Book Review — Iran: A Modern History

Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat is a detailed five hundred year history of Iran. Amanat received his B.A. from Tehran University in Social Sciences in 1971 and his D.Phil. from the Faculty of Oriental Studies, Oxford University in 1981. He is a Professor of History and International Studies and Director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies. Amanat is a historian of Iran and Shia Islam, and the modern Middle East. He specializes in Qajar Iran as well as the history of messianic and apocalyptic movements in the Islamic world.

For many, Iran became a fixture in American politics 1979 with the revolution and the taking of American hostages by college students. Iran was in the news again with talk of Reagan and the hostage release and later arms for hostages. Today Iran is the news as the US and others work to stop their nuclear weapons development. For those with a sense of history, President Hassan Rouhaniseemed to mimic Woodrow Wilson with his statement that “Death to America” is not directed to American people but to the actions of the American government.

Iran (or Persia) has a long a history and a deep culture that is detailed in Amanat’s book. Culture in arts and life adds greatly to a country’s history, changing it from a detailed listing of events and adding a human factor. This is, unfortunately, missing from many histories that are not typically Western. Culture adds to the reader’s understanding.

That being said, the revealing of the history is done with great detail and clarity. Perhaps the best thing about a well-written history is it explains how a country became what it is today. Why is Iran anti- American (government)? Why is Iran so concerned about its security? Are nuclear weapons a power grab or just a deterrent? Why do so many allies of the US have full diplomatic relations with Iran? How can one Muslim state be at odds with nearly all other Muslim states?

I found the period between World War and World War II the most interesting and, for my part, the most unexpected.  This is the birth of modern Iran and its regional and international struggles.  Here too is where the internal struggle between conservative Islam and Western culture seem to clash and continue to struggle even today.

Iran has a rich history that is a struggle.  That history also explains why present-day Iran evolved into what it is.  For many Americans, it seems more like a Cold War situation, a representation of worldwide terrorism.  To Iran, it sees a world ready to exploit any weakness and remembers every betrayal on the world stage.  This is a book that will bring a broader understanding of a country that only preconceptions exist.  The first step in better relations is understanding. Amanat does a tremendous job of educating the reader, even a reader with a background in history.


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Book Review — Beowulf

Beowulf by Translated by Stephen Mitchell is a contemporary translation of the classic poem. Mitchell was educated at Amherst, the Sorbonne, and Yale, and de-educated through intensive Zen practice. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, Meetings with the Archangel, Gilgamesh, The Second Book of the Tao, and the Iliad.

It was in high school years ago that I first read Beowulf.  Monsters, Vikings, and adventure sounded like it would be a great read, however, it turned out to be misery. The text was in old English and not the thing my high school brain wanted to focus on. I asked why it wasn’t written in modern language. I was told it would lose it poetic style and intent. Little did I know, we were reading a translation. Several translations exist of the now unreadable original English. Many high schoolers were probably happy with the 2007 release of Beowulf with Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. Mitchell points out one major flaw of that movie. The characters in the movie talked in almost comic book fashion rather than the well-spoken characters in the original text.

Translations also bring about the problem of the poetry and in particular in this poem the alliteration. Mitchell keeps this alive with alliteration with repeated sound over that of just the first letter. There is a rhythm with words and the line structure that holds true to the original.  In the introduction, Mitchell also discusses another interesting point of the poem, religion.  In the poem, a singular God is mentioned throughout.  It is not the Norse pantheon.  The God, however, is a bit ambiguous.  Although called Lord and mentions Cain, it does not seem, historically or in the poem, to be the Jewish God.  Yet, the text makes no reference to Jesus or the New Testament.

Mitchell’s translation does an excellent job of preserving the story as well as the literary quality of the original work.  This translation avoids the graphic novel treatment of the classics in simplifying language and the plot.  It is the full text in a format that is easily comprehended by most readers.

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Book Review — Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left by Ian Parker is a collection of essays on keywords for the political left. Parker is Co-Director (with Erica Burman) of the Discourse Unit, Managing Editor of Annual Review of Critical Psychology, Secretary of Manchester Psychoanalytic Matrix, member of the Asylum Magazine editorial collective, and supporter of the Fourth International. He is a researcher, supervisor, and consultant in critical psychology and psychoanalysis.

Revolutionary Keywords is a series of essays based on keywords. It is not a dictionary of definitions but contains commonly used keywords and creates essays built around the word. The essays put the keyword into context in modern socialism. Like most books on socialism, this one, too, becomes complex. The term socialism means many different things to many different people. European socialism, Stalinism, Leninism, Marxism, Democratic Socialism, even America’s capitalist based “socialism” is discussed in order to set the common ground.

