Long Walk to Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, published in 1994.  This is Mandela’s autobiography.

The author’s father died when he was nine. The author was destined for a dreadful life of poverty under South African apartheid, were it not for a lucky break. His mother had a connection to a wealthy, powerful Xhosa chief, who raised him along with his son. They acquired a quality, British-style education.

Although he was a poor student, Mandela earned an undergraduate degree and eventually, after many years, a law degree. An attorney with whom he worked, advised him against entering politics, as this would cause him to “get in trouble with the authorities, lose all his clients, go bankrupt, break up his family and end up in jail.” Unfortunately, most of the above came to pass.

The South African government employed “divide and conquer” tactics to prevent the Whites, Africans, Indians and Coloureds from uniting and overthrowing White rule. However, there were indications that it cared about world opinion during the decades Mandela was in prison (the 1960’s into the 1990’s). The government could have summarily executed Mandela and his fellow African National Congress party members (as well as committed genocide against all dark-skinned ethnic groups), but it did not.

Instead, it held Stalinesque show trials to inevitably determine that politically active protest groups were dangerous subversives who had to be locked up. It oppressed all non-whites by restricting many aspects of their lives, including voting, employment, place of residence, local travel, curfew hours; even medical care. Mandela’s boyhood was completely absent of physicians. Black ones did not exist in his generation, and going to see a white one was unheard of.

In 1962, Mandela, was living “underground” during a respite from prison. With the help of friends, he found a way to travel internationally to attend political conferences. He recounted that, “…as I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts.”

Mandela experienced conflicting feelings about his Xhosa-tribe origins and English upbringing. “I confess to being something of an Anglophile. When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. Despite Britain being the home of parliamentary democracy, it was that democracy that had helped to inflict a pernicious system of iniquity on my people. While I abhorred the notion of British imperialism, I never rejected the trappings of British style and manners.”

Too Fat to Fish

The Book of the Week is “Too Fat to Fish” by Artie Lange, published in 2009. This is Lange’s autobiography. He discusses his father’s untimely death, his mother’s saintliness, bouts of cocaine addiction, being a dockworker, career as a television and radio comedian, and the title of his book, among other topics.

He claims his mother, who embodies the idiosyncratic stereotype of an “Italian mama,” was cleaning the house at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, when his friend called regarding a fishing trip that day. His mother got on the phone and aggressively gave the friend an earful about how Lange, who was 23 at the time, was “too fat to fish” and would fall off the boat and drown. She thus would not let him go. Having a bad hangover, he was secretly glad that her concern for him, even if a bit overprotective, gave him an excuse to go back to sleep.

Catch Me If You Can

The Book of the Week is “Catch Me If You Can” by Frank Abagnale, published in 2000. This is the memoir of a guy who enjoyed the challenge of committing white collar crime.

He executed his first exploit as a teenager, using his father’s credit card to gain an extra gift from a promotion at various gas stations. Later, he described how much trouble he went through just to forge checks. He had a tremendous ability to outsmart the authorities, but eventually he was caught, and thrown into isolation in a French prison. Needless to say, this was not exactly a fun experience for him. French justice was not kind to him. He described the extremely harsh physical and psychological conditions. Read the book to learn how his prison time and other experiences caused him to take a new life direction.

The Odds Against Me

The Book of the Week is “The Odds Against Me” by John Scarne, published in 1966.

This is the autobiography of a man passionate about gambling. Starting in elementary school, he exhibited an incredible talent for calculating figures in his head. As a teenager, Scarne gravitated toward performing magic tricks, and gambling. He developed expertise at manipulating playing cards. His parents were less than thrilled, as they wanted him to choose a noble profession.

Eventually, Scarne made a career of assisting law enforcement with identifying rigged games in casinos. In his book, he described a sting operation against a croupier who was using a magnetized roulette ball, and other dishonest behind-the-scenes goings-on in games of chance.

Personal History

The Book of the Week is “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, published in 1997.

The autobiographer was born in June 1917. She grew up in a large, wealthy family, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mount Kisco (upstate New York). She attended private schools. At high school dances, “Of course, no boys were allowed so all the girls put on evening dresses and corsages and danced with each other.”

The autobiographer’s father, Eugene Meyer, a business tycoon, purchased the Washington Post in 1932. In 1942, she wed Phil Graham, and took his name. Over the next ten years or so, they had four children (a daughter and three sons) who survived to adulthood. In 1946, her husband was named publisher of the Post. In 1963, she experienced serious personal problems that led to her taking over the paper.

Two of the Post‘s journalists, the infamous Woodward and Bernstein, were the first to seize upon the story of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel (the 1972 campaign headquarters of the Democratic party) by Republican party operatives. Over the next few years, the paper proceeded to reveal the corruption present in the Nixon administration with regard to the president’s reelection and the start of the Vietnam War. The story was extremely complex. The paper was at once courageous and foolish for casting aspersions on the Federal government. For, the Washington Post Company owned television and radio stations, in addition to print publications. These media holdings found themselves the victims of retaliatory action when it came time for the FCC to renew their broadcast licenses.

Lawsuits were launched in connection with the scandals over whether news articles published by the Post, were revealing State secrets that would compromise the national security of the United States. Many people thought the government was simply trying cover up its own embarrassing conduct. As is now evident, the post-Nixon decades saw history repeat itself many times over both in terms of similar scandals and overzealous classification of documents.

There occurred a mid-1970’s debilitating four and a half month strike of the many unions on which the Post had become too dependent through lax management. Before disgruntled workers walked out, some sabotaged the printing presses and thereafter waged a campaign of telephone threats and physical violence on picket-line crossers. Graham got right down in the trenches, moonlighting alongside non-union executives to get the paper out. She also achieved several female “firsts” and provided various examples of how being female subjected her to treatment males would not have experienced.

The Post had its ups and downs through the years.  In early 1991, Graham handed down leadership of the Washington Post Company to one of her sons.

The Cost of Courage

The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992.  This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives.  In so doing, he hurt his career.

In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college.   For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham.  Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.

Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans.  Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom.  In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink.  In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.

Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.

The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Just For Fun

The Book of the Week is “Just For Fun” by Linus Torvalds, published in 2002.  This is the autobiography of a computer geek who fell into fame and fortune.  He hails from Finland, where internet access is extremely widespread.  While in graduate school, he created the kernel for a new computer operating system he named after himself, “Linux.”  It is based on the existing system, “Unix.”  Linux is “open source,” meaning, a community of computer users can change the system’s source code to improve it.  Theoretically, any user who wishes to, can volunteer to work on the code. If it is imperfect, others will correct it.  Also, the system can be downloaded free of charge.

Torvalds’ family lived in a region of Finland where the people were Swedish-speaking, and reticent.  Besides, Torvalds fit the stereotype of the computer geek; admittedly he “lacked any social graces whatsoever.”  One day in the early 1990’s, he started a project on which he was to work around the clock, for nine months straight.  It was “just for fun.” He explained that computer programming requires the simultaneous tracking of many ideas and lots of information when one is in the thick of it.  Of course, many people helped him with Linux, which was introduced just at the time the open source movement was becoming widespread among computer hobbyists.  He accepted donations through his website, to keep the project alive.

Surprisingly, Torvalds got married.  Unsurprisingly, he went to work for a tech firm in California, where he made some money from stock options (before it was too late).

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.