Monthly Archives: January 2014

Book Review: E. E. Cummings: A Life

I value freedom; and have never expected freedom to be anything less than indecent.
e.e. cummings

e. e. cummings by Susan Cheever

E.E. Cummings: A Life by Susan Cheever is a biography of the American poet, Cheever is a graduate of Brown University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and director of the board of the Yaddo Corporation. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College and the New School. Cheever is the author of over a dozen books, including American Bloomsbury.

The book is short for a biography of a man with a long history, but it concentrates on the high and low points and avoids the lulls that are found in longer biographies. The life story, however, seems to be complete. Cheever met Cummings when she was still in school. Cummings was performing a lecture and reading at the Masters School. Her father was friends with the poet. The young Cheever was impressed by Cummings anti- established opinions. At that time, his work was compared to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” The comparison is more than subject matter, but style. Duchamp attempts to capture the entire descent down the staircase, start to finish, in a single image and Cummings attempts to capture the same effect with words. It was at Cumming’s suggestion to her father that Cheever was moved from her uptight school to a very progressive one.

Rather than summarize Cumming’s life in this review, I will look at something Cheever does in the book. Late in the book Cheever compares Cummings to Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s love for the outdoors, “Tintern Abbey” for example, and Cumming’s Joy Farm. Both men idolized youth and saw that youth had a purity that was missing later in life. I also found a few parallels myself. Both men had daughters out of wedlock and were separated from them. Both men traveled a great deal for their time and class. Also, both men had a negative view of the establishment. Wordsworth support for the Republican movement in France, but was abhorred the Reign of Terror and the subsequent crowning of an emperor. Cummings also had his problems with authority and the establishment that went much further than youthful rebellion. Much like Wordsworth, revolution excited Cummings. He wanted to see the paradise that the Soviet Union had become, but left disillusioned. Cummings became disenchanted with many things in his life he hated Jews and he hated Hitler. He hated Roosevelt and he hated Stalin. He was an equal opportunity hater.

E.E. Cummings: A Life is a well researched and well written biography of one of America most read poets. Cheevers captures the life and the mind of the poet. Like most writers of his time he lived an exciting life, filled with controversy, alcohol, and prescription drugs. His life can be compared to that of a modern rock star. The highs and lows of fame. He had the groupies and the crowds. And like very few rock stars he was able to rise above the moment of fame and produce a lasting work and a lasting name.

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Book Review: Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing

Myself and Some Other Being by Daniel Robinson

Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing by Daniel Robinson is a study of, for the most part, Wordsworth and the creation of “The Prelude”. Robinson earned his BA in English from James Madison University, and he earned his Masters and PhD from the University of South Carolina. Robinson is currently a Professor of English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. His area of expertise is British Romanticism and rock and roll. Robinson is also the bass player and singer/songwriter for, the aptly named, Milton and the Devil’s Party.http://danielrobinson.org/category/mi…

It has been years, decades more like it, since I thought of Wordsworth or Coleridge. I do, though, enjoy British Victorian writers — Virginia Woolf in particular. The last experience I had with Wordsworth came as an undergraduate. An over zealous English professor contributed all good in the world to English Literature; and all evil to the French, German, Russian, and especially American Literature. I mistakenly mentioned poetry in the modern world, Jim Morrison was the example I used. I was immediately scolded for trying to compare a drug addict to the greatness of Wordsworth or Coleridge. I responded, “Wasn’t Coleridge an opium addict?” That got me branded a heretic, because that (addiction) was something entirely different. My final error was writing a paper on T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland from a post World War I historical perspective, instead of citing fertility rituals. As a history major I wasn’t too worried about the class, but that was the only “C” I received in college. I gave up on poetry for a long time after that. English literature took a back seat to Russian Literature and was considered to be part of the dust bin of literature, in my mind. Eventually, through Patti Smith, I was brought back into poetry by her work, which lead me to Rimbaud. I eventually read Blake and Byron with caution, knowing I was drifting into an area I believed was poison. I really liked Blake and Byron and Shelley too. So, I figured after all these years, I should give Wordsworth a try, again.

