Monthly Archives: September 2014

Book Review: Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

<i>Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel</i> by Priya Parmar is the fictionalized diary of Vanessa Stephen Bell.  The novel attempts to capture the Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Stephen Woolf. Parmar holds degrees in literature and theatre and is completing her PhD at the University of Edinburgh.


I saw this book was available for review and immediately started on it.  Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors and the Bloomsbury Group is one of the most interesting groups of people in that period.  With my background in history, historical fiction is usually hit or miss, with miss winning out most times.  Last year, I read a novel about Machiavelli and Da Vinci . It consisted of Machiavelli throwing out quotes from <i>The Prince</i> and Da Vinci proclaiming “Science” as if caught in a Thomas Dolby song in a continuous loop.  However, I started <i>Vanessa and Her Sister</i> with high hopes.


The reader views the story through Vanessa’s diary and telegraphs between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf.  Roger Fry also telegraphs in from New York.  The Bloomsbury Group members are all well portrayed in the novel and seem to hold to the historical records.   Of course with historical fiction conversations are based on interpolations of events and people.  I really enjoyed the writing and the story with one exception: Virginia Woolf.  I do understand Virginia Woolf had problems with mental illness throughout her life and was hospitalized several times.   I also have read her diaries, letters, and her nephew’s biography.  Not being an expert in mental health, there does seem to be long periods of stability.


I could not help get the feeling that Virginia Woolf was being portrayed as being much deeper in mental illness.  There is a nearly perfect description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in describing Woolf. From the story of wanting a friend’s table to her relationship with Clive Bell (Vanessa’s husband), Woolf seems to consider only herself.  She also seems unable function without the help of her sister’s constant attention.  The story seems to go much deeper than the bipolar disorder that Woolf has since been diagnosed (previously called nervous disorders).  I also received the impression that Woolf was much like Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman — brilliant, but unreachable and untouchable. Only Vanessa could control her, and only Thoby could get her to eat.

I am torn by this novel.  I enjoyed the story and the writing.  I would have loved the book except for the portrayal of Virginia Woolf. I will freely admit that I do not have any formal education, beyond the basics, in English Literature and it writers.  Parmar far exceeds me in this field, and I tried very hard to accept that.  I do understand this is also a novel and not everything is completely factual. However hard I tried, I could not accept the Virginia Woolf character.  Every other aspect of the story I enjoyed and found interesting.  It is like all the characters are nails, pounded flush, holding down a floor board.  They hold firm.  Virginia Woolf is the nail that is not  flush, and I trip over it every time.  I am fairly confident that most readers will not be as critical as I am and will enjoy the book for the story. For someone walking in blindly I would rate <i>Vanessa’s Sister</i> at four stars.  For someone with preconceived opinions of the characters, three stars.

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Book Review: Born in the GDR: Life in the Shadow of the Wall

Born in the Gdr by Hester Vaizey

Born in the GDR: Life in the Shadow of the Wall by Hester Vaizey is a study of eight former East Germans and their experience once the wall fell. Vaizey earned her BA, M. Phil., and PhD from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. She is Director of Studies in History for Prelim and Part I students along with being a lecturer in Modern German history.

As an American and Marine veteran of the Cold War, when the wall fell there was a feeling of “It’s all over.” We had one and in the military we wondered what would happen next? We were focused on the Soviet threat and the threat from their allies and supported groups; we had nothing to focus on now. We won but victory really was not that satisfying. We were left thinking what will happen to us now that there is no enemy. The scenes of the wall being torn down and later the Soviet flag being lowered for the last time and a free Russian flag being raised over the Kremlin were the signs of joyful victory. The people of Eastern Europe are free and free to enjoy prosperity under capitalism.

East Germany was probably the best developed and had the highest standard of living in the Eastern Block. I while in Germany, I purchased Praktica camera and an Original Richter compass set. They were quality products at a very cheap price. I would have expected the fall of communism in East Germany would have held to a rapid and euphoric reunification. What could be more natural than freedom and consumerism?

