Monthly Archives: February 2018

Book Review — Marx and Marxism

Marx and Marxism by Gregory Claeys is a detailed study of Marxism in historical context. Claeys is Professor of the History of Political Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of books on British intellectual and political history. He gained his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, where he studied at Jesus College.

Marx is a dirty word in America. It is tied to socialism, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. Socialism is seen as stealing wealth. It is hated except for public roads, police, fire departments, the standing military, and farm subsidies (that make food cheaper than market value). Granted, public schools, welfare, libraries, and the arts are often targets. Rationalized, justified, or just ignored the goods of socialism that make the nation work are pushed aside.

Claeys does something that needed to be done for some time. He wrote a book on Marxism that puts Marx (and Engels) in historical context. Nineteenth-century capitalism in Europe was not a good thing for the vast majority of the population. Overworked, subsistence pay, child labor, terrible and dangerous working conditions, made life, for most, dreadful. Conditions were so bad that pro-slavery forces in America’s south used the English factory system and conditions to defend the humanity of slavery. Slaves were fed, housed, cared for (to some extent) and factory workers were left to starve and die. Of course, it was propaganda but propaganda with elements of truth.


Marx is put into his place in history. His intention was not a Soviet system. He did not want to care for the poor, but rather abolish poverty. His desire was to create a system where men were equal. The exploitation of the working class was real. Unskilled labor flooded into the cities for factory work. The glut of labor allowed the system to continue. Workers were not organized; they were expendable.  Marx went much farther with theories on private property and alienation.  Alienation is the removal of a person from their work.  The factory systems put people in positions were their work was not a whole.  Piecemeal work created separation from the product.  No longer did one build something completely; he built part of something in exchange for money.  He sold his time.

Marx also believed in education.  If one was a child of a cobbler, one would grow to be a cobbler.  The problem comes when there are too many cobblers and not enough tailors.  The idea that education could be used to train workers to learn multiple skills and work where needed.  Of course, Marx did believe that man would rise to the challenge and become a willing part of a community where all is shared and all contribute.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  To correct these problems various versions of Marxism evolved after his death.  Since Marx saw the industrialization of the economy the mechanism for change, he thought his theories would come to play industrialized countries, namely England.

Where Marxism took hold, however, was in peasant class societies like the Russia and China.  Hence, Marxism became Leninism and then Stalinism in Russia and Maoism in China.  Did Marx have an effect in industrialized countries?  Yes and a very big influence.  Organized labor challenged industry.  The “Spectre of Communism” brought change.  Rather than risk revolution and lose everything, industry bent.  Leisure time, safe working conditions, collective bargaining, end of child labor, limited work weeks all became a reality.  Workers enjoyed more than they ever had before.  Western Europe began adapting ideas that became Democratic Socialism.

Marx and Marxism is a very readable account of Marxism in history.  It discusses the complete theory and the evolution of the theory in easy to understand way.  Unlike the complex writings on Leninism, Marxism is fairly easy to understand without dumbing it down as it usually is in contemporary America.   All the controversy is included in this work and presented in an accurate way.  It is not a propaganda piece praising Marx but an honest examination.  Very much worth reading for anyone with an interest in history or political science.

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1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing is a detailed study of the Cold War’s most dangerous moment. Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.Taylor also writes on the history of film and television.

Almost 50% of the American population was not alive or too young to remember the Cold War. For those alive during the period, many thought it would never end, or when it did end the world would end with it. Most Americans know we came close to nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis, but for the most part, it seemed the Cold War was more political or a war where most of the dying was done by proxy states. Of course, there was the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was in the Marines in 1983 and war concerns centered more on Latin America than the Soviet Union. 1983 was perhaps the most dangerous year for mankind.

Downing begins by tracing the Cold War back to its origins and the uneasy alliance of the US and USSR during World War II. Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are used to show the Soviet mindset and policy changes leading up to the 1980s. A brief biography of Reagan is also included on the American side. The Brezhnev seemed like the career bureaucrat compared to Stalin he was stable. The gulag system was drastically reduced for the most part under Khrushchev. Brezhnev, for his part, increased and modernized the Soviet military at the expense of consumer goods. The Soviet gas pipeline to Europe would have increased hard currency but the effort was blocked by the US. At Brezhnev’s death, a new leader was selected. Andropov was selected over the favored Chernenko.

