. In addition to risk versus reward, fear plays a major factor in the upcoming war. Secret treaties were meant to offset fear of other countries. The previous balance of power that kept the peace was being eaten away by secrecy. It is not so much that alliances caused the war. Alliances are effective in keeping the peace when open. NATO is a prime example.

Ransom uses the Composite Index of National Capability Score to assign economic power to the warring nations. This is a more accurate indicator of power than GDP. These values change over time. Britain was the clear world leader in 1850. By 1914, The United States, Britain, and Germany were competing for dominance. By 1919 the US was the dominant nation and Germany was on level with Russia which was fighting its civil war, but still above a devastated France. Another telling aspect are the graphs used to show yearly imports, exports, agricultural production, GPD, and industrial out for each of the major combatants. Each country is a bit different in the way the war took its toll. For example, German imports crashed while Britain’s imports skyrocketed. Austria- Hungary’s graph plotted impending disaster.

Confidence and fear played a major role in the war.  It was also a war no one wanted to fight but no one was able or willing to stop.    Fear brought secret alliances.  Unlike open alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact which kept the peace, secret alliances increased both fear and confidence.  Fear of invasion created a need for allies; secrecy was needed to prevent possible enemies from forming their own alliances. Confidences as in Austria-Hungary knowing Germany would support and defend them from Russia were responsible for the actual start of the war.  Gambling on War is an excellent look at the war through economics.

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Poetry Review — The Sexual Repression Collection

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The Sexual Repression Collection by Nicole I-Nesca is a collection of free verse poetry. Nicole I-Nesca was born in Ohio. She developed a love of music, painting and writing early on and continued that love throughout her adult life. While living in Canada, she completed her first body of works The Sexual Repression Collection. She has been published in several E-Zines and has been a part of two anthologies. She and her husband, Tony, are the editors of the underground publishing company Screamin’ Skull Press and resides in Winnipeg.

I-Nesca style of writing goes well with being read aloud. The reader will capture much more of the rhythm and flow of the poems hearing them. The work contains an interesting mix of themes. One that runs through the work is that of a Catholic sense of guilt in terms of sinners, saints, absolution, and transgressions. It is balanced with rich imagery:

marzipan dreams and schemes of a tomorrow
unintentional free willing letting the virus filled
propagandized agendas ignoring bigger brother
hypocrisy foaming with power handed over by me
you he she and the guy across the street now
raging from cages barking howling complaining
about money oil and the toils boiling society

~ “hungry”

The lack of punctuation, capital letters, and lines that do not complete a thought create a dreamy, surreal landscape for the reader. Again, reading aloud does help create some mental boundaries with the structure without disturbing the flow. Poems like “Pinata” explode into being bringing color and emotion to the poem.  A collection well worth reading and exploring.  Not every reading will give the same meaning.  The style is open to interpretations.  The form is free-flowing.  Pausing a word sooner or later may change the meaning.  It is a wonderful and hazy state of poetry.

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Poetry Review — Emma Strunk

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Emma Strunk by Tony Nesca is a novel written in verse about life in “peg zero.”  Nesca was born in Torino, Italy in 1965 and moved to Canada at the age of three. He was raised in Winnipeg but relocated back to Italy several times until finally settling in Winnipeg in 1980.

Peg Zero is a semifictional Winnipeg and a Winnipeg without any “win.” The collection of poems strike many cords and possible influences. There is the grittiness of Herbert Selby Jr. The drug-induced frenzy of Lou Reed and, too, a bit of the wild side. There is also the looming dread of the future from a Joe Strummer London filled with squatters. There is that feeling that many who grew up in the big cities in the 1970s remember — some nostalgic and some foreboding. It is real and not the sugar-coated sitcom of “Good Times”. Nesca captures that feeling through the lives of several characters all trying to survive knowing the future is bleak.

