Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Brothers Karamazov

By: Fyodor Dostoevsky (Translated by Constance Garnett)

Narrated by Frederick Davidson

A re-listening of one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces reminds one of why it is considered a classic. 

My first review of “The Brothers Karamazov” focuses on Dostoevsky’s prescient view of psychology

Re-listening reprises its deeply religious overtone and its depiction of how some novelists view and reinforce inequality of the sexes.

Vasily Kachalov as Ivan Karmazov.

The role of religion in life is vivified by Ivan Karamazov, the 4th son and brother of the Karamazov family. 

Depiction of Alyosha Karamazov.

Ivan tells his youngest brother, Alyosha, of an imagined poem.  It is named “The Grand Inquisitor”.  It is a story of the return of Christ noted in the Christian bible as the second coming. 

Ivan offers a societal interpretation of the concept of God in his narrative poem.  He explains to his brother Alyosha–if the Son of God returns to earth and shows his divinity through miracle, the returning Christ would be captured by church elders and rejected as humankind’s Savior.

Christ’s capturer in Ivan’s poem is a wizened bishop (the Grand Inquisitor) who explains faith is more important than the second coming. 

The bishop explains the Church is commissioned by Christ’s Father to rule the world.  With God’s commission, “The Grand Inquisitor” argues the Church dutifully manages human sin and confession.  The inference is that a “second coming” will not successfully eradicate human sin because it is ineradicable.

The bishop argues the return of Christ is not as important as the church’s management of sin and its gift of hope to the people of the world. 

In contradiction of Ivan’s poem and his societal interpretation of religion, Dostoevsky creates Father Zosima.  Zosima tells his life story as a relatively wealthy young military officer who becomes a venerated monk. 

Despite a secular life of sin, Zosima requests forgiveness from those he has sinned against.  Because of his spiritual awakening, Zosima requests forgiveness, and with the help of a stranger’s confession, reconciles and accepts the word of God. 

Zosima recalls the truth of God who tests Job’s faith by allowing the devil to take all his earthly wealth, health, and family.  Job never gives up his faith in God. Zosima recounts reconciliation and forgiveness of Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery.  Zosima commits his remaining life to God with these two biblical parables.  Zosima’s life story foreshadows Ivan’s conversion from belief in the “…Grand Inquisitor” to belief in God’s truth.

For God’s believers, Dostoevsky argues the world will change just as Zosima changed.  The change will come from salvation based on repentance, confession, and acceptance of God’s truth. 

Dostoevsky suggests God’s truth is that no one should stand in judgement over another, each should pray for theirs, and their brother’s redemption. Zosima argues this change will come upon the world gradually based on a growing diminution of the human desire for money, power, and prestige.  Care for others becomes as great as care for oneself. To Dostoevsky, this is an evolutionary imperative based on the biblical word of God.

The truth Zosima refers to is that all men are created equal, they should be treated with respect, and forgiven for their inevitable sins. 

A blaring irony of “The Brothers Karamazov” is the reprehensible characterization of women.  Dostoevsky’s vision is patriarchal.  Women bare children keep the house and obey their husbands.  There is no room for women’s equality.  They are a mere rib of Man.

One might argue there has been progress for women since the 19th century, but women are still battered, women are generally paid less than men for the same work, and women are often treated like slaves.

“The Brothers Karamazov” is a classic. It is prescient for these times.  One might argue that more attention is being given today to sexual, ethnic, religious, and racial inequality.  However, progress is slow.  America has taken many steps back, and few steps forward. 

Dostoevsky’s “…Brothers Karamazov” is a reminder of Martin Luther King, Jr’s quote— “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Maybe, but this generation doubts its truth.

How long is too long?


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Homeland Elegies: A Novel

By: Ayad Akhtar

Narrated by Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar (American author, playwright, novelist, and screenwriter-received 2013 Pulitzer for Drama.)

When listening to “Homeland Elegies”, one must remind oneself it is a novel.  It is written by an author and screenwriter who can create characters with singular insight and theoretical power to change the world.  Though there have been such people in history, they are never recognized in real time.  Extraordinary people are only found in the perspective of history or in fictional stories by creative writers. 

