Monthly Archives: September 2015

Book Review — An Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring

An Arab Dawn by Bessma Momani

An Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring by Bessma Momani is look at the current youth of the Middle East and North Africa. Momani is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Canada. She is Senior Fellow at the Centre For International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) and a regular media analyst and contributor to national and international media on the Middle East and on global economic governance issues.

I went to Saudi Arabia in the winter of 1984 to serve as an embassy guard. It was culturally a huge change from Camp Pendleton, California, and a confusing change as well. Waiting for the flight out of D.C.I met a Saudi air force officer and his wife and child. I had many questions and they were happy enough to talk to me. We were separated on the flight and once arriving in Jeddah I want to say goodbye and thank you. But by then both he and his wife were out of western clothes and neither had any more to say to me. Crossing into Saudi airspace had changed everything. It was like there were two worlds. I learned there was a private world and public world.

Today much has changed. I read about women defying the law and driving cars in protest. Young adult males forming hot rod car clubs. Perhaps, most surprising is a female Palestinian living in Mecca who Tweets to me on a somewhat regular basis in life in Saudi Arabia. All these things would have been impossible in the mid-1980s when I lived in Riyadh. There is a change in the Middle East and it’s being carried out by the youth. The younger generation is exposed to social media, satellite television, and higher education. Momani notes that there are more youths enrolled in universities in war-torn Palestine than in Hong Kong. Higher education is growing throughout the Middle East as public and private universities set up. There was a very real worry of brain drain in the 1980s as the youth left their home countries to study abroad and decided to stay.

In the 1970s, the Arab world was much different as governments tried to instill the idea of citizenship on a population not used to that concept. The 1960s and 1970s were eras of great growth and liberal experimentation that slammed shut in the 1980s. Now it is opening again as governments seem powerless to stop the flow of information and weakened against an educated, urban population. There is a growing demand for more freedom and still a clinging to religious values. The religious values seem to bring order to society without a need for heavy-handed government tactics.

The West seems to see only the negative aspects in the region. The old newspaper adage of “If it bleeds, it leads.” has found no shortage of blood in the Middle East. The west also finds symbolism over substance in its reporting. Ask an average American what the headscarf, hijab, means and most will say its religious oppression against women. Yet many women visiting or living in Western countries still chose to wear a head covering as a matter of choice and heritage. Even in the suburbs of Dallas, where I live, it is not unusual for women to wear a hijab, of course, it is much more stylish than the traditional black scarf. It remains a sign of identity. Women have been gaining ground in areas that do matter. Would most Americans know that the women outnumber men in Saudi universities?

Momani gives the reader an across the board look at the Middle East and the changes that are being generated by the youth. There is a move towards a more liberal lifestyle and openness in society. Many governments know that they cannot repress change without risking revolt as seen in Egypt. No one would have predicted that Saudi women would gain the right to vote or run for local offices. Governments that resist face internal revolt and in the age of Twitter and instant communications the government actions are no longer internal matters. The whole world bears witness.

There are still problems as the youth start moving into the job market and the countries are not set up for growth or have the industry that allows growth. To complicate matters, corruption and the “good old boy” network prevent many from finding gainful employment. Governments entry into world markets has slowed the previous price controlled and subsidized economies and required and created a need for an earned income. Prices in urban centers have risen and local vendors now must compete with imports. The people, in general, would rather visit malls and shopping centers than the old shops. Urbanization has brought its share of new problems.

An Arab Dawn sheds some needed light on the positive changes that are happening throughout the Middle East. The vast majority of the population wants basically the same thing as the Western world, although with an Arab cultural tint to it. Fast cars, McDonalds, and MTV are as much a part of Arab life as it is American life. Islam does not mean ISIS or terrorism, but the West will have to see what is happening beyond the sensationalism. An Arab Dawn is a great place to start in understanding the Middle East and the Arab world.

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Book Review — Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology

Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin: An Anthology by Alan Bennett is a collection of over seventy poems with commentary from six different poets. Bennett is an English author and Tony Award-winning playwright. Bennett’s first stage play, “Forty Years On”, was produced in 1968.

