Monthly Archives: August 2015

Book Review — The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

The Impossible State by Victor Cha

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha is the latest in books on North Korea. Cha is a former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House’s National Security Council, with responsibility for Japan, North and South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Cha served as President Bush’s top advisor on North Korean affairs. Currently, he holds the D. S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair in Asian Studies and is the Director of the Asian Studies program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Cha is also senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There have been several books on North Korea in the last few years. The one thing in common with them is that they repeat the same few stories. Granted North Korea is isolated and information is scarce, but there has to be more information. With Cha’s impressive background, I expected more information. He does repeat several stories or parts of stories that have been told and retold. However, he includes something that is lacking in other books. He goes into detail with North Korean relations with its neighbors and their history.

Key in North Korea’s existence is its ability to play countries against each other. Throughout the Cold War, North Korea played China against the USSR to its advantage. With the fall of the Soviet Union, both China and Russia turned their sites to better relations with South Korea. Better trade with South Korea was more profitable than supporting the North Korean Regime. The puzzling thing is why has North Korea been able to make itself so important. Korea had no strategic importance in the Cold War. There was no economic interest in North Korea, but the idea it was divided created an artificial interest in the area between the powers. Although nothing was worth fighting for neither power wanted to leave. China still has that problem of defending North Korea while enjoying profitable trade with the south. China has recently taken to extracting raw materials from North Korea as a form of trade basically reducing North Korea to an economic colony of China.

North Korea continues to confound its “enemies” as well as its allies. Kidnapping Japanese citizens, sinking a South Korean ship, defying the major powers in nuclear talks. North Korea acts like a spoiled child making outrageous demands and acting poorly in public and regional and international powers act like coddling parents. North Korea although does not have a nuclear delivery system it does have the means to deliver chemical weapons to South Korea and Japan. It possesses enough deterrent to make military engagement costly in lives and property.

How does an isolated regime continue to function? There is the Kim cult of personality and illegal means. North Korea produces nearly flawless counterfeit US currency. Another source of income is methamphetamines. North Korea produces nearly pure crystal meth and distributes it around the world using diplomatic pouches for distribution. North Korea also exports its military hardware, reliable but not highly technical.

Although Cha rehashes old stories and even repeats himself in the book, he sheds light on the North’s policies through its relations with its neighbors and trading partners. You can tell quite a bit about a person by the company he keeps. The same can be said of a country. North Korea does not allow much to be seen inside its borders, so what they show outside their borders is the best we can get and adds greatly to the little we know about North Korea.

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Book Review — Collected Poems: Len Gasparini

Between the H-bomb and the hula hoop
came rock and roll
Between McCarthyism and the ducktail haircut
came rock and roll
Between the Civil Rights movement and Clearasil
came rock and roll
When Elvis Presley came
white was really never the same

~ Memories of the Rockin’ Fifties

Collected Poems by Len Gasparini

Collected Poems: Len Gasparini by Len Gasparini is a collection of the poets half century of writing. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Gasparini has written poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays, and children’s books. In 1990, he was awarded the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize for poetry. In 2010, he won the NOW Open Poetry Stage event. Having lived in Montreal, Vancouver, New Orleans, and Washington State, he now divides his time between Toronto and his hometown.

When your collection opens with a poem about rock and roll, it really sets the tone. Gasparini was really influenced by his hometown, across the bridge from Mo-Town. His early poems speak quite often of Lake Erie, Detroit, and his home, Windsor. Later his subject changes as he moves to different cities. The chronological order of his poems allows the reader to track Gasparini’s movements across the two countries. Some poems, however, like “Grapes” jump the ocean to Tuscany before returning.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Gasparini paints a thousand pictures with his words. His ability to observe and relay that information back to the reader produces an image sharper than our eyes can detect. From poems like “Indian Serenade” where complex scenes are described and the imagination builds to created events to poems like “Centipede” and “The Earthworm” where the mundane is brought to new light, Gasparini is a master of converting vision to words. For example, the two line poem “British Columbia” speaks volumes:

The sun cut itself
on a mountain and bled into the valley

Gasparini also likes to have fun. “Pickup” is a poem of two undercover vice officers that mistakenly try to arrest each other in a bar. He also takes a swipe at a book reviewer who lives in a mushroom colored room. The poems from his time in New Orleans also take on a fun and gritty tone. Fun is fun, but the reader is brought back to a reality quite quickly with “The Buffalo Nickel.”

Collected Poems is a rare example of great poetry for all readers. The subjects and language will not scare off a novice interested but uneasy about embracing poetry. For the lover of poetry, there is so much present in this collection. The simple style is not used played down to the mass audience, but to deliver a deeper vision. Unlike Robert Frost, Gasparini does not take the road less traveled, rather he wonders why Frost just did not blaze a new road through the yellow wood. Then looking at his choices he blazes his own path in North American poetry. An outstanding collection for everyone.


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Book Review — The Best Small Fictions 2015

The Best Small Fictions 2015 by Robert Olen Butler

The Best Small Fictions 2015 is a collection of very short fiction originally published by a variety of publications. I was asked if I would review this book by the series editor Tara L. Masih several weeks ago. I accepted because I like it when I am asked to review something that isn’t a vampire apocalypse romance novel. I was not entirely sure what small fiction was about but was told there was prose poetry included. That was good enough for me.

I will say I was very surprised with this collection. I usually do not care for short stories because I feel dropped into the middle of a story and pulled out before it’s over or before I completely understand what is going on. Small fiction, however, is the matchbox of fiction; no story is more than a few short pages. There is also the feeling of completeness in these shorter stories that are missing from traditional short stories. It is not Cliff Note or the Readers Digest version of a story either. There is a fullness that usually requires many more words.

The range of material is very broad along with the style and format. The shortest work is one hundred and forty characters taken from Twitter Fiction. Most stories, though, tend to be a page or two. Almost from the start I was hooked on this collection. J. Duncan Wiley’s “A Notice From the Office of Reclamation”, a two and a half page warning for those thinking of entering the mine, read in part:

Rocks grind their granite teeth over geologic eons, holding their grudges close. You cannot win against them. Your little flame of curiosity, infinitesimal by comparison, will gutter before it illuminates even the shallowest depths of that darkness. You will fall.

There is a rhythm and a taunting voice that leaps from the pages and expands the words into something more than simple prose. It reads like a dark fairy tale with enough detail to fill a dream.

Some stories capture real-life events and the little embarrassments that join them. Stuart Dybek’s “Brisket” is such a story. The trappings of everyday life capture us when we are distracted. “Brisket” is a great story with a moral that even vegetarians like myself can enjoy. Adding to the real life theme, Naomi Telushkin and Dan Gilmore write realistic, timely tales of identity.

Not everything is light. Emma Bolden’s “Before She was a Memory” touched a very real and dark place in my life. Catherine Moore’s “Not About Liz” seems innocent but has a dark and creepy undertone.

These works have all been published in various places and collected as a “best of volume” much like David Lehman does with the yearly Best of American Poetry series. The sources range from Twitter, to 100 Word Story, to Black Lawrence Press, and a wide variety of other publications. Also included with this collection is an interview Phong Nguyen of Pleiades and an interview with Michael Martone who has two stories in this collection. This is truly a well-selected collection and has given me a new appreciation for small fiction. The Best Small Fictions 2015 will make you a believer in small fiction as literature.


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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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