As Luck Would Have It

The Book of the Week is “As Luck Would Have It” by Joshua Piven, published in 2003. This slim volume contains a series of anecdotes on lucky people, whose lives were changed in major ways by good or bad luck. A few generalizations are also provided, on the factors that generated the good luck that allowed lives to be saved in the life-threatening situations– in planes and snow, and led to success in the happy situations– the cases of the lottery winner, hit-song musicians and toy fad identifier. As an aside, this blogger was distracted by the author’s alternating verb tenses between past and present. All the stories are history, and therefore should have been told in the past tense.

Experiences of good luck do not necessarily generate happiness. But the ones that do, meet the human needs of “autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem.” People can better their luck if they are prepared, keep an open mind, keep abreast of information in a given situation, make inquiries to obtain additional information, practice social and professional networking, and trust gut feelings.

Read the book to learn how the above factors were applied in the real-life stories.

The Disappearing Spoon

The Book of the Week is “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean, published in 2010.

This ebook consists of a series of anecdotes about elements of the periodic table. The author describes fundamental principles of chemistry, particle physics and astronomy; how certain elements were discovered or created, and their identifiers; and the reasons why there might or might not be life on other planets.

One bit of history thrown in, was that, during WWII, the Nazis bartered gold they had stolen– for tungsten (a valuable ingredient in weaponry) from supposedly neutral Portugal. Tungsten is a hard, solid metal that has a very high melting point.

Other elemental trivia include the facts that tantalum and niobium are used in phones for their density, heat-resistance and conductive abilities; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained uranium and the one dropped on Nagasaki contained plutonium. With advances in computer science, Monte Carlo simulations (a mathematics model that computes probabilities) have become used more often than physical experiments in recent decades.

Read the book to learn how it was determined that cadmium was poisoning the rice paddies near the Kamioka mines in Japan just after WWII, how astronauts died in an accident when nitrogen was used in a spacecraft, what “measurement scientists” do, and much more.

High

The Book of the Week is “High” by Brian O’Dea, published in 2006. This book describes the adventures of an international drug-smuggling participant and addict between the 1970’s and the very early 1990’s.

O’Dea was the son of a brewery owner in Newfoundland, Canada. In the mid-1970’s, he and his smuggling partners secreted cocaine “… in false-bottomed suitcases at the factory in Bogota (Colombia) and muled to Kingston (Jamaica) via Lufthansa…” and unloaded the drug at Montego Bay. Other partners “… would be getting strapped up with the product on their thighs and stomachs and backs. Each person would carry between two and four kilos, worth between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Read the book to learn of the author’s Jamaica trials and tribulations with airplane mishaps, romantic subplots, prison and addiction experiences, his role in an elaborate three-continent marijuana distribution concern, and what finally became of him.

Gudao, Lone Islet

The Book of the Week is ” Gudao, Lone Islet– The War Years in Shanghai” by Margaret Blair, published in 2008.

This slim volume tells of the WWII traumas suffered by a little girl in a British/Scottish/Chinese household in the International Settlement section of Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

Born in 1936, the author lived in a neighborhood of expatriates originally from the United Kingdom. Her Scottish father was a detective in the British police. The political entity was not a British colony, but was a protectorate subject to British law.

In 1943, the assets and liabilities of the British sector of the International Settlement was sold via a treaty between Great Britain and China, to the Shanghai Municipal Council (i.e., Chiang Kai Shek’s political party, the Nationalists– (non-Communists, but no less corrupt and power hungry). In this way, the British government knowingly allowed its citizens to stay in harm’s way. The Japanese occupied the area that year, and the author and her family became prisoners of war.

Before and during the war, the Japanese took various martial actions that resulted in atrocities and deaths far greater than would the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the war’s end. The Axis power militarily occupied Korea, Manchuria, and committed the worst brutalities in Nanking, China. There occurred millions of deaths there (according to this book), while Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw only about 120,000 deaths. Additionally, Japanese prisoner of war camps had higher death rates than camps of other nations in the war. The Japanese never did pay reparations for its war crimes.

Prior to the war, Blair lived an idyllic life of social events and familial closeness in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930’s. All of that was changed radically by the war. Read the book to learn of the traumas caused by the war at large, and the hardships the author faced on a day-to-day basis.

The Rabbi and the Hitman

The Book of the Week is “The Rabbi and the Hitman” by Arthur J. Magida, published in 2003. This is the true story of a murder that occurred in Cherry Hill (southern) New Jersey in autumn 1994.

What made the case tabloid fodder is that the crime scene’s neighborhood is a posh suburb, the chief suspect was a prominent rabbi in the community, and the victim was his wife– who had standing in her own right as a small business owner.

The Reformed rabbi, Fred Neulander, co-founded the large temple where he conducted services and taught classes. It is typical for rabbis to experience burnout about twenty years into their careers, and the suspect was no exception. However, Neulander’s hubris syndrome led him to behave in ways that made him the world’s biggest hypocrite. Read the book to learn what transpired when his double life was revealed, and whether the mystery of his wife’s murder was solved.

