Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Final Day by Forstchen Superficial and Filled with Gimmicks

Saturday, February 4th, 2017
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Post-apocalypse America. China occupies all territory west of the Mississippi except for the lands Mexico reclaims it lost in the Southwest. Eastern United States is in chaos. Metropolitan areas are radioactive wastelands or havens for marauders armed with military weapons to plunder villages where refugees seek survival. In his novel, The Final Day, author William R. Forstchen lets readers infer that his story takes place early in the 21st century. Ninety percent of the population perish in a cataclysm of detonated nuclear missiles and high impact shock weapons. Gone are the Internet, the power grid, computers on line at the time, law enforcement, water and sewer and services of a civilized society.

Struggling to start over, the State of Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains of what once was the state of North Carolina is led John Matherson, the hero of the story. The State defends against outlaws in costly battles against the Posse and against Fredericks, attackers about whom nothing is known as the author never bothers to explain. Ambiguity stirs the curious, after all, and it’s one of Forstchen’s favorite gimmicks. When there’s no tension arising from the plot, it suffices at times to have readers asking: Who are these people anyway?

The first third of the book could be summarized: A stranger staggers into camp and expiring, mentions the name of a man Matherson knows. John decides with no particular agenda in mind to fly to meet with his friend. Once air borne, the story becomes a travelogue about the desolate winter landscape. The mission fails. Matherson returns to base. Days pass and radio communication (eureka) is restored. Matherson’s friend, retired general Bob Scales, will come to see Matherson. Scales knew Matherson was there all along. The dead stranger was the General’s aide. (Right! The story could have started at this point and little would have been lost.)

Incomparable human suffering . . .

Arriving with three armed Blackhawk helicopters hovering menacingly overhead, Scales threatens Matherson’s little settlement with annihilation if Matheson doesn’t become his hostage. Scales explains he is acting under orders. Despite seeing incomparable human suffering everywhere, he persists as an agent of Bluemont in being the oppressor and executioner.

The plot meanders into a blizzard of mindlessness at this point. The author chose Bluemont as his adversary because the word is devoid of any historical, human or geographical connotation. Bluemont could be a place, a site inter-terrestrials have landed or the last surviving Native American reservation. Nobody knows. Despite having communication with the BBC and itinerant refugees passing all kinds of information along, Bluemont is a mystery.

Even in the most fantastic yarns, some sense of continuity, the role of destiny in the lives of the characters and cause and effect need to be sustained to insure credibility. Not so in The Final Day, Enemies pop overnight for no apparent reason. Friends turn on one another and then realign. Unidentified assassins attack at random. Suspense is sustained by simply withholding information about all adversaries and their motives. Gimmickry run wild.

Chest Deep in Trivia . . .

Forstchen’s plot slogs along like a hiker chest deep in trivia. The weaknesses in the story line are covered up as readers are subjected to pages of tedium about World War II, the Civil War, vintage computer restoration, code breaking, winter survival methods (common knowledge stuff regularly aired on the History channel). The characters lack depth and are limited in their reach for the emotions that would touch readers and evoke a sympathetic response. An entire continent has been transformed into a charnel house yet the killing and destruction continues. The myth of the military hero is sustained in an atmosphere choking with the stench of decay and decomposition.

The final quarrel a thoughtful reader will have with The Final Day is philosophical rather than aesthetic. In a book about the future, Forstchen regrettably turns to the past to find the fodder for his story and leaves unexplored the real challenges that would await the grieving and disabled as they crawl out from the wreckage of a nihilistic holocaust. Surely some somewhere would conclude that more killing is to persist in barbarism and the lessons of mass destruction as a method of wielding power delivers to those who would prevail nothing but dominion over a toxic and decimated wasteland. Although well-written, the book fails as adult reading. The Final Day is comic book tripe

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This review initially appeared in bookpleasures.com, a web site dedicated to reviewing books.

 

 

James Grippando’s Novella “The Penny Jumper” – Trading Stock at Lightspeed

Monday, December 12th, 2016

#highfrequencytrrading $daytrading #stockmarket  thepennyjumper #daytrading #pennystock

 

John J. Hohn - Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

John J. Hohn – Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

Time is money, but what is the price tag that comes with it. Bestselling author James Grippando sets the amount at about 160 million every trading day on Wall Street. That’s for a single millisecond or .001 seconds. Why so much? Simple. High frequency traders on the world’s stock exchanges go to great lengths to gain a millisecond advantage over their competitors. In an intricate network of computers and trading systems, one millisecond gives a firm the chance to increase profits by jumping up the price on large blocks of stock by one cent per share. Companies losing money to the high-jacking of the data stream want to put an end to the practice. Their quest sets the stage for Grippando’s excellent novella, The Penny Jumper.

It will take an complex algorithm to stop the penny jumpers from hitchhiking onto the trades streaming from every corner of the globe. In fact, it would require a genius, one presumably beyond the reach of Wall Street, nestled obscurely in a university staff somewhere working in a field of pure research. Turns out Ainsley Grace – young, pretty and bright – is engaged in a monumental project at MIT that would harness all the telescopes of the world and convert them into one huge cyclops to penetrate outer space. The distances data must travel from the far flung locations needs to be synchronized before a composite image is possible. Ainsley configures an algorithm that has all the scopes seeing as one. Kudos for the achievement, however, do not come with a bonus that would alleviate Ainsley’s heavy student load debt. She accepts a consulting job with a Wall Street firm who is wrestling with the penny jumper problem.

James Grippando - Auhor

James Grippando – Auhor

Leaving Boston for New York, Ainsley comes up with the algorithm her employers that will protect them against the penny jumpers. Problem is, before she can collect her six figure fee, her program is stolen, and to top it off, she is the accused of absconding with it herself. She is being framed but proving her innocence is no easy task and there are disarming twists and turns along the way that make her plight at times seem hopeless.

