Monthly Archives: May 2014

Book Review: Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal

Acid Test by Tom Shroder

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal by Tom Shroder is a book that examines the history, government restrictions, and clinical uses of hallucinogens. Shroder is an award winning journalist with many years as a writer and editor for the Washington Post. He is the author and co-author of several books many covering current events.

I picked this book up looking for a traditional nonfiction. Instead, it written as narrative nonfiction. This is an apparently popular way of telling factual stories in a form that reads like nonfiction. Katherine Boo won the National Book Award with her Behind the Beautiful Forevers written in the same manner. Although this format has its fans, many nonfiction readers find it frustrating because none of the information can really be verified because there are no citations, notes, or bibliographies. This style of writing seems to be a favorite of reporters and investigative journalist who usually obtain first hand information and experiences for their writing. In this case, I am pretty sure the Shroder did not witness all the events in the book. If he interviewed the participants, he should have noted in the standard format. This is all standard procedure taught in college and grad school. Document your work.

I do understand that writers have paid their dues and are entitled some latitude. Many times journalists report first hand and do not need to cite their own experiences. However, when writing nonfiction and wanting the reader to believe you, you need to document. Another former journalist Kathryn Schultz published Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. She included fifty pages of notes for her four hundred page book. If she were to tell me something far fetched as truth, I would tend to believe her because I know she is meticulous in her work and presenting factual information. Even if I was unsure, I know I could check her source material. 

Acid Test takes the reader through several decades of work in the field of hallucinogens as clinical drugs. It starts with background on mescaline and ergot, which will lead to LSD. Each decade in the book centers around a single person and their work in the field or as in the case of the Marine and sadly how he became involved in the process. The book covers early testing and treatments along with the fight with the DEA to remove Ecstasy from the Schedule I list. The book looks at the clinical and recreational use of these drugs in almost a plea to allow the medical professor access to these drugs. 

I really do not know what to think of this book. The only part I could fully believe was Nick’s story, the Marine. The Marine Corps doesn’t change much over time still the same type of people, discipline, and attitude. To be honest it was the Marine’s story that kept me reading. The other parts of the book left me feeling like I was reading a script for a movie “based on a true story.” Perhaps Shroder’s work is diligently researched; I don’t know and can’t know. However, if this style of writing increases the number of people reading nonfiction and the authors demonstrate integrity in their work, maybe it could be a good thing. 

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Book Review: Tender Buttons

Just when I begin to understand poetry, I run across a book like this. I did win it in a Goodreads giveaway from City Lights Books, so I did volunteer for it. 

This is not your typical poetry. It is not Wordsworth, it’s not Rimbaud, it’s not even Ginsberg. If it comes close to someone’s writing, I would have to say Burroughs. There is a disconnection within the work. The poetry is in paragraph form and structured much like Naked Lunch’s* cut-up style. In Stein’s cut-up style, common words are joined together. For example, the title tender and buttons, two common words have little in common with each other but seem to fit well together. She also uses the phrase “piece of coffee.” It sounds very wrong, but somehow works well. 

Stein was influenced by the Cubist artists who dissected what they saw and rearranged the pieces in a different order. Below is Braque’s Violin and Candle Stick

The violin and the candlestick are visible in the picture, but not in the way we are used to seeing them. Stein does the same with her words, grammar, and structure. It is all there, but not in the expected manner. 

The poem “Apple” allowed me to see what was being done and acted as a Rosetta Stone for interpretation of many of the poems. Others seemed to take some thinking. The poem “Dining” consists of one line

Dining is west 

I have no idea if my thinking is right, but it went something like: 
Dining = dinner 
dinner = evening
evening = sunset
sunset = west

However the equally simple “Salad”

It is a winning cake

left me clueless. 

The poems are short one line items, like above, to several pages for the poem “Roast Beef” the poems however, seem to have little to do with the title. Most poems, however, fit on a single page. I am not sure what to make of this collection. My mind tries to find a code or a pattern in the work and there probably is not one. In the notes and afterword several theories are discussed from a hidden code to Stein being stoned. I can see where the latter might come from, but I doubt it. I am placing my amateurish opinion her work as an experiment. There are enough similarities in her work and Cubism to make that case. This edition also includes copies of Stein handwritten corrections to the first publication. 

Tender Buttons is worth the read for the open minded and those readers who do not see the need for strict form, grammar, or style…to the extreme. This collection is a mind bender, but one I will be keeping and reading again and again, waiting for that magic moment when it all makes perfect sense.

