Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review — American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West

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American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee is the history of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.  Blakeslee is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly. His first book, Tulia, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award and won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters non-fiction prize, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2005. The Washington Post called it one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written.

The America used to be home to half a million of wolves.  Eradication programs were so successful that by 1960 there was only a handful left in Northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.  Removing the wolves, originally, seemed to be a way to protect the herbivore populations.  People came to the park to see the elk and surrounding areas counted on elk to supplement their meat intake and an economy grew around lodges and supporting businesses that relied on elk hunters from outside the areas.   Ranches, too, had pushed for the eradication wolves to protect their cattle.  Yellowstone, however, was having a problem.  Overpopulation of elk stripped vegetation forcing out other species.

The wolves were brought in from Canada and corralled in the park to help build a sense of home and territory.  They took to their new home, reproduced, and formed packs. The wolf population spiked and the elk population dropped; soon a natural equilibrium was established.  Rick McIntyre was the park ranger who took to the wolf program.  He went on to watch and compile data on all the packs and some of the individual wolves.  To say he was dedicated is an understatement; he reported every single day over a ten year period. Much of what is known about the wolves in Yellowstone is because of McIntyre.

Wolf O-Six is the star of the book.  She is an alpha female and part of the third generation born at Yellowstone.  Her name O-Six was an identifier of the year of her birth 2006.  She became a favorite of wolf watchers and also became a social media favorite.  Perhaps half the book is dedicated to her and her interactions in with other wolves.  The repopulating wolves changed the park.  The elk population stabilized and other species returned.  Beavers returned and other native species worked their way back in and others grew smaller once the natural balance returned.

The other half of the book concerns politics, ranchers, and local hunting businesses.  Wolves are seen as a threat to ranchers and their herds although wolves played a very minor role in the loss of any livestock —.02% of cattle loss.  Local hunting businesses did suffer since shooting elk required some effort.  It was no longer as easy as picking one out of a catalog.  The politics ranged from a local level to national level and q wolf hunting rider even made its way into a national budget.  Wolves were seen as the enemy in areas surrounding the park.  The few and impact were irrational and not based on facts.  Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming worked to legalize wolf hunting to ease fears of the locals and it became a long battle between states and the federal government.

Blakeslee writes an interesting story that is hard to put down.  It is written in narrative fiction style but it does come with a fairly detailed bibliography and broken down by chapters.  The writing appears to be factual and based on first-person experiences and observations.  The author does not insert his opinions as facts in the book.  A fast-moving piece of nonfiction that reads like a novel. Very well done.

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Poetry Review — Sea of Strangers

Sea of Strangers by Lang Leav is the poet’s fourth publish collection.  Leav is an international bestselling author and social media sensation. She is the winner of a Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and coveted Churchill Fellowship.

This my second review of one of Leav’s books.  I was introduced to her work by another review that of her partner, Michael Faudet.  Both write short poems and pieces of prose which is a growing trend in the reading of younger adults and hip kids today.  One doesn’t have to look too hard to find the writing of Leav, Faudet, r.h. Sin, Samantha King, and many others who write in this style.

I do like the writing better in this collection than her previous work.  Although the writing and poems are short and in simple terms, there seems to be more body to this collection.  It is not classical poetry or even modern poetry of say, Ginsberg, O’Hara, or Billy Collins.  A more cynical person would see it as the younger generations need for bite-size messages with a single and simple message.  It is, however, the minimalist version of poetry.  Where poets in the past used language to paint a picture of emotion, Leav uses as few words as possible to present a simple but heartfelt thought.  Some of it is very good and some of it presents an oversimplified picture with that comfortable rhythm of a nursery rhyme:

For All Time

You talk to me in riddles,
   I will answer you in rhyme
   I loved you for a little —
   I will love you for all time.

The book is printed on every other page so when open the reader will be able to concentrate only one the one short thought at a time and gives the book some heft.  I will admit that it is nice to focus on a few words that can be absorbed in almost a glance and then have the blank space to pause and absorb what I have just read.  There is no sense of urgency to the next page.  The reader will linger thinking about what was just read.

