Monthly Archives: November 2015

Book Review — Jane Austen

Jane Austen by Brian Wilks is an introductory biography to the author’s life. Wilks is the author of several biographies of British writers. His Jane Austen was first published in 1977.

My background is in political science and history and despite a graduate degree, I have not read any of Jane Austen’s work. I do know that she wrote Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which I am reading now because of this book. There is something very positive about a biography that creates and maintains interest even after it is finished.

At just under one hundred and fifty pages, this is by no means a detailed biography. It is written as a gentle introduction to the writer and her life. Wilks takes excerpts from Austen’s books and her letters to give a look at the informal life of Jane Austen. There is as much information on her family, world events, towns, and late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century English life in general as there is on her specifically. This creates a setting for Austen’s life as well as her writing.

While not a scholarly work in the sense of research and detailed information, it is an excellent introduction or Young Adult biography. The reader will get a feel and understanding for the writer in her environment. For the adult reader with little fore-knowledge of Austen, this will deliver the basics in a nice package. Rather than bullet point facts on the author’s life, it reads like a story. An excellent and very readable introduction to one of the period’s great writers.

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Book Review — Realpolitik: A History

Realpolitik: A History by John Bew is a study of one of the most misused words in the discussion of international relations. Bew is Reader in History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department at King’s College London and Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. In 2013, he became the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress.

The word realpolitik usually brings a host of terms to mind. The mind registers unilateral retaliation, Reagan, carpet bombing of South East Asia, nuclear deterrent, and perhaps a single man more than anyone else — Henry Kissinger. The problem is all these examples are wrong. Most reflect realism and not realpolitik. Kissinger said many times he was not Realpolitik, but as a realist with a German accent how could he be anything else. Reagan was not realpolitik either; he was a hard line romantic.

Realpolitik formed from the failed revolutions throughout 1848 Europe. It is tied in with nationalism and acting in a manner that is within the realm of the practical. Internally, realpolitik united the people under nationalism creating a system that distracted people from creating disorder that the 1848 revolutions brought to Europe. Bismark is often credited as an early supporter of the policy. His goal was to keep the state strong, but at the same time giving some ground to liberal or socialist policies to prevent a bottom-up type rebellion. By the late nineteenth century, realpolitik had lost its original meaning and had drifted to mean a more brutal power politics.

Bew gives the reader a complete history of realpolitik from its modern creator Ludwig von Rochau to perhaps one of America’s greatest international relations thinker Hans Morgenthau and post-WWII foreign policy. Also examined are swings in American policy from realpolitik to anti-realpolitik. Carter and Clinton would be the best known anti-realpolitik turning to moral guidelines in foreign policy. Perhaps the closest modern realpolitik president was George H. W. Bush who used power and alliance for limited practical goals. However, he was criticized for that. The freeing of Kuwait was the immediate and formal goal. Remove the threat, punish the enemy militarily and economically, but do not leave a vacuum of power. The mission was successful. It had realistic goals and was not distracted by non-reachable idealism. Two decades later the plan was to remove the Iraqi leader, disband the military, and be welcomed as arriving heroes bringing peace and democracy. This was not successful. There was no clear threat, it created a power vacuum that as of yet not been filled, and it was deeply set in unrealistic idealism.

Realpolitik is a comprehensive look at a mid-nineteenth century theory that has been interpreted and reinterpreted through the last one hundred and fifty years. Like many terms and ideas, it has changed from its original intent and has even developed regional meanings. It is a catch phrase, in America, that has come to mean power politics without a moral compass. It opposes idealism and the liberal theory. But, what realpolitik is and the role it plays in today’s society are two very different things.

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Book Review — M-Train

M Train

M-Train by Patti Smith is a collection of stories by the poet laureate of punk rock. Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith is an American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist who became a highly influential component of the New York City punk rock movement with her 1975 debut album Horses.

To be honest, I have been a Patti Smith fan since 1978. I have all her albums, seen her in concert, and own several of her books including number 86 of 100 of WIIT. I was really surprised at how well received and the broad appeal of Just Kids and I was interested in seeing how well M-Train would fare.

I waited a while to start this book wanting to hold on to the idea of a new Patti Smith book before risking disappointment. I saw one review that talked about coffee and mentioned the word was mentioned forty-seven times. Actually it is mentioned 135 times including Nescafe, “joe” and beans. If you include cafe to the tally and it jumps to 223 which is pretty impressive for a 250 page book. Patti Smith does love her coffee.

I both read and listened to this book. Patti Smith is a great storyteller. Her stories are not so much exciting and with a twisting plot but more like catching up with an old friend over a … cup of coffee. There is a familiarity in her way of speaking from plain speech dotted with big words to pronouncing yellow and bureau “yellah” and “bureah.” The stories are “just so” and believable. She knows many people, but it never sounds like name dropping.

