Category Archives: Book Review

Poetry Review — The Book of Jane

The Book of Jane by Jennifer Habel is the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner. Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition, and In the Little House, winner of the 2008 Copperdome Chapbook Prize. She is currently the Coordinator of Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati.

This collection begins with a very Dick and Jane start for those old enough to recall those readers. The lines are short; Jane is expressed in the third person. Jane is also smart, however, not as smart as her husband or father or even her brother with a lower IQ. There is a feeling of place based on gender and the role the female is forced to assume in society. Jane must lose ten pounds. Even the necklace she wants to wear is “faceted, like a concession,” The verse continues, and it grows to “The Doll in the Convent” where the lines remain simple but create a powerful rhythm demonstrating the power behind what is held back.

The cover of the book reminded me of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. The faceless portrait will later be emphasized in the closing poem. There was a small reference to Woolf’s work To the Light House in the collection which itself trigger plenty of thoughts about gender roles in society, especially Charles Tansley’s “Women can’t write, women can’t paint.” Everything I was thinking throughout the collection, Woolf and Bell included, cumulated in the final poem “Matisse’s Great Granddaughter or Jane the Long Way.”  This long poem had me searching for the paintings referenced and catching the moment when I realized what Sophie Matisse had done with her Mona Lisa and Descending Staircase.  The Book of Jane is undoubtedly an enlightening collection of poetry in the tradition of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

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Book Review — The Myth of Chinese Capitalism

 

The Myth of Chinese Capitalism by Dexter Roberts is a personalized study of the Chinese economy. Rather than relying strictly on numbers — exports, GDP, and the expansion of the infrastructure, Roberts centers on the Mo family and traces the outward from there. China is rapidly changing, perhaps more so than any other country in history. Social disruption during the Industrial Revolution in England is well documented in history and literature. China’s changes in size, speed, and scope, easily dwarfs England’s changes. Modern trade and industry, along with the largest exporting economy in the world, have not only damaged or destroyed traditional Chinese lifestyle it has also transformed Chinese Communism into something very different. Roberts brings the reader his first-hand experiences in China and gives the reader a view of China from the view of migrant workers displaced from their farms. A unique look at China and its economy.

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Book Commentary — Mein Kampf

Adolf-Hitler

This is the evil book on the shelf. Many people comment on it, yet few have read it. Granted, it is hard to read because it is a transcript of Hitler speaking from his prison cell and transcribed by Hess. The writing seems like rambling at times, but that is because it is meant to be a very long speech, not a smooth flowing memoir. This is the reason I chose the Audible edition of the book, and it made quite a difference in understanding the text. Hearing it is much more comprehensible than reading it.

Hitler is a man who sees his home country, Austria, fall apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is a hodge-podge of nationalities, and many peoples were not willing members of the empire. The glory that was Austria and Vienna is gone. Internal strife and commitment to make the Empire inclusive drags it down. Hitler begins his attack on the Slavs, socialists, and Jews for ruining the German influence and accomplishments.

After the First World War, things in Germany are not well. It lost the conflict. But how the war was lost becomes the question. Hitler argues that the war was lost because of betrayal in the homeland. The German army, which he was a member of,  did not retreat into Germany. They were told to quit instead of losing in battle.

Furthermore, the German army lacked the resources that the Allies had, so they had fought more than bravely to hold their ground. In Hitler’s mind, the army was defeated by traitors at home. He places that blame on Jewish bankers and socialists.

Hitler turns to social issues. After the war, in Germany, marriage, is under attack. The young adults cannot afford to marry and move off on their own. This creates immorality. Prostitutes and syphilis take up the slack of men not being able to earn a living wage. Marriages were not supporting racial purity.  Education also needed reform; it needed to be physical as well as mental. German students would be required to meet their potential and remain pure.

As the second part of the book begins, the reader will get the full dose of anti-semitism, anti-communism, and hatred to almost every nation in the world (England gets off easy as does the US only for its restrictive immigration policy). Some rants sound ridiculous and senseless like “Marxist Capitalist Jews” and references to Elders of Zion.

