UPClose: John Steinbeck

September 20th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “UPClose: John Steinbeck” by Milton Meltzer, published in 2008. This is a brief account of Steinbeck’s life, in the context– superficially described– of the historical backdrop of his generation, including labor unrest, migrant farmworkers, political elections, The Great Depression, wars of various nations, and the then-literary taste of the United States. The author fails to mention stock market speculation as a cause of The Great Depression.

Steinbeck was born in 1902. At different times in his life, he was a journalist, novelist and short-story writer. He covered wars, wrote neutrally about unionization in America, and sympathetically about migrant farmworkers and their deplorable living conditions. When his novel “Of Mice and Men” was released, his publisher “… insisted John submit to the usual publicity projects for launching a new book: press conferences, interviews, book signings, cocktail parties.”

Read the book to get an overview of Steinbeck’s life and his times.

Bonus Post

September 10th, 2015

This blogger skimmed “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber, MD, published in  2010. This long book describes the career of Dr. William Halsted.

Halsted was born in 1852 in New York City. There was still much ignorance about medicine in his generation. Fatal diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant. He developed a passion for medicine at Yale University. The most prominent doctors of his age included Pasteur, Lister, Morse, Hunter, Wells, Koch, Morton, Young and Warren. They spurred progress in sanitation, anaesthesia, and the collection of new information and techniques for treating patients.

In the 1870′s, Columbia College, Physicians and Surgeons didn’t require undergraduate degrees for entry because it was seeking revenue from student tuition. The three-year program was all lectures– no labs, no interaction with patients. In the 1870′s, during Halsted’s internship at Bellevue Hospital, many personnel didn’t wash their hands before operating, and smoked.

In late 1884, Halsted started using cocaine as a local anaesthetic in dentistry. He displayed, “…hyperactivity, rambling speech, inattention, and suspended decision-making ability.” Medical students and their teachers started using cocaine as a pick-me-up. They became addicted. “The drug was readily available in Europe, through Merck, and there was no stigma associated with its purchase.” In late 1886, Halsted went to work at Johns Hopkins Pathological– the “Bell Labs” of medicine. He went to Baltimore because his addiction had wrecked his career in New York. He substituted morphine for cocaine.

It is unclear how much better Halsted could have performed were it not for his addiction. He did have a brilliant career, but there were bouts of irresponsibility, socially and teaching-wise. He missed classes, started surgery at 10am instead of 8 after a while, failed to show up for meetings, and retreated to his country home for almost half the year. One positive side effect of his addiction was that Halsted delegated complete patient care to residents when he had morphine withdrawal symptoms. So the residents got a golden opportunity they would not have had otherwise, to learn their craft.

Sidenote (There’s nothing new under the sun.): “As a group, they [nurses] felt themselves underpaid and overworked.” The Training School taught them to cook and clean. They were required to wear brown Oxford shoes.

Halsted experimented on dogs on and off for a couple of years, between months-long stints in drug rehab. He began seeing human patients for surgery in early 1889. He pioneered the medical-school residency program. He instituted the training of surgeons to train other surgeons. Three other doctors at Johns Hopkins who wrought major change in medicine in the U.S. were William Osler, William Welch, and Howard Kelly. Halsted specialized in surgery for breast cancer and inguinal hernia.

Johns Hopkins wanted to remain on the cutting edge of medicine by opening a medical school but it needed money to do so. Female heirs of prominent, wealthy families raised the money and placed conditions on the school’s opening, requiring gender equality. After much controversy, it opened in the fall of 1893.

Read the book to learn how medicine in America changed through the years of the late 19th into the 20th century, and how, according to this book, Johns Hopkins led the way.


September 6th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, published in 2010. This is the biography of an American author whose books and short stories were popular at the turn of the 20th Century.

London’s mother died giving birth to him in 1876. He was the eleventh and last child in the family, and the ninth to survive. Due to his stepmother’s gambling addiction, when he was ten years old, he was forced to work at various jobs, such as paperboy, ice wagon boy and pinsetter at a bowling alley, to lend financial support to his family. He quit school after eighth grade.

London was determined to escape a life of hard manual labor via writing, which paid significantly better. In 1898, “… to the average American indoctrinated with the ideals of patriotism– socialists, communists, and anarchists had all become lumped together into a bomb throwing vaguely Slavic cartoon that was inaccurate, and out of which they needed to be educated.” When he tasted success in publishing, ironically, he cruised the globe in a $30,000 yacht, taking with him one hundred books, a phonograph and five hundred records, but his writings were of exploitation by robber barons who were “…oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of the have-nots.”

Read the book to learn more of London’s adventures stealing oysters, riding the rails, serving as a war correspondent and socialist lecturer, as well as in the sexual realm and personal relationships.

Bonus Post

September 3rd, 2015

This blogger skimmed “A Balcony in Nepal” by Sally Wendkos Olds, art by Margaret Roche. This book is comprised of journal entries of a few trips to Nepal in the 1990′s and 2000 made by Olds and Roche. They met people in Kathmandu and the rural village of Badel, where they stayed.

At the airport, they were greeted by street urchins, eager to carry their luggage for tips. There were sacred cows lying in the middle of the road intersections, temples, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, young men offering hashish, Tibetan rugs, currency exchange and guide services. In Nepal, there is cronyism in employment, so the educated Nepalis with no connections are compelled to leave the country to seek a living elsewhere.

