Monthly Archives: October 2015


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Book Review — In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 by Marcel Proust is sad to say my first Proust. I am happy to say that it will not be my last. There is something about French poetry that I find irresistible and in the few French prose books, mostly Hugo, that I have read. In this Yale edition, William Cater uses C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation and corrects errors in this annotated edition.

There is almost a lyrical quality to this work:

He strode rapidly across the whole width of the hotel, seeming to be in pursuit of his monocle, which kept darting away in front of him like a butterfly.

As to the pretty girls who went past, from the day on which I had first known that their cheeks could be kissed. I became curious about their souls. And the universe became more interesting.

There is a capturing of a youthful adulthood in the book. There is humor and lightness throughout the book and a connection with an older reader’s past. It takes one back and makes one wonder what happened to those days.

The Yale publication is not so much a re-release of a book that is available in public domain. It is refreshing to see a classic work re-published by a major university press, especially in the sea of pop fiction flooding into the market.

What makes this volume particularly appealing is the work is the research and annotations done by Carter. Many might dismiss the importance of a new translation of a classic work, but for years the English speaking world believed Camus’ Marsault opens “The Stranger” with “Mother died today.” Instead of the much warmer “Mamam (Informal, like mommy)died today.” which is in the latest translation. A single word changes our first impression of Marsault. Detailed and copious notes indicate changes in the translations to keep truer to Proust’s original French text.

Although I cannot directly comment on corrections, they do seem to be well researched and reasoned. Reading this edition has peaked my interest in Proust and I am going to pick upSwann’s Way and read the from the beginning.

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Book Review — Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander

Emblems of the Passing World by Adam Kirsch
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch is a collection of photographs by August Sanders accompanied by descriptive poetry written by Kirsch. Sanders is described as the most important portrait photographer in Germany during the pre and interwar years. Kirsch is the author of two collections of poems and several books of poetry criticism. A senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet, he also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

First and foremost the pictures are stunning. The black and white photographs almost seem to have a three-dimensional effect. There seems to be a realism to the pictures, in that I mean looking through a window rather than at a picture. I received this as an ebook and am happy to have read it on my Kindle tablet rather than my Paperwhite. The photographs are art in themselves that need to be viewed in the highest quality.

The photographs capture real people in portraits from various walks of life. From a brick layer to laboratory technicians to a university librarian. The well-weathered faces of farmers who spent their life in the elements strike a vivid pose. Some pictures seem rather startling and even disturbing. “My Wife in Joy and Sorrow” shows a mother holding twin children in christening gowns one child alive and the other clearly deceased is a haunting photograph in itself.

The poetry catches the spirit of the times. The match seller and the bricklayer show the very real separation of the classes and the rise of that “Spectre” that was spreading across Europe. The poems are based off the picture and the original title. Some of the poetry fits very well and compares to the pictures and the times they were taken. Some seem to detract from the pictures, or that may be my own interpretation of the photographs

Today we are flooded with pictures of friends, pictures of what your friends are having for dinner, complete with filters, special effects, and even photoshopped. This collection is from a time when photographs were special events. They are powerful images of the past and a true look at the people in the past. A century has passed since many of these photographs have been taken and it would be safe to say that all the subjects, even the youngest, have all passed, but their images seem to capture and hold firm on a moment in time. It is a bit of history, that as hard as it seems, goes beyond written words of the past and even beyond period newsreels. The capturing of a single instant does seem to be worth a thousand words…or more.


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Book Review — Mission Accomplished?

Mission Accomplished? by Simon Jenkins

Mission Accomplished? by Simon Jenkins is a look at Britain’s changing role in international military and humanitarian actions. Jenkins is the author of the international bestsellersEngland’s Thousand Best Churches and England’s Thousand Best Houses, the former editor of The Times and Evening Standard and a columnist for the Guardian. He is chairman of the National Trust.

Jenkins opens with the British plan to rescue a handful of British citizens caught in unrest in Sierra Leone. As it turned out those being rescued, didn’t want to be and were used to the cycles of unrest. Not to make the rescue mission a total loss, the troops became part of a humanitarian aid program that has spiraled out of control and lasted ten years. It seems nations never learn, Instead of backing down, they find ways to extend their stay to the point it is hard or nearly impossible to leave — much like the US in Iraq.

Mission creep and perhaps forgetting are all problems. The US invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 as a punitive measure. The idea to capture and defeat Al-Qaeda had great worldwide support. The world expressed sympathy at to the US including Iran. Iraq and North Korea were the only silent nations. With support to hunt down bin Ladin and Al Qaeda the US lost interest in 2003 and invaded Iraq. The US left Afghanistan to Britain.

