On the one hand, “Agent Storm” outlines terrorism; its origin, its practitioners, and where it comes from. On the other, “Agent Storm” sounds like a comic book. With co-authorship of two CNN newsmen, Morten Storm’s story offers insight, but its credibility is challenging.
Morten Storm is “Agent Storm”. He is a Danish citizen who becomes a religious convert as a young man but abandons his Muslim faith in his late twenties. Storm is born into a family broken by a father’s abuse. He turns to religion for refuge.
Morten Storm looks for a substitute home. He finds it in a thobe (long dress worn by Muslim men).
Morten Storm’s story is like many told about lost children–looking for belonging and acceptance in the world. Abused children look for solace by finding substitutes for uncaring parents.
For lost children, finding religion is one end of a spectrum: the other is gang life. “Agent Storm” is a story combining both ends in religious zeal and gangsterism.
The authors of “Agent Storm” show how a young person can become a Jihadist. One wonders–is Storm’s journey different than what one may find in the Catholic crusades of the eleventh and thirteenth centuries?
Religion has been a rallying flag many times for children who are lost and wish to be found. Religion attracts the highly educated, as well as the unschooled, based on wanting to be part of something greater than oneself.
Storm attaches himself to the sport of boxing but either because of lack of discipline or skill, Storm becomes attracted to religion.
The Muslim faith is under attack in the 20th century and today. The Muslim religion offers a refuge and acceptance to Storm. His acceptance connects him to radical practitioners of the faith that terrorize the world. Storm’s early world view is the view held by Osama bin Laden and other distorters of the Muslim faith.
The killing of innocents appears to be a turning point for Storm who becomes a spy for the English and then American governments. Storm becomes an agent for identification of terrorists that hide behind interpretations of Koranic teaching.
To some, Storm’s sudden conversion may seem disingenuous. However, he does help Denmark, England, and America in its fight against terrorism. What is somewhat galling about Storm’s story is its formulaic meme of changing sides. Storm’s story might be told of any converted religious zealot who finally rejects false interpretation of religious text. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Protestant, killing or harming innocents is wrong.
Though Morten Storm may have become a better person, he sounds more like a lost boy-man. How many Jihadists, Catholic crusaders, or Protestant reformers will come to the realization that their way is not the only way?
All the Single Ladies (Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation)
By: Rebecca Traister
Narrated by Candace Thaxton, Rebecca Traister-introduction
Rebecca Traister (American author.)
In a broad context, “All the Single Ladies” is about freedom’s two edges. One edge lets people be themselves. The other edge makes people conform to societies’ rules.
Rebecca Traister begins by summarizing the history of unequal treatment of women. The truth rings loudest because of today’s “Me To” movement.
“Me Too” is a movement long delayed, and figuratively disfigured by a sharp edge of male’ power, domination, and social conformity.
Freedom is a function of power. No one is free. All nations have rules that limit freedom.
America’s founding fathers recognized freedom is defined by power. That is why government “checks and balances” were created.
The weakness of “checks and balances” is that they continue to be influenced by the power of human (principally male) rationalization.
Human beings do not see themselves as others see them. In that light, Traister notes one of Patrick Moynihan’s blind spots.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003, NY State Senator, author of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.)
Moynihan affixed “The Negro Family” break-down as a cause of ghetto poverty. The cause of poverty is not single-parent homes. Poverty is a consequence of discrimination.
Singlemom homes are a choice for some mothers. Sometimes for reasons of independence, as explained by the women interviewed by Traister. But also because of a history of misogyny, and dysfunctional marriages or partnerships.
Too often it seems the choice of single-parent homes is because of abuse, loneliness, loss of emotional commitment, adultery, financial crises, or some other extrinsic cause.
Single-parent homes are not a cause of poverty. If women are employed and compensated at the same rate as men, they could afford child care for their children while they work. Like some low wage workers, women may have to take two jobs. (Of course, what’s new?–Working women have always had two jobs. Working at home and working at a job.)
The cause of poverty is systematic discrimination. Discrimination denies educational opportunity. Discrimination denies equal pay for equal work.
The rules of freedom are based on power, not science, not truth, but on human rationalization. Traister indicts male domination of the rules of freedom. She also notes societies’ discrimination based on race.
Discrimination against women may have begun with male domination when physical strength meant survival (not suggested or inferred by the author).
The growth of society, and the ascendance of religion, reinforced gender roles. Gender roles may have had some validity in the stone age, but they became rationalizations as humanity and society developed. Here is where Traister strikes at the heart of gender inequality.
Traister interviews many single women, some high achievers, others just making a living. What she finds is that some women choose to be single because of a lifestyle that offers freedom. It is the freedom of choice.
Freedom requires no cooperation from another to do whatever one wants, with the caveat of doing no harm to others.
With freedom, Traister is not saying single women choose to be anti-social. On the contrary, she argues single women are likely to be more socially connected than married women. In her interviews, Traister notes that single women are likely to have more social contact because they are not constrained by a life-partner’s interest or attention.
