Category Archives: Book Review

Milosz – A Biography

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Milosz – A Biography
By Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.95

There is too much talk about what poetry ought to be and too little about what poetry ought to be and too little about what it is. It is primarily a contradiction to nihilism. Like an apple in a Dutch painting […] because it refers to something that is particular. An author of rhyming introductory articles can be a fairly good poet for a while, because he uses his observations as resources, but he has to shout much louder… because this is the price for moving away into a desert of ideas. One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.

          Czeslaw Milosz (‘Poetry and Diadectics – 1951’)

What equipped him for his truth-telling role was the incomparable quality of his intellect and poetic skills, which enabled him to endure and, much later, process imaginatively experiences and sufferings which might well have destroyed a less driven individual.

          Seamus Heaney (Introduction)

In order not to kill himself, he sought any argument that could dissuade him from such an act, although the most important and hardest to pinpoint was something deep within him. Faith and piety? To be more precise, it was the belief that the world was not based on a void, that there was a higher authority which did not allow anything to occur by chance.

          Andrzej Franaszek
           (‘A Story of One Particular Suicide Case’)

What is it that drives a person to such incomparable lengths as to endure, and as a result, be capable of delivering occasional work that is (almost) beyond description? Beyond depiction? As Seamus Haney clearly states, perhaps its a mixture of acute gift and suffering.

But gift and suffering alone, do not necessarily make for terrific, enlightening and what’s more, in-depth writing. One need only ask Vladimir Nabakov, Ted Hughes or indeed W. H. Auden. All three of whom somehow, inadvertently subscribed to the ideological thinking of ”One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.”

It is just such open-wound-like, regal realisation on the part of Andrzej Franaszek, that accounts for this book being such a spell-binding and all round invigorating read. As Adam Zagajewski has since written: ”Franaszek is well suited to his subject.” To be sure, Milosz – A Biography might well be considered as being many things to many people; one being that it could nigh well be deemed a cleansing of the intellect…

Just one of the (many) reasons being – apart from the huge body of extraordinary work it traverses – is that Milosz, surely one of the most unquestionably important poets of the last century, simply bypassed all folly, all insincerity, all hypocrisy.

And if such weren’t enough to fully engage with both Milosz and Milosz – A Biography, then I really don’t know what is.

Once again, returning to Zagajewski: ”Franaszek’s outstanding biography of Czeslaw Milosz narrates one of the great lives of the twentieth century and does not shy away from recounting the more private side of the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats. Milosz was an artist who was also a political thinker, who stood in the centre of the ideological debates of his time, who was an incredibly industrious writer and on top of all this had a sublime gift for poetry:

My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this is a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen

(‘Diary of a Naturalist’)

When Zagajewski writes about the author not shying away from ”the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats;” as much is rather evident within the fine selection of black and white photographs contained herein – where many a picture does indeed paint many a thousand words.

Each of these 470 pages (excluding Maps, Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) lends the reader with a most refined window into one of the most understated, misunderstood, greatest of (Polish) poets to have ever graced the blank, yet seemingly troubled, page.

Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, I can honestly say that Milosz – A Biography opens many, many an invigorating and (already preordained) invigorated window.

David Marx

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Debating Europe In National Parliaments

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Debating Europe In National Parliaments –
Public Justification and Political Polarization
By Frank Wendler
Palgrave Macmillan – £92.00

What with the ghastly likes of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and of course Jacob Rees Mogg – not to mention the entire Tory government – Britain’s future with(in) the rest of Europe hangs precariously in the balance of (knowingly) machine gunning itself in the foot.
Totally and utterly.
Thus resulting in a broken body that no longer works.
Thus resulting in having become one of the world’s prime laughing stocks – due to orchestrated self-infliction might one add – beyond repair.

Wasn’t Broken Britain enough?
Did/Does ever more irreparable damage need to be done?

Clearly it does, which is why Debating Europe In National Parliaments – Public Justification and Political Polarization and such other books of a similar political design, also hang somewhat precariously in the balance.

Simply because, among other things, no two days are ever the same in Great (great?) Britain.

Moreover, what is without any shadow of a right-wing induced doubt, is the degree to which Britain is no longer taken remotely seriously amid the world’s the corridors of power. Especially when said corridors are in Paris, Berlin and Moscow; which to be fair, this book’s eight chapters simply bypass.
As if an open cesspit of a wound!

