Monthly Archives: February 2016

Poetry Review — Call Me by My Other Name

Call Me by My Other Name by Valerie Wetlaufer

Call Me by My Other Name is the second complete collection of poetry from Valerie Wetlaufer. Wetlaufer is a poet, editor, and educator. She earned her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah and her MFA in Poetry from Florida State University Wetlaufer also earned a BA in French and an MA in Teaching from Bennington College. Her first full-length collection, Mysterious Acts by My People was published in March 2014 by Sibling Rivalry Press and won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry.

Inspiration comes from many places. Sometimes inspiration comes from obscure places. Wetlaufer took her inspiration from a January 18th, 1894 story in The Badger State Banner, published in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Frank Blunt was arrested for stealing $175. His wife Gertrude Field paid for his defense and openly mourned his conviction. It was only after sentencing, that it was discovered that Blunt was actually Anna Morris. Morris lived the past fifteen years as a man. This may be the first recording of a lesbian marriage in America.

Call Me by My Other Name makes use of this article to create a fictionalized story of Anna and Gertrude. Wetlaufer manages to capture the historical setting and context of the period as well as the couple’s love. What is exceptionally brilliant is that a reader who is unaware of the background story could quite possibly read large parts of this collection and not fully realize Frank’s real identity. Although there are references throughout the collection, they do not scream out for attention; they are more like gentle reminders. We live in a society that loves to hyphenate nationality and race. We also have marriage and gay marriage suggesting there is a difference in types love. Call Me by My Other Name manages to remove that barrier. Is there really any difference in love between two people that must be qualified? Does it really matter or should it really matter to anyone, except Gertrude, who Frank really is? The reader will undoubtedly come to the conclusion, that no, it doesn’t matter.

The writing is well done and really pulls the reader into the period. Again, the unaware reader may think that this was a first-hand account written over a century ago in a small town on the prairie. There also is the feeling of reading a diary and glimpsing into someone’s personal thoughts. Of course, it is written in verse, but its message is as strong as the writing and the reader may forget he or she is reading poetry. The story and the verse mesh perfectly. Wetlaufer also inserts her contemporary thoughts and words throughout the collection distinguished from the other text by italics. Some of her thoughts are inside other poems but are mostly stand-alone poems.

Wetlaufer first collection Mysterious Acts by My People tended to be graphic and hard hitting. Call Me by My Other Nameseems to be tender and personal. It wants to show the universality not of love but of all emotion. “Epidemic: Diphtheria”, for example, shows extreme sadness at the loss of a loved one. My background isn’t literature; it is political science and history. Perhaps, my assessment is not the poet’s intention, but I did feel the connection to humanity and human emotion. There is a commonality we all share as human beings and many times it is hard to express to those who believe differently. Call Me by My Other Name is a collection that exposes that commonality by examining those who many would call different and verifying the contrary.

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Book Review — The Lonely City

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is an investigation of loneliness in a city of eight and a half million people. Laing is a columnist for frieze and write for the Guardian, New Statesman, Observer, and New York Times. Her previous books are To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring

The Lonely City opens with a discussion of loneliness and the idea that you can be lonely anywhere but there is a special sense of loneliness when one is surrounded by millions of people in an urban environment. Laing then examines different artists lives and their struggle with loneliness. Perhaps the idea of being lonely in NYC is magnified greatly when you are famous. Laing describes the what it was like for someone like Andy Warhol to be surrounded by people and ultimately remain lonely. David Wojnarowicz and AIDS, Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”, Henry Darger and being a recluse, Klaus Sperber and AIDS and general eccentricness, and, of course, the internet (and technology) creating millions of friends you do not know.

The chapter that really reached out and grabbed me, though, was the one on Edward Hopper. The name may not ring a bell at first but his painting of a diner scene is known by all.

The couple who are together but alone a single customer and a single worker. The streets are empty and the sense is one of profound loneliness and perhaps being trapped in the dim drab that surrounds the scene. Notice there is no door to the diner. Looking through Hopper’s other paintings there are people alone in their environment or even when they have another human being in the scene there is an awkward tension, almost trying to regain privacy. Loneliness is a feeling and like most feelings are hard, if not impossible to describe with words. A look at any number of Hopper’s paintings and one will see what loneliness is and relate to that feeling.