Author Grippando’s tale of Ainsley’s adventure in the wilds of capitalism, where greed is good, is exquisitely symmetrical. Everything he starts, he finishes. No loose ends. The author’s style is lean and efficient, providing just enough detail to orient the reader with each setting. The pace of the mystery is almost as fast as the data streams central to the story without sacrificing insight into the characters or concocting unlikely coincidences to move the plot along. The courtroom scenes are compelling. The dialogue crisp and authentic. Ainsley’s relationship with her attorney and friend, Connor, is straightforward and realistic; in a word, refreshing. Grippando is a master at breaking down the scientific premise of the plot into layman’s terms. In his hands, brevity does not equate to superficiality. The author quotes Carl Sagan, for example, to answer to the age old debate of agnosticism versus atheism. He takes less than a paragraph were others have wasted pages. In a story about really bright, thinking people, the author’s genius shines in a plot that has thoroughly thought . There are plenty of surprises along the way, right up until the final page.

The Penny Jumper Cover

The Penny Jumper Cover

The Penny Jumper is nearly flawless. Author Grippando is marvelously inventive with every detail to keep the story credible, save one. Bad guy, Vlad Kosov, uses mob muscle to get the price reduced by half on a 50 million dollar property in Hong Kong. Real estate transactions at that stratospheric level, especially in Hong Kong, just don’t seem vulnerable to on-site threats from a thug. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that the man who is intimidated into selling is important to the rest of the plot. Readers may trip but not break stride on this detail because the story line is so compelling and beautifully presented. The Penny Jumper is thoroughly entertaining if a bit unsettling once readers realize the high volume trading network at the heart of our cherished free enterprise system might possibly be more vulnerable than most may think.

This review first appeared in somewhat condensed form on bookpleasures. com

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Marilyn Monroe – A Definitive New Biography by Vitacco-Robles

Friday, July 15th, 2016

#MarilynMonroe  #Movies #Hollywood

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Marilyn Monroe is an enigmatic figure in the history of the entertainment industry. Half a century has passed since her death, yet she is remembered today as if she were yet alive. Her story has evolved into legend. Breathtakingly beautiful, talented and charismatic, she begins her career in the heyday advent of the movie industry. The widescreen CinemaScope technology and stereophonic sound present her on the wide screen as sensual, alluring and innocent – the undeniably seductive child-woman somehow untainted by the world. She was so compelling in her portrayals that two of her more successful films (Some Like It Hot and The Misfits) were produced in black-and-white. Other glamorous stars preceded her, but none secured the same lasting impact.

Marilyn Monroe is both the product and the victim of twentieth century America as the country moves into new-found affluence after World War II. The age is witness to the rise of materialism, the redefinition of sexual values, the questioning of the place of women in society and the leaderless rebellion of youth against the established order. Monroe’s name is associated with some of the elite of the era, Carl Sandberg, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Frank  Sinatra and Clark Gable among others.  It would only follow that many would try to exploit her memory for personal advantage. Over 600 books have been published about her. Many accounts distort the collective memory to such an extent the task of untangling and clarifying Ms. Monroe’s story takes on monumental dimensions.

Unassailable Credibility . . .

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles = Author and Biographer

Gary Vitacco-Robles was not one to be deterred from the challenge of making certain truth would prevail. His two volumes, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II constitute the definitive biography of the great actress. (See the earlier review of Volume I click here on this web site.) That Vitacco-Robles cares, and cares deeply, for his subject is clear. His compassion and sensitivity are never more obvious than when he addresses the less-than-glamorous episodes in her life. Readers can expect to be impressed with the depth of his research. Every scene is filled with poignant detail. His credibility is unassailable and thus the power behind his narrative flows from genuine empathy for his subject.

Volume II covers the turbulent years from 1956 to 1962, the year the star died of a tragic, accidental overdose. By 1956, Ms. Monroe has gained star status. The Seven Year established her securely as a box office draw. Successes followed including The Prince and the Showgirl, Bus Stop, and arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The world comes to know the screen persona of the actress. What becomes central to the spiritual and psychological plight for Ms. Monroe is that the world does not know her for who she truly is. “Do you want me to be Marilyn?” she teases one guest. In private the actress finds the adulation, addressed as it is to a characterization, void of the affirmation she desperately seeks. She struggles with depression, the anguish of bipolar emotional swings and the unfulfilled yearnings with their roots in a deprived and abusive childhood. Vitacco-Robles has the professional credentials to state his own analysis, but he remains objective and quotes other authorities who knew Ms. Monroe whenever he wants to write about her tormented mental state. Throughout, the author is even-handed and balanced in presentation; neither apologist nor critic. He treats the actor’s professional growth in the same manner. Monroe’s contemporaries observe that she is at the height of her talent and growing as an actress at the time of her death.

Marilyn Monroe in the  Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe in the Iconic Publicity photo for The Seven Year Itch

Several persons emerge from the author’s narrative as major influences in the star’s life. Arthur Miller’s emotional withdrawal from her while they are married leaves readers questioning the depth of artistic sensitivity. Joe DiMaggio’s devotion to her throughout her life is moving. Lee and Paul Strasberg seem to thrive on keeping Marilyn dependent rather than helping her move toward a more autonomous self-sufficiency. Readers may also conclude that Psychiatrist Ralph Greenson is guilty of cultivating a dependency. Monroe was on the verge of firing him at several points.

Approaching Ridicule . . .

Surprises await also. Ms. Monroe’s performance of Happy Birthday at JFK’s party can be seen on You Tube today. It may appear to be spontaneous. Not so, however.  It was rehearsed and she was very nervous before the performance. It was suggested that she appear in a more modest formal gown, but she decided to surprise the President and those attending with something of  her own choosing. The dress she selected was sewn on her. She wore no under garments. Emcee Peter Lawford, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Monroe and JFK together in his home, built his introduction of the actress on a belittling patter that approached ridicule.  The “audience roared,” the author reports, when she crossed the stage.. Her seductive presentation borders on travesty, especially in the face of the rumors that were flying about her and the President. Public values were very much in transition at the time, but even today, many would see her act as an affront to the decorum expected in the presence of a head-of-state. “That was poor form on her part,” Mort Viner, Dean Martin’s manager said. Many would agree. The President, in acknowledging her performance, observes with humorous sarcasm that he enjoyed being serenaded in such a “wholesome” manner and the line drew a laugh from the crowd. Sarcasm is always a mixed message. Audience members may have roared at her appearance but for the most part it was at her expense.  One wonders whether she realized at some level that she may have discredited herself. At the very least, she was not well served by those who rehearsed her. Nothing highlights the dichotomy between the performing Marilyn and the private Marilyn as much as this short historic appearance. The author does not report that private Marilyn drew any satisfaction over how her performance was received. “I  liked it,” she said in response to a direct question about the party by reporters afterward.