Vaizey interviews and examines eight people’s experiences before and after the wall came down. The ranges of experience cover the spectrum emotions and expectations. Freedom was welcomed by some, particularly if they were political prisoners. Others took a more moderate approach and viewed freedoms as good but were puzzled by mass consumerism in the West. Why do you need to take part in a rat race just to make money and acquire things you do not need? Some welcomed change but worried about losing their voice and identity as East Germans. These several people only knew life in East Germany. It was the system they were born into and raised in. Rapid reunification seemed more like an invasion by the West rather than a coming together.

Two major ideas that are brought out in this book first is the meaning and freedom. If you are raised in a system that took care of you from cradle to grave and suddenly you are told that you are free. You wonder “Free from what?” There is now starvation, unemployment, and homelessness. Second is the information used. Usually, history is researching documents and recorded materials, without the ability to question the original authors of their meaning and intent. For example, the United States Constitution is a document that the original meanings are still being debated two hundred and twenty five years later. Original source material from interviews allows you to question the person’s intentions and meanings and can lead to a more accurate recording of history. But, care must be taken with a small sample. Many people are driven by emotion. If they fared well under reunification, then it was good. If they suffered or lost something of value under reunification it was was not a good choice.

As time moves on my guess is most people will accept East German absorption into West Germany as a logical move. Human memory tends to be short and as long as the German economy does not crash, there will be very few people long for the good day of the Stasi. Last year I talked to a person I met from Russia who was in his mid twenties. I said it was nice to talk (heavy use of Google translator), because when I was your age we could never have had a conversation. He said, “Yes, no internet.” I said no because of communism and the Cold War. He laughed and said no thinks of communism anymore. For people his age, it is like it never happened.

After starting this book I thought it was really well done and interesting, but a bit dated. About half way through the book I reconsidered the dated part. There are lessons to be learned here. Not necessarily about reunification, such as the unlikely event of North and South Korea becoming a single country but of the Western, perhaps more American concept of freedom. In America we like to think of ourselves as liberators granting freedom of repressed people around the word. Afghanistan and Iraq were liberated and Libya and Egypt too. America has this belief that “liberating” nations brings happiness. Vaizey, whether intentional or not, sets the reader up to look at the world through the eyes of people who were liberated, and see what their expectations were and even if they wanted to be liberated. Freedom means different things to different people. Some people want freedom from homelessness. Some people want consumerism. Some just want reform. Some want to keep their culture. There is no standard definition. Born in the GDR is an excellent living history with plenty of contemporary world lessons to be learned. A small snapshot of East Germany made for a worldwide lesson.

Reviewer holds an MA in International Relations – Security Policy from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio.

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Book Review: Havel: A Life

Havel by Michael Žantovský

I did not go to college until I finished serving in the Marines, so my college experiences may seem out of place for my age. However, in Catholic graduate school Vlacav Havel was talk of the International Relations department. Havel secured a place with likes of Bishop Romero in the pantheon of great leaders over oppression. I already made a few waves criticizing Romero and liberation theology. My feelings were if you are going to stand up to oppression, stand up and stay standing when the times get tough. Don’t hide behind a pulpit and say “You can’t touch me.” Don’t get me wrong, I did not in any way support the death squads or the message sent by them killing a priest at the altar. I felt if you are going to revolt, revolt and be willing to stand up and, if necessary, pay the price. “Freedom isn’t free.” says the cliche reads. I stayed quiet on Havel mostly because he was not part of my field of study. Still, the name stuck with me.

Zantovsky, a long time friend of Havel writes an interesting biography. It is not a glorification of Havel nor is it sensationalism. It is an honest telling of the good and the bad. Havel was no saint and lived more closely to Rousseau than a saintly leader. His wife Olga was his rock, but not is only intimate relationship. He loved Rock and Roll and in fact for a White House visit convinced Clinton to have Lou Reed play. Clinton agreed, with the condition that “Walk on the Wild Side” Would not be play. The Lewinsky scandal was the hot item and a song about drag queens would not do much to help his image. Clinton and Havel developed a friendship. In my mind, I have the feeling the two of them together, after a few drinks, would be little different than the old Saturday Night Live skit with Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd — the two wild and crazy guys from Czechoslovakia. This can be compared to Havel’s relationship with Thatcher, who mothered over him — telling him what he is doing right and what he is doing wrong.

