Monthly Archives: January 2016

Book Review — Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919

Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 by Brock Millman

Polarity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 by Brock Millman is an account of Canada’s politics, support, and resistance to the first world war. Millman was a Western undergraduate prior to going on to the University of London and McGill. Before arriving at Western to teach, he taught at the University of Windsor, the University of British Columbia and the Royal Military College. He is the author of a number of articles and books on international relations and its domestic connections 1917-1940.

As an outsider from the south, I find Canadian history interesting and very much lacking in my education. Perhaps with the exception of the War of 1812 and much later the commissioning phase array radar, Canada rarely appears in most history studies in the United States. Later reading about WWI, Canada is given high praise for its efforts in the war. Often thought of as still part of the empire, Canada did become autonomous in 1867. Slightly less than 50 years after its independence Canada is called upon to support the war effort. This too is largely seen as supporting Britain, but Canada was its own entity. Woodrow Wilson was, perhaps, one of the first to internationally recognize this by allowing for a Canadian delegation at Versailles and a separate seat for Canada in the League of Nations. WWI was Canada’s introduction to the world stage as an equal.

Millman examines the internal conflict and politics during the Great War. Just because the American history student hears little about Canada in the period does not mean it was a smooth or necessarily peaceful. Canada had three main groups British Canadians, French Canadians, and New Canadians. Each group had its own feelings towards the war. Unlike the US and the UK where resistance was thinly spread through the population, Canada had concentrated pockets of resistance to the war. Quebec and working class immigrants generally opposed the war.

Canada was strict on enforcement of restricting speech and later enforcing conscription. Compared to the US and the UK, Canada was extremely strict in punishing offenders. There was also the fear of communism working its way into the country with New Canadians (immigrants) taking most of the abuse in that scare. Labor activists and Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or wobblies) were seen as the enemy by many. German immigrants and other minorities such as Jews and Catholics were viewed with suspicion. Among the British Canadians, Britain remained mother country although it no longer controlled Canadian politics. Millman examines the many internal conflicts and documents his work extremely well. His examination of internal struggle is an important piece in the forming modern Canada.

I found it interesting that, first, Canada felt the duty to fight even though it was in no real danger from the Central Powers. The US in a similar position resisted fighting the war and was finally dragged into the war to turn the balance of an exhausting war. Secondly, that Canada at the time did not have the nationalist sentiment that others countries had developed. There was a much more regionalization of the country even beyond French Canada. There is an interesting dichotomy in the works. A country that is struggling for its own identity on the world stage and a country that wants to remain loyal to its past. It is interesting that Canada managed both. It fought with the Empire and afterward it earned its place as a country on the world stage.

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Book Review — The War of Words

The War of Words

The War of Words by Amy Neftzger is a fantasy novel written for middle school aged children. Neftzger received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida and her Masters in Industrial/ Organizational Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She has written on a variety of subjects and levels and is also an occasional drummer in a band.

I “met” Neftzger sometime ago on Twitter and have been following her work. Even though children’s books usually don’t make it into my reading pile, I let this one in. When I was looking at NetGalley last month I noticed this book’s description and was immediately interested only then did I notice the author. Fantasy reading was something I did in my late teens and early twenties but have not been back to the genre in many years, but occasionally feel nostalgic.

The story is well conceived and Neftzger skillfully plants a few morals and lessons in the story. These ideas are stealthy hidden just below the story line and are not imposing or heavy-handed — tools are not good or evil, it is how they are used or the virtue of language and its evolution. These ideas are easily grasped by the reader without realizing it. Although there is a war being fought, it is not graphic or overly disturbing for younger children. The war is part of the setting rather than the center of the story.

The characters are well done and occupy one of four groups. Kelsey is a leader in the war against shadows, she is a strong and dedicated character who has some doubts about her own abilities. She also has to deal with an experienced, very conventional general. There is a group of colorful characters who represent the king which include a snow leopard and a fox who dresses much like “Puss in Boots”. We meet the evil sorcerer, a master at using words, and his army of shadow warriors. Finally, there is a group of researchers and a spell caster. In this last group is also a character (who in real life makes his rounds on Instagram) Newton, the gargoyle. Newton’s role also keeps the story lighter and breaks the tension. As with the violence I mentioned above, the character relations are all friendship building rather than romantic keeping this book appropriate for the intended reader’s age.

