Monthly Archives: April 2017

Book Review — These Are The Days

These Are The Days

An interesting experiment. Write an Instagram follower a message every day for one hundred days. You have not met this person except through your Instagram accounts. You have all of the author’s messages, but none from the recipient. There is only one reference to her ever replying and some questions are asked and asked again without and answer. The book shows some insight into our modern world of communications and of who we call “friends” as well as what we are willing to tell a complete stranger online. A nice concept for a book.

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Book Review — A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols

A Flag Worth Dying For by Tim Marshall

A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols by Tim Marshall is a look at the flags of the world and their origins. Marshall is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster, known for his analysis of developments in foreign news and international diplomacy. Marshall (formerly diplomatic editor and also foreign affairs editor for Sky News) is a guest commentator on world events for the BBC, Sky News, and a guest presenter on LBC. He has written four books, including Prisoners of Geography which I reviewed September 2015.

Americans, in particular, hold the flag in higher esteem than other nations. We pledge it. We stand for it at sporting events. We display it more than people of most nations. To many, the red, white and blue colors on the cloth represent the nation itself. It must be displayed in a particular manner, not allowed to touch the ground, or (arguably) burned except in a proper retirement ceremony. The American flag followed by the British Union Jack receive the lion’s share of the coverage in this book. Each nation rating their own chapter. Rightly so in that, both have flown over the most countries and territories and all the continents. Both flags inspire both love and hate around the world. The Union Jack is only represented on five other flags Fiji, Tuvalu, Australia, and New Zealand are the four commonwealth countries. The fifth is surprisingly the state flag of Hawaii.

Europe is covered in a chapter. There is a solid history behind each nation’s flag and to many a nod to Christianity. Europe, for the most part, is a collection of tri-colored striped flags with a careful selection of colors or flags with crosses in two or three colors. The Balkan states are the exception to the rule with each trying to make their flag all inclusive in a region that is prone to fighting and ethnic strife. Turkey is the only European nation with a religious symbol other than Christian. The crescent moon has been adopted by Islam but predates the religion by hundreds of years. The chapter also includes the politics of making a flag for the European Union and in a later chapter, the politics of the NATO flag is covered.

The Near East is cover in another chapter and the commonality of the colors and designs of the flags. Here Saudi Arabia and Israel stand out as a display of religious identity. Other nations flags are covered and their design changes are noted and explained. Some are changed for major reasons like the revolution in Iran and others are minor adjustments. In the following chapter, non-nation flags that are connected geographically with the Middle East are included. Some of the flags are well known like the ISIS flag. Other flags like that flown by Hezbollah are less widely known outside the region. Each flag has its story.

In Asia, the flags of China (and Taiwan), Japan and the two Koreas are given attention. China also makes history as the third nation to have its flag on the surface of the moon. The newly independent former Soviet republics’ flags are covered as well as Afghanistan. Nepal is the only country with a non-rectangular flag and is perhaps is the most difficult to manufacture with an extremely complex set of instructions. The evolution of India’s flag is also cover in some detail and includes Gandhi’s initial disappointment at losing the spinning wheel as the center design.

Africa provides the greatest diversity in flag designs but many holding to the traditional colors of red, green, black, and gold. The meaning of the colors vary but each has a long tradition on the continent. The new South African flag that replaced the former Dutch-like flag is a flag meant to promote healing and unity in a country that was moving out of apartheid. The colors and the pattern were carefully thought out. Ironically to have enough flags to fly from government buildings in time for the changing of the governments, a Dutch company helped produce the necessary number of flags. The flag that stands out in Africa is Mozambique’s flag. It is the only flag to have a weapon of war. An AK-47 is crossed with a hoe in the right side of the flag. The weapon does not symbolize killing, but the revolutionary spirit of the country.

South and Latin America are covered with an interesting story of the Mexican flag as well as the Brazilain flag. A bit of Panama’s history particularly in the canal zone is covered. The book closes with a section on international organization flags and the attempt to draw the world in as an all-inclusive group of people.

This is a well written and very interesting history and reference book that attempts to be informative without being an encyclopedia of flags. Some countries are excluded with Canada being the one that jumps out at the reader first. The South Pacific and Indian ocean countries do not get much coverage either. But the purpose of the book is not to be all-inclusive but rather to highlight points of interest and commonalities of nations and flags, it does an excellent job at this. We identify people by flags. At international sporting events like soccer and the Olympics, a flag identifies a people. It can bring together a nation. Historically, flags are powerful symbols, from the Jolly Rogers to the Nazi flag. The hammer and sickle still represent communism even though the Soviet Union no longer exists. Americans still rally around the flag in hard times and in celebration. Flags unify and identify. An excellent book with deep meaning for many people.