*In verifying my information on Naked Lunch, I learned that it was rejected by City Lights Books.

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May 23, 2014 · 18:30

Book Review: And the Time is: Poems 1958-2013

What is destiny?
After you learn that governments lie and happiness
is undefinable and death has no patience,
you’ll understand me.

Meanwhile the ignorant but well informed will try to
keep you mute
as a shut book

And the Time Is by Samuel Hazo

And the Time is: Poems 1958-2013 by Samuel Hazo is a collection of poems spanning fifty-five years and chosen by the poet. Hazo is the author of over thirty collections of poetry, essays, plays, and fiction. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1950-1957 and completed his time as a captain. He attended the University of Notre Dame , Duquesne University, and earned his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh. Hazo was a National Book Award Finalist and the first State Poet of Pennsylvania (1993-2003). Currently, he is the director (and founder) of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh and McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Duquesne University.

And the time Is is the summation of over half a century of work, mostly printed in chronological order. A few of observations that seemed to jump out at me, are first, is Hazo service in the Marines. Although far removed from Quantico many of the poems contain military references and themes. From birds appearing to be at parade rest before a flight to, to the human loss, to the use of war as a tool of government are found throughout the collection. Being chronological work there seems to be some change in feeling as time goes by. Early on a veteran speaks, “I wear my flag on my heart, not on my sleeve.” Later, mentioning Pinochet “disappearing” his enemies yet still every Sunday receiving the body of God on a biscuit. The theme shows respect for the men and women who serve as soldier, sailors, and Marines, but a contempt for those who use them as tools. 

Early on in the collection there was a prominent religious tone that fades as time progresses. At times it seems to turn against itself like Pinochet and the church. Religion, war, and violence in general seem to join forces: “Cain’s rock and rocket leave us nothing new to find. In North America the oldest skull’s a woman’s brained from behind.”

Some of the poetry captures memories. Hazo’s “My Roosevelt Coupe” took me back to the days of my Triumph Trophy 250 motorcycle. “Coax it, clutch it, kick it in the gas was every dawn’s scenario. Then off it bucked, backfiring down the block…. All trips were dares. Journeys were sagas. “ Other lines seem capture whole experiences in simple lines: “Let’s breathe like fishermen who sit alone together on a dock and let the wind do all the talking.” 

Others capture bits of lives, the wisdom, and the observations gained by half a century of writing poetry: 

“Before real frontiers passports are invalid.”

“The pilgrim in us has no fixed address. He roams. He takes us with him when he goes.” 

“A Saudi wife, enrobed and cowled like a nun, passes a Cannaise in her isosceles and thong.” 

And the time Is is an excellent collection and a look into how time changes our views. The observations are of his daily life and his views on the world around us: physical, political, and religious. Hazo also mentions one of my favorite writer/philosophers several times through his collection: Albert Camus. This anthology will be published in time for the poets 86th birthday and represents a lifetime of work. And the time Is will provide the reader with an introduction to the poets many other volumes of work. An outstanding collection. 

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Book Review: The July Crisis: The World’s descent into War, Summer 1914

“The spring and summer of 1914 were marked in Europe by an exceptional tranquility.”
Winston Churchill 

The July Crisis: The World’s descent into War, Summer 1914 by Thomas Otte is the history of the events leading to the First World War. Otte is a professor of diplomatic and international history of the 19th and 20th century at the University of East Anglia. He has written books on diplomatic history and China, as well as publishing numerous essays in academic journals. 

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to read and review Cambridge University Press’ Cambridge Honors the Centennial of World War I which featured an excerpt from this book. Otte takes a very detailed look at the events leading to the First World War. It starts with an unprecedented period of peace in Europe interrupted with an assassination in Serbia of the Archduke of a toothless Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor Franz Josef cut short his vacation on the news, only to continue it from his palace. He had little love for the archduke and his wife. The funeral was attended by immediate family, the officer corps was forbidden to salute the funeral train, and neither were buried in the imperial vault. The Emperor was not interested in war and was joined by the Prime Minister Tisza, however, Foreign Minister Berchtold and Chief of the Army Staff Conrad wanted an immediate and punitive war. No one in Europe wanted war except Austria-Hungary foreign minister and chief of staff. 

