Monthly Archives: February 2018

Book Review — Western Philosophy Made Easy: A Personal Search for Meaning

Western Philosophy Made Easy: A Personal Search for Meaning by Dennis Waite is a survey of Western thought. Waite has been a student of Advaita for over 25 years and lives in Bournemouth, England. He has authored several books on Advaita, most recently the revised edition of The Book of One, and he is a trustee of Advaita Academy, UK.

Waite is a student of Hindu philosophy and one of the classic Indian paths to spiritual realization which makes him an interesting choice to write a book on Western philosophy. Waite suggests that many people turn to philosophy when life is not going well for them. It is an attempt to find direction or redirection in one’s life. I studied political philosophy in college and graduate school so there is some crossover for me in Rousseau, Hegel, and even Plato and several missing in this work like Machiavelli. My own thoughts on philosophy are to find the why or how things are or should be than a personal direction. I tend to think there is a difference between philosophy and religion.

Waite does give a good summary of the history of philosophy and covers the major players in thought throughout European history. Although only briefly covered, Waite manages to give the high points of each philosopher. It may be a single idea or statement without much supporting material but it is done well enough for the reader to understand. The book offers a starting point for the novice and enough information for the reader to branch out on his own further reading.

What makes this book more than a survey course in philosophy is the second part of the book. This section covers Key Issues — Morality, Free Will, Belief, and Consciousness. Waite uses the previously discussed philosophers to try and find answers and meaning to key issues.  The conclusion covers happiness and what it really means.  I do find his prejudgement of the reader a bit irritating:

Since you ‘chose’ to read this book, I suggest that there is
a high probability that you are not happy! It is an undeniable
fact that the majority of people today are dissatisfied with what
they perceive as being a mediocre existence.

Perhaps most read philosophy because “an examined life is not worth living.” Some readers just want to know more, to see how man’s thinking of himself and the universe has changed.  Philosophy is a system of logical principles used to reach a conclusion  (I think, therefore, I am.). Waite seems to blur the lines between philosophy and religion is work, but that may be more of his personal philosophy.  A good primer on Western Philosophy.

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Book Review — Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography


Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich is an instructional guide to photography based on simple zen practices. Ulrich is currently co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii. He has taught for Pacific New Media, University of Hawaii Mānoa and was a Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. For fifteen years, he served as Associate Professor and Chair of the Photography Department of The Art Institute of Boston.

Early on Ulrich tells the reader that we have lost sight of the resonant language of metaphor and symbol. We are no longer creative. Poetry is dead. I review quite a bit of poetry so I will disagree with the last statement. But I do see the point. I live in the suburbs and people think it is a nice, well-maintained place to live. What do they base this on? Usually, it is driving through a neighborhood or looking on from a highway. I ride a bicycle and I see the cracks in walls and peeling paint on a suburb that is decomposing. Moving slower and observing things closer I see more. For a while I walked to work, cutting through a small park in the process. I became aware of the trees, the light, and the colors. It was something I didn’t notice before because even at bicycle speeds, I was still moving to fast. Slow down, relax, observe, become aware of your surroundings.

Ulrich says many of the things I recognized myself and adds to it. There is waiting for the right light, right day, and the right subject to appear. There is also a discovery of the photographer’s own eye. Ulrich suggests keeping a journal and taking one to two hundred pictures a day. The volume will help you discover your eye. Many of the basics of photography are covered in light detail as well as zen topics. There is more of a sharing of information rather than conforming to a dogma in his teaching. He also offers photography exercises and practices at the end of each chapter.

There were a few surprises for me in this book. First, use any camera. Even your cellphone camera is allowed. Ulrich is not a purist and pixels are just as good as silver nitrate and paper. Second digital photography allows the photographer to adjust the picture through editing. How often have we taken a picture that that looked so good to our eye but the camera recorded something much blander? Editing software allows the user to fix this without changing the nature of the photographed subject.

Zen Camera is a well written and informative guide to taking better pictures. Ulrich’s own photographs and others are used as supporting material throughout the text. Recommended for those wanting to improve their photographic eye.


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Poetry Review — Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr by Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj and translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst is a collection of 117 poems by the Persian mystic poet. Al-Hallja lived from 853 to 922 AD. He was executed for proclaiming, “I am the Truth.” The phrase was interpreted in two ways. The first as a mystic who annihilated his ego which allows God to speak through him. Others say this as a claim that he was divine. The later having the power had him executed.

