Book Recommendations – Volume IX

What better way to enjoy the Winter season than by enjoying a few good books by the fireplace or in a coffeeshop. Whether its’ fiction or non-fiction, being able to sit down and read for an hour each day is one of the best activities one can do during those cold, winter months. The three books I have recommended cover very different themes and topics but each of them is worthwhile reads especially if you are into non-fiction. From Candice Millard’s vivid storytelling of President Theodore Roosevelt’s perilous journey to the Amazon, James Clear’s atomic habits to build a better life, and author Chris Hedges’ look into the dark underbelly of American society, each book is one that I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone depending upon what kind of non-fiction they are looking to dive into.

1.) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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In our current era where past Presidents settle into retirement by creating foundations, writing memoirs, and going on paid speaking tour circuits, it can be difficult to recall that there was a time when the American president would not stay still but rather seek out new adventures. President Theodore Roosevelt was just such a former President when he embarked on a perilous and physically strenuous journey down the Rio Duvida (River of Doubt) in the heart of the Amazon. In the aftermath of his election defeat in 1912, the former President did not stand idly by and settle into a quiet retirement from politics. Instead, he did what he did best and ended up taking upon himself an adventure that no other modern President would think of doing nowadays.

Still in the early days of the 20th century, it was still the age of exploration as explorers from the Western world would go to the lesser known parts of the world to make their mark on mapping areas and landmarks that had not been discovered yet. From Antarctica to the Himalayas to the Amazon, men like President Roosevelt were drawn to both the adventure and the notoriety but also to discover the flora, fauna, and newly discovered animal species, which had never encountered humanity before. This expedition’s success relied upon the men whom Roosevelt and his Brazilian counterpart, Colonel Candido Rondon, would bring on to make sure it was successful in its mission of mapping the extent of the mysterious Rio Duvida. Because of the courage, hard work, and perseverance that men including the former President’s son, Kermit, displayed, they were able to get through a series of trials and tribulations that would have broken lesser men.

Over the six-month period of 1913-1914 when the 19 Brazilian and American men descended the River of Doubt, they were faced with multiple challenges including diseases like malaria, perilous weather conditions, intense rapids, and murder among their ranks. President Roosevelt dealt with near misses to his life including a close encounter with a venomous snake as well as a ghastly injury suffered when trying to retrieve a loose canoe that caused a serious gash injury to his leg. The President flirted with thoughts of suicide after his injury and infection leading his son and counterparts to decide whether they should honor his wishes or to carry him the rest of the way’s journey. Because of their pledge to not leave any man behind including the President of the United States, Kermit and others pushed through the physical obstacles ahead of them to arrive at the successful end to their journey through perseverance and the belief in their mission to map the entire river.

Brilliantly told and remarkably intense in its description as a fast-paced tale of adventure, Millard’s ‘River of Doubt’ is an excellent book that details a harrowing journey of the 26th President, his son, the Brazilian colonel Rondon, and his courageous men. It is hard to believe that there was a time when an American president would go on a journey like this one well into his 50’s but that was the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was. Because of his courage and his perseverance, the Rio Duvida was renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. This story reminds us of what it takes to push past our mental and physical limits and why we remember these tales to understand what true bravery looks like and how Presidents should act in the face of a great challenge.

2.) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

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‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear is an excellent book on how to re-think our habits and our reliance on them based on our awareness of how they come to be, how they are implemented, and how to change or remove them based on their overall utility. As Mr. Clear explains, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” We can only develop ourselves based on the habits we have on a daily basis. In order to change them effectively, small changes that lead to incremental improvements are what we should be aiming for. It’s not advantageous to change our systems of living overnight but rather to slightly shift our habits each day and start to see progress over a longer period of time.

One example is going to the gym for the first time. You may not stay for very long but if you are there for five to ten minutes and get through the initial hurdle of showing up, you can feel better about the progress you have made. Over time, you should start to feel more comfortable and attuned to going to the gym as well as staying longer once you get used to the new routine. I found James’s four-step process to breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit to be very persuasive in its argument. The ‘cue, craving, response, reward’ system is laid out in greater detail in his book but I believe that it’s an effective tool for developing better habits and eliminating bad ones.

Also, keeping track of both your bad habits and good habits will help you measure if you are making progress with either by understanding what habits you have on a daily or weekly basis. In order to better change our habits, we firstly have to be aware of them and classify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their utility to our lives. For example, if you don’t floss your teeth, perhaps you have to make it attractive by highlighting the benefits associated with the action, putting the floss in a visible place on your bathroom counter so it’s visible, and then make it easy by not using mouth wash without flossing first to develop the system.

