Audio-book Revie
By Chet Yarbrough


Spaceman of Bohemia

By: Jaroslav Kalfar

Narrated by Jot Davies

The author, Jaroslav Kalfar offers a perception of communist Czechoslovakian history.  Kalfar became a resident of Brooklyn, New York at the age of 15.

“Spaceman of Bohemia” is partly a “stream of consciousness” tale. Just as a reader/listener thinks the story is complete, a new story begins with a similar thematic destination.  In an implausible space journey to a galactic dust cloud and a miraculous rescue, a Bohemian astronaut is saved by a Russian spaceship. The spaceman of Bohemia’s spaceship is compromised by dust from the cosmic cloud he is inspecting.  

The Russian spaceship comes out of nowhere and is part of a top-secret program that explores the universe without knowledge of the rest of the world. The spaceman’s story begins with a young boy in communist Czechoslovakia just before the 1968 Prague Spring and Czechoslovakia’s democratization in 1989.

Jakub is the teller of this tale.  In recounting his life, Jakub offers a history of what life is like for families that supported a repressive communist regime before the Prague spring movement. 

Jakub’s father is employed by the secret police who torture dissidents at the direction of the communist party.  One of those dissidents is tortured by Jakub’s father.  After the communist party is rejected by the Czechs, this particular tortured dissident returns to seek revenge on Jakub’s family. 

As a real-life example of dissident torture in Czechoslovakia, a Slovak priest dies from torture and radiation poisoning from forced labor during the communist era. He is beatified by the church after his death.

After Jakub’s father dies, he is raised by his grandparents.  However, they are evicted from their home that Jakub’s grandfather had built.  The eviction occurs because of political influence used by the dissident who had been tortured by Jakub’s deceased father.

Jakub becomes a Czech astrophysicist. As a scientist, he discovers a new life form in cosmic dust.  Because of that discovery, he is called upon by his government to become an astronaut to make a trip to analyze a distant cosmic dust cloud.   The true reason the Czech government calls for Jakub to become an astronaut is revealed at the end of the story.  It is the influence of the tortured dissident.

Jakub’s ego, patriotism, and the added weight of the Czech republic’s storied history of science (referring to the likes of Bolzano, Purkinje, Wichterle, Heyrosky, etc. and oddly, Nikola Tesla who was a Serbian) entice Jakub to take the risky space journey.

Cosmic dust cloud.

The journey to the cosmic cloud takes several months.  As the journey toward the cloud continues, Jakub meets, at least metaphorically, an alien that has the general form of an arachnid, but with 13 eyes. 

The arachnid has lived for centuries and is able to communicate directly with Jakub.  The arachnid calls Jakub “skinny human”.  The arachnid can read Jakub’s mind which suggests it is a figment of Jacob’s imagination. That idea takes a listener into a state of suspended disbelief that becomes more surrealistic as the story progresses.

As the spaceship reaches the cosmic cloud, it becomes disabled by dust particles that penetrate the life support system of Jacob’s vessel. 

As the “Spaceman…” nears death, a Russian spaceship rescues Jakub. The approaching spaceship is a part of a secret Russian science program that has explored the universe for many years.

Everyone in Czechoslovakia presumes Jakub is dead.  The Russian’s plan is to keep their rescue of Jakub secret.  As they near earth, Jacob impresses one of the cosmonauts (who incidentally has lost his mind) and helps him take over the Russian spaceship. It crashes into the ocean.  Jacob escapes and returns to his home country.  

Those are the general details of the story, but its appeal is in the author’s skillful use of words and his characterization of human relationship and fragility.  As the author explores human relationships, he exploits beliefs in authoritarian, democratic, communist, and capitalist government’ deficiencies. 

Jakub marries a free-spirted artist, a woman whom he loves.  She also loves him but resents his self-centeredness. 

Jakub chooses to take this dangerous journey without considering his wife’s opinion.  He treats her as a non-person; not worthy of consideration when deciding something that deeply affects both their lives. She decides to leave Jacob just as he left her, without explanation.  Jakub is only part way through his journey to the cosmic cloud when she leaves.  She chooses not to explain anything to Jakub in their weekly contacts while he is in space.  She just leaves. 