An irony of Traister’s observation about the consequence of marriage in “reducing social contacts” is that Traister chooses to marry. Her book is not meant to be anti-marriage, but to recognize the difference between single-hood and life partnership. Her unspoken belief is that both have equal potential for happiness and fulfillment. Her intent is to explain how happiness and fulfillment can be equally satisfied by single-hood.
Traister identifies a social construct that might be labeled “slammed relationships” that are not necessarily sexual but deeply, emotionally connected.
A great number of “…the Single Ladies” interviewed by Traister recount slammed relationships.
Though not suggested by Traister, a slammed relationship between men seems less likely because of the gravitational pull of “power”.
To many humans, the sexual act is pursuit of power over another, not emotional connection.
Real intimacy is not about a player’s control, or an actor’s act. A truly slammed relationship is not about power. A slammed relationship is about common interests and emotional connection.
Traister gives the example of a single lady in Boston that has a slammed relationship with another woman that chooses to move to California because of a job. Their emotional connection is so close that the woman who stays in Boston feels abandoned.
The Bostonian is told, by acquaintances of both people, that her friend will return and their slammed relationship will resume. But, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “you can’t go home again”. Her friend does return from California. They renew their friendship, but they never reconnect at the same slammed friendship level.
Interestingly, the slammed relationships Traister writes about are between women, not men.
That raises the question of whether men can have slammed relationships, but that is not the subject of Traister’s book.
(From this reviewer’s perspective, most men are unlikely to develop slammed relationships. They have little reason to–because society has been dominated by men since the stone age. Men have power; most women do not. Men have little need for slammed relationships.)
Traister notes many of today’s women gravitate to singlehood because of its freedom. The freedom to stay or leave, to be alone, or to be with someone.
The freedom to choose has consequence. It has the potential of destroying the value of slammed relationships. Losing emotional connection is a criticism of society. One might conclude from Traister’s book, the world needs more “…Single Ladies”. “…Single Ladies” have the tools for slammed relationships.
Men can hugely benefit from women that take control of their lives. It is liberating for a driven man to be married to a driven woman because each takes responsibility for themselves.
Traister acknowledges; from her personal experience and interviews of single women, that there are consequences for choosing single-hood. All singles have vulnerabilities. They are vulnerable to loneliness.
Being single makes one vulnerable to accidents without help from someone living with them. People who are alone have less financial support when they become ill. However, all of these vulnerabilities are common to both sexes. The difference is women receive 73% of what a man gets for the same work. The difference is power of employment, advancement, and financial opportunity remain disproportionately in the hands of men.
Traister notes that loneliness can be equally present in marriage as in single-hood. Vulnerabilities are a consequence of living life whether with someone or no one. The difference is that today’s society has more men than women with power–power that aids or obstructs equality of opportunity for all.
Equality of opportunity is what every man and woman deserve. Life takes care of itself.
There is an increasing lack of empathy from world leaders because they are mostly men. Losing emotional connection is one of the reasons America is unable to eliminate homelessness. This book offers praise to “All the Single Ladies” of the world. Women seem better at emotional connection. It may be why America needs a woman for President.
Merchants of Truth (The Business of News and the Fight for Facts)
By: Jill Abramson
Narrated by January LaVoy
Jill Abramson (American author and journalist, first female executive editor of the NYT serving from 2011-2014.)
Jill Abramson describes a “near death” experience for print media in “Merchants of Truth”. She begins with the rise of BuzzFeed and Vice, with a newspaper reporter’s view of YouTube, and a vignette about Jackass. Then, she zeroes in on the “New York Times” and “Washington Post” and how their news coverage has changed. Abramson explores the principles of the new “Merchants of Truth”.
It is disappointing to see “click bate” competing with a news’s fight for verifiable facts.
To some, Abramson’s brief history of BuzzFeed and Vice is a cringe worthy exploration of how vapid we are and how easily we are distracted by titillating, often idiotic, and sometimes false facts. However, Abramson shows that BuzzFeed and Vice make a contribution to news gathering that appeals to a wide audience, particularly a younger audience.
The criticism Abramson launches against BuzzFeed, and particularly Vice, is that both slip into Gonzo (exaggerated and fictionalized) reporting. The public is titillated but not accurately informed.
BuzzFeed and Vice are becoming bigger players in the media news business. The key to their success is public attention but advertising revenue is its vehicle for growth. Pleasing advertisers encroaches on the objectivity of news.
BuzzFeed and Vice have reduced the barrier between advertising and news. That barrier breach is exhibited by Abramson’s story of The New York Times apology to China, and the Washington Post’s turn to the metrics of popular news coverage.
Abramson pulls no punches in her judgement of The New York Times’ bow to economic necessity in kowtowing to China when a reporter’s story is critical of Chinese suppression. She recounts Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s letter apologizing to President Xi for a reporter’s story about Chinese government repression. Abramson implies the apology is for potential loss of revenue.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. (Publisher of The New York Times.)
The implication is advertising revenue influences NYT’s and Washington Post’s reporting in the same way as BuzzFeed and Vice. The concern is in the bending and blending of news to please advertisers.
On the other hand, Sulzberger may have been concerned about losing a foreign outpost for the paper’s news reporters. One suspects, it is a little of both. There has always been a tacit concern about advertising revenue and news reporting in the media. One might recall “60 Minutes” initial rejection of an expose on smoking. They eventually aired the episode, but fear of loss from a major advertiser was in play.
