Book Review — The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape

The End of Chiraq: A Literary Mixtape edited Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval is a collection of mixed literature describing the city of Chicago. Johnson is an Assistant Professor and Director of African American & African Diaspora studies and holds an appointment in Gender & Sexuality Studies in the Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Coval was raised in the suburbs of Chicago and educated at Ohio University, the University of Wales, and DePaul University. His brave, socially engaged poems weave together personal experience and calls to action.

Chicago was, and to many still, a city of pride, industry, and innovation. Carl Sandberg coined it the “City of Big Shoulders”. It was to the meat industry what Detroit was to the car industry. It reversed the flow of a river to wash pollution away. The city physically lifted its city blocks to improve drainage and prevent flooding. Chicago was the midwest New York City — Education, Art, publishing, sports, museums. The city had it all. In 2016 Chicago again entered the news as Candidate Trump made the murder rate a political issue to the point of wanting to send federal troops into the city.

Chiraq is a contraction of Chicago and Iraq. It signifies the violence in the city.  Early on it is pointed out that in 2008, 314 soldiers died in Iraq and 508 people were murdered in Chicago. To further add to the statistics the City of Chicago spends 40% of its operating budget on police. Chicago also has the most militarized police forces in the country yet as violent crime has fallen all over the country it is rising in Chicago.

The contributors write in factual prose, narrative prose, poetry, and in rap. Hip Hop had a revival in Chicago in the 1990s and 2000s and that is brought up by several contributors. Kayne West, Chief Keef, and King Louis are all mentioned at various times. Spike Lee’s movie Chi-Raq receives an unfavorable critique by many for what is called “Willie Horton marketing.” Spike Lee should have stuck to writing about areas he knows about. One comment read to the effect that the use of the play Lysistrata might have been fine for Greek comedy but should not be repurposed on this side of 300BC.

Writers in this collection turn to treating the cause of the problems in the city. The city and its police force attack the symptoms and at times over aggressively when gunning down unarmed men. Schools are being shuttered and mostly in poorer areas. Race is an issue in a highly segregated city. It plays its part in education and opportunity. For the vast majority, being born poor means a lifetime of poverty or alternatively crime and gangs.

The editors assemble the book as a mixed tape from the 1980s. Various prose forms are mixed with poetry and lyrics.  The mixed tape format of the book is compared to the mixed tape.  It is a collection of freedom.  It is not one album played in order.  It is a kind of democratization where the user determines content and order and not a record company.  This, of course, was in the days before streaming and shufflable playlists and perhaps a nostalgic view of what Chicago used to be — a diverse, progressive city of industry, art, education, and freedom.  A strong message from the people of a strong city.


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Poetry Review — The Elements of San Joaquin

Chester Rowell, civic leader, speaking
about farmworkers in the Fresno Republican: “The main thing about
the labor supply is to muleize it . . . The supreme qualities of the laborer
are that he shall work cheap and hard, have no union, have no ambitions
and present no human problems . . . Some sort of human mule, with the
hibernating qualities of a bear and the fastidious gastronomic tastes of
the goat, would be ideal, provided he is cheap enough.”

~ From the introduction

The Elements of San Joaquin by Gary Soto is a collection of poetry originally published in 1977. Soto, poet, essayist, and playwright, is the author of dozens of books. His New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Soto writes with simple words that carry deep personal meaning. Growing up in places like Fresno, Stockton and other places in the San Joaquin region brings a certain feeling of poverty, tradition, family, and a richness that develops from the three. Soto’s writing of life in the 1950s and 1960s is one memory of a sometimes bleak existence without bitterness. When it’s all you know it becomes the norm rather than impoverishment. Not having food and needing to hunt frogs or fish from the canal becomes an adventure with his brother. Nature seems to consist of ants and mice rather than animals most would think to remember. Working the land had a certain pride to it that meant something to those who worked the hoes. The environment no matter how harsh it seems is offset by growing up in a poisoned environment. The poison is manmade. DDT and other chemicals cover the fruit they pick and eat and it infiltrates the entire environment.

