Monthly Archives: July 2017

Book Review — A Short Life of Pushkin

A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler is a short biography of Pushkin. Chandler is a British poet and translator. He is the editor of Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida and the author of Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin is perhaps Russia’s greatest writer. In his short life, he managed to leave a mark on all areas Rissian literature producing poetry, plays, novels, and short stories. Pushkin was a rebel with ties to the Decemberists, yet no matter how much trouble he caused he always managed to find a way out. He saved his life many times but was not able to to get out of financial debt. He wrote Russia’s most famous love poem about a woman who rejected him. He was exiled and returned to become a member of the court not only for his fame but also his flirtatious wife had an effect on the court. It was rumors about his wife that lead Pushkin to the fatal duel ending his life at the age of 37.

What makes this biography particularly interesting is its size.  At just over one hundred pages, it serves the reader better than most short introduction at the beginnings of books.  It also condenses Pushkin’s life to the most important parts of his life and his literature for those not wanting a several page account of the details of the man’s life. The writing is straightforward and easy to follow as well as informative.  A Short Life of Pushkin captures the excitement of the poet’s extraordinary life without sensationalizing events.  The reader will experience the high and low points of Russia’s greatest writer. An excellent short biography.

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Book Review — Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene

Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton is a complex discussion of the coming, or already arrived, Anthropocene Era. Hamilton is an Australian public intellectual and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) and the Vice-Chancellor’s Chair in Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University. He is a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government, and is the Founder and former Executive Director of The Australia Institute.

This isn’t a book warning about climate change. It seems more like the scolding a child receives after doing something wrong. You understand that what you did was wrong and that there is no way to fix it. The scolding seems to go on forever and the same things are repeated over and over again. This is a scolding to mankind.

The Anthropocene Epoch is here. The Holocene is over. The Anthropocene contains the root Anthrop meaning relating to humans or human actions. There is an argument of when this epoch began. Some proposals are the beginning of humans or the beginning of human impact on the earth (Industrial Revolution) or when man knew what he was doing to the earth and accelerated his influence (the 1990s).

This tends to be a very philosophical book rather than a science book. Different views are given and explained and sometimes leads to confusion whether these are a part of the author’s thesis or if he is arguing against it. Some are obvious like those welcoming the new epoch as a fresh beginning. There are even Evangelical Christians who are taking cruises to Antartica hoping to see the becoming of the new Eden. There are those who also think that we can return to the safety of the Holocene if we work at it or develop new technology. Still others like Reagan’s former Interior Secretary James Watt believed that the Natural Resources should be used because the Lord was due back soon and they won’t be needed after that. Other Christians argue what is meant by taking dominion over the earth — plunder or stewardship.

Hamilton brings philosophy into the mix citing Marx, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Kant are all used to examine man’s actions.  Technological industrialization is given the lion’s share of the blame.  Even as the West cleans up its act to prevent destruction, the destruction continues.  The West now blames China and other countries for damaging the earth system.  That blame comes right back as China manufactures goods for the West.  It is still the same planet.  Moving industry from one spot to another does not make it disappear.

All in all, Defiant Earth is a difficult read.  It is much more an academic level text than a general public reading.  It does feel like a lecture like I mentioned before and certain items, phrases, and themes seem to repeat to the point I was not sure my Kindle was actually saving my place in the book.  “You knew you were wrong since the 1990s yet chose to keep destroying the earth and destroying it at an accelerated rate.”  Perhaps this is the shock we need, or more precisely the realization that we need.

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Book Review — Shopping Mall

Shopping Mall by Mathew Newton is a personal history of what was one of America’s centers of popular consumerism.  Newton is Associate Editor at the Carnegie Museum of Art, USA. He has written for, among others, The Oxford American, Esquire, The Atlantic, Forbes, The Rumpus, Guernica, and Spin.

Malls were the center of so much American culture in the 1980s and 1990s. That may seem like an odd thing to say, but the mall came to represent something to American youth in that period.  American movies included malls from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the horror movie Chopping Mall and The Blues Brothers to Jackie Brown.  The mall was a place to hang out as well as shop.  In the late 1990s, I went with friends to the mall, we never bought anything material, but it was a place where many kids hung out on Friday or Saturday nights.  When I was stationed in California I made it a point to visit the Galeria — the mecca of Valley Girls and Mohawk punk rockers as well as the setting for several teen movies of the period.  Later I went to the Mall of America in Minnesota.  My visits were not for shopping,  but more for visiting the “landmarks.”

Newton starts with a visit to one of the oldest malls in the US, the Southdale Mall in Minnesota.  He was trying to capture a little bit of the magic from his youth.  By now, though, malls have been emptying out and closing down.  His pilgrimage came empty.  Newton goes on to explain growing up and the role the mall played in his life and his families.  The malls had everything, imagine a physical  There were even two floor Barnes and Nobles that dwarfed Daltons and other book sellers.  There was something for everyone from department stores to specialty stores including head shops.  Newton’s mother even worked at one of the anchor stores.

