Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

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.

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.

Siberia Bound

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Siberia Bound” by Alexander Blakely, published in 2002. This is the personal account of a recent college graduate who decided life in the United States was too easy.

In the early 1990′s, the author moved to Novosibirsk, Siberia to see, with a business partner, whether he, fluent in Russian, could help a region of the former Soviet Union make the transition from Communism to capitalism. He and his partner borrowed money to buy cocoa beans and sold them to chocolate factories on credit.

Blakely wrote about Siberian culture. One amusing passage told of the detergent brand “Barf” imported from Iran. “Things got dirty all the time: In summer, it was dust and car exhaust. In winter, it was coal soot and body odor trapped by layers of insulation.” The relationship between Blakely’s business partner’s wife and her mother-in-law was less than friendly. This was partly because the wife spoiled her young daughter, and the mother-in-law was strict with her– the opposite behavior of mothers and grandmothers in American culture.

Sadly, the moral of the author’s story became “Be careful what you wish for.” He realized that the major cultural, political and economic changes taking place in his community meant that Siberians had become like Americans. They started riding in cars instead of walking. They ate fatty foods for lunch and the men stopped exercising. The women started going to aerobics classes at the gym.

Blakely thought that bringing capitalism to them would be a good thing. However, they soon developed an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Once they were made of aware of their severe deprivation by the media and increased their connections with the rest of the world, they became depressed. Previously, they had been happy due to their ignorance of how materially poor they were.

Read the book to learn of the sea changes taking place at the author’s business, which sold not just chocolate, but surgical gloves, potatoes and other products; and the formerly Communist community, over the next four years.

Another Man’s War

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Another Man’s War” by Barnaby Phillips, published in 2014. This ebook recounts two facets of WWII: how Africans– two in particular– fought for Great Britain, and why Great Britain fought in Africa, India and Burma.

The two teenagers, Isaac and David, from Nigeria and Sierra Leone respectively, were seeking adventure and thought they might increase their chances for a better future if they left their home villages. They would be provided with clothing and adequate food, be taught practical skills, and be paid, too.

Britain felt the need to protect the resources it was exploiting, such as food, rubber and gold, along the coastal cities (Freetown, Lagos, Cape Town and Mombasa) of its African colonies. Cape and Suez shipping routes needed to be retained. Burma, another British colony, had oil, rubber, tin and rice. Northern Burma was a crucial trade route for the Chinese, enemies of the Japanese.

In early 1943, Isaac, defying his father (who would have paid his secondary school tuition so that he could become a teacher), “signed up with the Royal West African Frontier Force, swearing an oath of loyalty to King and Empire with a Bible pressed to his forehead. He had become a British soldier.”

Some of the Africans were recruited through deception, such as those from Gambia; or by force, such as those from Nyasaland and Tanganyika. Their families didn’t want them to go.

The United States “had no interest in putting the British Empire back on its feet. And yet the British had become reliant on American logistical support, and especially American aircraft.”

Read the book to learn of Isaac and David’s experiences prior to combat, their incredible story involving the heavy attack on, and retreat of, their military unit behind enemy lines in the Burmese coastal region of Arakan, and the aftermath.

The Strange Case of the Mad Professor

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” by Peter Kobel, published in 2013. This ebook recounts the sordid story of a petty, vengeful university professor who was passionate about his field of study, lemurs.

Professor John Buettner-Janusch (aka “B-J”), of German and Austrian descent, was born in 1924. He grew up in the United States, but went to jail for evading the draft during WWII. “His desire for attention was enormous, and he never seemed to care much whether that notice was admiration, didsdain, or loathing.”

B-J eventually rose through the ranks of higher education while collecting a menagerie of lemurs that were subjected to primate research. People either loved him or hated him. He was like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It became apparent that he was also a sociopath.

Starting in the late 1970′s, he was charged with serious crimes. “…But much of B-J’s pretrial testimony formed a farrago of lies and half-truths, of the incredible or incomprehensible.”

Read the book to learn what became of this colorful character.

Even This I Get To Experience

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Even This I Get to Experience” by Norman Lear, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an alpha male.

Lear had a difficult childhood– had conflicted feelings about his irrationally optimistic, charismatic yet swindling father, and emtionally distant, narcissistic mother. He was: a creative intellectual typical for his generation, an excellent judge of people, and astute about human nature. He wrote comedic scripts with a partner starting in the 1940′s, when it was easy to get in touch with the performers of comic material.

Later, the workaholic author wrote and produced the TV sitcoms that characterized and changed the zeitgeist of America in the 1970′s. He created controversial dialogue and episode plots on ethnicity, religion and sex on “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” He learned that a fairly small number of fanatically religious people could cause CBS to phobically censor his work. However, at the first attempt of the network to stifle him, Lear stood his ground because if he didn’t, he knew the TV-ratings-obsessed (and money-from-advertisers-obsessed) “suits” or an ideological actor, would win all arguments from then on. More than once, situations became so heated, he threatened to quit.