Vice reporting of a trip to North Korea with Rodman (the former Bull’s basketball player) is one of several examples of click bate reporting. It offers titillation but hides the brutality of a murderous government regime.
As a fossil (oldster), one might read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, a local paper, the Economist, and Foreign Affairs. The reason for variety is perspective. Each covers every aspect of news (culture, business, local and international).
Abramson explains reputable media outlets have checks and balances. They try to insure objectivity and accuracy in their reporting. The checks and balances sometimes fail as they did with the NYT’s Jason Blair. However, BuzzFeed, Vice, YouTube, Facebook, and other newcomers are just beginning to establish checks and balances.
Jayson Blair (Former journalist with The New York Times, fired for fabrication and plagiarism.).
New media argues that all societal beliefs should have equal expression. It is the same distortion some Americans claim for freedom. Americans have regulated freedom, just as they have regulated free speech. Freedom is to “do no harm to others”.
Another failure Abramson notes is the paucity of critical reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post of WMD in Iraq. Checks and balances did not work in either paper because of investigative failure.
All news media fight for facts. However, for many reasons, the facts chosen create spin.
With the addition of BuzzFeed, Vice, and YouTube the inherent bias of chosen facts is accelerated and amplified by emotion. Abramson implies spin is not the intent of reputable media like the New York Times and the Washington Post. One might disagree because all facts are not included in every report that is posted. All news reporting has some level of distortion.
Every merchant might report facts, but a listener/reader comes away with subtly, and sometimes, widely different understandings of the same story. It is not that facts are necessarily untrue, but choice of facts and the addition of emotion infects the story.
Additionally, there is inbred bias in the mind of listeners and readers of the news. Those listed as liberals, conservatives, or libertarians bring their personal beliefs into everything they read, hear, and say.
The difference between traditional news sources, and BuzzFeed or Vice, is elicited emotion. There is less fight for facts with BuzzFeed and Vice. Their fight is for attention whether the facts are correct or not.
Abramson shows how BuzzFeed and Vice, and similar “news” gatherers are willing to manufacture facts to get attention. BuzzFeed measures public expression and interest. BuzzFeed tailors’ articles to magnify whatever is popular. BuzzFeed’s and Vice’s objective is to get the reader to click their feed. It has less to do with a fight for facts than what Big Data tells these new “Merchants of Truth” is the public’s interest.
Videos, like Jackass that play on YouTube, fit into the titillation genre. However, as a merchant of truth, YouTube’s platform generates often useful information. Its platform offers do-it-yourself help, from people who demonstrate how they did it themselves.
YouTube also offers educational programming on current events, history, and science. As a “Merchant of Truth”, it is not fighting for facts. It, like BuzzFeed and Vice, is looking for clicks to increase advertising revenue.
BuzzFeed and Vice fight for attention, not facts. They make money for clicks whether facts are right or wrong. Advertisers are interested because attention drives sales.
Like BuzzFeed, it resists control of content to increase popularity under the cloak of freedom of speech. Both BuzzFeed and Facebook are struggling to keep hate out of their content without acting as Big Brother monitors of vitriol. Neither are focused on a fight for facts or truthful news. Both seek user clicks to give interest to vendors that will pay to advertise.
Facebook is a ubiquitous forum meant to connect society. In actuality, it appears Facebook is a forum that often reinforces and magnifies difference in society.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Economist, and Foreign Affairs have video and online feeds. Most offer those feeds to subscribers. Some, like Foreign Affairs want an additional fee for the online service. The degree of adoption of emotion by traditional media varies, but it creeps into all “Merchants of Truth”. All media serves what big data shows the public wants.
Abramson shows that national TV and newspaper coverage of the news have adopted some of the characteristics of BuzzFeed, Vice, and YouTube to improve their income, and economic viability.
Somewhat more ominously, Abramson explains how traditional media is adopting measurement metrics that tell publishers how many clicks or engagements reporters get from their writing. If news reports do not achieve a certain level of interest, the reporter’s continued employment and/or compensation becomes a topic for discussion. News is in danger of being measured by popularity, not substance.
Getting back to Abramson’s personal experience at The New York Times, she acknowledges not having much management experience when she became the Executive Editor of the paper. She notes former employers never offered management graduate courses for her to broaden her education. Undoubtedly, she was an excellent employee that got things done.
Abramson devotes a part of her book to air grievances about an “old boys club” in the news business. Other writers, as well as Abramson, have reported a double standard for women in the media industry. Women are viewed differently when they exhibit the same aggressiveness that men show as managers.
Abramson acknowledges she does not listen as carefully as she should when confronted with opposition. That is a characteristic of both men and women who have come up through the ranks of an organization. They are superstars. They get things done and are promoted to become managers.
In well managed companies, mentor-ships or management development programs are offered rising stars. They offer employees an opportunity to see the difference between doing things yourself to having things done through others, a skill set that can be taught.
Women and men rise in organizations to become managers by getting things done. Abramson notes that aggressiveness is judged differently in women. Women are called pushy while men are called forceful and effective.
