Category Archives: Personal Library

Re-reading past book purchases.


Book Review
Personal Library
By Chet Yarbrough

A Golden Age
By Tahmima AnamA Golden Age


“A Golden Age” is Tahmima Anam’s first novel.  Ms. Anam was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.  Anam, though born after independence, writes of Bangladesh’s revolution.

Anam’s 2007 publication is the first of a planned trilogy. The trilogy is to reveal the trauma of independence and the struggle of Bangladesh before, during, and after the revolution; i.e., “A Golden Age” reflects on early days of battle with West Pakistan for Bangladesh’ independence.EAST AND WEST PAKISTAN (PRE-1971)

East Pakistan, before it became Bangladesh, seceded from India as a part of Pakistan in 1947.  However, the two halves of Pakistan were separated by the land mass of India.  Though both West and East Pakistan are united by Islamic religion, East Pakistan was a part of the Bengal nation, with its own tradition and language.  East Pakistan felt cheated by West Pakistan’s domination; West Pakistan denied equal partnership of East Pakistan in the fruits of foreign investment that created West Pakistan’s ruling military.PAKISTAN AND BANGLADESH (POST-1971)

East Pakistan sought independence from West Pakistan in 1971. West Pakistan invades East Pakistan and murders an estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 East Pakistanis. Rape was common during the conflict; rape became sexual reward to West Pakistani’ soldiers for platoon’ operations. This nine month war is backdrop to Anam’s novel.

Through the eyes of a widowed mother and her two adult children, Bangledesh’s fight for independence reveals the hardship of Bangladeshi’ life. It reflects on the morality of choices made by human beings when poverty or death threatens those who are loved.


Rehana Haque, the widowed mother, loses her husband to a heart attack before the war begins. With consequent poverty, from the loss of her husband and East Pakistan’s court system, Ms. Haque loses her children.  Her daughter and son are ordered sent to West Pakistan to live with a married brother that can afford to raise her children.

Ms. Haque is faced with abject poverty. She is near capitulating to an undesired marriage to provide enough wealth and security for the return of her children. However, through accident, the elderly suitor rejects Ms. Haque.  Ms. Haque, by accident–that becomes intent, steals from the rejecting suitor.  The theft offers Rehana the wealth she needs to get her children back and build a house in which they can live in East Pakistan.  The children are still young.  This is some years before the war for independence.


Rehana is riven with guilt for her theft.  It seems a hint of what is to come when civil war knocks at her door.  Her children grow to adulthood before war strikes.  Both children become revolutionaries.  Rehana becomes a reluctant revolutionary.  Rehana’s journey to self-understanding tells the story of Bangledesh’s independence and the impact revolution has on the moral integrity of presumably good people.

——————–CIVIL WAR IN UKRAINE———————-

Bangledesh’s story is familiar.  It is told in France’s revolution by Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities”.  It may be told again in Russia as Putin moves to quell Ukraine’ unrest in February of 2014.

Anam’s story makes one wonder what choices would be made by anyone in a revolution; e.g. choices of the French in 1789 and now, the Russians in 2014.  The beauty of “A Golden Age” is in its lyricism and thematic consistency.  The added benefit is information about a young South Asian country little known by most Americans.

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Book Review
Personal Library
By Chet Yarbrough

SASHENKASashenka (Published 2008)
By Simon Montefiore


After reading Simon Montefiore’s “Young Stalin”, more is expected than delivered by “Sashenka”.

“Young Stalin” is an interesting history of the infamous Russian leader as a young man.  It is written in the 2000s


(published 2007).  “Young Stalin” reveals a future U.S.S.R. leader as a little known, relatively uneducated, Georgian that manages to promote and stabilize, even magnify the power of Russian communism after 1917.  Stalin may have been a paranoid sociopath but his brutal genius is revelatory in Montefiore’s book about his early life.

In contrast, “Sashenka”, is less interesting because it deals with a fictional character that is a pawn in a much larger game.  Sashenka is a political activist prior to 1917.  She is a 16-year-old rebel of a wealthy Jewish family that has ties to early revolutionary party members.  Her father’s brother lures Sashenka into the communist party.  Sashenka is at a stage in life when rebelling against parents is a way of establishing independence.  The communist party’s allure is irresistible.  Sashenka becomes “Snow Fox”, a low-level communist agent that resents her father’s wealth and success in bourgeois, middle class Russia.