Jakub’s wife works with a psychiatrist that helps her understand the decision she makes to leave her husband. 

The meetings are transcribed, and Jakub is given a copy of the transcript when he returns to earth.  He realizes the mistake he has made and hopes to reenter the relationship he has lost.  When he sees his wife, he realizes there is no chance for reconciliation because of the past.  He recognizes his failure as an equal partner to a woman of substance.

Personal relationship is the beginning and end of all that matters in life.  Kalfar tells a story of human fragility.  Life is not government.  Life is not politics.  Life is not economics. 


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Secret Garden

By: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Narrated by: Carrie Hope Fletcher

Frances Eliza Hodson aka Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924, Author, British American citizen died in New York.)

              “The Secret Garden” is a period piece.  One should read/listen to “The Secret Garden” with an understanding that it is a story of its time, not of the 21st century.  It tells of wealth’s privilege at a time when poverty is ignored and perceived as a natural part of civilization.  “The Secret Garden” was serialized in a 1911 publication called “The American Magazine”. 

“The Secret Garden” is a story of childhood privilege and neglect.  The story begins in India and ends in an English manor house.  It is a story of how some children overcome the circumstance of parental neglect. 

The first character introduced is Mary who lives in India with her British parents. 

The second is Colin who lives with his father in England. 

              Because of implied wealth and virtual absence of parents, two ten-year-old cousins are raised by servants.  Their early perception of the world is that they are masters of their domain.  At the age of ten, both children have been neglected by their parents.  Mary is characterized as unattractive with a beautiful mother who has turned her parental responsibility over to Indian servants.  Mary’s father is never a part of the story. 

Cholera strikes India in 19th century. Both of Mary’s parents die from Cholera, and she is carted off to England to live with her uncle.

Mary’s uncle lives in a 100-room mansion in the English countryside.  Mary arrives at the manor and is greeted by servants, not her Uncle.

              Her Uncle lost his beloved wife in the birth of their son.  The son, Colin, is isolated in one room of the mansion, cared for by servants, and rarely visited by his father.  Colin believes he is going to die because of a physical affliction that is presumed to have come from his father’s unspecified condition, a condition of melancholy more than physical being. 

                Mary begins to recognize people who care for her are not slaves when she returns to England.  Her realization comes from being taken out of India’s way of life into an English countryside where servants are noted as somewhat independent while handcuffed by low wages paid by employers and the independently wealthy.

The consequence of Mary’s and Colin’s neglected upbringing is their characterization as imperious martinets who order their care givers as though they were slaves.

              Mary begins to realize English servants are more than order takers.  They have lives of their own.  She begins to realize one must treat others as she wishes to be treated. 

The author makes it clear that Mary’s steely imperiousness has not left her but that she tempers its use as she becomes better acquainted with the poor who must work to live.

A secret garden is the center of the story because it is a symbol of life’s resurrection. 

               Even the most neglected and spoiled children can be metaphorically planted in a different environment to become more caring and understanding.  A secret garden changes Mary and Colin into better human beings.

The key to understanding “The Secret Garden” is that thought makes humans who they are and what they become.   

              Colin is introduced as an invalid that is unable to cope with the world as it is.  He is neglected by a father who may blame him for the death of his beloved wife.  Colin is ten but acts like a two-year-old.  He is as imperious as Mary when she lived in India.  Because of Mary’s experience in India, she understands Colin’s reasons for acting as a two-year-old.  In that understanding she uses her experience in India and her newly acquired knowledge of English life to lure Colin out of his melancholy.  She talks of a secret garden that was created by Colin’s mother before her untimely death.  Mary found the key to the Secret Garden and the metaphorical key to Colin’s health and happiness.

               Frances Burnett created a story that explains how children who are neglected by parents can change the direction of their lives.  The course of one’s life begins with thought.  Good thoughts lead to good actions.  Bad thoughts lead to bad actions. After Burnett’s story, a final thought is–weather neglected or not, it is a child’s choice.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


My Year Abroad

By: Chang-Rae Lee

                                                    Narrated by : Lawrence Kao

Chang-Rae Lee (Author).

