Weekend Book Report

Reader’s note:  I’ve promised myself to read at least one “real” (being made of paper) book a week; so far I’ve succeeded!  I purchase the books locally or check them out from my local library, and add these short reports at the end of the week to generate interest and give my assessment.  This website is a personal blog, volunteered and non-monetized, and accepts no advertising or donations.

For an archive of Weekend Book Reports, follow this link:  http://dennistownsend.org/weekend-book-report-archives/

Weekend Book Report (1/5/19):  Bob Woodward is a storied reporter and now associate editor for the Washington Post; his long-time connections and trusted sources inside the beltway have made him one of the most impactful journalists in contemporary U.S. media.  When he released “Fear – Trump In The White House”(Simon and Schuster, 2018) in the middle of last year, the field got a bit crowded in competing with books by Comey, Clapper, McCain and others (i.e., “Fire and Fury”).  I finally got around to reading my copy; it’s a bit dated since the merry-go-round at the White House has had other players come and go.  But this work cuts to the chase; Woodward puts together short vignettes in short chapters and puts the reader inside the White House with the impetuous, inattentive, petulant, backstabbing, angry and corrosive personality of Trump, (whose signature quote is “Power is fear”, which serves as a base for the title) as well as the predatory urges of acquiring power by his inner circle – Steve Bannon, Ivanka, Jared Kushner, and others, who take advantage of his deficiencies while others (mostly adults in the room) quit in frustration (Tillerson – “he’s a moron”), Dowd (Trump’s own attorney – “he’s a f*cking liar’) when essentially trying to get him to understand the irrationality of his actions – and even government itself.  It’s quite a riveting read; Woodward cites all of his sources in a lengthy appendix and thanks his many collaborators.  Along with the other corroborating books that have emerged about life in the White House, it will leave the reader wondering – how in the hell did we end up with this guy running our country?

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (12/29/18):   There is a lot of discussion about the disparities in the economics, cultural and class distinctions of various areas of the U.S.; this week’s read is a heartfelt memoir written by a woman raised in the back corners of Kansas that puts a personal, authentic, and well-thought touch on the issue.  “Heartland – A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” by Sarah Smarsh (Scribner – Simon and Schuster, 2018) is the author’s first book; the thread of the story is about Smarsh’s upbringing through an extended and chaotic family history, blended with the work ethic, often brutal working conditions and challenges of farming in the Great Plains.  The family events and characters can be hard to follow, but that may seem to be by design; a grandmother with five marriages, a gangster in the family that may have killed people, domestic violence, and alcohol abuse are all featured in a jumbled history, but Smarsh weaves the story with the political climate of the times with realism instead of caricature in “flyover country.”  She adds in examples on how the poor (often cash poor, even if property-rich) suffer as society, government and corporations lean against their progress, and how folks on each coast (and even her own family) have trouble relating or understanding their world.  In intriguing snippets throughout the book, she refers to “you” – speaking in the first person to a daughter that doesn’t exist – and to herself, looking back at that upbringing and outcome.   She “made it” – succeeding in her schooling, going to college and now enjoying a career as a respected journalist, writer, commentator and professor with degrees from Columbia and the University of Kansas.   Her ability to bridge the viewpoints between her upbringing and adult success makes this book work, without judging either harshly, and it certainly forces a look – whether you live in “flyover country” or not.  Conservatives will argue with it for it’s realism, for liberals, it will remove blind spots.  It’s a National Book Award finalist for 2018 and certainly worth the read.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (12/22/18):  The book leapt off the shelf at me from the “new non-fiction” section at the library; it seemed timely and relevant, even scholarly, in these partisan times.  “Impeachment – An American History” (Modern Library Publishing, 2018) was written by a quartet of presidential historians and scholars – Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker and Jeffrey A. Engel.    Each author had a task; to provide frame of reference, historical context on the  impeachment process and background on our country’s three attempts at it, starting with Andrew Johnson, then Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, with an obvious eye on the potential for the same fate befalling Donald Trump.  Engel begins with a scholarly chapter on the discussions the founding fathers had regarding the check on executive power and the mechanics of removal.  It was a delicate balance because of the immense popularity of George Washington, and the need to provide a basis on suppressing the ambitions of acquiring power by evil and unscrupulous people without inferring the first President would be one of them.  Meacham covers the story of Andrew Johnson, saved by one vote from removal, and addresses the backstory – that although Johnson was angry, resentful, petulant and incompetent – it was really party politics that was behind the effort, and explains the outcome without bogging down in minutiae.  Tim Naftali writes about the Nixon debacle and how much was brought on by the President himself; his narrative takes me back to watching the impeachment hearings on television and dives into the dynamics behind it, along with Nixon’s resignation, after finding himself “painted into a corner.”  Peter Baker discusses the Clinton history of sexual dalliances and initial coverups, and the movement that Republican partisans called “The Campaign”.  All three add to Engel’s conclusion in the final chapter with discussion of the election of Donald Trump, and talk among the populace about impeachment even before the inauguration – a point that he makes is premature and misguided until a thorough discussion involving the politics, ethics, criminality, competence and possible treason (“high crimes and misdemeanors”) are made – and that the equation changes over time.  It’s all the more reason to read this book and get grounded in what impeachment, an act that puts the country through the ringer – means, and being clear-eyed when the process begins.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (12/18/18):  Between the holidays (especially since Thanksgiving arrived early this year) and all of the other errands, my reading has slowed a bit; this week’s selection, “How to Speak Science” by French author Bruce Benamran (The Experiment Books, 2016) added a degree of cerebral depth (and reading time) to my literary endeavor.  Benamran, who obtained is masters degree in computer science at the University of Strasbourg, has written an interesting and entertaining “how-to” book on understanding many of the aspects of science – including matter, light, biology, electromagnetism, space and the solar system.  It may all seem overwhelming (and in a few parts, it is) but the author, through his French-to-English translator Stephanie Stroebel,  adds some fun tidbits, insights, and contemporary humor to keep the reader interested, and ultimately helps the reader to understand the concepts, history and the science behind them – all deftly avoiding the tedious math.  The chapters are manageable, and Benamran admits had can’t cover all of the material that would encompass the various disciplines, but it’s enough to keep the reader plugging along, and laughing along the way.  Hint:  it may be a good book for that emerging high school or college-entry student to pique or augment interest in the sciences.  An added bonus is the author’s YouTube channel, e-penser (known in English as “Get It”), which helps the average guy understand science.   (Search e-penser in Anglais or you’ll get the French version).  More of us should work on understanding science, in addition to the appreciation of it, but maybe to win some trivia games, make a bet for a round at the bar, or impress our friends and neighbors.   😀

