Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz

Narrated by Peter Berkrot

Hernan Diaz (Author)

“In the Distance” can be viewed from different perspectives.  It is a story of emigration, isolation, survival, self-identity, human nature, extortion, and distortion.  The author, Hernan Diaz, is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but fails to win.  Diaz’s writing is unquestionably evocative and compelling but there is an aimlessness in the story that diminishes its appeal. 

Emigrating to America in the mid-nineteenth century, Diaz’s main character is accidently separated from his brother and arrives in California rather than New York, presumably between 1849 and 1855 (the gold rush).

The story begins when a tall and muscular Swedish immigrant swims out of frigid water to astonished travelers on an ice bound ship, sailing in Alaskan waters.  The Swede’s name is Hakan Soderstrom who is known by some as a legend named Hawk.  Hawk tells his life story to the astounded travelers.

Hawk is the younger of the two brothers who emigrated to America.  His older brother is alleged to have gotten separated in their departure, He lands in New York while Hawk lands in California.  Hawk depends on his older brother for guidance and decides to journey cross country to be reunited. 

One can imagine how isolated an immigrant would be without anyone who can understand or help a young emigrant boy who only speaks a foreign language.  Survival is dependent on finding one’s way in a wilderness of language and culture.

Diaz pictures gold rush days in California as a land of violence, greed, and survival. 

Hawk adapts to his environment and creates a self-identity based on what he must do to survive.  Hawk becomes acquainted with a family led by a miner who is looking for gold.  The husband finds gold but is extorted by a gang of town thugs.  The thugs abduct Hawk who becomes attracted by the woman who leads the gang.  Hawk is growing into a man of extraordinary size and strength.  He is corralled by the gang leader who uses Hawk as a sex slave.  She sees Hawk’s future potential as an enforcer for the gang.  Hawk has other ideas. He escapes captivity and heads east with the hope of finding his older brother. 

As the story unwinds, Hawk grows to be a giant of a man.  He never stops growing physically (a condition known as giantism today) and matures with an understanding of the natural world.

Hawk’s understanding of nature comes from an acquaintance, a naturalist who is searching for evidence of the origin of human life.  This naturalist befriends Hawk and teaches him many things about human life.

The naturalist is a nature-born physician (ahead of his time) who understands the importance of sterilizing medical instruments used to treat wounds and how poultices may be used to heal infections.  Hawk gains understanding of many medical treatments, but more importantly, recognizes the sanctity of human life from the practices of the naturalist.  The naturalist dies and once again Hawk is isolated and on his own.

Heading east, Hawk learns how to survive in nature.  He makes a great lion-head cloak from the skins of animals that he kills for food. 

Hawk survives severe weather conditions by creating shelters from whatever nature has to offer. 

His shelter reminds this listerner of an underground shelter photographed in Turkey in 2o19– carved in earth by ancient Christians to protect themselves.

Hawk eventually returns to society by joining a group of settlers traveling cross country.  The settlers are beholding to a flimflam leader that promises land when they arrive at their destination.  This leader recruits Hawk as an enforcer without Hawk fully understanding why. Hawks giant size is what the leader needs to keep the settler’s in line. 

The settlers and their leader are attacked by white renegades who disguise themselves as Indians.  They attack a young girl to which Hawk is drawn.  Hawk reacts by murdering the white renegades.   The renegades are rebels from an unspecified religion, implied to be excommunicated Mormons.  The re-telling of the massacre is distorted by public reports of the incident.  Hawk becomes a legend who kills brothers of the church and innocent women and children.  A price is put on Hawk’s head for a crime he did not commit.

Hawk’s actions become a widely known story that becomes distorted with its re-telling.

Hawk is eventually captured by brethren of the church.  He is tortured and mutilated but he survives with the help of a male brethren who believes Hawk is innocent.  They become close friends, maybe lovers, but other brethren of the church eventually find them, and Hawk’s friend is killed.  The legend of Hawk continues but after the loss of his friend, he returns to years of isolation.  He grows older and bigger but, through self-isolation, avoids capture.

Hawk is finally found by several rebellious uniformed soldiers who try to recruit him as their leader.  They reason Hawk could strike fear into anyone they choose to rob because of his legend and immense size.  Hawk sneaks away from the miscreants by preparing a dinner laced with a narcotic.

The story’s ending is all that is left.  It ends where it begins. “In the Distance” offers some interest to a listener. However, to this listener, Diaz’s tale is more interesting because of its prose than its content.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Languages of Truth (Essays 2003-2020)

By Salman Rushdie

Narrated by Raj Ghatak, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie (Author, essayist)

Salman Rushdie is an irreverent atheist who makes a strong case for science, cultural acceptance, and freedom of choice. 

This memoir is somewhat diminished by Raj Ghatak’s narration of the last essays of the book.   Ghatak’s presentation recounts the meaning of Rushdie’s essays, but they seem less personal without Rushdie’s narration. “Languages of Truth” is a compilation of highly personal opinions.    First chapters of “Languages of Truth” are more perfectly presented by Rushdie’s unique and mellifluous voice.

