As Bad As They Say?

April 12th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950′s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980′s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

Behind the Gates of Gomorrah

April 5th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Behind the Gates of Gomorrah” by Stephen Seager, published in 2014. This book describes the personal experience of a psychiatrist working with violent criminals in a state mental hospital in California. He was the only medical doctor on his unit. The rest of the workers who treated the patients were psychologists and nurses. Some of the patients were faking mental illness because they would rather have been there than in prison. All the patients had taken human lives; some in gruesome ways.

Almost every week, there were emergencies with sirens blaring, usually due to patients’ poor impulse control. The patients would engage in physical fighting with eyeglass stems or other sharp weapons they fashioned themselves, just like in prison. But they hurt hospital employees too, even killed a few through the years. The employees were unarmed (unlike prison guards). The patients fought for their legal rights (like obtaining eyeglasses, which they would accidentally-on-purpose damage so as to get a new source of weapons). According to the book, on the author’s first day at work, he had to have ten stitches in his scalp when he was caught in the middle of a patients’ fight.

There was a tendency on the part of the employees to rationalize their bonding with the patients. It seemed to this blogger that the employees were showing signs of “Stockholm syndrome.” In some ways, the employees were actually captives.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question: “If lots of people are mentally ill, and the great majority are not violent, who then should we be worried about?” [the ones who go on shooting sprees] Here’s a hint:  It’s not those who have autism, OCD, depression or the “foil-hat-wearing, babbling street schizophrenic.”

Prisoner of X

March 29th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Prisoner of X” by Allan MacDonell, published in 2006. This ebook is a career memoir of an employee of the pornographic media empire of Larry Flynt. It might be recalled that Flynt was a champion of free speech, especially when it came to the dissemination of pornographic materials.

The main publication of Flynt’s empire is Hustler magazine, introduced in July 1974. Flynt established his own distribution networks for his magazines. This did not sit well with an organized crime group, which allegedly pumped a few bullets into Flynt’s body, rendering him a paraplegic in March 1978.

In the early 1980′s, MacDonell finally got a chance to work for the esteemed Flynt. Early in his career, he admittedly had trouble with substance abuse, partaking daily of one or more of the following: “… social opiates, medicinal cocaine, recreational painkillers or mandatory alcohol.”

In the late 1990′s after former president Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions had been revealed, MacDonell supervised the research that was to expose the sexual indiscretions of the American politicians who had criticized the philandering Clinton.

Read the book to learn the details of why Flynt deliberately reveled in playing the role of attention whore, the kinds of characters who peopled his organization, and the author’s own love life, interspersed with unsavory anecdotes of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in publicizing the skin trade.

Mama Koko

March 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen” by Lisa J. Shannon, published in 2015.

This ebook is the product of the author’s interview of two generations of a family from the Congo, starting in the 1970′s (the anecdotes’ time frames are rarely specified). The book documents the fates of many of its members– victims of the ongoing system of violence, perpetrated by a political group called the LRA, which had migrated from Uganda. Shannon starts with biographical information on the matriarch of the family, Mama Koko.

Mama Koko’s elders arranged her marriage for her when she was a baby: “…she was called out of class at the age of twelve. Her classmates and the nuns watched as the young beauty in her Catholic-school uniform arrived in the mission’s courtyard garden to find a strange old man waiting for her, introducing himself as her husband.” She was rebellious and rejected him. She put off a life of servitude for three years in order to finish the fifth grade; after which, the priest finally pressured her, under threat of death, to accept her fate.

The culture in the Congo is to ask “Who is your family?” the same way Americans ask “What do you do?” when meeting people. Their livelihoods were mostly agricultural– growing cotton, coffee, cassava, rice and peanuts. The core family of the story ran a plantation and a shop. The people also practiced polygamy. “Andre and his only brother Alexander were both sons of Game, who had four wives and forty-three children.”

The author suffered an attack of conscience, fantasizing about adopting a deprived child when she personally visited Congo. She saw for herself the life-threatening conditions under which the Congolese lived every day, even in geographic areas of relative calm. “I’d heard the snarky comments back home about white-savior complexes; I understood I was trampling too far into cultural sensitivities.”

Read this depressing ebook to learn the various ways people died (most of the time shot on the spot) at the hands of ruthless child-soldiers who themselves were tortured and drugged to make them kill villagers. One bright spot was that an American Peace Corps volunteer was able to provide a better life for one female in the family. They moved to the United States.

Rita Moreno

March 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Rita Moreno, A Memoir” by Rita Moreno, published in 2014.

The author was originally from Juncos, Puerto Rico. She and her mother, without her father and younger brother, came to America in 1936, when she was five. It was traumatic for her to be uprooted from a tropical paradise to her aunt’s overpopulated, freezing, dirty Bronx tenement with its vermin and noisy steam heat radiator, the noisy el train nearby, and Irish and Anglo gangs roaming the neighborhood.

