Monthly Archives: August 2015

Book Review — Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

Gowanus Brooklyn's Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou

Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal by Joseph Alexiou is the history of the role of the Gowanus Creek and later canal in the development of Brooklyn. Alexiou is the author of Paris for Dummies and a contributing author to Frommer’s Paris 2012 and has written for New York, the New York Press, New York Observer, Gothamist and Paper magazine. He is an associate editor at Out magazine and has a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s. Cleveland was the poster child for pollution. Lake Erie was mostly dead water and the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (Several times but one that gained national notoriety). The steel mills produced a dark cloud over the city and houses in the area were dusted in a brown particulate matter. How bad could the Gowanus Canal be in comparison? I asked writer and fellow Clevelander, now New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz on Twitter. She made a comment about preferring to swim in the Gowanus than work on the piece she was writing. I asked, “Can it be any worse than the Cuyahoga?” The answer was, “Yes. By a lot.” That scared me.

Alexiou writes a history of Brooklyn from Dutch time to the present. I was expecting more of an environmental study. Instead, it is written like a biography where the subject of the biography is an anchor point for historical events surrounding him or her. The Gowanus Canal (or Creek) is the anchor point in a history of Brooklyn. A good portion of the book concerns the period between Revolutionary War and Civil War when the waterway was still a creek. Brooklyn wanted to be the shipping center of New York and converting the swampy land surrounding the creek into navigable canal surrounded by industry was the goal. The major problem was the cost of not only building a canal but the draining of the swamp lands.

The history takes the reader through several movers in the development of the land and the failed and uninitiated plans. The Gowanus was used as a sewer early on and as the population grew this became a problem. Engineers believed that the tidal currents would be enough to clear the creek of pollution, but things are not usually that simple. Chicago for example, reversed the flow of the Chicago River to clear pollution from its river. Things would not need to be as extreme for the Gowanus, but it cost more than the city was willing to pay.

The creek was the source for oysters, crabs, and fish but the pollution levels killed all life in the canal. The sheen of pollution on the surface only hid the sludge build up on the bottom. Today, although not a place to swim, crabs and fish have returned. I encountered only one pollution report of the canal and it was bad, worse than the Cuyahoga.

Gowanus provides a good history of Brooklyn for the non-New Yorker. The Canal takes a backseat to people and historical events at times, but it does provide a central point for the book. However, the book is a good history of the development in the price of development.

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Book Review — The Rilke of Ruth Speirs: New Poems, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, & Others

The Rilke of Ruth Speirs by Ruth Speirs

The Rilke of Ruth Speirs: New Poems, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, & Others by Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by Ruth Speirs is the complete collection of Speirs translations of Rilke’s poetry. Rainer Maria Rilke is universally recognized as among the most important twentieth-century German-language poets. Ruth Speirs was a Latvian exile who joined the British literary community in Cairo during World War II. This is the first time all of Speirs’ translations are presented in one volume.

I am starting to believe that the only thing more difficult than writing great poetry is taking the poet’s work and translating it to another language and still maintain the poet’s thoughts. To read poetry in English and forget that you are reading a translation is literary transcendence. The poems presented in this collection will have the reader believing that English was the original language.

Rilke’s poems capture moments in time from a time long past. The detail of her descriptions such as in “The Merry-Go-Round” put the reader in the Jardin du Luxembourg. It is not too far fetched to think you hear the carousel’s music playing in your head. The poems maintain rhythm and imagery that throughout the collection.

Speirs’ translation of Rilke’s’ work is nothing short of superb. This collection is for readers who enjoy poetry and its complexity. I would not recommend this collection to a casual poetry reader. At first look, it reminded me poetry in college English Literature. As a non-English major it seemed daunting at first and took some time to build up to. The poetry here is excellent and at times a bit complex in a very good way. Here is a poetry’s lovers collection.

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Book Review — The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State by William McCants is the history of growth the Islamic State movement. McCants is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of its Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is also adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and has held various government and think tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism. From 2009 to 2011, McCants served as a U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.

Nations need a boogeyman to direct their hostilities. Before Islamic extremists, America had Communists. Castro kept Cuba under control by blaming shortages and failures on the United States. An outside enemy provides a distraction from internal problems. Sometimes the threat is real and other times it’s not. There is no doubt that ISIS is real, but what is it and how much of a threat is it to America?

McCants sorts through the movement’s history and its relationship with Al Qaeda and Bin Ladin. There have been several attempts to set up an Islamic State in the Middle East. Yemen met with failure. The attempt in Ethiopia met with early success but failed in several ways. First strict enforcement of Islamic law including banning of tobacco alienated the local population, and the bombings in Kenya ended any hold the Islamic State held there.