I read this book on a flight to California, crammed in a middle seat of a fully booked 737 and it was a fitting book for the flight. Crammed in a mass of humanity, not knowing anyone, and perhaps just as importantly not wanting to know the two people invading my personal space. I dove into my Kindle. The man on my left watched a movie on his tablet and the man on my right kept opening and closing a book grumbling about wanting a cigarette. A very good read about social interaction and the avoidance of it.

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Book Review — Beyond the Secular West

Beyond the Secular West by Akeel Bilgrami

Beyond the Secular West edited by Akeel Bilgrami is a collection of essays that discuss “secular” in a worldview rather than the western view of the term. Bilgrami received a degree in English Literature from Bombay University before switching to philosophy. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, leaving with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. Bilgrami earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has been in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University since 1985 after spending two years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Secular as a word has an interesting meaning even in the west. It was originally used to mean church property in cities as opposed to monasteries. Eventually, the meaning evolved to something outside of religious control or meaning. The different essays reflect different interpretations. There is some interesting writing about Islam and developing under governments other than religious ones. There are arguments that governments do not have to be religious to allow religious development. Religious education in Islam and rules come from regional religious leaders and not government officials is an argument made in this book. Other cultures are considered including the anti-clerical movement in Mexico, along with cultural development in India and China. It would seem that there is plenty of scriptural support for what we see as separation of church and state in many religions and cultures. In Mexico, it was not a movement against religion, but a movement against giving the church political and economic (land ownership) power. The arguments presented by Muslim writers support the idea of a personal religion where governments do not make religious decisions.

There is quite a bit of discussion of Charles Taylor and his work A Secular Age (2007) and how it is viewed by various cultures. Also included is the discussion of secularism being tied to consumerism in the eyes of other cultures which may put that view of secularism at odds with personal beliefs. I found that an interesting argument in that in the West, and especially America, we tie capitalism (consumerism) to Christianity. The Protestant Work Ethic which emphasized hard work, discipline and frugality has become earn, consume, and buy on credit. It makes me wonder what Jesus or early Christians would think of consumerism, buying from sweatshops, accumulating wealth, or even the way employers treat employees in America.

Beyond the Secular West challenges American thinking. The writers are all scholars from various backgrounds, religions, and cultures. It is interesting to compare other cultures practices and beliefs to our own beliefs and interpretations of other cultures. A factual and enlightening read for those with an advanced interest in cultures and beliefs outside of the Western view.

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Book Review — Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception

Why America Misunderstands the World by Paul R Pillar

Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception by Paul R. Pillar is an examination of the American public’s understanding of foreign policy. Pillar is an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, serving from 1977 to 2005. He is now a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, as well as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He was a visiting professor at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012. He is a contributor to The National Interest.

America, without a doubt, carries the biggest stick on the world stage. We perfected unilateral retaliation under the Reagan administration. We see a “wrong” and we (attempt to) fix it. When an ally does not agree with us, the public reacts: Freedom Fries or going back to WWI –Liberty Cabbage. Many people believe the war on terror started with George W. Bush and not with Reagan’s “You can run, but you can’t hide speech.” Terrorism during Reagan’s time happened “over there” and not here so it was not important in the minds of most Americans. America has lived a fairly threat free existence until the 20th century. Isolated by oceans and having fairly weak neighbors, threats were hard to come by compared to Europe where previous wars showed how fragile peace was and how paranoia can lead to secret treaties and a worldwide war.

Historically, as a nation, we have been more interested in domestic policy than foreign policy. In 2006 a survey of Americans between the age of eighteen and twenty-four were asked to point out Iraq on a map of the Middle East — six out of ten failed to point out Iraq. Seventy-five percent of the same group could not point out Israel. Europeans, on the other hand, are used to hostile and shifting neighbors and geography in general. Is it really surprising that two of the most influential foreign policy advisors in recent American history have been Europeans — Kissinger and Brzezinski?

The War on Terror is an odd and different way of thinking of warfare. Wars are conducted between states or governments of states. Woodrow Wilson declared war on the Germany and its aristocrats and government:

We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling towards them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval.

Having a war on terror, Brzezinski tells us, makes little sense. It is like having a war against blitzkrieg, but it was a catchy enough slogan for Americans and even other nations to join in. I remember reading, after the fall of the Soviet Union, an article on how we would miss the Cold War in the future. The Cold War provided America with an enemy that not only controlled our policy thinking, but also our direct military intervention. It provided a check and balance between two world powers. With the fall of the Soviet Union, we drift between enemies. The War on Terror was really very nebulous and without a face. Saddam Hussein became the face of terrorism and made a good enemy, but now that he’s gone we search for a new one. Ironically it is Iran, a country that we made stronger by removing the Saddam threat to their country.