I jumped at this book. As a latecomer to poetry and having little in the way of formal education on the subject, I readily recognized the poets Hardy and Larkin. However, I found that the four between them were new to me: Houseman, Betjeman, Auden, and MacNeice. Like Bennett, I was baffled by poetry in my younger years and never took more that the required literature classes for a bachelor’s in science degree. I do remember having my review of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” torn apart because I concentrated on the historical realities rather than the fertility symbolism. I was a history major. That turned me off to poetry until a few years ago. Earlier, I recalled my fourth-grade public school teacher reading to the class Larkin’s poem “Church Going” which seemed to directly clash with my Catholic Sunday school teachings. I look back at my fourth-grade teacher and the books she brought to class for us to read and I see her as a subversive hero that kept me interested in reading.

Bennet gives a bit of a biography of each poet in their separate sections and comments on the poems and the poet’s lives. Hardy had a thing about graveyards. Bennet tells of how Hardy took his soon to be second wife to visit the grave of his first wife. He pointed to the empty plot next to his first wife and told his wife to be, “This will be yours.” She accepted his proposal and they were married in what is probably the creepiest marriage proposal outside of fiction.

The information included with the poems opens the readers to common themes in the poetry as well as the poet’s influences. Larkin, the librarian, is quite blunt and even vulgar at times. Auden was better with engineering than love and it shows in his poems. There was a difference to these men and it reflected in their writing. There is no mold that poets are formed from.

Bennett is unintrusive in his discussion and notes on the poems and poets. He does relate themes and explains the influence of the style of writing without a lecturer’s despotic intolerance to interpretation. It is more at a casual conversational tone with a touch of humor and personal discovery. It is like talking with an enlightened friend rather than a lesson.

Six Poets is the sort of book that will draw in those who have been intimidated by poetry and those wanting to enjoy the words without the theory. One can love aviation without being an aeronautical engineer. One can appreciate military history without being a soldier. And one can also appreciate poetry without a degree. Six Poets is a welcome addition for anyone curious about poetry yet intimidated by the reputation. Very well done.

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Book Review — Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About The World

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About The World by Tim Marshall attempts to explain the world by presenting ten maps of the planet. Tim Marshall is a leading authority on foreign affairs with more than 25 years of reporting experience. He was the diplomatic editor at Sky News, and before that was working for the BBC and LBC/IRN radio. He has reported from thirty countries and covered the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a thousand pictures. A topographical map in the hands of a Marine is a volume of information on terrain, defensive positions, possible enemy routes, and the sense of knowing where you are, how to get where you need to be. It’s more than just a picture of the ground that others may see. Maps are important even in reading history. National boundaries become visible even if it’s not a political map. Mountains, rivers, deserts, and oceans created borders even before Europe drew lines on a map.

America and Russia sprawled until they met oceans. The Middle East existed without national borders. The Ottoman Empire didn’t arbitrarily divide land. Nationalism and conflict in the Middle East have much more to do with the artificial straight line borders drawn by France and England than historical boundaries, tribes, or religions. Countries develop to their resources and their limits. Russia is challenged by the lack of a true warm-water ocean port. China is creating alliances to gain what it needs with a stealthy military objective. Japan trades because it must; it lacks resources. Mountains ensure peace coexistence between India and China but not India and Pakistan. Natural borders offer security while political borders offer an avenue for conflict. China is boxed in between rivers, mountains, and jungles. Vietnam is the only country China has invaded in the last fifty years, but not from lack of want but practicality.

A map is a handy tool for understanding the world. Marshall takes maps of ten regions of the world and uses them to explain the political and cultural realities of the modern world. It becomes easy to see the problem areas and the limits of nations based on their geography. It also becomes apparent how countries are attempting to change their situations. Some countries live in the comfort of their situation. Mexico only needs to fear invasion from the US and Canada likewise; neither is expresses much concern over this. Other countries are not so lucky. South Korea’s capital Seoul is only thirty-five miles from the DMZ. There are no natural obstacles separating Seoul from an invading army from the north.