Rushdie expresses strong negative opinions of America’s two most recent Republican Presidents.  He ends his last essay with the hope for Donald Trump’s defeat in the coming 2021 re-election.

Rushdie argues Modi is bad for India. Contrary to the opinion of many citizens of India, Rushdie abjures Modi’s leadership. Rushdie believes Modi promotes unfair treatment of minorities, demands public fealty to Hindu nationalism, and limits freedom of choice. Rushdie is no less repelled by religious fundamentalism in the United States and its divisive influence on equal rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice. 

In continuation of his political opinions, Rushdie suggests Britain’s Prime Minister fails the UK as badly as Trump fails America in the fight against Covid19. 

There is a good deal of name dropping in Rushdie’s essays.  He writes of his love for Christopher Hitchens, Harold Pinter, and Carrie Fisher.  Rushdie admires Hitchens’ irreverent sense of humor and consistent atheism.  Both Hitchens and Pinter support Rushdie in the writing and publication of “The Satanic Verses”.

Rushdie recounts his first meeting with Carrie Fisher with whom he becomes a close friend.  He notes how friends are particularly protective of Fisher because of her personal trials.  Rushdie notes his friendship with Fisher is intimate, caring, and asexual.

Parenthetically, Rushdie notes–contrary to the notion of men not being able to be friends with women, his friendship with Fisher denies the sexual-tension myth reinforced by movies.

Rushdie notes he is also an admirer and friends of well-known contemporary writers like Phillip Roth.  There are other lesser-known artists of other media who become Rushdie’s friends.  He speaks of Bhupen Khakhar, Grancesco Clemente, Taryn Simon, and Kara Walker.  In each of these friend recollections, Rushdie emphasizes what he perceives are “Languages of Truth” expressed in movies, painting, photographs, and other artistic media.

To this reviewer, the more interesting reveal in Rushdie’s essays are his opinions about books and plays that a listener has read.  He offers reviews of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Shakespeare’s oeuvre.  He reaches back to ancient history with Heraclitus and his sparsely remaining written notes.  Rushdie identifies the difference between American and India folk tales where one has a moral while the other simply recounts events without judgement.

Ayatollah Khomieni (1902-1989, the first Supreme Leader of Iran.)

Rushdie’s intellect and wit led to the infamous Islamic fatwa from Khomeini that authorized his killing for blaspheming Allah.

Rushdie’s appeal is to liberals of the world.  Many conservatives will cringe at Rushdie’s rejection of religion and acceptance of social and sexual difference.  However, Rushdie shows himself to be an unrepentant intellectual with a warm heart and wicked wit.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Cosmological Koans

A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality

By Anthony Aguirre

Narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross

Anthony Aguirre (Author, theoretical cosmologist, Presidential Chair for the Physics of Infomration at U of C. in Santa Cruz)

Anthony Aquirre offers a modicum of insight (enlightenment) to the concept of quantum reality.  The use of the word modicum is not to suggest Aquirre’a effort is insignificant but understanding quantum reality remains fragmentary and obscure.

The title of the book is a clue to Aquirre’s fragmentary insight.  To begin with, one must know the definition of koan.  A koan is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning with the intent of provoking enlightenment”. 

Aquirre tells a story of a wanderer whose peregrination leads to a meeting with a Jinn who explains life is pre-ordained and cannot be changed because of the laws of quantum reality. 

The Jinn tells the wanderer he can see the wanderer’s future because fundamental quantum particles of his being are known to the Jinn.  The Jinn can see how each particle interacts with the wanderer’s thoughts and action to determine what will happen in the wanderer’s future.  Though there are billions of interactions the Jinn can calculate probabilities of every action the wanderer will take in the future.

Quantum physics is a science of probability that examines the fabric of space-time.  Experiment confirms that infinitesimal quantum particles can be in two places at the same time. 

However, the particles cannot be both measured and located without effecting their path.  If the particles cannot be both measured and located, how can a future be precisely predicted?  Putting aside complexity and the problem of measurement and location to predict the future, Aquirre argues quantum physics has opened a new door to the nature of reality. 

Schrodinger’s cat in the box is either dead or alive but you cannot know without opening the box. 

Aquirre notes humans may see the world as fictive because reality is trapped in one’s mind which cannot see the fundamental particles of nature. 

The example would be “green” as a figment of an interaction of one’s mind with what the eye sees; not the essence of what is identified as color because there is no fundamental particle that is the color “green”.

Aquirre explains the arrow of time can only move forward.  Time travel to the past is science fiction.  Traveling to the past cannot happen based on quantum theory because the past is fixed. 

Aquirre is a cosmologist.  He discusses the ideas of a created and expanding universe.  He refers to the science of Gallio, Newton, Schrodinger, and Einstein.  There is a past and a present, but the past can never be relived, and the present is past as soon as it becomes present. 

There is only a present with a probabilistic future. The future can theoretically be predicted based on fundamental particles of a quantum universe, but it requires the capacity of a mythical Jinn who can compute an infinite number of variables.

Aquirre leaves listeners in Plato’s cave that shows only shadows of reality.

