Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Karl Marx (Philosophy and Revolution)

By Shlomo Avineri

           Narrated by: Roger Clark

Shlomo Avineri (Author, Professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.)

Is economic evolution about mind or matter?

Shlomo Avineri offers a more studied view of one of the three most influential economist in history, Karl Marx. Marx’s influence extends to philosophy, history, sociology, and politics.  

Avieneri illustrates how categorization of Marx as an influential economist minimizes his historical significance. Marx is born in Trier, Germany.

His father, Hirschel HaLevi (aka Heinrich Marx), is a practicing lawyer, the son of Marx HaLevi Mordechai and Eva Lwow.

In Trier, after Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, Germany returns to a highly discriminatory Prussian attitude toward Judaism. Karl Marx’s father, and eventually his mother, are compelled to convert to a Christian religion to advance Marx’s father’s career as a lawyer. Karl Marx’s grandfather is the rabbi of Trier who passes on that title to Karl Marx’s brother.

Avineri gives this brief family history to explain Marx’s Jewish heritage. It offers some insight to why Marx outwardly discounts his religious heritage while putting him on an intellectual journey toward political and economic reform.

Marx’s father might be considered a classical liberal because he promoted constitutional reform of the Prussian government’s denial of equal rights. Avineri implies the experience of his father leads Karl to pursue the study of history and philosophy because of discriminatory treatment of his family. The act of discrimination naturally makes one class conscious. Karl Marx’s political and economic ideas grow from that familial background.

Avineri suggests Hermann Hesse and Hegel are significant influences in Karl Marx’s life. Hesse is a contemporary of Marx. Hesse is influenced by Rousseau who believed in natural equality. Hesse’s literature addresses the inequality of workers and the capitalist class. He sensed the growing political danger of that inequality and, in writing about it, became an influence on Karl Marx’s view of capitalism.

Avineri’s explanation of Hegel’s influence on Karl Marx is a little more complicated. Fundamentally Hegel believes social development is an evolution of one’s mind to recognize that all humans are created equal. In contrast Marx believes social development is an evolutionary process of society’s actions in regard to material things. Marx believes the haves of the society recognize the inequity of the have-nots and will evolve to establish common good in the distribution of material things. Both Hegel and Marx agree that there is a dialectic process, but Hegel thinks it is a state of mind that changes while Marx suggests it’s a state of equal distribution of concrete goods.

It is impossible to deny Marx’s notes about inequality. One can argue that this was truer in Marx’s lifetime than it is today. The advent of social security and national health care, and welfare programs have reduced human inequality.  However, human inequality remains a serious social problem in every society and all government systems of the present day.

Whether Marx or Hegel’s evolutionary dialectic is true remains unknown. Neither capitalism, socialism, or communism have evolved to solve the problem of inequality, whether it is the dialectic of mind or matter.

Avineri’s biography of Marx is better than the previous biography reviewed in this blog. He offers a more intimate understanding of Karl Marx’s life and how he came to believe what he believed. The answer to the question of whether economic evolution is one of mind or matter is, of course—both. Human brains must evolve, and matter must be equally available.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)

By: Leo Damrosch

Narrated by Simon Vance

Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)

“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”. 

James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).

Though many pages reflect on Samuel Johnson (best known for the “Dictionary of The English Language”), the primary source of information on Johnson, as well as “…the Friends…”, appears to come from Boswell’s diary and notes. 

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784, died at age 75, Author, poet, playwright, moralist, editor, and lexicographer.)

An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”.  What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends.  Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances. 

In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.

Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual.  “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist.  In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent.  To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.

Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club

Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s.  From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known.  Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time.  Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today.  Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features.  Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government.  Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.

Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club.  Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson.  Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.

David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)

Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions.  However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value.  The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.

Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?

Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family.  He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies.  Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful.  He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day.  Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets.  His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.

Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist.  He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces. 

Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure.  Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases. 

Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior.  Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances.  She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption. 

Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)

Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister.  Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written.  It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.

More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story.  At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.


Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough


Gorbachev (His Life and Times)

By: William Taubman

Narrated by Henry Strozier

William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)

The length of William Taubman’s audiobook requires a Gorbachev II review.  The first review addresses Gorbachev’s personal life.  The second reflects on Gorbachev’s political life.  Gorbachev’s life is suffused with great accomplishment and tragic failure. 

Georgy Malenkov replaces Joseph Stalin after his death in 1953.  Malenkov is believed to be a reformist who plans to reduce military spending and Stalinist suppression.

However, within weeks, Malenkov is pushed aside by Nikita Khrushchev who takes supreme power within two years of Stalin’s death.  Surprisingly, Khrushchev becomes something of a reformist himself.

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971, First Secy. of the Communist Party 1953-1964)


Stalin’s autocratic, paranoid leadership is semi-privately exposed by Khrushchev in a speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party.  Khruschev’s vilification of Stalinist suppression, imprisonment, and murder eventually become known to the world.