The poems are translated by Carl W. Ernst who is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ernest provides both a detailed introduction, which covers more than enough ground to allow a novice to understand the poet and a very detailed section of notes, cited sources, and break down of the poems. The poems are categorized by subject allowing for an easy grouping in English. The groupings include conventional love poems, mystic love poems, martyrdom, riddles, and, perhaps the most interesting, metaphysics among other titles. Each poem is prefaced by a few sentences or more to put the poem into proper context. A lone couplet needs some background to understand its importance. Other introductions explain the cultural or religious importance of the poems.  For example:

55. Temple and Light

This poem presents an anthropology describing, first, the elemental and
material human body, then the luminous spark that is divine.
Body like a temple, luminous of heart,
        spirit that’s eternal, devout, wise,
he returns with the spirit to its lords,
        but the temple remains rotting in the dust.

The work of al-Hallja opens the world of early Islamic culture to the West.  He predates the popular Rumi by three centuries and can be used to see the evolution of Islamic culture.  The Sufi search inward for God.  They believe that in destroying one’s ego one can talk through God.  It seems to be a compliment to Buddhism in practice but not dogma. Perhaps translations of Islamic poets can help others see that Islam is a religion of peace.  Al- Hallja is an enlightened writer and poet who practiced and wrote inside of his faith.  The use of God by the poet seems to fit many religions view of God and peaceful existence. A great collection for those interested in not only poetry but culture.


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Book Review — The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment

Leary’s influence in art, culture, and politics throughout the 1960s was
wide-ranging. While President Nixon accused him of being out to corrupt
the nation’s youth into drug taking, many within the counterculture saw
him as a visionary, who presented an alternative path to human fulfillment
and harmony through consciousness expansion and the rejection
of game-playing. However, for Leary himself the close of the decade
was to see the limits of his vision decidedly challenged by the system.

The Timothy Leary Project: Inside the Great Counterculture Experiment is a biography put together by the phycologist’s notes, letters, and other documents. Jennifer Ulrich is the curator of the documents as well as editor and author of this book. Leary’s son, Zach, provides the forward.

Leary was ultimately known for the use of psychedelic drugs to increase human consciousness and experience. This work shows the transformation of a middle-class phycologist into the counterculture guru. Early correspondence is with Allen Ginsberg but is not limited to the Beat culture although it did offer a starting point for experiments and documentation. Leary conversed with others too like Carl Sagan.

Documents include “trip reports” from various volunteers. Leary turned to Albert Hofman, the first person to synthesize LSD and take it. Hofmann is also known for writing his experience of riding a bicycle while on LSD. Aldous Huxley is also a source of letters and information until his death in 1963.

Some space is given to Leary as a fugitive.  His 1965 Laredo arrest under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 lead to a conviction and a thirty-year sentence.  The Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Although Leary was free, it did lead to the creation the DEA and federal controlled substance laws under Nixon.  Leary was arrested again in California in 1970 and sent to a low-security prison.  He promptly escaped and moved to Algiers, then Switzerland.  Returning back to Switzerland from Afghanistan he was taken into custody by US agents.  Governor Brown would later pardon him in 1976.  In an interesting change of events, Leary took to personal computers as his new savior.  In fact, one of Leary’s last acts was posting a recipe for an edible marijuana bud on a Ritz cracker.

An interesting look at Leary through his personal documents.  It’s not quite a biography in a traditional sense but an examination of personal papers.  A book for the reader with knowledge of Leary’s life and work but wants to see more of the original documents.


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Book Review — Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss

Eight Stories by Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque is best known for the masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front. That book sold nine million copies in the US alone and has been translated into sixty languages. What is perhaps most remarkable about the book outside of its antiwar message is that it crossed national boundaries. Nations who soldiers fought the Germans now felt empathy for a German soldier. Remarque’s work is better known in America than the great British war poets who were our allies. The book and the movie was not popular with the rising right-wing government of Germany. Remarque moved to Switzerland in 1934 and lost his German citizenship in 1938. From there, he moved to Los Angeles and became a fixture od the social scene and often seen with Marilyn Dietrich.

These eight stories were published in Collier’s and Redbook between 1930 and 1934. The translator remains anonymous although there are ideas as to who did the translating. War is a terrible time for all involved and although peace was celebrated on November 11, 1918, the war went on for many for the rest of their lives. Remarque attempt to capture this in eight stories about German soldiers after the war. One story presents the effects of PTSD or shell shock as it was known at the time. A dramatic story that unfortunately aged well. One hundred years after World War I, we have many soldiers who still suffer from PTSD from recent conflicts. The flag waving and supporting the troops then, like now, only happens at the start of the war, not when broken bodies and minds return home. Some return home late improperly imprisoned in another country. News of their deaths arriving home many years before they do.