One comes away from “Cosmological Koans” with the belief that reality remains unknown.  Complete understanding of life’s truth (if there is one) rests in the future of science and mathematics, a supercomputer like a Jinn, or God.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


On Revolution

By: Hannah Arendt

Narrated by: Tavia Gilbert

Hannah Arendt (1906-1979, Author, Political Theorist, Phiosopher.)

Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution” is a paean to religious belief.  God’s relevance is at the heart of her detailed history of revolution. 

Arendt is an ardent secularist.  Arendt’s belief or non-belief in God has no relevance except as it relates to her understanding of revolution.    

“On Revolution” compares the differences between ancient Greece and modern times.  Arendt particularly contrasts America’s 1776 revolution with France’s 1789 revolution.  She explains why one succeeded (within limits) and the other foundered.  Her explanation offers insight to the failures of past, present, and future revolutions. 

Humankind is endowed with the ability to reason.  Use of reason may be distorted by false facts and mental limitation but thought and action conform to what one thinks they know and believe.  Arendt notes social circumstance of the many, whether rich, poor, satiated, or hungry are proximate causes of revolution.  Further, she notes success or failure of revolution is eminently impacted by a nation’s cultural history. 

Arendt infers citizens become politically apathetic or active based on what they think they can control. 

“On Revolution” explains how social discontent can lead citizens to rebel against their government.  It might be because of a gap between rich and poor.  It may be because of social or economic inequality.  Revolution may come from factionalism where a particular group of citizens lack recognition.  Arendt does not label all the reasons for revolution but human desire for money, power, prestige are proximate causes.

“On Revolution” explains how social discontent leads citizens to rebel against their government. 

Arendt argues any success after a revolution depends on the institution of laws that supersede individual human desire.  She amplifies the reasons for all revolutions’ success or failure.  America’s short history as a colony with a remote King (burdened by parliament) contrasts with France’s history of a long line of King’s with divine right of rule.  America is not burdened by a King who has God’s authority to rule. 

Arendt suggests invoking God’s commandments (a superior being’s directions) allows human rule-of-law to be acceptable to America’s colonial citizens. 

 Arendt explains America makes arguments against rule by a King based on “taxation without representation” and the principal of citizen representation in government.  In contrast, Arendt notes France’s history of a King’s divine right makes leadership acceptance from a mere citizen unacceptable. 

The only philosophical backdrop for a French citizen’s authority is Rousseau’s philosophical belief in democracy, equality, liberty, and the common good of all citizens.  This is not enough to convince France to accept man-made’ rule-of-law. There is no divine right given by God to a King or any French citizen. Arendt argues rejection of divine guidance is at the heart of France’s failure.

Arendt notes American revolutionaries emphasize the importance of families and citizen groups in cooperating and joining to reject rule by King George.  Small groups of Americans congregate to create laws that supersede individual rights to accomplish their goal of independent sovereignty.  This level of group cohesion is not cultivated in France. Arendt explains America is better prepared for revolution than France.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794, French lawyer and statesman.)

Even if Robespierre wishes to, Arendt explains he is unable to institute laws that protect French citizens.  Robespierre has no divine right.  There is no foundation in France’s history for rule-of-law instituted by mere citizens.  French history has little history of citizen cooperation and government opposition. 

A fundamental point made by Arendt is that many revolutions appear to succeed because they capitalize on events that occur in the uncontrolled circumstances of revolution. It is not because of a belief in a cause fomented by a great leader but by an opportunist who takes advantage of events.

Arendt suggests success of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917 is not from forethought or planning but from a leader who let events determine how force could be used to take control of a country in turmoil.

Among her many observations Arendt offers a blueprint for a revolution’s success.  Of course, success is not necessarily in the best interest of a country’s citizens.  If citizen control is the only measure of success, Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have had successful revolutions.  Today’s example of revolution is Haiti. One wonders which route it will take in its revolution.

When impingement is great enough to increase economic disparity between rich and poor, the threat of revolution increases. 

Arendt illustrates how America is nowhere near a perfect nation.  Denying equal opportunity for all, disenfranchising citizens, and distrust of elected representatives are three concerns expressed in today’s media.  Arendt notes the rising apathy of American voters.  Arendt shows how God is as relevant today as when she wrote “On Revolution” in 1963.

Arendt explicitly warns America of its failure to maintain a role for citizens in government. She argues less time is committed to citizen involvement than existed at the time of the revolution. Arendt suggests direct citizen participation in American government is distorted by corporate and monied interests. Arendt argues growing lack of citizen participation works against American government stability, and longevity.

America’s history of Democracy has lasted for 3 hundred years. The Roman Empire lasted for over 14 hundred years. French monarchy lasted nearly the same number of years as the Roman Empire. The obvious question is how long will American Democracy last?


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Fathers and Sons

By: Ivan Turgenev

Narrated by: David Horovitch

Ivan Turgenev (1818 to 1883–Russian novelist,poet, and playwright.)

Understanding the culture of other countries is aided by reading histories and literary classics.  Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev paints a picture of Russian culture in the mid-1800s. 

