Books

The Essential Fictions

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For a man who died aged only 45, Isaac Babel had a prodigious output. He was born in 1894 into a reasonably well-off Jewish family in the port of Odessa, currently part of Ukraine but then in Russia. As a young man he was prevented from entering university, as Tsarist Russia placed quotas on the numbers of Jewish students allowed to enrol. Nonetheless the young Babel showed himself to be adept with words and languages, coming to the attention of writer Maxim Gorky in 1915.

Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio

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Michael Rosen’s latest collection of poetry for adults is wide ranging but at its heart displays a profound anti-racism and a fury at ruling class hypocrisy. In “Migration” he writes, “Our banks migrate billions/ but they don’t call that migration./ We say no to blaming migrants”.

For socialists who enjoy poetry this collection is an essential read for now, dealing as it does with some of our key political priorities including anti-racism, solidarity with refugees, Corbyn, privatisation and the attacks on education and the NHS.

So They call You Pisher!

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Many years ago I read a book edited by Phil Cohen called Children of the Revolution; it was stories of people who had grown up with parents who were members of the Communist Party (CP) in the 1950s. I found it oddly depressing with the notable exception of the interview with Michael Rosen. He was one of the few contributors who had not lost faith in the ability to fight to make the world a better place.

We Were Eight Years In Power

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently one of the most sought after black writers in the US. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and his previous book Between the World and Me (see November 2015 SR) won the National Book Award for Non Fiction. He has also turned his hand to fiction, writing a series of Black Panther books for Marvel Comics. More importantly, his work brought him to the attention of Barack Obama and he became one of a group of journalists invited to a series of off the record sessions during the latter’s presidency.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

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“The time has come./ I begin/ the story of Lenin”. So opens Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s astonishing 3,000-line poem written shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924. The poem articulates the grief and shock of Lenin’s passing; “On the worker/ bent at his gears/ the news pounced/ and bullet-like burned”. It also pleads for Lenin not to be idolised: “I’m anxious lest rituals,/ mausoleums/ and processions,/ should/ obscure/ Lenin’s essential/ simplicity”.

Politics of the Mind

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The crisis of mental health has become a key issue. In an era of brutal cuts to welfare and public services, levels of mental distress and suicide are rising drastically among those out of work. This is as true for low paid workers, women and young people. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020 depression will be the leading cause of disability. In the UK one in four people will experience mental distress of some kind. With all that in mind this book could not be timelier.

A Serf’s Journal

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This short book is the important story of the 2001 week-long wildcat strike at JeffBoat, at one of the US’s oldest shipyards on the Ohio River in Indiana. Terry Tapp, who worked there during this time, describes the build up to the unofficial strike and the strike itself. You can get some sense of the place and barge production from the glossy promotional video on the company website.

Go Went Gone

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Berlin is a city where the dead continue to walk. History remains alive in its streets. Yet Berlin is also a vibrant modern city. This novel displays both sides, its prose sparse and modern, but underneath the surface lie layers and layers of hidden memory.

The story is of Richard, a retired classical academic who, in search of something to occupy his time, begins researching the lives of the refugees displaced by the wars in Africa and who are occupying a square in the city.

Nagasaki

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On 9 August 1945, three days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped a second atom bomb on Nagasaki, a small port city on Japan’s southernmost island. An estimated 74,000 people died within the first five months, and another 75,000 were injured.

Art and Production

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First published in 1926 and written a few years before, this small book is a fascinating read written at a watershed of Soviet history both in the debate over art and the revolution, and more generally over the direction of the revolution. It reflects and was part of a turn away from the experimental art after 1917 to what became social realism of the 1930s and beyond, a move that mirrored the counter revolution.

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