The idea of unity in the movement is dispelled in the book. Bin Laden had his issues with the Islamic State in Ethiopia. The state there sold charcoal to earn money to support itself. Bin Laden wrote and said they should look for other ways to earn money. Cutting down scarce trees for a quick profit would do long-term environmental damage. Bin Laden came off sounding more like Al Gore than a terrorist leader. Al Qaeda had its issues with Bin Laden’s attack on America. They had believed in using force, but controlling it as not to involve international retaliation. The direct attack on the US was seen as counterproductive to the creation of an Islamic State. Foreign intervention into Arab land does not help the cause, much like the Japanese learned after bombing Pearl Harbor.

McCants gives a history of the Islamic movement including the split between the Sunni and Shiites. What we see in Islamic history is a history of factionalism. Although a monotheistic religion, it is not monolithic. Groups claiming to create an Islamic State often do so on their own volition. Al Qaeda supports winning the hearts and minds of the local population and gradually introducing Islamic law. Groups creating the so-called Islamic States use force and violence to intimidate and control. Restrictions on Muslims killing other Muslims is overlooked or rationalized away. Syria’s Assad is using the Islamic State as a tool to distract from his attacks against his enemies. The ISIS group in Iraq is a splinter group from Al Qaeda and has driven the more moderate Al Qaeda out of Iraq.

The ISIS Apocalypse gives a detailed history of the movement and its fractured history. Its strict code is based on medieval texts and the coming apocalypse. McCants writing contains topics that are controversial, but he backs up his claims. Nearly one-third of the book is bibliography used to support the author’s writing. The ISIS Apocalypse is a well written and informative history of not only the Islamic State but also Islam in general. What we in the west see as a monolithic movement is hardly that, but it’s violence and ruthlessness is very real.

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Book Review — Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Secret Science by Ulf Schmidt

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments by Ulf Schmidt is a comprehensive look at chemical and biological warfare in the United Kingdom. Schmidt is Professor of Modern History, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, and principle investigator of the Porton Down Project on the history of chemical warfare research during the Cold War.

The use of poison gas on an industrial scale began with the first industrial scale war, WWI. The use of gas was not an easy decision for most. The idea of exterminating soldiers like rats did not sit well with the military or the public. There was still a sense of honor when it came to war. Some in the scientific community exploited the idea of a quick and painless death rather dying from bullet wounds, shrapnel, and infection.

The beginnings of chemical warfare were problematic with relying on the wind to disperse the poison. The Hague Convention of 1899 also limited the use of gas projectiles — “The Contracting Powers agree to abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gasses.” After the first use by the Germans, the Entente Powers were hesitant to retaliate in kind. The British did circumvent the Hague Convention with the Livens Projector that launched gas canisters at the enemy. The arguable point was a canister was not intended to be a projectile — artillery shell.

There is a detailed discussion of Porton Down, the British chemical research center. The discussion is more than the actual work down in the center, but of the ethics involved in human testing. Volunteers were misled or lied to about what was actually being tested. The great majority of the book is directed at the ethics of human testing rather than the actual use of the weapons in war.

In the United States, chemical weapon development was lead the Bureau of Mines contracting civilian companies to produce poison gas. The US Chemical Service eventually became the US Army Chemical Corps after WWII. The Chemical Service separated itself from biological weapons while the British Porton Down did not. A quick search of Anthrax Island will bring up Gruinard Island. This Scottish Island was used to test anthrax dispersion in 1942. The island remained uninhabitable and contaminated until the 1986 decontamination. Gruinard Island was finally declared inhabitable in 1990. This is a lasting testament to the effects of biological weapons.

Schmidt writes an interesting study of the development and ethics of chemical warfare without spending much time on the battlefield use of the weapons. There is much more to manufacturing poison gas than production and military use. The testing and government cover-ups through the 20th century show the lengths that nations, particularly Britain, would take in creating effective poison or incapacitating gasses. Although the US is mentioned in the book there is little mention on other countries with active programs like the USSR and China. Schmidt concentrates his effort on Porton Downs and gives a detailed history. Very well done.

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Book Review — Poems of the Laughing Buddha

Poems of The Laughing Buddha by Jane Robbins

Poetry and Buddha seem to be a perfect mix of insight and harmony, but I was expecting a very cutesy type of poetry with this mix. Although it did contain a touch of that cutesy element, I thoroughly enjoyed the small collection of poems that center around the stone Buddha in Jane Robbins’ back yard. The theme is pretty straight forward; keep laughing or at least smiling. To be more Buddha-like means to imitate her statue that, like the Buddha, never lets things get him down. Even when the neighbor’s dog gets loose and wanders into the author’s yard and urinates on the Buddha statue, Buddha keeps laughing.

