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

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fear: Trump in the White House breaks absolutely zero new ground. Anybody who has been following the Trump trainwreck already knows everything they need to know about Donnie Small-Hands and then some (for instance, today's big news stories revolve around Stormy Daniels's allegations that Trump has a small mushroom-shaped dick, news that is also not very surprising in and of itself). Those who are part of the Resistance will find nothing fresh within these pages. Those who are Trump supporters will, of course, brush Bob Woodward's account off as little more than "fake news" and part of the on-going "witch hunt" within the media and the whole wide world at large.

Woodward's accounting, though, does lend further credibility to ousted White House staffers who have used their executive positions to pen their own tell-all novels, and further solidifies those stories published in legitimate mainstream press outlets (i.e. not Fox News). As half of the reporting team that took down Nixon, Woodward's reportage on the Trump administration is certainly welcome, as he is a credible voice, a reporter with a through-line of integrity that has been a member of the press for decades. His writing here gives us a fly-on-the-wall picture of life in Trump's Oval Office, quoting a number of administration officials such as Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Lt. General Michael Flynn, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis, Reince Preibus, and others. Woodward lets the words of these men tell the story, free of any colorful commentary or opinionated editorializing.

All of the principle players paint a strikingly similar portrait of Trump, and it's a familiar view, one that anybody who has been paying even the absolute most minimum amount of attention since the 2016 primaries would recognize. Trump is inarticulate, incurious, a compulsive liar, brash, addicted to Twitter, quick to anger, both wildly ignorant and profoundly stupid, unimaginative, and dead set in his ways. He's inflexible and unwilling to change his mind or opinions on anything, including his own deeply racist attitudes, as exhibited throughout his presidential campaign, again in the wake of the Charlottesville rioting, and yet again when discussing African nations, their inhabitants, and immigrants, as well as resolutely sexist. He has not a single shred of understanding of government, diplomacy, the military, or the economy. And, again, none of this news, nor is any of it surprising.

Because of the author's singular focus on the White House and its central players, Woodward forgoes any deeper examinations of Trump and his attitudes. Rather than an in-depth profile of the man who invented Birtherism conspiracy theories, we get the popular sketch version we see every day on the nightly news and live on Twitter. What we're told fits the common vernacular surrounding Trump, but there's never any attempt to dig deeper. Part of the sad thing (if one can ever manage to drum up anything resembling sympathy for such a rotten and disingenuous figure as Donald Trump), of course, is that any of Trump's own depth is merely skin-deep artifice. Simply put, there is nothing deeper to him. What you see is literally what you get. At the end of the day he's just another bitter, angry old man stuck in the past, sitting around watching Fox News and trying to convince everybody he's as great as he thinks he is, complaining about all the non-white men in the world. There's no question Trump thinks highly of himself, just as there's no question that his opinion is completely unfounded in fact. Facts, we know, are the one thing Trump hates perhaps more than anything, and his staffers routinely commiserate over how difficult it is to convince Trump of reality and how pointless it is for them to prepare daily briefings for him because he refuses to read anything .

So, is Fear worth reading? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure it is, particularly if you've already been following along since the oaf took his oath. It's a quick read, the writing breezy but plain, and Woodward certainly lives up to Christopher Hitchens's criticism of being little more than a stenographer to the stars. More than a year and a half into this national nightmare, Fear: Trump in the White House offers little in the way of actual news, and Trump's detractors will certainly find all of their worst suspicions and fears about the man confirmed. Trump's blind supporters, though, I suspect, aren't likely to ever bother reading this thing to begin with. The target audience, then, is simply the curious among us, those hoping to uncover revelations or maybe look back at the early days of this administration and chuckle knowingly to how things have played out since Jan. 2017. At one point, for instance, Trump is reported to have asked his staffers, responding to allegations in the Steele document, if he looks like a guy who needs prostitutes. I'm sure we all had our suspicions on that front, and, well, we definitively know the answer to that now, at least.

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Review: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris [Audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Whether or not you immediately recognize the name, Joseph Lister’s scientific crusade as a surgeon against infectious diseases has made him, quite literally, a household name. You may even have at least one of the antiseptic remedies his work helped to popularize in your bathroom medicine cabinet, in the form of Listerine mouthwash. Oral antiseptics are just one of the products made possible thanks to Lister’s rigorous studies, and modern medicine as a whole forever owes a large debt to this surgeon’s work.

