hankrules2011

A polymath rambling about virtually anything

Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

A Review of Marilyn Kallet’s How Our Bodies Learned

Posted by Scott Holstad on April 26, 2022

Marilyn Kallet: How Our Bodies Learned
Marilyn Kallet: How Our Bodies Learned

How Our Bodies Learned by Marilyn Kallet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Superb. Everything Marilyn Kallet produces is consistently at the very highest levels of quality and craft, something one can say about few others. Indeed, if there is one certain area where you can count on inconsistency, I’d wager it would be writing, and possibly even more so, poetry. In fact — and I draw on my own career to illustrate — many/most writers can be so predictably inconsistent in the quality of their work (accusations seemingly thrown at virtually every poet who ever wrote) that it’s not only inevitable for a poet to be known for one or two of their works/books (if good and lucky) while simultaneously having some to most of the rest of their work ignored, spurned, criticized, etc. One thing that is especially frustrating, and I include myself as a party in this, is that there’s little worse in the field that an uneven book! A collection comprised of some gems, surrounded by duds dying on the vine (sorry for the mixed metaphor). One of my own books has several sections and in retrospect, it nearly pains me to look at it at times because one of those sections stands out — to me at least — as particularly weak when compared to the others, something no reviewer was ever brutal (or honest) enough to write. Marilyn? Hell, not only can’t I think of a single person, publication, review, etc., that has ever said or inferred anything remotely indicative of these literary challenges about Marilyn or any of her work, but I myself can’t think of a single book of hers that doesn’t meet the highest of standards — and yes, I do hold her to a higher standard than most others because I think she’s THAT good, and she always exceeds those standards. Not only am I a poet, writer, author, scholar, but critic as well. Having written hundreds of book reviews and having written and published a number of critical essays in various journals (peer reviewed), I read friends and colleagues’ works with a critical eye as well as those I don’t know. I don’t do this for an ulterior motive or with a negative intention — it’s just part of the job, so to speak. I’ve been lucky enough to know Marilyn Kallet personally for close to 40 years now (egads!!!), so I admit to bias. I view her as a dear personal friend, a valued friend in letters, a person to look up to for many reasons, and I read her work and I have gone to as many readings of her as possible — something hard to do when you’ve spent most of your life hundreds of miles away. But here’s the deal, and I’m sure Marilyn would agree with, vouch for, or otherwise concur — she and I write quite differently, and often on different topics using different poetic techniques and devices, likely have very different audiences and to be candid, despite having spent far too much time obtaining far too much education and teaching at several academic institutions, on the whole I’ve never been a fan of “the Academy” and I’ve much preferred to hang out in the slums of the small press, the zines, the cross-genres, the vast international media, the crazies — hell, anything but the stereotypical Iowa Writers Workshop alums! I’ve written poems about this and actually one or two became pretty well known, anthologized, and I actually saw fan mail published by editors because of some highly critical poems about the perceived typical mainstream/academic poet. One that proved pretty popular was titled “to all you goddamn nature sissies.” That should give you an idea of how I often view “mainstream” poetry.

By most accounts, going by her CV, her bio, her career — Marilyn should fit within those biased, ugly parameters I just described. But she doesn’t — never has, never will. Because even though she and I write about different things in different ways to different audiences, Marilyn is so much more than just a damn label! She comes from and resides in a world of rules, of “successful” and “accepted” poets and writers because they meet certain criteria, but quite often whose work so very bores me to tears — along with millions of others who WANT to like poetry! — who can’t possibly speak to or for me and Marilyn has spent years in this world, but to me and many others, she’s a real person with a real life and real life view who can flow into and out of different scenarios, emotions, contexts, periods, schools, genres, places, etc., and feel comfortable in all, act comfortable in all, be welcomed in all — because she allows herself to shine out through her poems and can’t help but impact a person, typically in the most positive of ways. She gives of herself and welcomes you — the reader — to join her, to appreciate her craft — because she IS a master of craft (damn all what they say about Donald Hall!) — and at this point, I’m babbling, but I do want to make one point that represents a thought I’ve long held about Marilyn and her poetry. Poets will try to convey, elicit, induce a variety of emotions, responses, etc. I want this to sound right: I’ve long viewed Marilyn as being so engaged in her craft, so engaged in her subject, in her reader, so enthralled with the word, the cut of the line, the nuance, that it’s like Marilyn and these poems are lovers — not in some sicko, kinky way, but as in she and her poems share moments most of us hope to attain yet never do. She has a near-sensual relationship with her poems; the intimacy is incredibly powerful and I view that as a sign of a truly gifted poet and writer, and it’s something that seems so natural for her that it’s a bit awe inspiring because I can name 5-10 writers off the top of my head right now who’ve tried to get that close, move us that much, convey things, feelings, thoughts, desire, admirations, emotions, appreciation and despite spending their entire careers — their lives — making such efforts, if they ever did accomplish such a thing, perhaps it may have been in just one of their collections. Marilyn seems to almost effortlessly accomplish this in every book of hers I’ve ever read, and while my own work has often been described as very impacting, it’s for radically different reasons. I think I know how difficult it is or must be for any poet or writer to achieve what I just (poorly) attempted to describe, and therefore I know and I believe that Marilyn must work so very hard and yet you never get that idea when reading her words. It’s just so natural. So Marilyn Kallet. So damn good.

So do I recommend this book? Hell, if you must be fed info on that, you didn’t read the damn review! Get this book. Read this book. But remember, she’s got quite a few others out there and they’re all worth reading, so please consider and recall that you don’t have to be a poetry fan or lover to appreciate the words and poems inside these pages because I think they transcend the limitations we place on them via labels at a bare minimum. Most strongly recommended.