Her Own Glittering Mist . . .

Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., JFK’s biographer, made a journal entry that speaks for most when he wrote, “I do not think I have seen anyone as beautiful. I was enchanted by her manner and wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. But one felt a terrible unreality about her-as if talking to someone under water. . . . One never felt her to be wholly engaged. She receded into her own glittering mist.”

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II - Cover

Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volume II – Cover

Vitacco-Robles, as an author, refrains from moralizing and passing judgement. Readers, however, will find the story he has presented as moving and tragic, so much so that one may feel Marilyn Monroe’s legacy looms much larger than her artistic achievements. Her performances will attest through the ages to the depths of her enormous talent. Given her kindness to others, her generosity and her forgiving nature, she stands, however, for so much more. It is not too difficult to imagine that she would have done everything within her power to make certain no child would ever again experience the horrors that she endured during her early years. Her memory needs to be invoked in every effort to assure a better world awaits the birth of every child than the dreadful circumstances she was born into. The psychological damage and painful disorientation of her early years remained with her throughout her life. It crippled her, locked her in “her own glittering mist” as she searched for fulfillment and true happiness. Her life is proof that no amount of fame or fortune can compensate for the loss of the nurturance, love and affirmation every child needs to establish a thriving, healthy sense of self and a belief in his or her essential worthiness.

Turning to conditions under which Ms. Monroe worked, the author provides insight into the workings of the major Hollywood studios. Marilyn Monroe was a money maker for them but she was never treated with the respect she deserved. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were driving the studio into bankruptcy with their self-indulgent behavior and shoddy performances on the set for Cleopatra. Yet they were coddled and catered to. Ms. Monroe may have had problems with punctuality and keeping her commitments to appear but her performances were always exceeded expectations. Yet she was ostracized and threatened with termination. The harsh uncharitable treatment kept her mindful of her the painful abandonment and abuse she experienced as a child.

Vitacco-Robles’s writing style is sturdy and straightforward. There are moments when the author could have moved his story along more efficiently had he used footnotes to provide background data. On occasion the central story all but surrenders to detail and the trail of the narrative fades. The author includes an appendix that provides a synopsis of each of Monroe’s films. Extending the practice to include background information on some personalities and events would have served equally as well. These are the minor shortcomings of an impressive work of unflinching objectivity. Marilyn Monroe’s talent and memory deserved a biographer who brings to his task a dedication and skill that is worthy of her as a subject. Vitacco-Robles had done just that. He has paid her the highest possible tribute in completing this most memorable biography.

This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site bookpleasures.com

Thanks for visiting my web site. Look for an interview with Gary Vitacco-Robles to follow this review. While you are here, please let me invite you to check some of the other pages of my site. Please feel free to enter your comments on this or any other feature in the area provided below.

Islam after the Arab Spring – Shelly Culbertson reports in “The Fires of Spring”

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

#islam  #arab   #muslims  #middleeast

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Islam is a mystery to most of Americans.  We walk about with the muddled impression that it’s a religion; or no, it’s a political system; or no, it’s a nation somewhere out in the middle of a dessert. The depth of our ignorance and fear has been plumbed by Donald Trump who won wide approval for promising to keep Muslims out of the country. Ours is a democratic republic, however. If we are to save it, it behooves us to become better informed. An excellent place to start is The Fires of Spring by Shelly Culbertson released in April, 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Ms. Culbertson, a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation, has focused her career on studying  the Middle East. She has advised the U. S. Statement Department and other governments. The Fires of Spring is at once a travelogue and a commentary of her findings in the post-Arab Spring, a period of protest and violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands, toppled governments, vicious civil wars and possibly the largest mass immigration in modern times. Culbertson’s writing style is unpretentious and straightforward – a joy to read. Her reporting is objective, all the more laudable given the complexity of the issues and the political cross-currents of the region.

Objective and Insightful . . .

Most of the information Americans receive about the Middle East and Muslims is provided by our mass media, primarily television. Perhaps it is a misuse of the term, but the approach most networks take is phenomenological. Nothing in depth or by way of explanation. Viewers are treated to a splash of violence as protestors are gunned down in the greets or panorama of horror at the plights of the refuges and starving souls caught up in the turbulence of revolt and civil war. This is one reason why Culbertson’s work is so very important. Her objective, insightful narrative provides a counterbalance to predictable offerings from popular media.

Shelly Culbertson, author and  analyst

Shelly Culbertson, author and analyst

Culbertson builds her presentation one country at a time, beginning with Tunisia and moving through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt in that order. Each country, all with Muslim majority, emerges with challenges in common and with problems that are unique to each. The struggle everywhere is characterized by movement, however gradual, toward more democratic forms of government. Equality and tolerance are issues in all the countries, especially  with regard to women, economic classes and distinct ethnic or religious groups like the Kurds or Christian Copts. Progress can be made without violence. Tunisia, for example, is proud that it moved through the turbulence of the Arab Spring without bloodshed. Syria and Iraq, by contrast, have been racked by wholesale slaughter of innocent people.

Culbertson’s narrative builds on the interviews with leaders and intellectuals of the countries she visits. The extensively quoted texts create immediate credibility. Commentators reflect on their own experience as witnesses to the upheaval. Their accounts are often moving and poignant. To her credit, Culbertson, does not attempt in-depth explanations of the political and religious differences that drive protest and resistance alike. She seeks, instead, the common ground in what many still see as an East-meets-West confrontation.

Different Banners . . .

History is key to understanding. For generations, the peoples of the region lived peaceably and tolerant of their diversity as Arabs of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was autocratic. It set the model of the dictatorships that came to power after World War I. This critical event – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – brought with it a profound loss in the wake of Turkey’s defeat. No longer Ottoman Arabs, the people of the region lost their identity, a loss deeply spiritual and psychological in scope. Inhabitants fell back on what was left to them; namely, tribal, religious, and ethnic identities to set themselves apart from the masses. (See Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth which argues the sense of belonging and identity is DNA deep in humans.) As one expert suggests, “Identity under the Ottomans was cultural and religious, but never political.” With the political structure crushed, a vacuum was created and cultural identity was all that remained.

The Fires of Spring - Book cover.

The Fires of Spring – Book cover.