The overriding concern of Russian leaders is to maintain suzerainty over Baltic nations and satellite territories in the face of ethnic and economic diversity.  Taubman notes older Russian leaders tend toward autocratic dictate to maintain political control.  The younger and more politically astute lean toward confederation of adjacent soviet republics and East Berlin with the U.S.S.R. as an umbrella organization.  Gorbachev is in the “politically astute” group.

Mikhail Gorbachev rises to chairman of the Communist Party and eventual President of the U.S.S.R., with the expressed intent of democratizing the Baltics, Russia, and East Berlin into a democratic socialist block.  However, ethnic, and cultural differences, accompanied by general economic failure, defeat Gorbachev’s unionist objective.

There is no question of Gorbachev’s success in democratizing U.S.S.R.’ citizens. 

However, in that democratization, the drive for independence becomes paramount to the satellite countries.  German reunification, and the breakaway of Baltic nations from the U.S.S.R. is inevitable.  Freedom, based on ethnic and cultural identity, surmount all efforts by Gorbachev to reinstate U.S.S.R. suzerainty.  Only by force could the U.S.S.R. prevail over state and territorial independence.  Taubman notes force is not within Gorbachev’s nature as a leader.

Once socialist democracy is dangled before the electorate, the die is cast.  Gorbachev’s governance could not provide enough economic stability to justify confederation.  That is his tragic failure.

Gorbachev’s immense success is liberating millions of former U.S.S.R. citizens.  With liberation, former citizens of the U.S.S.R. return to govern as citizens of their own countries.  This at a time of Reagan’s conservative government in the United States, and European distrust of U.S.S.R. militarization.  Taubman shows Gorbachev becomes an international hero based on his personality and persuasive power.  He is greeted as the great liberator of the twentieth century even though his primary objective is to retain those countries seeking freedom within the U.S.S.R.

Gorbachev raised the bar for nuclear disarmament by cultivating American and European participation in the reduction of nuclear weapons. 

Taubman explains Gorbachev is a tragic hero because momentum-of-change is halted by a cult of personality, compounded by economic insecurity.  Gorbachev is replaced by acting President, Alexander Rutskoy, after the 1993 constitutional crises. Rutskoy is replaced by a second acting President, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Boris Yeltsin succeeds Chernomyrdin as President in an overlapping term.

The Russian economy falters in its transition from communism to democratic socialism.  Russian history of “rule-of-one” reasserts itself with the rise of an incompetent President (Boris Yeltsin) and an autocratic but effective leader, Vladimir Putin.  However, Putin’s autocratic effectiveness is in question with the invasion of Ukraine.

Taubman suggests and infers Gorbachev’s success, and world history in general, are two steps forward with one step backward. Based on historical precedent of “one-man-rule” (dating back to czarist Russia) Taubman’s inference seems spot-on. 

Gorbachev flipped a switch that released the power of democracy but failed to provide adequate economic infrastructure to assure U.S.S.R. survival.  Taubman optimistically infers economic infrastructure of eastern bloc countries will improve overtime, even with autocratic leadership by people like Vladimir Putin. 

The growth of democracy has always been messy, but it moves forward in the face of temporary setbacks.  Spheres of influence will always be in play.   It seems a matter of time for another Gorbachev to make two more steps forward with a repeat of the next leader’s “one-step-backward”.  It appears in 2022, Putin makes that “one-step-backward” with the invasion of Ukraine. Taubman reminds readers of America’s trial in the civil war. Slavery is abolished but institutional racism remains a work in progress. The risk is that the world destroys itself before freedom and economic security become real for all.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Gorbachev (His Life and Times)

By: William Taubman

Narrated by Henry Strozier

William Taubman (Author, Political Science professor at Amherst College, received 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Biography of Krushchev.)

Having reviewed the first two books of the planned Stalin trilogy by Stephen Kotkin, it seems wise to review William Taubman’s “Gorbachev”.  Kotkin’s analysis suggests Stalin was a pragmatic autocrat who systematically eliminated potential adversaries who might challenge his leadership.  In contrast, Taubman’s Gorbachev is characterized as a democratic rather than autocratic leader.  This is not to say Gorbachev is less strong willed than an autocrat, but Taubman suggests he chooses to listen to both equals and subordinates before deciding and acting.  Kotkin shows Stalin keeps his own counsel before deciding and acts as his paranoid behavior demands.  Gorbachev is a politician, not a dictator.

Mikhail Gorbachev (Pres. of the Soviet Union 1990-1991, General Secy. of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 1985l-1991.)

Through force of intellect, ambition, and persuasion Gorbachev tries and fails to reify Leninist socialism.  Gorbachev’s ambition is to turn an increasingly dysfunctional Russian autocracy to democratic socialism.  Democratic socialism would theoretically provide Russian citizens a voice in control of their fate. 