The book discusses many aspects of historical socialism as well as modern day.  Topics of race, sex, gender, globalism, and campism are discussed in detail throughout the book. Other topics seem mundane but have deep roots such as discourse, postmodernism, identity, and animals.  The discussions run deep and turn out complex.  At the end, the recap traces the changes in keywords from 1917 -1967 and 1967-2017.  The evolution of keywords leads to the 2017 keywords in this volume.  Although not intended for the general audience, in fact, I found myself a bit entangled in the subject matter.  I felt much the same way on the first day of a semester in graduate school.  Needless to say, it is not light reading, but worth the time and effort for those with an interest in the far left.

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Poetry Review — The Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell

The Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell by Galway Kinnell is a collection of sixty-five years of writing. Kinnell, a Navy veteran, experienced Europe and the Middle East while serving. He was also involved in the civil rights movement. Kinnell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Selected Poems and he studied at Princeton and earned his Master’s degree from the University of Rochester.

The tome of the work is presented in several sections reflecting publications and time. His earlier work takes the form of more traditional poetry with sights and feelings of his ports of call in the navy, particularly France and India.

What storms have blown me, and from where,
What dreams have drowned, or half dead, here

Each year I lived I watched the fissure
Between what was and what I wished for
Widen, until there was nothing left
But the gulf of emptiness.

The traditional form is partly owed to his admiration of Walt Whitman. He then moves to more of a “Beat” type of poetry. His work seems influenced by the movement even though he was not an active participant. His work in the late 1960s and 1970s moves much more into nature poems:

On the tidal mud just before sunset, 
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven

In the 1980s through the 2000s Kinnell finds himself writing as an experienced sage.  He relies on his personal experience and knowledge to create his mature works.  Here, the poems reflect on aging and the death of those who were close and the lives of his children. Kinnell also speaks frequently of religion, but not in the most positive sense. His short poem “Prayer”:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

He had a strong dislike for Christianity.  Some of that can be seen in the long poem, written in the early 1960s, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World”:

A roadway of refuse from the teeming shores and ghettos
And the Caribbean Paradise, into the new ghetto and new paradise,
This God-forsaken Avenue bearing the initial of Christ.

Before reading this collected works, I had not read any Kinnell poetry.  Although I was impressed with several poems his two most anthologized poems slipped by me– “St. Francis and the Sow” and “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps”.  His poems from the from the 1970s and later poems appealed the most to me.  The widespread of his poetry and the evolving topics will sure to find favor with other readers with different tastes than my own.  As a collected work, Kinnell’s poems, show his growth and refinement as a poet.  The introduction by Edward Hirsch will give the reader ample information and background on the poet and his poems.  A well-done collection that will allow the reader to pick and choose his or her favorite topics or simply give the reader something to pick up and randomly read.


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Book Review — Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy

Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian is a collection of ten interviews conducted between 2013 and 2017. Chomsky is sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics.” He is also a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He is the author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism. He holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona. Barsamian is an Armenian-American radio broadcaster, writer, and the founder and director of Alternative Radio, a Boulder, Colorado-based syndicated weekly public affairs program heard on some 250 radio stations worldwide.

Noam Chomsky is a giant not only in linguistics, but also political science. His name is familiar to most people without introduction and there are few, if any, ambiguities in his positions. During these interviews, Chomsky reinforces his political and foreign affairs views that have been published in his other works. At 88, Chomsky is not backing down from his long-held positions. The final interview in the series takes place in June 2017. Here some new information is given. Chomsky tackles the Trump presidency, North Korea, and Bernie Sanders. Sanders is an interesting discussion of the idea of “revolution” in American politics.

Most of the interviews contain explanations of Chomsky’s previous writings and how earlier explanation still apply in today’s world. The rise of ISIS is discussed as well as how to deal with North Korea. Both organizations react negatively to outside force and seem to gain more support when external pressure is applied. Perhaps the largest threat Chomsky sees is the threat of climate change and the war against doing anything to stop it. The overwhelming majority of scientists agree but capitalism’s monied corporations have a much larger voice through lobbyists and supported government representatives. Chomsky even mentions an educational program that on the surface seems to recognize climate change, but instead uses its resources to debate the subject sowing seeds of doubt in young minds.