Becoming a manager is a difficult transition because it involves ceding control that is the hallmark of an employee’s success as a doer of things. A manager needs to trust others to do the things that need to be done. One suspects it is more difficult for women to develop trust in others because of generations of unequal treatment. Whether a man or woman, when an employee becomes valuable as a person who gets things done, it is difficult to give up one’s control to others.
Being a manager requires trust in employees that may not do their jobs exactly the way a new manager (a former “doer of things”) believes they should be done. This is where skill-set adjustment is needed.
If an employee fails at a task, a new manager needs to help the employee overcome the failure. If the employee continues to fail, he/she will eventually be fired. If the employee succeeds, he/she goes on to the next task. Abramson’s dismissal may have been as much a function of unequal treatment as inadequate training. Her analytic and reporting skill is proven by her history and her analysis of media news in “Merchants of Truth”.
In a fight for facts, what a consumer can take from Abramson’s analysis is how important it is to read and listen to more than one “Merchant of Truth”. Finding truth is what Americans of conscience seek.
Freedom of speech cannot be an excuse for unvetted news.
Much of what Abramson’s personal experience is at The New York Times is reinforced by her analysis of the evolution of the Washington Post. This century has not been kind to traditional news media. It is in a state of transition. Some of us hope it evolves, and is not relegated to the trash bin of history.
The media for this generation is changing. What one hopes is that the best of each is eventually adopted. Every news source must be measured against truth. Determining truth is made up of true facts that no singular news outlet is capable of compiling.
“All the news that is fit to print” is an apt logo for the New York Times but it is misleading. History is continually revised because new facts are discovered, and the perspective of society changes. Americans need to be diligent in seeking the truth. The truth does not lie in one source.
T Kira Madden’s memoir is a non-fiction account of her life. This memoir may reach beyond America. It rings true for many children wherever they are raised. Madden is the child of a philandering father; mostly raised by her mother, but deeply connected to her father.
Madden’s father is never far from her thoughts but frequently gone from her presence.
Her journey to adulthood is difficult. Children can love their parents with “Leave it to Beaver” ideals, but in the midst of a chaotic family life, Madden shows children’s lives are scarred. Many American children are affected by parental absence, and conflict. In childhood’s journey, physical and mental abuse between parents affects a child’s view of the world. Their place in it is confused, indeterminate, and seriously affected by the way parents behave. Madden tells the story of those conflicts in her memoir.
Sometimes parental absence is because of working
parents. Other times, it is because of the
personal lives’ parents live. In Madden’s case it is more of the former than
the latter. Madden’s father works in an undisclosed
profession and makes a good deal of money but is absent for long periods of
time. As Madden finds later, part of her
father’s absence is because of another family. He is the husband and father of a
different wife and children.
Both of Madden’s parents are recovering addicts. Madden’s parents fall into what she calls “sleepy time” when they over-indulge. At times, her father physically abuses her mother. Her father’s other family may suffer some of the same effects but that is not the focus of Madden’s memoir. This is Madden’s life story; not her father’s, and not the family she had yet to meet. Madden recounts meeting with her father’s other family as an epilogue at the end of her story.
Madden’s story begins with the purchase of a male mannequin as a substitute father. The mannequin is a symbol of male presence. It offers a kind of security when mother and child are at home alone. It is something more to Madden. That “more” is a reflection on the title of her book.
To a father, Madden’s memoir is heart breaking. Men are frequently indiscriminate in their relationships. Often, they have little concern for the consequences of their action.
Men spread their seed and sometimes walk away. Women are stuck with the most difficult decision of their lives-raising or giving up their child.
Women are always left with the major decisions of life when they become pregnant. Fathers can leave or stay. Women can never leave. Women stay with a decision to abort, adopt, or single-parent a yet to be born child. The reality of staying is a physical and mental trial for women; pending a life sentence. For men, if there is a sentence, it is limited to guilt and an uncertain, and frequently ignored, financial penalty.
“Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls” implies an abusive or profligate father is a bump in the road; rather than a tragedy.
Madden shows a child can survive the worst a broken family can do and become something better. Madden’s story begs the question of how many children of single parents are unable to meet the challenges of a neglectful father, and how many of those children are life’s casualties?
Barry Holstun Lopez (American author, essayist, fiction writer. News this Friday, 12/25/20 Barry Lopez died at age 75.)
As a first exposure to Barry Lopez’s writing, “Horizon” is a disturbing review of the state of nature.
There is a “Let It Be” determinism about the environment in Lopez’s memoir of travels around the world.
There seems little rage in “Horizon” about the decline of earth’s environment. Particularly in comparison to Greta Thunberg’s accusations against spoilers of the world.
Of course, Lopez is in his 70 s. Thunberg is 16. Her generation is more likely to feel the consequence of world’ ecological change. One doubts pessimism is the intent of Lopez’s recollections. But pessimism is a sense some may get from a 23-hour narration of “Horizon”.
From Lopez’s varied experience as a writer, historian, amateur archaeologist, and world traveler, he concludes humankind may be destined for a sixth extinction.
Lopez lives a peripatetic life that exposes him to the remains of animal species lost; the evolutionary fragments of human remains, and the disparate changes of weather around the world.
