Book Review: Blowout

I picked up Blowout (Crown, October 2019) by Rachel Maddow to read because I was intrigued by its subtitle: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth. It suggests that there’s a common thread that connects the three components. Indeed, there is: oil and gas.

Maddow is known as the host of the Emmy Award–winning Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. She has a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford University and earned her doctorate in political science at Oxford University. Blowout is her second book.

It would be hard to imagine the world we live in without oil and gas. They are the stuff that power cars, aeroplanes, trains, power plants, ocean liners, factories and all kinds of machinery, as well as the economies of countries around the world.

Today, the USA leads the pack of nearly a hundred oil and gas producing countries around the world. In 2019 the total oil production averaged 80.6 million barrels per day and in 2018, global natural gas production hit a new record of 3 937 billion cubic metres (bcm). These are monumental numbers, which translates into a staggering pile of cash.

In her own inimitable style, Rachel Maddow provides a fascinating insight of the tremendous impact that the global oil and gas industry has on the global economy, politics and social fabric of society. It is replete with juicy but often alarming stories of the wheeling and dealing of big oil and gas corporations in the USA, Russia and countries with corrupt regimes.

Maddow deftly reveals the greed, power and hypocrisy of the key industry players, such as Chevron, British Petroleum and ExxonMobil, in their relentless drive to expand their territory and make huge profits, often at the expense of ignoring human rights abuses and safety standards in countries they operate. In short, the oil and gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers, caused earthquakes, and propped up authoritarian rulers, such as Putin, thieves and killers.

There’s so much ground covered in this book. The early chapters chronicle the history of the industry beginning with the discovery of first oil in the USA in 1895. Maddow then continues her story up to today’s inventions – hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling – innovations that have revolutionized extraction and helped launch America on its road to “energy independence.” Along the way you would meet colourful but ambitious major players of the industry such as Rockefeller who founded Standard Oil and Aubrey McClendon who revolutionized hydraulic fracking in Oklahoma.

Several chapters are devoted to Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to power and the ruthlessness with which he forced his political adversaries to sell their lucrative oil and gas assets to the state at a huge discount. A number of them ended up losing all and spent time in prison regretting for having stood up to Putin. Maddow boldly claims that Western capitalists – bankers and oilmen – abetted Putin in his ruthless endeavours and partnered with him no matter what he was doing to Russia’s democratic and capitalist experiment. Chief among them was Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson who was so cooperative that in 2013 Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest honours bestowed on a foreigner. Tillerson later became the Secretary of State in President Trump’s administration.

Maddow also documents the extreme harm that the oil and gas industry has done to the environment and climate. One striking example is the findings by Austin Holland, a University of Oklahoma researcher, that fracking activities by energy companies were causing earthquakes. This led to him being pressured by the industry and his university to suppress his findings. But eventually the truth prevailed. Another example was the explosion that happened on Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig, in April 2010 caused by a blowout in its drilling operations, resulting in a massive oil spill. US government findings put the blame squarely on the field and rig operators, who it claimed had cut corners to save both time and money.

Here’s my quick take on the book:

Maddow’s story-telling style makes it readable. In dealing with a highly technical subject, she’s done remarkably well to explain technical concepts with clarity and simplicity. Perhaps it’s a skill she’s honed over the years hosting her own show.

Maddow has done her research well in documenting the events and stories told in this book and connecting the dots between them.

Having spent most part of my working life in the oil and gas industry, I’m cognizant of the high bar in health, safety and environment standards that oil and gas companies set in their operations. They would expect all parties working for them to abide strictly by these standards. In reality, as the damaging fracking activities and the oil spills showed, these companies don’t always walk their talk. For me, this book exposes the industry’s double standards.

Worth reading!

The Art of Reading

Originally posted on M.Etch:
Article by Ranjini Sarkar, Illustration by Ishita Taak Anyone who knew me as a child will agree that their most enduring image of me is a of a bespectacled child furiously biting her nails with her nose buried deep in…

Book Review: A Grief Observed

Of all the books that I had read in 2019, the one that stood out as a difficult book is A Grief Observed (HarperOne, February 2001) by C. S. Lewis, a British academician and Christian apologist, and author of more than 30 books.

