Category Archives: Book Review

The Presidency of Barack Obama

obama

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

 

Advertisements

The Long Hangover

long

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

life

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

stalin

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

Local Colour

smith

Local Colour
By Sam Smith
Indigo Dreams Publishing – £6.00

Slow, older men, indulge their miserable
natures behind moustaches and with
snarling commands to their dogs.
[…].
The searching nurse, a lift of her chin, unsmiling
comes towards him with a lesbian’s swagger. He
believes himself infested with rats and frogs;
and the world of men is of no help to him

                                       How Elusive Is Truth?

I have to say, the initial batch of these poems (out of a collection of thirty-seven), merely
passed me by, as if a mere creeping murmur of rain. As if a writer still searching; and as an immediate result thereof, ultimately trying way too hard.

That said, by the time I stumbled upon the final three lines of ‘Mocked By Windows’

cleaners and the homeless keeping warm
mocked by windows
divisions of glass

it became a little more clear that Sam Smith – nothing to do with the much over-rated singer of the same name – clearly has a vision of sorts. Even if said vision does appear to suffer as a direct result of becoming side-tracked – if not a trifle blighted by far too much tangential information.

For as potentially in depth as the poem which opens this review, ‘How Elusive Is Truth,’ undoubtedly is, it’s horribly let down due to such crass’n’caustic, throwaway lines such as:

for a semi-liquid shit, which dock and dandelion
leaves didn’t shift, only spread. His awkward attempt to wash
the stink off saw him part fall into a galvanised sheep-trough
(my italics).

One could pertain to arguing that eccentricity can sometimes make for a frivolous, yet high water-mark of literary prowess, although on this occasion, such, most definitely isn’t the case.
As such, Sam Smith may well pertain to a certain, poetic promise, which Local Colour both hints at and occasionally dip into; but really, that’s about it.

David Marx

The Plural of Us

plural

The Plural of Us –
Poetry and Community in Auden and Others
By Bonnie Costello
Princeton University Press – £37.95

When will we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love.

          ‘The Future of Us’

Poetry’s ‘we” can be highly nuanced and variable […]
marking overlapping and concentric circles.

          ‘Speaking Of Us’

In the final chapter of this highly focused book (‘The Future of Us’), Bonnie Costello endeavours to once more enter, and finally come to terms with the great chasm of an elongated, and at times self-induced ambiguity; by highlighting the non-definable space that surely lies betwixt the most pronounced personal of ‘I,’ and the most assumptive universal of ‘we.’

In so doing, she reinvests a certain assertion that the reader might readily agree with what is at best, a poetically endorsed thesis, wherein analysis takes centre stage almost throughout these 225 pages ( excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Biography and Index). For example, when she writes: ”Whatever the scale of relations, being is always already being ”with” – ”we are pressed, pressed on each other” – and one effort of the poetry is to discover meaningful unity within this condition of proximity, for ”we have chosen the meaning /of being numerous;” are we to readily agree?

What does the authoress essentially mean when she writes of ”meaningful unity”?
As for the ”condition of proximity,”this surely differs in relation to each and every varying circumstance?

I have to confess to initially being drawn to The Plural of Us – Poetry and Community in Auden and Others, largely due to the Auden in the title. For along with Eliot and both Dylans’, Auden is for me, the quintessential poet of the twentieth century.

As such, I was inquisitive to embrace the rather scientific formality of the subject matter ([…] some poetry seeks to harness the rhetorical power of the first-person plural to posit and promote community, often where there is social fragmentation. It can also alert us, intentionally or not, to the pronoun’s dangers and exclusions […]), within the context, or at least within the realm of the Auden trajectory.

Rather like Costello herself: ”He is perhaps the preeminent modern poet for thinking about groups and group organization, intuitively and in the abstract, but he is he rarely fixed to a particular theory or ideology for long. He is the poet of ”private faces in public places,” and of ”private stuff”and ”public spirit,” interested in the tensions and continuities between our intimate lives and our historical relations. He loves theories and doctrines, sometimes to the detriment of his verse, and passes through them like the pages of a calender, but the questions remain the same, and give coherence to the process. He is a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with, in part because he is always thinking, always changing position and genre.”

One could readily assert that it was said change that enabled Auden to remain at the vanguard of true poetic thinking.
Even to this day.
All the more so I’d have thought, simply because he did wrestle with (and love) theories and doctrines. Even if he did pass ”through them like the pages of a calender.”