To put this in perspective, the American reader needs only to imagine what would happen if our Federal government was  peeled away. Without the over-reaching, transcendent identity we all enjoy,  our nation would reshape itself into multiple communities organized by the very things that make us different. States and cities would polarize. Boundaries would be created. Transgressors would be driven off, jailed or lynched. Stronger states would bully weaker. There would be no appeal to The American Way of life. We would group around different banners. Protestants. Catholics, Agnostics, Jews. Blacks. Whites, Hispanics. Asians. The list is endless. Tolerance would be completely dependent upon the good will of the people. Maintenance of communal identity, however, would override altruism. Those differing with us would be regarded as lesser humans, just as minorities in our communities experience racism and antisemitism today. Identity is reinforced as much by rejection of those who are different as it is by inclusion of those who are similar. Members inculcate the values of their community as a critical developmental step in coming to know who they and maturing into fulfilled human beings. This is essentially what happened in the Middle East. When the Ottoman Empire failed, inhabitants turned to their ethnic, tribal and religious bonds to form communities.

Emergence of ethnic, tribal and religious differences caused conflict as communities formed around values held in common. Western leaders arbitrarily redrew the map for the people whose roots extended back for centuries. Colonial rule replaced the Ottoman governance. Colonial powers saw the Arab population as inferior and finally ceded to pressures to grant independence. The new countries, boundaries drawn without regard for social, economic, cultural, or ethnic differences, were held together by dictatorships, the only form of government known to the citizens. Under dictatorship countries stagnated economically and culturally. Arab youth are the driving force for change. They want a better life.

Strong-man tradition .  .  .

Surging interest in oil from the West served usually to make matters worse. Exporters of oil wanted political stability to lessen the threat to their supply and the infrastructure required to transport it. They backed leaders who maintained order. If that was a strong dictator, so be it. Wealth introduced by international trade was not often distributed equitably nor did it help move the masses toward democratic reforms.

The Muslim world today is divided between those who insist that nothing new can be introduced into the faith of Islam and those who insist that answers lie not in the past. There is no separation of church and state in Arab countries. God governs though the those enthroned or in office. To believe in law is to believe in God. To obey the law is to obey God.

The Ancient City of Istanbul

The Ancient City of Istanbul

Government and religion as one is very difficult for many in the West to grasp. The only thing that comes close in this reviewer’s experience might be living as Catholic in the middle of last century. No major family decision was made without consulting a priest. Catholic moral code was puritanical and primary. Martyrdom was revered. Children were indoctrinated before they reached the age of reason. Free-thinking was discouraged. Faith was exulted as superior to reason. Doubt was sinful. Ritualized self-mortification was part of worship. The self was unworthy. Catholicism, in short, was a way of life. A minority in the U. S, and never been as strongly entrenched as Islam, Catholicism has yielded to the democratic and secular influences of a pluralistic society. Islam in the Middle East, however, is dominant as a way of life for the majority. Pressure for change is weaker.

Extremes of the Crisis .  .  .

Liberal and secular thinking is slowly breaking down some of the traditional practices in Islam society. The extremes of the crisis show up in the barbarism of ISIS and others. Violence is how these groups present their challenge to contemporary liberal thinkers. Middle ground is hard to fine. The most recent constitution adopted by Egypt, for example, recognizes only Islam in creating a state that excludes non-Arabs. Missing almost entirely is the humanist base of most Western constitutions.

The Fires of Spring is a huge first step toward creating better understanding. Culbertson’s reporting on the status of women in Arab countries is also a plus and adds depth to her book. Customs vary from country to country and Culbertson, as a female reporter, was very successful in interviewing women of the region. Westerners, who often regard the dress and social regimentation of woman as demeaning, will be surprised to find the women of the region are not universally opposed to all their culture imposes on them. Pride in their own traditions, especially in the face of secular pressures from the West, has many embracing many aspects of their customary roles. Doing so does not necessarily mean they must forsake the goal of equality.

Not to be overlooked are the author’s moving impressions as she strolls the streets of the ancient cities, seeks out the poor in the slums, and describes the timeless beauty of the vistas of these legendary lands. Her descriptive passages are poetic. The First of Spring is contemporary non-fiction at its best. Mission accomplished, Shelly Culbertson.

This review was originally published in somewhat condensed for on the bookpleasures.come web site.

Thanks for visiting my web site. While you are here, I invite you to look through the other pages and posts. Please feel free to enter your comments in the area provided below.

 

Black Panthers at War – General Patton’s African-American Tankers

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Mention the Black Panthers, and anyone born after World War II will probably recall the political party that was founded as part of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Less likely is that anyone recalls a group of African-American G. I. tankers who fought under General George Patton in his armor campaign in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In The Black Panthers at War, author Gina M. Dinicolo mentions the men of the 761st tanker company adopted the name “Black Panthers” for their group, but history proves that the designation did not stick. By contrast, consider the legendary African-American fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Red Tails made history escorting allied bombers on raids into Germany. Or the Red Ball Express. African-American drivers kept the allied forces supplied as they pushed across Europe. Their commitment and endurance completing 36 hours stints in the cab garnered recognition and praise.

Institutionalized Prejudice . . .

African-Americans were relegated to support functions for the most part in World War II. As cooks, truck drivers, mechanics and logistical support, few were exposed to combat. Author Dinicolo points out that the prejudice against blacks was institutionalized in the years leading up to WWII. Army manuals stated that the performance of black Americans was expected to be less than that of whites. Her introduction focuses on the racial tensions and violence that were part of life in the U. S. during the years leading up to the war. The prevailing prejudice was blacks did not possess the skills or the willingness to fight. The armed forces remained segregated during World War II, but the demand for manpower dictated that blacks were needed on the front lines. They would go into combat, however, as a black unit, perhaps led by a white officer, but black throughout the ranks.

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Cover: The Black Panthers at War

Nobody today doubts the ability or willingness of African-Americans to perform valiantly in combat. Viet Nam dispelled that final shard of ignorance and bigotry. Writing of the 1940s, the theme of lowered expectations of minorities is carried out through the final chapter of Black Panthers at War. One chapter is dedicated to baseball legend Jackie Robinson who was court marshaled on a charge of being disrespectful toward a fellow white officer. Robinson was acquitted but left service because the charge. Aside from detailed reporting of the frequent incidents of discrimination within the ranks and among the civilians, the author does not expand her perspective beyond the context of the time in which the action she reports took place. Her book adds little in helping readers understand the nature of prejudice and its implications as the conflict and misunderstanding continues through to the present day.