I can see how the first part of the book helped Hitler and how it was inviting to average Germans. It is a “Make Germany Great Again” campaign. The campaign breaks down as: We have a problem. Prop up the military. Stress the greatness of the past. Blame immigrants. Find a group(s) to hate. Hint at the divine. Demonize the opposition. Hitler used this to gain popularity and support for promoting what Germany could be (again or mythically was) and his anti-socialist position, not from anti-semitism. The promise and the result is rarely the same thing in politics. This book remains vital despite its vile hatred because it is crucial to learn how someone like Hitler can gain power.  The German people were not evil, the most considerable majority was sickened by the concentration camps.  The most profound evil does not make a grand entrance.  It comes as a savior promising greatness and slowly evolves.

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Poetry Review — Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs

Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara by William Fargason is the poet’s debut collection of poetry. Fargason is the winner of the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. He received two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a 2018-2019 Kingsbury Fellowship.

The poetry follows the life of the poet. The opening poems set the tone for the entire collection. The father is demanding in The Great Santini way; he pushes in that 1950s, be a man way. Boys are not supposed to say indoors and play on Gameboys or wear eye shadow and be Goths. The father’s life is touched upon and perhaps the incident that shaped his view of his child. The father’s presence forms a shadow on the child’s life. The poetry is well written as always with the Iowa Poetry Prize, but this collection has me falling through the cracks as an older reader. It is a theme for younger readers or at least those that do not fall into the Baby Boomer category. There is a definite gulf between generations, and it shines in this collection. Well worth examining.

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Poetry Review — Bear, Coyote, Raven

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Bear, Coyote, Raven by Jason Grundstrum-Whitney is a collection of Native American inspired poetry.  Grundstrom-Whitney, a Bear Clan member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, has worked on several causes, including Native American rights. Jason has worked as a substance abuse counselor and a specialist at the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta, Maine.

In Native American folklore, animals have active traditional roles.   The Coyote is perhaps the most well known in his role as the trickster.  The bear has a more complex and varied role.  Sometimes the enforcer.  Sometimes bumbling. Other times the straight man for the more clever animals.  Female bears’ reputation lives on in contemporary as the protective “Mama Bear.” The Raven is perhaps the most complex.  He is a helper and also a trickster. His plans are frivolous or not well thought out and often create other problems.  Characters in this collection shift from animal to human form and back and examine the modern world.

The collection opens with an introduction to the three characters.  The bear is introduced with something reminiscent of an earlier time and his form in the night sky as Ursa Major.  The Coyote, although not in the sky, walks against the backdrop of the Milky Way and longs for the faraway Moon Spirit.  The Raven has is own problems avoiding gunshots and airplanes in his flight. He also must overcome his growing girth.  It is the modern world as the raven shows, and so much is different from the past.  Technology is present. Sometimes it is barely noticeable as birds gathering on a telephone wire to bothersome buzzing and humming. What seems useful in modern times also has its downside as the Coyote thinks, why hunt and search for food when there is a dumpster buffet? He finds plenty of food; however, when the monster (garbage truck) comes, lifts, and consumes the contents of the dumpster, it then sets the dumpster down on the Coyote’s tail.

There is also wisdom for the reader:

Medicine is not something
that can be attained on a couch
watching the history channel.
Sometimes you have
to be hungry.

Grundstrum-Whitney introduces the reader to three characters of the Native American mythology, not as the used to be, but dropped into today’s world of violence, nature’s struggle against man, and lack of empathy.  The poetry is different and even different from other Native American poets.  There seems to be a conservation of words, rhythm, and form.   It is a bit primitive in the modern world, but also purer.  Bear, Coyote, Raven is a pleasant blend of cultures with lessons to be learned.