Reagan built up the US military after the embarrassment in Vietnam and the hostage rescue attempt in Iran. America was on the way to a 600 ship navy to meet the Soviet Union threat. The B-1B and MX missile system were to come online. Reagan publicized the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, and added to his warlike image in the Soviet Union. The selection of Yuri Andropov came as a shock to many. Andropov, although his personal life was unknown in the West, was the head of the KGB. That was a scary proposition for the US. He would be as anti-American as Reagan was anti-Communist.

Reagan managed to build the US military without deep paranoia. He knew that America could outspend the Soviet Union and that an arms race would destroy the Soviet Union. The perception of the leaders did not match the reality of the situation. Andropov was very paranoid as well as Soviet leadership. Soviet Embassies in the west were told to report anything that might be a hint of war planning including counting the number of lights on in buildings. The Soviets believed war, an invasion from the West was only a matter of time. There were missile scares on both sides, but cooler heads prevailed. Then there was the downing of Korean Air 007 by a Soviet fighter. Most of the American leadership believed it was intentional. The US Air Force review believed it was a case of mistaken identity but was the minority opinion by far.

Much of Korean Air 007 is still a mystery. How and why the plane was so grossly off course are unknown. Radio checks from the plane describe the flight as on course, however, it drifted into restricted Soviet airspace. Andropov repeated a fabricated story. The US insisted it was intentional. The actual events still are unknown. Star Wars put the Soviets on edge. Korean Air put the US on edge. Neither leadership wanted conflict. Paranoia grew faster on the Soviet side. The isolation from the real world of the Soviet leadership left them to paint a darker picture. Soviet Ambassadors and residents in Western embassies had a much clearer picture but had a difficult time making their leadership believe.

The crucial point came in 1983. NATO was running a War Game, Able Archer ’83, the Soviets were aware of the yearly maneuvers. Able Archer usually, as well, as in 1983 was played out as a reaction to an escalating invasion of the Soviet Union ending with the simulated nuclear attack. This year was different from other years in that the usual codes were changed, there were periods of radio silence, and participation from heads of states. Soviet intelligence saw these changes as ominous The added realism had more than the intended effect. The Soviets saw this as an actual invasion and readied its nuclear arsenal believing that a preemptive strike was underway. Soviet fighters were put on “strip alert”, seconds from launching. Andropov and other Soviet leaders were readying to authorize launch codes. November 11th the exercise ended and NATO went back to business as usual without any knowledge of the responses it caused. Reagan would later say, “I don’t see how they could believe that—but it’s something to think about.”

Think he did. Reagan slowly turned from more saber rattling and evil empire talk. His campaign in 1984 centered on “Morning in America” and not military build-ups.  He would come to work on arms reductions with the Soviets.  Andropov barely lived into 1984 and was replaced by Chernenko who lasted thirteen months.  He was replaced by Gorbachev a man both Thatcher and Reagan could work with.  The rest is history.

1983 is an interesting history with newly unclassified materials adds to the known events of the Cold War.  It adds the arms race did to leaders and how close a misunderstanding could turn to the end of the world.  Reagan was never weak on defense, but he did see what could easily happen and almost did happen.  Living under assured mutual destruction was not the way for mankind to progress. An excellent read.

Available April 24, 2018

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Poetry Review — Pardon My Heart


Pardon my Heart by Marcus Jackson is a collection of urban poetry. Jackson teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University. His previous collections are Rundown and Neighborhood Register.

From the first poem ”Bass” the poet explains his roots from ground shaking bass that penetrates my walls and continuing to street fighting. It is a rough life and one not free of danger that most of us enjoy. There is maturity that many, everywhere, do not gain in their years. ”To the Love Gods” shows thankfulness to gods that many choose to ignore or just leave to chance.

The second part of this collection deals with grow up in the blue collar world — clothing stained by machinery and factors ready to cut men down. Happy times are marred with violence. However, local fish are caught in local waters, cleaned, and served for dinner. School and young life, both good and bad, trickles into working life and a sense of responsibility. The poetry then moves to more adult issues of relationships and city life with a fitting tribute to the poet Philip Levine. The final section is dedicated to young married life. From buying a ring to his wife’s asthmatic breathing during sleep a full maturity evolves into being.