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On Thomas Ligotti’s Book, Death Poems

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 7, 2022

Death PoemsDeath Poems by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m disappointed because I had been told I would love this book, I guess because I’ve had some “horror poetry” books published over the years. Mebbe so, but I’ve had far more books of poetry in other forms published. It’s simple, and I kind of feel this largely applies to this author’s entire canon — I like the themes, tone, morbid world view (much of which I tend to share), but that doesn’t make this guy a good writer and for god’s sake, I doubt anything could save this train wreck of so-called poems that don’t suck because they are formal or because they’re confessional or populist or postmodern or experimental or anything. He’s just a really bad poet! And honestly there’s no shame in that. It’s irritated the shit out of me to see and hear more and more people over the past couple of decades excitedly telling everyone they write poetry. At this point in time, EVERYONE thinks they’re a poet, and damn good at that. Trouble is that’s bullshit and always has been! Just because you throw together a few lines, maybe even self-publish a small volume of verse, doesn’t make you a fucking poet! I cringe every time I have to go to a wedding or funeral cause I know I’ll hear the worst kind of crap written by sincere, well meaning people. And they’ll get applause. From an audience that doesn’t realize the stuff they grew up reading and studying 50 years ago is so obsolete and a part of the distant past, they don’t realize they’re both showing themselves to be amateurs and a bit ignorant. Not that one has to be on the cutting edge. Many mainstream poets I can’t stand are still GOOD at their craft. Many populist poets, spurned by the Academy, like Bukowski, despite the image he fostered, knew how to write a poem and good ones. He knew the literary and poetic “rules” AND he knew how and when to bend or break them and pull it off effortlessly. Here’s a very famous American writer nearly everyone in the world has heard of and who has millions of fans (including me). Could tell a mean story, had real talent and influence. Most people can name more than one of his novels. But how many people know the titles of Jack Kerouac’s books of poetry? Right, no one. And I have them all. The fact is, no matter how famous or successful a writer he was, he was by god one of the absolute worst published poets of the past century! Wretched shit! Just cause you think you know poetry or you put lines down or a couple of people make flattering comments doesn’t mean you’re a real poet and certainly doesn’t mean you’re GOOD (using Kerouac as an example). People object and argue It’s subjective, and there is a bit of truth to that, but that’s not limited to poetry. That’s the argument made and the difference between the hard sciences and the soft or social sciences. You could make a legitimate argument that not only are poetry and literature subjective, but so are philosophy, religion, the arts, social studies, etc. But that’s why some general guidelines exist in each of these areas. That’s why you will study Hegel, Sartre, and Schopenhauer in philosophy but if you innocently (and ignorantly) ask virtually any philosopher or philosophy professor why we don’t study Ayn Rand, you typically get one of two reactions: side splitting laughter lasting uncomfortably too long or a hostile lecture about what a lightweight dittobrain brain she was, a “faux” intellectual whose “school” of philosophy she created is viewed as little different from how L Ron Hubbard is generally viewed. And they’re right about her. And just to prove I don’t have an anti-Rand bias, I was devastated when I found that one of my favorite writers and philosophers, a damn Nobel winner, ALSO typically isn’t included in Philosophy syllabi or viewed as a “real” philosopher — Camus! And I’ve long thought he was one of the three greatest existential philosophers in history, a view not shared by the “pros.” See, there are guidelines that can be employed that AREN’T necessarily in black and white, thus allowing a Donald Hall and Mark Strand to co-exist with Bukowski and Ferlinghetti as “legit” poets — even if that doesn’t always sit well with them. So Ligotti? I’ve gone on too long now and am tired, but it doesn’t matter if your language is formal, informal, experimental, etc. It still has to flow, to “sound” good on the page. If formal, what fits into the rules of rhyme, meter, stanzas, etc., must sound as natural as possible, must flow, not draw attention to itself and detract from the overall poem because it feels and seems forced. And while it’s harder to argue for rule adherence in free verse, just that one topic still applies. The language should actually seem and sound MORE natural, normal, flow comfortably, even in the case of surrealists or LANGUAGE poets. Because they know what they’re doing, what rules they’re intentionally breaking and why they MAY be successful at it. Ligotti’s poetry is made up of lines, words choices, a stilted dictation and lack of flow; it distracts from any point or message he may or may not be attempting to convey. It’s amateurish, buffoonish. It sounds like someone’s illiterate grandpa might. Fans may protest and argue “That’s the point, you dolt! He’s TRYING to make people uncomfortable with his poetry and his writing style, word choices, grammar usages, etc., are all part of that. How stupid are you?” (Meaning me.) Well, a rebuttal that’s I think many would agree with is been there, done that. It’s not remotely original but is definitely legitimate. I’ve done that myself with a number of poems and short stories when I was experimenting with postmodern metafiction. But while legit, just because someone may attempt to do that doesn’t mean they succeed or are any good. Which is the case here. I’ll end by throwing out a few names of authors who did exactly that, but SUCCESSFULLY, and are well known and loved by many (though still rarely in academia). One considered one of the best was William Burroughs, starting with his infamous Naked Lunch and most of his work thereafter. He and a partner are credited with popularizing and honing the “cut up method” to create almost meaningless text but still text one could get something out of. Ironically he was not the first, as Tristan Tzara and the Dadaist movement actually created and generated that technique. In the horror genre, there are fiction writers and the occasional poet who venture there (and also not “straight” horror, but more like dark surrealism that can incorporate horror elements). In no particular order, some who come to mind might include Anthony Burgess, who was SO linguistically experimental in his shock novel A Clockwork Orange that he had to spend an ungodly amount of time inventing a new damn language to fit the characters and the book (complete with glossary at back). Obviously Vonnegut, but some more current writers in the field who may occasionally succeed where Ligotti does not might include Boston, Crawford, Wayne AS, and most obvious of all, the late Harlan Ellison. I’m not saying this author has to be or become them. But he’d be well advised to do what most serious, professional writers do, and that’s study and analyze them to see where and how he/one can grow and improve, with your own voice intact ultimately. But until Ligotti shows evidence he’s done that, or from little I know of him, even gives a shit, I’ll continue to feel generous in giving 2 stars to this book and he’ll forever be relegated to the barely knowns, the wannabes, the amateurs who some think know what they are doing when such writers really don’t. Not recommended.

