Farenheit 451 Book Review

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this when a kid but upon reading it “again” I didn’t remember any of it which is ironic given the message of the importance of memory to the preservation of books that may one day disappear. In fact, those days are already upon us as evidenced by the attack from the anti-intellectual alt right that have created an alternate universe where fact is fiction, knowledge is suspect, and the arts are impractical. In the error of Trump, the U.S. finds itself “led” by a man who reportedly refuses to read anything that is not about himself.

In Fahrenheit 451, books are banned and people’s lives are consumed by idiotic TV broadcasts. While today, books compete with the Internet, social media, video streams, movies, video games, and televised sports.  Books have lost their luster in the digital age and are even feared.  There have been regular bans and ritual burning of books that are found by certain communities to be objectionable.

In Fahrenheit 451, an obsession with war and destruction culminates in near nuclear annihilation. People are so dumbed down that they have no idea what is going on. In today’s society, some 63 million prideful low information voters elected a failed businessman who does not like to read who once wondered why we have nuclear weapons if we can’t use them. We are living in dystopian times.

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Fear: Trump in the White House Review

Fear: Trump in the White HouseFear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what I was expecting but not this. I was struck by how it read like an episode from The West Wing full of chaos and drama. Woodward managed to inject order into the chaos and in doing so, painted Trump in a somewhat sympathetic light. His journalistic sense of neutrality is on display as he presented the first year and half of the Trump presidency as a series of huge moments where Trump’s “instincts” enabled by manipulative forces from Steve Bannon, to Peter Navarro and Fox News clashed with the views of key advisors, like the generals and Gary Cohn, who tried to be the adults in the room. Woodward takes us through defining events including the bungled response to the tragedy at Charlottesville, the Twitter wars with North Korea, the steel tariff, and Trumps pulling out of the Paris accords and trade agreements. At every decision point, Trump seems to look through a lens with three filters that revealed how he would look to supporters and the media, how much it would cost and what would the U.S. (or he) get in return. For example, he couldn’t understand why the U.S. couldn’t mine all the minerals in Afghanistan, or why the U.S. had to spend so much on NATO and the defense of South Korea. He couldn’t understand why we don’t just put the U.S. military out for hire. His instincts are to run the country like a Trump business to make money or enhance the brand. And to Trump, the brand should be about toughness and winning. Everything is winning or losing. He scoffs at the word globalism, a term he clearly learned from Steve Bannon.

Significant attention is paid to the carping between the president and his advisors and their battle for power and influence. The narrative is critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner who seem to have their own agenda and to have unlimited access to the president, undermining others. Some of the more incendiary bits revealed how Trump’s closest advisors viewed him. One of Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, called Trump (charitably) incapable of telling the truth. Secretary of State Tillerson called Trump a “moron”. Chief of Staff Kelly offered a variation on the theme calling Trump an “idiot” while National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn called him an “asshole”.

What becomes clear in the narrative is just how impulsive Trump can be (something I think we all have observed) but also just how easily he can be talked down from a bad idea. Increasingly, though, trying to put controls on Trump so that rational and ordered decisions could be made became so frustrating and impossible that many of the “adults in the room” left the administration. Now Trump has few guardrails in place to save him and the country from his bad instincts, one of the reasons he was impeached. To compound matters, he is surrounded by yes men and manipulators who have their own (very often bad) agendas – think Pompeo, Miller, Kushner, and Barr.

What Woodward did not explore were the origins of Trump’s bad ideas – that free trade and a free press are bad, and by extension that democracy is bad; that alliances and agreements are bad; that regulations are bad; that immigration is bad; and that protests against white supremacy are bad. Trump’s racism has been on display for years dating back to housing discrimination rulings against Trump properties, the Central Park 5, and Trump’s erroneous claim that Obama was not born in the United States and was an illegitimate president. Woodward does not explore the roles of Bannon and Miller in any detail or the influence of Fox “News” propaganda on Trump’s world view. And importantly, there isn’t much on the cozy relationship between Putin, Trump and the Republicans. Trump appears to support policies that favor Russia over the interest of the U.S. Why is that?