An extremely well-written collection poetry that rises from the depths of society. Many references are easily relatable, for me at least. I grew up about a hundred miles east of Jackson and our towns were quite similar. There is a refined style to Jackson’s writing that is usually not found in urban writing. Perhaps it is a tribute to the past from someone who rose above his environment. Although the writing is refined it still captures the challenges and pitfalls of urban life; it is not sanitized but rather clarified for all to see. A very well done collection and very well worth the read.

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Poetry Review — The Fix


An incredible selection of poetry that almost defies description. Vivid in both descriptions and distractions the poet takes the reader on a wild ride from the shoulder of the road to the backroom of a club. Animalistic and sometimes violent the journey continues unabated.

Sometimes the words turn simple:

A seed sleeps till you put it in the ground.

A seed is a box water opens


~ Resurrections II

Other times the words tend to run deep and the meanings blur. The is captured particularly well in ”State of a Fair” blending meanings and playing both on words and events to create a double vision branching in different directions.

Complex yet beautifully written collection of poetry certainly able to hold the the attention and admiration of the reader. A well-done collection deserving of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

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Poetry Review — High Ground Coward

High Ground Coward by Alicia Mountain is the Iowa Poetry Prize winner for 2017. Mountain is a poet and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Witness, Zone 3, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Mountain’s work was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She won an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2014 and was a 2015 Idyllwild Fellow. She received her MFA from the University of Montana in Missoula.

This collection presents aspects from the poet’s life. The landscape of Montana comes to stimulating life, especially in the winter. Spring comes but it is in conjunction with a relationship. There is a stream of consciousness in the work that seems organic and organized like a messy desk. It is all there and you know where everything is located but it is not in clearly labeled folders. The urgency of he voice adds to the natural flow of information. At times it seems a bit chaotic but never out of control. There still is a fuzziness that comes with words:

My father had no sons.
My mother sends my wife her love.
In all of this, forgiveness

assumes sin and I’m not sorry.

~ The Book is a Hungry Darkness

Much is implied but without the detail that a second person would assign to the same information. Like modernist’s stream of consciousness put the reader inside a narrative brain, Mountain removes much of the narrative and puts the reader inside her mind without a guide. The careful reader will not be lost. “Little Rectangular Earths” and “Elysian / Echo” let the reader into a mind with naked thoughts.

There is a mix of memories road trips, childhood, trains, jobs, friends, and lovers in the work take on an almost dream-like quality. The imagery is constant and vivid as in “Closing Costs” although at times fragmented as memories or images of memories often are.

This collection of poems for slow enjoyment; take your time. Images need to build and collect. Although this collection may not be for everyone, it does offer intensity that is absent from much of modern poetry.




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Book Review — (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump by Jonathan Weisman is a study of antisemitism in American both personal and general. Weisman is the congressional editor and deputy Washington editor at the New York Times, is the author of the novel No. 4 Imperial Lane. In his 25-year journalism career, he has covered the White House, national politics, and defense for the Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Baltimore Sun.

Antisemitism is probably as old as Judaism. It was institutionalized in Europe, de facto or de jure, at various times in history not to mention Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany. In America Jews are said to control the banking and entertainment industry — the bread and circuses of America. In many areas, Jews simply blended into American society. Being Jewish could be something as invisible as being a nonpracticing Catholic or a high protestant. Judaism can be about heritage, tradition, religion, or community. Like many religions, there can be an invisibility to it in public life.

The melting into American society suffered a reversal recently. The rise of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and White Supremacist that seemed to ride on the coattails of President Trump became a vocal and violent force. Attacks against synagogues have risen. Protests by the above groups have turned violent and with it, a violent left rising up to match their level. although these groups regularly praise the president and offer their voting support, it is doubtful that the President is any part of the movement, although his condemnation of it has been very weak.

Antisemitism has been in America all along but the internet and social media have brought it out and increased its voice. No longer are mimeographed fliers and underground newspapers the source of propaganda. Websites like the Daily Stormer could virtually reach everyone in the US, Europe, and most of the free world. It’s not only on the specific websites. It goes deeper. News and social sites like Twitter are a platform for attacks against individuals and groups. Weisman himself has been a victim of these attacks as well as others he documented. Personally, I had several friends leave Twitter since the campaign and election. Attacks on them had nothing to do with race but with politics. The once friendly online hang out has turned vicious for some.