The concept of precision bombing is brought up also. Today we think of it as very precise and it is compared to Dresden. The bombing raid on Libya, intended to kill Gaddafi, failed to kill him, but killed others including Qaddafi’s daughter. We watched footage of smart bombs guided down into air shafts and thought was was clean and precise. The “precision” of smart bombs and cruise missiles would seem to indicate that less would be used and only military targets would be hit. The fact is friendly fire and civilian casualties remain high. Shock and Awe was meant to terrify the civilian population. In fact in 2003, there were 2,300 civilian causalities as a result of the US lead coalition bombing.

Interventions also seem to taint our memories. The US failure in Somalia and British involvement in Sierra Leone kept these powers out of major humanitarian interventions such Rwandan genocide and Sudan. Failure to intervene is not the only problem but also criticism of success plays a role too. The first Gulf War was a success. It kept to the mission parameters and did not leave a vacuum. The later removal of the Iraqi government, its military structure, and its bureaucracy removed the entire talent pool and left no one with experience. Besides the removal of the talent, it also left those with military experience and knowledge out of work. A similar situation happened in Somalia when the government cut funding to the navy. The sailors became fishermen keeping with what they knew. When the government opened fishing to international trawlers, the former navy men were out of a job again, and in response turned to piracy.

Jenkins gives the reader a detailed look at primarily British intervention and the reasoning behind it. We see the mistakes in hindsight, but even so there was plenty of hindsight before more many recent interventions. We like to think we learn from history and do not repeat previous mistakes. Jenkins shows that we believe in out military missions and that they are not repeats of the past. Yet we are very selective in where and when we involve ourselves and many times our choices simply wrong. Jenkins takes us back to see his decisions at the time and how his opinions have held out. A very interesting perspective.

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Book Review — Pierrot/Lorca: White Carnival of Black Desire

Through poetry man more quickly approaches the edge where the philosopher and mathematician turn their backs in silence.

~García Lorca

Pierrot/Lorca by Emilio Peral Vega

Pierrot/Lorca: White Carnival of Black Desire by Emilio Peral Vega is a well written and extremely well-researched book. It is very much on the academic category of books and written for a small audience. I picked this book up thinking it was poetry. It does contain information on poets and artists. Pierrot, in general, is a mime the White Carnival. The Black Desire reflects what was hidden behind the white mask. Pierrot, in this particular case, is a representation of the poet himself. Lorca seems to have been forgotten after his execution by the Spanish nationalists and the banning of his work. His influence does seem to reach outside of Spain as Vega goes into great detail to prove.

Unfortunately, I had no previous knowledge of either Lorca or his version of Pierrot. He did however lived and saw a hidden world — The one that lives below the surface and the one we hide. I will say I learned something from the reading, but the topic was quite out of my league but, the research and documentation are very well done.

Not rated based on my limited knowledge and the level needed to appreciate this work. This book, however, has created an interest in reading Lorca’s poetry.


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Book Review — Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring

Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring by John L. Esposito

Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring by John L. Esposito, et al is an examination of the present state of several Islamic countries and how they fared historically and to some extent democratically. Esposito is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University.

Anyone who has spent time studying history or politics knows that democracy is a learned from of government. The United States learned it as a colony with town hall meetings, limited self-rule, and British tradition. Many after the Cold War expected Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union would form neat democracies. Instead, the people missed the stability and predictability of the old system. The uncertainty of freedom and democracy were balanced with unemployment and bankrupt pensions. How is it expected that democracy would bloom in the Middle East? It was a region that did not know nationalism until twentieth-century borders were drawn. It is still a region where even today tribal alliances still play an important role. The idea of democracy is seen as a threat to many in all walks of life.

Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring examines Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Tunisia, Senegal, and Egypt. Each country’s history is very different and each country’s present state is also different. Turkey the long held example of an Islamic democracy is not without its problems, some serious. Most would dismiss Senegal, the West African nation, as a democracy, but it has the best democratic track record of the Islamic countries covered. French democratic tradition and a sense of nationalism Senegal adapted into a democratic country with peaceful transfers of power.

Each country is now facing the same problems of a large and largely unemployed youth. The younger generations have greater exposure to the world and information. It is interesting how it is viewed by the younger generation or those under forty. The corruption of the Shah is not a memory, but the war with Iraq and restrictions of freedom are. In Tunisia secular government corruption was the worry. In other places Islamic parties strive for equality, law, and preventing poverty, quite unlike they are viewed in the west. Some see Islamic law as a means of leveling the playing field between the corrupt and the poor.

History and tradition play a role in developing a democracy. Also, many of these countries were pawns in the Cold War which affected their development. Corrupt governments like Iran were supported for their strategic value. Turkey became a NATO member but was never accepted as a European nation. Senegal left out of the Cold War power plays and slow to gain independence from France developed well. Esposito goes a great way in explaining why democracy hasn’t taken hold in Islamic countries. The answer isn’t quite as simple as Westerns would like to think. Islam does not always mean oppression and democracy doesn’t mean social and economic equality. Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring presents a balanced view of the political situation and history in countries with an Islamic population.