Memories of battles and bloodshed are remembered with the simplest pleasures. Moments away from the fighting where man appreciates the world. Moments when meeting the enemy and finding out they are the same, like us. Without weapons, the enemy is just people wanting the same things as everyone else — to return home, peace, and family. These eight stories do for the post World War I era what All Quiet on the Western Front did for war. Peace does not mean a return to normalcy. There is damage that has been done and has not healed. The land where the battles have been fought gradually heals back into farmland after it has been “mined” for buried metal. The men are not always so lucky. A powerful and timeless message for mankind as long as we continue to have war.

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Poetry Review — Atmospheric Embroidery: Poems

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander

Atmospheric Embroidery: Poems by Meena Alexander is a collection of poetry reflecting on life on three continents. The poets earliest memories are of India and childhood. Later they move to Sudan and the violence there. Other poems reflect on her final stop — New York.

The poems are written in mostly a standard and recognized format. A majority of the poems are written in open couplet form without rhymes. This adds to the meaning and imagery presented. Halting the reader, pausing and then continuing even in midthought. Fourteen lines poems also make an appearance but do not have the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, but at first glance, the reader, like I did, might think it a sonnet.

The subject matter varies with region and with time. The images of death and violence on women are particularly played out in the poems about Sudan. “Nurredin” is an exceptionally well-done example with the violence obscured through a childlike vision. “Moksha” however, leaves little to the imagination with the actions of a Delhi rape gang. Like all our memories, the poet’s grows and things are remembered, remembered partially, remembered incorrectly, but add to our consciousness. All of the poems contribute to the four line final poem “Indian Ocean Blues.” A well-written collection of culture and cultural observations as well as violence in all cultures.

Available June 15, 2018

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Book Review — The Maw

The Maw by Taylor Zajonc is an adventure novel that takes place in modern-day Africa — Tanzania to be exact. Milo Luttrell is a history professor who has a career downturn. He is likely to be out of a job because of his inability to publish outside of a personal blog. He risked his career on publishing a paper on Lord Riley DeWar that turned out to be incorrect. He has only a few friends left in academia and not much hope of a career. Milo’s head of the department tells him of a project that may keep him on for another semester. The project is a mystery. Hesitantly, Milo accepts and finds himself with a Female black British lawyer as his chauffeur. He receives no new information until he signs the nondisclosure agreements. Dale Brunsfield, a billionaire, explorer, investor wants the historian for a mission into the only super cave in Africa. Milo’s role, as a historian in the cave adventure, is to provide insight into the DeWar exposition’s disappearance in 1901. Brunsfield believes DeWar’s group was lost in the cave and Milo is there to document and provide historical insight to Dewar. Also included in the team, along with the chauffeur, is a television documentary team, and a medical doctor, who just happens to be Milo’s former girlfriend.

As entertainment this The Maw delivers. The story moves at a good pace and manages to add to the realism of a cave adventure. Milo adds history and the medical doctor adds not only medical aid but also information on disease that may still be lingering in the cave.  Needless, to say there are more complications and twists than originally expected.  The writing is well done and the story keeps the reader’s attention throughout.  Well-done and entertaining.

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Book Review — Collected Stories (Bruno Schulz)

Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz is a collection of short stories comprised of two published works and additional uncollected stories. Schulz was a Polish Jewish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher. He is regarded as one of the great Polish-language prose stylists of the 20th century. In 1938, he was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature’s prestigious Golden Laurel award.

There are two things that make this collection great. The first is the writing style. Schulz is perhaps the only readily known Polish modernist in the West. It takes only a short time before the reader is drawn into the minds of the characters. The settings gain importance over the concept of plot and are rich in imagery. The imagery is not only found in the great things but also in the mundane like fish in aspic. The characters get the same treatment:

What remained of him was a small amount of corporeal casing and that
handful of senseless eccentricities—they could disappear one day, as unnoticed
as the gray pile of trash collecting in a corner that Adela carried out
every day to the garbage bin.

The second thing that makes this collection significant is the translation work by Madeline G. Levine. Levine is Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures Emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her translations from Polish include The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories by Hanna Krall, Bread for the Departed by Bogdan Wojdowski, and four volumes of prose by Czesław Miłosz. The introduction documents the checking and rechecking by another party of the translation. The goal is to capture the essence and accuracy of the original language. The proper use of translation, even if sometimes unwieldy in English or using words that are not in common use, like hill-lock hump, adds depth and accuracy to reading and concentrates the reader’s effort and attention.