As a first exposure to Chang-Rae Lee, “My Year Abroad” is disappointing.  Lee is an accomplished novelist with many awards, but this latest book is long, and in too many places, ponderous.  

In some sense “My Year Abroad” is a stereotypical story of an Asian immigrant capturing the American dream by working hard.  It outlines the life of a person who is industrious and intelligent who works in a restaurant while earning a college degree in chemistry.  Somehow, this immigrant’s success becomes tainted in using his education to delude himself and others to believe in immortality. The idea of a chemical formula to extends one’s life seems to trigger a greed that destroys rather than preserves lives.

Lee’s fictional story reminds one of Elizabeth Holms and her belief in the blood test technology of Theranos. The only question being–does motive come from self-delusion or greed?

Lee shows an industrious young man who games the American immigration system to stay in New Jersey past the date of his limited visa.    A large part of his story reflects on the success of an immigrant who flimflams fellow investors into a scheme to sell an elixir to cure death.  This is not the first time an American has bilked the public which is why Lee’s story loses its way.

Lee puts aside, rather than explains, the poorly managed and unfair American immigration system that shuts out an important part of America’s prosperity.

What keeps one interested in Lee’s story is Tiller, a young boy who gets caught up in the elixir fraud.  Tiller enters the story by helping a mother and her son in a chance meeting at the airport.  The mother has been put in a witness protection program.  She testifies to the illegal activity of her husband who is pursued by the American government.  This introduces the threat of discovery by her husband’s associates who might kill her. 

Her savior is Tiller who comes from a broken family.  His mother left her family early in Tiller’s life.  He does not know what happened to her.  Tiller misses her presence. 

Tiller has a telephone relationship with his father who is a professor who supports him while he works in a restaurant as a dishwasher while going to college.  Tiller is a teenager, nearing 20, when he meets the witness protection mother and her son.  They begin a troubled life together.  The trouble is multifaceted based on age differences, guilt of the mother for having ratted on her husband, and a son bereft of a father, showing behavioral problems.

To some reader/listeners this is a lot to accept as credible.  Lee manages to keep the story together with the endearing qualities of Tiller.  Tiller deals with life as it happens.  He is industrious and has an inner compass that guides him through whatever circumstances life presents.  One admires Tiller’s grasp of the circumstances of the mother and her son.  Tiller makes their lives better.  One grows to care about Tiller, the troubled mother, and the son who needs help in coping with life.

Many of the things that happen to Tiller fail to suspend disbelief.  This is a long story without the qualities of good fiction.  One comes away from the story in disappointment with an author who is obviously gifted.


The Handmaid’s Tale

By Margaret Atwood

Narrated by: Claire Danes

Margaret Atwood (Author)

For a short time in 2017-18, “The Handmaid’s Tale” mesmerized TV viewers.  A 4th and final season is planned by Hulu in 2020.  An interesting speculation in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is–what would happen if misogyny grew rather than diminished in society?  Margaret Atwood suggests misogyny will create a dystopian future. 

Atwood’s view of misogyny’s existence in the world is fulsome and complex. She implies misogyny is perpetuated and reinforced by both sexes.  Both women and men ally themselves in repression of sexual equality. 

Margaret Atwood creates a story about a conspiracy of women to repress equality by exclusively relegating women to propagation and covert management of humanity.  Males are correctly accused and guilty of denying women’s equal rights, but Atwood illustrates both sexes are complicit in suppression and enforcement of sexual inequality.

Many men and women hide behind the veil of religion and secular authority to exploit unequal treatment of the sexes. 

Atwood’s story implies men may rule the world but only under the influence and guidance of women.  Males are sperm providers.  Males possess rights to rule the world, but they delude themselves in thinking they are in control.  The relationship between the sexes makes women not only the vessel of creation but the covert controller of society. Only the female form can create human life.  In most western religions, only women were given knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden.

Love is not necessary and is a negative force in Atwood’s dystopian vision of the future. 