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Reflections on Lyn Lifshin’s Cold Comfort: Selected Poems, 1970-1996

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 5, 2022

Cold Comfort: Selected Poems, 1970-1996Cold Comfort: Selected Poems, 1970-1996 by Lyn Lifshin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this book. I’ve known Lyn personally going back to the 1980s and as “Queen of the Small Presses,” I saw her in every damn magazine I came across for decades. And I would buy, obtain or she’d send me copies of new books and chapbooks over the years so that while I only have a fraction of the roughly 150 books she published over the years, most are among my favorites and this is definitely one of them. This was Lifshin’s first book to be published by Black Sparrow Press, Bukowski’s publisher (and I think about the same time another old friend, Edward Field, started getting some of his books also published by Black Sparrow), and it was the biggest one of hers I had seen to date at close to 300 pages, or what I would call “average” for Black Sparrow book sizes. Lyn had a lot more complexity and talent than some people give her credit for, and I’m thinking of certain academics, none of whom will ever accomplish even 1% of what Lyn did, but all of whom with their big (small, actually) 2 damn books in hand have the temerity to look down on her as “inferior” because she wasn’t part of “the Academy” (despite spending time teaching a year here and there at many schools such as Syracuse). And yes, I actually had a good but mainstream academic writer friend use that description. I tried not to be pissed off. After all, most of the academics who are critics of Lifshin, Bukowski, the old Beats, the slam scene, confessional poetry, ME, etc., are quick to tout themselves and each other as descendants of Keats, Byron, Cummings, Thomas, etc., but few can match those old masters and more importantly, note the world “old.” These academics are stuck in ancient decades and centuries and either haven’t realized or cared that they’ve been killing any remaining interest in poetry from non-academics for decades, explaining their sad press runs of 250-750 books no matter how many awards they win (back when I was heavily publishing, people were often surprised to hear the average press run for most American poetry books was 750 copies. You don’t get rich off that. Which is why so many teach. Or if you’re lucky, live a life like Bukowski, be a drunk in the gutter screwing whores, gambling, playing with cats, pumping out 10 poems a night and became successful, popular and live off your writing because you don’t give a shit and you’re simply a) more talented and b) a harder worker) because while they may master craft, they have little concept of actual LIFE for you and me and most people outside the Ivory tower, so remembering back to a standard university lit review (and yes, I’ve been published in many, but rejected by more), I recall one of its average issues having poems with titles such as “Sunset at Deer Late,” “Robins at Sunrise,” “Mysteries of the Pond’s Ripples” and other bullshit like that, boring most people to tears until some are lucky enough to happen upon “less talented” (meaning “less formal”) populists who are writing not only confessional, but experimental (the LANGUAGE poets of some decades ago, the surrealists, etc.,), and who are writing about topics and things in life that are REAL to most people who don’t have the luxury of taking sabbaticals to go mentally masturbate and accomplish little while looking down your nose at everyone else. Most of the rest of us have to actually work! Ferlinghetti busted his ass to make his bookstore a success in the Italian North Beach section of SF while also making his new publishing company successful as he was being prosecuted for publishing Ginsberg. Also found time to write the best selling book of American poetry in history in A Coney Island of the Mind, a book that changed my life in changing my understanding of poetry, allowing me to learn the rules dictated to you in classes are constructs created by the untalented academic dictators and they exist to be smashed, which is what so many more interesting, popular, meaningful, influential poets of actual substance have been helping do to save poetry from the destruction that was being wrought on it by academia. Thank god! The irony about Lyn is the Academy was wrong just like my friend was (who was the director of the creative writing program at a big university). In this big book, rest assured all of these poems had been published in magazines before being collected to make up this book and most assuredly appeared in hundreds of the “small press magazines,” she and many others (I know and was one of) were known for but while she could have included those in the Acknowledgments, it’s almost funny to see the huge Acknowledgments page so full of largely only mainstream literary journals of high quality that very few academics so critical of her could barely match it! Revenge is sweet. (A small arbitrary sample: Chicago Review, Georgia Review, Carolina Quarterly, North American Review, Ploughshares, Long Shot, The Sun, New Delta Review, Chelsea, Christian Science Monitor, Caliban, Literary Review, Mudfish, Denver Review, Cream City Review, Wormwood Review, ACM, Grain, Puerto Del Sol, Hollins Critic, Free Lunch, Midwest Quarterly, Hiram Poetry Review, and on and on and you get the picture, right? Yeah, like usual, the academic snobs are wrong. Just because she mixed with the masses didn’t mean she couldn’t play in their yards too and she did so more and better while at it.)

Lyn was loved and appreciated by millions and I hope she’ll get her just due fully one day. I feel privileged that while I was serving as poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review for some years, I had worked to build the quality of submissions and works published to a very high degree, during which time our acceptance rate dropped from 40% to below 2% and we went from largely unknown, uncredited writers (nothing wrong with that — we were all there once and as long as the stuff was good, I published first timers alongside household names) to contributors whose credits typically included Poetry, NYQ, Partisan Review, Rattle, Paris Review, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, etc. Even had an 8-time Jeopardy winner. While I was publishing writers I like and respect who have credibility and credits like Simon Perchik, Alan Catlin, Dancing Bear, BZ Niditch, Marilyn Kallet, Clifton Snider, Lowell Jaeger, etc., Lyn naturally sent me some stuff and of course I liked it and accepted most of it, prompting her to immediately send me more — even though we were booked 2-3 issues ahead and she wouldn’t be published for 6-12 months. AND while one normally submits 3-5 poems, she would send me 75 pages on average each time. As a result, without ever intending or even really discussing it, I was able to publish some two full books of hers in serial format and I loved having her aboard as a publisher, rather than a competitor — I mean fellow contributor — in so many mags.

