Category Archives: Book Review

Poetry Review — Selected Poems of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is best known for her novels, and her poetry is not mentioned often. The Age of Innocence earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and made her the first woman to hold that honor. From a young age, she wrote poetry and mastered the sonnet as a young teen. Her early style reflects the Romantic Era, although more in tune with the works of man than nature. Her travels in Europe and especially Greece inspired spectacular verse. Like the Romantics, she was also intrigued by the supernatural, death, and Christianity. These themes also play a role in her writing. Her poetry does take a sharp turn after experiencing the First World War. Like many who fought, she is first taken in by the need ”to save civilization.” Soon, however, the death and loss of loved ones takes a toll on her and her writing. A reader following along chronologically instead on by topics as this book is arranged will notice the change of tone. The vividness and innocence of the world have faded or is lost. One often reads of the loss of innocence the war brought on, but to witness it in writing is moving. An excellent collection from a well-known writer and unfortunately a lesser known poet.

This collection is edited by Irene Goldman-Price and will be available July 9, 2019, from Scribner.

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Book Review — Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present

Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present by Donald Stoker is an examination of war theory and the practice of the United States in a period where the United States did not have a single declared war. Stoker was a Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California for 18 years. He currently is a Visiting Fellow and Fulbright Visiting Professor of International Relations, Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, Austria.

Why America Loses Wars is a scholarly look at war and peace. Stoker draws heavily from Clausewitz to form his thesis and uses recent history to support his thinking. Kissinger would agree with America’s most significant reason for losing wars — lack of long term strategy. Machiavelli would also give the nod to not finishing the conflict correctly. America, by far, has the largest, strongest, best-equipped military in the history of the world (despite what national leaders say). We lost in Vietnam, effectively lost in Korea, have been to Iraq three times, and Afghanistan without a decisive victory. With that being said, in the first Iraq War, Colin Powell was heavily criticized by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney for not developing a military plan for Iraq. Powell said he could not produce a plan until he had a clear political objective for the military action. That is probably one of the most important demands of a military leader in recent history — a clear objective for the military operation. Compared to the second Bush and his war on global terrorism, his father was much more decisive in setting a goal. The younger Bush’s war on global terrorism as an objective has been compared to “war on an abstract noun.” It may sound good, but it is not a tangible objective.

War in America has taken a turn. No recent president wants to admit being at war and that started with Truman and the Korean Conflict. Truman committed troops without a declaration of war; in fact, World War II was the last declaration of war issued by the United States. Now, if the war is popular congress usually goes ahead and funds the conflict, until it becomes unpopular. At that time, the military is forced to curtail its activities, and a quagmire develops. An actual declaration of war would help in several ways. First, it would require congressional approval which may not be expedient, but it would question and examine the goals of the conflict. Secondly, the president would need to present a clear objective to Congress rather than rally the American people to a cause. Consider: With proper thought, would America drop a winning conflict in Afghanistan to start a new war in Iraq? With proper thought and planning, would America have been able to achieve its goals in Afghanistan in less than seventeen years?

Stoker examines limited warfare and what the term means and what popular opinion makes it out to be. We are not a nation that is afraid of going to war; in fact, it seems we are too ready to go to war, just not finish it. War has become much like our infrastructure. We love to build great works; we don’t like to maintain them.  A critically important book combining theory and recent American military actions.

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Book Review — More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk

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I moved, or more appropriately had military orders, to Camp Pendleton in 1982. This southern California Marine Corps base was my chance to experience the world whereThe Doors had lived and played in. Instead Oceanside, California and Los Angles were in full punk swing, and The Doors were a cultural has been. Safety pins, giant mohawks, and kids trading patches were the in thing. Weekend mornings one would find plenty of passed out punks on the beaches since Southern California lacked the squatter buildings of the UK and the cheap grungy apartments of New York City. My experience with punk before going west was from the New York area that made it to Cleveland radio and pulp rock magazines– Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and The Dead Boys.

L.A. Punk was something entirely different from the New York scene, and I will admit it took me a long time to recognize it as something other than a distraction to rock music (with the notable exception of The Dead Kennedys). John Doe of “X” edits a history of the LA Punk Music using musicians and players of the scene. Some people bands are still active like Henry Rollins and Social Distortion. Others were the commercial high point of the movement like the GoGos. Most, however, were people that moved from band to band or simply bands that had their moments and passed on but leaving their mark.  The use of first-hand accounts recreate the era better than a history and include that personal feeling that is often lost in editing.  LA Punk is often overshadowed by the rise of 80s metal and good times rock of bands like Van Halen.  The decadence of the 80s overtook the anti-establishment of the punk movement.  Punk, too, was more interested in the message than being commercially viable.  The economy silenced the message and viability limited radio exposure.  It did create a ruckus in its run.

John Doe and Tom DeSavia create the first-hand history on par with Leggs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.  Very well done.

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Poetry Review — Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology

Modern Sudanese Poetry

Modern Sudanese poetry is a blend of poetry forms. At its core, it seems much like traditional Arabic poetry of the Mediterranian region, but it contains many different influences. The most substantial influence comes from African tradition. Islam and the Arab influence came later to Sudan than to North Africa, so there is much more of an African flavor to some of the poetry. Other influences may surprise some readers. Russian influence dates from the Cold War and continues still today with economic and political relations. Internal unrest and civil war also add another layer to the poetry.

Through the sixty or so years this anthology covers the reader will see variations of the above themes and combinations of themes. The Arabic style of poetry is well done, and one might have trouble recognizing that it came from outside Palestine or the Middle East. The collection includes biographies of the poets and also lists the translators. This collection is edited and translated by Adil Babikir. He has translated several works, including Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way by Tayeb Salih and two novels by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin. A very well done collection of poetry covering several decades of a now divided nation who still remains underappreciated in the world of poetry.