Although I prefer the deeper thoughts of understanding and appreciating older poetry,  Leav and others are creating a convenience type poetry that is popular with the younger crowd who would rather have the kernel of literature and ponder it than discover it themselves.  However, if it helps popularize poetry, it can’t be all bad.

Available January 9, 2018

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Book Review — The Rainbow

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence is perhaps one of his finest works.  Lawrence was born in 1885 the fourth son of a coal miner.  He was a sickly child and graduated teacher’s training in Nottingham.  His writing created controversy and lead to some of his books and stories being banned.  Lawrence’s most popular themes were the sexual and physiological life and the implications of class difference.

The Rainbow, published in 1915, covers the life of the Brangwen family from the 1840s through 1905.  The opening chapters set the theme.  The Brangwen farm was in a very rural setting and the building facing back into the land.  The main house looks out on the road.   It is a separation of the world inward looking and outward looking.  Industrialization of England brings change to the rather isolated family.  First, a canal is built across the farmland and although the family is compensated for the intrusion it divides the farm.  Next comes the railway not only crossing the farm but also bringing the noise smoke and whistles of a modern world to their simple life.  Tom the youngest son also discovers sex, with a pub prostitute, which defines a different role in his mind for women outside of mothers and sisters and later women he would meet.  He will eventually marry a widowed Polish refugee, Lydia.

The second section of the book deals with Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage and Will, the son of one of Tom’s brothers.  The happy marriage turns to one based on sex and fertility.  The oldest daughter, Ursula, is the main character in the third and final part of the book. Ursula provides the most famous part of the novel not only her life and lovers but also those who she meets.  Society still strict rules create a culture that manufactures appearances to hide desires.  Social restrictions, morality, industrialization, and colonialism all play a role in the book although it is primarily known for its sexual themes.  The book was prosecuted for obscenity in 1915 and was unavailable in England for eleven years.

This Dover edition contains only a brief note of the author and of the story.  For a classic book, however, little is needed in an introduction.  Lawrence, although a modernist, writes in a clear way.  The setting descriptions may be filled with small details and the characters filled with complex thoughts but the reading is easy to understand and the themes are nearly impossible to mix.  The Dover editions, as always, bring quality works and quality printing at a very fair cost.

 

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The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

This edition by Dover Publications recreates the 1900 Endymion editions.  Poe is mostly known for his short stories, but his poetry is an important part of his work.  This edition goes beyond “The Raven”, “The Bells”, and “Annabel Lee”.  Some poems seem out of place. Two of his poems “Al Aaraaf” and “Israfel” seem out of place for an American poet of the nineteenth century.  “Al Aaraaf” is based on stories from the Koran and influenced by the 1572 supernova discovered by Tycho Brahe.  Israfel is an archangel who has the sweetest voice in all of heaven  She will blow the trumpet to summon the dead on judgment day according to the Koran.

Poe wrote many poems to or about women.  Two of the published poems hide a woman’s name in the structure of the poem.  In a very Poe like fashion, several of the women are dead — some obvious and some not right away:

My love, she sleeps   Oh, may her sleep, 
As it is lasting, so be deep;
Soft may the worms creep about her!

There is little doubt about the gothic tone of his mature work.  His early work is also included in this edition in its original form with the admittance of the sin of plagiarism.  The young Poe was eager to show his heroes and not everything was quite as dark in his writing.

The edition rounds itself out with excerpts from his unfinished play “Politian”, letters to introduce his poems, an essay on poetic principle, and an essay on the philosophy of composition.  This edition helps completes the picture of Poe as a writer.  Even in poetry though there is little doubt the work is by Poe; it has that familiar feel to it.  To add to the poetry this edition richly illustrated with pen and ink drawings from W. Heath Robinson.  These drawings add visual drama to the reading and lock the reader into the 19th-century gothic fantasy.  A very nice book to keep and enjoy.