Internet attacks have grown. The title of the book is in triple parentheses. These are “echo marks” because the names inside echo through history in a negative way according to hate groups. There was a Google Chrome plugin that placed triple parentheses around the names of Jewish people for identification and to make people targets for online abuse.  Even on Goodreads this book receives written reviews with good ratings that are offset by plenty of one-star ratings without explanation.  Although that does not prove anything it does lead to the idea of hate without reason. The online abuse is more than just words. There have been incidents of public releasing phones numbers and addresses too along with murders and assaults.

Weisman documents and discusses the rise in antisemitism since 2016 in America and gives a history of antisemitism in America and Europe.  In an age when general acceptance seems to be on the rise by the majority of the population.  There is a vocal and violent minority spreading hate.  This group survives and now thrives because we have grown complacent.  In the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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Book Review — The Years

The Years

The Years by Virginia Woolf is the story of the Pargiter family.   The story starts in 1880 and the family is headed by Colonel Abel Pargiter.  The colonel has seven children (Eleanor, Edward, Milly, Delia, Morris, Rose, Martin) and a sickly wife.  In Woolf’s style, some details are left out and considered not important such as the name of the Colonel’s wife.  Her death which is written in more detail than To the Lighthouse‘s Prue Ramsay’s death, which was passed along to the reader in parenthetical information, but little is known or said about her.  It is the reaction of other characters that are important in the death of the wife and mother as well as character reactions to the world around them.  Reaction is more important than action..

Woolf’s method of putting the reader in the head of the characters to listen to their thinking and to see their observations is perfected.  The book is so much than about the plot and plot development, which covers over fifty years, but the characters and their personal interactions.  The story extends to the extended Pargiter family and a few outsiders like Edward’s friends at Oxford, one who marries his sister Milly.  The housemaid, Crosby, gets her own chapter, 1918, but it is also the shortest chapter and is used to mark the end of the war.  Inside the mix of acquaintances is Nicholas Pomjalovsky a Polish homosexual who Elenor meets through her sister Maggie and her French husband Rene.

Elenor seems to be the character that binds everything together.  She is never far from the reader from start to finish.  She runs the day to day of the family while the colonel is still alive, budgeting and shopping.  Later she seems to be the thread that ties everyone together from siblings to nieces and nephews.   She never marries and remains as an anchor point to the family.  Outside the extended family little seems to happen.  Historical events like the death of Charles Parnell, King Edward,  and the end of World War I are used to mark a point in time rather than center around the event.  With the exception of bricking throwing Rose, who lands herself in jail, not much is made of politics.

Perhaps the best reason to read Woolf is her use of words and descriptions. This is the opening paragraph for the chapter 1911 :

The sun was rising. Very slowly it came up over the horizon shaking out
light. But the sky was so vast, so cloudless, that to fill it with light took time.
Very gradually the clouds turned blue; leaves on forest trees sparkled; down
below a flower shone; eyes of beasts — tigers, monkeys, birds — sparkled.
Slowly the world emerged from darkness. The sea became like the skin of an
innumerable scaled fish, glittering gold. Here in the South of France the
furrowed vineyards caught the light; the little vines turned purple and yellow;
and the sun coming through the slats of the blinds striped the white walls.

Woolf writes not a novel or a story but literature.  There is more to writing than plot alone and Woolf demonstrates this flawlessly.

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Book Review — Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia


Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia by Masha Gessen is an attempt to remember a painful part of Soviet history. Born in Russia, Masha Gessen immigrated to the United States as a teenager with her family to escape religious persecution. Since that time, she has become an international journalist who writes for both Russian-and English-language publications. She returned to Russia to work as a journalist there but left again in 2013 to avoid anti-gay legislation.  She has earned the National Book Award for nonfiction, 2017, for The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.

The book begins with the search for Raoul Wallenberg,  a Swedish prisoner, that existed in a Heisenberg state of being neither alive or dead. Soviets unconvincingly claimed he was dead. Sweden (and CIA) believed he was still alive with multiple sightings of the prisoner from Siberia to a mental hospital in Moscow. Wallenberg disappeared from Hungary after the Soviet occupation in World War II. Previously he was responsible for saving Jews from the Nazis. The search for him or more likely his remains, he would be 104 today, is still uncertain.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago brought back the concept of Soviet prison camps to the West’s memory.  Earlier Stalin’s modernization of Russia was praised by many, not knowing that the labor was forced. The gulag system grew under Stalin.  It was a tragedy committed against his own people.  Soviet citizens were convicted in courts that the legitimacy of law or justice never appeared.  This system has been effectively removed from history under Soviet leaders following Stalin and now in Russia under Putin. Gessen wants to bring back the truth and the memory.

