Monthly Archives: April 2020

Poetry Review — The Leaves of Grass

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

Dover publications rewards the reader with the works of one of America’s greatest poets. Before the poetry, this edition provides a detailed introduction to Whitman’s writing and thinking. Walt Whitman’s view is all-encompassing from the joining of body and soul to religion. His poetry drifts into philosophy. His views of American society are compared and contrasted with Thoreau, and his Whitman’s vision of America is compared with Tocqueville’s writing of American democracy. Whitman writes of the America that is, which is not always the America America thinks it is.  

He writes with a rhythm that captures the reader and makes him or her part of the poem. The reader is caught in the drift of words and phrases and pulled into another world. He or she is standing next to Whitman and observing what he sees. It is about as close to magical as one can get reading literature. The Leaves of Grass is everything Whitman saw and believed recorded as a poem to be passed on. He knew that he would die, and he calls on the reader to discuss and criticize the poem and to become a co-creator to add to what he was written, much like he has edited and revised the poem throughout his life. The goal is to keep the poem alive as one would believe a soul lives on after death.

Like all Dover Publications, this is a quality product at a value price. Another very well done book by Dover.

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Book Review — Aircraft of World War I 1914–1918: The Essential Aircraft Identification Guide

Aircraft of World War I 1914–1918: The Essential Aircraft Identification Guide by Jack Herris is an extensive collection of some of the Great War’s most used lanes. Herris is a former US Navy aviator with a degree in aeronautical engineering and noted aviation historian specializing in World War I aircraft. He regularly contributes to Over the Front, the journal of the League of World War I Aviation Historians, as well as other publications.

World War one was perhaps one of the most gruesome wars in that the military did not comprehend or adapt to the new technologies. The machine gun annihilated advancing infantry in unbelievable numbers. The calvary was devastated in the same manner. Trenches were used to hold positions and became a living hell of rats and death. But above the trenches, there was a new type of warfare that became glorified. The airplane was also new to war.  

The rickety machines that flew over the trenches had their own dangers and a separate hell that many did not realize. Initially used for reconnaissance, the planes were slow, clumsy, and unarmed. They then evolved counter reconnaissance planes and moved from hand weapons and bags of bricks to mounted and synchronized machine guns. The aircraft changed as the war continued.  

Herris provides a pictorial history of that evolution. From the early pusher planes to massive bombers are chronicled along with the famous fighters of the war. What Herris also does is give the reader a specification sheet for each aircraft. Although not a detailed history, these specifications show a clear path of development. Furthermore, the illustrations are also reminiscent of military identification cards. The aircraft’s markings and colors identify not only nationality but also the units flying the plane. The full-color illustrations throughout the book make this a welcome addition to anyone interested in World War I or military aviation. Very well done. 

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Book Review — A Month in Siena

A Month In Siena - By Hisham Matar (Hardcover) : Target

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar is a Libyan man’s visit to Siena. Matar is an American born British-Libyan writer. His memoir of the search for his father, The Return, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and the 2017 PEN America Jean Stein Book Award. His debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Siena is a city with a medieval cityscape and the art to compliment it. Matar is drawn to the town for the art, and he goes alone with little knowledge of the Italian language. He concentrates on a dozen paintings (two are in New York but by Sienese painters) and ties personal feelings and general philosophy to what he sees. One may find it odd that a man of Muslim heritage would have a love affair with art that is very much in the center of Christendom. But, David does fall into both religions, and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government can apply to all humankind. There seems to be a cross-cultural exploration. He examines the paintings in detail and comments and expands on what he sees. 

This book may be part of his personal healing. His father, an outspoken opponent of the Gaddafi regime, was kidnapped in Cario and never found despite his searches. This can best be seen in the visit he made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo’s Paradise. It is a painting showing the reunion of people in heaven. He expands on this with a quote from Heloise who is reunited in the art with Abelard:

“If the portraits of our absent friends are pleasant to us, which renew our memory of them and relieve our regret for their absence by a false and empty consolation, how much more pleasant are letters which bring us the written characters of the absent friend.”

The themes of good and bad government, tyrants, and reunion weigh heavily in the author’s life. It is a book about Siena and the Siena school of artists but it also a book about loss and promise. 


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Book Review — Uranus

Uranus, by Ben Bova, is a science fiction novel set on a space station orbiting the planet Uranus. Bova not only writes about the future; he has helped to create it. The author of more than 130 futuristic novels and nonfiction books, he has been involved in science and high technology since the very beginnings of the space program. He has also been an award-winning editor and an executive in the aerospace industry.