Many in history might be considered in the category of extraordinary people.  They were not perfect, but they changed America, and in some cases the world, for the better.  Extraordinary people are either revivified historic figures, or imaginary characters created by authors like Ayad Akhtar.

Pakistan, to many Americans, is a riddle wrapped in an enigma (a phrase Churchill used to describe Russia in the 1930s).  The author manages to reveal some of that riddle in “Homeland Elegies”. 

Without delving into the history of the author, the author’s main character is named Akhtar.  One gathers from his novel, that Akhtar is an American, but his parents are from Pakistan.  Akhtar is born into an upper-middle class family whose father is a renowned cardiologist. 

Akhtar’s father sees Trump as a man like himself.  Akhtar’s father is flawed in ways like Trump.  Both Trump and Akhtar’s father look at life’s decisions as transactions with winners and losers. 

Trump and Akhtar’s father’s mutual history of dalliance with prostitutes, their failure as business investors, and their unshakeable belief in the value of capitalist self-interest make Akhtar’s father and Trump brothers in both character and ambition. 

Politically, the character Akhtar and his father are opposites.  Akhtar’s father appears to have voted for Trump in the 2016 election; in part because of a brief medical encounter with Trump long before he became President. Akhtar argues with his father about Trump’s public persona. Trump’s lack of empathy, and his transactional domestic and foreign policy actions are “red flags” to his son.  Though Akhtar loves his father, he attempts to bully him into changing his mind about Trump.

The author shows why Trump appeals to many Americans.  The “…Elegies” help explain why disparaged American minorities (both nonwhites, and extreme libertarians), as well as white voters, support Trump. 

Trump’s support crosses all strata of American life, including the rich, poor, educated, and un-schooled.  Many Americans vote for and revere Trump.  Trump’s appeal is not to any precise citizen category. His appeal is to every American that wants to be rich enough to be left alone by government or any outside interference.

One of several serious reflections by the characters in the “…Elegies” is an American Pakistani who uses Trump’s memes to punish anti-Islamist local governments that deny American Pakistani equality.  This character is a brilliant strategist and wealthy investor.  This super-wealthy investor, a born-in-America Pakistani, creates a hedge fund to be sold to communities that formerly denied Muslim equality in their cities. 

This hedge fund creator concocts a hedge fund scheme to make money at the expense of anti-Muslim American city governments.  Greed of government public fund’ investors blinds them to carefully worded risks in the hedge fund prospectus.  In the end, these city bureaucrats nearly bankrupt their cities because of their failure to read the fine print.  The cities governments sue the creator of the hedge-fund but are unsuccessful because the prospectus clearly explains the fund’s risk. The hedge-fund profits even more by having hedged against the fund because they knew what would happen to the original investment.

In a trip to Argentina last year, our guide suggested the same hedge-fund profiteering occurred in their country. Argentina fell prey to the same corporate shenanigan. Corporate investors profited twice (first in selling bonds and second from hedging against default). The Argentine people paid the price through inflated consumer prices and devalued currency.

The hedge fund creator has no empathy for citizens who are pawns in a scheme bought into by their local representatives. 

The hedge fund creator’s primary objective is to punish local governments that had discriminated against creation of Muslim places of worship.  The hedge fund creator exhibits the same characteristic that many ascribe to former President, Donald Trump.  Trump shows little empathy for the public while focusing on those he wants to punish, regardless of collateral damage to innocent bystanders.

Two interesting perspectives come from this elegy of a super-wealthy American Pakistani investor.   

  1. He explains why Eastern and Western cultures had such different economic histories. He notes corporations led to accumulation of wealth in Western nations.  In contrast, in the hay days of the Muslim Empire, individual wealth was disbursed to relatives who steadily diminished capital and retarded the general welfare of the Empire.  Eastern nations failed to adopt the idea of corporations for 300 years.  In that 300 years, accumulated wealth in corporations allowed Western economies to grow while the East foundered.
  2. His second message is ironic. Individual managers of corporate wealth diminished the moral center of Western nation’ capitalism.  The human flaw of greed became good.

The underlying theme of “Homeland Elegies” is that corporations have diminished the ideals of Adam Smiths’ theory of capitalism. 

