The Presidency of Barack Obama

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The Presidency of Barack Obama –
A First Historical Assessment
Edited by Julian E. Zelizer
Princeton University Press – £20.00

Obstructionism tended to hurt liberals more than the right.

     Julian E. Zelizer
     (‘Tea Partied – President Obama’s Encounters with the
     Conservative-Industrial Complex’)

America’s system of mass incarceration provides BLM (Black Lives Matter) activists with their most compelling evidence of contemporary racism in all of it’s tragically panoramic glory. The fact that this system continued to thrive under a two-term African American president is one of the great ironies of our time.

     Paniel E. Joseph
     (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal           Justice in the Age of Ferguson’)

There might admittedly be something to be said for Joan Walsh’s comment: ”This book captures the paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency better than any so far: Conventional wisdom aside, Obama was a better policy maker than a politician.”

Equally, there might also be something to be said for she who penned What’s The Matter With White People? having surely missed one fundamental point: it was the very acute acumen within the sphere of Barack Obama’s policy making, that enabled the former President to become President to begin with. Not to mention having set, as well as left the presidential bar so morally high, that it will no doubt take a number of high-reaching, soul-searching, ethically astute induced politicians to come anywhere near as close.

And what with the current American President being so utterly and morally bankrupt, he doesn’t even warrant comparing, let alone mentioning – other than to perhaps mention that it’s surely only a matter of time before Donald Trump will be reprimanded and globally invited to attend the International Court of Human Rights and Justice at The Hague in The Netherlands.

Moreover, what accounts for these seventeen chapters being so invitingly readable – the second of the above opening quotes from chapter nine being a good example – is the degree to which the reader is so readily drawn into the clarity and the persuasion of The Presidency of Barack Obama – A First Historical Assessment.

Indeed, to refer to these knowingly engaging, 279 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Timeline, Notes, List of Contributors and Index) as thought provoking, might be construed as substantiating the obvious. As such, a continuation of the aforementioned quote from Paniel E. Joseph’s chapter nine (‘Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives – Race, Democracy, and Criminal Justice in the Age of Ferguson’), does go some way in honestly reflecting this book’s rather inflammatory anchor: ”Black Lives Matter activists, although no less inspired than the president, interpret the movement as exemplifying the destructive power of state-sanctioned violence, racial oppression, and economic injustice. The movement’s most radical edges were surveilled, harassed, imprisoned, even killed at the hands of white vigilantes working in concert with local, state, and federal authorities, with the FBI being the most well known offenders but far from the only ones. The continued persistence of racial segregation in neighbourhoods and public schools, high rates of black unemployment, and continued assaults on voting rights by no less than the Supreme Court of the United States underscores the rank hypocrisy of a nation that annually celebrates a King holiday and Black History Month.”

Likewise, the following from Julian E. Zelizer’s altogether brazen Introduction: ”Few Republicans were willing to buck the party line. When the president repeatedly reached out to Republicans to support him on pressing legislation such as the economic stimulus package and financial regulation, both of which seemed to command strong popular support in the middle of a severe economic meltdown that had depleted the nation’s wealth and left millions unemployed, most Republicans refused to go along with any deal. And even though much of his response to the financial crisis built on the policies of President Bush, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, which Eric Rauchway calls the ”Bush-Obama financial rescue program”), many Republicans acted as if Obama were virtually a socialist.”

The Presidency of Barack Obama is a most stimulating and refreshing read. As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb has so succinctly put it: ”The essays in this volume are among the most nuanced, thorough, and incisive perspectives we’ve yet seen regarding the complex, contradictory, and besieged tenure of the first black president.”

Besieged being the most unfortunate, yet operative word.

David Marx

 

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Hull

hull

Hull
Pevsner Architectural Guides
By David and Susan Neave
Yale University Press – £14.99

There’s something about the city of Hull that is both fascinating and alluring, yet oddly off-putting in equal measure. What’s more, it’s hard to decipher which of these feelings ultimately take precedence. Although either way, this all together authoritative, practical and wonderfully illustrated guide of one of England’s leading ports since the Middles-Ages, really isn’t hard to decipher.

In fact, it’s something of a shame that there aren’t many more books like this on more British cities. Reason being, it’s far more than that which it’s secondary title proclaims. It’s just as much an all round guide and essential background reference, as it is an architectural guide.