Atwood’s dystopian world suggests management of sexual inequality is perpetuated by women.   Atwood’s story infers God created humanity for man with women as knowledge bearers who reproduce and manage life through nature’s thicket of good and evil.  “The Handmaid’s Tale” exposes the weakness of men and the strength of women.

Atwood implies men’s weakness is in their ignorance, desire for intimacy, failure to control nature, and a wish to see themselves as more than sperm bearers.  The strength of women is in their knowledge of good and evil and how to use it to have some level of control over nature. 

Neither sex can control nature, but knowledge gives women a sharper edge for splitting the difference between good and evil.  What Atwood implies is that women’s superior knowledge of good and evil may lead to her described dystopian world.

The best antidote for a future unlike that shown in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the Socratic importance of “knowing thyself”.  All human beings are created equal.  “Knowing thyself” is the beginning of wisdom.  Neither men or women are superior beings.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


No One is Talking About This

By: Patricia Lockwood

                                                        Narrated by : Kristen Sieh

Patricia Lockwood (American Author, poet.)

In “No One is Talking About This”, Patricia Lockwood shows mind is life’s portal to the world.

Every human being perceives the world though their mind.  Her book offers three hours of introduction to a mind’s amorphous perception of the world, followed by one hour of clarity.  Lockwood writes three hours of “stream of consciousness” to introduce one hour of personal belief in the sanctity of human life. 

The author gives listener/readers a point of view about a subject that, contrary to the title of Lockwood’s book, is talked about by everyone. 

Nearly everyone is talking about women’s rights.  She makes a compelling case for limited women’s rights by telling the story of a pregnant woman that finds she has an unborn baby who is affected by the rare disease of elephantiasis.  The unborn baby has a heartbeat but shows the unmistakable growth characteristics of elephantiasis in her mother’s womb.  The State in which the mother lives does not allow abortions.  Whether the State would allow abortion or not is not the story.  The story is the mother’s decision to keep the baby.

In the end, Lockwood’s story implies women’s rights stop at the door of human conception. 

Lockwood alludes to many of the trials of having a health compromised baby that will require special care.  She notes the high medical costs that a family may incur.  However, cost is irrelevant in this story because there is an unbreakable filial bond that sustains parents, grandparents, and siblings of the family.  They love this stricken child.  Added to that bond is religion.  In their minds eye (the portal) the thought and action of abortion is inconceivable.

In some families, there is an unbreakable filial bond that sustains parents, grandparents, and siblings.

“No One is Talking About This” is a compelling argument against abortion. The flaw in Kisten Seih’s argument is it is one family’s point of view.  Lockwood implies it is God’s commandment to preserve life.  However, what if God is a manifestation of mind-not the creator and ruler of the universe?  It becomes a question of faith to a believer but a case of reason to an agnostic.

Some suggest, God is nature, a complex manifestation of a physical world.  The argument for “a right to abortion” is a singular choice by humans which are a part of the mind’s perceived physical world.  “A right to abortion” rests with humans (a part of nature) who believe women should have a choice. 

The argument for “a right to abortion” is conceived by some as a singular choice by humans which are a part of nature which, in their mind, is God.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Girl at War – A Novel

By Sara Novic

Narrated by : Julia Whelan

Sara Novic (American author, translator,and professor of creative writing at Stockton University.)

Sara Novic writes of war in Croatia that is tentatively settled by the dismantling of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Yugoslavia’s splits into 6 ethnic territories–Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia.

In a personal 22-day visit to five of the six countries, a Croatian guide tells our small group of travelers that he does not offer a trip to Serbia.  (Our trip was in October 2o17. The guides’ name is not given for obvious reasons.)  He explains his father was killed by Serbian soldiers in the Croatian war.

A little history gives perspective to our guide’s and Novic’s story.  After WWII, Yugoslavia is set up as a federation of six republics to be ruled by one leader, Josip Broz Tito. 

Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavian ruler 1953-1980, died in May of 1980.)

Though Tito is considered a dictator, under his rule the six ethnic republics experience a period of strong economic growth and relative political stability. 

In having dinner with a family in Bosnia/Herzegovina, a grandmother says she misses Tito’s government.  She felt life was better with Tito as leader of the six territories.

