Monthly Archives: February 2015

Book Review — Russia in Private

Russia in Private by Richard Yatzeck

<i>Russia in Private</i> by Richard Yatzeck is a personal account of several travels to the Soviet Union and Russia. Yatzeck has been a member of the Lawrence University faculty since 1966, teaching courses on 19th and 20th-century Russian literature and Russian literary traditions. He spent a year in the former Soviet Union studying at Moscow State University after graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also earned his Ph.D. In 1997, he directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s off-campus study program in Krasnodar, Russia.

As an undergraduate, I loved Russian history. As my honors project, I documented and re-assessed the reign of Ivan the Terrible. The “terrible” actually better translates to awe-inspiring than anything negative. Czarist history was a fairytale that continually when wrong. The Soviet Union had much more in common with totalitarian rule than actual communism. It was one on the most interesting histories I have ever read or studied.

I was expecting much from this book. I was looking for an outsider’s look at what the average citizen thought of the Soviet system. Perhaps a few touching stories from the locals or discussions with the true believers in the system. Instead, the book read rather like a travelogue. It combined several trips of information and fairly dry reading. Even parts that could have been exciting were told in a very stoic manner. Several old jokes were brought up again:

The collective’s harvest pile high, up to God.
But you don’t believe in God.
It’s OK because I don’t believe in the harvest either.

Perhaps I have read too much on the subject in college and graduate school to appreciate this book. I feel that for someone without a background in the Soviet Union, it would be very informative regardless of the writing style.

There is plenty of information on historic cities and sights. Yatzeck takes time to include stories and selections from Russia’s famous writers and poets. Also interesting is something usually not found in most texts, food. Everyday food and special food for westerners are covered in the book.

I liked the early part of the book where Yatzeck was a believer in communism and his evolution to a self-described anarchist. I found his earlier years much more interesting than his later travels. It seemed to have more personal substance. Without a doubt, Yatzeck is a man with many stories and it wold be a great experience, personal and educational to sit down and talk to the man over some Armenian cognac. The book, however, seems more of an academic record of events than a personal story telling.

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Book Review — Cut-up Apologetic

Cut-up Apologetic by Jamie Sharpe

Cut-up Apologetic by Jamie Sharpe is his second published collection of poetry. Sharpe’s writing and art have appeared in magazines throughout Canada and the U.S., and he is editor of the Associative Press, a literary and arts journal. He recently moved to the Yukon, where he is working on an MFA through the University of British Columbia’s optional residency program.

Poetry can be difficult to review, especially very good poetry. The shorter the review, the better the collection rates in my reviews. We spend our lives in Plato’s Cave Allegory. We see things and describe what we see in a fairly ordinary words. Occasionally, someone will add colorful language and it will become great prose. A few people manage to escape the cave and see more than the shadows on the wall and see the original, perfect items and describe them. These are the poets. For the rest of us, we read and try to understand something that is like an extra dimension. We might understand it but if asked to explain it back we are at a loss. It must be experienced, not explained.

Sharpe does capture some of this, but most of the work captures a contemporary setting and sometimes sarcasm. UBERSWEET(tm) looks at what we eat. In the poem “Mutable,” Borges’ modifying the desert may be our life’s work. “Greensborough” lets the reader in on a secret in lowering the asking price of a house. Perhaps my favorite poem was “Internal Affairs.” It is a lesson in the universal currency and the universal currency of impotency.

Sharpe’s writing is not high art. It is a look at our society and individuals, and individuals fears and dreams and the irrational — is the Hubble telescope watching me when I shower? “The Oscar Myer Process” is a clever and contemptuous. “Foreign Exchange” takes the reader into the bizarre. Sharpe may not have made it out of the cave, but he certainly sees things at a different angle than most. Cut-up Apologetic is a twisted look at today’s world, very enjoyable and recommended.

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Book Review — Study for Necessity

Study for Necessity by Joellen Kwiatek

<i>Study for Necessity</i> by Joellen Kwiatek is her second published collection of poetry. Kwiatek is a professor in the English department at SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY. She is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Poetry Prize.

