Monthly Archives: March 2017

Book Review — Lenin on the Train: The Journey that Changed the Course of History

Lenin on the Train: The Journey that Changed the Course of History

Lenin on the Train: The Journey that Changed the Course of History by Catherine Merridale is her sixth book on Russian/Soviet history. Merridale has a First Class degree in history from King’s College, Cambridge and a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham. Retiring from her academic career, Merridale became a freelance writer in 2014. She has written for the London Review of Books, the New Statesman, The Independent, The Guardian, and the Literary Review. She has also contributed to BBC Radio.

Arguably the twentieth century was a short century. On the historical scales, the century begins with the First World War and ends with the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, the early events are approaching their centennial marks and with that, there is renewed interest, new information, and thinking of the events. Lenin’s train ride was an important event in world affairs that would run long and deep.

Germany, knowing America’s entry into the war was only a matter of time would resort to other means to win the war. The war was financially breaking England and draining France of its male population at an alarming rate. Germany, however, was suffering in a two front war. Austria-Hungary, the country who initiated the war, turned out to be a very weak ally. German needed to remove Russia from the fighting and it had a plan.

The Germans knew that there were other ways of winning the war than the battlefield. By distracting the enemy with other problems, it would reduce their will to fight. If Mexico declared war on the US, the US would be unable to fight in Europe. If radicals in France became popular the will to fight would dwindle. If Germany could pull away from the Eastern front, they could concentrate on France and England before America entered the war. To remove Russia, Germany had to disrupt the fragile government and they had the man to do it. It was just a matter of transporting him to Russia.

To some moving one man through Germany and Finland to Russia might seem fairly insignificant. But the man transported eventually did remove Russia from the war. That benefit would eventually haunt Germany in the next World War and for almost fifty years afterward. The man in the train lead a revolution that became one of the focal points of the twentieth century.  The spectre of communism became Leninism and Stalinism. The quick move for advantage backfired in the long run.

Merridale takes the reader on the best constructed and plausible route of Lenin’s sealed train car. She jumps around quite a bit and perhaps is a bit lacking in background information, but considering her experience she most likely writes for an audience who already has a background in Russian history. For those with a Russian or World War I history experience, it is an excellent source of information on a lesser told part of history. All in all a great book for historians. For others, the light background on Russia and its problems before World War I might make this book a bit challenging.

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Book Review — Grand Canyon: A Novel

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon: A Novel by Vita Sackville-West is the author’s only science fiction novel. Vita Sackville-West was a British poet, writer, critic, and gardener. She is well known for her affairs with women while married to British diplomat Harold Nicholson. She traveled widely and to many places where white women usually did not venture. Her fiction and her life intertwined in much of her writing.

Published in 1942 with the Battle of Britain firmly in the minds of the English and war still raging in Europe, Sackville-West writes of A Nazi-controlled Europe and peace between the US and the Reich. British exiles are staying at a hotel at the Grand Canyon and they mix with the Americans. Lester Dale and Helen Temple, both British, are the lead characters. Strangers at first they become closer reminiscing about their lost London.

The descriptions of the canyon are wonderfully done and play polar opposites to the destruction of war. The Indian civilization and the wonder of nature compete with the manmade hotel which tries in a very American way to compliment the scenery with capitalism and artificialness. America itself is seen as big from the description of the canyons dimensions to the towers in New York. Its geographical isolation has lead to a youthful acting, fun-loving population isolated from Europes fighting. The American people and military remain innocent in the idea of total war.

The German betrayal of the treaty with America comes as a complete surprise to the United States (much like the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941). The war and attack are portrayed as evil. There is a far greater evil in the world than Hitler alone; he merely personifies it. The contrasts are clear: nature and war, innocents and evil. The book, however, does not age well. Much like how the 1984 movie Red Dawn seems ridiculous today (and maybe back then too), the Nazi invasion of the US is far fetched and the invasion goes as smoothly as for the enemy as Red Dawn. By the time this book was published, however, the US had already declared war on Germany.

Sackville-West writes an interesting alternative history with a few surprises in people and the plot. As for the science-fiction, it is there, late in the story, and is subdued. Sackville-West is concerned with the writing as much as anything else in the story. It seems old and decades behind the contemporary writing of the time. It’s formal and much of the action is conveyed in the writing style, conversation, stiffness, and plot. Perhaps what one would call “very English.”