All races, colors, creeds, and religions succumb to the Hobbesian faults of being human.  Only empathy for others can blunt the ill effects of corporatism and the wealth machine that feeds on the lives of the poor and near poor.

The author expands this argument in the elegy of a wealthy Black American who understands why Trump will win the 2016 election.  This wealthy lawyer recognizes the link between corporate wealth and discrimination.  He can see Trump will be elected in 2016 because White America wishes to maintain control of corporate wealth. 

The counter to Trumpism in this American’s mind is to fight for control of corporate wealth; not to empathize with the poor, homeless, and non-white populations because it is a waste of time.

The S.P.A.C. (special, purpose acquisition company) movement reinforces this Black American’s argument.

Corporate wealth is a superpower created by the faults of human nature (namely greed).  Citizens are not seen empathetically but only as transactions between company and customer.

Corporations see individual citizens and consuming customers as fodder for economic growth. 

The author abandons a central corporatist distortion of reality with elegies of his personal sexual experience.  The character of Akhtar falls somewhere between caring and transactional sexual relationships.  In one encounter, it seems there is care for another; in most others, sex seems simply a pleasurable transaction.  The inference is that casual sex is the equivalent of corporate greed.

The author’s main character sees sexual experience is often a transactional rather than caring experience between adults. 

Ayad Akhtar is an insightful writer that gives listener/readers much to think about; not the least of which is unfair treatment of American citizens born here by former immigrant parents.  One might look forward to seeing Akhtar’s theatrical production for better understanding of American culture.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Night Watchman

By: Louise Erdrich

Narrated by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich (Author, National Book Award winner plus other honorifics.)

(Louise Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Erdrich’s parents, a Chippewa mother and German father, taught at the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” in Wahpeton.  She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and her husband was the director of “Native American Studies” at Dartmouth.)

Like Ellison’s “…Invisible Man”, Louise Erdrich offers “The Night Watchman” to show how invisible native Indians are in America. 

The headline in the 1/4/21 “New York Times” National page is “Indian Country Loses a Hospital at a Crucial Moment–Tribe Members Feel Abandoned as the U.S. Turns a New Mexico Facility Into a Clinic”–today’s example of Indian invisibility.

“The Night Watchman” is not Erdrich’s first attempt at explaining Indian’ invisibility.  She also wrote the best seller “The Round House”.  Both reveal the ignorance and unfairness of Indian reservation life and American government attempts to subsume Indian culture.

Erdrich notes “The Night Watchman” is a true story with names changed to hide American political shamefulness and abhorrent treatment of a young Indian woman.  On the one hand, her story may be distorted because of truth written as fiction.  On the other, Erdrich offers a distinctive picture of Indian reservation life and reminds reader/listeners of American power’s treatment of Indian people.

Erdrich offers a distinctive picture of Indian reservation life and reminds one of American power’s ill treatment of Indian people.

America’s history of violating contractual agreements with Indian tribes is well documented.  A part of Erdrich’s story shows how those contractual agreements are broken.

(This is a photo copy of a Senate Agreement with Crow Indians for Sale of Their Reservation in Montana-1891)

An elected official submits a bill to a state legislature suggesting native Indians have achieved equality before the law and that they have become Americans who should not be restricted to reservations (a euphemism for break-up of Indian culture and land confiscation).  The submitted bill gives no value to the tradition and history of Indian culture.  The bill might offer compensation to a tribe for the taking of the land, but at an unspecified price.

The people of the reservation are legally notified of the prospective legislative bill.  People on the reservation are offered a public hearing to discuss the bill. 

There is no offer of financial help for traveling to the hearing or for legal defense of Indian contractual rights to the reservation land. 

In Erdrich’s story, effort to organize and pay for travel and legal expense is left to reservation people who have no money to spare. What money they have is to survive, to have a roof over their head, and food on the table.

“The Night Watchman” is a story of big government against “invisible” Indians. 

The bill is created by a Mormon legislator in the state whose family settled in the area in the 19th century.  He argues reservation land was a temporary holding until Indians were integrated into American culture.  The legislator reasons the day for full integration into American culture had come.  He reasoned job availability, education, and welfare of tribal populations had reached the same level available to all Americans.  It is the same lie offered to women and minorities in the history of the world.