For those who grew up around the mall culture or were simply annoyed by it.  The malls original intent of being a social place for the community with open air meeting areas, fountains, and coy ponds.  In more modern times, they drifted away from the community and became centers that fed the conspicuous consumption that was the 1980s and some of the 1990s.   They did offer some community for school choirs to sing Christmas carols or meeting places for clubs and organizations.  Teen singer Tiffany ran a series of mall tours, spreading her music as well as bringing money into the malls.

Shopping Mall is a history of an American institution as well as the author’s personal experience growing up in the mall culture.  Today malls are closing faster than ever. Stores that were anchor stores have gone away (The May Co. and Montgomery Ward) and others are fading fast (Macy’s, Sears, JC Penny’s).  Newton tells of the rise and fall of the mall as an American icon.  It’s not that Americans have quit shopping or meeting up; it’s that is done online now.  A good history with added nostalgia.



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Book Review — Earth (Object Lessons)

Earth (Object Lessons) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lindy Elkins – Tanton is a discussion of the planet we live on. Cohen is Professor of English and Director of GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, USA. He is the author or editor of 11 books, including Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. Elkins-Tanton earned her B.S. in Geology, M.S. in geochemistry, and Ph.D. in geology, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was a professor at MIT and she was recruited to the directorship position at Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Her appointment as Director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Science took effect on July 1, 2014.

Bloomsbury Academic presents an interesting twist in their presentation of the earth in the object lesson series. In this series, an English (Ph.D.) medievalist and a geologist discuss earth through letters, meetings, Skype, and email. In another twist, the two people had not previously met and in what may be a surprise to some the woman is the scientist and the man the English professor. What evolves through the correspondence is a unique mix of science and the humanities as they merge with the human element.

The conversations tend to compliment each person’s field. The science is detailed enough for a general discussion and the humanities add to the physical and emotional experience of the observable earth. There are exchanges of ideas in explanations of science, history, and folklore.  The two professors develop a friendship that grows throughout the exchanges.  The famous photograph, The Blue Marble, from the Apollo 17 mission, is mention more than a few times. It is reminiscent of astronauts impressions of earth from space– no national borders and a fragile oasis. To the nonscientists, there is a beauty captured in the image and a feeling of awe.

Image result for blue marble photo

Perhaps the point of this object lesson is that we all share this earth and we are all different but we share common experiences.   There are points of interest to both science-minded and the art-minded. Something to learn for everyone and a reminder for all.  It is a book as much about earth as it is of human understanding of the plant both through science and art.  A nice experiment in writing and presenting information.


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Book Review — Veil

Veil by Rafia Zakaria is a study of one of the more controversial cross-cultural issues of the day. Zakaria is an attorney and political philosopher. She is a regular columnist for Al Jazeera America and Dawn Pakistan and has written for many publications around the world including The Hindu, The Calcutta Stateman, China Daily The Korea Herald and Le Monde. She is the first Muslim American woman to serve on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA for two consecutive terms.

The object lessons presented by Bloomsbury Academic are usually mundane and ordinary item we see in our daily life like bread, golf balls, hair, and phone booths. This edition contains a more controversial issue of the veil and its connection with repression. Countries have tried to ban the wearing of a veil or niqab — the full head covering. It is a mixed subject and speaks to both repression and religious freedom. Just because some people in the West see it as a repressive symbol does not mean that the women who wear the veil see it that way.

I grew up in an ethnic Polish neighborhood and headscarves or “babushkas” were worn by many women outside of the house and especially in church.  Historically, through the Renessiance, European women wore head coverings out of modesty.   Even in the traditional marriage ceremony, the bride wears a veil that only the groom can remove.  In religious texts, the veil is brought up:

“For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.”

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers…

The first quote defining the covering of a woman’s hair is from 1 Corinthians.  The second is from the Koran.  While Paul tells women to cover their heads, the Koran simply states they must guard their modesty.  What it boils down to is interpretation and in many Muslim countries where women do not have a voice, the interpretation comes down to men’s interpretations.  Telling a Muslim woman residing in a Western country that she cannot wear a head scarf contradicts one of the key Western aspect of freedom of religion. Banning it merely reinforces others to wear it.

Zakaria does present some Western concerns, not so much for a head scarf but for the niqab.  Security and identification in travel present one issue.  We are a culture that focuses on the face — “Look at me when I am talking to you.”, selfies, portraits, and Skype.  We identify by face.  In a lesser degree, the same was said about wearing a hoody — you have something to hide, you are a thug,  you are up to no good.  Zakaria also presents some interesting court cases on the matter of the veil and how it is used and possibly abused.