Dinicolo makes an all-out effort, however, at claiming the tankers’ share of fame and recognition, but her story drops several rounds short. It fails to enshrine the heroism and sacrifice of the men it is all about. Dinicolo’s flaccid prose doesn’t create a sense of tension and eminent danger. By attempting to provide the points of several men in the 761st, her narrative becomes diffuse and superficial. Her prose doesn’t excite much empathy or compassion. The battle scenes are not dramatic, with little sense of challenge or urgency. She relies heavily on mundane modifiers to lead readers. Economy of expression is sacrificed to stating the obvious.

For example: “Germans would kill anyone trying to take the town.”

Dusk becomes “A shortage of daylight . . . “

“Enemy fire resulted in a series of tremendous explosions.” (What else?)

As an author, she’s not in the battle, not with her troops.

Well Grounded in the Facts . . .

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Gina M. Dinicola, Author

Dinicolo follows several men from enlistment to the battlefield. She is well-grounded in the facts about their training and the battles in which they participated. But her ultimate failure to identify with her subjects becomes evident when she refers to the infantry as “doughboys,” a World War I nickname long out of use by World War II. Dinicolo compounds the gaff by shortening the nickname to “doughs,” a title of her own creation never to be found in print or film about WWII.

A model for any writer in undertaking a military history of any group is Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose captures the Esprit de corps of his company, provides insight into his subjects without resorting to lengthy biographical sketches, and holds the readers by organizing his story around various themes, whether the conflict with the officers in training or the horror of post traumatic shock syndrome. Readers realize the Ambrose’s intention. Dinicolo, on the other hand, adds too much to the mix, almost as if she is compensating for a lack of dramatic focus. The men of E Company in Band of Brothers may, in the final analysis, simply have been another group of guys – white guys – caught up in a war like thousands of others their age. Ambrose found the unifying heart to their efforts. The same story could have been written about nearly any other company in the U.  S. Army at the time, but E Company is proxy for all of them. Readers take their experience as representative of all the G. I.s.

The same opportunity was available to Dinicolo. But she relied more upon the 761st being African-American to set them apart. Otherwise, their experience was much like any other company in the conflict. with the extraordinary exception that they faced prejudice, derision, and bigotry and served anyway. They fought for a county that treated them as second-class citizens. What Dinicolo fails to develop is why these brave black men fought. Blacks in the United States did not see World War II as a white man’s war. They saw it as every man’s war. A war against their country, inequality notwithstanding. A war for democracy. A war against tyranny, injustice and the exploitation of others – conditions of life that African-Americans endured in varying degrees in the U. S.

Blacks Harbored No Doubts . . .

Black Panthers at War chronicles the achievements of very brave and talented soldiers. Any criticism of the work about them should not detract from the magnitude of their accomplishments. That said, any student of World War II and the history of racism in America will find it hard to avoid being disappointed in Dinicolo’s work. Blacks, after all, harbored no doubts about their ability. What they achieved is not the greater because white America thought they were less than capable. Astonishment on the part of any is indicative of prejudice. In an ideal world, their accomplishments would never have been set apart because of race. Instead, they would be recognized for their extraordinary valor, tenacity, skill and drive.

A byproduct of finding one’s rightful place in a society is that achievements, more often as not, go unnoticed. Being part of the crowd carries some assurance of anonymity. Dinicolo never claims the record of the 761st is exemplary because of the racial mix of the company. On the other hand, she does not establish the dynamics of the group or the heroic dimensions of their achievements on a scale that makes them any more exceptional than what others experienced and survived. The same could be said of Ambrose’s Company E. The difference between the two groups is not race but the way in which their stories are told. Black Panthers at War is rich in subject matter. Too bad so little is explored at any depth.

This review first appeared in bookpleasures. com, a web site in somewhat shorter form.

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Elephants, Mankind’s Last Innocence Endangered

Monday, December 28th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

When Cecil, a magnificent twelve year old male lion, was killed by Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, the world took note. Finally, a cowardly act so outrageous in its cruelty gave rise to an outcry from thousands. Perhaps now, in the anger and grief, attention will be focused on the barbaric slaughter of the animals of the wilds of Africa. One person who has taken up the cause in a persuasive and powerfully eloquent manner is Mary Baures. A psychologist, Baures pours her clinical knowledge and compassionate nature into her book, Love Heals Baby Elephants: Rebirthing Ivory Orphans. Her depiction of the plight of the elephants and rhinoceros is impassioned, poetic, poignant and compelling. She describes Cecil’s death in a manner worth repeating to keep the horror of Palmer’s cruelty well in mind.

His (Palmer’s) Zimbabwe guides tied a dead animal to the back of their vehicle and lured Cecil, a beautiful, black maned lion with twelve cubs to protect, out of a safe area in Hwange National Park. They chose him because he was massive, a warrior with big black chunks of dreadlocks. They shined a spotlight on Cecil to blind him, then Palmer shot him with a bow and arrow. Cecil was injured from the first shot but escaped and fought to live forty-four hours while the crew tracked him and killed him. The team . . . tried to destroy the GPS tracking collar, probably visible when they led him out of the park and into the spotlights before the kill. Palmer butchered an Oxford University research subject ….

Author Mary Baures

Author Mary Baures

To drive her point home that Palmer is typical of the sport hunters who are the scourge of the savannas that are home to the beasts of the wild, Baures at one point observes. “Palmer’s treatment of his victims mirrors those of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Baures also mentions Jimmy John Liatuad whose obscene pictures depicting him standing two-thumbs up on his kills, including an elephant and a rhino, should inspire a boycott of his Jimmy Johns restaurant chain. Liatuad is a coward, a bully and a mindless killer.