Serling, the Rise and Twilight…

The Book of the Week is “Serling, the Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man” by Gordon F. Sander, published in 1992. This is a biography of Rodman Serling, the television writer best known for “The Twilight Zone.”

Serling, born in December 1924, had traumatic experiences as a soldier in WWII. Prior to creating “The Twilight Zone” he penned “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” a drama about a professional boxer aired on the TV show, “Playhouse 90” in October1956. By early 1957, Serling had moved his wife and daughter from Westport, Connecticut to a mansion with a swimming pool in Beverly Hills, California.

Serling was a chain smoker. emotionally troubled for various reasons. One reason was that once the TV industry got its financial sea legs, it began churning out a high volume of lowbrow entertainment. That is why, during his writing career, Serling, an intellectual idea man, switched back and forth between television and movies.

Read the book to learn how. through the decades, Serling coped with radical changes in the profit-making structures and popularity of different genres of television.

Skyway

The Book of the Week is “Skyway” by Bill DeYoung, published in 2013. This volume describes the Sunshine Skyway disaster that occurred in May 1980. The Skyway (whose name has since been changed) is a bridge across Tampa Bay that links Pinellas and Manatee counties in Florida.

A large boat was buffeted about by unexpected stormy weather on the fateful day, and the boat’s pilot was unable to negotiate a safe passage to a shipping lane under the bridge.

Read the book to learn exactly what happened, and whose lives were changed forever by the tragedy.

The Lightless Sky

The Book of the Week is “The Lightless Sky” by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri, published in 2015. This is the suspenseful, extreme story of an Afghan boy who embarks on a life-threatening journey in order to flee his violent homeland.

Born in 1994, Passarlay was a year old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. He lived in a multi-generational household where the main source of income was herding. In 2002, the United States occupied the country. The author and his brother were sent to live briefly with his aunt in Waziristan, near the Pakistan border where there was fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. In autumn 2006, the family paid a network of people-smugglers to try to save the life of the author and his brother, by spiriting them out of the country.

The boys faced a series of traumatic, life-threatening hardships on their long, multi-lingual, multi-national sojourn. Passarlay began it as a Pashtu-speaking Sunni adolescent– a product of his insular culture. Read the book to find out the radical psychological changes wrought by his environments and experiences as a victim of the profit motive in the potentially life-saving operations involving the transport and accommodation of illegal refugees.

The Broader Way

The Book of the Week is “The Broader Way” by Sumie Seo Mishima, published in 1953. This is a depressing personal account of the Japanese author’s experiences during and after WWII.

The author studied in the United States at a university in the mid-1920’s. She returned to Japan before the war, married a divorced professor who already had four children. A feminist of sorts, she worked near Tokyo as a teacher and tutor, and could afford to hire a maid. Still, a major strike against her included her gender, especially in the workplace. Women had traditionally held the roles of wife, mother and household maintainer in Japan’s economically feudal system– of inheritance and property ownership by males only.

Toward late 1940, in preparing its people for war, the Japanese government politically divided the country into neighborhood associations on a very local level. This imposed egalitarianism on everyone, as all walks of life were lumped together. During the war, civilians were forced to cooperate in distributing rationed food, as, of course, there were severe shortages, reducing some to subsist on only a cornmeal-like substance for the war’s duration. Black markets sprung up everywhere. Teens were sent to work for the war effort– munitions factories and airfield construction sites for the boys, and quarries and opticals for the girls.

American warplanes flew over Tokyo starting in late 1944, and the destruction of the city reached its peak in March 1945. The homes of many people, including eventually, the author, were hit by bombs. The Japanese people had been miserably deceived by the military leaders. They had been told that the imperial armed forces were superior to the enemy. After the war, the Occupation authorities (i.e., the United States, in Japan’s case– for five years) allowed free discussion of different political views, even Communism. A new National Constitution was drafted, that supposedly was to afford equal rights for men and women. This was a radical change from Japan’s previous political system, whereby males had all the power.

Postwar Japan suffered not only starvation, but skyrocketing inflation. Luxuries included beef, chicken, eggs and apples. The Occupation forces supplied canned ham, bacon, sausage and butter in summer 1946. DDT was sprayed liberally on all buildings and gardens, in an attempt to head off pestilence and epidemics. The year 1947 saw entrepreneurial Japanese civilians become street vendors, which quickly fell victim to organized crime. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive, and they protected their territory through cooperating.

In the summer of 1946, the author worked as a translator at the International Military Tribunal, commuting by tramcar, which was stuffed to the gills all the time. After every ride, her clothes were “… ripped and stained with grimy handmarks… The Japanese people had lost all class distinctions and sunk into practically uniform poverty and sordidness.” Young boys sold newspapers and peanuts on the street and bartering for school supplies was not uncommon, for the lucky few who could afford a basic education. Young girls worked as seamstresses. The author’s family was comparatively wealthy, residing in a house, but even they became a multi-generational household when the kids married.

The concept of Communism was in the air, as its propagandists pointed to the Russians as an example of where the political system was working. Impressionable youths traumatized by the war and deprivation were easily persuaded of its benefits.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on the political, cultural and social changes wrought by WWII in Japan.