Thus, about a year ago when I got the news that she had just died, it hit me damn hard and I had to take a deep breath. Possibly shed a tear or two. I remember going to visit her at her condo in DC decades ago. She was still so very into ballet. I remember trying to compete with her, back when people were describing me as the male version of Lifshin because I was so prolific for a good while. But honestly, so many old friends, colleagues and even heroes and mentors in this community have been dying over the past few years that it’s gotten really hard for me. Ferlinghetti a couple of years ago. Dare I call him a friend? We spent time chatting, he gave me a million autographed books, he gave one of my books a back cover plug. About the same time, another Beat poet, old friend Diane di Prima, who I’d enjoyed a great relationship with died. She lived in the same pad as Amy Tan in SF, got together with me when she came down to LA. And joined by fellow Beat writer Michael McClure. Shit! And since then I’ve been finding more and more have died during the past 5-6 years that my health has forced me “underground,” so to speak, and no longer part of the scene, no longer up on the news. So I’ve learned far too late of the deaths of Will Inman, Walt Phillips, Todd Moore and hell, I was looking through the contents of an archive of an old friend in Stanford’s Special Collections (actually Ginsberg, to be honest) and I realized half the people were damn dead now but the worst was when Gerry Locklin died last January thanks to COVID, or how I choose to describe it, thanks to the white christian nationalist science denying alt right republicans. Bastards! Proof of no god right there. It’s gotten so that I’ve started trying to find old writer colleagues who are still alive because I fear I may be the last one standing and I always thought I’d be one of the first to go. Alphabeat Press’s Dave Christy just died a few months ago. Good old Ed Field is approaching 100 and I don’t want to jinx that. I know Cat Townsend and Belinda Subraman are still out there, and I think I’ve heard Dan Nielsen is still around, but Gerry? Lyn? Life is cruel.

Look, Lyn was famous for her Madonna poem series, for her mother/daughter anthologies, for the film they made about her, for laughingly (almost) knowing you’ll see her in any mag you get published in, no matter how small, how niche, what country or language, and she was known for a million other things too, but she was damn talented and interesting and always had this mystique about her and I think this is a great book to either get to know her or to relish reading her again. I can’t recommend this book more fervantly. Get it!

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Thoughts on the book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

Posted by Scott Holstad on November 4, 2021

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After WarmingThe Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not new in terms of primary predictions but just a hell of a lot closer than 20-25 years ago. And it’s scary as shit. Naturally the US is just one of a handful of countries that not only doesn’t give a shit (our conservative owners) but stunningly STILL argues fantasy vs reality. Of course those with brains know what is going on. The uber-rich, banks, massive corporations, the boards, top execs, etc., naturally know all of this is true and they have the whole time. But they fight bitterly to refute reality and the rest of the world — why? There’s an excellent book out there (Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America) with a premise that baby boomers are literally a generation of sociopaths so selfish and greedy, they’re willing to sell out their kids and grandkids and, hell, the whole damn world, content to let the earth and all on it get destroyed — in large part due to THEM and actions and inactions. Why? What will this accomplish? They’re so unbelievably blinded by narcissism, greed and power that they somehow can’t see, even as they massively fund new institutes to research extending the (their) human life span and much more, yet these big, rich mini-Kings are so fucking stupid that they seem not have realized what every powerful peoples throughout history (the Egyptians? Aztecs?) found out — you can’t take it with you! Yet they act like you can. If they’re not amassing wealth to pass down their family line/corporate descendants—and they’re not because in their continuing denial that the earth is not flat, that the galaxy spins, that humanity has set in motion, already underway, the virtual complete destruction of the earth so there will be NO descendants to speak of to pass on billion dollar inheritances. And they’ve more than proven they’re just fine with that. So the net result is what exactly? Something as basic and juvenile as the race to reach the finish line and “win” because you’re the richest? That’s brain dead stupid. But leave it to the Me Generation to not think rationally or for the good of others when considering the future.

As far as I can figure, when you die, you *might* leave one or two things to prove you existed. First, a legacy of some sort. It doesn’t have to involve fame, wealth, anything. Families can pass on heirlooms, admiration for certain religious leaders and a variety of notable people (NOT as defined by Wikipedia’s criteria) might leave a famous legacy for a period of time. Writers, artists and musicians can leave various legacies, as can certain inventors, generals, scientists, etc. You get the picture. Do you want your legacy to resemble Donald Trump’s? Cause that’s basically what we’re talking about. People who are often quickly forgotten because they leave no legacy of any real value. Except in some cases, my second example of what people can leave. Wealth, property, investments, inheritances, etc. But we’ve already established those responsible for this crisis or in denial don’t care about that. They’re willingly sentencing their grandchildren to death along with everyone else so the second example is moot. Yet surely some of them must know this. But apparently not care or we would be joining the rest of the world to try to save the planet.