I look forward every year to the reading the collection that won the Iowa Poetry Prize. I see it as the high water mark for the year in poetry. The collections are always excellent or, as last year’s choice, very challenging. My background is not in poetry or even literature, but I do appreciate good poetry. My review is not going to be as flowery or as educated as the judges views for this collection, but rather as seen from an educated outsider.

A poet’s work is one of those things you know you are going to like or dislike very early on in the reading. I knew I was going to like Kwiatek from the opening lines of her first poem “Sea Below Rocks.”

What does the sea see–? Something awful. It has the roving
thwarted glance of a mare in blinders, something awful facing her stall.

I immediately caught the obvious sea and see and then found glance (see) and mare (Latin for sea). I knew then, intentional or not, this was going to be a great collection. Throughout the collection phrases seemed to leap out at me “a stone calved from the underworld” and the “radium of twilight.” The word usage and imagery is outstanding. Line breaks create different meanings A horse that ran out into the field is “Home” but the next line begins “less”. There are several creative breaks in the line structure that take the meaning in different directions.

Poetry is difficult for an outsider to review. Bad or mediocre poetry is easy to pick apart and leads to longer reviews exposing poets trying too hard or even “cutesy” themes. Good and great poetry collections tend to get short reviews from me. They say everything they need to say, and say it so it clicks in my mind as “Exactly!” Although I understand clearly what is being said, I have difficulty repeating it in my own words. It seems that the poet delivers something so perfect, I don’t have the words to describe it myself.  That is what I believe the essence of poetry is and this collection is one of those cases. Outstanding.

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Book Review — From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone

From Field to Fork by Paul B. Thompson

From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone by Paul B. Thompson is a different look at food ethics. Thompson is a philosopher currently teaching at Michigan State University, where he holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics. He earned his B.A. at Emory University before going on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Thompson is a philosopher and his arguments follow a philosophical reasoning. I took plenty of political philosophy in graduate school and was familiar with his references. His three “M”s of philosophy are Marx, Mill, and Malthus. Mine were Marx, Mill, and Morgenthau so it was not a far leap for me. Mill and Kant, however, make up most of the European philosophy Utilitarianism and reason and perception. Amartya Sen is used in some modern thinking, and Vandana Shiva is used in some of the GMO discussion.

This might be a complex book for average American thinking because in general Americans look only at the surface and like their arguments simple. “It’s wrong to kill an animal for culinary enjoyment,” vs “We have canine teeth to tear meat.” “Farm subsidies support farmers,” vs “Majority of the subsidies go to Con-Agra.” We like clear cut, one or the other choices, like our two party system of government. Thompson does not take sides but examines reason and utility to form arguments and then checks it against itself. Utilitarianism can be quite brutal in itself.

The arguments and ideas are interesting and people, including myself, miss some of the points. By not eating that piece of meat on the plate in front of me, I am not preventing that animal from suffering. I could not want to eat meat for very selfish reasons, like my health. Does a food donation from “Big Tobacco” nullify its benefits because of its source? Is obesity an individual’s problem or it a public problem. If my insurance rates go up to cover the cost of obesity related medical conditions, doesn’t that make it my problem or society’s problem? What happens if what you do for one purpose becomes a benefit for another? Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” to bring about changes in labor. People losing limbs and falling into bins to become part of the sausage were his concerns. Instead, the book is known for what it did for food safety. Sinclair said he aimed for the people’s heart and hit their stomach.

I picked this book up because as a strict vegetarian I thought it would be about animal rights. I was only right in a very limited sense. Thompson covers food ethics in an all-encompassing way. He looks at the history, the arguments, what helps and hurts farmers, what works for some people and what doesn’t for others — indigenous people in the arctic can not develop a plant-based diet. He looks at food as an ethical and moral issue. If people are starving it would seem to be the right thing to send food aid to alleviated the suffering. But then what happens to all the subsistence farmers that sell part of their crops to buy things they need but can’t produce? Suddenly their crops lose value with free food flooding the market. What if the starvation is not the result of not enough food, but no infrastructure to transport it? The Soviets had that problem. Food rotted on train cars and people starved. The problem of starvation may be something deeper than what it appears to be.

