Mango Elephants in the Sun

June 21st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera, published in 1999. This ebook is the personal account of the author’s two-year experience in the Peace Corps, assigned to the village of Guidiguis, in the northern tip of Cameroon in the early 1990′s. The first chapter was dense with minutiae, but the content became informative and entertaining as the book progressed.

The government of Cameroon was a monarchy, and the local regions had mayors, all of whom drove black Mercedes. The Muslim king had a hundred children. The country also had a president. There was growing anti-government unrest in the southwestern part of the country, that spread to the author’s region toward the end of her stay. The president ordered pay cuts for common working people, while soldiers got raises. The people were “…already angry, complaining that he has rigged the elections.” The different languages and tribes of the people made it difficult for them to put aside their differences to unite to fight against the injustices.

The living conditions were primitive, with no indoor plumbing. Water had to be transferred in buckets a mile distant. Clothes were washed by hand. Other hardships included but were far from limited to: the 125-degree Fahrenheit heat, the risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses such as amoebic dysentery and malaria, termites’ destruction of wooden furniture, elephants’ destruction of millet fields and corn fields in the village, the need for a mosquito net around the bed, and crickets and rats in the residence. But Herrera’s quarters had electricity, and included a refrigerator.

The author taught English to a class of 107 boys and 4 girls of varying ages. She was fluent in French– their common language, but learned a bit of their languages, Fulfulde and Tapouri, too. The village consisted of two tribes, the Foulbe and the Tapouri, which were rivals in hard times, such as drought. The kids had uniforms, but no books. It was common practice for the girls to be subjected to an arranged marriage or a life of farm work, instead of an education. Discipline in school was maintained through beatings, so the students would “respect” the teacher. Herrera meted out punishment by having students kneel on the ground or fetch water instead.

Herrera described her adventures. She developed personal relationships with a few of her students. She taught one girl, Lydie, to ride a bicycle, and was roundly criticized for it. Lydie’s father was angry because Lydie would never own a bike, so the author was giving her false hope, and the result was also wasted effort and time.

Lydie explained her busy life to the author thusly: “My little brothers help me with the water. Then I make beignets for breakfast and bathe the children. After I wash dishes, I’ll start the laundry or, if I have time, begin the midday meal. Then I’ll sweep the compound before going to school.” The boys had no chores. At dawn, they walked to school, and ate the peanuts they reaped along the way. Lydie could look forward to even more work as a grownup: “…cooking, cleaning, washing, planting, harvesting, child care, shopping and water pumping.” In Cameroonian culture, fatness of a wife was a sign of a husband’s love– his ability to provide for her, by selling grain, ironically.

Read the book to find out more about how the author coped with the everyday difficulties, and little triumphs, in a culture and land that was so different from her native California.

Dragon Sea

June 14th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Dragon Sea” by Frank Pope, published in 2007. This ebook describes the lives of sunken-treasure hunters– people who go SCUBA diving to recover material assets of ships that have sunk in prior centuries.

Such a pursuit interests marine archeologists, too. They should have knowledge of art, ancient history and the sea. The oil industry has developed the technology that allows the least expense and the fewest complications for conducting underwater research and exploitation of the seabed. However, the exploitation part is still life-threatening and very expensive. A gruesome death might await divers at any time, so they make big bucks.

Many divers take a chance by attempting to retrieve treasures from a sunken ship whose contents might be claimed by its country of origin. They risk confiscated cargoes, impounded vessels and court cases, not to mention plunder, if pirates find out what they are doing before they can finish grabbing the ceramics, coins or other valuables from the ship. Those items might end up at a big-name auction house or at a museum. Or on eBay.

Read the book to learn about the salvaging of ceramics from one particular ship– along with the dangers, complications and conflicts that arose, the equipment used, worker interactions in light of the situations they encountered, and the financial results of the project.

The Best of Times

June 7th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.

Cathedral of the Wild

May 31st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Cathedral of the Wild” by Boyd Varty, published in 2014. This ebook is the autobiography of a member of the family who owned the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.