Baures’ plea is all the more powerful because she brings her trained eye to her subjects. She cites examples of creatures working out of a sense of compassion for one another. Baboons, in one situation, drop mangoes from the tree tops to an orphaned baby elephant so that it can survive. In another, a hyena protects an orphan baby elephant from attack by a pack of her own kind. Her descriptions of the nurturing and rebirthing of the tiny orphans is especially moving. The newborn of the elephants, like humans, take much longer to reach maturity than other mammals. The horror of seeing the mothers slaughtered in front of their eyes is traumatizing, just as it would be for a human child. They need to recover physically and psychologically. Most, tragically, do not. Only about one-third of the orphans are ever rescued. Some die after rescue because of the severity of their injuries and the shock of seeing their mothers butchered. Those who do recover must learn to trust again, most of all the humans, representatives from the same species that killed their mothers. The miracle is that the tiny creatures, with the support, nurturance, and affection of the rest of rescued herd, eventually learn to accept others again, find a home and learn to play among the their new found friends. Eventually, and probably with greater discernment than most humans, they find a way to accept the attention and love of their human keepers.

We have stepped outside of nature . . .

Men are capable of outrageous cruelty toward their fellow beings because we have stepped outside of nature. The author quotes Albert Einstein observation that the task for humans “is to widen ‘our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.’” The enormity of our crimes against our fellow beings is staggering. “Fifty years ago,” the author reports, “there were 450,000 lions. Now (2105) there are only 23,000.” At one time, three million elephants roamed the African savannas. Their number has been reduced to 30,000. Yet the slaughter continues.

Elephants at the water hole. Once they numbered 3,000,000, Poachers and reduced their number to 30,000.

Elephants at the water hole. Once  3,000,000 strong, poachers have reduced their number to 30,000.

The ivory trade funds organized crime who attack with helicopters, off-road vehicles, rocket launchers and rapid-fire semi-automatic weapons. To prevent detection, they use gun silencers and sedation to capture their prey who they butcher in the field and leave the caucuses to rot, often with their babies clinging by the remains, vulnerable and alone. Baures supports her statements with facts. She writes, “The illegal wildlife trade is the world’s fourth largest criminal activity, with annual profits of $20 billion.” She reports that 1,200 rangers from thirty-six countries have been killed in the line of duty. Rangers are charged with the task of protecting the wildlife in their area.

Baures’ reporting is balanced. She justifiably rails against the cruelty, insensitivity and horror of the hunting and harvesting body parts. She balances her righteous condemnation with insight into the wonder and awe of the creatures she observes. Elephants have brains four times as large as human brains. Their capacity for memory is not a myth. They exhibit psychic abilities far beyond those known to most humans. They have an inspiring capacity for love, compassion and sharing affection. One event report was especially moving:

Mystical knowing . . .

When Lawrence Anthony, the elephant whisperer, died in March 2012, thirty-one elephants from two herds arrived after traveling 112 miles. The marched in a solemn line for hours to pay their respects. . . . They were led by Nana, the matriarch, and had not been to his (Lawrence’s’) reserve at Thula for a year and a half. They continued their grief vigil for two days before heading back to the bush. Their knowledge of his passing speaks of the mystical knowing of elephants. (Reviewer’s note: Nobody told the elephants of Lawrence’s death.)

“They are loving,” Baures writes, “wise and peaceful. Perhaps the telepathic abilities of elephants come from their rootedness in the Earth and their collective sense of self.”

“Unlike us,” the author observes in a later passage, “they don’t conceive of themselves as separate from other creatures or from the vast universal mind. Love melts away the boundaries between self and other creatures and may explain elephants’ extraordinary knowing.”

“You are our last innocence,” Baures writes.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of the intelligent animal.

A young elephant, probably an orphan. Look at the eyes of this intelligent animal.

Readers are urged to buy the print versions of Love Heals Baby Elephants because of the many wonderful pictures included in the text. This reviewer found the Kindle format too confining and lacking in detail when viewing the photos. The book has a casually rushed feel to it which is completely understandable. Given the Palmer horror, the time was at hand to get the word out. The flow of the book is almost conversational. Also, the title is a bit misleading because the book is not confined to discussing only elephants. Wait until you read about the ostriches Pea and Pod and the great fun they have playing among the behemoths of wild. The plight of the rhinoceros also falls within the author’s concern. Black rhinos have been driven to near extinction in malicious harvesting of their horns in the false belief that powder made from them is an aphrodisiac. (The horns consist of tissue much like fingernails, with no food or  medicinal value.) Ms. Baures has a straightforward, easy to read literary style. While her subject at times becomes somewhat technical, her explanations are in the language of a layperson and easy to follow. Her poetic nature shines in passages, some planted like gems and set out as pleasant, insightful surprises for the reader.

Years ago, Rachel Carlson wrote Silent Spring which became a bestseller. Mary Baures deserves that same recognition for the power of her compassionate message. Hopefully she will be as instrumental in forcing a long overdue change and that as humans everywhere we grow in our awareness that we are sharing our Earth with our fellow creatures. They deserve our respect and compassion. We diminish ourselves every time we forget our relationship with them.

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Philip Kenney’s “Where Roses Bloom”

Sunday, December 13th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

Where Roses Bloom, Philip Kenney’s recent book of poetry, is an impressive body of work, especially when the poet’s novel, Radiance, is included in any consideration of the author’s output. The title might suggest sentimentality in his approach. “Roses,” as a word, has many connotations. But do not be misled. Kenney’s work is fresh, challenging, and poignant.

Kenney is thoroughly at home in the contemporary poetic aesthetic that decades ago abandoned traditional form, rhyming and meter. Readers invoke more subjective standards in judging a poet’s work. The two measures that come to mind immediately for Where Roses Bloom for this reviewer are accessibility and perspective. Kenney’s work is immediate. Readers are engaged and enthralled rather than mystified or perplexed. Kenney wants to reach his readers. His work evokes feeling through freshly moving scenes and situations that ring with authenticity.

As for perspective, Kenney places himself as the poet staunchly into his verse. He has a unique voice. He has not hidden behind convention, intricate conceits or gimmicks. Perspective, after all, helps the reader establish the author’s proximity to the concepts and feelings of a work. At one extreme, the poem can stand alone as a work of art saying little or nothing about the poet. Some of the greatest poetry in the language represent the standard in this regard. John Donne, Alexander Pope, John Milton. William Carlos Williams. The poet is in the work by implication as the mind and heart behind the composition.

Phil Kenney, Poet and Novelist

Phil Kenney, Poet and Novelist

At the other end of the continuum, verse is inseparable from the poet. The writer’s thoughts and feelings are presented as such. The writer is in the poem in person. Disaster can lie at either end of the continuum ranging on the one hand from self-indulgent, narcissist compositions to cerebral esoteric works on the other that come off as clinically precise but fail to give readers a handle or buy in.