Perhaps taking his lesson from Sinclair, Thompson aims at the entire food infrastructure. Not taking any chances, instead of aiming with an arrow, he aims with a Claymore and hits everything in his path. This is a deep, comprehensive, and balanced, work that is as much about philosophy as it is about food. We tend to tread very shallowly in today’s world. Sound bites took over for news discussions. Game consoles have taken over pick up baseball games. Newspapers have all but disappeared, and all information on the internet must be true. As much as Thompson’s book is about food, it also about deeper and fuller thinking of the world around us.

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Book Review — On Generation & Corruption: Poems

On Generation & Corruption: Poems by Terrence Chiusano is a collection of mostly experimental poetry. Chiusano received his BA in poetry writing from the University of Pittsburgh and his MA in literature from the University at Buffalo. His writing has appeared in Colorado Review, Cordite Poetry ReviewYellow Field, Kenning, Ixnay, and Queen Street Quarterly.

The opening line in the description for this collection reads, “Explores the use of procedural constraints in the production of poetry, prose and prose poetry.” This can be seen throughout the book as sections open with men in two lines of nine marching in pattern. This brought back to my mind the command “Column of twos, from the left, MARCH!” from my time in the Marines. It was, for me, a time of discipline and order. It’s this thinking that Chiusano seems to rebel against in his collection, not against the military, but against the discipline of poetry.

The section named “Rondo” is named for repeating couplets in medieval poetry. Here Rondo means something, and it has to do with reading order. The poem is grouped into numbered sections one through four and this pattern is repeated. Reading in order makes no sense. The reader must figure out the proper pattern of reading before it makes sense. If the reader can’t figure it out, Chiusano explains it in the endnotes.

Chiusano likes wordplay and throughout the book and likes repeating synonyms as part of the writing.

…let’s suppose I gather and hem, tuck and pleat, tab, pin, fold trim..I cut and baste the book like a shirt newly clipped from an old bolt of cloth….

I found the “journal” used part of the collection particularly interesting. It had a form in the date structure, but no “poetic” form:

“july 19, break of day (my returning to you) — let’s say hello again, laugh, kiss, whisper in one another’s ear, let’s meet again on that little garden path — I want to hear your voice like a ring on every finger — what honesty! loyalty! what a chameleon! what a ghost — I’ll never tire of saying it: we’re two coats cut from the same cloth.”

“Abecedary” is well done and true to its definition. At times, it is darker than its original purpose, but the wordplay is excellent.

Without a doubt On Generation & Corruption is not an easy collection. It’s not something that a reader can pick up and read in an afternoon. For less than one hundred pages and having large text, this is a major project for the reader. Chiusano open disregard for standard procedures makes this collection a challenge, but it is a challenge worth taking.

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Book Review — Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True

Elvis Is King by Richard Crouse

Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True by Richard Crouse is the story of the making of a star and a record. Crouse is the regular film critic for CTV’s Canada AM, CTV’s 24-hour News Channel and CP24. His syndicated Saturday afternoon radio show, “Entertainment Extra,” originates on NewsTalk 1010. He is also the author of six books on pop culture history.

I found several interesting things in this book. Being the same age as the author and raised just on the other side of the border we would seem to have some things in common. Crouse seems to have taken to the British side of rock where I was raised on the American side. We both seem to be trapped in “what is punk rock.” Clearly the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Elvis Costello gets put in that New Wave, but not really category. He is punk rock in a suit, a Patti Smith with shaved armpits, the attitude without the punk image.