Collected Stories offers the reader a look inside of Polish fiction of the modernist period. There are many similarities in the writing to Woolf’s later poetic prose. Stream of consciousness plays out through the stories. As many of the stories take place in the past, the effects of memory play an important role in the storytelling much like in Proust. Talking to an acquaintance who was born and raised in Poland, Schulz is wonderful and read by most in high school. After reading this collection, I would definitely agree with the wonderful.

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Book Review — The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape

The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape edited Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval is a collection of mixed literature describing the city of Chicago. Johnson is an Assistant Professor and Director of African American & African Diaspora studies and holds an appointment in Gender & Sexuality Studies in the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Coval was raised in the suburbs of Chicago and educated at Ohio University, the University of Wales, and DePaul University. His brave, socially engaged poems weave together personal experience and calls to action.

Chicago was, and to many still, a city of pride, industry, and innovation. Carl Sandberg coined it the “City of Big Shoulders”. It was to the meat industry what Detroit was to the car industry. It reversed the flow of a river to wash pollution away. The city physically lifted its city blocks to improve drainage and prevent flooding. Chicago was the midwest New York City — Education, Art, publishing, sports, museums. The city had it all. In 2016 Chicago again entered the news as Candidate Trump made the murder rate a political issue to the point of wanting to send federal troops into the city.

Chiraq is a contraction of Chicago and Iraq. It signifies the violence in the city.  Early on it is pointed out that in 2008, 314 soldiers died in Iraq and 508 people were murdered in Chicago. To further add to the statistics the City of Chicago spends 40% of its operating budget on police. Chicago also has the most militarized police forces in the country yet as violent crime has fallen all over the country it is rising in Chicago.

The contributors write in factual prose, narrative prose, poetry, and in rap. Hip Hop had a revival in Chicago in the 1990s and 2000s and that is brought up by several contributors. Kayne West, Chief Keef, and King Louis are all mentioned at various times. Spike Lee’s movie Chi-Raq receives an unfavorable critique by many for what is called “Willie Horton marketing.” Spike Lee should have stuck to writing about areas he knows about. One comment read to the effect that the use of the play Lysistrata might have been fine for Greek comedy but should not be repurposed on this side of 300BC.

Writers in this collection turn to treating the cause of the problems in the city. The city and its police force attack the symptoms and at times over aggressively when gunning down unarmed men. Schools are being shuttered and mostly in poorer areas. Race is an issue in a highly segregated city. It plays its part in education and opportunity. For the vast majority, being born poor means a lifetime of poverty or alternatively crime and gangs.

The editors assemble the book as a mixed tape from the 1980s. Various prose forms are mixed with poetry and lyrics.  The mixed tape format of the book is compared to the mixed tape.  It is a collection of freedom.  It is not one album played in order.  It is a kind of democratization where the user determines content and order and not a record company.  This, of course, was in the days before streaming and shufflable playlists and perhaps a nostalgic view of what Chicago used to be — a diverse, progressive city of industry, art, education, and freedom.  A strong message from the people of a strong city.

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Poetry Review — The Elements of San Joaquin

Chester Rowell, civic leader, speaking
about farmworkers in the Fresno Republican: “The main thing about
the labor supply is to muleize it . . . The supreme qualities of the laborer
are that he shall work cheap and hard, have no union, have no ambitions
and present no human problems . . . Some sort of human mule, with the
hibernating qualities of a bear and the fastidious gastronomic tastes of
the goat, would be ideal, provided he is cheap enough.”

~ From the introduction

The Elements of San Joaquin by Gary Soto is a collection of poetry originally published in 1977. Soto, poet, essayist, and playwright, is the author of dozens of books. His New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Soto writes with simple words that carry deep personal meaning. Growing up in places like Fresno, Stockton and other places in the San Joaquin region brings a certain feeling of poverty, tradition, family, and a richness that develops from the three. Soto’s writing of life in the 1950s and 1960s is one memory of a sometimes bleak existence without bitterness. When it’s all you know it becomes the norm rather than impoverishment. Not having food and needing to hunt frogs or fish from the canal becomes an adventure with his brother. Nature seems to consist of ants and mice rather than animals most would think to remember. Working the land had a certain pride to it that meant something to those who worked the hoes. The environment no matter how harsh it seems is offset by growing up in a poisoned environment. The poison is manmade. DDT and other chemicals cover the fruit they pick and eat and it infiltrates the entire environment.

Soto’s, work updated and revised, carries the message it did in the 1970s. He was a writer and in an almost forgotten term Chicano. His work is a tribute to those who worked the land and lived in poverty to provide food for those who lived a much better life. It is a tribute to the hard work, the loss, and the moments of joy in a simple life; moments that most would not find memorable or even special.  Well constructed and well thought out poetry about those who are underappreciated in our society.


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