BULLY FOR YOU

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Topeka School

By: Ben Lerner

Narrated by Nancy Linari, Peter Berkrot, Tristan Wright

Ben Lerner is a writer with academic and literary awards that attest to his intelligence and accomplishment. 

“The Topeka School” appeals to those who are blessed with intelligence, raised by accomplished parents, and unburdened by financial insecurity.  It is a story of a child bully that grows into adulthood.

“The Topeka School” makes one wonder what makes a child become a bully.  Does affluence have anything to do with it?  Is it because of superior intelligence?  Is it because of genetic pre-disposition?  Lerner creates a boy’s childhood that suggests some bullies do come from the aforementioned. 

Adam Gordon is Lerner’s main character in “The Topeka School”.  Adam is a highly competitive youth who excels in public debate because of his innate intelligence, training, and articulateness.  His mother and father are accomplished professionals. 

Adam is a body builder who suffers from migraine headaches.  The source of his headaches is not clearly known. Adam is treated by a psychiatrist and emotionally supported by his parents.

By the end of Lerner’s story, Adam has grown into a responsible adult.  His journey involves many experiences that resonate with all boys who grow to manhood.  To a large extent, Adam outgrows his penchant for bullying by resorting to reason rather than force when confronted with opposition.  However, he can still lose his temper when reason and polite argument are ignored. 

Lerner tells a story of an incident in a park with a father who condones his son’s bullying of Adam’s two daughters.  The young boy will not allow the daughters to play on a public park slide. The little bully resorts to calling the girls ugly and refuses to let the daughters on the slide.

Adam sees the father sitting on a bench in the park observing his boy’s behavior. Adam walks over to the bench to talk to the father. He fails to persuade the father to discipline his bullying son He asks the father to tell his son to share the slide.  The father argues the children should work it out among themselves. Adam explains the “ugly” insult to his daughters and that the boy would not allow them to use the slide.

The father demurs and tells Adam to quit talking to him. In frustration, Adam slaps a phone out of the father’s hand.  Whether the incident grows beyond the slapped phone is unrevealed but, under the circumstance, Adam’s frustration seems justified; not as a bully, but as an aggrieved parent.

“The Topeka School” largely takes place in the 1990 s but is brought current with a reference to family separation actions of ICE; warranted by President Trump. 

Adam and his foreign born wife and two children attend an ICE’ protest. Adam confronts an ICE officer who tells him to have his daughter stop drawing on the sidewalk outside of the ICE office. Adam engages the officer with arguments about public space and the erasable nature of chalk on a sidewalk. Adam handles the confrontation as a mature adult; not a bully.

The structure of “The Topeka School” is disconcerting and may make some reader/listeners put the book down.  The book will lose some who cannot identify with Lerner’s characters because of their social status and accomplishment in life.  The struggles of the Gordon family seem distant from the lives of many people who do not come from families as smart or financially accomplished as those in Lerner’s story.

BAD PARENTING

Kevin Wilson (American writer from Sewanee, Tennessee).

Bad parenting is endemic in America. Wilson offers four examples in “Nothing to See Here”.

In the richest country in the world, Americans waste their lives seeking money, power, and prestige at the expense of their children.

The heroine of Wilson’s story is a child raised by a neglectful single parent. The “friend” is an acquaintance from an exclusive and expensive school that the heroine attends because of her superior intelligence.

The two young girls become “friends” in the boarding school. The “friend” is from a wealthy and privileged family. She has great ambition, superior athletic skill, and extraordinary beauty. The “friend” slips into the thrill of drugs and is caught with a bag of cocaine. Her father comes to her rescue by bribing the mother of the heroine with $10,000 to say it was her daughter and not his that had the cocaine.

The young heroine has no say in the matter but she idolizes her “friend” and chooses to go along with the lie. She is expelled from the school, returns to her mother’s home, and works at odd jobs until several years later when she hears from her childhood friend. The heroine is now twenty eight with few prospects in life.

The parenting quality of Wilson’s next two families is revealed when the heroine’s friend calls to ask a favor. The favor is to take care of two children that literally catch on fire when frustrated or angry.