Available July 4, 2017


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Poetry Review — Whiskey, Words, and a Shovel I

Just over a year ago I wrote this short review:

Last month I reviewed R H Sin’s Whiskey, Words, and a Shovel II. I was so impressed with the work that I ordered this collection. Sin sticks to what his does best — hard-hitting, brutally honest, emotional, and pertinent poetry. There are no wasted words in his writing and no missed meanings. Just an outstanding work.

The new release will make many people happy. I have been asked more than once to sell my copy of this book. It was such a hit that when the first printing sold out, or before that, the price skyrocketed. This revised edition contain the same punch and emotion as the first edition. For all the people that missed the first edition, you now have a second chance.

Available May 2, 2017

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Poetry Review — Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

The two-time poet laureate of the Untied States is perhaps on of the most readable poets today. He has a unique knack for taking the mundane and making it interesting. I have read several of his collections and have enjoyed them all.

“Bar Time” is an interesting reflection. Clocks in bars are set fifteen minutes ahead of the current time to prevent violating the law of serving after hours. Collins take a different view of the time difference. He sees the bar as a time machine putting him fifteen minutes ahead of those people he sees walking outside. A window to the past and comfortably ahead of the cares and concerns of those outside. After a few drinks, one could easily form this story in their head.

“The History Teacher” looks at the education of our children and the softening of history. The Ice Age is the Chilly Age, The Spanish inquisition is simple inquiries by the Spanish, The Enola Gay dropped an atom on Japan, and the Boer War becomes the Bore War of old stories. The fun Collins has with names of events can be seen as humorous or as the failure of the education system:

The children leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

“Pinup” is about a bored man sitting in a mechanics garage while his car is being worked on. His mind drifts to the calendar on the of a pinup girl and what she is doing and wearing. He becomes absorbed at looking a the picture and almost misses the mechanics call for him to come over. Once there the mechanic shows him that the problem is more expensive than originally thought. The man concludes that it can’t be helped and returns to his seat and lifts the calendar to the next month and sees a new pinup girl and story.

These above poems are from his selected works which make up most of the collection. The new poems are only a handful. This is unfortunate but like the man in the garage we can always go back and become absorbed in the previous poems again.

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Book Review — Woolly: The True Story of the De-Extinction of One of History’s Most Iconic Creatures

Woolly: The True Story of the De-Extinction of One of History’s Most Iconic Creatures

Woolly: The True Story of the De-Extinction of One of History’s Most Iconic Creatures by Ben Mezrich is the story of Dr. Church and his colleague’s advancements in genome engineering. Mezrich graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Social Studies from Harvard University in 1991. Some of his books have been written under the pseudonym, Holden Scott. He is best known for Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions and The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding Of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.

I probably would not have picked this book up if I had known it was narrative fiction. The book is written in novel form and the reader is left to believe or not believe what is written. There is a small section of cited works but nothing is footnoted. Optionally there the reader could look up each bit of questionable information and fact check on their own. That is what I did and what I looked up did check out. This was mostly limited to events and people in the book and not conversation and smaller details.

George M. Church is the leader of the project that is working on brings back the wooly mammoth. The book traces his life from childhood to the present with all the ups and downs of a normal life. Both his accomplishments and his failures make him the person who he is today and a person willing to take a chance on projects and people. He is also very well respected in the scientific community. Instead of operating in secret, Church chooses to share information. This also allows him to collect on favors. Several of his students are also portrayed in the book and details of their varied backgrounds.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is work being done in Siberia on permafrost. A part of northern Russia (and Canada) contain a permanently frozen layer of earth. It was once thought that if the permafrost thawed it would be suitable for farming. The current findings, however, seem to show the opposite. If the earth warms up enough to thaw the permafrost, the release of methane from the thawing permafrost would be catastrophic. The permafrost would release up to twice as much carbon dioxide and methane that is currently in the atmosphere. This ties into the Wooly Mammoth’s planned de-extinction.