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (12/1/18):  Among all the books recently published about a degraded environment, world crises, conflict, and corrupt governments, a book with an ominous title comes across as curiously optimistic.  “The Coming Population Crash and our Planet’s Surprising Future” by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston, 2010) takes a deep dive into the challenges and promise of how many humans reside on Earth, and how a myriad of contributing factors affect it.  Pearce starts out with a profile of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century philosopher and religious leader, who gives a bleak assessment of the human condition due to overpopulation, and works his way up from there.  Besides the usual causes – famine, war, disease – Pearce, a veteran environmental writer based in England, discusses and looks at human behavior, migration, contraception and technology as factors as well.  There are some definite downsides; climate change and resource depletion, especially by rich countries, are challenges; education, or the lack thereof, can inhibit societies and countries from progressing toward quality of life for their inhabitants.  But the author adds in the increasing yields of food production, transportation and the fact that more and more humans are having less and less children – a key point in his book – that will cause world populations to plateau by mid-century and actually decline.  He adds that migration, instead of being a fear-filled element of strangers moving across the globe, should be embraced; as most of those searching for a better life actually have the motivation (and the skills) to add to the human capital of the nations to where they travel.  It’s an interesting perspective, counter to the bleak perspective of so much of today’s headlines, and makes for an entertaining and intriguing, and easy, read.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (11/21/18):  With the short week before the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a pleasant, but somewhat heavy read with Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” (Bantam Books, 2018).  The renowned (but, as you read his work, somewhat humble) cosmologist worked on this book but with his passing last March, ended up being published as a posthumous tribute, with a touching afterword written by his daughter, Lucy.   Like his “A Brief History of Time” published prior, “Brief Answers” jumps right into the heavy stuff – “Is there a God?”  “Where did it all begin?”  as well as some practical astronomical matters:  “What is inside a black hole?”  “Is time travel possible?”  as well as worldly matters, like whether the human race survive itself.  It might seem deep, but in typical Hawking fashion, with a touch of humor and simple explanations (well, as simple as physics can get) this is a leisurely, easy-reading and rather short book, although you may have to read a sentence or two again to get the point.  Also weaved into the narrative is the amazing story of Hawking’s endurance with motor neuron disease that was supposed to claim him by the time he was 30, and his gratefulness that technology enabled him to communicate.  Even with his passing earlier this year at age 76, his story, philosophy and scientific study will endure, and be an indelible mark in the work of science.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.


