Archive for the ‘Collective Biography’ Category

Bonus Post

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel” by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, published in 2013. This is a story whose details get tiresome after a while, about the downfall of two powerful politicians in China in 2012.

One politician was Wang Lijun. To compensate for his lack of a college education, he added laughable lies to his resume, such as the entry for “a master’s degree in business administration through a one-year correspondence education program at something called ‘California University.” This blogger recalls that that was the fictional school attended by the characters on the late 1980′s American TV show, “90210.”

Wang Lijun also purchased an eMBA from the diploma mill of China Northeastern Finance University. During a ceremony, the president of Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications publicly announced that Wang held a PhD in law. He was frequently called professor, and certain media disseminated propaganda that he was a researcher, author, inventor and fashion designer. His real job was police officer and later, police chief.

In addition to his making myths about himself, Wang used the usual techniques of dictators to amass a tremendous amount of power. Unsurprisingly, “…Wang had gone through fifty-one assistants during his two-year tenure in Chongqing…” He wrongly accused businesses of engaging in organized crime, used illegal surveillance techniques, denied suspects due process in the extreme, and embezzled public funds. You get the picture. Bo Xilai was Wang Lijun’s rival. According to Bo’s intimates, as of March 2012, Bo’s family had larcenously obtained 100 million yuan; in April 2012, that figure was 1 billion yuan.

“Suicide from depression is common among leaders at all levels of the Chinese government” especially when they are “…under investigation on corruption related charges.” Read the book to learn: whether Wang Lijun used this way out, and about the international incident that he staged; what prompted Bo Xilai to act similarly to Richard Nixon in delivering a “Checkers speech;” about the governmental infrastructure in China that provided the means for Wang’s and Bos’ outrageous conduct; and here and there, about Chinese history– such as Mao Tse Tung’s anti-intellectual campaign of May 1966.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice

Monday, April 14th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Billionaire’s Apprentice” by Anita Raghavan, published in 2013. This ebook describes the investigation into the activities of a few Wall Streeters who were accused of insider trading in the past several years. Most of the accused happened to be of South Asian descent–from  Sri Lanka and India.

One concept the book conveys to readers is that it is unknown how many American securities-industry professionals are benefiting from insider trading, but the people in this book just happened to get caught because there was sufficient evidence against them to prompt the SEC, US Attorney’s office and FBI to go after them, rather than other possible offenders. The departments involved included the SEC’s Market Abuse Unit and the Department of Justice’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Task Force in the legal jurisdiction of the Southern District of New York (covering Manhattan and the Bronx, according to the author).

Another concept is that the investigating organizations and the securities industry are staffed with many people who, during their careers, switch allegiances. They might go from being a prosecutor to being a defense attorney, or from brokerage executive to government regulator, or vice versa. In this book the “old boy network” is alive and well. Arguably, conflicts abound.

Read the book to learn, among other extremes, about wiretapping (not the NSA’s), about one of the accused who “had several phones– at least thirteen– and he used them all” and a $30 million legal bill.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

“The Big Rich” by Bryan Burrough, published in 2009, is a long ebook that details the lives and times of the four Texas families who became extremely wealthy Americans from the oil business in the first half of the twentieth century. “They… became the country’s first shirt-sleeve billionaires… accumulated every toy of their age…” including lavish residences, private jets, boats, fancy cars and politicians (when they got into politics).

The editing of this book is a bit sloppy in spots. Nevertheless, according to this book, oil was first discovered in Texas in a well that was later named Spindletop in Beaumont, around 1901. The abundant quantity of oil found there caused a price drop that prompted a conversion from coal to oil among railroads and steamship companies. Suddenly, thousands of people sought to get rich quickly from oil, similar to the way people wanted in on the California Gold Rush. The nineteen teens saw a proliferation of automobiles requiring oil.

Read the book to learn all the details about the people, places, politics and peripheral issues (such as professional sports) associated with the oil industry in Texas over the next ten decades.

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

Monday, January 20th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial deptartments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Weathy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not adverstising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

This blogger skimmed “In the Heart of Life: A Memoir” by Kathy Eldon, published in 2013. This repetitive ebook begins engagingly enough, but turns into a catharsis for the author.

Eldon grew up in a Methodist household in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She writes, “Sometimes I think my entire family went deaf in the 1950s, when we weren’t allowed to discuss anything unpleasant in polite company. Nor, for that matter, were we allowed to argue, swear, or even cry in our household, not to mention say anything that might disrupt the perception that ours was a perfect home.”

A graduate of Wellesley in 1968, the author came of age in a generation of women who were expected to take up fabulous careers. The following year, she married and moved to London, and later had a son and a daughter. Her husband’s job took the family to Nairobi, Kenya.

The author tried to start a career but found that Kenya was stingy when it came to issuing work permits to expatriate wives. She soon got bored of the “…bridge parties, Swahili classes and tennis dates” in which other similarly situated individuals participated. Fortunately, she soon met some high-spirited, fiercely independent people.

