UNWORTHY BIOGRAPHY

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow

Narrated by Scott Brick

Ronald Chernow (American writer, journalist, historian, and biographer, Pulitzer Prize winer.)

Fans of Ron Chernow, other reviewers, most readers, and the Pulitzer Prize panel of judges, obviously disagree with this review; not that Chernow would care.

Chernow is a respected biographer.  He has written biographies of J.P. Morgan, The Warburgs, John D. Rockefeller, Alexander Hamilton, and now “Washington: A Life”, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for biography.

In spite of its Pulitzer standing, some phrasing in “Washington A Life” is amateurish. 

Describing a person as one with “intelligent eyes” lacks clarity and concreteness.  What do “intelligent eyes” look like? 

In fairness, Chernow writes better descriptive phrases in “Washington…” but any phrasing unworthy of a Pulitzer Prize winning book should be edited out.

Much of what Chernow writes is a recitation of facts with little of the color of its era.

Unquestionably, “Washington: A Life” is a well-researched biography of a pivotal hero in America’s history. but it suffers from a common failing of more memorable biographies.    Every fact may be documented but motive is obscure because motive is wrapped in a social and human context that is missing. 

Like the Pulitzer Prize winning history of Cleopatra, Chernow slips into cliché, or a “just the facts” phrasing characteristic of a Dragnet TV detective.

When Chernow strays from the facts, he sounds like an apologist for Washington. Chernow misses the essence of Washington’s rationalization of slavery’s contradiction of humanity.

Washington is plainly a slave holder, albeit less punitive than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree.  But, like Legree, Washington treats his slaves as property to be bought, and sold, and when they escape, tracked down, and punished. 

Chernow writes “Washington rarely whipped his slaves and tried to keep slave families together”.  That makes Washington better than Simon Legree but Washington does not stand above that era’s generally accepted and wrong-headed social mores.  Washington’s “warts” are blurred in Chernow’s biography.

Chernow’s characterization of Washington’s dalliance with Sally Fairfax (a married woman) as a non-sexual infatuation stretches credulity.  Part of Chernow’s evidence is Martha Washington’s acceptance of Sally Fairfax as a personal friend rather than former paramour of George Washington.

Chernow spends a great deal of time explaining how Washington led a life of image that is difficult to penetrate.  As Chernow clearly explains, Washington assiduously represses emotions that boil beneath his facial expression; i.e. Washington could easily don a mask to hide romantic indiscretion.

Putting these negative comments aside, Chernow provides a lot of facts about Washington’s life that are not generally known.  Information about America’s great revolution makes Chernow’s near-1000 page book worth listening to, but far from understanding America’s first President. 

Like Schiff’s biography of “Cleopatra”, a reader/listener does learn a great deal about documented facts of a great historical figure.  But Washington, like Cleopatra to this reviewer, remains a mystery. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda (American composer, lyricist, rapper, singer, actor, playwright, and producer of Broadway Musicals In the Heights and Hamilton)

Chernow needs another Lin-Manuel Miranda to contextualize his uninspiring biography of Washington.

COLLECTIVIST BELIEF

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Darkness at Noon

By Arthur Koestler

Narrated by Frank Muller

Arthur Koestler (1904-1983, Author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LONG JOHN SILVER

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Treasure Island

By: Robert Louis Stevenson

Narrated by Philip Glenister, Daniel Mays, Catherine Tate, Owen Teale

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894, Author died at Age of 44)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is a curious piece of literature that resonates with 21st century calumny.  Humans are not perfect.  There is a bit of Stevenson’s “Long John Silver” in everyone.

For those unfamiliar with Stevenson’s tale, “Long John Silver” is a pirate who hoodwinks a young boy, a crew of sailors, a doctor, a professional ship’s Captain, and a few others on a voyage to recapture a treasure.  Silver has the “gift of gab”; salted with a lifetime of experience in getting what he wants.

What strikes one about Silver’s character is his ability to see things as they are and change his behavior to suit the circumstance.  If a lie suits his purpose, he lies.  If the truth suits his purpose, he tells the truth.  What he lacks is morality. 