I frequently use rock/punk rock references in my reviews. After being shot down for doing so as an undergraduate, I was surprised when reading Myself and Some Other Being to come across the name “Morrissey.” I was even more surprised to see it was the same Morrissey of Smiths fame. A little further along I read a reference to Roy Orbison and another to The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. Still another reference to Wordsworth and Coleridge as being the Lennon and McCartney; this is the duo that wanted to top Milton. Here is everything but calling Wordsworth punk rock, I thought, until I read, “The epic poet is the archetypical badass.” Yeah, Wordsworth was the Lou Reed of his day. 

Myself and Some Other Being is more about the writing than the writer. There is discussion of Wordsworth’s themes of memory and imagination. Memory is important because a poem cannot be written when the emotion is experienced, but emotions like wine need time to mature. Memory can also help us reconnect to the happier freer times of our youth, as written in “Tintern Abbey.” One thing that greatly impressed me and still does is the idea that experience changes our perceptions:

Yet, as Wordsworth asserts, we can go back to the same place (or poem) but we can never have the same experience because we are not the same. The place (or poem) may not change but we do. In this way memory always involves loss — because our past becomes, in effect, imaginary, nonmaterial inventory. So does one’s former self. 

The majority of the book is Wordsworth’s work on “The Prelude” an autobiographical multi-volume poem of his personal development as a writer. I get the feeling that although partnered, in writing, with Coleridge, he did not feel he was the equal or maybe even being a worthy subject of a massive autobiography of his maturation as a poet. Coleridge seemed to steal the show with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Maybe Wordsworth knew more than he let on about where he felt he was career-wise. Maybe another British rock duo may be just as appropriate as Lennon and McCartney. In keeping with the rock theme, maybe Wordsworth was the David Gilmour to Coleridge’s Roger Waters. Water’s wrote the entire album “The Wall” except for the one song that was a hit, and the one everyone knows, “Comfortably Numb,” which was written by Gilmour. Wordsworth was wanting his “hit” to be “The Recluse”, which unfortunately he never finished and quite frankly didn’t need it as a high mark of his writing. 

Wordsworth life was interesting from happy childhood memories to being embarrassed at being too “country” at Cambridge. He supported working class values and hated aristocratic privilege. At Cambridge, he worked as well as studied on what today would be a work study program. Although work allowed him to attend school, it further lowered his standing among students of privilege. He supported the French Revolution, but hated the results — overthrowing a king to crown an emperor. In 1843 he reluctantly accepted the position as Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. “The Prelude” was printed just months after his death by his sister. 

This new appreciation for Wordsworth has overturned most of my hard feelings as an undergraduate. It isn’t often that a book can change long held beliefs and even less often when that was not the author’s intent. Myself and Some Other Being: Wordsworth and the Life Writing is well written and an excellent book on what it is to be a writer. It also covers enough of Wordsworth life and experiences to bring everything together rather nicely. I am leaving this experience with a much greater appreciation of Wordsworth as a man, a writer, and a rock star of his time. An Excellent read. 

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Book Review: Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930

Reading Arabia by Andrew C. Long

Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880 -1930 by Andrew C. Long is a study of the Middle East in British literature. Long earned his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and his PhD in Comparative Literature from the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. He currently teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University. Long previously taught at American University in Beirut. 

I was not exactly sure what to expect from this book. My interests lie in history and English literature of that time period. I was expecting more of a socio-political treatment of the period rather than a detailed study of the literature and authors. This book is not about the major historical aspect of this period, such as the partitioning of the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq, the results of the Afghanistan conflict, but about literature of the period. 