Pillar examines American thinking and links our past views to the present. America’s view are different because of our location and resources. These two things alone have allowed us to become a power and formed our unique view of the world. An interesting study of American policy.

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Book Review — The Ways of the World

The Ways of the World by David Harvey
The Ways of the World by David Harvey is a collection of essays on relevant social and economic issues from a Marxist perspective. Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A leading social theorist of international standing, he graduated from University of Cambridge with a Ph.D. in Geography in 1961.

First, a few general comments. Marxism is not Soviet communism or Chinese communism. There are many arguments about the Soviet Union, but at no time after Stalin was it more than an authoritarian state. China is the same but with a regulated market. Secondly, Marxism always seems to be written in a technical and philosophical style that makes most political philosophy students long for easier reading like Hegel. I still have difficulty today reading Marxist writings; this book included.

Harvey uses real-world examples and offers criticism to all systems mentioned. Perhaps in a more accurate historical sense, he uses the Paris Riots/Commune of 1871 as an example of a popular people’s movement against the government and land use. As a geographer, Harvey examines urbanization and the problems associated with its evolution and development under a (mixed) Capitalist system. Trade is also discussed and the fall of local businesses.

A discussion of beer in Baltimore caught my attention. Baltimore was a one beer town up until 1970 then came regional beers followed by large brewers (Budweiser and Miller). I remember growing up in Cleveland with local beers like P.O.C. and Duke. There were regional beers which were comparable giants — Stroh’s and Rolling Rock. Now the local beers are dead along with Stroh’s and Rolling Rock is owned by Miller. The cause of the change was market and growth and had nothing to do with the local population. The population did make a choice and outside beers were cheaper because they were brewed on a much larger scale. Is Budweiser better than Duke, or Rolling Rock? Probably not and definitely not the workers at the Duke or Rolling Rock plants. That story was not the main focus of the book but one I clearly related to.

The development and shifts in urban areas are the main topic in the book and also the causes and results of real estate booms and bust cycles. Baltimore and Cleveland were cities mentioned for the housing bust. Although the problem was very serious, it was the “where” that became the issue. Poor people in run down areas do not create a serious problem for others. In fact, Baltimore has more vacated housing than it has homeless. In my own research, I found Bank of America was bulldozing vacant housing and donating the land to the city in Cleveland. The housing bust, however, became an issue when it started affecting the middle class.

This is a book is for serious scholars and graduate-level students in the covered fields. The Ways of the World is a time-consuming read but worth the effort it if you are knowledgeable in the fields. Harvey does not have all the answers and isn’t afraid to admit it. He does make the reader think. Especially think about the endless growth required to keep a capitalist society out of recession. When land resources run low, they are recycled, gentrified, and force people and businesses to move. When products to sell a saturated market are needed we make “new” products. I think a good example of this is (or was) the new phone every two years with wireless plans. Does you phone become obsolete after two years or do you just have to have the latest as a status symbol? China and India are rising and their populations are wanting what the First World already has and in turn, taking in more of the planet’s natural resources. Growth will have to end at some point in a world of limited resources. The Ways of the World is an interesting examination of the world, currently and historically, and regardless of one’s politics, it brings to the forefront some very important questions.

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Book Review — Five Rising Democracies: And the Fate of the International Liberal Order

Five Rising Democracies by Ted Piccone

Five Rising Democracies: And the Fate of the International Liberal Order by Ted Piccone is a study of five countries that have made or in the case of one nearly embraced a democratic system of government. Piccone is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. His research is focused on global democracy and human rights policies; U.S.-Latin American relations, including Cuba; emerging powers; and multilateral affairs. Previously, he served as the acting vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program.

The American public, in general, is fickle about democracies in other countries. We tend to believe in what we want to believe. Many believed that Kuwait was a democracy in the first Gulf War and needed our help to return to democratic rule. How many times have Americans cursed France for acting in its interest instead of ours? Russia is a democracy only when it does something we like. Many people saw no problem in overthrowing democratically elected governments if they were too far left. We cheered Yeltsin in the fall of the Soviet Union, but now have Putin in something that is a deep perversion of the idea of democracy. What does it take to become a democracy? It has to be more than the definition I learned in grad school of a simple, peaceful transition of power.