Sadly, two major parts of Eldon’s story become a very detailed pity party; the first part– marital anguish– is similar to other females’ stories such as “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” (the book by Suyin Han), “Bridges of Madison County” by Robert James Waller and “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. The second part is truly a more traumatic occurrence, but her endless description of her reaction to it still becomes quite tedious.

Perhaps the author appears to be so self-absorbed to this blogger because she rambles on and on through a large part of the book about the aftermath of the incident. She admits that her awareness that her own and another person’s behaviors before the fact, are hurtful and/or life-threatening and worrisome to others, but the selfish behaviors continue, anyway. During the healing process, she overcomes her skepticism of psychics.

After the tragedy, the author helps to create a press conference of her own and the media’s self-importance at which famous newscasters, such as Dan Rather “implored the audience to be aware of the individuals who risk their lives every day to bring us the truth.” This blogger thinks this is a self-evident message, especially in war zones (and has its exceptions). Eldon writes that by the late 1990′s(!), increased awareness of this issue prompted press outlets to provide certain correspondents with life insurance and to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by news personnel.

Nevertheless, the first half of the book is suspenseful. The author deserves credit for revealing embarrassing, even shameful details about her past.

Read the book to learn what the author and her daughter do in their attempt to get some closure with respect to their pain.

Roses Under the Miombo Trees

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

The Book of the Week is “Roses Under the Miombo Trees” by Amanda Parkyn, published in 2012.  This is a four-year chronicle of a family in Rhodesia in the early 1960′s. The country at the time was comprised of three territories, one of which later became the country of Malawi.

When she was in her early twenties, the author, an Englishwoman, married a Rhodesian. They, as light-skinned people, had all the creature-comforts a former British colony had to offer: tennis, golf, bridge, swimming, and yachting. However, technology in entertainment and telecommunications was behind that of the United States. Few people had television in rural areas, and telephone calls still had to be made with the help of a live operator. One of their neighbors had a tennis court made of dead anthills, that had been shaped with water and sun-dried.

The author describes their social life and how it changed as her husband was transferred to different territories in connection with his employment; the birth of their two children, her love of gardening and the job performance of the household’s dark-skinned domestic servant.

Read the book to learn the details of the ups and downs of the family’s life, in their specific time and place.

Memories Before and After The Sound of Music

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

The Book of the Week is “Memories Before and After The Sound of Music” by Agathe von Trapp, published in 2002. This ebook describes the real lives of the members of the family depicted in the legendary movie and musical “The Sound of Music.” The shows were Hollywoodized versions meant to appeal to American audiences.

Agathe, born in 1913, was the second-oldest child, and oldest daughter of an Austrian family of seven children by the first wife of a WWI commander of a submarine in the Austrian navy. The wealthy, farm-owning family had ties to royalty, and so had plenty of household help. Nevertheless, the family encountered some hardships during the political, financial and social upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century.

The author tries to set the reader straight on her family history. For example, she writes, “… we did not flee over the mountains into Switzerland. There is no mountain pass that leads from Salzburg, Austria into Switzerland. We simply took the train to Italy.”

A nanny taught Agathe and her siblings German and English. They found low-tech ways to amuse themselves. “…We used our imaginations to turn a row of chairs into an express train and a sofa into a hospital.”

They enjoyed natural wonders during their daily walks. They visited relatives, such as their maternal grandmother, Gromi, who had a spacious garden along the lakeshore. Agathe took an interest in beekeeping, mentored by the headmaster of the local elementary school, on “how to catch a swarm and how to extract honey.” He provided her with the necessary equipment, including bee hood, gloves and smoker. She harvested twelve pounds of honey a few months later.

Agathe played the guitar, while her father and siblings played the violin and accordion. They formed an amateur Schrammel Quartet; if it had been professional, it would have played Viennese folk music in “… little restaurants in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, during the time of harvest when the new wine is served.”

The von Trapps became a famous traveling singing group by chance. In the 1930′s, they were encouraged to enter a yodeling competition, and they won. Then came singing on the radio. Austria’s chancellor just happened to be a regular listener of the show they appeared on, and the rest is history. The “Trapp Family Singers” sang in concerts all over the world into the early 1950′s.

Read the book to learn of the von Trapp family’s adventures through the years, among them– how most of the family members lost their Austrian citizenship but were automatically granted Italian citizenship, how they stayed alive even after refusing to comply with specific Nazi orders, and what led the family to start a lodging business and music camp.

Venus Envy

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

The Book of the Week is “Venus Envy” by L. Jon Wertheim, published in 2002. This book describes the colorful characters that graced women’s professional tennis in 1999, 2000 and 2001.  Those included the Williams sisters, Hingis, Davenport, Pierce, Capriati, Kournikova, Sanchez-Vicario and others.