The revolution occurs and “Snow Fox” becomes one of Joseph Stalin’s personal secretaries.  The story then jumps twenty years.  Sashenka marries a Russian peasant.  Her husband is promoted in the communist party; he becomes a KGB’ investigator/torturer.  Sashenka naively ignores her husband’s job but skillfully manages her family’s safety during the great purge (1936-1939) of Stalin’s reign.  Sashenka’s willful ignorance of her husband’s role in government exposes an affair she has with a Russian writer.  The consequence is disaster.

Several life times elapse, and modern Russia looks back at the great purge. The mystery of exactly what happened to Sashenka and her family is investigated by a Russian history graduate hired by an orphaned woman who does not know who her parents were.

The mystery is mildly interesting but somewhat predictable.  The “best seller” aspect of Montefiore’s book is its glimpse of the mind-set of Russian government officials during the great purge, and later, their descendent’s mind-set and perspective in modern Russia.

The stealth, brutality, and secretiveness of KGB agents and bureaucrats during the 50s are repeats of what other historians have written.  But the surprise is that Russian’ bureaucracy continues to guard secrets of that time.  Secrets are guarded by archivists and truth is obscured by written words that mean something different from what they say.

Many people lost in Stalin’s paranoid investigations and kangaroo court convictions remain buried in dark libraries and secretive minds of those who understand “double speak” or know what really happened.  Years of life experience in Stalinist Russia pervades thinking of current leaders and bureaucrats.  A few are men and women that lived through that time.  Others are sons and daughters of leaders and bureaucrats of that time.

Secretiveness is a habit formed by life experience, inculcated by Stalinist’ Russian culture.  Historical truth is obscured by entrenched habit and obscure symbolic fragments of false accusations, confessions, and convictions.  After reading Montefiore’s story, one wonders how many generations it will take to overcome the effects of Stalinism.

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Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Infinite Jest

By David Foster WallaceInfinite Jest Narrated by Sean Pratt

“Infinite Jest” is an excruciating story of a closely examined life. Great credit is earned by the original publisher.  To complete “Infinite Jest’s” stream-of-consciousness journey is an arduous task.  It is too long. As one of Wallace’s characters says, I hear you but the explanation has “too many words”.


Though widely praised, “Infinite Jest” is disjointed in time and confused by fragmentation.  Using words of the past like
nigger and spic distorts Wallace’s dystopian picture and betrays his personal prejudice.  Wallace’s story comes together too late in its narrative.  It is a brilliant explanation of drugs and addiction but it smacks of the 1% world of the spoiled rich.

Every created character is a part of who David Foster Wallace is or wants to be.  Wallace’s self-absorption, destructive behavior, and vulnerability seep from every ink-stained page; from every enunciated sentence. His “Infinite Jest” becomes real and complete with his wasted suicide at age 46.

“Infinite Jest” is about addiction. “Infinite Jest” argues that modern civilization is jaded by plenty.  Movies, pornography, drugs, and other distracting entertainments are so plentiful that escape from trials of life becomes the purpose of life.  Human success is redefined.  Escape from conflict replaces drive for money, power, and prestige.  Obsessive/compulsive behavior focuses on immediate gratification.

Hal Incadenza’s father, named “Himself” in Wallace’s book, creates a movie that has the seductive and destructive characteristics of an addictive drug.  The movie becomes a secret weapon of destruction that stimulates the pleasure foci of the brain. The movie destroys human interest in anything other than its replay.  The jest is that pleasures, though ephemeral, are pursued without end and at any cost (including dismemberment and death).  The pleasures of a watched movie lead to self-destruction.