 

 

 

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Book Review — Anonymous Is a Woman: A Global Chronicle of Gender Inequality

Anonymous Is a Woman: A Global Chronicle of Gender Inequality by Nina Ansary is a study of women’s equality in the world and time.  Ansary is an Iranian–American historian and author best known for her work on women’s equity in Iran. Ansary’s research has notably countered conventional assumptions of the progress of women in Iran while continuing to advocate for full emancipation.

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” —Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s original quote has evolved into the more straightforward “Anonymous is a woman.”  The facts are the same in either version of the quote.  Women who make up over half the population of the world make up only a tiny part of recorded history.  Ansary examines the women’s suffragette movement and its history as well as reviewing what makes a campaign successful.  Women fought for the end of slavery and were disappointed that the 15th Amendment, although allowing every man to vote it neglected to include women. Rather than banding together with African-American women and continuing to fight a division along racial lines now formed.  What stopped the Equal Rights Amendment from gaining support but allowed Rosa Parks to become a national hero and leader in Civil Rights?

Today we here about the wage disparity of men’s and women’s wages in the same job, but many would think thinks have gotten much better.  Women authors like George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) no longer hide their names because women writers are accepted as equal to men.  But how many people know what the J stands for in J. K. Rowlings?

Women have made gains, and that is reflected in the Global Gender Gap scores, which examine many aspects of equality in politics, pay, health, freedom, opportunity, and education.  Not too surprising, three Scandinavian countries hold the top spot, and Africa and the Near East make up the bottom of the list.  Countries like Albania,  Rwanda,  Belarus, Mexico, Laos, Bangladesh, and Bulgaria, all rank above the United States.  The U.S. doesn’t make it into the top 50.

Ansary includes biographies of fifty women from ancient times to the near present from around the world who made important discoveries, literary contributions, and even a general.  Being fairly well-read and having an undergraduate degree in history, I thought I would have had to run across at least a few of these women in my studies.  The short answer is “no.” I remember the leader of the Chilean independence movement, the leader of Algerian independence, the powerful Boyars of medieval Russia. Still, I can say I haven’t heard of these fifty equally important women.

Woolf also created a woman in history — Judith Shakespeare.  William’s sister was just as equally talented but equally rejected simply because she was a woman.

“Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.”

Women have made great strides despite society and their environment; However, much like the lower ranks of infantry that died breaking enemy lines and turned the course of the war, they are footnoted and individually forgotten. Women have come a long way, but unfortunately, they still have a long way to go to be truly equal. An enlightening read.

Available March 8, 2020

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Book Review — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is a story of Janina Dusezjko in rural Poland. Tokarczu is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual who has been described in Poland as one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful authors of her generation. In 2018, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights. Tokarczuk then won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2019. The book is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones translates from Polish and is the 2018 winner of the Transatlantyk Award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad. Since this is also an Audible edition, it was read by Beata Pozniak, who is an award-winning actress, film director, published poet, painter, and an Earphones Award-Winning narrator.

I grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood on the southeast side of Cleveland. Many of the older people on my street did not speak English and those that did sound a lot like the characters in the book. Janina’s mannerisms and actions seemed familiar to me. She could have been the lady two doors down.  The narrator and the translator both keep the Polish very alive in the book.

Janina is an odd person.  She believes in astrology and goes as far as asking people for their birthdates and birth times.  The birth time is critical, she explains.  She is also very much for animals and against hunting.  When her neighbor dies, she tells people it was revenge from the animals he killed. Fitting too was that her neighbor was a hunter and choked to death on a bone of a recent kill.  She makes up names for people like the dead neighbor she called Bigfoot.  In conversation, she learns to talk to people without referring to them by name.  She also takes on the role of narrator of the story so that the reader will enjoy all her quirks first hand.

Other people start showing up dead in Janina’s remote village in strange circumstances, and Janina is sure she knows who is responsible, but no one wants to listen to the “crazy old lady.” Tokarczuk writes an exciting story which is part murder mystery and part trying to figure out the main character.  Despite her previously mentioned quirks, Janina is intelligent and helps a friend translate William Blake into Polish, which is where the title of the book comes from.  A complex novel of simpler things that are expertly woven together.

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