Against the Grain

The Book of the Week is “Against the Grain” by Boris Yeltsin, published in 1990. This is the career memoir of the Soviet politician.

Born in 1931, Yeltsin always had a keen sense of justice that got him into trouble.  For, his country’s leadership ruled by fear, force and deferment to the head of state for ultimate authority on all matters, rather than (like in the U.S.) open discussion, checks and balances, and consensus more or less.

After graduating from university, he learned all twelve building trades– carpenter, plasterer, glazier, painter, etc. He then decided to put his management skills to work for the Soviet government in the 1970’s.

Yeltsin was First Party Secretary in Sverdlovsk for nineteen years. He started a chess club after Anatoly Karpov complained that there was none in his district. He also organized a local volleyball team, as that was his favorite sport. He built a road and improved the housing of the worst-off citizens there.

By the early 1980’s, the government of the U.S.S.R. had fallen into stagnation under a lack of strong leadership from Leonid Brezhnev.

Crooked backroom deals were the norm, as top government officials were resistant to sacrifice their lavish perks in order to serve their nation’s citizens. Such perks included use of a luxury dacha, a car and driver available 24/7, the highest level of medical expertise the country had to offer, and a variety of expensive foods that were unavailable to the general population. Even so, because all of these were actually State-owned, the top government official (Gorbachev) could confiscate any of them on a whim. Furthermore, Yeltsin wrote, “It had been drummed into everyone from kindergarten onward that we were supposed to thank the Party [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] for all our achievements.”

Gorbachev’s attempts to reform his nation’s government resulted in two linguistic terms that were tossed around for a decade or so:  glasnost and perestroika. Yeltsin had a strong desire to implement the policies they were supposed to represent. A sign that the former was working, was the unprecedented Moscow newspaper coverage of stories on vice and corruption among local politicians. However, it took some years for the author and others to engender the power struggle required to get the country moving again.

In June of 1988, the author delivered a government-conference speech that contained the following: “Clearly, we all need to master the rules of political discussion, to tolerate dissenting opinions as Lenin did; not to hang labels on people and not to regard them as heretics.”

Read the book to learn how the author came to hold different Moscow political positions while numerous government officials and organizations tried to discredit him and ruin his reputation; and of his proposals to improve the governance of the then-Soviet Union.

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue

The Book of the Week is “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” by Robert Klein, published in 1991. This is a compilation of the moments most memorable to the author during the first 25 years of his existence.

The author grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s and 50’s. He attended P.S. 94 and DeWitt Clinton High School. His first college year was spent trying to fulfill his parents’ dream of having a doctor for a son. However, he possessed much greater talent in the performing arts.

In 1967, after he had been “discovered,” Klein, doing standup comedy, was mentored by Rodney Dangerfield at the Improvisation Club in Manhattan.

Read the book to learn of the author’s career success, of his many sexual encounters, and one during which “She wanted it from every conceivable position, and with such passion and ferocity that I feared the occupants of the adjacent room would call the police or an ambulance.”

Living History

The Book of the Week is “Living History” by Chaim Herzog, published in 1996. This autobiography describes the life of a Jew who participated in Palestine’s military and political life before, during and after its birth as the state of Israel.

Herzog’s father was named chief rabbi of Ireland in mid-1919.  As a teenager, the author chose to leave Ireland to attend school in Palestine. At that time, there were three competing, underground intelligence services in Palestine: the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Group.  The author joined the Haganah. His father was named chief rabbi of Palestine in 1937.

In 1938, the author started his undergraduate years in London, then studied law at Cambridge University. Upon graduating in 1941, he immediately volunteered for the British Army. As an intelligence officer, he interrogated German prisoners of war.

After the war, Herzog’s father helped orphaned children who had previously had a Jewish identity to move to Palestine, fighting against their conversions by the Catholic Church, which had hidden and taken care of them during the war. Herzog himself helped promote the settling of Jews in Palestine.

The author married Aura Eban, daughter of Abba. Originally from Egypt, she completed a special program that enabled her to join the Israeli diplomatic corps, then in its infancy. Herzog and his wife worked in the most dangerous areas of Jerusalem. During Israel’s war for independence, the enemies’ (Arabs’) terrorist car bombs were all the rage.

In 1949, truces were signed with Israel and its neighbors– Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization meant that “Any Arab politician who was visibly friendly toward Israel faced serious, often fatal, repercussions” from retaliatory terrorist attacks.

David Ben Gurion watched television in Oxford and “…decided it was the ruin of mankind.” That was why Israel’s people were unable to have a television in their homes until 1968.

In autumn 1984, after a new government was formed in the country, (according to the author) Prime Minister Shimon Peres performed an economic miracle.  He had reduced the inflation rate from 450% in July to 20% in October, via an agreement among the government, the trade unions and industrialists. The resulting 30% compensation decrease of the unions curbed unemployment and saved the economy. However, he still failed to achieve world peace. And cure cancer.

Read the book to learn of what transpired when the French were looking to withdraw troops from Algeria, of the Israeli government’s internal power struggles in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, of the political positions held by the author, and what he accomplished in each of them through the decades.