Silver is a narcissist.  He has an egoistic admiration of himself that includes self-flattery, arrogance, and a sharp tongue that cuts like a blade. When confronted with one whom Silver disagrees, he cajoles, belittles, or verbally (sometimes physically) attacks his opposition.

If disagreeing, belittling, and cajoling fail, a narcissist changes the focus of attention with a manufactured distraction.

Putting aside Silver’s narcissistic amorality, he understands a truth about human beings. Silver represents belief that money, power, and prestige rule the high seas and land.  With the skill of a practiced politician, Silver manipulates events to conform to plan. 

The curious piece of Stevenson’s story is Silver’s prediction that Ben Gunn, a stranded buccaneer on Treasure Island, would be cheated out of a share of the treasure even though he played a major part in the treasure hunters’ success. 

Gunn is an anti-hero who has lost his mind because of his isolation on the island.  Gunn is like a modern-day homeless man abandoned by society.

Silver’s plan is to capture the wealth of a buried treasure.  Though not entirely successful, he captures a share of the booty by co-opting Jim Hawkins, a cabin boy with a yearning for the sea.  In the end, Silver escapes the clutches of British authorities who would have convicted him for mutiny, and possibly, attempted murder.

What Silver points out is that the doctor, ship’s captain, and other survivors of “Treasure Island”, will cheat Gunn of his fair share.  Gunn is given 1000 Sovereigns (English pounds) and the rest (hundreds of thousands per person) is distributed to the surviving voyagers.  Silver infers all human beings are pirates. 

Some pirates wear suits, speak the King’s English, and live in the city; a Pogo version of “We have met the enemy-of-the-people and he is us.”

GENETICS ACHILLES HEEL

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Who We Are and How We Got Here

By: David Reich

Narrated by John Lescault

David Reich (Author, geneticist)

Reich explains how the concept of the origin of homo sapiens has evolved since the discovery of “Lucy” in East Africa in 1974.

Few scientists disagree about humankind’s place of origin.  It may have been somewhere other than East Africa, but human origin is genetically linked to the African continent. 

However, Reich notes that geneticists no longer believe African origin is an adequate interpretation of the wide differentiation of human beings.  The evolution of homo sapiens is not like the branches of a tree but more a tapestry of interwoven threads.

Listening to “Who We Are and How We Got Here” reminds one of the Dragnet’s 1950s-character Joe Friday saying, “just the facts ma’m”.  Aside from Officer Friday’s hint of sexism, it is never just the facts. 

Genetic evolution is always interpretation of facts.  Interpretation is David Reich’s “Achilles heel” for exploring and expanding DNA research to determine “Who We Are and How We Got Here”.

Humans interbred to create a fabric of intermingled genetic characteristics that came together, separated, re-combined and changed over thousands of years.

Genetic discoveries of Neanderthal and Denisovan genetic markers show there is no direct line of descent from the “Lucy” origin of homo sapiens.  Genetic studies show that DNA changed as the human species grew. Some genes survived and evolved while others disappeared. Current theory discounts the principle of an “immortal gene” in the sense that the origin genes changed into something entirely different.

The great controversy that Reich explores is factional resistance to genetic research because of fear of misuse of the data.  There is ample evidence to substantiate that fear.

James Watson (American molecular biologist, Nobel prize winner and co-author of the double helix structure of DNA)

In 2007, Dr. Watson told a British journalist that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says, not really.”

Reich adds to the “Watson story” by saying he met Watson and was appalled by his comments about Jews being intrinsically smarter than the general population.  

Somewhat disingenuously, Reich notes that a disproportionate number of Ashkenazi Jews have received Nobel prizes. Is that fact relevant to genetic research? Does it apply to all Jews or just Ashkenazi Jews. Reich is an Ashkenazi Jew. Is this a reflection of the same concern over misuse of genetic information?

Genetic facts have been used by prominent scientists, like Watson, and ignorant political leaders, like Adolph Hitler, to falsely interpret genetic evidence. They argue that one racial identity is superior or inferior to another.   

One comes away from Reich’s book only semi-convinced of his search for truth through genetics.  Reich insists that the benefits of genetic research far outweigh the potential harm the research may cause. 

