Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

Island Practice

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Island Practice” by Pam Belluck, published in 2012. This ebook discusses in detail, the life of a doctor who has been practicing general medicine and surgery on Nantucket for decades. He is a colorful character: having no qualms about cursing when providing psychotherapy (without a license); making house calls and treating patients at his own house; allowing patients to pay their bills through bartering; not charging indigent patients at all; treating animals as well; maintaining an extensive collection of operative firearms; occasionally allowing a needy person to live with him, his wife and three kids; and engaging in other offbeat pursuits.

Nantucket, a less-than-fifty-square-mile island in Massachusetts, is a socially isolated summer vacation destination for many wealthy celebrities. However, its year-round residents also need medical care, frequently for three serious tick-borne diseases, on which Dr. Lepore is an expert. When a patient has a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment, the doctor has them airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in the Boston area. In times of severe weather when aircraft are not flying, he must try to save the patient himself, by doing a Caesarian section or sewing up a hole in a duodenum in a case of pancreatitis.

The author prortrays Dr. Lepore as similar to the fictional TV character Dr. Gregory House in that he is often diagnosing “zebras” (rare medical conditions) rather than “horses” (common ailments) through his intuition and then heroically curing the patient while bucking hospital rules.

Read the book to learn of the doctor’s highly irregular approach to practicing medicine, the difficulties and controversies he and his family have faced through the years, and the precarious future that medical professionals like him face, with the introduction of Obamacare.

As an aside, it appeared that this book’s thesis, stated toward the end, is that Obamacare would force doctors such as Lepore out of business. This blogger thinks that that will not occur. The wealthy will always seek out the best medical care, and pay such doctors under the table if necessary, to obtain it. They will find the loopholes in national healthcare to avoid a bad HMO. They would gladly pay the fine for not signing up for Obamacare because the fine will never be sufficiently high to be a deterrent for making their own private arrangements for medical treatment. A major argument some people– not just the wealthy– have against national healthcare– is that it is unfair to make the healthy people pay the high medical bills of the people who knowingly engage in risky, self-destructive behaviors (smoking; poor eating habits, lack of exercise) that result in preventable medical conditions or that exacerbate certain conditions (cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc.) that require expensive medical care. [By the way, this blogger's medical bills were $0 last year and have been $0 so far this year (this includes out-of-pocket expenses)-- for you curious readers.]

Bonus Post

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

This blogger skimmed the book, “A Political Education” by Andre Schiffrin, published in 2007. The author, born in 1935 in France, discussed how his family survived WWII, and his career in American publishing.

Schiffrin followed his father, a prominent figure, into the industry. In the late 1940′s, “… there were 350 bookstores in New York City, ten times the number there are today.” The author received an American elitist Northeastern education, despite the religion he was perceived to be, and with which he himself identified (Jewish). In the early 1950′s, he was politically active in school– leading various organizations that spread their opinions and lodged protests in cooperation with other student groups internationally. Schiffrin opposed France’s colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam, and Soviet repression in Hungary.

The last third of the book contains the author’s lament over how, “In America, we gradually built a system of welfare for the large corporations…” Up until the 1970′s, in the industrialized nations of the world, the publishing business was used to making an annual profit of 3%. The philosophy of publishers was “…that the successful books should subsidize those that made less money”– like, ironically, with venture capitalism nowadays– because there will never be maximum profitability for every entity funded. Yes, the ultimate goal is to make money. Humans have a history of spawning unexpectedly wildly successful books and start-ups. But society benefits more than otherwise from a diversity of intellectual, experimental endeavors, even if they fail.

The atmosphere changed when corporate America got even more greedy. It was the usual story: When avaricious bean-counters take over a creative and/or intellectual realm, everything goes south. “Wall Street was looking for profits of 10 to 20 percent.” As can be surmised, it didn’t get them. This blogger thinks the author was naive in saying, “For the first time in history, ideas were judged not by their importance but by their profit potential.” Even in the 1970′s, there was nothing new under the sun.

Read the book to learn how the last three decades of Schiffrin’s working life saw radical political and cultural changes that adversely affected the book business in the United States. For instance, the major publishing companies practiced censorship due to American politics from the mid-twentieth century into the first years of the twenty-first. Schiffrin wrote that the Right wing felt entitled to control the Middle East. Communists and Islamists were interlopers; “… if things weren’t working out [with regard to America's takeover], it had to be due to traitors and subversives at home.”