For instance, this Pevsner Architectural Guide of Hull also includes a number of Excursions toward the rear of the book. ‘Excursions,’ being something, which in all honesty, one wouldn’t normally associate with Hull.

As such, from page 187 onward, there’s background information as well as maps, on the surrounding environs of: Hessle and the Humber Bridge, Cottingham and West Hull Villages, East of Hull: Hedon and Burton Constable, not forgetting of course, the absolutely wonderful small town that is Beverley.

The latter of which, I had the utmost pleasure of enjoying for a morning, and cannot help but agree with the following: ”Beverley is one of England’s most attractive country towns, and deserves to be better known. Its historic core, with medieval street plan, is remarkably intact. The town has many fine houses, predominantly Georgian, a rare medieval brick gateway, a handsome market cross, and a superb Guildhall, but its greatest architectural works are the Minster and St. Mary’s. No other town in England can boast two parish churches of such exceptional quality […]. Any exploration of the town should start at the Minster, where the history of Beverley really begins. Bishop John of York, who founded a monastry on the site of of the Minster in the early C8, was canonized as St John of Beverley in 1037, and it was the development of his cult which encouraged the growth of a town to provide for the needs of pilgrims and churchmen” (‘Beverley – 8.5 miles from Central Hull’).

Moreover, the bulk of the book really does focus on the city of Hull itself, which all told, lends the city a certain panache; especially when one colour photograph of a delightful old building is placed alongside, another. And then another.

Augmented with maps and an array of drop boxes which feature something most idiosyncratically indicativeof Hull itself – the Georgian Docks, Hull’s Victorian Sculptors (Earles and Keyworth’s) or Hull’s Telephone Boxes (cream-painted for the city’s independent telephone company), this book is resoundingly well detailed considering the amount of information it has set out to ultimately convey.

At 233 pages in length (excluding a really helpful Glossary and Index of Artists, Architectects and Other Persons Mentioned), Hull may be conceptual in application, although it really is concise in its appreciation of a much overlooked, very English city.

David Marx

 

Belgium & Luxembourg

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Belgium & Luxembourg
By Helena Smith, Andy Symington & Donna Wheeler
Lonely Planet – £14.99

This sixth edition of Lonely Planet’s Belgium & Luxembourg is every quintessential, literary expectation one has come to expect of said publisher’s assimilation of the most informative of travel guides. At 310 pages (excluding Glossary, Behind the Scenes and Index), it both informs and inspires the reader in equal measure.

For instance, even before reaching the fully explained, full-colour ‘Top 15’ (which, in chronological order consists of Bruges, Brussels, Grand Palace, Carnival Capers, Flemish Primitives, Luxembourg City, Chocolate, Castles, Belfries & Begijnhoven, Belgian Beer, Flanders Fields, Art Nouveau, Antwerp Art & Fashion, Museum of Remembrance, Art Cities and Caves of the Ardennes); one of the book’s three authors writes: ”My childhood bedroom in Sydney was decorated with postcards of Van Eyck Madonnas, but it wasn’t until a couple of decades later, during a couple of Europe’s coldest winters, that infatuation turned to love. My first impression of Antwerp was one of sheer wonder, the guildhalls of Grote Markt glinting as snow fell at the Christmas market, and the dimmed, richly cosy interiors of the Rubenshuis and the Museum Plantin-Moretus. This sense of quiet magic has accompanied each subsequent visit, whether it’s to galleries or gigs in Ghent, or for family time in a 17th-century farmhouse” (‘Why I Love Belgium & Luxembourg’).

In so doing, she has already inadvertently – or perhaps not so inadvertently – bequeathed the reader with a sense of anticipation – if not beguiling wonder. And in a round-a-bout kind of way, this already confirms that the book has done its job.

Before getting into the actual body of the book itself (which invariably kicks off with the country’s capital, Brussels), there are assorted sections entitled ‘Need to Know,’ ‘First Time Belgium & Luxembourg,’ ‘If You Like…,’ ‘Month by Month,’ ‘Itineraries’ and ‘Travel with Children,’ which, for all intents and the most helpful of personal purposes, is self explanatory.