Kenney is in his poetry. Readers can feel his presence.

Where Roses Bloom is almost three books in one based upon the subject matter and the approach Kenney takes. The first is a short collection of longer poems about others Kenney has observed. These poems struck this reviewer as a in the tradition of Edward Arlington Robinson (Richard Cory, Mr. Flood’s Party) in that the focus is on appearances and the extent to which people will go to maintain an image, or if not an image, a state of apparent composure. Kenney is a psychotherapist. He is a seer. In his Preface, he carefully explains that the personalities depicted in his poetry are composites and do not represent any one person or character. As he writes of himself in The counselor: A self portrait

To me I resemble the tavern keeper

All day behind the counter

Not knowing who will drop by,  I listen

And fill the classes.

In the same poem, he writes:

Next to the wisdom that is yours I sound abstract,

Contrived, while yours is the beauty

Of flowers blooming on a desert floor.

In Toes, Kenney draws one man’s story to the end as follows:

He never spoke a word of those toes,

Though for years they had not straightened,

For years they tucked their heads

Under the ball of his foot,

Like frightened snails in a shell

And never came out.

Observations as captured in the imagery in the passage above set Kenney’s verse apart. Metaphors represent thought and feeling in a way that is emphatic and powerful. In some passages, as in the above also, the poet may work a little too hard for his reader and economy is forfeit. The repetition of “for years” is superfluous and the passage could effectively ended on the penultimate line after the word “snails.”

Philip Kenney is a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a pet owner. In this second group, he writes about all. He seems at his exuberant best when writing about his two sons. Saturday, for example, is “The day of bacon and French toast: Hoping the boys will sleep in.” In Make me into something, he writes:

Once upon a time, when they were little boys,

A collection of wiggles and shrieks,

I threw them to the couch and made each into pizza pie.

It was a dramatized game of tickle, which is

Travel to the outer limits of pleasure.

Some of the longer works really are prose poems. The generous phrasing takes the reader by the hand to assure nothing slips past. A few lines later in the same poem, he continues:

Rolled out the dough, rolled it back I into a ball

Kneaded it with my fingers (this killed them)

Flipped it high in the air, twirling like a galaxy,

Spread it out on the board, gingerly applied the sauce

And cheese; pepperoni sent the squealing to heaven.

Any man who has been a father to sons feels the fun and laughter in this piece. His poem Georgio, Georgio, Help! is filled with the same glee. The passage quoted is but one of several moving poems Kenney has composed and dedicated to his sons. They are full of fun, whimsy, tenderness, and, yes, love.

Of his elderly mother’s efforts at signing a birthday card, he writes, The failed attempts stained a happy greeting. They lay on the paper like dead inchworms Dried out and curled up. The poet’s mother is the subject of another moving piece, Her last possession, which closes with the stanza below:

You and I can’t comprehend

Existence without memories –

But there she is

Walking down the corridor,

A smile, that determined look,

Her last possessions.

For all the intimacy conveyed – the preciousness (at the risk of using the abused word) – readers will come to know Kenney as an observer of all the life around him. He relates to his everyday surroundings. The squirrels, the birds, the moon, the sun, a daddy-longlegs, even a fugitive from justice are all in his world with him. Readers find him immersed rather than standing apart. He writes of being nearly overwhelmed, and if not that, of bringing his perception of his own life down to the smallest things that are close at hand and real for him. Touchstones. In the refining and narrowing of his focus, readers come to know a man who is very much aware of himself, the mystery of his existence, and the joys that are available to him every day. Humility enables vision just as pride or avarice diminish it. There is no grandiosity in Kenney’s work. He is a keen observer.

Kenney’s wisdom shines in several of his poems. In a third grouping of compositions, his tone turns more pensive. His subjects, more universal. His comments about what troubles about the world today are often oblique, as in Hours of Blue, he writes:

We the tall strangers, oblivious

To the blisters on our skin

To the eruptions in our brains

Lost wanderers, fearful of dying

Fearful of longings, unable to stop the plunder

Unable to listen, or be quiet.

Or more allegorically in What the cats trust

Instead of believing in the forgiveness of God

Why not recognize the absence of judgement?

And stop setting up rituals of repentance.

And when the hand of being

Picks you up from beneath the wheels of a car,

Don’t swipe at this with your claws.

Where Roses Bloom - Cover as Presented on Amazon

Where Roses Bloom – Cover as Presented on Amazon

All of Kenney’s poems seek a reassuring resolution. He is no cynic. That said, readers will not come away from his work with an understanding of his beliefs or admonitions of faith. The poet stands for peace. Peace within. Peace in the world. If anything, he urges movement away from trouble, tension and distress toward acceptance, contentment, and serenity. But he doesn’t preach. He demonstrates. He urges. He portrays. The scope of his work spans most of the stages of life – childhood, the ages of love, of parenthood, of the diminishing years, of old age and passing beyond. His work could be tighter. He could leave more to the reader than he does. Pagination orphans lines at times that can result in a poem being misread if the reader is not alert. He could find alternatives for words like rose, precious, cherish – typical stock response evokers, but his integrity and the authenticity of his vision is never in doubt. His images are fresh and arresting. He knows his subject. He doesn’t talk about anything but of it. Where Roses Bloom needs to be read and reread. For the book is indeed like a bloom itself and it opens to yield more every time it is shown the light.

Thanks for visiting my web site. Philip Kenney’s books are available at Amazon. Simply search under his name. While you are here, I invite you to look through the other pages of my site. Please feel free to enter a comment in the area provided below. May the joys of the holiday season be with you.

Poet Robert Lax – Michael N. McGregor’s Powerful Biography

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015
John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer and reviewer

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by Michael N. McGregor is a powerful biography of a poet who only recently has been recognized for his contributions to the evolution of contemporary poetry. The book succeeds on several levels.