Prisoners of Geography is a nicely done work that provides a picture (map) and then goes on to describe the history, culture, and the political realities of the region. Most of the world is covered with the exception of Canada, the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. The maps help explain the whys of many historical questions and actions as well as the present and possible future challenges. Prisoners of Geography is a very readable and understandable history and political study.

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Book Review — Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Workshops of Empire by Eric  Bennett

Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War by Eric Bennett is a look at the expansion of American creative writing. Bennett is an associate professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is the author of A Big Enough Lie, and his writing has appeared in A Public Space, New Writing, Modern Fiction Studies, Blackwell-Wiley’s Companion to Creative Writing, The Chronicle of Higher Education, VQR, MFA vs. NYC, and Africana.

The Cold War was a changing point in American thinking. Gone was the idea of a collective society that pulled together to fight fascists and a return to the individual became prominent. Collectivism meant communism and communism was wrong. One only had to look at 1950s Science fiction movies to see this. Collectivism was evil and the hero always an individual who stood apart. Dr. Miles Bennell stood against a town of pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Steve McQueen stood alone against a town that refused to believe The Blob was real. Perhaps without noticing America rejected the collective identity and moved into individualism.

The other great change that materialized during the early years of the Cold War was education. The G.I. Bill put a college education within the reach of many who would not have attended college before. America had an educated public beyond the privileged class. With the rise in education, literature started to rise.

“In magazines large and small, reactionaries competed with radicals for the attention of well-educated readers.”

“America writers and intellectuals affiliated with that “vital center” believed that the complexity of literature provided an antidote to sloganeering amidst slogans run amok. No moreArbeit macht frei; no more Workers of the world unite!

Literary modernism grew out of the interwar period and gave rise to writers such as TS Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, who wanted to overturn the discipline of literary form. Stream of consciousness, unreliable narrators, and a mistrust of traditional power became the norm. Opposing the modernism was New Humanism championed by Irving Babbitt. New Humanism fought to capture the glory of the past in literature. The Great Depression, however, damaged the New Humanist movement as the country now saw failure in the ideas of the past and looked for help outside of individual responsibility. Like American politics, American literature was also trapped in a struggle between liberals and conservatives. Workshops of Empire highlights this struggle and the results in literature and the rise of creative writing at the university level.

Bennett covers the history of creative writing and its champions and detractors. He makes an interesting point about the development of creative writing and high taxes. Oppressive tax rates actually encouraged the Rockefeller Foundation to give money to university programs. Creative writing programs, to a great degree, were funded by corporate donations and grants. Bennett also includes biographies of Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Wallace Stegner, the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford. He concludes his study with a comparison of Hemingway and Henry James.

Today many college educated students and even high school students take courses in creative writing as part of their English curriculum without much thought of its history. The idea of creative writing being part of the English curriculum is coming into question more so today. English is the study of rules and form. Creative writing is self-expression and creative writing is a fine arts degree taught in workshops rather than seminars. This issue has not been settled.

Having a masters degree in political science puts me on the outside looking in on the role of creative writing, but leaves me on the inside as far as the history and the Cold War that influenced it. Workshops of Empire offered me an insight into the change in American writing, education and thinking based on concepts that I already understood but the effects I never noticed in writing. As a latecomer to poetry, I found this book enlightening and an explanation of how writing changed from Whitman to Eliot to Ginsberg to winners of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

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Book Review — Decline of the Animal Kingdom

You go with the leopards, and I’ll stay with my lions. It’s a pride thing….

Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura  Clarke

Decline of the Animal Kingdom by Laura Clarke is a collection of off-beat poetry. As it turns out, it is even more interesting than I expected. Heavy on the personified mules that seamlessly fill the role of typists and the envisioned revenge of a consumed lobster does not seem far fetched. Animals intertwine into the human world with a coherent personification.