But the book is really more of a document of the Trump presidency up close and behind the scenes as experienced by the major players. It does not attempt to explain how or why Trump got elected, or to suggest that Trump is a bad president, though definitely one we should fear. Nor does he suggest Trump should be impeached and removed. That is left up the reader, including the meaning of the title, Fear: Trump in the White House. My own interpretation is that we should fear Trump more than ever now precisely because the guardrails are off and all the adults are gone or have flipped and become enablers (like Lindsay Graham) leaving the controls to an impulsive, unpredictable, failed businessman who has terrible instincts, undemocratic ideas, and no clue how to govern.

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The Plot to Destroy Democracy Review

The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the WestThe Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West by Malcolm W. Nance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want to know how the failed businessman and narcissistic con artist Donald J. Trump managed to become the president of the United States, read this book. To understand what he has done to erode our democratic institutions and norms, and who this benefits the most, read this book. Our collective knowledge of the consequences of the 2016 election could help prevent another kleptocracy from ever taking root again in the U.S. While Malcolm Nance’s writing in spots has a bureaucratic wonkiness to it, his arguments are clear, well-supported, and eye-opening. The Plot to Destroy Democracy is an important and timely work.

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Review of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta


Whitewashing Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the great works of American literature.  I guess I haven’t been paying much attention, but when I heard that the work had been banned in some school districts – left off the curriculum because of the repeated use of the word nigger, I was shocked.  Granted, seeing the N word in print would be shocking to a modern reader, taken out of the historical context in which the book was written.  To object simply based on the N word is to completely miss the point of this classic masterpiece.   Yes, the N word is derogatory – it was then and is now.  But it is a fact that people used the term in the antebellum South along the Mississippi. Twain captures the vernacular of the period making it an authentic archive of American history.   To remove the work from the high school or college cannon of literature based on a word is nothing short of a crime and reflects an out of control PC atmosphere or worse an ideological bias masquerading as PC.

For the record, Mark Twain was not a racist.  In fact, he was against slavery, supported the abolitionist movement and praised Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Jim, the runaway former slave in the novel, is depicted as an intelligent, resourceful and courageous man who values freedom, family and above all, friendship.  He is a true American hero.  People who call for the work to banned or sanitized have either not read it, read it and missed the point , or have a problem with its progressive ideology.  The other explanation could be that educators are afraid to discuss the complicated issues of race for fear that the N word would cause too much conflict, open up old wounds or result in a lawsuit from a parent who might object to their child reading the work.  Teachers may not know how to broach the topic, especially white teachers, who would, understandably, feel awkward saying or answering questions about it, especially in the presence of black students.  To those fearful school districts, public libraries and teachers, I have this to say  – CONTEXT and INTENT. If the historical context in which the work took place, the antebellum south, is ignored, the N word cannot be properly processed or understood.  And if the work is not taught as a comment on the injustice of slavery it would be nothing but a random collection of humorous adventure stories.

An Auburn University English professor will publish an updated version of the book replacing all the instances of the N word with the word slave.  This is absolutely preposterous. In a comedic sketch on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a commentator points out that slave is not much of an upgrade and inaccurately characterizes Jim who had already been freed.

I’ll take the Auburn University professor’s word that he wants nothing more than the work to be read by a wider audience.  However, to whitewash the work to make it more palatable for a modern reader is to cheapen Twain’s masterpiece, surrender to the PC police and would take us further down that slippery slope.

Common Words of Great Victorian Novels

In a NY Times article entitled Anaylzing Literature by Words and Numbers, two professors at George Mason University are mentioned for using digital search tools to do word analysis of great Victorian novels to see what this might reveal about Victorian society.  Personally, I think the professors are wasting their time with these search tools.  In just under 15 minutes, I scanned three great Victorian novels: Hard Times, Great Expectations and Vanity Fair and found these words to be the most common: carriage, horse, candle, shawl, gentlemen, brandy, beer, cigar, tobacco and mincemeat.  Ok, I only saw one reference to mincemeat, but I thought I’d throw it in since it is the holiday season.