Although no one wanted war, there was a sense of paranoia between the nations’ militaries. Although no one want to go to war, I received the strong impression that no one really wanted to stop the war either. With each power in each alliance looking at its interests and security there was no consensus. The alliances were different from the alliances of the cold war. The Warsaw Pact and NATO were entangling alliances. The difference was that individual members did not act out on their own. East Germany would not have invaded West Germany on its own initiative or even mobilized its forces on its own initiative. Alliances were controlled (at least in theory) by the will of all member nations. The alliances of World War I acted to drag an ally nation into war rather than prevent it. 

No nation wanted to appear weak even though two were very weak at the time: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Russia was beginning to modernize and war was not what it needed. France had come to accept the loss of Alsace Lorraine. Germany was a growing industrial power with no need of a war. England sat outside the alliances and examined its own interests. War would be detrimental. If Germany won, England would have a new neighbor across the channel challenging its supremacy at sea. If Germany lost, France and Russia would be suspicious England’s motives. Although relations with Germany were growing, perhaps England made its decision earlier. The invasion of neutral Belgium is cited as England’s reason to enter the war. Although bound by treaty to protect Belgium, there was no requirement for military action. Diplomatic condemnation would have been sufficient under the treaty. Germany although in an alliance to defend Austria-Hungary in the event of a Russian or French invasion was under no obligation to make war against France or Russia if Austria-Hungary decided to start a regional war. 

It seems like history set up roadblocks to this war at every turn. Rather than stopping, countries ran through these roadblocks, not dead set on going to war, but almost a laziness to stop the war even with all the opportunities. World War I was a war that should not have been fought. There was opposition at every turn, yet despite the opposition, war came and change the world forever. Otte does an outstanding job of detailing the diplomatic and political road to war. Extensive use of footnotes and a wide selection of source, including primary source material make this the definitive study of the origins of World War I. The war was much more than an assassination and alliances. Otte takes the reader deep into the process that lead to war. A must read for diplomatic and political historians. 

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Book Review: Collisions of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914

It was what Austria wanted, a great and mighty nation surging over a small country, the ruin of Serbia which it pursued systematically by steel, fire, by pillage and incendiarism in towns and villages, and also by extermination, by the massacre of the Serbian people. 

Collision of Empires by Prit Buttar

Collisions of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914by Prit Butar is history of the first year of World War I from the little talked about eastern front. Butar is a graduate of Oxford in medicine and served in the British Army as a doctor. He has written two other historical books and a novel. 

When asked about World War I most people with some history background will mention the the assassination of the Archduke in Serbia and Russia leaving the war. Almost everything else involves the the Western front: The German invasion, trench warfare, no man’s land, and the eventual German defeat. What is missing from most people’s understanding is that the country that started the war — Austria-Hungary, and the country that was the reason for the declaration of war — Serbia, are rarely mentioned after the assassination. Butar concentrates his effort or the Serbia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary (with the Germany concentrating its efforts to the west). 

If anyone was expecting a short war it was Austria-Hungary. It was dead-set on punishing Serbia regardless of what the rest of the Europe wanted. Austria-Hungary was the pit bull with it teeth permanently locked on Serbia’s neck. The pit bull, however, had no teeth. Of the nations involved on the Eastern Front, only Serbia fared better than expected in the opening of the war. 

One point that is mentioned Austria-Hungary itself. It claimed to be a great empire, but in reality it was not. It was two kingdoms with two different citizenships. Each was mostly independent in internal matters, but shared a common foreign and military policy. Austria-Hungary was made up of many nationalities with little common interest. Unlike Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary had no single dominant ethnic group. It is difficult for a nation to rally around a flag when everyone has their own flag. The Habsburg Empire was essentially held together by memories of their glory days. If the Ottoman Empire was “The sick old man of Europe”, Austria-Hungary was not far behind. 

Collision of Empires is an excellent study on the mostly forgotten Eastern Front of World War I. Diplomacy, strategies, and the opening battles of the war are covered in this text. It is well researched and cited. This forgotten part of World War I is not only where the war started, but also the area most changed by the war. New countries were formed, empires fell, millions died, refugees crossed borders, and revolution began in Russia.Collision of Empires is a must read for any WWI historian or anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. 

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Book Review: The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria by Helen Rappaport is a comprehensive look at the last royal family of Russia. Rappaport attended Leeds University with the intention of joining the Foreign Office. She changed her mind and became an actress. She became a full-time writer in 1998 and has written several books on Russian history and Victorian history. Her work on Lenin caused a stir when she proposed that he died of syphilis rather than a stroke. 