Our narrator leads us through the lives and relationships of several intertwined characters. Reggie is from Barbados:

he be cruising the streets
with pirate sensibilities lives
at a whorehouse surrounded by
tits and ass all funky pearls
now it’s true he’s a junky
it’s true he’s a hustler
it’s also true he doesn’t give a shit about me or
you

Laura is trying to make it work with Mike they both hit the pipe and she works as a dominatrix and hooks to make ends meet. Bob sells crack. Timmy is from Greece; sensitive, intellectual, but abused. Tracy is a junkie and hooker in an abusive relationship with Bob. Destiny is a native of Manitoba who fell into Peg Zero. Finally, Emma Strunk is perhaps the patron saint of Peg Zero. A rather mystical person who may be an ideal or just imaginary.

Emma Strunk is a brutally honest look at inner-city life.  Although dark there are moments of light like Mike and Laura in the park two weeks free of crack and planning for a better tomorrow.  Peg Zero, however, is much like a singularity.  A black hole that the residents circle on the event horizon.  Unable to escape the gravity, they exist in a limbo knowing the only way out is through the black hole and no one survives that trip. The verse adds to the feel much like lyrics add to a song.  Although dark and even depressing at times the reader will be drawn into the story and the characters.  It is an immersion into life in Peg Zero and the reader will feel compelled to follow.

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Book Review — Rockabilly Psychobilly: An Art Anthology

Rockabilly Psychobilly by Jamie Kendall

Rockabilly Psychobilly: An Art Anthology by Jamies Kendall is an illustrated collection of art from posters, movies, album covers, and just plain art. Rockabilly and its followers are described by Kendall as:

Rockabilly is the country boy pluckin’ away on his banjo, who gets off at the bus station and plays a few dive bars with such feeling that it compels people to get up and shake a leg (in a way those classically trained boys never could).

She’s that scrappy urchin chasing chickens and climbing trees, who grows up, fills out, gets her hair did, and before you know it, flyboys are painting her on the nose of their planes.

I believe the great appeal of modern rockabilly culture is that, at its core, it’s a working-class, people’s renaissance.

Psychobilly is more of the same but includes a bit of horror in the form of animated zombies, ghouls, and werewolves. Both contain women who as mentioned above would be right at home on a nose of a WWII bomber. The men sport pompadour ducktail haircuts and leather jackets. There are plenty of hot rods and more than a few motorcycles in this alternate reality of the 1950s. Kendall presents music choices to accompany your reading or rather viewing. Bands range from Stand up bass to Queen (yes, Freddy Mercury’s band). Psychobilly includes The Reverand Horton Heat to the Nekromantix. The music adds to the feel and the variations in themes.

Kendall knows his stuff and writes an informative introduction and occasionally adds comments to the art.  He is also the voice and guitar of the psychobilly band Batmobile. Also listed are the websites of the artist used in this collection for the reader after more art or more information.  A great collection of (warped) 1950s America captured in art and music.

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Book Review — House of Islam: A Global History

House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain is a history and explanation of Islam by an educated Western Moslem. Husain is a writer, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and a former senior advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. He is the author of The Islamist, a book about political Islamism and an account of his five years as an Islamist activist. Husain cofounded, with Maajid Nawaz, the counter-extremism organization the Quilliam Foundation.

In the West, there seems to be a single definition of Islam that is portrayed in the media and in the minds of many. This seems to include ISIS, the Taliban, and sharia law. However, Christianity is a peaceful religion that promotes charity, treating all people well, and the Golden Rule. Jesus’ message was one of love and inclusion. We seem to hold polarizing views. No reasonable person would say that the Westboro Baptist Church and its message represents mainstream Christianity. The same can be said of the Aryan groups’ version Christianity. Today we in the West oppose slavery when it was part of the Christian past. I have not read of modern Jews practicing Deuteronomy 21:20-21. There are parts, and laws, of the Bible that are no longer parts society. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean it is practiced.

Husain is a first generation British Moslem. What makes this book so important is it is written by a Western-raised and educated Moslem. He joined the Islamic Society of Britain. Studied Arabic in Syria, and worked for the British Council in Saudi Arabia. His first name is actually Mohamed but students started calling him Ed. What Husain presents in this book is a history of Islam that explains the religion by a practitioner who is also an educated and successful Westerner. He speaks to an audience that he is part of.