Moreno had a high-pressure mother who recognized and nurtured her talent by enrolling her for Spanish dancing lessons when she was six. She was performing in a range of genres the rest of her life.

Read the book to learn Moreno’s life history– the discrimination against her for her ethnicity, the awards she won that reflected her genre versatility, her lovers, and what led her to attempt suicide, among other details.

Bonus Post

March 11th, 2015

This blogger read “The Coconut Latitudes” by Rita M. Gardner, published in 2014.

Until her early twenties, the American author was a shrinking violet. Throughout her childhood in the 1940′s and 1950′s, she was verbally abused by her alcoholic father, suffering physical symptoms of anxiety, thinking she had no recourse. This could partly have been due to the culture of her generation and unusual place of residence– the Dominican Republic, to which the father moved her, her mother, and old sister when she was five. Ironically, the father, an electrical engineer-turned coconut farmer, believed in education for his daughters. After a series of traumatic events in her two decades of existence, she says, “It hasn’t occurred to me that I might have a say in how I’m treated.”

Another aspect of the author’s coming-of-age environment was the unstable political situation in the Dominican Republic. At her fifteenth birthday party (1961), her friend told her about five men who were spying on them behind the shrubbery outside their house, in a rural village (like a small town) called Miches, many miles from the capital (currently called Santo Domingo). The teenagers thought it was “special government forces” looking for subversives. Incidentally, around the same time, under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, the United States’ own citizens were under scrutiny even though Joseph McCarthy’s systematic effort to purge the country of “Communists” was long over. Nowadays, it is no secret that the latest spying method is electronic surveillance through the World Wide Web. Spies no long have to go through the trouble of planting listening devices in people’s homes. In America, citizens are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty.” When the government is spying on its own citizens through electronic or other means without probable cause, it is treating them as though they are already guilty.

Anyway, the author writes, “I don’t worry that anyone will think Daddy is a Yanqi imperialista or that our family is in any kind of danger. We’ve been here too long.” It is ironic that the author was unconcerned that the government would oppress her family for perceived seditious utterances. For, her father was the one who tyrannically kept her family’s embarrassing incidents secret by suppressing any talk of them and forcing her to lie to anyone who asked about her sister’s whereabouts; she felt internal pressure to lie about her own well-being.

The author’s family was sufficiently “street-smart” to stay mute about politics. There had been stories in the news about deaths of certain people who spoke ill of the dictator who ruled the country. Nevertheless, the family was not harassed for dispensing with attending the Catholic church on Sunday. Other than that one episode of spying and surveillance of their mail, the family had basic freedoms.

The author’s mind was opened to career possibilities when she was living with her friend’s family (which was significantly less dysfunctional than her own) near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1966, the Apollo-Saturn projects and the race to land a man on the moon were creating jobs in the region. At that time, she was in the “eye” of the metaphorical hurricane that was her life. The calm eye “…has the lowest sea-level atmospheric pressure on earth” but it is ephemeral.

Read the book to learn of the author’s sister’s whereabouts, and the numerous “storms” in her life.

Siberia Bound

March 8th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Siberia Bound” by Alexander Blakely, published in 2002. This is the personal account of a recent college graduate who decided life in the United States was too easy.

In the early 1990′s, the author moved to Novosibirsk, Siberia to see, with a business partner, whether he, fluent in Russian, could help a region of the former Soviet Union make the transition from Communism to capitalism. He and his partner borrowed money to buy cocoa beans and sold them to chocolate factories on credit.

Blakely wrote about Siberian culture. One amusing passage told of the detergent brand “Barf” imported from Iran. “Things got dirty all the time: In summer, it was dust and car exhaust. In winter, it was coal soot and body odor trapped by layers of insulation.” The relationship between Blakely’s business partner’s wife and her mother-in-law was less than friendly. This was partly because the wife spoiled her young daughter, and the mother-in-law was strict with her– the opposite behavior of mothers and grandmothers in American culture.

Sadly, the moral of the author’s story became “Be careful what you wish for.” He realized that the major cultural, political and economic changes taking place in his community meant that Siberians had become like Americans. They started riding in cars instead of walking. They ate fatty foods for lunch and the men stopped exercising. The women started going to aerobics classes at the gym.

Blakely thought that bringing capitalism to them would be a good thing. However, they soon developed an insatiable appetite for consumer goods. Once they were made of aware of their severe deprivation by the media and increased their connections with the rest of the world, they became depressed. Previously, they had been happy due to their ignorance of how materially poor they were.

Read the book to learn of the sea changes taking place at the author’s business, which sold not just chocolate, but surgical gloves, potatoes and other products; and the formerly Communist community, over the next four years.

Another Man’s War

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

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, disdain, 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

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 emotionally 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 politicians 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 tribulations 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.