Russia in 1850

In “Fathers and Sons” it is the age of Alexander II, the Russian Tsar who began his reign in 1855. He presided over emancipation of serfs in 1861. 

Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881)

The Tsar’s intention is to liberate serfs from aristocratic servitude.  In respect for the Tsar, some Russian farmers offer their farmland to serfs in return for rent or a percentage of profits from the sale of produce

There is great turmoil during this time in Russia. 

Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894)

It is eventually quelled by Alexander III (1881-1894) who represses and reverses Alexander II’s political and social liberalization.  Turgenev dies soon after Alexander III’s ascension.  In “Fathers and Sons” one can see the seeds for Alexander III’s reaction to Alexander II’s liberalization.   

The principal character in “Fathers and Sons” is Yevgeny Vassillievitch Bazarov.  He is a young doctor who sees the world through science. 

Bazarov does not believe in God and sees morality as a fiction induced by society.  He is a nihilist.  He purports to believe life is meaningless.

In this Russian era, serfdom created an uneducated underclass that feeds Bazarov’s beliefs.  Serfs had no place in society.  They were indentured to an aristocracy that used them as slaves to cultivate land holdings. 

Alexander II creates change which would allow serfs to own land, work for themselves, and break their cycle of poverty.  However, serfs as well as the aristocracy are unprepared.  Farmers who try to free their serfs find their farmland turns fallow.  The reasons for loss of productivity are complex but such a sudden change in opportunity is either not properly capitalized or resistance by aristocrats scotches Alexander II’s liberation.

Bazarov sees serf liberation as evidence of the meaninglessness of life.  Bazarov and a fellow traveler, both sons of farmers, return to their family farms after finishing their education.  The fellow traveler is Arkady who idolizes Bazarov.  Arkady’s father’s farm is shown to be deteriorating when the two travelers visit.  Bazarov observes the indolence of former serfs who work the land.  At the same time Bazarov notes the entrenched aristocratic prejudices of Arkady’s uncle who has come to live at the farm. This uncle is an immaculately dressed and groomed middle aged man who is well known in aristocratic circles.

Bazarov’s suggests Alexander II’s reform only reinforces the meaninglessness of life.  To Bazarov, human nature is immutable, God does not exist, and art is an affectation.  He places this argument at the feet of Basarov’s uncle. Arkady agrees with Basarov and recognizes him as a mentor and superior intellect. Both the uncle and Arkady’s father are offended by Basarov’s comments. The uncle is appalled by Basarov’s nihilism.

Turgenev introduces a doppelganger of Basarov in a wealthy young widow named Anna Odinsova.  Odinsova is attracted to Bazarov’s views based on her life experience.  She sees life as equally meaningless.  The irony is that Basarov falls in love with Odinsova.  Loving someone contradicts meaninglessness in life.  Odinsova does not love Basarov but admires his intellect.  Basarov’s professed love betrays his nihilist beliefs.

Turgenev accelerates his argument against nihilism by having Arkady fall in love with the sister of Odinsova.  This sister has the moral strength of Odinsova but accepts Arkady’s love, and marries him. They settle on Arkady’s father’s farm.  Arkady, with the help of his new wife, make his father’s farm prosperous.  Arkady’s father changes his role at the farm and is eventually able to retire.  Nihilism has no place in Arkady’s life. Life has meaning to Arkady.

Turgenev leaves his audience with the belief that Odinsova will overcome her belief in nihilism. She marries a prosperous and dynamic Russian businessman.  Turgenev suggests she may grow to love this businessman and abandon her mistaken view of life.  This is a Turgenev’ finishing nail in nihilism’s coffin.

Turgenev’s warning to humanity is that God, morality, and love makes life worth living, while ignominious death is left to nihilists.

Basarov dies from Typhoid, never to realize the wasted life he has led.  His death leaves his mother and father to grieve over Basarov’s great potential and lost opportunity. 


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Dangerous Ideas (A Brief History of Censorship in the West, from the Ancients to Fake News

By: Eric Berkowitz

Narrated by: Tim Campbell

Eric Berkowitz (Author, human rights lawyer and journalist

Eric Berkowitz recounts the history of free speech and censorship.  His history infers censorship is a misdirected waste of time.  Berkowitz argues freedom of speech is unstoppable.  Even in the most repressive governments in history, citizens have exercised freedom of speech. 

Berkowitz recounts many who chose to exercise free speech that were exiled, tortured, dismembered, maimed, or murdered.  However, these free speech martyrs insist on having their say. That seems Trump’s justification for suing Facebook and Twitter.

Pundits suggest Trump has no chance of winning his suit against Facebook and Twitter–Berkowitz’s presumed response would be “who cares?”

The fundamental point made many times in Berkowitz’s history is that censorship does not work because there is always someone who is willing pay any price to say what they think must be said.  Berkowitz offers many historical examples of why free speech is a confusing and difficult problem. 

Free speech can spread both truth and lie.

One of Berkowitz’s answers to the conundrum of free speech is that more freedom allows each listener to choose what they wish to believe.  Problems arise when freedom of speech offers lies as truth and misleads the public. 

