A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

Extreme Measures

The Book of the Week is “Extreme Measures” by Martin Brookes. This is a biography of Francis Galton.

Galton was born in Birmingham in 1822, the youngest of seven children of a wealthy, prominent family in the Victorian Era. During his third year at Cambridge University, Galton had a mental breakdown. Ironically, he wrote, “…life seemed a game, played for the benefit of a select few, and from which he had been excluded…”

Galton had two major passions in his life:  a) exploring Africa, specifically Namibia– where he reported on navigation, land formations, climate, flora, fauna and its tribes– at the time, territory uncharted by Europeans; and b) collecting data on humans and what made them tick. He coined the expression “nature” or “nurture” to describe the roles played by genetics or the environment on people’s behavior and circumstances. He also labeled the statistical concepts of “regression” and “correlation.”

“Eugenics, his socio-scientific philosophy of the future would be built, according to Galton, on a solid foundation of knowledge, and exercised through a ruthless system of competitive examinations.”

Through the decades, other science projects of Galton’s included but were not limited to tea brewing, and a fingerprints database for law enforcement. Read the book to learn of the contents of the resulting publications, and how Galton seized upon the intellectual ideas of his generation, in a way that allowed him to achieve a minor footnote in the history books.

The Queen of Katwe

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

What’s So Funny

The Book of the Week is “What’s So Funny?” by Tim Conway with Jane Scovell, published in 2013. This is the comedian’s autobiography. An only child born in December 1933 to an Irish father and Romanian mother, he grew up in a suburb of Cleveland. The former groomed horses and the latter made slipcovers for sofas at a time they were becoming popular in American living rooms. Conway is best known for acting on the Carol Burnett Show.

Conway started gaining experience in an entertainment career in his mid-20’s, at a Cleveland radio station. When he had “made it” on TV, he performed material he had written himself. In the early 1960’s, Steve Allen, the late-night talk-show host, told Conway to change his first name from Tom to Tim, because there was another performer named Tom Conway, so he did.

Read the book to learn of the antics Conway used to break into show business in his generation, and of the characters who populated his life.

Michelle Obama

The Book of the Week is “Michelle Obama” by Peter Slevin, published in 2015. In this biography, the author writes that Michelle possesses the skills, talents and abilities of a politician. She is a great public speaker who appeals to blacks of all economic classes. However, the book also implies that she is looking forward to living a life free of the political spotlight and its attendant stresses.

Initially, the book describes the historical backdrop of Michelle’s generation as much as a general overview of her life, and then, Barack’s political life. She is a rare bird, having risen from humble beginnings in Chicago. She is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as an “outlier.” She grew up in a loving but strict home environment where her parents had high expectations for her, and believed that success could be achieved through hard work. After receiving an elitist education, she became a community organizer. She was able to raise a family while managing her high-powered career despite her politician-husband’s frequent absences, because she got assistance from relatives and close friends, who also rose to prominence and prosperity.

It will be recalled that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack was attacked on various fronts– his beliefs, nationality and high school and college lifestyle. His skin color also evoked the controversial debate on the root causes of black disadvantage.

Michelle’s experience in community organizing came in handy on the campaign trail, enabling her to: exchange personal stories, make one-on-one connections, gather a following and inspire voters and volunteers to lead. Nevertheless, by 2012, Michelle had been characterized as elitist, socialist and militant by her critics.

Upon his election, Barack faced a difficult state of affairs. For, “The $236 billion surplus at the end of the Clinton years turned into a $1.3 trillion deficit under George W. Bush, thanks to substantial Republican-inspired tax cuts for the wealthy and a pair of wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, churning along without end.” Not to mention a recession. Meanwhile, as First Lady, Michelle was expected to hire and supervise staff to work in the the White House, where there are 36 rooms, including 11 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms.

Read the book to learn of the three major political initiatives Michelle launched:  Let’s Move, Joining Forces and Reach Higher, and the details of her life and times.