Let’s take a step back to the Victoria era and imagine the conditions of your average hospital, as explored by Lindsey Fitzharris. The corridors reek of urine and feces, on top of the stench of rotting, infected wounds. You’ve broken your leg, a condition that will likely result in the amputation of that limb once infection sets in. Your surgeon is covered in the blood and guts of his previous patients, his surgical tools still clotted with the meat and gore from the last operation. There’s no morphine, no sterilization, and you’re wide awake, biting down on a stick of wood most likely, as your leg is quickly cut away, dirty hands working fast to tie off the veins and arteries before you bleed out. You survive the operation, but whether or not you live long enough to make it out of that diseased hospital and a bed that may not only be home to an infestation of bacteria, but fungus as well – that’s strictly left to chance. Maybe you’ll live, maybe you won’t.

Medically, we’ve come a long, long way since the operating theaters of Joseph Lister’s early career, and this is due in no small part to the accomplishments and perseverance of Lister himself. Obsessed with discovering ways to control inflammation of wounds, Lister began experimenting with various compounds and solutions to ensure his patients survived their operations. At a time when the majority of the medical community refused to accept the premise that microscopic organisms were infecting their patients, Lister embraced the idea of germ theory and began concocting ways to counteract the septic conditions that claimed so many lives.

Fitzharris takes us on a journey of Lister’s life and work, examining the various influences of the men and women surrounding the young Quaker who would forever change the art of medicine. Like Lister, Fitzharris isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and this particular narrative isn’t for the squeamish. While it’s not a consistently graphic and gore-filled work, Fitzharris pulls no punches in the book’s opening, where she graphically details the work, and the working conditions, of Victorian surgeons and life in that era. Other moments allow Fitzharris to display a keen wit, as in one particular anecdote about The Big Stink that might have listeners turning their nose up. Fans of Mary Roach’s Stiff should feel right at home with the topics and tone presented here, and even if The Butchering Art isn’t as consistently engaging as Roach’s earlier work it is still a compelling, highly interesting work in its own right.

British actor Ralph Lister delivers an engaging narration, and one that, to this American’s ears, made the story all that more immersive and authentic thanks to his accent. Lister displays a nice array of accents and voices as he briefly tackles the reading of correspondences to Joseph and news articles of the time, taking us from London, Edinburgh, and eventually the US. I did not hear any flaws in the production quality, and the narration itself is top-notch, making this another win for Audible Studios.

Lindsey Fitzharris presents a compelling account of a very important moment in medical history, providing just enough gory detail to keep me hooked. The next time I find myself in a clean, sanitary hospital stocked with a ready supply of painkillers, I’ll think twice before complaining and offer many a thank you to the spirit of Joseph Lister.

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Review: The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage by Jared Yates Sexton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Probably like a lot of his followers, Jared Yates Sexton first came to my attention during the 2016 campaign when he began live-tweeting the racist, fascistic rhetoric that would soon become the staple of Donald Trump's bid for the presidency. In his novel, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, Sexton recounts this bleak, and somehow still fresh, nightmare.

Unfortunately, since this is a non-fiction political work, we know well in advance that there can be no happy ending. We haven't, as a nation, been trapped in an achingly real case of night terrors, and Sexton reminds us of an all-too real reality that we have been grappling with for only a short while, albeit one that feels eons longer. Toward the end of this book, the author recalls a cell phone conversation he overheard while traveling to cover Trump's inauguration, in which the caller explains to his listener that he finally understands the meaning of dog year's. Yup, I'm right there with you, bud.

Sexton's writing is strong and on-point, the tone of this work inescapably dark -- and rightfully so. Trump's ascendency marks what is easily one of the darkest moments of modern America, as his supporters strongly and vocally rejected morality, rationality, and progress in favor of cultish mentalities, stupid t-shirts demanding "Hang That Bitch" or pining for the murder of journalists, and attacking protestors (oftentimes with Trump's own encouragement). Given how much evangelical support Mr. Grab 'Em By The Pussy enjoyed, it should come as no surprise that his supporters, having already rejected morality and rationality, were easily swayed to join the Trump cult and drink all the Kool-Aid. [Side note: I even had a cousin tell me that Hillary was offensive to Christians. Take that for whatever it's worth.] Trump, himself endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan [a self-described Christian organization] and Neo-Nazis, helped to embolden his racist followers who have been primed by more than a decade of fake news conspiracy broadcasts from Fox News, InfoWars, and Rush Limbaugh in what became the political equivalent of a perfect storm.

