Archive for May, 2011

The Jack Bank

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

The Book of the Week is “The Jack Bank, A Memoir of A South African Childhood” by Glen Retief, published in 2011.  This autobiography focuses on the author’s realizing his gay identity in a specific generation– as a white South African male in the last years of apartheid.  While coming of age, he struggled with not only apartheid, but with “authoritarianism, patriarchy and cycles of violence.”

The author explains that his family was English, rather than Afrikaner.  The latter people were militant in nature.  He illustrates this point by recounting his experiences at nine and ten years old, of playing war games with his Afrikaner friend, and looking up to his friend’s father, a police officer, as a role model.

At twelve, he was sent to boarding school.  As a freshman, he was subjected to extremely brutal bullying.  Later, as an upperclassman, he himself did the bullying. He would have undergone this pattern again– in “military basic training, and then the whites-only conscript force… to control forty million black South Africans;” however, Nelson Mandela’s political activities finally succeeded at the tail end of the 1980′s.  Prior to that, Retief witnessed examples of the pattern again and again, at university and later in his black boyfriend’s violent, rundown neighborhood.

Read the book to learn more details of what growing up was like under South African apartheid, and what the author did to find his place in the world.

Irrepressible

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The Book of the Week is “Irrepressible, the Life and Times of Jessica Mitford” by Leslie Brody, published in 2010.  This biography recounts the life of the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, charismatic rebel.  Her motley English family included duke and duchess parents, two Nazi-sympathizing sisters, three other sisters, a brother, and she, who, born during WWI, was a Communist.

Jessica, nicknamed “Decca,” led an eventful life. In her late teens, she ran away with her lover to the United States. Later, she underwent an abortion, committed thievery from the wealthy social set with whom she rubbed shoulders, pleaded the Fifth Amendment on the stand at a McCarthy hearing, eventually gave birth to four children, raised money with her second husband for the Civil Rights movement, wrote several books including a very successful one on the American death industry, and grieved over deaths of various of her family members.  She enjoyed herself to the fullest, regardless of what others thought of her actions, falling in and out of relationships with her family members through the years.

In a letter to her unconventional daughter, nicknamed “Dinky,” Decca provided her take on life:

“One is only really inwardly comfortable, so to speak, after one’s life has assumed some sort of shape… which would include goals set by onseself and a circle of life-time type friends… Even after one has, all may be knocked out of shape, so one has to start over again…”

Leg the Spread

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The Book of the Week is “Leg the Spread” by Cari Lynn, published in 2004.  The author interviewed several current and former commodities-futures traders, providing detailed descriptions of their days at the market in Chicago.

Some traders, employees of a broker-dealer, actually stood on the trading floor, yelling and waving paper from the time the market opened at 8am until mid-afternoon.  Others traded online.  They had good days and bad days.

One female who formerly made a large amount of money on the trading floor before becoming burnt out, had many bad days, both because the job itself was stressful, and because the vast majority of people around her– practically all men– were sexist.  In many cases, the way for a female to get ahead besides having super luck, quick math skills and keen intuition about human behavior, was to sleep with one’s (male) boss.

Read the book to get a comprehensive, entertaining picture of the American commodities-futures market in the mid-single-digit 2000′s.

Piaf

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969.  This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.

Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as  her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her.   However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive.  Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent.  Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics.  At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.

The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame.  Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars.  Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.

Street Without A Name

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970′s and 80′s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.