Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Extreme Measures

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

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

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

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

Sunday, November 8th, 2015

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

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

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.

Silvio Berlusconi

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Silvio Berlusconi” by Paul Ginsborg, published in 2004. This is an extended essay on the media mogul/powerful politician in Italy. It examines the issue of whether Berlusconi practiced Fascism, not necessarily through creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, but through monopolistically broadcasting propaganda in the guise of education, to the masses. He combined his business dealings with politics to amass a staggering amount of power, with the usual conflicts of interest that come with the territory.

Over the course of three decades starting in the 1970′s, operating out of Milan, Berlusconi, a construction contractor, founded an ad agency and purchased TV stations that accounted for the bulk of Italy’s visual information sources. Later, he entered politics and bought a professional European football team. He was accused of racketeering, bribery and money laundering, among other crimes.

Berlusconi proved to be teflon, escaping punishment in the 1990′s. Not only that, he made a comeback– legally, economically and politically. As of 2004, he was still dragging his feet on answering the legal charges against him, in order to invoke the statute of limitations to weasel out of going to jail.

Read the book to get the details, and the author’s take on whether Berlusconi’s political career would survive much longer, given his outrageous exaggerations when recounting his endeavors for the people of Italy in 2004. The nation’s cost of living had soared and real wages had fallen significantly beginning in 2002.

The following video of Al Franken’s speech on America’s fiscal deficit is well worth watching in its entirety; he mentions a few recent American presidents’ economic policies (starting just after 23:00)– some of which can be compared to Berlusconi’s:

Lastly, Berlusconi’s reputation for alleged extensive law-breaking had been a “thing” for a long time.


Sunday, October 18th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Meskel” by Mellina and Lukas Fanouris, originally published in 1995.

This is the story of two families, two of whose members– the authors– married and lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) through the 1970′s. Their forebears had originally come from Greece to live in Abyssinia in 1926. Upon settling in their new country, wife and husband of one family– Evangelia and Manoli Fanouris, started a Greek restaurant, and newspaper and magazine distribution business/bookstore. Then they began having children; Lukas was one of the younger ones.

In late 1934, there was border fighting between Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. The Italians used poison gas against the Somalis. Although Evangelia’s brother Logotheti had designed the Royal Palace and had friends in high places, Emperor Haile Selassie still threatened Manoli with death because he sold foreign publications that were critical of the regime. Other untoward events occurred through the years, due to the Italian invasion and later, WWII. Nevertheless, the Fanouris did not leave the country, as their business provided them with a good life.

Mellina married Lukas Fanouris when he aggressively courted her. The families had known each other for years from the Greek community in Addis Ababa. She worked for the United Nations. In late 1973, Ethiopia was facing “… union unrest, drought in the north, and rumors of famine, allegations of corruption in the government and rising food prices.” Army soldiers were fed up with their living conditions and turned against the Emperor. Lukas’ parents lived richly, what with a five-bedroom, five-bath mansion, flower garden, balcony and verandas. But there came a time when they finally needed to flee anti-government strikes, protests and violence.

In September 1974, a documentary on Ethiopians’ starvation due to drought was finally released, after the military had taken control of the media. In December, the nation changed from a kingdom to a socialist state, limiting the imported reading material of the populace to Marx, Lenin and Engels. Businesses were nationalized and martial law was imposed. The new leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, copied other dictators in recent memory– Stalin (U.S.S.R.), Mao Tse Tung (China), Peron (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile) and Pol Pot (Cambodia), by ordering citizens to do hard manual labor on farms, telling them to take pride in feeding the country; and by imposing the usual witchhunts, torture, arrests, show-trials and imprisonment for political dissidents and members of the old regime. Not to mention the trampling on what industrialized, democtratic nations would consider due process.

Read the book to learn the details of how the authors survived the attack on their freedoms through the 1970′s, and the suspenseful survival saga of Lukas and his brother Pavlos.

The Antidote

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Antidote” by Barry Werth, published in 2014. This suspenseful saga is about the public drug company, Vertex.

Vertex has created the core substances in drugs that treat niche diseases, such as hepatitis C and cystic fibrosis. It has partnered with various other drug companies to use their resources.