The international liberal order is the idea that democracies do not go to war against each other. They support the same core goals of guaranteed freedoms and human rights. It is a system that believes democratic ideals are not only shared by all, but with the same vigor. Piccone chooses five new democracies and shows that there is a difference and in many cases countries, democracies or not, act as historically expected — in their own interests.

Looking at India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and Turkey Piccone gives the reader a wide variety of historical and cultural developments of democracies. It is nowhere near the one size fits all process. Brazil and Indonesia both became democracies after military dictatorships. South Africa made a huge transition socially and politically after apartheid. Indonesia and India have tremendous cultural and religious diversity inside their borders. Turkey struggles between the secular and the religious. That is perhaps the most difficult situation when a country shifts from secular rule to religious majorities in government. Iran experienced that in its revolution and it was devastating to many.

The world is a complex place and countries’ interactions with the world depend on more than the idea of shared values. These five democracies had little difficulty in condemning the Libyan government’s abuses to its own population but were hesitant to support the use of force or commit themselves to the struggle. In Syria, until very recently, Turkey chose to stand on the sidelines and allow Russia to intervene in Syria because Russia provided the bulk of Turkey’s natural gas.

Piccone looks at each country and examines its role and priorities on the international stage. There can be little doubt that democracy* is the fairest form of government, but does it always work as others intend it to is another question. Democracies can disagree with other democracies and often do. Democracies are themselves diverse in their histories and their priorities. America was a democracy that twice thought it was not in its interest to fight European wars, only to be dragged in later. Can Brazil be blamed for not wanting to commit to military involvement in Libya? Can other nations be expected to act against their economic interests to support grander ideas? Five Rising Democracies is an excellent look at democracy in the post- Cold War world.

*Democracy used throughout this review in its most general terms of an elected government — representational democracy, parliamentary or other form of popularly elected government.

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Book Review — The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus

The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus by Kevin P. Gallagher is a look at the little-discussed expansion of China’s economic power into Latin America. Gallagher is a Professor of Global Development Policy at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, where he co-directs the Global Economic Governance Initiative and the Global Development Policy Program. He is co-editor of the Review of International Political Economy and writes regular columns inThe Financial Times and The Guardian.

There are several topics discussed in this book that are overlooked and often ignored in Latin American politics and economics. First is the resource curse. Countries that have an abundance of non-renewable natural resources generally have less economic development. This has been a curse of Latin America since independence. Even countries like Saudi Arabia are feeling the pinch of being a resource economy when the price of their export product falls. Latin America has a history of selling its resources instead of developing industry. Even with renewable resources, Latin America traps itself. Coffee exporting countries counter falling coffee prices with increased production which further drives down prices.

The Washington Consensus is a set of ten points or policies that are used to approve aid to countries. They include among other points, privatization of industries, direct foreign investment, redirecting public spending, and relaxing import restrictions. This has become US police since 1989. The problem is that has not improved the situation. Privatization has decreased the efficiency of many state industries or turned them over to foreign control where profit is the goal instead of bettering life. Trade liberalization destroys local industry rather than help it. Spending on infrastructure is redirected leaving road, rail, and public works projects unfunded. This leads to problems of continued debt, regardless of development.

Enter China. Needing to resources to grow its industrial economy China has been forming alliances around the world. China’s involvement in Africa is well documented and has been news for some time. China trades infrastructure development for raw materials. African nations have roads, railways, harbors, and the industry to export natural resources. There is improvement for some; others stagnate. China also brings in its own labor for many of its projects displacing workers in the original industry and not providing employment in infrastructure development.

China’s efforts in Latin America went largely unnoticed by the US as it was concerned with the War on Terror and Latin America was not harboring or supporting terrorism. China was able to move in and provide an alternative to the Washington Consensus. Many states accepted China’s help and Gallagher examines the results of the relationships. Some states were helped and were hurt. Mexico is a noted state hurt by Chinese investment in Latin America. Despite NAFTA, Chinese factories in Latin America can undersell Mexican imports to the US.

Gallagher provides the history and the economics of both US and Chinese investment in Latin America. The results differ by country but breaking the “resource curse” has proved to be a difficult undertaking. Also examined is how the US allowed another (economic) power to move into its backyard without sounding the alarm. An excellent read in the field of international relations and economics. Not everything happens with bold, headline-making news. Sometimes the important events happen with little notice.

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