Mistaken Identity – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Mistaken Identity” by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak, with Mark Tabb, published in 2008. This is a long, true story of a cluster-screw-up of honest ineptitude whose negative consequences were mitigated by the virtuous nature of the people involved.

The families of the victims described in this book weren’t vengeful and didn’t look for someone to blame or sue, pursuant to the tragedy. They were forgiving, and saw the positive consequences of it– they widened their social circle and became a good example for others of civil and mature behavior.

In late April 2006, two female Taylor College students from Michigan who shared an employer happened to be riding home in the same van in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They didn’t know each other. However, their appearance, build and facial features happened to be largely similar. The van was involved in a tragic accident. Along with other passengers, one of them died, and the other lived but had serious injuries.

In the aftermath, the one who lived remarked, “A lot of what was written in different magazines was wrong, and I think it gave me a different perspective on people and the media that I never had before.”

Read this book (not media stories) to get an accurate picture of what happened to the two families of the accident victims.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.

Tomorrow You Go Home

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.

My Crazy Century

The Book of the Week is “My Crazy Century” by Ivan Klima, published in 2010. This ebook discusses the life of a Czech writer from the 1930’s to the tail end of the 1980’s.

Luck was a major factor in why Klima survived WWII. His family was sent to the forced-labor camp in Terezin because his father, all-around handyman and mechanical engineer, was reputed to be an expert who proved useful to the Nazis. His father believed in socialism because “… he realized our society was corrupt, that it bred inequality, injustice, poverty, millions of unemployed, who then put their faith in a madman.”

After the war, there was momentary joy for the winners, but in Europe, people also possessed “… hatred and a longing for revenge.” The author, a teenager, had been conditioned to think of the Red Army as virtuous and the Germans as evil. In high school, he watched weekly newsreels of Comrades Stalin, Gottwald, Slansky, and Zapotocky; plus black marketeers, who were blamed for the consumer-goods shortages in Czechoslovakia. People who were considered war criminals– members of the old regime, traitors and collaborationists– were brought to justice through summary executions.

The author’s family had their house raided several times for subversive materials. Klima got a job with a construction crew, where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”

Housing in Czechoslovakia, as in other countries under Soviet influence, was hard to come by. The author, his wife and three-year-old son lived in his mother-in-law’s house for years. There was an average fifteen-year wait for better accommodations (a tiny apartment), unless one was prepared to spend about two years’ salary and join a co-op, or engage in a housing swap with strangers.

Read the book to learn the details of how Klima became a dissident reporter, novelist and playwright, how he: came to be invited to teach in the United States, and became disillusioned with the kibbutzniks in Israel and with the Communist Party; how he “… had been kicked out of all organizations and deprived of the possibility of working anywhere [he] might be able to employ [his] knowledge and skills.”

All or Nothing

The Book of the Week is “All or Nothing” by Jesse Schenker, published in 2014. This suspenseful, eloquently written ebook tells the exceptional life story of a member of America’s “Generation Y” who has beaten the odds for survival, considering his situation.

“I had two jobs and no place to stay, but I literally cared more about having drugs than even a roof over my head… at night I slept outside, swathed in a blanket of newspaper… ”

The author describes in vivid detail his ordeal in connection with substance abuse– of his own making– and how he got through it. He wrote that in Fort Lauderdale, sellers of illicit drugs diluted their wares with “… laxatives, Benadryl, sugar, starch, talc, brick dust, or even f–g Ajax” and how all junkies commit thievery against each other.

Schenker also recounts his experiences in the restaurant industry, where he encountered other addicts in the kitchen. The culture is also one of an abusive hierarchy; the justification for this is that everything must be perfect. On more than one occasion, when the author’s food preparation was less than perfect, he was loudly berated and had a tray with his creations violently thrown at his chest.

Read the book to learn how Schenker transferred his skills at manipulating other people, from getting high to getting his career in gear. Malcolm Gladwell would categorize him as an “outlier.”

Law Man – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the book “Law Man” by Shon Hopwood published in 2012. In this personal account, Hopwood details his actions as a bank robber, and their consequences, complete with the romantic subplot.

In May 1999, the author was permanently placed in prison in Peoria. He felt relief because “Mostly I wanted my hard time to begin so it would start to end.” He told the reader of the term “chester”– short for “child molester.” Luckily, early on, Hopwood found an inmate who became his mentor, who taught him how to fashion a wooden-handled steel rod; the best weapon in the prison– which housed a metal fabrication plant. “… you can run it straight through a man’s liver. But what’s better is a lot of friends.”

More than three quarters of the prisoners were wannabe rap stars. Hopwood wrote, “You must have a job in prison; it’s not supposed to be a vacation, after all.” Postage stamps were the major means of exchange. Whenever the post office raised the price of stamps, the prison economy was disrupted.

On one occasion there was a gang brawl in the exercise yard involving attempted murder, resulting in a four-day lockdown of the entire prison. “In a world of attention-craving narcissists, lockdowns border on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Read the book to learn how the author was responsible for a change in a major legal ruling, an occurrence whose odds were akin to winning the lottery.

On the Wings of Eagles

The Book of the Week is “On the Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, published in 1983. This ebook recounts how a group of employees from the American company EDS, stationed in Tehran, underwent an incredible, life-changing experience in early 1979, at the start of the Iranian revolution. H. Ross Perot, CEO of EDS, got “down in the trenches” with his men, and toward the end of the story, was portrayed as a Daddy Warbucks character; his endless money and friends in high places helped him magically remove bureaucratic obstacles to get things done in a hurry.

The Iranian government was EDS’s sole client in Iran. In mid-1978, it started to default on EDS’s multi-million dollar bill for engineering social-security and health insurance software. The extremely suspenseful series of events was focused on two EDS men in particular whom one Iranian in particular from the old (Shah’s) regime had arrested and jailed. He set their bail at an outrageous $13 million in a petty power game. There were three ways the company could get those two employees released from jail: “…legal pressure, political pressure, or pay the bail.” Or a few other ways, which were illegal.

Assistance and sympathy of the officials at Tehran’s American Embassy for EDS were less than forthcoming. There were many more serious problems to deal with.

Initially, the aforesaid Perot exhibited an American mentality, thinking that he and the bad guy could settle the matter with legalistic negotiations. However, Iran was not playing by the same rules. He then came up with a hare-brained scheme, which would involve breaking various federal laws if certain of its components were to occur in the United States.

As an aside– this blogger found it hard to get used to the vocabulary that Americans used at the time of the book’s publication– “…what the McDonald’s girl said to me…”  “…blond Swedish girl in her twenties,” “stewardesses” and “knapsack,” among other old-fashioned terms. There was also a funny scene late in the group’s emotionally traumatic saga. After surviving many serious threats to their lives over the course of weeks, the EDS group was on a plane that was having mechanical trouble in the air. “I can’t believe this,’ said Paul. He lit a cigarette.”

Read the book to learn the fate of the individuals involved in this riveting thriller.