The “friend” marries a rich southerner who divorces his wife and marries the “friend” because she is beautiful and a highly capable manager of her husband’s campaign as a Senator. He is a Senator with interest in becoming a Secretary of State; and maybe future President of the U.S.

However, his ex-wife commits suicide, leaving their two children to her aged parents who are too old and unhealthy to raise the children. His ex-wife home-schooled the twins because of their penchant to catch on fire. The children are isolated from society, and are now being raised by incompetent grandparents.

The rich southerner becomes Secretary of State but chooses to abandon his two children because of their “catch on fire” notoriety. He now has a new wife and son by his second marriage. One presumes the “catch on fire” character of his former wife’s children is a genetic anomaly that came from his ex-wife. However, it turns out–the child of the Senator’s new wife also catches on fire. The genetic anomaly, if that is the cause of the “fire” children, came from the father.

A new favor is asked by the heroine’s “friend”. Please take care of the twins for the rest of your life, and keep them out of the Secretary of State’s daily life. The twins are abandoned by their father and his new wife.

The irony of Wilson’s story is the resurrection of the heroine as a parental surrogate for the abandoned children. She becomes a parent that outshines the four dysfunctional families of the story. At least, we hope so.

LIFE AFTER DEATH

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Lincoln in the Bardo

By: George Saunders

Narrated by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham, and others

GEORGE SAUNDERS (American writer, winner of many awards including Booker Prize and National Bood Award for Fiction.)

The New York Times gives high praise to George Saunders’ book, “Tenth of December”. There are reviewers that disagree with Kakutani’ and Cowles’ laudatory comments about Saunders’ book of short stories but once a listener steps on the cracked ice of “Tenth of December’s” last story, he/she becomes a Saunders’ fan.

Saunders seduces a listener with simple phrasing–pulling one into a story and then ambushing the unwary with crystal clear insight to human foibles, self-delusions, and false dependencies. Saunders sees that measuring one’s success by possessions defines you as an inanity, an empty symbol of humanity. What we do; not just what we think is what we become.

Like “Tenth of December”, George Saunders surprises with a new way of looking at ourselves– where we have been, and where we are going.  Lincoln in the Bardo reflects on a Tibetan Buddhist belief in a “…state of existence between death and rebirth”. 

A host of humanity is represented by voices of famous and not-so-famous actors.  They assume the roles of rich, poor, educated, and unschooled Americans living and dying during the Civil War.  The two major characters are Willie (Lincoln’s dying son) and the great man himself.  The ugliness of discrimination, the desire for freedom, and the trials of living are embodied in Saunders’ netherworld.

Willie Lincoln (Third son of Abraham Lincoln.

As Willie nears death from typhoid fever, listeners are introduced to a Bardo civilization. 

 

It is a community of disparate characters who believe they are alive but must, for unknown reason, return to their “sick boxes” (graves) every night.

In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the idea of a sick box when a man in his forties marries a woman of 18.  It seems unclear why such a marriage should take place. But the reader/listener hears a confession of the groom that he would be a companion, rather than a conjugal partner, of his new wife.  As their relationship progresses, the young woman expresses her desire to consummate the marriage.  On the day of the intended consummation, the husband is struck dead by a falling beam.

Saunders leaves the story of the struck groom and introduces many voices that reflect on the mood and experience of America during the Civil War.  You hear from people who lived lives as slaves, merchants, politicians, miscreants, preachers, prostitutes, and soldiers.  Some are rich; some are poor.  All exist in the Bardo.  A common understanding among these characters is that they are alive but constrained from acting on the natural world around them. 

In one sense, many of these people remind one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” in which hell is described as eternal life with other people you cannot stand.  However, the Bardo is not hell. 

The Bardo seems a place between heaven and hell.  Something is keeping people from leaving the Bardo.  Willie is the key to the door by which one may leave. 

As history records, Willie dies.  Willie is the first to tell those in the Bardo that he, as well as they, are dead.  Willie found he was dead by entering his father’s mind.  After dying, Willie hears of his death in the grief of his father.  Willie explains the truth to all those who did not know they were dead. 

