Monthly Archives: December 2017

Book Review — Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s

Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s by George Hutchinson is the discussion of American literature in the 1940s. Hutchinson is an American scholar, Professor of English and Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture at Cornell University. He is also Director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell. From 2000 to 2012, he was the Booth Tarkington Professor of Literary Studies, at Indiana University, where he chaired the English department from 2006-2009.He graduated from Brown University with an AB in 1975. He graduated from Indiana University with an MA in 1980, and Ph.D. in English and American Studies, in 1983

American literature was booming after the Great War. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner flourished in the interwar years. American was becoming an advanced nation. Education was rising and mass marketed paperback books made reading cheap. It’s pretty easy to identify interwar authors in America and well as the Beat authors that rose in the 1950s. What happened in the 1940s is a blank to many. Certainly, World War II changed many things. WWI brought out poets in England. Americans went to the Left Bank and to England to write. There was a pride in American literature and America’s rising on the world stage in power, industry, and literature.

America faced large changes in the 1940s. Warren French would write that the 1940s were “one of the longest, unloveliest, and most ominously significant decades in human history.” It was sandwiched between Hitler’s invasion of Poland and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea and punctuated with the atomic bomb. In that same period Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks all produced major works. Three Americans won the Nobel prize for literature in the 1930s. War would interrupt the 1940s but still Faulkner an Eliot would win Nobels. The 1940s were also the golden age of American libraries. They offered free shelter, entertainment, and education to all.

The army spread books among the ranks. There wasn’t an area of combat where soldiers were not reading. Not all authors were read. Richard Wright was not included and other African American writers were left out as well as those writers whose works were considered insulting to racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was excluded because of its negative portrayal of Mormons. Reading was a necessary escape for those in combat. Many read their first books straight through while serving. This sudden interest in reading also lead to an interest in writing. The G.I. Bill allowed many to attend college and many took to writing and instead of writing to change the world the new authors thought to write about the attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible.

The rise of cheap paperbacks also brought along another form of media. The comic book entered its golden age. Superman and Batman became heroes fighting the bad guys. The bad guys in Batman were complex — Once innocent people transformed into supersociopaths through childhood trauma or social inequity. Even Two-Face was based on a Poe short story.

The 1940s was influenced by many factors outside of the war. Racial issues especially African American and Jewish were on the rise. The mass migration of African Americans to northern industrial centers was perhaps the largest migration of people over the shortest period of time in American history. Jazz changed music. Communism rose and fell; its peak membership in the US was in 1942. The world was changing and the United States found itself as the leading country, politically, economically, and militarily. It had its own internal problems and its growing pains. This can be seen in the literature of the period. Hutchinson writes an interesting cultural and literary history of one of the most important decades in American history.


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Book Review — Bloom


Bloom by Beau Taplin is advertised as a collection of one hundred and forty poems. Taplin is an internationally recognized author and social media sensation. Following a formative education at Melbourne Rudolf Steiner, Beau found some success as a songwriter before turning his passions to poetry and prose.

Poetry is a complex art of using elements of language, rhyme, meter, and alliteration, to create emotion. Poetry was once sang using the elements of language to aid in oral histories. We remember early nursery rhymes because they do rhyme. Homer’s epics use meter to help keep the story moving. John Donne among others used alliteration: One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. Not all poetry follow these examples. Prose poetry, for example, uses none of the above but creates imagery with its words. Rimbaud:

And send us, whipped through the lapping waters
and the spilled beverages, to pitch through the barking
of the mastiffs.

Today we see several authors presenting their work as poetry. Lang Leav and others certainly do have their following. Taplin like Leav started off as “internet sensations” and moved to print. Most readers of this material I see are the younger crowd. Popularity seems to be in that teen to the twenty-something group which makes sense. Editing cliches and truisms may seem like new material for the younger crowd but for older, experienced readers the words sound recycled and lack the basics of poetry:

Yes, love is all about sacrifice and
compromise, but it’s also important
to establish a limit.
You shouldn’t have to throw
your whole life away to make a
relationship work.
If you have to lose yourself to
please your partner, you’re with the
wrong person.
~ Compromise

I see advice column writing with stylized line length. I do not see poetry. I see truisms, memes, and Ann Landers. I think it’s great that more young people are reading in the age of Netflix and PlayStation. Nice advice for young readers but not poetry.