 

 

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Book Review — The Years, Months, Days

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The Years, Months, Days: Two Novellas by Yan Lianke is a translation of one of China’s rising writers. Lianke is a Chinese writer of novels and short stories based in Beijing. His work is highly satirical, which has resulted in some of his most renowned works being banned.

Carlos Rojos gives the introduction to this collection.  Lianke is no stranger to hunger.  He was born in the first year of the Great Leap Forward (1958).  The rush to grow an economy rivaling Britian ended up creating famine instead.  Tens of millions died throughout the country.  It is little surprise that the title story of “The Years, Months, Days” centers on drought and hunger.

The village elder decides he would not survive the move east out of the drought affecting the village so he decides to stay and care for a seeding corn plant.  The plant represents the village’s future as the source for seed for the next season’s crops.  The Elder is left with a blind dog as a companion who seems to understand what he is being told.  The story has a Twilight Zone eeriness to it. The loneliness and emptiness of life jump from the pages.  It is as if the elder was abandoned on a barren planet and not his home village.  He takes his duty to the plant seriously and the aptly named dog, “Blindy”, becomes his world to him.  Hunger and unexpected enemies begin to make life even more difficult.  The Elder’s senses adapt to his surroundings.  He can hear the sunset and the sound of his corn plant growing.  He measures the sun’s heat by its weight.  It is a story of duty where minor things become the most important.

The second story, “Marrow”, takes the uncanniness in a different direction.  Here an almost fairytale imagery drives the story.  Stone You and Fourth Wife You have three daughters who suffer from what seems like a form of epilepsy and not much intelligence. Counting to ten and performing simple tasks were nearly impossible.  The children acted more like apes than humans.  Stone You drowns himself after finding out Fourth Wife You was pregnant again.  Fourth Wife worked the farm and raised the children.  Daughter Number One and Daughter Number Two had been married off to men who were also less than whole.  Daughter Number Three is tormented by the youngest, her brother, Fourth Idiot.  The bulk of the story is finding Daughter Number Three a “wholer” to marry. This story reads like a demented fairytale the reader will be both appalled and drawn into the story.  It is disturbing in many ways but still something not to be put down.

Lianke can weave a compelling story despite the bleakness of the first story and perhaps the, contemporary American,  offensiveness of the second story.  Both stories are writing in a simple but beautiful language.  The simplicity of the language is much akin to the skills needed in making an old movie before special effects.  The reader relies on Lianke’s profound storytelling ability rather than gimmicks or tricks.  A very interesting and worthwhile cross-cultural work.

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Poetry Review — Salvage: Poems

Salvage: Poems by Cynthia Dewi Oka is the poet’s second collection of poetry.  Oka is the author of Nomad of Salt and Hard Water. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry as well as grants from the Leeway Foundation and Vermont Studio Center.   She is based in the greater Philadelphia area, where she works as a community organizer with immigrant and faith communities.

Some people think their lives are a wreck.  Some countries are in the process of being wrecked.  Some see the world, the planet, on its last gasp.  Oka looks around the world and into lives to find what can be saved or salvaged.  “Ishtar in Suburbia” opens with a message of how many have been killed in the 423 US drone strikes in Pakistan and continues:

Whir. Enormous mosquitoes.
The bowels release.
Then Empire

There is a way to cleanse the sex out of war
I mean libido, lick. The funk
& nasty. The sweat-paste, moaning
hair

She brings it home:

You ride the train downtown.
Past the crow-picked rubble. Charred row houses
Their windows missing like teeth.

Pain and destruction are not far in many poems.  Oka reminds the reader:

The Hellfire travels 995 miles per hour.  Where it lands, soul
is freed like fire through skin, touching dirt for the first time. 