There is a mesmerizing flow to the poems and a near-absurd abstraction to the writing. This all seems to add the fascination. The words roll and flow smoothly if not just to confer a message, but to create a rhythm and flux to the reading. There are times a reader can get lost in the words and trapped in the cadence.

I grew my arm hair in a brick pattern
and smoked against my neighbor’s wall. Camouflage makes me
soulful but reckless e.g. eating cricket pie in plain daylight.
I foraged Tylenol 3s in the underbrush
from the old country, slept alone on fur pelts under karaoke signs.
Followed the moronic koala’s example and spearheaded
evolutionary stomach voodoo, got addicted to one food that’s
really hard to find and grows scarcely on mountaintops. The koala deserves to die like the Madagascar butterfly deserves
to be framed above my toilet…

The words themselves do not make the poetry but its combination with the tempo and pattern of the voice. I will say this is an odd collection of poetry, but odd in the same way as Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon. It strikes a certain chord in the observer that allows reality to be set aside and an alternate world to harmoniously emerge. I found this collection to be incredibly enjoyable to read and a collection that I won’t grow tired of reading for a long tome to come. There is a battle between what is urban and what is nature and other themes. But what makes this so enjoyable to me is that I can get completely lost in the poems.

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Book Review — Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More

Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More by Beverly Dubrin is a very readable and informative book on tea and infusions. Dubrin gives a history of tea along with its mythology. Unlike coffee houses in Europe that seemed to equalize the population, tea, on the other hand, separated the population between the rich and poor. Tea, however,  did seem to create a unifying factor in the American colonies as several “tea parties” happened in prerevolutionary America. It was also important enough commodity to trigger the Opium War between Great Britain and China.

Tea Culture also covers the production of tea and the processes that create the different teas — Black, Blue (oolong), Green, Yellow, and White. Along with true teas infusions are are covered including herbal and rooibos. Tea has grown in popular cultures across the world and is second only to water in amount consumed worldwide. Recipes included in the book cover several different cultural varieties of tea preparation. Tea Culture presents a nice introduction to tea in an interesting and readable manner. Recommended for those looking to learn more about a beverage that can be as common as Lipton or as intimidating as wine.


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Book Review — Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories

Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories by Ghassan Kanafani

A great, but small, collection of short stories reflecting on the struggle of the Palestinian people through the partition and the creation of the state of Israel.  The works in themselves are not political, but show the hardships and the struggle in a harsh land.  The people are beat but not beaten. There is still a pride and memory of a greater past. Kanafani presents a look at a culture that is often misunderstood or misrepresented in American culture.

Kanafani played a role in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was described as ‘the commando who never fired a gun’  His work and personal non-violence in conflict put him in the same league as Albert Camus.  Kanafani and his niece were killed in a car bomb explosion on July 8, 1972.  The assassination was widely believed to be a retaliation for the Lod airport massacre a few days prior.


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Book Review — The Zombie Stories of H. P. Lovecraft: Featuring Herbert West–Reanimator and More!

The Zombie Stories of H. P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft

Today when we think of horror our minds bring about images of Stephen King’s It and a pile of his other books or George Romero and Wes Craven in the film world. Horror has taken on a certain violence to create fear in the audience, and the latest wave of torture horror movies move to shock the viewer. But before Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead there were the original horror and zombies tales. Before all this, a man named Howard Phillips Lovecraft produced some of the best original horror in American literature. During his lifetime, he was virtually unknown except in pulp magazines. He gained fame after his death and even among non-readers many horror fans know of Reanimator, Dagon, and the Cthulhu South Park episode.

What separates Lovecraft from other writers is his sense his writing leaves on readers. The zombie stories in this Dover collection, although not including the popular Cthulhu mythos, display some of the finer work of the writer. From the opening story “The Outsider,” the reader experiences something more than typical horror. There is an overwhelming feeling of dread and despair that lingers long after reading the story. The reader will feel the darkness, the cold stone enclosure, the damp, moldy, mossy passageways. It is not torture or violence that create the fear it is the setting and inserting the reader into hopelessness that surrounds the characters. That is the stuff of nightmares. It lingers deep in the brain almost as a personal experience.