Erdrich’s story begins with vignettes of Indian life on the reservation.  This is somewhat confusing but gains momentum as her characters are fully developed.  The night watchman is an Indian named Thomas Wahhashk.  He works off the reservation at an industrial plant.

Patrice Paranteau is an Indian who works at the same plant as Thomas.  She has a sister named Vera who has left the reservation to live in the city.  Vera disappears.  Patrice goes to the city to find Vera but only finds Vera’s baby who appears abandoned. 

The disappearance of Vera is one of the drivers of Erdrich’s story.  What happens to Vera is unconscionable.  She is kidnapped and held in a ship’s hold to be abused by its sailors.

There is a burgeoning love story threaded into Erdrich’s story that reflects the striving of an Patrice to become an equal partner in life.  Patrice chooses her own path to become an independent woman in a world defined by government and men.

Erdrich’s story reminds one of Ellison’s invisible Black who identifies with a personal culture while wanting to be treated as an equal in American culture. 

Minorities do not wish to lose their identity but to be equal participants in a wider culture. It should not be difficult to be a Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, or other American and enjoy the benefits of democracy’s freedom.

Erdrich combines the theme of cultural identity with a story of human relationship, hardship, success, and failure.  Erdrich offers a glimpse of our hard it is to be an Indian in a culture dominated by a largely white American culture. 

Erdrich, like Ellison, shows how multiculturalism is denied by a country that purports to believe in equality of opportunity for all. 

Like Ellison pictures what it is like to be Black in America, Erdrich shows what it is like to be Indian in America.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Eye of the World (Book 1)

By: Robert Jordan

Narrated by Kate Reading, Michael Kramer

James Oliver Rigney Jr. aka Robert Jordan (1948-2007–American Author, Born in Charleston, South Carolina)

Robert Jordan explains “The Eye of the World” is about myth.  He recreates a cast of characters that brings tales of the past into a “wheel of time”.  Jordan draws on myths told and retold to glean a perception of world history before history became an academic discipline.  He suggests there is an element of truth in all myths, though retelling changes their truth. 

Jordan creates an integrated mythology made up of 14 books and a prequel novel.  The renown science fiction writer, Brandon Sanderson, finishes the series upon Jordan’s death.

Jordan’s underlying theme is wrapped in the “wheel of time”.  The idea comes from India in a philosophy alluded to in Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.  He argues history continually repeats itself in changing ages.  This “wheel of time” gets its energy from conflict between good and evil.  As a circle, it has no beginning and no end.

“The Eye of the World” is the first book in Jordan’s 14 book series.  It begins in a rural setting and introduces the theme of conflict between good and evil.  Though Jordan might be offended by the comparison, it is reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings” with the added dimension of a “wheel of time” that never stops turning.

The main characters are Rand, Mat, Egwene, and Nynaeve with an introduction of Moraine, Mandrogoran, and Thom.  They represent forces of good.  Evil is in a caste of characters led by the “Dark One”.  Though there is a clear line between heroic and nefarious characters, the good are tainted by evil and mystery.

From an attack on Rand’s hometown, a long voyage of self-discovery begins for Rand, Mat, Egwene, and Nynaeve. In their journey, Jordan shows there is good and evil in the best of us. 

Humans are layered with beliefs and circumstances that proffer choice.  At different times and different circumstances, we choose the good and sometimes the bad. Jordan infers no one is exempt from evil.  

Jordan implies the energy of life comes from conflict between good and evil.

The wheel turns as the wheel wills.  It turns in a pattern that repeats itself in good’ and evil’ conflict within and between us, our cultures, nations, and galaxies.  It is the wheel of time.  In never stops turning.  Presuming time is a fundamental quantity, the wheel will always exist.

Jordan’s story begins somewhat ponderously but gains momentum and interest that will lead some to read more of “The Wheel of Time” series.  For others, “The Eye of the World” satisfies one’s curiosity about Jordan’s popularity.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Volume 1)

By: Phillip Pullman

Narrated by Michael Sheen

Phillip Pullman (English Author)

 “The Book of Dust” is a surreal story told by a master narrator.  Pullman combines magical fantasy with speculative science.  The drama of Pullman’s story captures your attention with a story about a boy and girl struggling with maturity in a world turned upside down by a disastrous flood. Phillip Pullman’s extraordinary imagination is amplified by Michael Sheen’s oral presentation. 