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Book Review — The Chalk Man

I am not one for current or pop fiction as most of my reviews clearly show a leaning to nonfiction and poetry. If I do pick up pop fiction, it’s for killing time rather than writing a review. I decided to pick this book by chance as something to read over the hecticness of the holidays. This book turned out to be a real surprise.

The story is told in the first person by Eddie (now Ed). He alternates between 1986 when he and his friends were twelve and 2016. His friends Fat Gav (Gavin), Metal Mickey (braces), Hoppo (David Hopkins), and Nicky. Nicky is the one female character in the group and the only one without a nickname. Her father is the local vicar which creates friction with Eddie’s parents back in 1986. Eddie’s dad does freelance and dresses in shorts and “ancient” rock band shirts like The Who and Led Zeppelin. Ed’s mother was a doctor who helped “women in trouble.” It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how friction develops between the vicar and Ed’s mother and father.

Mr. Halloway, an albino, is the outside character who is new to town. He is an English teacher who paints as a hobby. At the start of the novel, it is he and Ed who save the life of a girl Ed simply calls the Waltzer Girl. She was severely injured when a Waltzer ride fails; her leg is almost torn off and her face is destroyed. Ed and Mr. Holloway become local heroes.

Things, then, jump the Fat Gav’s birthday party where a gift, presumably from Mr. Halloway, becomes key to the story. The gift is colored chalk. The colored chalk is used by Ed and his friends to leave notes at each other’s houses on the sidewalk. They use symbols to represent different meeting places. Each kid has their own color so the writer can be identified. One mysterious set of chalk men lead the boys to the dismembered body of a girl.

In the present, Ed rents a room to Chloe, a young goth girl, who he has a bit of a crush on despite the age difference. The childhood gang has since broken up. Fat Gav now runs the family bar. Mickey is an ad executive who is not really welcomed back, especially by Fat Gav. Mickey does, however, claim he knows who killed the Waltzer Girl but doesn’t have a chance to tell the news because he drowns shortly after meeting with Ed.

The story becomes entangled into suspicions and connections that take the reader on quite a ride. As much of a thriller as a mystery, each new piece of information seems to take the reader farther from resolution instead of closer. Characters big and small all have secrets that are revealed as the plot expands. History is challenged as well as character intentions. The interconnectedness of the characters and the plot is remarkable. Chalk Man is, and the boys would say, an ace of a book and a well written and imagined story.

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Book Review — Ten Tales from Tibet: Cultivating Compassion

Ten Tales from Tibet: Cultivating Compassion by Lama Lhakpa Yeshe is a series of ten parables from the Buddhist tradition.  Lama Yeshe decided to become a monk at the age of 10 following in the footsteps of his uncle, Lama Guru Chowang.  Around the same time, his uncle started to teach him the fundamentals of the Nyingma-pa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Lama Yeshe joined the Zigar monastery in Dege, which housed around 300 monks. Lama Lhakpa Yeshe now teaches throughout the UK.  This edition is also richly illustrated with the photographs of Matthieu Ricard and introduction provided by global peace and environment campaigner, Satish Kumar

The ten parables used in the text are simple stories with a strong moral that is gently applied.  Compassion for all living things is a central point as well as looking inward for answers.  It is not really difficult, when reading the teachings of Lama Patrul Rinpoche, to see the universality of the message.  Lama Patrul Rinpoche is the actual teller of the stories.  He is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered teachers of the Dharma.  

Suffering is part of as much a part of life as joy.  It is our job as humans to decrease suffering where we can.  We must prevent violence and show compassion. That being said in the introduction we are reminded that:

Polluting oceans with plastics, cutting down rainforests and depriving the indigenous people of their livelihood, poisoning the soil with chemicals and pesticides, and emitting greenhouse gases that cause climate change are all acts of violence.