His point is that there are genetic studies that prove some genetic markers make people more susceptible to disease like anemia for blacks and Tay-Sachs disease for Ashkenazi Jews.  With exposure through genetic research, these medical maladies may be cured.  Without knowledge of genetic predisposition, there is less focus on what might cure certain diseases.

The problem always comes back to interpretation of facts; not the facts themselves.  Reich certainly has a point in insisting on continuing genetic research but how does one protect themselves from misinterpretation of facts. 

Dr. Watson is a Nobel prize recipient.  Look at what his interpretation of genetic facts became.   

Six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany’s belief in a master race of genetically “pure” Germans.  Reich’s work suggests there are no “pure” races. There are only similar genetic traits among a few isolated populations.

Do potential medical benefits from genetic research outweigh a racist use of genetic facts?  “Who We Are and How We Got Here” seems much less important than “Here We Are and What Can We Do About It”.

BEST OF TIMES

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Meditations
By Marcus Aurelius

Narrated by Duncan Steen

MARCUS AURELIEUS (121 AD-180 AD, EMPEROR OF ROME FROM 161-180)

Marcus Aurelius has been called the last of the five good emperors of Rome.  Edward Gibbon, the historian, went so far as to suggest that this is one of the best times in history for people to live.  (Maybe, but Gibbon might be a little biased based on being male and white.)

PLATO, ATHENIAN PHILOSOPHER ( 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC)
Marcus Aurelius embodies the concept of the Philosopher King.  Philosopher Kings are first described by Plato as the only totalitarian leader capable of ruling society.  They would rule capably because of their wisdom and knowledge of the Good.  “Meditations” suggests that Aurelius was the real deal.

In the modern world, Aurelius provides a bible for the leisure-class. However, one is not sure what the leisure class is in this era of doing rather than being.

Aurelius recognizes the ephemeral nature of life’s pleasures and chooses to write about and use Plato’s ideal forms to guide his rule.  

The ideal forms are Plato’s essences of life, measures of the Good that in most people’s minds are only shadows in a cave.  

Aurelius benefited from wealth and leisure by being in the lap of luxury while denying its seductive pleasures, His private education allowed him to study and understand the source of Plato’s shadows in the cave. 

In the post industrial world the likelihood of a 21st century Philosopher King is inconceivable but “Meditations” does offer a wonderful guide to today’s leisure class.  With time, education, and inclination, a human being can adopt Aurelius’ rules to live a life of joy and contentment. 

A life of joy and contentment runs contrary human nature’s proclivities, the pursuit of money, power, and prestige, but the leisure class may have enough of each to stop climbing life’s ladder to despair.

Aurelius lives in the post Christian era (121-180 AD) and writes with some confusion about belief in gods or God but seems to believe in pre-ordination and humankind’s necessary acceptance of a lot in life. 

Aurelius forsakes despair and honors acceptance of doing the best one can do in a short human life.  Aurelius does not seek money, power, or prestige but accepts responsibility and lets actions define his life.  He believes every person has a social responsibility and that to remove oneself from social interaction is a betrayal of living a good life.

There are many “pearls of wisdom” in Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”.  If a listener is at a position in his or her life that allows meditation, this is a good place to start.

DECENCY

H. W. Bush may not go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents of the United States but he is among the most decent.

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Bush

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Written by: Jon Meacham

Narration by:  Paul Michael

JON MEACHAM (AMERICAN JOURNALIST & BIOGRAPHER)

JON MEACHAM (AMERICAN JOURNALIST & BIOGRAPHER)

Dostoevsky said, “There are things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

However, H. W. Bush seems unafraid in his interviews with Jon Meacham.  Meacham’s biography refers often to H. W. Bush’s diary.  H. W.’s diary appears written by a decent man who knows himself and chooses to divulge all he knows.