Taubman notes Gorbachev is a student of Lenin’s writing. Gorbachev argues for change in Russia to what Lenin called democratic socialism. Gorbachev’s belief is that the 1917 revolution is more than a rebellion against monarchy

Gorbachev is not alone in believing Stalin abandoned Leninist idealism by instituting a government of the one in control of the many.  Many historians note Lenin did not want Stalin to succeed him as the leader of the revolution.

Kotkin suggests Lenin views Stalin as a soldier who enforces discipline but fails to understand the importance of creating a platform for power to the people.

The sad consequence of Stalinist history is that it reinforces kleptocracy, “a society or system ruled by people who use their power to steal their country’s resources”. 

Taubman shows Gorbachev understood Stalinism from personal life experience.  Taubman explains how Gorbachev comes from humble surroundings in a farming village in Russia.  Gorbachev sees firsthand how the idea of collective farming decreases, rather than increases productivity.  The bureaucratization of collective farming has the same impact in communist Russia as it did in communist China.  Leaders in charge of collective farms distort production quotas to make themselves look good to superiors.  The result is either lower productivity, or worse, the famines of 1920s and 30s in Russia and the 1950s in China.  (This is not to say famines do not occur in democracies, but the cause of famine is not bureaucratic lying but nature, or something beyond human control.)

Gorbachev loved his father and adored his grandfather.  Both parents were great influences on Gorbachev’s belief in hard work and education.  Gorbachev’s mother is the disciplinarian in the family.  She rules the young Gorbachev with a belt until he is old enough to say, “no more”.  “Tough love” from Gorbachev’s mother, in Taubman’s telling, instills respect for women.  Taubman suggests Gorbachev’s choice of a wife is based on belief in equal partnership to help him achieve life’s evolving goals. 

Taubman suggests Raisa, Gorbachev’s wife, is an equal partner in his decisions in life and in governing the Soviet Union.

A reader/listener is only halfway through the book at this point.  The last half of this 32-hour narration deals with Gorbachev’s failure as the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union.


Audio-book Review
  By Chet Yarbrough


Ali (A Life)

By: Jonathan Eig

Narrated by Kevin R. Free

Jonathan Eig (Author, Former reporter for WSJ, Eig also wrote Luckiest Man, and Opening Day.).

Jonathan Eig’s research of Muhammed Ali’s life offers some surprises to listener/readers. One who grew up in the sixties will be reminded, entertained, and appalled by Eig’s biography of the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time.  Muhammed Ali, aka Cassius Clay, The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, and less flattering nicknames, shows Ali lives up to every name noted in Eig’s biography of Muhammed Ali.

A criticism one may have of Eig’s detailed biography is its length. The last chapters dwell on Ali’s deterioration as a boxer with more detail than necessary. It becomes too repetitive in its reification of a man’s life who is ultimately only human.

The defeat of Sonny Liston.

One might think sports, particularly boxing, is no measure of intelligence. 

However, Eig notes Ali had an instinct for knowing when a punch is going to be thrown. Ali’s reflexes responded with such great speed punches often missed their target.  That skill and Ali’s showmanship made him the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.  Ali’s voice and opinion during the early years of his fighting career show him to be a brilliant actor, comedic insulter, and revered representative of Black America. What hid the truth of Ali’s intelligence is standardized testing, and the social circumstance of the 1960s. 

There are many forms of intelligence. 

Ali is classified as 4f by the military when he flunks its reading and comprehension test for the draft.  Eig suggests Ali is dyslexic which makes reading a laborious and unrewarding task.  To reinforce the idea that Ali is dyslexic, Ali only receives a high school diploma because of his school principal’s intervention. The principal recognizes something in Ali that is missed by standardized tests. As most Americans know, Ali goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world by beating Sonny Liston, a monster of a man who was a 7 to 1 favorite to beat Cassius Clay before the fight began.  What is revealed by Eig’s research is the complexity, the joy, and sorrow of Muhammed Ali’s life and world renown.

Ali beats Sonny Liston and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world.  After his ascension to champion, Ali does not want to be drafted. He does not see how he could be ineligible for the draft when he was evaluated by the service and found to be 4f but now is considered draftable.  He enjoys his life as it is and notes that he has no desire to go to war against Vietcong for whom he has no understanding or hate.  Ali refuses the draft without arguing his newly found Muslim faith could make him a conscientious objector.  The government sentences him to 5 years in prison.  Ali is stripped of his title and banned from boxing for 3 years. He is 25 years old and in the prime of his boxing career.

Those who grew up in the sixties knew of Ali whether they were sports fans or not.  Vietnam is raging in the sixties.  Many young, and some older Americans rebel against government overreach with anti-war protests, and human rights demonstrations.

While many enlist or are drafted into the service, a few burn their draft cards and escape to Canada. Some draft dodgers stay in America and publicly fight the draft because they view Vietnam as an unjust war.  Ali chooses to stay in America and fight the draft based on his early 4f classification.  Though that argument does not stand up, Ali refuses to be drafted.