Growing up much of the late czarist history I read came from Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandria which by no means was lacking at the time. Research as an undergraduate came from mostly dated sources because little access by the Soviets limited research. The fall of the Soviet Union opened a wealth of new information from the former Soviet archives. My academic researching days were over by that time, but I still tried to keep up. 

Two quick points. First, this is an excellent work of research and expands greatly on what I knew of the last Romanovs. Secondly, although there is a great information on the Romanov sisters, the book primarily focuses on the entire family and family life. The sisters do hold a much larger role than in any other source I have read. 

Czarist Russia has always seemed to me as a twisted fairytale. When things seem at their best they crash to unbelievable lows. Society seemed caught up in superstition. While the world looked on to the births of four beautiful girls, the Russian population wondered why the German wife couldn’t produce an heir to the throne. When the sickly Alexei much was done to hide his illness. He was the center of domestic attention. The daughters grew up sheltered partly because of their unimportance and partly because of the social unrest. The unpopular, lost war against the Japanese and Bloody Sunday of 1905 did little to raise the czar’s standing with many. 

Rappaport does an outstanding job of bringing to light the lives Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia. The daughters lives seem out of place and underrated in today’s world of royals. They were well behaved, very educated, volunteered in hospitals during the war, and sold handmade crafts raise money for charities. Although there was no doubt privilege, they lived a relatively frugal and simple life imposed on them by their mother. Their lives are examined as individuals rather than lumped together as one. 

The writing is extremely well documented and much of the material comes from primary source materials: letters and diaries. The amount of personal information in included in this book is unprecedented. The children are portrayed as real people in history with many of the same questions and challenges growing up. I have read many history books over the years and this one did such an excellent job of bringing the daughters to life. I got so involved in the story, even knowing the historical outcome, I hoped that it would end differently. Even with all the tragedies in the world, wars, and other catastrophes, this history is truly sad. I really am at a loss to speak more highly of this book. Outstanding history and research. 

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Book Review: Those We Forgot: Recounting Australia’s Casualties of the First World War

Those We Forget by David Noonan

Those We Forgot: Recounting Australia’s Casualties of the First World War by David Noonan is a re-examination of Australia’s human loses in World War I. Noonan became interested in the war when he read over one hundred letters his grandfather wrote from the Western Front. He retraced his grandfather’s service in France and Belgium. That interest grew into a PhD in History and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

War is chaos and record keeping in chaos is not very accurate. Noonan examines the official numbers of Australia’s war dead and compares that to his research. Last year I read Steven Casey’s When Soldiers Fall which covered US losses from WWI to Afghanistan. There are very similar problems in both books. The biggest problems concern what is a casualty? There is no standard definition. Is it death, disabling injury, temporary injury, prisoner of war, illness, food poisoning, desertion, all of these, a combination of these? 

Noonan uses statistical methods to come to his results which are more accurate than the official records. The research finds some surprising information, such as venereal disease was a major problem in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). Australian forces separated from home far away did not have the luxury of crossing the channel on leave to rejoin loved ones. Many who joined did not embark many were discharged for a variety of reasons before deploying. 

Shell shock was another matter. If it was recorded, it had to be evaluated whether is was physical or psychological or even real. It may seem strange that it might not be considered a combat injury, but remember that Gulf War Syndrome was questioned as being a real ailment. World War I also had the first stages of the Spanish Flu outbreak, various diseases from life in trenches. Suicides and deaths after the end of the conflict, but caused by the conflict are also studied and accounted for. 

Noonan uses samples and statistical data to complete a more accurate count of casualties. Although he is successful in giving a more accurate count not all the book is statistical data. He examines individual service files and provides a very good background into the medical and casualty reporting in the war. Although it is impossible to account for everyone, Noonan’s work goes a long way in accounting for many that were forgotten. 

Thank you to the Melbourne University Press for making book to readers and reviewers on this side of the Pacific.

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Book Review: The Secrets of Casanova

“Remember this” Jaques smiled, “the primary pleasure in life is to do what’s forbidden.”

The Secrets of Casanova by Greg Michaels is a very fictionalized account of Jacques Casanova and his adventures after escaping prison. Michaels holds a BA in anthropology from the university of Texas in Austin. He has also worked as an actor in Hollywood in over forty roles, including the role of Scott Garrett in The X-Files.

Never judge a book by its cover…or title. When I first was offered this book for review, I thought oh, no. Visions of Valentino’s The Sheik and Fabio covered romance novels came to mind. I was hesitant, but the publisher explained that, yes, it was historical fiction and not a romance novel set in a historic time period. I agreed and readied my notebook for fact checking.