The Reserve was started by the author’s father and uncle. As is well known, the bushveld of South Africa is fraught with sources of life-threatening injuries and illnesses. In the 1970′s, the founders braved these, plus primitive conditions, to regenerate life in the biosphere on land overgrazed by cattle, to build infrastructure and a business. They felt a close connection to the environment. Their endeavors were ecologically friendly in nature. However, they were trying to introduce a concept before its time, so people criticized their making money from realizing their vision. A “…classic Varty Brothers project… was outlandishly ambitious: vast in scope, freighted with complicated logistics, and therefore irresistible.”

During the author’s childhood, his uncle’s focus on his then-project, such as filming wildlife documentaries or preventing species extinctions, took priority over protecting himself and others from dangers. From a very young age, Varty and his older sister Bron were obligated to assist their uncle with various challenging tasks, such as operating the sound system in the presence of wild animals, shooting a rifle (when necessary), driving a Land Rover, etc. When Varty was about ten, their parents pulled them out of boarding school and assigned them a tutor, Kate. “Bron, Kate and I were crossing the Serengeti [in Tanzania] with about two million wildebeests… hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, travels twelve hundred miles…”

Varty recounts morbidly fascinating stories about an elephant’s charging at the Land Rover (a common occurrence) and various other traumatic episodes in his life. He rambles on a little too long about his and his family’s psychological healing from these occasions when they could easily have died.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of these episodes, plus about the celebrity who visited the Reserve, and why.

Doctored

May 24th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Doctored” by Sandeep Jauhar, published in 2014. This is an eloquently written autobiographical slice of life from a cardiologist in Long Island, NY, within the last decade.

Dr. Jauhar suggests that America’s broken health care system is the fault of all parties involved– the government, the doctors, the insurance companies and the patients. He writes that his specialty, heart failure, actually generates losses for the hospital at which he is employed. The money is in the installation and monitoring of stents and pacemakers, not prolonged hospital stays of patients. He resists going into private practice because he would be a “…grunt, overtesting, kissing ass for referrals, fighting insurers to get paid” not to mention being forced to pay the out-of-pocket, astronomical cost of medical malpractice insurance. Medical school doesn’t show students the real-world worries of practicing medicine in the United States. One of countless worries of doctors is of lawsuits brought by litigious patients, notwithstanding the malpractice insurance.

Doctors have to deal with a slew of issues peripheral to treating patients; among them, that doctors these days have trouble making a living due to the facts that reimbursement of Medicare and insurance companies to doctors are at an all-time low, and doctors have the burden of student loans while possibly trying move into their own home and raise a family. This puts pressure on them to engage in the behaviors of private practice mentioned above.

The pay of even an “attending physician” (employee) such as Dr. Jauhar, fluctuates with the amount of revenue he generates for his employer. He writes, “Insurers can make doctors jump through hoops to get paid… tell patients which doctors they can see… restrict medications. But they still cannot…” control the referrals doctors make to other doctors.

Read the book to learn about the (sleazy) strategies used by the medical community to protect itself against (stingy and at times, unreasonable) insurance companies, the author’s moral dilemmas on his own situation told through real-patient anecdotes, and the author’s family life.

Sidenote: Despite the flaws in the way health care is provided in the United States– as John and Hank Green (YouTube Nerdfighters) directly or indirectly remind viewers in every video they make lately– people born in the United States have won the world birth lottery, and thus have access to the best life-saving and life-prolonging technology, procedures and treatments, due ironically to the profit motive.

Bonus Post

May 19th, 2015

This blogger skimmed “An Accidental Sportswriter” by Robert Lipsyte, published in 2011. This ebook is a career memoir.

Lipsyte covers a range of topics, including how his father was a role model, and the celebrities he’s written about extensively. He covers controversies, including gay athletes and performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Lipsyte writes that he spoke to someone who said it was a dirty little secret that such drugs were used extensively among athletes after 1960. The reason it took so long for the practice to be widely disclosed and frowned upon (wink-wink, nod-nod) was that professional athletes’ incomes have skyrocketed in recent years, so there has been resentment of late that some players were making so much money because their abilities got a boost from an unfair advantage.