With the help of growing public unrest, Ali is eventually released from a lower court’s charge of draft dodging by the Supreme Court of the United States. His ban from boxing is removed but only after the suspension removed Ali from the healthiest years of his boxing life.

What makes Eig’s biography so interesting is there is no singular motive for Ali’s choices in life.  Ali is a human puzzle.  He chooses to become a Muslim and devotes his life to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ali appreciates NOI’s teaching because it directly challenges white America for unfair treatment of Black Americans.  However, Ali is not a religious zealot. He is shown to be a human with many of the same failings of all human beings.  He prays to Allah but violates many preachments of NOI. He pursues conjugal pleasures of other women while married.

Ali is suspended from NOI for a year by the order of NOI’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The suspension is not because of philandering but because of Ali’s public pronouncements about boxing as the source of his fame and fortune.

Elijah Muhammed, the leader of NOI, considers sports and entertainment as frivolous and unworthy of anyone who believes in the Muslim faith.  Ali accepts the punishment and is never officially released from his banishment, though he remains a Muslim.

Ali does not abandon his religion, but he says his greatest regret in life is having abandoned his friend, Malcolm X (aka Malcolm Little) who criticized Elijah Muhammad’s flaunting of marriage vows because of sexual relationships with women other than the leader’s wife.

Malcolm X is murdered.  Some say he was murdered at the direction of NOI.  One wonders if Ali is fearful of the power of Elijah Muhammed or just aware of NOI’s potential for harming followers if they differ with the leader’s pronouncement.  Eig’s biography implies Ali’s intelligence and hedonism are likely motives for Ali’s actions, not fear of NOI’s punishment.  After all, Ali is a prolific violator of his own marriage vows and cash income from fighting remain his most important goal.  However, it is a puzzle that Ali said his biggest regret is abandoning his friendship with Malcom X who vilified Elijah Muhammad’s morality and rejected belief in a separate, exclusively Black, NOI nation.

Eig’s biography implies Ali is inadvertently, rather than deliberatively, on the right side of history.  One wonders if it is inadvertent.  Vietnam is a tragedy, badly managed by America.  Resistance to the war, Malcolm X’s recognition of the equality of all human beings, and Ali’s regrets about their friendship being broken suggests something more about what Ali really believed. Hedonism is one of many faults of humanity. Eig clearly shows Ali is no Saint, but Eig implies Ali has a moral center beyond his ill treatment of women. 

The last half of Eig’s book recalls Ali’s boxing matches, his relationships, and the terrible impact of boxing on the human brain and body.  Ali is shown to be an inveterate user of prostitutes when training for fights regardless of its consequence to four marriages.  (It’s interesting to note that the Muslim faith accepts the right of men to have four wives at the same time.  This is forbidden in America but violated by more than one religion.  Is it a coincidence that Ali marries four women?) 

It is difficult to believe a fighter could fight for 15 rounds when 3 rounds for an amateur are exhausting.  Ali’s stamina throughout his boxing life is seemingly supernatural.  He loses and wins the Heavyweight Championship’ title 3 times in his boxing career.

Eig’s detailing of Ali’s fights is particularly interesting to anyone who has boxed as an amateur or professional.  Eig points out Ali’s change in the way he fought left-handed boxers without understanding that leading with one’s right is what a trainer tells a right-handed fighter to do when fighting a lefty. 

Ali, and opponents like Frazier, show energy and determination that seem other-worldly.  One wonders how much of that energy and determination is based on subliminal punishment for a profligate or hedonistic life.  That may be personal psychobabble more than objective interpretation of Eig’s biography of Ali. One may ask oneself; what avenues were open to Black Americans in the 1960s to become rich and famous in order to be hedonistic?

Ali obviously fought for money and fame, but Eig shows Ali and other boxing champions pay a very high price.  Ali died at 74 years of age but suffered from diagnosed Parkinson’s for 32 of those years.  Though there is no proven direct correlation for Parkinsons’ diagnosis, it has been shown that boxers are more suspectable than the general public to speech impediment, Alzheimer’s, and erratic body movement from blows to the head. Frazier died at the age of 67.  (Ali was 33 and Frazier was 31 in the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the fight of the century–it is won by Ali in this third fight between the two, but that fight sent both to the hospital after its conclusion.)

Eig pulls no punches in his biography of Ali.  Ali was a flawed human being that treated women as property.  Ali entertained the world in his rise to fame.  Ali made the most of what he could in the time he lived.  Ali was the greatest in some ways and the least in others.  He exemplified much of what many want to achieve but at a price few are willing to pay.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Means of Ascent

By: Robert A. Caro

Narrated by: Grover Gardener

Robert Caro (Author)

Robert Caro is a great biographer but his history of the early years of Lyndon Johnson is diminished by his political idealism. 