Havel was born into wealth which was not a good thing after the Iron Curtain went up. He was seen as less of a citizen and more suspect because of his millionaire family. Havel, without property and his family’s wealth, was able to was able to live well from his writing. His plays were a hit in Czechoslovakia and outside the Iron Curtain too. The crushing of the Prague Spring, which Havel took a role, brought an end to his work inside of Czechoslovakia, however he was still paid in the West. Havel was also a founder of Charter 77 an informal initiative criticizing the government for its human rights failings. These human rights were guaranteed by the Czechoslovak constitution and various international agreements the government had signed. The government declared Charter 77 illegal and no copies were officially printed, but it circulated underground and in the West.

Havel’s association with Charter 77 brought him under official surveillance and several prison sentences from 1979 -1983. Prison was not as bad as expected. Not being physically big or athletic he worried about his safety, but found in the hierarchy of prison, as a political prisoner, he sat pretty high on the list. Not that being a political prisoner was considered glamorous like bank robbing to other prisoners, but being jailed for confronting the government that sentenced the prisoners made him the enemy of their enemy, so to speak. Havel also had earned an international following which kept pressure on the government to keep his prison stays short.

No less remarkable is the surprising smoothness of Czechoslovakian freedom. As president, Havel managed to keep things under control. There was no circus atmosphere as in Romania. There were difficult and tough decisions, but it was a model for transition. The breakup of Czechoslovakia into two countries was also relatively smooth. Much smoother than the breakup of Yugoslavia, also an “artificial” country drawn up after World War I.

The book includes some humor and some irony too. For example, when the German president met with President Havel, he greeted him by saying, “The last time we came in tanks. I walked this time.” He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was awarded it with Charlton Heston, Julia Child, and Dave Thomas (Wendy’s).

While Havel’s rock n roll lifestyle may not be the grounds for a great leader, he was committed to human rights, peace, and fairness. He worked hard to make sure the privatization of business did not fall directly into the hands of the former communists. He put a stop to the Czechoslovakian arms industry, despite the resistance from the Slovaks. He met with the pope and the Dalai Lama. Politically he was able to remain true to his beliefs. He stood up and stood his ground. Zantovsky writes an excellent biography of a man and not a revolutionary image. Havel is not deitized in this book, but shown to be human and a man who earned the respect and standing. Havel: A Life is an outstand account of a man who stood up and became a part of history.

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Book Review: The Border, by Miles Cain

The Border by Miles Cain

When I first saw this book I assumed it was about the Southwest by the title and the cover art. However, Cain resides and writes about England. He is the second British poet that I have recently read. Helen Mort is the other. I have been very impressed with the new poetry coming out of Britain.

The poem that absolutely floored me was called “1977”, part of which goes:

At the club, Vicious posed
and Rotten leaned.
The crowd baptised itself
with spit and noise,

proved itself with elbows,
wiped the carnage from its eyes.
Everything we wanted
pulsed inside music or skin.

Afterwards, stumbling into the dull
night, we felt the racket leave us.
We didn’t mention the future,
and none of us asked to grow old.

That pretty much summed up how many of us felt, back in the day. I was so impressed I voiced messaged that passage to a friend, and even with my stoic and monotone voice, it sounded good. There is life in Cain’s words.

Cain manages to capture many thoughts and ideas and reflects a different light on many seemingly common ideas. “One Night I Dreamt I was God” gives a deist twist and presents the frustration of being a supreme being. “Shouting Down the Moon” presents frustration of the rut we all fall into from time to time.

Sour day. Job lost. Four pints
dropped to a crater of stomach;
I sprayed my borrowed confidence on a damp wall.
Slalomed streets to my door,
dropped my keys. Swore at my shoes.

Frustration and alcohol find their outlet in cursing the moon, but with a grace that makes the argument seem reasonable.

The topics vary but many have that late 1970s feeling of depression and loss. This feeling is carried into the present with poems like “His Family Have Been Informed.” Here an officer and a sergeant arrive at a home to inform a woman she is now a widow. The son is playing war and asks the uniformed sergeant, “Do you know my dad?” “Lessons” carries a message of loss too:

You never made 22, and your flippant exit
sent tears shivering over my chest.