Soto’s, work updated and revised, carries the message it did in the 1970s. He was a writer and in an almost forgotten term Chicano. His work is a tribute to those who worked the land and lived in poverty to provide food for those who lived a much better life. It is a tribute to the hard work, the loss, and the moments of joy in a simple life; moments that most would not find memorable or even special.  Well constructed and well thought out poetry about those who are underappreciated in our society.


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Book Review — Marx and Marxism

Marx and Marxism by Gregory Claeys is a detailed study of Marxism in historical context. Claeys is Professor of the History of Political Thought at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of books on British intellectual and political history. He gained his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, where he studied at Jesus College.

Marx is a dirty word in America. It is tied to socialism, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. Socialism is seen as stealing wealth. It is hated except for public roads, police, fire departments, the standing military, and farm subsidies (that make food cheaper than market value). Granted, public schools, welfare, libraries, and the arts are often targets. Rationalized, justified, or just ignored the goods of socialism that make the nation work are pushed aside.

Claeys does something that needed to be done for some time. He wrote a book on Marxism that puts Marx (and Engels) in historical context. Nineteenth-century capitalism in Europe was not a good thing for the vast majority of the population. Overworked, subsistence pay, child labor, terrible and dangerous working conditions, made life, for most, dreadful. Conditions were so bad that pro-slavery forces in America’s south used the English factory system and conditions to defend the humanity of slavery. Slaves were fed, housed, cared for (to some extent) and factory workers were left to starve and die. Of course, it was propaganda but propaganda with elements of truth.


Marx is put into his place in history. His intention was not a Soviet system. He did not want to care for the poor, but rather abolish poverty. His desire was to create a system where men were equal. The exploitation of the working class was real. Unskilled labor flooded into the cities for factory work. The glut of labor allowed the system to continue. Workers were not organized; they were expendable.  Marx went much farther with theories on private property and alienation.  Alienation is the removal of a person from their work.  The factory systems put people in positions were their work was not a whole.  Piecemeal work created separation from the product.  No longer did one build something completely; he built part of something in exchange for money.  He sold his time.

Marx also believed in education.  If one was a child of a cobbler, one would grow to be a cobbler.  The problem comes when there are too many cobblers and not enough tailors.  The idea that education could be used to train workers to learn multiple skills and work where needed.  Of course, Marx did believe that man would rise to the challenge and become a willing part of a community where all is shared and all contribute.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.  To correct these problems various versions of Marxism evolved after his death.  Since Marx saw the industrialization of the economy the mechanism for change, he thought his theories would come to play industrialized countries, namely England.

Where Marxism took hold, however, was in peasant class societies like the Russia and China.  Hence, Marxism became Leninism and then Stalinism in Russia and Maoism in China.  Did Marx have an effect in industrialized countries?  Yes and a very big influence.  Organized labor challenged industry.  The “Spectre of Communism” brought change.  Rather than risk revolution and lose everything, industry bent.  Leisure time, safe working conditions, collective bargaining, end of child labor, limited work weeks all became a reality.  Workers enjoyed more than they ever had before.  Western Europe began adapting ideas that became Democratic Socialism.

Marx and Marxism is a very readable account of Marxism in history.  It discusses the complete theory and the evolution of the theory in easy to understand way.  Unlike the complex writings on Leninism, Marxism is fairly easy to understand without dumbing it down as it usually is in contemporary America.   All the controversy is included in this work and presented in an accurate way.  It is not a propaganda piece praising Marx but an honest examination.  Very much worth reading for anyone with an interest in history or political science.

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1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink by Taylor Downing is a detailed study of the Cold War’s most dangerous moment. Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.Taylor also writes on the history of film and television.