Politics is the pursuit of power.  Some pursue that power by any means necessary.  Others may be less constrained, but the goal is the same–To Be Elected to Rule. 

Caro shows the young Johnson as a Machiavellian politician in the vein of Donald Trump but without a silver spoon.  History shows Johnson and Trump are willing to lie their way to power.  Both are willing to do whatever it takes.  Caro shows Johnson, like Trump, are bullies who intimidate subordinates to get what they want.  There is no moral or ethical line that these two ex-Presidents would not cross to stay in power.  Trump lost his second term because of rejection by the voters, and Johnson resigned because of embarrassment by Americans who opposed the Vietnam war.

Caro reveals Johnson’s bullying treatment of his wife and people who report to him. 

Caro shows Johnson is far superior at getting his way when compared to Trump. Caro notes Johnson stole his first election to the Senate from former governor of Texas, Coke R. Stevenson. 

Coke R. Stevenson (1888-1975, Former governor of Texas, died at age 87.)

Without big money contributors like Brown (of Brown and Root) to pay monitors to stuff ballot boxes in San Antonio, Texas, Lyndon Johnson would have lost.  With a legal maneuver by Johnson’s friend, Abe Fortas, and illegal help from election monitors, Johnson beats Stevenson for election to the Senate by 97 votes. (Fortas became an Associate Supreme Court Justice appointed by Johnson in 1965. He resigned in disgrace for unethical practice in 1969.)

In every election, the elected is beholding to someone.  Caro notes Brown and Root received a great deal of federal and State financed work in Texas because of Johnson’s support.

Johnson is shown to be a consummate politician, a good storyteller with the ability to persuade superiors like the leader of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, to support his ideas.  This is no small thing because Rayburn is history’s longest serving Speaker of the House, with possibly more power and influence than any past or modern Speakers of the House.

Sam Rayburn (1882-1961, 43rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.)

President Johnson, as the Senate Leader kissing the head of Sam Rayburn.

Caro notes Johnson uses his 6-foot, 2.5-inch height, to dominate associates who are either reporting, beholding, or superior to him. 

Johnson is shown to be extraordinarily energetic when pursuing power.  Caro explains how Johnson uses helicopter visits to Texas communities when he runs for the Senate against Stevenson.  Johnson works himself into a frenzy that makes him ill (recurring kidney stones) because of an indefatigable need to do everything he can to be elected. 

In Johnson’s presence, many were awed by his stories, even when they knew the stories were lies or gross exaggerations.  During the war years, Caro notes how Johnson appeals to Texas voters by claiming he will go to the front to fight Germany and Japan.  To fulfill that pledge, he accompanies a “band of brothers” flying a bombing mission on a Japanese island off the coast of Australia. 

Johnson’s (Observer Mission in Austrailia during WWII.)

Caro explains Johnson’s only direct combat experience is as an observer in Australia.  

In Caro’s telling, the mission did occur.  There is great danger.  The plane is damaged by enemy gun fire.  Caro’s research shows Johnson maintains a cool demeanor during the flight. Johnson plays no combatant role in the mission. But, he was an observer on the plane when it is strafed by the Japanese.

Caro notes the story of the flight is changed many times. In Johnson’s retelling he explains he is a hero who fought in many bombing raids, a lie.  Caro dispels Johnson’s brave hero characterization by telling of Johnson’s childhood that shows him to be a physical coward.  Caro interviews former childhood friends who recall Johnson’s cowardice.  When confronted with violence, Johnson is reported to lay down and kick his feet out to ward off anyone who might attack him.

Caro notes Johnson’s will power is extraordinary when it comes to doing whatever it takes to be elected to public office.

Caro’s research suggests Johnson is a focused and relentless seeker and user of power.  Johnson could use his position for either good or bad depending on whether it increased or diminished his power.  One example Caro gives is Johnson’s rejection of an oil interest offered to him by a constituent.  It could make him rich.  Johnson’s concern is it would diminish his chances for election to higher office if he were recognized as an oil interest’ owner. 

In contrast to the oil interest rejection, Caro shows how Johnson acquires a radio station to become a source of income for his family and a tool for his political ambition.  Johnson had been appointed to the FCC as a junior congressman.  He used his influence with the FCC to acquire and grow the radio station, with his wife as the holder of record.  A competitor is shut out of buying that station through Johnson’s influence with the FCC.  The FCC also expedites the gift of a popular frequency that widely expands the radio station’s area of coverage in Texas.

Lady Bird and her ownership of KTBC in Texas.

“Means of Ascent” is not Caro’s finest work.  Johnson is painted too harshly in the context of American Democracy. 

Like America’s experience with Trump, there is much to hate about Johnson’s rise to the Presidency. 