I was impressed a few years ago reading Moonrise and Moonwar. I liked the realism of the writing and how the story and characters meshed. Uranus, however, is different. It started with a few excellent themes. First, was the space station orbiting Uranus led by Kyle Umber, a very idealistic, but open-minded religious leader. His goal is to save the poor and undesirables by cleaning them up and taking them to the space station Haven. There, removed from the vices of earth, the new settlers would have a clean start free from earthly temptations. His project is financed by Evan Waxman, who has his own agenda. The other main characters are Raven Marchesi, a former prostitute from Italy, and Tomas Gomez and astronomer. Gomez makes an extraordinary discovery on Uranus, which should drive the novel using the space station as a source of characters and setting. However, the story gets tied up in too many small items on the space station as well as more significant issues that compete for the central role in the book.

Although most of the smaller stories are possible, they evolve too quickly and seem forced or too simplistic. There are key themes like drugs, corruption, and individuality that could have been almost complete stories in themselves. Instead, they are half developed and wedged into place. The Uranus discovery could have been an entire novel in itself, but it is so interrupted that it seems to be missing a great deal of complexity. The lack of detail could be why the book read so fast. I read three-quarters of it in one sitting. Although there is much that could be liked about the book, I felt that I was reading a young adult novel. There was a lot of surface area but little depth in the book. I was hoping for much more.

Publication date July 21, 2020

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Book Review — Cult Musicians

Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know by Robert Dimery is a wide-ranging look at musicians who are or were a bit outside the mainstream in their time.  Dimery is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in popular music and has worked for a variety of magazines, including London Time Out and Vogue.

I guess we all lock into a certain range of music in our youth and despite promises of not stagnating in one era like our parents, we do just that.  High school was the era of Van Halen, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin for my clique of friends.  I still listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd on occasion but lost most interest in Van Halen (and for the record, never liked Van Hagar).  It is not so much what you listened to with your friends but what you listened to when your friends weren’t around.  Artists like Patti Smith played a role in something contrary to the mainstream. A type of music that was very different but intriguing and still years later I still see her in concert when she comes to town.  Seeing the Plasmatics on Tom Snyder’s Late Show or hearing the overnight DJ playing Lydia Lunch was a major musical event in my youth.   Dimery gives the reader fifty artists, Smith and Lunch included, from a wide range of musical backgrounds from rock to spiritual and funk to country that show we all follow some version of cult music.

I certainly will admit that Frank Zappa was a cult musician,  but PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop seem like a bit of a stretch to me until I considered what they broke away from and created as a new normal. Although a fairly short book, Cult Musicians will no doubt have a favorite musician, a few you heard of or liked in passing, and many that are new to you.  For some it’s a nice trip back into the age of radio before MTV and YouTube for others it is MTV, YouTube, and your favorite streaming service.  These are the artist that changed music or at least gave it their best try; some successful and others not.  And for some it was just making art:

If you’re doing it for the money, you’re not doing art. You’re doing commerce.

Lydia Lunch



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Book Review — Coffee

Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.

Gertrude Stein

Coffee by Dinah Lenney is the latest in the Bloomsbury Academic series of Object Lessons.  Lenney is a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and the author or editor of five books, including The Object Parade.

This edition of the series is almost entirely a personal account of the author’s relationship with coffee and coffee relationships.  The beginning seemed to flow a bit like stream of consciousness but gained a more normal voice as it continued. As a whole, the book is composed of a collection of ideas and thoughts.  Most people can relate quite a few events in their lives to coffee and the quality of the coffee.  I remember the percolator, the cup I’d grab on the way to high school from a coffee shop, the terrible coffee I had in the Marines, and even a few times of pouring the small packet of instant coffee from C-rations in my mouth and washing it down with canteen water.  Coffee was a cheap and warming drink. That was in the days of Maxwell House and Folgers being considered “good” coffee, and no one drank espresso or knew what a French Press was.

Lenney contributes her experiences with the drink and presents some thoughts and ideas like why Americans have so many coffee types, and in France, it is basically cafe creme.  I did learn about the name of the weirdest coffee I heard of growing up Chock Full o’ Nuts.  It turns out the name had nothing to do with the coffee, but a sandwich.  If one sits down and thinks about it, many events in life can be traced back to coffee.  Today with specialty coffees, coffee equipment, and the popularity of coffee shops like Starbucks where one can hang out or be creative all afternoon or evening, coffee may gain an even stronger relationship to events in our lives.


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Book Review — Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator

Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator by Jung H. Pak is a history of North Korea to include the current regime of Kim Jong Un.  Pak has held senior positions at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She is a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, where she focuses on the national security challenges facing the United States and East Asia.