There again, as Frank Wendler states in the Introduction: ”The main task of this book is to uncover how public political contention evolves in parliamentary debates, and what forms of political polarization between parliamentary parties can be observed in a comparison of four European legislatures. Against this background, the purpose of this book is to link two debates that currently play a central role for research about European integration: first, the investigation of the effects of EU decision-making on the politics of its Member States, as commonly addressed through the term ”Europeanization” […] and second, research dealing with the perception that the process of European integration is going through a transformative change through the increased public visibility, political salience, and contestation of its policies and decisions, as expressed through the term ”politicization” […]. Through this connection, the book positions itself both in the study of European integration and in the comparative study of parliaments and party systems.”

The aforementioned wheeler-dealer, cum lying toad numero uno, Nigel Farage, would no doubt have (an open) field day deflecting such adult dogma as: ”European integration[…] in the comparative study of parliaments and party systems.”

So well done Frank Wendler for having compiled this rather weighty dissertation on such a wide and varied (complicated) subject matter; upon which Professor Vivien A.Schmidt of Boston University has since written:”Wendler’s groundbreaking study documents the increasing salience of the European Union in national parliamentary debates over the past decade. Using an innovative mix of quantitative and qualitative discourse analysis of four highly differentiated legislatures(the UK, France, Germany and Austria), the book connects different EU-related discursive frames to very different patterns of party polarization, to show how and why this matters for the bottom-up democratization of the EU.”

Excluding two lists of Figures and Tables, an Annex (Plenary Debates of National Parliaments Coded for the Present Study) and Index, these 238 pages make for dry, albeit – given the subject matter – very informative reading.

David Marx

Stats, Records & Rock’n’Roll

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Stats, Records & Rock’n’Roll –
Fine-Tuned Infographics To Rock Your World
By Daniel Tatarsky & Ian Preece
Carlton Books – £25.00

The book travels through the centuries – from the very earliest music created by hitting stones with bones, to the latest developments in musical creation and delivery like the mp3. Eighty fact-filled spreads bring you all the way to the social-media era, where an artists number of followers and virtual friends is often more important than the actual number of records they sell. Talking of records, now that vinyl has come back into fashion, you’ll also find absorbing details of the various media upon which music has been delivered to our ears, as well as the diverse number of broadcast systems, stations and players.

                                                                                  (Introduction)

There are a number of ways of approaching or reading this book.

One can either be acutely mathematical about it; in which case, such crass, terrible and rather pointless acts likes Cardi B and Rhapsody unfortunately come into play (who in their right mind would ever consider calling themselves Rhapsody for fuck sake? I’d sooner call myself Leukemia). Wherein music counts for…well…nada, while image and of course, marketing, is so profoundly sacrosanct and of such vital importance, that even the very word, sacrosanct, is itself, deemed a salacious mockery.

Naturally, one can take the organic approach to Stats, Records & Rock’n’Roll –
Fine-Tuned Infographics To Rock Your World, wherein all and any hope of musical inspiration, will be re-defined beyond the point of any expectation (not to mention explanation) whatsoever.

Indeed, apart from the book’s Introduction – a segment of which opens this review – these 175 pages are lacking in any form of clarity and depth.
They kind of read like a cross-word in the making.

In other words, the book doesn’t really feel complete, although there are admittedly, a few things here and there that do make for ever so marginally interesting reading.

For instance, ‘Country Musicians Not Entirely From The Country’ on page 42, ‘The”Curse” Of The Mercury Prize’ on page 104, ‘The Summer of Love’ Songs on page 142 and ‘Beating Number One’ on page 158, where the authors write: ”The pace of life has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and it’s unsurprising that the beats per minute of the best-selling UK singles per calender year reflect that. During the first few years of the charts, in the 1950s, the average BPM was a mere 99: ‘I Believe’ by Frankie Laine bottomed out at just 66 bpm. Since then, there has been a steady climb (rapid leaps provided by The Beatles and the fast-paced 1980s) and the 2010s are the first decade that hasn’t had a single best-seller timed at under 100 bpm.”

So, other than a few assorted nuggets of trainspotter induced karma – hey, takes all sorts – I should imagine Stats, Records & Rock’n’Roll will appeal to those with a penchant for numbers and facts and erm, more numbers and facts.

David Marx

Anatomy Of A Song

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Anatomy Of A Song –
The Inside Stories Behind 45 Iconic Hits
By Marc Myers
Grove Press/Atlantic – £9.99

Writing about songs and songwriting in general, can on occasion, make for fascinating reading; although so much depends on a number of very important, varying issues: what’s being discussed, what’s not being discussed, the story behind the writing and of course, the actual song itself.