White supremacism lies and Covid19 falsehoods have historically destroyed lives. 

In every country of the world, free speech is unstoppable because it is controlled by the few, not the many.

Listening to Berkowitz’s history vivifies a trip to China in 2019.  A guide, presumably at some risk to himself, took our small group into a private room to remind us of China’s response to the idea of free speech in Tiananmen Square . 

Our guide reminded us of one protester who moved in front of a Chinese tank whenever it tried to change directions.  The guide explained the “tank man” (who was never identified by name) was arrested, and never heard from again. 

At the direction of President Deng Xiaoping, 300,000 troops were mobilized to stop a demonstration by Chinese students.  China’s soldiers fired on college students and friends who were demonstrating their belief in free speech.  An unknown number of Chinese citizens (some say hundreds, others say thousands) were murdered at the direction of government leaders.  Our 2o19 Chinese guide was exercising his right of free speech by reminding us of what happened on June 4th, 1989.

Government is the first seat of control for free speech.  However, that first seat is diminished by singular economic interests. 

The rise of newspapers, radio, and television focused and expanded the principle of free speech.  Economic interests influenced these early platforms of free speech but with a more limited threat and benefit to the public.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the blogosphere have widened the principle of free speech and significantly increased potential public threat and benefit. 

In the age of newspapers, radio, and television, government controls were explicitly legislated but in the internet age control is hidden in platform algorithms.  Government may still have the first seat of control, but media moguls have usurped legislated government censorship.

Berkowitz offers no answers.  He only reveals the complexity of freedom of speech.  He suggests freedom of speech is an essential ingredient of a just society.  However, at the heart of free speech is economic interest. Free speech is secretly used to distort truth and sometimes incite violence. 

Whether it is a newspaper reporter told to revise an article that criticizes corporate advertisers or a discloser of government secrets there is societal threat.  Even more pernicious is the Amazon, Facebook, or Twitter executive who orders a coder to increase customer clicks for corporations that pay more for advertising.  And then there are the media trolls who distort the truth, lie, or incite violence to increase click count with no regard to consequence.

Freedom of speech is “…a riddle wrapped in an enigma” (a Winston Churchill quote about Stalinist Russia). Freedom of speech is a two edged sword, a tool for defense and destruction.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


America and Iran (A History, 1720 to the Present)

By: John Ghazvinian (Executive Director of the Middle East Center

at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Narrated by: Fred Sanders

John Ghazvinian (Author, historian and former journalist with a Doctorate from Oxford University.)

John Ghazvinian has written an important book to help one understand Iran and its relationship to America.  It reminds one of how important respect for different cultures is for effective foreign policy.  In the real politic of international relations, ignorance of nation-state’ cultures are a recipe for world conflagration.

Listening to Ghazvinian reminds one of how important well-informed diplomats and foreign service officers are for world peace. 

Unlike George Kennan in his 1946 “long telegram” about Russia, American diplomats fail America and Iran.  

As a diplomat, Kennan understood Russia because he spoke Russian and studied its history before offering a diplomatic opinion about how America should deal with the U.S.S.R.  Kennan’s containment policy served America well despite Stalin’s horrendous treatment of the U.S.S.R.’s people.  

Few, if any, American diplomats of importance before and after the 1979 revolution in Iran appear to have much understanding of Iranian language or its remarkable history.  Ghazvinian notes the well-intentioned but inept handling by President Carter of the student takeover of the American embassy in Iran.  He recounts the preening and then waffling treatment of Iran by every President of the United States before and after the 1979 revolution.

Zbigniew Brezezinski (U.S. National Security Advisor to President Carter 1977-1981.)

Ghazvinian recounts the hostility of the diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Carter’s National Security Advisor) toward Iran.

Recognizing 9/11 and its momentous impact on the American psyche, President George W. Bush’s administration exercises an obstinate, and Ghazvinian suggests, ignorant assessment of Iran, its history, nuclear ambition, and role in the Middle East.  This second Bush administration is characterized as an abject diplomatic failure when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

George W. Bush (43rd President of the United States).

Ghazvinian’s book illustrates how America during the Shah years (prior to 1979) views Iran as a buffer against communism and an ATM cash machine for the American economy.  Iran purchases billions of dollars of American weapons.  American defense industry corporations reap huge rewards from business with Iran.  Equally lucrative were American ancillary military training companies that were paid big money by an effete and highly privileged Iranian Shah. 

The Shah of Iran is fascinated by American military hardware.  In that infatuation, the Shah fails to serve the domestic needs of Iran’s citizens. 

At direction of the Shah, vast oil resources are used to enrich the American economy rather than aid the social and economic growth of Iran’s citizens.  America did not concern themselves with Iran’s people because it hugely benefited from Iran’s government purchases of military equipment.

Ghazavinian explains how American Presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, (and after the Iranian revolution)—Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton fail America in its diplomatic relationship with Iran. 

None of the American Presidents effectively manage either Iran’s threat or potential real-politic’ benefit to world peace and prosperity. 

In the 20th century, Ghazavinian notes the closest any American President came to understanding Iran is H.W. Bush.  However, American political opposition thwarts H.W.’s opportunity to mend broken trust. 

