Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

Foxcatcher

Friday, January 15th, 2016

The Book of the Week is “Foxcatcher” by Mark Schultz with David Thomas, published in 2014. This autobiography discusses the author’s experiences in high school, college and professional wrestling in the 1970′s, 80′s and 90′s, and his association with John du Pont.

Wrestling is comprised of technique, conditioning and luck. The season runs from November through March, and fans can be loud, obnoxious and profane. Schultz and his older brother, Dave, were passionate wrestlers. In 1983, they competed in the World Championships in Kiev, Russia. In 1984, they were the first brothers in United States wrestling history to win Olympic gold medals. During a time in his career when he struggled to make a living, Schultz put on wrestling clinics. He was employable in this capacity because he had been a global wrestling celebrity, hired by high school wrestling coaches. Wrestling is a nonrevenue sport. On the other hand, Russian wrestlers are paid to train and compete on the Olympic team.

John du Pont was an eccentric, super-rich donor to Villanova University who decided to start a wrestling program there in the mid 1980′s. Schultz assisted with that effort. John du Pont broke the NCAA rules in various ways because he could, just to be controlling. He produced awards ceremonies for himself. “John got a kick out of manipulating people to see if they would go against their principles in exchange for money.”

Read the book to learn the details of Schultz’s wrestling life, and du Pont’s actions in connection therewith.

An Irishman in China

Friday, January 8th, 2016

The Book of the Week is “An Irishman in China” by Zhao Changtian; Yang Shuhui and Yunqin, translators, published in 2014. This is the career story of Robert Hart.

Hart, originally from Northern Ireland, visited various ports of the world via ship before settling in Shanghai, China in autumn 1854 as an interpreter, a non-official member of the British consular service. In his early twenties, he started at a time of anti-government rebellion by two groups, Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and Small Sword Society. British merchants– angry about having to pay taxes when other nations’ traders, such as France, America and Portugal didn’t– were supplying the rebels with arms. Coastal cities produced ample rice, silk and tea. Unsurprisingly, there was corruption at the customs house.

Hart stayed at the British Consulate in Ningbo. He hired a cleaning boy, cook and an English tutor who taught him the Chinese language. Employed by the Chinese government, he moved up through the ranks serving Western merchants in the customs department. In March 1858, he was transferred to Guangzhou because Anglo-French forces attacked the city. He was skilled in diplomacy, and through the years, made friends in high places in the Chinese government. As for his social life, a colleague told him he could get a mail-order bride of sorts, a non-prostitute who was “…trained in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.” Nevertheless, he met someone on his own, and started a family.

Read the book to learn of Hart’s personal and professional relationships over the course of half a century; how he protected British interests in China and had an impact on China’s foreign policy, especially during armed conflicts among its own peoples and other nations.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography” originally published in 1936. This book on Indian history shows the reader yet again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Born in 1889, Nehru, who had much older sisters, grew up in a wealthy, multigenerational Hindu family of Kashmiri origin. After completing his elitist legal education, following in the footsteps of his father, he became an Indian civil servant and political activist in Bombay. He wrote, “All the bureaucrats in New Delhi do are gossip about promotions, leave and rules, furloughs, transfers and scandal.”

In the mid-nineteen teens, the Indian populace began agitating for Home Rule (also called “swaraj”)– breaking the yoke of British colonialism, and making peace among believers of Hinduism and Islam– two major Indian religions (amid violence in the Punjab in 1919, and other areas such as Bengal). In a nutshell, “India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads.”

Nehru’s father became a follower of Gandhi, who led the powerful, non-violent movement of civil disobedience, satyagraha. In the early 1920′s, a few million people participated in non-cooperation protests at Gandhi’s behest. Many, including Nehru were jailed with sentences of one to three years, sometimes with early releases, on and off into the mid-1930′s. Their civil rights of assembly, speech, etc. were severely curtailed, as was their ability to defend themselves in “show-trials” against the British authorities’ hastily conceived, arbitrary legislation outlawing the dissident political groups and their activities. [Sidenote: Authorities in South Africa (a former British colony) behaved the same way as the British authorities fifty (!) years later, against dark-skinned political dissidents under apartheid.]

Nehru recounted an ugly episode involving his mother. She was peacefully marching in a protest when police arrested her and bloodied her head, beating her with their batons. “That night a false rumour spread in Allahabad that my mother had died. Angry crowds gathered together, forgot about peace and non-violence, and attacked the police.”

As well, the spirit of the times involved youth groups and workers’ trade unions, who met to talk late into the night about the social and economic problems of the day. Socialism and Marxism were in the air. Nehru and other political dissidents urged peasant farmers to initiate a rent strike against their landlords. Gandhi launched a few attention-mongering hunger strikes in his attempts to effect political change.

During 1930, there were negotations for Indian independence. A new Constitution would have to be drafted with provisions on national defense, foreign affairs, financial and economic policy, and on what was to be done about India’s indebtedness to Britain.

Funny, in the mid-1930′s, Nehru could have been writing about current American politics: “It is very unfortunate that foolish and ill-informed criticisms of a personal nature are made, because they divert attention from the real issues.” Across the Atlantic, there was a “…Europe in turmoil, fearful of war and tumult and with economic crises always on the horizon.” At that time, India’s people were not alone in their suffering. There was more violence and death around the world due to fascism, nazism, imperialism and colonialism than now. Nevertheless, Nehru asked a question that is still relevant, “Were there any principles, and standards of conduct in this world, or was it all sheer opportunism?”

Read the book to learn Nehru’s answer, and about Indian history in the 1920′s and ’30′s, as seen through Nehru’s eyes.

Psychedelic Bubble Gum

Sunday, December 6th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Psychedelic Bubble Gum” by Bobby Hart, published in 2015. This is the autobiography of a singer/songwriter.

Hart started his career in 1958, at eighteen years old. He was signed to a management/recording artist contract, but he had to “pay to play.” It cost him $400– a lot of money in those days– for the privilege of recording, with other musicians, “A” and “B” sides of two 45-rpm records. His producer did hire top-notch talent, however.

In the early 1960′s, every weekend, Hart played music at high school auditoriums around southern California with already-famous groups such as Jan and Dean, the Righteous Brothers, the Coasters and the Beach Boys. He wasn’t paid for it, but he had to do it in exchange for the promotion of his records in Los Angeles.

This blogger was a bit perturbed by the author’s factually erroneous line, “… in the upscale New York City suburb of Riverdale.” The author’s producer’s Manhattan office contained numerous cubicles occupied by singer-songwriters, including Hart and his songwriting partner, Tommy Boyce. They cooperated well and weren’t credit-grabbers. In 1964, he and Boyce wrote a song for Jay Black & the Americans. He got 1/3 of a cent per record sold, because his two co-writers got royalties, too.

Read the book to learn how he came to co-write songs for The Monkees (who sold more records than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined) and The Partridge family, what transpired when he and his partner hired an aggressive manager, and how he built a successful recording and performing career.

A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

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.

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.