Lopez visits parts of the world discovered by explorers. Particularly men like John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, and others. Lopez writes many vignettes about James Cook and his obsession–to map the world.
Man’s inhumanity to man has been recorded many times by many writers. Lopez regrets the passing of native populations, and suggests their passing is because early explorers paved the way for new civilizations. In recalling various expeditions, Lopez makes one aware of the nature of human beings.
The American Indian’s “Trail of Tears” are repeated in many civilizations.
Lopez notes the lows of human beings with a story of two older men who want him to ghost write an essay about their experience with underage girls in Thailand. In a bigger historical picture, Lopez explains the nature of explorers who destroy as well as initiate new civilizations.
Lopez infers human civilization is trapped in a cycle of self-destruction. Every society desires stability and longevity. Lopez infers human nature gets in the way of those desires.
Lopez writes about Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the arbitrariness of genetic selection that sustains human life. Lopez holds the view that Darwin’s theory may be key to human’s future survival.
Lopez infers a chance genetic modification will seed human survival as the world ecological system changes. Lopez notes many civilizations are gone; others are headed for extinction. Today, human advancement is a product of greed and self-interest. Tomorrow, human advancement may be dependent on love and care for others.
Just as greed and self-interest are genetic markers for today’s world cultures, a new genetic marker might offer love and care for others for tomorrow’s world cultures.
Lopez illustrates slavery still plagues the conscience of 21st century civilization. Discrimination because of race, color, or creed are evident in every nation of the world.
Jews, Palestinians, Houthi, Saudi Arabians, Taliban, Afghani, Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Inuit, Canadians, Americans, Chinese, Asians, Russians and others feed into humanities self-destruction. There is blame to go around with a mentality of “my way is the only way”.
Though Lopez’s book is published prior to the Covid19 pandemic, there seems application for his pessimism about what is happening today.
Is the world economy opening too soon? Greed and self-interest unduly influence American public policy.
From Oregon to Antarctica; from Africa to California, to New York to Australia, to the Galapagos Islands, and back to Oregon, Lopez reflects on the state of the world.
Cortes Conquest of the Aztec Empire.
What can break humanity’s cycle of self-destruction?
Lopez suggests the world will go on, but humans may be the sixth extinction. The question is—is it up to us, fate, nature, or a Supreme Being?
Lopez leaves a slender hope that the evolution of human beings will rescue humanity. He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
Dr. Richard Shepard (Author, UK Pathologist who investigated many celebrity deaths including Princess Diana.)
Dr. Richard Shepard is an English forensic pathologist. In a cathartic examination of his profession, Shepard reveals how obsessiveness is a boon and bane in life. From youth to late middle age, Shepard reflects on his life.
In “Unnatural Causes”, Shepard examines the causes of others’ death. With ever-present foreshadowing, a listener recognizes a man who is going to experience a mid-life crisis.
In Shepard’s dissection of life, many male listeners will see their own narcissistic lives. The expense of self-absorption is delusion, and often divorce. For a male obsessed with a career, the cost of delusion is a crisis of personal identity.
The cost of divorce is different for men than for women. The biggest cost of divorce is paid by a wife. She not only loses a part of her identity; she loses the security of family, friends, and income.
Shepard does not overtly acknowledge the inequity of divorce, but one senses his feeling of guilt.
The personal part of Shepard’s story is a sad commentary on relationship between men and women in the modern world. It is a picture of many men who grow old with their first wife and abandon them when youth has been spent.
The primary purpose of Shepard’s book is not to explain men’s narcissism but to explore the profession of forensic science.
There is no question that Shepard’s experience qualifies him as an expert in the field. From terrorist events in England and 9/11 in the U.S. to the death of Princess Diana, Shepard practices his profession as a revered and respected pathologist. He explains his obsession for “cause for death” from childhood.
Having lost his mother at an early age, her absence motivates
Shepard to understand what causes death. Though unsure of himself when he first
encounters dissection of a human being, Shepard notes how curiosity shuts out
any discomforting feelings in cutting and examining internal organs of a human
corpse. His focus is on finding the true
cause of death.
In the course of Shepard’s career, his search for “cause of death” is found to be difficult, but not because of death’s pathology.
Shepard explains how political pressure from the public, the police, and the judicial system influences diagnosis of death. The public may want to know the “cause of death” because of preconceived notions. The police may want to know the “cause of death: because of their perception of someone’s guilt or innocence. The judicial system may want “cause of death” based on witnesses for the defense or prosecution. To Shepard, what someone wants is not relevant. Only the truth is relevant.
Shepard’s conviction that truth is all that matters leads to a professional crisis.
A less than reputable couple lose their child to what Shepard concludes is SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Based on Shepard’s diagnosis, the couple is set free. Years later, the couple has another child. Both parents are alcoholics according to reports given in Shepard’s account of the case. Years after Shepard’s SIDS determination, a second pathologists reviews the record and finds what he believes to have been child abuse. The court agrees with the new pathologist and the child is taken from the parents. Shepard is brought before a board of inquiry to determine whether he should keep his license.