In an overture to H.W., after the successful ejection of Hussein from Kuwait, the Islamic Republic’s President offers a peace proposal to America.  Bush acknowledges the overture and wishes to capitalize on Iran’s written commitment to ameliorate Hezbollah opposition to the State of Israel and to reestablish diplomatic relations with America.  However, Bush’s party leaders object, based on a belief that Iran is a terrorist state that cannot be trusted.  Iran’s diplomatic opening is lost. 

Ghazavinian notes Iran’s interest in improving diplomatic relations during H.W. Bush’s administration is partly related to America’s quick military defeat of Iraq. 

Iran had fought the Iraqi army for over 20 years without defeating or removing Hussein.  American forces removed Hussein and defeat his army in six weeks. The author infers fear of American invasion of Iran should not be overstated. However, Ghazavinian does imply America’s quick defeat of Iraq’s army sent a message to Iran.  For the first time in history, Ghazavinian notes the Islamic Republic of Iran put its commitment to improve diplomatic ties with America in writing.

Even though America exacerbates Iran’s crisis, Ghazavinian suggests Iran is responsible for the situation in their own country.  The author notes the last Shah of Iran fails to listen to his people.  Iran’s wealth is spent on the latest American military equipment while most Iranians are poor, malnourished, and caught in a cycle of despair.  Iran’s people are looking for a leader who will listen to their plight.  They turn to an exiled religious leader.

Ruhollah Khomeini (1st Supreme Leader of Iran, 1979-1989)

The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, exiles Imam Ruhollah Khomeini to France where he becomes the voice of the people who have been ignored by their government. 

Ghazavinian suggests Khomeini begins as a religious teacher but is seduced by the politics of government.  The seduction comes from the student takeover of the American consulate in Iran.  Khomeini initially views the takeover as inappropriate but begins to see the political value of American hostages in negotiating with America. 

In Ghazavinian’s opinion, Khomeini abandons his religious teaching with the political decision to use American Embassy hostages as a lever for change.  Prior to Khomeini’s political use of the Iranian student’s takeover, there was a separation between church and state.  Now church and state became intertwined. 

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (President of Iran 2005-2013)

Ghazavinian notes the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  This former mayor of Tehran exemplifies the melding of church and state in Iran’s governance.  Interestingly, Ghazavinian creates a revisionist (less negative) history of Ahmadinejad. He may be showing a more accurate picture of this populist, poorly educated, President, or he may be gilding a fundamentalist ignoramus.

Ahmadinejad is best known by Americans as the fool who said the holocaust is a myth.  Ghazavinian argues Ahmadinejad’s words were mis-translated.  In any case, Ahmadinejad, in contrast to former Iranian Presidents, listens to the Iranian under-class.  He increases wages and initially improves the lives of many Iranians.  Ghazavinian notes the cost of those improvements caused inflation, diminishing the economic good but not the intent of this new President.

Ghazavinian suggests Ahmadinejad compares to George W. Bush in some sense.  Like W. Bush, Ahmadinejad is viewed like the guy next door.  His jokey way of dealing with people is like W. Bush’s.  On the other hand, unlike Ahmadinejad, W. Bush is well educated and wealthy. 

Ahmadinejad seems more like Trump (though not a billionaire) than George W. Bush.  Ahmadinejad, like Trump, taps into the real needs of an underclass ignored by government. 

Many Iranians approve of Ahmadinejad’s effort to raise the social and economic conditions of Iran’s underclass.  The same might be said of many Americans who supported Trump’s stated intent but unrealized goal.

A reset of American relations with Iran is attempted in the Obama administration but Ghazavinian argues Obama reverts to the diplomatic mistakes of past American administrations. 

Politics interferes with Obama’s initial attempt to renew relations with Iran. Obama shows a disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu’s jingoistic opposition to any American effort to repair diplomatic ties with Iran. However, in an election year Obama is painted into a corner that delays any improvement in Iranian diplomacy. It will be interesting to see how President Biden deals with Iran.

Ghazavinian fails to paint a complete picture of modern Iran. There is little explanation of the covert activity of Iran in middle east destabilization. The element of religious fanaticism and proselytization among some of the Ayatollah’s followers is not fully examined. Ghazavinian uses his final chapter in a vituperative and somewhat justified assessment of Israel without fully explaining what Iran’s agenda is in the Middle East.

The valuable substance of Ghazavinian’s history is in the immense importance of understanding any country’s culture.  Before making decisions about what, where, why, and how to diplomatically engage another country, one must have some cultural understanding of both allies and opponents.  It does not mean real-politic will not be used to get one’s way but that there needs to be a respectful understanding of why there is opposition.  In that understanding, there is the chance of finding common ground to arrive at a mutual, if not amicable, agreement.  Without cultural respect and understanding, chaotic unpredictability is unleashed.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Dinner at the Center of the Earth

By: Kenneth J. Hammond

Narrated by: Mark Bramhall

Kenneth J. Hammond (Professor of History at New Mexico State University)

“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is a story of spies.  It is a short novel illustrating the intransigent and complex conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Ariel Sharon (Prime minister of Israel and Israeli general 1928-2014)

The context is in the last years of Ariel Sharon’s life before, during, and after his death from an 8-year coma.   