Unconventionally, in the 1990′s, Vertex’s employees were organized into teams working on protein targets rather than those working on different diseases. The company’s teams were demoralized when they failed month after month to come up with a successful molecule.

The cost of American drugs is so high not just because the drugmakers are greedy, but because their employees feel entitled to a large reward for creating an effective product that does minimal harm to patients. They take tremendous risks– acquire pricey, extensive educations in organic chemistry and such, working long daily hours, suffer loads of stress from dealing with grant applications, patent disputes, licensing issues, doctor-insurer issues, undergoing the rigorous process of seeking FDA approval after laboring months or years on a drug substance– possibly applying for approval at the same time as another company with a competing product, and face the possibility of being laid off anytime. This is why life-saving, life-prolonging medicines are astronomically expensive. However, the drugs would not exist, but for the necessary evil of a greed machine that raises the funds to pay the price of creating them.

Vertex posted a “profit” of more than $2 million in the fourth quarter of 1993, even though it had yet to sell even one pill. Its financial arrangements with its partners allowed it to claim that its income exceeded its expenses. By the end of the 1990′s, however, there were still no actual drugs produced, and the company was likely many years and hundreds of millions of dollars from the market. It was thus a likely takeover target. Some of Vertex’s scientists and lawyers became avid day-traders of the company’s stock in the autumn of 2000, after a deal with Novartis.

Trading rumors fly all the time, and one influential analyst at a big-name investment bank might downgrade a drug company’s stock, causing a selloff. In the early 2000′s, there was an SEC accusation of insider trading against Vertex’s house counsel. Ironically, it is common practice for panel members of the FDA to receive financial support in research-funding from many pharmaceutical companies.

Those companies that are public must answer to Wall Street. Unsurprisingly, at numerous medical conferences, their executives spout cliches such as “…We believe it’s a matter of time before we break this disease wide open and make a really big difference for a lot of people.”

Read the book to learn about actions Vertex took in research, development and finance in order to stay in business twenty years while accumulating losses of more than $1.5 billion; the causes of its high turnover of executives; how it became more geared toward finding commercial applications with its research results, and how it had fared product-wise and financially by autumn 2013.

Trouble Man

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Trouble Man” by Steve Turner, published in 1998. This is a biography of Marvin Gaye. His father, a Pentecostal preacher for the House of God church, and violent drunk, was the third oldest of thirteen surviving siblings, born in October 1914.

Gaye was born in April 1939. His full name was Marvin Pentz Gaye II. “His Motown image was still that of a polite, handsome black man who believed in fidelity, success and family life… like his father, Marvin was misogynistic. The function of women, he believed, was to serve and obey men.”

Unfortunately, his life spiraled downward into drug addiction and promiscuity, not unlike another famous and popular peforming artist of a later generation– Richard Pryor. Read the book to learn the details.

Dean & Me

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Dean & Me” by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, published in 2005. This is a career memoir of one half of the super-successful comedy team, “Martin and Lewis.”

Starting in the mid-1940′s, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did live shows of banter, singing and slapstick, and performed in movies, on recordings and on TV and radio. They hobnobbed with “The Rat Pack”– other night-club and casino comedians and singers who included Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the late 1950′s.

Read the book to learn about Lewis’ complex, love-hate relationship with Martin, Lewis’ later solo career, and the nature of American comedic entertainment in the mid-twentieth century.

UPClose: John Steinbeck

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “UPClose: John Steinbeck” by Milton Meltzer, published in 2008. This is a brief account of Steinbeck’s life, in the context– superficially described– of the historical backdrop of his generation, including labor unrest, migrant farmworkers, political elections, The Great Depression, wars of various nations, and the then-literary taste of the United States. The author fails to mention stock market speculation as a cause of The Great Depression.

Steinbeck was born in 1902. At different times in his life, he was a journalist, novelist and short-story writer. He covered wars, wrote neutrally about unionization in America, and sympathetically about migrant farmworkers and their deplorable living conditions. When his novel “Of Mice and Men” was released, his publisher “… insisted John submit to the usual publicity projects for launching a new book: press conferences, interviews, book signings, cocktail parties.”

Read the book to get an overview of Steinbeck’s life and his times.