Human nature is on display.  People are not always what they seem.  Every person has an image of themselves and others that is revealed by what they do; not by how they look, or what they think.  Pullman implies there is a presence in each of us that is illustrated by an individualized demon. 

In Pullman’s imagination that demon is attached to our being and cannot be separated except by death or extraordinary circumstance. 

The demon is like a talking spirit that changes form in ways that reinforce feelings and thoughts of its companion.  It advises, directs, and illustrates contradictions and affirmations in its companion’s life.

Volume 1 of Pullman’s trilogy sets the table for an ongoing story with three principal characters.  Lyra is a baby in Volume 1 but seems destined to be the main character that carries secrets and mysteries to be revealed in future volumes. 

Lyra holds a mysterious power as an offspring of an estranged husband and wife who are on opposite sides of a political divide.  One side appears to be autocratic: the other loosely democratic.

Volume 1’s hero is an eleven-year-old boy named Malcolm.  Alice is Malcolm’s fierce companion in a dangerous escape from a mad scientist, a horrendous flood, and an autocratic government agency.  The two young protagonists struggle in their relationship with each other. They have a pact to protect Lyra. Both are pursued by the mad scientist who is determined to murder Malcolm, ravage Alice, and either kidnap or kill the baby.

Pullman’s appeal is partly in the adventure but also in the sprinkling of “dust” that seems to have something to do with quantum unpredictability. 

Both threads of Pullman’s story appeal to a reader/listener’s fascination with the adventure and puzzles of magic, religion, and science.  A third interest comes from those who just enjoy well told fictional stories.

 The first volume will lure many into the second and third of Pullman’s trilogy.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Manhattan Beach

By: Jennifer Egan

Narrated by Norbert Leo Butz, Heather Lind, Vincent Piazza

Jennifer Egan (American novelist)

“Manhattan Beach” is a mystery.  Egan tells the fictional story of Anna, raised in an Irish family, among New York Italian mobsters during WWII.  The story unfolds with revelations about its characters.  “Manhattan Beach” reveals the contradictions of human life.  It exposes the good and bad of every human life, whether male or female, law abiding, or criminal.

Manhattan Beach in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Anna grows to adulthood from a childhood interrupted by her father’s disappearance.  She is 14 years old when he disappears.  Her father left some money to the family, but without a word about where he went or what had happened.  Egan adds to the mystery with Anna’s father’s meeting with an Italian mobster, two years before her father’s disappearance. Anna is at the meeting.  She is 12 years old.

Anna’s father has an eidetic memory.  That skill leads him to be hired by the mobster.  The mobster uses Anna’s father’s detailed memory to keep tabs on employees and operations of a nation-wide gambling syndicate. 

The mobster is the biggest financial contributor to the boss of the syndicate.  Anna’s father’s eidetic memory helps the mobster, but it also creates a potential risk to the syndicate.  It could be used to reveal the details of its criminal activity.

Later, Anna meets the mobster her father worked for, but she is now in her early twenties.  She chooses not to reveal her real name.  She thinks she might find some clue about what happened to her father.  She and the mobster begin an affair.  She reveals her real name, and the mystery begins to unfold. 

A listener wonders is her father dead or alive?  The mobster believes he is dead, but Egan reveals the father’s life as an officer in the merchant marines, after his disappearance.  A listener now begins to understand what might have happened.  One becomes interested in how the story ends.  That is what makes Egan’s story interesting and worth completing.

This is not the greatest story ever told but it is entertaining. It illustrates how similar and equal men and women are–both in good, bad, and ethical qualities.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Street

By: Ann Petry

Narrated by Shayna Small

Ann Petry (1908-1997, American author and journalist.)

This was Ann Petry’s first novel.  It was published in 1946.  It was renewed in 1947, republished in 1958, 1988, 1985–now rendered by Audiobooks in 2013.  Petry became the first African-American woman to sell more than 1,000,000 copies.  Petry offers a vivid picture of a Black woman’s experience in America.