Chomsky also looks in at America too. The “Make America Great” slogan is laughable. Chomsky believes what made America great was not the mythical 1950s image that the right has today but the sense of community and helping. Today so much is put on consumerism and individual importance. One merely has to watch traffic at intersections and crosswalks to see this in everyday life. We don’t want to build community. Schools lose funding. Arts and libraries suffer. Tax cuts feed the consumerism and corporate profits. Much of the labor is done overseas. Resources are removed from poor countries increasing ill will. The US supports dictators who have raw materials we need. One of the most repressive regimes and whose money actively supports terrorism is our ally, Saudi Arabia. We sow the seeds of hate in the poor both at home and around the world.

Global Discontents provides a great overview of Chomsky’s thinking and his earlier writing.  Chomsky also gives the reader some insight into his personal life.  In the discussion of one quote about Voltaire and crossword puzzles, he explains: “But you can learn things much more easily just by opening the pages of a serious book.” Global Discontents is one of those serious books that from which one can learn many things.

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Poetry Review — Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke & Mirrors by Michael Faudet is the poet’s third collection of published poetry. Faudet is a bit of a mystery and there is some question as to if he is actually a creation of Lang Leav. I don’t subscribe to that explanation but there is a similarity between the two in writing and the fact that they are partners may add to that speculation. Faudet does seem to follow R.H. Sin in not providing personal information. The style of the three poets mentioned above does seem to follow the same format of short poems about a single loved one.

I read Faudet’s Pretty Dirty Things last year and found that he had a talent for pushing limits without the reader knowing that he or she are crossing any. Faudet’s poems do tend to be a bit longer than the two or three line “song lyric quotes” that have been unbelievably popular with the younger hip crowd. In this collection, there is a rather lengthy piece of prose near the middle. The prose is, again, like many poems, more of an adult fantasy story. Between the sex and love Faudet inserts quite a bit of vodka.

Some poems reach for more like “Freedom” and others like “Fame” are basically teenage dreams. “A Long Distance Relationship” is a prose poem chronicling the end of a relationship. In this poem, Faudet concludes with a statement outside of the poem much like a moral in a fable — Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes it just teaches us that we can live apart. Singling out my favorite would have to be the story “The Missing Sock.” It’s conclusion, although rather simple, is a small revelation of the truth.

Smoke and Mirrors is a well-mixed collection of prose and poetry.  I was glad to see poems that were more than a few lines long and a variety of styles.  The title poem was actually very good too which is a bit of a rarity.  This is a collection that the younger crowd will enjoy.  The success of this collection, again, is in the mix of poetry and prose and the rather adult subject matter will hold most readers attention or imagination.

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Poetry Review — The Ballad of Billie Potts

The Ballad of Billie Potts by Robert Penn Warren is an American version of an international folktale. Warren was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic, and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.

John Burt provides a detailed introduction to the story set, in this version, in Kentucky. The story itself is a folktale in Eastern Europe, Ohio, and points further west in the US. The introduction, itself, is longer than the poem. The background provided is excellent. This edition is also illustrated by P. John Burden whose almost three-dimensional renderings are haunting and very much add to the story. The dark works have an unsettling effect as well a constant reminder of doom represented by the crow.

The poem and the drawings represent the land between the water. This, in American lore, is the separation of the established East and the untamed West. The Potts’ Inn represents the border between the East and the West. It is very reminiscent of the introduction to the TV series The Twilight Zone:

It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

As the poem progresses the separation between wilderness and metropolis shrinks until the middle ground almost sits on the edge of a great city contained in something like a park. No longer wilderness in a true sense but a civilized version of the wild… a safe wilderness.  The Potts are not safe and prey off of weaker and richer travelers.  They are an element of danger in moving to the west.  It is city folk versus those people who live in Charlie Daniel’s “Wolley Swamp” or even Hank Williams Jr “Country Boy” song.  Here Warren uses poetry instead of lyrics, but like lyrics, he repeats a refrain “in the land between the rivers.”

A haunting bit of poetry, folklore, and artwork complete a tale that will chill the reader.  The reader will be left to consider which aspect of the book is most important.  Is it the lore, poetry, or artwork, or is it perhaps a perfect combination of the three.  The introduction and a little US history of the expansion West will give the reader a near perfect picture of the Americanization of a folktale.  The story itself verges on creepy and has an exaggerated Appalachian setting.  As Burt notes in the introduction, there is no redemption in this tale but the reader may notice a progress of time and industry unaffected by  “the land between the rivers.”  Very well done on several levels.

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