In real life, Wallace achieves fame and financial stability with his writing.  The jest is that his literary achievement is not enough to sustain his life because continued life demands work rather than Wallace’s chosen escape from reality.  He lives the life and dies the death of his characters in “Infinite Jest”.  “Inifinite Jest” is a tragedy played out in the real life of David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s main character, Hal Incandenza, is a self-destructive, world-class amateur tennis player in “Infinite Jest”. (Wallace was a competitive tennis player in real life.)  Himself, Hal’s overachieving and failed-athlete father, is a wildly successful inventor and optics expert. Hal has two brothers.  One is Mario, a middle son of the Incandenza family that reminds one of Dostoevsky’s main character in “The Idiot”.  The second is Hal’s older brother, a star punter for a professional football team.  Hal’s mother, “the Moms” is a familial anchor for a family torn apart by interpersonal confusion and misunderstanding.  All of the Incandenza characters are aspects of an examined life of David Foster Wallace.

Himself makes a movie entertainment with a beautiful young woman who is half his age. This young woman couples with Hal’s older brother, a professional football player, Orin.  The beautiful young woman is so beautiful that she bargains with Himself to offer her naked image in his film in return for Himself’s abandonment of drugs.  “The Moms” believes the young woman is sleeping with her husband but Wallace’s story suggests that is false.

Orin becomes estranged from the beautiful woman but the reason for the estrangement is ironically not “The Moms” false belief.  An irony of the bargain (aka the infinite jest) is that the beautiful young woman is a drug addict herself and Himself’s death may have been caused by awakening psychic pain that had been blunted by Himself’s use of addictive drugs. Himself chooses to commit suicide by sticking his head into a microwave.

Himself finds it easier to avoid rather than challenge the stresses of life.  Himself is a parody of Wallace’s life of addiction ; i.e. playing competitive tennis, writing a book, or making a movie is not as easy as hitting the re-play button for a movie, or snorting a line of cocaine, or sniffing a bong, or offing oneself.

Mario Incandenza, Hal’s younger brother, is a mentally challenged, strangely insightful, and angelic character that reflects altruism in life. It is an aspect of what David Foster Wallace wishes himself to be.  Competing, writing, and movie making require thinking, working, creating; with all its pains, disappointments, failures, and ephemeral successes.  As an addict, the experience of drugs, alcohol, sex, gaming, etc. are great pleasures in the beginning, faltering pleasures in the middle, and killers in the end. At least, it became so for David Foster Wallace.

No question,“Infinite Jest” is a brilliant piece of work.  However, it is David Foster Wallace’s “one percenter’s” view of life.  This is a sad, depressing story because Wallace trivialized his life by committing suicide. If society is addicted to entertainment then Wallace implies suicide is a harbinger of the future.  This is a myopic view of humanity but a true story of a closely examined life.

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Book Review
Personal Library
By Chet Yarbrough

The Lacuna (Published 2009)
By Barbara Kingsolver

If readers liked “The Poisonwood Bible”, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest work, “The Lacuna” is a complementary addition to her oeuvre. Rather than being transported to the Belgian Congo, Kingsolver takes the reader to Mexico in the early 1930s.  She introduces Mexico’s history, its artists, and the famous Russian communist, Leon Trotsky.  Kingsolver explores missing pages of life.


Like the missionary family in “The Poisonwood Bible”, the main character is repatriated to the United States with a scent and sense of the country left behind.  The story of Harrison William Shepard begins at age 13 in Mexico.  He is witness to and son of a Mexican mother that leaves her American husband, an American diplomat, to follow a Mexican oil merchant back to his home country.

Shepard is immersed in a dysfunctional Mexican family where his mother is the mistress of the oil merchant, otherwise known as “Mr. Produce the Cash”.  His mother changes lovers like she changes clothes but she provides a sense of identity for Shepard by indulging his interest in writing about life in notebooks that become the basis of Kingsolver’s fictional story.  His mother is killed in an automobile accident in Mexico while rushing to meet her new American lover at the airport.

DIEGO RIVERA (1886-1957, Prominant Mexican Painter of large frescoes.)

One begins to see and understand Shepard’s insecurity; i.e. his sexual awkwardness and confusion about human relationships.  Shepard becomes an observer, a note taker, an adaptive survivor.  Like its title, Shepard is lost in a gap or an unfilled space by a self-indulgent mother and absent father.  Shepard searches for stability by latching on to a cook that teaches him how to make a meal.  One learned skill leads to another and Shepard fills his unfilled life-space as a plaster maker for Diego Rivera, a renowned Mexican muralist.  Shepard becomes platonically attached to Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo (also an artist).