Mr. Clear’s book is easy to read, the system he advocates for is immensely appealing, and the four-step process is clear in its methodology. You cannot change your habits without doing it yourself but ‘Atomic Habits’ successfully gives its readers a vision of how you can do so while not making it overly complicated. The system is easy to follow and he incorporates outside materials like the ‘habit tracker’ to make it easy to start changing them while reading his book.

3.) America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges

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Beyond the stock market, the unemployment rate, and even the gross domestic product, notable author and journalist Chris Hedges writes eloquently and profoundly about the state of America in 2019. He does this through excellent on-the-ground reporting from Anderson, Indiana to Atlantic City, New Jersey in an effort to understand how while Americans at the top of wealth and power are doing well, the rest of us are struggling to get by in this new gilded age of income inequality. Hedges pulls no punches regarding the societal ills that have been wrought due to political dysfunction and record income inequality in America by describing in great detail the effects of the opioid crisis, the recent rise of hate groups, increased reliance on gambling, pornography, and sadism to escape reality.

Our ability to combat these negative societal trends is nullified when communities are weak and the bonds that religion, union membership, and rotary groups provided have been cast to the side. In an age of increased atomization and loneliness, Hedges argues that the average person will not be able to build a better future for themselves or their families if they have no ways of accessing economic opportunities or through having deeper social connections.

This book is a true warning sign that time is running out and that we must start paying attention to the swirling negative political and economic trends going on because it is likely that the next generation in America will be worse off if serious changes are not made. By failing to combat income inequality, climate change, gun violence, the opioid crisis, and failing infrastructure, faith in both the economic and political system will continue to decline. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, that prosperity is not going to spread around or ‘trickle down.’

While it may be a dark and disturbing book to some, Mr. Hedges is a student of history and is eloquent in describing what are the warning signs or symptoms when a society is on the verge of decline or overall collapse. From the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, the warning signs were there in the forms of inept political leadership and an unholy concentration of wealth. Mr. Hedges warns that we are on the same path to potential ruin and that the societal hollowing out relating to increased suicides, the fall in overall life expectancy, and the epidemic of gun violence are the sad consequences of how we are failing the average American citizen in 2019.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the sheer effort that went into meeting with people across the country to get a sense of how difficult things are and what challenges they are facing. Mr. Hedges should be commended with focusing on the real issues that confront us as Americans and being a truth-teller when it is not always popular to do so. My hope after reading this dire book is that we are able to make the necessary changes and confront these systemic challenges before it’s too late.

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‘Revolutionary Road’ – Film Review and Analysis

The epic saga of Jack and Rose continues in the form of two young, suburbanite lovebirds in Connecticut who discover that married life may not be what they thought it would be. If anyone has seen the movie ‘Titanic’, you’ll notice that ‘Revolutionary Road’ features the same actors, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio as romantically involved but not as star-crossed lovers but rather as a newly married couple. While this is a totally different film and in a different time period, part of what makes ‘Revolutionary Road’ a great and memorable film is the acting by DiCaprio and Winslet.

Once again, they are the leading roles in a movie where the acting can make or break the film. Similar to their previous movie together in ‘Titanic’, ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a character-driven film with intense emotional moments and a message that stays with you deeply after the final credits roll. Michael Shannon, a very well-renowned actor almost steals the show from Leonardo and Kate as John Giving, the brilliant yet disturbed son of the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Giving’s. Helen Giving (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband help the Wheelers to buy their home at 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

‘Revolutionary Road’, released in 2008, was directed by Sam Mendes who has also directed other classic American movies including ‘Road to Perdition’ and ‘American Beauty.’ Mendes is a talented director who does an excellent job finding the right actors to fit the character-driven roles that they have to sell to the audience. In a way, ‘Revolutionary Road’ seems like a period piece precursor to the movie, ‘American Beauty’ in terms of its’ suburban setting and overall themes of dissatisfaction of life and a yearning for change.

Similar to his other movies, Mendes enlists Thomas Newman, my favorite movie composer to conduct the powerful and moving score to the film. The cinematography also draws you in especially in the penultimate moments where you see Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) running frantically out of remorse down Revolutionary Road after the climax of the movie. The movie’s title doesn’t give the audience too much detail on what it could be about or what the film focuses on. It is enough however to peak your curiosity especially with the two leading actors involved and the film does not disappoint in this aspect. Awarded with both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, ‘Revolutionary Road’ was a critical success even though it didn’t really light up the box office when it was released.

Unbeknownst to most, the film ‘Revolutionary Road’ was based off of the novel by Richard Yates of the same name. While the book was released in 1961, Yates wrote it as a referendum on the conformity of the 1950’s and how families across America were settling down in suburbs that were safe and secure yet did not leave much to the imagination. It’s a great work of fiction and the movie ‘Revolutionary Road’ sticks to the material quite well.

