Monthly Archives: July 2016

Book Review — Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope

Bloom County Episode XI by Berkeley Breathed
I used to always read the Bloom County strip in the newspaper. Newspaper? A tortilla made from water and grated trees. Overseas I used to get Bloom County in “The Stars and Stripes.” That newspaper arrived in batches allowing for binge reading. The days of the cold war brought the Basselope and Opus’ SDI solution. Oliver Wendel Jones accidently put his father’s Jaguar in orbit around Pluto. While in boot camp a friend sent me the Sunday edition Bloom County were the gang sing “Let’s Get Liberal” in tune Olvia Newton John’s “Physical.” Bloom County followed me around my time in the Marines and was always a welcome break from the seriousness of the military. I mean, who could forget “Deathtöngue”?
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It seems Opus has been taking a nap… for the last 25 years. He finds himself in 2016 with all the new technology and no Bush and Clinton (he thinks). The good news is that all his friends are back and they haven’t aged. It’s a struggle to adapt and there are mistakes. Opus posts a private Steve Dallas video on Twitter thinking Twitter is a chatroom for birds. Berkely Breathed brought back Bloom County last year on Facebook and this is the first collection of the story so far.There have been some changes in Bloom County over the years. The Starship Enterpoop has been replaced with the Aluminum Falcon and characters from that other space saga. Binkley anxiety closet is armed with a new orange haired anxiety. Opus and Bill run for president, mainly for matching campaign funds. Opus’ platform is simple: two spaces after a period. Surprisingly a popular platform until the font lobby starts offering money.

This book was the first I am hearing of Bloom County’s return. I guess being a bit like Opus, I prefer Twitter to Facebook. Regardless, it is great to have the guys back. I did read this book in one day. It was hard to put down after a twenty-five-year break.

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Poetry Review — If Bees are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems

If Bees Are Few by James P. Lenfestey

If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems edited by James P. Lenfestey is a collection of poems title after an Emily Dickinson poem. After a career in academia, advertising, and journalism as an editorial writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where he won several Page One awards for excellence, James P. Lenfestey has published poetry, reviews, and articles, plus a book of essays.

This collection covers centuries of poets and nearly every bee associated trait. From the pollinators, to colony collapse disorder, to fertility in general, bees or their mannerisms are examined. Lessons on hive life, the difference between hive and ground bees, and the unique bumble bee are given. Poets from modern to medieval contribute to this collection. Rumi contributes “When Grapes Turn to Wine. Emerson gives the reader “The Humble Bee”:

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon

James Silas Rogers tells of liberating a bumble bee from his basement and Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells of two bees trapped in his cabin and their different behaviors. The range of topics and views of the poets allow for a large number of poems on the same seemingly simple topic, bees, to seem fresh and not repetitious. The collection is listed as three hundred pages but the Kindle advance copy reads much more quickly. I would assume that the print edition will be illustrated. Regardless, the poetry is great and proceeds from the sale will go to the University of Minnesota Bee Lab and its efforts to help save the bees.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Emily Dickinson, XCVII

 

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Book Review — From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR

From Washington to Moscow by Louis Sell

From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR by Louis Sell is a history of US-Soviet Relations beginning primarily with Brezhnev and leading to the fall of the USSR. Sell is a retired Foreign Service officer who served twenty-seven years with the US Department of State, specializing in Soviet and Balkan affairs. He is the author ofSlobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, also published by Duke University Press.

This is the reason I wanted a degree in political science. Growing up in the Cold War and serving in the Marines in the final years of the Cold War, I saw a systematic and regulated world. This was the world — two powers locked in an endless struggle of gaining influence and power and holding the world hostage with nuclear weapons. This, also, was a symbiotic relationship. Each side needed an enemy to justify their position. The relationship, although varying in warmth, was always stable in that rules were followed. Each side kept their allies in line and wars were fought by proxy. It was an interesting time to grow up in.

Sell uses his person experience and copious primary source material to tell the story of the US and the USSR in a very readable form. The inner workings of the Soviet Union were secretive at the time with Soviet experts many times guessing at what was happening. Since the fall of the Soviet Union new source material is available. Perhaps one of the reasons of the Soviet fall was something I saw from a distance. William Casey visited Saudi Arabia several times in the 1980s while I served there on Embassy Duty. Although I had no idea of his purpose there, Sell explains one of the most cunning moves in the Cold War. During the Brezhnev era, the Soviets were able to generate most of their hard currency from oil exports. Casey worked to keep the Saudi’s pumping oil to drop prices effectively crashing the Soviet’s oil revenue and hard currency. The US also made every effort to block Soviet natural gas from flowing into Europe. Cut off the money and the system will collapse.

There are plenty of examples that I remember reading in the papers as well as a more personal one of Marine Sergeant Lonetree. Lonetree was the first Marine to be charged with espionage. Initial news reports created quite an improbable scenario of Lonetree allowing Soviet agents into the embassy and giving them keys to the safes. Safes were combination locks and it would be impossible to let someone into the embassy without notice. Sell gives the much less sensational report of what actually happened.