Shepard’s book is worthy of a listener’s time to find out what the board of inquiry decides. Both the personal and public crises Shepard faces will resonate with anyone who has obsessively pursued a career and had his/her personal integrity challenged.
There is a poignant relationship between Shepard’s story and the grilling of Amy Coney Barrett’s pursuit of a seat on the Supreme Court.
Her truth is not everyone’s truth. To challenge her belief in the role of a justice of the Supreme Court places her squarely in Shepard’s story of judgement by a board of inquiry.
There is the added benefit of hearing how “inequality of the sexes” is a deeply rooted social phenomena.
“Little Failure” may seem humorous to some but it is really about the angst and hardship of immigration. Immigration is a particularly difficult subject in today’s America. After all, President Trump claims “our country is full”.
At the age of 38, a memoir of one’s life seems hubris-tic. “Little Failure” might be a case in point, but the author, Gary Shteyngart, shows more self-loathing than excessive self-pride in his story of coming from Russia to New York at the age of six.
Shteyngart has the good fortune of going to a Jewish grade school (Solomon Schechter) to help him transition from being a Russian speaking immigrant to an English speaking writer.
Solomon Schechter, more than many American schools, appreciates and works on transitioning children from one culture to another. Shteyngart seems to devalue Solomon Schechter’s help in his immigrant transition. Helping a child transition from a smaller culture to a different and larger culture is a big challenge for both school and immigrant.
Shteyngart writes a great deal about his relationship with his father and mother that resonate in some ways with all boys growing into manhood. Both parents love their son.
In Shteyngart’s memoir, his father tells imaginative stories, but also physically punishes him for perceived insubordination and bad behavior. Shteyngart remembers passive/aggressive actions by his mother; e.g. a habit of not talking to him as a way of punishing perceived transgressions.
As with some maturing male children, Shteyngart is obsessed with sex. He covets attention of older men as father figures. He desires women that never give him a serious look until he is 20 years old. He compensates for inattention by being a class clown; which is one of many coping mechanisms used by adolescents with low self-esteem.
Sthteyngart writes that he is the apple of his grandmother’s eye and his parents have high expectations for him. Sthteyngart is expected to excel in school to become a doctor or lawyer. However, he finds he does not have enough interest or ability to achieve those goals and turns to writing.
He goes to Oberlin College, partly because of a girl, but primarily because it offers escape from home and the potential for meeting his parent’s expectation. He takes two majors, the first is political science and, presumably, the second is English or literature. The political science is for his parent’s push for law school. His other major is to feed his natural interest.
Sthteyngart becomes something of a hippie; i.e. smoking dope, drinking, and generally goofing off, but he manages to keep his grades high enough to satisfy his parents and feed his ambition to be a writer. (This is not a picture of Sthteyngart but and example of hippies of his day.)
He actively supports the first Bush’s election campaign as a confirmed Republican. He covets a financial patron, a father figure, to support his vices and the pursuit of writing. He turns to psychoanalysis for better understanding of his inner-life. He believes psychoanalysis helps him cope with his insecurities.
The valuable part of the story is about being an immigrant in a strange land. From the time of George Washington, many American Presidents have discouraged immigration. The grounds for their opinions range from fear of cultural contamination to national security threat–to today–when our President says America is full.
Immigration fear is not a partisan issue; it is a human issue. In 1939, President Roosevelt turned away an estimated 900 Jews on the M.S. St. Louis. Roosevelt turned them away because they were a national security risk. (Over 200 of those 900 immigrants were executed in Nazi extermination camps during WWII.)
Of course, today’s national security risk is religious affiliation or gang membership. Trump does not care if you are escaping poverty, violence, or death because America is full.
Mr. Trump implies every Muslim is a terrorist and every Latino south of the border is a gang member.
Shteyngart’s first book is published with good reviews. The best that can be said about “Little Failure” is that it tells a story of growing to manhood in 20th century America; before Donald Trump.
“Little Failure” is as its title says, a memoir, but it seems more like displaced hubris in the light of today’s American government. Aside from the immigrant parts of Shteyngart’s life, little new coming-of-age’ ground is broken. Few teaching-moments are harvested to lead listeners out of the lacuna of President Trump’s mind.
Everything to hide, everything to lose, and “Nothing to Envy” summarizes Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. That is the frightening prospect of North Korea’s policy regarding nuclear armament.
North Korea is dark because of a lack of infrastructure for power
Kim Jong-un’s rule of North Korea is founded on fear. Based on Demick’s characterization of the North Korean economy, Kim uses fear to control North Korean citizens. Kim presumes the same will work for control of North Korea’s position in the world. Trump deceives himself in believing he gets along better with meaner leaders.
President Trump understands the tool of fear but mistakenly believes Kim will change his behavior because of America’s superior wealth and power.
Because fear is the only tool Kim possesses to stabilize North Korea’s government, North Korea will not abandon its quest for more nuclear weapons.
Demick pictures life in North Korea based on interviews and stories told by refugees and defectors. There is an inherent bias in recollections of those who flee as opposed to those who stay. These stories, though different in details, are too alike to be lies.