Teachers receive extremely low pay in Nepal because there is a casual attitude toward education. Families tend to be large, and older siblings must take care of the younger ones, and also work in the fields at the expense of school attendance. Thus, a low value is placed on literacy in the lower castes, such as Darje (untouchables), which includes blacksmiths, tailors, ferrymen, musicians and leatherworkers. The educated classes begin studying English in the fourth grade. They must buy their own books and writing instruments. The vast majority of teachers are men. They might skip school to work in the fields, too.

Medical care is handled in the rural villages by shamans (medicine men). A medical doctor is seven days’ walk and a two-day bike ride from Badel. When a villager’s ankle became swollen possibly from too much hiking, the village shaman told the patient his ankle hurt because he crossed the river without praying to the river god. So the shaman chanted over the ankle and told him to go pray by the river. The ankle got better in two days; perhaps via the placebo effect.

Wendkos and Olds engaged in some philanthropic activity by raising money to build a library in Badel. They attended the local political meeting at which a committee was formed for library-related planning. The attendees included all of Badel’s ethnic groups, Rai, Bhujil, Puri, Giri, Sherpa and Darje. Several years later, by 2000, the library had opened; however, it was being used to house a school rather than lend books.

Read this book to learn other aspects of Nepali culture, and the diarists’ thoughts and feelings on their experiences.

Sesame Street Dad

August 30th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Sesame Street Dad” by Roscoe Orman, published in 2006. This is a general overview of Orman’s performance history in theater, in film and on television, and a comprehensive listing of the famous people with whom he worked. It reads more like a curriculum vitae than a memoir, but it is well organized in chronological order and has a comprehensive index.

The book is somewhat of a bragfest, and the author writes as though he is at a job interview. One section even tells of his encounters with U.S. first ladies who visited the set of Sesame Street. He also discusses how, in recent years, funding has been reduced significantly for that unique educational program, which is on public television. The show has suffered even more budget reductions of late, due to resource-rich, dumbed-down competition from cable channels.

Orman was luckily afforded mentors after he graduated high school in the early 1960′s. He took acting, singing and dancing lessons. He did summer stock theater, and joined a troupe– Free Southern Theater– that presented civil-rights related shows in the Deep South. However, jealousy among this and other acting groups generated competition rather than cooperation in the black theater community. Marijuana and cocaine also added to their problems.

The author started playing the character, “Gordon” on Sesame Street in 1974. The TV show had an anomalous shooting schedule, so its cast and crew were permitted to do other projects in the long off-season. Orman made extra money by making celebrity appearances via the American Program Bureau and later, Paul Jacob Productions. He was easily recognized by viewers as Gordon, but since Sesame Street is a children’s show with a mix of puppets and humans of all ages, the names of its performers are neither as well known nor is their acting as talked about as those of a long-running hit show comprised of adults.

Read the book to learn of the historical reference points in Orman’s life, in his quest for self-discovery and artistic growth, that he wants to “… pass along to my children and their fellow ‘hip-hop-generation-Xers.’ “

Tomorrow You Go Home

August 23rd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Tomorrow You Go Home” by Tig Hague, published in 2008. This is the suspenseful story of how Russian authorities severely punished an Englishman for a minor indiscretion in the summer of 2003.

Hague had forgotten he had left a tiny amount of hashish in his jeans pocket before boarding a flight to Moscow. He was detained at the airport. His naivete led to his arrest and imprisonment. He was denied what is, in Western nations, due process. However, he was less deprived than other prisoners because he received care packages from the British Embassy and his family– consisting of noodles, biscuits, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and warm clothing. The odds were stacked against him at his court hearings. The Russian prison authorities played a petty power game via bribery, to hang onto contraband and inside information from the hapless prisoners– some of whom were there because they had been framed– awaiting release.

Read the book to learn of Hague’s trials and tribulations, suffered at the hands of a corrupt, arbitrary system.

Judgment Ridge

August 16th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Judgment Ridge” by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff, published in 2003.  This is the shocking, true, suspenseful story of the murder of two Dartmouth professors in early 2001.

The perpetrators had a history of petty criminal behaviors but there were no serious consequences for them. One of the killers was a controlling psychopath, and his unnaturally close friend’s blind obedience engendered a dangerous combination. The reason the murders were hard to foresee was that the killers revealed only small pieces of themselves to different people in their lives. No one knew them well, not even their parents. Thus, no one individual saw the big picture– that the sons were going to commit the gruesome act that they did.

The killers’ parents– the would-be authority figures in their lives, had no knowledge of their whereabouts, and neither checked up on their activities, nor took an interest in them. Arguably, the parents allowed their sons too much freedom, and not enough supervision. The killers’ families lived in an unconventional surburban community. The school system accommodated their bids for attention, rather than punishing them for their disruptiveness.

Read the book to learn of other factors that allowed the deaths to occur and the details of the aftermath.


August 9th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Home” by Julie Andrews, published in 2008. This memoir tells of Andrews’ life until just after she turned 27 years old.

The author found her talent and passion as a singer with her parents when she was ten. They traveled around England performing, and even got to sing for the royal family. It was not all fun and games, however, as her parents split, and found new lovers. Her stepfather and mother devolved into alcoholism. As a teenager, she was under pressure to financially support them, plus care for her younger half-siblings. Her education fell by the wayside as a consequence.

Read the book to learn the series of events that led to Andrews’ starring in various hit shows through the decades, and about her experiences in show business.