I picked up a copy of this book to read only because my interest in this book was piqued by the reading of C. S. Lewis – A Life by Alister McGrath, which I had reviewed in an earlier post.

A Grief Observed was first published in 1961 under the pseudonym NW Clerk. It may be described as a little book having just 76 pages organized into four chapters, and includes an introduction by Douglas H. Gresham, Lewis’ stepson. It is a collection of Lewis’ journal entries containing his deeply personal reflections of the grieving he went through in the months following the death of his wife Joy Davidman, whom he married four years earlier. In this book he referred to her as ‘H’.

The blurb of the book aptly summarizes its content:

Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moment,” A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.

Like many others who had reviewed this book, I can agree that this book is quite unlike other books that flowed from Lewis’ pen. Before I started to read it, I had expected a lucid account – in a writing style common with his other popular books – of the grieving process he went through. After plodding through half of Chapter 1, I began to realise that my expectation was way off. I was overwhelmed instead by Lewis’ deeply personal reflections about his grief, his late wife and God clouded with raw feelings of agony, anger, doubt, uncertainty. His emotional turmoil was clearly evident by his unrelenting questioning about life, suffering and death.

Here’s a sampling of his reflections in the book:

On how it felt like to be forsaken:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in our time of trouble?

On grief and sorrow:
Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process… Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. As I’ve already noted, not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But is isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.

On marriage:
One thing, however, marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years H. and I feasted on love, every mode of it – solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love we ought to have lost all interest in Him. Who’d bother about substitutes when he has the thing itself? But that isn’t what happens. We both knew we wanted something besides one another – quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want.

On religion:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

To his late wife:
Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left? You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared. I was wrong to say the stump was recovering from the pain of the amputation. I was deceived because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one.

As I came to the end of the book I remembered recalling that Lewis went through a harrowing experience like Job of the Old Testament except that he didn’t seem to have friends to console him as Job had.

So, do I like this book? My sentiments are decidedly mixed.

I admire Lewis’ complete honesty about his feelings and struggles. He didn’t glossed over things he couldn’t understand. In a society where self-restraint in a time of mourning may be expected of a man, Lewis’ account of his grieving process has put a huge dent to that notion. That in itself is comforting for men who often don’t know how to express their grief or who try to suppress their emotions.

However, Lewis’ intensely personal expressions of grief and sorrow don’t quite resonate with me. This probably explains why I had found it a difficult book to read. If I had travelled on a journey of grief as heartbreaking as his, I might have had a different reading experience and even share a similar perspective on grief, but I haven’t. Still, I have to acknowledge the fact that many people have found it to be a helpful book because it had brought much consolation to them in their time of grief over the loss of their loved ones.

I found Lewis’ unrelenting questioning about God’s goodness to be unsettling. Maybe it is natural for a person in grief to feel that way about Him. Towards the end of the book, I still didn’t get a sense that he had found closure to these questions but at least he admitted that he needed Christ as much as he needed H, his late wife. Yet, for me, he didn’t come through this experience with a robust and unequivocal confirmation of God’s goodness, grace and comfort – some of the very attributes of God that help restore broken people to life in Him after grief.

Did I regret reading this book? Not in the least! For me, a book read is never a wasted effort. There’s always some understanding to be gleaned from it. From this book I learned not so much about what grief is but more about its potential power to hurt and break a human soul.

2019 Reading Challenge Completed!

One of my goals for 2019 is to challenge myself to read at least 15 books. As the year draws to a close I’m glad to report that I’ve not only reached this goal but even surpassed it by 3 books. This might not be a big deal to brag about but for me it is a major stride because 2019 is the only year I’ve successfully completed the Goodreads Reading Challenge since I participated in this annual challenge four years ago.