From the mid to late 1970′s onward, Lear became politically active, meeting with politicans and starting his own patriotic groups. He also submitted all sorts of ideas for campaigns but, he writes, “… no matter how sincerely they seemed to listen, or how grateful they were for suggestions they couldn’t wait to put into effect, no one ever acted on a single idea I ever presented, not ever. Every bit of contact following versions of that speech had to do with my checkbook and my Rolodex.” This blogger thinks that in this area, perhaps the author naively failed to realize that a number of factors needed to come together for him to succeed: timing (his ideas needed to be recognized during an election year), money (he should have made a sufficient donation to the campaign); and content (his ideas needed to be on hot-button issues).

Please note: the book’s last section is a name-dropping bragfest. Granted, the man has bragging rights and is not an “outlier” by any stretch of Malcolm Gladwell’s definition. Lastly, unfortunately, this book lacks an index. But read the book to learn the details of: Lear’s trials and tribuations with the above, his acquaintances with U.S. presidents and entertainers, his business ventures, and his families, consisting of six children he had with three different women.

Mule

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mule, My Dangerous Life as a Drug Smuggler Turned DEA Informant” by Chris Heifner, published in 2012.

This suspenseful ebook is a personal account of someone who drove truckfuls of marijuana across state lines for tens of thousands of dollars per trip. In a college class, the author happened to meet a guy who ran a large smuggling operation. In the late 1990′s, this illegal business was booming in Texas, partly because some members of the Mexican army were accomplices. One time, when Heifner drove a load to Mexico, he witnessed the crash of a prop plane. The military rushed over to remove its contraband cargo before attending to the injured pilot.

Drug smuggling is a heartless business in which no one completely trusts anyone. Initially, the fear of getting caught was hard to stomach for the author because the punishment was so harsh, but the lure of the vast quantity of easy money was addictive. Read the book to learn what transpired when he did get caught.

Bonus Post

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.

The Real Deal

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Real Deal, My Life in Business and Philanthropy” by Sanford Weill and Judah S. Kraushaar, published in 2006. This career memoir describes how, over the course of about fifty years, Weill became a major change agent in the American financial services industry. His specialty became leading the execution of mergers and acquistions for the investment, banking, and insurance companies of which he was an executive and board member.

In spring 1960, he started a securities brokerage, actually on Wall Street, with three partners. The stock market was bearish in 1962 and 1963. Interesting sidenote: “The typical stock in the Dow Index had a price 23 times its earnings as this downturn began, compared to a multiple of only 10 times in the early 1950s.”

Through the years, he gained more and more power and accumulated more and more wealth. When he attended events at which he had to speak to stockbrokers, he adopted a policy of brevity, saying, “You’ve heard enough speeches– what questions do you have for me?”

Although the author fostered a corporate culture of informality and “Management By Wandering Around” at his own company, in many instances, he failed to take into consideration the culture of the target company. His strengths lay more in bringing the top executives of the parties together to do the deals, and negotiating the new management structures. It was ironic that he was such a poor judge of how the two cultures would mesh once the integration process began.

At times, Weill tapped the power of his friends in high places, one of which was the government. It helped him change federal law to allow transactions to proceed. For instance, prior to 1999, certain banking and investment banking services could not be legally offered by the same company, due to financial conflicts and possibilities for abuses. He and his cohorts had a hand in making the historic change so that people within the same company could offer their clients all kinds of financial services.

Weill describes a whole bunch of instances that provided evidence for the necessity of strict financial auditing laws. In just a few years at the turn of the 21st Century, greed had spun out of control in the industry, leading to the accounting scandals of Enron and WorldCom, the dot-com crash, and a major hedge-fund crash that requried a bailout. A terrorist attack didn’t help, either. By 2002, the chickens had come home to roost in the form of a bear market. “The regulators, the press, and politicians of all stripes…” played “the game of pointing fingers.”

And yet Weill writes, “…governance rules mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley (enacted in summer 2002) made it seem likely that bureaucratic needs would trump the fun of the business.” He also complains that businesses would have to spend more money preparing their financial statements. Sorry about that, Mr. Weill. Yes, pesky, bureaucratic, expensive laws reining in greed are no fun.

Six years later– same song, different verse… a whole lot worse. Need it be said– The more things change, the more they stay the same. History will continue to repeat itself, given human nature.

Read the book to learn the details of Weill’s career ups and downs and trials and tribulations. This blogger skipped the last chapter, in which Weill merely rambles on stating his opinions, and the endnote, which is an interview with his wife, whom he lavishly praises as loving and supportive throughout this ebook.