While hatred and racism carried the day, that's only half the story. Sexton lays bare the flaws and missteps of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and although there are many fingers to point in this direction, her shortcomings are in no way equal to those of her rival, who was able to spin the media in any direction he chose with his constant slurs, lies, and general outlandishness. The Clinton campaign, though, tired so hard to make Hillary into a malleable Every Candidate for Every Voter character, to its detriment. Her events were so flashy, organized, and scripted, right down supporters photographs with cardboard displays of HRC and tweets upon tweets, that Sexton takes to calling the whole manufactured political theatre Clinton World. Hillary's inability to reach out to the forgotten midwestern voters was perhaps the biggest flaw of her campaign, particularly given that Trump should have been so very easily beaten, as every poll and media projection indicated. Sexton even breaks down all the various way the Clinton campaign could have, and should have, attacked Trump in an effort to win over middle America, but chose not to. Hopefully somebody from the DNC is paying attention to this list and makes use of it for the 2020 war for the heart and soul of this nation.

That Trump didn't lose, again, was a perfect storm, one that reached across the entirety of this country and straight on through to the Kremlin. Sexton touches on this latter element, of which more news regarding Russian involvement to help elect Trump and subvert our elections breaks on a near-daily basis (and recently confirmed by Trump Jr.!), but the book is heavily focused on the campaign itself and is as current as the protests of Inauguration Day. But, for an administration so besieged by malfeasance, criminal activity, political espionage, foreign agents, the destabilization of an entire nation, and a record number of golf outings, with the GOP complicit in all of it, the first seven months of Trump's rule certainly provide plenty of material for a follow-up account.

The People Are Going To Rise takes on an almost apocalyptic tone right from the outset, but I certainly cannot fault Sexton for that. I, too, am still mourning for the loss of an America, and the people, I thought I knew, the people and the country who turned its back on the world in order to embrace a racist, conniving, serial sex predator because they were sick of having a Black man in office and couldn't stand the idea of having a female president. I can hardly recount all the times since November 7, 2016, the day after election day, that one of my fervent Trump supporting relatives told me, "Hey, we had to put up with Obama for eight years, you can put up with Trump," as if the two men were somehow equal in intelligence and temperament while their Dear Leader fired off tweet after tweet attacking private citizens, private businesses, destabilizing stock markets in his favor, makes fist loads of cash by booking government engagements at his personal businesses, and commits treason like it's going out of style. And like Sexton, I grew up in a middle-class, midwestern home, with family constantly being indoctrinated by right-wing media, soaking up their hellish visions of this country like a sponge, until, one day, they elected to make that alternate reality the norm, embracing The End of the World As We Know It with arms wide open.

This book a dark, accurate take on a very dark subject. And what are we to do about it? as one college student asks Sexton. His reply: We fight.

We fight.

We resist.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss.]

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Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach [audiobook]

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
$17.95 $17.95
By Mary Roach
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've heard a lot about Mary Roach over the last several years, but hadn't read (or in this case, listened to) her prior works. Since I have resolved to read or listen to more non-fiction titles over the course of 2017, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers seemed like the perfect place to start, and a prime opportunity to finally check out Roach's work.

Stiff may cover material that could be considered morbid by some (appropriately, I suppose), but Roach injects a fair amount of wit into the proceedings. Donating your corpse to science is certainly a noble deed, but you should probably strike out any thoughts of your being key to cancer's cure. The unlife of a cadaver is certainly not glamorous, despite its necessity for science and study.

It hadn't occurred to me that cadavers would be put through so many paces upon a person's expiration, so Stiff presents an eye-opening view of what happens to all those bodies donated to science. While there are plenty of uses for cadavers in medical research (how do you think doctors get so good at performing face lifts?), the auto industry also has a keen interest in determining the safety of their automobiles and how human bodies will be impacted by collisions and car accidents. Forensic research is a must, and fresh bodies make their way to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Body Farm where forensic anthropologists can study decay rates in a variety of settings (buried, exposed, stuffed into car trunks) helpful in crime scenes. And, of course, somebody has to learn, first-hand, how to sew an anus shut so a corpse's fluids don't leak out during a funeral viewing.

Roach relies heavily on field investigation and interviews directly with her sources, in addition to a bevvy of research. The history of obtaining cadavers is a grisly and sordid affair, and Roach covers it all, from body snatching to guillotines and donations, either by law or decree of consent.

There's a lot of information throughout, but it's never dry or boring. Roach is a very engaging and forthright science writer who does not get bogged down in minutiae or lingo, and makes the work entirely accessible to anybody keen on the topic. Shelly's Fraiser's narration further serves the book's accessibility, and she capture's Roach's dry wit quite well. On the production-end, I did note a small hiccup in which the last two minutes of material are repeated after the publisher's final sound-clip (followed by another, different sound clip for advertising another one of Roach's titles).

After reading Stiff, I can certainly understand the popularity Roach's books engender and I'm now planning on listening to several more of her titles over the coming months.

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