So the only answer is none. Pure selfish greed to amass as much money and power as possible despite the fact that A) they really don’t want to pass it on and B) they’ve already ensured that ultimately they won’t since 2-3 generations later, their destruction of the world will have been complete. (The US DNI annual threat assessment of the US Intelligence Community for 2021, given to Congress in April labels climate change as, after dealing with COVID-19 and its aftereffects, the second greatest transnational threat to America’s greatest security and humanitarian threat there is and it provides plenty of recent examples and near-term concerns. And this is not new. I recall one of the leaders on the Joint Staff as early as about 2005 stating that global warming/climate change posed one of America’s greatest national security threats — source forgotten, insufficient time to look it up, sorry. If you don’t believe me and want to see the report or if you DO believe or are on the fence or whatever, you can find it available through the ODNI here.) So anyway this makes Reason A moot too, because what good is it if you leave a legacy of art, music, architecture, writing when it will encounter the same fate as Reason B thanks to the same cause for the same reason. Which again is what exactly? They’re the new Egyptians, Aztecs, whatever, but they’ll be the first successful ones? That’s the only possible reason, it seems, which proves their brilliance and superiority are bullshit. The Me Generation, despite a glut of educated, successful faux geniuses have never given a shit about anyone but itself, proven over the decades by all they’ve done and continue to do. Maybe they should be called The Worst Generation instead, cause Baby Boomers is too generic a term for what they’ve been and done. And honestly that’s hard for me to say considering my spouse, friends, cousins and I are all either Baby Boomers or on the back end cusp, so I’m indicting us as well (though I think a good argument could be made that it was the large percentage of Boomers prior to the last two years who are mostly responsible, but that’s both biased and a subject for a different piece).

This book? Well written, important book. The subject is more of a horror story to me than simple nonfiction, but we can’t hide our heads in the sand. This is necessary. Recommended.

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Book Review on Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America by Evan Carton

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 13, 2021

Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of AmericaPatriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America by Evan Carton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Brown. The John Brown Gun Clubs. He was controversial, hated by many, admired by some, likely a hero to many victims. A political/historical lightning rod. Some would agree he was a humanitarian and race patriot while possibly disagreeing with some of his methods and actions. Others will hate him and his legacy for eternity. I found his upbringing, strong convictions and willingness to do virtually anything and risk everything in order to do what he felt was not only right, but likely ethically and morally necessary. Yet while I agree with his views on the issues he faced and attacked, I remain bothered by one thing. He grew up in a very historically traditional Euro-American puritanical household, much like me in a stringent Calvinist family, much like many Americans historically. For these people, there is nothing but black/white, hot/cold, “right/wrong,” heaven/hell. In other words, no gray areas, no moderation, no compromise, and a total refusal to consider anyone else’s interpretation of their Christian religious beliefs (historically Calvinist or Calvin/Knox-influenced) could possibly be right when THEY are the only ones right. We’re talking many millions of Americans over the past 400 years up to today’s evangelicals/fundies. So while I think racism/slavery and his moral objections were right, the fact remains that Southern “Christians” used the very same holy book, the Christian Bible, to justify slavery and even argue Jesus/God demanded it — and like it or not (and I do not), Jesus (I think) and certainly Paul essentially condoned if not encouraged slavery in the letters, sermons, teachings, etc., attributed to them. So if John Brown was using the Bible as his moral compass for what ultimately started/resulted in the Civil War, he actually technically would likely have been very wrong! Which begs the question, if he (or anyone like him) were that fervent in America (like many other monotheists in other countries and cultures) to take one or more issues from their holy books and make it their lives’ obsession to the point of murders and even war, would anti-racists and progressives still support and praise him? Because then what would be the difference between them and “radical” Islamist jihadists? They’re referred to as extremists, but aren’t they possibly (because I’m not entirely sure) acting the most accurately of that faith in following through on their holy book’s teachings? Despite their methods and actions, which the rest of the world does not condone and for which they are termed terrorists? Wouldn’t US evangelicals, who took extreme views (and too many do) possibly using their holy book (too many of them don’t since virtually ALL of them cherry pick the hell out of anything and EVERYTHING they assert is required or banned by God while they conveniently ignore their god’s words and commands on many things they don’t like or agree with, proving them to be the worst of hypocrites) as justification to become a type of American Taliban? I mean, what’s the damn difference? So my concern with John Brown — and I’m EXTREMELY anti-racist/antifascist and I support the John Brown Gun Clubs — is that if he had chosen to focus on a different issue to the extremes that he did using the Christian bible as his justification, what if for example he had theoretically decided it was NECESSARY to practice a form of genocide on ALL known or suspected gay/lesbians in America, as well as any other issue he felt personally strongly about, strong enough to become a mass murderer while hero to many?

And just to drive that example in harder to make my point while also being 100% accurate in my descriptions of most influential US Christians today, what if he felt so strongly about “The [Jewish] Law” — because Jesus is quoted as stating he came to [earth] to abide by and follow The Law, a fact that is conveniently glossed over by nearly every Christian alive as they tell everyone that while the assertions that homosexuality is an “abominable sin” as seen in the Sodom story — in the Old Testament (“the JEWISH Bible”) — and some are willing to kill over that [as well as abortion], a) neither of which Jesus ever mentioned while instructing his followers to care for the old, sick and poor over 160 times in the Gospels and b) I’ll probably get shot for writing this, but the majority of practicing Jews are pro-choice and they are because they are largely convinced that the Judeo-Christian god is NOT opposed to it and hence is (essentially) pro–choice himself (sorry for the male pronoun). Before you firebomb my house, I know you Christians violently disagree, and for over 50 years one major reason I’ve heard my whole life is that it’s “Murder” (and millions of babies have been murdered because of it) … why? Because naturally life begins at conception, and of course God certainly made it that way, so we need to harass women who may be seeking one and kill doctors who perform them. Right? Uh, no. And you don’t know why because Christians not only don’t read their holy book, the Bible (they read convenient little devotionals with a couple of verses instead), but they sure as hell don’t read the Old Testament because it’s obsolete and doesn’t count cause it’s the “Jewish Bible” and the “angry” god of the OT changed to the Jesus/God of love and peace in the New Testament (which is an entirely different topic, but they’re wrong about that too, per his own words, but since they don’t read their bibles, they don’t know that).

