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???Wind in the Willows??? charms its audience with animal characters that live near a river, probably the Thames, in London, England. Rat is the brains; Badger is the brawn; Mole is the anti-hero, and Toad is the fool; the fool that learns an important life lesson. ???You are a Toad??? is not what one wants to be called; Kenneth Grahame???s 1908 anthropomorphized animal tale tells why.
The New York Times gives high praise to George Saunders’ book, “Tenth of December”. There are reviewers that disagree with Kakutani’ and Cowles’ laudatory comments about Saunders’ book of short stories but once a listener steps on the cracked ice of “Tenth of December’s” last story, he/she becomes a Saunders’ fan.
Saunders seduces a listener with simple phrasing–pulling one into a story and then ambushing the unwary with crystal clear insight to human foibles, self-delusions, and false dependencies. Saunders sees that measuring one’s success by possessions defines you as an inanity, an empty symbol of humanity. What we do; not just what we think is what we become.
Criticism of democracy and capitalism is quite popular around the world. But, as Winston Churchill quotes, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Professor Ha-Joon Chang, the author of “23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism” suggests the same sentiment about capitalism. Capitalism is the worst form of economic development, except for all the others.
However, Chang is not exactly saying capitalism is better than other economic systems. Chang believes capitalism is falsely defined or understood. Capitalism is a chimera, “a thing that is hoped or wished for but in fact is illusory…” A standard definition of capitalism is—an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Synonyms are free enterprise, private enterprise, or free market economy.
Chang suggests a misunderstanding of what makes capitalism work is causing 1) inequality of opportunity, 2) inequality of income, 3) failure to provide a safety net that capitalizes on human potential, 4) loss opportunity for synergistic government and private sector research and development, and 5) a false science of economics that idealistically represents capitalist complexity. Chang suggests misunderstanding capitalism creates a false vision, like that in the movie “Matrix”, with human presumption of freedom, when there is none. It is not that there is no freedom in capitalism but it is regulated and significantly defined by government policy.
In the end, Chang is an optimist. He believes the general public will demand change. Chang reinforces belief in capitalism as the best economic system in the world. With better understanding of how capitalism really works, Chang infers civilization will continue to improve.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a sixteenth century philosopher and writer, wrote and re-wrote “Essays”, originally published in the 1580s. Essay was a new form of writing in the sixteenth century. Montaigne’s subject is the philosophy of life and death.
Montaigne writes his collection of essays while cloistered in a château in southwest France. Donald Frame translates and compiles three volumes of Montaigne’ essays into one book–“The Complete Essays of Montaigne”, first published in 1957. One of the benefits of Frame’s translation is in asides that clarify meaning, place, and person.
Montaigne, born into a family of wealth, affords the luxury of time for personal reflection and contemplation. Aristotle wrote that life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation. In one sense, this quiet life is a weakness in Montaigne’s philosophy. Montaigne reflects on history and ancient times to explain how life should be lived when his life seems a shadow of most people’s reality, the reality of a day-to-day fight for survival. There is reader skepticism about Montaigne’s philosophy based on a 1% versus 99% life of most people. The irony of that skepticism is that Montaigne is consider by some to be the father of skepticism; i.e. believing nothing is proven true by the senses.
"The Complete Essays of Montaigne" is only a brief introduction to a person that lived as one of those rare human beings that "...have a superior perception of reality." If one has a spare 40 hours to listen, "The Complete Essays of Montaigne" offers some fine human insight.
Akhil Sharma writes about his life as a young Indian immigrant that arrives in America with his family in the late 1970s. “Family Life” is the second book written by Sharma. One presumes the story is about a unique immigrant experience; interestingly, it is and it isn’t. “Family Life” is about family life. Every family has its joys and sorrows, but Sharma offers useful and universal ways of coping with unexpected events and family crises that occur in every family’s life.
Every human being chooses their own way of coping with life’s imperfectness and hardship. Ajay chooses academic excellence and becomes a successful stockbroker. His older brother chooses to take a risky dive into a concrete pool and interrupts a promising life. His father decides to immigrate to America but is overcome by alcoholism. His mother obsessively pushes her point-of-view; but cares for an invalid son, stays married to an alcoholic, and raises an accomplished American’ business man. All of it or pieces of it are part of what is called “Family Life”.
“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is an empty history because it misses the mark of great story telling. Johnathan Aris and Paula Wilcox do a good job of narrating the story but David Mitchell fails to develop characters or a theme that sparks much interest in the listener.
There is little romantic chemistry felt by the listener when Jacob de Zoet, the hero, expresses his love for Orito Aibagawa, the heroine. The listener feels she is de Zoet’s interest not his passion. This may be consistent with Mitchell’s characterization of the hero but it detracts from the entertainment value of the story.
Incidents are injected into the story at the last minute with a feeling of listener manipulation rather than enlightenment. An English captain, near the end of the story, is described as having had a son killed in the war that reminded him of de Zoet. This memory kept the captain from killing de Zoet when he had the chance.
The book ends with narrative explanation that reveals the hero’s failure as a lover, father, and husband, a disappointing denouement. This book is a fair listen but not worthy of high praise.
Andreas Wagner suggests molecular life is nature’s library. He believes Darwin’s theory of natural selection is recorded and accessible in the cellular history of life; i.e. a coded library buried, and partly indecipherable, in the molecules of life.
In “Arrival of the Fittest”, Wagner explains the vast distance between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the mechanics of evolution. Darwin’s theory does not explain the cellular mechanics of life because science had not reached that level of observation and measurement. The nearest Darwin comes to explanation is based on natural selection which only infers there is some mechanism, without identifying it. In other words, there is no examination of the mechanics of evolutionary change in Darwin’s theory.
