Review of “Fear: Trump in the White House” by Bob Woodward

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Bob Woodward’s newest book, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse quotes John Kelly, Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff, describing the atmosphere in the current Whitehouse as “Crazytown,” adding that his own position was “the worst job I ever had.” The book portrays Trump, as succinctly summarized by one reviewer, “as an impulsive, uninformed, tempestuous, narcissistic bully, who alternately torments his beleaguered staff with abuse and is in turn manipulated and deceived by them. In short, nothing we didn’t already know.”

What can I add to my review of one of the most reviewed non-fiction books in the last decade? Not much. However, the book contains a few observations and revelations that have not been emphasized in the reviews I have seen or heard thus far.

Woodward tries to maintain a tone of detached objectivity, presenting his sources’ points of view without commentary. For example, his description of the arguments raised by John Dowd, Trump’s personal lawyer, gives the reader cause to think that there may not be much of a case of collusion with Russia. But it is clear from other sources besides Woodward that Dowd was not given a full account of key facts about Trump’s campaign and his businesses. As “The New York Times” wrote, Dowd “took Mr. Trump at his word that he had done nothing wrong and never conducted a full internal investigation to determine the president’s true legal exposure.” Dowd’s conviction that Trump would lie under oath had nothing to do with Trump’s possible guilt but more to do with the general understanding that Trump is a pathological liar incapable of sticking to a story, at least, not one with more than a few words. Thus Woodward adds little about Russia, since he is only passing on what others have told him.

Woodward’s own perception of reality occasionally does intrude, as when he describes the internecine struggles over tariffs and balance of payments deficits. There he clearly believes that Gary Cohn and the “globalists” had a better grasp of economic policy than Peter Navarro, Trump, and the economic nationalists.

In another “intrusion” into the story by Woodward, he says he thought the FBI mishandled the disclosure to Trump of the notorious Steele dossier. The FBI knew that with Trump’s defensiveness and volatile temperament he would be upset. Woodward suggests that they should have given the dossier to the White House Counsel to finesse its handling with Trump.

For the most part, Woodward lets the principals do the talking and the analysis. Here is what the people hired by Trump think of him:

moron: Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson
idiot: Chief of Staff, John Kelly
5th or 6th grader understanding: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis
fucking liar: personal lawyer, John Dowd

Woodward doesn’t comment on the credibility of his sources or the purity of their motives. But some of them, especially those no longer in the administration, clearly want to rehabilitate their reputations that were sullied either by Trump directly, or more indirectly, just by having served in his administration. Gary Cohn, for example, was likely one of Woodward’s sources, according to many insiders. He is portrayed as somewhat of a hero, undoubtedly by virtue of his own reporting to Woodward. But the story Woodward tells is open to another interpretation. After Trump’s defense of “both sides” at the neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, Cohn attempted to quit. Trump accused Cohn of “treason.” Woodward reported: “It was chilling.” Yet, Cohn stayed on in spite of his alleged moral outrage, so that he could help push through the massive corporate-tax cuts from which Cohn would benefit along with the other monied moguls in the Trump Administration. Woodward writes that Cohn declared he was staying out of a desire to help the country. Readers might conclude otherwise.

Woodward makes Dowd’s evaluation of Trump the final sentence of the book. As alluded to above, in Dowd’s analysis, any forum in which Trump would be required to testify under oath, no matter what the subject at hand, would constitute a “perjury trap” because Trump is fundamentally incapable of telling the truth.

And yet, I found that the most damaging description of Trump came from Steve Bannon, his erstwhile apologist:

“He’s the bad father, the terrible first husband, the boyfriend that fucked you over and wasted all those years, and [you] gave up your youth for, and then dumped you. And the terrible boss that grabbed you by the pussy all the time and demeaned you.”

…And there’s more. But this review has already gone on too long. So I invite the reader to enter the “Crazytown” that is the Trump White House by reading it yourself. (It should be noted however that Fear covers only the first 14 months or so of the Trump presidency. A later “update” will undoubtedly have more revelations, given the tendency of Trump’s associates to “flip” on him rather than spend years in prison.)

Most importantly, this book should be required reading for anyone eligible to vote.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “First Garden: The White House Garden and How It Grew” by Robbin Gourley

This lovely book provides a brief history of the White House and what has taken place throughout history on its lawns and in its gardens. For example, Jefferson grazed cattle on the South Lawn. Almost 200 years later, Amy Carter, daughter of Jimmy Carter, had slumber parties in her tree house on the South Lawn. In between, Woodrow Wilson grazed sheep on the lawn.

More than one first family has set up a garden on the White House grounds. This book focuses on the garden started by Michelle Obama in 2009. The author explains:

“As First Lady and as a mom, Mrs. Obama was concerned about the health of the American people. She believed we should think about what we eat and where our food comes from. And she wanted her family – all families – to become healthier by eating more vegetables and fruits and by eating meals together at the table.”

The author goes into detail about how Mrs. Obama set about putting in the garden with the help of fifth-grade students from a local elementary school. Some of the seeds came from plants first grown by Jefferson in his garden in Monticello. A beekeeper also installed a beehive nearby to provide a home for bees to pollinate the plants and make honey for the White House.

The author reports that it took only six weeks for the First Garden to start producing food ready to be harvested. Soon both salads and desserts were being made with fresh ingredients from the White House garden. Other produce from the garden went to Miriam’s Kitchen, a D.C. organization that helps to feed the homeless.

The author ends with a list of “Good Reasons to Garden” and a number of kid-friendly recipes that were distributed by the White House for dishes made from fresh fruits and vegetables. A list of further resources (including websites) is appended.

The author, who has written two cookbooks, is also the illustrator. She has created lovely watercolors that contrast the different green shades in the garden with the rich colors of vegetables.