The works covered include Richard Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra and Arabian Nights EntertainmentsThe Scented Garden and others by the Kama Shastra Society which were considered more pornographic than literature. Among the groups the Cannibal Club, members of Victorian society, interested in exotic pornography. Burton had quite a unique view of the world. He claimed by his research most Mediterranean men are bisexual while Arabs are pederasts. He also noted, and apparently measured, a male Somalian’s genital size for a footnote for one of his texts. Other texts covered and analyzed are Doughty’s Travels and Edith Hull’s The Sheik, made famous by Rudolph Valentino. 

Some of the literature had very little to do with the Middle East and Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Tragedy of Korosko which was an adventure novel that merely used the Sudan as a backdrop for the story. Hull, who wrote The Sheik, had never visited the Middle East. She was what could be described as a middle class housewife. Following her, more authors started writing “desert romance” books. 

Reading Arabia covers an interesting period of British history and a few important advancements in British society. The first was the social movements that created leisure time and a middle class. Secondly, there were advancements in printing, making books affordable to most people. Lastly, there was the British Empire. Most people never left England and the far off exotic lands provided an interesting escape from daily drudgery.Reading Arabia may not be a book for historians, but for students of British literature and culture and sociologists this is a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: Savage Death: Not Forgiven

Savage Death: Not Forgiven by Erich Penoff is the second book in The Savage Series. Penoff is a world traveler and has been to the mostly “untouristy” places such as Afghanistan, the Congo, India, and Pakistan. He speaks as someone who has been to and experienced wars and troubles firsthand. His biography does not explain what he did in the years preceding his retirement, but he does write with familiarity of the French Foreign Legion and mercenaries. What impressed me the most was he is one of the few non-Marines who capitalized the “M” in Marine. Thank you.

I really enjoyed the first book in the series, and was pleasantly surprised to see the request to review the next book. Like the first book, this is a thinking man’s thriller. It is much more nuts and bolts of the mission and character development than the “super spy” type books of the cold war. Much more Smiley than Bond. I was going to say it’s not about fast cars and beautiful women, but then there is a Jaguar XKE with curves like French intelligence agent Nixe. Even so they remain subdued in the story. The Jaguar is a retirement project. The main characters are aging and looking into the retirement they deserve; they have the scars to prove it.

Marco is happily retired in Canada when he is tracked down by a mountie with a short telegram: Michael Simon is dead. Michael was Marco’s long time friend along with investment banker Karl Wittgen. Marco and Michael recently finished a job for Karl in the Congo reclaiming investor’s gold. That was their retirement job. Michael, was brutally murdered with by people with connections to the Congo and the gold. He reported a counterfeit cognac smuggling operation that got him the attention of organized crime. Marco is set on revenge and calls in his old friends for help.

Many of the characters from the first novel play major parts in this book also. There is enough of an introduction to the main players that reading the first book is not necessary to understand the players or plot. Pennoff writes a very straightforward story and uses the substance of the story to sell his book. Reading there was not a single time where I said to myself “That could never happen.” Revenge, realism, and the power of the Euro are major themes in the story.
The story itself takes a few turns and things do not always go as planned. Marco has to adjust his plans to the realities of the situation. The story crosses three counties and reflects the culture and history of those countries. Marco will also teach you a thing or two about Austrian cuisine. The characters in the story are real people and have a strong sense of loyalty.

Savage Death (Not Forgiven) (The Savage Series) is extremely well written and flows well. The pace is fast enough to keep the reader’s interest and complex enough to keep you thinking. It is a thinking man’s adventure story. Like the cognac Marco used to drink, nothing is rushed in the story. A main character in his sixties knows not to rush into trouble but is still hell bent on revenge. An excellent continuation of the series.