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Book Review — Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 2

Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 2 by Peter Adamson is a detailed look at the philosophers of the Greek and Roman Era. Adamson holds a joint appointment with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Previously Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, London. He has published on Aristotle, Plotinus, al-Farabi and other members of the Baghdad School, Avicenna, and Averroes. A special focus of research is the output of the translation circle of al-Kindi, on which he has written The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the “Theology of Aristotle” and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi. Adamson is also editor or co-editor of several books.

In graduate school, political philosophy was taught by a newly minted Ph.D. with a dissertation on Kierkegaard. I enjoyed the class immensely mostly in part because my project that semester centered around Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, which I read and reread several times as an undergraduate. Others were not so confident with Hegel, Kant, and Nietzsche. The thought of philosophy puts fear into many students. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine can be intimidating, but Adamson does a remarkable job delivering the message of the Greek philosophers through the early Roman Christian philosophers.

Adamson does not give the reader a “philosophy for dummies” course but explains in uncomplicated detail more than just what the philosopher said, but his influences, worldview, and how it all ties together. He compares himself to a cover band for each philosopher and it makes sense. To be a KISS cover band, you need to do more than play “Hotter Than Hell,” you need the makeup, costumes, and the fire breathing. It’s the complete picture that makes everything work. Adamson, also, isn’t afraid to use his sense of humor and plenty of puns (obvious and not so obvious). The reader will now he is in for a treat with chapters titles “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The Greek period covers, my favorite, the Cynics, the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicureans. The Cynic Diogenes was the a man who told Alexander the Great, that he was blocking his sun and needs to move. He was also the man who traveled with only a stick, a pouch, and a cup for drinking. Once he saw a young boy cupping his hands to drink and decided not to be outdone by a child, he threw away his cup. However, there is one area where his minimalism didn’t come into play — education, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.”

I found the Greek philosophers far more interesting than the Romans, but there are interesting aspects of the latter especially when Christianity is introduced into the mix. I found that one of my favorite paradoxes is mentioned — that of an all-knowing God and free will. Perhaps one of the most important philosophers of the period was Augustine is discussed in detail. In the Pagan era, there is coverage of Plotinus and Porphyry.

Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds
is a great introduction, or review, of the philosophers of the era. It is very well written and presented in a welcoming way and there is more than enough detail for those with some background in philosophy without being intimidating to those without previous knowledge on the subject. Adamson writes in a conversational tone that makes the reader feel they are being spoken to rather than spoke at. A very well written book in both subject matter and readability. I look forward to future volumes covering the Medieval and Enlightenment philosophers.

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Book Review — Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear

Manifestation Wolverine by Ray Young Bear

Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear is a Native American look at living as a Native American in modern America. Ray A. Young Bear is a member of the Meskwaki Nation (the Red Earth People) and lives on the Meskwaki tribal settlement near Tama, Iowa. Raised by his maternal grandmother, who taught him Meskwaki customs, mythology, and language, Young Bear spoke Meskwaki as his first language and didn’t become comfortable with English until high school.

Manifestation Wolverine is a unique collection of poetry in as far as my reading has taken me. I associate Native America with great stories rather than great poetry. This collection does have the expected people of the earth and nature poems that one would expect, but it is much more than that. Ray Young Bear in many places radiates a righteous indignation with his and his people’s standing in life. I did see some John Trudell emotion in his writing even though Young Bear is at least a decade past the height of the American Indian Movement.

Young Bear also captures some of the problems in modern native culture with alcohol becoming a reoccurring theme. Guns play a role for protection and violence. Suicide rears its head in poems too. Suicide among Native Americans on reservation averages three times higher than the national rate. Some reservations the suicide rate is ten times the national average. There is a certain darkness that haunts life, but it seems to be offset by nature and animistic beliefs. One wonders if further removal from the modern world would bring more peace.

The collection is varied in verse and style with all the poems written in free verse. The poems tend to tell stories in a traditional sense but are wedged in a different style to fit into the world outside the Native American. Perhaps it is an attempt to tell the world that Native American culture is as relevant as any other in America. This can be more clearly seen in the poem, “In Disgust and in Response to Indian -Type Poetry Written by Whites Published in a Mag Which keeps Rejecting Me.” I did mention righteous indignation before.

I had a bit of difficulty with this collection. I am a fan of John Trudell and his writing but even with the many train references in his work Young Bear’s poetry did not grab me in the way other poetry does. I can, however, appreciate the work and the emotion and history put into the work. This will be a collection I will read again, hopefully from a slightly different mindset, and gain more from his work.