Well, let’s address several things so I can return to John Brown. 1) If the Old Testament no longer counts (and I’ve heard that from hundreds to thousands of conservative Christians around the world — it is not a minority belief), then why fight to the death over OT homosexuality and perceived OT abortion issues? Why not fight to the death about shrimp if you’re going to be consistent? Or facial hair? It’s the epitome of cherry picking and it’s so hypocritical it’s almost beyond comprehension of any reasonably intelligent person. 2) The second point is Christians are wrong about the OT’s current lack of relevance besides anything but a history text. It’s THEIR bible and their god and you know why? Jews do. YOUR god states pretty damn strongly that he is the LORD God and HE DOES NOT CHANGE! Not then, not in the first century (CE), not today. So morons, just because you think Jesus is a better, different version of God, you’re wrong on two counts because your god states unequivocally he does NOT change and Jesus (God) was NOT about peace and love, but he stated he came [to earth] bringing a sword as he intended to destroy the family unit and turn family member against family member while also instructing his disciples to go out and buy swords. That wasn’t for catching fish. 3) Your god does NOT say life begins at conception and using that entity and the holy book you don’t read as justification for that assertion and the evil acts you do is dead wrong. I don’t have time to look the OT passage up (it may be in Isiah, but it’s been months since I read it — on my 18th reading of the entire bible from front to back), but you can look it up yourselves. Many/most traditional/orthodox Jews are pro-choice because there is a passage in “their” OT bible where God is attributed with instructing the chosen people that Life Begins At Birth — NOT conception! Doubt me? Upon birth, God breathes the Breath of Life into a newborn. Not in the womb, not in some magical holding place where spirits wait to get little bodies one day. You don’t like what you just read? Not my problem, not my fault. It’s YOUR god, your religion, your holy book — not mine. Many believe the Bible is the “inherent word of God” (and seeing their theologian apologists twist hard to explain the millions of contradictions to meet that standard is hilarious; one quick example is asking which creation story/myth do you believe and why? What, I’m the fool who thinks there’s more than one? Um, read the first two chapters of Genesis and you’ll find two different creation myths, so WHICH IS IT if the bible is the “inherent word of God?”).

Okay, almost back to the book except I still haven’t made my extreme theoretical point I mentioned long ago to drive that example in harder about Brown’s reliance on the Christian Bible for his moral code to justify his belief and actions regarding slavery. What if he were as devout as is claimed but instead of slavery (or the homosexual example I provided), he felt just as strongly about the Old Testament commandment that children are to obey and honor their parents so that if they somehow fail, all families (Abrahemic monotheists — such as Christians) are instructed to take them out and stone them to death? What, crazy? Don’t believe me? Read the damn Bible, the OT, cause that’s in there! And yes, it’s a crazy example, but that was my intent.

So if John Brown, relying on his Puritanical religious background and belief system did not decide to take on slavery but instead felt just as strongly about the previous example commandment, we wouldn’t have clubs and erect statues in his honor then if he had gone around stoning kids to death for back talking their parents! Thus while I essentially admire and support his conviction and legacy, if not his actions, it’s because I believe them to be morally correct. But I fear that if he had chosen a different controversial issue to engage in the same type of actions and outcomes using his religion to justify everything, I would seriously hate his guts and any legacy he left, because he could have become a Christian Hitler — basically what most current American evangelicals want out of Donald Trump and his fascist, white christian nationalist ilk as they proudly scream publicly that they intend to “exterminate” all minorities, immigrants (despite ALL of them coming from immigrants themselves), people of color, non-“Christians” (as if they know a damn thing about their religion, as I’ve repeatedly proven within a minute of talking to any of them), and most especially Democrats, progressives, liberals, etc., or simply everyone not like them. Do you see my point? He did the right thing, but he justified it with the wrong source, because that same source was used to justify the very reason he basically went to war, as well as millions of other historic atrocities in general, so he could simply have used that same source and “moral code” allegedly arising from it to justify any violent actions to and against anyone for any reason. And that has always bothered me about any such person and a legacy I otherwise admire as I, too, call him a true patriot. Thank goodness he actually acted more as a humanist — dare I say secular humanist? — than a stereotypical monotheistic religionist, because then he might have become a historical monster just as Hitler did as he (and Mussolini) made deals with the Pope to protect the Pope’s constituents provided the Pope supported, or at least remained silent, about what they were freaking doing. Oh, and I think I recall that Hitler grew up Catholic while many of the soldiers in the German Wehrmacht were devout Lutherans. Under the belief they were acting on behalf of Christianity and the Christian god while becoming devils (metaphorically) in the process.

I feel John Brown did the right thing and I admire him, and I admire his absolute commitment and the moral code he had in order to do what I and many others view as “the right thing” in fighting against slavery and freeing slaves. Yet I worry a part of me will always be bothered that his Calvinistic religious beliefs could instead have been twisted, much like many claim Islamic jihadists have, while showing the same level of commitment to other religious commandments as he chose to interpret them… Anyway, this book? It’s one of the better books on Brown that I’ve read. Definitely recommended.

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A Review of “Utopia for Realists”

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 5, 2021

Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal WorldUtopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Yeah. Utopia for anything, any reason or topic always sounds good. Do you know how many descriptions like the one this book has here I’ve read over many decades from authors dating back centuries? Do you know how many were right or proven right? Yeah, I do. The answer would be NONE! Why? Cause no matter how brilliant they may seem or even be, these concepts and theories are little but pipe dreams. Fantasy. Let’s give the kids of the world some hope, some premise and promise, something to dedicate their lives too … and then not deliver. Again and again. Over and over.

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An obvious example or two. One of the most obvious: Marx and Engels’ semi-brilliant (in theory) deconstruction of economic and political systems to even the playing field for the common man via communism (Marxism). It would be Utopia for the workers. Naturally most western capitalists will gleefully say it was BS, didn’t work out and died the ugly death it deserved. And despite their misguided arrogance, on the whole they’re technically right — in terms of the original and most influential communist system, with the collapse of the Soviet Union (and with China then sliding into a more Sinese type capitalist-centric system while retaining the power elements found throughout the history of typical communist countries), it might seem like communism was inferior to anything else, most notably capitalism. It didn’t work.