With this in mind, any book of this nature is also utterly dependent on what the artists may or may not have to say. As such, Anatomy Of A Song – The Inside Stories Behind 45 Iconic Hits is a little hit and miss.

The background behind a number of the forty-five songs chosen herein, read like something of an elongated, rather dull biography of some of the artist(s) involved. For instance, the horribly over-rated ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ by Steppenwolf, is a prime example of much ado about fundamentally nothing.

I for one, really couldn’t care less about where the band’s lead singer, John Kay lived, how his band secured a record deal or how he met his girlfriend. I think I’d sooner read about the history of knitting – which, in and of itself, is a pretty dismal pastime if ever there was one. Likewise, a number of the songs discussed: ‘Groovin” by The Young Rascals, ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane and even ‘Carey’ by Joni Mitchell.

All three are hardly stand-out songs; but, so far as this collection is concerned, the stories behind them don’t exactly make for inspired reading.

Yet, luckily for Marc Myers, Anatomy Of A Song does miraculously leap into life towards the final third of its 323 pages, when such far more interesting artists as Jimmy Cliff (‘The Harder They Come’), Elvis Costello ((‘All The Angles Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’), The Clash (‘London Calling’), and R.E.M. (‘Losing My Religion’) are discussed.

Moreover, it is when the author interviews Stevie Wonder in relation to ‘Love’s in Need of Love Today,’ that the book really comes to life: ”To this day, I never sit down and formally write songs. They emerge from the process of listening to what I’m doing on the keyboard. I just play, and songs sort of happen. Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful. I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude – you know, ”Only by the grave of God am I here” and write from there. I think most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit. God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver.”

So yeah, books that essentially traverse and dissect the coming together of songs, are in themselves, reliant on those songs. This goes a long way in explaining why this particular book is, on the whole, linear and lifeless.

David Marx

Treason’s Spring

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Treason’s Spring
By Robert Wilton
Corvus/Atlantic £18.99

The Place du Carrousel is a pool of mud, swirled with the shit of horses and dogs and humans under thousands of feet, as they shift and try to shuffle forwards. Towards the centre of the square the bodies are packed tight. Hands clench and un-clench in reaction to the spectacle, clutch at arms, hover over mouths as if to stifle vomit or a scream, grope, or reach for a pocket. The faces bob and strain for the view, exultant – and alarmed by what their exultation has conjured. There’s only a memory of light in the evening sky, and the windows of the buildings around the square twinkle orange in the blaze of the torches.

                                                                                                             (Prologue)

It’s interesting to think that the former advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the lead up to the country’s inevitable independence, Robert Wilton, could and would, feel compelled to write such a fine, literary historical narrative as Treason’s Spring.

Suave, smart and in a way, enchantingly beguiling, these 404 pages regale a time in French/European history that is as seemingly fraught with just as much horror as it is political turmoil.

As such, some might ask: so what’s changed?

All I can say is, read this book for yourself; as in so doing, you might well stumble upon something of an (un)surprising answer.

Reason being, this occasionally thrilling, albeit meticulous panorama of Paris during the French Revolution, will take one a learned and most informed journey – not exactly a hundred miles removed from that of the likes of Hilary Mantel and perhaps Bernard Cornwell.

David Marx

Radioactive Starlings

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Radioactive Starlings
By Myronn Hardy
Princeton University Press – £14.95

Like most art, poetry is obviously subjective to personal taste, provision and persuasion.

As such, to all literary intent and home’n’dry poetic purposes, Radioactive Starlings is, to my mind at least, fundamentally governed by one sensational poem: ‘But I Must Forget;’ while much of the remainder suffer from being far too esoteric (therefore, frustratingly closed) for their own good.

In the words of Khaled Mattawa (author of Tocqueville: Poems), Myronn Hardy ”is a citizen of worlds, including the North Africa where he lives and the America where he was born.”

Hmm, that the twain don’t particularly meet or see eye to eye – Lord knows the deplorable Donald Trump has intrinsically put paid to that – really ought not hold any influential sway amid the reading of these fifty-seven poems. But it somehow does; especially within the sphere of that which is neither North Africa nor America. Admittedly, this may be partially due to me not being especially well versed in the daily happenings and goings on in North Africa.