A spy for Israel is recruited by “The General” through a connection with an American Jewish mother who persuades her son to become a spy for the Israeli government.  The son reports only to “The General”, without any direct connection with the State of Israel.  The plan is liberally financed by Israel.  

The recruit poses as a wealthy entrepreneur that brokers used computer equipment to foreign countries.  With that cover, he infiltrates an Egyptian supporter of the Palestinian cause of repatriation.  “The General’s” goal is to eliminate the Egyptian cell.

The infiltration is a success, but the price paid by the spy is in a bombing designed to destroy the leaders of the Egyptian cell. 

In the detonation, the building collapses on an adjacent building occupied by an innocent family. 

The leader of the cell is the brother of the person befriended by the recruit.  When the bombing occurs, the “friend” of the recruit realizes he was set up.  He contacts the spy and tells him what death he has brought to his family and to innocent children near the bombing. 

Contrary to the rules of spy craft, the recruit acknowledges his role and asks for forgiveness in return for intelligence on Israel.  The recruit betrays Israel.  In finding the recruit’s betrayal, “The General” puts him in an isolation cell that no one knows about.

The recruit appeals to “The General” for his release, but “The General” has fallen into a coma.  This is one thread of the story.  With the death of “The General” there is no way out for the recruit.  No one with any power knows of the recruit’s fate.

In the end, with the help of a gift from his guard, the recruit hangs himself.  The guard knowingly supplies a belt with a gifted robe, a forbidden act by the guard.  He knew the gift would give the recruit a choice.

The meat of the story is in how the recruit is caught.  This is where the story becomes maudlin and unbelievable. 

The counter spy that captures the recruit is too contrived.  She is a beautiful waitress with unfathomable wealth.  There are so many clues to her duplicity, only an idiot spy would not see what is happening. 

In a non-sequitur reveal, a listener is introduced to a Palestinian peace maker. He is called the map maker because he suggests the creation of two states.  The female Jewish spy who led to the capture of the recruit has a deep and committed relationship with this Palestinian. 

This “waitress” and “peace maker” plan a dinner for two in an underground tunnel between Israel and Gaza. It is a “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”. 

The “waitress” and “peace maker” seem to represent the only hope for comity between Israelis and Palestinians.  The moral seems death of human innocents is what matters, not land.

If there is a saving grace to Hammond’s story, there are both Palestinians and Jews who wish for peace.  Peace is only conceivable with a growing recognition that death of innocent children is too high a price to pay for land that only belongs to nature. 


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


From Yao to Mao (5000 Years of Chinese History)

By: Kenneth J. Hammond (Great Courses)

Lecturer-Professor Kenneth J. Hammond

Kenneth J. Hammond (Professor of History at New Mexico State University.)

In some ways, America’s 300 hundred years is a microcosm of Kenneth Hammond’s informative lectures on China’s 5,000-year history.  Not to carry this idea too far, America has no emperors and is a mere baby in the history of the world.  However, social struggles of China and America have striking similarities.

The fabric of a nation’s society is woven by leaders and followers.  Hammond recounts long stretches of China’s history that demonstrate social and political changes that predate and foretell America’s history.  American presidents are unlikely to experience dynasty. However, there are similarities between American leaders and the reign of Chinese Emperors.

Yu the Great (2123 BC to 2025 BC–95 years of life.)

In 2070 BC, “Yu the Great” manages to organize China’s fragmented ethnic groups into a kingdom.  Yu makes the first written record of an attempt to control nature.  By introducing flood control, Yu improves the lives of millions of his followers in what becomes China’s Xia dynasty. This dynasty, with various emperors, lasts for over 400 years. 

Yu is characterized as an “upright moral character”. Though the Xia dynasty is a hundreds years longer than the United States, Yu reminds one of George Washington’s brief role in America. 

Both set the stage for all national leaders who have successes and failures in their journey through history.  National leaders strive to form one nation from people of many different ethnicities and beliefs.  Successful national leaders manage external and internal crises to unite disparate followers.

Hammond identifies 16 different China’ eras, from Yao to Mao.  China’s leaders are not uniformly successful which can be equally said of Presidents of the United States.  At times, leaders of nations are petty, greedy, self-righteous, and wrong but China became the most advanced, powerful, and rich country in the world at different times in their history. 

Religion and society play parts in both China and America’s rise in the world. 

Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam play parts in China’s successes, and failures.  Hammond notes how Confucius belief reinforces importance of family in the success of nationhood.  Buddhism, though imported from India, instills introspection, meditation, and abstinence into China’s leaders during tumultuous times.  At times, Christianity and a burgeoning Islam threaten China’s future.  Hammond recounts a claimed brother of Jesus who nearly overthrows a Chinese emperor but fails. 

The Uyghurs, a largely Muslim Chinese minority, join Genghis Khan to establish the Mongol Empire.  This empire rises at the end of the Song Dynasty that leads China for several generations.  The Islamic faith is adopted by descendants of Genghis.  It plays a role in China’s history.  Fundamental religious and societal conflicts are equally evident in America’s short history.