Here are the 18 books I’ve read in 2019 (in chronological order):

The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age
by Gino Segrè, Bettina Hoerlin

The Malta Exchange (Cotton Malone #14) by Steve Berry

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions by Timothy J. Keller

The Midas Code (Tyler Locke #2) by Boyd Morrison

Topaz by Leon Uris

He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World by R. Albert Mohler Jr

The Other Woman (Gabriel Allon #18) by Daniel Silva

I Can Only Imagine: A Memoir by Bart Millard

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential by N.T. Wright

C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister E. McGrath

The Case for Grace: A Journalist Explores the Evidence of Transformed Lives by Lee Strobel

The Jesus Lifestyle by Nicky Gumbel

Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright

The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

Heaven Is Now: Awakening Your Five Spiritual Senses to The Wonders of Grace by Andrew Farley

According to Goodreads, my journey in books for 2019 looks like this:

I read 5,029 pages across 18 books.

My average rating for 2019: 3.7 stars

Source: Goodreads
Source: Goodreads
Source: Goodreads

My challenge for 2020 will be to read books of as many different genres as possible besides raising my reading goal. I shall look forward to that.

How To Read A Difficult Book

Have you ever had the experience of plodding through a book that you had hoped would be easy to read but it turned out otherwise? I know I have. It’s quite natural to feel despair, admit defeat and conclude that it was a mistake to try to read it in the first place. But that was not the mistake. Rather it was the wrong approach that one takes in reading a difficult book, as Mortimer J. Adler points out in his book, How To Read A Book.

He observes that:

Most of us were taught to pay attention to the things we did not understand. We were told to go to a dictionary when we met an unfamiliar word. We were told to go to an encyclopedia or some other reference work when we were confronted with allusions or statements we did not comprehend. We were told to consult footnotes, scholarly commentaries, or other secondary sources to get help. But when these things are done prematurely, they only impede our reading, instead of helping it.

So how does one tackle a difficult book? What’s the right approach? The answer is to read the book superficially, an important and helpful rule of reading that readers generally overlook.

Superficial Reading is the second part of what Adler calls ‘Inspectional Reading’. The first part is Skimming, which has been covered in my earlier post here.

The rule of superficial reading is simply to read through a difficult book for the first time without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.

Adler goes on to elaborate this approach:

Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp. Go right on reading past the point where you have difficulties in understanding, and you will soon come to things you do understand. Concentrate on these. Keep on in this way. Read the book through, undeterred and undismayed by the paragraphs, footnotes, comments, and references that escape you. If you let yourself get stalled, if you allow yourself to be tripped up by any one of these stumbling blocks, you are lost. In most cases, you will not be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You will have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to have read the book through at least once.

The amount you understand by superficial reading – even if it is only 50 percent or less – will help you to carry some light back to the places which left you in the dark. Even if you never go back to reading the book again, understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all.

Adler’s Superficial Reading Rule has given me much hope in tackling difficult books in future. I need not despair when I plod through such a book to the end because, in spite of the difficulty, I would have gained much understanding of the subject matter in the book.

Book Review: Forever And A Day

When one says James Bond, the name Ian Fleming immediately springs to mind for many people. This is because the ubiquitous fictional famous British spy with code number 007 was created in 1953 by Fleming, who featured him in fourteen books, starting with Casino Royale.

When a new Bond novel gets written by some author other than Fleming, one can’t help but wonder if such a work would be as good as those written by Fleming himself. I recently found myself in this situation when I picked up a copy of Forever And A Day (Jonathan Cape, May 2018), the latest Bond novel, by Anthony Horowitz to read.

After a quick skim of the book, I decided that it deserved a full read. I was glad that Horowitz didn’t disappoint with his latest incarnation of James Bond.

Anthony Horowitz is a prolific English novelist and screenwriter. Magpie Murders, Trigger Mortis (his first Bond novel) and the Alex Rider series for young adults are among his many published works. As a TV screenwriter, he created both Midsomer Murders and the BAFTA-winning Foyle’s War.

