Monthly Archives: July 2018

Book Review — Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves

Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves by Jesse Bering is a study of suicide and with explanations and theories. Bering is an award-winning science writer specializing in evolutionary psychology and human behavior. His “Bering in Mind” column at Scientific American was a 2010 Webby Award Honoree for the Blog-Cultural category by The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Bering’s first book, The Belief Instinct (2011), was included on the American Library Association’s Top 25 Books of the Year. This was followed by a collection of his previously published essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012), and Perv (2013), a taboo-breaking work that received widespread critical acclaim and was named as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

Bering holds a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology and uses his expertise and personal experience to create a very readable and informative book on the topic of suicide. Real-world examples as well as theory lift the taboo from the subject. Humans are the only animals that commit suicide (animal “suicide” is explained in the book). When did suicide become a human action? How far back does one have to go to find the first suicide? Dawkins brings up the point of suicide in primitive man and relates it to an artificial action of society. Suicide is new and seems to be a side effect of civilization. Every animal’s primary instinct is to live to reproduce as often as possible. Colony insects offer a challenge on the basis that they will die for the colony but, there, in the case of ants the workers are essentially clones of each other and do not reproduce.

Bering does not include assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses in the book but looks at phenomena of suicide contagion, the internet, and societal shame. The methods and evolution of suicide throughout history and the differences between the sexes are covered. Suicide among the religions is briefly discussed, and interestingly the Bible says little on the subject except that several people from Saul to Judas committed suicide without much backlash. When and how did suicide become a sin is discussed as well as how religion plays a role in the act –a religious couple dies together so they can go to a better place together.

Bering provides a detailed and informative study of suicide. Having thought of taking his own life, he is in a unique position to offer opinion and insight. Suicidal is a societal and theoretical look at suicide rather than a clinical study.  Despite the subject matter, it is not a depressing read, but rather informative. One cannot help but wonder how taking man out of the wild and creating civilization might have been the genesis of suicide.

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Book Review — Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind-Bending Questions

Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind-Bending Questions by Seth Kaufman is a light look at rock music and bands. Kaufman is a recovering musician Seth Kaufman grew up overseas, in Kenya and India, the son of a foreign correspondent. He ran a popular online music store where he sold so many copies of Kenny G records he should be tried at The Hague. Kaufman’s own biography sets the tone for the book.

Well, I disagree quite a bit with Kaufman throughout the book, but his manner is not mean or without a good laugh. He opens with probably the most asked question in rock — Beatles or Stones? A lengthy discussion, with the option of it being a trick question and the real answer is Led Zeppelin, ends in — we like what we are brought up with his choice. That was when I knew I would agree with him, but having a beer was with him was definitely an option. He did put the nail in his own coffin with his Billy Joel chapter, but I did get his point.

A variety of topics are covered including air guitar and the Grateful Dead neither of which I gave much thought to throughout my life. On the subject of covers how can one not mention Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” or Elvis Costello’s cover of “Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Under “Does Rush Suck,” Laufman makes a lot of good points. On the topic of drummers is a fun list of jokes and musings.

Kaufman gives a good mixture of praise and condemnation of some of rocks biggest names. No one will walk away in 100% agreement or 100% discord. He offers enough for the reader to agree with and just enough bad to get under your skin. This is a book that the reader will love and hate and thoroughly enjoy.


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Book Review — Best Small Fictions 2018


Best Small Fictions 2018 is the fourth annual anthology of small fictions.  The series editor is Sherrie Flick. Flick is the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska Press), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume Press), and two short story collections with Autumn House Press: Whiskey, Etc. (2016) and Thank Your Lucky Stars (Fall 2018). Her nonfiction has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The guest editor is Aimee Bender. Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures(2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year.

This is the fourth collection of small fictions in the series and the first without founder Tara Masih.  I have been lucky enough to review the first three editions and honored to be asked to continue with the fourth edition.  The tradition of great small fictions continues in the 2018 edition.  Opening the collection is Kathy Fish, perhaps the godmother of small fictions. Her “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” is poem-like and assigns new collective nouns for groups of humans.  There is an “enlightenment” of librarians, and a “raft” of social workers, a “grace” of hospice workers, and her list continues.  Once the reader is locked into the feel-good nature of the work, it quickly changes in assigning new and time appropriate names the innocent of our society.  Bud Smith follows up with an almost an inverse of Animal Farm with wolves adapting to urban sprawl in story “Wolves.”