Mass grave in Croatia in 1991.

Novic’s story is of a 10-year-old girl who loses her mother and father when stopped at a Serbian check point in the early 1990s.  The Serbian army gathers a group of Croatians, lines them up in a circle around a pit, and shoots them one by one. 

Serbian soldiers murder every adult and child, each of which fall into their grave.  The father tells his 10-year-old daughter to hold his hand and fall into the pit when he is the next to be shot.  She plays dead as the Serbs complete their circle of horror.  She escapes the pit before bulldozers cover the dead and dying.

Croatian Defense Force fighting in the Croatian War of Independence.

The orphaned girl runs from the scene.  She finds refuge among a group of resisters.  She is recruited by fellow Croatians who have gathered to fight for independence of their country. 

She becomes a soldier for a short time before finding her way back to her abandoned home.  With the help of her godfather’s family, she is illegally aided by a UN representative who smuggles her to America.  She is adopted by an American family, goes to college, and eventually returns to Croatia.

On return to Croatia, she renews acquaintances and finds the place where she had taken refuge after her parent’s murder.  The mass grave is near where she had found refuge ten years earlier. 

This is not our guide’s story, but his story reinforces Novic’s picture of Serbia’s and Croatia’s conflict.  Our guide explains how the United Nations helped Croatia survive the 1991-1995 war.  Interestingly, the guide denigrated America’s role in the war.  In his opinion, America stood on the sidelines when Serbs were perpetrating mass killings.

Novic’s story is well written.  It clearly reinforces our guide’s perception of what happened in Croatia.  The concerning part of the story is its analogous relationship to America’s intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  What happened in the Serbia-Croatian conflict is being replayed in the Russia-Ukraine war today.

The troubling issue with all international conflicts is where the line is to be drawn between being “helpful Hannah’s” and exemplars of good and responsible behavior. Today, NATO’s Western Alliance is struggling with the line to be drawn in Ukraine.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Committed

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Narrated by : Francois Chau

Viet Thanh Nguyen (American author, 2016 winner of Pulitzer prize for fiction.)

“The Committed” carries forward the life of three Vietnamese blood brothers introduced in “The Sympathizer”, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s earlier novel.  Nguyen’s story begins during America’s Vietnam war. 

In the beginning of “The Committed”, the main character, Vo Danh, arrives in Paris with his blood brother Bon.  Their first night’s stay is with a  communist sympathizer who is Vo Dahn’s aunt.  Bon is incensed by the aunt’s support of communism. Bon’s job as a Vietnamese counterspy in America was to murder communist sympathizers.  Bon wishes to leave immediately, but Vo Danh calms him down and they stay the night. However, Vo Danh continues to visit his aunt and for a time lives with her. 

The main character of “The Committed” believes all social beliefs one commits oneself to are corrupted by human nature.  To Vo Danh, his aunt is just who she is committed to be, without being either good or bad.

Vo Danh and Bon leave the next morning to find jobs at a Vietnamese restaurant near the Eiffel tower.  The restaurant is owned by a mobster.  They are hired and choose to rent a room from the mobster.  Bon mostly leaves Nguyen’s story until the last chapters of the book.  He chooses to keep a low profile as a restaurant employee. 

Vo Dahn takes an entirely different path. Vo Dahn becomes a customer procurer and seller for the mobster’s drug business.

Vo Danh’s experience in a Vietnam re-education camp taught him to believe in nothing.  That teaching came from his third blood brother who is commandant of the camp during the Vietnam war. 

This third blood brother is a communist sympathizer in name only.  Before becoming  camp commandant, this third blood brother is badly disfigured by an American napalm attack. He realizes Democracy’s liberation of Vietnam from communism is a meaningless chimera.  In that realization, he re-educates Vo Danh to understand communism, authoritarianism, and democracy are fictions. 

Re-education camps are a euphemism for detention and torture.

Committed beliefs about government mean nothing.  One’s first thought is that the third brother is simply a nihilist.  Vo Dahn understands something different.  In sum, the commandant teaches Vo Dahn that commitment to any ideological belief is a trap.  Even in accepting his blood brother’s re-education, Vo Dahn recalls the love of his mother.  He believes the selfless love of his mother saves him from being a nihilist.