The ten parables used in this book teach gentle lessons in a language that is understood by all.  The themes are easily recognized.  The giving up one’s possessions to follow the true path and not following distractions is always good advice.  Lending aid to the less fortunate man and beast is compassion in any religion.  Many times we are caught up in our own problems and don’t see bigger problems of others.  I think Jimmy Carter made quite a bit of sense when he told fellow Christians ‘If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian values.’.   We sometimes forget what our core values no matter what the belief system we belong to and the real reason why we follow them:

So making oneself available to others at a time of need is the most altruistic and selfless act one can perform. If that act is performed merely out of duty, or because it is a profession, then it is only a job.

The stories presented offer value to those of all beliefs.  Most religions do have same core values of good and evil — Don’t steal,  Don’t kill.  Yeshe presents parables that are universal and can help all become better at what they seek:

‘The purpose of life is to help all sentient beings to be free from suffering. In order to do this, you need to cultivate unconditional, unlimited and pure compassion towards all, without any exception.’  ~  Lama Patrul Rinpoche

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Poetry Review — Wait

Wait by Ned Baeck is the poet’s first collection of poetry. Baeck lives in Vancouver. His poems have recently appeared in untethered, The Continuist and Sewer Lid. This volume will be available on March 1, 2018.

Every so often a collection of poetry comes by and hits on all cylinders. Wait is a bit of a surprise as it covers several different and personal aspects smoothly and naturally. Many poets in writing on personal topics try too hard and force words. Baeck’s words have an easy personal feeling to them. He also uses words in unexpected and unique ways:

Outside the donut shop
the rain is falling
Illuminated in an aureola
Around the street light.
~ East Vancouver Midnight

Here is the mix of the ordinary and the holy taken from the poets near homeless wanderings across Canada. Near homeless because the poet took up the life of a what would be called a hobo, traveling across western Canada.His life does change as well as his view of the world.

Life groans
in roses, parked cars
empty streets
and sadists.
Greaves shed tears of dust, starry tears
gazes through them amazed.

Will you walk with me
through the tender rains
of this city, as it lies now
although torment is slow
I don’t want to go
~ Turnstile

The imagery in “Turnstile”, at times, dark city life reminds me of a bit of a retelling of The Doors “L.A. Woman” in concept and a combing of “Touch Me.” Although many may scoff at the poetry of Morrison, Baeck captures the experience in words alone without the help of music.

Wait is a surprisingly mature collection of poems for an initial offering. Baeck captures honesty and true sight in a world of deceit and hype. A great collection or easy to read and comprehend poetry that can be enjoyed many times over.

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Book Review — Rust

Rust by Jean-Michel Rabaté is another addition to the growing Object Lesson series from Bloomsbury Academic.  Rabaté is one of the world’s foremost literary theorists. He is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. Rabaté has authored or edited more than thirty books on modernism, psychoanalysis, contemporary art, philosophy, and writers like Beckett, Pound, and Joyce.

For anyone that lives in the former industrial north, rust is simply a fact of life.  Car bodies rust through with the help of winter salting.  Rust stains concrete and leaves it mark on steel structures.  Rust is the oxidation of iron in specific but Rabaté takes it to a deeper level.  The Eiffel Tower gets painted regularly to prevent rust.  Rabaté sees more rust in America than in Europe and Japan, equally industrialized areas.  Others go through the trouble to hide rust that Americans do not.  Rust even caused the collapse of Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut in 1983.

Rust takes on other manifestations. It is a plant disease.  Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was once a coffee producing region until a rust killed off all the coffee trees.  That change Ceylon from a coffee producing nation to a tea growing nation.  I benefit I personally enjoy.  Being a primarily a literature professor, and a professor of modernist literature he includes a book by J.M. Coetzee the Life and Times of Michael K.  Here is where modernism describes rust and rustication.  A very interesting and appreciated twist.  He even includes a review of a Japanese Movie entitled Rust.  Hegel and Kafka are even brought into the lesson.