Most tennis players who become professionals are pressured by a parent to make playing a career. Venus and Serena Williams’ father Richard filled that role. He had the promotional instincts of Don King. In the mid-1990′s, when his older daughter had just turned pro at the young age of fourteen, he predicted that both his daughters would play each other in Grand Slam finals. Most people thought, “This wasn’t a tennis father from hell. This was a tennis father from outer space.” He knew what he was talking about. Not only did he guide them to success, but did so without making them crazy, unlike so many other tennis parents who cause their kids psychological harm.

Tennis is a typical professional sport in that making money is the major goal. Tennis’ authoritative bodies that hold global tournaments, have a history of awarding less prize money to the women than to the men. The purported reason is that the women are less entertaining. This led to an interesting course of events in the early 1970′s.

The women also get treated differently at post-tournament press conferences, at which they are asked personal questions that men would never be asked. Another cause for complaints from the women is that the quirky ranking system awards more money to some players who have more entertainment value than playing ability. The system “unfairly punishes older, less attractive players.”

Read the book to learn more about why women’s tennis is the “world’s most popular and financially successful women’s sport.”

The Man Time Forgot

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

The Book of the Week is “The Man Time Forgot” by Isaiah Wilner, published in 2007.  This ebook tells the history of Time magazine, and contains the biographies of its two original business partners. According to this account, Brit Hadden alone came up with the concept for the magazine, and partnered with Henry Luce to create the publishing company for it.

The concept was to cobble together days-old stories from all the news outlets and retell them in a sassy way, intended to provoke controversy. Hadden believed “Controversy is unrest, and unrest breathes the spirit of progress.” In the mid-1920′s, one could get away with reprinting articles without crediting his sources.

In the nineteen teens, Luce and Hadden had developed a contentious but complementary relationship at the elitist Hotchkiss, a private boarding school in Connecticut, and then continued their teamwork on academic publications at Yale college. There, they competed in a rigorous contest whose prizes consisted of opportunities to work on the school newspaper. They both made the cut.

During WWI, the president of the college allowed academic credit to be given for military courses. In fact, the school became largely a military training ground in the war years. Hadden and Luce availed themselves of training but stayed stateside, although in 1918, President Wilson lowered the age of conscription to 18.

Postwar, consumerism abounded. “As households bought their first automobiles, washing machines and phonographs, companies plastered the streets with billboards.” The public spent its leisure time partaking of magazines, newspapers, books, movies and radio. Sensationalism had become big business.

More and more American residents were able to experience common entertainment. This was advantageous for the ad sales success of Time. When the magazine met its “rate base”– a minimum number of magazines being circulated among the public– it was able to charge more money to its advertisers. Direct mail was a budding advertising outlet for the magazine itself, of which it took full advantage. By the early 1920′s, Time had tens of thousands of readers.

It took several years for Hadden to convince the Post Office to classify Time as a newspaper, affording the national publication faster delivery from its sole office in New York City.

Letters to the editor (some were fictional, concoted by Hadden) was a favorite section of the magazine. The author contends that “Time remained the place to hear the full-throated call of the average American moron, expressing his prejudices with confidence and joy. Subscribers enjoyed reading such letters…”

Sadly, Hadden’s poor health resulted in his untimely death. Until he himself died, Luce was extremely reluctant to concede that Time was Hadden’s idea, and released propaganda making himself and Hadden co-founders. He failed to credit Hadden as the magazine’s true sole creator. Such deception boosted his ego and brought him undeserved honors. Such can be the nature of publishing and public relations.

To the Heart of the Nile

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

The Book of the Week is “To the Heart of the Nile” by Pat Shipman, published in 2004. In the 1840′s, when a little girl, later named Florence, was orphaned by revolution in the land that is now Hungary, she was sent to live in a harem.

By a strange twist of fate, Florence, with an Englishman, Sam, (with a retinue of servants) ended up going on expeditions in what is now Egypt and the Sudan to find the sources of the Nile, and stop the slave trade. They “made detailed observations on the climate, the terrain, the people, the animals and the plants,” all the while braving disease, near-starvation and tribal warfare. That last life-threatening condition required delicate negotiations with a tribal chief.

On one occasion, Sam gamed the situation correctly. He boldly “ordered his headman to raise the Union Jack… Sam asked these delegates [officials of the enemy tribes] how they dared to invade a country [the Sudan] under the protection of the British flag.” They obeyed his order to evacuate the area. The tribal chief who was allied with Sam “was awestruck by the power of Sam’s magical flag and… rewarded Sam with huge quantities of [smuggled] ivory.”

Sam refused to accept the ivory, as he was disinclined to tarnish his reputation with criminal and morally reprehensible pursuits.  He was more interested in exploration and annexing the Sudan for the United Kingdom.

Read the book to the learn the outcomes of Sam’s and Florence’s adventures.