I enjoyed it from the historical perspective of a writer writing war fiction while a war was raging in Europe and her home country the victim of air raids on a scale not seen before. Much of this shows through in writing about the sirens and the bombing in America. A cautionary tale is what she calls it, but perhaps it was meant to be more shock and awe to the American public.

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Book Review — Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings

Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings

Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings by Vita Sackville-West edited by Mary Ann Caws, with a forward by Nigel Nicholson is a comprehensive look at the writings of Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West is known in different ways by different people. Many know her as Virginia Woolf’s lover. Others despise that description and praise her gardening skills. She was also a poet and novelist, of some worth, and an essayist and critic.

Caws takes selections of Sackville-West’s writings and provides a detailed introduction to the selection as well as background on Sackville-West’s role in the writing — her life experience and many times her role as a novel character as well as people she knew who were added to the novel. As she wrote as a disclaimer in The Edwardians, “No character in this book is wholly fictitious.” In reading Sackville-West’s fiction one can easily where her travel experiences fit in as well as her personal relationships.

Sackville-West offered readers a wide variety of writing and writing styles. However, much of her work is difficult to find. Her fiction is a bit hard to find in America and when found it is usually first or second US editions in delicate shape or cracked yellowed paperbacks. Caws will give the reader a taste of what is hard to find and a desire to track down what can be found.

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Poetry Review — TechnoRage: Poems

My memory
is a thief and my imagination
an undertaker
“Afterlife of Deer”

Technorage by William Olsen

TechnoRage: Poems by William Olsen is the poet’s fifth collection of poetry. Olsen is the recipient of The Nation/Discovery Award, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Western Michigan University and Vermont College.

Although I hate to borrow from the book’s own description or press release, but “It’s intensely lyrical poems remind us of our humanity, spinning free-ranging poetic conversations that question the ways of the world. In the age of the wide but often shallow lens of our new technology” is an excellent summation of the collection. For example, “Out of the Vortex” opens with:

Gust smattered gobs of snow glommed to spruce
shingled white, then, through snow fume, a hint
of living green,
the ecstatic without the static, without confines.

Olsen writes interestingly and imaginatively of Francis Bacon’s painting “Figure with Meat” in “Damnation” and reminds the reader the figure lives because he ate death. Olsen also carries a fondness for herons as well as snow. The heron in mythology is a messenger of the gods and in other mythology, the sun. Olsen’s herons settle at night and fly overhead in the day. He quotes Schweitzer in the title poem — “human happiness will destroy the world.” He continues with child laborers and the hunt for Luddites. Man created the machine in his own image although the machine’s soul is something unknown. Machines now create machines and we watch Transformers in a climate controlled environment… environment being used sentimentally. We create banks, server farms, and wars “So we can despise all of creation.” In the second part of the collection, it is lead off with “Under a Rainbow.” Rather than an Emerald City we see rust, rust color, rust rusting, and “corrosive loss.”

Olsen reveals the origin of his middle name the poem “My Middle Name.” Curtis as in that great American Curtis LeMay (his mother used to watch LeMay play softball in the 1950s): “We’ll bomb them back into the Stone Age,”  peace through mutually assured destruction and visions of Dr. Strangelove. “Early Murder” is a rather lengthy ode to crows and very well done. The fourth and final section contains my favorite poem in the collection, “A Natural History of Silence.” Silence “must be frightened, because it knows the moment it makes itself heard it no longer exists.

An excellent collection of poetry. Although the title had me expecting an angry account of man’s mistreatment of the earth, it has many sides to include leaves and some animal species along with the aforementioned snow and herons. There is a balance between both aspects. Thought provoking writing and poetic beauty in a collection that can be read over and again without losing its brilliance.

Release date June 15, 2017

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Poetry Review — Heart Residence: The Dennis Lee Omnibus

The Dennis Lee Omnibus by Dennis Lee

Heart Residence: The Dennis Lee Omnibus by Dennis Lee is a collection of the works by Toronto native. Lee received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Toronto. He is best known for his children’s writings; his most famous work is the rhymed Alligator Pie. He also penned the lyrics for Fraggle Rock and wrote the novella that was the basis for the movie Labyrinth.