There are also internal workings of the Soviet system that were not known to the west at the time. The arms limitation and reduction talks are gone over in detail as well the influence of “Star Wars” and Voice of America and other western news or propaganda. I listened to the VOA while in Europe and its portrayal of the west was quite over the top.

Sell gives a detailed but easily comprehensible look at what was the deadliest standoff in the history of the world and how it abruptly ended. Today we worry about terrorism, but terrorism, as terrible as it is, does not hold a candle to global nuclear war. It was a time of great danger and now more information is known of what was actually happening instead of what we thought was happening. I enjoyed From Washington to Moscow for the information it provided and for the memories I had of being part of that era, from my Apollo- Soyuz shirt to enlisting in the Marines. The US-Soviet struggle was very much part of my younger years. Sell gives “boomers” an opportunity to revisit the past with the added benefit of hindsight and open records.

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Book Review — The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century

The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century

The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century by Stein Ringen is an examination of the evolution of the modern Chinese state and current positions. Ringen is a Norwegian sociologist and political scientist. He is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford.

Ringen provides an interesting perspective on China. As a Norwegian, he is in a neutral position to give an unbiased look at China. Typical examinations of China are from expatriates and those with an anti-communist bias. Ringen is not a Chinese apologist, but a reliable source of information. He does like to compare the evolution of China with that of South Korea and nation that moved from authoritarianism to democracy and small job economy to a technological cutting edge. Korea creates. China copies.

The discussion I enjoyed the most was the one on legitimacy. Many in the west associate legitimacy with democracy, but that is not always the case. Totalitarian regimes frequently use elections to prove their legitimacy to the world. The USSR, Iraq, and Iran all had/have elections but the results are never in doubt. Legitimacy here is the internal legitimacy that keeps the local population supporting, or at least not rebelling against, the government. This is where the Chinese government holds the edge.

Many societies crave freedom or a voice in the government. The Chinese population craves stability. China has been embarrassed in the 20th century by foreign interventions from the west and Japan. Upheaval and foreign control were the norms. Now there is internal tranquility. Albeit strict and repressive, the Chinese society is stable.

Much press is given to how many people China has pulled out of poverty. The number is quite impressive, however, the number still living in poverty is enormous. China also has the greatest income inequality in the world. But there is a hope that people will be better off as the economy grows. Corruption is being attacked by the government offering a more fair footing. The government is trapped in a game of maintaining power and keeping the population compliant.

There is plenty of discussion on economy and growth as well as the quality of the growth — assembly jobs vs innovation. The People’s Army is covered as a source of power in the state and its reform into a professional army from a political tool. The intertwining of the party and the state also create a unique power system different from the Soviet or totalitarian regimes. This is the key to the “Perfect Dictatorship.” A well researched and refreshing look at Modern China.

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Book Review — A Long Time Dead: A Mike Hammer Casebook

A Long Time Dead by Mickey Spillane

A Long Time Dead: A Mike Hammer Casebook by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins is the first collection of Mike Hammer short stories. Spillane was an American crime novelist. Many books featured his signature detective character, Mike Hammer. More than 225 million copies of his books have sold internationally. Collins has written novels, screenplays, comic books, comic strips, trading cards, short stories, movie novelizations, and historical fiction. He wrote the graphic novel Road to Perdition, created the comic book private eye Ms. Tree, and took over writing the Dick Tracy comic strip from creator Chester Gould.

Growing up, there was Mannix. Mike Connors took a more than his share of punishment. He was shot seventeen times and knocked unconscious fifty-five times in eight seasons. Then came James Rockford who with his cool car also became the victim of much abuse. Private eyes took a lot of abuse. Then came Stacey Keech playing Mike Hammer. Hammer didn’t take the abuse. He dished it out.

A Long Time Dead is a collection of short stories by Mickey Spillane that were left unfinished at his death. Collins collected up the stories and finished them. He has had a history of working with Spillane and seamlessly fills in the missing material. The short story format is new even so much to make the television episodes seem long. It is the same Mike Hammer — gruff, quick to use his gun, and by far the most sexist P.I. in popular culture. Mike thinks that the female scientist would make a nice specimen and hardly passes a chance to describe a woman as a work of art to the reader. Velda, his secretary, is more than a secretary. She is a partner in the Hammer Investigations. She also carries a .22 or .38 — progress, but still smaller than Mike’s .45.

A Long Time Dead brings together eight stories from three decades of writing. The stories grab the reader from the start whether it is a junkie on death row or a disabled veteran. Justice comes quick and is forceful to the lowest hood to authority figures. There is the law and there is justice. Lucky Strikes, beer, and violence make up a good part of this detective’s diet. Rough, smooth talking, and driven Mike Hammer returns for some unfinished business.