Andreas Wagner reveals the immense complexity of human evolution by associating organic molecules with enough information to fill all libraries of the world. Access to this immense library is being decoded and organized with biological research and computer technology. Wagner’s book makes one wonder–is this research a harbinger of earth’s infinite or finite organic life?
“World Order”, Henry Kissinger’s latest book could have been titled World Engagement. Kissinger is a consummate diplomat who crafts opinions that resonate with many interested Americans. Reader/listeners’ of “World Order” will draw their own judgments about Kissinger’s book.
“World Order” will confirm disparate political prejudices of its audience; i.e. every political pundit will find something to like or dislike. However, a fundamental belief of this wizened and wise intellect is that America must stay engaged in the world. America cannot let the Middle East or Africa devolve into tribal fiefdoms by withdrawing from conflicts over religion, tribal territoriality, terrorism, and/or nationalist fervor for independence.
Kissinger relies on lessons of history to make his point. Reaching back to the 17th century, Kissinger cites the Peace of Westphalia as a turning point in the history of world peace. Two treaties, signed in Germany in 1648, ended the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and eighty years of war between Spain and the Dutch Republic. The Peace of Westphalia provides a formula for peace based on three concepts. The first is “every nation’s right to sovereignty”; the second is the principle of “balance of power”, and the third is the centrality of international law based on the aforementioned principles.
Kissinger ponderously and broadly sets the table for his arguments for nation-state’ engagement in international affairs. Once past the table setting stage of the book, Kissinger offers a compelling argument for America to remain fully engaged in the troubles of the world. At the end of “World Order”, Kissinger infers that cyberspace is the new frontier for nation-state’ international relations. Though undoubtedly true, it seems the Westphalia’ protocol remains relevant to diplomacy for peace.
“H Is for Hawk” fails to fit a specific category of writing. It is partly memorialist; partly biographic, and partly naturalist (in a call-of-the-wild sense). It seems a perfect book to be awarded a Samuel Johnson literary prize. Johnson’s scatological mode of writing about everything from word definitions (Johnson wrote the first comprehensive English’ dictionary) to Shakespearean literature is evident in Helen Macdonald’s interesting book.
Macdonald’s book reviews the life of T. H. White. White is an English author admired by modern writers like J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. White wrote “The Once and Future King” and “The Sword in the Stone”, two magical stories about the legends of King Arthur. Interesting thoughts about White’s life are weaved into Macdonald’s view of herself, the recent death of her father, and her experience as an austringer (one who keeps goshawks).
Like White, Macdonald feels she has to prove her human’ competence. In contrast to White’s goshawk’ experience, Macdonald is quite successful as a trainer and keeper. This is not a story that will resonate with all who listen to it. However, Macdonald is a very good writer. Among other categories, “H Is for Hawk” is an excellent manual on how to keep and train a goshawk. Any fault in the book is in its subject; not it’s writing.
“Panzer Commander” offers a glossy view of WWII from a German tank Commander’s perspective; a man who becomes Combat Formation Commander of the 21st Panzer Division, late in the war. The gloss comes from genuine heroism. However, heroism hides war’s tragedy behind memories of tactical experience and heroic acts, rather than intimate reflection. Hans von Luck is a highly decorated German tank commander and author of “Panzer Commander”.
Ironically, Stephen Ambrose, a famous American’ biographical historian (somewhat disgraced by misrepresentation of historical facts about meetings with Dwight Eisenhower) provides the foreword to von Luck’s book. One suspects von Luck, like Ambrose, creates a story that is largely true but colored by modern experience, cultural influence, and the exigencies of writing an interesting story.
Memory, even when drawn from real-time, is clouded when recreated in a story. Inevitably, there is loss of relevant details because feelings and perception of the past are changed by time and experience of the present. Additionally, there is the ever-present pressure to entertain an audience and protect one’s privacy; i.e. a pressure that influences facts when telling a story.
Von Luck’s book is an informative story about WWII. It tells a listener how German officers went to war, courageously represented their country in battle, and rationalized their jobs as executors of a politician’s demented decisions. “Panzer Commander” explains what happens to defeated soldiers; how rank and a liberal education has its privileges, and how good leadership makes a difference in the outcome of a battle, a war, or a losers’ captivity.
One hesitates to review Eula Biss’s book “On Immunity” about inoculation because it likely reduces the probability that a reader/listener will fairly consider her point of view. Once a reviewer shows that Biss supports inoculation, those opposed are likely not to read or listen to her book. Biss is not a doctor. However, she is a mother, and an award-winning non-fiction writer who is praised for the quality of her research, and writing.
In light of Biss’s hyper-vigilance as a research writer, and more importantly as a mother, one knows she is committed to making the most responsible decisions possible about inoculation. The word “hyper-vigilance” in regard to research and motherhood is used to suggest Biss carefully considers inoculation’s benefits and threats. Biss notes that inoculation deniers are not entirely wrong about inoculation but she argues that their concerns are based on weak science. The evidence of history is that inoculation reduces the number of deaths and disabilities from illness; not without errors in manufacture and distribution, but with dramatic improvement in reduced mortality rates.
Biss infers those doctors who sit on the fence regarding inoculation (she mentions a famed pediatrician named Dr. Bob), do a disservice to the public. This synopsis of "On Immunity" is a candle light on Biss's book about inoculation. Read or listen to the book. It replaces candle light with sunshine.
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