I started the book was positively surprised. The characters all came to life in the way that makes the reader feel like an observer in the story and not an outsider looking in. Jacques Casanova seemed much more like Rousseau in thought and James Bond in action. He was a thinker and associated with great thinkers of the times like Voltaire. He name drops others like Locke and carries around a book of quotations from Horace to impress the ladies.

The James Bond part is more the smooth talker, the living by his wits and tricks, and the international setting. He escaped prison in Venice and went on the run to Paris where the story starts. Casanova may have been lucky at love, but he was not lucky at gambling. In fact, gambling debts in Paris and his exile from Venice guide his hand to accept the quest offered by the Vicomte. The story moves through Europe and the Mid East as Jacque his servant Petrine and his brother’s wife Dominique (he is Casanova after all) enter on a quest. The quest involves the secret of the Knights Templar which is believed to be a treasure…and an impressive and unexpected treasure it will be if it can be found.

The Secrets of Casanova

The fast action, historical input, and Catholic Church’s Templar Knights mythology all combine to make this a great story. Jacques Casanova may have his way with the ladies, but this is far from a romance novel. This is 18th Century action adventure at its best. Add in a bit of philosophy, mathematics, and a mystery to complete the mix and it is a well thought out novel that will keep you at the edge of your seat. Character development is excellent to the point that the characters seem real in the actions and words. The time period creates an interesting setting that is distant, but fully believable and understandable to most readers. I highly recommend The Secrets of Casanova to all lovers of adventure, the Romantic Period, The Age of Enlightenment, and the rise of science and reason. As far as my fact checking went, I was too involved in the story to take many notes, and Michaels makes clear that this is a complete work of fiction in his afterword. So enjoy the story.

Joseph Spuckler gives The Secrets of Casanova 4  1/2 Stars

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Book Review: Khamsin: The Devil Wind of the Nile

Maceheads thudded against human anvils to mingle with the last wails of the mortally wounded, the blasphemies of the defeated.

Khamsin: The Devil Wind of the Nile by Inge H. Borg is pre-pharaonic Egyptian novel. Borg was born in Austria, immigrated to the United States, currently lives in Arkansas. She is also the author of Sirocco: Storm Over Land and Sea(a contemporary tie in to Khamsin), the series Legends of the Winged ScarabMoments of the Heart, A book of Poems and Short Prose, and several over books on a variety of subjects.

As a youth Egyptian history fascinated me from Boris Karloff as The Mummy, to The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour of the 1970s, to Steve Martin’s hit song about the boy king. Egypt became a high point in history class in grade and middle school. Egypt, we learned, became a major civilization without having much of a prehistory. It seemed like an advanced civilization suddenly materialized into being. Today we know more, and Borg takes advantage of this in her novel. Although a work of fiction, it does show the culture, religion, and what life could have been like in that time period.

Khamsin is a book about power, gold, and war. Gold is discovered, the king wants its, and he is prepared to fight for it. It is also about power as the king is not the only one who wants to be king. There is some romance, but nothing that would scare off male readers. One of the things I liked best in the book was the innovation of the military and particularly the development of science by the religious class. Some advances by the priest class may be a little far fetched but not beyond willing suspension of disbelief.

The story is well thought out and well written. In fact, all the parallel stories are well done. The collection of main characters covers a wide spread the society and also provides a look inside the classes of characters too. There is the king and son and daughter. The High Priest and an acolyte. The ranking civil servant and his underling. Even within the slave population there seems to be a hierarchy. The military seems to stand alone. While detailing the professional military officer only a brief mention of professional soldiers and conscripts are mentioned.

Perhaps the most interesting is how the priestly class is portrayed in the book. Ramose knows the power the priesthood has on the people, the king, and his enemies. How he uses his power is what separates him from many. In the battle between knowledge and belief, he seems to have taken a side. Personally, Ramose is the most interesting character in the story, although not the main character.

Khamsin is very good historical fiction novel. It also includes several other genres into the mix including military fiction. Borg knows her stuff and even though this is fiction there is new information for most readers. One thing I have not gotten used to with e-books is scanning through the pages before reading. If I would have done so, I would have noticed the excellent appendixes with character references, glossary, geographical references before I started reading. A very enjoyable novel with a great story, some treachery, suspense, well developed characters, and a little history. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

Joseph Spuckler gives Khamsin, The Devil Wind of The Nile 4 stars…

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