This is a feel-good collection of poetry and will bring a smile to the reader and a bit of relaxation. It is not a deep look into Buddhism, but rather like most religious statues and paintings a reminder of our purpose. Bad things happen as well as good and often we are powerless to change their course. We must accept what we cannot change, much like Camus said in the Myth of Sisyphus — “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Poems of the Laughing Buddha is nice collection and reminder to all of us to that we cannot control everything in our lives and sometimes laughing with the Buddha is much better than cursing the world. Also to Robbins credit, her message of being positive is not overdone like so many self-help, find happiness in your life books that flood the market. Confucious said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Buddha said, “There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.” Robbins clearly demonstrates these ideas with her words.

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Book Review — Alice Cooper Vol. 1: Welcome to My Nightmare (Alice Cooper, #1-6)

Welcome to my nightmare
Welcome to my breakdown
I hope I didn’t scare you
That’s just the way we are when we come down
We sweat and laugh and scream here
’cause life is just a dream here
You know inside you feel right at home here

~Welcome to my Nightmare

Alice Cooper Vol. 1: Welcome to My Nightmare (Alice Cooper, #1-6) by Joe Harris is the continuing adventures of the original shock rocker. Harris is the creator and writer of comics and graphic novels such as the hit Image Comics sci-fi adventure series, Great Pacific, and the supernatural thrillers, Ghost Projekt and Spontaneous for Oni Press. He has written iconic characters and titles for DC Comics (Batman, Fury of Firestorm), Marvel (Slingers, X-Men), and Dark Horse (Creepy).

What does a the King of Shock Rock do forty years after his prime? He becomes a comic book hero…well maybe not a hero but something close. After making a deal with a demon to get famous Alice Cooper is bound by contract to recruit pop boy bands to fame. Obviously the work of evil promoting that kind of music. Cooper is the Lord of Nightmares and since freeing himself from the clutches of the evil manager Lucius Black you would think he would retire. That for Cooper is not the case.

The comics are drawn dark with plenty of black and purple giving a nightmarish tone to the work. The story lines are good and include a piece on bullying without being too After School Special about it. Although dark there is no good vs evil or light vs dark, rather dark vs dark and rock and roll of course. There are references to other bands safely hidden from copyright infringements like Think Floyd and Deep Violet, but you know who they are anyway.

Nicely done and nice to see a rock legend presented to a younger generation or perhaps this is for the benefit of the fifty plus crowd. Either way is works. Although I am not a usual reader of graphic novels, I liked this mainly for the rock and roll theme and tribute the Godfather of Shock Rock. It’s nice to see rock and roll fighting the “good” fight.

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Book Review — The Beat Generation FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Angelheaded Hipsters

The Beat Generation FAQ by Rich Weidman

The Beat Generation FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Angelheaded Hipsters by Rich Weidman is a grouping of the Beat history in a FAQ type format. Weidman is a travel writer based in Central Florida. He is the author of The Doors FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Kings of Acid Rock (Backbeat Books, 2011). Rich received his B.A. in English from Stetson University and his M.A. in English/Film Studies from the University of Florida.

I am not much of a fan of FAQ style books. I can appreciate the ease of looking up information by subject rather than trying to find it in a timeline. Weidman does make good use of subjects to divide the book into sections. Main players of the movement are covered as well as Beat influences. Historical events and places are covered like the Six Gallery and Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl. Kerouac is given a fair share of the book along with Burroughs. I was disappointed by the coverage of women in the book. Lenore Kandel is just given a passing mention.

This is not really a book to be read cover to cover. It is meant as a reference, like a FAQ, to answer questions or interests you might have on the subject. The information is not groundbreaking or new, but it is plentiful. The chapters are broken down to allow easy reference, but as an ebook the search function is a greater help. A good reference and convenient book to have when reading or research the Beat period and their major players.

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Book Review — Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman

Kissinger's Shadow by Greg Grandin

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin is a look at a man who was instrumental in American foreign policy and has outlived critics and supporters. Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Professor of History at New York University, Grandin has published a number of other award-winning books, including Empire’s Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and The Blood of Guatemala.

Love him or hate him, Kissinger is a man that shaped modern American foreign policy and still today writes on the topic as an experienced sage. It was once said that Machiavelli does not write about how a leader should act in a perfect world, but rather how a leader needs to act in this world. Kissinger may be the equivalent in the modern world. He is the father of American Realism in foreign policy — The idea that a nation must act on its own accord, even when it does not have the support from other nations. Kissinger believes in power and the actual exercise of that power to create foreign policy. Kissinger, like Al Capone, believed you can get more with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone.