Glasnost began in 1985 and opened some of the KGB files. Local organizations, called Memorial Societies, began forming and looking into the past trying to bring back a picture of the Gulag system that exploded under the Stalin regime. Efforts to uncover the history and extent of the prison camps were stalled with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Societies searched for bodies, execution sites, and identification. Death certificates rarely truthfully revealed the cause of death and place of death; some do indicate execution as the cause of death. Veniamin Iofe and Irina Flige of the Leningrad Memorial Society search the system and fight to gain information still closed to the public.

Stories of prisoners are included in the work. Sergei Kovaliov details his five-year imprisonment starting in 1975. The rules were excessive and impossible to follow. They were used for the most part to ensure that there was an infraction on whoever was chosen for punishment. Modern day attempts to open museums to allow people to remember the past has been difficult. Putin’s political crackdown stopped much of the progress. Much like some explained slavery in America as humane — food, clothing, shelter, and even Christianity. Currently, Russia is doing the same with its own black mark on its history. Museums show improvement in prisoner care such as the evolution of beds from planks making the environment more comfortable and humane for those serving time for crimes real or imagined.

Never Remember also contains photographs by Misha Friedman.  These pictures capture the memory of former camps and pieces of evidence that remain of the system.  This book is an attempt to emotionally connect the reader to a past that has been suppressed.  Visually and literally stunning work.



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Book Review — Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics

Atom Land: A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics by Jon Butterworth. Butterworth is a lecture in particle physics at a layman’s level. Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and a member of the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. He studied Physics at the University of Oxford, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1989 followed by a Doctor of Philosophy in particle physics in 1992. His Ph.D. research used the ZEUS particle detector to investigate R-parity violating supersymmetry at the Hadron-Electron Ring Accelerator (HERA) at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg.

Quantum physics, particle physics, and hard science for laymen have been around for some time. In the early 1980s, I read Taking the Quantum Leap by Fred Allan Wolf. I also read Feynman’s autobiographical works on his career and work. Today the there are hundreds of documentaries and books on the subject from basic physics to the so-called Holographic Principle. These are written either at a level that a high school graduate or liberal arts major can easily understand with a bit of faith in the mathematics around the theory that is not included. The math is impossibly complex for someone outside the field. Back in the 1980s, I ordered a two-book set on String theory through a catalog. I received two books of nothing but mathematical formulas and proofs far beyond my calculus lessons. There is a great effort involved in translating mathematical proofs into something that is understandable to an educated general public.

Atom Land works on three themes. First, it is about particle physics from the basics to the exotic. All the various points are made from the two-slit experiment to what makes up protons and neutrons and the forces that allow them to exist. Some time is given to explain the neutrino detectors. There is all the fascinating science that is included in other works. Great minds are also included like Dirac and Maxwell.

Second, Butterworth’s title invokes the classic novella Flatland originally written as a satire of Victorian England but remembered more so for its explanation of dimensions as a three-dimensional sphere describes a two-dimensional society. Third, Butterworth creates a map of the particle physics. There is the Isle of Leptons, Atom Land, Hadron Island, Isle of Quarks, Bosonia, and like all good old maps, there is a “Here be Dragons” section reserved for anti-matter and other dimensions. The lands all have cities that are (Isle of Lepton — Strange, Charm, Top, Bottom…) which are connected by roads and related forces and particles connected by air routes. The map is very well done and well thought out and could be a great teaching aid. I was most impressed with the map.

Atom Land for the good and potential it has seems to be geared to a high school or liberal arts level. I do have a liberal arts degree but still felt a bit patronized by the level of discussion. I have read and reviewed quite a bit in this area and even in my liberal arts degree, my electives were eaten up by science classes. This would be a great book for someone without much experience or reading on the subject or as a teaching aid/support material.  There is a great deal of information presented and presented in an easily understandable format.


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