Reviews

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”.

Cosmic Shift

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The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen some excellent publications on the subject, but very little of it from Russia itself. Conceived as the first anthology of Russian art writing outside of Russia, Cosmic Shift is, in the words of curator Elena Zaytseva, “a collection that explores the aesthetic and moral legacy of the Russian Revolution in the field of contemporary art”, bringing together a vast array of artists, curators, writers and the philosophers in a shared task on an epic scale. The results are discursive and idiosyncratic in their treatment of the subject.

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.

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.

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.

Russia in Flames

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Engelstein’s contention in this detailed look at war during 1914-1921 in Russia is that “Lenin had replaced Nicolas”, the former Tsar. From the outset Lenin was allegedly opposed to Soviet rule and fundamentally undemocratic. He fomented rebellion from below to create the conditions in which his autocratic and authoritarian regime could come to power.

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.

1997: The Future That Never Happened

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The 1997 general election saw the hated Tories thrown out, indeed humiliated, and a bright New Labour government take office under an idealistic young leader, Tony Blair. There was widespread hope of change and improvement. It is useful to remember how enthusiastic much of the left was about Blair at this time with one former Communist Party intellectual actually describing New Labour as a “Gramscian project”!

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