The reality is–Democracy is a messy process that brings both good and bad leaders to the world.  No President of the United States has been totally bad or totally good.  Democracy remains, and will always be, a work in progress.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel

By Banesh Hoffmann, Helen Dukas

Narrated by : Wanda McCaddon


The impact of extraordinary human beings is partly the result of chosen facts–there repetition, and future generations’ revisions of history.  The best known are men, undoubtedly due to misogyny that reaches back to the earliest writings of history.  Whether because of misogyny or other reason, mostly men have had the greatest influence on the course of politics, arts, and science. None more than Aristotle, Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Banesh Hoffman and Helen Dukas reveal why Einstein is among a select group of extraordinary human beings.  Presumably, Hoffman (because he is a physicist) offers explanation of Einstein’s contribution to the world of science.  However, in an equally revealing light (because Dukas is secretary to Einstein), one presumes she offers understanding of Einstein’s personal correspondence and innate humanity.  To we who are not scientists, Dukas is the star of the book.  Whether searching for understanding of E=mc2 or Einstein’s humanity, this book is worth reading and re-reading.

Newton versus quantum mechanics.

Einstein did not overturn the physics of Isaac Newton, just as he did not deny the validity of quantum mechanics. 

Einstein added to Newton’s understanding of physics by confirming belief in quantum mechanics with the caveat that quantum mechanics does not reveal everything about physics of the universe.  Einstein argues to his last days–their remains an unrevealed fundamental truth about physics. He believes physics will explain why things exist and why manifestation of things is predictable.  Like the inviolate speed of light, Einstein insists there is a physics law that gives predictability rather than probabilistic answers for ways of the world.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677, Dutch philosopher of the Enlightenment, biblical critic.)

Einstein believes in God but it is the God of Spinoza. Einstein believes God is not a corporeal being but a principle.

To Spinoza, God is everything in nature.  Religions look at Einstein and Spinoza as heretics, and as some argue, atheists.  However, Einstein suggests “God does not play with dice”. He is saying there is a fundamental cause for everything in the world.  That fundamental cause is God. However, that God is nature which, like energy and mass, has equivalence. Einstein believes there is an unknown fundamental law that explains life’s predictable existence which will prove God is real because, in his view, nature is real and predictable.

Einstein clearly identifies himself as a Jew but in the sense of ethnic association, not religion.  Part of Einstein’s self-identity comes from his disgust with Germany and its systemic murder of Jews in the holocaust. 

Dukas reveals Einstein’s sponsorship of Jews who wish to escape Nazi Germany.  She notes that Israel asks Einstein to serve as President of Israel.  He is deeply honored but chooses not to accept because his life experience is as a scientist, not a politician.

Dukas explains Einstein has an implacable belief in scientific predictability and an unstoppable drive for proof.  Both authors make it clear that Einstein’s greatest discoveries come in his early twenties. He doggedly pursues intuitive truth, even when faced with experiments that fail to support his beliefs.  Einstein does not become discouraged. He casts failed experiment and mathematical calculation aside and re-doubles his effort to confirm his intuitive beliefs.

Einstein did not initially realize the potential of E=mc2 as a weapon because he thought too much energy would be required to create nuclear fission that would change mass into energy. 

With the discovery of neutrons by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938, Einstein realizes there is destructive potential in his discovery of mass and energy equivalence.  Neutrons used to bombard particular fundamental atoms demonstrate transmutation of mass into energy.   That transmutation unleashes a cataclysmic force.

Einstein is shown to be an avid pacifist, but atrocities perpetrated by Germany in WWII leads him to recommend early efforts of America to create a nuclear bomb.  However, he is appalled by the bombs use in Japan.

The thought among Allied forces is that Germany would develop a nuclear bomb before Allied forces could end the war.  There is the suggestion by some that Germany’s last-ditch effort at the Battle of the Bulge was a desperate attempt to delay defeat to have time to develop a nuclear bomb.

It is clear in this biography that Einstein’s contribution to science is as immeasurable as aforementioned luminaries of politics, arts, and science.  Einstein, and Newton stand as the elite of the elite in science.  One hopes there are others in this century.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Leonardo da Vinci

By: Walter Isaacson

Narrated by Alfred Molina

Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)

This is the storied life of a self-educated savant.  Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother.  Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.

Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.

Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man

Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.

Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious.  He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence. 

The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees.  The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.

Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries.  From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting. 

However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist.  Leonardo is a polymath.  Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance. 

At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings.  Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering.  Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.

Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death.  Some were never finished.  Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone. 

In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.

Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.

Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders.  He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici). 

Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.

By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant.  Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State.  He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations.  Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.

Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions.  Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation. 

One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders.  It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.

Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).

Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.

Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience.  Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.

A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti. 

Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.

 Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.

Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.

Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality. 

His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses.  They both looked for perfection in their work.

From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time.  Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics. 