Weekend Book Report (11/16/18):    Although I use my local library (and…confidential to my local friends – it appears our library levy is passing!) and independent bookstore liberally, occasionally my wife and I pick out a book or two from the book section when shopping at our local Costco.  They don’t exactly have a huge selection, and they seem to keep the left and right happy by stocking both wings of publications (even that wacko D’Souza crap).  When I saw “The Plot To Destroy Democracy – How Putin and His Spies are Dismantling the West” by Malcolm Nance (Hachette Books, 2018), I laid it among my bags of frozen blueberries and paper towels and took it home.  Nance is an intelligence analyst and consultant, a former U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer specializing in naval cryptology, and specialized in the activities of jihadi radicalization by ISIS and Al-Qaeda.  He appears frequently on NBC, MSNBC and runs his own intelligence consulting firm.  Nance changes his tack, though, and turns his attention to this comprehensive overview of Vladimir Putin, with his and other Russian efforts to destabilize the West – an endeavor that  has dated back to before the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Soviet era.   Russia has always spied and conducted covert activities; Nance’s point, that he repeatedly documents and spells out in the book, are that now, along with Putin’s desire to bring Russia as a dominant power on the world stage, are two new developments – the emergence of social media and the rise of a self-absorbed, narcissistic and manipulated (through debt) conservative, with racist and autocratic ideals, in Donald Trump.  This has enabled Putin to conduct the “perfect storm” of destabilization, where fractures and dissension among a nation’s own populace can be sown and manipulated, so the solidarity and stability of nations can crumble from within.   Nance says it has worked flawlessly (although note that the book was printed before the blue wave took over the U.S. House), and Russia has efficient institutions to carry it out.   Trump, at first, was his “useful idiot” and then graduated on to “an unwitting asset” to a “witting asset” to a “full brother” (all are stages used in espionage parlance).  He goes on to cite documented “deals” and  misadventures that Donald Trump and family have engaged in with Russia, ultimately  jeopardizing democracy and Western values.  The book is intriguing, and somewhat provocative but well-developed in detail (although an embarrassing series of duplicate paragraphs appear on two pages – where are the proofreaders?) and gives a shout out to Robert Mueller, who Nance says will ultimately expose the truth.  It should be read by those who have fallen into blind allegiance to Trump and worse yet, disdain or even harbor hate against fellow Americans who don’t.  According to Nance, that’s exactly Putin’s plan.

It’s available at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (11/5/18):  With the rain and dark-induced move back to standard time, it was time to get a hot cup of tea and dive into a second book in one weekend.  “Outnumbered – from Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles – the algorithms that control our lives” by David Sumpter (Bloomsbury Sigma, London, 2018) seemed both wonky and threatening, with the title implying that data geeks in a dark place are plotting to control our lives.  But the author, a London native who is now a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, dismissed much of the impressions of evil intent; he also adds that there is a long way to go in the use of algorithms (defined as an mathematical execution defined within a space and time to calculate a result) as well as artificial intelligence.  His chapters mix his personal experiences as well as professional expertise with interviews from data miners and software companies, so the reader can understand how they work, and dispels the fallacies and impressions of “boogeymen” (including the influence of Cambridge Analytica).  it may get a bit wonky for some, but the read will help the average computer user to understand why an ad may show up on their Facebook feed hours after they talked about it somewhere (no, they’re not listening through your smart phone).   There are many algorithms that have predictive qualities – some with amazing accuracy, and some with embarrassing resultsSumpter also adds that there are ways to defeat the algorithm tracking pattern, in case you’re paranoid, but his engaging style and information in this work will allow you to browse in relative comfort.

It’s at your local public library or independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (11/2/18):  My local library has a promotion of sorts; they feature newer and “first run” books that can be hard to find at the library and call it “Lucky Day” (featuring a shamrock sticker on the cover).  Although it wasn’t a book of really fresh ink, they had “A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies and Leadership” by former FBI director James Comey (Flatiron Books, 2018).  So I snapped it up, knowing it’s two-week, non-renewable term was part of the deal (and saved me about thirty bucks).  Comey starts with his childhood and chronicles his life, and how episodes along the path formed his values –  as a teenager getting face-to-face with an armed rapist / burglar that had broken into their home, being disdainful (and on the receiving end) of bullies, appreciative and mindful of fairness and forgiveness as shown by an early employer, losing an infant child to a treatable disease, and always feeling a combination of awkwardness and empowerment, growing from a gangly kid to a towering six-foot-seven as an adult.    He recollects his work as an U.S. attorney, prosecuting mob bosses and learning the “code” employed by organized crime syndicates, working in Manhattan during the duress of post 9-11, and then getting in deeper with the Clinton email investigation and his ultimate dismissal by the current president.  Comey uses a tactful and deliberative angle in describing his values, especially in the realm of ethical leadership, and along with his impressions and facts, weaves them together well in each case study he presents, including his own personal angst over his role in what was happening.   His enduring principle was retaining the public trust of his organization (the FBI), being the good guys with white hats, which soon collided with the Trump values of unwavering loyalty, abandonment of principles and the enrollment in “this thing of ours” (the creed of the Mafia that Comey compares with the Trump administration).  He ends the book there, but adds an epilogue about the rough times our country will go through with an amoral and unethical leader, but insists will emerge with a recognition – and eventual correction – of our malady with the trust and will and actions of the American people.  It’s a worthy read on the insights of one of our more notable U.S. public servants.