I enjoyed M-Train perhaps more than Just Kids. It seemed more personal rather than “look where I came from and how hard it was.” Of course like I said before, I am and have been a lifelong fan. To me, this was like catching up with a long lost friend. Reading was time well spent.

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Book Review — Uninformed Why People Seem to Know So Little about Politics and What We Can Do about It

Uninformed by Arthur Lupia

Uninformed Why People Seem to Know So Little about Politics and What We Can Do about It by Arthur Lupia is a study of the American political public and what can be done to improve the public’s political knowledge. Lupia is the Hal R Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science. He examines how people make decisions when they lack information and in how they manage complex information flows. He draws from multiple scientific and philosophical disciplines and uses multiple research methods. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the California Institute of Technology and currently teaches at the University of Michigan.

Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? Who is your state senator? Who presides over the senate? Chances are most people will not know the answers to these questions. We, as a nation, are ignorant of the system government. Although every four years, we campaign and vote for president, whom we do not directly elect. The candidates call each other names. We call those who oppose us Socialists or Nazis without fully understanding the words. It is turned into a sporting event on par with the Super Bowl — Red versus Blue. My team is going to beat your team. “We are the job creators” … “No, you are the war creators.” We only believe certain news personalities, because they say what we want to hear…regardless of the truth. In fact, there are great numbers of people who are convinced to vote against their own interests. Last year a news story came out about the region with the highest Food Stamp usage. It was not Compton, Watts, Harlem, or the Southside of Chicago. It was Owsley County, Kentucky a region of 5,000 people 99% white and 92% Republican. The region was hit hard by a decline in coal, tobacco, and lumber and it has the lowest median household income in the United States. Yet the people helped vote in congressmen who cut their benefits. What causes that behavior especially on that scale?

Lupia goes through great lengths to explain what can be down. He uses studies and game theory to show his point. As far as educating the public on the form and process of government along with who was elected is spot on. The problem I see is educating the public on issues. First we tie issues to parties and assume all Democrats are liberal and all Republicans are conservative. A real conservative would not be Pro-Choice and for gun control unless he was “govinator” of California. Parties and the lack of party discipline present a problem. To complicate that there are even differences on party platform issues. Where do you fit if you are pro-life and oppose the death penalty? There are too many variables to arrive at concrete answers.

A problem I noticed is in educating people on issues. That becomes a very slippery slope. What separates an educator from a lobbyist or interest group (except for money)? We all have our own biases. Say, for example, I do not support GMO products. I conduct research, have studies done and proceed to educate the public. Monsanto with almost unlimited resources and political connections does the same. Whose message is going to have the most effect on educating the public? Another example. When did science find out that cigarette smoking is harmful compared to when cigarette companies finally admitted smoking was addictive and were sued? I am afraid money speaks more than education in American politics. Power/money trumps education almost every time.

One thing I was very happy to see in Uninformed is participation in local politics. The American public, in general, ignores local politics in favor of national politics. Your vote for president or senator is one amongst the voting population in your state. For example in Texas, there are about fourteen million registered voters so my vote for senator or electors to the electoral college is 1/14,000,000. My city councilman was elected with 251 out or 320 votes. My vote was 1/320. My vote in local elections carries much more weight. Also, if I could easily canvass the precinct for issues or candidates I supported. My effect would be much greater at local levels.

Uninformed takes on a herculean task of trying to educate the public on basics of government. Some of the information is very good and some seem to work well under controlled situations. There is one thing Lupia does well and that is to show we are very ignorant politically. We have given up reason in exchange for bread and circuses. We sit and watch as our country self-destructs, blaming the “other guys” rather than doing anything to fix it.

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Happy 240th Birthday to the United States Marine Corps

A Story of Creation
Author Unknown

In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. In the beginning was God and all else was darkness and void, and without form, so God created the heavens and the earth. He created the sun and the moon, and the stars, so that light might pierce the darkness. The Earth, God divided between the land and the sea and these He filled with many assorted creatures.

And the dark, salty, slimy creatures that inhabited the murky depths of the oceans, God called sailors. And he dressed them accordingly. The had little trousers that looked like bells at the bottom. And their shirts had cute little flaps on them, and they wore funny looking hats. He gave them long sideburns and beards, nicknamed them “squids”, and banished them to a lifetime at sea, so normal folks would not have to associate with them. To further identify these unloved creatures, He called them “petty” and “commodore” instead of titles worthy of red-blooded men.

And the flaky creatures of the land, God called soldiers. And with a twinkle in His eye, and a sense of humor only He can have, God made their trousers too short and their covers too large. He also made their pockets oversized, so that they may warm their hands. And to adorn their uniforms, God gave them badges in quantities only a dime store owner could appreciate. And he gave them emblems and crests and all sorts of shiny things that glittered, and devices that dangled. (When you are God you tend to get carried away.)

On the 6th day, God thought about creating some air creatures for which he designed a Greyhound bus driver’s uniform. He discarded this idea during the first week, and it was not until years later that some apostles resurrected this theme and established what we now know as the “wild blue yonder wonders”.