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But before the Reagan worshippers get too frenzied, while hundreds of books have been written on this so I don’t need to, let’s look at two big, fairly related points. One, did Marxist communism fail to be Utopian, if even fair or safe, because it was a horrible theory, terrible idea, total BS? No. Here’s the truth about nearly every Utopian theory or premise ever thought up and advocated on nearly any subject at all throughout human history. They’re virtually all mere pipe dreams. Cannot and will likely never fulfill their promise, no matter how promising. Because they’re crackpot theories and promises? No, not necessarily and not in the case of communism. The problem is few people ever really take into account the one consistent variable nearly always at the root of any Utopian failure: human nature. Yeah, it’s so simple that it should easily be obvious every time but mankind has this bad habit of rarely learning from past mistakes.

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Marx actually had some really good ideas. Like the author of this book. Yet Marx’s theories, when implemented – just as surely would seem to be the case with the author – were doomed to fail because not only are people different, but what seems reasonable, rational, logical, FAIR to huge numbers of people will ultimately typically die from within because despite any original good intentions, the fact is it’s impossible to stop power-hungry tyrants, autocrats, dictators, murderers, greedy, fascist EVIL people from being involved or becoming involved, or from falling victim to the lure or power and riches, that despite the original terms used in many such efforts and movements, they’re just semantics and largely meaningless. The Marxist Bolsheviks rebelled against the czar for the people, yet Stalin would become the most famous of the genocidal madmen there to destroy the Utopian dream Marx had described — because he could (with the aid of men like Yezhov and Beria). And he wanted to and took advantage of opportunities and lied and murdered and the term communism was always used but did it fail cause Marx was an idiot? No. Because at heart, much of human nature is evil and those people who “go to the dark side” (Did I get the Star Wars reference right?) abuse that as well as the huge number of people trying to make an honest, sustainable life of it, only to be crushed under the boot of tyranny. (Additionally, the Stalinist interpretation of Marx’s communism was rather warped — thus the war against Trotsky and the edging Lenin out so he could take over…)

However if you think capitalism is the obvious “winner” in this competition, think again. Those who have pushed the fantasy that it can be Utopian if you only pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work your damn ass off (and vote for the “right” political party) and then the American Dream will be possible for all is an even bigger pile of shit because while Marx and his colleagues were naively Ernest, those pushing this capitalist equation to obtain the American Dream, dating further back than “trickle down economics” – a theory so transparent in its lies, non-logic, hypocrisy and true goals, that the fact that so many chump Americans are still spouting bullshit like “America: Love It or Leave It” shows how pathetically stupid, naïve and easily manipulated we are — and sadly that’s not limited just to Americans.

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(And Reagan isn’t to blame. It’s hard to pinpoint an actual individual or group of individuals responsible for foisting this dramady onto the American worker, thus forever using the stick and carrot routine which never fails to work brilliantly. Many attribute this “conspiracy” to powerful men such as JP Morgan, the Rockefellers, some of the major financial leaders (often theorists love to throw in the Rothschild family, which hasn’t been proven but can’t be discounted), but led by a mysterious visitor from Europe who, it was alleged, was. a Rothschild representative. When the Jekyll Island retreat resulted in the invention of a central bank, later to be called the Federal Reserve, or the Fed (and there are a dozen of them around the country, not just one…) — (an interesting aspect to this is the Fed never was and is not still a government agency or government anything, yet many people don’t know that. Why does a largely private bank control the country’s currency, interest rates, print the money, etc., on behalf of the government and the people when it is not at all related to that very government? Who then is benefitting from this little scenario? And when researching history combined with some reflection, it’s interesting to ponder about how a few mysterious but very rich and powerful men controlling the Fed have ultimate power over the country, if not the world, because with the simple unanticipated move by them, such as a serious loan rate change, a devaluation of the dollar, etc., the Fed can create recessions at will, can end them equally, conceivably start wars and more — and yet they’re not a part of the government despite being potentially more powerful.) that venture has and does beg the question or perhaps confirms the suspicions some people have of a “conspiracy” of rabid capitalists controlling various countries with the future goal of that dreaded phrase we hate so much and which I won’t bother writing here, but just think of the Euro as the first major step in that direction. And since I’m off topic with popular theories about the advent of a capitalist plot to create sheeple who lack critical thinking abilities and will do what they’re told by the authorities — something Orwell wrote about with horror, something that our educational systems have embrace, and something that has succeeded brilliantly and that’s not me — I’ve read interviews with top CEOs in journals like Forbes where they complain they can’t hire college graduates worth a damn anymore because everyone is a specialist, no longer generalists, and virtually all lack critical thinking skills, thus limiting them in the workplace. And to get through this aside, the other main popular conspiracy theory with any credibility is the ole Skull and Bones one, which many people laugh off without bothering to research the details of the Russel Trust or the Bavarian intellectuals who influenced those early Yale men, their colleagues who returned from Germany to found the University of Chicago, Princeton Theological Seminary (I think) and Johns Hopkins University and take on the role of the first presidents, who then installed said German immigrant academic intellectuals at their institutions and elsewhere, all allegedly influenced heavily by a bizarre Bavarian psychologist and it gets really crazy sounding, but when you do the research and find that Prescott Bush was a major player (who financed the Nazis throughout WW2, following Henry Ford), as well as a Dulles or two, both Bundy brothers, possibly two of the most powerful, devious and evil Americans of the twentieth century as McGeorge Bundy worked his magic on Kennedy and Johnson to get and keep the US in a southeast Asian unwinnable war while William rode shotgun at the CIA, and it gets crazier sounding when you dig deeper, but allegedly a S&B elite has run for president every cycle since Carter with possibly one exception, and certain Yale devotees were delighted to note that when W ran against Kerry, both candidates were Skull and Bones men, so they couldn’t lose no matter who won…

So after admittedly getting way off track on those potential initial starts at creating a capitalist system to ultimately do what it’s done, when I have the audacity to make a critical remark about US corporations being equal to people to enable the rich and powerful to buy elections, at best I get verbally attacked. Yet typically the atmosphere changes when I ask a simple question, which might be followed up with a couple more — “So, how’s capitalism working out for ya? You personally and your family? Are there any businesses or jobs left in your community and do the jobs even pay enough for you to have enough money in the bank if you have an unanticipated car emergency, like a wreck, requiring, say, $500 to get it fixed?