The collection provides a great variety of subjects and morals.  Audra Kerr Brown’s “The Way of the Woods” shows how we make alternative realities to hide what is truly gruesome.  Ashley Hutson’s “I Will Use This Story to Tell Another Story” follows a crowd on the shore watching a man and dog drown and what actions they each take.  A very modern and honestly cynical portrayal of what is done and what could be done, and what is done.  Steven Dunn’s “Happy Little Trees” strikes one as weird during the first read but perhaps is meant to distinguish between talent and supplies.  Eric Blix reintroduced me to triptych in his contribution for the second time this week and the second time since Catholic grade school.

Denise Tolan’s “Because You are Dead” is a touching story of the loss and remembrance. Likewise, Jessica Walker’s “Ex-Utero” describes a different kind of loss.   The series ends with Gwen E. Kirby’s “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway.”  Although a bit darkly ironic in the Cassandra story, there is one prediction of the future that makes her smile as she is being ripped away from the temple of Athena. The future of Trojan will be far different than anyone then could imagine.

The 2018 edition of Best Small Fictions lives up to the standard of the previous versions.  There is a different feeling in this edition in the number and kind of narratives presented.  There are various animals portrayed in stories and human babies too, alive and dead.  Settings from a volcano to the Trojan War all have a place in this year’s collection. Fifty-one authors present fifty-three of the best small fictions of 2018. A wide-ranging and very well written collection of this year’s best of small fiction.

Comming soon

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Book Review — Redemption

Redemption by Friedrich Gorenstein and translated by Andrew Bromfield is a novel of life after the WWII in the soviet Union. Gorenstein was born in Kiev, was a Soviet Jewish writer and screenwriter who collaborated with Andrei Tarkovsky on Solaris (1972), among other works. His father was arrested during Stalin’s purges and later shot. Unable to publish in the Soviet Union, Gorenstein emigrated to Berlin, where he lived until his death. Bromfield is an acclaimed translator of contemporary Russian writers such as Victor Pelevin and Boris Akunin. He has also translated Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

This is a book where the introduction is important to understanding the the story. Granted, many people know about the Famine in 1946, but there is more going on the book. There play on Stalin’s name and the Soviet denial or rather ignorance of the holocaust. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact commonly called the Nazi-Soviet Pact aligned the Soviets with the and their Nazi’s death camps. The Soviet government chose to ignore the reality of their actions. Also, the pact caused the Soviet Union to be caught off guard for the German invasion. The advancing Germans showed no mercy to Soviet Jews in their path.

Sashenka is not a very likable character. She is selfish and vengeful (against her mother). The war most certainly took a toll on her but she lets her vanity guide her. Her father was killed in the war and she mentions that often seemingly more for others to feel sorry for her loss. She shows no loyalty to the Soviet government but only to herself. So, it is not a story by a misguided patriot. The war is over and things are tough for everyone and now there is grisly work to be done. An interesting book that for obvious reasons was not published in the Soviet Union even after Khrushchev denounced Stalin. A well written and haunting book that reflects the feelings in Soviet Union after the war and life under Stalin’s rule.

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Book Review — On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides is the history of one of the greatest stories to come out of the Korean War. Sides is an American historian, author, and journalist. He is the author of Americana, Hellhound on His Trail, Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and other bestselling works of narrative history and literary non-fiction.

The Korean War is America’s forgotten war, and the heroics that took place in the war are often overlooked. Marines, however, do remember the events from the landing at Inchon to the evacuation at Chosin. Perhaps the Marine Corps most celebrated and most iconic leader Colonel Chesty Puller. Puller and the Marines left no man behind as they fought their way out of being surrounded at Chosin. Puller always saw the positive: “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” Temperatures were well below zero, and the Marines reported 7,338 non-battle casualties from the weather alone. The navy provided close air support and the air force dropped in supplies. If there was a time to see defeat this was it. There would be no defeat at Chosin. The Marines made an orderly withdrawal under heavy fire and against a force that vastly outnumbered them.

Sides tells the story of the forces involved at Chosin. Using the narrative form, he brings to life Marines and members of the other services and countries who fought the battle, I am not usually a fan of the narrative style in nonfiction writing, but here Sides breathes life into those who were there. Army and Marine Corps archives were used to form much of the narrative. Also used were interviews of over fifty who fought at Chosin and the personal papers of many others. On Desperate Ground puts a human voice on the battle and the war. More than just battle plans and casualty counts this book is about the people who were there.