Petry pictures Harlem as a poor family’s neighborhood where a rich white man dominates lives of a largely Black American ghetto.  This is not today’s Harlem, but it is a precursor to what plagues 21st century America.

East Harlem in the 1940 s.

Petry’s story is of a young, extraordinarily beautiful, Black woman driven to live in a Harlem tenement. 

Lutie Johnson is separated from her husband and compelled by poverty to rent a squalid room on the top floor of an apartment building.  She has a high school education and a minimum wage job that barely supports herself and her young son, Bub.  The tenement is owned by a white man who owns the building and a nearby casino.

A Black Madam works for the owner and pimps young women to make a living that enriches the owner of the building while creating income for herself.  The tenement has a Black superintendent who lives in the basement and manages the building for the white owner.

Petry tells a story that explains how a decent woman can be driven to commit murder, abandon her child, and perpetuate a family’s poverty.  

Petry explains how the roots of a family decay and how that decay fertilizes future generations of poverty-stricken families.

Before Harlem, Lutie works as a maid for a rich white family outside the city. The work pays relatively well but it separates Lutie from her husband because of the growing demands of the white family. Lutie stays at their house for longer periods of time. 

Lutie and her husband’s love wither when he cannot find a job. Her husband feels diminished by his inability to support the family.  The husband’s idle time leads to an affair that breaks his bond with Lutie and their young son.  Lutie leaves, with her son, to start a new life in Harlem.

Lutie does not divorce her husband because of its legal cost.  She wonders if she is not the reason for their break-up. It relegates her to legal single-hood if she wishes to marry in the future. She realizes the circumstance of poverty had more to do with there break-up then any other single cause. Her husband’s lack of job prospects, and their separation irreparably damaged their affection for each other.

Petry notes how Lutie grows to despise white people because of presumptions white people make of non-white people. Lutie naturally resents men’s presumption that she is willing to have sex with any white man that asks. Petry notes Lutie’s domestic employer’s condescension when other white people are nearby.

Petry offers a side story of a white teacher in Harlem who treats her students poorly. She has a fear of non-white students.

The students, in turn, ridicule the white teacher for her attitude toward them. It is a mutual distrust based on the color of one’s skin, not the content of their character.

As Lutie reviews her new circumstance, the only job she can find offers barely enough income to afford rent, utilities, and food for the two of them.  To compound Lutie’s trouble she is subjected to the leering interests of the building superintendent and the white owner of the building.  She refuses their advances but is drawn into a crisis, a crises manufactured by the sexually aroused superintendent. 

After unsuccessfully trying to rape Lutie, the superintendent concocts a plan to get back at her by getting her son arrested.  Her son is recruited by the superintendent to steal mail from adjacent tenements.  He convinces the young boy that the police want his help to find a criminal in the neighborhood.  The boy is caught by post office authorities and taken into custody. 

Lutie knows nothing about the super’s lie and is faced with the belief that she needs a lawyer to get her son out of juvenile detention. There appears to be no effort by the police to investigate beyond the arrest of Lutie’s son.

Lutie does not have the $200 needed to hire a lawyer.  She turns to a Black employee of the white owner. The employee explains that if she is “nice” to the white man (implying she would have sex with the owner) she can get the $200 she needs.  She refuses. 

The employee, having failed to convince Lutie to be “nice” to his employer, decides and tries to rape her.  She murders him out of defense and rage.  Lutie has reached her breaking point.  She buys a ticket to Chicago, leaving her young son with the State. 

“The Street” is a Black woman’s story of the 1940 s, but it is every woman’s story in a culture that discounts equality of opportunity and often treats women as property.

“The Street” shows being a woman diminishes opportunity in America. Ann Petry shows being black in America magnifies that inequality.

Poverty’s Song

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Sing, Unburied, Sing

By: Jesmyn Ward

Narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, Rutina Wesley

Jesmyn Ward (American Author, associate Professor of English at Tulane University)

Songs about poverty are hard to listen to.  Like Whitehead’s story about “The Underground Railroad”, one wonders “Is this America”?  It is and it is not.

Jesmyn Ward’s song is about an American family.  In one sense, the story is unrelatable because most American families escape dire poverty.  But Ward’s depicted family is poor with the added burden of being a minority of a minority.