House of Islam covers the history of the religion from Muhammad through the Sunni Shia schism and into modern times. Also discussed is Sufism which brought forth some of the regions best poets one that most have heard of or read — Rumi. This is followed by sections on Ottoman Turkey and Islamists.

Relations with the Jews is covered n great detail. In Indonesia, a non-Arab Moslem country, 47% of the population had a low opinion of Jews. An interesting poll considering Indonesia does not have the history and interactions that Arab countries did and still do. Education is another interesting subject:

‘Knowledge and wisdom are the lost properties of the believer,’ taught Imam Ali, ‘so seek them even if they be with infidels.’

Today many see education as memorizing large tracts of the Koran in Arabic but without understanding the language. Memorizing is more important than understanding. Perhaps pre-Vatican II Catholics share the similar experience. As with other subjects, Hussain separates canon from cultural tradition in explaining laws, women, and sex in Moslem countries. Traditions play a large role in the culture. There is nothing in the Koran that states women must wear black in public but in countries like Saudi Arabia, there is little, if any, variation.

House of Islam presents an even view and explanation of Islam and its history.  Hussain separates the words of the prophet from tradition and sayings that are attributed to Muhammad.  He presents a sensible and easy to follow description of the religion that would benefit many in the West.

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Book Review — Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World

Einstein & The Art of Mindful Cycling: Achieving Balance in the Modern World by Ben Irvine is a side by side look at the father of Relativity and the simplest machine used for travel. Irvine is a writer, publisher, campaigner, and recovered philosopher. He blogs for The School of Life, teaches philosophy to undergraduates at Cambridge University and is an Honorary Associate in the Philosophy department at Durham University.

As a reader of science who had a dose of philosophy in college and grad school and as a former bicycle racer and current bicycle mechanic, I pick this book up with great interest. The Einstien biography is interesting and the parallel bicycling history and philosophy run together smoothly. Einstien “A socialist who championed freedom, a loner who cared deeply for humanity, a non-believer who saw the universe as God’s handiwork – Einstein was Time magazine’s ‘person of the century.’” He was also a bike rider. He first imagined traveling alongside a beam of light while riding his bike. There is something peaceful and relaxing about riding. Much like Nietzsche and Thoreau who earlier found their mindfulness in walking, cycling slows one down and allows one to see the area and detail around them. There is a peacefulness in rolling along at 15 mph on quiet streets that isn’t there driving at highway speeds or fighting through gridlock. Bicycling relieves stress.  Driving causes stress. A human on a bike is more efficient than any other animal or machine. The calories per mile equate to 3,000 miles per gallon of gasoline.

More on the science and philosophy. The bicycle is a very simple machine four sets of bearings, a chain and cog system, a frame that will last a lifetime. Irvine states that cyclists are not image conscious individuals. I disagree. Having worked in the industry cyclists are the people willing to spend hundreds of dollars to lose 5 grams of rotational mass. They will also spend hundreds on training computers that document every moment on the bike. I have also seen $14,000 bicycles roll out of the shop. I do appreciate the non-image conscience riders. The industry, however, revolves around the newest, lightest, fastest seekers. I have been riding my single speed, steel framed bike for over a decade and have no reason to “upgrade.”  Like, Einstien, and some riders, I am not image conscious.

I think Irvine also knows his philosophy on the bicycle is from the ideal point of view, much like most philosophy and it does lose something in putting it to practical use. He does admit that the default argument against cycling is that it is too dangerous; cars on the street being the biggest threat. In the North Dallas area cars routinely make no stop right turns on red, ignore crosswalks, and have no problem with running cyclists off the road. It is dangerous. Of course, there are parks and bike paths, but one still needs to get to these safely. Having to drive your bike in a car to go ride your bike seems a bit ridiculous. Perhaps, too,  it is a bit quieter in Irvine’s neighborhood. Commuting unless very early in the morning is more stressful than mindful. But, yes, in theory, cycling away from the routine dangers is enjoyable and mindful.  The rider becomes one with the environment rather than sealed away from it.  “Cycling is a living meditation: it allows us to achieve mindfulness not in a hidden retreat but in the full flow of life, while still deriving the same lasting benefits.” An enjoyable, imaginative, and informative read.

 

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