Mezrich writes an interesting thriller which would fit in well with the much mentioned Michael Creighton or another novelist of that genre. It would seem hard to make DNA and genome engineering exciting for the non-scientific reader but Woolly reads like a thriller. There is even two chapter that takes place in the future that lends to the thought this is a work of fiction. With that exception of the previous point, all the information appears to be legitimate. An interesting and thought provoking read on the advancement of science.

Available July 4, 2017


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Poetry Review — The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy

The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy by John Brehm

The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy edited by John Brehm is a collection of Eastern and Western poets. Brehm was educated at the University of Nebraska and Cornell University. He is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize, and Help Is on the Way (2012), winner of the Four Lakes Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press.

What seems to be a simple book of poetry is really profound in its purpose. The idea of mindful reading is explained in the appendix acts as a guide to get deeper into the poetry. The poetry presented in each of the three sections, Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy, are from a wide range of poets and styles. Poems from ancient Chinese and Japanese poets are present as well as modern poets from Poland, England, and the United States. A reader may be surprised to find two poems from Philip Larkin, a poet who seems very out of place with his glum outlook.

Impermanence poems look at the world and ourselves and how eventually everything degrades. Ryokan seeks a timeless truth and discovers “the flower’s glory is just another form of dust.” Our lives also degrade and end and explained in Larkin’s Ambulances. Anna Kamienska examines life and how life flies by us:

and closed with a word
like a lake with ice
winter passed snows melted
the suns appeared and saw
after the winter
that scar on the earth
your grave.

Mindfulness tells of the world around us that we often miss or the beauty of the most mundane things. Yosa Buson contributes:

Coolness —
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell

These are poems intended to make the reader aware of the things and life around him that he rarely sees or notices. Frank O’Hara in a “Step Away from Them” is a recording of his experience during a lunch time walk. There are things that we pay no mind to like the Coke in a construction worker’s hands, stray cats, and people and posters on the street. This is perhaps the most enlightening section of the collection. We are so caught up in our own life, or now our phones, we do not notice what is right in front of us.

Joy is self-explanatory. There is the joy in watching children imitate cranes or sitting beneath a tree or under the moon. Whitman tells of a lecture by a learned astronomer who talks with columns of figures and diagrams. Whitman, discouraged by this, walks out and takes in the night sky in all its visual wonder and enjoys it in silence. Fernando Pessoa writes:

On those for whom happiness
Is the sun, night will fall.
But those who hope for nothing
Are glad for whatever comes.

The Poetry of Impermanence is a thought-provoking collection designed to make the reader think and in many instances simplify and slow down. The appendix also includes short biographies of all the poets along with a source guide for all the poems used in the collection. The collection uses many sources to show that the Buddhist truths, like many things, are all around us if we take the time to notice. A well-done selection with poems from many different sources converging on three simple points.


Available June 6, 2017

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Book Review — Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam

Wild Mustard by Charles Waugh

Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam edited by Charles Waugh and translated by Nguyen Lien and Van Gia are a collection of short stories about Vietnam. Waugh is an associate professor of English at Utah State University. In 2012, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for his work in literary translation. Lien was a writer, translator, scholar, and teacher who championed world literature in translation for nearly fifty years. He translated many international works of literature into Vietnamese. Gia is the dean of the Faculty of Creative Writing at the University of Culture in Hanoi. A professional journalist as well as a beloved teacher, he is a prolific author of literary reviews and nonfiction essays.

Vietnam is a strange land for most Americans. Although the American involvement in the war ended nearly half a century ago, we still seem bitter and likewise ignorant of the country. American’s learn about Vietnam from Hollywood — Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill. We see documentaries of impoverished peasants pushing bicycles loaded with supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We see a country bombed into the Stone Age. For those of us alive when the war was fought we remember gold star banners in windows. We also remember the older kids on the street going away. We remember that we were fighting communism, the Domino Theory, and trying to save a people.

What the Vietnamese remember is fighting for freedom. Ho Chi Minh was at Versailles after WWI with a petition for Vietnamese independence from France. He wanted a liberal democracy and was completely ignored. They wanted freedom from the French, then fell to the Japanese, and back to the French again after WWII. When France left the country was divided and America took up for the French. When fighting for independence a country looks for who will help and accepts that help as a lesser evil. The Soviets were willing to help.