As an aside, this blogger was reminded of two books Mr. Schiffrin would have enjoyed: “Wasn’t That a Time?” by Robert Schrank and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.

I Am Jackie Chan

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “I Am Jackie Chan” by Jackie Chan, published in 1998. This is the autobiography of Jackie Chan, a kung fu movie stuntman.

Born in April 1954 to parents who worked as household help in a foreign embassy in Hong Kong, Chan was frequently subjected to cruel physical punishment by his father. When he was about seven years old, unable to sit still in a formal classroom, he was sent to China Drama Academy, a boarding school. There, approximately fifty kids of all ages were taught kung fu, and for a fleeting time, basic academic subjects by a series of tutors. When Chan left the school after ten years, the kids numbered about thirty, due to attrition. Discipline was meted out with the painful striking of a cane on the hands by the master for even minor infractions. The master’s senior underlings were into bullying.

After leaving the Academy, Chan had difficult periods in his life as a young adult, involving a romantic subplot, poverty, more bullying, and dangerous physical work, among other adventures. He spoke no English. He could take jobs that required minimal literacy, but those were all menial, with no chance for growth. Formal education was not for him. He came to the realization that his career options were extremely limited because the only marketable skill he possessed was as a stuntman.

Much later, during the making of the movie, “Rush Hour” Chan writes, “Three insurance guys were standing around the director… It took several hours for them to rig padded mats so that they’d catch me if I fell… ” It took a while for Chan to get used to the hassles associated with litigious American culture.

The making of Hollywood’s movies cost many times more than Chan’s Hong Kong movies. Many American producers spared no expense whenever they needed props or equipment but stuck to a strict shooting schedule, which meant reluctance to re-shoot scenes that weren’t perfect. Chan’s culture in Hong Kong was the opposite. He would resourcefully use whatever props or equipment were on hand and re-shoot a scene innumerable times to get it perfect with no insurance, no… “private jets, no mansions, no luxurious trailers, no fancy food.”

Read the book to learn how Chan separated his identity from that of Bruce Lee, and became a director, producer, film editor and stuntman in his own movies.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

This blogger skimmed the tome, “Wait for Me! Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire” by Deborah Mitford, published in 2010.

The author described her life between the 1920′s and the single-digit 2000′s as the youngest of seven siblings in a royal family in the United Kingdom; the oldest was fourteen years older. She described her generation of females thusly: “Marriage was the career we all aspired to– we were not trained to do a paid job.” The children “regularly signed the [church] visitors’ book ‘Greta Garbo’ and ‘Maurice Chevalier” as a prank. The author’s father taught her to drive a car when she was nine.

Mitford wrote about various other aspects of her times: “Nearly all my contemporaries smoked, which was not only acceptable, it was usual.” and in 1937, “The idea of answering a dinner invitation with a note of what you could or could not eat would have been preprosterous and did not happen.” In June of that year, the author got to have tea with her mother, sister and Hitler.

Through the 1940′s and 1950′s, the author got pregnant seven times, but only three of the babies survived to adulthood; the others died in miscarriages or shortly after birth. She tried not to dwell on her own sorrow as she knew that her situation was still much better than other people’s during WWII. “There were already terrible sufferings of rationings, the indiscriminate bombings and the daily deaths of young servicemen.”

In the ensuing decades, the author found herself responsible for the management of seven households in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Her title became, “Her Grace Deborah Vivian Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.”

In the 1980′s, the author was speaking to ten influential journalists in New York City who wrote about tourism. She had just visited Graceland (Elvis Presley’s estate) but none of them ever had. Nowadays, the number of tourists who go see that residence is second only to those who go see the White House.

In April 1991, the Cavendishes celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with 3,700 strangers because the author’s husband placed an ad in the Derbyshire Times inviting everyone in the county who was also having their golden anniversary that year. A jolly good time was had by all.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Girl to Fell to Earth” by Sophia Al-Maria, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a member of Generation Y of mixed parentage. Her father was a Bedouin from Qatar; her mother, from the United States.

Al-Maria’s childhood began in America but her father’s job in the oil industry took him back to Qatar. She, her mother and younger sister then followed him. However, there occurred a serious rift in her parents’ relationship, due to the nature of his culture.