This is perhaps the most free-ranging lesson in the series.  It takes a bit of modernism and stream of consciousness to give the broad range explanation of the subject.  It is not a straightforward chemical process but covers how deeply the word has entered of vocabulary and mindset.  Rust is a disease. It is a color.  Its color describes other objects. It is in the Bible and the Koran.  Rabaté gives a comprehensive and cultural look at the idea of rust more than the chemical reactions.

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Book Review — Hellraiser: The Toll

Hellraiser: The Toll by Mark Alan Miller based on Clive Barker’s work is a continuation of the Hellraiser collection. Miller is the Vice President of Seraphim, Inc., Clive Barker’s production company. Miller is also a comic book writer, having written for Boom! Studios and Dark Horse.

By far the best horror series I have seen is Hellraiser. The characters and the storyline were much better than the slasher movies that preceded it. Nine movie releases, although a few went straight to video has kept Pinhead alive in many people’s minds. This novella falls between two other Hellraiser stories, that I have not read, but Kristy and Pinhead both play a part in the story.

This novella starts with the story of a French toy maker Philip Lemarchand who was famous in the 18th century for his singing birds and puzzle boxes. Much like others when they became too good at something, he was accused of conspiring with the devil and sentenced to Devil’s Island. He, too, of course, was the creator of the Lemarchand puzzle box. Modern times bring in Kristy who is in hiding and a mysterious message from an outside source. The story begins here with a tie-in to both Kristy and Devil’s Island.

This episode reads much like a graphic novel, which should be no surprise considering the author’s other writing. The book reads quickly and is enjoyable to those who enjoy horror. The Toll provides a short but well-written return to the land of the Cenobites and pain. Although I usually don’t read horror novels, I couldn’t resist picking up a Hellraiser novella.

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Book Review — Burger

Burger by Carol J. Adams is a look at perhaps the most American sandwich. Adams is a feminist-vegan advocate, activist, and independent scholar and the author of numerous books including her pathbreaking The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, now in a Bloomsbury Revelations edition celebrating its 25th anniversary. She is the co-editor of several important anthologies, including most recently Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth (with Lori Gruen). The Carol J. Adams Reader: Writings and Conversations 1995-2015 appeared in the fall of 2016.

I didn’t know anything about the author when I picked up this book and myself, a vegetarian, questioned why I picked it up.  Hamburgers are ground beef and something that I no longer eat, but there is something about a burger that goes back to childhood cookouts, Fourth of July barbeques, and that feeling of, for lack of a better word, America.  I have tried the many veggie burgers out there and they have gotten much better over the years, but there is something about the ideal of  burger that is missing.  It’s much like when a meat eater grabs a turkey burger bites in and something just isn’t quite the same.  

I am old enough to remember the days of a neighborhood butcher shop with a side of beef in the back and the butchers cutting meat for customers.  Adams also mentions that older people never cared for prepackaged ground beef.  One was expected to pick a piece chuck or sirloin and asked to have it ground.  I recall the same experience in the 1980s in Western Europe.  There may not have been a real reason for that back then, but today in the age of pink slime and industrial scale slaughterhouses your beef burger can have the DNA of 1,000 different cows.  That piece of beef that used to make your burger now comes from countless pieces.  

Adams covers the history of the burger as well as paying tribute to its place in America from the hamburger stand to McDonald’s to LBJ’s special burger.  Of course, there are the aspects of industrial-scale slaughter, waste holding ponds, and methane production. Alternatives are also covered as well as a history of veggie burgers and now companies involved in animal product sales are interested in them.  Tyson now owns 5% of Beyond Meat, a pea protein-based vegan meat substitute.  

Bloomsbury Academic releases this series “Object Lessons” on common items and their secret lives and histories.  Common items have more of a story to them one usually expects.  Burger is an excellent addition to a well-written series.  