Crouse covers the life of Elvis Costello from when he was Declan Patrick MacManus to when he got banned from Saturday Night Live. The book also gives a good history of Stiff Records and other musicians of the period like Nick Lowe and Ian Dury. Crouse explains the making of My Aim is True and also details the songs. My favorite from the album is “Watching the Detectives.” It received the most airplay from my hometown Station of WMMS in Cleveland.

The book is written in two different styles. For the most part, Crouse relies heavily on stringing source material together which can be a bit dry at times. Other times Crouse reminisces and adds his opinions and thoughts on the music which are quite good. It is good to see what effect the music had on the person writing biography. I remember watching with the same excitement of Crouse had when Elvis Costello appeared on Saturday Night Live. There is a special connection when to the book when it deals with shared experiences rather than third party source material.

Elvis Is King is a fair biography that covers more of the events of the time than of the subject of the book. Parts of the book seem almost cut-and-paste mass market while other parts seem to be written by a passionate fan. It is a good book for the die hard Elvis Costello fans, but average for those with only a passing interest.

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Book Review — The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson by Joseph A. Califano

If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’ ~ LBJ

The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years by Joseph A Califano is an insider’s look at the LBJ presidency. Califano, a Harvard Law graduate, served time in the Navy and Defense Department. At the start of the Kenedy Administration, he was selected by Robert McNamara to become one of the “whiz kids” in the Defense Department. His work did not escape notice as LBJ appointed him Special Assistant to the President in July of 1965.

There have been plenty of biographies of LBJ, but this one is written by a man very close to him. More than just facts and numbers, Califano brings a personal side of LBJ into view. LBJ was president and he was determined to let people know he was their president. He was very Machiavellian in his politics and that is meant in the traditional sense of the word. Machiavelli was brilliant in manipulating people to achieve a goal, and that goal was generally for the good. LBJ, like Machiavelli, tends to get a bad wrap in contemporary history. LBJ is best remembered for the war in Vietnam, the draft, and the Chicago riots.

Califano tells how LBJ used people in a very divided Democratic Party and his political opponents, the Republicans, to achieve his goals. Califano tells of swimming with LBJ at the ranch in Johnson City. In the middle of the lap, LBJ stops and talks to Califano. Califano is treading water struggling to stay afloat as LBJ talks to him jabbing his finger as he goes. LBJ is clearly in power here not only is he the president, he knew exactly where to stop so that his feet were firmly on the floor of the pool. LBJ made an ally in Everett Dirksen the Republican Senate Minority Leader. Dirksen was able to gather support for LBJ’s programs when Southern Democrats refused. LBJ did not pander to the other party, he did not hide his dislike for House Minority Leader Gerald Ford. “Ford is so dumb he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” Johnson once said about the future president. The example in the book of Ford reviewing LBJ’s Vietnam options is used to support that claim.

Johnson always seemed the gruff old man to me. Califano shows the opposite is true in both cases. Time on the ranch showed Johnson to be a fun person at times and very human. The other point surprised me also. Johnson was 55 when he became president and left office at 60.

What was the purpose of LBJ’s politics? What did he really want his legacy to be? Civil Rights, The Great Society, and equality. Johnson worked hard for civil rights and fought many in his own party over the issue. He talked and met with Martin Luther King. Johnson saw poverty first hand as a school teacher in Texas. He wanted to see the end of poverty in this country and an end to discrimination. This can be seen in both the programs he proposed and the people he appointed. He tried to make the draft fairer by drafting 23-year-olds first nullifying the college deferment for the rich. He wanted to save America’s natural beauty. LBJ pushed for environmental protection acts and beautifying the highway system.

Although probably best known for gathering of political support, arm twisting or otherwise, LBJ was not afraid to cross party lines. He met at least twice with Eisenhower for advice. His legacy still remains Vietnam. He didn’t want the war, but we were there and leaving would be a sign of surrender to the Soviets. He really believed that American boys should not be doing what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves. The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is a detailed and revealing book about the 36th president of America. It is the story of what he fought for, what he faced, and how he lived. An excellent biography of a historically misunderstood man.

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