There is even a scattered poem “Elegy for the Hellfire”

Not everything is manmade. “After Hurricane Sandy” ties to the land of the native people and is followed up “Nom De Guerre.” The First People of Quebec stand up to the Mounties and the military to protect their burial grounds from an expansion of a golf course.  While British Columbia brings thoughts of wilderness and Vancouver city, Oka takes the reader to the Downtown Eastside which is on par with any American big city in murders, drugs, and prostitution.  Tribute is paid to the women murdered there and is followed up with “Jesus is Tested in the Downtown Eastside” which would give the diety more of a challenge than Satan in the desert.  From there the reader is moved to the poet’s homeland of Indonesia.

Oka follows with a series of sonnets for her mother.  This showcases her ability as a poet.  She shows that beyond creative language she can remain creative in the strict confines of rhyme schemes and line structure.  The final section of the collection turns farther inward than places and even parents.  It is the poets look inward.  Salvage is a wide-ranging tour of our world and ourselves.  Oka has an intriguing style and insight.  Her work is thought-provoking and this is a collection that one will enjoy reading and rereading.  It is a collection that the reader will want to keep on their shelf and not let it slip away into the hands of friends.

Available December 15, 2017

 

 

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Book Review — How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

Living is not a great matter; all your slaves do it, and all the animals.  To die honorably, prudently, bravely — now that is great. 
— Seneca

How to Die:  An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

 

How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life by Seneca and edited by James S. Romm is a collection of letters concerning death and dying. Seneca was a stoic philosopher and tutor and advisor to Nero. It was under Nero that he was sentenced to take his own life for a plot that he was not likely a participant. Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Associate Professor of Classics at Bard College. He received his B.A. from Yale and Ph.D. from Princeton, and has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.

Death presents many questions and in itself can be incomprehensible. What death is and what happens when one dies baffles the human mind. It’s like thinking about what is on the other side of the edge of space. Nothing really doesn’t seem like a good answer. Throughout time man has worked to explain what happens after death. The Vikings had Valhalla where they could fight on forever. Christians and others have an afterlife where one continues to exist with their creator. Some believe that we come back, and keep coming back, in reincarnation. Seneca didn’t know what was on the other side but to him, it was important not to fear it. In one place he describes the experience of death as the experience before birth.

Religion uses the promise of an afterlife to celebrate funeral rites as in the Catholic Church. Mourners should be consoled in the fact that the loved one is in a better place. Seneca took a more logical approach to death. This work is divided into five sections:

Prepare yourself
Have no fear
Have no regrets
Set yourself free
Become part of the whole

Prepare yourself is simple enough to Seneca.  Unlike the things we do in life, we only die once.   It is not something that we must be prepared for so that we may die with honor.  If one lives without honor that is the opportunity to change.  That is not the case in death.   Having no fear is the realization that death is part of life.  It is as natural as breathing.  Everything in the universe rises and falls; it is the same with life.

No regrets is the knowledge that one cannot judge the length of life as the quality of life.  There is no set length for life The most complete life is one that wisdom is attained.  The feeling of living to “finish one’s work” is not valid to Seneca either; death is as important as one’s work.  Setting oneself free is seen as leaving a situation that would create more pain:

Death gives release from slavery to a hated master; it lightens the chains of prisoners…

Do you think there is anything crueler to lose from life that the right to end it?

Becoming part of the whole is a summary of the previous topics.  It reinforces the topics and completes the circle.  One may question the thoughts of suicide in the previous topic and Seneca addresses that.  One must consider obligations one has to others even if suicide seems to be the proper answer.  Seneca considered suicide for his illness in his younger days because of his respiratory problems.  He did not follow through because his elder parents counted on him for their survival.  In the end, though, Seneca does take to his life at the command of Nero.  Seneca indeed walked the walk.

Rommer provides a detailed introduction and introduces and comments on each of the sections.  He uses eight treatises written by Seneca and provides the original Latin text for all the works he uses as well as cited sources for his explanations.  How to Die is a quick but very deep read on a subject we have been trained to avoid or simply become desensitized to through movies, video games, and the news.  Seneca considers death a part of life equal or even greater than living.  An interesting and enlightening study of the one thing in life no one has survived to tell about.

Available January 16, 2018

 

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