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Book Review — Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War

Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War by Ted Glenn history of the Canadian bicycle troops. Glenn is a professor at Humber College and writes about Canadian government and military history at home and abroad. He lives and cycles in Toronto.

World War I was a significant event in Canadian history. It put Canada as a nation on the world stage. Canada was no longer just seen as a Commonwealth nation of Britain. Their soldiers proved themselves on the battlefield, and Canadian forces were not filler troops but a national army. Vimy Ridge was Canada’s Belleau Woods or Iwo Jima.

WWI was the first industrial war, and mechanization began replacing older methods of warfare. Machine guns and airplanes took to the field. The horse cavalry was no longer useful and motorized vehicles were very prone to failure. Moving troops quickly was the job of the rail system, but tracks did not always run where they were needed. Canada responded with bicycle troops. When the cavalry dismounted, it lost 25% of its firepower as some troops were required to secure the horses. Bicycles could be dropped, and all the soldiers could move on foot. Bicycle troops were weighed down with equipment; up to 90 lbs of were packed onto the bicycles. Even so, the cyclists were are to move farther and faster than other troops.

The trenches did create a problem for the cyclist troops. There was no moving to engage the enemy, but they could be moved from trench to trench and be assigned infantry and police duties that did not take away personnel from the trenches. Bicycles would seem to have a limited role in modern warfare, but the Soviets used bicycles through WWII. The Viet Cong loaded bicycles with supplies and transported them down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. The Swiss Army maintained a Bicycle regiment until 2001. Bikes are cheap, low maintenance, and extremely efficient.

Glenn captures a little-known aspect of WWI and Canadian forces in Europe. The text is well documented and contains many more pictures than one would expect. The Canadian Cyclists formed a bond during the war as many small elite forces did. A well-done history of a little known, but very proud, WWI force.

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Book Review — Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller is a history of democracy in its various forms throughout history. Miller Miller is an American writer and academic. He is known for writing about Michel Foucault, philosophy as a way of life, social movements, popular culture, intellectual history, eighteenth century to the present; radical social theory and history of political philosophy. He currently teaches at The New School.

Democracy* is a term that has been used for so long and in so many ways that it has lost its meaning. North Korea claims to be a Democratic People’s Republic. Russia is an authoritarian regime with superficial democratic fringe. Greece is the so-called cradle of democracy, but how democratic was it really? What percentage of the population were allowed to participate? Positions of authority at times were chosen by lot since elections were seen as corrupt. Even today, in America, elections are about money. LBJ was successful because of people in Congress who owed him favors. Political machines tainted American democracy.

America’s founding fathers were not in favor of democracy and looked to the Roman Republic as a source for stable government rather than Athens. The original federal government was small and did little compared to day’s government. Democratic types of government work best in small groups. In large groups mob rule and the tyranny of the majority are likely to take place. Divided government slows the actions of mob rule somewhat. Major events can still trigger rapid action. 9/11 triggered a piece of legislation called the Patriot Act. Legislators admitted not reading it before voting for it. This would not have happened without the act of terror. It created a type of “mob rule” or general will, as Rousseau would have called it, that bucked the system of government.

Miller also includes one of the maligned Western political thinkers, Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a republican and believed in representational government and more importantly, he believed in citizen militias. If the citizens had a stake in their government they would be willing to defend it. Inclusion into governing has been debated limited and expanded and limited again. White (or native) men who held land were usually given the right to vote. Sometimes military service was also a condiction. Does expanding the number of voters help or hinder the selection of a good leader. Would a larger pool of voters or a small pool of educated land-owning voters provide better results? That question still haunts the idea of democratic rule.

Leaders in France, England, and Russia are also looked at in the historic sense along with American leaders like Andrew Jackson. Our current president is a fan of Andrew Jackson and the two do have much in common.  Miller, in a well-cited work, discusses the history of democracy and its various forms in mainly in Athens, France, and the United States.  Many misconceptions and inaccuracies are cleared up as well as detailing the French revolutions.  Well written and extremely informative.


*Democracy used in its widest sense to include direct democracy and representational democracies. Likewise, small “r” republican is used to describe a supporter of a republic, representational democracy.