LEON TROTSKY (1879-1940)

Both Rivera and Kahlo are known Mexican’ communists; they become a family’ haven for Leon Trotsky when Lenin dies and Stalin takes control.  Trotsky is marked for death by the Stalinist regime.


Trotsky has a falling out with his Mexican fellow-travelers and asks Shepard to join him as his secretary in a separate domicile.  Shepard chooses to leave the Rivera household but maintains a close platonic relationship with Frida Kahlo.  Trotsky is assassinated.  The report of the assassination is distorted by the media.  Trotsky’s killing and anti-Stalinist beliefs are grossly misrepresented and misunderstood in the United States.  This distortion is a recurrent theme beginning with the book’s title and continuing through the life of Harrison William Shepard.

J. EDGAR HOOVER (1895-1972)

Kahlo offers Shepard a job to escape Mexico by returning to the United States as an Art Exhibition transporter.  Shepard escapes with his notebooks to settle in Asheville, N.C., Kingsolver’s cleverly chosen town; i.e. the town of famous author Thomas Wolfe.  The cleverness is that Wolfe is an ostracized writer in his own town just as Shepard becomes a marginalized and equally ostracized writer in America.  Shepard becomes a successful writer by drawing on his interest in Mexican history.  He creates two best sellers and then becomes ensnared in America’s paranoiac distortion of communist infiltration in American government. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the rise of Joseph McCarthy destroy Shepard’s peace.


Kingsolver is a cerebral literary artist.  She packs “The Lacuna” with a consistent theme of missing reality, missing pages of truth that resonate with history.  Stalin is a brutal fact of history; Trotsky is a man of missing pages. The “Red Scare” distorts reality by creating lacunae in people’s lives; i.e. empty spaces and missing parts that can be used by others to infer guilt by association.  Shepard is identified by a faceless American’ public as a communist because he lived in Mexico; he associated with Leon Trotsky; he had Mexican communist’ friends.


Every news editor that insists on dual source verification understands the meaning of “The Lacuna”.  Kingsolver’s story is personal and universal; i.e. Shepard asks; also needs, to be left alone, but he hungers for recognition of the person he is; i.e. a person without missing pages.  History and individual human lives are filled with missing pages; i.e. lacunae.  As the warning goes–“judge not that ye be not judged” (King James version of Matthew 7) because judgments always have missing pages.

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First Impressions Book Review

For BookBrowse

By Chet Yarbrough


The Headmaster’s Wager

By Vincent Lam

Vincent Lam, the son of parents and grandparents that lived in an expatriate Chinese community in Vietnam, is especially suited to write “The Headmaster’s Wager”.  Lam’s stories of a Chinese’ minority’s existence in Vietnam has bell ringing clarity and concrete believability in “The Headmaster’s Wager”.


Percival Chen, the principle character in Lam’s novel, is an entrepreneur that chooses to ignore political reality by following whatever political rules exist in the country in which he lives.

Percival lives and prospers as a hedonistic owner of an English language school during the American occupation of South Vietnam.  He teaches in his own school and schemes to become a preferred language school at the time when Americans endeavor to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. (How similar that sounds to America’s efforts in Iraq.)

Percival is also a problem gambler that risks everything for the thrill of winning.  The main character of Lam’s novel makes anyone that has gambled recognize the thrill of wagering all one has–to change one’s luck.  Percival copes with Vietnamese discrimination, Vietcong brutality, and American ineptitude to survive and prosper in his adopted county.

Percival’s son is kidnapped; Percival falls into debt to pay ransom for his son, sends his son to China to protect him from the American/South Vietnamese/Vietcong conflict, becomes disillusioned by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, trusts the untrustworthy, and falls into irredeemable love with a beautiful French/Vietnamese “slave”.

“The Headmaster’s Wager” is a journey of imagination, grounded by tales told to the author in his research of the Lam family’s fascinating history.  This is a nicely written book that will entertain casual readers, gamblers, male chauvinists, war critics, and Maoist China haters; “The Headmaster’s Wager” could rise to the top of the “New York Times” best seller list.  This is an entertaining piece of historical fiction.