Grandin covers Kissinger’s life from the military to the post 9/11 world. There is no doubt of Kissinger’s brilliance in his ideas, but the practice of those did not always have the desired results. The massive bombings of North Vietnam did not have the desired effect as Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator, verbally embarrassed and harassed Kissinger at the peace talks. Kissinger threatened more bombings and Tho simply told Kissinger that America had already lost the war. Vietnam was holding firm and the American public was rejecting the war. The mouse stood up to the lion. Kissinger could not understand that.

Kissinger was the central figure in and covering up the secret bombings of Cambodia. The four years of bombing were known as Operation Menu and Kissinger worked to cover up the real targets of the bombings. Much of this remained unknown until General George S Brown told what he knew to congress during hearings for his selection for Air Force Chief of Staff. Kissinger dodged any responsibility. The result, however, brought an impeachment charge against Nixon that was dropped. Congress also passed The War Powers Act of 1973 over Nixon’s veto. Kissinger stayed on after Nixon’s resignation and although Ford removed him from the position of National Security Advisory, he stayed on as Secretary of State. Kissinger faced opposition from the crowd of rising neo-conservatives — Cheney and Rumsfeld. He did, however, convince Ford to overreact to the Mayaguez incident reaffirming America’s will to use force.

Kissinger’s hand runs deep through American policy from the well known Cambodian bombings, opening relations with China, SALT talks with the Soviets, and the coup in Chile. He also took part in lesser known actions in Rhodesia, Bangladesh, and East Timor. His role did not end with Carter’s election victory. George W. Bush called him back to service to chair the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Kissinger, now in his 90s is no longer active in foreign policy, but the world is still experiencing the effects of his actions. His role cannot be denied in the forming of late 20th Century American foreign policy. A great biography and read.

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Book Review — The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution

The End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution is a look at the world leading up until WWI. Lieven is Professor of Russian studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, a Fellow of the British Academy and of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Last year was the 100th Anniversary of the start of WWI and the world was saturated with new books on the subject. I have read nearly thirty books on the war in the last two years, and for the most part, one area of the war has been missing — the eastern front. The war starts between Serbia and Austria-Hungary and then histories move directly to the Western front and stay there. The study of WWI is almost entirely a study of the Western front. It is easy to forget that there was fighting in Asia, the Australians were chasing German ships in the Pacific, and the largest of the great powers was fighting Germany and Austria along the Eastern front.

I picked up this book hoping to gain more insight on the war in the East but discovered the title a bit misleading. Nearly the entire book covers the events up until the start of WWI. It is told from a Russian perspective, but anyone who studied Tsarist Russia is already familiar with the events leading to the war and Russia’s poor position to fight a modern, industrial war. Russia lost its navy to the Japanese a decade before and the population was not ready for another national embarrassment. The 1905 Revolution, a peaceful protest turned violent with the military ordered to fire on civilians, created lasting unrest inside the country. Russia’s rail system, needed for rapid mobilization, was in a sorry state. Hastily and cheaply built there was only a single set of tracks along most of the route making the scheduling trains running in both directions quite difficult. Furthermore, Russia’s main hub or moving troops up and down its Western border was only thirty-five miles from the Austrian border making it very vulnerable to capture before mobilization was complete.

Most of the foreign affairs have been well written about in past books. Lieven, however, manages to include Russia as a main player instead of a sidelined power. Trade with Germany and French loans play a large role in Russia’s involvement Europe. Lieven, also mentions the importance of the Ukraine. The Ukraine allowed Russia to become self-sufficient in food production making a long war advantageous. However, food production was never really Russia’s problem. Transporting food to where it was needed was a problem even in the Soviet times.

Internal Russian politics are also covered in detail. From the creation of the Duma, Nicholas’ own incompetence, and a foreign ministry that preferred roles as ambassadors to that of foreign minister all go against Russia. Russia was also recovering from serfdom, which kept the great majority of the population poor and tied to farming. France made Frenchmen out of their rural population and Russia kept their peasants at a level barely above slavery. With the population that was poor and uneducated, the Russians did not develop the sense of nationalism other countries had; the peasants fought for Tsar and God. When the Tsar fell out of favor so did the will to fight.

All in all, The End of Tsarist Russia, is a solid history. For those unfamiliar with the politics leading to WWI and Russian history, it is an excellent book. For those familiar with both Russia and the war it is a good review. A single rating for this book is not practical depending on the category the reader falls into it is either four or three stars respectively.

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