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Book Review — Shepherd of the Black Sheep


Here is a book I wasn’t sure that I would like. I had a stack of books to review and my weekend was running short so I took a chance with this smallish 170-page dark piece of fiction. I instantly liked Tom Hardgrave. He is hardworking and struggling to his small Vermont ranch open in a time of large mega-corporations. He and I share a respect for the older days:

“Sometimes it seemed like America’s authenticity had been replaced by shiny plastic and easily-replaced gizmos, all of it cheap and uninspired, soulless and without heart.”

At 65, I like his connection to the past. Ten-year-old kids should be outside playing and not spending all day on their phones. Tom Finds out what ten-year-old wants to do nowadays after taking custody of his ten-year-old granddaughter, Paige.

Paige is a quiet and seemingly withdrawn child. Paige has one close friend Alice. If the trauma of losing her parents were not enough for Paige, would soon experience the loss of her only friend. Paige and Alice created a world of stories in the land of Sopheria. It is a land of good and evil and perhaps akin to games or worlds like Dungeons and Dragons or a fantasy series.

Life goes on fairly normal, all things considered, until Alice is violently killed in front of Paige. There is a slow but steady implosion of the town and with it Tom Hargraves world. Suddenly, Tom Hardgrave’s world crumbles around him.

The story runs on several levels and the characters create levels or pieces in the overall picture. Age, psychology, business, and small-town life all combine and in a story that is difficult to put down. The shortness of the novel is not an indicator of the size of the story. Extremely well done and definitely worth the read.

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Book Review — A Poet’s Notebook

A Poet’s Notebook by Stewart Henderson is a collection of poetry with an explanation of what inspired the poem. Henderson is a poet, songwriter, and broadcaster. The Sunday Times described his children’s poetry as ‘essential reading’. Widely anthologized, Stewart’s verse is set for both GCSE and Key Stage in primary schools in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

First, the poetry in this collection is excellent and I wish there were more poems included in the book. Secondly, the detailed explanations were interesting and even entertaining. Henderson uses Shelley and Malcolm McLaren as a source of inspiration for a single poem. At first, it may seem like an enormous stretch, but Shelley was pretty punk rock in his time, especially when hanging out with Byron.

What I really didn’t like was the detailed explanations before the poem. An afterword would have been great or even an introduction covering the poems of the collection in much less detail. I felt a bit robbed in having the poem explained before having an opportunity to read it and form my own opinion of the poem. It felt almost like a spoiler to a book or movie.

I appreciate the poet opening his thoughts and inspirations to the reader, but it could have been done in a way that did not hamper the discovery of the poem.  Presenting the poems first and explaining the inspiration later may have been a better option.  Part of the enjoyment of reading poetry is trying to discover what the poet’s intention.  An excellent concept for a book.  The information, poems, and insights are all excellent but it could have been executed better.

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Poetry Review — Desert: Poems by David Hinton



Desert captures life and the universe in the desert landscape. To many, the desert is a lifeless void yet to others the desert is filled with wonder. The water that erodes the landscape in brief and sudden appearances goes unseen but leaves its marks everywhere. The mountains stand guard alone and appear older than time itself. There is also an emptiness that mimics the vast emptiness of space itself. The desert speaks volumes on life if one can only listen. Hinton takes his experience of the desert and puts it into words for those who have never been.

The desert represents many things to Hinton.  The mountains are ages of memory extending back millions of years. They also represent the loneliness of standing singularly in the vast desert.  The horizon extends forever.  It is a journey.

It’s a long way
from me to

you, so much
light and space. I
set out

here, nothing much
to say, mostly curious
what might
happen along
the way.

The desert provides many things to the traveler.  It provides an examination of life and contemplation on how one’s life was lived and, perhaps, a call to live life over again.  It is a place of peace where little is said and much is understood.  It is a microcosm of the entire cosmos.  We are small and it is vast beyond our comprehension; we are vulnerable to its environment.  We stand in awe of the sheer size and space of the desert.  Hinton transposes his knowledge of Chinese culture and gives it a Native American feel.  One can easily imagine standing in the Mojave. I have found myself there before in awe of the initial emptiness, then slowly seeing life, geology, and an ecosystem, something far greater than it first appears.  It almost like a child lying awake at night, staring at the heavens, and imagining the vastness of space.  One becomes absorbed into the environment and becomes a conscious part of it.

A breathtaking collection of poetry.  Hinton adds to the feeling by breaking apart the sections by several pages of almost empty space.  The pages have a thin blurry line that is not uniform.  It leaves the reading wondering if he or she is looking at a vast horizon or the edge of the universe.  A remarkable collection of poetry.  One of the best new collections I have read.


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