Though every family’s story is unique, there are familial lessons to be learned from Ward’s story. On many levels, the story is about troubles of every poor American family.

Poverty amplifies good, bad, and indifference in all families. 

Ward introduces a black family headed by a patriarchal grandfather, a wise and wizened grandmother, a grown daughter, and two grandchildren living under the same roof. The daughter is in a committed relationship to a young white man who is about to be released from prison.  He is the father of the two grandchildren.

The boy grandchild adores his grandfather.  The girl grandchild adores her brother.  Both children are ambivalent about their mother because of her self-absorption and inability to comfort either of them.  As her grandmother explains, it is not that her daughter does not love her children. She just does not know how to express her love.

The grandmother is nearing death with regrets about her daughter’s inability to comfort her children and raise them with the values she and the grandfather live by.

The grief of her daughter when her mother dies is palpable. It is a grief borne of self-pity but also of deep love for what her mother knew and tried to teach her.

Life seems bleak.  The only ray of light comes from the grandson who copes with the indifference of his mother, and fear of a father he barely knows.  This ray of light comes from stories told, and examples set by his black grandfather.

This grim story describes a poverty trap made in America.  The father who is being released from jail is estranged from his family because of his relationship with a black family.  He is damaged by his experience in jail and the irony of being the son of a bigot. 

The downward spiral of this father’s life and his companion appear set in motion.  The mother of his children loves and depends on him, but their destiny is bleak.  Ward ends her story with the grandmother’s death, and the parents leaving the children with their black grandfather. 

One presumes the boy will grow to manhood with the moral compass of his black grandfather, but the fate of the daughter seems as bleak as her parents.  Without the guidance of a loving mother or grandmother, it seems the daughter is destined to remain in poverty.

Being black is a struggle not understood by white America.  Even with a powerfully good moral compass, a young black boy-man or girl-woman bares the burden of being black in a world of white authority.

This is a beautifully written book of a tragedy, made and remade in America.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Fates and Furies

By: Lauren Groff

Narrated by Will Damron, Julia Whelan

Lauren Groff (American novelist.)

“Fates and Furies” shows how men are not from Mars, and women are not from Venus.  Lauren Groff shows how “Adams Rib” is a joke played on women by men who have a false sense of gender superiority.

Groff artfully illustrates how men and women are equal.  They are equal in every respect, but particularly Groff shows how they are equal in drive, ambition, ability, and fallibility.  

Groff’s artistry is in the beauty and cogency of her writing.  She tells the story of a husband and wife’s lives from cradle to adulthood.

Groff shows how little difference there is between the sexes when new life is hatched but not borne by parents.  (This is not to say parents are not important but parents and culture often fail children by training them to be unequal–for example–the picture of marriage shown above.) The first half of her book is told from a husband’s view of himself in the world; the second half is told from a wife’s view of herself in the world. 

Every reader/listener will draw their own conclusion about Groff’s view of sexual equality.  Her story may not be your story, but it will give every person pause, if not enlightenment. 

Power plays a role in every human’s life.  Gender is immaterial.  Groff shows how a man and woman exercise power between each other and among family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Groff focuses attention on one couple, a husband and wife, and their personal relationship.  Groff reflects on each of their histories to explain, in part, how they became who they are. 

The couple, and outsiders of the couple’s relationship, have little understanding of who they are or why they act as they do.

The beauty of Groff’s writing adds dimension to the truth that men and women are equal.  Lancelot (aka Lotto) Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder (Lotto’s wife) are creative geniuses.  One might argue both have character flaws, as all humans do, but that is not the story. 

Lotto is a narcissist who thinks the world revolves around him.  Mathilde is a narcissist who lets Lotto think the world revolves around him.  Both are trapped in their own delusions. 

From delusion to reality, Groff shows how deep love can be, even between two narcissists.

Lotto and Mathilde merry, graduate from Vasser (a liberal arts college in New York) and begin their lives together.  Lotto is a struggling actor and Mathilde works for an art gallery.  In their early years of marriage, Mathilde works to make money they need to keep their household together.  Groff changes that condition when Lotto abandons acting to become a playwright.  In that change, Groff reveals more of Lotto’s life in flashbacks. 