It’s available at your local public library or your local independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (10/27/18):  There were a host of new books at my local library this week (and – psst – if you live in Pierce County, make sure to support your local library levy on election day Nov. 6!), so I checked out a half dozen.  Some were duds and retreads, but this one –  “How To Be Less Stupid About Race” by Crystal M. Fleming (Beacon Press, Boston, 2018) stood out.  Fleming, an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and graduate of Wellesley and Harvard, makes an assertive and plausible case about how pervasive, endemic and historic racism is, especially in the United States and western civilization, but also elsewhere.  Her focus is in citing both economic and political institutions that have perpetuated white supremacy over the years, how racism endures, and how it’s socialization over time has caused it to seep into American consciousness – and points out how absurd certain sayings, comments and expressions reinforce it’s presence, even unwittingly.  It may be a wake up call for many, especially those who think gains in civil, economic and voting rights have put us behind racism.  The author answers that recognizing and answering racism is a large part a personal endeavor, but provides ten practical points at the end of her book in how you can help fight it.  But as in many issues, half the battle is recognizing there is one – and her book aggressively opens your eyes to it.

It’s available at your local public library (don’t forget to vote!) or your local independent book store.

Weekend Book Report (10/20/18):  After returning from a long-planned trip to Europe, it was time to return and get into some reading.  This week’s selection was a bit long, but interesting:  “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene (1998, Penguin Books) has recently had a resurgence in interest in light of the tactics utilized by the Trump administration – and in some regards, looks like a blueprint.  Although not the exclusive province of contemporary politics (and written well before the current political climate), Greene, a classical studies graduate from the University of Wisconsin, relies heavily on the stories and fables of the courtiers and masterminds of the Renaissance, Middle Ages and Chinese to demonstrate the laws of power and their exercise.  The presentation is fundamentally amoral, and don’t look for any compassion or empathy here -the exercise of power is wholly for the self and not the common good – but fundamentally necessary for those who may want to set boundaries, protect themselves, achieve goals or just screw their buddy. The work is a bit plodding, and it is long (over 440 pages), but each chapter is relatively short and manageable.  The laws often contradict each other, and the twist is that the author puts his introduction at the end, in the form of a somewhat insightful conclusion.  The book is a popular staple of prison inmates (really!) and celebrities.

It’s available at your independent book store or local public library.


Weekend Book Report (9/15/18):  An indulgence in a part-time retirement hobby (political cartooning) and a break from serious subjects was on the docket this week with the enjoyable read of “The Annotated Cartoons of Homer C. Davenport” by Gus Frederick (Liberal University Press, 2013).  Homer Davenport (1867-1912) was a native son of Silverton, Oregon; his mother died when Homer was 3 years old, but she saw that he had artistic talent, and one of her last wishes was to see that her young son received the schooling to develop it.  He became an accomplished illustrator in his own right, and Davenport soon landed a job at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, and soon found success with the New York Journal and later at the San Francisco Examiner, being recruited there by William Randolph Hearst.  His caricature and skewering of political figures raised the ire of the New York state legislature, who tried to outlaw his cartoons by requiring permission from the subject to be depicted before publication (the bill was summarily dismissed). The book, with nearly 100 cartoons, consists of alternating pages of text with an associated cartoon, and acts as a visit to the political history of the U.S. at the turn of the century during the McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt administrations.   Gus Frederick is a Silverton native and obvious study and fan of Davenport; conducting a talk about his life at the public library during “Homer Davenport Days”, Silverton’s town festival held in the cartoonist’s honor (along with a political cartoon contest).  It’s a fun, quick read, a good overview of history, and a case study in political cartooning, of which this writer is dabbling in.

You can purchase the book by contacting press.liberaluniversity.org.  (Liberal University was a college founded in Silverton in the 1890’s and operated for about seventeen years before folding; the name is kept alive by local townsfolk.)