Our passion for you, Aazza, is firm and stout.
Like mountains we stand, hard to sway.
Our bowstrings, alert and taut,
keep intruders away.
I never forsook my homeland: the land of ultimate beauty;
I always sought perfection, never rested for less.
My heart never throbbed for someone else;
as to the left I lean, take me in your right hand and embrace.
I can never forget Bilal’s orchard
our playgrounds under the shade
like flowers on hilltops
leaping to reach the stars
a palm-frond crescent braided on my forehead.

~ from “My Beloved Aazza” by Khalil Farah

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Poetry Review — The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry

The Heart's Necessities: Life in Poetry

The Heart’s Necessities is a three-part book. First, it is a selected collection of poems by Jane Tyson Clement. Clement, a Smith College graduate, became a poet, playwright, and author. Although from a privileged background, she became involved in social justice and she and her husband joined the Bruderhof community. Her poetry, in this collection, centers on nature and its beauty. There is an underlining spirituality in writing complimenting the natural world. The poetry is simple yet beautiful in its form and message reminiscent of Romanticism.

Secondly, the book is a biography of the poet. Written by Becca Stevens, she centers on the life and accomplishments of Clement. Clement’s work with the Bruderhof community is documented as well as the stages of her life. Clement seems to be one of the rare people whose devotion could be felt with her presence rather than her words. The third part consists of notes by Stevens describing the poems or putting them context. These are easily separated from the rest of the text because of the color of the ink used. The collection is also illustrated with photos of nature, Stevens, and Clement.

The book has the appearance of a modern devotional from the cover photo to the tint of the pages. The color photographs support the messages of the poetry and the grandeur of nature. The impression of a devotional not only describes the poet’s work but also her influence.  She inspired the music of the author Becca Stevens which made this book possible and opened the poetry of Clement to a new and younger audience.

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Kissinger on Kissinger: Reflections on Diplomacy, Grand Strategy, and Leadership

Henry Kissinger has a reputation as a genius, evil genius, or just plain evil. What a person knows about Kissinger is very much determined by who tells the story. Kissinger is no doubt a sophisticated thinker and a different type of thinker. I a world that seems to like reaction rather than a planned path, Kissinger is out of place. Kissinger is a strategic thinker that looked at the end goal and played the long game and idealized Westphalia. Mistakes along the way would be forgotten once the goal was reached. Things like the “menu bombing” of North Vietnam would be forgotten once Vietnam was a successful democracy. Today we seem to jump into war or foreign policy that is very limited in scope. We think “exit strategy,” but Kissinger looks at the end goal.

Kissinger is treated in much the same way as Machiavelli is, which is to say a shallow look and a handful of quotes. Both have a tarnished image, but if one is to read their actual words in context that view changes. In this book, an oral history, Kissinger is given some broad questions by longtime colleague Winston Lord. This format allowed Kissinger to be at ease and have a nonconfrontational format. This enables Kissinger to let his guard down and speak freely. Some may think of this as very softball, but the idea is not dueling or argument but for Kissinger to give his view of history.

Kissinger, now in his nineties, still has a firm grasp of the history he was involved in and help form.  Vietnam, arms control, the Middle East, and opening with China are all recalled in this history.  The world was a very different place in the late 1960s and 1970s, and Kissinger was involved in many of the far-reaching policies that helped change the world and some that are still ongoing struggles. Kissinger on Kissinger presents history through the eyes of one who helped shaped the world.  Kissinger is coherent and detailed in his accounts in the Nixon and Ford Administration, and although he seems truthful and a bit idealistic, many will still remain divided on the man who, over forty years ago, help shape what is the modern world

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Book Review — Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems

Don't Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems

Burt provides an intriguing primer on poetry for those who are just discovering the art. She states that this is not a book for those looking for justification of popular poetry, but it is a book that helps one navigate through the many types of poetry. Burt uses well-known poets of different eras like O’Hara, Shelly, Byron, and Frost as well as a host of other lesser known poets. The exploration of poetry leads to the (human) commonality of many types and eras as well as differences in style.

It’s not uncommon to like on poet and not another even if they are in the same period and style. It can go even farther, for example, I like Shelly’s lyrical poems but don’t care much for his narrative ones. Even in the different styles of poetry that confine its structure, there are variations that poets use to construct their writing. Langston Hughes reinvented the folk quatrain. Phillis Wheatley, the first published African- American poet in the late 18th century, reinvented the freestanding couplet. Both took the rules and made them their own.

Poetry also teaches about the poets. The example of Willam Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy are used as an example (and sheds some light on the cover art of this book). Many times poets are thought to be stiff and formal, but poets like Byron shatter that idea with the epic poem Don Juan. One of my favorite lines from the poem:

In the case our Lord the King should go to war again,
He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery

Byron keeps to a rhyme scheme and even included an ottava rima, a complex structure used originally in heroic Italian poems, but here it is used for a different sort of “hero.” Byron uses the strict form to create a farce of ivory tower poetry.

Poetry ranges from the easy to understand to the very difficult.  Tiny Buttons by Gertrude Stein is used as a popular example.  There is so much that a collection, of seemingly incoherent words, can build. Other poets are even more complicated.  It took me over a year to get through and somewhat understand Eric Linsker’s La Far.

Burt writes for those who have seen a spark of poetry — maybe a quote in a movie,  or a bit of Walt Whitman in a Levis commercial, or even a poster on a commuter train.  Something that grabbed a person’s attention and left him or her wanting more.  Burt will be the curious readers Virgil through the levels of poetry.

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Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice from the Lights (2017), Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999).

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