Lax was born to immigrant parents in Olean, New York in 1915. The middle class values of his Jewish upbringing instilled in him a deep desire to achieve. His mother nurtured his aspirations and his loving relationships with his siblings, especially his sister Gladio, lasted all of his life. Coming of age during the depression – a time of financial hardship and open antisemitism in America – Lax enrolls in Columbia where he finds himself quickly at home among some of the brightest of his generation, including lifelong friend, Thomas Merton. Here also, Lax meets the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, who Lax describes as the first true ‘holy man’ they’d (Lax and Merton) met.” McGregor writes:

The influence of Brahmachari’s words and way of being was so pivotal and long-lasting that Merton mentioned him in his last letter to Lax, days before he died. By then, based in part on decisions Brahmachari had led him to, Lax was living in a manner much like that of the guru in blue sneakers.

A list of all who influenced Lax during these impressionable years would be long indeed. Lax, however, was not part of the mainstream. Rich in detail, McGregor’s narrative never bogs down, a credit to his easy, flowing style. Sensitive readers will walk away from the book feeling that they have spent time in the company of an enlightened holy man – a rare and beautiful accomplishment for any writer.

Precursor to the Beatniks . . .

Robert Lax - Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Robert Lax – Poet, Essayist and Philosopher

Merton and Lax room together upon graduating in a cottage near Lax’s hometown of Olean. The cottage becomes a hangout for others who, like Lax and Merton, were ambivalent about starting a career. McGregor suggests that their community was a precursor to the beatnik subculture that would emerge twenty years later. Nevertheless, during this time, Lax read the Bible and the works Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Blake, Donne, St. Augustin, and St. John of the Cross and others – all of which bring about a deepening of his spiritual beliefs.

All of Lax’s friends grow apprehensive about the conflict in Europe. Lax frets about what he should do and decides finally to register as a conscientious objector, a decision that put him at odds with some of his friends. I do not believe in killing, he writes. I will not kill. McGregor reports the poet writes with the unshakable conviction that “what he did and said had wider, even eternal implications.” In working out his position, Lax writes further, The world is, or seems to be (except for disease, unfortunate accidents, hostile beats, poison plants, murderous thievish, blaspheming, idolatrous, lying, adulterous, scandalous man) for joy.

These statements, all part of a single journal entry, might seem grandiose and naive – almost to the point of humor. Lax knows his mind. What his statements measure is not the young poet’s maturity but his passionate commitment to a view of mankind in the world and his place in it among his fellows.

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Michael N. McGregor, Biography

Author McGregor seems aware that readers may misjudge his subject, perhaps to the point of dismissing Lax altogether. Yet McGregor never assumes the role of apologist for Lax. The author’s view is not idealized. He trusts his readers and gives a balanced account. Lax is his own victim at times. He is listless and eager to please, indecisive and often unwilling to confront even when it is in his best interests to do so. But McGregor depicts rather than judges, subtly affirming the reader’s judgements rather than enumerating Lax’s shortcomings.

Almost Paradoxical . . .

Friends eventually leave the cottage near Olean, Merton enters a Trappist monastery and Lax is fusses over what to do professionally. Despite holding positions with prestigious publications, He inevitably finds himself out of place. He abhors what the American world of commerce asks of people of talent. His solution is to seek solitude and live a life of poverty. Alone, his quest to discover and live as his true self will be unencumbered. As a man discovers his true self, he also draws closer to God. Man’s inner voice prays and talks to God. From the same voice poetry springs. McGregor writes:

In seeking to hear his inner voice, he was seeking as well to be a center of calm in the world. In making decisions or answering questions, he wanted to take his time, to let the answer rise quietly and naturally from his inner being – not a partial answer but a full one he could agree with completely.

As Lax takes up solitary residence among the residents of the Greek Isles, it is apparent the poet holds an idealized view of his neighbors, a view that is almost paradoxical – so fragile that if it were to be challenged, the impact would be profound, perhaps a shattering disorientation. Yet, his beliefs shape his perception. He sustains his view with the sheer power of his intellect. He wants to believe humans can live simply in the moment, congruent lives, where spirit, mind and body function as one, to live as a circus acrobat dashing toward a trotting horse, leaping into a somersault and landing upright and sure-footed on the animal’s back. Circus performers become yet another fascination for the evolutionary poet because in their movements, Lax see humans approximating his ideal of a pure act.

A Passion for the Essence . . .

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax as featured on Amazon

Lax’s poetry and other works did not receive much recognition during his lifetime. He worked in the shadow of Merton and persisted with little support from the larger literary community. In his passion for the essence of words, almost an obsession, he sought to strip every word of the accepted connotations and associations so that each would appear on the page, strike the reader’s mind, as a primal, discrete entity. McGregor credits him with the discovery of vertical poetry. In his restricted vertical poems, Lax dedicates a single line to each syllable. Syllables are to words what atoms are to molecules. Finding the true intended self requires purity of language. Pure prayer requires the same. His more expansive pieces are reminiscent of e. e. cummings in form, cummings being among the poets of the previous generation much admired by Lax.

In the 1950’s he meets Jack Kerouac and is impressed with Kerouac’s spontaneous writing, which Lax sees as akin to the work of one of his idols, James Joyce, in the freedom it enables and the belief that it accesses pure thought directly. Lax briefly weighs the merits of a theory emerging among mid-twentieth thinkers that art is to be created as art, as a being with itself as its reason for existing rather than as a mirror of life. Art is art. Life is life. Or so it is argued. Back on his island home, watching a girl weave a simple rug and fisherman repair their nets, Lax rejects the new wave of thinking. Art springs from life.

McGregor refreshes his narrative at intervals with engaging first-person accounts of his own travels and visits with Lax. The author’s voice is unpretentious and authentic. If his personal beliefs ever differ with those of his subject, it is never evident. Catholicism figures prominently in the lives of Merton and Lax. When Lax is asked why he converted, the poet states  that as a young man he needed more structure. Readers expecting more from a man of profound reflection and immersed in the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, John of the Cross – to name just a few – may be disappointed. Merton and Lax, aside from profound respect for the teachings of Christ – especially the Sermon on the Mount – are not reported as engaged much in the life of Jesus, the mystery of the redemption and resurrection. Both men seem more theist than Christian. In the end, Lax realizes almost as a concession that no one religion is ever enough. It is important to go beyond.

Pure Act is a book to own. Beautifully written, there is wisdom within its pages. Everyone’s walk is different. Pure Act has a place along everyone’s way to be read once, slowly, and referred to again and again. Life is to be lived slowly, Lax admonishes, because answers come slowly – as slowly yet persistently as questions do.

This review, in somewhat condensed form, first appeared on the web site, bookpleasures.com.

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