Those who live in the Bardo cannot leave until they recognize they are dead.  In that recognition, they can leave but they do not know whether it will be to heaven, hell, or (in the Hindu sense) some form of reincarnation.

The beauty of Saunders creativity is expressed by his creation of a nether world of lives who have an ability to occupy the minds of those still living.  The occupation of the living is more as receiver than transmitter of information.  It offers a literary tool for reading the mind of historic figures. It also presents the idea of lost historic figures, friends, or family influencing the living.

Lincoln and his wife are devastated by Willie’s death.  Lincoln is consumed by early failures of the Civil War which occupy his mind as Willie nears death.

However, Lincoln’s desire for unifying the country is unbent by the tragedy of his son’s passing.  In a return to the cemetery, Lincoln is riven with remorse over the death of Willie. Willie enters Lincoln’s living body and realizes his father is grieving for him. Willie realizes he is dead.

The consequence of being a receiver in the Bardo, rather than transmitter of action or information. is that those in the nether world cannot reliably change the livings’ thoughts or actions.  There is a hint in Saunders’ story that there is a chance of a Bardo resident changing a living person’s mind, but it is only a slim chance. This is made clear by a Mulatto woman who has been beaten, raped, and murdered by many men. She desires revenge and chooses to remain in the Bardo to accomplish that end.

Living in the Bardo is not necessarily unpleasant because it is like living in the world except you must return to your sick box every night.  The possibility of affecting the real world’s direction, though slim, still offers some appeal to Bardo residents. 

Some flee the idea of knowing they are dead because of the choice that must be made once they acknowledge their death.  All who acknowledge their death must weigh the risk of heaven, hell, or (in Hindu belief) reincarnation.  If they choose to stay in the Bardo the only negative is having to return to their sick box every night.  Otherwise, life in the Bardo is like living in the world except for a limited effect you have on the world you have left.

Many ideas are exercised in Saunders’ creative story.  An insight plainly explained by Saunders is in many quotes produced from other books about Lincoln.  Saunders shows how facts of history change based on a writer’s perception of histories events, places, and people. 

In Saunder’s creative mind, there is life after death in the Bardo. He opens a door to heaven, hell, or reincarnation.  On the other hand, Saunders may be wrong. Death may just be death. 

Unintended Consequence

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Dombey and Son
By Charles Dickens

Narrated by John Richmond

Charles Dickens’ wrote many works picturing life during the industrial revolution. His books motivated more than writers to write.

Dickens describes many of the negative consequences of the industrial revolution; particularly, child labor abuse and family-value deterioration.  Dickens becomes a source of information for societal reform. His reflection on business profitability at any human cost plagues the world even today.

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstory (1828-1910)

Tolstoy said that Dickens’ literature was a source of motivation for him.   

“Dombey and Son” is a lesser known work of Dickens that pleases the senses and gladdens the heart.  For anyone who has children, “Dombey and Son” teaches parenthood and touches on errors of parental commission and omission.

The consequence of hubris and greed in “Dombey and Son” are well told in this story of father/husband arrogance, and business manager misdeeds.

Like a Shakespearean play, Dickens writes about the difficulty of life with a dénouement of “Alls Well That Ends Well”. Dickens infers human cost must be weighed in determining value of any end.

In the mid 1800s, a patriarch in “Dombey and Son”, Paul Dombey marries.  The industrial revolution is in full swing. 

A daughter is born to a father who pines for a son.  Fate chooses to provide a son but the boy loses his mother in child birth. The boy is sickly and destined to live a short life that never fulfills the desire of his father for a son to inherit the family business.  

Paul Dombey only grieves for his son.  He alienates and ignores his daughter, and marries again for appearance and convenience.  Paul Dombey lacks empathy or understanding of others or himself.

Dombey’s loss of a son and his hubris get in the way of any human compassion or love for others.  He is abandoned by his new wife.  He accuses his daughter of aiding the abandonment.  Dombey strikes his daughter and she runs away.  Through the connivance of his business manager, Dombey’s business is bankrupted.  Dombey spirals into a pit of despair and self loathing.