There is an outsider feeling to many of the poems like “The Man Who Lived In Shadows.” It’s that punk feeling of being outside of society and not wanting to be a small cog in a big machine. It is fueled on the feelings of an era that those of us in the mid-1970s felt. The peace, love, and togetherness of the 1960s died along with many things that we believed in. In America it was Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, unemployment. There was a resistance in the shadows and underground here and in Britain too. The Sex Pistols in England and the Ramones, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, and others in America spoke out, if for nothing more than to shock the system.

“We didn’t mention the future,” because we didn’t think there was going to be one. Cain manages to capture that era and reshape it to the modern times. The collection is not all dark and dreary, like everything there is some light. However, even the dark and dreary come alive with Cain’s words.

I borrowed this book and am going to buy it now. Poems like “His Family Have Been Informed” grow in emotion with each rereading. It was difficult to re-read that poem when using it in this review. Cain succeeds with this collection; He masters emotions with words.

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Some Notes on Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A dinner party in the works; flashbacks to the past; people from the past returning to the present; a soldier who finds society evil; and the decline of an empire all combined into a wonderful and image filled novel with several themes including some thoughts on a relationship (which may have been a direct reflection on the author). The book tackles several temporary controversies and most characters represent a particular issue.

Update from 8/25/2014

I really enjoy Virginia Woolf’s writing and am just going to stick to a few points with this years reading. First there is poetry in her prose. Although Woolf believed prose was her calling but her words tell a different story:

“But there could be no doubt that greatness was seated within; greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s-breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first and last time, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting the ruins of time, when London is a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth.”

That is from the scene when near the opening when Mrs Dalloway goes into town for flowers for her party. There is a black car with curtains drawn in the passenger compartment. It causes quite a stir among the people. Who could it be in the car, the queen, the Prince of Wales, the prime minister. The scene is interesting because people clamor about and wonder and hope that it is someone of importance, so that the common person would be with in a hands breadth of greatness. There seems to be almost a circus effect for the people on the street. There almost seems to a bit of mockery in the writing concerning those whose greatness comes from birth.

There is a serious message on post traumatic stress disorder in the character of Septimus. He is a veteran tortured by the war. He lost a friend before the Armistice. Among the very sad aspects of WWI was the rush for commanders to make a name for themselves. With the date and the time of the armistice made official many allied commanders used that last bit of time to risk their troops in land grabs, even though the war for all practical means was over. The eleven hours of November 11, was a needlessly bloody event. Britain honored its dead, but really had no idea what to do with the mentally damaged men when they returned home. Locking them up and isolating them in quiet was the treatment. It was not a cure, but it kept them out of public sight.

Woolf again is not afraid to take on social issues. She does this with the main character Mrs Dalloway too. Atheism is brought up:

“To see your own sister killed by a falling tree (all Justin Parry’s fault–all his carelessness) before your very eyes, a girl too on the verge of life, the most gifted of them, Clarissa always said, was enough to turn one bitter. Later she wasn’t so positive perhaps; she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness”

Doing good for the sake of goodness has a very positive ring to it, rather than doing good from a fear of eternal punishment. As in Day and Night when, Katerine suggests to her mother that she may just live in a cabin with Ralph instead of getting marriage. Woolf, here too, pushes social norms with Clarissa Dalloway’s love for Sally Seton. Coincidentally, too Catherine’s mother makes an appearance at the Dalloway’s party, at least in name.

I wrote much more than I intended. I also wanted to mention:

1. Age: Fifty is both considered old and the prime of one’s life by different characters.
2. How friends change Sally and Peter
3. Doris Kilman… I want to write more about this particular character.

That will have to wait until next years re-reading of Mrs. Dalloway.

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Book Review: The Assassination of Europe 1918-1942: A Political History

The Assassination of Europe, 1918-1942 by Howard M Sachar

The Assassination of Europe 1918-1942: A Political History by Howard M Sachar is a history of the Interwar Period in Europe. He earned both his masters and PhD from Harvard and was a professor at Georgetown University for forty years. This is Sachar’s seventeenth book on history and political history.

As with a few other people who picked this book up, I was expecting a book on political assassinations. As I started reading the book the assassinations were of leftists and communists. Drawing on the simple black and red cover I thought it was about the anarchist and communist movements in Western Europe. Indeed, post WWI Europe was a dangerous place to be promoting Communism. Then the assassination of Ernst Rohm ended that train of thought. Then there was Trotsky death by Stalin’s order.