So, what does this tell us about Victorian society?  Exactly what we already know – that they favored hankies and shawls, had no electricity, or cars and were fond of smokes and liquor.  Deep!

A Quick Review Of What I Read in 2009

Ok, these aren’t the deepest reviews, I admit, but if you just want an  impression of a particular book from a random stranger, and you appreciate brevity (because you could have Spark Noted it or gone to the Wiki) you came to the right place.

Candide – Voltaire.  Downright disturbing.  The illustrations in the edition I read magnify the creepiness.

The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov.  I think you need to be Russian to understand all the cultural references.  Closest comparison to something else I’ve read is the Gods, the Little Guys and the Police by Roberto Costantini.

The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police – Costantini.  If you like Greek mythology and magical realism and are interested in the period of the dirty wars in Argentina in the mid 70’s and early 80’s, pick up this little masterpiece.

Democracy Matters – Cornell West.  Because democracy matters – or at least it should, especially relevant now as our nation seems as divided as ever.

The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann.  A masterpiece.  I sipped this one sentence by sentence like a fine port wine and it took me about 4 months to complete.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume II, started in 2008, but I can only read one or two stories at a time.   I think I like Doyle’s writing style more than the adventures…or maybe I have ADHD.

The Civil War, A Narrative Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote.  I started the third in the series in 2008 and am only on page 390 with 670 to go.  I pick up this book every couple of weeks and try to read ten pages or so, but with all the battle strategy minutia, I tire quickly.  I keep plodding along because Foote occasionally pens a memorable line or sketches a fascinating  psychological profile of one of the principle figures.  It may take me another 2 years to complete the book, or 20.

A Must Read Bengali Novel: Pather Panchali

I’ve read books about Indian history, books set in India and a book on the life of Gandhi, all written by outsiders.  V.S. Naipaul’s India, a book I just completed, is a critical look at post-colonial India in the 70’s.  Naipaul, a Hindu born and raised in Trinidad traveled to India in 1975,  during a State of Emergency that would last for three years, to chronicle a country struggling with social and political unrest under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.  Naipaul writes of a crippling caste system which preserves and perpetuates poverty.  He gives an unflattering critique of the Hindu concept of dharma (truth to oneself) that he believes has prevented India from breaking the chains of colonial oppression and launching a cultural and technological renaissance.  While I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on the issue, I can say with some certainty that the India of today is not the country it once was in the 70’s and that Naipaul’s premise seems to have been proven wrong.

I’ve read E. M. Forster’s, A Passage to India and Kipling’s Kim, set in Lahore, then a part of India prior to Independence and the Partition of Punjab.   Both novels written by Englishmen capture a period of time in India during British colonial rule.

Until recently though, I had never read any authentic Indian literature.  Thanks to a friend who has traveled extensively in India with her family, I have just completed the Bengali novel she gave me upon return to the country,  Pather Panchali, Song of the Road by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The back cover describes it as a masterpiece.  And it is.  At the risk of diminishing its beauty, I have to compare it to the Sandra Cisneros’ classic, House on Mango Street or to the brilliant film, Cinema Paradiso.  The work is a loose collection of stories from the perspective of Opu and Durga, the children of a poor Brahmin family struggling to survive, plagued by poverty, mother nature and the cruelty of unsympathetic neighbors.  We experience rural village life in India through the two young siblings.  Though poor and relentlessly teased, Opu and Durga find joy and wonderment in everyday life.  Their adventures are as captivating as those found in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The book may not be in your local library, but it is available for purchase on-line and is a must read.  And if you can find a copy of the film based on the story directed by the famous Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, buy it, or Netflix it.  The film marked Ray’s debut in 1955 and it won a number of international awards including recognition at Cannes.  In addition to countless National Film Awards, Ray won an honorary Academy Award in 1992 and has made  several “Best Directors of All Time” lists.

Pather Panchali, Song of the Road.  Pick up a copy and you’ll soon be singing its praises, as you shed a few tears trekking through the rural Indian countryside with young Opu as your guide.  And if you are patient, you just might see a train or learn to fly.