Read the book to see how the author learned to deal with switching between the two very different cultures while feeling a sense of belonging to both.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

This blogger read the book, “Yossarian Slept Here” by Erica Heller, published in 2011. This is the author’s autobiography. She is the daughter of a one-hit wonder novelist, whose book “Catch-22″ is now fading in the public’s memory. Heller herself admits she still has yet to actually read the book.

The meaning of the phrase “catch-22″ is still well-known– an ironic situation; for example: an inexperienced new graduate who is seeking employment cannot obtain it because employment is the only way to obtain experience, but obtaining employment requires experience.

Heller’s life is typical for her generation of a particular population segment– coming of age in the New York of the early 1960′s in an Upper West Side family which was financially comfortably well off. They dined out frequently, vacationed in Europe and in the Hamptons, and she attended a private school. For an unexplained reason, she fails almost entirely to acknolwedge her younger brother’s existence. She also mentions the religion with which she identifies (Jewish) only in passing– perhaps because her having a Jewish last name creates instant bias. The topic areas Heller turns to again and again, however, are: the building in which her family resides, the famous people her father knew, and her active involvement in her parents’ lives and how they emotionally manipulated her.

Read the book to learn about the rifts in the relationships among and between Heller, her mother and father, and the serious illnesses suffered by each of them through the years, coping with their “catch-22″ contradictions.

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

Monday, February 24th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant” by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, published in 1999. This lengthy volume contains the history of the six Slav Republics– Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia– from WWII through the late 1990′s, and the biography of a fascist, supremacist, genocidal terrorist– Slobodan Milosevic. His wife, Mira chimed in at specific moments. They had the usual traits of all tyrannical couples– extreme narcissism, hubris syndrome, refusal to face reality and vengefulness. You can see where this is going, if you’ve read your history.”Western leaders were loath to get involved in the Yugoslav mess.” They got involved insofar as to reap economic benefits and public relations kudos for negotiating peace plans.

Milosevic was born in August 1941 in suburban Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. His parents, at different times, died via suicide. During his decade-long reign, he was an undiplomatic megalomanaical micromanager, pursuing his goals through conspiracy, deception and force. He demanded mindless loyalty, discarding those who worked for him when their assignments were done. There was high turnover among his staff.

After the Communist Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, Milosevic stepped into the power vacuum. Tito had tried to foster the unity of different ethnic groups. To keep the peace, he allowed them to freely practice their religions. Serb nationalists didn’t like that. They wanted to be dominant.

In the early 1980′s, Milosevic was appointed Communist Chief of Belgrade by his friend, whose family was party-entrenched into the 1980′s. Then in January 1986, he was promoted to Communist party chief of Serbia. His friend became president of Serbia. Milosevic was largely responsible for installing his cronies to strictly enforce Marxism.

Different ethnic groups hated each other. For instance, the Albanians were sworn enemies of the Serbians and the Turks. Milosevic deviously was able to convince each side that he agreed with them. He used a divide and conquer strategy in addressing them, sowing seeds of hatred among them. He would eventually betray his aforementioned friend. Since he didn’t control the army or the police, all he could do was spread propaganda and incite crowds.

Milosevic had the newspaper Politika secretly launch propaganda attacks on his political enemies. He also secured the support of military and party chiefs. Only two groups opposed his usurping of power: the Communist Albanians and his wife’s father’s old-line Communist politicians. Milosevic’s wife disowned her father for that. His secret enemies also included ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims and Croats. He pushed for Serb nationalism, regardless of whether different ethnic groups supported Communism.

By the fall of 1989, Milosevic had seized political control of Kosovo and a part of Serbia with a high Hungarian population, and Montenegro too. In 1990, he rigged the presidential election for himself, with 53 parties as candidates for Parliament, most run by his operatives.

In spring 1991, there was serious opposition to Milosevic’s desire to take over all of Yugoslavia. In March, he and the dictator of Croatia met secretly to plan how to carve it up. In June 1991, he had no objection to Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia because it had virtually no Serb citizens. Croatia, also mostly Catholic, followed suit with its own secession. The Serb dictator had previously been able to eliminate democratic leaders through arrests, intimidation or corruption. Both he and the Croatian dictator incited violence and hatred against the peoples of other Balkan territories.