Vo Dahn does not consider himself a nihilist but agrees that believing in nothing liberates humanity. 

In Paris, Vo Danh chooses to become a mobster who sells drugs for a percentage of profits.  He lives life as he chooses.  He expresses no personal scruple about sale or personal use of drugs or alcohol.  He has no fear of the drug supplying restaurant owner, arrest as a legal consequence, or possible attack by competing mobsters.  Vo Danh lives an amoral life informed by the love of his deceased mother.  His life experience and studied philosophical beliefs lead him to believe in nothing as a way of living in an unprincipled world.  His actions in the world are formed by the mother who loved him and a father (who is a priest) that abandoned him.

What is troubling about Nguyen’s story is that love and care is often missing or mutually misunderstood between a mother and her children.  One might accept Nguyen’s story for those children who are truly loved and cared for by their mothers.  However, if mothers are to be on a pedestal, what about the affect of mothers who do not truly love or care for their children.  Are uncaring mothers responsible for children who become mass murderers, dictators, mobsters, and other societal miscreants?

Nguyen’s story has a strong point of view, but it diminishes the complexity of a child’s growth to adulthood.  Interaction between mothers, fathers, and their offspring are interpreted though the minds of their children. 

One is reminded of fictional and news worthy stories of children who are raised in perfect families who become serial killers.

A recurring truism in Nguyen’s story is that all humans are created equal.  When one is asked where they are from, the only correct answer is “I am from my mother”.  Nothing else matters. Color, national origin, religious belief, or sexual orientation do not determine the value of a human being. Nguyen is a great writer with a point of view worthy of many philosophers of this and past ages.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


One by One

By Ruth Ware

Imogen Church

Ruth Ware (aka Ruth Warburton, Author, British psychological crime thriller writer.)

“One by One” is a maudlin psychological thriller that makes a mockery of responsibility.  John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” creates characters that truly illustrate things beyond human control. 

In contrast Ruth Ware’s characters are out of control of things within their control.  Both novels have two main characters.  Ware’s main characters are Erin and Liz.

Erin is a chalet hostess.  Liz is a guest.  A media tech company organizes a corporate meeting for stockholders to decide on a private buy-out offer.  Most shares are owned by two principles. A small percentage is owned by Liz.  The 2 biggest stock owners disagree about the sale.  The founder wants to stay private to sell shares in a public offering sometime in the future.  The partner who wants to sell now needs the 2% shareholder to agree to the current offer for the sale to close.  The proposed buyout will make Liz a millionaire even though she holds only 2% of the shares.  The sell-now partner has a verbal agreement from Liz to agree to the sale.  The selling partner is murdered or missing before a final vote is taken by the shareholders.

If a crime has been committed, Ware outlines motives for who the killer might be from a plethora of characters.  That is part of the problem with her story. There are a too many vaguely defined characters. 

It is not only the number of characters, but also the annoying mechanism of first-person narration of the two main characters.  As an audiobook, it is often difficult to know who is talking.  There is only one narrator who shows no voice inflection when the character changes. Is Erin or Liz talking?

Further, characters are not well defined in Ware’s mystery.  Ware is obviously an experienced writer. She foreshadows the murder of the “selling partner” who wares a red coat when the group decides to go skiing before the final shareholder’ vote. 

The obvious choice of murderer is the founder of the company who does not want to sell.  However, a reader/listener of mysteries knows it is unlikely that the most obvious perpetrator is the culprit.

The search for clues revolves around motives of Ware’s characters.  The disclosed motives are unremarkable.  The principal motive is found to be people who fail to take responsibility for those things within their control.  The annoying refrain is “it’s not my fault”.

Some may find Ware’s novel a worthy mystery.  To this listener, the characters are paper dolls in lives controlled entirely by circumstance.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz

Narrated by Peter Berkrot

Hernan Diaz (Author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Fathers and Sons

By: Ivan Turgenev

Narrated by: David Horovitch

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

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

Russia in 1850

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

Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881)

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

There is great turmoil during this time in Russia. 

Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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