That Bonnie Costello substantiates the fact that Auden was ”a writer not only interested to think about but interesting to think with,” accounts for much this book’s adherent allegiance to that of deciphering what its title suggests.

As not once does Costello remotely deviate or straddle off course.

There again, she appears to understand Auden all too well: ”As a ventriloquizing poet, always playing us back to ourselves so that we may hear what we mean, he is highly sensitive to the many postures and tonalities that can arise in the use of the first-person plural.”

In and of itself therefore, many could readily assert that this book is something of a first within its field; or, as Jahan Ramazani, the author of Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres, has since written: ”Bonnie Costello’s exquisite book brilliantly explores how Auden and other poets use the first-person plural to conjure collectivities into being even as they also unsettle them. Her rigorous and commanding reflections on the pronoun ‘we,’ her luminous close readings, her deep knowledge of lyric poetry, and her nuanced yet cogent arguments make this book a model of literary criticism.”

As the title The Plural of Us might suggest, this book circumnavigates the plurality of humanistic value in such a way that sheds new light on an oft, far too forgotten subject.

David Marx

The Origins Of Happiness

happy

The Origins Of Happiness –
The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course
By Andrew E. Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard,
Nattavudh Powdthavee &George Ward
Princeton University Press – £27.95

What matters to people must be the guidelines for our policies.

          Angela Merkel.

Wealth is like seawater. The more we drink, the thirstier we become.

          Schopenhauer

Most people would contest to not really caring about the origins of happiness; but rather, just being happy in the right here, right now. And to a certain degree (or should that read, dilemma?), who can really blame them?

After all, happiness, whatever it may be or however it is perceived and considered – is surely a mere off-shoot of contentment? That altogether ethereal, rather effervescent something, which we all fundamentally strive for throughout our entire lives.

But doesn’t happiness per se, come at a price (and a fairly hefty one at that)?

So far as a multitude of cancerous advertising moguls are concerned, happiness can be both bought and devoured by way of delusional diversion. The so-called American Dream being the perfect example, which is where the above opening quote by Shopenhauer truly comes into play. For ’tis indeed true, that the more seawater we drink, the thirstier we become. This partially explains why so many Americans are burnt out at such a young age.

Not to mention why America just so happens to be one of the most stress induced nations on the planet.

The Origins Of Happiness – The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course, does as such, make for an almighty interesting and persuasive read: ”Our aim is ambitious – it is to revolutionize how we think about human priorities. Inevitably the findings at this stage are approximate. But it is better to be roughly right about what really matters than to be exactly right about what matters less. Our findings should therefore be judged not by comparison with a state of perfect knowledge but with the prevailing ignorance.”

‘The prevailing ignorance’ being the key three words here, as it is something which ought to be considered one of the great scourges of humanity. And ultimately happiness.

Reason being, ignorance – in all its vainglorious glory – has to be (one of) the most profound origins of unhappiness.
Responsible for a multitude of sins.
Whether the crucifixion of he we continue to refer to as having suffered for our sins, the rise of the Nazi Party, Donald Trump, or the heinous, continuing success of The X Factor.
Ignorance is indeed, responsible for so much unhappiness, a prime example being the belief that money will surely obliterate unhappiness.

This book’s second chapter ‘Income’ (its first being ‘Happiness over the Life-Course: What Matters Most?) addresses the dictum which many subscribe to as being the ultimate be all of all things.

To be sure, it opens with the following: ”Does more money buy more happiness? It does, but less than many people might think. There two extreme views, both equally fallacious. On the one hand there are careless studies claiming that money makes no difference. This is certainly wrong, if we are talking about life-satisfaction as the outcome. On the other hand, there are millions of individuals who think that more money would totally change their well being. For most people, this too is a delusion.”

Upon reading the above, many might consider that the five authors herein traipse the easy road by essentially sitting on the literary fence, but this really isn’t so. The rest of the chapter, in fact the book as a whole, delves into far more involved analyses, by way of numerous (statistical) comparisons between Britain, the United States, Germany and Australia; making for a book, which, as it’s secondary title suggests, is as equally scientific in approach as it is sociological.

To quote Princeton University’s Alan Krueger: ”Rooted in the best-available evidence for each stage in life, The Origins Of Happiness provides an ambitious and comprehensive analyses of what leads to a satisfying life, from childhood to old age.”

David Marx