The author asks, “Why have no [team] owners had to speak in front of Congress? Why have owners been allowed to keep every penny from the big money, big bopping 1990′s, while players have been put through the thresher?” Sometimes the rogues win.

 

Special Announcement

May 17th, 2015

Please excuse any typos you see in past posts. This blogger recently noticed that there are a few here and there– perhaps due to malware. She is super-careful about proofreading and is meticulous about spell-checking, and always corrects typos immediately upon seeing them. She is just as horrified as you are. Please accept her sincerest apology for any inconvenience this has caused or might cause.

American On Purpose

May 17th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “American on Purpose” by Craig Ferguson. This ebook is the autobiography of the Scottish-American comedian, actor and late-night TV show host, published in 2009.

Ferguson was born in 1962. As a young adult, he started doing stand-up comedy, creating a character called “Bing Hitler.” When he performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1986, the Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News newspapers gave him glowing reviews. This gave him a super career boost in show business.

The author wrote about having to deal with “the network” when he was cast for a TV show, and how “…you get executives who start out with a radical notion, but as the moment of truth approaches, they lose their nerve and go back to what they are familiar with.” He had his share of failures; much of it due to his alcoholism. Even later, though, he spent a lot of time writing comic screen plays on spec with his friends and earning nothing.

Ferguson received good vibes about the United States in his childhood. When he told his mother he had gotten the job as host of The Late Late Show, she thought he “…had become a newsreader in America.”

Read the book to learn how Ferguson eventually became famous, despite his checkered life history. He attributes it to the image projected by America– the country where people can achieve success notwithstanding numerous past failures.

Confessions of a Bad Teacher

May 10th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of a Bad Teacher” by John Owens, published in 2013. This ebook is the personal account of a first-year teacher in a New York City “small school” during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

After a successful career in publishing, Owens was trying his hand at teaching. Poor naive soul that he was, he didn’t realize what he was getting into. He encountered “school reform gone terribly wrong.” For, in this day and age, teachers are the scapegoat for all of America’s education problems, especially in low-income districts, like the one where he got a job. From 5am to 10pm daily, the author was working. He was assigned middle school and high school English classes– a total of 125 students, going between two classrooms every day.

The principal of his school made impossible demands on the teachers by putting them in countless “Catch-22″ situations. One involved disciplining the students. She left this to the teachers, but when they needed a higher authority to enforce the rules on punishment for serious offenses, the teachers were strongly discouraged from “wasting” administrators’ time.

The unreasonable principal herself punished teachers severely with an “Unsatisfactory” rating if he or she had poor “classroom management.” Getting the students to sit quietly was well-nigh impossible most of the time, for so many reasons. For one, Owens estimated that of the 28 kids in his eighth grade class, about 8 of them had “…learning or behavior or emotional problems.” The parents of some of them did not want them to be labeled in a way that would stigmatize them but allow them to get help. The frequently absent special-education teacher popped into the classroom when she was not doing other tasks deemed of higher priority by the school principal, anyway.

The author was buried in an avalanche of bureaucratic work in addition to his teaching duties. He had to create, duplicate or obey: “…handouts, PowerPoints, and relentless, notebook-filling rules, rubrics, standards, demands and musts…” not to mention an overwhelming amount of required computer-data-entry of numerical scores in various topic-areas, grades, documentation, etc. Furthermore, the principal demanded that the teachers give exams to the students at least every other week. Owens was ordered by the assistant principal to give students a test in a style like the Regents (New York State standardized tests given once or twice a year, in specific subjects) weekly.

To sum it up, like so many other teachers in the United States, Owens found himself playing the “…role of an accomplice in a crazy and corrupt system bent on achieving statistical results, rather than helping students.”  Read the book to learn what happened. Hint: It wasn’t pretty.