Evaluation: Although a new presidential administration has replaced the Obamas in the White House, this book still has much to offer. It will educate young readers, who may be surprised that presidents and first ladies have grown their own food! As a latent benefit, it will teach children that bees are more than just insects to run away from. And it may also inspire them to start their own gardens.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Dead Man Running” by Steve Hamilton

The serial killer in this thriller is both brilliant and totally wacko, and obsessed with Alex McKnight, a retired police officer who was featured in some of Hamilton’s earlier books. After the killer’s latest gruesome attack in Arizona, he allows himself to be caught, and insists he will only talk to Alex.

The FBI brings Alex from Paradise, Michigan to Scottsdale, Arizona, even though Alex insists he has no idea who this man is.

The killer, Martin Livermore, is a robotics engineer, so can come up with all sorts of clever ways to abuse his victims. And after he is caught the FBI is able to use his DNA to tie him to all the women tortured and killed in similar ways in a number of states in the west. But what ties him to Alex?

Evaluation: The pace and tension will keep you riveted, but I am hoping the story isn’t realistic. (Ha ha, at every author’s panel I’ve attended, crime authors say they get the same comments, and reveal that in fact, they get their ideas from the news. Frightening!)

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Review of “Grace: A Novel” by Paul Lynch

This dark yet lyrically beautiful novel begins during the Great Famine in Ireland, a period of mass starvation and disease between 1845 and 1849. The London government was unwilling to provide relief for the Irish, in spite of the great stores of food being produced in Ireland by Protestant landowners and designated for export only. During the famine, approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.

Grace Coyle is 14 when we first meet her. Her mother cuts off her hair, fits her in men’s clothing, and banishes her from the house: “You must find work and work like a man.” And so she becomes “Tim Coyle” for as long as her body will allow her to get away with it. Her 12-year-old brother Colly runs after her, and remains a constant presence throughout the story. Grace, subjected to extreme hunger; mugging; the ever-present threat of rape; and the Scylla and Charybdis of superstition and faith, somehow manages to carry on, but just barely. She occasionally picks up other companions besides Colly, and they work together to do what it takes to survive.

Grace thinks often about the meaning of life, and wonders if what she is doing amounts to living or whether it is even worth it. When alone she thinks:

“So this is what freedom is. Freedom is when you are free to disappear off the earth without anybody knowing. Freedom is your soul in the emptiness of night. . . . Daylight tricks you into thinking what you see is the truth, lets you go through life thinking you know everything. But the truth is we are sleepwalkers. We walk through night that is chaos and dark and forever keeps its truth to itself.”

Later she allows:

” . . . . you think you make your own choices in life but we are nothing but blind wanderers, moving from moment to moment, our blindness forever new to us.”

On her journey, she has seen too much that she can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand. Indeed, it is difficult to tell at times if some of the characters she encounters are alive or dead.

She eventually concludes that “the truths that men hold solemn, their beliefs and their doctrines and their certitudes” are “but smoke on the wind.” She doesn’t need to know if what she sees is what really is, if things “come from me or they belong to the sky and hills . . .” There is only the here and now.

Discussion: There isn’t much to the story besides the horrific portrait of a nation suffering oppression, impoverishment, and degradation, personified in Grace. Even understanding the historical background of what has happened is mostly up to the reader. Only at one point does one of the characters lecture Grace:

“Don’t you see what is going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-to-doers who don’t give a fuck what happens to the ordinary people . . . The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want you to believe in. It is hope that carries you along. Keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend on others. And so I will make my own luck. . . .The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.”

But as bleak as this story is, it is also both a poem and a paean to the people of Ireland, who persevered under the worst circumstances. The language is sometimes dream-like, sometimes Joycean, and often quite beautifully crafted.

In the cities, Grace walks “with a wanty hand held out.” In the country she observes “a sky of old cloth and the sun stained upon it.” In the winter they go “silently onto the street, their breaths bold before them and feathered in the moon-blue cold where the river sends up sound of itself.” Later, “the mountains greet them with mist. It seeps and clings, hangs mystery over everything.”

There are two epigraphs the author might have used for this book.

Ecclesiastes 44:9: “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.”

And the ending of “The Dead” in Dubliners by James Joyce:

“…he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Evaluation: This narrative involving the horrible trials of Ireland during the famine adds emotional heft through the “eye-witness” account of a young girl and all she encounters, creating a powerful impact. As the late author, musician, and University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Julius Lester wrote:

“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”

Lynch helps mitigate the pain a bit with his sometimes glorious language that is in startling juxtaposition to, and helps soften the focus of, the monstrousness of what happened to the Irish. In addition, the snarky humor of Grace and the offbeat discussions of the characters provide balance to the heaviness of the weight of events that threatened to beat the people down with despair and destroy their will to live.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Phone Call With A Fish” by Silvia Vecchini

This is a charming story about a little boy who won’t talk in school, and a little girl who tries to draw him out of his shell. She herself loves to talk. She says: “Talking is like breathing.”

From the original Italian edition

Some kids bully the boy, but this girl doesn’t abandon her efforts to befriend him; she thinks he is missing out on a whole realm of life that brings enjoyment. One day when their class visits a science museum, she sees an aquarium with a telephone inside, and brings the boy, still wordless, over to listen. Later, she got a phone call from the boy. “Hi, it’s me,” she hears, to her astonishment.

From the original Italian edition

The illustrations are by Sualzo, which is the name used by the artist Antonio Vincenti, and who is married to the author. His color palette reflects the aquarium theme, and the figures, which are cartoon like, are perfect for the intended age range for this book (4 to 8 years old).

Evaluation: This book will encourage children to reach out to others; who knows where one might find new friends? Most of the story is told through the cute, quirky pictures, which will make it easier for early readers.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2018

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