Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Daring

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Daring” by Gail Sheehy, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an American writer best known for authoring the book Passages in the 1970′s.

Sheehy, a feminist, achieved great success in her life as a wife and mother with a career. That life was dripping with irony; in her 20′s, Sheehy attached herself to a powerful man– Clay Felker– co-founder of New York magazine. He initially provided her with the professional and personal life she would never have had otherwise. They had an on-and-off relationship for sixteen years prior to their marriage, during which she insisted on having a period of separation because she thought she needed time to grow on her own. She took advantage of numerous opportunities and worked hard throughout her life. However, she was still a product of her time, pressured by society to get herself a man in order to feel whole. As an aside, she established a credit history only in her late thirties(!)

Numerous people the author knew were experimenting with “open marriages.” She observed that those relationships usually erupted in “savage jealousies.” She had had a starter marriage with a doctor-in-training prior to meeting Felker. She was in her mid-30′s when she happened to hit upon a subject that struck a nerve– the different stages of life of American women. At the time, only men were examining the life stages of only their own gender.

Nobody showed up at the author’s first signing of Passages at the independent bookstore Brentano’s in Greenwich Village. In spring 1976, months later, the book hit #1 in the New York Times Book Review. Her friends and colleagues got jealous. “Writer friends now saw me as competition; if I was on the bestseller list, I had stolen their rightful slot.”

This book becomes a bit tedious at times, but the author’s descriptions of her life’s events and minutiae are part of her identity as a Northeastern elitist. For decades, she owned a summer house in the Hamptons, with a trampoline, swimming pool, herb garden, wisteria and linden tree. Her spacious New York apartment had a terrace. Through the years, she and her friends ate at fancy restaurants. She employed a maid and a nanny. She attended countless parties for philanthropic causes.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn how Sheehy coped with the passages in her life.

My Crazy Century

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “My Crazy Century” by Ivan Klima, published in 2010. This ebook discusses the life of a Czech writer from the 1930′s to the tail end of the 1980′s.

Luck was a major factor in why Klima survived WWII. His family was sent to the forced-labor camp in Terezin because his father, all-around handyman and mechanical engineer, was reputed to be an expert who proved useful to the Nazis. His father believed in socialism because “… he realized our society was corrupt, that it bred inequality, injustice, poverty, millions of unemployed, who then put their faith in a madman.”

After the war, there was momentary joy for the winners, but in Europe, people also possessed “… hatred and a longing for revenge.” The author, a teenager, had been conditioned to think of the Red Army as virtuous and the Germans as evil. In high school, he watched weekly newsreels of Comrades Stalin, Gottwald, Slansky, and Zapotocky; plus black marketeers, who were blamed for the consumer-goods shortages in Czechoslovakia. People who were considered war criminals– members of the old regime, traitors and collaborationists– were brought to justice through summary executions.

The author’s family had their house raided several times for subversive materials. Klima got a job with a construction crew, where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”

Housing in Czechoslovakia, as in other countries under Soviet influence, was hard to come by. The author, his wife and three-year-old son lived in his mother-in-law’s house for years. There was an average fifteen-year wait for better accommodations (a tiny apartment), unless one was prepared to spend about two years’ salary and join a co-op, or engage in a housing swap with strangers.

Read the book to learn the details of how Klima became a dissident reporter, novelist and playwright, how he: came to be invited to teach in the United States, and became disillusioned with the kibbutzniks in Israel and with the Communist Party; how he “… had been kicked out of all organizations and deprived of the possibility of working anywhere [he] might be able to employ [his] knowledge and skills.”

Bonus Post

Monday, April 20th, 2015

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao, published in 2014. This repetitive, short ebook consists of an extended essay, mostly critiquing China’s education system. This blogger critiques the ebook below.

But first, a cute quatrain by the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-P’o, translated by Arthur Waley:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

It appears to this blogger that this ebook was rushed to press. Sure, the writing is grammatically correct; there are neither typos nor misspellings. But this ebook has poor structure– the author’s thoughts are disorganized and there are glaring omissions of data that might significantly affect his arguments. The subjects of the chapters appear in an unexpected order. The author has a chapter on Mao Tse Tung, and another one later in the book, arbitrarily.