Lotto’s life experience leads him to fame and, to a degree, fortune.  In Lotto’s telling-that success is different from the telling given by Mathilde in the second half of Groff’s book.

Lotto and Mathilde are very much alike, aside from gender.  Both are abandoned by their parents.  Both learn how to cope with life alone.  Each draw on their experience as children to learn how to survive in a world driven by money, power, and prestige.

After Lotto’s death, Groff uses flash backs to explain Mathilde’s childhood. In that telling, Mathilde is shown to be an equal to Lotto. Lotto’s mother, who dislikes Mathilde, disowns Lotto from a family fortune. Lotto’s mother plans to rescind the disownment upon her death. As fate (luck) would have it, Lotto’s mother dies before Lotto’s passing. Mathilde inherits her husband’s estate.

The hardship of Lotto’s and Mathilde’s childhoods prepares them to use their gifts of intelligence and sex to survive. 

Groff shows little difference in their drive, ambition, and ability to make their way in the world.  None of that makes any difference with life’s luck (or, if you wish, fate).  That is one of many points Groff makes in “Fates and Furies”. Life is a matter of fate (luck), and fury.

Groff shows how men and women are equal. They have different strengths but equal drive, ambition, ability, and fallibility.

The missing ingredients in the modern world are equal pay for equal work, self-understanding, and public acceptance.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Midnight Line

By: Lee Child

Narrated by Dick Hill

Lee Child (British Author of the Jack Reacher novels.)

Let Lee Child entertain you. 

“The Midnight Line” is Child’s latest chapter of the Jack Reacher series.  This is the first Lee Child novel for this reviewer.  Reacher is put at risk by a drug dealer who tells a hit man to be on the lookout for “big foot” or the “hulk”.

Child suggests 6′ 4″ Lawrence Dallaglio (Retired English Rugby Player) is the image of who he thought of as Jack Reacher.

Having seen a Jack Reacher movie, one understands why many Reacher fans are disappointed with Tom Cruise’s billing. The diminutive 5′ 7″ Tom Cruise does not fit Child’s characterization, but Cruise became Reacher in a film from Child’s book, “One Shot”.

In two senses, Lee Child is a spartan writer.  He writes short, clear, precise sentences, and creates a Herculean “spartan like” character.  “The Midnight Line” is a guilty entertainment for mystery and action addicts.

Jack Reacher is a loner.  Reacher is a combat veteran with an investigator’s curiosity.  He is a West Point graduate who left the military after 11 years.   He is a former major in the Military Police. He lives in the moment.  He travels the roads of America without a suitcase and often without a ticket to ride.  He hitchhikes.  He wears one set of clothes until he needs a new set.  He discards the old and buys new. 

The story begins with a tiny ring that Reacher happens to see in a pawn shop.  The ring is from a former cadet at West Point.  From there, the listener hitches a ride with Reacher to South Dakota and Wyoming.

Reacher is a phenom.  Not only because he is big but because he forgets nothing and sees everything.  With remembering and seeing, he intuits what is going to happen next. Whether in a fight or personal crises, Reacher assesses details and sees the future.

Lee Child places Reacher in a story of addictive drug manufacturing, illegal distribution, and human destruction. 

The author’s dialog is short and to the point.  Reacher is almost supernatural but just believable enough that a listener identifies with his heroics.  Child adds mystery to his characters.  His terse sentences makes listeners want to know more. 

“The Midnight Line” is partly about a missing person (a twin of a beautiful woman).  The missing person is a former graduate of West Point that has pawned her ring. Reacher knows something is wrong because he knows how difficult and psychologically rewarding it is to graduate from West Point.

The missing person is involved in an interstate illegal drug trade for reasons that are not clear until the end of Child’s story.  It’s a good guy, bad guy story with twists. 

A listener learns something about the illicit drug business in the United States. How and why it works.  Particularly how it feeds off a culture that insists all human pain must be medicinally treated.  And, how an injured veteran of war, with a distinguished service record, can become an addict.

In the end, “The Midnight Line” is an entertainment.  However, it also says something about addiction–its causes, its consequences, and the amoral businesses that serve it.