In most larger collections readers receive a wide variety of the poet’s works and can see how he or she matures and evolves as a writer. This collection is a bit different because the poet occupies both ends of a dialectic rarely stopping for more than a moment in the middle ground. Lee writes adult narrative poems such as his epic poem to the city of Toronto and some poems with more adult themes to wildly rhyming poems that have a beat to themselves. These are children’s poems but are still enjoyable to an adult. The poem 1838 seems to be the center point of his extremes the Upper Canadian rebellion with almost a child like a sing-song rhythm.

A nice collection with a great range of poetry with a wide range of topics and style.

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Book Review — 4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars

4th Rock from the Sun by Nicky Jenner

4th Rock from the Sun: The Story of Mars by Nicky Jenner is a detailed look at Mars as a planet and how we on earth have perceived it. Jenner is a freelance writer and editor. Her news stories, features, interviews, and reviews have appeared in a variety of international popular science magazines, including New Scientist, Nature, BBC Sky at Night, Astronomy Now, The Times Eureka, and Physics World. Nicky is also a copywriter for the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory.

When I was a kid looking at the night sky, Venus was easy to spot as the brightest light in the sky next to the Moon. The next brightest was the giant Jupiter. Saturn’s rings could be seen in my simple telescope. Mars was a different kind of planet. It was the only object that glowed red in the black sky. This red light was not lost on the ancients either. Perhaps even more unusual was, at times, Mars moved backward in the sky. In the geocentric view of the universe, this was truly odd. Mathematicians tried to explain this in a variety of ways usually ending up with something that looked like it was made with a Spirograph. Once mankind began to accept the heliocentric universe with elliptical orbits things began to make sense.

Jenner takes the reader on a history of the planet and its place in our solar system. She also spends a good deal of time on the cultural impact Mars has made on mankind. Not only did it intrigue the ancients, it also intrigued people like H.G. Wells and writers through the pulp age to Kim Stanley Robinson and the major motion picture The Martian. Mankind has looked to Mars as a future home, an occupied place, and even the invading planet in War of the Worlds and Mars Attacks. Mars was the one place that writers, as well as scientists, hoped to be home to life.

When most Americans remember the Space Race, they think of the Moon, forgetting that Mars played a large role too. The Soviet Union was fixated on Mars throughout its existence. Mars is the most visited planet in the solar system and would even more so if it wasn’t for the high failure rate of other countries. Currently, Mars is the only known planet entirely inhabited by robots. Rovers are still exploring the planet. Jenner takes a detailed look at the exploration and logistics of sending probes for fly-bys, landings, and rovers. Although the exploration of space costs money, a great deal to some, NASA’s technology and science returns much more money that it spends. India, a recent add on to those planning to explore Mars, has spent about $70 million to launch and send a probe to Mars. Expensive? The fictional journey to Mars in The Martian cost $100 million to make.

4th Rock from the Sun is an up to date and informative book about Mars. Jenner’s writing is smart but easy to follow. There is not an attempt to dumb-down the science nor an attempt to put it out of reach of a layman. The history and science work well together to bring a complete picture of the red planet.


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Book Review — Is Canada Even Real?: How a Nation Built on Hobos, Beavers, Weirdos, and Hip Hop Convinced the World to Beliebe

Is Canada Even Real? by J.C. Villamere
Is Canada Even Real?: How a Nation Built on Hobos, Beavers, Weirdos, and Hip Hop Convinced the World to Beliebe by J.C. Villamere is a look at that other side of Canadian history that usually doesn’t make it into the history books. Villamere knew how to drive a Ski-Doo by age eight and her body is 90 percent maple syrup. She is the most Canadian woman in the world. Villamere writes to remind you that your country is wise and weird and you‘re in charge of keeping it that way. She is the publisher of Villamere: The Lowbrow Magazine of High-End Can Lit. She lives in Hamilton.

Canada is a country with a rich history but little of it gets south of the border. The history presented here is more of a cultural history. The Littlest Hobo a series that ran six years is a cross between Lassie and Scooby-Do. It was the 1980s videotaped show with a dog helps a person plot to secret agent dog. Although sounding a bit corny it had a wide range of guest stars from Abe Vigoda to Mike Myers. This ties into the real hobos of Canada and the rise of yodeling music…aka Canadian country music and the rise of the original singing cowboy (not the one who sang about Rudolf). Music continues to be a theme covering Canadian pop music to the rise of Degrassi star turned rapper Drake and his being genuine in his music and not trying to be a gangster rapper without the cred like Vanilla Ice and Hammer.

