The Book of the Week is “True Story” by Michael Finkel. It is an unbelievable story about a journalist (the author) and a criminal. The journalist’s future looked bright at the start of the story.
Finkel was assigned to write an article on slavery in the cocoa plantations of West Africa. He discovered for himself from interviewing hundreds of people, that the said slavery was almost nonexistent. He was under pressure to write an honest story, but also one that would sell. He did not want to denigrate the community of media people who had been reporting the falsehood (knowingly or naively).
If he had written honestly, he would have had to explain that his fellow journalists had been lying. Besides that, the word “slavery” could provoke a boycott of West African cocoa, which would only increase the level of poverty. Half the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa.
Finkel ended up sabotaging himself by concocting a story about one poverty-stricken Malian boy (from Mali), a composite of several boys he had interviewed. He used the real name of one of the boys. When his story was printed, Save the Children complained that the story was inaccurate, and his cover was blown.
The story gets curiouser and curiouser as events unfold.
Around the same time, a criminal was fooling around in Cancun, posing as Finkel. The criminal, Christian Longo, knew only that Finkel was a journalist, and had stolen his name because he liked his stories. He had committed the most heinous crime of all just days before.
Read the book to experience the intrigue.
The Book of the Week is “The Dragon’s Pupils” by Kenneth Starck, published in 1991.
Starck was a professor from the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He visited China to teach journalism to Chinese graduate students in the 1986-1987 academic year. He detailed his experiences of the culture. Due to the ravages of Communism, the country had resumed its academic degree system only five years prior to his visit. In December, there was student unrest. In the 1980’s, “only 5% of each year’s 10 million high school graduates were admitted to universities. The country had 1,016 universities, about 1 for every million people. In the United States, there were 1,875 colleges, 1 for every 123,000 people.”
The author distributed the book, “The Best of Pulitzer Prize News Writing” (published in 1986) to his students. It had a story from the Korean War of 1950 and a quote that was an ethnic slur on the Chinese. The author lectured on historical context, explaining that at that time, the United States did not have good relations with China.
Under Deng Xiaoping, China was moving toward a more capitalistic society, but the government was resistant, because “There is loosening of family ties and the placing of individual self interest above community interest.” There was still censorship in higher education. Cadres (government officials) were charged with making sure students were appropriately schooled in political and ideological matters. Their titles ranged from ” lecturer” to” professor,” even though they were just party hacks. In May 1988, the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Committee of the Communist League co-founded the Youth Ideological Educational Research Center.
Read the book for more examples of the disturbing state of affairs in China in the late 1980’s, and her progress (or lack thereof) in terms of freedom of the press and the freedom of her people in general.
The Book of the Week is “Reckless Courage” by William Fuller with Jack Haines, published in 2004. This book focuses on a family living in Stavanger, Norway during World War II. It also provides a bit of Norwegian history. One of the family’s sons, Gunnar, a teenager, risked his life needlessly to irk the enemy in various little ways, out of anger against the German occupation of Norway.
Before getting to the heart of the story, this blogger would like to convey some information about the Norwegian education system (at least during WWII): Students in a given class had the same teacher for their entire seven years in elementary school. Almost all of the teachers were men, and teaching was a highly regarded profession. Most schools started every morning with a Lutheran prayer and hymn.
When Russia invaded Finland in late 1939, Norway sympathized with Finland, as “Norwegians felt a special closeness with the Finns, who they saw as hardy like themselves, not soft and effete like the Danes and Swedes.” October 1942 saw the Gestapo abducting Norwegian Jews– half of whom were assisted by various good-samaritan groups and individuals, in escaping to Sweden.
On more than one occasion, the aforementioned Gunnar, without being caught, was able to relieve German soldiers of their firearms when they had let down their guard. There was a close call, however, when an officer at the hotel where Gunnar worked, threatened to search Gunnar’s house. The teen was shaking in his shoes, as, “In his basement were a machine gun, three pistols, ammunition and a few grenades thrown in for good measure.” Luckily, the officer did not follow through on the threat.
Read the book for more of Gunnar’s adventures and interesting thoughts on how the course of the war was changed by various incidents.
The Book of the Week is “My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky, first published in 1913. This slim volume describes the first sad ten years of Gorky’s life (1868-1878), although throughout, neither dates nor place-names are specified. Gorky’s father died when he was very young, and his mother chose not to live with the author and her parents. His (maternal) grandfather was physically and verbally abusive toward him and his grandmother. Alcohol and violence flowed freely among them and his uncles, who ran a fabric-dyeing business. Gorky felt his character was shaped by the “various simple obscure people” he met while growing up. He learned to accept the way the Russians did, that “through the poverty and squalor of their lives, suffering comes as a diversion, is turned into a game and they play at it like children and rarely feel ashamed of their misfortune.”
His grandmother gave birth to eighteen children, but it was not made clear how many survived. She frequently told him stories and advised him on culinary and religious matters. Her meager income was derived by lace-making. She had learned the craft at ten years of age from her mother who had become crippled. Thereafter, they did not need to beg anymore. Sometimes Gorky’s mother put in a brief appearance and later she quickly disappeared, leaving nothing at all to be remembered by. He began short-lived bouts of formal education, and endured Bible-related and poetry teachings from his grandparents. By the end of his first decade, Gorky had fallen in with a crowd of kids his own age with whom he hung out on the streets, and was taking care of a baby brother.