Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

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.

Bonus Post

Monday, January 19th, 2015

This blogger read most of the book, “All Things Possible, Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life” by Andrew Cuomo, published in 2014. This career memoir tells how the author has followed in his father’s footsteps, building a life for himself in New York State politics as a bleeding-heart liberal. Of course, the timing of this book’s release coincided with his re-election campaign for governor of New York State.

As a side note, in mid-July 2014, this blogger heard a smear campaign against Cuomo’s opponent, Rob Astorino, in the guise of a short telephone survey. The wording of the questions was quite biased. The questions went something like, “If you knew Astorino was against abortion, and Cuomo favored women’s reproductive rights, would you vote for Astorino, or Cuomo?” and “If you knew Astorino raised property taxes in Westchester…” This blogger was turned off by this dirty campaigning by the Cuomo camp. It is inappropriate at any time, but completely unnecessary because Cuomo was the incumbent in a race in which there would be extremely low voter turnout. He was destined to be overwhelmingly reelected regardless. That is the kind of seemingly minor slur that could make or break a close election; obviously an aspect of politics Cuomo forgot to mention in this book.

In the mid-1980′s, due to his New-York-State-governor-father’s power and influence, Cuomo enjoyed an immediate meteoric rise in practicing law. Cuomo became a partner at a law firm whose members had close ties to his father. This, after graduating law school and serving as an Assistant District Attorney for only one year. The usual time frame for making partner for the most brilliant Northeastern elitists who billed the most client-hours at New York City’s top law firms at that time was five to eight years, and even then, it was akin to winning the lottery. This makes Cuomo more of an “outlier” (according to Malcolm Gladwell) than Bill Gates, who worked around the clock for years before achieving fame and developing a reputation for expertise in a particular field.

Nevertheless, through the decades, Cuomo has implemented many policy changes and racked up achievements as New York State Attorney General and Governor. According to this book, he is a man of action. In the late 1980′s, he improved the quality of life of thousands of people through “HELP,” the nonprofit organization he created. It built temporary housing for the homeless and oversaw the attempts to improve other aspects of their lives, through drug rehabilitation and job training.

At the start of President Bill Clinton’s first term, Cuomo arrived at Housing and Urban Development. The federal agency had been in disarray for years, having lost billions of dollars to “…fraud, theft, mismanagement and favoritism.” Cuomo helped reallocate funds for a multi-billion dollar program more fairly. He writes that Clinton implemented a policy that applied both Republican and Democratic ideologies, respectively: a) “… the private sector, not government, creates jobs and wealth” and b) the culturally disadvantaged will help themselves if they get government services such as education, training, etc. At HUD, under Cuomo’s leadership, the gravy train ended for slumlords.

Read the book to understand the details of the political and life lessons Cuomo has learned, find out everything you ever wanted to know about his administration’s legislative actions on same-sex marriage and gun control, and his personal values and family life.

Outwitting History

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” by Aaron Lansky, published in 2005. The author of this ebook, passionate about the Yiddish language and the culture and history behind it, made a career of preserving books in Yiddish by physically transporting them to an eventual library he and a few others started.

Lansky attended a Northeastern free-spirited college, Hampshire, where he was afforded the opportunity to become fluent in Yiddish. Teaching of the language between generations has been uneven because different factions of Jews have different opinions of it so that its popularity has risen and fallen through the centuries. Lansky felt a sense of immediacy about saving Yiddish literature because he was told that scholars “…estimated that there were seventy thousand Yiddish volumes extant and recoverable in North America” and he was finding out that books were being destroyed for diverse reasons in various ways.

Funding and fundraising have always been a challenge for the author through the decades. To pick up hundreds of Yiddish volumes at once, say, from the home of an intellectual Jew who had passed away, he needed to pay for: renting a truck, gas, insurance, travel expenses, storage, etc. Lecturing has also been a source of money for his endeavors.

Read the book to learn how the National Yiddish Book Center was formed, how he recruited other people to help him with collecting books, the social and cultural organizations to which he traveled to collect them, the food he was pressured to eat while meeting a lot of volunteers of the older generation who shared his love of, and desire to keep Yiddish alive, and how his organization is harnessing modern technology to attain its aims.

Molly Ivins

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960′s and 1970′s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.