Like most couples of that age, Frank and April Wheeler meet at a friend’s party in 1948. Frank is a longshoreman and a former soldier during World War II while April is an aspiring actress when they first get to know each other. Frank’s father worked for 20 years for a sales company known as Knox Machines and sees himself in the same position unless he can think of something else. Frank is someone who is bored by the monotony of his work and desires to do something bigger with his life. Ironically, the less he cares about his sales job, the more the bosses like what he’s been doing. Frank falls in love with April and they marry each other.

The courtship and how well they actually knew each other before marrying is not covered in the film but it’s clear that they were both young when they married. The audience is left to infer that they really didn’t know each other all that well and what they expected out of their lives. After they get married, it is mentioned that April is pregnant with the couples’ first child. Because of the cheapness of land and the need for more space like many other American couples in the 1950’s, the Wheelers move to 115 Revolutionary Road in suburban Connecticut.

When April and Frank move in to Revolutionary Road, they are first welcomed by the realtor, Helen Givings (played by Kathy Bates) and her husband Howard Givings. The new couple is deemed to be perfect for this idyllic suburban town by the Givings even though their son, John (Michael Shannon), is unhappy with the way the Wheelers are living to each other. Lacking an understanding of normal social cues, John rants about the ‘hopeless emptiness’ of suburban living and questions the soundness of their marriage in front of them.

While the audience can see John Givings as initially crazy, as the film goes on, he actually starts to make the most sense out of anyone in the film. To The Wheelers, their other neighbors, the Campbells, are what they would aspire to be as the perfect suburban couple. They are a friendly couple, content with their lives, and seemingly in love with each other. However, as we go through the film, we realize that each couple: the Wheelers, the Givings, and even the Campbells are putting on a mask.

Out of the three couples in this film, we do spend the most time with the Wheelers who it seems were never truly meant through each other. They may have connected initially but they seem to us as two very different people. April is very footloose, wanting to enjoy life, and experience the world while Frank is content with who he is, what his career will be, and his contentedness with being a father. They are also not quite settled in their livelihoods when we meet as April is struggling to gain traction as an Actress and Frank is bored stiff at his sales job. Instead of supporting each other through the tough times, it remains a point of contention that either person hasn’t succeeded as much as they would like. While it seems that they are both not content with living in the suburbs or being married, they also have their two children to think about.

Because they are married and have children, it’s nearly impossible for them to uproot their lives as April suggests. A running theme throughout the film is their desire to move elsewhere including Paris which April endorses immediately yet Frank sees as being unrealistic. When you have people who depend on you, bills to pay, and jobs that get in the way, it’s hard to move anywhere including overseas. Their collective boredom at living in the suburbs starts to manifest itself elsewhere as they start to get bored with each other by seeking out extramarital affairs, excessive drinking, smoking, etc. to dull their pain. Instead of trying to work out their marriage problems or seek ways to better their lives separately, they drag each other through the mud with shouting matches and other more extreme actions.

While Paris is an escape for the two of them from their jobs, their repetitive jobs, and their monotonous suburban lifestyle, it’s clearer that they want to escape and get away from each other. As John Lennon famously stated, “Life is while happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Frank and April Wheeler never truly accept that their lives are not truly their own and they do have to make compromises when it comes to money, children, lifestyle, etc. When they plan to actually move to Paris, April gets pregnant again and Frank is offered a lucrative promotion at his sales job. Instead of accepting their new reality together, they lash out at each other and cause a lot of pain and suffering in the process.

You can see from the film that Frank and April Wheeler were not compatible people in terms of their relationship or marriage. As April bluntly opines to Frank during one of their fights, “You were just some guy that made me laugh at a party once.” It becomes clear to the audience that they would be happier living separate lives with Frank living as a successful salesman at his father’s former company in New York City while April tries to make it on her own as an actress working in Paris or Los Angeles. Both of them are not cut out for the married, suburban lifestyle but they are also equally not cut out for each other. They can use the suburbs, their children, their job situations as excuses but at the heart of the issue is their flawed relationship.

American society in the 1950’s helped to put a lot of pressure on young couples like the Wheeler’s to get married, have children, and then move to the suburbs where it’s safe and secure. However, it’s clear that this type of lifestyle is not for everyone. Some people are not meant to be married or to have children. Others are meant to live in cities or travel for their work. I can imagine that the cultural attitude in the 1950’s shunned this kind of critical thinking and encouraged a more conformist lifestyle that stifled people’s personal hopes, wants, and ambitions. You could say that the following decade, the 1960’s, changed American life forever in its expectations of people and how they could and should live their lives.

In closing, this film is a realistic and sobering look at how relationships and marriages can fail sometimes and that it can be very painful to live a life that’s not in line with your personal wants and needs.