Politics and political characters play a role in the book from McDonald to Trudeau and his hair (Bieber’s hair has a tie-in to). It seems Reagan was not the only modern world leader with ties to the supernatural. Canada’s Mackenzie King followed and ask to be communicated with after he died; CTV complied. Politics gives way to mascots including Peter Puck and Quebec’s Bonhomme who made it to the cover of McLeans.

Villamere takes the reader on an interesting tour of things Canadian and pop culture. Each section is followed by a quiz to test your knowledge of related subjects. Not being Canadian myself, I could follow along quite well with the stories told. Villamere does an excellent job explaining the background of the material she covers. The quizzes at the end of the chapter are not completely covered in the text, but the answers are well explained. The book flows well with the chapters leading into the next smoothly. A well done, informative and fun book on our neighbors to the north.

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Book Review — Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth

Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock
Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock is a look at the more violent side of the American Revolution. Hoock holds the Amundson Chair in British History at the University of Pittsburgh and serves as Editor of the Journal of British Studies. Trained at the Universities of Freiburg, Cambridge, and Oxford, he has been a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz.

I was in middle school for the run-up to the bicentennial celebration. The Revolutionary War was taught with a great deal of idealism and although there was a war the violence was minimal. There was the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga but the battles seemed very civilized. Much emphasis was placed on the ideals of the revolution. Liberty, representative government, and the right to determine one’s own future were key issues. What was not mentioned was what the British were quick to point out — Slavery. The American colonists were also unhappy with British troops occupying their property, much like the native Americans were feeling for and fighting for in the West.

At the time warfare was still very violent and personal. Muskets had little range and the bayonet was still used often in close quarters. Bayonets used by the British were triangular rather than bladed. The shape was used to cause the most damage going in and coming out. Grapeshot (picture a canon sized shotgun) was used to attack massed troops. The killing was done close in. The navy was the only force that could shell from a great distance.

What made the American revolution so violent is perhaps best seen from the British view. It was not so much a revolution but a civil war — British against British. The Colonists were seen as traitors more than an enemy nation. In fact, the British had to look as the colonists as traitors, something far worse than enemies of another nation. To consider them otherwise would mean recognizing American independence. Captured colonist combatants were considered criminals rather than soldiers. This created another problem for the British. If colonists were captured and detained, they still had rights as British citizens to habeas corpus, bail, and a trial. Trying to suspend habeas corpus for the colonists also would mean suspending it for those in Britain too. The American Revolution became a legal as well as a military problem for the British.

On the American side, British loyalists and officials were poorly treated by those “liberty groups” which seemed like roaming bands of thugs than patriots. Looting and beatings were very common. Rape was not uncommon (a charge leveled at both armies). Some patriot groups looted both loyalists and rebel homes and property. Military discipline was seriously lacking in many actions. The British in lower commands were just as bad at times. Most ranking military leaders, however, chose to abide by the European standards of warfare although this didn’t always happen, a serious effort was made by both sides.

Prisoners perhaps bore the worst treatment. Britain held American colonists on prison ships in appalling conditions. Others held in occupied territory received little in the way of food and clothing. Although, in some circumstances opposing leaders allowed humanitarian aid to prisoners. This was unofficially done between commanders and Britain was unwilling to take any action that might be seen as recognition of an independent America. Logistics was a major problem with prisoners. Neither side could support the care and feeding of huge numbers of prisoners; it was difficult and expensive to keep the fighting armies fed and cared for, let alone prisoners.

The American Revolution was a violent and bloody affair. It was not only the armies engaged in a violent struggle. It was colonist against colonist. It was colonists against native Americans. The war was more than a simply fighting a few battles. It was seven years of bloodshed which involved more than the Colonists and the British. Hessians were used by Britain since the king could not keep a large standing army. France joined America after the Battle of Saratoga and Spain seeing a distracted Britain declared war also. Hoock uses both American and British source material in his research and dedicates almost a third of the book to cited sources. A well done and enlightening history.

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