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Steaming into the Firing Line: Tales of the Footplate in Wartime Britain

Steaming into the Firing Line by Michael Clutterbuck

http://www.authoralliance.net/book-re…

Steaming into the Firing Line: Tales of the Footplate in Wartime Britain by Michael Clutterbuck is a collection of short stories about the lives of railway workers during WWII. Clutterbuck is the son of a Chester railway man and he, much like myself, spent many childhood hours spotting trains. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

For some, trains are more than just machines to move people and goods. There is a mystique with trains, much like biplanes and old motorcycles, and steam engines hold a special place. In America, they helped build the West. Steam engines connected the coasts of America and every school kid has seen the picture of the driving of the golden spike linking the coasts by rail. Trains made America. Today our rail system is neglected and far below the standards of the rest of the developed world. In Europe trains still live on and are considered a part of everyday life. The connection to the rails still exists.

Steaming follows the lives of driver (engineer) George Denton and fireman Lance Hargreaves. George is the conservative, professional, father figure to the young fireman Lance. Lance is young and a bit rough around the edges. His actions at times make him an example for others rather than an example to others. He tries his best and has promise to be promoted to driver. George does his best to guide him along.

The book spans years and the beginning at the dawn of the second world war. Thoughts of the war being over by Christmas are quickly crushed by the previously unimaginable bombings of England. Railroads take on an important role in the war effort. From hauling wounded from the evacuation of Dunkirk to hospitals in the interior of England to carrying war supplies military bases, the railroad workers were the unsung heroes of the war. Working the rails was by no means safe, in fact trailways were prime targets for the Luftwaffe bombing raids.

The setting and storytelling is superb. Reading the book felt very much like watching an old 1940s movie: A little gritty, maybe a bit over acted to make the point, and characters that are very familiar. There was almost the feeling I was reading in black and white instead of color. The characters make real life choices and get caught up in real life dilemmas. You feel the pain of the war and at the same time comfort of a pot of tea boiled over the engine’s fire. There are slightly humorous stories such as being mistaken for a spy and some very serious stories too. The stories are important too in that they give a picture of wartime England.

“Get your facts right” shows how quick people were to make judgments. People were losing their sons and spouses in the war and then see railroad drivers and firemen living in the “safe” civilian world while ours died. Firemen and drivers were protected positions; they could not even volunteer for combat because they were so badly needed at home to support the war. England did not have enough drivers and the training was long. There was a formal apprenticeship program that took years to for a person to move to the position of driver. War accelerated the process, but there still remained a shortage of drivers.

Trains, of course, make up the other part of the story and the casual reader will learn a few things about the steam engines and maybe a bit of English geography too. There is an appendix that will help the readers with the railroad terminology. For Americans reading the book, your Kindle dictionary and Wikipedia will help with the English slang of the 1940s. For those not familiar with steam engines, there is also a helpful guide to explain the number strings like 2-4-0 or 0-6-0. Once you understand the engines they are very easy to visualize.

Steaming is a combination of of steam engines, World War II, great characters, and very good story telling that link a collection of short stories into a fine novel. A great book for fans of steam engines and the home front of WWII.

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Book Review: A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts by Colin Fisher is a fictional account of part of the Spanish Civil War. Fisher was born in 1961 in Kirkintilloch, Scotland and graduated with a masters degree in history from Edinburgh University in 1983. To supplement his writing Fisher teaches at a British school in Madrid. Spain has been his home for the last ten years.

In A Republic of Wolves, the Spanish Civil War did not end in April of 1939 but went on into 1940, and the trenches encroached on the city of Madrid. I wondered why the author would have the war extended into the next year, but I came to realize it created some interesting twists. First, the Communists supporting the Republican forces are neutralized by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, otherwise known as the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, in August of 1939. The Republican communists are viewed as traitors as the Soviets allied with the Nazis who supported the Nationalist fascists. It also opened up American support to the Republican forces. In the novel, America comes through with planes, tanks, and consumer goods. Propaganda posters originally showing the USSR as the Republican partner are slowly being replaced with ones showing Uncle Sam.