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Book Review — Real Quanta: Simplifying Quantum Physics for Einstein and Bohr

Real Quanta: Simplifying Quantum Physics for Einstein and Bohr by Martijn van Calmthout is a layman’s look at quantum physics. Calmthout is the editor of exact subjects and surroundings, physicist, science expert and fancier, Einstein biographer, author of popular scientific books, host in the monthly KennisCafé in de Balie and radio presenter De Kennis van Nu (NTR).

There are many books explaining physics to layman from unknown writers to television celebrities like Michio Kaku. The basic concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics are available to all who have access to a library. This does not mean the reader will absorb all the mathematics and become an expert, but like classical physics, most people know how it works without the mathematics — action-reaction, bodies in motion…

Newtonian physics plays a role that we see in everyday life. We drop things. We feel the force of being thrown forward against seat belts during a sudden stop. We may not like the effects but we have learned to accept them. Quantum interactions take place at subatomic levels and Relativity takes place on the huge scale of the galaxies and the universe. Both do affect us since we are made of organized collections of subatomic particles and live in the universe. We just don’t experience it with our senses.

What it holds for mankind may be far greater than tunneling diodes. Computers are made of transistors but many people (younger than the transistor radio era) may not have seen a single transistor, but rather the millions put on an integrated circuit or chip. Science is at its limit of shrinking transistor sizes. Quantum physics may off the answer with quantum computing bits will no longer be a 1 or 0 they will become 1, 0, or both. Searching with a quantum computer would explore all possible answers at once instead of one at a time. Amazingly fast but it would kill credit card encryption algorithms.

Calmthout journeys through the world of quantum mechanics and relativity in a coffee shop with two guests. The old man of physics Albert Einstein and the young upstart Niels Bohr. There is a little banter between the two giants of physics but mostly it’s a bit of history and the future of physics. The cell phone plays a role in the discussion for several reasons besides computing. Secure communication and uncrackable encryption are two examples of quantum power. It’s fairly easy to tie physics to chemistry but Calmthout also ties it to biology and biological systems from migration to chloroplasts. The more that is understood about quantum mechanics the more that can be seen in our world and the more we can build upon the discoveries of the subatomic world.

Calmthout takes the reader on an exciting trip into the world of quantum mechanics. It is a place where “spooky interaction at a distance” is not so scary. It is a place that will make current microelectronics seem as clunky as an abacus. Real Quanta takes a look at the real world, its path, and possible future. Easily readable and very informative.

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Book Review — Dunbar

Dunbar is a modern retelling of Shakespear’s King Lear. It’s been quite a long time since I read Lear as an undergraduate and I wondered how much of what I remembered would affect what I read. To a casual reader, it is easy to see how Lear makes the skeleton that the book is built on.  Dunbar ruler of an empire divides his corporation between his daughters to avoid taxes and in the process, the daughter’s plot against him with the help of Dr. Bob. Dunbar finds himself medicated and trapped in a mental health facility.  His only friend is a depressed, alcoholic comedian who helps him escape.
Dunbar has three daughters.  Two daughters, Abigail and Megan, are plotting to manipulate the corporation’s leadership and standing in order to make a huge profit.  Their ally, Doctor Bob, has his own plans and entertains the reader with his self-medication and affairs with the two sisters.  They are despicable characters but with enough backstory to make them interesting.  The third daughter, Florence, is more attached to her father as a person than his riches.  She wants no part of the empire.  Florence is environmentally conscious — does not want to fly in the corporate jet, lives in Wyoming, worries about her carbon footprint.
This is a book where the evil characters seem to be more likable and definitely more interesting than the good.  Florence although only wants to do good seems boring when compared to her sisters.  Dunbar has rage issues, is power hungry, and his life had been his empire and nothing else.  There are plenty of similarities between Dunbar and King Lear to keep a Shakespear fan interested in matching plot and the characters.  For those who have not read Lear, it is a modern tycoon story that fits in well with American politics and business today.
This book was received from in exchange for a review.

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