Lovecraft creates lasting horror images. Whether the image is Herbert West’s pathological drive, Egyptian mythology, or the killing of one’s best friend there is a soul-wrenching memory created in the reader’s mind. He or she feels as helpless as the characters in the story. Simply putting the book down and walking away is nearly impossible. It will haunt you. Your only hope is to finish in a vain attempt to find closure. An excellent introduction to the master of horror.

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Book Review — The Arab Poems The Muslim Poems

The Arab Poems The Muslim Poems by Sam Hamod

Sam Hamod captures many emotions in his powerfully worded poetry. There are touching poems of remembrance of youth and family. His father’s immigration to the US changed him from Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod. The son was named after his father’s anglicized name. There is the growing up Muslim in America and learning what a language that is not spoken here and maintaining traditions that seem embarrassing for a teen in America.

Hamod covers much of the Islamic world with his thoughts from Somalia to Spain. There is a heartfelt poem of finding a lone child’s shoe after a bombing run in Lebanon. There is also the terror and panic of people falling from the sky like angels after the downing of Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114. Hamod captures the senseless misery that people inflict on other people and many times on the most innocent people.

There are peaceful poems too. Three women gathering olives and picnicking outside of Istanbul. The women are at peace separated from financial crises in Spain, Greece, and the United States. They are blissfully unaware of problems in their own government. Separation from the world’s events that they have no control over creates a sense of easiness. Sometimes violence and aggression are relieved in the most unexpected ways. A poem about Mahmoud Darwish crossing an Israeli checkpoint shows a man proud man harassed, and hit as he is progressively brought before higher ranking military personnel. He identifies himself as a farmer of words, and the old colonel is the first to recognize him. He then says that Darwish is well known and dismisses the other Israeli personnel. The colonel apologises for the others and says they do not understand. They are not Jews and the Colonel is a Jew, not a Zionist like the others. The two break bread and lament over the current situation of their peoples.

A very moving free form poetry collection. Hamod can capture anger, rebellion, pride, struggle, and family in a powerful way. I was initially concerned about the quality of Arab poems coming from a man named Sam but the first poem explained away that matter very early on. Hamod packs thunder in his words, but a thunder that is controlled with reason and humanity. An outstanding collection.

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Book Review — Vietnam

Vietnam by Mary McCarthy

Vietnam by Mary McCarthy is an interesting look at the Vietnam War at its height. I was expecting an all out attack on the war, but instead, I received something very different. There is no doubt McCarthy is against the war. She is very clear on the subject.

McCarthy attacks the government’s bureaucrats, but strangely holds a soft spot for the men, or boys as she calls them, who are fighting the war. She dealt with a number of Marines in country and was taken back by their honesty. When she asked about land redistribution and what is being done about it, the bureaucrats stumble and fumble trying to fit ready-made answers to the question. A Marine Colonel interrupts with “Absolutely nothing.” She talks to corpsmen and navy doctors who treat the civilian population. They explain the work they do and the referrals they make but do not understand there is no hospital space for their patients.

McCarthy also speaks of her anti-war position. By this time, no one really supports the war, but like Johnson said, “But, we are there.” So even though the pro-war position sits on their mountain of errors, they look down on those who oppose them. How does one bring home 452,000 military personnel? Do we abandon those in Vietnam the risked their lives supporting America? Is communism any better than corruption?

What I admire about McCarthy’s position is that she learns from her experience. She still opposes the war but recognizes that many in the military believed they were honestly doing the honorable thing. Of course there are exceptions. On Marine Colonel, she met set up a relocation camp and in its center was a huge bronze $. This Marine could very well have been the fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. McCarthy came to respect those in the military on the ground and despised the bureaucracy behind the war and formulas and their false intellectualism.

I am not a supporter of the war. I remember older kids in my neighborhood disappearing in the draft while I was growing up. I remember some returning home and others not returning and a gold star in their parents front window. The war was a dividing time in American history and for a journalist opposed to the war to recognize that some truly believed they were doing good is something worth noting.

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