Following an abundance of information on the various regions, the travel guide concludes with ‘History,’ ‘The Belgian People,’ ‘Creative Cuisine,’ ‘Arts & Architecture’ and naturally, a rather hefty section on ‘Belgian Beer.’

So in all, Belgium & Luxembourg makes for a rather fascinating read in its own right. That it just happens to include an assortment of maps and tips, makes it all the more so.

David Marx

The Long Hangover

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The Long Hangover –
Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past
By Shaun Walker
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Evgeny had been invited to Red Square for the parade and planned to attend; he liked the fact that 9 May was still celebrated. But although he enjoyed wearing his army jacket, festooned with medals, and he took understandable pride in being part of the victory, his bearing and tone were very different to the official propaganda. He spoke of the war as a terrible, not a glorious, experience: of loss and violence and unspeakable imagery. I doubt he would have wanted to dress his great-grandchildren up in Red Army uniforms, as if for a party.

We don’t need blind patriotism. We need the truth!

If you really want to know the truth about modern day, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, then read this overtly courageous and compelling book.

Written by Shaun Walker, The Guardian’s Correspondent in Moscow (and previous Correspondent for The Independent), The Long Hangover – Putin’s New Russia and The Ghosts of The Past, does, as its title might suggest, address both the past and the current. Or, to be a little more blatant, the good, the bad and the ugly; in which all three, the biggest and without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most captivating countries on the planet is deeply mired.

Thorough, to the point, occasionally melancholic, yet exceedingly readable, Walker has herein captured all the inflammatory essence of modern day Russia, by way of re-telling what ought to have been told many, many years ago.

Furthermore, a lot of the said telling is more than humanistic, if not quintessentially regal in its execution. This is directly due to The Long Hangover being wholeheartedly anchored within a sphere of real people. Ordinary people.

Quite often, extraordinary people, of which the following excerpt from the conclusion of chapter two’s ‘The Sacred War,’ is a most pertinent example: ”Evgeny’s lines were well rehearsed. He rattled off figures and dates with the precision of someone who had told his story a thousand times before. If I had returned a month later, I suspect he would have repeated the same sentences almost verbatim, in the way that distant memories coagulate into set monologues. And yet, despite that, the old man’s voice became rasping and he would gulp for air, as if he had surprised himself by the emotions the stories still raised, seventy years and hundreds of tellings later.”

Indeed, there are many occasions where one has to simply put this book down – and reflect upon what one has just read.

Be it Walker’s account of the entire Kamlyk people being deported en masse in 1943 (”People think only dogs can sense this kind of thing, but the livestock also knew something bad was happening. It was such chaos, such a terrible, terrible scene. The dogs ran after the trucks as we drove away, howling like mad. I’ll never forget that scene”), or recounting the words of former President Yeltsin – and now Putin’s – Chief of Staff: ‘I was delighted that the end of Communism had come about. But the Soviet Union was my homeland. That was different. How can you be happy about your homeland collapsing?”

In the words of Peter Pomerantsev (author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible): ”in this skilful and vivid book, Shaun Walker allows us to understand the region’s current affairs through ordinary and extraordinary people’s experience of an un-dealt with past.”

As a further caveat, I’d also like to add that The Long Hangover may well be the best book I’ve read on modern-day Russia in years.

David Marx

Portraits From Life

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Portraits From Life –
Modernist Novelists & Autobiography
By Jerome Boyd Maunsell
Oxford University Press – £20.00

Every instance of autobiography is as unique as the life it relates.

Let it be said that biographies and autobiographies can be a profoundly risky phenomenon. Especially when one considers that they are the only books some people will ever read; which, given the degree to which those responsible for writing them can pick and choose what to leave in and what to invariably leave out, really is quite something.

After all: ”A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages.”

What’s more, there is a subliminal tendency on behalf of most readers, to simply abide by what has been beguilingly bequeathed.
As if it were gospel.
As if written in stone.
As if forged upon the template of the ever increasingly curious mind.

Forever more.

There is of course a flip side, which is just one of the reasons I was lured into reading Portraits From Life – Modernist Novelists & Autobiography by Jerome Boyd Maunsell.