The Bosnian leader knew his nation was doomed because he saw how ruthless the Serb and Croat dictators were. Bosnia was 44% Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat. By summer 1991, the Serbs were warring against the Croatians. It was mostly independent military groups and not the Yugoslav army. The Serb men who had been drafted didn’t even want to fight. Men were forced to fight against their will. “The regime vigorously suppressed all news about malcontents and desertions. There were political killings of dissenters by the police and paramilitary members.” 

A rumor had it that there were 83 different armed groups in Bosnia, some mercenaries, in the secret pay of Milosevic. A group would go to a village and do ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The Croatian army did this too, demolishing mosques in Bosnia. The Serb dictator denied the existence of the paramilitary groups. There was lots of looting. He was careful to act as though he delegated authority for people on his staff so it would appear that he had less power than he actually had. He left no paper trail.

In autumn of 1991, Milosevic insisted that the nationalists and not the republics were the legitimate constituent units of the Yugoslav Federation. In January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic, separating themselves from the rest of Bosnia. The different territories voted on whether to go to war. The lands Milosevic had under his thumb voted yes: Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia voted no.

In spring 1992, the United States finally intervened by extending diplomatic recognition (recognizing a country as a sovereignty (independent nation)) to the Muslim government in Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Saudi Arabians had pushed the Americans to do so.

By summer 1992, villages were on fire; Muslims fled. There were detention camps. The Serbs were like Nazis. There had been torture and executions. Student protesters blamed Milosevic for the Siege of Sarajevo. In November 1994, a show-trial was held to judge war criminals. Milosevic’s government controlled the media. The idea of a Greater Serbia was dead in the face of diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the United States, Germany and other European nations. Disaffected nationals held secret meetings planning to overthrow the Serbian dictator. There was palace intrigue.

In late May 1992, the UN imposed a total economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Milosevic used the sanctions as an excuse to say the Serbs were a victim of worldwide conspiracy. From 1991 to January 1993, the Yugoslav citizen’s average monthly salary fell 97%. In a scheme of appearing to be conciliatory, Milosevic got an American business leader of Slavic origin appointed as prime minister. Against the Serb dictator’s secret wishes, the new prime minister wanted to democratize, Westernize and unite Yugoslavia, give it capitalism, and recognize the different nations’ sovereignties. But he knew he had to remove Milosevic from office first.

Prime Minister Milan Panic proposed that Milosevic resign and take a job as a drug company executive in California. Panic got high praise from Yugoslavians. The Serb dictator was hated. Even the media criticized Milosevic. However, the U.S. State Department did not support Panic because the UN sanctions were a delicate matter that the U.S. said needed to be discussed through the UN. Panic wanted the sanctions lifted. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in the war in Bosnia. Panic pressured Milosevic to resign but he refused. “Panic was in charge of the federal police and secret police but Milosevic controlled the Serb police.”

In October 1992 the Serb police took over the building of the federal police. Panic, fearing civil war, attempted to get the conflict resolved through political rather than military means. His cowardliness prompted the American government to throw its support behind Milosevic. A little later, Panic was a candidate in the Yugoslav presidential election. He lost because Milosevic rigged the election. Shocking.

The Serb dictator’s wife Mira wrote libelous columns in the newspaper. In summer 1994, desperate to hold onto his power, Milosevic attacked the Bosnian Serbs in a propaganda campaign; he had used them to acquire his power just five years earlier.

By 1995, the Serb economy had recovered from a steep currency devaluation of the dinar and its conversion to the Deutschmark imposed in 1993 by Milosevic. The dictator’s wife had welcomed large financial contributions from the newly rich, corrupt businessmen who manipulated the closed Yugoslav market. The state-run media made her book on economics a best seller in 1994. In 1995, she was elected to Russia’s Academy of Sciences. This was as much of a joke as Yasser Arafat’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read the book to learn what happened in the rest of the 1990′s. Or this blogger could just tell you: more of same. And a boatload of refugees.

The Outsider

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Outsider” by Jimmy Connors, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of the American tennis Hall of Famer.

Born in 1952, Connors grew up in Illinois. His mother and grandmother were instrumental in turning him on to tennis.  He started playing in junior tournaments at twelve. However, at that time, there was no money in tennis, so he played to try to get a scholarship to college. That turned out to be a moot point, as his grades were poor, partly due to an undiagnosed learning disability.