As the title suggests, words and word meanings have much to do with the story along with language itself. There is plenty of wisdom for a young reader to gain from the characters as well as a little milkshake advice from Newton. I am impressed at how well this book delivers its messages wrapped in a fantasy story. Although written for children it is also a delightful read for adults who are young at heart.

The War of Words will be available on March 3, 2016

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Book Review — A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying


A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero is an Andres Montoya Poetry Prize winning collection.  Guerrero was born in San Antonio, Texas and received her BA from Smith College and her MFA from Drew University. She served on the faculty at The University of Texas, San Antonio, Incarnate Word, and Palo Alto College.

I discovered this collection while researching another. Recently I reviewed a collection for the post laureate of Derbyshire, England. I wondered if my city or even Texas had a poet laureate.  As it turns out, Guerrero is the current poet laureate of Texas.  I purchased this collection imagining that it would be stereotypical Texas.  Guerrero surprised me.

Guerrero writes of Texas and San Antonio much in the way Hebert Selby Jr writes of New York City or Lou Reed sings of it.  There is an opposite of privilege on her writing.  South San Antonio isn’t the comfortable American suburbs.  There is a grittiness and Hispanic tone throughout the writing, but those who have grown up on the poor side of town and moved on still look back with nostalgia on their childhood homes.  

Family and tradition play an important role in the poems.  The theme of Cortez and gold is also repeated through the collection. Simple food as turnips and tongue appear in the collection. Roosters also have a prominent role in this collection.  The is also a darkness, that occasionally breaks, but haunts these poems.  It is more than occasional sadness it is a grittiness that has stayed with the poet even as she moved up.  

A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is an excellent collection of poetry reflecting on what outsiders never think of when they think of Texas.  There is a large layer of society that is often overlooked.  It might be a hard life, but it is not without its virtues and rewards.  For those of us from the wrong side of  big cities in the north, this collection will reveal the commonality of minorities in southern big cities.  Guerrero ends her collection with a fitting quote from Jane Austen, “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it.”  An excellent collection and commentary.

(This was read for personal enjoyment and not for review)


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Happy Birthday! Virginia Woolf


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January 25, 2016 · 11:20

Book Review — The Final Refuge

The Last Refuge

The Last Refuge by Martin Roy Hill is is a throwback novel to the genre of Cold War spy stories set in the post-Cold War world. Martin spent more than 20 years as a staff reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines before becoming a military analyst specializing in battlefield medical operations for the Navy. His freelance work and short stories have been widely published. I have read and reviewed two of Martin’s previous books Duty and The Killing Depths.

The story starts with a friendly fire accident in the First Gulf War and ensuing wrongful death lawsuit concerning a civilian engineer. Freelance reporter, Peter Brandt, is asked to investigate the lawsuit for a friend. Brandt, himself, is no stranger to war. He has reported more than his fair share of the tragedy that war brings. In fact, he is haunted by it.

The Cold War is over and even with the Gulf War, the military contractors are starting to feel the pinch and looking to survive in the world system. The Reagan Era military spending is a thing of the past and companies are laying off engineers. Engineers who are being laid off are having difficulty adapting years of missile guidance design experience to civilian projects. The military is feeling the pinch of the “peace dividend” as ranks are being cut and career officers are finding themselves forced out. Saddam Hussein, no matter how villanized, is no match to the former Soviet Union when it comes to deterrence and military spending.

The stage is set for covering up the wrongful death lawsuit. Peter Brandt finds himself in the middle of a collapsing industry. Brandt is no James Bond and this is a story of intrigue rather than over the top action adventure. Brandt must use his experience and wits to find out who he can trust if he wants to survive and let alone get the answers he is after.