Forever and a Day is the 40th official James Bond novel. It’s the second continuation novel written by Anthony Horowitz. Commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications, it was released on 31 May 2018. The novel is set during 1950, against the backdrop of the brutal underworld of the French Riviera, and serves as a prequel to Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale. It’s a story of the birth of a legend – James Bond.

“So, 007 is dead.” The intriguing opening sentence refers to James Bond’s predecessor, whose body was found floating in the waters off Marseilles, where he was investigating the activities of the Corsican underworld. He noticed something odd about the drug smuggling in Marseilles – it had become almost non-existent. M dispatches Bond, newly recruited to the Double-O section, to the South of France to track down the agent’s killer.

Prior to leaving for Marseille, James Bond read a file on Jean-Paul Scipio, a grotesquely obese and brutal Corsican drug trafficker, the villain in the story. He was one of the most powerful leaders in the Corsican underworld and certainly the most feared. He was better known as “Le Boudin,” French slang which can be translated as “the fat man.” He was so obese that he could “pulverize his enemies using his own weight.” In another file, Bond also learned about a mysterious freelance female operative by the name of Joanne Brochet. She was known as “Sixtine,” her World War II code name when she was an allied operative. But there seemed to be no direct link between these two and the dead agent.

In Marseille, a port city known for Corsican criminals, drug smuggling and other crimes, James Bond lost no time in getting to meet Sixtine in a famous casino in Monte Carlo. After spotting her there, he watched her and her team play a game of blackjack. He finally got his chance to play with her after her team members left the table for no apparent reason as they appeared to be on a winning streak. Sixtine lost her winnings and Bond won some. Bond gradually won her trust and got her to share what she knew about Jean-Paul Scipio and her relationship with Irwin Wolfe, a wealthy, aging American businessman, who was later revealed as Scipio’s partner-in-crime in the manufacture and distribution of high-quality heroin. From then on, things started to get exciting as Bond went deeper in his investigations helped by Sixtine.

Bond quickly earned his stripes as a smart and resourceful 007. With a mix of derring-do, quick thinking and technical know-how, he manages to foil an ingenious plot by Jean-Paul Scipio to smuggle a huge quantity of high-grade heroin to the USA under cover of a luxury cruise ship owned by Irwin Wolfe.

There’s so much to like about Forever And A Day.

Firstly, Horowitz employs a proven recipe that makes Ian Fleming’s Bond novels suspenseful, intriguing, action-packed as well as entertaining. It’s very hard to get bored with this book. In fact, if I could, I would have read it in one sitting. It’s that good.

Secondly, Horowitz sticks as close as possible to Fleming’s Bond – suave, witty, cool and matter-of-factly, even in killing as when he tells one of his captors: “It would be nice to know your name when I kill you.”

Thirdly, the plot comes with many twists and turns. Though for many parts of the story you may get some inkling of where this is going, you can never know what to expect in others, like the unexpected twist in the last chapter. This is a good enough reason to keep reading on.

Indeed, Horowitz is a worthy choice to carry on the James Bond tradition. I expect there’ll be more to come.

So if you’re simply looking for a good spy thriller to immerse yourself in, you can’t go wrong with this book.

The Reader’s Bill of Rights

You might have come across The Reader’s Bill of Rights before, so it might not be new stuff to you. But it’s new to me as I literally stumbled upon it today in a book entitled Better Than Life by Daniel Pennac, touted as being an essential guide to helping children discover the pleasures of reading.

This book has been lying dormant in my home library for years. I’ve forgotten it exists! It caught my attention again in the midst of relocating our home library and re-shelving the books over the past few days. Good thing it did because I really like the book, especially what it contains.

Here is The Reader’s Bill of Rights:

  1. The right to not read
  2. The right to skip pages
  3. The right to not finish
  4. The right to reread
  5. The right to read anything
  6. The right to escapism
  7. The right to read anywhere
  8. The right to browse
  9. The right to read out loud
  10. The right to not defend your tastes

Enjoy your rights as a reader!