An overtly compelling read that endeavours to divulge the difficulties and possibilities of autobiography, by investigating seven canonical Modernist writers (Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, H. G. Wells and Edith Wharton); the book rightfully takes most, if not all of the above to task: ”[…] grasping only a part of life, or an aspect of character, cannot be helped. There is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative. For this reason, biographers cherish the elusive essences which define characters: the telling glances or moments that reveal a whole person […] Yet can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?”

It is precisely the reflective regaling of said fluidity of most people’s lives – their true ”sense of character caught only on the move” if you will – which wholeheartedly accounts for any form of underlying plausibility within biographical writing.

That said, it is surely all in the telling?
Or perhaps more importantly, the light and shade thereof, which, as Maunsell well knows, is so (cunningly) capable of immense literary sparkle: ”[…] taking heart from Leon Edel’s memorable image of the biographer struggling with the multiplicity of ”intractable” facts, or the ”tons and tons” of material left behind by many lives, Portraits From Life aims to arrive – if only for a moment or two – at that ”tiny glowing particle” which contains the ”human personality.”

And arrive these 216 pages most undoubtedly do, even if one does feel the need, the temptation or the simple desire to actually cross decipher – especially where Conrad (in relation to Ford Madox Ford) and Stein (in relation to Pablo Picasso) are concerned.

David Marx

Stalin: Waiting For Hitler

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Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane – £35.00

It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.

          Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1513)

Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries… In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.

          Henri Barbusse (Stalin, 1935)

Can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?

          Boyd Maunsell (Portraits From Life, 2018)

To perhaps consider this book a testament to analytical thoroughness, would be an understatement. To perhaps consider it as a biography of someone who was forever on the move – having wrought both undeniable (social) change and suffering to the largest landmass on the planet – might just as equally evolve unto colossal understatement.

Having not long read Boyd Maunsell’s Portraits From Life, I cannot help but feel that it is increasingly and idiosyncratically clear that ”there is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative.” Wherein many ”biographers cherish the illusive essences which define characters […]. A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages” (Oxford University Press).

At 909 pages – excluding the most extensive Notes and Bibliography I have ever come across (not to mention a Preface, List of Maps, Credits and Index) – Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941 is surely to be read with an underlying knowledge that its author, Stephen Kotkin, has approached his subject with all the adroit acumen one would normally associate with a propulsive quest for the truth. A quest, which, given the most complex of ideological barbarity to which its subject wholeheartedly subscribed, really, really is no mean feat.

Kotkin himself concludes the end of the first chapter (‘Equal to the Myth’) with the words: Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”

Just as the unspeakably unpleasant, if not grotesque excuse for a president, Donald Trump, currently proves equal to that of his own egocentric, inflammatory folly; Stalin most definitely proved equal to the myth of his own (nigh impeccable) design. As if some sort of perplexing providence were enjoying a field day of reflexive history. A deadly, tempestuous hybrid of history at that: ”Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation.”

‘A mania for adulation,’ which, much like today’s Trump, was in and of itself, a self-perpetuating myth; wholeheartedly stepped within the colossal realm of far too much considered violence and vendetta. Although the prime difference betwixt Stalin and Trump is that the former ”radiated charisma” (albeit ”the charisma of dictatorial power”).

As much partially explains why one cannot help but agree with The Times‘ George Walden, when he writes: ”one of the tragedies of Kotkin’s book is its eerie and troubling relevance today.” Indeed.

With immense authority and terrific aplomb, Stephen Kotkin has herein written and compiled perhaps the benchmark of a work, by which all other works on the subject will surely be compared – for many years to come.

Compartmentalized into three distinct parts (‘Equal To The Myth,’ ‘Terror As Statecraft’ and ‘Three-Card Monte’), along with a Coda (‘Little Corner, Saturday, June 21, 1941’) each of these fourteen chapters bequeath the reader with yet another saga over which Stalin fundamentally presided.

Akin to a literary monster with yet countless more heads to essentially come to historical terms with, this book enables the reader to refer to almost any part – with fleeting random – and still become both enlightened and entranced at the degree to which Stalin unashamedly moved. Not to mention of course, the undeniable effervescence with which Kotkin is able to keep unbelievable, political pace.

Yet believable it is.
Even when addressing many of Stalin’s opposing cohorts – be they Russian, American, British or indeed German.