Veil is different from other object studies because it is controversial and not really something we take for granted.  Dust, eggs, and cigarette lighters of previous object studies do not touch on deeply held beliefs or fears.  This is one that will create some controversy in what was until now a level and secular series.  Like it or hate it, it will give the reader something to think about.





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Book Review — Personal Stereo

Whatever happened
To Tuesday and so slow
Going down to the old mine with a
Transistor radio

“Brown Eyed Girl”, Van Morrison

Personal Stereo

Personal Stereo by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a study of what is now one of the most common devices seen in society. Tuhus-Dubrow is a Contributing Editor at Dissent. She was previously a contributing writer for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section, a columnist for the urban affairs website Next City, and a Journalism and Media Fellow at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Bloomsbury Academic Press has released a growing series of object lessons over the last few years. These are ordinary items that usually don’t get a second thought. My introduction to the series was Hood a book covering hoods from executioners to hoodies. In this edition, the book took me back to my discovery of music. I remember listening to music, football, and AM music on a transistor radio with a single ear bud. The mono earphone jack allowed the listener keep one ear on the music and the other on the world around them.

The Walkman brought a change.  It was stereo and it let the listener chose what he or she listened to.  Long before Napster and Pirate Bay people pirated music by copying vinyl records to cassette and trading with friends.  This later evolved into the 80s mixed tapes which were given to special friends.  Cassette tapes were the MP3s, or rather the removable storage of the day; stereos even had a side by side cassette players to copy music from one tape to another. Music became personal and portable.  The Walkman offered another layer of personalization.  You could listen to your music anywhere without disturbing others around you.  Stereo headphones completed your privacy as you could block out the world around you with tinny sounding headphone speakers covered in a removable foam sock set over your ear.

Today, this is all too common with iPods and now with phones taking the place of the Walkman. Just glance around a commuter train or a bus and see how many people have earbuds in their ears. Previously,  when trapped in a window seat a simple “Excuse me” was enough to signal to the person in the aisle seat that it was your stop.  Today usually a tap on the shoulder is needed to bring that person back into the world.

Personal Stereo is the history of a device that had no original market (a cassette player that did not record) yet caught on and changed the way we listen to music.  The original Sony Walkman was a hefty 14 ounces (compared to 1.1 ounces of an iPod Nano) but was so portable people used them when running.  Today, nearly a pound of extra weight would be scoffed at by most runners.  Sony wasn’t alone with its portable cassette player. Soon there were many knockoffs on the market but none better than the original.  Walkman, like Xerox, was a product name that entered our vocabulary not only as an original but also as any comparable item.  Your photocopy was called a Xerox no matter whose machine made it.  Any personal portable stereo was called a “Walkman.”

Sony wasn’t alone with its portable cassette player. Soon there were many knockoffs on the market but none better than the original.  Walkman, like Xerox, was a product name that entered our vocabulary not only as an original but also as any comparable item.  Your photocopy was called a Xerox no matter whose machine made it.  Any personal portable stereo was called a “Walkman.”

Tuhus-Dubrow takes the reader through the rise and fall of Sony and the era of cassette tapes.  A nice contemporary cultural history of something that has become solidly entrenched in our culture.  As I am typing this I am listening to Karla Bonoff on my iPhone through Bluetooth headphones.  The same artist I would have been listening to doing this at a typewriter with a Walkman thirty-five years ago.  Times change, but Personal Stereo shows us that behavior only evolves.


Available September 7, 2017

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Poetry Review — Thaw: Poems

Thaw: Poems by Chelsea Dingman is the poet’s first published collection. Dingman teaches at the University of South Florida. She is originally from British Columbia, Canada. Dingman has lived in four countries and countless cities in North America. She currently resides in Tampa, Florida with her husband and two small children.

Dingman’s collection of poetry centers on the poet’s relationship as a mother and daughter. With that being said, most of the poetry was outside of my male range of interest being neither mother or daughter nor even a having a daughter. Despite the subject matter, I saw something amazing in the writing. Although appearing as neatly formed lines and stanzas, Dingman manages to work line breaks and stanzas in a creative manner. Several times, I saw a stanza end with a word, or perhaps a phrase, that seemed to end the line. Although it physically ends one line it also served as the beginning of the next. The single word performed a double duty.  It is almost reflective in nature.

…Great pines resting their heads
against the sky. The colours

at dawn, sweet chill in the summer
grass before early snows. When I return,

— “Revenant”

“The colours” seems to draw the reader back the green of the pines against the blue of the sky and at the same time taking the reader to the violet, blue, red, and yellow of dawn. She repeats that again with the next line with a morning chill, even in summer, and summer grass.

Not all the poems carry that particularly feminine theme I mentioned above. There are poems of loss and death as well as poems that reflect a connection to nature. Although not particularly my type of poetry, the writing style and use of the written form kept me reading and searching for new discoveries. This is a collection where poetic form captured and held my attention rather than the topic.

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