In a few topic areas, the author cherry-picks the evidence for, and provides only one example for, making his points in arguing his thesis: The United States is heading in the wrong direction in copying China’s education system. I happen to agree. However, there is hardly any mention of the United States at all in the book’s second half.

The portion discussing Coca-Cola and the fact that the author uses various books (secondary sources) as references, raises the issue of credibility of the book. The further from the original source of his references– the less credible it is likely to be, like a game of “telephone.” Supporting evidence for his arguments might be perfectly valid, but are harder to verify than original sources.

The information about Coca-Cola seems irrelevant–unrelated to education, and smacks somewhat of propaganda. According to this ebook, the company was a leader in pushing to lift the ban on the sale of American products (especially its own) in China in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Tse Tung. It started its campaign to do so in 1972, but the book fails to mention there were external forces (like a political one), that might have helped its efforts– President Nixon’s renewal of diplomatic relations with China that year.

The author discusses Mao’s policies extensively in this ebook’s latter half, but fails to mention a major cultural force that affects education– China’s one-child policy. This is a policy which puts extremely draconian restrictions on families to have only one child (preferably a boy) that the government has been imposing for the last few decades in its attempts to stem the country’s population growth. Neglecting to mention this, is a major omission, in that population growth affects school overcrowding and acceptance of students to schools.

Read the book to get the details on what the author does discuss:

  • China’s misleading standardized test scores;
  • the ways the Chinese government’s education policy is detrimental to society;
  • almost halfway through this ebook– Mao’s late 1950′s “Great Leap Forward” campaign to modernize China through scientific and technological innovations; the description reminds this blogger of the Benito-Mussolini-brand of Fascism in 1930′s Italy, a mentality based on nothing but propaganda and ego (minus the imperialism, in China’s case); needless to say, there’s nothing new under the sun;
  • what happens when people are pressured to raise standardized-test scores and rankings either by the imposition of punishment or rewards
  • how an advocate for the worldwide authority, “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) that administers a worldwide standardized test, has come to incorrect conclusions about China’s high performance in connection therewith
  • how China’s parents are going to extreme lengths to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education the children can possibly get because otherwise, the children will be considered failures in life, and
  • how, through the centuries, China has had its vacillations between focusing on authoritarian rule, conformity, hierarchy, rankings, standardized testing and other oppressive social, cultural and educational policies; and relaxation of those policies.

The author apparently believes education is meant to help prepare one for a profession, as he says, “As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens– job creators instead of employment minded job seekers.”

You Might Remember Me

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

As Bad As They Say?

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950′s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980′s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Behind the Gates of Gomorrah” by Stephen Seager, published in 2014. This book describes the personal experience of a psychiatrist working with violent criminals in a state mental hospital in California. He was the only medical doctor on his unit. The rest of the workers who treated the patients were psychologists and nurses. Some of the patients were faking mental illness because they would rather have been there than in prison. All the patients had taken human lives; some in gruesome ways.

Almost every week, there were emergencies with sirens blaring, usually due to patients’ poor impulse control. The patients would engage in physical fighting with eyeglass stems or other sharp weapons they fashioned themselves, just like in prison. But they hurt hospital employees too, even killed a few through the years. The employees were unarmed (unlike prison guards). The patients fought for their legal rights (like obtaining eyeglasses, which they would accidentally-on-purpose damage so as to get a new source of weapons). According to the book, on the author’s first day at work, he had to have ten stitches in his scalp when he was caught in the middle of a patients’ fight.

There was a tendency on the part of the employees to rationalize their bonding with the patients. It seemed to this blogger that the employees were showing signs of “Stockholm syndrome.” In some ways, the employees were actually captives.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question: “If lots of people are mentally ill, and the great majority are not violent, who then should we be worried about?” [the ones who go on shooting sprees] Here’s a hint:  It’s not those who have autism, OCD, depression or the “foil-hat-wearing, babbling street schizophrenic.”

Prisoner of X

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Prisoner of X” by Allan MacDonell, published in 2006. This ebook is a career memoir of an employee of the pornographic media empire of Larry Flynt. It might be recalled that Flynt was a champion of free speech, especially when it came to the dissemination of pornographic materials.

The main publication of Flynt’s empire is Hustler magazine, introduced in July 1974. Flynt established his own distribution networks for his magazines. This did not sit well with an organized crime group, which allegedly pumped a few bullets into Flynt’s body, rendering him a paraplegic in March 1978.