The beauty of Dickens’ writing is in his character development.  His skill is exhibited in multiple story lines that weave together to change the course of a story. Dickens juxtaposes pitiable despair with great joy. 

When his daughter flees she begins a new life, presaged by an earlier encounter with an apprentice.  The apprentice, after exile and ship wreck, becomes her husband.

The daughter, though neglected by her father, loves him deeply.  She attempts to reconcile Paul Dombey with his second wife.  Because of his second wife’s childhood miseries reconciliation is not possible, but Dickens suggests forgiveness is in Dombey’s future.

The relationship between father and daughter begins to heal.    Paul Dombey begins to understand himself; i.e. he recognizes his failure as a father and husband and begins to rebuild his life through his grandchildren.

The fracture of family values caused by yesterday’s industrialization is depicted in Dickens writing and well documented by sociologists and historians.

Fracturing of family values is exacerbated by today’s technological revolution.

Dickens’ stories dramatize parental psychological abuse; an abuse that resonates with modern society. Much of the abuse is unintentionally caused by the demands of modernization.

The widening gap between rich and poor is harmful and reinforces human alienation. Less time is used to raise children because both parents work or are distracted by self-interest.

2 + 2 Makes 5

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

1984


By George Orwell

Narrated by Simon Prebble

George Orwell (1903-1950, Author born in India, a British Citizen)

Orwell published “1984” in 1949.  Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism, technology, and thought-control match today’s fears and failures in America.

Technology (then and now) is a threat to everyone’s privacy and self-determination.

However, technology has a much wider; more intrusive role today than in 1949

Advances in social media through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others–with the help of Google, Amazon, and Apple, are encroaching on everyone’s right to privacy and personal thought.

Jingoism, war threats, and propaganda fill newspapers, television reports, and the Internet to influence and manipulate indigenous and exogenous populations. 

7/31/2019-China blames America for Hong Kong demonstrations. .

American, Chinese, Iranian, Syrian, Russian and Turkish governments tell the world that their internal turmoil is caused by outside influences.

Some leaders lead by falsehood. The truth is hidden by leader’s divisive diversions and subversion.

Yesterday it was gangster-ism in Ukraine; today it is abandoning Kurdish allies who fought by the side of Americans in Syria.

History reveals murders, imprisonment, and rigged elections caused by malignant use of the internet. Though the victim/hero of “1984” is tortured to say “2 + 2 make 5”, the use of the internet gives forum to lies and hate that make the unwary believe “2 + 2 makes 5”.

Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism and population indoctrination in “1984” is more direct than today’s media manipulations. Google argues that search-engine’ clicks are meant to customize consumer searches for information, but how far is that from thought control?

The inherent subtlety of social media seduces rather than tortures people into thinking in a particular way. 

People are killed by media manipulation of the truth. Media manipulations cause conflict, but rarely cause death on a mass scale.  (Of course, it is a mass scale to the mother, father, grandparent, sibling or friend who loses someone they love.) Orwell is saying there are no ideological differences between a media-manufactured war and a real war when people die.  Is the American government out of control?

Ukrainian Airlines Crash from Iranian missile launch mistake

Orwell points to media-manufactured wars that are not really wars between nation-states. Thought diversions and public-conflict misinformation spread by the government and the media make indigenous populations endorse, obey, and follow their leaders.

Add private sector big data use to government sector misinformation, and individuals lose both privacy and independence.

Acquisition of nuclear weapons to foment a war is a fiction. It is a fiction designed to manipulate public opinion.

The concern over nuclear proliferation is about fear of mistakes and nuclear accidents; not nuclear war.

This is not to say nuclear proliferation is not a danger to the world. It is a danger, but more because of its use as a political weapon than a tool of war.

The fact is, nuclear accidents occur; for example, Russia’s recent nuclear-weapon’s failure in August 2019.