Demick peels back the edge of a curtain that hides North Korea from the rest of the world. North Korean defector’s recollections are a re-telling of George Orwell’s fictional world of “1984”. North Korea is a reinvention of Joseph Stalin’s U.S.S.R.
Demick recounts the stories of Mrs. Song, Oak-hee, Mi-ran, and Jun-sang. Demick paints a picture of a gray country, wracked by hunger and controlled by a dictator and his army. Demick reveals a country that faces a grim future.
Nuclear warheads in the hands of North Korea are a threat to Asia and the far east.
Demick gives fear and anxiety a face with Mrs. Song’s story of her life as a rabid believer, self-deceiver, and follower of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father).
Mrs. Song and her children survive North Korea’s worst famine in history, but her husband dies. Mrs. Song’s daughter Oak-hee tricks her mother into visiting China and then lures her to South Korea. Oak-hee shows Mrs. Song that life in North Korea is a shadow of what life can be.
Demick’s second story is told by Jun-sang and Mi-ran, two other North Korean defectors. Jun-sang and Mi-ran introduce romance into this gray world. Their courtship in North Korea is sweetly pictured in clandestine walks on dark nights with sparkling bright stars in a lightless city. Jun-sang is an engineering student at a prestigious North Korean school. Mi-ran is the daughter of a naturalized North Korean farmer who lived in what became South Korea after the Korean War.
Jun-sang and Mi-ran talked of everything but what became the most important thing in their lives, the dishonesty of their government, the unfair treatment of its people, and their growing alienation.
Both defected at different times because they were afraid to reveal to each other their true feelings about life in their home country. Later, they meet in South Korea but as strangers that have grown into separate lives.
“Nothing to Envy” makes a listener believe North Korea’s government is destined to fail. Time and incident will cause its collapse.
President Trump only temporarily stopped displays of nuclear weaponization by North Korea. Obviously, Kim Jong-un is only acting in a play designed by Trump. It appears Trump’s play, as much of his administration, is out of his control.
Our President cannot say “you’re fired”. Kim Jong-un needs fear to govern his country. He believes fear is the only tool that will gain cooperation of the outside world.
Karl Knausgaard’s “My Struggle, Book 1” is akin to Proust’s oeuvre about life and coming of age. This comparison is somewhat apt but Knausgaard’s journey is visceral and personal while Proust’s is intellectual and universal. A listener feels like they are peeking into Knausgaard’s personal diary; while Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is an intellectual exercise.
With Knausgaard, a listener feels stuck in a web, without exit; with Proust, one feels stuck but sees a way out.
Even the name of Knausgaard’s book, “My Struggle”, has an emotional feel and personal meaning. In contrast, Proust’s first book is called “Swann’s Way” which infers a more abstract and recollected universal insight.
Marcel Proust (French novelist, criitc and essayist, 1872-1922)
This is not a criticism of Knausgaard’s or Proust’s writing. Knausgaard and Proust are like spiders that weave words into webs that capture listener’s consciousness.
Knausgaard struggles with his freedom. On the one hand, he likes the independence; on the other, he misses the stability associated with family. He becomes accustomed to being alone. He covets being alone, even among friends.
Knausgaard craves the oblivion of alcohol.
Acquiring alcohol becomes a challenge that is met by having others buy it for him and eventually using his 6’ 2” height to fool corner store owners into selling him beer.
Knausgaard seeks companionship to compensate for unstructured independence but shies away from intimacy.
He struggles with growing interest in sex. He has his first ejaculation in an unconsummated bedroom experience with a girl schoolmate. He is sixteen years old.
At fifteen, Knausgaard is struggling with his need for independence.
Knausgaard reveres both his mother and father. He deeply loves both but is ambivalent and somewhat fearful of his father. Knausgaard’s need is served by a mother and father that become separated, first as a result of work, but in the end by divorce. Knausgaard begins to effectively live alone when his mother and father separate.
The way Knausgaard views life waivers between the radical left and outright anarchism.
He is financially supported by his father but his father allows Knausgaard to live largely by himself. When parental divorce becomes a fait accompli, Knausgaard emotionally cleaves to his mother while revising views of his father.
“My Struggle, Book 1” is an excellent memoir of boyhood. It is filled with experiences that remind adult men of what it is like to grow-up in modern times. Some embrace the “Sturm und Drang” of life while others close themselves off and become observers rather than participants. Knausgaard is an observer.
Knausgaard begins to see his father as an individual; as a vulnerable human being, capable of crying and subject to the same weaknesses of all men. He is married twice. He is driven by desire for success with relationships in life as a means to an end rather than ends to a mean.
Knausgaard is less observant of his mother’s humanness because he measures his life against his father’s actions and reactions. In consequence, his understanding and relationship with women is degraded.
Knausgaard’s depiction of his father’s death in the squalor of Knausgaard’s grandmother’s home shocks the senses. It reflects a truth about neglect of the poor, physically or mentally challenged, and the elderly in cultures based on self-interest.
Children who grow into relatively healthy adults believe they are immortal; i.e. “boys grown to men” believe achieving economic security, psychological health, and physical well-being is part of every life’s struggle. Knausgaard infers that when life’s struggle slaps people down, the recovered forget the un-recovered.