Almost 50% of the American population was not alive or too young to remember the Cold War. For those alive during the period, many thought it would never end, or when it did end the world would end with it. Most Americans know we came close to nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis, but for the most part, it seemed the Cold War was more political or a war where most of the dying was done by proxy states. Of course, there was the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was in the Marines in 1983 and war concerns centered more on Latin America than the Soviet Union. 1983 was perhaps the most dangerous year for mankind.

Downing begins by tracing the Cold War back to its origins and the uneasy alliance of the US and USSR during World War II. Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are used to show the Soviet mindset and policy changes leading up to the 1980s. A brief biography of Reagan is also included on the American side. The Brezhnev seemed like the career bureaucrat compared to Stalin he was stable. The gulag system was drastically reduced for the most part under Khrushchev. Brezhnev, for his part, increased and modernized the Soviet military at the expense of consumer goods. The Soviet gas pipeline to Europe would have increased hard currency but the effort was blocked by the US. At Brezhnev’s death, a new leader was selected. Andropov was selected over the favored Chernenko.

Reagan built up the US military after the embarrassment in Vietnam and the hostage rescue attempt in Iran. America was on the way to a 600 ship navy to meet the Soviet Union threat. The B-1B and MX missile system were to come online. Reagan publicized the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, and added to his warlike image in the Soviet Union. The selection of Yuri Andropov came as a shock to many. Andropov, although his personal life was unknown in the West, was the head of the KGB. That was a scary proposition for the US. He would be as anti-American as Reagan was anti-Communist.

Reagan managed to build the US military without deep paranoia. He knew that America could outspend the Soviet Union and that an arms race would destroy the Soviet Union. The perception of the leaders did not match the reality of the situation. Andropov was very paranoid as well as Soviet leadership. Soviet Embassies in the west were told to report anything that might be a hint of war planning including counting the number of lights on in buildings. The Soviets believed war, an invasion from the West was only a matter of time. There were missile scares on both sides, but cooler heads prevailed. Then there was the downing of Korean Air 007 by a Soviet fighter. Most of the American leadership believed it was intentional. The US Air Force review believed it was a case of mistaken identity but was the minority opinion by far.

Much of Korean Air 007 is still a mystery. How and why the plane was so grossly off course are unknown. Radio checks from the plane describe the flight as on course, however, it drifted into restricted Soviet airspace. Andropov repeated a fabricated story. The US insisted it was intentional. The actual events still are unknown. Star Wars put the Soviets on edge. Korean Air put the US on edge. Neither leadership wanted conflict. Paranoia grew faster on the Soviet side. The isolation from the real world of the Soviet leadership left them to paint a darker picture. Soviet Ambassadors and residents in Western embassies had a much clearer picture but had a difficult time making their leadership believe.

The crucial point came in 1983. NATO was running a War Game, Able Archer ’83, the Soviets were aware of the yearly maneuvers. Able Archer usually, as well, as in 1983 was played out as a reaction to an escalating invasion of the Soviet Union ending with the simulated nuclear attack. This year was different from other years in that the usual codes were changed, there were periods of radio silence, and participation from heads of states. Soviet intelligence saw these changes as ominous The added realism had more than the intended effect. The Soviets saw this as an actual invasion and readied its nuclear arsenal believing that a preemptive strike was underway. Soviet fighters were put on “strip alert”, seconds from launching. Andropov and other Soviet leaders were readying to authorize launch codes. November 11th the exercise ended and NATO went back to business as usual without any knowledge of the responses it caused. Reagan would later say, “I don’t see how they could believe that—but it’s something to think about.”

Think he did. Reagan slowly turned from more saber rattling and evil empire talk. His campaign in 1984 centered on “Morning in America” and not military build-ups.  He would come to work on arms reductions with the Soviets.  Andropov barely lived into 1984 and was replaced by Chernenko who lasted thirteen months.  He was replaced by Gorbachev a man both Thatcher and Reagan could work with.  The rest is history.