Iran and North Korea incite their people to expand nuclear weaponry to gain status in the world. It is not an irrational move in the real politic of public affairs. A former Israeli spy master (Meir Dagan) noted on national television that Iran’s government officials are rational; mutual nuclear destruction is not rational.

Orwell characterizes nation-state populations as three tiered; e.g. upper, middle, and lower.  The upper class conception is a ruling class that controls a nation; the middle class strives to become a part of the upper class, and the lower class (the largest part of the population) is suppressed by both the upper and middle class to maintain the three tiered structure. 

Orwell suggests the upper class becomes a kind of collective with a particular ideology that usurps capitalist ambition by trading wealth for collective power. This is the concern one has over the widening gap between rich and poor.

Today’s Moneyocracy is the upper class described in “1984” and the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are Orwell’s revolutionary hero/victims

One might say that the “collective” concept has more relevance in a socialist country but money is power in America so Orwell’s upper class definition is equally relevant in a largely capitalist country.   The difference is a matter of degree; i.e. rather than an oligarchy of socialists, America has an oligarchy of wealthy corporations and multi-millionaires.

A striking parallel between Orwell’s “1984” and today is western culture’s 21st century “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has protesters but they cannot articulate actions that can practically actualize their revolution.

All revolutionaries cannot be subverted, imprisoned, or murdered. One might argue Orwell’s “1984” torture of revolutionaries is being replaced by corporate use of private data and government propaganda to achieve the same purpose.

Orwell is as prescient today as he was in 1949.

FREEDOM OF CHOICE

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

East of Eden


By John Steinbeck

Narrated by Richard Poe

John Steinbeck (1902-1968, Author, Nobel & Pulitzer Prize Winner)

“East of Eden” is a judgement on the nature of humanity.

In “East of Eden”, every human being has a choice; the choice to be good or evil. An inference is that individuals choose who they want to be regardless of economic circumstance, or genetic inheritance.

Mixing and matching diverse personalities are a part of Steinbeck’s oeuvre.  An audio book listener sinks into the first few chapters of “East of Eden” thinking they know how the story ends.  However, each new character reveals some new facet of humanity that turns and twists the story.

Steinbeck’s anti-hero, Cathy Ames, seems destined for execution; the Trask family for tragedy, the Hamilton family for peace and prosperity, and Chinaman Lee for Saint-hood. What happens is only partly expected.

Steinbeck invents characters that show the best and worst of humankind; without making life a morality play. 

A listener cares what happens to Steinbeck’s characters.  The beauty and transcendence of Steinbeck’s writing informs; sometimes intimidates, those who think they know something about life.

Children of the world are raised in the best and worst conditions of existence.  Children are raised in the happiest families, the saddest families; in enslaved minorities, in blue collar majorities, in one parent, two parent and no parent families. Children die or mature to become someone or no one, but Steinbeck infers chance and choice are theirs to follow. 

Steinbeck raises questions about life and how one lives it.  Steinbeck writes a story showing that becoming oneself is influenced by genetics and environment but not determined by either. In “East of Eden” life’s journey is made of human choices and chances.

The most evil character in “East of Eden” is Cathy Ames.  She comes from a two parent “Ozzie and Harriet” family that owns a relatively successful leather tanning business.  Cathy Ames is loved by her family.  She is an only child that is doted on by her mother and loved by her father.  Cathy Ames chooses to murder her parents, and merry an unsuspecting man.

A good-hearted, trusting man–Adam Trask marries Cathy Ames. The Trasks have two children– twin boys who seem to reincarnate differences in their parents. The boys names are Cal and Aron with each seeming to take a different path in life.

Aron is more like his father. Cal is more like his mother–less trusting, prone to getting in trouble, and intent on finding and understanding the life of his mother.

Cathy Ames shoots her husband after the twin’s birth.  She abandons her wounded husband and newly born children. Cathy chooses to become a prostitute and Madam, and lives her idea of the American dream. 

Chinaman Lee is the Trask family’s servant. Lee is an outlier observing the American dream with a philosophical belief that good and evil exist in all human beings. Lee views existence of good and evil as a God-given choice; not a fate or pre-ordination. Lee’s wisdom and philosophical beliefs influence the Trask family sons; particularly as their father’s health deteriorates.