(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)

Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist.  From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history.  Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Stalin. Volume II: Waiting for Hitler

By Stephen Kotkin

Narrated by Paul Hecht

Stephen Kotkin, Author, Historian, Professor

In 1939, Churchill calls Russia a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.  Stephen Kotkin unravels some of that enigma in “Stalin. Volume II” but the unraveling is marred by details that will only appeal to historians; not dilettantes. Nevertheless, a dilettante listening to nearly 50 hours of narration will find much to recommend Kotkin’s second volume of what is to be a trilogy.

Was Stalin a mad man, committed idealist, or something else?  Was Stalin paranoid and highly calculating, or something else?  Was Stalin a detailed planner or reactionary?  What drove Stalin to eliminate 90% of Russia’s military leadership before WWII? 

In “Stalin, Volume II” Kotkin describes a despot.  Stalin controls a population of over 109 million people before and during WWII.  Before the war, it is estimated–between 5.7 and 7.0 million die from famine in Stalin’s Russian agricultural collectivization.  During the war, Russia is estimated to have had 10,700,000 military deaths, and 12,500,000 civilian deaths, of which 1,000,000 were Holocaust victims. 

It seems Stalin’s administration before and during WWII led to 23,000,000 Russian deaths. In contrast, Hitler’s administration’s toll is estimated at 7,000,000 deaths; of which 6 million were Jews. 

This is not to trivialize loss felt by any culture or nation, but–none exceed Stalin’s atrocity. 

(An exception may be China and the famine during Mao’s administration. An estimated 45,000,000 died in the 1958-62 “Great Leap Forward”, led by the “Gang of Four”, a cabal that Mao later opposed.) Communism is clearly shown to be a treacherous and ultimately failed form of governance.

The ultimate question is –how could Stalin remain in power before, during, and after WWII? What people or nation would countenance 23,000,000 deaths?  “Stalin, Volume II” offers a credible explanation. 

Kotkin infers Stalin is neither a mad man nor committed idealist.  Stalin is driven by an insatiable need for power and international influence.

Kotkin shows Stalin is highly calculating more than paranoid.  The clue is in the fact that Stalin never countenanced bodyguards because he did not fear assassination.  His longevity is the result of pragmatic use of power to eliminate rivals.  Stalin assiduously pursues the preeminence of Russia as a communist state; not a Stalinist state.  Contrary to some historian’s analysis, Stalin did not intend to create a “cult of personality”. Kotkin infers Stalin’s goal was to create a wider, more hegemonic, state of communism.

Stalin’s purge-

Stalin’s sleight of hand maneuvering is accomplished by publicly denying honorifics as leader of the state. 

With that pirouette, Stalin systematically undermines any rivals by using state apparatchiks like the NKVD to arrest, torture, and obtain confessions. By branding rivals as “enemies of the state”, Stalin eliminated leadership competition.

Stalin operates as a bully without outwardly appearing to be a bully.  But, each competitor who defies or competes with Stalin’s policies or position is confronted after gathered false or true accusations. A confrontation can be direct or indirect depending on Stalin’s whim. If it is a close associate, confrontation is personal and accusatory in a way that causes some to commit suicide; some to be disgraced and sent to a gulag, and a few to defect.

Through personal intimidation, and the help of a secret police, Stalin systematically destroys public perception of potential competitors.  They are summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to Gulags, or executed.

e.g.: Pavel Mikhalev, a wandering monk, was arrested in August of 1937 at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge for “counterrevolutionary activities”. He was tried on October 10 and shot on October 13. Mugshot taken in Moscow on October 13, 1937.

Stalin’s “hang man”, Lavrenty Beria.

Stalin replaces executed competitors with young followers.  They are drawn from backgrounds of a less grounded education; similar to Stalin’s.  These young followers become fierce defenders of Stalin; undoubtedly, in part, out of fear, but also out of appreciation for their gift of limited power and prestige in roles traditionally held by older citizens.

Stalin seduces new young leaders with dachas and improved economic benefits.  Stalin appeals to the middle and lower classes; bypassing the upper-class or well educated.

A negative consequence of this system of promotion is lack of experience in leadership or management.   


Kotkin notes an estimated 90% of experienced military leadership is removed by Stalin before the war. The consequence is to make cannon fodder of many Russian soldiers as they are thrown into battle against better equipped and experienced German soldiers.  Nevertheless, Stalin maintains control of Russia by recruiting from the young who are motivated by their own ambition.

Stalin, above all else, is shown to be a pragmatist in his increasing control of Russia after the revolution.  

Prior to WWII, Trotsky attempts to form a competing communist party in Spain but is trumped by Stalin’s maneuvering. Stalin opposes Franco’s fascist fight. He balances his enmity toward Trotsky with armament provisions to Spain’s communist party. That support diminishes Trotsky’s effort to form a competing communist party.