“Destiny and Power” is about H. W. Bush’s journey to the American Presidency and power in the executive branch of government.  It begins with a brief history of the Bush/Walker families that reaches back to the beginnings of America.   Both sides of H. W. Bush’s ancestors achieve the American dream through hard work, determination, and initiative.  The success of the Bush/Walker families sets the stage for H. W. Bush’s public service; his Yale education, his relationship to the wealthy, his service to his country, and his tenure as President of the United States.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH TAKES RESPONSIBILITY

“Destiny and Power” reveals a candid picture of the 41st President of the United States.  It is a story of family love, respect, and duty.  It explores a family lineage blessed with wealth, good education, and expectation.   H. W. Bush is a decent man who acknowledges his limitations in pursuit of good works.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH MILITARY SERVICE WWII

GEORGE H. W. BUSH MILITARY SERVICE WWII
Meacham notes that H. W. Bush seems a go-along to get-along kind of guy; i.e. a non-confrontational person who is well liked by his associates and subordinates.  After Pearl Harbor, H. W. enters the service at the age of 18 to become a pilot.  When completing a bombing run, H. W. and his crew are downed at sea.  As a downed bomber pilot, H. W mourns his fellow crewmen and wonders if there was anything he could have done differently to save their lives.

This life experience marks H. W.   It illustrates H. W.’s sense of responsibility and how he cares for others.  It reminds him of the horrors of war and the hurt felt by those left behind.  It is a mark that guides his decision to begin the first Gulf war and insert American troops in Kuwait.

Meacham reveals how H. W. solicits friendship with everyone he meets.  This facility for friendship is a key to his success in becoming a Texas oil man.  His early success in the oil business appears based on who he knows and how well he cultivates wealthy associates’ interest in risking investment in land-lease oil exploration in Texas.  H. W.’s friendliness leads him to politics.  Meacham notes that friendliness did not immediately vault H. W. to political success but it paves his way to public service.T

  1. H. W. is driven to succeed. In a widening circle of contacts, H. W. is welcomed into the Republican Party and becomes Chairman of the Party for Harris County, Texas. He runs for the Senate and is defeated by Texas Democrat Ralph Yarborough.
  2. Later, in 1966, H. W. is elected to the House of Representatives and becomes acquainted with Richard Nixon.
  3. President Nixon appoints H. W. to the United Nations as Ambassador for the United States.  His social skill suited the United Nations Ambassador position perfectly.
  4. As the Watergate scandal overtakes the Nixon Administration, H. W. supports Nixon up to the point of undeniable truth of Nixon’s cover-up.  As the Republican National Committee Chairman, H. W. asks Nixon to resign.
  5. When Gerald Ford became President, H. W. is asked to be America’s envoy to China.
  6. After serving for one year, Ford asks Bush to take the position of CIA Director.
  7. One year later, Ford is defeated by President Carter and H. W. returns to the private sector with plans to run for President.
  8. Bush’s cultivated Republican Party friendships compel Reagan to ask Bush to be his Vice President.
RONALD REAGAN (40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES)

RONALD REAGAN (40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES)
Meacham notes that running for President is something H. W. has prepared for through the course of his life but 1980 is the era of Ronald Reagan.  Reagan’s public speaking skill clearly surpasses the oratorical skill of H. W. Bush.  However, Bush’s appeal to a more liberal part of the Republican Party makes him an ideal running mate for the highly conservative Reagan.  Reagan is reluctant to make the offer because of H. W.’s “Voodoo Economics” comment during their primary contest but Bush’s affable personality eventually endears Reagan to his running mate.

By the end of Meacham’s biography one sees Bush as a decent man who wishes to do the right thing.  One might conclude that H. W. Bush is unduly influenced by the desire to be liked.  This desire makes H. W. avoid confrontation, a characteristic of which Meacham offers many examples; e. g. Bush’s reluctance to confront the public with his decision to raise taxes; his ambivalence about using the bully pulpit to attack political opponents.  H. W. Bush’s inner compass seems to wobble in the face of his desire for comity.  However, when one puts H. W. in the context of history, Bush’s inner compass seems as true north as any of America’s Presidents.

On the one hand, comity may be what is missing in the extremes of the political climate of the 21st century; on the other hand, a wobbling inner compass leads to intellectually untested certainty.  One may argue H. W. Bush’s avoidance of confrontation leads to decisions not tested by debate.  All that is left is experience burnished by one person’s judgment.  Avoidance of personal confrontation may lessen perspective but comity is an underrated commodity in today’s political climate.