One of the most laudable characters in “East of Eden” is Samuel Hamilton.  He is an Irish immigrant that comes to Southern California, and has a past that touches evil. Hamilton flirts with a “Cathy Ames kind” of relationship, but breaks away from its evil influence to become a sage and seer in Salinas County. 

Hamilton becomes the patriarch of a big family that is poor in wealth but rich in love, respect, and familial affection.  Samuel Hamilton lives a different American dream.

Lee is a cornerstone character in Steinbeck’s story. Lee’s philosophical belief in human choice is illustrated by Cal’s decision to avoid a life lived like his mother. Cal chooses good over evil after finding and recognizing his mother’s poor choices and their consequences.

Freedom of choice is both a human burden and benefit. Steinbeck implies each person chooses their course in life. Their choices are their own responsibility; not genetics, or economic circumstance.

In light of Steinbeck’s “…Grapes of Wrath”, one might argue there is a false bottom in belief that economic circumstance is irrelevant. One can certainly choose to be good rather than evil, but the consequence of poverty seems to compel evil.

Compelled evil is even more starkly reflected in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”. Is evil strictly a choice? Some would argue environment and genetics compel choice.

COLLECTIVIST BELIEF

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler

Narrated by Frank Muller

Arthur Koestler (1904-1983, Author)

Though Stalin is never named in “Darkness at Noon”, Stalin is the “one” that encapsulates a vision of Communism that demands submission by the individual to the collective. 

When a young communist refuses to distribute Stalinist Party’ literature that ignores Nazi attacks on local Communist’ cells, he is expelled from the Party.

In real life, Koestler joined the Communist Party in Germany in 1931.  His resignation from the Party in 1938 is a likely motivation for writing “Darkness at Noon”.

Koestler’s hero is a young communist leader that disagrees with his Russian controller and is expelled from the Party in the 1930s.  The substance of the disagreement is the heart of the story.

The central character of “Darkness at Noon” is Nicholas Rubashov. Rubashov enforces Stalinist’ Communist belief in the collective, but he has doubts. Rubashov is the apparatchik who is ordered to expel a young German’ Communist because he looks at Russian Communism as a personal rather than collective savior.

Rubashov is characterized as one of the original participants in the 1917 revolution. As he ages, his blind acceptance of Stalin’s Communist belief in the collective waivers.  Rubashov is imprisoned and ordered to sign a confession.  The interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin, are responsible for getting a signed confession from Rubashov. 

Ivanov, who is a former acquaintance and civil war comrade of Rubashov’s, offers an opportunity for Rubashov to redeem himself. Ivanov suggests that Rubashov confess to a lesser charge to justify incarceration for five years with a chance to return to political power. 

Rubashov initially says “no” but Ivanov’s “plea bargain” approach works and Rubashov signs a confession. 

However, Ivanov is later removed from power and Gletkin takes charge of Rubashov’s case.  Gletkin argues Ivanov’s approach is a mistake.  Gletkin insists on a complete confession of guilt; i.e. no redemption, only execution.

Much evidence is brought before Rubashov.  The evidence is weak but Rubashov becomes convinced through sleep deprivation, and a clever manipulation of Rubashov’s logic, that he must be executed. Rubashov’s personal feelings of guilt come from his denial of collective good. He reasons–the way he has been judged is the way he has lived his life; therefor his life should be forfeit for the cause; in the interest of the many over the few.

Gletkin might be characterized as a mindless Neanderthal because of his belief in torture, but one of many of his clever manipulations suggests he is diabolically clever.

Gletkin suggests Rubashov was given a watch when he was 7 or 8, which Rubshov acknowledges is probably correct.  Gletkin says he did not have a watch until he was a teenager and that he did not know there were 60 minutes in an hour until then.  No one in his social class looked at time in segments; waiting in line was not characterized by time but by results from waiting in line. 

This recollection was another way of saying that the end result is what is important; not the means and time that one stands in line. This is a quintessential belief of the “true believer” in Stalinist communism.