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Book Review

By Chet Yarbrough

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Stieg Larrsson

This is it; the last of the trilogy.

Looking back, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” and “The Girl Who Played with Fire” never quite reach the taste and quality of the first book in the series.  “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a delicious meal without a plate, knife, napkin, and fork.  The second and third books are worth reading but the first book is the delectable meal; the “…Fire” and “…Nest” are place settings.  All are about Girl Power.

Stieg Larrsson uses this last book in the series to tie loose threads of Lisbeth Salander’s and Michal Blomkvist’s lives.


The second book offers more detail about who Lisbeth Salander is and why she is the way she is.  It would be difficult to stop reading after the second book because, at its end, Salander’s image as an invincible heroine seems shattered.  A reader wants Salander to continue solving unsolvable mysteries; a reader wants Salander to fight for women’s rights; a reader wants an extraordinary hero to continue acting-out for justice.   A hooked reader is compelled to read “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” because Stieg Larrsson created a character in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” that cannot be cowed by life or circumstance.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” begins where “The Girl Who Played with Fire” ends.  Salander is in the hospital.  She is under arrest for suspicion of murder and assault.  Two new villains, created in “The Girl Who Played with Fire”, are alive; one is on the run and the other is being treated in the same hospital as Salander.

A quibble one may have with “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is that it has a surplus of characters; too many to carry the thread of the story which is to vindicate Lisbeth Salander.  It is as though Larrson’s last book needs additional editing.

Stieg Larrsson died soon after submitting these three books for publication.  He never realized the fame that the creation of Lisbeth Salander engendered.  Lisbeth Salander will not be heard from again; hopefully, another character builder like Larrsson will come along to resurrect an equally fascinating heroine that can attack the ugly reality of male violence against women.  [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]

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By Thomas P. Campbell, Director

Distributed by Yale University Press 2012

 A couple of weeks ago, the “New York Times” wrote an article about a new edition of a Guide to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As mentioned in an earlier post, a future trip to New York would more closely review some of what was photographed at the museum by this peripatetic voyeur.  This new guide is a beginning of that closer look.

“THE GUIDE” is under $24, with excellent pictures of many of the museum art works and brief descriptions of their origin, size, provenance, and content.   “THE GUIDE” offers information missed when personal photographs are taken at the Museum.  It also provides a source for web search information that contextualizes art on display.


This marble Sarcophagus is titled “Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons”.  In Greek mythology, Dionysus is a god of chaos and, like seasons of a year with snow storms, floods, droughts, and unpredictability, Dionysus represents arbitrariness, giving and taking life by chance.  In Roman mythology, Dionysus becomes Bacchus, the communicator between the living and the dead.  The Sarcophagus is carved in the Late Imperial Roman period, between 260 and 270 A.D. which places it in the crises years of the Roman Empire.   It is generally classified as funerary art.  It is decorated with forty human and animal figures that depict the four seasons; i.e. from left to right—Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.


Joseph Pulitzer gave it to the museum in 1955.  Pulitzer, a newspaper publisher that died in 1911, is best known for posthumously creating the Pulitzer Prize. Pulitzer owned two newspapers (The Saint Louis Dispatch & The New York Herald) and became an elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 9th district.

The Farnese Table below is noted to have been made in 1569, donated by the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund in 1957.  It is believed to have been designed by an Italian architect, Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, for the Farnese Palace in Rome.  The fleurs-de-lis (lilies) are emblems of the Farnese family.




Cardinal Alessandro Farnese lived from 1520 to 1589.  He was the grandson of Pope Paul III and became a great collector and patron of the arts.  Presumably, his family either commissioned or purchased the table.  Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, employed by the Farnese family, had once tutored with Michelangelo.  The table is inlaid with various marbles and semiprecious stones surrounding Egyptian (some say Oriental) alabaster in the center.


Harris Brisbane Dick, deceased 1917, was the owner of a book publishing business, now defunct, called Dick & Fitzgerald.  At his death, Dick directed that $1,328,257 of his estate be set up to be used to buy ‘desirable objects of art’ for the MMofA.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide” will be periodically reviewed as a source document to explore the web-based history of what pictures are taken of exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; i.e. just for the love of art and its spectacular location in America’s brightness-lights City.  [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]

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