Connors was left-handed, and a two-handed-backhand player. Like John McEnroe, he was a hothead on the court and launched profanity-laced tirades when he thought the line judges were making bad calls. He became an “outsider” when he hired a litigious, greedy manager who shook up the then-professional tennis organizations of the early 1970′s.

Read the book to learn about the people who influenced his personal and professional life, and the people who shaped his generation of tennis players.

Married to Laughter

Monday, January 27th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Married to Laughter” by Jerry Stiller, published in 2000. This is Stiller’s autobiography.

Born in 1927, the author grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York and Williamsburg neighborhoods in New York City. “During the Depression, many husbands left their homes and moved into the bathhouses, establishments normally occupied by alcoholics and womanizers drying out after a night in the bars.” Stiller’s father went to stay at a bathhouse when his parents weren’t getting along. For a while, his father was an unemployed cab driver who had to feed a wife and three kids. During a physical fight over money, the author’s mother told the author to call the police. “Jews did not call the police– Jews fighting among themselves. The police would only watch and laugh. Encourage us to kill ourselves.”

 As a youngster, Stiller wrote to the radio station to get his family free tickets to witness the recording of Eddie Cantor’s radio show at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The author was then inspired to become a comedian.

“Off-Broadway theater was a new concept in 1947. It wasn’t Broadway. But it was theater.” After his discharge from the army, Stiller tried to become a stage actor. He ended up attending college on the GI Bill, the original reason he’d joined the army.

Stiller had this to say about the TV show “Seinfeld” on which he played George Costanza’s father: “The show was successful because it never apologized for the behavior of its characters. Nor do most people in real life apologize when they step over the line. The show mirrored not just Jewish behavior, but everyone’s.”

Read the book to learn about Stiller’s adventures in the army, how he developed his craft with a professor’s help, and about his life with Anne Meara– his partner in comedy and in life.

Yes, Chef

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

The Book of the Week is “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson, published in 2012. This is the autobiography of a famous chef. He was born in Ethiopia at the start of the 1970′s, but when he was three, he and his five year old sister were adopted by a Swedish couple.

Samuelsson grew up in Goteborg, Sweden. He enjoyed the suburban lifestyle of an industrialized country, including youth soccer. There were three posters on his bedroom wall: Michael Jackson, the king and queen of Sweden, and Pele. After ninth grade, Swedish schools channel students into a career-oriented or a university-oriented curriculum. In early 1989, after graduating, Samuelsson went to work in one of the fanicest restaurants in Sweden, “Belle Avenue.” At 21 years old, he supervised ten interns at a restaurant in Switzerland.

Because he was dark-skinned, Samuelsson encountered discrimination all his life– in the schoolyard and in employment. When he approached the restaurant “Bouley” to ask for a short-term internship, he was summarily turned away. The only famous black chef he had heard of during his training was Patrick Clark, who was ever rated only two stars by the famous restaurant guides Michelin and Zagat. Samuelsson writes, “When I had my own restaurant someday, I thought, I would never rule out someone based on race or sex or nationality…” He would hire all walks of life, due not to aiming for impartiality, but because he would achieve maximum cultural diversity.

To pursue his dream, Samuelsson thought he needed to continue to “pay his dues” in France. In order to get promoted, an aspiring chef has to “…completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your relationships, your social life, they are all sacrificed.” In France, there were no intermediaries between farmers and chefs. The former were direct suppliers to the latter. In Switzerland, “We relied on shipments of shrink wrapped or frozen specialty items and that resulted in chronic separation between our product and seasonality.” The traditional French chefs’ training included brutal bullying of underlings by the upper echelons–who were the only employees who had job security.

In February 2008, Samuelsson opened his own restaurant, Merkato 55, which had an African theme. This blogger thinks it’s an insult to people’s intelligence to use the name “African” to describe an eatery, or use it in a book title, for that matter. This blogger theorizes that the labeler thinks people are too ignorant to recognize the name of an individual African country. African countries are all different, regardless of stereotypes.

Samuelsson and his business partners were pursuing a growth strategy. “In less than twelve months, we were scheduled to open eight new restaurants…” There were nine hundred guests at Samuelsson’s wedding in Ethiopia. Read the book to learn about Samuelsson’s take on cuisine, his successes and failures in connection therewith, and his unusual familial relationships.