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Book Review — The Liberty Box

I generally read non-fiction, however, when I do read fiction I look at it as a carrier for real world issues and problems.  The Liberty Box, although taking place in some future time, does seem to play on some underlying present day fears.

The Liberty Box by C.A. Gray is the first book of author’s second series of books.  The first trilogy took the reader back and forth between the contemporary world  and an alternate Arthurian reality.  In this Young Adult dystopian series, the reader finds himself in the near future and in the economically collapsed United States.  The country is in tatters and the remnants of the government are ineffective and secured away from an unhappy public.  One man has a plan and the government is willing to listen.  

The man with the plan is Voltolini and his plan comes with a cost.  He will become dictator calling himself Potentate and the remainder of the government will serve as a tribunal.  Voltolini  declares that the United States is no longer a democracy, but a republic.  This thought may slip by many readers, but the United States has always been a republic — a representational democracy.  The word really hit me and made wonder why such a big deal about being a republic.  Since the end of World War II, until the very late twentieth century, there were countries called “Democratic People’s Republics”  that were neither democratic nor republics, in fact, they were dictatorships.  Perhaps there was more of a message in the story than what is on the surface.

The main story starts with Kate Brandeis is a news reporter living a comfortable life.  She is upper middle class, trusts and believes in her government,  and like many people in many societies across the world sees the good life.   She is happy and well adjusted and thinking of marriage. Suddenly a string of events  things changes everything for her and she finds herself among the people she reported as traitors.  

In fiction, there is something called the willing suspension of disbelief.  It allows the reader to follow the story when magic, or vampires, or something very improbable happens.  It’s a fine line, or rather a steep cliff that the reader can go up to the very edge and recover, but once that line is crossed there is no going back.  It’s that point where the reader puts down the book and walks away.  Gray takes us comfortably near that cliff but not over it, but here is plenty of action and plot to keep the reader hooked on the story.

Looking at the suspension of disbelief a little differently, what if characters in the story lived by the rules of willing suspension of disbelief?  What if characters stumble across that cliff of disbelief and refuses to believe in the world they are caught up in?  Here, too, Gray takes the reader to something just below the surface of the character’s lives. It is difficult for people to believe that things are not exactly what they seem. Populations and people want to believe something even if the reality is very different.  North Koreans believe they only trail China in world prosperity.  Castro kept a nation under control by using fear of another US invasion.  People feel safer when everyone has to remove their shoes before boarding an airplane. Does believing in something make it so? What happens when people no longer believe what they are told or hear or see? The beginning of that answer is in The Liberty Box.

The Liberty Box will be released on October 25, 2015 

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Book Review — The Trolley Problem Mysteries

The Trolley Problem Mysteries by F.M. Kamm

The Trolley Problem Mysteries by F.M. Kamm takes a very deep look at a seemingly simple scenario and exposes deep reaching philosophical questions. Kamm is an American philosopher specialising in normative and applied ethics. Kamm is currently the Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard. Before joining the Harvard faculty in 2003, she was on the faculty of New York University and also worked for the World Health Organisation as an ethics consultant. She is a fellow of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institution.

Suppose you are driving a trolley down a hill and find that the brakes are not working. You are heading directly towards five unsuspecting people who will be killed if you do not divert the trolley. On the only available side track is one person. You will not be able to avoid hitting that person if you chose the switch to the side track. Your choice is limited to one person or five people dying. The simple choice would be to let one die rather than five. In the same line of thought, suppose you are a doctor and by removing the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver from one person you can save five people. Suddenly, one dying does not seem as right as saving five. What is the difference in the two thought experiments?

Back to the trolley. Perhaps you could throw a person fat enough to stop the trolley under the wheels. Is that the same as choosing to switch tracks or is that simply murder? In that same line of thinking as the driver, you are not responsible for mechanical failures that in this case will kill five people. However, your decision to switch tracks does make you responsible for the life of the person on the side track. A simple decision is far more complex when it is scrutinized.

Deep scrutiny is exactly what The Trolley Problem Mysteries is about. Kamm explanation is met by three other philosophers. Individually each makes their own interpretations of the dilemma and Kamm returns to defend her position and provide criticism. Judith Jarvis Thomson, Thomas Hurka, and Shelly Kagan take part in this debate. The simple decision of which track to choose spirals into complexity as side theories and corollaries pull the reader deeper down a rabbit hole.

A fascinating read where simple answers are not always so simple. What makes one decision right and another wrong? Can four philosophers agree that changing to a side track is the right answer? Is utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, always right? Why do answers change in different but similar situations? The Trolley Problem Mysteries is a book that will keep the reader thinking long after he or she has finished reading it.


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