And on the 7th day, as you know, God rested. But on the 8th day, at 0530, God looked down upon Earth and was not happy. God was just not happy! So He thought about His labors, and in His divine wisdom, God created a divine creature. And this He called Marine. And the Marines, who God created in His own image, were to be of the air, and of the land, and of the sea. And these He gave many wonderful uniforms. some were green, and some were blue with red trim. And in the early days, some were even a beautiful tan. He gave them practical fighting uniforms, so they could wage war against the forces of Satan and the evil. He gave them service uniforms for their daily work and training. And He gave them evening and dress uniforms…..sharp and stylish, handsome things, so they may promenade with their ladies on Saturday night and impress everybody. He also gave them swords, so that people who were not impressed could be dealt with accordingly.

And at the end of the 8th day, God looked down upon the Earth and saw that it was good. But was God happy? No! God was still not happy. Because in the course of his labors, He had forgotten one thing. He did not have a Marine uniform for himself. But He thought about it, and thought about it, and finally satisfied Himself in knowing that, well…………………..not everybody can be a MARINE!!!

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Book Review — Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

Virginia Woolf by Winifred Holtby

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir by Winifred Holtby is a study of the interconnection of Woof and her characters and her style of writing. Holtby is best known for writing South Riding while dying of Bright’s disease. She was an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist who published fourteen books before dying at thirty-seven.

This book is intriguing on several levels. First, it was written in 1932 while Woolf was still alive, and it concentrates on Woolf’s work and the interconnectedness of the stories and with Woolf’s own life. Although mentioned, Woolf’s depression does not play a major role in this book and it does in many current books. Not being formally educated in English literature, I found the critique well done, informative, and not heavy handed. The examples and passages in the book illustrate Holtby thesis well.

The use of water in Woolf’s life and in her books everything fromThe Voyage Out through The Waves (the last book written by Woolf before Holtby’s book) all contain water references and themes. In Woolf’s early memories of the beach at Cornwall and later tragically her death involved water. Water becomes ever present, but ever changing. It is always there; it rolls in and rolls out like the waves or life and death.

What may be more obvious to many is also brought up in Holtby’s critique is Woolf’s preferences in her novels. It is not surprising that Woolf didn’t much care for plots in her writing. Not a single one of her novels had a climax. In The Voyage Out, the South American jungle is nearly a copy of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana The plagiarism is Holtby explains is forgivable. The jungle setting was merely filler. In the South American town, surrounded by jungle, no wild animals are seen, in fact, nobody’s even bothered by a single mosquito. The hospital is conveniently located near the hotel. The setting is simply background to Woolf.

If it isn’t plot, climax, or setting that Woolf writes about, it must be characters. Woolf spends great detail in creating characters. Holtby compares the characters to other historical novel character’s just as Jane Austen. Also interesting is that characters that reflect Woolf’s life are the best done. She struggles when she writes characters out of her station. The other thing that separates Woolf is style. Many of her writings have almost a lyrical quality to them. This is perhaps the main reason I enjoy reading Woolf.

Holtby analyzes Woolf’s writing and works. She had a particular interest in “The Mark on the Wall” and uses it often in her comparisons. Her treatment of “Kew Gardens” is quite well done. For the reader of this book a knowledge of Woolf’s writing (up until 1932) is very helpful and almost necessary. Holtby uses each work as references and comparisons and builds her case. Without knowing Mrs. Ramsey, Clarissa Dalloway, or Jacob Flanders, the reader would be lost. An excellent read for anyone familiar with, or struggling with, any of Woolf’s work.

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Book Review — Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers: From Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt

Accompanied Voices by John Greening

Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers: From Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt by John Greening. Greening studied at the universities of Swansea, Mannheim and Exeter. He reviews for the TLS and has written twelve poetry collections.

The concept is sound and exciting. Combining poetry and classical music together seems like a great match. The poetry supports either the composer or a piece of his work. The poets range from well-known to obscure and old to new. The composers likewise. The problem I encountered is not being familiar with classical composers. Although the introduction claims prior knowledge is not necessary, it is very helpful. At times, I was a bit lost in connecting the poetry to a composer I did not know. Most poetry seems to relate to a large audience. Even when it doesn’t, it is something a reader can relate to like the Grecian Urn in Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. We may not have a Grecian urn, but we all know what one looks like.

In this book, I really enjoyed the poems on Holst. “The Planets” is one of my favorite pieces in classical music. The Tchaikovsky pieces were also excellent. However, many times I felt like I was dropped into a middle of a calculus class. I could understand the pieces, but the whole escaped me. In the appendix, there is a section giving a brief biography of the poets and the composers for those who need refreshing, but not enough for the unindoctrinated.

I think this book is much more suited for those who are familiar with classical music and not familiar with poetry more so, than with the opposite. The poetry is very well done, but the reader without classical music experience will be missing a great deal. It is an enjoyable collection of poetry and a pleasant way to combine two arts.

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