The plot is realistic for the genre and even possibly for real life. The Pat Tillman cover up and a long list of friendly fire deaths from Afghanistan and Iraq prove that it is too frequent of an occurrence. Defense contractors found being less than diligent has been all too a common occurrence in the past. I remember, as a Marine, being asked if I trusted my gear and being told, “Remember it was built by the lowest bidder.” Of course, there are the military and government agencies needing to prove their necessity to ensure continued funding. It is a complex, but realistic, mix that Brandt finds himself in.

I usually don’t read contemporary fiction, but this is the third book of Hill’s I have read. His writing captures an era that resembled a chess match between powers rather than the fast pace of the current era of “Generation Kill.” There is a strategy in the writing that makes it appealing to those who want to read a gripping novel in a realistic setting. The story moves at a quick pace and will keep the reader turning pages and never knowing the complete story until the very end. Very well done.

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Book Review — What Kind of Creatures Are We?

What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky

What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky is a series of four articles concerning Chomsky’s area of expertise. Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I have read plenty of Chomsky as an undergraduate and graduate student in political science. He is well known as a philosopher and political thinker in that field. I have always been interested in Chomsky’s writings in linguistics as he is so articulate in his writings outside his field. Language is a remarkable thing that humans use to relate complex thoughts. Animals may make patterns of noises recognizable to those in the herd such as “danger” but, humans deliver complex ideas and thoughts that are understood and carry a definite format. We can tell stories and preserve our history. In fact, we can use the same word to mean many different things and still understand. The word “set” has 464 definitions according to the Oxford Dictionary yet we do not confuse mathematics, tennis, concrete, and placing an item.

The first two sections, “What is Language” and What Can We Understand”, cover the use of words and the organization of words and their meanings. Both sections are detailed and in interesting. In fact, the entire book is is detailed and documented. Nearly half the book is documentation. Interestingly in the second section of the book, Chomsky compares the brain and the gut brain — the system of biochemical signaling of the digestive tract and the nervous system. It is the only system of the body that can operate without input from the brain.

The third section, “What is the Common Good”, returns to the Chomsky I am familiar with, the political Chomsky. The fourth section, The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden”, brings science into the discussion and the cartesian and Newtonian and how our understanding evolved and was limited.

Language is something we take for granted, but like turning on a light, it is much more involved than flipping a switch. Chomsky gives the reader the befits of his half century of experience as a leader in linguistics. An interesting and detailed read.

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Book Review — With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker

With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker by Victor Bockris is a collection of interview notes from the 1970s and 1980s. Bockris is the author of several books on the people in the New York underground — Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and John Cale. He wrote on the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, and Keith Richards.

Bockris is a man who was in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people. This is the second book of his I have read. The first was the unauthorized biography of Patti Smith which turned up nothing new nor, although a bit harsh, any real scandal that made it “unauthorized” in the contemporary muckraking definition of the term.

The book is a collection of notes presumably from recordings of meetings with Burroughs and Ginsberg, Lou Reed, Susan Sontag, Warhol, and a variety of other players in the New York scene. The discussions seem unscripted and flow as expected in a natural conversation. Burroughs talks about a variety of subjects from writing, politics, drugs, sex, and his wife’s death. The discussions are usually interesting and it was fun to see Burroughs get irritated with Ginsberg over semantics. Burroughs also makes a stand against him being the godfather of the (New York) punk rock movement. He says he has little to do with it outside of being a Patti Smith supporter and fan.

The meetings take place in New York and are down to earth for the most part just people drinking (and sometimes using drugs) and talking about art and the problems in the world. It is common talk and not pseudo-intellectualism. It is the blending of the Beats and the rising “punk” generation. Burroughs bridges the generations and in a real way helped direct the younger group. Burroughs lived the life and quite a long one at that especially with the life he lived. Generally, he is either loved or thought of as a fraud. Myself, although I am still pretty baffled by Naked Lunch, Junkie was well ahead of its time. This collection of interviews is well worth the read for seeing Burroughs in a relaxed, natural environment.