The story centers around Maria, a middle aged woman who delivers food to refugees in Madrid. She isolates herself from the war as much as she can. In Republican held territory, she needs to be. Her husband was a Falangist who influenced her oldest child. He was not a good husband and mistreated Maria. He did not survive in the war and appears to have been executed in the street. Maria also maintains a low profiles as her oldest son is in the trenches of Madrid, on the Nationalist side. A chance meeting with her son changes her life. She gains the attention of Captain Gregorio and Sergeant Izaguirre and is the key in meeting with Ignaz Gunter who will only meet with Maria. Maria is also cautious around Republican officials because it appears her other son is a deserter from the Republican forces. Her low profile existence is about to change.

Captain Gregorio is an interesting character in himself. He has earned the respect of his men and soldiers in general. Gregorio does something every Marine will recognize; he puts sergeants in charge of the men and lets the experienced non-commissioned officers carry out his orders. He keeps a veteran, 50 year old, sergeant with him and has the sergeant execute orders. He takes Maria in to protect her from enemies on both sides. Gregorio is also on a mission of his own that he is determined complete.

Fisher does an excellent job of showing the chaos involved in the war. The Spanish Civil War was not a two sided war. It was made up of two opposing coalitions that were by no means cohesive. Extending the war a year shows the splintering of the sides, especially on the Republican side. There are points where people could no longer trust their own friends.

A Republic of Wolves starts slow and builds up fairly quickly into a fairly intense story. Maria is a very likeable character who is dragged into the war by events beyond her control. Gregorio makes for the perfect officer, smart, determined, and unemotional. When others rant he remains calm. Sergeant Izaguirre is the model non-commissioned officer and looks out for his people including Maria. Great characters and setting make for excellent reading, and the alternative war history allows for some interesting plot twists. A City of Ghosts is plausible alternative history with a very well written story.

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Book Review: Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob

The Dylanologists by David Kinney

Dylanologists:Adventures in the Land of Bob by David Kinney is a mix of Bob Dylan biography and part overzealous fanbase. Kinney is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has worked for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His previous book is The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish — a book about Martha’s Vineyard. 

I would imagine that there are few people alive today who do not know who Bob Dylan is or who cannot name a few lines of one of his songs. As a child I remember listening to “Bob Dylan’s Dream” on 45, mainly because the opening line mentioned trains and I loved trains. I think the only other singer I remember from that very young age was David Bowie and that was because of his eerie reading of Peter and the Wolf. Bob Dylan seemed to follow me in my younger years. I remember the Saturday Night Live parody of “Blowing in the Wind” redone as “The answer, my friends, is Ronald Reagan” in a Dylan meets the Invasion of the Body Snatchers mashup. Although Bob Dylan did not fit into my friends Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC listening preferences in high school, I did buy Slow Train Coming. I am a fan, but nothing crazy, an occasional listener. But I will admit Dylan did have an influence on me and American culture.

To say Bob Dylan has enthusiastic fans is a huge understatement.Dylanologist brings some of the biggest fans to the spotlight. Some are so avid they make the KISS Army seem tame. Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota is a “historic” site. The residents and the media are always alert for a Bob Dylan sighting. Zimmy’s Restaurant is a shrine to Dylan and an eatery for the fans who make the pilgrimage Hibbing. Fans seek out every Bob Dylan artifact from the house he grew up in, to bootleg tapes, and everything related or touch by the singer. 

The biography covers Dylan, from his childhood through the present, and like other biographies show the changes in the singer’s persona. It is difficult to tell what Dylan’s motivation is to constantly change his image. From folk singer, to supporting social movements, to not supporting social movements, to outspoken Christian, to talking to his rabbi, to just wanting to perform music. Dylan worked to keep his fans off balanced and not knowing what to expect next from the singer. 

Dylanologist is an interesting mix of Dylan biography and the extreme fans of Bob Dylan. The intermixing of the two subjects works well and will keep the reader interested. If you have already read Dylan biographies, there is plenty of new information concerning his fans and their reactions to the various incarnations of the singer. A great book for Dylan fans and for those wanting to know what fan obsession is all about. 

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