The US meanwhile, is clearly a different matter altogether – for all the wrong reasons might I add. So when Hardy ends his poem ‘The Inescapable Escape’ with the lines:

Know that kind
of defeat that horrific clarity.
The women begin to sing.

he was either inadvertently psychic, or so acutely up-to-date so far as the direction of where Washington politics were/are heading (especially given the many, many thousands of women who marched in protest of Trump’s wholly unethical administration – if such it can be called – last the weekend), that ”horrific clarity” equates with something of a perverse, yet current-day, malignant mantra.

And when such thinking is invariably placed alongside the aforementioned ‘But I Must Forget,’ there’s a whole lot of unforeseen depth to contend with. Indeed, right from the the very outset:

I must travel to a paradise of ashes,
walk among its hidden trees.- Adonis

Although it’s within the actual body of the text itself, where the many variegated particles of political poetry reins home:

[…]They ascend to smoking
towers but still gaze the piles
of themselves the cinders of civilization.
To be civil means to be at peace.
But peace is processed through its opposite.

The mere fact that Hardy claims peace itself, can genuinely be processed; may lend a glimmer of hope to that of a mighty dangerous, contentious world. That he then goes on to assert that ”peace” can only be processed ”through its opposite,” substantiates said potential for hope; but surely, only by way dialogue and dare I say it, intelligence?

Neither of which the odious Donald Trump for one (leader of the Free World!) is capable of understanding.

Let alone embracing:

rather like said poem’s penultimate line:
like them dead in churches?

David Marx

 

Hue 1968

Hue

Hue 1968
A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Grove Press/Atlantic – £20.00

According to Karl Malantes – whose astonishing novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) I reviewed upon publication – this book is ”an extraordinary feat of journalism.”

Indeed, with unprecedented access to war archives in both the US and Vietnam, and in conjunction with an array of interviews with participants on both sides, writer, journalist and reporter, Mark Bowden, herein narrates each stage of this crucial battle through a fine literary prism of multiple perspectives.

Played out over twenty-four days of the most harrowing fighting – which ultimately cost somewhere in the region of 10,000 combatant and civilian lives – the Battle of Hue was without any shadow of a doubt, the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign. When it ended, the American debate was never really the same again.

It was no longer about winning the war in Vietnam per se, but how best to leave the country; which for all intents and ideologically political purposes, Bowden brilliantly reconstructs amid these 539 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Vietnamese Glossary, Source Notes and Index). This ought hardly be surprising given the calibre of Bowden’s writing, whose previous thirteen books include Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo.

While having been to Vietnam and seen for myself the relatively primitive, albeit deadly, organic means by which the North Vietnamese fought their American foes; I also stumbled upon the broad and inbred trajectory of vast humility. A quality, which, perhaps unbeknown to the Vietnamese themselves, is systematically endemic within the everyday fibre of their being.

As much is candidly brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; perhaps none more so than in a particularly pertinent if not poignant section of ‘Part Five: Sweeping the Triangle,’ wherein Bowden writes:

””I have something to say,” she said.
Quang asked her to unfold her arms. He was younger than her son.
”I am a wife,” she said. ”And a mother. These two” – she motioned to her husband and son – ”are guilty. It is known. They have done the nation wrong. As a mother and a wife, I am begging you for forgiveness.”
Quang let them go. Both father and son thanked him profusely. Puffed up with his own magnanimity, he told the son, ”Your mother has just given birth to you for the second time.”
Such generosity was the exception, so much so that Quang was later censured for it.
”Since they were aware of their mistakes and reported on their own son, it wasn’t necessary,” he argued in his defense. ”What mother isn’t hurt if her husband and son are in this position? It isn’t about one side or the other, it’s about being human” (my italics).
He forgave the police lieutenant who had nine children. The man had not reported himself; he had been arrested. Under the rules, it meant he had to be sent away. But Quang weighed the fate of his wife and children and told the man, ”You have to live to raise you r children. I forgive you because your nine kids are still too young. Your crimes are way too clear to forgive, but because of your children I here let you go home.”

Brittle as well as immensely (relentlessly) powerful, Hue 1968 traverses the Vietnam War in such a way that’ll make many readers sit-up and think. Not to mention maybe re-read what they’ve just read. Perhaps one of the many reasons being that it brings home what took place in Vietnam in 1968, as if it took place only yesterday – which really isn’t an easy thing to do. Let alone capture.

Replete with maps and a number of sterling black and white photographs, this book is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in The Vietnam War.

David Marx