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Book Review — Shaler’s Fish

Shaler's Fish by Helen Macdonald

Shaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald is a collection of poetry from the author H is for Hawk and Falcon. Macdonald is a writer, poet, historian, illustrator and naturalist. She’s worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge. She is an affiliate of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

This is probably the most difficult collection of poetry I have read since Eric Linsker’s La Far. There is a definite lyrical quality to the poems. In fact, the reader will get caught up in the flow of words. There is a beauty to the words and phrasing but it is very difficult to create imagery. From “Poem:”

small fowles

rain runs from their back in nomadic immortality holes
for each eye, pygostyle, furcula, pinions oiled & the grease
directs neat beads from throat chat chat hatching barbs
and sills broken white a flint egg.

There is still something that needs to be discovered in this collection. It has the appeal of a song you like and keeps popping into your head, but the words elude you. Eventually, however, everything comes together. I imagine it will take several more reflective reads before it all clicks together. The vocabulary is difficult, but the rhythm created keeps calling the reader back. For those with a taste for interesting and complex poetry, this is a worth read.


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Book Review — History

History by David O’Hanlon is his first collection of poetry. A quick search finds little information on the poet but his publisher is from North Yorkshire.

This is a very readable collection of poems covering mythical, historical, and personal history. The historical and mythical blend well together in the larger first section of the book. O’Hanlon certainly has an appreciation for the Greek and Roman mythology and history. Unlike many specialized poems that seem to concentrate on the subject rather than the form, O’Hanlon finds a balance. Likewise, his subject specific poetry does not lose the subject to the form of poetry. Nothing is worse than finding poetry on a topic you like, say bicycling, and find beautifully written lines that are technically wrong in practice. Here, O’Hanlon achieves perfect balance. I had the advantage of reading the Kindle edition of this collection so I was able to highlight the title name and refresh my memory on the god, hero, or historical person being written about. Most names were familiar but the nudge did help me and O’Hanlon’s words play a perfect tribute.

The personal observations are equally well done. In the poem, The Line notes items that make lines — wires from headphones, a crack in a mended statue. One item is different:

My name is in pieces. It has been for years. Since I abandoned cursive, in fact.

History is an outstanding first collection of poetry. It triggers thinking in its subjects and the words gently pull the reader in. Learning and observing as an art form. Extremely well done and earns a very rare five stars from me.

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Book Review — The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a South Korean novel told in three parts. Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She has gone on to win the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. As of summer 2013, Han teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts while writing stories and novels.

The Vegetarian starts with a simple premise. A woman, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian and her family reacts to her decision. The novel is much deeper than that, though. The first part of the book his told by her husband. He recalls there is nothing special with Yeong-hye. She is plain looking. Her hair neither long or short. Her plain black shoes moved along neither fast nor slow. Her future husband felt no special attraction to her nor any drawbacks. She became a completely ordinary wife. The only odd thing about Yeong-hye was she did not like wearing a bra. She remained completely ordinary

She had a dream that changes her life. A graphic and bloody dream that turns her away from meat and all animal products. It is an annoyance to her husband who sees it’s not a plant based diet she is living, but a plant-like life. The rest of her family takes issue and things spiral out of control. The second part is told by her brother-in-law and takes the reader deeper into obsession. The final part is told by her sister. Each section reflects a movement into the future and a different look at Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye role is the pivot point for the story although she tells very little of her own story. The book is written in the first person by her three relations.

As a vegetarian myself, I thought it would be interesting to see how it would be taken in Korea. I expected it would not be an issue in a country where a quarter of the population Buddhist. I found myself mistaken and found it was much more socially acceptable to be a vegetarian in Texas than Korea. The novel, however, is not about vegetarianism as much as it is about obsession and acting on obsessions. There is a difference between being a little rebellious and going against societal norms. Yeong-hye perhaps is not the center point, but the microscope that allows us to see our own selves in detail.

It is a hard to categorize novel, but one plenty to think about. It is a bit disturbing at times but never turns the reader away. People have complained that Yeong-hye is flat and one-dimensional and perhaps that is the point. She does not get to tell her story. We have to rely on those around her to tell the story and wade through their personal issues, prejudices, and obsessions. A very well done story that stays with you long after you finish.

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