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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‘There Will Be Blood’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a masterful, enticing film about how greed, corruption, and arrogance can destroy a man’s soul. Definitely one of the best films of this young 21st century, There Will Be Blood will be remembered for generations to come for its’ acting, cinematography, and direction. There are a number of things that make this film memorable including its’ cast, director, and musical composition.

In addition to all of that, the plot is written well, the characters are intriguing, and themes are still timely when compared to the modern era. While not the most popular film when it was first released, ‘There Will Be Blood’ has become a bit of a cult classic since it came out in 2007, over ten years ago. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two of them for ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered the best Actor of his generation, Day-Lewis is a unique talent who can transform him into vastly different performing roles and deliver outstanding and award-winning performances. In addition to winning the Best Actor award for ‘There Will Be Blood’, Day-Lewis also won Academy awards for the films ‘Lincoln’ and ‘My Left Foot’, which were the exact opposite kind of roles to play as an actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis is able to stay in character for months or years on end to totally immerse him in both the story and the lines that he memorizes. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment to win one Academy Award but Day-Lewis was able to win three and is nominated for a 4th award for his most recent role in ‘Phantom Thread.’ Other noteworthy aspects of this film is the directing by Paul Thomas Anderson and the musical score by Jonny Greenwood who both set the tone for this movie’s themes and plot line.

Unbeknownst to most, the film’s screenplay and overall plot was adapted from American novelist Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! Which focuses on the oil boom in the western United States during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and the men who made themselves wealthy from the discovery. Instead of covering a topic as deep and complicated about the oil rush over a few decades in a dramatic film, Paul Thomas Anderson chooses a protagonist named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) to be the lens through which the audience witnesses the birth of the lifeblood for the modern American economy.

Anderson’s goals for this film in my opinion were to show how the U.S. and its’ oilmen were not so innocent when it came to the pursuit of wealth. In the quest to reap the profits of the oil boom, there was a lot of backstabbing, double-crossing, and short-shrifting between different competing companies. This film takes a hard look at how the protagonist Daniel Plainview loses his soul in the pursuit of wealth and prestige. In addition, There Will Be Blood is an examination of the push – pull relationship between capitalism and religion and how they are often linked together to pursue their goals.

There Will Be Blood’s setting takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Plainview, the main protagonist starts out as an ordinary silver miner looking to become wealthy from that pursuit. However, this changes in 1902 when he discovers oil near Los Angeles, California, and decides to create his own drilling company. At the beginning of the film, Daniel can seem to be like any normal prospector of that era and also selfless in the fact that he adopts the son of a fellow co-worker who was killed in an accident. The boy is named H.W. and Daniel seems to care and cherish the child. However, the audience soon finds out that it is not love that Daniel strives to have in his life but rather wealth and influence in the oil industry.

Daniel promotes himself as a ‘family man’ largely in order to curry favor with other businessmen and potential employees of his company. The main antagonist to Daniel is Eli Sunday, a preacher in nearby Little Boston, California, who wishes to get a good sum of money from Plainview in order to build his church. In exchange, Daniel gets access to all of the land under the town in order to build wells to drill for oil where there is a vast amount underneath their feet. Despite the fact that they have an agreement in the exchange of land for money, Daniel betrays the deal and berates Eli for his religious beliefs and the exploitation of his son’s deafness for his own financial gain. It is clear to the audience that both men are out for themselves but need each other in order to acquire wealth or a religious following.

Such as has been the case at times throughout history, religion and capitalism have been intertwined in an unholy marriage leading to disastrous results. Daniel uses Eli in order to get all of the oil wealth from under the town while lying about the amount of money he would give Eli or the town itself to build up their infrastructure. Eli uses Daniel’s money to build his mega-church but exploits H.W.’s misfortune of becoming deaf as a means to accuse Daniel of being a ‘bad father’ and a ‘sinner’ even though the freak accident was out of his control.

If I had to highlight two example scenes for somebody to check out before watching this movie, it would be the ‘I’m an oil man’ speech by Daniel Plainview to the townsfolk of Little Boston. You can see from this speech and from the overall scene that he does not care so much for the people in the town or what he can do to help them. The music combined with his lying through the teeth boasts show that he is not being genuine and is in this pursuit of oil for himself and himself alone.

“I’m an oil man speech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHz-zZoBnbc

The other scene to highlight from this film is known as the ‘Fire’ scene, which is a brilliantly shot and executed scene. It’s amazing in its’ portrayal of the discovery of mass amounts of oil under a well indicating that Daniel Plainview is to become a very wealthy man. However, it’s at the same point in this scene where he realizes that his son, H.W. is to become deaf due to an accident near the well. At this scene, you can see Daniel change as a person to become more focused on his future as a ‘oilman’ than one as a ‘family man’ to H.W., his adopted son.

‘There Will Be Blood’ Fire scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKJAH-XBNNs&t=240s

Throughout the film’s events, you can see that Daniel does not care about family or religion at all. While he enjoys the company of H.W., he holds over the fact that he is not his biological son and does not want to give him any financial support to strike it out on his own. Daniel has no care for organized religion besides getting permission to gain workers and oil from underneath the town’s feet while contributing the bare minimum to Eli’s church or the rest of the town. As his last name reveals, ‘Plainview’ has a plain view about human nature that is very pessimistic and jaded.

Daniel only cares to get as much out of people as to benefit himself and his company personally. You wonder though by the end of the film what is in it for Daniel besides money and alcohol. He may have become a wildly successful prospector and oilman but what does it all mean if he is left alone and friendless. If you’re going to go into business, why not do it for the benefit of others and not just yourself? However, the view of Daniel Plainview is that life is a zero-sum game and that you can’t trust anybody but yourself.

Eli Sunday, while a pragmatic preacher and someone who seems to care about the townsfolk of which who are part of his church, still does a deal gone south with Daniel Plainview in the pursuit of easy money. Eli is easily bullied by Daniel but still goes around trying to convince him to change his ways and repent as a sinner. While Eli means well and wants the best for the church and his town, he does not go about it in the right way leaving him at the mercy of Plainview.

While Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview are both excellent at what they do, you have to consider that they are both very flawed human beings. They may have built a popular church to preach in (Sunday) or massive oil wells to enrich themselves (Plainview) but life will still be lacking for them if they have no love and compassion surrounding those achievements. That may be the main message for the person viewing this film. Wealth, notoriety, and personal prestige are not everything in life and that there are other things that you should focus on that really touch your soul as a human being.

“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet, and nobody can get at it except for me!” There Will Be Blood is an excellent story about extreme capitalism and religion gone wrong. Both protagonists pursuit of their own selfish goals hurts the other characters in this film. However, what would modern America be like without the preachers and the oilmen? While not as dramatic as this fictional movie, the discovery of oil and the spread of the gospel are intertwined with American history.