Knausgaard suggests those who succeed in a self-interest’ culture believe failure to overcome life’s struggle is the their own fault. One cannot escape the feeling that this is a leading cause of homelessness in one of the richest nations in the world.
Knausgaard tells of his father’s descent into alcoholism, and his grandmother’s mental collapse. Both are ignored by Knausgaard and his brother until confronted by his father’s death in their demented grandmother’s pee and shit-stained house.
There is a homeopathic comfort in hearing Knausgaard’s vignettes of life because they remind one of life as a boy growing into a man. There are no revelations in Knausgaard’s journey to adulthood. However, there are interesting and informative recollections.
Knausgaard’s precise descriptions of a lived life reminds listeners of how much men have in common, whether Norwegian, American, or other. It reminds us that we are human, imperfect, and ephemeral.
Audio-book Review By Chet Yarbrough (Blog:awalkingdelight) Website: chetyarbrough.blog
A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
Written by: Robert M. Sapolsky
Narration by: Mike Chamberlain
Robert Sapolsky’s “A Primates Memoir” is a masochist’s guide to Africa. (Our 2017 trip to Africa was luxurious in comparison.) Sapolsky’s trip is what you would expect from a biological anthropologist who sojourns to Africa in the early 80s. Sapolsky lives in a tent while studying baboons.
At the age of 12, Sapolsky appears to know what he wants from life. In his middle-school years, he begins studying Swahili, the primary language of Southeast Africa.
Sapolsky’s career is aimed at understanding Southeast Africa. Sapolsky’s 1984 PhD. thesis is titled “The Neuro-endocrinology of Stress and Aging”. Presumably, his trip to Africa became the basis for his academic thesis. Sapolsky’s experience in Africa is recounted in “A Primate’s Memoir”.
While studying Baboons, Sapolsky is exposed to the worst of African society. His memoir of those years touches on the aftermath of Africa’s colonization, Africa’s ubiquitous diseases, its governments’ instability, and its abundant and frequently poached wildlife.
Though some of what Sapolsky writes has changed, today’s news shows characters like Robert Mugabe, and Jacob Zuma, who are accused of victimizing the poor to enrich themselves.
Some African, and other nation-state leaders around the world, are corrupt. Many Southeastern African bureaucrats, foreign business moguls, indigenous apartheid promoters, and wildlife exploiters still walk, drive, and bump down streets and dirt trails of this spectacular continent.
Self-interest often conflicts with general economic growth and stability. Today’s Southeast Africa is great for tourism (one of the three biggest industries) but the poor remain poor, the rich richer, and the middle class nearly non-existent.
Sapolsky returns to Africa after marrying. He squires his science and marriage partner to revisit a baboon troop he was studying in the 1980s. At the same time, he touches on the cultural norms of a society that seems little changed from his early years in Africa.
Sapolsky recounts the melding of a tragi-comic story of an African who is mauled by a Hyena. In telling the story, he reveals the stoic acceptance of life as it is. However, each time the story of the mauling is told by different people, it changes. The change comes from a blend of truth and fiction that conforms to the tellers’ view of themselves. The essence of the story is that an African man sleeping in a tent is mauled by a Hyena looking for food.
When the story is told by Masai warriors hired by a company to protect its employees, the victim is saved when the Hyena is speared by the Masai warrior’s courage. When the story is told by the victim, it is a company cook who bashes the Hyena that runs away. When the story is told by a newspaper reporter, the Masai warriors were drunk and not doing their job; the cook bashed the Hyena, and the victim survived. When the story is told by the cook, the victim’s yell brings the cook to the tent; the cook grabs a rock, bashes the Hyena, and the Hyena flees. Finally, when the story is told by the company employer, the victim is not an employee, the Mesai warriors did spear the Hyena, and the employer had no responsibility for the victim.
A cultural interpretation is inferred by these many versions of the same story. Some humans indulge in alcohol to escape reality. Most humans wish to protect an idealized version of their existence. News coverage is sometimes a mix of truth and fiction to make stories more interesting than accurate.
Life is happenstance with each human dealing with its consequence as an end or beginning that either defines, or extends their understanding of life. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Some people are willing to risk their lives for others. Private companies focus on maximizing profit and minimizing responsibility. Life is not an either/or proposition despite Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Humans are good and bad; no one is totally one or the other–not even America’s morally corrupt and ethically challenged leader.
The overlay of Sapolsky’s memoir is the research and reported evolution of a baboon family in Southeast Africa. He shows that baboon families, like all families, are born, mature, and die within a framework of psychological and physical challenges imbued by culture. All lives face challenge but culture can ameliorate or magnify the intensity and consequence of the challenge.
Sapolsky gives the example of Kenyan “crazy” people who are hospitalized, treated, and fed to deal with their life circumstance. In America, it seems “crazy” people are left to the street. The inference is that Kenyan “crazy” people live a less stressful life than American “crazy” people. This is a positive view of Kenyan culture but there are ample negative views in Sapolsky’s memoir. Rampant poverty, malnutrition, and abysmal medical treatment are Sapolsky’s recollected examples.
Sapolsky’s memoir shows he clearly lives an unconventional life, but it seems a life of purpose. What more is there?