A surprising note by Meacham is H. W.’s second guessing on Saddam Hussein.  H. W. did not confront Saddam Hussein to demand unconditional surrender after his forced ejection from Kuwait.  In retrospect, a demand for unconditional surrender seems superfluous. Arguably, H. W.’s courageous decision to inject the American military into Kuwait changed the course of history. One inclines to believe H. W. will go down in history as the antithesis of Nazi appeasers in WWII.

GEORGE W. BUSH (43RD PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.)

GEORGE W. BUSH (43RD PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.
The most titillating part of Meacham’s biography of H. W. is a father’s judgment of his son’s Presidency.  One tends to believe H. W. views George W. more as a beloved son than as President of the United States.  George W., like all human beings, makes his own mistakes.

H. W. argues that his son is poorly served by his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.  H. W. suggests Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are the principal reason for the mistake of Iraq.  (One must ask oneself, who hired Cheney and Rumsfeld?  In a translation of Plato’s “Republic”, there is a phrase about leadership that suggests “Birds of a feather flock together”.)

George W. is his own man.  He differs from his father in numerous ways.  One may remember George W. standing on an aircraft carrier and saying “Mission Accomplished!” after the defeat of the Republican Guard in Iraq.  Meacham’s biography suggests that kind of hubris-tic comment would never be made by H. W. Bush.  History will show defeat of the Republican Guard accomplished very little.  Defeat of the Republican Guard is only the beginning of many American mistakes in Iraq.

H. W. Bush may not go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents of the United States but he is among the most decent.

AN AUTHOR’S SUICIDE

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster WallaceEvery Love Story is a Ghost Story

By: D. T. Max

Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner

D. T. MAX (AUTHOR)
D. T. MAX (AUTHOR) The biographer of Wallace’s life, D. T. Max, works as a staff writer for “The New Yorker”.

Having read “Infinite Jest” several years ago, this reviewer has been mystified by praise given it by many writers, bibliophiles, and book-review’ publications; however, D. T. Max provides some clues to “Infinite Jest’s” seminal value as a new genre of fiction.  “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story” explains the tragedy of David Foster Wallace’s life; i.e. his character, ambition, literary evolution, and 2008 death.  This is a fascinating biography. Along with details of Wallace’s life, one is re-introduced to “Infinite Jest” and becomes more informed about why it is, and should be, highly regarded.

Infinite Jest
Having read “Infinite Jest” several years ago, this reviewer has been mystified by praise given it by many writers, bibliophiles, and book-review’ publications; however, D. T. Max provides some clues to “Infinite Jest’s” seminal value as a new genre of fiction.

As reported in the New York Times:  “…David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46…”  Jonathan Franzen said, Wallace ‘…was a Lifelong prisoner on the island of himself’.1

Max shows Wallace to be a narcissist, particularly in his manic “feeling good” periods of life, but in Max’s review of Wallace’s family history, one is inclined to forgive the narcissism and appreciate the vulnerability of a young artist trying to find himself.  (There is a suspicion that one is being seduced by a narcissist’s grand exit to make one feel Wallace’s fiction is greater than it really is but only time will be an adequate judge.)

The biographer of Wallace’s life, D. T. Max, works as a staff writer for “The New Yorker”.  Dave Eggers, Tom Bissell, and Evan Wright (authors in their own right) say that Max delivers a history of Wallace that is ‘well researched’, ‘hugely disquieting’, and ‘indispensable’ in knowing Wallace and why he will be missed.2   One is inclined to agree with all of the former but may question the last.  One wonders if Wallace’s writing will be missed?

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (1962-2008)
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE (1962-2008)

If one did not know anything about Wallace before, after listening to “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”, the uninformed become well-informed.  Wallace is a smart, well-educated, heterosexual that drives for literary success with a manic-depressive intensity that is played out in his writing and ended in his suicide.

Wallace’s life is celebrated by academic success, and marked by drugs, unhealthy human relationships, rehabilitation, and recidivism.  At the very least, one is compelled by Max’s biography to give “Infinite Jest” another chance to impress; maybe the fault is more in the reader than the writer.  (Just place computer mouse and press enter over “Infinite Jest” for review.)

 

1Quote noted in goodreads from Franzen about Wallace.

2Comments summarized from blog entry by dtmax.com.