To answer that question, just in case you think it’s theoretical, the answer to people having jobs paying well enough to have $500 for an unanticipated emergency the next month is NO. Look it up if you don’t believe me. The average American (and this isn’t even “average” as it’s actually the vast majority) doesn’t have enough money to pay rent, buy a new set of tires, etc., for just one simple future month and the middle class that is now a distant memory has (had) to learn some hard lessons…and I would keep writing for hours, but I’ve already been doing this for several hours on a mobile device (takes me longer now that I’m old and feeble) and I’m tired and my arthritis is killing me (LOL!), so I’m just going to have to end prematurely. Capitalism, like Marxism, sounds good in theory, but like communism, in practice the Utopia of the American Dream is a lie and a pipe dream for over 90% of the people. Because of human nature, again. The sharks want power and money and see millions of suckers out there (who sadly and pathetically buy into their little game) and lie and manipulate to STILL ensure people are forever getting fucked by US capitalism will be willing to fight to the death against a critic despite their being victims of the very oppressive system they defend! So does capitalism work? Sure, if you have obscene wealth and power and are cutthroat and heartless enough to be hypocritical to your (typically American) religion and to betray and screw your fellow man just to keep edging toward the top, while the rest of us are now in such bad situations that the literal majority of US bankruptcies are for excessive medical bills but yet the powerful know we’re so stupid we’ll vote against our own interests in refusing to do what every other first world nation on earth does — act ethically enough to provide at least basic health coverage to their citizens for free. Even the tiny Republic of North Macedonia, which didn’t even exist as recently as 1990, provides free healthcare to its citizens. Jesus allegedly talked about aiding and caring for the sick and the poor more than any other topic in the Gospels. Yet today’s power brokers, often white well off evangelical “Christians,” are adamantly opposed to anything their messiah ever said, especially when it comes to helping or aiding the sick and poor. They want the sick and poor to basically die as they annually try to kill off the few pathetic “entitlements” Americans have while instead they focus on two topics — abortion and homosexuality — to the point of violence and murder (WWJD), despite the fact that Jesus cared so very much about these two most important issues that he NEVER felt compelled to even ever mention them at all, while aiding the sick and poor are mentioned over 160 times. Obviously his priorities were out of place for current American so-called “Christians.” Or maybe since they’re representatives and witnesses of their god and their religion, this whole Jesus peace and love bullshit is just that — hypocritical bullshit. Because the vermin have come out of hiding, already despised for their judgmental persecution of everyone else in the world while always claiming to be the only victims in America (I grew up in a hardcore fundie home and heard that brainwashing crap every day). They no longer feel the need to hide the fact that not only have they not read their “holy” book, but they don’t give a shit about it anyway, or like the Jews and Muslims, they might actually consider following it, rather than attacking and in some cases killing anyone who won’t convert — just like the Taliban. Funny how life works sometimes.

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A point in that last huge chunk on capitalism was merely to give an example of people buying into Utopian bullshit and just displaying the rampant hypocrisy of it all. One could go on to mention many of the naïve Utopian ideals of the 1960s and ‘70s — flower power, free love, the thousands of communes, protesting the war, etc. — but just to end this with one last thought, American students protested the Vietnam war by the hundreds of thousands, claiming it was an immoral war and shouting about standing together with their South Vietnamese brothers in solidarity, which had an idealistic, somewhat Utopian narrative. Until it didn’t. Once “our boys” came home (to be ignored, abandoned, abused, criticized, thrown to the wolves), our great “solidarity” kinda disappeared since the Americans were gone and it was just poor little yellow/brown men against other poor little yellow/brown men and I guess the protestors shifted showing their solidarity by disappearing, shutting up, moving on to other things like the fight for the rights of oppressed American minorities (valid) while South Vietnam got crushed and essentially disappeared two years later. Did the solidarity protesters even care? One of the implicit points of this last example is that those hypocritical protesters were Boomers who took For Granted the American Dream OWED them (there’s a great book on that and I think I reviewed it here) as they went on to switch from Ginsberg and free drugs and sex to ‘80s Reagan Republicans, with many joining the Moral Majority and many more buying into the decade of greed — these, the hippies who rejected a traditional oppressive capitalist society guilty of colonial imperialism and genocide, living off the land in communes, many replacing currency with barter. A decade later, they were rich Wall Street tycoons before breaking into politics to work on destroying the country from the inside out, year by year regardless of party.

This book’s author wants to talk about good, generous wages, 15-hour work weeks, a new dynamic, a type of Utopia. I applaud that. While trying to decide whether to laugh my ass off or roll my eyes as another potentially great idea will be left to crash and burn once again, if it even approaches getting off the ground to begin with. What was that term? Oh yeah, “pipe dream.”

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3.5 for decent, enthusiastic book/comments. A 1 for naïveté due to apparent lack of study and analysis of (recent) history, among other crucial topics. Ultimately a 1 because despite being an intriguing fantasy, it’s unfortunately little more than that and there are far too many fantasies better than this one. Yes, I’m sadly that jaded. Not recommended.

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[All photos in this piece have been obtained via Google Images and credit is given when required and/or possible.]

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