For readers who have tried to stay up to date on North Korea and its leadership, it is discouraging that each new book repeats the same information.  It is the same handful of interviews from people who have escaped to South Korea.  Even book of personal accounts repeat these same stories to help fill the pages.  Even those who have lived there are so compartmentalized that their view is limited.  Western visitors see an idealized view of the country even though obviously fake.  Reports of executed officials are later retracted as they appear in public.  Executions by dogs make headlines, but later are unsupported.  Execution by mortars and anti-aircraft guns, however, may be true.  It is difficult to determine what is real and what is propaganda in a very closed society.

Serious crimes in North Korea punished by the three generation rule.  Essentially if someone is convicted of a serious crime he will pay for the crime along with his children and grand children.  Likewise, anyone wanting to read the latest on North Korea will also have to endure the three generation rule.  To learn about Kim Jung Un, one must also read about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il.  This helps with setting up the conditions of the country but also helps fill the pages.  Pak’s book also follows this trend but does shed a little new light on Kim Jong -un  and his methods of rule and the former rising star of North Korea Kim Yo-jong, a woman holding extraordinary power in the regime.

Pak’s insight and experience adds much to the otherwise previous information.  New information however remains sparse.  Even with North Korea keeping itself in the headlines, little is known about the country.  The problem with North Korea is much like the parable of the five blind men and the elephant.  Each man touches part of the elephant — the trunk for one, the tail for another and so forth. Each of the five men has a partial picture of the elephant and it is not until they all come together that a clear picture emerges.  For North Korea, we have visitors who present one picture, defectors another picture, satellite imagery an other, analysts, like Pak, provide another picture.  Still we are missing many key pieces to form the full picture.  Although Becoming Kim Jong Un is the most up to date and arguably the most accurate picture of the country we have, much is still missing.  Still, Pak’s work is a large step forward in understanding and putting the pieces we have together.





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Graphic Novel Review — Night Witches

Night Witches by Garth Ennis is the fictional story of Soviet pilot Anna Kharkova.  The graphic novel is penciled by Russ Braun; colored by Tony Avina; Lettered by Simon Bowland.

The storyline traces the life of Anna Kharkova, a fictional Soviet hero who was one of the first Soviet female pilots in World War II. Kharkova faces many challenges, from harassment to inadequate equipment. Her first plane was a Polikarpov Po-2, a biplane introduced in 1927, and went up against German anti-aircraft as well as threats from Messerschmitt Bf 109. War and politics play a significant role in Kharkova’s life, and at times it is difficult to determine the greater threat– the Germans or the party officials. The reader will follow Kharkova’s life after the Great Patriotic War and into the Cold War.

Not intending to be a strict history, the story covers the personal aspects of war and life under the Soviet system. It does seem to downplay the absolute hatred and atrocities committed on both sides in the particularly vicious Eastern Front. The characters are also torn between the corrupt system and a sense of love for the Motherland. The book is beautifully illustrated, and the storyline will draw the reader in. A very well done piece of historical fiction.



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Book Review — Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade is a history of Mecklenburgh Square through women writers who lived there in the early twentieth century. Wade has written for publications including the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the New  Statesman, and Prospect. She is editor of The White Review and a winner of the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. 

Five women writers at different times in the early years of the twentieth century lived at Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury. Perhaps the most famous of the residents was Virginia Woolf. Although I have read Woolf’s letters and diaries from the period, it was interesting to see that information in the context of the time and place. Other writers include H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), the poet, and colleague of Ezra Pound. Mecklenburgh resident Dorothy L. Sayers was a famous and still popular for her detective novelist. Eileen Power was a writer of a different sort. She was appointed to the Chair of Economic History at the London School of Economics and was a medieval historian. Lastly, Jane Harrison was one of the founders of the modern study of Greek mythology.

All five women were accomplished in their fields, and received some notoriety in their time; Most have gained celebrity as the century progressed. They were not only trailblazers in their fields but also radicals in their personal lives. Creativity and the androgynous mind is a theme in the series along with lifestyles outside the norm. Although not flamboyant, these women broke out of the mold for their time, whether in relationships, women’s rights, nontraditional roles, literary style, or even thoughts on war. Square Haunting is the discovery of women who fought to change education and the role of women in England. Woolf sums up women’s feelings during the early twentieth century. “…since women have historically had little, if any, stake in their country — deprived of education, employment, and political influence — the forced of patriotism which spur men to fight mean little to women.” Women here saw the struggle as a world problem, not a national one. The idea of nationalism, especially in that era, was a cause of war and restrictions of which Woolf would say, “As a woman my country is the whole world.”

Wade presents a well-documented history and partial biography of the five women. Using their lives at Mecklenburgh Square as a limiting factor, she manages to create snapshots of a time and place in British history and the role of women who challenged the status quo. 

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