1983 is an interesting history with newly unclassified materials adds to the known events of the Cold War.  It adds the arms race did to leaders and how close a misunderstanding could turn to the end of the world.  Reagan was never weak on defense, but he did see what could easily happen and almost did happen.  Living under assured mutual destruction was not the way for mankind to progress. An excellent read.

Available April 24, 2018

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Poetry Review — Pardon My Heart


Pardon my Heart by Marcus Jackson is a collection of urban poetry. Jackson teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State University. His previous collections are Rundown and Neighborhood Register.

From the first poem ”Bass” the poet explains his roots from ground shaking bass that penetrates my walls and continuing to street fighting. It is a rough life and one not free of danger that most of us enjoy. There is maturity that many, everywhere, do not gain in their years. ”To the Love Gods” shows thankfulness to gods that many choose to ignore or just leave to chance.

The second part of this collection deals with grow up in the blue collar world — clothing stained by machinery and factors ready to cut men down. Happy times are marred with violence. However, local fish are caught in local waters, cleaned, and served for dinner. School and young life, both good and bad, trickles into working life and a sense of responsibility. The poetry then moves to more adult issues of relationships and city life with a fitting tribute to the poet Philip Levine. The final section is dedicated to young married life. From buying a ring to his wife’s asthmatic breathing during sleep a full maturity evolves into being.

An extremely well-written collection poetry that rises from the depths of society. Many references are easily relatable, for me at least. I grew up about a hundred miles east of Jackson and our towns were quite similar. There is a refined style to Jackson’s writing that is usually not found in urban writing. Perhaps it is a tribute to the past from someone who rose above his environment. Although the writing is refined it still captures the challenges and pitfalls of urban life; it is not sanitized but rather clarified for all to see. A very well done collection and very well worth the read.

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Poetry Review — The Fix


An incredible selection of poetry that almost defies description. Vivid in both descriptions and distractions the poet takes the reader on a wild ride from the shoulder of the road to the backroom of a club. Animalistic and sometimes violent the journey continues unabated.

Sometimes the words turn simple:

A seed sleeps till you put it in the ground.

A seed is a box water opens


~ Resurrections II

Other times the words tend to run deep and the meanings blur. The is captured particularly well in ”State of a Fair” blending meanings and playing both on words and events to create a double vision branching in different directions.

Complex yet beautifully written collection of poetry certainly able to hold the the attention and admiration of the reader. A well-done collection deserving of the Iowa Poetry Prize.

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Poetry Review — High Ground Coward

High Ground Coward by Alicia Mountain is the Iowa Poetry Prize winner for 2017. Mountain is a poet and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Witness, Zone 3, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Mountain’s work was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She won an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2014 and was a 2015 Idyllwild Fellow. She received her MFA from the University of Montana in Missoula.

This collection presents aspects from the poet’s life. The landscape of Montana comes to stimulating life, especially in the winter. Spring comes but it is in conjunction with a relationship. There is a stream of consciousness in the work that seems organic and organized like a messy desk. It is all there and you know where everything is located but it is not in clearly labeled folders. The urgency of he voice adds to the natural flow of information. At times it seems a bit chaotic but never out of control. There still is a fuzziness that comes with words:

My father had no sons.
My mother sends my wife her love.
In all of this, forgiveness

assumes sin and I’m not sorry.

~ The Book is a Hungry Darkness

Much is implied but without the detail that a second person would assign to the same information. Like modernist’s stream of consciousness put the reader inside a narrative brain, Mountain removes much of the narrative and puts the reader inside her mind without a guide. The careful reader will not be lost. “Little Rectangular Earths” and “Elysian / Echo” let the reader into a mind with naked thoughts.

There is a mix of memories road trips, childhood, trains, jobs, friends, and lovers in the work take on an almost dream-like quality. The imagery is constant and vivid as in “Closing Costs” although at times fragmented as memories or images of memories often are.

This collection of poems for slow enjoyment; take your time. Images need to build and collect. Although this collection may not be for everyone, it does offer intensity that is absent from much of modern poetry.




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