What Wild Mustard brings about is a personal history of Vietnam by younger writers. Although it is fiction, it is meant to show present day Vietnam from the perspective of the people living there now. There is a mixture of old and new in the stories and little of it has to do with communism. There are the old traditions and the newly liberalized economy. Ancestor worship and respect for grandparents meets the want to be yuppie youth. The middle-aged are proud to own their means to make a living — like a truck to haul produce to the various markets for farmers. Or even owning land after collectivization fell creates a new sense of worth. Vietnam shows itself ready to be the next Pacific tiger. Rather than closing up like North Korea, Vietnam has opened and grown. The stories are not like the stories from Soviet authors about gulags, cabbage soups, or the secret police. There is vibrant color in Vietnam compared to the gray of the Soviet Union. That is not to say that everything is wonderful in Vietnam, but there is real hope for many. A great collection of enlightening stories by the youth of Vietnam

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Poetry Review — The Garden

It is not Winter, not the cold we fear;
It is the dreadful echo of our void,
The malice all around us, manifest;

The Garden by Vita Sackville-West
The Garden by Vita Sackville-West seems to be a smaller, earlier version of The Land with less geography. The poem was published in 1946 and falls in line with Sackville-West’s essays and writing of the time. She wrote that during the war gardening was an escape from the destruction of the war. It was creating beauty and a reminder that there were better things in the world even amidst the destruction.

Like The Land, the poem is divided into four seasons starting in winter. Each season is described in the eyes of a gardener. There are gardening tips gently mixed into the description of the seasons as well as almost a spiritual feeling for each season. The structure is a mix of non-rhyming poetry with random rhyme schemes added for effect. Even when the rhymes are in couplet form, they do not seem forced and help pull the reader into the rhythm of the season. The poem creates smooth transitions into each season much like nature, there are no abrupt changes:

But winter passes. March is not yet done
Before the solace of a warmer sun
Strokes on our hands and takes us by surprise
With a forgotten touch on naked skin.

and summer moves into fall:

The medlar and the quince’s globe of gold.
How rich and fat those yellow fruits do hang!
They were light blossom once, a light-foot girl,
All cream and muslin once, now turned to age
Mellow with fine experience.

Although the poem centers on the near Sackville-West includes her thoughts on the nativity in the winter section. The Garden is a well thought out and executed poem and one that manages to live beyond the period of post-war Britain. It may be the today’s wars, road rage, crumbling infrastructure, workplace stress, and other modern facts of life still need something like The Garden to remind us of better things.

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Book Review — Twelve Days in Persia: Across the Mountains with the Bakhtiari Tribe

Twelve Days in Persia by Vita Sackville-West

Twelve Days in Persia: Across the Mountains with the Bakhtiari Tribe by Vita Sackville-West is an account of her though present day Iran. Sackville-West is perhaps one of the most interesting English writers of her time. She lived many different lives and lived them well. She was a writer of fiction, essays, travel, and poetry. She also ran off with her female lovers at times. Later she became a renowned gardener. I see her living her life like an early rock star.

Much of Sackville-Wests writing is hard to find. My copy of this book contains no title page or publisher information. It is like someone printed out the pdf file and put it in a paperback binding. I have found some of her older books, some first editions, through European booksellers. Project Gutenberburg Canada ( has also digitized some of her harder to find work.

Sackville-West wrote of her journey to Tehran to meet her husband who was serving in the foreign ministry. This book is her second account of Persia that was carried out on foot and mule of very rough terrain. Today one would not give a second thought to a woman making such a journey if the present political situation in Iran allowed it. But, this was the mid-1920s and “uncivilized” still had meaning in remote areas of the world. Furthermore, Sackville-West was Lady Nicholson. One would not expect a woman with a title to be roughing it in a land where armed escorts were needed and mingling with the local people. She in her adventures and writing was someone who clearly made being female extraneous. She was an equal. Someone reading this book without knowing the author would probably assume it was written by a male. In fact, in her previous book Passage to Teheran, it is not until the last page that she reveals that the writer is female.

Twelve Days gives an interesting account of leaving Teheran and exploring the wilderness of South-West Iran. Where the(poor) roads end and the mule train begins is the heart of the adventure. The sights and the dealings with the locals and tribal leaders are described in detail. Sackville-West had a keen eye and much of what she recorded will show up in later writings of fiction and in here poem The Land. Her writing is more than a travel diary. She connects with the people and the land to make it an enjoyable read rather than a report or journal entry. Throughout her life, Vita Sackville-West sought adventure and challenged the restrictions of society. Twelve Days is not only an account of Persia but of the writer herself.

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