For instance. Chapter eleven – simply entitled ‘Pact’ – opens with the following two quotes:

In his present mood, the PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet.

          Sir Alexander Cadogan
          (British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs,
          private diary entry, May 20, 1939)

Hitler: The scum of the earth, I believe?
Stalin: The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?

          David Low
          ‘Rendevous,’ Evening Standard, September 20, 1939)

If said quotes (alone) weren’t enough to trigger a veritable tsunami of discussion, already on the second page int the chapter, Kotkin addresses the thorny issue of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (whom unsurprisingly, Hermann Goring had already dubbed ”Germany’s No. 1 parrot”).

In relation to being more than instrumental in devising and convincing Hitler to make a deal with Stalin, the author writes: […] Ribbentrop operated by intuition and strove to be ”radical,” rarely invoking limits (or consequences), which pleased Hitler no end. And what could be more radical, in its way, than a deal with Communist Moscow?”

So no matter from which angle one decides to address the vast trajectory of Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, Stephen Kotkin has a superlative, if not very substantial answer.

Thereby accounting for the second unquestionable instalment of a landmark achievement – the first being its predecessor Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which, according to Lucy Hughes-Hallett of The New Statesman was ”exhilarating, compelling, terrifying and utterly gripping.”

Lest one forget, this book concludes in 1941- the year Germany invaded Russia – so there is clearly more to come. I for one, can’t wait.

David Marx

Why Dylan Matters

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Why Dylan Matters
By Richard F. Thomas
William Collins – 12.99

Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal.

               T. S. Eliot

The academics, they ought to know. I’m not really qualified. I don’t have any opinion.

               Bob Dylan

Two days ago, the ever mercurial Bob Dylan will turn seventy-seven.
Now I don’t know about you, but most seventy-seven year old people I know, or have known, aren’t like Bob Dylan.
A man forever searching.
Discovering.
Forever on some sort of quest to find out.
To find out what exactly, is beyond any form of what he’d no doubt consider as claustrophobic clarification. There again, any remote form of clarification in the hands of Dylan is akin to the utmost of artistic denial.
Which is just one reason why Dylan matters.
And there are, needless to say, many, many others.

The songwriter’s endemic evolution alone ought to surely be cast as one of them – if not one of the most unwittingly profound – as the George Martin Lane professor of the Classics at Harvard University, Richard F. Thomas, writes in this informative book’s second chapter, ‘Together Through Life’: ”And so it has continued with Dylan’s constant evolution through the decades, with some fans disembarking and others coming back onboard, and newer, younger ones signing up for the first time. It is an essential part of Dylan’s genius that he is constantly evolving as an artist. This is not true of the artists of similar longevity, say Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, or Bruce Springsteen. Inevitably that constant evolvement creates periods of experimentation and exploration, some less successful than others, but always moving restlessly toward something, and with the music of the last twenty years now having reached, and sustained, a third classic period.”

It’s as if Dylan has enjoyed a number of very varying musical careers; the very first of which, his astonishing sixties output, fundamentally sealed his artistic fate.

A fate, which, when compared with sixties cohorts, The Rolling Stones for instance, exemplifies evolution as it truly ought to be (but more often than not, isn’t). Reason being, The Stones last terrific album was released well over forty years ago, whereas Dylan’s last magnificent album was released as recent as 2012 (The Tempest).
Might this be another reason why Dylan matters?

As already mentioned, Dylan matters for a great many reasons – far too many to list and address in this review.

Why Dylan Matters however, comes from an entirely different perspective, essentially that of the Classics, as Thomas makes clear: ”For the past forty years, as a Classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of these ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place. That’s why Dylan matters to me, and that’s what this book is about.”

By way of comparative relation, these nine chapters, along with the book’s Conclusion (‘Speechless in Stockholm’), do much to substantiate the author’s thinking. There again, like Ovid, Homer and indeed Virgil himself: ”The art of Bob Dylan, no less than any other works produced by the human mind in its most creative manifestation, can be put to work in serving and preserving the humanities […] through a genius that captures the essence of what it means to be human.”

Analytical, forthright and overtly persuasive, Richard F. Thomas has herein written a book that’s a veritable joy to both read and behold – even if just to be reminded of the following: ”Songs were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic…I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well that’s still well and good. Folk songs taught me that.

David Marx