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Poetry Review — Zen Master Poems

Zen Master Poems by Dick Allen

Zen Master Poems by Dick Allen is the poet’s eighth collection of poetry. Allen is known as a mystical poet, A Zen Buddhist poet, a poet concerned with the turn of the twenty-first century, a poet of contemporary science, and a poet whose style ranges from free verse to formal. He has been widely published and has served as Connecticut’s poet laureate for five years.

The zen poetry sticks with the zen traditions. It is not something that can be explained if you don’t understand. You have to understand on your own or discover the meaning while or after reading. Allen also brings Western ideas to the table of an eastern philosophy. He mentions the Beatles twice and the Who (by lyrics). He also includes the Beat Generation. “As Han-Shan Observed” took me back to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) explains the poem “Cold Mountain” to Ray Smith (Jack Kerouac).

Poems range from thought provoking to seemingly impossible. Others capture beauty and inspiration:

The Secret is to Leap

The secret is to leap widely and strangely over the deep
not knowing
what’s down there, but certain
in some crevice
there must be a small purple flower.

In another poem, he pays homage to a two-hundred-year-old drinking cup pondering on how many different lips have touched the rim. How many fingerprints are on its handle. How many times has the cup been raised or lowered? In the very next poem, he starts off with “I like phrases” and weaves together a poem of from unrelated phrases. Many of the poems are simply snapshots of a moment in time leaving the reader to discover their importance or significance. In another poem, he speaks of the Vietnam Memorial and Captain Wayne Philip Bundy. I stop reading and research the name trying to attach historical significance to the pilot’s death which turned out to be a non-combat death over South Vietnam. I give up and went back to the poem only to learn the significance later in the poem. The significance was not to history but to the poet himself. One must read carefully and not jump to conclusions. There are answers in all the poems, however, we may not see them or even know the questions they answer. Read, contemplate, learn, repeat.

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Book Review — Patrol

Patrol

Patrol by Philip MacDonald is the novel that John Ford used as the basis for The Lost Patrol. MacDonald served with the cavalry in Mesopotamia during World War I. After the war, he trained horses for the army. In 1931 he moved to Hollywood. His writing includes over twenty-five novels which made him one of the most popular mystery writers in the 1930s. He also wrote screenplays and fifteen of his novels became movies.

I picked this book up hoping it would explain some of the war in Mesopotamia. American interests in World War I usually does not extend beyond the Western Front. However in this book Mesopotamia is just the setting. A British unit is on patrol and their lieutenant is shot and killed, leaving the sergeant in charge of the men. The lieutenant, however, is the only man who knew the mission and their location. Any attempt to get back to the British outpost now needs to be based on luck. The men in the unit are from a wide variety backgrounds and interests — An actor, a man from Cockney, and a Jew. The term Jew is thrown around quite a bit along with the “n” word. The “n” word, for the most part, is from the nursery rhyme, Ten Little “N” where people disappear one by one. The same thing happens in this novel. It is interesting too that profanity is censored in the book and not racial slurs. The world was different in 1927 England when this book was published.

This book shares the same plot line as future works like Agatha Christie’sAnd Then There Were None (not the original title, by the way) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. It is more of a book of people dealing with the unknown enemy or challenge. The people themselves who are usually controlled by societal forces are now in a new and different situation. Here the men are in an unknown position lead by a man, who although an NCO, is not an officer. Although the sergeant manages discipline, he does not carry the clout of the lieutenant had even though he was not liked. The sergeant must work on two levels — as a leader and as one of the men. It is a good story, but not really a war story. The war provides the setting. The men and situation provide the story.

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Poetry Review — The Pilgrim and The Star

The Pilgrim and The Star by Ross Daniel Baker

The Pilgrim and The Star by Ross Daniel Baker is the poet’s first collection of poetry. Baker started writing when he was 18 and is the author of the fantasy novel The Fable of Mythrian. Having completed a Higher Certificate in Archaeology at Leicester University and now pursuing a BA (Hons) in Humanities and Arts, he brings to his writing the influences of his studies.

This is a pleasant and likeable series of romantic, pastoral poems that stands up well against the classics. The writing is not as heavily structured but the reader will find rhyme schemes and even rhyming couplets in a few poems. Nature is the theme of this collection and I was expecting nature and man to begin to compete as the poems went on, however, they did not or at least not in a meaningful way.

Baker divides the poems into four seasons and although each poem can stand alone they form a path through the year. This format and some of the writing reminded me of Vita Sackville-West’s poem, The Land. There is a more modern connection to nature than what was held by the romantic poets. It is a less intimidating poetry than Wordsworth or Coleridge, but just as enjoyable. Baker takes the reader to an outdoors that is harmonious and peaceful compared to the urban/suburban life.

Where the russet fungi bleeds from the crevasses
Of a weathered tree, whose fruitless frame embraces
The creeping ivy, do I now feel this deep pain
Of which on my journey, I have tried to contain.

“The Wilds of the Sleeping Forest”

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