The book does center around political assassinations in Europe, but it is more than just that. The peace at the end of the war was going to bring democracy, an end to continental empires, and homelands for the minority populations. The League of Nations was going to ensure peace. The world was going to be entering a new era of peace and prosperity. Those grand ideas did not last. France plundered Germany for war reparations. Fascists rose and took over Italy under Mussolini. Democracies feared leftists and communists. Anti Semitism grew, not just in Germany but also France, Eastern Europe and Russia. Eastern European Jews fled their home countries after WWI and moved West. The influx of Jewish immigrants was seen by many as something to fear. That hatred became a leader in Germany.

In the Soviet Union there is political assassination and the rise and fall of Trotsky. Stalin and his mass political killings. Vichy France and the German collaborators were another blow to democracy and political freedom. Sachar uses individual assassinations to set the stage for a greater assassination: That of a continent. The assassination of Europe was more than just the death of individuals but of the nations and peoples.

The Assassination of Europe is the death of the hope of liberal democracies, peace, and prosperity that men dreamed of after the carnage of WWI. Sachar gives an in depth look in to the undoing of the Europe people wanted. The Great War was not enough to change the governments and selfishness of men. One on one political killing was only the symptom the much bigger problem. An excellent and very scholarly look into the politics of the interwar years.

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Book Review: The Forks Over Knives Plan: How to Transition to the Life-Saving, Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet

The Forks Over Knives Plan by Alona Pulde
<i>The Forks Over Knives Plan: How to Transition to the Life-Saving, Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet</i> by Matthew Lederman and Alona Pulde is a guide to a healthy lifestyle rather than a diet book.  Both authors are medical doctors and have personal biographies at the beginning of the book.  
<i>The Forks Over Knives Plan</i> is the practical application of the lifestyle put forth in the documentary movie of the same name.  The authors make several things very clear in the book.  First and foremost  this is about a lifestyle and not simply a diet.  Second, medical science has come a long way, and doctors can provide pharmaceuticals to get a persons blood pressure and cholesterol number to a safe level.  The problem here is that the symptoms are being treated and not the cause.  Much like taking Nyquil when you have a cold doesn’t cure the cold, but masks the symptoms; you are still sick, but don’t feel as bad.   Third, is the misrepresentation of foods.  For example, calcium and healthy bones are often a reason to consume dairy products.  America has one of the highest rates of dairy consumption and one of the highest rates of fractures.  
<i>The Forks Over Knives Plan</i> helps the reader gradually shift over to a plant based diet by starting with breakfast the first week, adding lunch a week later, and finally dinner.  Many issues on the conversion are answered and common problems are discussed.  Emphasis is put on whole foods and eliminating processed foods and oil from the one’s diet.  The authors explain the problems of processed foods and animal products in a very clear way.  For example, meat and dairy are cited by most  as great sources for calcium.  Where did that calcium from? Answer: Plants.  Meat and dairy calcium came from plants and are used and stored in animals. Obviously, meat and dairy are not a necessary source of calcium.
The second half of the book contains recipes for meals.  They all use common ingredients available in most grocery stores.  The most uncommon item I recall seeing was nutritional yeast.  Recipe sections usually don’t interest me.  I have been a strict vegetarian for almost a decade now, and have my diet pretty well sorted out.  I eat simple.  Starch, beans, and produce make up general diet with produce and spices providing the variety.  Not everyone can eat like this and that is why there is a recipe section.  I did however find a few recipes I am going to try.  The Sloppy Joe Pitas, made with bulgur wheat, instead of meat, sound really good.  The recipes range from common replacements like stews and breakfast burritos to the rather unique like Twice Baked Breakfast Sweet Potatoes. 
<i>The Forks Over Knives Plan</i> is a very user friendly guide to using food as medicine and living a healthy lifestyle.  The guidance and recipes will help the reader make a smooth transition to a plant based diet and remove many of the misconceptions.  There is variety and taste in a plant based diet and its not like many people think.  I often hear “I couldn’t be a vegetarian. I don’t like Tofu.” Tofu is only an ingredient in two of the recipes.  There is more to a plant based diet than tofu. <i>The Forks Over Knives Plan</i> is an excellent start to a better life.

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