In the early 1980′s, MacDonell finally got a chance to work for the esteemed Flynt. Early in his career, he admittedly had trouble with substance abuse, partaking daily of one or more of the following: “… social opiates, medicinal cocaine, recreational painkillers or mandatory alcohol.”

In the late 1990′s after former president Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions had been revealed, MacDonell supervised the research that was to expose the sexual indiscretions of the American politicians who had criticized the philandering Clinton.

Read the book to learn the details of why Flynt deliberately reveled in playing the role of attention whore, the kinds of characters who peopled his organization, and the author’s own love life, interspersed with unsavory anecdotes of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in publicizing the skin trade.

Mama Koko

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970′s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. “Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.

Rita Moreno

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Rita Moreno, A Memoir” by Rita Moreno, published in 2014.

The author was originally from Juncos, Puerto Rico. She and her mother, without her father and younger brother, came to America in 1936, when she was five. It was traumatic for her to be uprooted from a tropical paradise to her aunt’s overpopulated, freezing, dirty Bronx tenement with its vermin and noisy steam heat radiator, the noisy el train nearby, and Irish and Anglo gangs roaming the neighborhood.

Moreno had a high-pressure mother who recognized and nurtured her talent by enrolling her for Spanish dancing lessons when she was six. She was performing in a range of genres the rest of her life.

Read the book to learn Moreno’s life history– the discrimination against her for her ethnicity, the awards she won that reflected her genre versatility, her lovers, and what led her to attempt suicide, among other details.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

This blogger read “The Coconut Latitudes” by Rita M. Gardner, published in 2014.

Until her early twenties, the American author was a shrinking violet. Throughout her childhood in the 1940′s and 1950′s, she was verbally abused by her alcoholic father, suffering physical symptoms of anxiety, thinking she had no recourse. This could partly have been due to the culture of her generation and unusual place of residence– the Dominican Republic, to which the father moved her, her mother, and old sister when she was five. Ironically, the father, an electrical engineer-turned coconut farmer, believed in education for his daughters. After a series of traumatic events in her two decades of existence, she says, “It hasn’t occurred to me that I might have a say in how I’m treated.”

Another aspect of the author’s coming-of-age environment was the unstable political situation in the Dominican Republic. At her fifteenth birthday party (1961), her friend told her about five men who were spying on them behind the shrubbery outside their house, in a rural village (like a small town) called Miches, many miles from the capital (currently called Santo Domingo). The teenagers thought it was “special government forces” looking for subversives. Incidentally, around the same time, under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, the United States’ own citizens were under scrutiny even though Joseph McCarthy’s systematic effort to purge the country of “Communists” was long over. Nowadays, it is no secret that the latest spying method is electronic surveillance through the World Wide Web. Spies no long have to go through the trouble of planting listening devices in people’s homes. In America, citizens are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty.” When the government is spying on its own citizens through electronic or other means without probable cause, it is treating them as though they are already guilty.

Anyway, the author writes, “I don’t worry that anyone will think Daddy is a Yanqi imperialista or that our family is in any kind of danger. We’ve been here too long.” It is ironic that the author was unconcernced that the government would oppress her family for perceived seditious utterances. For, her father was the one who tyrannically kept her family’s embarrassing incidents secret by suppressing any talk of them and forcing her to lie to anyone who asked about her sister’s whereabouts; she felt internal pressure to lie about her own well-being.

The author’s family was sufficiently “street-smart” to stay mute about politics. There had been stories in the news about deaths of certain people who spoke ill of the dictator who ruled the country. Nevertheless, the family was not harassed for dispensing with attending the Catholic church on Sunday. Other than that one episode of spying and surveillance of their mail, the family had basic freedoms.

The author’s mind was opened to career possibilities when she was living with her friend’s family (which was significantly less dysfunctional than her own) near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1966, the Apollo-Saturn projects and the race to land a man on the moon were creating jobs in the region. At that time, she was in the “eye” of the metaphorical hurricane that was her life. The calm eye “…has the lowest sea-level atmospheric pressure on earth” but it is ephemeral.

Read the book to learn of the author’s sister’s whereabouts, and the numerous “storms” in her life.