By discrediting Trotsky’s ideological support, Stalin undermines Trotsky’s success in forming any independent communist party.  Kotkin notes that Stalin forestalls separate recognition of outlying communist parties by using Russia’s industrial capability to co-opt nascent movements.  Stalin wishes to capture outlying communist movements by making it a part, rather than competitor, of Russian communism.

Stalin’s competition is either exiled or jailed.  His ideological rival is Trotsky whom Stalin tries to have assassinated after exile from Russia.  (Stalin finally succeeds in having Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.) 


Another example of Stalin’s pragmatic effort to extend territorial influence is in his playing Chiang Kai Shek forces against Mao’s communist movement.  On the one hand, Stalin wants to spread communism in China but not Mao’s version.  When Chiang Kai Shek is captured by Chinese communists, Stalin forbids Mao from executing him. Stalin insists on Chiang being released to join with the communists to combat Japan’s interest.  Chiang refuses to join Mao but Stalin’s influence on China is undiminished. Stalin is playing a long game by offering arms support to Mao while resisting either Japan’s encroachment or Chiang’s defeat of Maoist communism.

Stalin is not characterized as a genius as is evidenced by his being duped by Germany.  Stalin’s pragmatic effort to keep Russia out of war discounted Hitler’s oft spoken opposition to communism.  Stalin fails to intellectually grasp the monomaniacal intent of Hitler.

Stalin is shown by Kotkin to be a consummate consumer of information. He uses information to make decisions about who to eliminate that might challenge his control.  But, Stalin misses the realpolitik intent of Hitler.

In contrast to Stalin’s obsession for information, Hitler is shown to shoot from the hip.  Hitler is neither a pragmatist nor an information addict.  In shooting from the hip, Hitler chooses to fight WWII on two fronts which is the beginning of the Third Reich’s end.

Kotkin’s second volume about Stalin is more for an historian than the general audience. The first volume is more audience friendly.

Nevertheless, the second volume is a worthy history of what makes Russia what it was and may still be.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Narrated by B.J. Harrison

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac

By Graham Farmelo

Graham Farmelo (Author, biographer, science writer, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics)

Paul Dirac (1902-1984, English theoretical physicist born in Bristol, UK)
After listening to Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, one begins to understand why so few outside of Science know of this “brainiac”.  Paul Dirac’s history of communication is Spartan; i.e. rife with “yes” and “no” answers, long pauses, or abrupt departures, Dirac fails to become a household name like Einstein or Bohr.

Considered by some to be the second Einstein of Physics’, Paul Dirac is practically unknown to most of the non scientific community.  At the age of 31, Dirac shares the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger for discovery of new forms of atomic theory. 

In the span of Dirac’s life, he manages to astound the Physics community with his independent research, and taciturn analysis of quantum mechanics.

From Dirac’s top down theoretical formulation of quantum mechanics, he manages to reveal the spin of electrons and an early stage belief about string theory.  His formulations were solitary revelations born of a superior perception of reality that kept Dirac at the cutting edge of Physics well beyond his 30th year of life.

One of the revealing parts of Farmelo’s biography is Dirac’s remembrance of childhood and his parent’s treatment of him and his two siblings.  Dirac believes his father destroyed his children’s lives while Farmelo’s biography seems to show Charles Dirac deeply loved his two sons and daughter. 

Farmelo is not suggesting that Charles Dirac was a good father or husband but he is saying an offspring’s memory of what happens in their childhood is a distortion of reality. 

Charles Dirac may have been a martinet, though he did not strike his children.  He may have been a philanderer, but he remained with his wife until she died.  He may have been a cheap skate, but he left what he had to his wife when he died.  Ironically, Paul Dirac is genetically predisposed to be a genius but he seems to see a distorted truth of his childhood. 

The Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” is a hallmark of Paul Dirac’s life.  Born in 1902 Dirac lives through WWI, WWII, The Korean War, The 1950’s Red Scare, the reign of Joseph Stalin, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, and Vietnam.  He dies in Tallahassee, Florida in 1984.  In the course of his life he met. competed with, and mostly surpassed the
crème de la crème of the Physics community.

Dirac’s life is a journey through 20th century history.  He falls for Russian communism as many intellectuals of the 1920s did.  He lives through and understands the potential of the atomic bomb and chooses not to participate in its creation.  He lives through Germany’s bombing of England, deplores German dehumanization of Jewish scientists, but accepts post war rationalizations of German scientists (e.g. Werner Heisenberg) who supported Hitler.  Dirac is denied a visa to immigrate to the United States in the 1950s because of McCarthyism.  He leaves Cambridge in the 1970s to become Florida State University’s most famous professor.

Though Dirac made monumental theoretical contributions in the field of Physics, he fails to acquire the same cosmological gravitas as Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr. It seems largely because of his lack of charisma. 

Farmelo’s biography shows Dirac as a human being working through life, burdened by perceptions of childhood, blessed with a superior perception of reality, and subject to the exigencies of living any life in this world; the difference being that Dirac was a genius among geniuses.