In Hammond’s last lecture, he reviews China’s pragmatist movement. Deng Xiao Ping, in modern China, introduces capitalism into Maoist communism. Private property (though restricted by government limits) encourages accumulation of private wealth.

Entrepreneurial vigor is unleashed in China. 

Hammond chooses not to mention Xi but conflicts between Maoist communism and Deng’s capitalist introduction are renewed. Xi reinforces the importance of the communist party at the expense of capitalism. One might argue Xi’s political moves are to combat the temptation of greed.

However, human nature ensures greed will play into communist party bureaucracy just as it does in capitalism.  Capitalism and communism have a common failing—the desire for power which comes from entrepreneurial wealth as well as bureaucratic privilege.

One gathers from Hammond’s history of China that there remains no perfect form of governance.  Every country’s leadership deals with the failings of human nature. 

All these conflicts are evident in America’s 300 years—they are played out in China’s history.  China has managed to remain a nation state for 5,000 years.  Presumably, America can do the same. 

There are no pat answers that can abate the rise and fall of China or America.  Rome is no longer Rome, but Italy is still Italy.  The same may be said of America if one uses China’s history as a guide.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Project Hail Mary

By: Andy Weir  

Narrated by: Oliver Wyman

Andrew Taylor Weir (American Novelist.)

In a bit of serendipity, “Project Hail Mary” reminds one of Jason Lanier’s memoir, “Dawn of the New Everything”.  Lanier commented on a fascination with exhibiting himself as a crustacean in virtual reality.  Andy Weir seems similarly captivated.

Andy Weir wrote the fictional novel “The Martian” about an astronaut being stranded on Mars. It became a block buster movie starring Matt Damon. 

As an astronaut, Damon overcomes many things that might go wrong when exploring Mars.  Weir vivifies and magnifies that danger by exploring the entire cosmos in “Project Hail Mary”.   

Like the hero of “The Martian”, Weir creates a character who understands the science of space. 

“Project Hail Mary” is the story of a brilliant Junior Highschool Science teacher who becomes a reluctant astronaut.  This teacher overcomes many of the mental and physical challenges of space exploration.  On his journey, he becomes the first human to contact an alien life.

A striking feature of Weir’s writing is the science he incorporates in his novels. As an only child, Weir is raised by a physicist father and electrical-engineer mother who may have had something to do with his interest in science. 

Whatever Weir’s influences, “Project Hail Mary” is a tour de force of science and space travel for non-scientists.  Whether Weir’s writing has scientific merit or not, “Project Hail Mary” is a great entertainment, narrated by Oliver Wyman, a master of the art of audio presentation.

Weir takes us on a journey to another solar system.  Weir manages to suspend one’s imagination with a tale about a threat to earth on the scale of global warming.  Ironically, global warming’s threat is subsumed by a greater threat–the growth of a fungus originating on Venus that absorbs the energy of the sun.  Without that energy, Earth is doomed.

As has happened many times in history, a common threat creates friends of former enemies.  Like the creation of a political alliance in WWII to defeat an enemy aggressor, a science alliance of independent countries is formed to defeat nature’s aggressor

In Wier’s story, a brilliant group of scientists from around the world assemble to assess the threat of a fungus that absorbs the energy of the sun. 

A common threat demands singular, decisive, and coordinated action.  Imminent threat requires focused leadership.

In Weir’s novel, that is Eva Straat.  She is not the heroine of the story, but she is a leader.  She is an historian who clearly understands the gravity of the threat—no energy from the sun, no life on earth. 

Weir’s hero is Ryand Grace, a scientist who chooses to abandon science research to teach Science at a junior high school.  Grace is a reluctant hero.  He is commandeered by Eva Straat because of a science paper, written by Grace as a parting shot to the science community.  The leading scientists of the day said no life exists without water.  Grace’s science paper claims life on earth is not necessarily true for all life in the galaxy.  Grace is convinced that water is not necessary for all forms of life.  He quits the science community that vilifies him for his contrary opinion.

Teachers are great managers that know how to control resources, whether human or material. Grace is a quintessential manager.

Weir’s story credibly develops a belief that life might exist without water and oxygen interactions with the other elements of the periodic table.  Grace eventually meets an alien he calls Rocky.  Rocky is an alien from another solar system whose home planet is facing the same energy consuming fungus.  This alien has no eyes but can see, no ears but can hear, no hydrogen or oxygen in his world, and looks like a crustacean with multiple appendages.

There are many story lines to follow in Wier’s imaginative novel.  Some common threads are teaching moments.  There is the thread of our world’s end if evolution is unable to keep pace with social and environmental change.  There are the principles of friendship, hardship, scientific understanding, teacher and science contribution to society, crises response by the few, the one, and the many, willingness to sacrifice one’s life, and moral choice. 

An overriding principle in “Project Hail Mary” is the story of evolution.  Life’s adaptation is the soul of the story. Only through evolution does sentient life have a chance to survive.